“How are you?” Sam greets me warmly, carrying a duffel bag over his shoulder. I wonder if he is planning on spending the night. I am creeped out by the thought of it.
“So, where’s my charge?” he says, rubbing his hands together and smiling. For a minute, I think he is referencing a credit card — because it’s something I say often as I browse the mall and scrounge around in my purse for my American Express — and then I realize he’s talking about the baby. It takes everything in me not to roll my damn eyes.
The baby’s insatiable hunger rescues me as she begins to mewl from somewhere over my shoulder. It is then that I remember wheeling her into the dining room. I glance toward her bassinet in annoyance.
“I’ll get her,” Sam says, taking control and walking past me. I shrug with indifference and wander toward my laptop. He walks back into the room, cradling her in his arms, just as Caleb bounds down the main staircase — his hair still damp from his shower. I feel a surge of lust just looking at him. Caleb ignores me and walks over to slap Sam on the back like they're old friends. He hasn’t spoken to me since our late night trip to the hospital, other than to ask a question about the baby or to spout an instruction. I turn away and sulk while they discuss things that don’t interest me. I am planning a trip to the spa and deciding how many treatments I can fit into eight hours when Caleb calls my name. Desperate to be the center of his attention, I forsake my computer and look up at him hopefully.
“I won’t be home until later,” he says. "I have a business dinner.”
I nod. I remember when I used to accompany him on those business dinners. I open my mouth to tell him that I’d like to come, but he’s kissed the baby and is halfway to the door. An empty planet.
I turn my attention to the manny.
“So you’re related to your boss,” I say lamely, biting into an apple. Sam raises an eyebrow at me, but doesn’t respond. My mind goes to that place where I wonder if Caleb ever slept with Cammie.
“Do you … um … do you hang out with her much?”
He shrugs. “Cammie has a lot of friends. Martinis with the girls really isn’t my thing.”
“But, don’t you want to meet someone?” I ask, getting sidetracked. He’s pretty good looking if you’re into the grungy musician type. Hellooo, grunge died with Kurt Cobain.
“Is that where you’d hang out if you were single?” He looks directly at me when he asks. It’s a simple question, but the look in his eyes makes me feel like I’m being interrogated.
“I’m not single,” I snap.
“Proof,” he holds the baby up. I look away.
“Have you met any of her friends?” I am hoping for a reference of some sort to Olivia. It would be nice to know if she plays into this somehow.
Sam plays dumb. I can’t tell whether or not he knows something.
“Eh, a couple here and there,” he says dabbing Estella’s mouth with a burp rag. “Are you sure you don’t want to do this?” he nods towards the baby. “I don’t want to take away your time with her.”
When he looks down at her, I roll my eyes.
“Nope, I’m good,” I say pleasantly.
“You’re not bonding with her, are you?” he says, without looking at me.
I’m glad he can’t see my face. My face is smeared in shock. I force my features into neutrality.
“Why would you say that?” I narrow my eyes. “You’ve known me for what? Five minutes?”
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” he says ignoring me. “Most women experience some form of depression after they give birth.”
“Okay, Dr. Phil. I am not depressed!” I turn away and then spin back around. “How dare you judge me — you think you’re qualified to “diagnose” me, psych boy? Why don’t you take a good square look at your own parenting skills? You have a kid in Puerto Rico, buddy … without you.”
Sam seems unfazed by my words. Instead of recoiling like I want him to, he looks at me thoughtfully.
“Caleb is a pretty nice guy.”
I stare at him. What did that matter? Was this some type of psychological trick? Some sort of trap that will confirm to him that I suffer from the baby blues? I lick my lips and try to see his angle.
He takes his time answering me, setting the bottle on the counter and positioning Estella on his shoulder for another round of burping.
“Why would he marry a girl like you?”
At first, I think I hear him wrong. Surely not … he couldn’t have said what I think he did. He's the help — a lowly manny. But, when he looks at me expectantly, waiting for an answer, my eye begins to twitch — an embarrassing reaction. I feel heavy under my rage. Like I can lift it from my shoulders where it landed and throw it at him.
So rude! So inappropriate!
I briefly consider firing him, and then I see milk erupt from Estella’s mouth and run down the back of his shirt. I scrunch up my nose. Better him than me. I turn on my heel and charge up the stairs, as if motherhood herself is chasing me.
When I shut my bedroom door, the first thing I think about is sex. I have the urge to rip someone’s clothes off — someone being Caleb, of course. When I was seventeen, my therapist told me that I use sex to validate myself. I promptly had sex with him.
The second thing that enters my mind is the box of Virginia Slims I keep stashed in my lingerie drawer. I go there now and run my hand across the wood paneling at the back. It is still there, half full. I pull a lighter out of an arrangement of silk flowers and head for the balcony that sits off my bedroom. I have not had a cigarette since my sixth month of pregnancy, when I sneaked one after a particularly stressful night at my in-laws house. I light up while replaying Sam’s grody comments in my mind. I would have to talk to Caleb. Obviously, Sam could not continue to work for us after saying such terrible, degrading things to me.
I wonder what he meant by “a girl like you”? People had used that line on me many times in my life, but it was usually to deliver a compliment or to grease the prospects of my bright future. A girl like you can go far in the world of modeling. A girl like you can be anything she wants. A girl like you can have any guy she wants.
Sam had said it differently. There was no compliment, just … why would he marry a girl like you?
I suck on my cigarette, relishing the comfort it brings. Why did I ever give these things up? Oh yeah — because I wanted to have a damn baby. I stub out what’s left of it on the stone edging of the balcony and toss it expertly into some bushes on the ground level. Caleb cannot stand the smell of cigarette smoke; in fact, it was his one and only complaint about me when we were dating. He begged, pleaded and went on sex strike to get me to stop smoking, but in the end it took getting pregnant for me to kick the habit. I was going to have to shower if I didn’t want to get busted. I'm already in enough trouble. I strip down to my bra and panties and head toward the bathroom, when I see Sam appear in the garden with Estella. He's wheeling her in her carriage — a three thousand dollar purchase I have yet to even touch. I watch him with narrowed eyes, trailing him as he winds along the garden path, wondering if he saw me smoking. It doesn’t matter, I decide. By the end of the day, he will be gone for good.
“Your days are numbered, buddy,” I say tersely, before closing the bathroom door.
Caleb comes home after Sam is already gone, which has both foiled my plans and left me alone with the baby. I am chewing on celery, when he walks in the door carrying take-out.
He drops the bag on the kitchen counter and goes straight upstairs to check on the baby. I ignore them, and dig around in the bag to see what he’s brought me. When he comes back down, he’s holding her.
“Wha—? Why did you wake her up?”
I was hoping to spend some time with him without her butting in.
He sighs, opens the fridge. “She’s a newborn. She eats every three hours, Leah. She was awake.”
I glance at the baby monitor and remember that I turned it off to take a nap. I must have forgotten to put it back on. I wonder how long she’s been awake.
I watch as he puts the cold breast milk into the bottle warmer. I can count on one hand the times I’ve fed her. So far, either Caleb or Sam has done her feedings.
“She’s six weeks old today,” I say. I’d been counting down the days until I could sleep with him again. I almost hadn’t made it to the six-week mark when he came back from his run the week before. He is at his best when he’s sweaty.
The food in the bag is making my mouth water. I start eating without him. He brought chicken masala from my favorite little place. We eat from there so often I have the calories all worked out. If I eat one full chicken breast, five mushrooms and scrape off most of the sauce, I can get away with two hundred calories. I have to force myself to stop eating. I want the last piece of chicken, but if I’m trying to lose the baby weight…
He still hasn’t looked at me.
“Thank you for dinner,” I say. “My favorite.”
“Are you just never going to talk to me again?”
“I haven’t forgiven you.”
I sigh. “Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
His lips pinch together. I hop off my barstool and make a brave move. He raises his eyebrows as I gently take the baby from his arms and lay her across my forearm as I’ve seen Sam do.
“She burps quicker this way,” I tell him, imitating Sam’s movements. The baby plays along brilliantly, burping loudly seconds after I do the little pat-pat. I relocate her to the crook of my arm and reach for the rest of her bottle. Caleb watches it all without uttering a word.
I smile at him sweetly.
Come on, you bastard. Forgive me.
I feed her the rest of her bottle and repeat my burping trick.
“Do you want to put her back, or should I?”
He takes her from me, but this time he holds my eyes for one … two … three seconds.
While he puts her to sleep, I run upstairs to put on something sexy. I am so nervous when I get back to the kitchen; I rip open a bag of frozen broccoli and cram a handful into my mouth.
I’m wearing a black nightie. It’s not presumptuous. I don’t want Caleb to know I’m trying to have make-up sex. I saunter around the kitchen until he comes back down. When I hear him on the stairs, I make a show of rewashing the bottles Sam cleaned earlier. I hear him behind me. He pauses in the doorway, and I smile knowing that he’s looking.
When he moves to the living room, I follow him. When he sits down, I crawl onto the couch next to him.
“It’ll never happen again. I was having trouble bonding with her. Things are much better. I need you to believe me.”
He nods. I can tell that I haven’t convinced him, but he’ll come around. I’ll play mommy, and soon he’ll be looking at me like he used to. I kiss his neck.
I jerk back, narrowing my eyes. Who was using sex as a weapon now?
“I want to say sorry.” I pout a little, but he only looks annoyed.
“Then say it to Estella.” Then, he gets up and walks away. I roll onto my back and stare up at the ceiling. Rejection. Had that ever happened to me before? I couldn’t remember a time. This was getting out of hand.
I want to call someone — a girlfriend … my sister. I need to talk about what just happened, gain some perspective. I reach for my cell and scroll through my contacts. I pause when I reach Katine. She’d only half listen to what I said, and in five minutes we’d be talking about her. I keep scrolling. I reach Court and my heart throbs. Court! I dial her number. Before it can go through, I hang up.
I remember humid summers, with air so thick it felt like you were breathing soup into your lungs. We’d get restless at home — my sister and I, running up and down the corridors of our big house, screaming and chasing each other until we’d get in trouble. My mother, exasperated, would send us outside with our nanny, Mattia, while she rested. Mattia made frequent trips to the dollar store for things to do outside. Courtney and I, who spent most shopping excursions at stuffy boutiques, found it endlessly amusing that you could go to a store and everything inside was a dollar. She’d bring us sidewalk chalk, jump ropes, hula hoops, and of course, our favorite — bubbles.
Mattia always saved them for last. She’d pretend that she forgot the big pink container inside, and we’d sigh and pout. At the last minute, she’d pull it out from behind her back, and we’d jump and cheer like she was so clever. We called the bubbles “empty planets” and the game was to pop as many empty planets as you could before they could self-implode and send their debris hurtling toward earth. Mattia would stand underneath a tree for shade and blow them for us. Our legs were perpetually covered in bruises from this game. We got into the habit of tripping each other to reach the empty planets first. We’d run so fast Mattia said we looked like blurs. She called us the Red and the Raven for our respective hair colors. At the end of the game we’d tally up how many bubbles we’d popped. Twenty-seven for Red, Twenty-two for Raven, she’d announce. Then, we’d limp inside happily, rubbing our bruised shins and asking for popsicles. My mother hated the bruises. She made us wear hose to cover them. My mother hated most things associated with me — the tangles in my hair after a bath, the color of my hair, the way I chewed, the way I laughed too loud, the way I flicked my fingernails across my thumb when I was in trouble. If you asked me, then or now, what she actually liked about me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. What I could tell you was that my childhood was the cool pop of bubbles on my skin. Court and I laughing and breathing soupy air. Mattia giving me hugs to compensate for the sharp words of a distant mother.