‘And it’s nothing? Really?’
‘Maggie,’ Esther said, walking over, ‘come on. It’s not about her.’
‘Then what it is about, exactly?’
Esther sighed. ‘You knew this was going to happen sooner or later.’
‘No,’ Maggie protested. ‘I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that at all.’
‘Yes, you did.’ Esther put her hand on her shoulder, squeezing it. ‘Face it. If it wasn’t her, it just would have been some other girl.’
‘Some other stupid girl, ’ Leah added, picking up the magazine and flipping through it. Then, as an afterthought, she glanced at me and said, ‘No offense. He’s just an idiot.’
‘He is not,’ Maggie protested, tears filling her eyes.
‘Come on, Mag. You know he is.’ Esther glanced at me, then slid her hand down Maggie’s arm, wrapping a hand over hers. ‘And now, you can really start to get over him. If you think about it, this is probably the best thing that could have happened.’
‘That’s right,’ Leah agreed, flipping another page.
‘How do you figure?’ Maggie whimpered, but she allowed herself to be led back to the counter, numbly taking her mocha as Leah handed it off to her.
‘Because,’ Esther said gently, ‘you were still just hanging on, torturing yourself, thinking he was coming back. And now you have to let go. She kind of did you a favor, if you really think about it.’
Maggie looked back over at me, and I made myself stand up straighter. I couldn’t believe I’d actually been worried about her: she was tiny, pink as a powder puff. Thinking this, I emerged from behind the suits and started for the door.
‘Wait a second,’ she said.
I didn’t have to stop. I knew that. Still, I slowed my steps, turning back to her. But I didn’t say anything.
‘Do you,’ she began, then stopped and took a breath. ‘Do you really like him? Just tell me. I know it’s pathetic, but I need to know.’
I just looked at her for moment, feeling all those eyes on me. ‘He’s nothing to me,’ I said.
She kept her gaze on me a moment longer. Then she picked up the checkbook, walking over and holding it out to me. ‘Thanks,’ she said.
Maybe in the world of girls, this was supposed to be a turning point. When we saw beyond our initial differences, realized we had something in common after all, and became true friends. But that was a place I didn’t know well, had never lived in, and had no interest in discovering, even as a tourist. So I took the checkbook, nodded, and walked out the door, leaving them – as I had so many other groups – to say whatever they would about me once I was gone.
‘So,’ my mother said, ‘tell me everything.’
It was late afternoon, and I’d been dead asleep when my phone rang. Even without looking at it, I knew it had to be my mom. First, because it was her favorite time to make phone calls, right at the start of cocktail hour. It wasn’t like I was expecting to hear from anyone else, except maybe my brother, Hollis, and he only called in the middle of the night, having yet to fully grasp the concept of time zones.
‘Well,’ I said, stifling a yawn, ‘it’s really pretty here. You should see the view.’
‘I’m sure it is,’ she replied. ‘But don’t bore me with the scenery, I need details. How is your father?’
I swallowed, then glanced at my shut door, as if I could somehow see through it, all the way down to his. Amazing how easily my mother could get to the one thing I didn’t want to talk about. She always just knew.
I’d now been at my dad’s for three days, during which I’d probably seen him a total of, oh, three hours. He was either in his office working, in his bedroom sleeping, or in the kitchen grabbing a quick bite, en route to one or the other. So much for my visions of us hanging out and bonding, sharing a plate of onion rings and discussing literature and my future. Instead, our conversations usually took place on the stairs, a quick, ‘How’s it going? Been to the beach today?’ as we went in opposite directions. Even these, though, were better than the efforts I’d made at knocking on his office door. Then, he didn’t even bother to turn away from the computer screen, my attempts at dialogue bouncing off the back of his head like shots missing the rim by a mile.
It sucked. What was worse, though, was that if my father was nonexistent, Heidi was everywhere. If I went to get coffee, she was in the kitchen, feeding the baby. If I tried to hide on the deck, she emerged, Thisbe in the BabyBjörn, inviting me to join them for a walk on the beach. Even in my room I wasn’t safe, as it was so close to the nursery that even the slightest movement or noise summoned her, as she assumed I was as desperate for companionship as she was.
Clearly, she was lonely. But I wasn’t. I was accustomed to being alone: I liked it. Which was why it was surprising that I even noticed my dad’s lack of attention, much less cared. But for some reason, I did. And all her muffins and chatter and over-friendliness just made it worse.
I could have told my mother all of this. After all, it was exactly what she wanted to hear. But to do so, for some reason, seemed like a failure. I mean, what had I expected, anyway? So I took a different tack.
‘Well,’ I began, ‘he’s writing a lot. He’s in his office every day, all day.’
A pause as she processed this. Then, ‘Really.’
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He says he’s almost done with the book, just has some tightening up to do.’
‘Tightening up that takes all day, every day,’ she said. Ouch. ‘What about the baby? Is he helping Heidi out with her?’
‘Um,’ I said, then immediately regretting it, knowing this one utterance spoke volumes. ‘He does. But she’s actually really determined to do it on her own…’
‘Oh, please,’ my mom said. I could hear her satisfaction. ‘Nobody wants to be the sole caregiver of a newborn. And if they say they do, it’s only because they don’t really have a choice. Have you seen your father change a diaper?’
‘I’m sure he has.’
‘Yes, but, Auden.’ I winced. This was like being painted into a corner, stroke by stroke. ‘Have you seen it?’
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Not really.’
‘Ah.’ She exhaled again, and I could almost hear her smiling. ‘Well, it’s nice to know some things really never do change.’