Noah stays behind to scrape and clean the grill. I do my part by wiping down the patio table, but I’m watching him out of the corner of my eye. I see his impressive biceps flexing as he scrapes the char from the lines of the grill. He’s still so built—it’s hard to tear my eyes away.
“Thank you for being so nice to Lily,” I say.
Noah glances back at me briefly, then goes back to the grill. “I know what it’s like to have a dad who isn’t around much.”
Noah’s father left his mother when he was about ten years old, but was usually absent prior to that. There were issues with alcohol, but in general, he just seemed like he wasn’t a great guy. A loser, Noah always called him. I remember Noah telling me about a heart-wrenching Boy Scout trip where every dad showed up but his. It was one of his goals in life to be completely different from his own father.
“Anyway,” he says, “she’s a sweet kid.”
I smile at the compliment. “Thanks. She likes you too. Actually, I think she has quite the crush.”
Noah snorts. “Yeah, I get that a lot from the little girls who show up at the emergency room.”
“The moms too, I’ll bet.”
He doesn’t look at me as he mumbles, “Yeah.”
The female patients must go wild for Noah. A handsome, young doctor with no ring on his finger? He must have to bat them away.
“So,” Noah says quietly, “does Lily know about me? Did you tell her?”
I bite my lip. “Tell her what?”
He turns to glare at me. “What do you think?”
I wince at his anger, which is probably deserved. “No. I haven’t told her anything. Do… do you want me to?”
He doesn’t look terribly surprised that I hadn’t told her. He shakes his head. “No, let me. I’m used to telling people.” He shrugs. “Can’t be any worse than telling a woman I’m out on a first date with.”
“Oh,” I mumble. “Is that… I mean, do they react… badly?”
Noah slams down the spatula and glares at me. “Well, gee, Bailey, how the fuck do you think they react? You think they rip their clothes off with desire?”
“No,” I say quickly, then when I see the look on his face, I backpeddle. “I mean, I’m sure there are some women who… there have to be women who… I mean, you’ve had girlfriends, haven’t you?”
I see the look on Noah’s face and recognize at this point that I’m not making this situation any better. “Jesus Christ,” he says. “Of course I’ve had girlfriends. What the hell do you think? This is really insulting.”
“I’m sorry.” I run a shaking hand through my hair. “I didn’t mean to… I mean, you’re the one who brought it up.” I chew on my thumbnail—an old bad habit of mine. “I feel like I can’t say anything without you yelling at me.”
“Sorry to make things uncomfortable for you,” Noah shoots back.
I scoop up a package of unused paper plates from the table. I want to throw them at him. “If you want me to leave,” I say, “just say so. I’ll have Lily and me on a train to New York first thing tomorrow.”
He studies my face as if he’s really thinking about it. I know he said he invited me so that we could learn to be cordial with each other, but I think it’s a lost cause. It’s clear Noah doesn’t have it in him to be nice to me, even if he thought he did.
“No,” he says finally. “I want this to work out. For my mother’s sake. She deserves to be happy.”
“Fine,” I say, “but you have to stop being such an asshole to me.”
He opens his mouth as if to protest, but then thinks better of it. “I’ll try,” he finally says.
Our eyes meet across the patio. It surreal that we’re standing here, struggling to be civil to each other. This wasn’t where I thought we’d be ten years ago. Everything went horribly wrong, and I know there’s nothing I can do at this point to fix it.
Sketching is better than psychotherapy for me. When I’m feeling awful, all I need to do is get out my sketchpad and let my mind go blank as I watch the image take shape before me. I don’t think about anything else when I’m sketching other than the drawing in front of me. There was a year when I couldn’t draw because of… well, everything that happened. That was one of the worst years of my life. I’ve probably saved thousands of dollars in therapy bills thanks to my hobby. (Good thing too, because I don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on therapy.)
So instead of getting worked up about the fact that Noah is in his bedroom, thinking about how much he hates me, I sit out on the sofa and sketch while Lily plays with her new Barbie. Gwen and my father have gone out for their “nightly walk” so it’s very quiet in here. I’m sketching Noah’s small kitchen, with its small wooden dining table, creaky chairs, and humming refrigerator. (The challenge is to sketch “humming.”) As the image takes shape, the tension gradually melts from my shoulders and the sharp pain in my temples subsides to a dull ache.
Until Noah comes out into the kitchen to pour himself a glass of water.
He walks into the room with that barely perceptible limp. His T-shirt is far from tight, but it still can’t hide all the muscles in his chest and arms. I hate that he still looks every bit as good as he did a decade ago.
He grabs a glass from the kitchen cabinet and fills it with filtered water from his refrigerator. Before I can stop myself, I blurt out, “I thought you always said water filters were bourgeoisie.”
Noah puts his water glass down on the kitchen table with an aggressively loud thump. Great—why did I say something to antagonize him? I should have stuck with a neutral topic, like the weather. Why oh why didn’t I talk about the weather?
“This isn’t the suburbs.” He shakes his head at me like I’ve said something too stupid to believe. “You can’t drink the water unfiltered out here. You’d get really sick.”
“Okay,” I mumble.
Given how much he hates me, I’m hopeful he’ll bring the water back into his room, but he doesn’t. He sits down with it at that wooden table in one of the rickety chairs with an ungraceful plop. And he sips his water painfully slowly, watching me over the rim of the glass. It makes it hard to do… well, anything.
“I wonder when your mother and my father will be getting back from their walk,” I say, because sometimes it’s hard for me to shut up when I’m nervous. And Noah is making me very nervous. “I hope they’re okay.”
Noah looks down at his watch. “They’re adults. They’ll come back eventually.”
“Yes, but…” I look at the door. “Your mother took her purse, didn’t she? Could they have gotten… mugged?”
“Mugged?” Noah snorts. “Here? You’ve got to be kidding me.” He takes another sip of water. “No, around here, the bigger worry is coyotes.”
My heart speeds up. “Coyotes?”
He nods solemnly. “And snakes.”
He’s messing with me. That’s his mother out there—he wouldn’t send her out to be eaten by coyotes and snakes. But my calm from a moment ago has been completely shattered, and I feel a rush of relief when I hear footsteps right outside our door. Human footsteps. Nothing four-legged or slithery.
Gwen and my father burst through the door, and I see right away that Gwen is limping. Despite the fact that I’m certain Noah was teasing me about the coyotes and snakes, he looks alarmed when he sees his mother.
“Mom!” His light brown eyebrows scrunch together. “What happened? Are you okay?”
I know how close Noah always was with his mother, especially since his dad walked out on them. As a teenager, he chased out a guy his mother was dating when the guy got too fresh. He liked being able to protect her. It must gut him to see her hurt.
“I’m fine!” Gwen hobbles into the living room and collapses onto the sofa. “I just got scraped up by some evil branches.”
But Noah insists on taking a look. He is, he points out, a doctor. My father holds her hand while she straightens out her left leg—sure enough, there are angry red marks all over her calf, which are oozing dark red blood. I close my eyes, not willing to let them see how much the sight of Gwen’s injury is bothering me. I’m trying not to think about that dark red blood.
“That’s a lot of blood,” Lily comments.
Thanks for the observation, honey.
“Let me get this cleaned up,” Noah says. “Bailey, could you grab the first aid kit in the closet over there?”
He’s pointing to the closet about six feet from where I’m sitting. It’s an entirely reasonable request, except if I try to stand up, I will definitely pass out. Even without standing up, it’s a coin flip whether I’m going to stay conscious.
“Um…,” I murmur.
Noah raises his blue eyes to look at me. I see a flicker of amusement on his features—almost affection. “It still bothers you so much, Bailey?”
I turn my head away, unable to even mumble a response.
“I’ll get it!” Lily yelps, abandoning her Barbie on the floor. She’s too eager to impress Noah.
Unfortunately, Lily doesn’t have the slightest idea what a first aid kit looks like. After a moment of contemplation, she pulls an umbrella out of the closet and holds it up triumphantly. I don’t get that. Yes, she might not know what a first aid kit should look like. But she does know what an umbrella looks like. My father finally has to go over to help her, but he can’t find it either. Noah finally has to fetch it himself.
While Noah is rifling around the closet, looking for the kit, my father holds Gwen’s hand. He smiles at her in a way that makes me wish I had a boyfriend of my own around for all the various cuts and scrapes I’ve had over the years. Not only am I single, but there’s nothing even remotely on the horizon. I am uber-single.
“Must be nice having a son who’s a doctor,” Dad comments.
Gwen smiles and nods. “Yes, it is.” She flashes me a pointed look. “He always looks out for the people he cares about. That’s just the sort of person he is.”
Oh God. Way to rub it in.
Noah fishes out his first aid kit from the closet after a minute of searching. The sight of it is painfully familiar. I don’t know if it’s the same one he had in college, but it may as well be. I’ve been watching Noah break out his first aid kit for a long time, at even the slightest excuse. It was sort of his thing. I used to tease him about how a papercut doesn’t warrant a first aid kit.
I still remember the first time I saw that first aid kit during my freshman year of college. My party animal roommate Carla had left a bottle of Corona on the floor of our dorm room, and I knocked it over accidentally, shattering glass all over the wooden floorboards of our room. During my angry attempt to clean it up, I slashed my hand on a large piece of glass.
I ran out of the room in the direction of the communal bathroom to get myself cleaned up. But it turned out I wasn’t alone in there. The first thing I noticed when I got inside was a cloud of steam coming out of one of the shower stalls. And that’s when I saw Noah, standing at the sink in nothing but his boxers, his usually light hair darkened from the water.
The sight of those tight muscles in his chest and arms made me forget all about my bleeding hand for a minute. It’s not like I hadn’t seen men without their shirts off at the beach or at the swimming pool, but none of them looked like Noah.
He blinked water droplets out of his eyelashes. “Bailey, right?”
I just stared at him, somehow rendered speechless.
His light brown eyebrows bunched together. “Are you okay?”
“Yes?” I managed.
“Um… you’re dripping blood all over the floor…”
Noah later claimed he saw my eyes roll up in their sockets. I’m not so sure. My knees were definitely very wobbly, but I don’t think I was about to hit the floor. I do remember him yelling, “Oh, shit!” And then I felt his arms grabbing me, supporting me.
A second later, he was scooping me up in his arms like I was a princess and he was the gallant handsome prince carrying me off into the sunset. And also, he was shirtless. I wish I could have appreciated the sexiness of it, but I was just mortified that my hot neighbor had to rescue the dorky freshman from fainting.
“I’m okay,” I murmured. “You don’t have to…”
“You almost fainted,” he pointed out.
My body was pressed against his own bare chest. I’d never felt such a troubling combination of turned on and queasy. I finally gave in, resting my head against his shoulder, and let him carry me back to his room, where he lay me down on the futon.
“Are you going to faint, Bailey?” he asked me.
I shook my head no.
My cheeks burned. “No.”
“Let me see your hand.”
I squeezed my fist shut and held it protectively to my chest. “I’m okay.”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m going to go get my first aid kit.”
Noah disappeared into one of the bedrooms. When he emerged again, he was fully dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, but he wasn’t any less sexy fully clothed. He was also holding a plastic box containing bottles of antiseptic, band-aids, alcohol swabs, and gauze that he laid out in front of me.
Noah held out his hand to me. “Give it here.”
I looked away as I held out my injured palm. I buried my face in the futon, trying to pretend this wasn’t happening.
I heard Noah laugh. “Wow, you’re really squeamish, aren’t you, Bailey?”
“No, it’s cute, actually.”
Cute. The hot guy next door who had to save me from face-planting onto the bathroom floor just called me cute.
I felt Noah wiping away the blood on my hand. It stung like crazy. I held my breath, biting my lip so hard I worried I was going to make that bleed too. “Do I need stitches?” I asked him.
“Naw,” he said. “It’s a bleeder, but it’s not that bad.”
When I opened my eyes again, Noah was done and the wound on my hand was neatly covered by two Band-Aids.
“Thank you,” I murmured.
He grinned crookedly at me. “Any time, Bailey.”
To this day, I can’t look at a first aid kit without remembering the first time I fell a little bit in love with Noah Walsh.
I wake up in the morning with Lily’s feet staring me in the face.
Lily and I are no strangers to being forced to share a bedroom. We’ve shared one for the past three years, since Theo took off. And about half the time, at some point during the night, Lily migrates to my bed.
I want to say it’s a joy sleeping with my daughter. I do love having her warm little body encircled in my arms, and I’m sure she likes it too, which is why she comes into my bed. But Lily is a very restless sleeper. It’s not at all out of the ordinary for her to turn 180 degrees during the night and end up with her feet on her pillow, intermittently kicking me in the face. In fact, when she does have her head on the pillow at the end of the night, I suspect it’s only because she did a full 360 turn.
Well, at least her feet don’t smell too bad.
I sit up in bed, massaging a crick in my neck. It’s not yet seven in the morning—I’m probably the only one awake in this house. But looking on the bright side, that means I can hit the shower before anyone else can get there.
I tiptoe out of bed before Lily wakes up. I grab the towel Noah left for me as well as my toiletries. I nearly bring a change of clothes, but then I figure I can just wrap a towel around myself for the three-foot-long journey back to my room. It will be fine.
The door to the bathroom is shut, but the light isn’t on, which is Lily’s usual MO. I got her in the habit of closing doors behind her, so she always closes the bathroom door, which drives me nuts when we’re in someone else’s home because I’m never sure if it’s occupied. I open the door to the bathroom, thinking I’ll have a little talk with Lily later.
Except as it turns out, the bathroom is occupied. By Noah. Who just finished taking a shower.
It’s not like I never walked in on Noah just after a shower before. Hell, I’ve walked in on him during a shower many, many times. On purpose. And in a lot of ways, he looks very much the same as he used to back on the day he bandaged my wounded hand. He still has a full head of hair plastered to his skull, although it’s shorter than it used to be. He still has those strong, tight muscles in his shoulders, arms, and chest, but that’s no surprise since I could see them through his T-shirt earlier. He does have more hair on his chest than he used to, but I suppose that’s normal with aging. And… well, let’s just say my favorite part of his anatomy is just as I remember it.
But the Noah before me is entirely different than the Noah I used to catch coming out of the shower. That Noah wasn’t sitting in a wheelchair. That Noah had two strong, muscular legs sprinkled with golden hair. This Noah has two pale stumps, half the size of what his femurs used to be and half the width, with white scars where the rest of his legs used to be.
“Bailey,” he gasps.
“Oh my God,” I say. “I’m so sorry!”
I slam the door shut, but of course, it’s far too late. If I have earned any goodwill whatsoever in the last day, I have instantly lost it.
To be continued...
PS Did you guess??? :)