I jump to action as soon as he hangs up.
“Who was that? Was that her?”
He pauses in his paper sorting to look at me quizzically. “Her?”
“You know who I’m talking about.”
We don’t ever talk about that — her. The muscles in his jaw clench. I have the urge to crawl under his desk and hide my head between my knees.
“No,” he says, resuming his shuffling. “It was an old friend who owns a nanny agency out of Boca. Someone will be coming over to meet me tomorrow.”
My jaw drops. Another secret part of his life that I know nothing about. How the hell is he connected to someone who owns a nanny agency?
“This is bullshit,” I say, stomping my foot. “Are you at least going to let me meet her?”
Caleb shrugs. “Perhaps, though I assume you are going to have a hangover tomorrow…”
I inwardly shrivel. He always knows. He sees everything. I wonder if my breath gave it away, or if somehow he had seen my banged up car bumper and guessed. I don’t care to ask. I make a quick exit from the room without explaining myself and run upstairs. I stand in the door to our bedroom and glance down the hall. I feel a pang of something. Should I go check on her? I did practically desert her today. I should at least make sure she is okay. I am glad she is not old enough to realize what I did. Kids hold things against you.
Walking quietly down the hall, I push the door to the nursery open with my toe and peer in. I don’t know why I feel so guilty looking at my own baby, but I do. I cross the space to her crib, holding my breath. She is asleep. Caleb has bathed and swaddled her, though she has managed to wiggle one of her hands free and is sucking on it. I can smell her from where I stand — the lavender soap Caleb bought for her mixed with the oatmeal smell of a new baby. I reach a finger down and touch her fist, and then I bolt from the room.
“Why do you have this?” I held up a pint of ice cream that had been sitting in his freezer since we met. It was Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia. I pried open the lid and saw that it was half eaten with a serious case of freezer burn. “You don’t like cherries. Can I throw it out?”
Caleb launched himself from the couch where he was watching TV and took the container from my hand. I blinked at him in surprise. I’d never seen a man move that quickly for ice cream.
“Leave it,” he said.
I watched him shove it behind a couple of frozen steaks and shut the door.
“That wasn’t creepy at all,” I said.
He looked seriously disoriented for a minute before taking my hand and leading me to the couch. He started kissing my neck, but my mind was still on the ice cream.
“Why don’t we move in together?” I asked casually.
He paused what he was doing and rested his forehead in the curve of my neck.
“No,” he said.
“No? Why not? We’ve been seeing each other for nine months. I’m here practically every night.”
He sat up and ran his fingers through his hair, making it stand on end.
“I thought we weren’t doing anything serious?”
My eyes bulged. “Yeah, in the beginning. You don’t think this is serious? We’ve been exclusive for five months now.”
That wasn’t true. I had been exclusive from the day I met him. I hadn’t as much as looked at another guy since the yacht. Caleb had admittedly gone on a few other dates, but in the end, he always landed back in my bed. What could I say? Sexually, I was a force to be reckoned with. Obviously, not enough of a force.
“Why is that ice cream in your freezer?”
“That’s where you keep ice cream,” he said dryly.
Caleb had a scar near his eye. I’d tried to get him to see my plastic surgeon about it, but he’d refused. Scars should stay where fate put them, he’d said. I laughed at the time. It was one of the most ridiculous things I’d ever heard.
Now, staring at my almost boyfriend, I knew I was right. Scars should be removed. Ice cream scars especially. I reached up and ran my finger across it. I didn’t know where he got the scar. I’d never asked. What else did I not know about him?
“Was it hers?”
We rarely spoke about his ex, but when we did, Caleb’s mood became damp and remote. Normally, I tried to avoid the subject — not wanting to look like the jealous new girlfriend, but if the guy couldn’t get rid of her ice cream…
“Caleb?” I crawled onto his lap and straddled him. “Was it hers?”
He couldn’t get away from me, so he opted to look me right in the eyes. That always made me nervous. Caleb had very intense eyes — the kind of eyes that stripped you right down to your sins.
He sighed. “Yes.”
I was a little taken aback that he actually admitted it. I shifted uncomfortably on his lap, not sure whether I should ask the inevitable follow up questions.
“Okay,” I said, hoping he’d offer some sort of explanation. “Can we talk about this?”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” he said with finality.
I knew what that meant. There’s nothing to talk about meant — I can’t talk about it because it still hurts. And — I don’t want to talk about it because I haven’t dealt with it yet. Swinging my leg around, I slid off his lap and onto the couch. I felt paper-thin. I am seasoned in the art of men, and I know from experience that nothing can compete with a memory. It is uncharacteristic for me to not be the memory, so I was unsure of how to act.
“Am I not enough for you?” I asked.
“You’re more than enough,” he said seriously. “I was completely empty until you came along.”
Normally, something like this coming from any man would sound cheesy…cliché. I’ve dated poets and musicians, all of which were verbally gifted enough to give me goosebumps, though none ever had. But I felt warmth saturate my heart when Caleb said it.
“But, I told you from the start that I am not ready. You can’t fix me, Leah.”
I registered what he’d just said, but I didn’t believe him. Of course I could fix him. He’d just told me that I filled his empty. What I didn’t want to think about was who had created the empty…and how big of a hole she had left.
“I’m not trying to fix you,” I said. “But, I am developing serious feelings for you, and you’re basically rejecting me for a tub of Cherry Garcia.”
He laughed and pulled me back onto his lap.
“I’m not moving in with anyone until I marry them,” he said.
I hadn’t heard anyone say this since I was fifteen and my parents forced me to go to Bible camp. “Swell,” I said. “And I’m not sleeping with anyone until I marry them.”
Caleb turned his best I can have you whenever I want you look on me, and I got so flustered I didn’t know whether to kiss him or blush. He outplays my seduction attempts every time. Power, I thought with only half-dipped interest because he was kissing me. He has power over me.
We didn’t mention the ice cream again, though every time I was in the vicinity of the fridge I felt like a base dwelling bottom feeder. The stupid Cherry Garcia turned into a body part to me. It was like he was keeping her finger in the freezer instead of just shitty ice cream. I imagined the finger wore black nail polish and scooted around the house when we weren’t home. It was after my ring, I knew it. Ex-girlfriends have a way of keeping their fingers in things, long after they’re gone.
It worried me at first, but Caleb was so present in our “non-serious” relationship that I forgot about it. I had more pressing matters vying for my attention, like my job at the bank and the everyday drama between my co-workers, and my upcoming vacation with Caleb to go skiing in Colorado. Everything needed my attention, and I was more than willing to spread my ear, input and good times expertise all around. We went another three months without talking about the finger. What we did talk about was us — what we wanted, where we wanted to go, who we wanted to be. When he talked about having children, instead of bolting from the room, I sat up and listened with a half-smile on my face.
We were three days into our ski trip when Caleb’s college roommate called to tell him that his wife was in labor. As soon as he hung up the phone, he looked at me. “If we leave now, we can be there by tomorrow morning.”
“Are you crazy? We have the cabin for two more days!”
“I’m the godfather. I want to see the baby.”
“Yeah, you’re the godfather — not the father. The baby will still be there in two days.”
He didn’t mention it again, but I could tell he was disappointed. When we finally did make it to the hospital, he was grinning from ear to ear, his arms loaded with ridiculous presents.
He held that damn baby for thirty minutes before he had to give him back to his mother to be fed. When he tried to pass him to me, I pretended to have a cold. “I’d love to,” I’d said. “But, I really shouldn’t.”
The truth was, babies made me nervous. People were always shoving them at you, trying to get you to hold them and coo at them. I didn’t want to hold someone else’s spawn. Who knows what you could be holding? The kid could be the next John Wayne Gacy and you’d never know it.
Caleb was nuts for that baby. It sent him into baby talk overdrive and got to me after a while. I started picturing little sandy haired Calebs running around. I’d rewind a little to our picture perfect wedding and rewind some more to the romantic proposal he’d deliver on the beach. I was planning out our lives and that goddamn finger was still in the freezer. If I could just get a little glimpse of her, maybe I’d understand.
Turns out I didn’t have to wait long.
I wake up to the sound of an alarm. It is broken, obviously, because the beeping is not constant but wailing like a siren. Everything feels thick, as if my brain has been dipped in honey. I reach for the alarm — to turn it off, and then my eyes snap open. That is not an alarm. I jump up and look around my dimly lit bedroom, the covers slipping to my waist. According to my cell phone it is three o’clock in the morning. Caleb’s side of the bed has not been touched. I wonder if he’s in the guest room, and then I hear it again — the sound of a baby crying. I stumble toward the nursery. Where is Caleb? He must be with her. I walk into the nursery to see him pacing the room with her in his arms. His cell phone is pressed between his shoulder and ear and he’s speaking rapidly. The baby is not just crying, she is screaming like she’s in some sort of pain.
“What’s—?” I stop when he holds up a finger to shush me.
He finishes off the conversation and tosses the phone aside. “Get your things, we’re taking her to the emergency room.”
I nod, cotton-mouthed, and run to throw on some clothes. Sweatpants, his Pink Floyd t-shirt … I race down the stairs and meet him at the door. He is strapping the baby into her car seat. She has not stopped crying since I left them in the nursery.
“What’s happening?“ I say. “Is she sick?”
He nods grimly and walks out the door with her. I follow on his heels and jump into the passenger seat.
I remember the things I’ve read about a baby’s immune system. How you shouldn’t have them around other children, foreign places. Keep them at home until they’ve had time to build antibodies to the many floating viruses.
Shit. He’s going to hate me even more.
“She has a fever of a hundred and five.” He jumps into the driver’s seat, gunning the engine.
He looks at me out of the corner of his eye as we pull out of the driveway. What was that? Frustration? Disappointment?
I squirm for the entire ten-minute ride, shooting glances to the backseat where she is strapped. Should I have sat back there with her? What is the f**king protocol for being a mother? When we pull up, he hops out of the car before I can even open my door. The car seat is unstrapped, and Caleb is halfway to the emergency room doors before I can straighten my hair. I follow him in. He is at the nurse’s station when the automatic doors hiss open for me.
She slides over a clipboard of paperwork and tells him to fill it out. I reach out before he can and grab it from the counter. He is in no state to fill out paperwork. I carry it over to a chair and get to work.
I can see the worry on his face as he speaks to a nurse. I pause to watch him. It is such a rarity to see him this way — vulnerable, fretting — the corners of his full mouth turned down as he nods at something she says and looks into the car seat at the baby. He glances back at me and disappears behind the emergency room doors with the nurse, not bothering to ask me if I want to come. I’m not sure what to do, so I ask the nurse at the desk if I can go back with them as I hand in the forms. She looks at me like I’m an idiot.
“Aren’t you the mother?”
The mother. Not her mother or the baby’s mother — just the mother.
I look at her frizzy hair and her eyebrows, which are in bad need of plucking.
“Yes, I am the uterus that carried the child,” I snap. I walk through the emergency room doors without waiting for an answer.
I have to peek into several curtained partitions before I find them. Caleb does not acknowledge my presence. He’s watching a nurse hook Estella up to an IV while she explains the risks of dehydration.
“Where are they going to put the needle?” I ask, because clearly her hands are too small.
She gives me a sympathetic look before telling us that the IV needle will be inserted into a vein in Estella’s head. Caleb’s face drains of color. He won’t be able to watch this, I know him. I straighten my back importantly. At least I can be of some use. I can stay with her while they do this procedure while Caleb waits outside. I am neither squeamish nor prone to tears, but when I suggest this, he looks at me coldly and says: