Noah doesn’t get back for several hours. It’s nearly sunset when he comes back into the house with his tackle box, now wearing a pair of old blue jeans to replace his swim trunks. I’m sitting on the couch playing with my phone while Lily is out with my father and Gwen, taking a little hike. Noah plops down next to me on the sofa, smelling like the outdoors.
“So how did you calm down Lily?” he asks me.
“Uh, what do you mean?”
He rolls his eyes. “She was freaked out when I took my prosthetics off. I told you she would be.”
“Okay, fine. She was a little freaked out.” I’m not going to tell him she cried. “But she’s over it.” I add, “Really.
“That’s good,” he says. “Because I’ve been spending far too much time on my prosthetics the last few days, so after dinner, I’m taking them off for the rest of the night.”
“She’ll be fine.” Hopefully she won’t cry again.
He nods. “Want a beer?”
“Oh my God, yes.”
He gets up and grabs two Millers from the fridge. He hands me mine and then twists the cap off his own beer. He takes a long swig before he drops his head against the sofa. “Tired,” he murmurs.
“That’s what you get for staying out so late with that woman you didn’t even like,” I tease him.
He smiles crookedly.
I attempt to open my beer, but the cap isn’t budging. All it does is make angry red grooves in my palm. “Is this twist-off?” I ask.
“Didn’t you just see me twist off my cap?”
I examine my beer. “I think this one is defective.”
“Give it here, woman.”
I pass my beer to him and he twists it open so easily that even though I’m a woman, it’s slightly emasculating. He passes it back to me and I take a long swig. I sigh contentedly. It’s nice sitting here next to Noah, drinking beers together. I could do this for hours. Although I’d probably be pretty drunk by that point.
I groan when I hear a knock at the cabin door. “That must be my dad and Gwen with Lily,” I say. “They probably forgot the key.” Noah starts to get up but I shake my head at him. “I’ll open it. You got the beers.”
I twist the single lock Noah’s got on the door, and throw the door open, bracing myself for Lily to run into my general groin area. But it’s not Lily. It’s someone completely different. Someone completely unexpected.
“Theo?” I manage to say.
I can’t believe my eyes. What is my ex-husband doing here, two-hundred miles away from his home? He didn’t just wander into the neighborhood.
He looks like he’s been driving all day based on the circles under his eyes. Theo is five years older than I am—in his late thirties now—and he’s starting to look his age. There’s a deep groove between his eyebrows and the lines around his eyes are there even when he isn’t smiling or laughing. It’s probably a reflection of how much he drinks. And the receding hairline doesn’t help matters. He’s still attractive in a grungy sort of way, but the shit he’s pulled with me over the years has completely killed any sexual feelings I might have had for him.
“Hey, Bailey,” Theo says. “I came to see Lily.”
I know Theo can’t see Noah where he’s sitting on the couch and I’d like to keep things that way. I want to get rid of Theo quickly. “I told you—we’re staying here just for the week, then we’ll be back,” I say. “You didn’t have to drive down here.”
“You took Lily here without telling me last weekend,” he says. “I was supposed to see her last weekend.”
“Well, you were supposed to give me a child support check last month,” I point out.
“Again, Bailey?” He frowns, his hands squeezing into fists. “You really don’t want our daughter to see her own father just because I’m short on funds? You’re better than that.”
I sigh. “Look, Lily isn’t here. She’s… out with my father right now.”
Theo looks relieved. “You mean you came here with your dad?”
“Yes,” I say, aware that it isn’t the full truth.
“Oh.” Theo grins sheepishly. “I, uh, I guess I assumed you came here with some guy.” He ducks his head down. “I guess I got… you know, jealous…”
“Who’s that at the door, Bailey?”
Noah has impeccable timing. Just as I’m getting Theo calmed down, the appearance of another man—especially one who looks like Noah—makes my ex-husband’s eyes grow wide and fill with fury. Despite how much he’s cheated on me, Theo is not good at dealing with his own jealousy.
“Who’s this, Bailey?” Theo demands to know. “He doesn’t look like your father.”
Noah narrows his eyes at Theo. He steps toward the doorway, a menacing look on his face. “I own this cabin. Who the fuck are you?”
“I’m Bailey’s husband,” Theo shoots back.
“Ex-husband,” I correct him.
Theo waves his hand like it’s an insignificant distinction. “I can’t believe you, Bailey. This is the guy you’re messing around with? This prettyboy isn’t even your type.”
Noah just snorts. He already knows he’s not my type. The time for him to be bothered by something like that has come and gone. “Listen, why don’t you get lost? Bailey obviously doesn’t want you here.”
Theo grits his teeth. “You gonna make me?”
“I’d be happy to make you.” Noah curls his right hand into a very visible fist. He’s got a couple of inches on Theo, as well as quite a bit of weight—all muscle. He’s really strong, but I’ve only seen him throw a punch once ever—the night Derek got fresh with me. I doubt he wants to fight now, but he probably recognizes that the threat of it will frighten Theo. And it does.
“Look,” Theo says to me, “I don’t want any trouble from Abercrombie and Fitch here.”
“Abercrombie and Fitch!” Noah bursts out, looking down at his worn, baggy blue jeans and T-shirt I’m pretty sure he’s been wearing since college based on the holes at the seams.
“Where’s Lily?” Theo presses me.
“I told you, she’s out with my father,” I say. “I don’t know how soon she’ll be back.”
“I’ll wait,” he says.
“Not in my house, you’re not,” says Noah, who’s not helping the situation at all. “I want you out of my house, and I want that piece of shit car of yours off my property. Now.”
Noah’s still got his hand balled into a fist, so Theo decides to listen to him. He backs away from the doorway, his eyes still on mine.
“Theo,” I say quietly. “I promise we’ll be back in a few days. I’ll bring Lily over to you, okay?”
Theo nods. I’m relieved that it looks like he’s going quietly, although you never really know with Theo. He says to me, “And next time, don’t bring Lily somewhere without telling me.”
“Maybe if you were a half-decent father, you’d know where your daughter is,” Noah mutters under his breath.
I can tell Theo hears him, but he decides not to respond. It’s probably better for Theo’s self-esteem to avoid a pissing contest with Noah. At least, considering he doesn’t know about Noah’s secret.
Years ago, Noah tried to show me how to fillet a fish, but I couldn’t watch. He teased me about it for days, but then agreed from then on, he’d fillet any fish he caught. At the time, we thought we’d be sharing many fish together. But it didn’t work out that way.
Noah fillets the fish he caught today and cooks them up for dinner. Lily eats up every bite, having regained much or all of her hero worship. But I notice that Noah waits until I’m getting Lily in bed at eight o’clock to take off his prosthetics.
After Lily is asleep, I decide to make myself useful by cleaning up the kitchen. I figure the least I can do to pay for a free week in the country is to wash some dishes. I’ve finished the last of them when Noah wheels into the kitchen. “You don’t have to do that,” he says to me.
I turn around, wiping my hands on my jeans. “Too late.”
This is the first time I’ve seen Noah sitting in his wheelchair in the light of day. It’s very different from the one he’d been sitting in that day I broke his heart in his mother’s apartment. It’s a narrow, sporty-looking chair with a low backrest and the wheels tilted out at the base. He’s put on a pair of shorts and folded the ends over his stumps. He rubs his right leg and winces.
“You okay?” I ask as I settle into a seat at the kitchen table.
He nods. “Yeah. My right limb is… not great. It’s all that hardware and shit they put in it before they did the amputation. Phantom pain, muscle pain, bone pain—I’ve got it all. I wish they had just taken it off to begin with—I would have been better off.”
“I guess.” Losing both his legs at once would have been a lot to handle.
“The truth is,” he says, “even nine or ten hours on the prosthetics is sometimes more than I can handle. Around my apartment, I only use my chair. And I probably do about a quarter of my ER shifts in my chair.” He grins. “You should see the look on the patients’ faces. Especially the ones who are already drugged out of their minds.”
“I’ll bet.” I watch him rub his right leg again. “You need something for that? Ice?”
He hesitates. “That would be great, actually. There’s an ice pack in the freezer.”
He’s got one of those blue gel ice packs in the freezer. I pull it out and he rests it on the end of his leg. He lets out a sigh. “Okay.”
“You shouldn’t wear your prosthetics for Lily’s sake,” I say. “She’s okay with whatever. I mean, she’s a kid. They can adjust to anything.”
“It’s not entirely for Lily.”
His eyes meet mine and I have to look away.
“Well, whatever the reason,” I say. “You should do what’s comfortable for you.”
Noah leans back in his wheelchair. “Okay, good to know.” He raises his eyebrows at me. “Ice cream?”
I laugh and grab what’s left of the Neapolitan ice cream from the freezer. We don’t bother with bowls this time and just eat directly from the container. Noah asks me questions about my job as a social worker and I tell him some of the more interesting stories. I leave out one of the most intense stories I’ve had in the last year, about the double-amputee client I had who didn’t open the door to the house when I knocked, so I circled his house until I found an open window, climbed inside, and discovered the man passed out in his bedroom, toxic from being in kidney failure. I got him to the hospital and he survived, but it was definitely above the call of duty for me—I just had a really bad feeling that something was wrong.
But that guy was old and sick. He’d lost both his legs because of diabetes and he was barely able to take care of himself. I did the best I could to get him home but he didn’t have family and ended up in a nursing home.
But I stick to the funny stories, like about the Jamaica client I have who always pulls me into her apartment to serve me a feast when I come to visit. And Noah tells me stories about some of the patients he’s had in the emergency room that have me cracking up.
“So it was Christmas Eve,” Noah is telling me, “and I’m thinking it’s going to be a super quiet shift. I actually went to the call room and got to lie down for twenty minutes before getting paged back to the ER. It’s this twenty-year-old girl who came in with her boyfriend with the chief complaint of rectal itch. At eleven o’clock on Christmas Eve, she came to the ER for rectal itch. I asked her how long it was going on and she tells me six months. I was like, you’ve got to be kidding. I was sure there had to be something else going on, like they stuck something inside her during sex that they couldn’t get out, and didn’t want to admit it because they were embarrassed.”
I giggle. “Does that happen a lot?”
He nods. “Oh yeah. All time.”
“Like what sorts of things do they stick up there?” I ask.
“Honestly, it’s usually a pencil,” he says. “Then a piece of it breaks off and they can’t get it out. The worst was a light bulb that broke. That was a mess.”
I cringe at the idea of a broken light bulb inside my nether regions.
“But this girl was legit,” he says. “It turned out she really was just there for a chronic rectal itch. On Christmas Eve!”
I cover my mouth to suppress a laugh because I don’t want to wake Lily. I’m mid-laugh when Gwen and my father pass by the kitchen, both of them looking incredibly amused. “We’re going to turn in,” Gwen says to us, “just wanted to let you know.”
“Oh!” I look down at my watch and realize that somehow two hours have flown by. That always seemed to happen when I was talking to Noah. “Um, well, goodnight.”
I watch them walk down the hall to their bedroom. Noah leans in and murmurs, “I’m trying not to think about what’s going on in there.”
“I know,” I groan. “I’m happy they’ve found each other, but… it’s my dad. I just don’t want to picture it.”
“It’s probably worse for them to picture us having sex,” he points out.
For a moment, I try to wrap my head around the idea that Lily will have sex someday. I can’t do it. I’m not even going to try. It’s just not going to happen.
Noah looks down at the empty ice cream carton between us. “Hmm, looks like I’m going to have to buy more ice cream.”
“Oh God.” I shake my head. “That was pretty full, wasn’t it?”
“That’s okay,” he says. “You can afford it. You look like you’ve dropped fifteen pounds since college. Don’t they still have food in Queens?”
“I’ve been busy and poor. More of the latter than the former.”
Although it isn’t entirely funds that’s stifled my appetite lately. After all, I’ve always managed to feed Lily well on a budget. It’s more like… my life is so far from what I wanted it to be at this point. It’s always on my mind. And I’m the sort of person who stops eating when I’m depressed.
There’s a pounding at the front door that makes both of us jump. Noah looks down at his watch. “It’s almost eleven o’clock. Who the hell is that?”
“Bailey!” I hear a voice yelling from the other side of the door. “Open up, Bailey!”
Shit, it’s Theo. Drunk.
This is not going to be good.
To be continued....