“I just meant that he loves you. Not even that hot little piece of ass could take him from you.”
Now I am seething. It is one thing to mention that trash’s name, but to give credence to her obvious good looks crosses the girlfriend/loyalty line.
“Leah, wait,” she calls after me as I storm off. I don’t wait to hear her excuse — her favorite one being that she is from Russia and doesn’t always understand the right way to communicate since English is her second language. I have heard them all before, and I know my slithering best friend. She likes to sugarcoat slurs, slander and underhanded insults. You are so courageous to wear that skirt, I’d be afraid my cellulite would show. Katine is bulimic and doesn’t have a stitch of cellulite. So, obviously she was referring to mine.
Katine Reinlaskz is as fun as a monkey at the zoo, but cross her and she’ll rip you to shreds. Our relationship, which has existed since middle school, has been a vicious tug of war to possess things greater than the other. My first car cost sixty thousand, hers cost eighty. My sweet sixteen had three hundred guests — hers had four. I won with Caleb, though. Katine has been divorced twice. The first was a Vegas wedding, which lasted approximately twenty-four hours before it was annulled, and the second was to a fifty-year-old oil tycoon that ended up being a complete miser after they were already married. She drips jealousy when it comes to Caleb — handsome, rich, gentlemanly, sexy Caleb. Every girl's dream and I got him. I use every opportunity to flaunt my major life triumph, but ever since that trouble with Olivia, Katine’s envy has been replaced with smugness. She even had the gall to tell me once that she admired Olivia’s gumption.
I take short, choppy steps to my car, being careful not to fall in my heels, and slide into the driver’s seat. The clock on the dash says it's six o’clock. I am in no position to drive, but I don’t even have my cell phone to call someone to pick me up. And who would I call, anyway? My friends are all similarly drunk and the ones who aren’t here would raise their eyebrows and gossip if they caught me like this.
Suddenly, I remember Estella.
“Shit,” I slam my hand against the steering wheel. I was supposed to pick her up at five, and I have no way of calling the daycare. I start the car and reverse out of the spot without looking. I hear a car horn and then the jarring crunch of metal. I don’t even need to look to know that it’s bad. I jump unsteadily out of the driver’s seat and make my way to the rear of the car. An old Ford is folded around the bumper of my Range Rover. It looks almost comical. I suppress the urge to laugh, and then I have to suppress the urge to cry because I see the flickering blue and red lights of a police car approaching us. The driver is an older man. His wife sits in the passenger side of the car, clutching her neck. I roll my eyes and cross my arms over my chest, waiting for the inevitable ambulance siren that signifies sue-happy opportunists.
I lean down so I can see the old hag. “Really?” I say through the window. “Your neck hurts?”
Sure enough, an ambulance follows the patrol car into the parking lot. The medics jump from the cab and race to the Ford. I don’t get to see what happens next because a mean looking officer is approaching me, and I know I have seconds to get it together and act sober.
“Ma’am,” he says over dark lenses. “Do you realize you backed into them without even looking? I watched the whole thing happen.”
Really? I was surprised he could see anything through his Blade wannabe sunglasses.
I smile innocently. “I know. I was in a panic. I have to pick my baby up from the babysitter,” I lie, “and I am running late...”
I bite my lip because it usually excites men when I do it.
He considers me for a minute, and I pray he won’t smell the liquor on my breath. I watch his eyes drift to my backseat where the base of Estella’s car seat sits.
“I’m going to need to see your license and registration,” he says finally.
This is standard procedure — so far, so good. We go through the accident process that I am all too familiar with. I see the old lady being loaded into the ambulance, and I watch as they drive away with the lights flashing. Her husband, callously enough, stays behind to take care of matters.
“Damn fakers,” I whisper under my breath.
The officer shoots me a half smile, but it is enough to tell that he is on my side. I sidle up to him and inquire when I will be able to leave to get my daughter.
“It was so hard to leave her,” I tell him. “I had a business dinner.” He nods like he understands.
“We’re issuing you a ticket — seeing that it was your fault,” he says. “After that you are free to leave.”
I breathe a sigh of relief. The tow truck comes and cranks apart the vehicles. The damage to my Range Rover is minimal compared to the Ford, which is practically folded in half. I am told that the Bernhard’s insurance will be contacting mine, and I am fairly certain that they will be hiring a lawyer in the next few days as well.
I pull out of my spot; relieved that the Rover is driving the same as it was when I pulled in. Aside from a dented bumper and some minor scratches, my pricey car came out unscathed. But, better yet, I came out unscathed. I could have been arrested and issued a DUI. Thanks to some great acting and a smitten cop, I am getting away with minor costs.
I feel almost sober as I drive carefully toward Sunny Side Up daycare. When I pull into the parking lot, it is empty. I glance at the clock on the dash nervously. It reads seven ten. Someone must have stayed late with her. They will probably be angry, but surely after I explain what happened with the phone and the accident, they will understand. I push the buzzer on the door before I notice that it is completely dark inside. Pressing my hands to the glass, I peer in. Empty. Locked up; shut down. I panic. It’s the type of panic I felt when I learned that I might go to prison for pharmaceutical fraud. The panic I felt as I stood in front of the judge expecting to hear the “Guilty” verdict that would give me twenty years in state prison. It is purely selfish panic. The — ohmyword Caleb is going to divorce me for losing his daughter — panic. I have been a mother for less than two weeks, and I have already lost my baby. That’s the shit that gets you on Nancy Grace. I hate that blonde bitch.
Pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, I contemplate my options. I could call the police. I mean, what is the policy on parents that fail to pick up their children from daycare? Do they send them to social services? Does the owner take them home? I struggle to remember the director’s name — Dieter. Did she even give me her last name? Either way, I need to get to a phone and fast.
I drive home like I am the Fast and the Furious — and careen my car into the driveway. My urgency is audible as I run through the door, not bothering to close it, and head for the kitchen counter where I left my phone. It’s not there. My head swims. I was so sure that’s where I’d left it. I am going to have a killer hangover tomorrow. Think! For the first time, I regret not having a landline. Who needs a landline anymore? I remember saying to Caleb right before we got rid of it. I spin around to head for the stairs, and my heart seizes in surprise.
“Looking for this?”
Caleb is leaning against the doorframe watching me. In his hand is my precious iPhone. I study his face. He looks calm — that means he doesn’t know that I don’t have Estella with me — or maybe he thinks she’s with my mother. I haven’t told him that I took her to the airport this morning.
“You’re home early,” I say in genuine surprise.
He doesn’t smile or greet me with his usual warmness, instead he keeps his eyes trained on my face — the phone pinched between his fingers and extended toward me. I take a few precautionary steps in his direction, being careful not to let my remaining buzz show. Caleb reads me like a low-grade novel. I stand on my toes to give him a quick peck on the cheek before plucking the phone from his fingers. Now, if only I could get outside, I might be able to figure something out, call someone ... FIND THE BABY!
I back up a few steps.
“You missed a call. Fourteen, actually,” Caleb says casually — too casually — like the calm before a storm. The low, rumbling growl before the wolf rips out your trachea.
I swallow. There is sand in my throat and I’m drowning … suffocating. My eyes dart around the room. God — what does he know? How am I going to fix this?
“Apparently, you forgot to pick Estella up at daycare …” his voice trails off. An invisible hand cracks open my jaw and pours fear down my throat. I choke on it.
“Caleb — ” I start. He holds up his hand for me to stop, and I do because I’m not even sure what excuse I can give.
I dropped our daughter off at a seedy daycare because…
I’m not that creative. My mind sieves out all of the possible excuses.
“Is she … is she here?” I whisper. The most expressive part of Caleb is his jaw. I use it to read his emotion. It is square, manly — only softened by his overly full lips. When that jaw is happy with you, you want to trace it with your fingertips, reach on your tiptoes to run kisses across it. The jaw is angry with me. His lips are white anger pulled tight. I am afraid.
Caleb doesn’t say anything. This is his fighting technique. He heats up the room with his anger and then waits for you to sweat out a confession. He’s never been violent toward a woman a day in his life, but I’d bet my life that little girl could make him do things he’d never considered.
I make the mistake of looking in the direction of the stairs. It makes him really angry. He bounces off the wall and walks toward me.
“She’s fine,” he says between his teeth. “I came back early because I was worried about you. Obviously, you were not the one I needed to be worried about.”
“It was only for a few hours,” I rush to say. “I needed some time alone, and my mother just up and left me…”
He studies me for a few beats, but not because he is gauging the truth of my words. He is asking himself how he could marry someone like me. I can see the utter disappointment. It scratches into the self-righteousness I am cradling to my chest. It makes me feel like a failure. Well, what did he expect — that I was going to be a good mother? That I would fall right into a role that I don’t understand?
I don’t know what to do. The alcohol is still babysitting my brain, and all I can think about is the fact that he’s going to leave me.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, looking at the floor. Acting contrite is a cheap shot, especially since I’m sorrier for being caught than the actual deed.
“You’re sorry for getting caught,” he responds.
My head snaps up. Fucking mind reader!
How dare he think the worst of me? I am his wife! For better or worse, right? Or did the worse refer to the situation and not the person?
“You left your newborn daughter with complete strangers. She hadn’t eaten in hours!”
“There was breast milk in the diaper bag!” I argue.
“Not enough for seven hours!”
I frown down at the tiles. “I didn’t realize,” I say, defeated. Had I really been away for that long?
I feel a surge of self-righteous anger. Was it my fault that I wasn’t adhering to parental bliss like he was? I open my mouth to tell him so, but he cuts me off.
“Don’t, Leah,” he warns. “There are no excuses for this. If I had any sense, I’d take her and leave.” He turns and walks toward the stairs.
My thoughts blur as my anger rushes in. “She’s mine!”
He stops. It’s an abrupt stop, like my words have just freeze-sprayed his legs.
When he turns back around, his face is red. “You pull a stunt like this again, and you’ll be screaming that in court.”
I feel my chest heave as his threat wraps around me like a cold wind. He means it. Caleb has never spoken to me with this much coldness. He’s never threatened me. It’s the baby. She’s changing him, turning him against me. He stops right before he reaches the stairs.
“I’m getting a nanny.”
Words I wanted, but now they don’t feel like a victory. Caleb is conceding to a nanny because he no longer trusts me — his wife. Suddenly, I don’t want one.
“No,” I say. “I can take care of her. I don’t need help.”
He ignores me, taking the stairs two at a time. I trail behind, deciding if I want to be pleading or aggressive.
“I made one mistake, it won’t happen again,” I say, taking the pleading route. “And, you can’t make that decision alone — she’s my daughter, too.” A speckle of aggression for good measure.
He’s in our bedroom, rifling around in his bedside table. He pulls out his “little black book” which I have snooped in often. I follow him to his office, where he retrieves his cell phone from the charger.
“Who are you calling?” I demand.
He points to the door, telling me to get out. I stand firm; hugging myself, worry coiling in my stomach.
“Hey,” he says into the receiver. His voice is intimate, insinuating. Obviously, he is on cozy terms with the person on the other end. I feel an icy chill hit my spine. There is only one person who makes his voice that soft, but why would he be calling her? He laughs at something the person has said and leans back in his chair.
Oh — God — oh — God. I feel sick.
“Yes, I do,” he says all chummy. “Can you make it happen?” He pauses as he listens. “I trust whoever you send. No — no — I don’t have a problem with that. Okay then, tomorrow? Yes, I’ll forward you the address — oh you remember?” He smiles wryly. “Talk to you then.”