Oh God. I slide down the wall until my butt hits the tile, and drop my head between my knees. I can’t help feeling sorry for myself. I didn’t ask for this life — to be loved second best and to be forced to have a baby. I wanted … I wanted what Olivia had and threw away — someone who adores me even though my insides curl and lash like a poisonous snake. No! I think. I am not the poisonous snake. Olivia is. Everything that I’ve had to do is her fault. I am innocent. I fall asleep that way, sniffling and wiping my nose on my pant leg, assuring myself of my innocence and listening to my daughter breathe. Maybe she’d be better off without me. Maybe I’d be better off without her.
I wake up to a siren. Fire! I jump up, my muscles unraveling in protest. I am disoriented and not sure where I am. It is dark, still night. I place a hand against the wall and sniff for smoke. Not a siren … a baby. I am not really relieved; I might have preferred the fire. I head to the kitchen, knocking things over in my haste to find a bottle and a pack of breast milk. I swear out loud. Sam must have moved things around, because I can’t find anything. Then I see the note taped to the fridge.
No more breast milk.
You need to pump.
Damn. I look at the breast pump, which is sitting on the counter. It will take at least fifteen minutes to pump the amount she needs, and she is screaming so loud I’m afraid someone will hear and come to investigate. I see Child Protective Services showing up on my block, and I cringe. I can’t afford any more run-ins with the law.
Taking the stairs two at a time, I pause at the nursery door, taking a deep breath before pushing it open. I flick on the light and flinch. The sudden change seems to make her angrier too, so I flick it off and put on the small lamp in the corner. I remember picking the lamp out at The Pottery Barn. A brown bear … for my son. I head to the crib for my daughter. She is soaking wet. Her diaper has leaked through her clothes and onto her sheet. I set her on the changing table and pull off her onesie. Once it’s off and I’ve re-diapered her she seems to calm down, but she’s still wailing.
“Shush,” I say. “You sound like a cat.” I move to the five thousand dollar rocking chair my mother bought me and sit in it for the first time.
“You’re a real pain in the ass, you know that?” I glare at her as I lift my t-shirt. I look away when she latches on. It takes all of my willpower not to yank her off. The next thirty minutes are pure torture. I am a human bottle. My legs are crossed, and I bounce my foot to keep my sanity. My eyes are closed and pressed against my fingertips. I hate this. She falls asleep still sucking. I lift her to my shoulder to burp her, but she beats me to it and burps in my face. I laugh a little because it’s so disgusting and carry her to her crib.
Standing back, I feel a small sense of accomplishment. I can take care of a baby.
“Let’s see you do that, Olivia.”
The constant cycle of feeding continues until the sun cracks through the palm trees like an overzealous, f**king spotlight. I hide my head under my arms as it shines through the flimsy nursery curtains, cutting a line straight for my eyes. I’d moved myself into her room a few hours earlier, curling up on the twin bed in the corner. There had been no sleep — none. Nothing. I roll onto my back and stare up at the ceiling. I smell like sour milk. I am just about to haul myself to my feet when her caterwauling starts up again.
“Oh God,” I say, crawling towards her crib. “Please, just let me die.”
He was with her. He had to be. I went to his condo, and I called his parents. No one had seen or heard from him in a few days. I left half a dozen voicemails, but he never called back. My life was starting to feel like a runaway train. I was heading toward something bad at a breakneck pace. Caleb was pulling away from me. My fingers, which used to be twined with his, were now gripping air. I needed to grab on to something, take back control. I considered asking my mother for help, but after she’d told me to follow Caleb to that bitch’s apartment, I’d been too ashamed to tell her anything else about the situation.
I called my sister and told her everything.
“Geez, Leah. What are you going to do?” Courtney was in her first year as a teacher. She had taken a job, teaching math to inner city kids at a high school.
“Seriously, you have to find him and talk to him. Who is this girl, anyway? She obviously knows about you and doesn’t care. What a heartless bitch.”
“I don’t know that he’d listen, Courtney. He’s not himself.”
I heard voices in the background.
“I have to go,” she said. “I’m doing after school tutoring. This is the love of your life. You have to fight for him.”
“Okay,” I said. “How?”
She was quiet for a few seconds. “Figure out who this girl is. If she’s just a fling, let it go, he’ll come back to you. If it’s more, you have to put a stop to it. Hear me?”
“I hear you.”
She hung up. I felt rejuvenated. I stopped for a Jamba Juice and drove straight to the apartment complex I’d followed Caleb to a week earlier. His car wasn’t there. I knocked on the door and heard a dog barking. I knocked again, louder. If that damn animal kept making that racket, someone was going to notice. At my feet, there was a Welcome mat and a small potted plant to the left of it. It did little to brighten the dull grey corridor. Looking around, I squatted next to the plant, lifting it off the ground. Nothing.
I stuck my finger in the soil and dug around until ... I came up with a small Ziploc baggie. I dusted away the dirt with my finger and leaned in for a closer look. A key. I snorted. Standing up, I put the key in the lock, and the door swung open. My ankles were immediately under attack. I managed to dodge my way around the ugly creature and close the door to the apartment, locking it outside. I pressed my ear against the door. I could hear it whining on the other side and then the faint click of nails on concrete as it trotted away. Good.
Taking a deep breath, I turned to face the apartment. It was nice. Decent. She’d put work into making it homey. I wandered over to the living room. It smelled so strongly of cinnamon, I wanted to find the source. I followed the smell to one of those plug in wall things and nudged it with the tip of my shoe. What type of woman used those? I had never even thought to buy one.
Fuck it. Enough screwing around.
I started in her bedroom. That’s where women had been hiding their secrets since the beginning of … well, secrets. I pulled out her dresser drawers one by one, running my hands along the back of her clothes. When I reached her underwear drawer, I grimaced. Please, God, do not let Caleb have seen her underwear. She wears lace — black and white and pink. No patterns. I closed the drawer empty-handed and looked at her closet. So far, she’s boring. Caleb doesn’t do boring. Well, the Caleb I used to know didn’t do boring. I shook my head. I had no idea who this new Caleb was. I wanted the old one back.
I clicked on the light in the closet. It was creepily organized. A shoebox rested on a shelf above her clothes. I pulled it down and slid off the lid.
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Staring up at me was a picture of a much younger Caleb. He had his arm around a girl with raven black hair. I recognized her from the day I followed him to her apartment. What did this mean? They knew each other? Had Caleb reached out to her after he got amnesia? Was he trying to connect with his past? I flipped through the pictures. They were more than just friends. My God. I stopped on a picture of them kissing and flung the box away from me.
What was happening? Did he know who she was or —
No, it had to be her. She somehow found out he had lost his memory, and she showed up to mess with his head. Oh my God. Caleb had no idea.
I stopped rocking and scrambled for the box. Inside are handwritten letters in Caleb’s slanted print. My eyes burned as I read through them. His words … to this girl I knew nothing about. Except this wasn’t just any girl. This was Cherry Garcia. I was almost sure of it.
I had to find him, tell him what she was doing. But first things first.
I gathered what I needed into a pile and stuffed it into my pocket. Then I went to look for scissors.
No one comes. By noon I realize that I have destroyed my marriage and it is Sam’s day off. I break out the Scotch. I don’t even like Scotch, but for some reason it makes me feel bonded to Caleb.
The little brat is finally sleeping. I don’t think twice about taking two fingers of Caleb’s best. She’s so high-strung a little single malt would do her good. I catch a glimpse of myself in the hall mirror, as I trudge up the stairs toward the shower. I look like one of those chubby, lank haired mothers who occupy park benches, all the hope drained from their eyes. Is that what I am destined to become? A single mother, wearing ugly jeans and doling out those disgusting goldfish cracker-things at snack time?
No — I square my shoulders. If I am going to do this, I will not go to the damn park. I will go to France, and I will feed her caviar and pâté. I can do better than a stereotype. I can be a Chanel mother.
By the time I climb out of the shower, I feel like a new woman. No wonder Caleb drinks that expensive stuff. I’m practically walking on air. When the baby wakes up, I feed her from the stock of milk I pumped earlier. She already seems fussy, like the bottle is an inconvenience instead of a meal. She screams and thrashes her head around until her skin flushes as red as the troll fluff that’s sprouting on top of her head.
I wiggle it in her mouth, until finally she latches on, grunting with her eyes closed.
“Lost that battle, didn’t you?” I say, resting my head back in the rocker and closing my eyes. “If you think I’m going to be doing that all the time, you’re wrong. Spoiled little redheaded brat.”
I wake up in the rocker. The baby is asleep on my shoulder. I can feel her heat seeping through my clothes, and hear her little breaths in my ear. I lower her in her crib as gently as I can and check my phone.
Nothing from Caleb, but two calls from Sam. I am about to call my good for nothing manny when he sends me a text.
Sam: Stomach flu, need a few days off.
Before I know what I’m doing my phone is spiraling out of my hand and toward my beautiful f**king marble staircase. I close my eyes as I hear it smash into a dozen pieces. My whole life is falling apart.
The baby starts to cry, I start to cry. I smash a few more priceless antiques and pull myself together. I have a gosh-darn baby to take care of. When I march back into her room, my sobbing has subsided to a whimper and I already have my boob out.
Sam finds me in my usual spot on the floor next to her crib. He nudges me in the ribs with his foot, and I shove his leg away.
“Did you stop bathing?”
When I don’t respond, he pulls me to my feet, casting a quick glance into the crib before ushering me out.
“I didn’t kill her,” I sputter, “if that’s what you’re thinking.”
He ignores me, pushing me toward my bedroom.
“Just because you’re a mother doesn’t mean you can’t take care of yourself.”
I shoot him a nasty look. Obviously, he has no idea what it is to take care of a baby. He shoves me into the bathroom and turns on the shower.
“Caleb called to say he won’t be coming home,” he says without looking at me. I slap his hands away. “What else did he say?”
Sam won’t answer me. This is bad. This is really bad. Caleb doesn’t air his dirty laundry. If he’s telling the damn manny something, it must be because he’s made up his mind. I climb into the water and let it roll across my face.
God — why didn’t I think of these nasty consequences before I flung that zobmondo at him? Did I really think I’d be hurting only Caleb? I pretty much screwed myself from here to Mars, and now that poor, little brat isn’t going to have a father.
I shook my head. How could I even think that?
Caleb came back to me. I knew he would. Not because we had something irreplaceable, but because I was true blue. I fought for what I wanted, and I drove his past out of town. She wouldn’t come back. I was fairly certain of this. She was too much of a coward. I knew on some level, when I found those letters and pictures, that she had deep feelings for him. A woman didn’t keep a box of mementos unless the flame was still burning strong. I used that to my advantage. I played on her guilt, and thank God, she responded. If she had fought harder, something told me I would have lost.
He retreated into himself after she left. I had to watch his heart break … silently. It was awful. I was so jealous I could barely breathe. He didn’t tell me what happened between them, and why would he? He was confused. I had no choice but to wait. It ground at me; the fact that he had obviously cared very much for her before the amnesia, so much so that the feelings were all there, even though his memory was not. It would have made for an interesting psychological study had it not been so incredibly f**ked up. He stared off into space a lot after I put an end to their little romance. I could have stood right in front of him during those days, and he wouldn’t have seen me. I wondered what he would say when his memory came back. Would he tell me that she was a girl from his past, or would he pretend it never happened?
And then his memory did come back. It happened suddenly, on a Tuesday in April. I was at work when he called to tell me.
“Oh my God,” I said, standing up. I was having lunch with a colleague in the break room, but I wanted to go to him right away.
“How do you feel?” I asked, cautiously. I stepped into the hall for privacy. Would he mention Olivia? Was he angry?