‘I— That would be nice of you.’ Mrs Hernandez paused, passing the Bic from hand to hand. ‘I . . . listen,’ she finally said in a rush. ‘I don’t usually say this, but you’re a really nice couple, and I can really sympathise with you. I’ll try the best I can for you, but if this doesn’t work out, there are other avenues, you know. You could try a private agency. Even in another state. The rules vary quite widely.’
‘Thank you, ma’am,’ said Robbie. ‘We appreciate that.’
‘But come back with all your paperwork, and we’ll try hard for you.’
‘Thank you,’ Emily said, barely able to raise her voice above a whisper. Robbie put his hand in the small of her back, and they walked downstairs together, out of the building, to the car.
Their rented house in Coral Gables was long and low, a single storey, the same as all the houses around it. It was painted yellow with an orange tiled roof, and it was shaded by several mature palm trees in the garden. The empty room was right on the end.
Robbie sat in it sometimes, on the white tiled floor, listening to the sound of rain on the roof. He had built a window seat and put shelves on the wall. But they had kept the room empty of everything except for a small single bed, covered with a handmade quilt that Emily had bought in a craft fair.
It was supposed to be William’s room, if he ever visited. If Robbie ever found him. But the years passed and the letters came back and the room remained empty.
It was a belter of a storm: one of those Florida storms where lightning and thunder seemed to come from all directions, so relentlessly that the house felt as if it were under fire. The rain fell vertically in a sheet of warm water. It battered on the roof and streamed down the windows while he was here, safe and dry, inside. Emily had once said that said babies heard things like this while they were in the womb: the rumble of their mother’s body and the distant vibrations of voices and music.
When he listened to the rain, he thought about the last time he had seen William. The argument with Marie had been outside, in the yard. The neighbours overheard them, especially once Marie started yelling, but screw the neighbours: he didn’t want William to hear. He had agreed with all the names she called him – there were a lot, and most of them were accurate – but he had not agreed that he was making a big mistake. She had yelled and she’d taken off her shoe and thrown it at him, and then when he’d caught it, she’d thrown her other shoe.
Finally there was only one thing left for her to say. ‘Get out.’
‘I’ll pack my stuff,’ he’d said to her, but he hadn’t packed. He’d gone inside and to William’s room. The boy was asleep, sprawled in Batman pyjamas, blanket kicked aside. His thumb was in his mouth.
Robbie had sat beside him and watched him. Watched him breathe, watched the small movements his eyes made under their lids, watched his long dark eyelashes on his cheeks. He smelled of Johnson’s No More Tears shampoo and a faint boy grubbiness. He thought about throwing him baseballs, and teaching him to sail, and fishing, and swimming in the surf, and reading stories and adopting a dog and making box cars to race. He thought about William’s first bike and his first car and his first job, the girls he’d date and lust over, the ones who would break his heart. His high school graduation. Scabbed knees and stitches and captured lizards and frogs, music his parents wouldn’t understand.
He’d wanted to do so much with this boy. Instead it seemed that he was always looking at William as he slept.
He touched William’s forehead, cool and a little sweaty despite the fan, and pulled the blanket up over him. He thought about leaving a note beside the bed. But William couldn’t read, and Marie would just tear it up.
He hadn’t known, then, that it would be the last time he’d see him. Not really; not deep inside, he hadn’t known. He hadn’t been able to understand the truth of it, anyway. How it would feel to live for years without his child. And if he had known, what could he have done differently? He could have woken William and talked to him while he was sleepy. He could have told him that no matter what happened, he’d always love him. But William wouldn’t have understood, or remembered. He’d have forgotten by the next morning.
But maybe it would have been important for Robbie to have said it. For the words to have existed, out loud, somewhere.
Robbie lay down on the cool tiled floor of this empty room at the very end of their house and listened to the rain. He wasn’t sure when this room had metamorphosed, without Emily or him saying anything, into a room that William would share with a baby. And then into the baby’s room. Not a baby but the baby.
How had it even become a concept between them? When they’d both known it was impossible? But it had taken form, this idea, this baby they could never have, without them even speaking of it. In their touches and exchanged glances, in the walks they took after dinner to catch the cooling air off the bay, the rhythm of their days together. He saw it in the way that Emily glanced at and then away from pregnant women or young mothers; a look that wasn’t professional curiosity. A certain weariness when she came home from work. The times when her eyes wandered from her book and she stared into the distance, not knowing he was watching her.
There was so much they didn’t speak of between the two of them. That they didn’t need to speak of. The cup of coffee that appeared at his elbow when he was in his workshop and tired; the reading lamp he fixed for her without her mentioning that it was broken. Often he would be on his way home from work, thinking about maybe building a barbecue on the beach, only to find when he got there that she’d already made the hamburgers.
Which was how, when she’d mentioned calling the adoption agency, he wasn’t surprised. And how he knew now that she was suffering from the death of this hope that they’d hardly dared to have.
When they’d chosen to be together, on another day of rain and storms, they’d decided that the two of them would be enough. Just the two of them, alone and together. That was the bargain they’d made with themselves and the world.
And they were enough. They were. But there was this yearning for more. Robbie’s instinct was to fix it: like he would fix a leak in his boat, a punctured tyre on his car.
But how could you fix the hole left by a child who had disappeared? Or another, who could never exist?
Robbie got up and went down the hall to the living room. She was sitting in front of the fan, also listening to the rain. Her hands were folded in her lap. She didn’t look up when he entered.
He knelt on the floor by her feet, and put his arms around her waist. He bowed his head and lay it on her stomach. She threaded her fingers through his hair. They didn’t need to say what they were thinking; they just sat there, holding each other, with the noise of the rain all around them.
This was her fourth Christmas in Florida, and she still found it bizarre to open Christmas cards of snowy evergreens and sleighs, when outside it was seventy-two degrees and the palm trees were waving gently in the balmy wind. Robbie was at work and Emily was on call after working for the past two nights; she sat in her dressing gown by the phone and leafed through the envelopes that the postman had brought.
The cards were from her colleagues at the hospital, Robbie’s friends at the boatyard, their doctor, their dentist, their bank. Yesterday she’d opened one from their local taquería where Robbie got takeout on a Friday night.