Painted Over Cracks





by Marion Felix Ehrenberg ©2024


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.


Chapter 1 - Matteo


   For months Matteo paced the streets of San Diego, taut and meticulous, scanning for signs of danger, alert to faces from his past. Each day, he ventured a little further, a fast-tracked Green Card in his wallet and a vintage Nikon camera slung from a well-worn leather strap around his neck. Eventually, his legs loosened into a stroll. He discovered this new way of moving on the beach early in the morning when there were only seabirds and an occasional dog walker. When he stopped to look out over the shoreline, the sound and motion of the waves calmed his breathing; it was here that he caught his first fleeting moments of peace and an occasional glimpse of a promising future.

   Alone in the middle of the night, it was a different story. The confidence he'd mustered during the day evaporated with the sweat that coated his body. Matteo learned the hard way that the dangers he'd left behind were locked inside his head and surfaced the moment he closed his eyes. Disturbing images and shards of memory invaded his dreams, their invasive tendrils gripping his body in waves of nausea and crushing pain in his temples.

   At dawn, when he couldn't yet quite force open his eyes, his hands gravitated to his sweaty brow to trace the ridges of a long scar. It zippered down from his forehead and over his right eyelid until it took a sharp turn just below his cheekbone and petered out at the jawline. In some spots, the scar felt lumpy and numb; in others, it was tender to the touch. The drift of his hands to the most painful parts of the scar, where offended nerves pulsed electric shocks, startled him awake and ushered him out of the nightmare. Heart still pounding, he opened his eyes and landed back in his new life. His name was Matteo Bosch, not Lukas Romer. He lived in a half-decent flat in San Diego, not a rundown apartment in Kreuzberg-Berlin. He had been a photographer in his old life; it wasn't just a hobby or a job but a way of being. This was the one non-negotiable part of his persona that he wouldn't sacrifice when he redesigned his identity.

   When Matteo had first arrived in San Diego, he was a shell-shocked twenty-two-year-old brimming with secrets and terrified about keeping his official story straight.  He had dug deep through the rubble of his damaged self to devise marching orders for his survival.

   Rule Number One: Eyes forward, focus on school. For the next four years as a visual arts student at USC San Diego, Matteo sat at the front of the classroom and soaked up all he could about photography, videography, art, and American culture.

   Rule Number Two: Keep to yourself, but don't stand out as a loner. Don't stand out, period. It wasn't an easy balance to strike, but he got good at it. Unfailingly prepared for class, Matteo got full marks for participation. He learned to relax into this safe zone of defined topics for group discussion, where the expectations suited him perfectly: disclose only your knowledge and opinions, nothing personal. Occasionally, just often enough not to appear strange or antisocial, Matteo would accept an invitation to go out for coffee or beers with classmates. He told only the barest outlines of his revised history on these occasions. He specialized in listening, asking a few questions, paying compliments to encourage the speaker's flow, and exploiting people's love of talking about themselves. When conversations became dangerous, like when a young woman in his art history class asked if he was returning to Germany for the Christmas holidays, he’d launch into his carefully constructed response. He would give a non-committal answer, like 'I'm still thinking about it.' Then, he'd immediately glance at his watch, his mouth and eyes opening wide and his eyebrows riding high as he slowly mouthed the words, 'Oh shit! I’m late for work. Sorry. Gotta run!' The cash to cover his part of the bill, plus a tip, was ready in the back pocket of his jeans. He'd slap the money onto the table as his body pivoted toward the door. He didn't mind looking like that guy who lost track of time while having fun with his friends, but he was determined not to stand out as a jerk who left the others to pay his bill. After his exit performances, Matteo would rush down the street until he was safely out of view. He’d return to his apartment to second-guess himself and ruminate. Had he looked suspicious? Weird? Retracing each step, he'd satisfy himself that he'd pulled it off like a pro. Any feeling of pride for the smooth execution of his deceit was short-lived and left him ashamed and disgusted with himself. What he'd pulled off wasn't something to feel good about, but then again, what choice did he have?


   Matteo's exit performance was an exaggeration but not a complete lie. He did have a job. It paid the bills but also fit perfectly into his marching orders. Under other circumstances, he might have hated his shifts and the sheer menial boredom of shuffling boxes and stocking shelves; instead, he looked forward to being at work, where he could slide into anonymity. His supervisor, Joe, was a depressed man in his early sixties bent on passing the final years before his retirement playing video games and honing his virtual combat skills. Without looking up from his screen, Joe occasionally paused to tell Matteo what he should do next. Matteo's co-worker, Lou, listened to heavy metal on his earbuds and hadn't the slightest interest in getting to know Matteo. Everyone, including Matteo, understood that he was at the bottom of the pecking order, ignored because he was a university student and had a future somewhere else.

   Matteo's survival tactics worked well enough for several years. When he didn't feel terrified or numb, he got excited about what he was learning and fed on the praise he earned from his professors. Something else started to well up in him; it was no longer just the sharp pangs of anxiety that sparked wildfires in his gut when he felt threatened. Now a billowing heaviness in his chest seeped into his arms and legs. Whatever it was, he couldn't ignore it any longer.

   The evening after writing his last exam for the final course in his degree, Matteo returned home to his empty apartment. It should have been a happy moment, a satisfying achievement, a personal victory, something to celebrate with your family or girlfriend. All he felt was the crushing heaviness in his chest taking over his body. He tried to cross the room to his closet, where he’d hidden the flash drive containing a handful of good memories from his past life, but his knees buckled, and he crumpled to the floor, where he lay, paralyzed and fighting for air, unable to think of anyone to call for help. He felt a warm wetness sliding over his cheeks and a salty taste accumulating at the corners of his mouth. Tears? Yes, definitely tears. He hadn’t cried since his mother's funeral when he was nineteen years old.

   Gradually, Matteo realized that he was suffering from a loneliness that was so extreme, so prolonged, so body-gripping that he couldn't even think of an English word to describe it. He lay on the floor watching the windows blacken, and the streetlights come on, fading in and out of light sleep. Unsure if it was a dream or conscious thought, he remembered himself as a little boy curled up with his grandmother, his Oma, while she read him his favourite fairy tale, Schneewittchen. The part he remembered now was the hunter taking the little girl, Snow White, into the forest and leaving her there to perish. His Ama had turned to him and read, speaking slowly for emphasis, “Nun war das arme Schneewittchen Mutterseelenallein.” Now poor Snow White was Mother-soul-alone. That was the word he was looking for that he couldn’t find in the English side of his brain. ‘Mother-soul-alone’ was precisely how he felt. He was like a child bereft of a mother or any caring person to look after him, lost in a dark and dangerous place. He was slowly dying of the loneliness he'd so masterfully created, so meticulously executed in his mission to escape the past and survive in his new life. He simply couldn't do it anymore, not even for one day; he needed to be careful, but he was drowning, and his only chance for oxygen was to open himself up, even just a little.


   Matteo was hired to be the official photographer for the San Diego Art Walk, his first important job since graduation. After a morning spent walking along the white tents lining busy Date Street, taking photos of artists and their paintings, he was relieved to enter the shaded quiet of the Rose Garden. He inhaled the scent of freshly cut grass and stopped to survey and assess the scene, his habit whenever he set foot in a new environment. The Rose Garden was sprinkled with sculptors, glass artists, and a single painter, a slender female figure in a pale blue dress with long red curls cascading down her back. Weren’t all the painters registered for the event supposed to set up on Date Street? It was stated very clearly on the event website. He was surprised to feel an odd mix of irritation and amusement about the rule-breaker's work in a garden intended only for glass and sculpture exhibits. The rebel's fresh canvases hung loosely by clothes pins from the lower branches of a flowering tree, and smaller framed pieces rested against the stone walls of the rose beds. It occurred to Matteo that what she was doing would've attracted the attention of a disapproving official in Germany and provoked a fine but, here in California, everything was more 'chill.'

   A grotesque image of his father’s face, flushed and angry, flashed through his mind; the sour-smelling spit flying from his father’s mouth disgusted him even now. “Weiter fahren” his father was shouting and Matteo, barely seventeen in the driver’s seat of a van that reeked of beer and sweat, lifted his foot off the brake and stepped on the gas, hard, like his life depended on it; he ‘kept driving,’ just as his father had ordered. The images faded fast, like a fever that had spiked and broken. Now, Matteo was back in the rose garden, his sandaled feet planted in the cool grass and his hands clutching the camera. He had followed his father’s rules for too long. No more. He released the tension in his hands, took a deep breath, and focused again on the painter.   

   The young woman sat on a white stool among the purple blossoms that had fallen on the grass underneath the tree. Her back was turned to him, and she was working on a canvas set up on an easel. Moved by the scene of painter and art nestled in nature, he paused to set up a panoramic shot. Matteo zoomed in on the placard closer to her stool, Contestant Number 84, Clare Thomas Lane, Painter. He smoothed his hair over the scarred half of his face and then started to walk toward her.

   She must have sensed him approaching. Without turning around to see who it was, she uttered a sharp “Quiet” and gave a dismissive wave of her hand in his direction. The heavenly scene he'd captured from a distance was lost. Her rudeness caused heat to rise in his spine. At least he knew her behaviour had nothing to do with the scar on his face or the remnants of his German accent. Matteo wanted to walk away, but his feet felt anchored to the ground. He was mesmerized by the soft movement of her shimmering hair in the afternoon breeze and how her slender hand painted delicate strokes of blues, greens, and gold onto the canvas in front of her. His legs felt like rubber. Liebeszauber, an old German term, came to him. He hadn't heard mention of a love spell since he was a boy in grade six, when his mother had consoled him after his first crush on a girl ended badly.

   Matteo stood behind Clare and, as the minutes passed, he felt the weight of his camera around his neck. He wanted to give up on waiting for her but couldn't, despite the harsh voice in his head. You are so spineless. Matteo negotiated with himself: he'd count to ten, as slowly as possible, then leave, but he only got to four when she spoke again.

   "It's okay. You can talk now," Clare said, her back still turned to him.

   Matteo’s shoulders tensed. Her arrogance ignited sparks of anger, and he shook his head in disbelief. Maybe he should rethink the idea of opening himself up to new people. Just as he was about to leave and preserve what was left of his self-respect, she spun around and disarmed him with a smile that revealed deep dimples and the playful sparkle of her grey-green eyes.

   "Sorry, I just had to let the last touches of my painting flow from this wild dream I had last night," she said. The way her expressive eyes opened wide while she emphasized the word ‘wild,’ made him dizzy and unstable on his feet. "When I'm in that space if there's any interruption, I'm completely screwed." 

   Matteo didn't know where to look. Her sparkling eyes were as fascinating to him as her intriguing dream-to-canvas method. Maybe her rudeness was just an intense passion for her art. Her candour thrilled him; there was something trustworthy about a person who spoke so frankly. The arrogance he'd sensed from her had disappeared, and all he saw now was a beautiful and interesting woman. He knew he was in serious trouble; he'd meant to leave the door to human connection cautiously ajar, not blown off its hinges.

   "So, who are you anyway?" she continued. That hint of a smile. Maybe he wasn’t alone in his attraction.

   "The event photographer, Matteo," he stammered. "Can I take a photo of you and your new painting for the website?" In this case, the photos weren't just for the website, but it was close enough to the truth. Ever since he’d been a little boy with his first camera, Matteo had longed to take photos of moments before they disappeared. Now he felt the familiar urgency to lock in his experience, but Clare was ready to talk, and she seemed in no hurry to let him do his job.

   "Are you from somewhere in Europe?" she asked. Caught again. He'd tried so hard to lose that tell-tale accent, but it was still detectable despite hours spent with the accent reduction tutor.

   "Germany," he admitted. Matteo watched closely for Clare's reaction. Americans didn't particularly like Germans--too uptight, too much bad history.

   "Cool. Germany's on my bucket list. I want to paint the meadows along the Rhine River, you know, the one with all those old castles on hilltops."

   Matteo smiled at this depiction of Clare's imagined Germany. It was nothing like the dirty streets of the poorest neighbourhood in Berlin where he’d grown up, side-stepping needles, and avoiding Neo-Nazis when walking to school.

   “But no,” Clare continued. “This painting isn’t ready to be photographed.”

   She turned away from him, her hands on her hips, and looked up at the canvases hanging from the tree branches. He stood behind her in silence, a servant in waiting. She shook her head, first slowly, then vigorously, and spun around to face him. 

   “I can’t decide which one. Too much pressure,” she said. Was she annoyed with him?

   “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “The Rose Garden’s my last stop. I’ll finish up my photos with the other artists. Then I’ll circle back to you. Give you some time.”

   Clare looked at him intently. Her face softened. “Okay,” she said.

   He’d walked several meters away from her when he heard her calling.

   “Thanks, Matteo.”

   He looked over his shoulder to see her standing where he’d left her, her hand shielding her eyes, the radiant smile back on her face. He lifted his hand in her direction and kept walking toward the glass artist in the far corner of the garden.

   Matteo had just finished his photo shoot with the sculptors when he heard Clare’s voice.

   “I’m ready now,” she called. He waved to her and made his way across the lawn to where she sat cross-legged on the grass.  Clusters of tiny pink and yellow roses in the bushes behind her formed a backdrop. The pale blue fabric of her sundress was arranged loosely on her lap, bony knees stuck out from underneath the uneven hem, and a floppy white sunhat was slanted to one side atop the long red curls that spilled over her shoulders. Beside her on the grass, a framed painting leaned against the tripod of her easel. One of her arms was dramatically outstretched as she pointed to the chosen work of art. As he walked toward the painting, he made out the figure of a little girl in a yellow sundress running on the beach, an aquamarine ocean in the background.

   “It’s called Free Spirit,” she said as she shook out her arm and rubbed it with her hand. “Hurry,” she said. “My arm’s getting tired.”

   She repositioned her arm, and Matteo took photos from several angles, including one he captured by lying on his side in the grass and looking up at her face. She laughed at him lying on the ground at her feet like an adoring puppy. Not a cruel laugh.

   ‘Perfect,” he said, as he finally returned the camera to its battered case and sat down in the grass beside her.

   “You made me pose for a long time. I’m hungry,” she said, mischievously.

   “Let’s get something to eat, then,” he said, feeling heat in his cheeks while he waited for her answer.

   “Okay,” she said. “Let me get my stuff together and we’ll drop it off at my studio. It’s not too far from here.”


   It was late in the afternoon by the time Matteo and Clare made their way out of the Rose Garden and down a nearby street. Cafés with brightly coloured sun umbrellas lined the sidewalks and were starting to fill for happy hour. Clare walked in front of him, her shiny curls twisted into a messy knot on the top of her head; a few soft wisps moved around her elegant neck with the breeze of her movement. On the nape of her neck, he made out a tattoo of a bird in flight, inked in dark blues and purples. In one hand she carried a well-worn portfolio bag that grazed her ankle from time to time as she moved past people on the busy sidewalk. Her bulky crimson purse sat on her hip secured by a crossbody strap. Matteo lumbered behind her, overstuffed portfolio bags in each hand, and a long drawing tube tucked under his arm. The leather strap of his camera felt sticky on the back of his neck, and he longed for one of the icy drinks set out on patio tables. He wondered who’d helped her carry the load to the Rose Gardens: an impossibly handsome man, perhaps a well-known American artist with a long braid down his back, who was only too happy to be of service to beautiful Clare. He wanted to ask if she had a boyfriend but it was too soon. Besides, if the answer was yes, he really didn’t want to know. For the moment, his new marching orders were clear: Eyes forward, focus on Clare.

   Clare finally stopped in front of a pueblo-style building with an arched doorway and tall domed windows. The door was painted dark green and the gold embossed writing on its glass center read San Diego Art Collective.

   “We made it,” she said, putting down her small portfolio bag, not even a trace of sweat on her face.

   “This is a really interesting building,” he said, reaching for his camera. “Can you stand in front of the door? It’ll be perfect for the events page.”

   “Just one,” she said, rolling her eyes.

   After he had taken a few shots, Clare unlocked the door and pointed Matteo to the far corner of the large studio.

   “That’s my little corner over there,” she said.

   He stepped ahead of her to cross the room, relieved to set down the heavy portfolio bags and lean them against the wall below a large window looking out into a courtyard. He saw a small fountain at the center of the patio where water cascaded from the mouth of a fish held in the arms of a green-patinaed mermaid. He set down the paper tube on the shelf of a tall easel; there was a photo of a little girl in a yellow sundress tacked to its mast.

   “Free Spirit?” he asked, pointing to the photo.

   Her eyes averted, she nodded. Was she blushing or was it just the heat of the day? He wondered about the little girl on the photo who’d made it on to the canvas. Who was she to Clare?

   “Enough art for one day. Let’s go eat,” she said. 

   As they walked out of the studio, Matteo noticed a chiseled man with dark shoulder-length hair, a tight-fitting tank, and tattoo sleeves on both arms crouched beside his backpack. He looked up at Clare and gave her an upward nod. Matteo felt an urge to take her hand or put his arm around her but knew he shouldn’t. He felt relief when she closed the studio door behind them, and it was just the two of them standing on the sidewalk.

   “I know where we should go,” she said, her face lighting up with a full-faced smile.

   “Is it far?” he asked. “I mean, should I call us a cab?”

   “We can walk,” Clare said. “Can you see the Little Italy sign way at the end of India Street? That’s where we’re going.”

   She pointed in the direction of a blue sign with white lettering overhanging the street. He’d seen the sign many times; he’d walked under it at night when it was brightly lit and cast colourful light onto nearby sidewalks. He had been relieved to spot it during the day as a landmark when he was lost in his early days in San Diego. Against the purple- and orange-streaked skies of sunset, not legible from far away, the sign looked different to him; it glowed like a sapphire embedded with tiny diamonds. They stood side-by-side in silence for a moment, both looking into the distance, and he wondered if she too felt the sense of promise that was welling up inside of him. He felt her softly slip her warm hand through the crook of his bare arm. He pulled his hand out of his pocket and lifted his lower arm to make a dependable spot for her to rest her hand. She squeezed his arm. He looked at her, grinning, and she smiled right back at him.

   “This feels so European to me. Arm in arm, strolling down the boulevard,” she said. “Do you feel at home?”

   He nodded. He’d not had this feeling of being at home for many years. She didn’t let go of his arm until they were standing in front of her favourite restaurant in Little Italy. There was a large hand-painted sign in the window, dark green lettering on white, with the first and last letter of Petrini’s accentuated with playful loops of greenery and purple grapes.

   They sat at a table in the window with pots of red flowers lining the ledge. He would have preferred a less exposed table near the back of restaurant, but Clare insisted this was the best place for people-watching. They were soon sharing a Napolitano pizza and Sangiovesi wine, and he didn’t have to lie when he said this was the best pizza he’d had in the city. Clare seemed pleased with the success of her day, less about the art show and the one print she'd sold than about the 'perfect space' she'd created in the Rose Garden to finish her new painting. Matteo asked an occasional question, but mostly, he was content to listen as she jumped from one topic to the next, a butterfly landing here and there without hurry or a plan. He studied her face and mannerisms. His fingers itched to take photos. If only he could take her portrait now, catch the many angles and moments until he did her justice. He'd call that study Clare, Happy. Her smile was in constant motion until it finally settled into a contented grin set off by those deep dimples. He noticed her defined arms and slender hands, always on the move to make a point. Her cheeks turned from pale pink to crimson with the second glass of red wine. Matteo felt his life was changing, finally for the better. He didn't want to blow it and began to imagine how he'd court her; unhurriedly and respectfully, treating her like a queen. Pack a perfect picnic for the beach? Take her to an outdoor concert once he knew her taste in music? Matteo would kiss her, but not until the perfect time.

   "Hey, Germany!" she said, interrupting his thoughts. "Are you still with me?"

   "Yes. Sorry," Matteo said, feeling the heat rise to his cheeks, "I was just thinking about some stuff we could do together, I mean, if you'd like to hang out," he said. How lame did that sound? He was so out of practice. He hadn't been with a woman since he left Berlin.

   Clare reached over the table for his hand, a mischievous glint in her eyes. Her red curls seemed to spiral towards him as her face moved closer to his. Her dimples wreaked havoc with his heartbeat and unplugged his ability to form a logical thought.

   "Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s all cool. But right now, I want to take you home, Germany. Are you up for that?" she said. Second study: Clare, Bring-me-to-my-knees sexy.

    "I'm up for it," he heard himself stammer. He kicked himself for saying something she might find too forward. Then again, after what she'd said, that was unlikely.

   Again, Matteo felt his face warming. Clare raised her eyebrows, looking pleased with herself. Fumbling with his wallet, Matteo paid their bill. Clare cocked her head towards the door and took his hand. Her hand felt warm and supple; he knew he'd go anywhere with her—Study 3: Matteo, Smitten.


   Hours later, they lay on their sides on the messy sheets, face-to-face, blissed out and studying each other. Moonlight filtered through the slats of her Venetian blinds and danced on their naked bodies. Suddenly, her expression grew serious. She touched his face.

   "So, what's this?" she asked matter-of-factly, her finger lightly tracing the outlines of his scar.

   Every muscle in Matteo's body tensed. An image of glass shattering in slow motion, sharp-edged pieces flying toward him, burst through his head. He was sweating and couldn't speak. It was the first time since meeting Clare that he saw her face melting into compassion. Her forehead wrinkled, her mouth downturned, her eyes fluid and concerned. She drew back her index finger and caressed his cheek with the back of her hand.

   "It's okay," she said, "You don't have to talk about it.”

   Matteo wanted to tell her the truth, but he couldn't. Instead, he told her the official story.

   "I was in a car accident when I was nineteen. I was hurt pretty badly," he said, a lump forming in his throat, "But … but my mother died."

   That part was true. Angelika had died a terrible death. He felt a tear escape and land on the pillow.

   "I'm sorry, Matteo," Clare said.

   “And you, do you have any scars?” Matteo asked.

   “Not like yours,” she said, "But yes. I lost my mother when I was a little girl. I still miss her every single day."

   Clare's eyes welled up, and Matteo reached for her hand.

   "And your father?" he asked.

   "Dead to me," she said, a flash of ice in her eyes.

   My father's dead to me, too, he thought. He couldn't have said it better himself. Instead, he heard himself say something different.

   "My father died in the car accident, too." Another lie. "He wasn't a good person like my mother." He felt better about covering up the truth by adding his genuine hatred of his father to the story.

   “And you?” Matteo asked, “What happened with your father?” 

   “Well, Momma died when I was, like, four, and my father wanted nothing to do with me. He put me up for adoption. I did try to find him once but it turned out he didn’t want to be found," Clare's face hardened.

   "I can't believe he abandoned you," Matteo said softly. It was his turn to stroke her cheek with the back of his hand. "I'm sorry that happened to you."

   "Thanks. I saw this shrink who helped me figure stuff out," Clare said with a heavy sigh. "I was so angry about everything. I realize now I was pretty lucky to be adopted by good people. I’m sorry I was so hard on them but I appreciate them now. Who knows, maybe you'll meet them one day."

   "I'd like that," he said. He wanted to know every aspect of her life, but she wouldn’t want him if she knew his whole story. He felt sick just thinking about it, but her smile eased his mind. The difficult moment had passed.

   Clare grinned back at him.

   "Wow," she said, "We've done a big reveal here on our first night together. I don't usually do that."

   "Me neither," he said. I never do and still haven't. But at least I’m inching forward.

   "Okay, enough talking. Are you up for some more action," Clare said, winking, and he was. He never wanted to stop.

   After Clare fell asleep, Matteo held her hand in his. He studied her face in the moonlight, her pale cream skin with its light freckles and a splatter of turquoise paint near her temple. Her eyebrows furrowed from time to time, an animated audience to whatever dreams were passing through her mind's eye. Eyelids heavy, his last thought before sleeping was that this was the first time since arriving in America he wouldn't sleep alone. For the third time that day, his mouth lifted into a smile.


   He was dreaming about Clare in a garden of roses when he was jolted awake.

   "Matteo, wake up!"

   He forced his eyes open, instantly in combat mode, to see Clare sitting up in bed. The moonlight was still pouring in through the veranda doors behind her. They couldn't have been asleep for long. What was wrong? Had she changed her mind about him? Did she want him to leave? His throat tightened, his shoulders ached, and he clutched his stomach.

   "So, the thing is…" Clare said. She gathered her hair and twisted it behind her neck, her face serious, her eyes looking straight into his.

   "Yes?" Matteo’s mouth was dry, and he felt sick and brittle with tension. How could I be in this deep? This wasn’t going to end well.

   "So, the thing is that I like you. I really like you," Clare said, her eyes welling up as she reached her hand toward him. He took her clammy hand in his without hesitation.

   "I really like you, too, Clare," he said. Understatement. His fear subsided and a glimmer of hope rose up instead.

   "There's something I have to tell you. I just want to be honest. Hopefully, it isn’t a dealbreaker." Clare said. Matteo was back to not being able to breathe. He prayed she wasn't involved in anything illegal or had a violent ex-boyfriend who'd want to kill him. Still, he was pretty sure he'd stay with her, no matter what it was.

   "I have a daughter. She's five," Clare said. Matteo looked around the room. No signs of a child.

   "No, no. She doesn't live with me. I got pregnant when I was twenty-two. I was still pretty messed up then, to be honest.  Definitely not ready to be a mother. But I also didn't want to end it; I mean, end her. She's got a great adoptive mom.”

   “Do you miss her?” he asked, hoping that wasn’t too personal, too upsetting.

   “It's an open adoption. I get to see her and her mom," Clare said, looking more and more worried.

   "What's your little girl's name?" Matteo asked.

   "Chloé," she said. "Her mom's name is Avery. I love them both." Tears were streaming down Clare's face now. He'd never felt such a strong desire to care for a person. A beautiful little girl who looked like Clare and was being mothered by a good woman? Clare’s smart decision to not take on a child when she wasn’t ready? This was a bond between them, not a dealbreaker. Clare slumped into his chest, and he enveloped her in his arms, arms that suddenly felt strong and full of purpose.

   "Not a dealbreaker at all. I'd like to meet Chloé and Avery," he said, caressing her naked back and running his fingers through the tangled spirals of her hair. "I mean one day, when it’s the right time for everybody," he added.

   Clare nodded. He lay down on his back, taking her with him in his arms. She rested her head on his chest, her body limp against his. His last thought before falling asleep was that maybe there was some hope of a good life after all.


   In their first weeks together Matteo was amazed by how easily, how naturally, it all flowed between them. Sometimes, in the middle of the night when he lay awake and Clare was sleeping, he wondered whether what was happening was too good to be true. Maybe he was missing something. Maybe Clare would realize how damaged he was. In the morning he’d wipe those thoughts out of his head. They mostly slept at Clare’s apartment; she said she felt more comfortable in her own neighbourhood, close to the art collective. Matteo had no objections since his apartment held the dark energy of loneliness and the worst of the nightmares and panic attacks.


   It was Matteo’s fifth autumn in San Diego; his first with Clare in his life. As he walked down a familiar street lined with golden-leafed sycamores and oak trees glowing in oranges and reds, it dawned on him that he was no longer a newcomer and no longer alone. Clare had texted him to meet at Waterfront Park, and he quickened his step to be on time. She said she had a surprise for him and to come hungry. When he turned the corner, he saw her standing by the fountain, her arms wrapped around a large paper grocery bag. She smiled widely when she saw him, shuffled the bag to sit on her hip, and released one arm to wave.

   “Surprise, surprise! I have German munchies for us,” she called out to him, just as he saw the precariously perched bag sliding off of her hip and tearing open on the pavement. He heard glass breaking and saw a mess of items spilling out. By the time he reached her, Clare was crouched down on the pavement, trying to pick up what she could. He bent down to help her but she waved him off.

   “Don’t! This is my mess to clean up,” she said sharply. Startled, he took a step back and watched her gather up a wheel of Limburger cheese, a loaf of rye wrapped in wax paper, and sausages that had broken out of their packaging. He could smell beer from a broken Pilsner bottle. Then he caught a whiff of pickle juice and saw a large shard of a jar with Essig Gurken and a small German flag on its label. Clare was getting more and more frustrated, swearing under her breath, and when she cut her hand on a shard of glass, she limply threw the wheel of cheese at him. Now on her knees, she looked up at him, tears streaming down her cheeks, lifting the palm of her bloodied hand toward him.

   “I’m such a clumsy idiot! Do you even love me?” she asked, her expression that of a forlorn child.

   “Oh my God. I love you so much, Clare,” he said, reaching out his hands to help her up. He felt his eyes filling with tears.

   She took his hands and stood up.

   “Then why didn’t you tell me?” she asked, shaking her head, then wiping her sleeve across her face.

   “Clare, I’ve loved you since the first day. I … I just didn’t want to rush you, so I was waiting for the right moment to tell you,” he said.

   “There’s no waiting for us, Matteo. The time is now,” she said, gazing into his eyes.

   “And you? You love me?”

   “I do. I love you, Matteo. It’s scary how much I love you,” she said. He nodded, cupped her face in his hands, and they kissed.

   It was only when they released each other that they noticed the scene had attracted a small group of tourists in sun hats. Their guide stood behind them, carrying a tall sign saying Follow me in several languages. The last thing they heard when they walked away hand in hand was someone calling “Best kiss ever,” and some applause.


   Soon after the fountain incident, Clare invited Matteo to meet Chloé and Clare. They rented a car and drove to La Jolla, on the outskirts of San Diego, to meet up at a beach close to where Avery and Chloé lived. Matteo hung back to give himself and the little girl time to acclimatize. From where he sat on a driftwood log, he caught his first glimpses of Chloé. She was wearing a pale green bathing suit with a ruffle and a white sunhat with a visor; her wild red curls were gathered in a loose ponytail near the middle of her tanned back. In her hand, Chloé held a red bucket with a silver handle that gleamed in the sun. She walked a few feet ahead of Avery and crouched down from time to time to put something she’d found into her bucket. When Avery saw Clare approaching, she waved excitedly.

   “Look who’s coming down the beach to see us, love bug!” Avery called, pointing in Clare’s direction.

   Chloé dropped her bucket and ran to Clare, losing her sunhat along the way. Clare kneeled down to hug Chloé and after a quick embrace the little girl took Clare’s hand and pulled her along to where Avery was gathering up the things that had spilled out of the bucket. Chloé and Clare started to build a sandcastle together, and Avery gently put the sunhat back on her daughter’s head.

   After a few minutes, Avery walked over to where Matteo was sitting. She was a slender woman with shoulder-length auburn hair, greying at the temples. He was taken by the welcoming expression on her face and the warmth that seemed to exude from every pore in her body.

   “Hi, Matteo,” she said, extending her sun-freckled hand toward him.

   “Hello, Avery,” he said, standing up to take her hand, slightly nervous, like he was meeting Clare’s parent. 

   “I hear you’re making our Clare very happy,” she said.

   “I’m trying,” he said. “I feel lucky to have her in my life.”

   “You are. Let’s go join them,” Avery said.

   By the time Matteo and Avery arrived at the site of the sandcastle, Chloé was starting to rub her eyes, fretful, and not very interested in meeting a stranger.

   “I’m tired, Momma,” Chloé said, a pout forming on her lips. 

   Poor kid. Bio-mom’s boyfriend was too much to take in right now. Matteo took a few steps back, put down his backpack, and pulled out a beach towel. He lowered himself onto the towel and pulled his cap lower down on his face.

   “I’m tired, too, Chloé,” he said. “I don’t feel like playing either.” He started to snore, long exaggerated snores with a good amount of whistle, much like his grandfather did to entertain him when he was a little boy.

   From the corner of his eye, he could see Chloé watching him. She took a few steps toward him and soon burst into giggles.

   “Momma, that man is very loud,” she said, as Avery nodded and rolled her eyes.

   “Yes, he’s my friend but he does have the most terrible snore,” Clare said, playing along.

   Chloé got up, grabbed her towel, laid it out near Matteo and copied his snoring sounds. Once in a while, Matteo turned his head to look over at Chloé, opened one eye, and said “Excuse me, young lady. I’m trying to sleep, and you are snoring very, very loudly!” This caused a burst of laughter and even louder snoring from a little girl who suddenly seemed wide awake.

   From the knowing glances exchanged between the two women, Matteo felt he had passed some kind of a test. Once back in the car, Clare turned to him.

   “You were great with her,” she said.

   “She’s a good kid. It was fun,” he said. It was true. The sadness that pooled in his stomach caught him off guard. Those innocent summer holidays staying with his grandparents when he was a boy seemed so far in the past, spoiled by what came after.

   “That’s good to hear,” she said, looking him in the eyes. Her eyebrows lifted and a smile was blooming on her face. What was happening here? he wondered.

   “Are … are you trying to tell me something?” he asked. Suddenly, it felt hard to swallow and his palms were sweating. 

   “I’m pretty sure I’m pregnant,” she said. Sparks of both joy and fear erupted in him like fireworks. But there was something else he’d never felt towards her before: anger. He’d asked her about birth control the first time they’d had sex, and she’d told him she had it covered. No need for him to worry. So he hadn’t.

   “I know, I know,” she said, watching his eyes. “We didn’t talk about trying for a baby. It just kind of happened. Are … are you happy about it?”

   His immense love for her and the pressure he felt to say the right thing overwhelmed him. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes.

   “Matteo, you’re crying?” she said.

   “I am,” he said. “I’m so happy I don’t know what to say. I can’t believe it.” The anger fizzled into nothingness, or maybe it had gone into hiding.

   “We’re going to be a great family, Matteo,” Clare said. She leaned over toward him and kissed him slowly, then tenderly ran the back of her hand over his cheek. “You’re going to be the best dad.”

   They drove home in a silence that wasn’t entirely comfortable. Matteo’s only way of dealing with discomfort he couldn’t tolerate was to override his misgivings. He told himself he was the luckiest man on earth. He’d ditched the old life of hardship and squalor and found the kind of love and family he’d not thought possible. He reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze. She brought his hand to her mouth and kissed it before she let him place it back on the steering wheel.


   Two weeks later, Matteo found himself sitting among women at varying stages of pregnancy in the waiting room of Clare’s obstetrician. After checking in with the receptionist, who remembered her from her pregnancy with Chloé, a nurse handed Clare a plastic vial and ushered her into the back of the clinic. The longer he waited, the more nervous he felt; however, when he checked his watch, he realized that only fifteen minutes had passed. Finally, the nurse reappeared and stood beside the receptionist’s desk and looked into the waiting room.

   “Matteo Bosch?” she called. He was the only man there.

   “Yes, that’s me,” he said, as he stood up and wiped his palms on the legs of his jeans.

   “Please, come with me,” she said, looking him over. “The doctor and Clare are ready for you now.”

   When the nurse opened the door to Clinic Room 1, he saw Clare lying on her back on the examination bed, her lower body discreetly covered by a light pink sheet, her ivory-skinned belly exposed, and her arms crossed comfortably underneath her head. The doctor, an older man with silver-rimmed glasses and a kind face, was standing over her, gently pressing a stethoscope against different spots on her belly. When Clare turned her head toward him and smiled, he grinned back at her and, almost instantly, the tension started to drain out of his body.

   “Matteo, I’m Dr. Goldberg,” the doctor said, in a South African accent that somehow felt calming. “I was just telling Clare that everything is looking healthy today. It’s always reassuring to come to the end of the first trimester.”

   “So, we’re at three months?” Matteo stammered. They must have conceived pretty well the first night they had sex. Had she known she was ovulating? He pushed the thought out of his head.

   “Yes,” Dr. Goldberg continued. He smiled at Clare and then back at Matteo. “Right now, we’re looking at March as a rough due date. We’ll be able to be more exact when you come back for your first ultrasound next month.”

   Dr. Goldberg checked his watch. “Matteo, please come closer. Would you like to hear a heartbeat? Clare’s just heard it.”

   Matteo nodded and stepped forward, a rush of excitement overcoming him. The doctor handed Matteo a second stethoscope and placed the chest piece in the right spot. Matteo’s eyes filled with tears as he heard the whoosh of a heartbeat. Clare reached for his hand.

   “It’s lovely, isn’t it?” Dr. Goldberg, said. “Now give me just one minute, and I will relocate the second heartbeat, and you can listen again.”

   Matteo felt unsteady on his feet and held Clare’s hand more tightly.

   “We’re having twins, Matteo. Can you believe it?”

   He had no words. He felt like he was standing outside of his body watching the scene unfold. When he heard the second heartbeat, another part of him rose up and he told himself he was going to be a really good father, nothing like what he experienced growing up. 


   As the news of the twins settled in, neither of their apartments felt like the right place to be. They spent most of their time at Clare’s apartment, and Matteo gave notice on his flat. Clare agreed they should find another place to live with the twins coming, and they started to talk about going somewhere else to start their life together.

   “Let’s get out of San Diego,” Clare said, one evening as they sat on her balcony with a cup of tea. Their habits were changing already. Before the pregnancy was known they’d have wine or beer and go out more often.

   “Where are you thinking?” Matteo asked, nodding his head.

   “I don’t know,” she said. “I want to be close enough so we can visit with Chloé and Avery, but I just want us to be able to discover a new place together. Wouldn’t that be an adventure, Germany?” Clare always used his nickname when she was excited or teasing him about something.

   “You know,” Matteo spoke carefully. He’d been looking up places they could live together for weeks but he knew Clare had to feel it was mostly her idea. “I read about this place called Sausalito, near San Francisco. Have you heard of it?”

   “Yes, I do know about it,” she said. She raised her eyebrows, looking at him wide-eyed. “I totally forgot about Sausalito. I’ve only been there once but I loved it. It’s crawling with artist-types.”

   “Oh, wow, I like the idea of an artist community.” He’d already looked up live-work studios in Sausalito with enough room for the babies. ‘The babies.’ He still couldn’t even think it without shaking his head in disbelief.

   “Yes, me too,” Clare said, her voice filled with excitement. “It’s just a short flight away, or we can drive back and stay with Avery and Chloé for a few nights.”

   “And they could come out and see us, too,” Matteo added. He had grown to care about Chloé and Avery but he loved the idea of a bit of space from Clare’s past life. And his.


   They moved from San Diego to Sausalito in November. Avery was supportive of their decision. She said she understood the young couple’s need to strike out on their own; they were welcome to visit her and Chloé anytime. There was always Facetime and Chloé could make cards and keep in touch that way. Matteo wondered if Avery, too, would welcome the distance to just be with her daughter for a while.

   By early December their lives had fallen into a comfortable routine in Sausalito. They’d found coffee shops and places to buy what they needed and only occasionally made the drive into San Francisco. Matteo found a job teaching photography at the local community college, and Clare was starting to sell a few commissioned paintings. For the first time, Clare told Matteo that she had ‘this trust fund thing’ that provided a monthly amount until she turned thirty-five. She called her allowance “bio-dad’s guilt money,” and she felt it was the least he could do. Matteo, who’d worked hard to pay his own way through university, felt irritated when she told him but then dismissed the feeling and focused instead on how her sense of entitlement, that flared up from time to time, was understandable given how hurt she’d felt as a child. Anything that made her life a little better, that eased their life together, had to be a good thing.

   Close to Christmas, their first together, Matteo was sitting on the loveseat in the corner of their live-work studio watching her paint. Her brow was furrowed in concentration, smudged with absent-minded paint splatters, her curls touching the top of her pregnant belly. She didn't have to ask him for silence. He knew her body language, knew when to sit quietly, and accepted their shared stillness.

   Filtered through the delicate flutter of willow leaves outside the tall window, the morning sun cast flickers of light into the studio. Clare, bent in concentration over her tilted easel, was working on a painting for the baby’s room. Matteo would say ‘twin boys’ or ‘double the trouble’ to himself several times a day, sometimes even Zwillingsbrüder, as if his native tongue might better break through his disbelief and take him a step closer to his new reality. He smiled every time he said this, but then the breathlessness overtook him. It had all happened at breakneck speed. He’d leapt from his prison of fear and isolation, falling in love with a woman he’d only known for a few months, to an instant family with not one baby but two coming soon. He was happy and had faith in his new life, but he also felt overwhelmed, even pressured, to provide for his fast-growing family.

   And then, there was the matter of his past, the sharp-edged parts now nearly forgotten in the daytime but still cutting him awake in the middle of the night. When they first met, he'd intended to tell Clare the real story, put on the table what could be a dealbreaker just as she had, but his fear and dread outran the reach of his courage, and paralyzed him each time he planned to tell her. Finally it felt too late and too risky.    

   As her belly strained at her waistband, Clare had become consumed with painting meadows along a coastline that was wilder with ocean spray than the calm beaches he’d come to love when first moving to San Diego. Clare had told him the coastline and meadows were dreamscapes, and that they were coming to her even more intensely now that she was pregnant. She would paint in their two little boys once she’d nailed down the perfect backdrop. Running along the beach, always running. This is how she saw it, and now he could see it, too.

   The doorbell didn't often ring, and the sound startled Matteo. Clare was deep into her world and showed no reaction at all.

   He opened the door to a Fed Ex guy who waved and pointed to the envelope he'd left on the doorstep. Proofs for their upcoming art show, no doubt. She was the painter and his photographic muse, and this was their first project created together. He waited until Clare turned her head and smiled at him.

   “What’s up, Germany?” she asked. “Was there someone at our door or something?”

   He kissed Clare's cheek as he handed her the envelope.

   "Oh, I can't wait to see how it all looks," she said.

   Clare held the paintbrush between her teeth as she pulled open the paper zipper on the envelope. 

   The moment she pried a small white envelope out of the Fed Ex package, Matteo knew these weren't the proofs. She looked puzzled; like him, she expected a much larger envelope inside the zippered Fed Ex wrap. She held the envelope in one hand, pulled it closer to her face, and gasped, the paintbrush falling to the ground, turquoise paint splattering on the white tile floor. Her hands shaking, she ripped open the envelope and pulled out an official document.

   "This … this is from the Adoption Branch of Social Services … you know, the place I wrote to years ago to find my bio-dad. What do they want from me now?” Clare turned her white face to Matteo, tears filling her eyes.

   "Okay, my love. Take a breath, and let's look at what the letter says," Matteo said as he moved across the room to put his arm around her.

   "Maybe it's just some random survey or something,” she said.

   A random survey delivered by Fed Ex? He thought not. But when he thought about the twin boys in her belly, he knew better than to express his thoughts.

   They read the letter together. Clare's biological father had asked the agency to contact her, and she was being asked to respond to his request: say yes or no. Matteo knew Clare’s biological father had refused to meet her when she had reached out to him as a twenty-one-year-old. Now her cheeks blossomed red and she finally looked up at him, her eyes narrowed into anger. But then her eyelids fluttered, and he grabbed her as her body went limp, and she slid off the stool to the floor.