‘And writing isn’t mine?’
Oh, boy, I thought. Change a few details – professorship for business, committees for employees – and this was the same fight he’d had with my mom all those years ago. I glanced at Heidi: her face was stressed, as Clementine’s now came into view, Esther and Leah standing outside together. ‘Look,’ she said to my dad, ‘why don’t you and Auden take the baby and get a table and I’ll meet you there. This will only take a few minutes. Okay?’
‘Fine,’ my dad said, although clearly, it wasn’t.
He wasn’t the only one not happy. Twenty minutes later, just as we were about to be seated at Last Chance, Thisbe woke up and started fussing. At first, it was a low, rumbling sort of crying, but then it began to escalate. By the time the hostess arrived and began to grab menus for us, she was pretty much screaming.
‘Oh,’ my dad said, moving the stroller forward and back. Thisbe kept wailing. ‘Well. Auden, can you… ?’
This was not followed by a verb, so I had no idea what he was asking. As Thisbe kept crying, though, now attracting the attention of pretty much everyone around us, he shot me another, more panicked look, and I realized he wanted me to jump in. Which was ridiculous. Even worse? I did it.
‘I’ll take her,’ I said, grabbing the stroller from him and backing it up to the door. ‘Why don’t you –’
‘I’ll sit down and order for us,’ he said. ‘Just bring her back in when she’s calmed down, all right?’
Of course. Because that was going to happen anytime soon.
I wheeled her out onto the boardwalk, where at least the noise wasn’t enclosed, then sat down on a bench beside her. I watched her face for a while, scrunched up and reddening, before glancing back into the restaurant. Past the hostess station, down a narrow aisle, I could see my dad, at a table for four, a menu spread out in front of him. I swallowed, then ran a hand over my face, closing my eyes.
People don’t change, my mother had said, and of course she was right. My dad was still selfish and inconsiderate, and I was still not wanting to believe it, even when the proof was right in front of me. Maybe we were all destined to just keep doing the same stupid things, over and over again, never really learning a single thing. Beside me, Thisbe was now screaming, and I wanted to join in, sit back and open my mouth and let the years of frustration and sadness and everything else just spill forth into the world once and for all. But instead, I just sat there, silent, until I suddenly felt someone looking at me.
I opened my eyes, and there, standing next to the stroller in jeans, beat-up sneakers, and a faded T-shirt that said LOVE SHOVE across the front, was the guy I’d seen at the Tip and the boardwalk. It was like he’d appeared from nowhere and now was suddenly right there, studying Thisbe. As he did, I took the opportunity to do the same to him, taking in his tanned skin and green eyes, shoulder-length dark hair pulled back messily at the back of his neck, the thick, raised scar that ran up one forearm, forking at the elbow like a river on a map.
I had no idea why he was here, especially considering how he’d blown me off the last time we’d met, in this same place. But at that moment, I didn’t have the energy to overthink. I said, ‘She just started screaming.’
He considered this but said nothing. Which for some reason, God only knew why, made me feel like I needed to keep talking.
‘She’s always crying, actually,’ I told him. ‘It’s colic, or just… I don’t know what to do.’
Still, he was silent. Just like he’d been that night at the Tip, and on the boardwalk. The sick part was that I knew he wouldn’t answer, but still insisted on talking to him anyway. Which was so not like me, as I was the one who usually –
‘Well,’ he said suddenly, taking me by surprise yet again, ‘there’s always the elevator.’
I just looked at him. ‘The elevator?’
In response, he bent down and unhitched Thisbe from the stroller. Before I could stop him – and I was pretty sure I should stop him – he’d taken her out, lifting her up into his arms. My first thought was that this was the last thing I’d expected him to do. The second was how amazingly at ease he seemed with her, more than me and my dad and even Heidi, combined.
‘This,’ he said, turning her so she was facing out (still screaming, of course), his hands wrapped around her midsection, legs dangling down and kicking wildly, ‘is the elevator.’ And then he bent his legs, easing down, and straightened them, then repeated it, once, twice, three times. By the fourth, she abruptly stopped her protests, a weird look of calm spreading over her face.
I just stood there, looking at him. Who was this guy? Sullen stranger? Trick biker? Baby whisperer? Or –
‘Eli!’ Heidi said, suddenly appearing behind him. ‘I thought that was you.’
The guy glanced at her, then flushed, but only barely, and briefly. ‘Hey,’ he said, stopping the elevator. Thisbe blinked, then burst into tears.
‘Oh, dear,’ Heidi said, reaching out to take her from him. To me she said, ‘Where’s your father?’
‘He got a table,’ I told her. ‘We were about to sit down when she started to freak out.’
‘She’s probably hungry,’ Heidi said, glancing at her watch. Thisbe wailed louder, over her shoulder, while I glanced at the guy – Eli – trying to process what I’d just seen. ‘What a day! You would not believe the mess I have to deal with at work. The checkbook is all out of order, somehow I missed a deposit or something, thank God the girls are so understanding. I mean, it’s not like their paychecks are for huge amounts, but still, they work hard, and…’
Between this soliloquy and the baby melting down, not to mention Eli witnessing it all, I could literally feel my temperature rising. Why did she have to make everything such a big deal?
‘I better get back to the shop,’ he said to Heidi. ‘Congratulations, by the way.’
‘Oh, Eli, you’re so sweet, thank you,’ she replied, jiggling the baby. ‘And I’m so glad you met Auden! She’s new here, hardly knows a soul, and I was hoping she’d find someone to introduce her around.’
I felt my face flush even hotter; of course she had to make it sound like I was desperate for company. Which was why I barely responded as Eli nodded at me before crossing the boardwalk and pushing the door open to the bike shop, disappearing inside.