"Hi Julia. Is . . . is Charlie here?" Nina asked holding a box wrapped in purple paper.
"No, actually he is at the restaurant helping Bailey with the schedule. Is there something I can do for you?" Julia responded holding the dishtowel she had been folding.
"I wanted to . . . I promised to bring this bird feeder by for him. Kind of a Christmas/Get well soon present. It was a stupid idea, just forget I was here." Nina turned and started back down the steps.
"No, Nina, please come back. I want to talk to you," Julia called out. Nina paused and then turned around and came back up the steps.
"About what?" she asked.
Julia held the door open as Nina came in the house slowly. They went into the living room and sat down.
"How is Charlie?" Nina asked.
"Pretty good. He's had to slow down quite a bit. Once we got through the 'everything's fine, I can do it on my own' phase things have been going pretty smoothly. Griffin and I are living here, helping out with the kids and Bailey has been trying to help Charlie at the restaurant. The biggest struggle, of course, is just trying to get Charlie to accept some help."
"Good, I'm glad to hear. I didn't know what to do, if I should call or what?"
"I know he would want to hear from you Nina. He really cared about you. I hope this isn't rude, but it really hurt him when you left. I know you have your own things going on, but he's going to make it through this and I think that having someone like you on his side would really help."
"Well, I . . . um, well, Julia, it's kind of complicated," Nina hemmed and hawed. She was clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. "This is a really hard thing for me. I don't know if Charlie told you, but well, my parents died when I was in high school. It was a freak accident, and well I guess you could say that my coping skills have fallen under the category of avoidance. I just, I can't make any promises here and I don't think it's fair to Charlie or anybody for me to say I might stay and then disappear."
"That's not fair, Nina. We all know how hard it is to lose people who are important to you. But, if you don't try and stick it out, how will you ever know if you can do it. When our parents died, it was hard, but we had to deal with it. I have seen Charlie with a pretty good selection of women and you really seemed to do something for him. I hadn't seen him as happy since things were really good with Kirsten. I know it is going to be hard to get through this, but you have all of us. We can help you just like we're helping Charlie."
"It's different for me, Julia. You had your brothers and sister. When my mom and dad died I didn't have anybody. They had always traveled and I just stayed at boarding school. What you did, with Charlie and this house, it was completely different for me," Nina said.
"But, this isn't about people dying and getting over it. This is about something bad happening and dealing with it. I'm sorry, but you need to face the music. I know you and Charlie weren't together very long, but isn't it worth making the effort?" Julia asked as the door opened and Charlie walked in with Owen.
"Hey, Julia, can you get Owen cleaned up? There was some sort of finger painting incident at daycare . . . " Charlie's voice trailed off as he saw Nina on the couch. "Hey, Nina, I didn't expect to see you here."
Julia took Owen upstairs to change his clothes. Charlie came into the living room where Nina stood looking out the window.
"What are you doing here?" Charlie asked.
"I came over to bring the bird feeder. I do try to keep some of my promises. How . . . how are you doing?" she asked as she turned away from the window and looked at him.
"Okay. The radiation is about what I expected. I'm tired, not a lot of appetite which is actually okay because I can get pretty nauseous. It takes up a lot of time. The kids have really been good though, Griffin and Julia are here. Claudia was pretty freaked out, but I think she's coming around. Owen doesn't get it of course. He thinks I have some kind of bad stomachache. I guess that probably is the best way to explain it to him. I tried to explain to him that I'm not always going to be feeling so good, so he doesn't get scared." He paused and looked at her. He had really missed her, maybe not even realizing how much until she was back here, in the house. "How are you, the birds?"
"Actually, I'm not so good Charlie. I. . . I feel really bad about how things ended. I thought that coming over here, seeing you, maybe that would make me feel better--like I made the right decision. But, I don't know. Julia and I were talking about things. She, we're really different people. You have this incredible family that can support you when things are bad. I've never had anything like that. I've always been on my own. I don't know how to do the bad stuff. You're an expert. I guess I just got scared."
"We're all scared, Nina. This isn't any easier for me or Julia or Bailey or any of them. Yes, we have each other, but you could be part of this family. I want you to be a part."
"Would you give me another chance? I. . . I think I'm ready for it," Nina crossed over to where Charlie was standing.
"Do you mean it? Are you serious?" he asked, afraid to wish that it was true that she would come back.
"Yeah, I guess it took a wake-up call. You are the best thing that has happened to me for a very long time and I would be a fool to not try to spend every moment that we have. So, will you have me?" she asked.
"Yes, definitely yes," Charlie pulled him into his arms and began to kiss her.
Julia came back downstairs. She looked into the living room and knew that she had found the best possible medicine for her brother.
Nina walked into the office at the bird refuge. Her boss Jen sat at her desk. She and Nina had talked the week before about her break up with Charlie. Jen had been very supportive of Nina's decision, but she had also encouraged her to go back to see Charlie. She would be very interested in the latest development.
"Hey Jen, I need to talk to you. Do you have a minute?" Nina asked as she came to the door.
"Sure, what can I do for you?" Jen gestured to the chair in front of her desk. "Have a seat."
"I'm going to have to rearrange my schedule if that is okay. Actually, well I am sure there could be an 'I told you so' here so I might as well just tell you. I went over to see Charlie and I think I am going to need some extra time to spend with him."
"What caused this reversal of decision?"
"Actually, I had quite a conversation with his sister Julia. I didn't feel right about how things had ended and I couldn't stop thinking about him. Julia helped me realize that my fears of loss shouldn't prevent me from being with Charlie, no matter what happens."
"I think that is a really good decision. You definitely have not been yourself since you broke up with him. He seemed to make you really happy. Let me know what I can do to help, whatever you need."
"Thanks, Jen. I am going to be there a lot and I may take some afternoons to go to the hospital with him. Here's the phone number. You should try me there first." Nina slid the paper across the table. "This is pretty scary for me, but I have to admit it is a good scared. For whatever reason, I think this man and his crazy family may have a place for me. I've never had anything like this before. Thank goodness I came to my senses before it was too late."
Nina had been back for three weeks. In that time the whole atmosphere in the Salinger house had changed. The stereo stayed turned on, music filling the house and often there was even laughter to be heard. Having her back had not only helped Charlie, but it had helped all of them. The tight, worried look had been replaced on Claudia's face with a more calm appearance and many times, even a smile. She had started to play her violin more and Griffin had continued to join her on the piano some times. He hadn't taken lessons for years, but seemed to have a natural affinity for the instrument.
Charlie looked okay. He was thin and tired most of the time, but his spirits had remained high and that seemed to be the best medicine. Without intending to, Nina had moved in the house. At first she had stayed because she was there late or Charlie wasn't feeling well, but after five straight nights he pointed out that she should bring over more clothes or the people at work would begin to complain. She had arrived with a suitcase that evening and hadn't returned to the house that she shared with four others in the Mission neighborhood.
She even seemed to have developed sympathy pains for Charlie. The night before he had awoken nauseous knowing he had a finite amount of time to make it into the bathroom. Trying not to wake Nina he had gotten out of bed and run for the toilet. He was resting after being sick for what seemed like the thousandth time when Nina came in looking as terrible as he felt.
"Are you through there? Because I think it's my turn," she said with a pained expression.
Charlie got up and made room for Nina as she took up his favorite stance: knees on the floor, hands around the porcelain basin.
"Bad clams?" he asked.
"Yeah, something like that. I don't know how you can stand it?" she said as she got up and took the glass of water he offered.
He just laughed, sorry that she wasn't feeling well, but at the same time feeling good that for once he was offering the help rather than taking it. Once they both felt able, they returned to their bedroom, taking along an ice cream pail, "just in case."
They had worked out a routine around the house. About the time Nina had returned Charlie had stopped being able to drive himself to his treatments. It had seemed natural that she would take over that part of the household duties. Charlie knew it was hard on her to go to the hospital every day with him, but she never complained. They would sit in the waiting room and try to talk about other things, many times about the kids: Owen's latest antics, Bailey's seeming inability to schedule the right amount of help at the restaurant and other things as they would come up. Today though, once they had gotten into the medical center she had excused herself saying she would be downstairs before Charlie was done. He wondered what her errand was, but she didn't offer any indication of where she was headed.
Nina felt lucky to have been able to get the appointment with Dr. Morgan that afternoon. She figured that Charlie had enough on his mind that he wouldn't wonder too much about where she had gone. After her late night rendevouz with Charlie the night before, she just needed confirmation of what she knew had to be true.
When Charlie came out of the changing room, she was waiting in the reception area. There were no shopping bags or other indications of her errand. He hoped that this wasn't the beginning of another flake out. Maybe she really wasn't back for good. As the thoughts began to grow in his mind, he pushed them away. He knew it wasn't fair to judge Nina before she said or did something that would justify his fears.
"Did you get whatever you needed to do taken care of?" he asked.
"Yep, all sewed up. Are you ready to go?" she asked as she stood up and put on her coat.
"Yeah, all zapped for today. Are we supposed to pick up Owen on our way home?" Charlie asked as they walked out to the car.
"No, Griffin is getting him today. Are you feeling okay? I thought if you were up to it we could drive out to Sausalito and get some coffee."
"Yeah, I feel pretty good. It would be nice to ride in the car a little bit. But, it has to be some place with chairs outdoors. I think I could use a little sunshine and I know I can't be around all of that coffee smell," Charlie said as he got into the truck.
"I know what you mean," Nina muttered under her breath. She glanced over at Charlie, but he seemed to be unaware.
The drive over the Golden Gate bridge went quickly. They found a little sidewalk cafe and put in their orders for coffee and dessert. They had not spent much time by themselves away from the house recently. Most of the time Charlie simply had not felt good enough to go anywhere.
"You're almost done. Can you believe it? One week left and then the road to recovery begins. You know, I still have that book of weekend getaways. Maybe we could start looking at some options. We should take advantage of those live-in babysitters before Griffin and Julia get tired of the shed and want to move out."
"Definitely. I think I am ready for a little vacation. Somewhere quiet where all we need to do is lay in bed and perhaps take part in some activities I haven't felt like doing for a while," Charlie said with a chuckle. Nina had moved back into Charlie's bedroom, but little other than sleeping had been taking place there.
"Actually, that return to your former self has a little bit to do with what I need to discuss with you," Nina said with a nervous laugh.
"What, with my lack of stud services you want permission to look elsewhere?" Charlie joked. He had not been himself like this for so long. It gave Nina the courage to continue with her difficult news.
"Charlie, this is pretty lousy timing, I think . . . " Nina started and then stopped. Her face was pale and she seemed very nervous.
"Would you please spit this news out, you're making me really nervous now," Charlie's tone turned quickly into a more serious one.
"No, it's not like that. It's just that . . . well . . . I went to see the doctor this afternoon and I could never count very well and I know that I said I was prepared, but I guess not all the way and okay, I just have to say this . . . I'm pregnant. I don't even know when. I think maybe that night when I got back from my wren trip, I mean we did have a number of go-rounds that evening and you were rather, oh, say arduous and Charlie, please say something here . . . " the babble of words from Nina's mouth had effectively prevented a response from Charlie who had a rather stunned look on his face.
"What?" Shock and disbelief shot across his face. This was the last news he had expected from her. It, well, it was impossible. After Kirsten and Grace and now the cancer and radiation treatments he had begun to think of Owen as the only child he would ever have and now this. But it also came at a time of such uncertainty, both in his life and in this relationship. It had been so great to have Nina back in his life, but he was a bit gun-shy from her first desertion. "I... wow . . . this is . . . um, well, unexpected would be a word to start with I guess. I'm guessing those weren't bad clams after all?"
"Are you really upset?" Nina asked.
"No, I don't really know how I feel. What about you? What do you want to do?"
"I don't know. This is so unexpected. Man, talk about unplanned pregnancy. I suspected that something might be up last week, but things have been pretty chaotic. I might be going out on a limb here, but I don't know, maybe this is happening for a reason. Maybe this is our inspiration, our prize for all of the other bad things that have been happening, because I think this is a good thing, Charlie."
"Really . . . you do? Because I do too. I mean, this is just an initial reaction, but I would like to do this. I want to spend my life with you, Nina. I always have. I have to tell you--I fell for you . . . hard. I have feelings about you that I'm not sure I've ever had about anyone else. Even Kirsten and I never thought I would feel that way. But, and this is important--you have to decide if this is what you want. Do you want this baby? Do you want a life with me? Do you want one or both of those things? Because this is the time to decide. I want you to make this decision, but if we wait and I start to think about this baby, it's going to be hard for me. I just need to put that out there."
"You want the baby? That is so . . . well . . . great, because I do too. From the moment I thought there might be a chance I've been thinking about it and it seems right. I know I hurt you when I left, but Charlie, that was a mistake. I love you. I want to be with you and I want to have this baby with you, no matter what the future holds," she said as she moved over to him and kissed him.
"Then let's do it. But, there is something else that we need to take care of," Charlie said looking at her with a smile.
"What?" she asked.
"I think we need to get married. Will you? Will you marry me?"
"Absolutely!" Nina cried as she engulfed him again in her arms.
"Let's wait until the treatments are over next week and do it then. It can be a celebration of all sorts," Charlie said as he pulled her in again and kissed her. The smile on Nina's face was the only response he required.
They had billed it as an "End of Treatment" party. They had invited Kirsten and Paul, Sarah, Annie and Natalie and the family of course. As the group gathered in the living room, they noticed there was a stranger in the corner. Claudia asked Julia if she knew who he was, but neither she nor Griffin had a clue.
Charlie gathered everyone together and passed around the flutes of sparkling cider.
"It seems like only a few weeks ago most of us were gathered at the restaurant in a pose much like this. A lot has happened since that night and I want to thank each and every one of you for your help. The past two months have been really hard, but they have been a powerful reminder to not take things for granted. I could not have made it through without your assistance. Thank you for all of the help and most of all, thanks for putting up with me. I know that on my good days I can be hard to deal with, but recently I have been, quite frankly, a real pain in the ass. So drink up and enjoy the food," Charlie said raising his glass.
"That's all well and good Charlie, but don't you think we should introduce our guest?" Nina asked with a grin on her face.
"I suppose that would be the only polite thing to do. Everyone, this is Judge Joseph O'Connor and Nina and I invited him here tonight because, well we have some more announcements," Charlie said gesturing to the gentleman who had been standing near the dining room entrance.
"Announcements? Plural?" Claudia questioned.
"Yes. Announcement number one: as off today, I am officially in remission. They repeated the scan yesterday and there is no sign of any remaining cancer cells." Everyone clapped.
"Announcement number two: we invited the judge here because Nina and I have decided to get married," Charlie said as everyone looked at him with shocked looks on their faces. "Hey, wait, I haven't finished yet, announcement three: we are expecting a baby, in late July."
"Charlie!" exclaimed Bailey as they all looked at him and Nina with expressions of surprise and disbelief.
"I know, it's well a bit shocking and rather unconventional, but when did this family ever do anything the normal way. We thought that if we surprised you with the wedding and well, the other stuff too, maybe it would be less likely that something would go wrong," Charlie said as he looked at all of them.
The only ones not looking surprised were Kirsten and Paul. He had told them ahead of time, realizing that not only another Salinger wedding, but the news of the baby might be hard for Kirsten. But, she had said that she was happy for him. He was getting what he deserved and she wanted to be there to help him celebrate it.
"Well, then, let's get this wedding started. Charlie, if you would stand here and Nina you here. Now the rest of you, please gather around in a semicircle and we'll begin," the judge arranged the group.
"Charlie and Nina, you have come here tonight in the company of your family and dear friends to make a promise to one another. This promise of commitment is not to be taken lightly. It is a solemn promise, a covenant with one another. You have chosen to speak your own words of commitment. Charlie . . . " the judge gestured to Charlie who took Nina's hands in his own.
"Nina, I promise to love and honor you for the rest of my life. I promise to stand by you no matter what happens. I promise to love our children and to be a good father to them. I promise to be a loving husband and most of all to be your truest friend and champion. I make these promises out of love, commitment and faithfulness, " Charlie spoke the words in a strong voice, only wavering at the end as his eyes began to fill with tears. He raised his hand to brush away the moistness.
"Charlie, you are my lifeline. When I was without you I was lost, as if I had been swept out to sea. I promise to honor my commitment to you by always being there from now on. I will work every day to strengthen the bond between us. I will love our children, both the unborn and those that you already have. I will work to be a good wife to you and to remain your soulmate, in good times and in bad . . . " her voice began to trail off as she began to cry as well. Charlie reached up to wipe away the tears as she continued. "I love you, now and always. I thank God every day for bringing you into my life and allowing you to remain there."
"Then, under the jurisdiction of the State of California and in the presence of this company, I pronounce you husband and wife. I wish you a life of happiness and serenity. You, sir, may kiss the bride, "Judge O'Connor pronounced as he smiled at the emotional couple.
Charlie leaned in and kissed Nina passionately. As the kiss went on the onlookers first clapped and began to laugh.
"Hey, Charlie, you know the food is getting cold, so if you wouldn't mind . . . come up for air," Bailey called out.
"Hey, this is my wedding day and I'll kiss my bride as long as I want," Charlie retorted as he pulled away from Nina. The smile that had been missing for so long seemed to be tattooed on his face.
"Congratulations, Charlie. I am really happy for you, I hope you know that. Nina, you have gotten yourself one pretty incredible guy. You are very lucky and I am going to make sure you take good care of him, okay?" Kirsten said.
"Thank you. I think I'm pretty lucky, too," Nina responded as she hugged Kirsten. "Thank you for your support, for being here. I'm sure it wasn't easy, but we want both of you in our lives. I am getting to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Claudia and the others have done a pretty good job of telling me about Charlie in his pre-Kirsten days and I definitely think you had a positive effect on him."
"I appreciate that and we do plan on being a part of this family's life. Thanks for including us," Kirsten said as she moved to hug Charlie as well.
Owen came running over to the couple. "Hey Charlie, does this mean Nina gets to stay here?" he asked.
"Yeah, buddy. This means she gets to stay here for a long time," Charlie answered as he picked the little boy up. It was going to be great to finally have a mother for Owen. Charlie had been a good parent, but it wasn't easy to do it on his own.
The well-wishers continued to surround the couple as they moved into the dining room for the reception. As they passed under the basketball hoop, now decorated with balloons and streamers Charlie pulled Nina aside.
"So, I guess this means we're in it for the long haul," he said with a chuckle.
"Hey, you were the one who gave me a second chance, so you're stuck with me now," she answered.
"Stuck forever," he answered as he first kissed her and then led her into
the dining room to join the rest of the family.