Chapter 8 – I am sorry, Mother.

~~**~~**~~

When I close my eyes, I see her.

I lament that I do not see the kind, beautiful, soft-spoken woman who raised me.

No, when I close my eyes I see a tree, the oriental cypress with its gnarled, tangled trunk, under which I practiced calligraphy for hours as a boy.

The sun is setting and I have just returned from school. I am ten years old.

My mother is swaying under the lower branches. She moves slightly in an eerie circle. Her eyes are empty and black. I wish I could see her as she was.

I am sorry, Mother.

~~**~~**~~

Ella stared at her reflection in the mirror. Her face was sallow—that was unusual. Usually her cheeks glowed with life. It was one of the things she liked most about her appearance. She rubbed her face and pulled back her long hair. She blinked. Her reflection blinked back at her.

Guess what? It seemed to say. This is your fault.

She swallowed and furrowed her brow, watching the creases of her forehead in the mirror. She sighed, her hands shaking as she threw the thing in the trash. She stood up and went to the kitchen. Chandler would be coming over in a few minutes. Maybe she would fish it back out then. Right now she just wanted something to eat.

She fumbled in the fridge, finding a container of strawberry yogurt. It probably only had a few days left before it went bad, so she figured she ought to down it—now or never. Peeling back the lid, she caught the strong stench of curdled, moldy yogurt. Her stomach turned over and she nearly spewed all over the fridge. She grunted and ran to the toilet, barely making it in time.

Shaking and sweating, she groaned and faced herself in the mirror again. She looked a hot mess. She almost had to laugh at herself—sorority queen, with a perfect boyfriend, good looks, just about everything she’d ever wanted out of college. And here she was puking her guts out because of some old yogurt.

She took a couple of deep, calming breaths. The doorbell rang and she jumped. She stared at herself in the mirror, and her reflection gave her a smirk.

It had all been perfect when Chandler had taken her on that trip to Paris—a “pre-graduation present,” he called it. He’d crafted the whole week impeccably. Too much wine, too much food, and abundant romance. She’d felt like the princess of Chandler’s world, and she’d taken full advantage of it. And now….

She was still the same. Her life was exactly the same today as it had been yesterday.

But everything had changed.

She greeted Chandler with more caution than usual. He picked her up in a hug and kissed her long, calming her down a little.

“How are you, Ells?” Chandler said.

She smiled. She had always loved his accent. It was the thing that attracted her to him in the first place. A Chinese guy with a British accent? It was the cutest thing she had ever seen.

“I’m good,” she lied. “How are you?”

He stiffened, his smile fading. She couldn’t really keep anything from him, could she?

“Are you okay?” he said, concern in his eyes.

She laughed airily. “I’m fine,” she said. “Just… feeling a little sick.”

He groaned and kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry,” he said. He picked her up and started carrying her to the bedroom. “Let me take care of you.”

She laughed and kissed his neck. “I’m fine!” she said. But her stomach was bubbling like a stream. She wasn’t sure if it was the nervousness or just the yogurt coming back with a vengeance. “But thanks. I kinda like you,” she said. “And you’re cute.”

He laid her on the bed and stroked her hair. “I just want to make sure I keep you wanting me,” he said cheerfully. “Don’t want to give you a reason to run out on me, huh, Ella?”

She chuckled. “I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem, babe,” she said. If you had any idea.

He went about grabbing a magazine and some extra pillows and starting some soup on the stove, telling her about his morning at the lab. Chandler was working on his capstone—he had finally decided on a double major in biology and business, and he couldn’t stop talking about it. They had been working with water and testing its conductivity in different scenarios. That was about the gist of what Ella understood about the whole thing.

She watched him with a tight throat. Even her parents didn’t take this good care of her when she was sick. Her eyes started to well up with tears. She hoped she would get to keep this man forever.

Then she laughed as he battled with the can opener, grumbling that they had electric ones and why didn’t she join this century already, and she wondered, as she often did, what life was really like for him back in Shanghai. He liked to downplay his home life, but she had seen the pictures and read the letters from Mr. Butler. For all she could tell, Chandler was like royalty back there. She wondered if he’d ever even opened a can of soup before coming to college.

Chandler was walking back to her bed, a smile of triumph on his face.

“Did you win?” she said, chuckling.

“Last time that can opener defiles the name Wang!” he crowed.

She looked past him to the kitchen and didn’t see the can opener. “What did you do?”

He shrugged. “Don’t worry, I’ll buy you a new one.” He looked mischievous. “One you can plug in, preferably.”

She wondered briefly if she would see pieces of her old can opener in the trash can later. She grinned. Chandler definitely had his things—and one of them was being the best. He wouldn’t let even a kitchen appliance beat him out.

She snuggled into him as he lay down beside her. “You’re sweet,” she said. She wrinkled her nose. “Maybe I’ll just let you open all my cans.”

He stroked her hair. “Maybe I can do a little more than that,” he murmured, pulling her in close. “What about waking you up in the morning? Getting your shampoo?” He paused, smiling. “Bringing you toilet paper?”

She laughed, realizing the absurd amount of times she’d had to yell out to him for help when she’d run out. It was true, she wasn’t the greatest at remembering those kinds of things. But it was nice to be with someone who didn’t care. He even seemed amused about it all. Her heart fluttered and felt like it was growing too big for her chest.

“I love you, Chandler,” she whispered, snuggling into his chest.

He breathed into her hair, his arms wrapped tight around her. “I love you too, baby.”

Ella’s eyes snapped open.

She had almost forgotten. Almost. She looked past Chandler to the bathroom, the nerves—and nausea—coming back. She waited for a moment, feeling his warmth and bracing herself, before pulling back a bit to look him in the eye.

“Chandler, I have something to tell you,” she said. Well, that was a dramatic way to start.

But this was kind of a dramatic thing. She had never been in this situation before. She had never had anything important to tell Chandler—from the time they had started dating she had always felt like she could just tell him anything she was thinking. This was so new and foreign to her. She didn’t know what he would say or think or do or anything…. A part of her was afraid he would walk out on her. Or worse, try to make her—but she wouldn’t even think it. She couldn’t. She needed to be brave.

“You love me, right?” she started.

He raised his eyebrows and looked at her incredulously. “Of course,” he said.

She nodded and gulped. “Well… what if something bad happened? What if… I don’t know, what if I did something stupid?”

Chandler’s face paled. His eyes went wide. “What happened?” he said.

“Nothing, I just… I was kind of stupid while we were in Paris…”

“Oh my Gosh, Ella, you didn’t—“

“It was just once… maybe twice—“

“Did you—did you cheat on me!?”

Ella stared. “What? No!”

Chandler’s face was as pale as the wall behind him. “You—what? What are you talking about?”

“What are you talking about?”

Chandler sat up. “What am I supposed to think? What’s going on here?”

“Whoa, whoa,” Ella said, sitting up and taking both his hands. “I’m not cheating on you, I’m pregnant! I forgot to take my birth control in Paris and I think—no, I know—I’m pregnant!”

She stopped and threw her hands over her mouth, eyes widening as she looked at him, waiting for his reaction. He stared. The color slowly came back to his face.

“Are you serious?” he said quietly. His face was unreadable.

She felt a little squeak escape her, but she wouldn’t cry. Why did everything make her want to cry all of a sudden?

He slowly brought a hand up and cupped her chin in his palm. “That’s all?”

She nodded, her breathing shaky. He paused, and then his lips slowly parted in a smile.

“You’re pregnant,” he repeated softly. “You’re pregnant.” She nodded again.

“We’re going to have a baby,” he said.

“Well—”

“Ours.”

“…Yes.”

He paused and she swallowed.

“I can… I have the test if you want to look at it—“

She started to get up out of bed to fish it out, but he shook his head and pulled her back down. He wrapped his arms around her and held on tight, burying his face on the side of her neck. He was silent for a while, rubbing her back and arms and neck and kissing her neck softly.

Then he pulled back and there were tears in his eyes.

“That’s amazing,” he said. “That’s… wow! Okay… wow. This is great.”

She looked at him. “It is?”

“Well I thought you were cheating on me, so this is infinitely better!”

She laughed. “I was just scared, Chandler,” she said.

He laughed too. “So was I!”

“Then…” She was still unsure. “This is okay? Is this what you want?”

“It’s not really what I expected,” he said. “But… I don’t know, it feels perfect right now. I think… I want to be a dad. I want to have a baby with you.”

She grinned. “Well good, because I guess you’re stuck with me now,” she said.

“That’s all I want, Ella. And I really want to take you back to Shanghai now.” He paused. “Sorry,” he said. “How are you feeling?”

She laughed. “Pregnant,” she said. “Definitely pregnant. It’s gonna be interesting.”

He smiled, looking at her stomach. He rubbed it softly and she laid a hand on top of his.

“There’s nothing there yet, Chandler,” she said. “It’s like… the size of a sesame seed.”

He smiled and kissed her softly. “Our little seed,” he said.

“Half me, half you.”

“Just how I like it,” he said. “For the rest of our lives. Forever.”

Ella smiled, but it suddenly felt half-hearted. She lay in Chandler’s arms, feeling his soft breath in her hair, and couldn’t understand how he seemed to unshaken by this.

A baby. Not just a baby—a person, one whose entire life would be dependent on her. A timeline started to unfold in her mind: the big belly, the little wrinkly newborn, and then a toddler… then a little kid. Then high school. Did they really just make a decision about the next… well, the rest of the lives? In a moment?

What would happen to them? What would happen to her? Ella sighed. She may not be the rich, privileged, worldly, cultured person that Chandler was, but she had dreams. And she couldn’t see how this didn’t just shatter every one of them.

Maybe it was naive, but she had kind of thought that Chandler would be following her while she pursued her career, her dreams, her passions. Now it looked like it was going to be the other way around. She tried to picture it. They would go back to Shanghai and she would… what? What would she do there? Take up pottery? Play mahjong with Mr. Butler?

She bit her lip and her eyes slipped to the bedside table, where an envelope lay. She had ripped it open last night in her excitement and nervousness.

She had gotten in. UCLA wanted her in their master’s program. The opportunity would mean a spot in a professional orchestra as long as she wanted, and the chance to write her own music. It meant the realization of what she had worked the last four years for—heck, she had worked her whole life to be a musician.

Was she really willing to give that up for this baby—this fetus—that wasn’t even born yet?

She set her jaw. It wasn’t too late. Maybe this was just a bump in the road. Chandler’s hands rubbed her arms lightly and she snuggled into him.

They could still have everything they wanted. Couldn’t they?

~*~*~*~

Chandler got a text in the middle of his economics class.

Need to talk. Meet me at our beach tonight?

He frowned. Ella usually came over after her evening class on Wednesdays. For whatever reason, she didn’t want to talk at his house. Well, Landon and Maya had a bad habit of interrupting them. He thought once they were married they might keep to themselves more, but the four of them spent almost all their free time together. He loved having friends who were as close as family. It was new to him, and something he didn’t want to ever give up.

But now that Ella was pregnant, and with finals coming up, she was pretty stressed these days. She probably wanted some time just the two of them.

Maybe she was ready to make her pregnancy public. He grinned to himself, thinking of how Landon would slap his back and Maya would take Ella up in a big hug and pretend her tears were just dust in her eyes.

That night, he waited in the parking lot for half an hour before Ella showed up. She was slow getting out of her car, so he rushed over to help her out. She had been feeling pretty sick lately.

He held her hand and they walked out to the beach.

“This is where I first fell in love with you, you know,” he said. “On our first date.”

She laughed. “No, it isn’t.”

He nodded and stole a kiss, which she laughed through.

“I don’t believe you,” she insisted.

“You had a blue dress on, and you didn’t care when it got covered in sand. The way you stepped in the water and closed your eyes, you really felt the sand under your feet. You were something to see.”

“How about now?”

He grinned and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I see you, Ella. I hope better than anyone else does.”

Her smile faltered, but then her eyes sparkled and she squinted at him with a grin on her face.

“Nah. You fell in love with me when you found out how amazing I am in bed.”

He rolled his eyes. “Well, I guess we’ll never know.”

She suddenly got quiet and looked out at the horizon, where the sun was going down, its reflection blazing in orange streaks on the water.

“I love you, Chandler. You know that, right?”

“Yeah, sure. Of course. I love you, too.”

“No, I need you to know that. This all has nothing to do with how I feel about you.”

He took a step back to look at her.

“What’s going on?”

She looked down at the sand, digging her toe into it. “I’ve just been… thinking. This is a pretty big step we’re taking, moving to Shanghai and having a baby and—doesn’t it all feel kind of fast?”

He snorted. “Yeah, a little. Life is pretty crazy sometimes, huh?”

“Yeah,” she said quietly, her eyes still avoiding his.

He tucked a finger under her chin and raised her face to his. She reluctantly met his gaze.

“We can do this, Ella. Together. We can do anything.”

She paused. “Well, not quite… anything.”

He frowned.

“I mean, there are some things you can’t do when you’re in China and taking care of a baby, like… being in the UCLA orchestra.”

She bit her lip and crinkled her eyebrows, looking at him with big, questioning eyes.

“I… I don’t get it.”

She breathed deeply. “Chandler, I applied for the master’s program here. I didn’t want to bother you with it because I figured chances were I wouldn’t even get in and, you know, we could cross that bridge when we got there… but they accepted me. I—” She looked excited for the first time in weeks, breathing shallowly and talking quickly. “I just couldn’t believe it. I could really do this, you know? Maybe I could really make performing a career. Or maybe I could… I don’t know, write music for movies, or anything! The whole world was just… open to me.”

She stopped. A dreadful feeling crept up Chandler’s stomach.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I don’t really know. I… I was going to. But then I found out….” She trailed off.

The baby.

“Having a baby doesn’t have to ruin your life, Ella. I think it’ll make our life that much more… rewarding, you know? You can still do anything you want to.”

“Can I, Chandler?”

“Well sure, just—” He broke off. “I—I guess I don’t know. But we’ll figure it out… right? That’s what we do.”

She sighed. “Sure,” she said, and she looked out at the water.

Chandler chewed on the inside of his lip.

“But what?”

She looked at him solemnly and he pulled a strand of hair out of her eyes. She shook her head.

“But… we don’t have to… to do this, Chandler.”

“What do you mean?”

“There are choices, you know?”

A pit opened up at the bottom of Chandler’s stomach.

“No one would ever even have to know,” Ella said, her voice barely a whisper.

A silence stretched between them. Chandler held onto her waist, his hand feeling weak.

“We would know.”

She paused. Seagulls flapped over their heads, crying through the breeze. One of them landed in the sand close to them, and they both watched it—something to do besides the inevitable, Chandler guessed.

But then he noticed—it wasn’t a seagull.

It was a dove.

“Hey, look.”

“I know.”

She turned to look at him, her eyes wide. The memory was clear, reflecting at him in her gaze.

“Come home with me.”

“What? To China?”

“The moon. Anywhere.”

She frowned at him now. “Did you mean what you said? Did you want me to come to Shanghai with you, way back in our freshman year?”

He paused. “This feels like a trick question. If I say no you’ll think I don’t care about you, and if I say yes you’ll think I’m creepy. What do you want me to tell you?”

She scrutinized him.

“The truth.”

He sighed. It was now or never.

“Yes,” he finally said. “Since the day I met you and you knocked me out I haven’t been able to think of anyone—or anything—else. You’re so out of my league I sometimes can’t believe you stay with me. So yes, I would have done anything to keep you with me.”

“Anything?”

He shrugged, feeling oddly defeated. “Yeah.”

“And now?”

He nodded silently.

“Then will you stay for me? I don’t want to go to Shanghai. I want to be here and… I don’t want to have this baby.”

“Come on, Ella.”

She stood her ground. “I’m doing it.”

“You can’t. What about me? Aren’t I part of this decision?”

“It’s my body, isn’t it? My future. What changes for you if we have a baby? You get to go back home, work for your dad’s company, do all the things you were going to anyway.”

“I’m making sacrifices, too. You know what they’ll say when they see I’m having a baby with a white girl?”

She inhaled sharply, and he instantly regretted himself.

“Well, good, then I guess they won’t miss me!”

She turned and started for the parking lot. Chandler fumbled after her.

“Wait, Ella, that’s not—”

She rounded on him.

“You’re selfish, Chandler. You live in this fantasy land where everything is cupcakes and sprinkles, and it all just magically works out. Well, you know how it works out? Other people sacrifice for you. Mr. Butler has no life. He just… serves you, like a slave or something. And you don’t even appreciate him. That’s not going to be me. I’m done pretending this is what I wanted. I have my own life, and if you don’t want to be part of it, then fine.”

“You never even asked if I wanted to!”

“Okay, then.” She fixed her eyes on him and was quiet for a moment, considering him. “Will you come with me? I’m going next week to… to take care of it. Come with me. Stay here in LA, get a job or something, you know, what normal people do. Be with me while I finish grad school. Give it up for me.”

He paused. He hesitated for too long.

“Well, that’s what you asked me to do, Chandler.”

“We can—we can figure it out.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

He followed her helplessly to her car, his heart like lead at the bottom of his stomach. He couldn’t find the words, couldn’t believe she was really doing this.

“I’ll ask you one more time, Chandler,” she said, her fist wrapped around the door handle. “Will you stay here with me?”

He paused. “Is that the only option?”

Her lip quivered.

“Okay, then. Goodbye, Chandler.”

She got in her car and drove away. Chandler was left with a numbness that pressed in on every part of him.

He couldn’t move for a long time. He just expected to see her headlights again. Chandler and Ella—they stayed together. It was what they did. It was what he thought they would always do.

What a fool he was.

Chandler stood suddenly, his heart pumping. He got in his car. He was racing. He didn’t want it to end. He raced so fast, he almost hit Ella’s car as he shouted with the window down.

“Come home with me!”

She didn’t stop, but she slowed down and glanced at him.

“That was a long time ago, Chandler.”

“You said you would take Shanghai. You said it.”

“I was drunk.”

“Ella, I would be a foolish man to leave you alone with our little seed. I love you.”

Ella stopped the car abruptly, tears streaming down her face.

Chandler parked on the side of the road and ran to Ella, grabbing her hands. She sat still in the driver’s seat and he knelt beside her.

“Ella, you’re everything, you’re the world to me.” Chandler could hardly catch his breath.  He pleaded, holding tightly to her hands. “LA… LA is where we will be… LA.”

She stared past him at the ground. “But… you wouldn’t be happy….”

“I would be happy with you.”

“You would resent me.”

“No… no….”

“I don’t know what to do,” she murmured, as if to herself. “I can’t keep you here. You made Mr. Butler a promise, didn’t you?”

Chandler paused. “Yeah, I guess I did.”

She shrugged and was silent.

“Ella, how about I make you a promise. What if you give us one year? One year in Shanghai and we’ll come back and you can live every single last one of your dreams. You can write music for Sesame Street, you can sell ice cream, whatever you want. Just one year in Shanghai with me. You can defer the starting date for your program, right?’

There was a long silence. Ella didn’t move, her head held down and her hand limp in Chandler’s tight grasp. When she looked up at him her eyes were dry.

“One year? You promise?”

He nodded hastily. “I’ll pinky promise.”

She half-laughed. “I’ll hold you to that,” she said.

“Yes! One year, that’s all I ask.”

She took a shaky breath, and gave him a tiny nod.

“I think I can work with that.”

She got out of the car and hugged him around the neck. As they embraced, Chandler looked out at the night sky and chewed his lip.

What would he say to Mr. Butler?

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