He grinned. He looked me in the eyes when he said, “Not bad.”
I felt the tingle all the way down to my toes. That was the look I was waiting for.
The next morning I woke up in his bed. Stretching, I looked around his room. My muscles were luxuriously sore. I hadn’t been bent that many ways since I was a gymnast in high school.
I heard the shower in the adjoining bathroom, and I rolled over to see if I had a view of him through the open door. I did.
The previous night we made it through three drinks and dinner without a pause in conversation. It was like talking to someone I had known for years. I was so comfortable with him, and I presumed he was with me, because he answered any questions I had without hesitation. When we left the restaurant, there was no doubt whether or not I would go home with him. I hopped into his convertible, and we drove the short fifteen minutes to his high rise. Our trail of clothes started at the front door and ended at the foot of his bed, where we playfully tossed aside the last of what I was wearing. It would be nice to be able to blame the alcohol for my recklessness, but truth be told, we both stopped drinking before we ate. Everything that happened ... happened without the influence of liquor.
When Caleb got out of the shower, I was still leaning on my elbow. I made no pretense about watching him. He ran the towel over his hair, making it stick up. I smiled broadly and patted the bed. Dropping his towel, he climbed in next to me.
“Are you still sad?” I asked, leaning my chin on his chest.
He surrendered a half grin and tweaked my nose.
“I’m feeling a bit more cheerful.”
“Oooh — a bit more cheerful …” I mocked his accent and started to roll out of the bed. He caught me by the ankles and pulled me back.
“A lot more cheerful,” he offered.
“Wanna have one more go and then get lunch?” I asked, tracing my finger across his chest.
“Depends,” he said, grabbing my hand.
I waited for him to continue without asking the customary “on what?”
“I’m not looking for anything serious, Leah. I’m still all messed up in the head from — ”
“The last girl? “ I smirked and leaned up to kiss him. “Whatever,” I said against his mouth. “Do I look like a commitment sort of girl to you?”
“You look like trouble,” he grinned. “When I was growing up, my mother used to tell me to never trust a redhead.”
I frowned. “There are only two reasons she’d say something like that.”
Caleb raised his eyebrows. “And they are?”
“Your father either slept with one, or she is one.”
I buzzed under his crooked smile. It extended all the way to his eyes this time.
“I like you,” he said.
“That’s swell, Boy Scout. Real swell.”
Two days after Caleb left for his business trip, my mother packs her bags and informs me she’s leaving as well.
"You can't be serious," I say, watching as she zips up her suitcase. "You said you wanted to stay and help."
"It's too hot," she says, lightly touching her hair. "You know I hate the summers here."
"We're in air conditioning, Mother! I need your help."
"You'll be fine, Johanna."
I notice the slight tremor in her voice. She’s slipping into one of her depressions. Courtney was the one who knew how to deal with her when she got like this. I always seem to make it worst. But, Courtney isn't here; I am. Which made Mother Dearest my responsibility.
I shrugged. "Fine, let's get you to the airport. Caleb comes back at midnight, anyway."
Let her scuttle home to her Michigan McMansion and pine away, popping pills into her mouth like Tic Tacs.
On the way back from the airport, I crank up the radio and feel like a bird out of her nest for the first time. Estella starts screaming from her car seat five minutes into my bliss. What does that mean? She’s hungry? Carsick? Wet?
I had almost forgotten she was there ... here … on this planet … in my life.
I do some Kegels and think bitterly of Caleb — baby free Caleb, who is basking in the Bahamian sun, drinking snifters of his damn Bruichladdich and eating crab cakes. It isn’t fair. I need a nanny, why can't he see that? Caleb is such a stickler for what is right and wrong. With all of his old fashioned values, I should have known that he would insist on me staying home and raising her myself. He is such a boy scout. Who raises their own children anymore? White trash, that’s who — because they can’t afford the help.
I bite my lip and turn up the volume on the radio to drown out the wailing. Right now she sounds like a tiny, shrill alarm, but what will happen in a few months when her lungs are stronger? How will I tolerate that noise?
I am trying to figure out how to get her to stop crying when something yellow catches my eye. To clarify, yellow is a terrible color. Nothing good comes from a color that represents egg yolks, earwax and mustard. It’s the color equivalent of a disease; festering sores and pimple puss, nicotine stained teeth. Nothing, nothing, nothing should be yellow, which is precisely why I turn my head to look. Immediately, I swerve my car into the far right lane and whip my steering wheel around like I’m on the teacups at Disney World. Choruses of car horns beep as I cut across two lanes of traffic to get to the plaza. I roll my eyes. Hypocrites.
Driving in Florida reminds me of navigating a crowded grocery store — either you’re stuck behind an old fart schlepping along at a mile an hour, or you’re being pushed into a cereal display by a hooligan. I am a good driver, so they can go screw themselves.
I follow the yellow sign into a strip mall and peer into the empty storefronts as my car edges through the parking lot. Crooked vacancy signs hang in most of the windows. The old store names still tacked above the doors are a depressing reminder that a recession is tiptoeing across the nation. I point a gun finger where a nail salon used to be and pull the imaginary trigger. How many little dreams had hit the dust in this crap hole plaza? In the far right corner near a gargantuan dumpster, sits the Sunny Side Up Daycare. I pull my car underneath the grungy egg yolk sign and tap my fingers on the steering wheel. To do, or not to do? Might as well go take a look.
I jump out, head for the door, and remember that there is a baby in the car. Sons of guns and motherfuckers. I retrace my steps, making sure no one has seen my blunder, and creep back to unlatch Estella’s car seat. She is mercifully silent as I haul her through the doors of Sunny Side Up Daycare. The first thing I notice is that anyone can just walk into this crapstablishment and steal a kid. Where are the key card locked doors? I eye the receptionist. She is a frumpy twenty-something wearing blue eye shadow over dull brown eyes. She wants a boyfriend. You can tell by her overzealous use of perfume and cleavage. She has eyeliner on her bottom lid. Everyone knows you don’t put liner on your lower lid.
“Hellooo,” I chirp cheerfully.
She smiles at me and raises her eyebrows.
“I need to speak with your director,” I say loudly, just in case she is as slow as she looks.
“What’s it about?”
Why do people always staff their front desks with half-wits?
“Well, I have a baby,” I snap, “ — and this is a daycare.”
Her nose twitches. It’s her only indication that I’ve royally pissed her off. I tap my foot on the linoleum as she pages the director of the daycare. I take a look around while I wait. Pale yellow walls, bright orange suns painted across them, a stained blue carpet scattered with this morning’s Cheerios. The Director emerges minutes later. She is a mid-life crisis blonde wearing a Tickle me Elmo t-shirt, scuffed pink Keds and two melon-sized breast implants. I eye her in disgust and paste on a smile.
Before I can utter a word, she says: “Wow, that’s a new one."
“She was premature,” I lie. “She’s older than she looks.”
“I’m Dieter,” she says, holding out her hand. I take it and shake.
“Would you like a tour of Sunny Side?”
I want to say “Hell no,” but I nod politely, and Dieter leads me through a set of double doors that she opens with a key card.
The place is dingy, even Dieter must see that. Every room has its own unique pee smell, ranging from — Oh my God — to a subtle piney/pee combo. Dieter is either immune to the smell, or she’s choosing to ignore it. I can barely contain my gag. She highlights the student/caregiver ratio, which is six to one and points gaily to a classroom of singing four year olds who all have snot dribbling from their noses.
Sharing is caring.
“Our playground equipment is brand new, but of course your little one won’t need that for a while.” She opens a door marked “Teenies” and steps inside.
Immediately, I am greeted with multiple infant voices all braying like little baby donkeys. It is quite unnerving, and almost instantly, Estella wakes up and joins the donkey chorus. I swing her car seat back and forth, and surprisingly, her crying tapers off until she’s quiet again. It is clean. I’ll give Dieter that. There are six cribs pushed against the walls. Each one has a crocheted Muppet hanging over it.
“We just said goodbye to one of our babies,” Dieter tells me. “So we have room for little — ”
“Estella,” I smile.
“This is Miss Misty,” she says, introducing me to the caregiver. I smile at another dumpy girl, shake another hand with chipped nail polish.
In the end, I decide to leave Estella there for a test run. Dieter suggests it. “Just for a few hours to see how you feel — ” she says. I wonder if it’s normal — leaving your baby with strangers to see how you feel. I could slice myself open with a knife and I wouldn’t feel a thing. I nod.
“I’ve never left her with anyone,” I say. It is the truth … mostly.
Dieter nods sympathetically. “We will take good care of her. I’ll just need you to fill out some paperwork in the front.”
I hand the car seat to Miss Misty and make a show of kissing Estella’s forehead, and then I run to the car to fetch the diaper bag that a good mother would have carried in with her.
Thirty minutes later, I am finally free — free of the insufferable belly, free of the noisy baby … free, free, free. Just then my phone rings. I collect it from the passenger seat where I’d tossed it earlier and see that Caleb is calling me. I smile despite myself. To this day, when Caleb calls I get butterflies in my stomach. I am about to answer it when I realize that he is probably calling to ask about Estella. I bite my lip and send him to voicemail. I can’t ever tell him what I just did. He’d probably jump onto the first flight available and storm into Miami clutching divorce papers. Maybe he’d even get her to draw them up for him. I know that I am being unreasonable and that he hasn’t spoken to her since my trial ended over a year and a half ago, but thoughts of that raven haired witch plague me every day. I push thoughts of my trial and my attorney to the back of my mind to rehash later.
I am determined to enjoy my baby-free time. I stop at home to change out of my jeans and put on something chic. I choose white linen pants and a Gucci blouse from my shopping trip, and I slip into a pair of kitten heels. By the time I am back in the car and halfway to the restaurant, I realize that I forgot my phone on the kitchen counter.
I meet Katine and a few of our friends for sushi and sake. When I walk into the restaurant, they all clamor around me like I’ve been gone for a year. I air kiss each of them, and we sit down to order. Either Katine has warned them not to ask me about the baby, or they don’t care because none of them breathes a word about her. Part of me is relieved because had I been called upon to discuss my feelings as a new mother, I would have burst into tears … though there is a slight annoyance there, as well. Even if Estella has been made a no-no topic, they could at least ask how I am feeling.
I let it slide. I drink four of those mini glasses of sake and then order wine.
Katine raises her glass to me. “To having you back!” she bellows, and we all take a drink.
I feel fantastic. I am officially back, though it has been a tough decade. In my sake-induced haze, I vow to make my thirties the best years of my life. By three o’clock, lunch is over and we are all sloshed, but not ready to head home.
“So,” Katine whispers to me as we eventually exit the restaurant. “Where’s the kid?”
“Daycare.” I giggle and cover my mouth with my hand.
Katine winks at me conspiratorially. It had been her idea after all.
“Does Caleb know?” she asks.
I look at her like the dumb blonde that she is. “Seriously, Katine? Would I be wearing this if Caleb knew that his little precious was in a stranger’s care?” I wiggle my wedding band at her.
She widens her eyes and puckers her lips like she doesn’t believe me. “Come on. Caleb would never leave you, I mean, he had his chance with that Olivia girl and — “ She slaps her hand over her mouth and looks at me like she’s said too much.
I stop dead in my tracks, ready to slap her. The bitch. How dare she bring her up!
I am breathless, full of sake and anger when I say: “Caleb never ever considered leaving me. She was nothing. Don’t you go telling people those lies, Katine.”
I know my face is red. I can feel it burning under the resentment. Katine’s eyebrows unhinge. They dip down, giving the impression that she’s genuinely sorry.
“I ... I’m sorry,” she stammers. “I didn’t mean anything by it.”
I know this pretty, blonde devil too well to buy into her Emmy-worthy apologies. I give her a disdainful look, and she smiles at me with saccharine sweetness.