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“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” asked her sister, looking from the baby sitting at Rachel’s feet in the car seat, to Drew, standing sullen by the apartment building’s front door. His arms were crossed and his shoulders sagged. Even yards away as he was, Rachel knew that Drew must have felt Patsy’s judgment and he would not look up, instead affecting a very obvious and dramatic display of impatience. She wished he would try harder, but he had said before that Rachel’s family had already made up their minds about him, so why bother, and she knew there was truth in that. Rachel could only now hope that he wouldn’t start smoking while he waited for her and Patsy to finish talking.
“It’s fine,” said Rachel. “We’re fine.”
A car passed by them on the road, and its noise, once something so commonplace she wouldn’t have thought about it at all, made Rachel flinch and she looked down at her daughter to make sure she was still sleeping. The baby flexed her tiny fists and grunted, and Rachel smiled a weary and pleased smile to herself.
“Thanks for the ride, Pats. And for everything. You’ve been great.”
She bent down and picked up the car seat with her sleeping baby in it as a signal that the conversation was now over. It had plagued her since Dean was born over two days ago that she didn’t look like either her or Drew, or anyone in their families. Dean was a blank slate; bluish eyes, brownish hair in a sparse patch on the top of her head, neither distinctive. A typical squashed but sweet nose. Rachel thought it would help everyone if the baby had clearly taken after someone, but her face gave nothing away so far.
“Let me know if you need anything,” Patsy said. Her eyes drifted over to Drew and she caved into the one last comment that Rachel knew she needed to make, because Patsy generally had one.
“You guys don’t have cars. He just got fired. I really don’t know how you expect to – ”
“Pats, it’s really okay. We’ll make do.”
Patsy sighed and looked penitent.
“I know. I know. Sorry. I just love you and I care.”
Rachel could tell that her sister, biting on her lower lip and still unendingly assessing Drew, was reluctant to leave, but there was nothing Pasty could do now. As she had said so many times over the last months as she fretted at the thought of her sister having a child with a man five years younger than she was, Rachel was thirty four and was going to do what she was going to do. Patsy waved goodbye at Rachel and smiled warmly at her niece before rolling up the window and pulling away from the curb.
As Patsy drove off, Rachel walked to the front door, where Drew was waiting, slouching and guarded, laden with bulky post-hospital bags. He sneaked glances at Rachel and the baby, like he wasn’t sure he was allowed to really look at them. As she reached for her keys, Rachel saw that Drew had drawn an x with his foot in the grime of the apartment’s outdoor entrance way while he waited.
It was a Tuesday morning and nearly all of her neighbors were at work, leaving the building quiet. Rachel and Drew went up the stairs to her apartment without speaking and she was glad Drew followed in silence. He tended to chatter when he was nervous, and make jokes from nothing or anxiously force puns in an attempt to make her laugh and even more importantly, to avoid silence, and she didn’t have the energy for it now. He walked a pace behind them, like he had done when he and Rachel had fought on the few occasions they had and he knew that an argument waited upstairs.
Her place was a studio. Rachel knew she’d have to do something before too long and get a bigger home she couldn’t really afford, but for now, this was where she and the baby would live, and where Drew would stay when he could or when he was wanted. The apartment had started shrinking for her the moment she’d decided to have the baby and here it was, more cramped than ever, and all of her belongings seemed shabby too, but for the bright spots that were her daughter’s things, the ones most recently bought.
A crib under the window. Stacks of diapers in the bottom of the already crowded closet. The small clothes folded in the open dresser. The apartment always developed a musty smell when she was gone too long and Rachel wrinkled her nose as she came in.
“Are you sure about the name?” Drew asked, looking down at the baby, who was now sleeping in her car seat. Rachel noticed that his hair had started to curl on the ends in a way that had always endeared him to her. She didn’t want to be endeared to him at the moment, but affection was a hard habit to break, and she could feel the texture of it between her fingers. It was a sweet memory that shocked with its forcefulness and caught her off guard, that came with desire as well. For a second, she fought it, but she thought, watching Drew slip his shoes off, it isn’t so strange to feel that for the father of her child.
“Yeah,” said Rachel. “I’m sure about the name. It’s cute. Anyway, it’s done now. What’s the point of asking?”
Drew shrugged. “Dean’s a boy’s name.”
Rachel didn’t respond and set to moving their daughter from the car seat to the crib. Drew took a step back from them and looked around the apartment, eyes darting from place to place. Rachel saw the hesitation in his expression, the question his discomfort posed. Where did he belong here, now? There was a time, a space of several months, where he would have known he was welcome anywhere at Rachel’s. He would have flopped on the bed, smiling, in invitation for Rachel to join him, or lay on the couch waiting for her to finish something in the bathroom or kitchen.
There had been routines at many stages of their relationship. The first months of being quickly to bed as soon as they were alone, of conversations in the dark while their fingers drifted over thighs and sides and chests, of texts to let her know he’d gotten home okay. So many times she had rolled over onto her bare stomach in bed and used the light of her phone to help Drew search for an article of clothing. They had laid together and listened for the ticking of his watch to tell where it had fallen. Drew had carved, over time, a larger space in her life and her home and there were dinners, and mornings. Their intimacy had somehow both grown and diminished to where Drew was now cowed, awkward in front of his daughter, and unsure of his place here in Rachel’s home at the brink of a new life not quite together.
“I’m going to take a nap,” said Rachel. She half turned, leaving Drew with his brow knit and his mouth parted in confusion. She didn’t want to help him. Let Drew figure out what was next. And honestly, she thought, why should he look so tired when she was the one who had given birth on Sunday night?
“Okay,” he said. “I’ll…” He looked helplessly to the couch, then to the baby and to Rachel again. “I’ll try not to bother you,” Drew said, and Rachel nodded.
Rachel took off her shoes and laid on the bed on top of the covers, still dressed, not really expecting sleep. Anxiety and pain, more than she had ever known before, and the gray brightness of the early spring afternoon would keep her awake, she knew, and not at all to her surprise, sleep didn’t come. Drew moved around very little and eventually, she stopped listening for him and almost wished he would go away, was convinced that she would instantly rest without him here.
She lulled herself into a half-doze, but the panic of being home with her baby was sharp and it was another thing that wouldn’t allow her to relax fully. In the quiet, Drew’s watch ticked and Rachel found that an image of him, otherwise unclothed, sitting on the edge of her bed and fastening the watch to his wrist came to mind. That had been in winter and she remembered shivering, pulling the covers to her chin, watching him later button his shirt and smooth his hair before pausing as he hovered above the bed, and leaned down to peck her cheek.
An hour passed before Dean made any noise at all; one sharp cry and a gasp. Rachel rolled over as soon she heard the baby and saw Drew staring at her in fright. Dean’s crying had gathered momentum in just those few seconds, and filled the small apartment. It only took a moment for Rachel to reach Dean’s crib.
“She’s a baby. Don’t be so freaked out,” she said as she reached down and gathered their daughter into her arms, still shocked at the lightness of her, the softness, how Dean’s wailing reverberated against her.
Drew, hovering over her shoulder, watched her change the diaper and mumbled that he’d do the next one, something Rachel refused to thank him for. She looked down at Dean, searching again for some resemblance to someone in their families. Dean’s eyebrows were dark, well shaped. Maybe that was a bit like Patsy, who had always been told hers were enviable? Patsy was a pretty woman and Rachel would be proud to have Dean take after her. Maybe that was thinking too much about it. She turned to Drew, rubbing the soft back of Dean’s head, and falling into a deep pocket of love with her daughter, and with that, relief briefly overtook her. She had hated being pregnant and was terrified of motherhood. This moment of affection for Dean, one that she had been prepared might not come immediately, gave her a surge of strength.
“You know what would be great?” Rachel asked. “There’s no food in the kitchen. Would you run to the store? I’ll text you what to get.”
Drew nodded, quickly moving toward the door where his shoes lay. It was easy to see from the way his face and shoulders relaxed, that this task, and being momentarily out of the apartment, was a relief.
Dean was already back to sleep by the time she texted Drew. Though Rachel considered it, she was too tired to take a bath or shower while the baby slept, so she sat back down on the couch and stared at her daughter. It was safe, with Drew gone, to cry at the enormity of her situation, so she did.
How different things could have been, Rachel thought. There had been, briefly, another man in the space Drew had left open during one of their periods apart, a man a few years even younger than Drew, who was not yet thirty. She wondered what it would have been like if he were here, if the baby had been that man’s and not Drew’s. She couldn’t imagine it would have been easier, but she and Drew had a history and it was a cloud over all them, including Dean, twitching in her sleep. The even younger man, only twenty six, had been uncommonly gentle in all things and for a moment, Rachel changed, in her mind, Dean’s face to have a few of his features and imagined him in the kitchen, speaking so softly that she could sometimes only make out a few words from each sentence, or holding the baby against his chest. Remembering the particular bright brown of his eyes, his soft, dark beard, the near whisper he spoke in, longing settled for a moment. The weight of him, thinner than Drew and smaller, still came to her mind, as it had felt so distinct from the man who had bookended him in Rachel’s life. They had routines as well, one she stored in her memory with all fond moments, but she had stingily kept from him things that had been too much Drew’s. She had never called him anything but his name from reluctance to use the same endearment that she saved for Drew and now that seemed cruel. He had been kind and she had loved him, if only a little, not nearly as much as he had deserved. Guilt settled as she thought of him, and curiosity too, at what it would be like to be here with him and his baby.
But it was Drew it had happened with, Drew she had told, after over a week of deliberation, that she had decided to go ahead and have the baby. That had been exactly what she had said and he had cursed, not at her but at all that suddenly lay ahead, at the future he never wanted that was now there, and left, taking three days before showing up at her place and telling her that he would do what he could.
“That’s not promising much,” she told him.
For the first time, he allowed himself a moment of anger.
“I don’t have much to promise,” he’d said. “That’s the whole point.”
The door opened and with a yelp, Rachel jumped out of an unexpected sleep, deep enough that as she came to, she felt herself nearly clawing out of it. Dean instantly started to cry.
Rachel’s vision was fuzzed over with exhaustion and she blinked furiously at Drew, standing next to the bed, bags of groceries in his hands, and his terrified expression came into focus.
“Fuck,” she muttered.
“Sorry,” he said. “Didn’t mean to wake the two of you.”
She hated his fear in that moment, wished desperately that he would grow up and stop looking like he was a little boy whose mother had just left him at preschool for the first time, but pushed it back.
“It’s fine. Can you take care of the groceries and I’ll get her?”
She picked up the baby and followed Drew into the kitchen, where she started a bottle while he put groceries into her cabinets and refrigerator. While Rachel paced, rocking the baby as she fed her, Drew started a frozen pizza for their lunch and she was glad that he did it without asking. She needed to not be in charge of a few things, even small ones. Drew slouched against the counter, sipping from a glass of water.
With her hand on Dean’s back, it was easy to feel when she had fallen back to sleep and Rachel moved her to the crib. When lunch was ready, Drew brought in two plates to the couch, where they had often eaten over the many months that they dated. It was a quiet meal and Rachel found that her appetite hadn’t returned yet and after only a few bites, the smell of food made her nauseated. She looked up to see Drew watching her with worry. The moment of compassion allowed her to relax. She hadn’t known she needed to know he didn’t hate her and Dean.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, just… you know.”
He washed the dishes when they were done, then excused himself to have a cigarette downstairs. Rachel tried napping again and was more successful this time, hearing as she nodded off that Drew had come back inside and started the shower. Perhaps it was the relief that he had remembered he would always need to shower and change clothes after smoking once the baby was born and hadn’t fought her on it.
She spent her last moment of wakefulness rolling half over to inspect the space Drew had so recently been in. He had left his clothes hanging over the side of the couch and there they dangled like a sloughed off skin, still faintly carrying the scent of his cigarette. That would really just have to stop, she thought, and the idea of talking to Drew about his smoking exhausted her so much that she pushed it aside forcefully as soon as she had it.
She dreamed, in a fleeting way, one that cast doubt when she woke on whether it had been a dream or a daydream of her own making, of the other man. As she lay in bed, relishing a few moments of quiet where Drew was still in the kitchen and didn’t know she was awake yet, she wondered if she might text him. What she would say, Rachel didn’t know, only that suddenly, she missed him. She wished, despite loving her daughter, that everything was different, easier, that she was a woman who could easily love one man and then another, because there was so much space not long ago for her own desires. That was all she was filled with at one point. Rachel wished she could be with him again, simple as it had been to be loved more than she loved in return. Being someone’s mother did not exclude her from wanting, but if she reached out to the other man, how she would broach the subject that that’s what she was now? She wouldn’t know, couldn’t comprehend. What were she and Drew? She wanted to be asleep again. She wanted her sister.
Rachel gave up the thought of contacting the younger man nearly as soon as she had it, knowing it would pass. There was no time or energy anyway. Drew walked in and saw she was awake and did a stupid wave at her. Drew did not know about the other man, just as she did not know of anyone whom Drew had been with while they were apart, except in the vague way they both knew there had been others.
“Want some coffee?” he asked.
It was decided, later in the day and without speaking about it, that tonight Drew would stay. Rachel watched him put the baby to bed and do well at it, even as he showed no particular joy yet at holding his daughter, at dressing her in her small clothes, abstaining from cooing at her or smiling too much, though he did once narrate sympathetically when she fussed that he was about done and apologized when she wailed at the cold air hitting her skin. Dean was soon asleep on his shoulder and lowered into the crib.
Though their relationship was at the moment undefined, it was easier to be together than not, and he lay down next to Rachel.
There was no particular closeness as they settled, but an ease that came from before. A stubborn affection. Rachel saw how Drew frowned time to time and bit his bottom lip. He was tired and this had been something he had said many times he was not ready for, and his disappointment was apparent, as was his fight against it.
Maybe I will let him go, she thought. Her cheap bed gave a creak as he moved to get comfortable. It couldn’t be much harder without him here, might even be easier if she didn’t have to worry all the time about teaching him, or monitoring their moods. Drew turned his head to look at her. Without warning, there it was again, a rekindling of affection. Before she could think about it, she reached over, touched his face, and kissed him softly. He kissed her back with hesitation and they slowly pulled away. Rachel wondered if the befuddled look on Drew’s face mirrored her own.
He asked if she wanted to watch something together before they went to sleep and she said yes. Soon, Drew had put on a show he knew she liked and she was yawning into his shoulder, having moved closer to see his phone better, and when she rested her head on his chest, Drew looked down, caught her eye, and smiled at her. He kissed her this time, gently and it was easy as she sank into the feeling, and selfishly fun for the moment it lasted. The kiss was cut short by a stab of pain and she grimaced.
Maybe I will not let him go, she thought now, as she rested her head on him again and turned her eyes back to the show on his phone. Of course, for Dean, to have her father here, but for myself too, because a warm body next to mine is a comfort. Because his warm body in particular is a comfort. Because his smell is just the same as the first time he was over and I enjoy the tickle of his stubble against my temple, and I missed it when we fought. Because I love him more than he sometimes deserves and that is my biggest indulgence.
Half an hour later, Drew got up and switched off the light and the lamps and moved back to the bed, now taking Rachel in his arms and resuming what they were watching with a stretch and yawn.
She nodded, her eyes already fluttering shut. But before sleep, Rachel glanced at the crib and saw, from the light of the phone, her daughter lift a small fist as though in victory and yawn without waking.
Heather Whited is a teacher and writer from outside of Nashville, Tennessee who has been living in the Pacific Northwest for the past 11 years, where she is the only person to not enjoy hiking or camping. The only one. Her favorite authors are Kazuo Ishiguro and Susanna Clarke. She visited her 12th country this summer (Denmark; no one tried to speak Danish to her, alas. She blames a very American face and too much smiling.) She lives with an ancient black cat whose favorite television show is Taskmaster.