Ilia

I envisioned her to be born beautiful…not that there is such a thing. All babies are born red, wailing, wrinkled—wrenched into this miserable world against their will. But, somehow…somehow, I saw her differently. She had to be born perfect, ravishing.

San Francisco was cold that morning. The fog set a tainted veil of gray over everyone and everything. My wife looked up at the sky and her forehead furrowed as she saw the storm clouds.

"Isn't it unsafe for planes to fly with clouds like that?" she murmured.

I laughed at her worries. "Yes, I suppose it is. Out of all the planes in the sky, the one carrying our baby's going to crash."

She turned to me sharply, her posture stiff. "Don't jinx it!" she whispered.

Seeing her expression, I softened and pulled her towards me, ignoring the divide between the airport's vinyl seats. My heart jumped as I felt how thin she'd become. Thin and haggard—graying like San Francisco. The past few years had been filled with one worry, one unattainable goal. She wanted a child and made it an obsession, wrapping me into its webs as well.

We tried: she with vigor, and I halfheartedly. In truth, I didn't want a child. The doctors said it would be dangerous because the pregnancy would raise her estrogen level. It would make any overlooked cancer cells in her breast grow. We had already battled breast cancer once before. I wasn't ready to wear my armor and go through the difficult war again.

She wouldn't listen to me as I tried to reason with her. During those years, we had a lot of fights. Some of them were violent, some were with forced rationality. All of them ended in tears. Finally, I couldn't take it anymore. I agreed to let her have the child, but at the same time I mixed birth control with her vitamins.

When she found out, we had the largest argument I could remember. For days and days and days, she didn't speak to me. At long last, on a rainy night, she sat down beside me on the couch and told me she would contact the adoption agency.

As the airplane landed, she jumped out of her seat. She stood at the gate with her pale hands twisting nervously together. She had dressed up for that day to welcome our daughter. Her red hair was tied into a chignon at the nape of her neck. She abandoned the severe San Francisco dress code and wore a bright cardigan with her mother's pearls. She looked pretty, but her lipstick was wearing off and her face was gaunt with the months of anticipation that wore away at her.

Finally, she came out.

Her small hand was clasped with the stewardess's and her bright blue eyes stared in wonderment at all that was around her.

Vivian, my wife, gasped. I scrambled out of my seat and stood next to her. I stood next to her like a good husband was supposed to do.

Together. In sickness or in health.

Vivian didn't notice my effort. Her eyes were glued to the child, her green irises gleaming with something I couldn't quite identify.

"That's our baby," she whispered, and knelt in front of her as the stewardess smiled and handed her over.

--

Ilia was a quiet child, but with her silence she changed my world.

The people at the adoption agency said Ilia was a boy's name. Her father had wanted her to be a boy. She was born to be a disappointment.

But to me, and especially to Vivian, Ilia was born to be perfection. We were financially stable, and far from poor, so we dressed her in the best way we knew how. Her drawers quickly became filled with blended cashmere coats, silk stockings, tiny cardigans, and little treats 'Mommy' bought for her from Neiman Marcus. Vivian treated her like a doll. She paraded her around Union Square as they went shopping together. People smiled and nodded at little Ilia, who looked so sweetly alluring with her shiny black shoes and tailored dresses.

Once she came back home, I would put her in her pajamas. I would play with her constantly, helping her with her Barbies and her Kens. Sometimes, I would read to her. Words seemed to enchant her. She was only six years old, but her periwinkle eyes would grow serious at the adventures of Tom Sawyer and David Copperfield. For such a little girl, she had a vintage taste in literature.

Vivian couldn't bear to part with her, so Ilia slept in our bed. Vivian was no longer interested in sex. It didn't matter now Vivian and I never made love. We had Ilia, and that was enough to fill any void.

Some time in the middle of the night, Ilia would escape Vivian's thin arms and snuggle against me. She didn't seem conscious of this, but I would lay awake listening to our hearts beating together, and the puffs of moist breath she would send to my neck.

When the 5'oclock alarm rang, I would get out of bed and scoot Ilia back to Vivian. I did this everyday, somehow knowing that if I didn't, Vivian would grow jealous that Ilia didn't stay with her the entire night.

Years passed this way. Vivian grew old and Ilia grew up. I thought we would go on like this forever—the routine domestic tranquility never to break. But the cancer came back.

On the day that Vivian died, I called Ilia in the middle of her lunch period, and told her to drive to the hospital to see her mother. Ilia arrived at the door of the hospital room, her car keys jingling and her face red as she gasped out something about having to take the stairs because the elevators broke. Her words abruptly died on her lips as she saw my face.

I was holding Vivian's hand. Her fingers were no longer warm. She looked hideous dead. Her bald head appeared gray in the harsh hospital light, and the blue veins showed drastically on the thin, paper-like skin on her eyelids.

Ilia approached the bed quietly, her eyes fixed on Vivian's corpse. "David, is she…?"

David. She always called me David. While her lips were happy to chirp out 'mommy' for Vivian's ears, her voice held a special warmness in just 'David'.

"Yeah." My voice was raspy. My words confirmed not only Ilia's suspicion, but the reality of the situation. Next Tuesday was going to be our tenth anniversary. Vivian had already secretly made reservations at our favorite restaurant.

"Oh, God." Ilia bit her lip and rested her hands on my shoulders, gently massaging the tension away. "Are you alright?"

Her question surprised and touched me. In all this, she was still concerned about me. How I felt.

I nodded, letting go of Vivian's hand.

I suppose we both suspected this day to come sooner or later. Ilia didn't cry. And I didn't either until I was pulling into the garage.

Ilia was already home. I had stayed a little later at the hospital taking care of paperwork. She was sprawled on the couch, one arm hugging a throw pillow. Her figure had bloomed over the years, and I noticed with a pang that she'd already become a woman. Those pink, fleshy cheeks of her thinned and molded itself onto her graceful cheekbones. Her blond curls carelessly fanned out on top of her head. Her lips were swollen as if she'd bitten them recently.

When I shut the front door, she sat up. Her eyes worriedly scanned me, taking in my red rimmed eyes and tear streaked face.

"I'll make you some tea." Ilia stood up and slipped her fingers into my hand, leading me to the couch with gentle pressure. "Sit down."

Numbly, I did so.

"I'm going to make tea," she said again as she headed towards the kitchen.

I took her arm and stopped her. "No, don't bother. I don't want tea." My own voice surprised me.

She seemed to understand, and took a seat next to me. Lifting my arm up, she leaned close to me and molded my limb against her. Her head rested on the crook of my shoulder, reminding me of what Vivian used to do when we were just married.

At this thought, the tears threatened to fall again.

Ilia didn't say anything, but pressed close to me and smoothed her hand gently across my chest. Like the old days, I could hear our hearts beating together. Puffs of warm breath broke against my skin. In her small, quiet way, she comforted me.

--

In little ways, Vivian's death affected our lives, but we learned to adjust. Vivian usually got the mail, so for the first three days after she died, no one touched the mailbox. Without me realizing, Ilia started to routinely check the mail after school. Also with the loss of Vivian came the absence of nutrition bars, low fat yogurt, and vegetables in our fridge. In fact, there wasn't a lot in our fridge those days except soda. Ilia and I ordered out almost every night. Eventually, traces of Vivian became limited to old photos and a few CDs by the Beatles that were stacked among other things in the living room.

Life went on.

One day, I came home early to see Ilia on the couch with a dark haired boy. They were cuddled together, and seemed to be connected by each other's lips. I stood there, not knowing what to do. A small, rational part of me knew expected this, and said it was perfectly normal. Ilia was Junior in high school. She was a teenager.

The irrational part of me slammed the door. I imagined her seated there—just like the afternoon we sat together after Vivian's death—kissing countless boys that I wasn't home early enough to see.

At the sound, they sprang apart.

Ilia's eyes grew wide at the unrecognizable contortion of anger on my face. "You're…you're home."

The boy stood up. He was lanky with unruly brown hair. He had brown eyes. He looked plain, and the metal ring on his eyebrow only made him seem less attractive. This abomination was kissing my Ilia.

"Er…Mr. Ivory," he greeted awkwardly. He stuffed his hands in his pockets.

"Out." I pointed to the door.

Ilia's face darkened, and her blue eyes flashed. "David! For God's sake-!"

"Out!" I repeated to the boy, ignoring her.

He stood there for a moment, then said, "Um…I'll see you tomorrow, Ilia," and left hurriedly, prompted by the murderous look I was giving him. After he left, Ilia turned on me.

"That's unfair," she whispered venomously.

I set down my briefcase and took off my shoes, avoiding her eyes. "You're sixteen." I had used the generic excuse every parent gave. "I don't want to see with that boy again, or any other boy. If you want to go to Yale like you say you do, then you'd better keep to your studies and stop acting like a…"

"Like a what?" she dared. She stood right in front of me now. Despite being taller than her by a head, she looked menacing.

I didn't answer her, realizing I'd gone too far.

"Like a what?" she demanded again. "Say it, David."

"It's not David." My tone was cold. Parental. It was a voice I never used on her. "It's dad. I am your father, you understand that? You'll do what I say and not ask questions."

She looked hurt by this, but it only lasted for a moment. Her face shut off its emotions. "You're not my dad. And I won't do what you say because it is unfair. Mommy never had a problem with it and-"

"She's dead." I stressed the word and watched her flinch. "What she said doesn't matter any more."

"What's wrong with you?" she hissed, then turned and ran to her room.

Her question haunted me as I sat down to dinner by myself that night. In truth, I didn't know what was wrong with me. I suspected that I reacted how every normal parent should act. I didn't want my daughter to lose her innocence, she was only a teenager, blah blah blah. But I was the same at her age, if not worse. I always vowed that when my child grew up, I would not be one of those uptight, horrible fathers that didn't let his child date. There was nothing wrong with dating. It was all part of growing up.

So why the anger? Why the sickening feeling of betrayal when I saw them together? Why did I, even now, feel like going after the goddamn boy and beating him to pulp?

There was another feeling I had when I first saw them. I suppressed it as quickly as it came, but the effects of it, the heavy, bruising pain it left in my chest, still remained. I searched my mind as I pushed the greasy pizza around on my plate without eating. What was the feeling?

Then, I remembered. When I did, I wished I hadn't. For a split second as I stood watching them, I wanted to switch places with the boy.

I suddenly felt sick. Or, at least I should have. There was something horribly perverse about wanting to switch places with my daughter's boyfriend, but even when I knew it was wrong, it felt natural in my mind.

I remembered how Ilia looked on all those nights she laid on the couch, reading her novels as I read the newspaper on the armchair. I remembered how unassumingly sensual she looked laying there on her side, with the lamplight dipping and surfacing with her curves. I remembered the day that Vivian died. I remembered how she sat so close to me, how our hearts beat as one. Our hearts always beat as one.

I remembered these things, then abandoned my pizza and broke out the pinot noir so I could forget.

Around midnight, I was on the last sip of the last glass. I had drunk so much that the bottle could yield no more than this one last glass. And I was finishing it.

From the surface of our glass dining table, I could make out the darkened reflection of my face. I was thirty-six years old, and I had the graying hairs around my temples to show for it. There wasn't much, but they were there. My light brown eyes appeared black in the gloom of the room. The chiseled outline of my face had been slackened by the wine. I was a man about to reach the middle of his life.

What am I doing? I asked myself repeatedly. I finished the wine. It took me an entire bottle of pinot noir to steel my resolve to send Ilia away to my sister's place. She loved Ilia and Ilia loved her. They'd be happy together.

I felt a slender hand on my shoulder, and almost jumped out of my seat. It was Ilia and she looked as if she'd been crying. My heart throbbed. Little Ilia who was so strong, who didn't even cry when Vivian died, had been crying. I couldn't decide if she was shallow because she was upset she wasn't allowed to have a boyfriend, or if she was truly hurt by the coldness I'd shown her.

"You don't drink." She picked up the bottle and examined it, then tried to pour herself a glass, but found it empty. "You finished the entire thing?"

I nodded, running both my hands through my hair as my elbows were propped on the tabletop.

She pulled out the dining chair and sat down. Her arm flattened against the table and she tried to bend down to see my face. "We've never had a fight before."

Again, I nodded. I couldn't look at her.

She reached out across the table and took my hand. Her voice shook as she spoke. "My father gave me up when I was born, and I grew up in an orphanage where I remember I wished and wished for someone to take me away. You and mommy granted that wish. You two took care of me. But then Mommy died and now…now there's only you. You're the one person I have left—the only one who hasn't left me. I don't want to fight with you. I don't want to have to see you drink because I disappointed you."

I looked up abruptly, shaking my head. "Ilia, you didn't disappoint me. I-…I just don't want to see you throw your life away with boys when you can be so much more." The words were so corny that they were probably picked up from some movie I watched. But they were the only ones I could think of. It was the only lie my drunken mind could hatch.

She nodded furiously. "I won't anymore if you don't like it."

I smiled sadly. "Good girl."

She left her chair and climbed on my lap. She didn't fit like she had when she was a little girl. Her long legs dangled off my legs and she wrapped her arms around my neck. I could feel her body through the cotton fabric of my shirt, and I wanted to kill myself for feeling this way. At the same time, I melted against her.

Her fingers played with my hair at the nape of my neck. I shivered as her lips moved close to my ear. "I love you, David," she whispered.

My will dissolved at those words. I turned my head so our faces were close. She stared back at me, her eyes trusting.

Ilia. She was breathtaking. She always has been.

I envisioned her to be born beautiful…not that there is such a thing. All babies are born red, wailing, wrinkled—wrenched into this miserable world against their will. But, somehow…somehow, I saw her differently. She had to be born perfect, ravishing.

"I love you, too." Then, I bent forward and kissed her.

What surprised me was that she kissed me back. I expected myself to be dreaming. Perhaps I was a cheap drinker. The wine must be giving me illusions. A long moment later, she pulled back. She looked stunned.

Quickly, she looked away and got off of my lap. "You're drunk," she told me quietly.

I was drunk. I was drunk the wine. I was drunk off my insanity. I was drunk off her kiss. "I know." From my seat, I looked up at her. She didn't meet my gaze. "I'm drunk. What is your excuse?"

"You need to get to bed." She pulled me to my feet and half dragged me out of the dining room, turning off the lights on the way. She put me to bed, and then she was gone.

We never talked about it.

--

The years passed. The years always passed no matter what. One sunrise and sunset accounted for one day. There were three hundred and sixty five of those in one year. Just one year.

Well, two thousand five hundred fifty-five of those passed since that night. A lot of things happen between sunrise and sunsets.

I never touched alcohol again. Ilia and I became distant, even though we acted as if nothing was wrong. She graduated high school with a scholarship to Harvard. I stood in the crowds on her graduation day and cried.

I stood in the crowds and cried again the day she graduated Harvard and received her law degree.

My Ilia. I was so proud of her.

After graduation, she decided to stay in Boston and practice law at a notable firm. I moved to Florida so I could play golf, tan, and feel my age. We talked on the phone a few times every month. She'd urge me to get married.

"You have a girlfriend, don't you, David? I met her."

"I broke up with her." It was funny how I could talk to her about my relationships. She knew about Hannah, Emily, another Vivian, Ingrid, Stephanie, Beatrice, and Roxanne. I never asked about any of her boyfriends, though I knew she had them.

"You have another girlfriend, then." Her voice would be dryly amused.

"I do."

"So marry her! You must be lonely on that little penis state."

From there, I'd reprimand her for calling Florida the 'Penis State' and she would laugh and ask about my blood pressure. I was in my forties. There was nothing wrong with my blood pressure.

She came home every Christmas, and complained about how good the weather here was.

One Christmas, she didn't come back. On the next one, she said she was going to introduce me to her fiancé.

There was nothing wrong with my blood pressure before, but there certainly was something wrong with it now.

Her fiancé was a nice stockbroker from Wall Street. There was a swaggering arrogance about him. He had a firm handshake and asked me about my investments. He irritated me.

The few days that he lived in my house, I could find absolutely everything wrong with him. His blond hair was impeccably kept. His nails were manicured. He had a New York accent. He liked to fold his dinner napkin as he talked. He sometimes talked with his mouth full. Every single day, he ground at my nerves.

What annoyed me the most was how much he had changed Ilia. She was a young woman of twenty three, but she looked suddenly so much older. Her flowing corn husk curls were forced back into a bun—a style I had never seen her use. She wore clothes that were never quite suits, but reminded me of an office nonetheless.

Every second spent with them worsened my mood. But I bit it all back. I laughed and smiled with them. I wanted Ilia to know that I was happy for her. I wanted her to believe I was the happy father who wanted nothing more than to see her get married.

The day before Christmas, the rest of the family came. My sister cooed around Frank (that was her fiancé's name) and Ilia, telling them what a picture perfect couple they made. They all cooed, and I smoldered in the background.

I fought the same feelings I did seven years prior. I felt so ashamed, and so utterly alone. My love went past my paternal instincts. I loved her past what was appropriate. I loved her for the woman she grew into, and the person she was going to become. I loved her for her body, her mind, her smiles, and her clear blue eyes.

But I fought it. The demons of this love tore at me savagely every time I looked at her, but I fought it. The Christmas was dragging on and on and on. I wanted it to end. I wanted her to go back to Boston and leave me some peace to retire in.

At the same time, I clung to her. I couldn't bear to leave her for a single moment because she was no longer going to be mine. She was going to belong to that stockbroker prick who adored his reflection more than he was going to adore Ilia.

While everyone was in the kitchen preparing Christmas dinner, Ilia pulled me apart to my office.

Her whole face was alive with happiness and wine. "Do you like him?"

I sat down on the edge of my desk, feeling her eyes intently on me. "No."

Her face fell. "Why not?" She used that obstinate, demanding tone I'd come to know so well.

"I said I don't like him. That doesn't mean you can't marry him," I told her, rolling my eyes. "Please, Ilia, don't pout. Call me a stubborn old man, but I just don't like the guy and I can't tell you otherwise."

She unhappily chewed on the sleeve of her sweater. "But…but I want you to like him. It's important to me that you do."

I shrugged apologetically. "Sorry, sweetie."

"You have no good reason to dislike him."

"Please. If you get me started, we might be standing here all night."

"David, you're being unfair! He's…he's wonderful. He cares about me. I love him."

At her last words, my head snapped up. I could feel my breathing become uneven. "You're the one marrying him," I said snappishly. "Not me. I'm not doing anything to stop your happiness with the man, and you shouldn't force me to like him."

"But it's important," she insisted.

By now, my patience had all but run out. My mood was so sour I wanted to storm out by myself, then maybe bring back a gun and kill Frank. This violent fantasy could almost bring a smile to my lips. "I like him," I told her flatly. "Does that make you happy?"

Tears were swimming in her eyes now. "No, that doesn't. God, stop tormenting me. Let me get on with my life, will you? What, you're so selfish you can't let me go?"

"What the hell are you talking about? I am letting you go. Walk out that goddamn door and marry the boy right this minute if you want to. I'm not stopping you."

"You are tormenting me!" She was shouting at me now. "You have been tormenting me and you know it!" There was something terribly, terribly wrong with her. Her whole body was shaking.

I got off the desk quickly and went to her, taking her wrists. "Ilia, calm down," I murmured, my eyebrows a dark, worried V across my forehead. "Calm down. I love him, alright? Hell, if I could marry Frank, I would."

"And I love him, too," she whispered furiously, though it was almost as if she was trying to convince herself. "I love him, and I'm going to marry him, and I'm going to be happy."

Her words nearly broke me, but I kept up my façade. "That's the spirit." I leaned forward and hugged her, patting her back.

She hugged me back tightly as if she was never going to let go.

"It's Christmas," I said cheerily. My voice sounded so empty to me. Nineteen years of holding on to a love that didn't exist, that was too ugly to exist, and I was finally going to have to let go.

She calmed down in my embrace. "It's Christmas," she agreed, sinking her head between my neck and shoulders.

Our hearts beat together. Once. Twice.

She let go and smiled at me. There was something sad behind her smile that I couldn't quite fathom. "I'm sorry for that outburst." She touched my cheek gently, and we looked at each other for a long time. "I promised Auntie I'd help her with the gravy." She kissed my cheek, and then left, closing the office door behind her.

Ilia.

Finally, she left me with nothing but memories.