“Not for a boy, Courtney,” I’d said, snatching the bottle from her fingers. “Seriously, when did you become so weak?”
She’d cried silent tears while staring at me with her bruised eyes. I’d realized then that she was probably always weak. She stood up to our parents when it came to me because they parents favored her. It wasn’t an act of courage to defy your parents when they never so much as raised their voices to you. I’d walked her to her bedroom and tucked her into bed. Then I’d crawled in next to her so I could watch her.
The next day I’d cornered Britney at her locker. She was officially Paul’s girlfriend, and now that she’d severed the bond with my sister, I didn’t have to keep my mouth shut anymore.
"You are a worthless slut, you know that?" I poked her in the collarbone for emphasis.
Paul was waiting for her a few feet away.
Britney glared at me, slapping my hand away.
"Eew! Don't touch me, lesbian," she spat. I ignored her, turning my attention to Paul. I had planned this out. Paul was smiling slightly. I could see the words chick fight forming in his miniature, underdeveloped brain. A few people were gathering around us to see what was happening.
"And you," I said, looking at Paul. "You're gonna need this..." I tossed a condom at him. It bounced off his chest and landed between his Nikes. He looked at me, then at the red square at his feet. "She has herpes, you ass."
The look on his face was worth every lesbian comment Britney had made over the last two years. Before walking away, I glanced at Britney. Her face was ashen. I wasn't supposed to know about the herpes. The walls in my house were thin, and she'd had one too many sleepovers with my sister.
Destroying Britney's reputation like she destroyed mine was just the ax I needed to loosen my shackles. It started with Britney, but soon I was sleeping with everyone's boyfriends. I liked how easily I could make boys follow me around by dangling sex in their faces. I liked the way their girlfriends came to school with puffy red eyes from crying, after they found out their boyfriends cheated on them.
I hadn’t joined ranks with the popular girls like my sister; I’d outranked them. I was flying high, and I didn’t intend to stop.
“We’ve been together a long time, Caleb.”
He doesn’t look up when he says, “Yes.”
Normally, I would get a 'Yes, Red' or a 'Yes, Love' but this time I just get 'Yes.'
It feels lonely, that ‘Yes.’
“Do you remember the time we went to Los Angeles and ate at every celebrity hotspot we could get into?”
He shoots me a look and keeps shuffling mail. Caleb is nostalgic. He likes talking about old memories.
“We didn’t have reservations,” I continue, “but you talked your way into every restaurant we wanted to try.”
He’s quiet as he listens.
“We didn’t see a single celebrity, but I felt like one the entire week … just being with you.”
I take the mail from his hands and set it on the counter, entwining our fingers.
“Caleb, I know I’m a mess. You know I’m a mess. But, you make me better. We have so much history … so much love. Please stop ignoring me.”
His jaw is working.
“I didn’t want to go to those pretentious restaurants, Leah.”
“What?” I shake my head. I thought this was going to work. I don’t even have a backup plan.
“I went because of you. I had a good time because of you, but that’s not who I am.”
“I don’t understand,” I say. His fingers are trying to pry themselves away from mine.
“I’ve been someone different with you. Someone I don’t understand.”
“Well, then be someone new. I don’t care. We will change together.”
Caleb sighs. “I don’t think you’ll like who I am.”
“Try me, Caleb. I’ll work hard to get to know him. Please. We can fix this.”
“I don’t know if we can do that, but we can try.”
I smile tightly and hug him. I feel only the slightest hesitation before he hugs me back. I breathe in the smell of him. We can try. I silently repeat to myself. Words I want, but they have an expiration date. We can try ... until we can't anymore. We can try ... but this already feels doomed.
I will have to think of a way to make this more permanent.
The next few weeks are peaceful. I pull out all of the cookbooks I got as wedding presents and actually start making meals rather than ordering out. If my man wanted a stay at home mom and wife, that’s what he was going to get. I could totally be traditional. I make us eat at the dining room table we've never used. I even wheel the baby’s movable bassinet into the room so she can be with us. He likes my cooking, or he says he does. He eats all of it and seems genuinely happy that I’m trying. I go shopping for girl clothes for the baby and throw out all of the yellow and green. I proudly display them on the bed for Caleb to see. He picks up each one and nods in approval.
“She’s not wearing this,” he says, holding up a little t-shirt that says Date me.
“It’s cute,” I argue, diving for it. He grabs the shirt before I can and holds it above his head so I can’t reach it.
We spend the next five minutes chasing each other around the bedroom for ownership of it. We haven’t played like this in a very long time. It feels good, like it did in the beginning of “us.”
Sam watches our marital transformation with amusement.
One day at breakfast, I ask Caleb where we are planning on vacationing this year.
“Our vacations will have to be kid friendly,” he says, sipping his tea. “Lots of Disney World and Beach resorts, I imagine.”
I balk. He has to be kidding. Sam notices my expression and has to stifle a laugh.
I look at Caleb in alarm. “I burn in the sun,” I blurt.
He smiles crookedly. “What? Did you think we’d be taking on Paris and Tuscany with a little girl?”
“They need things too, Leah. It’s fine if we expose her to the world, but little people need Disney World and sandcastles. Don’t you have those memories from when you were little?”
I don’t. My school took us to Disney my junior year. I got really drunk with a couple of guys the night before and had a hangover the whole next day at the park. I don’t tell Caleb this.
“I guess,” I say noncommittally. This traditional thing was really beginning to suck.
“What if she likes Paris?” I ask hopefully. “Then can we go?”
He stands up, kisses the top of my head. “Yes. Right after we give her a childhood.”
“So while she’s still little, can we go somewhere good? It’s not like she’s going to care about Minnie Mouse just yet.”
“We are probably not going on vacation this year. She’s too little to leave or to take anywhere.” I watch incredulously as he picks up his cell phone. Did he just confiscate my vacation?
“That’s ridiculous,” I announce, licking my spoon clean of oatmeal. “Plenty of people have babies and go on vacation.”
“There are things you have to give up when you have a family, Red. Are you just figuring this out?”
“Let’s give up red meat … music … electricity! Just not vacation.”
Sam drops the armful of laundry he’s holding. I can see his back shaking with laughter as he bends to pick it up.
Caleb is ignoring me, scrolling through his phone.
All the men in my life treat me like I’m a joke.
“I’m going on vacation,” I announce to both of them. Caleb looks up and raises an eyebrow.
“What are you saying, Leah?”
He is goading me. I don’t know why I take the bait.
“I’m saying that with or without you, I’m going.”
I march out of the room so I don’t have to see his expression. Why do I feel like a ten-year-old? No, there is nothing wrong with me. It’s him. He doesn’t want me for who I am. He wants to make me someone else. This is a game Caleb and I have been playing for years. He gives me a standard by which to live, I fail.
He follows me.
“What are you doing?” He grabs me by the arm as I try to walk away.
“You’re trying to control me.”
“The idea of a controlled Leah bores me, I assure you. However, being part of a family means making decisions as a unit.”
“Oh please,” I spit at him, “let’s not pretend anyone but you is making the decisions.”
I pull my arm away. “I’m tired of the dog and pony show I always have to put on for you.”
I am at the stairs when I hear him say, “Well, there you have it.”
I don’t look back.
Upstairs, I pull out the street painting Courtney brought me from her trip to Europe. I keep it wrapped in wax paper in a box. I touch the red umbrella with my fingertip. Courtney said that I was her red umbrella. When she was in turmoil, all she had to do was come stand near me and I’d keep the bad stuff off of her. It wasn’t true. I failed Courtney, I failed my father, and I was in the process of failing Caleb.
I shove it back in the box and swipe at the tears that are coming down my cheeks. I hear Estella cry out as she wakes up from her nap. I gather my emotions, take a deep breath and go to her.
We fought the day of his accident. Can you imagine? Your boyfriend almost dies, and hours before, you tell him that you want to break up. I didn’t mean it. It was a 'shit or get off the pot' statement: a cruel attempt at strong-arming him into marriage. Except, you can’t give Caleb Drake an ultimatum. I could see his face in my mind as the words left my mouth; eyebrows up, his jaw clenching like a fist. The day before he left on his business trip to Scranton, we fought about the same topic. I wanted a goddamn ring. Caleb wanted to make sure mine was the right finger to put it on.
Then the call came. I was at work when Luca’s refined voice came onto the line. Luca and I had a floating relationship; sometimes things were great between us, sometimes I wanted to pour kerosene over her head and strike a match. She was saying words like hospital and memory loss. I didn’t get it until she said, “Leah, are you listening to me? Caleb is in the hospital! He doesn’t know his own name!”
“The hospital?” I repeated. Caleb was supposed to be ring shopping for me.
“An accident, Leah,” she repeated. “We’re flying out in the morning.”
As soon as I hung up with Luca, I started looking for flights. If I left now, I’d be there before midnight. She was flying up with Steve, Caleb’s stepfather, in the morning. I wanted to be there first. I needed to look into his eyes and make him remember me. My father strolled into my office, a stack of papers in his hands. My mouse hovered over the purchase button. He was forever needing me to sign things.
“What are you doing?” He looked at me over the rim of his glasses.
“Caleb’s been in an accident,” I said. “He has a concussion, and he doesn’t know who he is.”
“You can’t leave,” he said matter-of-factly. “We’re in the middle of our trial run. I need you here.”
He dropped the papers on my desk and strode toward the door. I blinked at his back, unclear if he’d heard me.
He paused in the door, his back still to me. This was how most of our relationship was — me talking to his back, or his bent head, or his newspaper.
“Caleb needs me, I’m going.” I clicked purchase on the ticket and stood up to gather my things.
I didn’t look at him as I walked to the door, where he was most definitely frozen in place, glaring at me.
“Johanna — ”
“Don’t call me that. My name is Leah.”
I pushed past him, the force of my body knocking him into the doorframe. I looked braver than I felt — I was good at that. Did I just defy my father — the man whose love I was forever trying to win, earn … deserve? It took every bit of métier I possessed not to turn around and assess his anger. I knew that if I looked at him I would go running back, scrounging for the crumbs of his affection like a dog. He was furious … boiling. Walk, walk, walk — I told myself. Caleb needed me. He was the good that I owned, and I was not going to let him forget me. What did this job matter? What did my father matter? I needed Caleb more than both of them.
I drove home and threw things into an overnight bag. By the time I reached the airport, I was shaking. It was all a blur from there — going through security, finding my gate. When I reached the gate, there were still thirty minutes until the flight could board. I stood as close to the ticketing agent as possible. The marquee above her desk read Scranton, but it might as well have said Caleb. When the first boarding call was announced, I was the first one to hand her my ticket. Collapsing into my seat, I pressed my fingertips to my eyes to hold back the tears. I distracted myself by pulling out my iPhone and Googling amnesia. I was reading through the different types when the flight attendant told me I had to turn off my phone. I hated that. My boyfriend had amnesia, my father was going to disown me as soon as I got home, and the blue eye shadow wearing biotch was worried about my cell phone taking out a plane. I stowed my phone and flicked my nails over the pad of my thumb, one by one — starting with the pinkie and working my way across. I did that for the duration of the flight.
When it was finally time to land, I could barely keep from standing up and rushing to the front of the plane. I thought of all the things that could go wrong. Luca had mentioned on the phone that Caleb’s memory loss was classified as retrograde amnesia — meaning he had lost the ability to recall anything that happened before the accident. How could someone just … forget everything about their life? I didn’t believe it. There was no way he could forget me. We were together every day … he loved me. That was the absolute worst thing about love; no matter how hard you tried, you could never forget the person who had your heart. Until Caleb, I didn’t know what that meant. I was queen of date ‘em and ditch ‘em.