After dinner, my father and Gwen go out to take a walk. They offer to let me come along, and I’m torn between not wanting to be a third wheel on their romantic midnight stroll and not wanting to be stuck in the cabin alone with Noah (and Lily, who doesn’t want to budge from the couch). I finally decide to stay behind.
It ends up being the three of us in the living room. Noah is reading in an armchair, Lily is flopped on her back, staring at the ceiling, and I’m sketching in my sketchpad. I almost started drawing Noah just out of old habit, but I stopped myself. I’m drawing Lily instead. Because it’s not like I don’t already have twenty billion sketches of my daughter during every moment of her life. I’ve even got a sketch of her using the potty stashed away somewhere.
“Mommy?” Lily’s voice interrupts me as I’m adding definition to her hair. Lily’s reddish-brown hair is easy to draw because it’s very straight and fine.
“Yes?” I ask, even though I know what’s coming.
“Mommy, I’m booooored!”
Lily is incapable of saying the word “bored” without drawing it out over several syllables.
“What about your new doll?” I say.
“I’m bored of that,” she says. She plops down on the couch next to me and frowns. “I wanna watch TV.”
I look around the room. “I don’t know if Noah has a TV.”
Noah pulls his eyes from his book to regard us briefly. “I don’t.”
I give her a pointed look. “See?”
Lily scrunches up her little face at Noah. “How come you don’t got a TV?”
He doesn’t even lift his eyes this time. “Because they rot your brain.”
“We have two TVs at home,” Lily informs him. “My favorite show is Spongebob Squarepants. It’s usually on all day on Saturday.” Please stop talking, Lily. “But I also like Gumball. And The Thundermans. And Ben Ten. And Unikitty. And My Little Pony. And Teen Titans Go.” Please, Lily. “And Henry Danger. And School of Rock.” For the love of God… “And I used to like Princess Sofia, but I don’t really have time to watch it anymore.”
“I can’t imagine you would,” he murmurs.
“Look, there’s nothing wrong with a little TV,” I say.
He raises his eyebrows. “A little?”
“Hey, she’s my daughter, and if I want her to watch TV, she can watch TV!”
A wry smile plays on his lips. “Not here, she can’t.”
I can see Lily is revving up for a tantrum, so to circumvent it, I quickly say, “Lily, why don’t you grab the extra sketch book from my luggage? There are some of your crayons in there too. We can draw together.”
I can see Lily thinking it over, deciding if this was acceptable. She must have been trying to impress Noah with her obedience, because she skips off to our bedroom to retrieve the book. When she returns, she’s got the sketchbook, but not her crayons.
“The crayons are in the side pocket,” I tell her.
“No, Mommy,” Lily says. “I want one of your special pencils. I want to do a nice drawing, like you.”
I can’t suppress a smile. Usually Lily just likes to color, but occasionally she does express interest in learning how to draw. I pull a fresh pencil out of my pack and hand it to her as she sidles up next to me on the couch.
Lily leans her head against my shoulder as she works on her drawing. I get distracted from my own drawing as I watch her create a picture of a princess I’m almost entirely certain is Queen Elsa from Frozen. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to identify Lily’s artwork more specifically than “woman” or “dog” or “green blob monster.”
“I’m not good at drawing feet,” Lily comments as she draws the woman’s shoes at right angles to the body.
“Well,” I say, “the trick is you want to draw them just slightly at an angle to the body.”
She looks at me blankly.
“Here, let me show you.” I turn a page of my sketchbook and quickly sketch a picture of a girl. I draw her feet slightly slanted to the side as Lily watches in fascination. “Like this.”
“Oh!” She smiles happily and goes back to work. And she actually draws Queen Elsa a pretty good pair of feet.
I look up from my daughter and see Noah is no longer looking at his book. He’s watching us, an unreadable expression on his face. But when he notices me looking, he quickly drops his eyes and goes back to his book.
It’s funny—I always thought Noah never had much interest in me until that night he punched Derek in the stomach. But after we’d been going out a few weeks, he admitted he’d been thinking about me long before that.
“It was right after you cut your hand on that glass,” he told me. “I was jogging back to the dorm after playing basketball, and I saw you sitting in the grass, leaning against a tree. You had your sketchbook out and you were drawing a picture of the campus. You were so focused—you had no idea I was even there.”
I smiled at him. I had no idea he’d been noticing me at the same time I’d been noticing him.
“I watched you draw for a little while.” He smiled crookedly. “The picture you were doing… it was amazing. You were capturing all these little details that I never even would have noticed on my own. I couldn’t stop watching you, to be honest.”
Of all the things I’ve missed about Noah, one of the things I missed most was the way he looked at me when I was drawing.
I wake up to the smell of bacon and eggs.
I haven’t woken up to the aroma of cooking food since I was in high school and my mom made me breakfast on the weekend. Even back when I was married, Theo was hopeless in the kitchen. I was lucky if he brewed a pot of coffee in the morning.
I follow my nose into the kitchen, where Noah is scraping scrambled eggs onto a plate for Lily. He’s got his own plate with a similar portion of eggs, and I see he’s also given them each two pieces of bacon. My mouth is watering—how come bacon never smells this good when I make it?
Lily digs into the eggs with gusto, despite the fact that she’s spent the last three years refusing to eat anything for breakfast besides frozen waffles from the toaster oven.
“These eggs are so good!” she exclaims.
Noah grins at her. “That’s because I got them from a magic chicken.”
“No, you didn’t!” Lily says. “There’s no magic chicken.”
“Uh huh, there is. I climbed up a beanstalk and stole it from a giant.”
She bursts into giggles. “That’s Jack and the Beanstalk!”
“Hmm. I’m pretty sure that story is called Noah and the Beanstalk.”
Lily laughs hysterically, spraying little chunks of egg all over the table. He’s good at getting her to laugh. Then again, making a six-year-old laugh isn’t exactly challenging. She thinks this show on YouTube about an orange who befriends a pear is the height of comedy.
I clear my throat. “Hey,” I say.
Noah looks up and the smile slides off his lips. “Oh. Hey.”
I force a smile of my own. “Are there any more scrambled eggs left?”
“No, we ate ‘em all.” He raises his eyebrows at me. “Why? You want me to make some for you?”
“Um…” The smell of eggs is tantalizing, but the last thing I want is Noah slaving over the stove for me. I don’t need to give him another reason to resent me. “That’s okay. I’ll just have some cereal.”
“Uh huh.” I nod vigorously as I pull a box of Cheerios from the cupboard. “I like Cheerios a lot. It’s got lots of fiber. Good for the bowels.”
Oh God, did I just say that? Did I really talk about my bowels in front of Noah? The tantalizing smell of those eggs must have scrambled my brain.
“Noah’s going to take us swimming today, Mommy,” Lily tells me as she happily chews on a mouthful of eggs.
I glance at Noah, who is nodding at her. My heart sinks. “Lily, honey, I didn’t pack bathing suits for us.”
Lily’s face falls. “Why not?”
“Yeah, why pack bathing suits for a trip to the lake?” Noah mutters under his breath.
I ignore his attitude as I sit down with my Cheerios and milk. I like Cheerios as much as any adult possibly could (and they are good for the bowels), but anything would be a letdown after smelling those eggs. “I didn’t realize it was going to be so warm in April.”
Lily’s lower lip starts to tremble. “But I want to go swimming…”
I hold my breath, praying she likes Noah too much to throw a huge tantrum right in front of him.
“Don’t worry, Lily,” Noah says brightly. “I’ll take you and your mom out to a store today and we’ll buy you some bathing suits. Sound good?”
I groan inwardly. Bathing suits are expensive. Even though Dad paid for Lily’s Amtrak ticket, my own ticket still set me back a lot. I don’t want to shell out forty bucks for two bathing suits when we’ve got perfectly good bathing suits at home.
I’m not sure how to explain that to Noah though. He’s a doctor, so I’m guessing the cost of a bathing suit isn’t something he worries about.
“Better not,” Lily says thoughtfully, before I can say anything myself. “It’s too ‘spensive.”
I cringe. I hate that I stress about money so much that my six-year-old immediately thinks of the price tag when Noah brings up buying new clothes. But it’s the reality of my life. I’m a social worker single mom with a deadbeat ex-husband. So.
“It’s just bathing suits,” Noah says.
“No,” Lily says firmly. I’m not sure whether to hug her or tell her to shush. Maybe both. “Mommy says new clothes are too ‘spensive.”
Noah glances at me, a crease forming between his eyebrows. After a moment, he turns back to Lily with a smile on his face. “Well, good thing I’m paying then.”
Great. Now I’m a charity case on top of everything. This trip is getting better and better. “Noah, you don’t have to…”
He glances at me and his eyes briefly meet mine. “Don’t make a big thing of it,” he mutters. “Really.”
I’m about to protest again, but Lily has leaped out of her chair, whooping with excitement at the idea of a new bathing suit and getting to go swimming in the lake. I can’t deprive her of this—despite what Noah probably thinks, I’m not some kind of monster.
But I’m not going to let him pay for the bathing suits.
My father texts me that he and Gwen went to some golf course for the day. If he had offered to let me and Lily tag along, I would have jumped at the chance, but he didn’t. They just left without telling us. So it looks like it’s going to be just me, Noah, and Lily. Together. All freaking day.
Noah drives us to a shopping center in town where there’s a Marshall’s. I usually buy most of Lily’s clothing at consignment sales, and short of that, Walmart. I could get a bathing suit for Lily for five bucks at Walmart. Marshall’s isn’t exactly Prada, but it’s going to set me back.
The parking lot at Marshall’s is surprisingly full. Most of the spots in the vicinity of the front are taken, which means we’ll be parking in no man’s land again. I spot a handicapped spot right by the entrance and, remembering the wheelchair symbol on Noah’s plates, I point it out: “There’s a handicapped spot.”
I thought I was being helpful. But it’s very obvious from the way Noah’s eyes darken that I’ve said the wrong thing yet again. “I’m not parking there,” he says. “That spot is for someone who needs it.”
“But…” I sputter. “You have the plates…”
He doesn’t answer for a moment, his eyes back on the lot, searching for another spot. He finally says, “I only use them when I need to.”
I don’t know what that means, but I certainly know better than to dig further. I’m already on Noah’s shit list times a hundred. Better not make it worse. But in all fairness, he does have the plates. It’s only natural to wonder why he’d have them if he never, ever uses them.
Lily skips the entire way from the car to the store, her cute little pigtails blowing in the slight spring breeze. We hold hands as she skips, although I get the feeling she’d rather be holding hands with Noah.
We find the swimwear section of the store, and that’s where the fighting begins. Lily wants a bikini. And I’m not talking about a two-piece bathing suit that is a shirt and suit bottom. She wants a full-on string bikini that has little triangles that barely cover her nipples and will reveal the entirety of her belly. Honestly, I don’t know why they even make bathing suits like that in size 6T. Whoever designed these suits is depraved.
“Can I help you?” asks a salesgirl.
I turn my head and see a girl in her twenties with a nose ring and a cute, black bob. She’s wearing a nametag that says Nina. I’ve been to many Marshall’s in my life and this might be the very first time ever that a salesgirl has approached me to offer assistance. I mean, they don’t work on commission, so why should they?
But it’s pretty obvious why. She’s looking right at Noah. And I suspect she’s taken notice of the fact that he’s not wearing a wedding band.
“We’re just looking at bathing suits,” he explains.
“You’re buying a bathing suit for your daughter?” Nina asks sweetly.
He hesitates. “No, um… she’s not my daughter. She’s… we’re friends.”
“Oh!” Nina’s dark red lips widen in a smile. “Well, how nice of you to tag along then.”
God, this is getting ridiculous. Is this going to happen every place we go? He’s not that good-looking. Well, okay, maybe he is. But still.
I clear my throat loudly. “I could use some help, actually.”
The girl shoots me an annoyed look, but does manage to help me find bathing suits in my own size. Unlike Lily, I am all about the one-piece suit. I don’t need Noah catching a glimpse of my C-section scar. Or noticing the way my belly simply will not go flat anymore, no matter how little I eat. I already know Noah’s chest is just as perfect as it was when we were in college—I don’t need to feel any worse about myself right now.
I manage to talk Lily into a less risqué suit, and the two of us go to the dressing room to try them on. Nina is unabashedly talking to Noah when we march off with our suits, and she’s still with him when we come out again. And she’s got her hand on his arm. I’m sure she’s working out a way to give him her number, if she hasn’t already.
Lily goes running to Noah and practically shoves her new bathing suit in his face. “Look! It has monkeys on it!”
He grins down at her, turning away from Nina. “So it does.”
“Can I buy it?”
He nods. “Sure, let’s go to the cashier.”
Nina looks like she has more to say, but Noah has already turned away from her and is leading us to the cashier. The girl’s face falls, and her lip juts out in a pout. Better luck next time, Nina.
I don’t know why the lines are so long at Marshall’s in the middle of the day. We’re supposed to be in the middle of a recession, so it’s not clear why everyone else except me has lots of money for shopping. Noah picks the first line, which clearly isn’t the shortest of the lines.
This is typical Noah. When there’s more than one line, he always gets in the first one he sees, without even trying to figure out if there’s a shorter line. I got worked up over it countless times, and Noah’s even-tempered response was always, What’s your big hurry, Bailey? And then he’d kiss me or do something else to make our waiting time much more tolerable.
Well, I’m not going to say anything this time. We’ll just wait in this stupid long line. Even though there definitely won’t be any kissing action.
“Noah?” Lily says. She’s practically bouncing with excitement over her new bathing suit.
“Was that your girlfriend?”
Noah looks down at her and laughs out loud. “No, it wasn’t.”
She looks at him thoughtfully. “Do you have a girlfriend?”
I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding when he replies, “Nope.”
He shrugs. “I don’t know. I just haven’t met the right woman yet, I guess.”
She cocks her head at him. I’m bracing myself for her to ask him if she could be his girlfriend. It seems like the kind of thing she’d be thinking about, judging by her hero worship of him so far this week.
“Mommy never has a boyfriend,” she says instead.
Oh God, that’s much worse. So much worse.
Noah lifts his blue eyes to look at my face. Based on the heat I’m feeling, I’m guessing my skin is the color of a ripe tomato. “Is that so?” he says.
“Yep,” Lily says. “Never.”
Why are you selling out your own mother this way, Lily? Why?
She nods solemnly. “She never even goes out on dates.”
I can’t meet Noah’s eyes as I mumble, “I go on dates sometimes.”
Lily looks plainly shocked. “You do? When?”
“When you’re with Daddy,” I lie.
Lily considers this. “Daddy has lots of girlfriends,” she finally comments.
Oh Jesus. Why is this goddamn line moving so slowly? Noah has really outdone himself in choosing this line. This is the slowest line ever. Is everyone in this store paying with checks or pennies or something?
“Lots of girlfriends?” Noah repeats.
She nods. “Yep. There’s a new one every month!”
Noah’s eyes meet mine. “Wow,” he says, “that ex-husband of yours seems like a real gem.”
I avert my eyes, craning my neck to check out the line next to us. “Maybe we should switch lines.”
“No, we’re fine,” he says evenly.
“We’re not moving at all!”
He shrugs. “What’s your big hurry, Bailey?”
Forget it. We’re staying in this line. Probably until Lily graduates from college. At least Noah doesn’t say anything further about Theo’s many, many girlfriends, several of whom undoubtedly existed while we were still married.
Now that Lily has revealed every embarrassing secret in my life (at least, the ones she knows—she is unaware of my vibrating secret in the drawer near my bed at home, otherwise we’d definitely be discussing it now), it’s finally our turn to pay. I checked the price tags of the two swimsuits, and determined with tax, I’ll end up paying around thirty-five dollars. It’s not ideal, but I don’t want Noah to feel like he has to pay for me. I’ll never live that down.
I whip out my credit card only seconds after Noah has gotten out his. I push his arm out of the way. “I can pay for the suits,” I tell him.
He shakes his head at me. “Bailey, I told you not to make a big thing of this.”
I don’t drop my hand holding the credit card. “I can pay.”
“Don’t be so goddamn stubborn.”
The cashier looks between us. Yes, he’s right—I’m stubborn. He already knows that about me. That’s where Lily gets it from.
“You can pay for lunch, okay?” Noah murmurs. “I told Lily I was buying the suits, so just let me buy them.”
He’s got me there. I drop my hand and let the cashier take his card. Good thing, because it ends up being well over forty dollars. I never said math was my best subject.
To be continued....