This time, though, I was taking him by surprise, which was made obvious by the way he jerked, skidding to a clumsy stop when he suddenly spotted us standing not ten feet from him. Just by his glance, I knew he recognized me, too, although he wasn’t exactly friendly – no hello. But then, I hadn’t said anything either. In fact, we both just stood there, looking at each other. It probably would have been incredibly awkward, if Thisbe hadn’t started crying again.
‘Oh,’ I said, quickly pushing the stroller forward, then back again. She quieted immediately but kept her eyes open, looking at the sky overhead. The guy was watching her, and for some reason, I felt compelled to add, ‘She’s… it’s been a long night.’
He looked at me again, and his face was so serious. Almost haunted, although why that word came to mind, I had no idea. He turned his gaze back to Thisbe, then said, ‘Aren’t they all.’
I opened my mouth to say something – to agree, at least – but he didn’t give me the chance, was already pedaling backward. No good-bye, no nothing, just a spin of the handlebars, and then he was rising up on the pedals and riding away from us. Instead of a straight line, he moved down the boardwalk from side to side, zigzagging slowly, all the way to the end.
I looked down: sitting in front of me on a little yellow plate was a plump, perfect blueberry muffin. A pat of butter sat next to it, like an accessory.
‘Your dad said they were your favorite,’ Heidi said. ‘I got the berries this morning, from the farmers’ market, and made them fresh.’
While she was still clearly tired, now my stepmother looked a lot more like the Heidi I knew: her hair was pulled back neatly, and she had on jeans, a clean and matching shirt, and lip gloss. ‘You really didn’t have to do this,’ I said.
‘Yes,’ she replied. Her voice was flat, serious. ‘I did.’
It was two P.M., and I’d just come down from a good seven hours of sleep to find her in the kitchen, rinsing out a mixing bowl, the baby asleep in the crook of her other arm. I was headed straight for the coffeemaker and not up for conversation, but before I even knew what was happening she’d blindsided me with a hug and baked goods.
‘Because of you,’ she said now, sliding into a chair opposite me, shifting the baby slightly, ‘I got the first uninterrupted four hours of sleep since she was born. It was like a miracle.’
‘It really was not that big a deal,’ I told her, wishing she’d just leave it alone. All this fussing over a person, it just smacked of desperation to me.
‘I’m serious,’ she said, clearly not getting the hint. ‘You are officially my favorite person in the world right now.’
Great, I thought. Then I peeled back the muffin wrapper, taking a bite instead of responding. It was still warm, and delicious, and made me feel horribly ungrateful for everything I’d felt since laying eyes on her. ‘This is really good,’ I said.
‘I’m so glad!’ she said as the phone rang. ‘Like I said, it was the least I could do.’
I took another bite as she stood, shifting the baby to her other arm, then grabbed the receiver off the counter. ‘Hello? Oh, Maggie, good, I’ve been wondering if that shipment came in…Wait, are you okay?’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘You sound like you’ve been crying. Are you crying?’
Good Lord, I thought, picking up the newspaper and scanning the headlines. What was it about the women in this town? Was everyone emotional?
‘Okay,’ Heidi said slowly. ‘I just couldn’t help but notice… No, no, of course. What? Well, it should be in the office, right in that left-hand drawer. It’s not? Huh. Well, let me think…’ She looked around the room, then threw a hand over her mouth. Her voice rose as she said, ‘Oh, crap. It’s here, I see it over by the door. God, how did that happen? No, I’ll just bring it down right now. It’s not a problem, I’ll just pop Thisbe in her stroller…’
The person on the other line was saying something, the voice equally high and shrill. I took a gulp of my coffee, then another one, just as Thisbe began to chime in as well. I wondered if emotions were like menstrual cycles, if you got enough women together. Give it time, and everyone was crying.
‘Oh, dear,’ Heidi said, glancing at her watch. ‘Look, I’m going to have to feed her before we can go anywhere. Just tell the delivery guy… Is there enough cash in the drawer? Well, can you check?’ There was a pause, during which Thisbe went from sputtering to all-out crying. Heidi sighed. ‘All right. No, we’ll come right now. Just… hold tight. Okay. Bye.’
She hung up, then walked across the room to the bottom of the stairs, jiggling Thisbe slightly as she went. ‘Robert?’ she called up the stairs. ‘Honey?’
‘Yes?’ my dad replied a moment later, his voice muffled.
‘Do you think you can feed Thisbe for me? I have to run the checkbook down to the store.’
I heard footsteps overhead, then my dad’s voice, louder and clearer, saying, ‘Are you talking to me?’
Thisbe chose this moment to increase her volume: Heidi had to shout over her as she said, ‘I was just wondering if you could give Thisbe a bottle, I need to go down to the store because I left the checkbook here, and I thought they could cover this COD charge with cash but there isn’t enough…’
Too much information, I thought, sucking down the rest of my coffee. Why did she always have to make everything so complicated?
‘Honey, I’m not really at a good stopping point,’ my dad said. ‘Can it wait twenty minutes?’
Thisbe howled in response, pretty much answering this question. ‘Um,’ Heidi said, looking down at her, ‘I don’t know –’
‘Fine,’ my dad said, and instantly I recognized his tone, put upon and petulant. Fine, he’d said to my mom, you just support us with your job. Fine, I guess you do know more about what the publishing industry wants. Fine, I’ll just give up my writing altogether, it’s not like I was ever nominated for a National Book Award. ‘Just give me a minute, and I’ll –’
‘I’ll take it down there,’ I said, pushing my chair back. Heidi glanced over at me, surprised, but not nearly as much as I was myself. I thought I’d given up this kind of co-dependent behavior years ago. ‘I want to go up to the beach anyway.’