You ever woken up with the feeling that you were going to have a really shitty day? When everything goes wrong from the moment you open your eyes? You look out the window and the weather is crappy, and your grams forgot to wash your favorite pair of underwear, and instead of her making your favorite pancakes for breakfast, she’s out globe-trotting with her lover and you’re stuck eating old people cereal- the crappy flakes with no taste- that you can’t even make edible with sugar because you stopped buying it after her doctor suggested she use Splenda instead, and she’s never even here to not use the sugar she’s supposed to be avoiding… and you forgot to go grocery shopping to get cereal that’s actually worth eating?
Splenda sucks. It’s sugar’s ugly cousin.
I choke down the last spoonful of tasteless crap, and my stomach is still growling. The fridge is stocked with bacon and sausage, but it’s all frozen. At times like this, I question my bachelorhood and think it’d be really cool to have a girlfriend who could cook when my Grams decides to go all single twenty-year-old. That thought doesn’t last long though. It shrivels up and dies as my phone vibrates. It’s my sort-of-ex Hillary, the blond bombshell. I call her that because she’s hot and explodes all over the place, and she’s a sort-of ex because she acts like an ex, but we were never really together.
Why? Well, aside from the fact that having a girlfriend is like renting a house when you can live in a whole lot of hotels for free, Hillary pretended to be normal—like all girls do—then turned out to be bat-shit crazy—like all the girls who get on this ride are. That is exactly why I don’t do girlfriends. My track record is embarrassing.
My first g-girlfriend—I can’t even say the word without shuddering—was in middle school. Cassandra Beyers was a cute little redhead who was the first girl in our class to need a training bra, and I wanted to be the first guy to learn to take one off. I was successful and grinning from ear to ear after she let me touch what was then the Holy Grail, but afterward, for some reason, she thought I was her boyfriend and that she could tell me all her secrets. One of those secrets was that she liked to sniff her armpits.
Like, who the hell likes to sniff their armpits? I broke up with her the next day. It really wasn’t a breakup since we were never really together, but she slashed the tires on my bike, years before girls were supposed to go psycho on dudes. I had a woman before her time.
In high school, I was smart and made sure to date as many girls as possible, so my next girlfriend wasn’t until after high school. I met Shawna right after I graduated and before I enlisted in the army. Shawna was great. She was a singer, cute, didn’t want to smell any weird body parts, and had an amazing ass. But for some reason, she was intent on having a fucking kid. I hadn’t known her for more than four months before she wanted me to have a baby with her. I wasn’t even nineteen yet. After I caught her poking holes in my condoms, I got the hell out of Dodge!
Which brings us to Hillary. The moment I saw her, I knew I wanted to do her. She was one of the sexiest women I’d ever seen. She was like a potty-mouthed Kick Your Ass Barbie. I met her through my best friend Chris’s wife. We were at dinner, and Chris’s fiancée was giving his wife, Lauren, a bunch of shit. How Chris has a wife and fiancée is a whole other story, but anyway, Hillary practically attacked the fiancée, Jenna, over giving Hillary’s best friend, Lauren, shit. The way Hillary flew over the dinner table after throwing a pitcher of water in Jenna’s face, who really is a bitch who deserved it, I thought I was in love. Nah, just kidding.
I knew I was in lust though.
That night, Hillary was screaming my name louder than she’d been screaming at Jenna at dinner. It was the best sex I’d ever had, wild and passionate. She was like a fuckin’ porn star, and she got it! That I didn’t want anything serious. Well, she claimed to get it, until she didn’t. She started to want to go out all the time—which is fine, I’m always down for a good time—but then she started to get crazy jealous, which was not a good time at all. I wanted to cut her loose, but she’s my best friend’s wife’s best friend, and I didn’t want things to get ugly.
So I kind of kept sleeping with her because the sex was phenomenal.
Then she sort of started to act as though we were a couple, which was not supposed to happen. We were just supposed to be having a lot of fun. Hillary lives in Chicago, and I won’t lie, being with her there was a breath of fresh air from stale Madison, Michigan. I was going back and forth because Chris and I are opening a car restoration shop in Chicago, and it was kind of cool to have someone on speed dial there who got that sometimes good sex is just good sex. Well, until she started not to get it.
I’ve lived a lot of places. My dad was a sergeant in the army, so Mom and I followed him to so many different states: Arizona, New Mexico, Ohio, New Jersey, California, Ohio and even spent a little while in Paris. But Michigan always felt like home. For one, it was where my grams lived and was always kind of our home base, and two, it was the only place that I had real friends growing up. It’s funny how a decision like where you live can change your whole life. If my dad had chosen to live anywhere other than on Pine Circle, who knows who I could have become or how I would have turned out. But since he did choose Pine Circle, it was pretty easy for me and my next-door neighbors to become best friends.
I met Chris first. If there was a picture in the dictionary of an all-American family, it was Chris’s. He was like my generation’s version of Leave It to Beaver. He was a cute kid for a boy, I guess. A lot of girls liked him, almost as many as liked me… but we were complete opposites. He was nice, and not in the fake way most kids acted when adults were around. He was nice all the time. He followed the rules and did his homework and chores without having to get screamed at. He didn’t even swear much.
I don’t know if I believe in God after all the things I’ve seen while on tour, but if there is one, I believe he gives kids who don’t have siblings amazing best friends, because if I hadn’t had Chris as a best friend, who knows what all trouble I’d have landed in. He’s like the conscience that never shut up.
My phone rings again. This time, it’s a woman’s name I don’t cringe at seeing.
“Ms. Red!” I answer.
“Hi, Aidan, how are you?” she asks.
Her good mood is contagious, and I smile. Ms. Red is Chris’s mom and has been a surrogate mother to me since my own mom checked out after my dad died. She is one of the sweetest people I know, but she’s has had her fair share of shit dropped on her, including cancer and her husband being the biggest dick ever.
“I’m good. How about you?” I ask, hoping her happiness is genuine.
“I’m doing pretty well. Are you back from Chicago?”
I hear grease popping in the background, and my mouth waters. I glance at my phone and see it’s almost eight thirty, which is way past breakfast time at the Scotts’ house. They’re up with the roosters, literally. One of the only families I know that still runs a successful farm.
“I am, I got back last night,” I tell her.
“Great, I was wondering if you’ve eaten yet? Your grandmother mentioned you might need some breakfast since she was going to be gone for a while.” She laughs.
“Hell yeah!” I say, too excited. Not only is Ms. Red an awesome person, but she’s a freakin’ amazing cook. “I mean, yes, I’m starving.”
“Great, I’ll be done in about ten minutes if you want to head over.”
“Cool, I’ll be there in five!”
Before I’m even up the steps, I can practically taste Ms. Red’s famous homemade biscuits, rice, and gravy. If I’m lucky, she’s made sausage.
I steady my balance, ready for my favorite little person in the world to jump on me. She runs down the steps, her blond pigtails bouncing all over the place, and I brace myself as she jumps into my arms.
“What’s up, Willa bear?” I ask, lifting her over my shoulders.
“Guess what?” she asks sneakily.
“Let’s see… you’ve grown a tail?”
She smacks her lips. “No! I got A-plus on my spelling test,” she says with all the excitement of an eight-year-old on a sugar rush.
I set her down and give her a high five. “That’s awesome!” I take her hand as I walk up to the door, but she jumps in front of me with her hand held out.
“Remember what you said?” She laughs, her eyes twinkling, and I push the thought of her mother out of my head.
I let out an exaggerated sigh and pull the ten bucks I promised her out of my back pocket. “You’re breaking me kid,” I say with fake irritation.
She snatches it out of my hand and runs into the house. I follow her inside.
“Aidan, it’s so good to see you,” Ms. Red says, ushering me over to the sink after giving me a quick hug.
“You called me right on time. I’m starving.” After I finish washing my hands, I sit down at the table.
She sets a plate of rice, gravy biscuits, and score, sausage in front of me.
“Jackpot.” I rub my hands together before digging in.
She lightly swats my shoulder before frowning at me. I sigh and bow my head to say a quick grace, then I can stuff my face. I watch her pour me a glass of lemonade, and I notice no one else is eating.
“We all ate earlier. You know us.” She smiles with a quick shrug before sitting across from me. “So tell me, how is my little one?” She rests her chin in her hand as she watches me devour my food.
I swallow a spoonful of rice before rinsing my mouth with orange juice. “Chris or Caylen?” I joke, and she lets out a small laugh. “The big one is pretty much going crazy since Lauren just hit the six-month mark and he’s going to have three women in the house soon. Caylen is keeping him busy too.”
I reflect on the couple of days I spent with her son’s family. After visiting that household, I realize how calm my life is, which says a lot. My life is far from calm, but having a wife, a little girl, and twins on the way makes my friend’s life a circus.
“I can’t wait until I get there. I’m going next week to stay with them until Lauren has the babies.” She beams.
“I’m going to take care of Daddy and do all the cooking,” Willa sings, popping up beside me like a silent ninja.
“She is. I’ve showed her how to make eggs and oatmeal, and tomorrow she learns how to make my famous French toast.” Ms. Red winks at me.
“When the babies get here, me and Dad are going to help take care of the babies too,” Willa explains happily.
I smile widely at her, even though it still weirds me out to hear her call him Dad. He is her dad, through unfortunate circumstances, but after everything, fate or destiny has a funny sense of humor. A little person who almost destroyed their family has become such a permanent fixture in all of our lives. It’s as if she’s always been around even though she pretty much fell from the sky into our lives. Kind of like a bomb dropped, she was meant to destroy everything, but instead she fixed it… I can’t help but wonder sometimes if Ms. Red is a saint. I couldn’t have dealt with accepting and loving my spouse’s illegitimate child as my own, but if it works for them, it’s not for me to judge. I don’t think Ms. Red has loved anything in the world as much as she loves Willa, and that makes me admire her even more.
“Sweetheart, I have some towels in the dryer that should be stopping soon. Can you fold them up for me how you did last time?” she asks Willa, who nods happily before running out of the room. “So how are things with Hillary? I hear that you two are getting pretty serious?”
I instantly lose my appetite. Good thing I’ve already eaten most of what’s on my plate.
“Uh oh,” she says hesitantly.
I lay my head flat on the table. If Ms. Red thinks things are getting pretty serious, it’s because either Hillary told her we’re getting serious or Lauren told her we’re getting serious because she heard it from Hillary. Either way, that’s bad, bad, bad.
“I don’t know why everyone keeps thinking that.” I clear my throat, and she gives me a disbelieving look.
“What’s that face for?” she asks cautiously.
I lean back and stretch my legs. Ms. Red has always been like a mother to me and seems as though she could give some good advice. “Okay, things got really intense really, really fast…” I’m trying to sum up Hillary’s and my relationship in the best way possible.
She nods, seemingly understanding.
“I don’t know if the whole Chris and Lauren thing is getting to her, but she wants to move waaay faster than I want to move.” I shrug.
“When you say fast, what do you mean?” she asks.
I sigh. “She’s talking about moving in together, and when I went and visited her, she took me to this jewelry store supposedly to get earrings for herself, but we spent an awful lot of time at the ring section. It was more than awkward and completely weirded me out…”
Ms. Red nods thoughtfully.
“We’ve only been dating for, like, a year, and it wasn’t ever supposed to be exclusive,” I tell her, and she doesn’t look sympathetic but almost amused. “Well, it’s really been like a few months since we live in different states and don’t see each other all the time,” I say a little sheepishly.
“Do you love her?” Ms. Red asks, and I rub the back of my head.
“I’ve never really been in love. I’ve been in lust, a lot, with tons of women. I’ve liked girls, and I’m really in lust with Hillary to be honest. She’s cool, always willing to try things…” I chuckle.
“When you’re in love, you’ll know it,” Ms. Redd says, giving my hand a squeeze with a reassuring smile.
“I don’t know if I would.” I chuckle. “Most of the girls I’ve dated haven’t complimented me on being in touch with my feminine side.”
She shakes her head. “Love isn’t a feminine emotion. I understand why you’re afraid, but love, it trumps hate, anger, even un-forgiveness,” she says the last part quietly. A moment of awkwardness slips in, but if anyone can say that, it’s definitely her. She lets out a quick breath and flashes me a bright smile. “Love can be the single greatest thing that’s ever happened to you.”
I nod, my phone vibrates, and I pull it out and see that Hillary’s calling again. Is that a sign, or just a sign of crazy?
“I actually asked you here for a hidden agenda,” she says reluctantly.
I feel my eyebrow arch. Ms. Red has a hidden agenda? That’s actually funny.
“Do you need me to kick somebody’s ass?” I ask, and she laughs. Please be your husband’s, please be your husband’s. “I mean, do you need me to kick someone’s butt?”
She shakes her head. “No, nothing like that.” She sighs.
Shit, no such luck. I can tell by her demeanor change that she’s about to say something serious.
“Umm, I talked to Lisa this morning,” she says quietly, and her eyes narrow on me.
I slump back in my chair and let out my breath. I didn’t expect to hear Lisa’s name come out of her mouth, but then again, I would have never expected her to be raising Lisa’s daughter. I never expected Lisa would drop her kid off on their doorstep like an unwanted package. I can feel myself getting really pissed off. Ms. Red must be able to tell because she wrings her hands nervously together, so I shake my head to calm it.
“She’s calls every so often… to check on things…” she explains. I can tell she’s uncomfortable even mentioning her, at least to me. “I’m really worried about her, Aidan.”
I clear my throat. Wow. After everything Lisa did to this woman, she’s worried about her. “You really are a saint, Ms. Red,” I mutter in disbelief.
She shakes her head.
“She’s not someone you should be worried about. She obviously doesn’t worry about anyone or anything else,” I say, hearing the bitterness in my tone.
“She was your friend. Your best friend,” she says pleadingly.
“She was Chris’s best friend,” I correct her. I notice I’m pouting like a kid, and she frowns at me.
“I tried to talk to Chris about this…”
I can imagine how that went.
“If Lauren didn’t have two human beings in her…” she continues.
I roll my eyes, feeling disgusted. “I don’t know why you’re worried about her. She’s only ever worried about herself. She isn’t even worried about her own daughter.”
“I care because she’s Willa’s mother.”
“If you can call her that,” I mutter. “What’s the emergency? San Diego isn’t sunny enough for her? Brett didn’t get her the perfect gift for her birthday?”
The tone of Ms. Red’s voice makes my heart skip a beat. It’s funny how you can write a person off after they do so much crap and hurt so many people, but a small part of you still manages to care.
“And if anyone knows what hurting sounds like, it’s me,” she continues, her eyes locking on mine.
I nod guiltily. If anyone deserves to hate and refuse to forgive Lisa, it’s Ms. Red, but somehow she’s managed to.
“When she called me, she sounded terrible. Not in an obvious way; in a way only a person who has been there can recognize,” she continues. “I tried to call her mother, but that didn’t go so well.”
I roll my eyes. The only mother worse than no mother would be Lisa’s mother. We used to bond over that fact. She had Evie as a mom, and I didn’t have one at all most of the time.
“I know that… I appreciate that you’re so angry with her for me,” she tries to explain. “But if something happened to her, you and Chris would really regret not doing anything.”
I let out a long sigh. She’s right. Lisa’s like the stain you get on a shirt that you keep wearing because it was your favorite and the stain happened on one of the best nights of your life. “You think she’s really in trouble? What did she say?”
“She called and asked about Willa, then she just started crying, and when I asked her what was wrong, she said nothing and started to apologize for what she did. She said that she screws up everyone around her… and that it’d all be fixed soon.”
I roll my eyes. “Lisa’s too selfish to kill herself.”
“She sounded really drunk or high off of something maybe,” she says worriedly.
I think of the last time I talked to Lisa, how she pretty much told me she was shirking motherhood and escaping to California. I wanted to throw up.
When we were younger, Lisa and I were friends because of our best friend, Chris. We tolerated each other because of him, but somewhere along the line, we became close. She was one of the only girls who could put me in my place, who I could hang out with without any pressure or a hidden agenda. She was smart, funny, and could hold her own with the guys. And in some ways, we were alike. Chris was always the good kid, the Boy Scout with the perfect parents and perfect home. Lisa and I were kind of the outsiders, the kids no one expected to be much. We had it a lot harder than most.
When I found out what she had done with Chris’s dad, and how she hid a whole person from us for all those years, I couldn’t believe it. Still I stuck by her. I went off on her of course, but I didn’t abandon her. I would have never left her. So for her to abandon her daughter without a thought disgusted me. Even after she told me she was leaving to go to California, I hoped she’d change her mind. I knew if she went through with it, that would be it. I’d never be able to look at her the same way. She’d lose me the way she’d lost everyone else, so when she called me and told me she’d made it to California and she left Willa with the Scotts—who Willa had never even met—to find herself in California, I was done.
I told her to never call me again, and that she was a selfish bitch who deserved to be alone the rest of her life.
It’s been almost seven months since that call. Someone I used to talk to every day became someone I pretended didn’t exist for seven months. I guess humans are so resilient that someone essential to your life can so easily be wiped out of it.
“I don’t know where she is. I haven’t spoken to her since a few days after she left,” I tell Ms. Red.
“This is the address.” She slides a piece of paper toward me.
I look at her curiously. How the hell did she get Lisa’s address?
“She called me from this hotel. Last I checked, which was an hour ago, she’s still checked in,” she explains. “There’s a flight that leaves at four today I could book for you…”
I chuckle, and she smiles sympathetically. My phone buzzes again. It’s a text from Hillary saying she’s on her way to see me, complete with an angry face and a bunch of expletives. I throw my head back in frustration, then I text her back and tell her not to bother because I’m in California, bitch! Well, without the bitch part.
Three days earlier…
Have you ever done something so bad, so terrible, that the act stays with you, wraps around you, and completely stops you from moving forward?
Well, let’s just say that in my other life, I was a bad person. Terrible, actually. I’m not even exaggerating. I can say that now because I’ve changed. When you change, you can recognize the bad things about yourself. You can tick off things that you didn’t used to notice but everyone else did.
Once upon a time, I was called everything in the book. There’s no word that could be thrown at me that would make me bat an eye. Selfish, inconsiderate, and manipulative? Those were the kinder words people used to describe me. Whore, conniving, and cunt were some of the not-so-nice ones. But they were just words then. Until they weren’t just words. Until they weren’t just accusations thrown around and I couldn’t defend myself, especially when the people I cared about most used them.
That, however, is the past. It’s not who I am anymore. Then I was a girl who put herself before everyone else. Doing that came so easily. It was second nature, almost inevitable, a dreaded family trait wrapped around my mother’s DNA that manifested the moment my boobs became full-grown. I should have seen it coming—my grandmother always said that I was my mother’s spitting image. I had taken Evie’s long blond hair and emerald-green eyes, so it only made sense that other traits would creep out sooner or later.
She was born to the perfect family, but managed to avoid doing a single worthwhile thing in her life, and she made every mistake she could, except putting her bra on right. That includes marrying my father, who walked out on us when I was just two years old. She made bad decisions, but her beauty usually offered her a way out. By the time I was five, Evie had met and married my stepdad, a successful man who was kind and owned his own construction company. When he was around, our life was good. I don’t remember wanting for anything, but apparently my mom wanted for a lot, seeing as she got caught sleeping with his brother. Needless to say, my stepdad divorced her.
She became a single mom again, with a pissed off family and a high school diploma, but this time, she had the screwed-my-husband’s-brother tattoo on her reputation in our small town. No decent man would come near her, so she settled for the drunks, screw-ups, and passersby, and she adapted who she was to whichever guy she was with. Of course, that made life very interesting for me. I never knew which guy would be there when, who I was safe with, who I needed to hide from.
The older I got, the more I looked like her. Once, I overheard my favorite aunt, Danni, arguing with Evie. They didn’t do it much—usually my aunt was my mom’s cheerleader—but this argument was one for the ages. I remember the most scathing thing she said to my mom.
The worst thing that could happen to Lisa is that she turns out like you.
It was an attack on my mom, but I remember her words cutting through me. They echoed in my thoughts every time I saw my mom with a new guy, or whenever a woman would show up screaming at our house in the middle of the night, having followed her very married husband. The thought of becoming her haunted me so much that sometimes I’d wake up to panic attacks.
I wanted to prove them wrong, every guy who said I was the spitting image of her, the townspeople who believed it was only a matter of time until I became her. I wanted every single last one of them to eat their words. I worked hard to make sure they would do just that, and it all seemed to be going perfectly until I turned seventeen. I was in my senior year, headed to college after working my butt off to make sure I had enough to money to pay for it if I didn’t get enough financial aid and scholarships. I was still a virgin even, and I was a good friend. Then, well, genetics kicked in, and everything just sort of fell apart…
But now, I finally have a clean slate, the opportunity to start all over, and it has been scarily amazing. For the first time in my twenty-eight years of life, I’m living in a state where no one knows what I’ve done or who my mother has done what with. Here, the secrets of my past don’t haunt me or remind me of how unworthy I am everywhere I look. Now I’m not weighed down; here, I can just breathe. For the first time in my life, I feel as though the universe isn’t pitted against me; I’m not destined to fail or set on the path to make a horrible mistake. Someone up there finally gave me a break in the form of someone I didn’t treat well in the past, someone I selfishly and stupidly looked over.
He was my blond-haired, blue-eyed dream boy, my blessing in disguise, so to speak. We met right before I made the biggest mistake of my life. A part of me thinks that if guardian angels existed, mine had sent him to me as a last-ditch attempt to keep me from wrecking my future. But I was so stupid then. I ignored the glaring warnings trying to stop me from going down a road that only led to pain and years of loneliness. I was seventeen, stuck between bad history and an unknown future, and content to listen to unfamiliar emotions instead of my brain.
Still, even then Brett saw the good in me. He didn’t see how I needed to change, the mistakes I needed to fix, or the completely catastrophic decisions so close in my future. He only saw me. Not who I really was, but someone better, which was absolutely what I needed. He saw the person I could’ve been if I hadn’t let hormones and bad decisions shape the person I would become.
He was the first boy I gave myself to, the only boy I would have shared myself with if I had been thinking straight. The guy who took me out and loved to show me off, who didn’t keep me a secret. He was a sophomore in college, nice, extremely attractive, and smart. When hundreds of beautiful girls would have gladly been his and only his, he chose me. But like an idiot, I didn’t see how special he was, how much he had to offer, and I chose an alternate route to a terrible chain of events.
Brett and I broke up right before the end of my senior year of high school. I thought I was doing the right thing, but most seventeen-year-olds don’t do the right thing, only what feels good. They convince themselves that’s the right thing.
When I bumped into Brett last year, standing in front of one of the last book stores that wasn’t named Barnes and Noble, I realized what a complete idiot I had been. It was as if the heavens had opened up their door, highlighting his bright blue eyes and smile designed for pictures. He was so excited to see me, as if he had forgotten how I had been one of the suckiest girlfriends in history during our short-lived relationship. I can’t recall a single time he ever said a bad thing about anyone. Not even the girlfriend who didn’t want to sleep with him because she was too busy screwing her best friend’s dad. Thank God he never found out about that. I’m sure everyone has their limits.
When we broke up, I’d told Brett that I wasn’t at a good place in my life to be with him, and he seemed sad and confused. But instead of being angry, which he had every right to be since I had essentially wasted almost a year of his time, he told me he still wanted to be my friend, that he’d be there if I ever needed anything. I believe he meant it, but at that point in my life, I didn’t deserve him. Sometimes I think he’ll wake up one day and realize that I still don’t, even though I’m trying my very best to be the kind of woman who deserves a man like him.
When I ran into him that day and looked into those warm blue eyes that never judged me, everything I felt came pouring out. Right there in a little café, I gave him tears and truth. I told him I hated my job as a teacher—not the kids, but the work—and that I felt like a fraud. I didn’t tell him why I felt like a fraud though. The truth was that I had only become a teacher because the married man I was in love with and had a child by was a teacher and he seemed like the only thing I could think about. I couldn’t stand another person I cared about looking at me as if I was scum.
Without hesitation, Brett invited me to come stay with him awhile. Well, not exactly with him but in a place he owned in California. Brett was doing pretty well and had just started his own real estate company. He didn’t tell me how good he was doing, but when I arrived at his four-bedroom house off the beach—which looked like something right out of HGTV—I realized he was doing extremely well.
He let me stay on the first floor free of charge, and the only thing I had to do in return was answer phones and make appointments for his prospective clients at his office. It was the easiest job I’d ever had, especially since he already had an assistant. Amazing Stephanie is what I called her at first, because not only is she smart and more organized than a Martha Stewart catalog, she’s a sweet girl who does all the hard real estate stuff while I pretty much answer phones, run errands, and watch Selling New York.
Only a few more nights after I moved to California, I kissed Brett and not in the way that I used to, with mild enthusiasm or obligation. I kissed him with an appreciation I had never felt for anyone before, and not soon afterward we made love.
Things have been great.
More than great.
Everything is perfect.
For once in my life, everything isn’t in a shamble on the brink of complete chaos. That’s why, as I stare at the two pink lines on the stick in my shaking hand, I don’t want to throw myself off a bridge.
Two words that once destroyed me and scared me shitless actually do the opposite. They give me hope and a glimpse into a new life, an opportunity to get it right.
“Are you okay, Lisa? You’ve been in there forever,” Stephanie asks, worry in her voice.
I wrap the stick up into a paper towel and slip it in my purse. “I’m fine. I’ll be right out,” I tell her as I wash my hands. When I come out of the bathroom, she’s looking at me, her excitement apparent.
She sweeps her bangs from over her eye and smiles nervously. “Soo?”
“Yes. It’s a big fat yes,” I say, and she grabs me in a big hug.
“Shut up!” she squeals. “I’m so happy, happy for you!”
I laugh at how different this is from the last time all those years ago. Then, I lied to my best friend about the test results. Then, I was terrified and wanted to throw up. Then, it magnified the shambles my life was in. Now it’s different. I’m pregnant by a man who loves me, who I love, and things are just right.
“Brett is going to freak out!” Stephanie says.
“Freak out?” The nerves in my body start to bubble up.
She notices and waves me off. “You know what I mean. He’s going to be so excited. Oh my God, the baby is going to be so freakin’ beautiful. You might as well sign it up for Baby Gap right now.”
I roll my eyes playfully but can’t help imagining a beautiful baby boy with my bright-blond hair and Brett’s soft blue eyes and easy smile.
“You are going to be such a pretty mom,” she squeals.
Her enthusiasm is contagious, and I squeeze her hand. She’s been one of the first friends I’ve had in a long time. When I came here from Michigan, I didn’t want to judge people, since people had judged me all of my life, but I couldn’t help but think of all the clichés about everyone in California being made of plastic and only caring about the sun. And even though I’ve seen quite a few girls and guys with surgically enhanced features, I have loved everything about being here. The people are nice. Like, really nice. Everyone is so freakin’ happy all the time, and I guess why wouldn’t they be, when every day the sun is out and it’s the perfect temperature. Being miserable here is almost impossible.
I pull Stephanie into a hug, so happy to have a friend again. Even though my childhood was pretty crappy after Evie screwed up our life, I had really, really great friends. Friends who always took up for me, who were there for me when I needed them. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of them. One was Amanda, my best girl pal. We were complete opposites, but she really loved me. Then there were my two guy best friends. We had been inseparable, and I could never imagine going as long as I have without seeing them or speaking to them. Now they’re all just ghosts from another life.
“You’re happy right?” Stephanie asks cautiously, and I realize my mood has sunk from thinking of the past.
I flash her a wide smile, pushing away those memories of not so long ago . “Yeah, just a little bit nervous,” I say with a nervous chuckle, and she gives me a soft smile.
When I first moved here, Stephanie showed me all the girly spots she said Brett had no idea about, like the spas and hair salons that would make you look like an A-list celebrity on a C-list budget. She even introduced me to her group of friends, who are all beautiful, smart, successful, and scarily nice. She reminds me so much of Amanda.
I haven’t spoken to Amanda since I started college. A few months after the year that changed everything.
Amanda never knew what happened to me that year. I never wanted her to know that I became everything her sisters said I would be, so I pushed her away. It killed me to not be able to share one of the most major events in my life with my very best friend, but I knew if I did, she’d never look at me the same way. I couldn’t stand seeing that look of disappointment mixed with disgust on her face, the way I saw it on everyone else I loved and cared about.
I surveyed Stephanie, with her fiery-red hair swept up into a top-knot and her warm green eyes smiling at me. Stephanie likes me, but she doesn’t know all the terrible things I’ve done. If she did, she wouldn’t look at me the same way either. But that’s a different life and a different you, I remind myself.
“So when are you going to tell him?”
“Um, I don’t know,” I say, trying to tuck my nerves deep down into my stomach. There’s nothing like finding out you’re pregnant to make you reflect on the past you’ve been blocking out for a year.
“Oh, you have to make it romantic!” she squeals, following me back to my desk in the reception area.
“I don’t know if I should tell him yet.” I sit down in my plush chair behind my three-thousand-dollar desk. I almost passed out when Stephanie told me how much they spent decorating the place. “It’s still early. A lot can happen.” I shrug.
She frowns at me. “Don’t be such a scaredy cat. You and that little bean are going to be fine. You’re how many weeks, you think?”
I let out a deep breath. “About seven or eight, I think.” I try to keep my tone casual, but I don’t think. I know. Not necessarily the weeks, but I knew I was pregnant when my period didn’t come. My period is like clockwork, but with the absence of it came the symptoms, then the nausea came… just like last time.
Stephanie starts to ask another question, but thankfully the buzzer rings, letting us know a client has arrived. Luckily for me, our slow Thursday picks up and I don’t have to deal with the hundreds of questions Stephanie will have for me that I don’t have any answers to.
Thursdays in the office are typically slow for Stephanie and me, but Brett stays busy meeting with prospective buyers and other brokers. Work keeps him out late, which isn’t good because I’ve been thinking too much and I just want to talk to him. My brain’s pulling out the absolute worst scenarios possible. It’s silly, because I know Brett will be excited about this. He’s going to be ecstatic! But I can’t shake that stupid nagging bitch called worry. She won’t let me hold on to any happy thoughts.
“Stop being so negative,” I mumble to myself as I do a once-over of the house again.
I don’t clean often—I usually don’t have to. Brett’s sort of a neat freak. He picks up clothes behind himself and me. He does the dishes and takes out the trash. Today though, I cleaned all the glass in the house, vacuumed the area rugs, and lit candles I picked up earlier from Bath and Body Works. If Brett has a fantasy, I’m sure it’s me in a French maid outfit.
Shoot, why didn’t I buy one of those? When you tell someone you’re pregnant, is it supposed to be romantic? Do you have sex?
I’m pulled from my thoughts when I hear the little electronic feminine voice saying, “Front door opened.”
I do a once-over in a mirror, making sure my boobs are perfectly lifted in my bombshell bra I bought from Victoria’s Secret. I didn’t want to get so dressed up he’d think I’m going to propose or something… not that telling someone you have their child inside you and you’re pretty much tied together for the rest of your life is any less pressure.
“Lisa?” he calls up the stairs. I meet him at our bedroom door, and a wide grin spreads across his face.“You cleaned up?”
I nod and slowly walk toward him. My heart is frantic as I jump into his arms and kiss him, long and slow. When my lips leave his, I take in his breath and lean back, looking into the blue eyes that have given me comfort and hope this year. They reminded me that life didn’t have to stop after everything I did wrong but could begin again with everything I do right.
“I’m pregnant.” The words are quick and spontaneous, kind of like me, I guess.
I had a plan to wait until the food arrived from his favorite restaurant. Then I’d give him a massage and read him the poem I wrote for him that I haven’t quite finished yet. But I can’t hold the news in any longer; I’m already holding far too many secrets from him and I feel as though if I didn’t tell him, I’d just burst.
His eyes widen and his grip tightens around my waist. A weary smile spreads across his face before he laughs. When I don’t join in, his eyes narrow on mine, and for a second, a wave of discomfort rolls through me.
Is he mad?
Is he disappointed?
Oh shit, shit, shit!
“A-are you serious?” he asks me cautiously.
After the longest second of my life, I nod. He nods too, but it’s slow and cautious, not excited how I pictured it in my head. I watch his face turn a little whiter than usual, and his grip isn’t as tight on me as it was before. I feel my heart speed up. I wiggle from his arms, and he lets me go without a fight. I expect him to look at me, into the eyes of the woman carrying his child, but instead he’s just staring at his stupid shoes. I just told him I’m pregnant, and he’s suddenly preoccupied by his stupid black loafers. I feel my anxiety surging. My chest is tighter than the waist trainer I wore once.
Calm down. Calm down. He’s in shock. People can act really weird when they’re in shock… but why would he be in shock? It’s not that unbelievable. We’re in a relationship, we’ve been having unprotected sex, so me being pregnant shouldn’t be that much of a surprise. I bite my lip and take a small breath, hugging myself since he sure isn’t doing it. Since I’ve been with Brett, I’ve grown as a person. I’m not the overemotional, “do first and think later” person I used to be. Brett’s taught me how to be calm and how to rationalize, but standing in front of him and not being able to read him after I just told him I’m pregnant with his baby is the biggest test of patience I’ve ever had.
He eventually looks at me with a soft smile, but it seems forced, the kind of smile you give your friend when she’s announcing that she’s marrying an asshole, or the smile you give someone who just told you they got the promotion you worked your ass off for and you’re super pissed and want to cry.
“I really wish you’d say something,” I mutter, trying to hold in the expletives that are itching to get out of me.
He opens his mouth to say something, but instead he walks past me and sits on the edge of the bed and puts his head in his hands as if I just told him I gave him herpes or something.
“I-I-maybe I’m an idiot, but a small part of me thought you’d be happy,” I say quietly, trying to hold on to the little bit of optimism I have left.
He looks up at me, and the expression on his face makes my blood go cold. It’s not one of anger or disappointment, but something far worse—it’s pity.
“I guess I assumed you were on birth control.” He’s just as quiet.
I feel a tear come to my eye, but I refuse to let it fall. “Why would you assume that?” I notice that I’m pacing, my steps hitting the ground at almost the same rhythm he’s squeezing his hands.
“Because we aren’t married. Because you’ve just gotten settled here. After you talked about how much you hated being a teacher, I guess I assumed that you didn’t want kids,” he explains almost in confusion.
I look at him, just as confused as he seems to be. These don’t sound like the words of a man who is in love with me. This isn’t the Brett who looked on me adoringly while I was in high school. Have I been reading this all wrong?
“We’re in love, I-I thought. You love me, and you’ve been there for me, and you’ve been the best thing that has ever happened to me.” My voice cracks, and his face falls. Tears are coming down my cheeks now.
He walks over to me and pulls me into a hug, but it’s not warm and definitely not passionate. “Lisa, I love you. I think you’re a wonderful woman. You’re wild and free and so full of emotion that it pours off you.”
His arms clasp my waist. I look away, embarrassed.
“I love that about you. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for you, but are you saying that you’re in love with me?” he asks, his eyes boring into mine.
I open my mouth to answer him, but the words are stuck and there’s a tugging on my heart before my stomach drops. I-I am. Of course I love Brett. How could I not love someone who is so perfect and who does everything for me without expecting much in return? He brought me out of one of the darkest places of my life. We look good together, we work well together, and that’s what’s important, right? Not the feels…
“I don’t even know what to say to you right now,” I choke out, pushing him away. If we aren’t in love, then it’s a hell of a time for him to make that clear now.
“Don’t shut down, Lisa, talk to me,” he pleads, following me to the bathroom.
I slam the door in his face. I have so much to say and nothing to say. My vision is blurred, and my head is pounding. I slide to the floor and cry while he knocks on the door and begs me to come out.
I hate crying. It makes me feel weak. There is nothing therapeutic about it, and it takes me back to a place I came here to forget. Ironically, I’m in almost the same situation. I guess if I look on the bright side of things, Brett isn’t married, and he’s not my best friend’s dad, and at least we are in a relationship, even if it seems more like a really well-developed friends-with-benefits thing.
Brett’s the only man who would make being a fuck buddy feel like being in a full-blown relationship. I replay everything in my head since we met and realize that’s exactly what we’ve been. He’s never introduced me as his girlfriend, just his best friend… but we live together… and we have sex pretty often.
His question replays in my mind. Am I in love with him? I shake my head.
I was told by a really wise woman that love isn’t a feeling; lust is a feeling, one that’s fleeting and goes away and causes a lot of damage. I can attest to that. Lust destroyed my entire freakin’ life. So love should be what saves it. Brett saved me. How could I not love him? How can I not be in love with him? So what that I’ve never had butterflies with him? The last time I had butterflies, they got me into a whole world of trouble. When he kisses me, I don’t feel anything. But he’s a good kisser, and when we have sex, it’s good—I mean, I always cross the finish line—even if it’s not necessarily passionate. When you mature, passion isn’t important, right?
I ignore him continuing to knock on the door. His voice is pleading, but I can’t face him or talk to him right now
“Please just leave me alone.” I force the words out of my throat.
How could I have been so stupid? So wrong! How could I just see things how I wanted to and ignore reality? This is why girls need friends, real honest, in-your-face friends who call you on your shit and don’t let you live in la la land. I try to remember Stephanie’s initial reaction when I told her I was pregnant. She was excited and happy and shocked of course, but was there something I didn’t see. She didn’t say that Brett would be ecstatic; she said that he’d freak…
My mind drifts to her and the group of friends who have so openly welcomed me. I picture them all sitting at the stupid little sushi restaurant I’ve been to with them. Their eyes would be wide as Stephanie dramatically tells them about how her boss’s stupid friend thought they were together and got knocked up by him. She wouldn’t use those words of course. She’d feign concern for me and tell them in a solemn voice, and they’d all look on in pity, absorbing all the juicy details over California rolls and Sake, and why shouldn’t they? They aren’t my friends; they’re hers. Stephanie has real friends, ones who would have told her if she was reading too much into the actions of a genuinely nice man who wanted to save the girl whose life was out of control.
I haven’t had friends like that in a long time… and my friends, other than Amanda, were guys. They definitely would have seen that I was jumping into something I shouldn’t have. Too bad I don’t have any of those friends left. I pushed one away, destroyed another one’s life, and let the one person who may not have judged me believe I had outgrown her and didn’t trust her with the truth.
“Lisa, can you just talk to me?” he asks quietly.
I swallow the lump in my throat. What did I do? The same thing I always do. Screw up people’s lives! I think of the one person who’s bothered to be a real friend to me. He’s standing on the other side of the door, and giving him a baby he doesn’t want will definitely ruin his life.
“I was just shocked, Lisa. I didn’t mean to be a jerk,” he says, sincerity lacing his voice.
Brett would be an amazing father… but I am pretty damned sure that this is the last situation he’d ever want to have a child in. Brett is an optimist and sort of a traditionalist. Of course he’d want to have a child with his wife, not some girl who isn’t even in love with him. I stare at my stomach, which just a couple of hours ago was a source of hope and love. Now it feels like a fifty-pound burden. That’s what a baby would be—a burden to him and a disaster for me. I push off the floor and take a deep breath before opening the door. When I do, he looks at me with eyes full of sorrow. He has a smile on his face, but it’s not real.
“I’m happy. I always wanted to be a dad one day,” he stumbles over his words.
“I’m not even sure it’s yours,” I spit out.
His face immediately hardens. “What?”
“I’ve been seeing someone else.” I bite my lip, trying to maintain the hardest stare I can.
He steps away from me. It’s a small step, but I feel as if he’s moved a million miles away. He chuckles, but it’s hard and cold and sounds foreign. He shakes his head in mild disbelief, searching my expression. “You’re lying.”
“His name is… Jake, and he works at this bar I’ve been going to, and yeah…” My eyes are locked on his shoes. I hear him let out a frustrated breath, and from the corner of my eyes, I see his hands wring together.
The silence stretches for almost a millennium. I’m afraid to look at him, and when I do, I wish I saw anger. Instead, I see hurt and disappointment from the curve of his lip to the ocean-deep color of his eyes. It slices through me. I’ve seen that look before, but this time, it’s due to a lie.
“Listen, I never meant…”
I stop when he shakes his head before leaving the room. He doesn’t even slam the door. Shit! Why did I do that? Why the hell did I just do that?
Because you don’t know what you’re going to do.
Because you always make rash decisions.
Because you’re an idiot.
Out of every way I could have made this better, I chose to do the one thing to make things worse. What if I decide to keep the baby? If I don’t, he’ll probably still never speak to me again. Why didn’t I just keep my mouth shut?
I race out of the door, hoping he hasn’t made it out of the house yet, but he isn’t anywhere in sight. I check the rooms on the ground floor, and he’s not in any of them. I look outside and see that his car is gone. I head back upstairs, grab the phone, and call him, but it rings twice before going to voicemail.
My night continues like that, except that my calls to him go straight to voicemail now. Hours pass without a call or text from him. I’m tempted to call Stephanie, but what will I tell her? Will she even listen to me? She and Brett are friends, but would he run to her with something this personal?
These thoughts run through my head until I hear the little electronic lady’s voice announce the front door opening. I sit straight up. My thoughts are running a million miles an hour about how to fix this, how to make it right. I get up from the bed since he’s probably not going to come upstairs. Brett has never slept on the couch, but I imagine after a girl tells you she’s having a baby but it’s probably another guy’s, that’s one time you’d sleep on the couch. Even if I’m the one who deserves to sleep on the couch.
I’m heading for the door when it opens. His eyes fall on mine, and I can see that his eyes are red and sort of puffy. I can smell the alcohol on him. In college and the past year we’ve been together, he’s never had more than a shot of tequila and a few beers. Today, it seems as though he’s had the opposite.
“Are you okay?” I ask worriedly. His gaze cuts through me. “Did you drive like this?”
He lets out a bitter chuckle and clears his throat. “It’s not like you care.” His tone is foreign. He doesn’t sound like himself at all.
“Of course I care.”
“Really? That’s a shocker.” His words are angry and wobbling into each other.
I’m not used to him being like this, and I hate myself for pushing him to this point, for turning a good person into this. Tears seem to be my best friend now. “I’m so sorry, Brett.”
He scoffs at me. “No, you’re not.” His disdain for me is tangible enough to hold in my hand. “When you told me you were pregnant, it threw me off. It was just so unexpected. I wasn’t mad. To be honest, a part of me was happy.” He sits on the bed with his back toward me. “I never know how to read you. Sometimes I look at you and I see this person with all of this love to give, someone so full of warmth and passion. Being with you made me feel like one day, the wall you have up would come down and you’d let me feel a flicker of that warmth.”
I crawl over near him and wrap my arms around his neck. I expect him to push me away, but he doesn’t. He’s slack in my arms, and it’s worse than him pushing me away.
“I knew when you came here that something happened to you. The light in your eyes was so faint. Not gone but barely there. I wanted to help you get the fire back. I wanted you to see in yourself what I saw when I looked at you. Someone who’s beautiful and amazing and deserved the world,” he says.
I can hear his voice breaking, and I start to cry harder.
“When I brought you here, I promised myself I wouldn’t fall in love with you unless I saw you felt the same way, because whether you know it or not, a girl like you could break a man.” He softly cups my arms and detangles me from around his neck. He turns toward me and looks me in the eye. “You’re not in love with me, Lisa, and I need you to leave.”
His words are colder than the chill that shoots down my spine. His face is harder than I’ve ever seen.
“What?” I ask, a little confused. I knew he’d be hurt and disappointed, but I didn’t expect him to ask me to leave.
“If the baby is mine, I will do whatever I can to help you, but if it’s not, I can’t keep doing this with you. It doesn’t take a genius to see that you don’t feel about me the way you claim to, and now it’s completely clear that you didn’t even care about me as a friend. If you’ve been sleeping with some other guy who could possibly be your kid’s father, that means you’ve been sleeping with him without protection. I wish I could say that didn’t hurt me, that I expected it, but you pulled one over on me.” He laughs with tears in his eyes.
“No, I lied! I’m sorry. I didn’t know what else to say. I haven’t been with anyone except you since I’ve been here. I swear to God,” I tell him frantically, but I can see in his eyes he doesn’t believe me.
“Are you kidding?” he asks with sharp irritation.
“I promise, I just didn’t know what else to say. I was angry and confused,” I say desperately.
“I don’t know how to read you! Why would you say something like that? What type of person makes up a lie like that?” he asks, completely appalled.
I’m breathing so fast now that I can see my chest heaving, but he just looks confused.
“Are you even really pregnant?” he asks.
“I am; I promise I am. I-I-I’m sorry, Brett, I’m messed up. That’s all that I can say. I don’t know why I said what I did. I’m just scared. I can’t go through another pregnancy alone. Please don’t do this,” I plead with desperation seeping from every pore in my body.
He only shakes his head. He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a paper then hands it to me. I open it and see it’s a check for three thousand dollars.
“This is for whatever you decide to do…”
I look at him questioningly. “You want me to get an abortion?” I ask quietly.
“That’s not really for me to decide. I don’t even know if I’m the father,” he says bitterly.
“I told you,” I cry. My chin is trembling, my entire body is.
“I need you to leave. When you have the baby, we can do a paternity test. If it’s mine, I’ll be there in every way I can,” he says quietly.
I shake my head. “I’m not going anywhere. Brett, I’m telling you the truth. Please don’t do this!”
“I need you to go. If you’ve ever really cared about me, you’ll leave!” he shouts, his face red and tears in his eyes.
I take a deep breath and nod.
He heads to the door but stops dead in his tracks. He looks back at me, confusion and frustration written all over him. “What do you mean another one?”
My skin goes cold, and I drop my head in guilt and embarrassment.
He laughs icily. “Wow, just wow.”
“I’ll be out before you wake up tomorrow,” I promise.
He only glares at me before turning and leaving the room. When he does, I crumble onto the floor.