“You hate Taco Bell,” I say to him.
He leans back in his seat. “I don’t think you’re any kind of authority on what I hate or don’t hate.” He cranes his neck to look at Lily in her booster seat. “What do you say, Lily? You like Taco Bell? Wanna head for the border?”
“Yay!” Lily cries, even though I haven’t ever been able to talk her into going to a Taco Bell in the city. When I offered it to her, she said she “hates tacos,” even though I’m certain she’s never had a taco in her entire life.
I’m no idiot though. I know why we’re eating here. I recognize we could probably buy everything on the menu at Taco Bell for what Noah paid for our bathing suits.
“You don’t have to eat here just because it’s cheap,” I mumble.
“I’m not,” he says as he pulls forward on the drive-thru line. “I like Taco Bell. Yo quiero Taco Bell.”
I roll my eyes. “Stop it.”
“What’s wrong, Bailey?” he says. “No quieres Taco Bell?”
I don’t dignify that with an answer.
“Anyway,” he says, “I’m going to get the most expensive thing on the menu. I’m going to get a steak… quesadilla.”
He doesn’t get a steak quesadilla. He gets two tacos that cost a dollar combined. I get the same. Lily hems and haws because she really doesn’t want tacos, but when Noah tells her to order a quesadilla, she obliges. The whole meal costs six dollars and change.
We eat in the car, which is something I haven’t done in ages. Noah and I used to do that. We’d take road trips together all the time, and we’d pull off the highway to grab drive-thru fast food, which we’d always eat in the car. “It’s more private in here,” he’d tell me, as he’d lean forward and kiss me. Yes, a lot of meals did end with a make-out session. We could never keep our hands off one another.
“So what did you think of Taco Bell, Lily?” Noah asks her.
Lily chews thoughtfully on her processed quesadilla. “I like McDonald’s better. Do you know McDonald’s?”
He laughs. “Yeah, I’ve heard of it.”
She takes another bite of congealed cheese and cardboard-texture tortillas. “Noah?”
“Can we go visit McDonald’s farm?”
He flashes her a perplexed look. “McDonald’s… farm?”
“McDonald’s farm!” She sings, “Old McDonald’s had a farm, ee-i-ee-i-o!”
“Oh!” He laughs again. “Well, it’s not… there are farms out here but… I mean, they’re not affiliated with…” He pauses thoughtfully. “Have you ever been to a farm, Lily?”
He raises his eyebrows at me. “Never?”
“We live in Queens,” I point out.
“Yeah, but…” He frowns, trying to comprehend the fact that I don’t have the funds or transportation to get my daughter to visit a farm. And God knows, it’s not like Theo ever had any interest. “So… we can go to a farm today, if you want. Right now. There’s one about fifteen miles from here. I buy milk there sometimes.”
Great. More time in a car with Noah. But then again, he’s been fairly well-behaved today. Maybe it will be fine.
“And on that farm, will there be pigs?” Lily asks.
“Yep,” Noah says.
“And on that farm, will there be sheep?”
“I think so.”
“And on that farm, will there be cows?”
The next fifteen miles in the car involve Lily singing Old McDonald Had a Farm. Over and over. And over. I ask Noah if he’d like to turn on the radio but he gives me a look and says, “Lily’s singing.” So I just have to listen to it.
As we get closer to our destination, I find that I’m getting weirdly excited. I haven’t been to a farm in… I don’t know how long. We turn off the main road onto a dirt path, and I can tell by the tempo of Lily’s singing that she’s excited too. There’s a white fence that surrounds acres of grass. Even grass is something I don’t get to see much of unless we’re at the park.
Noah pulls his 4Runner onto an even more uneven path, leading us down a road to where there are a couple of dusty barns and a large pen with animals pacing around. Lily bounces in her seat, shrieking, “Mommy, I see a cow!”
I glance at the main barn, looking for a sign. “Is there an admission fee or…?”
“No, nothing like that,” Noah says. “They know me. We can just check out the animals—no big thing. There’s also an ice cream stand.”
I crane my neck to get a better look at the animal pens, barns, grass, and numerous trees. This is so different than what I see in my daily life in Queens. I haven’t been to a place like this since…
Well, since I was dating Noah.
“Can we pick apples?” I ask.
He frowns. “Apples?”
I nod. “Yes, like from the trees?”
A smile twitches at his lips. “It’s April, Bailey. Spring. You know how stuff gets planted in the spring and then has to grow and ripen?”
“Oh, right,” I mumble, feeling dumb.
“But,” he adds, “you can come back here in September for apple-picking.”
I stare at him in surprise. “You… you want us to come back here? To visit?”
He throws the car into park, avoiding my eyes. “Sure, why not? Lily seems to be having a good time.”
Without another word, he gets out of the car. Except the second I get out myself, I can see how uneven the ground is here. It’s much worse than around his cabin, and he needed a cane over there. Noah holds onto the hood of the car as he makes his way to the trunk.
“Are you okay?” I ask him.
“Fine,” he grunts as he pops the trunk. He pulls his cane out from inside while I help Lily get out. She makes a beeline straight for the pen of animals, but I hang back to make sure Noah doesn’t need help. He’s more stable with his cane, but I can tell it’s still difficult for him to walk here. I remember how he used to love to go hiking, but it’s clear something like that would be hard—if not impossible—for him now.
He’s walking very carefully over to where Lily is fawning over some baby goats. He hits a dip in the dirt, and his knuckles turn white as he struggles to keep his balance. He stops for a moment while I step closer to him, one arm outstretched in case he really does fall.
“Are you okay?” I ask again.
Noah lifts his blue eyes to look at me. “Bailey, don’t ask me if I’m okay again unless you see me sprawled on the ground,” he snaps. “Okay?”
I nod. Sheesh.
The door to one of the barns on the side opens, and a woman steps out. She’s about the same age as Noah’s mother, with white hair scraped back into a bun. Her eyes light up when she sees Noah, just like every other female between the ages of one year and death.
“Noah!” she calls out, waving her hand.
He stops walking, looking relieved to have an excuse to take a break. “Hi, Peggy.”
“You didn’t have to get out of your car,” she says to him. “I would have brought some milk out for you.”
“No, it’s okay,” he says. He nods at me and then at Lily in the distance. “I brought…”
The woman, Peggy, looks me up and down, and a smile quickly spreads across her lips. “Oh!”
He shakes his head. “No, they’re not… remember how I told you my mother’s getting remarried? She’s her fiancé’s daughter. They’re visiting for the week.”
The smile doesn’t leave Peggy’s face. “Oh,” she says again. She thrusts out her hand to me. “I’m Peggy.”
I take her hand, and when she gives me a squeeze, I feel the deep callouses on her palm. “Bailey,” I say. “And that’s my daughter, Lily.”
“Ooh, I love those names,” Peggy sighs. “Very earthy.”
“Lily’s never seen a goat,” Noah explains to Peggy.
“Yes, she has,” I protest. At the Central Park Zoo.
“Well.” Peggy rubs her hands together. “Let me give her the grand tour then.”
I don’t know how, but we manage to spend the next two hours at this little farm. Lily gets an experience that I’m certain very few of the kids in her kindergarten class in Fresh Meadows will ever have. Peggy lets her feed the goat and the sheep, sprinkle out feed for the chicken, and she even—no joke—gets to milk a cow. For two hours, Lily is a little farmer, and when I see the way her face glows with happiness, I don’t ever want to leave. Even though being around Noah is stressful, I definitely want to come back here just to go to this farm again. And actually, Noah isn’t too bad at all right now. He’s grinning as he watches Lily experience all the cool stuff on the farm. Once he even smiles in my direction, although he looks away the second I catch him doing it.
We end our afternoon on the farm with Noah buying us all ice cream from the farm store. The ice cream is so delicious and creamy that I’m convinced every ice cream I’ve ever had in the past has been synthetic garbage.
By the time we head back to the car, I’ve almost forgotten about the fact that Noah hates me. Or that in spite of that one smile, he’s barely said two words directly to me all afternoon.
We head back home in the afternoon. Within five minutes of driving, Lily has been lulled to sleep by all the fresh air and food she’s eaten. Her head sags against her shoulder, some drool slipping adorably from her lips. Noah turns the radio down to low, Kelly Clarkson’s voice just barely audible from the speakers.
There’s something surreal about this scene. For a moment, I imagine another life—one I could have had, where I married Noah instead of my deadbeat ex-husband. I imagine Noah is Lily’s father, and he’s driving his wife and daughter home from a fun day we spent as a family at the local farm. And when we get back home, Noah will make us dinner on the grill, and we’ll tuck Lily into her bed. And then we’ll go to bed. Together.
But of course, that’s so far from reality, it’s ridiculous. Noah is not Lily’s father. Her father is a man who can’t be bothered to make time to see her most weekends. And Noah hates me so much, he can barely bring himself to speak to me.
I really screwed things up.
“Thanks for taking us there,” I say softly, breaking up the silence in the car.
“Yeah,” he mutters.
“Lily enjoyed it,” I add. “We don’t get to do stuff like that very often.”
Noah is quiet for a moment. At first, I think he isn’t going to respond at all, but then he says, “Does he pay you child support?”
“Your ex,” he clarifies. “Does he give you child support for Lily?”
If someone else had said that, I would have told them to mind their own damn business. But I’m skating on thin ice already with Noah. “Why do you ask?”
“Why do I ask?” he repeats. “Because you were having a panic attack over buying a couple of bathing suits at Marshall’s. So I’m thinking he’s not giving you much—or any—money.”
I look away from him, at the blur of grass outside the window. I don’t want to make excuses for Theo, but I also don’t want to admit I was dumb enough to get knocked up by a guy who doesn’t support his kid.
“Maybe he should spend less money on his girlfriends then?” says Noah.
My face burns. I don’t care what Noah has hanging over me—I’m not going to have this discussion with him. “This isn’t any of your business.”
He takes his eyes off the road for a moment to glance at me. “You’re right,” he says quietly. “It’s not. After all, I found out you were getting married from fucking Facebook.”
I lower my eyes, looking down at my lap. “I’m sorry.”
“Why are you sorry? It’s not like I was expecting an invitation.”
“Yes, but…” I pick at a loose thread on my shirt, which turns out to be looser than I thought. The whole thing might unravel if I’m not careful. “I should have called you.”
“You think so?” He stops at a red light and raises his eyebrows at me. “What would you have said, exactly? ‘Hey, Noah, just thought you should know: I found this great guy I’m marrying. He’s a musician, and you know I’m into those artsy types. Oh, and he’s got two legs, and you know how much I like that…’”
Oh God. This conversation has gone downhill fast.
“I’m sorry I said anything,” I mumble. “I just… I wanted to thank you for a nice afternoon. I didn’t want to fight with you again.”
Noah doesn’t say anything right away. I hold my breath, steeling myself for his next attack.
“You’re welcome,” he finally says.
And we don’t speak again for the rest of the drive back.
Chapter: 10 YEARS EARLIER
“Noah’s not doing well.”
Whenever I see Gwen Walsh’s number pop up on my phone, I know it’s not going to be good news. Gwen never has good news for me lately. Noah’s not doing well… that’s old news. Tell me something I don’t know.
“The skin graft they did last week isn’t taking,” Gwen continues.
That’s new information, but not surprising. This is Noah’s third skin graft and his sixth surgery. He has experienced every complication there is—skin grafts failing, bones not healing, infections with microorganisms that require me to put on a yellow gown every time I visit him in his hospital room.
“He’s getting really depressed,” she says. Getting? I haven’t seen Noah smile in two months. “He’s in so much pain but he keeps refusing the pain medications because he’s worried about… you know, he doesn’t want to be like his father. But it’s hard to see him suffering so much.”
“Yeah,” I mumble into the phone.
I’m sitting alone at the desk in my single room in the dorm. I’d been waiting to be a senior so that I could have a single all to myself, but now I wish I had a roommate. I have friends that I can talk to and I can call my mother, but there’s nothing quite like a roommate.
“I know he’d love to see you, Bailey,” Gwen says. “It would really give him a lift.”
When Noah first got injured, it was right before my Christmas break. I was able to spend two straight weeks with him without much hassle. Now is a different story. He’s been transferred to a hospital in New York City, and it’s a five-hour drive for me. I have my classes to think about, and my grades have plummeted recently. I can’t just pop over there.
That said, the distance isn’t the only reason I haven’t been to visit much.
Still, it’s been three weeks since I’ve seen Noah. Actually, close to a month. We’ve talked on the phone, but it isn’t the same, especially since he’s in so much pain that doing practically anything, including talking for more than a short period of time, is difficult for him. Gwen’s right—he should take the pain meds.
“I’ll come this weekend,” I tell her before I can change my mind.
“Oh, that’s wonderful,” her tinny voice on the other line exclaims. “He’ll be so happy.”
Noah won’t be happy—that I’m certain of. I’m starting to wonder if he’ll ever be happy again.
Every time I see Noah, he looks worse.
When I walk into his hospital room, passing by his roommate (a big, fat guy who Noah told me snores like a chainsaw), I find him lying in his bed, like he’s been every day for the past three months. He’s hardly been out of bed at all during that time, thanks to his goddamn right leg.
Noah looks exhausted. There are vivid purple circles under his blue eyes and his dark blond hair has become greasy and disheveled. Any trace of humor or playfulness on his face has completely vanished. He’s absolutely miserable.
I look down at the source of his misery. The pins sticking out of his leg are long gone, replaced with various rods and screws under the skin. His leg is lying exposed on top of the sheets, red and swollen to twice the size it ought to be, partially swathed in various bandages. And of course, next to that leg is the flattened sheet where his other leg should have been.
“Bailey.” He doesn’t smile when I walk into the room. “So nice of you to stop by.”
My face burns. I know he’s not trying to be a jerk—he’s just worn down by the pain and surgeries. I have to remind myself of that.
“You know,” I say evenly, “I just drove five hours to get here.”
Noah sighs and shifts in bed to boost himself up. He grimaces because any movement at all of his right leg is agony for him. “I know,” he says. “I’m sorry, Bailey. I know it’s not easy for you to get here. It’s just that… it hasn’t been a great day.”
I raise my eyebrows at him. “Anything you want to talk about?”
“The fucking skin graft.” He shakes his head. “It’s failing. Again. Everything keeps getting infected. I’m so goddamn sick of this.”
I grab the chair across the room and pull it over so that I’m next to his bed. I sit down and take his hand in mine. His is clammy.
“I’m in so much pain, Bailey.” He winces at the words. “Every minute of every day. I can’t take it anymore. I can’t even sleep.”
“What about the pain meds?” I say.
“No.” He shakes his head again. “You know my dad was an alcoholic and I don’t want to go down that road. Anyway, they don’t even really help that much.”
“But if you’re in that much pain…”
“I said no.”
Noah is glaring at me now. He’s so unhappy that it’s difficult to even have a conversation with him. But really, if it were me, I’d take the pain medications. Anything would be better than dealing with the pain he seems to be experiencing.
The tension is broken when a tall, gray-haired man in a white coat enters the room. I recognize him as Noah’s plastic surgeon, Dr. Hill. He recognizes me and smiles in greeting. But overall, he has that grim expression that I’ve come to expect from every doctor who enters Noah’s room. Why can’t any of them have good news for us?
“Hi, Noah,” Dr. Hill says.
Noah nods in response, not looking thrilled to see his surgeon.
“And…” The surgeon regards me. “Bailey, right?”
“That’s right,” I say.
“So, Noah,” Dr. Hill says. “I think we need to have a talk about your leg. Is it all right to talk in front of Bailey?”
“She’s my fiancée,” he says. “I’d like her to hear anything you have to say.”
“Okay.” Dr. Hill nods. He’s supposedly one of the best plastic surgeons in the city for skin grafts. That’s what Gwen told me anyway. “So as you know, the latest skin graft is not doing well. I think it’s safe to say that it’s failing.”
Noah nods. I can see him gripping the sheets of his bed.
“We can wait a little longer and try again,” he says. “But here’s the thing, Noah. You’ve been in the hospital for… what? Three months? This leg is not doing well and it’s not just the skin graft. And I can see how much pain you’re in.”
“Yeah,” he mumbles. “I can handle it though.”
“I’m sure you can,” Dr. Hill says. “But I’m wondering to what purpose we’re doing all this. We fused your right ankle so you have almost no movement there. You have a lot of nerve and muscle damage in your leg. Even if all the bones heal and we get a skin graft to take, that leg is never really going to be functional. Not in the way you’re going to want it to be.”
Noah nods, not looking entirely surprised. I’m sure all this was said to him before.
“You’re always going to need a cane to walk, at best,” Dr. Hill says. “You’ll never be able to run. You’re likely always going to have some degree of discomfort in that leg. It will always hold you back.”
Noah’s face is turning red. “Yeah. I know.”
“And you’re only… what? Twenty-three?”
He nods. “What I’m trying to tell you, Noah,” the surgeon says, “is that I think your best bet might be to consider amputation.”
Noah’s mouth falls open. “You mean… take off my other leg?”
Dr. Hill nods. “At this point, I think we’ve done everything we can to save it. You can either spend another six months in the hospital and end up with a leg that doesn’t work very well, or do an amputation now and be out of here in a week or two.”
Noah’s face reflects how I’m feeling right now. How could they suggest amputating his leg? That’s his leg, for God’s sake.
“I can see this is a shock to you,” Dr. Hill observes. “But if it were me, that’s what I’d do. You’ll walk much better without that leg.”
Noah swallows and looks up at the doctor. “If I were to agree to this, where would you…?”
“We’d have to take the knee, unfortunately,” Dr. Hill says. “The worst skin loss was above the knee, so if we’re going to do it, we’d have to go proximal to the injury. But we’d be able to give you a long enough limb that you could easily fit a prosthetic. The prosthetic knees they have now are incredible.”
“Yeah,” Noah mumbles. He lowers his eyes. “I… I’ve got to think about this.”
Dr. Hill nods. “I understand it’s a big decision. But if you do this, we could have you home and walking again before you know it. And your pain would be significantly reduced, if not gone entirely.”
I can see that last statement has gotten Noah’s attention. Of course it has. He’s been in horrible pain for months, to the point where I think he’d accepted it was something he’d have to live with for a long time.
The surgeon leaves the room, and now Noah and I are alone. He’s staring ahead at the wall, his eyes glassy. I wonder what he’s thinking.
“That was… intense,” I finally say.
Noah snaps out of his trance, blinking his eyes a few times. “Yeah. It was.”
I look down at Noah’s right leg, wrapped in layers of gauze from his mid-thigh down to his calf. It still makes me a little queasy. “Are you actually considering it?”
He doesn’t answer right away. He leans his head back against his pillow, staring at the ceiling now. “I don’t know. Maybe. Yeah. I think I am.”
My stomach sinks. I don’t want him to do this. As much as I hate seeing him in so much pain, going through surgery after surgery, I hate the idea of him losing his other leg too. I would love Noah if he had no legs, but…
God, I can’t keep thinking about this. I’m starting to hate myself. Anyway, it’s his decision.
Noah rolls his head over to look at me. “What do you think?”
“I…” I bite my lip. “I don’t know. It’s your decision.”
Don’t do it.
“I need to think about it,” he says.
But I know my fiancé. We’ve been together for nearly four years. I know how much he’s suffering. I know what he’s going to decide.
To be continued...
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