Matt had tentatively asked for permission to meet Gabby for lunch after shift the next day. Sylvie didn’t really like that he asked for permission (literally asked if he had her permission – he was a grown man, he didn’t need her permission), but she also appreciated that he was willing to not go if she wasn’t comfortable with it. Which she wasn’t, but she didn’t tell him that. She knew it was irrational. She knew how Matt felt about his marriage to Gabby. She didn’t think he was going to cheat or even consider it. She just didn’t really like the idea of him out with Gabby, just the two of them. She knew it wasn’t jealousy. She just couldn’t quite name the emotions she did feel.
She couldn’t name them until Matt came home around 2 o’clock. Then she realized that she had been worried and anxious and scared – not of him being tempted back to Gabby, that he (or Gabby) would hurt her, but of Gabby’s power to hurt him. Matt was incredibly sensitive to people’s opinion of him, though he tried hard to hide that fact. The fact that he loved Gabby, admired her still despite the end of their marriage, just made him all the more vulnerable. Sylvie tried to ask him what was wrong, but he just shook his head and said he was fine. He wasn’t fine. He spent a ton of time that afternoon cuddling with Jack, talking softly to him, Sylvie suspected pouring out his heart to their pre-verbal son. She’d caught Matt doing it a few times, he talked so plainly to Jack, his voice always soft and warm, but telling Jack things she knew he’d never tell anyone else. Maybe it was just that Jack was so young, it’s not like he was judging or going to repeat anything. He was just happy to hang out with his daddy and hear that familiar voice.
Figuring Matt was looking for some distance that night, she headed over to Molly’s around 8 o’clock. She loved living so close, most of the time. A few times (very few) someone got loud late at night. The more often problem was someone calling Matt for a favor at 1 am. Last week, Otis had called because a hinge on a stall door needed fixing in the ladies bathroom. Matt had been asleep (for once, sleeping soundly by all signs) and of course he got up and grabbed his toolbox, went over, and fixed it right away. A few times, one of the people from 51 called looking for a bed to crash in for a night after a few too many at Molly’s. Kelly had a key, so he’d just let himself and/or Stella in if he was staying, but Kelly never gave it out – anyone else had to call (or have Kelly call) and let them know that they had a guest in the downstairs guest suite. Those were the minor annoyances, really, but it was great to walk across the street and be hanging out with your friends.
She didn’t stay late. Neither she nor Matt ever did anymore. They either had to pick up Jack from whoever was watching him (Cindy or Donna, one memorable occasion Trudy), or the other was at home with Jack and she was usually anxious to get back to her boys. She did adore them both so. Plus, since she was breastfeeding, she always stopped at one drink. She was leaving around 9:15 when she literally ran into Gabby. Despite the presence of half of their friends, she couldn’t help her reaction.
“What did you say to Matt?”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“Have fun with that. He never talks.” Gabby rolled her eyes.
“You never listened.” Sylvie shot back defensively.
“We talked about what happened, at the end of our marriage. We got some closure.” Gabby paused. “We argued a little, but considering we were talking about a divorce, that was probably expected. Healthy even.”
“Did you apologize to him at any point?”
“Apologize? For what? Matt always understood why I left.”
“Why did you leave?” Sylvie pushed. She knew Matt’s version, but she wanted Gabby’s side of the story. “Practically in the dead of night, without a goodbye to pretty much anyone? You had one fight with me and one fight with Matt and you just left.”
“I left to get some space. It was supposed to be a couple weeks. I needed to clear my head. Matt had decided we weren’t going to have a family, he didn’t care what I wanted, he didn’t even talk to me about it.” Gabby snorted. “Of course, he turned right around and has one with you.”
“So you left him, after one fight?”
“It was obvious he wasn’t in love with me anymore. He was bitter. Angry about things in the past. He never lets go of anything, by the way. He says he forgives you, but he never forgets and he always brings it back up.”
“He was scared, Gabby.” Sylvie nearly bit out. “And you treated him so badly for so long that he-“
“I treated him badly? How? I love him. I supported him through everything – promotions, campaigns, hell, even Hallie’s death.”
“You don’t really want me to start counting the ways.”
“He was the asshole. He was the one who kept pulling away. He was the one who never supported any of my ambitions. Ambition makes him uncomfortable – mine or Peter Mills’ or anyone, really. He always had to try to talk me out of it, whatever I wanted, and he was right about one thing: having a baby is the one thing I couldn’t do without him. Well, not at the time.”
“You’ve really never considered his feelings at all, have you?” Sylvie shook her head in a combination of shock and awe.
“He accused me of that same thing. I care deeply how he feels, I always did, I always wanted him to be happy, but I couldn’t be dependent on it, following his wishes instead of my own, making him happy instead of myself.”
“No, see, Gabby, that’s what caring deeply about how he feels means.” Sylvie pointed out, not really caring if she was being harsh or a little loud or that they were in the middle of friends who were listening while trying to look like they weren’t. “It means sometimes you listen to him, let him be important, put his needs and his feelings ahead of your own. Not all the time, of course, but you ran roughshod over him for years. We all saw it. We all encouraged it, told him he was lucky to have you. The Great Gabby Dawson, kickass firefighter paramedic, going to save the world – and if she has to step on her husband to do it, so be it. That’s what he’s there for, right? Just a footstool to get you where you want to go.”
“I never thought that.”
“What I feel the worst about is that we all enabled it. We all loved you so much, Gabby, and you’re such a…a big personality, and you’re always doing something, saying something, and God knows you usually have the best intentions in the world.” Sylvie admitted, because it was true and because it was the root of the problem, really. “And Matt’s quiet. He wants to get lost. Go unnoticed. And he did. None of us saw him. We saw what you wanted for him and from him, but we didn’t see Matt. What…sucks the most, for you, is that you never really did either. You spent years with him, and you never really saw him. And I feel sorry for you. Because you missed really seeing and knowing the best person you’ll probably ever meet. And all you had to do, to keep him, to know him, all you had to do was love him enough to let him know he was safe.”
“Don’t say he was safe with you.” Sylvie’s anger was rushing back, and less the pity she’d felt a moment ago. “I can forgive you a lot, Gabby, because I think you’re a good person who means well, and you didn’t intend to hurt him, but you showed him time and again that he didn’t matter, that everyone else and every new project mattered more than him, and his feelings weren’t important, weren’t even valid, that his feelings were wrong. You want an example? The billboards, during the campaign, about his mother. He tried to tell you how that made him feel, that it wasn’t worth that, and you told him to ‘man up’ more or less. Am I wrong?”
“It was just politics.”
“Just politics.” Sylvie scoffed. “Just politics. The single worst and most traumatic thing that ever happened to him, the thing no one in the house even hints about because we all think we have some clue how much it hurts him still-“
“More like it’s the thing most likely to make him take a swing at someone.” Gabby interrupted.
“You’re still doing it. Downplaying his feelings.”
“It was twenty-four years ago.” Gabby replied, as if that should’ve meant he was over it now or something, like it wasn’t the defining incident of his entire life.
“He was sixteen years old.” Sylvie’s temper was quickly getting the better of her. “His mother took his key to his father’s house, and shot his father in the face. Murdered him. She went to prison. In her trial, he had to testify, was asked if he’d been complicit in it, given her the key, if he’d wanted his father dead. It was all over the newspapers. You think high school was hard? Try hearing about that at school and going ‘home’ to some temporary foster placement with no one who knows you, no one to actually care for you, so you just bury it inside and close the lid on the coffin and hope no one ever digs it up – the anger and the pain and the shame of it. Most importantly, he’s lived with the guilt of leaving his keys out every day since it happened, thinking it was his fault, that he basically killed his dad – whom he loved despite everything because he was his dad. And his opponent put it on billboards. One moment of the smallest bit of carelessness in a teenage boy, that’s all it was, and his entire life shattered apart. In that tiny bit of time, he went from a kid with two homes he shuttled between to a kid with no home at all, basically on his own in the world. And you, who were supposed to love him, told him to ‘man up’ about it, that someone plastering a trauma like that on billboards, that it was just politics. You basically told him that his feelings weren’t important, or even valid, that he couldn’t let it bother him to have that coffin opened and made public again.”
“He needed to rally. To fight back. Not give in.”
“Why? Matt Casey is terminally introverted, Gabby. But you didn’t see that. God, none of us paid attention to it, but you should’ve. In some ways, it’s almost sweet. You saw what you wanted for him, what his honesty and integrity could do for the city, for people in the ward, and you wanted that to happen. You were right, men like Matt would be great for Chicago, in public life in general, because he’s good and believes in doing the right thing for the right reason. But the problem is, Matt didn’t want it. You never stopped to think about Matt.”
“I love him.”
“Not nearly as much as you love your projects. It always came back to what you wanted, either for him or from him. And you know what’s really sad? The one thing he finally stood up to you about, the one thing he insisted on, was protecting you. That nothing was more important to him than your safety.” Sylvie pointed out, perhaps harshly but completely honestly.
“It’s my risk, my body, my decision.”
“And if the worst happened? Would it be you living with the consequences, or him? No, Gabby. You got told ‘no’ once and you tossed him away like trash.” Sylvie leaned in, not wanting her voice to travel. “That’s how Matt felt, how you made him feel, like garbage tossed at the side of the road while you went on with your life, just trash that you didn’t need anymore. So you don’t get to be the aggrieved party, ever, Gabby. You threw him away. If someone else picks up what you put at the curb, that’s not your business any more, is it?”
She went home to Matt and Jack, cuddled up on the sofa watching the White Sox game. No matter how often she saw it, she never stopped being affected by it. Jack laying on Matt’s chest while Matt talked him through anything was her favorite sight. It was adorable and somehow sexy and combined her two favorite people on the planet. Matt glanced up and caught her staring. He smiled at her softly.
“Hey, Jack, Mommy’s home early.”
“Not that early.” She was only about fifteen minutes before he’d be hungry on his current schedule. She moved into the living room. “Mind if I join you boys?”
“Hm, Jack, what do you think?” Matt kissed Jack’s head softly. “Before you decide, a little life advice, son: everything is improved with the addition of a beautiful girl so you always say yes if one asks to join in. Always.” Matt glanced down at Jack for a moment, then back up at Sylvie. “Jack agrees with me, Mommy is a perfect addition to the sofa.”
“Jack agrees does he? Don’t sit up.” Sylvie carefully managed to insert herself between the back of the sofa and Matt, while dodging Jack. Okay, she was a little squished and half on top of Matt, almost on top of Jack, but it was a deep sofa and she felt like she needed a cuddle from both her boys. And she suspected Matt could use one as well. He always could.
“I love you, Matt. You know that, right?”
“Of course I know that.” Matt sounded confused. “Is something wrong?”
“No, I just…I know we’re still finding our feet as parents not just a couple. And I feel like sometimes pregnancy and even more now, it’s all about me and about Jack and I worry you might feel forgotten.”
“Sylvie.” He used a finger to tilt her chin up so her eyes met his. “No one has ever loved me as well as you do. No one has ever been as good to me as you are. Forgotten? No. Am I a background player in some ways? Yeah. But I like being in the background. I like letting you and Jack star.”
“You should get to star once in a while.”
“Eh, give me one day a year on Father’s Day.” Matt shrugged, smiling a little. “Maybe my birthday, too, as long as we keep it small.”
“You’re important, Matt. You’re important to lots of people, but especially to me and to Jack. We love you. Jack can’t say it yet, but I can and I guess I just want to make sure I say it enough for both of us. We love you.”
“I love you, too. Both of you. More than…life itself isn’t even a big enough weight to measure. I didn’t even know love like this existed. You and Jack, you’re my home.” Matt kissed her softly.
“And you’re ours. The house is beautiful, but right here,” Sylvie snuggled in a little closer, “you and me and Jack, this is home.”
He didn’t say anything more, but his arm around her tightened a little, and she felt him kiss the top of her head. She happily burrowed into him, content to just be with him – at least until Jack demanded his before-bed meal.