‘Thisbe, sweetheart, it’s okay,’ Heidi was saying, oblivious to all this as she strapped the baby back into the stroller. To me she added, ‘It’s so great you and Eli are friends!’
‘We’re not,’ I said. ‘We don’t even really know each other.’
‘Oh.’ She looked over at the bike shop, as if it would confirm this, then back at me. ‘Well, he is really sweet. His brother, Jake, is about your age, I think. He went out with Maggie until just recently. Awful breakup, that was. She’s still reeling from it.’
His brother? I thought, my face flushing. How small was this freaking town, anyway? And Heidi was still talking.
‘Should we go back to the restaurant?’ she asked me. ‘Or maybe I should take Thisbe home, she’s so upset. What do you think? I mean, I’d love a dinner out, but I wonder –’
‘I don’t,’ I said, the words coming even as I knew I should bite them back, ‘I don’t know what you should do. Okay? All I know is that I’m hungry, and I want to go eat with my father. So that’s what I’m going to do, if it’s all right with you.’
I could see her draw in a breath as a hurt look spread across her face. ‘Oh,’ she said after a moment. ‘Well, sure. Of course.’
I knew I’d been mean. I knew it, and yet I still turned and walked away, leaving her and the baby, still crying, behind me. But I could have sworn the sound followed me, hanging on, filling my ears even through the crowd on the boardwalk, into the restaurant, all the way down the narrow aisle to the table where my dad was already eating. He took a look at my face, then pushed a menu over to me as I slid into the booth across from him.
‘Just relax,’ he said. ‘It’s Friday night.’
Right, I thought. Of course. And when the onion rings arrived a few minutes later, I tried to do just that. But for some reason, they didn’t taste the same this time. Still good. But not great like before.
I knew from experience when a fight was over and when it had only just begun. So I stayed gone after dinner, taking a walk on the beach and the longest way home. Not long enough, though: as I climbed the porch steps two hours later, I could hear them.
‘– understand what you want from me. You asked me to stop working and come to dinner. I did that. And you’re still not happy.’
‘I wanted us to all have dinner together!’
‘And we would have, if you hadn’t left to go to the store. That was your choice.’
I dropped my hand from the doorknob, stepping back out of the porch light. From the sound of it, this was happening just inside, and the last thing I wanted was to walk into the middle of it.
‘I just wish…’ Heidi said, her voice cracking.
Then, nothing. The silence was almost unbearable, broken only when my dad said, ‘You just wish what.’
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I just… I thought you’d want to spend more time with us.’
‘I’m here all the time, Heidi,’ my dad said, his voice flat.
‘Yes, but you’re in your office. You’re not with Thisbe, interacting with her. You don’t rock her or get up with her…’
‘We discussed this as soon as you got pregnant,’ my dad told her, his voice rising. ‘I told you I cannot function on broken sleep, that I have to get my nine hours. You knew that.’
‘Okay, but you could take her during the day, or in the morning so I could deal with work stuff. Or even –’
‘Have we not discussed,’ my dad said, ‘how important it is that I finish the book this summer? That I can’t do the work I need to do during the academic year, and this is my only chance to work uninterrupted?’
‘Yes, of course, but –’
‘Which is why,’ he continued, talking over her, ‘I said let’s hire a nanny. Or a babysitter. But you didn’t want to.’
‘I don’t need a nanny. I just need an hour here or there.’
‘So ask Auden! Isn’t that why you wanted her to come visit?’
I literally felt like I’d been slapped: my reaction was that visceral, blood rushing to my face.
‘I didn’t invite Auden so she’d babysit,’ she said.
‘Then why is she here?’
Another silence followed. This one I welcomed, though, as sometimes a question can hurt more than an answer. Finally Heidi said, ‘For the same reason I want you to spend time with the baby. Because she’s your daughter, and you should want to be with her.’
‘Oh, Jesus,’ my dad said. ‘Do you really think –’
There was more coming, of course there was. My dad never said a sentence when he could go on for a paragraph. But this time, I couldn’t stand to hear it. So I dug my keys out of my pocket and got into my car.
I stayed gone for three hours, driving up and down the streets of Colby, circling up to the college, down to the pier, then back again. It was too small a place to really get lost in, but I did my best. And when I pulled back into the driveway, I made sure all the lights were out in the house before I even thought about going inside.
It was quiet as I stepped into the foyer, shutting the door behind me. At least there was no sign of major disturbances: the stroller was parked by the stairs, a burp cloth folded over the banister, my dad’s keys sitting on the table by the door. The only thing different was the kitchen table, which was now piled with Heidi’s business checkbook, various stacks of paper, and a couple of legal pads. On one of them, she’d clearly been trying to figure out what had happened with accounts. ‘WITHHOLDING?’ she’d written, as well as ‘DEPOSIT 6-11?’ and ‘CHECK ALL DEBITS SINCE APRIL, ERRORS?’ From the looks of it – messy, sort of desperate – she hadn’t gotten very far.
Looking down at the mess of papers, I had a flash of her hurt face after I’d snapped at her, as well as what she’d said later to my dad about me. It was so unexpected to have her in my corner, defending me. Even more shocking was how grateful I’d felt, if only fleetingly, to find her there.
I glanced at my watch: it was twelve fifteen, early by my clock, with a full night still ahead of me. And the coffeemaker was right there on the counter, already filled for the morning and ready to go. It wasn’t Ray’s, but it would do. So I turned, hitting the button, and as it began to brew, I sat down with Heidi’s checkbook, flipping it open, and went looking for what she’d lost.