Alex clamps a slice of toast between his teeth and lifts Lucy out of her highchair. He settles her on his hip and snatches the toast out of her reach before it ends up smeared down both of them.
“Ally, grab your bag, we’re going to be late,” he says and slings the diaper bag over his shoulder.
“Have to say bye to Papa,” Ally calls over her shoulder as she darts across the court yard, back pack bouncing on the cobblestones behind her. Alex lets out a frustrated sigh and hurries after her.
Ben appears in the doorway and smiles when Ally throws herself on him. The glasses he’s finally accepted he needs for reading and watching television are perched on his head, and Alex can’t help smiling at the sight.
“I won’t forget to check on the cake,” Ben says. He lifts Ally up and kisses her cheek.
“And get the presents.”
“And get the presents.” Grinning at Alex, he leans forward to kiss Lucy. “And the turkey. Papa has everything under control.”
“Monster we have to go,” Alex says, capturing a kiss of his own as he shifts Lucy to a more comfortable position and tries to keep the toast away from Ben’s cream shirt. It’s tucked into navy linen trousers and for the first time in what feels too long, Alex lingers over the kiss. Wants to linger over the kiss. Ben pulls away, eyes dancing as he licks his lips.
“Mmmmm, peanut butter. My favorite.” He sets Ally back on the ground.
Alex brushes his mouth over Ben’s again, then presses his lips close to his ear.
“Who knows what you might taste later?”
Ben raises an eyebrow.
A twinge of guilt pulls at Alex. It’s been two months since the court case. His mother’s appeal was denied, and his parents are both serving their sentences. Apart from the occasional bad dream and a reluctance to spend too much time apart from them, Ally appears to be bouncing back. Her hair is almost brushing her collar and the dreaded Mary Janes have been donated to the local thrift store. Alex sees a therapist once - sometimes twice - a week and has regained most of the weight he lost, but he’s been reluctant to make love. Ben hasn’t pushed it, brushing it off as the downside to parenting but Alex can’t help worrying how long his patience will last. He’s about to kiss Ben again when Ally tugs his hand.
“Daddy, no more smushy stuff. You said we’re going to be late.”
“Okay, okay I’m coming.” He smiles at Ben. “I love you.”
“Love you back. Love you munchkin.”
“Love you back papa. Come on, daddy. We have to go.”
Alex shoves the last of the toast in his mouth and follows her out.
✽ ✽ ✽
Alex stares at his hands and waits for Ellen Jones to look up from her notes. A woman in her mid-forties with strands of silver in her long red hair, she has an unerring eye for spotting whatever is bothering Alex on any given day. Not unlike Ben, he thinks and snorts.
Jones looks up at the sound and smiles.
“Care to share?” she says.
Alex shakes his head and looks back at his hands. She steps out from behind her desk, smooths her skirt beneath her, and sits down.
“So, how’s the week been?”
“Not bad,” Alex admits. “It’s Lucy’s first birthday on Saturday, so Ally’s busy organizing us for that.”
“Thanksgiving baby. That’s a pretty good reason to celebrate.”
Alex nods. He knows he has a lot to be thankful for.
“Ally still doing okay? Any nightmares this week?”
“No, none in about two weeks now and she had a play date at her friend’s house over the weekend. She didn’t stay over but she spent the day.”
Jones looks pleased.
“That’s great news, it certainly sounds like she’s doing well. What did you and Ben do while she was out?”
He can feel the blush creeping across his cheeks; he knows what she’s really asking. The first time the subject of their sex life had come up, he had been so embarrassed he’d had to stand at the window with his back to her to be able to answer. It made him angry, as if the whole nightmare with his mother had sent him hurtling back into who he had been before meeting Ben. Jones had listened to this outburst without comment, then asked him to tell her what Ben had done to make things different.
“He was just … Ben,” Alex had said, voice clogged with emotion.
“And is he still just Ben?” she’d asked, and the question had been so jarring in its simplicity that he’d been shocked out of his embarrassment. Yes, he’d whispered, he was still just Ben. His Ben.
“Alex?” her head is tilted to the side and the amusement in her eyes is mirrored in her tone.
“Sorry, just thinking. We had Lucy with us and went out for lunch, then went home and watched a movie while she slept.” He looks up at her from under the hair flopped over his eyes. “Made out a bit on the sofa.” Small embarrassed laugh. “Like teenagers.”
“Hey, that’s what nap time is for. Go any further than making out?’
Alex shakes his head.
“No. I want to though, it’s just …” his voice trails off as he tries to find the words to explain what he’s feeling. Jones waits, silent. “Ben’s really ... physical. Not shy about anything, really open. Everything I’m not.” He sighs, knows how it must sound. “And he’s always been really patient with me. Never pushed me to do anything I didn’t want to do. Always on my side.”
“Sounds like a saint.” Jones face is unreadable but the laughter that bubbles up from his chest feels good. Better, it feels real.
“He’s not a saint,” he finally manages to say. “He’ll be forty in the new year but some days it’s like he’s twelve.” It occurs to him she might not understand. “Not in a bad way, or anything, he’s just …cocky I guess.”
“I get the feeling you love him very much.”
“I do. He’s kind and compassionate and smart. Funny. He works hard and he’s a great Dad.” Alex takes a deep breath. “I sound like a teenager with a crush, but he’s everything I always thought I wouldn’t have.”
“Before you met Ben, did you have other lovers?”
He tells her the same thing he remembers telling Ben. A few one-night stands, a couple of short lived flings. The first time he had fallen in love, the only time, had been with Ben.
“And were you ever reluctant to have sex before?”
Alex runs both hands through his hair, holds it back off his face fighting the urge to squirm under her gaze.
“No. I mean I wasn’t a virgin when we met but I hadn’t had that much experience and I’ve always been,” he huffs a laugh as he remembers asking Ben if he was too vanilla, “shy I guess. But we have a good sex life. At least we always did before.”
“So, what’s changed? Did something happen when you were a child?”
It’s not lost on Alex that of the many things he has to be grateful for, one of them is that for all the awful things inflicted upon him by his parents, sexual assault was not one of them.
“No, nothing like that.” The truth he realizes is much simpler. And somehow much harder to face. “I’m scared I won’t be able to … you know…” he looks up and catches the amusement in Jones’s eyes, “I know, I know I’m a nurse I should be able to talk about this stuff. Ben’s always teasing me about it. I’m scared I’ll feel guilty. And I don’t want to ever feel guilty about loving Ben. About making love to him. But …”
“But I miss it. I miss touching him and being touched. I want that back in our life. You know, before she showed back up, a lot of the time we were too tired to have sex anyway.”
“Having small children will do that to you.”
He nods in agreement.
“Yeah, but this is different. This is … I don’t know.” Frustrated he leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees.
“Alex,” Jones says, “it’s normal to experience a loss of libido after something like this. Apart from what happened with your girls, which is a major stress factor of its own, you’re dealing with a lifetime of trauma for the first time, you need to give yourself some credit. And I know you know what I’m going to tell you to do.”
“Talk to him.”
Jones laughs, it’s a light, airy sound.
“Go to the top of the class. Yes, you have to talk to him.”
✽ ✽ ✽