Gretchen is absolutely apoplectic when I arrive at her townhouse. If I came any later, she probably would have had a stroke.
“Audrey!” She pulls me into her home with her long spidery fingers. Something about Gretchen reminds me just a bit of the witch in an old fairytale. Maybe it’s her long white hair. “Thank goodness you’re here. You have to see this!”
Gretchen pulls me through her elaborately furnished townhouse. The decoration theme is black and white. Gretchen wanted everything in black and white—a combination that can create a stunning and dramatic decor. Black gives a focal point of color that lends a sophistication to any room. And it always catches the eye. Just black alone is striking, but pairing black with white is drama. And Gretchen loves drama.
We’ve redone Gretchen’s floor in black marble, set off with tall white baseboard moldings. Her walls are painted a soft, ivory white that looks great with her artwork, which has been placed in black frames.
“It looks great!” I say.
“It’s in the bathroom!” Gretchen sobs.
I follow her into her large bathroom—possibly the largest bathroom I’ve ever seen in Manhattan. This bathroom might be larger than the bedroom in the first apartment Blake and I shared. In order to fit a dresser and our queen size bed, we had to walk sideways to get across the room. We better not gain any weight, Blake commented after we just barely got our furniture in place.
It doesn’t escape me that Blake wouldn’t be able to use a bedroom like that now.
Gretchen’s bathroom has been redone with a black marble countertop, contrasting with her white sink. This is what she asked for, and what she and I discussed together in detail. Except the black marble countertop has been decorated with the flair of a white squiggly line coming out of the sink, which I felt would break up the black in a striking way.
I stare at the design, my heart sinking. This doesn’t look the way I expected it to. It sort of looks like…
“Sperm!” Gretchen cries. “My countertop looks like a sperm!”
“Just a little,” I concede. “It’s barely noticeable.”
Gretchen punches her fists into her hips. “Barely noticeable? I have a big white sperm on my bathroom counter! How am I supposed to live this way?”
If she were anyone else, I would just assure her we would take care of it and that would be the end of it. But I know that won’t be acceptable to this woman. “I’m going to call right now to get this fixed,” I say.
She wrings her hands together. “So… they’ll come fix it tonight?”
“Tonight?” I look at my watch. It’s nearly 6. “I doubt I can get it done for you tonight. But first thing tomorrow…”
“But I can’t sleep like this!” she wails. “Audrey, there’s sperm in my bathroom!”
Jesus Christ. I mean, it’s not actual sperm.
“Right.” I look down at her marble countertop, wondering how many favors I’m going to have to call in to get this taken care of tonight. “Okay, don’t worry. We’ll get it done.”
“Oh, thank you, Audrey!” She throws her bony arms around me. “I knew you would help me.”
Gretchen is a drama queen, but our whole company is grateful to her. Whatever this woman wants, she’s going to get. It’s a good thing Blake is keeping the kids for dinner tonight.
Which reminds me, I don’t know if I’m going to make it to his apartment by 8 o’clock. And if I’m late, I know he’s going to let me have it. He doesn’t even care, but any excuse to yell at me. I don’t know how things got so bad between us.
Well, that’s not true. I do know how things got so bad. It’s partially my fault, but he deserves some of the blame too. One thing I wish I could take back is the timing of serving him with the divorce papers. If I waited just a little while longer, maybe we could have been friends. But he was already moved out, and I wanted to get on with my life.
Anyway, what’s done is done.
I excuse myself from Gretchen to make some calls. I’ve got to call the contractor who worked on her sink. He’s not going to be thrilled about coming over here late at night, but then again, Gretchen is a big client for him too. God forbid she spend one night with A sink that looks just a little bit like sperm.
But first, I call Patrick.
He picks up after a couple of rings, and I can hear the television in the background. “Audrey,” he says, “should I get the Chinese food? Are you on your way home?”
“Wait… are you home?” I ask.
“But… you said you were stepping into a meeting and that was only about 20 minutes ago.”
“Yeah, a Zoom meeting. I was home. It was quicker than I thought.”
Right, of course. Last year, Patrick and a friend of his started up their own company doing PR. He used to work for some big company, but he left to strike out on his own. Because I have a lot of high-end clients, I’ve been able to help them out with some contacts. It’s been slow going though, especially compared to my memories of when Blake started his own accounting firm years ago. It seemed like right away Blake was busy, but Patrick is struggling more. Still, he seems to enjoy the work, and after he moved in a few months ago, I’ve been OK with covering the rent for now.
Still, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that Patrick feels uncomfortable spending time around my kids. Not that I can entirely blame him. He’s in his early 40s and a lifelong bachelor, so he just doesn’t have a lot of experience with kids. He does try.
And he’s got plenty of time to get used to them. Especially since he proposed to me last week and I said yes.
“Listen,” I say, “I was wondering if you could do me a small favor.”
“Sure, babe. Anything.”
“Um.” I chew on my lip. “Do you think you could pick up the kids from Blake’s apartment at eight?”
I can almost hear Patrick groan. “Audrey…”
“I’m sorry. But I’m worried I might be here a long time.”
“I would do anything else for you, but Blake is just such a… I’m sorry, he’s an asshole. I really don’t want to go there again.”
I can’t entirely blame him. He has picked up the kids a handful of times in the last few months, and Blake has been a jerk. Last time was especially bad. Patrick showed up 20 minutes early and they got into a shouting match in the hallway. It only ended when a neighbor came out and threatened to call the police.
“I can’t believe you were married to him,” he says. “It must’ve been awful.”
It wasn’t awful. Most of it was pretty great. Up until the very end. “He wasn’t always like that.”
“Well, he is now.” Patrick snorts. “I mean, yes, I feel sorry for the guy. But he has to learn to control his temper. He’s going to get punched in the nose one of these days.”
The idea of my fiancé and my ex-husband getting into a fistfight makes me a little ill. “I understand. I’ll grab the kids. Don’t worry about it.”
“Okay. I’m sorry, like I said, anything else…”
“No, it’s fine.” How long could it possibly take to fix a sink that looks like sperm?
“And like I said, I’ve got a surprise for you when you get home.”
I smile to myself. Even if he’s not particularly paternal, Patrick has a lot of good qualities, and one of them is he is very thoughtful. He likes to spoil me. Thinking about him will be enough to get me through this evening.
They know me pretty well at the after school program, but to be fair, I’m memorable. In all the years I’ve been coming here, I haven’t seen any other parents who use wheelchairs. I pick up the kids every Friday. Every other week, they stay the whole weekend, and alternate weeks they just stay for dinner.
Audrey has custody. When we had our divorce, I was in no position to try to seek joint custody. I considered going back for it, but she’s been nice about letting me see them more if I want to, and she makes a good point that it is easier for them to be in the same house all week. I’d rather not have to go back to court, and it seems like since she’s been dating that guy Patrick, she’s been a lot more willing to give me extra random days during the week.
So that’s the one bonus to her dating that asshole.
As it gets closer to six, they combine all the different kids into one room where they play together. If it were a Friday, I never would have picked them up this late, but now Katie and Andy are two of about six kids left. Andy is playing a card game with one of his friends while Katie is drawing. I watch them for a moment before they know I’m there.
“Mr. Campbell.” One of the teachers walks over to me. She’s young, maybe in her 20s, with short blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. She reminds me of Marilyn on The Munsters. I think her name is Britney. “Katie is getting to be quite a talented artist.”
“Oh yeah?” I know Katie likes to draw, but only recently, it was mostly stick figures. “That’s great.”
“She really has a knack. Are you artistic?”
I almost laugh. “No, I’m an accountant. My wife is the one who—”
I almost get the sentence completely out before I realize what I was saying. Audrey is not my wife. Not anymore. “I mean,” I correct myself. “Her mom does interior decorating. She’s the artistic one.”
Britney is giving me a funny look now. Damn. Way to sound like a loser who’s not over my ex. Fortunately, Katie looks up and spots me at that moment.
“Daddy!” Katie screeches. She abandons her artwork and hurls herself across the room. She scrambles up on my lap and throws her arms around my shoulders. My daughter definitely knows how to give a good welcome. “Why are you here?”
“Your mom had to work late.”
She doesn’t seem bothered at all. From the moment she was born, Katie has always been more of a daddy’s girl. I was worried that might change during the one year in her early childhood when I was basically absent, but it hasn’t.
“Can we get pizza?” she asks.
Katie leaps off my lap and runs over to Andy, who is still playing cards with his friend. He looked up once to acknowledge I was here, then pretended I wasn’t. I guess that’s normal for his age? I don’t know. I thought 10-year-olds are still supposed to like their parents.
I worry it’s me.
The thing is, even though Katie has always been more clingy to me, Andy is the one who reminds me of myself. He even looks like me, with the same build and black hair. Sometimes I feel like I’m looking at a picture of myself when I was younger.
“Andy pants!” Katie says. “Time to go. Dad is taking us for pizza!”
“I had pizza for lunch,” he says. “I don’t want pizza.”
“I want pizza!”
“Well, I don’t.” Andy drops the cards on the table. “Do you always have to get what you want?”
This seems to be escalating quickly. I wheel over to the table where Andy is still sitting, even though his friend has wandered away. “Maybe we can compromise. What do you want, Andy?”
“I want to get conveyor belt sushi,” Andy says. “At that place Patrick took us to.”
I get a sick feeling in my stomach at the idea of this other guy who is dating my ex-wife and taking my kids out for sushi. “Okay, sure. We can go there.”
“Noooooo!” Kate whines. “Sushi is gross.”
Andy rolls his eyes. “No, it’s not. And you can just get teriyaki chicken again if you want.”
“Yuck,” Katie says. “And anyway, there were stairs to get in. So Dad can’t go.”
I wince at that one. But if my daughter says there were stairs to get into, she is undoubtedly right. She has no memory of a time when her dad didn’t need this chair, and she is acutely aware of what is and isn’t accessible for me.
“Fine,” Andy grumbles. “We’ll get stupid pizza.”
“I don’t think they have stupid pizza,” I say. “Only pepperoni and mushroom, but no stupid.”
Andy doesn’t find my joke even the tiniest bit funny, but Katie laughs like I’m the greatest comedian in the world. Audrey used to think I was funny too.
“And after,” I say, “we’ll get ice cream.”
How’s that for sucking up to my kids I only get to see once a week?
“Katie isn’t supposed to have dessert tonight,” Andy speaks up. “Because she didn’t brush her teeth last night.”
Katie smacks her brother in the arm. “No! I brushed them. I just did it late!”
“No, I’m not!”
Jesus Christ, I didn’t realize how much the two of them were fighting. I should probably talk to Audrey about this. Of course, it seems like lately we have different ideas about parenting. We used to be more in sync. I don’t know what went wrong.
But I’ll tell you one thing, if I only get to see my daughter once a week, nobody is going to stop me from buying her a fucking scoop of ice cream.
We get downstairs, and my car is parked right in front of the after school. That’s one thing I got over Patrick—I always get the primo parking spots. Katie climbs into her booster in the backseat, and Andy hesitates outside the door.
“Dad?” he says.
“Can I sit in the front seat? Next to you?”
I frown. “Well, you’re supposed to be 13 to sit in the front. And you’re only 10.” I don’t mention he’s on the small side for his age.
“Patrick lets me sit in front in his car.”
“Does he?” Well, that’s interesting. Now I get to have an argument with Audrey about how her boyfriend is endangering our kids. Fantastic. “Sorry, buddy. The airbags are not designed for kids your age and if we got into an accident—”
“All right, all right.” Andy grumbles as he climbs into the backseat. “Fine. Whatever.”
I pull myself into the driver seat and stash my chair in the seat beside me. I look up in the rearview mirror, where I can see Andy is still pouting.
“Sorry, Andy,” I say. “But, you know, Patrick isn’t your dad. I’m your dad. He’s just a guy your mom is dating.”
“Patrick and Mom aren’t dating anymore,” Katie speaks up.
My mood instantly lifts. Patrick and Audrey broke up? That’s… great. I couldn’t stand that guy. He was just so goddamn smug. And he acted like everybody had to accommodate him, whatever he wanted. Like if he showed up at the wrong time to pick up the kids, well, too damn bad for me.
And it also means Audrey is single again.
“Yeah?” I say.
Katie nods. “They’re engaged now!”
And now I think I’m going to be sick.
For a moment, I feel like I can’t even move. I just keep staring down at the steering wheel, my head spinning. Audrey is engaged. She’s going to marry another man. She’s going to be someone else’s wife.
I could barely wrap my head around her not being my wife anymore. That was bad enough.
I’m dimly aware of the fact that this is my fault. There may have been a chance to get her back at some point, but I blew it. I couldn’t get my anger under control enough to try to repair the rift between us. I’ve been awful to her. She probably hates me.
But to be fair, it’s not all my fault. After all, she was the one who fucking…
I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself down. I’ve got the kids in the car. I can’t let myself get upset over this. It’s good I’ve got them, because if I didn’t, I would probably go home and drink way too much.
“Daddy,” Katie says. “I’m hungry for pizza.”
“Okay,” I say. “Let’s do this.”
I’ve blown it for good. I just have to try not to think about it.
I take an Uber to get over to Blake’s at 8 o’clock sharp. He has no problem keeping the kids later, but he’ll still give me a hard time if I’m late. And if I’m early, that’s no good too. I have to show up at precisely 8 o’clock or we will get into a horrible fight.
Blake lives in a nice building with a doorman only about a mile from the apartment I share with Patrick. Our financial arrangement has been a moving target since our divorce. Given he was unemployed for the foreseeable future when we got divorced and buried under a mountain of medical bills, I didn’t ask for child support or alimony. There was no way he could pay it, and I didn’t want to kick the guy when he was down. And I make good money. Frankly, he could’ve sued me for alimony if he wanted.
But when he started working again, he actually came to me and told me he wanted to help out with child support. So we went into arbitration and came up with a new arrangement. It was one thing we didn’t need to argue about. He seemed happy to give me money to help out with the kids.
I’m glad he’s doing well again. I heard from his business partner Greg that they hired another associate, so it looks like business is booming. He’s probably taking in more than I do these days. He deserves it—Blake is a damn good accountant. When we were married, I always felt like our finances were in really good hands.
Blake might hate me. But I don’t hate him. I just want to get along again, but I’m worried it will never happen. And that’s my fault—at least partially.
Some of our former friends blame me for ending our marriage when Blake was at his lowest. Right after he got hurt… or at least, close enough that it was obvious why we were breaking up. But people who were really close to us know that it wasn’t my fault. Not entirely.
After all, it was Blake’s decision to move out. I was perfectly willing to stick it out. That night, we were having a horrible screaming argument in which he was drunk (again). I still remember his black hair was greasy from not having been washed in at least a week, and he had a week’s growth of a beard. He was slurring his words as he blamed me for everything that had gone wrong in our lives. And I was screaming at him that I told him not to ride his goddamn bike in the street.
So this is all my fault then? he shouted at me.
Then he picked up one of the glasses from our barely eaten dinner and hurled it across the room. It shattered everywhere. And I knew I was going to be the one to have to clean it up. Because obviously, Blake couldn’t help.
As soon as the glass shattered, Katie started sobbing in her toddler bed. And a second later, the door to the kids’ shared bedroom opened up and six year old Andy was just standing there, his brown eyes big and sad as he clutched his stuffed penguin.
Blake saw Andy’s expression, and his own face crumbled. He buried his face in his hands. He was wearing that brace on his right wrist back then, and he still couldn’t put much weight on it. If he hadn’t broken his wrist on top of everything else, I wonder if things might have gone differently.
I need to leave, Blake said.
He moved out that night. He packed up some of his things and went to stay with his mother. I didn’t try to stop him. Truthfully, I was glad to see him go.
And then he didn’t contact me or the kids for months. Not at all—he didn’t even ask to see Katie or Andy. I know he was trying to get his life back together, but I felt abandoned. As much as I had hoped it would work out with him, I needed to move on. So I did.
And now he hates me.
I rap my fist against his door. For a good 60 seconds, nothing happens, but I can hear Katie laughing behind the door. That kid is always in a good mood. Maybe Blake is too.
Finally, the door swings open. I don’t even point out that if I kept Blake waiting that long, he would be furious at me by now.
“Mommy!” Katie wraps her skinny arms around my waist. “Dad got us pizza!”
I force a smile as I look at Blake, who is sitting in his wheelchair, a few feet away. Despite everything, I still think he looks sexy, especially now that he’s getting a bit gray at the temples. He turned 40 about nine months ago, but getting older suits him. Sometimes it feels surreal that he’s not my husband anymore. That I can’t go over, sit down in his lap, and wrap my arms around him.
“That’s great,” I say.
“And ice cream,” Andy adds. “But I told Dad that Katie wasn’t supposed to have any. Because she didn’t brush her teeth last night.”
“Oh,” I say. I’m not going to make a big thing out of it, but Andy is right. Katie knows the rules about brushing her teeth. If she doesn’t brush, no dessert the next day.
“I can’t follow all your rules, Audrey,” Blake grumbles.
“It’s fine,” I say. I look at Katie. “We’ll let it go this time. But you better brush tonight.”
Katie nods solemnly.
“By the way, Audrey.” Blake clears his throat. “Congratulations on… you know, your engagement. The kids told me.”
“Oh.” I had been dreading telling Blake about me and Patrick, but he doesn’t seem that upset. Just sort of… sad. I guess that’s how I would feel if I found out he was getting married. “Thanks. I know you aren’t the biggest fan of Patrick, but he’s a good guy.”
He offers me a crooked smile. “Yeah. I’m sure he is.”
“And I’m sure you’ll also meet somebody eventually.”
As soon as the words left my mouth, I knew I shouldn’t have said them. Oh God, why would I say something so patronizing to my ex-husband, who already resents me up the wazoo? I watch as the smile vanishes from Blake’s lips.
“Oh, you think?” he says. “You think I’ll meet somebody eventually? Wow, thanks for believing in me!”
“Blake, I didn’t mean…”
“Don’t bother.” He shakes his head. “And by the way, tell your fiancé that Andy shouldn’t be riding in the front seat. It’s not safe. I mean it.”
“Oh.” I didn’t even know that was happening. “OK, I’ll tell him. Listen, Blake, I just want you to know—”
“I’m not really in the mood for a conversation,” he says. “Can you just take the kids? I’ve got a headache.”
Except Katie insists on climbing on his lap for another hug. I think it does him good, because he actually smiles. Andy, on the other hand, just mutters, “Bye, dad.”
My hands are shaking a bit as we go down together in the elevator. Blake gave me a chance to have a decent conversation with him and I blew it. But on the other hand, he doesn’t make it easy.
He isn’t this mean to everyone. I know for a fact he’s had at least one girlfriend since we broke up, because my kids have big mouths, especially Katie. Her name was Eliza. It sounds like she was younger than me—although it’s hard to tell from Katie’s description—and her favorite ice cream was pistachio. (Those were the primary details I was able to get out of Katie.) And one day Katie said they weren’t dating anymore, and I felt this surprising rush of relief.
I had this thought in my head that after he got over that break up, maybe I could invite him out for drinks. And maybe we could talk over our marriage, and decide if maybe it was worth giving it another shot. But then we got in a big fight about who was going to have the kids on Christmas Day, and then I met Patrick at a New Year’s party. So it just never came together.
It’s fine though. Obviously, it would have been nice for the kids to be with their father again in one household, but it’s clear he is still mad at me. It’s better for the kids for me to be happy than for me to be fighting with their dad all the time. So it all worked out.
But the truth is, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss what Blake and I used to have.