We don’t belong here.
That was my first thought as I opened my eyes to the sight of this turquoise bedspread and these mirrored walls and remembered – gradually – just where it is we are. It’s a shabbily furnished one bedroom apartment without books or toys on the eastern edge of Hollywood, California, in a neighborhood where there are a lot of people who look healthy and tanned and a little stoned at the same time.
I slowly sit up. The other side of the bed is empty, but I hear the sound of cartoons playing on the TV just outside the door. I look toward the dresser at the photo of my son Noah from last year at preschool, then step out to the tiny living room to find him sitting on the couch and munching on Oreos. I don’t know if he pulled them from the cabinet thinking I’d let him have cookies first thing in the morning, or if that’s the kind of breakfast he’s become accustomed to.
I decide to say nothing for the moment, and lean down to kiss the top of his head. He’s wearing a red swimsuit. His skinny legs are engulfed by the loose cut of the fabric and covered by goose bumps from the chill of the air conditioner. He gives me a curious look. I tell myself I’m only imagining the feeling that he doesn’t trust me simply because he seems to flinch a little every time I lift my hand to touch him.
My eyes go to the coffee mug on the kitchen counter as I step away. It’s filled with Noah’s Crayons and there’s a small Canadian flag sticking up among them – the size you’d hold in your hand and wave at a parade. It was the first thing I noticed when I arrived at the apartment last night; another shock to nerves that were already frayed after what I had found in my post office box, acquired under an alias, earlier in the day.
The adrift feeling stays with me as put on a pot of coffee and I head into the bathroom to brush my teeth and shave. My hand shakes as I lift the razor and I nick my nose at the first swipe, drawing blood. I open the medicine cabinet to look for Band-Aids. There aren’t any, but there is a tin Altoid box on the shelf. I open it, and see yet another stash of pills of different colors and sizes.
When I talked to my ex-wife Brianne yesterday she described her mother, Ursula, leaning over the john and dumping in “every pill in the house.” It was an obvious step toward Brianne’s “recovery” and a failed attempt to eliminate at least one of the clues I’m carefully documenting to prove what a danger Brianne is to my son.
Unfortunately I’m running behind schedule, still recuperating from flight delays and jetlag and a night of hard drinking after I put Noah to bed. But there’s no reason to rush. Brianne will be in a dry-out facility for two weeks, and is under the impression that Noah will stay here with me the entire time.
With a sense of regret, I pull a bottle of Nautica cologne out of my toiletry bag and take a whiff. Noah gave it to me last year before Brianne and I split. (“He liked the smell,” Brianne said, “so I gave him the money to buy it.”) I kept it in the carry-on, thinking that if I put it on immediately before landing the smell would make me more familiar when he met me, but I ended up forgetting.
Noah merely acquiesced when I knelt down and picked him up after getting off the plane, and I sensed that it wouldn’t have mattered if I’d worn the cologne or not. I know time goes by a lot slower for kids his age, and the month we’ve been apart probably seems twice as long. Who knows what Brianne told him? Maybe she said I don’t love him and that I was the one who left. I don’t know how long it will take before he accepts the truth.
I look out the window, and decide not to put the cologne on now since it will wash off in the pool. The hills in the distance are covered with scrub brush. Between here and there are a lot of rooftops, antennas and utility poles. The backyards are tiny, but in the narrow bands of earth between the buildings bougainvillea blooms as if it were wild (although I know it isn’t). When Noah and I were driving around last night in the violet-smoggy dusk it seemed to be everywhere, even on a chain link fence around a used car lot a block away from Brianne’s apartment, the blood-red flowers somehow accentuating its shabbiness amid the bright colored stucco buildings that surrounded it.
Everything seems to have been built yesterday and pummeled by abuse of the transient population. More justification, I think, for what I’ve been planning to do.
“Ready to hit the pool?” I ask as I go back into the living room. Obediently (how he got this way I’ll never know) he gets up and puts the bag of cookies back in the cabinet, then clutches the front of his swimsuit, indicating he has to pee as he heads to the tiny bathroom.
I expect he’ll be in there for at least two minutes, giving me time to scroll through some of the evidence I’ve gathered. Last night I sent the photos of the bong and rolling papers I found in the cabinet above the refrigerator to my lawyer, Tom Schroeder, and the private investigator who’s working with him. I also sent a photo of the “Notice of Intent to Evict” paperwork I discovered in the kitchen drawer, which shows Brianne hasn’t paid rent in three months.
But that’s just the beginning. My phone also has a transcript of the conversation the investigator had with the owner of the low-rent nightclub where Brianne bartended for a few months before irregularities in the till led to her dismissal, and photos of Brianne’s boyfriend and probable drug dealer, a 27-year old two-time felon.
I stare at his photo, a mug shot pulled by the investigator, weighing it with all of the other evidence in my favor.
And then I look at the email Brianne sent me last night, minutes after I arrived. The subject line – “Isosorbide mononitrate interaction” – once again sending a chill up the back of my neck.
A flutter in my chest comes next – a bad sign since I have a hereditary predisposition for problems in that area. I remind myself that 29-year-olds rarely have heart attacks, but we do get told to go easy on the booze once we’re diagnosed with treatable heart conditions, which makes me all the more stupid for finishing off most of that second bottle of wine last night, doing my best to get Brianne’s email out of my mind.
The toilet flushes an instant before Noah comes back into the room. I quickly stick my phone in my shirt pocket as I squat down so we’re eye to eye, and gently tousle his pale hair. He stands too still, begrudgingly accepting the affection.
“Did you sleep ok last night chief?”
“Is there anything else you want to do today?”
He gives me a questioning, hopeful look. “Disneyland?”
I take a moment before responding, knowing that the vintage amusement park is over an hour away, and probably not do-able with the timetable I’ve set out.
“We’ll have to see,” I say.
And then he asks: “When is Momma coming back?”
It’s a complicated question, and a tough one given the circumstances I’m dealing with. So I pretend I didn’t hear him as I pour a mug of coffee and tell him, “that pool is waitin’ buddy,” and nod toward the door.
Despite the way I feel about Brianne, I have to admit that, based on the way my son has acted the last 24 hours, she probably isn’t a terrible mother. Either that or Noah just has an amazingly sweet nature. As we walk down the stairs (he’s letting me hold his hand) there are remnants of her movements and her features in his. Something about the tilt of his head reminds me of her, and the night of violence that put us on this path.
But that’s the last thing I want to think of as we step into the courtyard, Noah’s hand tiny and fragile in mine. Even though it’s the main reason why our time together is limited to one weekend a month and one week every three months. That’s the “agreement,” as Brianne calls it.
Except that it isn’t an agreement. It’s what she won, a legal victory that I planned to unravel with this visit.
I try to imagine that the email she sent after I got here last night won’t change everything, but then I think about her knowledge of the P.O. box and the Canadian flag and hear the steel in her voice during the short phone call right after I received it. “Don’t try anything. I’m watching.”
I realize she could have said the same at least six months ago, which was probably when she installed the keystroke logger on my laptop, and began chronicling everything I did online.
I wonder what else she might have learned as we step out into the late morning coastal fog. The air is eerily silent and the surface of the pool is as still as glass before Noah takes off his flip flops and slips into the shallow end. He’s wearing a Donald Duck flotation ring around his chest that he took from a big plastic bin of water toys next to the door of the rental office. It looks like it’s missing about half of its air, and just barely holds him up. Leaning back in my chair, I think of the immaculate pool in the private club associated with the home I just purchased, where all the toys would be perfect and new and owned by the kids’ families.
The kind of place where he belongs, I think, because it contrasts so sharply to everything I’ve seen here in the past day.
“Watch!” Noah yells, then holds his nose and ducks under the surface. He swims in an erratic underwater circle and then emerges again at the center of the float. As his arms come up there is a moment where he seems unsure of his bearings as he jerks his forearms over the sides to hold himself up.
He gasps for breath and looks a little panicked.
I sit up straighter, ready to jump in, and caution him. “That’s great Noah. Stay in the shallow end.”
Despite what’s happened, Brianne knows I pose no danger to our son. I would die before striking him. As he spins part way around and kicks toward the end of the pool I am fascinated with his tiny legs. I remember my own swimming lessons at his age and the years on the country club swim team that followed; remember my father’s chiding voice, yelling at me to compete and win, and my shame because I rarely did.
Hate doesn’t happen overnight, especially with someone you’re supposed to love. So while I certainly didn’t hate my father at Noah’s age I was already coming to see him as the enemy. My mother’s feelings were far more evolved by then, even though you never would have known it by the face she miraculously put to the world, the genteel wife of a deep pockets real estate developer who lunched with mayors and gave millions away every year to poor people, most of it illustratively chronicled in the press. She gave it a good run, right up until the cold December morning when she drove her Mercedes Coupe into the ass end of a three-ton Mack truck without ever touching the brakes.
“That’s the end of that,” I remember my father saying, without a trace of sadness or remorse for what he had put her through in the months before the battle over who would get what in their divorce. A battle he was clearly winning thanks in part to his financial resources and a legal team that seemed intent on leaving her penniless.
I met Brianne three months later, during my last year of law school. I was living in a state of repressed rage after being told by my father that he expected me to be the same kind of “self-made man” he professed to be. Which is why, at the age of 22, I was sitting on real estate assets that were worth well over $4 million – mostly rooming houses and run-down apartment buildings in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood – that I couldn’t touch. He had arranged for the assets to be held in a trust until I turned 30, with the assumption that by then I would have finished law school and mature enough to handle that kind of wealth.
When I wasn’t studying I spent a lot of time at a 24-hour diner where Brianne waitressed, a block away from my cramped studio apartment. On her breaks she would sit down across from me with a cigarette, and talk to me about growing up in Southern California. She had left with her father at the age of 19 “because he got a good job with his brother” and because her mother “kicked her out.”
I really didn’t have anything in common with this 20 year old-woman-child, who grew up on a steady diet of reality TV and aspired to one day become “an actress.” We were together mostly because of the sex, and because her happy-silly personality made me feel uncharacteristically cheerful. She was a diversion from my worries, and it was never too difficult to drift off into my own thoughts as soon as she went off on some tangent in her life – the drama class at her community college, some new-age fitness fad or whatever.
In other words she made me happy, holding a light up against the darkness that clung to me like a shadow, even though I knew that the feeling was temporary, set to end at some indistinct point when I broke it off but never wanting to think too much about what a mess that was going to be.
My feelings changed with her pregnancy. My instincts had always stopped me from telling her about the fortune I was sitting on, but I was nevertheless surprised when she made no demand for financial support or responsibility. It was my first miscalculation, I know now, a revelation that I had less power in the relationship than I had thought. My second surprise was my own reaction as the news sank in. Brianne made it clear that she wasn’t going to have an abortion, a decision I agreed with because I was thinking of what fatherhood could mean; how good I’d be at it in contrast to my own father, and because of the immediate connection felt to our unborn child.
That connection led us to a relationship that was fast-tracked toward the disaster we’re living now. Me, well into with my 10-year plan to make partner at my firm because my cases to date show I truly know how to win. And Brianne, fighting a battle against addictions that will surely stay with her for life.
Looking back, I know I should have fought her insistence on making things official with our courthouse wedding – know I should have recognized that as a careful step for ensuring she had control over what happened to Noah. If so I would have been far more careful the first time I cheated, with another associate at the firm, after a happy hour. I never had a chance to lie, because Brianne was sitting at the breakfast bar of our kitchen when I came in, a pile of cigarette butts filling an ashtray at her side, telling me that she “knew this was coming” with a confidence that struck me as bizarre – as if she somehow understood my brain better then I possibly could. I found out later that she had bundled Noah up into his car seat and parked outside of the bar and watched as I walked out of the bar with the woman, and sat there watching as we kissed and groped like horny teenagers in the car, and followed us all the way to the woman’s apartment and waited for half an hour, snapping photos and making notes about the chronology of it all on her phone.
The damage was irreparable, but that didn’t stop me from a half-hearted justification, telling her I had too much to drink and that I never intended it to happen. When it was clear that wasn’t working I shifted gears, telling her there were worse things I could have done. Her response reaffirmed everything that was wrong between us.
“Andrew you – – are a dick.”
“Come on Brianne -.”
“No!” she screamed. “I’ll call you whatever I want. Every morning I watch you get up and put on your suit to go off to that boring place you work with all those stupid ass people who are as big o’ fakes as you are.”
“Don’t tell me what to do! I get so goddamn sick of you acting like you’re such a class act all the time when I know what you’re really like. Don’t you think I know what the people you work with say about me? Do you think I’m so stupid that I don’t know that they think I’m not good enough for you?”
Her anger seemed to peak then, as her eyes welled with tears and her whole body started to shake. The hurt in her expression surprised me, because it was suddenly obvious that her feelings about us were so much deeper than mine. It was a terrible moment, hitting me hard with guilt for allowing Brianne to believe that we could ever be the type of family she had wanted.
But I also saw something else as she stood up and met my eyes and told me: “I know there’s something wrong with you.”
I should have understood then what she was actually saying – should have recognized the significance of what she was telling me, and been far more careful from then on out.
Instead I fixated on the idea that I could earn back her trust and become the father I wanted to be. I realized within a few days that it wasn’t going to work, because Brianne’s eyes filled with tears every time I tried to touch her; and because of the dreams; images of my father watching me with a smirk on his face, telling me he knew what was coming well before the night of violence that put us on this path.
It happened on a Friday. I’d been away on a work trip all week and had come home to face the silent treatment from Brianne and begrudging affection from my son. We were eating together but apart at the kitchen counter, Brianne with her earphones, humming to whatever she was listening to on her iPod; Noah watching the small TV perched over the breakfast bar, giggling at a cartoon and then asking her when “grandma would call again.”
Brianne shrugged – a nervous, telling movement – then tapped at her screen, raising the volume enough for me to hear it despite the buds in her ears. A few minutes later, after I’d left the kitchen and come back, her phone was on the counter and she was loading the dishwasher.
“So you’re talking to your mother again?” I asked.
She shrugged, making it clear she didn’t want to say anything more.
“How’d that happen?” I persisted.
“It just happened,” she said.
“My teacher told us all about Disneyland and the mouse ears,” Noah said, clearly only to Brianne.
“Maybe we’ll go there some day,” I said.
Noah’s face scrunched up, as if he was about to cry. “You said in Feb-uary no matter what!”
I looked at her. “What’s in February?”
“Disneyland with Grandma,” Noah said. “And when we live there I’m gonna’ go every day.”
“Losaneles with Granma.”
“What have you been telling him?” I asked, in a cracking voice.
“I don’t want to talk about it now.’’ Brianne quickly got up and started stacking plates. A Brussels sprout rolled off of one, bounced and landed on my phone, leaving a broad grease stain.
“Shit . . . Get me a towel.”
“Get it yourself.”
“We are not moving to Los Angeles.”
“Momma and Granma said we were moving there!”
“Your mother is lying.”
“Lying!” she yelled, and slammed a plate into the dishwasher rack, and turned to Noah. “Your father lies – I don’t.”
I suddenly found it almost impossible to breathe. “Shut up.”
“Yup,” she added. “He lies, but you’d never know it would you?”
I grabbed her shoulder and spun her around. I pressed my thumb against the soft skin underneath her collarbone “You can bitch about how bad your life is, but you will not take him away.”
She shrieked and knocked my hand away. I responded lightning fast with a hard slap across her cheek.
Her eyes snapped wide open with shock – then anger – then fear as she fell back against the refrigerator.
“Oh God,” I said.
In an instant I was back in my own childhood house, looking on with a little boy’s terror as my mother cowered beneath my father. I shut my eyes but couldn’t shut out the images of her bruises and bloodied noses; the violence she lived with year after year.
Suddenly I was hugging Brianne, pressing my face against the bright red handprint I’d left on her cheek. She wriggled furiously to get away, screaming “I hate you!” as Noah began to cry hysterically.
The rest of that night became a series of sensations that will stay with me forever: Noah running up behind me, defending his mother by punching the backs of my legs with his tiny fists, Brianne trying to claw my face and missing, Brianne running up the stairs, holding Noah as if she had to protect him from me.
At some point I got up to go upstairs, thinking somehow I could make amends for the heinous thing I had done. I found them lying together in Noah’s twin bed, Brianne in a fetal position with one arm around him. I started to cry in disgrace, knowing that matter what happened, I would never be forgiven.
For several days I tried to make things right. Torn between my shame for striking her, and my fear that she was indeed turning Noah against me, I never knew from moment to moment how to react. Our whole relationship rested on uncertain grounds. She remained civil, nodding but saying nothing in response to my repeated apologies, projecting suspicion in the way she shrank away from me.
I got the temporary protective order, requiring me to keep away from both her and my son, a week later.
“Come in the water Daddy!”
I lean forward, slip off my shoes and walk to the side of the pool. When I sit down, he yells “I can swim good – watch!” and paddles over, his tongue pressed tightly over his lower lip in concentration as he kicks. His eyes are wide, like Brianne’s, and his chin is narrow like mine. When he reaches the side, he stands up, his narrow chest just above the waterline. “You gonna swim?”
“Sure chief, just a few minutes.”
I think of the things that shocked me. First the realization that the week of purgatory after I hit Brianne was a front, and that she was conspiring against me the entire time. There were the photos she had taken of her “injuries” – a vague bruise on her cheekbone accentuated by harsh fluorescent light. There was the attorney she managed to acquire – a woman who made her name through domestic violence cases and agreed to represent her for almost nothing. But I was ultimately most surprised at the lengths to which she went to paint me as the kind of monster I had grown up with even though it certainly wasn’t true.
“Yeah she’s smarter than you think. That’s why we’ve got to fuck her.”
Those words from Schroeder jolt me even now; that and the memory of his bright-eyed smile, enjoying all of this as if it was a game. A memory that takes me back to my father and the game he played against my mother.
My father won, of course, just like I’m trying to do now. Unfortunately Brianne has been way ahead of me for several months now, thanks to the evidence that I hit her, and thanks to the fact that during the first round of negotiations I was too broke, with my low salary and mountain of student debt, to match her legal power. Which has left her free to spin tales to Noah about what a bad father I am, while raising him here, in a place that looks like it will be the first to fall if there ever is a big earthquake. The people going in and out of the apartments look like they’ve all seen better times – like the 40ish man sitting on a chaise lounge a few feet from me, his sun-whitened hair blowing thinly across his sunburned forehead as he scrolls through hook-up sites on his phone. And the dark-haired girl stepping into the courtyard that surrounds the pool, in cut-off jean shorts, with a sleeve of tattoos up her arm.
She meets my eyes, then glances down at Noah in the water, then abruptly looks down at the bag slung over her shoulder as she heads for another lounge chair.
I imagine how satisfied I’ll feel when I tell Schroeder about the low-rent place where Noah and Brianne have been living. It’s basically a motel, which is what it used to be. I know this from the vintage/retro post card I received at the post office box yesterday morning, right before I got onto the plane. It showed this same apartment complex as a “luxury motor court” built in the 1950s.The blood rushed from my head the moment I realized the postcard was from Brianne, and when I read the message, THIS IS WHERE WE ARE NOW – NOAH’S LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU.
It took a good 10 minutes for my breath and heartbeat to feel normal, because until then I believed that the post office box was my secret. I still don’t know how she found out about it but I know why. It’s because she doubled down on her suspicions and committed herself to keeping watch on me after she found out I cheated. She succeeded because I was careless and overly confident that I could pull everything over on her, and because, as Schroeder says, she’s smarter than I realized.
I lean back in the chase lounge and take another look around the pool with its discolored concrete, and the view of the convenience store and check cashing operation across the street. My hands become fists as I think again of where Noah should be living, in the big new house that’s all mine, a spoil of the heart attack that ended my father’s life, prematurely but not completely unexpectedly. Ironically his death was hastened by his wealth, which enabled him to live like landed gentry but alone in his 1790 manor house amid 10 acres of rural privacy in a remote community 30 miles away from the emergency room doctors who might have been able to save him under different circumstances.
The thought takes me back to Brianne’s email, and the third attachment that came with it, a reminder of the ticking time bomb in my own chest; a reminder of what I’ve done.
“Well hello there little man.”
I turn toward the voice, spoken by the dark-haired girl with the tats. She’s walked around the pool and come up alongside us, and is stooping down toward Noah, who lets out a happy little sound and slaps his hands on the surface of the water, making little splashes.
“Nice try, buster.” She takes a step back, then meets my eyes. “You must be Andrew.”
“Yes,” I say.
She extends her hand in a confident, almost business-like way. I shake it, still looking up at her. She has a tiny ring in her left nostril, and heavy black mascara on her lashes, and maroon lips; a Goth look.
“Nicolle Stabenow. I’m a friend of Brianne’s.”
I know I should offer a snarky smile, because she looks like she would be a friend of Brianne’s.
“You live here?” I ask.
“Yes this pool is very exclusive. Residents only.” She laughs, making me smile for real. “I’m in the unit above Brianne and Noah’s.”
She turns back toward Noah, who’s now kicking around in a slow circle. She pauses, until he’s farther out of earshot, but keeps her voice low. “How’s she doing?”
There’s genuine concern in her voice.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I haven’t talked with her today – just got in last night.”
“She’s so amazing.”
I look at her, incredulously. She doesn’t seem to notice, just continues talking.
“I was so happy when she told me she was finally going to get real help – beyond what I could give her. I’d been worried about her, with all the pressure she’d been under.”
“Pressure,” I say.
“Losing her job. All the fights with her mom. All the fights with Ricardo.”
Ricardo. She’s referring to the felon. “What do you mean – what fights?”
She gives me a long look, and sighs, then sits down on the edge of the pool deck with her legs in the water, like mine. “She obviously didn’t tell you. Which makes perfect sense. She’s trying so hard. . . I did what I could to help her but I’m not quite there yet.”
“It’s a familiar syndrome; intimate partner violence that’s witnessed on an ongoing basis by children who then gravitate to what they know. You hear over and again about the boys who grow up to be abusers but not nearly so much as the girls who end up with men who do the same to them. Rationalization with an inside-out rationale.”
I realize she’s talking about me, which means Brianne has been talking to her about me. I’m still staring at her, taking it all in, when she blinks, and laughs again. “Sorry. I guess I’m talking crazy, since she’s obviously told you nothing about what I do.”
“No,” I say.
“I’m six months away from my Doctorate. I’m going to have a clinical practice some day.”
“Congrats,” I say, and look at her again: a smart girl with a disarming confidence that still seems at-odds with her appearance. A woman living in a crummy motel apartment complex who’s about to earn a degree that’s about as high as mine.
A short ring-tone notifies me of a text. I lean back and pick up my phone from the lounge chair. It’s from Schroeder.
Got the docs, photos, etc. She is dead.
Heat rushes to my face as I jerkily turn the screen to keep her from seeing it.
“What has she told you – about us?” I ask.
She looks thoughtfully up toward Brianne’s apartment. “She told me you all were a disaster together. Oil and water – that kind of thing.”
She frowns slightly, and sighs. “No, that’s not all. But what matters is that she’s absolutely determined to take care of Noah, and herself, which is why she’s getting help.”
We both look toward Noah again. He’s holding the rim of the pool at the deep end, his body buoyed by the float, and is practicing his kicking.
“He’s her whole life,” she adds. “And she’ll do whatever it takes to keep him.”
There’s a look in her eyes. She knows, I think, about the truth behind the Canadian flag and the P.O. Box, and what I’m capable of doing. I wonder if she’s afraid of me, or if, at Brianne’s request, she’s been enlisted to keep an eye on me.
“Any way, I’ve got some work to do but I wanted to say hello.”
She lifts her legs from the water and grips my shoulder for balance as she stands up, as if we’ve known each other forever. She’s clearly on Brianne’s side, but I feel a strange urge to keep her there, talking to me as she puts a hand over her eyebrows to shield the sun and calls out to Noah: “Be nice to your dad!”
We watch as he kicks his way around to face us. I want him to smile, but the expression on his face is uncertain, and maybe even a little scared because he doesn’t want her to go. After a moment he starts kicking and paddling toward us. His legs and arms are hitting the water too hard and without any rhythm, slowing him down instead of speeding him up, creating a cacophony of noise that almost obscures the sound of his voice.
“. . . coloring book!”
I hear those two words but miss everything else he was trying to say.
Nicole frowns, because she obviously missed it too. “What, honey?”
“I want to finish my coloring book!” Still paddling and kicking, and almost floundering, Noah looks almost panicked now.
Nicolle taps her forehead with the heel of her hand. “Ah, I completely forgot.” And then she stoops down, her voice noticeably calm. “It’s all right Noah, I’ve got it. Now slow down a little – swim like I taught you.”
He pauses, takes a few seconds to think. Then starts moving with calmer motions and a more natural rhythm, his hands forming cups that move him forward through the water.
“That’s right . . . kick and stroke.”
She claps as he reaches the edge of the pool, then reaches down and touches the tip of his nose. “Nice job, pardner. And don’t you worry about your coloring book. It’s right over there in my bag.”
He smiles up at her, but he’s too out-of-breath to say anything.
“You ready to take a break?” I ask him. I’m not sure if he even hears me because he’s so fixated on the sight of Brianne’s friend standing back up and walking away.
When he doesn’t respond I reach down and put my hands underneath his tiny armpits, lifting him up out of the float. I grab one of the big towels I brought from the bathroom in their apartment. It’s worn and thin and a bit musty. I scrub him down and impulsively pull him close, smelling chlorine and the sweet scent of his skin.
He stands preternaturally still again, as if he’s not sure how to react. I sit down on my lounge chair, conscious of how much time has passed since I saw him last.
Enough time to get swimming lessons from a stranger, I think, instead of me.
And then she’s back again, reaching into her shoulder bag. She pulls out a big tablet and hands it to me, then reaches back in the bag and pulls out a Tupperware container full of broken Crayons.
“Here you go poppa’ – this’ll keep him occupied for hours.”
I thumb through the tablet from back to front. Noah called it a “coloring book” but it’s actually a drawing book, with simple illustrations of animals and buildings and cars opposite blank pages for kids to copy what they see. Noah has filled most of the blank pages with busy drawings that probably use every Crayon in the box.
Nicolle turns and starts walking, speaking over her shoulder. “Give Brianne my love when you see her again.”
I give her a short wave and settle back into my chair. Without a word Noah goes over to a patio table and climbs into one of the chairs. I watch as he opens the drawing book, feeling more unsettled at how easily he retreats into his own world. After a moment I stand back up, stretch my arms to try and shake away the fatigue, and check my phone again. There are no new texts from Tom Schroeder; nothing new to pull me away from this time with Noah.
I look toward the table again. Noah’s facing me, so I see the drawing he’s working on from upside down. It’s a landscape, with bright green grass and a yellow sun and a playground swing set. Even from this angle I can see he’s drawn three people, two adults and a child. My mind goes back to a day long before the slap, when I was still trying to make amends for cheating. We had taken a family picnic to a park near our house. Noah had just turned four and was full of energy and spent most of the day showing us the tumbling exercises he was so proud of. It rubbed off on both of us, seeing him happy like that. Later on we all got onto swings, side by side with Noah in the middle. Brianne and I got into the same rhythm and swung back and forth, up into the bright sunlight. I kept looking over to her and at one point, when we both got about as high as possible; she finally looked back, squinted into the sun and smiled. I remember thinking of her at that moment as being fragile and precious, a woman-child who would never let go of her dreams – to be a movie star; to have a happy family – however unattainable they were.
I distinctly remember the light feeling in my heart as we drove home, the sun still warm on our faces, as I thought of how much better I had to be, for Brianne and Noah both.
I stand up, stretch again, and walk over to the table and lean over Noah as he colors. It is indeed a playground scene. The little boy and his yellow haired mother are standing side by side. They have upwardly turned lips and spherical eyes. The brown haired father is standing at a bit of a distance away, and I feel a shaky sensation in my gut as I gaze down at the blank circle above his neck.
It’s me. Without a face.
My breath catches in my throat. I watch as Noah draws flowers in the grass, identical daisy shapes. Watching and waiting for him to go back and finish the people, to draw my eyes and my mouth. Instead he keeps drawing the daisies, one after another. And then he looks up at me, his legs dangling and swinging back and forth as he sets the green Crayon down.
“Noah . . .” I say.
He gives me a quizzical look, his head tilted slightly to the side.
My throat tightens as I look toward the coloring book again. The page Noah was working on flutters in the light wind. I know that he’s finished with the drawing. My face is still blank. But there is no doubt that the mother and son are smiling.
Because he loves her, I think.
More than he will ever love me.
There’s another ping from my phone; another text from Schroeder. I see his bright eyed eagerness in my mind; see the two of us in his office, plotting. I shiver slightly as the sun breaks through the clouds and think of Schroeder’s text – “she is dead” – and the sting of my palm on Brianne’s face and the pounding of Noah fists on the backs of my legs.
And then I go back to the email I got last night, from Brianne. The record from the keystroke logger she installed on my laptop. Evidence of the Levitra I ordered from the online pharmacy that professes to be in Canada. Web searches describing how its active ingredient, Isosorbide mononitrate, interacts with nitroglycerin and clear warnings about the dangers that would make someone with a heart condition like mine suicidal if I ever took it. And of course there’s the reference to the post office box I had it shipped to, registered to a different name – the P.O. box where I received the vintage postcard of the motorcourt where we are now.
And then there’s the third attachment. A photo of my BMW at the top of the circular drive that fronts my father’s estate, taken from behind the wheel of Brianne’s car. It’s night outside but the inside of her car is brightly lit. The front page of the Chestertown Daily News is spread out over the steering wheel. The date is clear, and it shows that, contrary to what I told Brianne and my father’s physician, I was with him on the night he died.
Of course she doesn’t know about the four pills I ground up and put into his double shot of Glenlivet during our typically strained cocktail hour. Or about how I pretended not to notice his reddening face and strained breath as I stepped back out into the night to drive back home to our empty house, knowing that his death would give me the financial resources I needed to hire Schroeder and his investigator in the effort to win Noah back.
What she does know is dangerous but not damning, at least not completely. But it wouldn’t be good for it to surface just four months after my windfall.
My head feels light as I stand up. There’s a buzzing at the back of my brain, as if I’m about to faint as I think about the schedule – the plan for the carefully timed call to the social workers, the irrefutable evidence that Brianne is an unfit mother, the chance to win Noah back and all of the reasons his life will be better when that happens.
And then the image comes to me, of Noah and me, alone in my house, the permanently distrustful look I know I will see in his eyes weeks from now, when I’ve won him back.
The image of him hating me, as I hated my father.
I sigh as I look at her email again, knowing she’s won. And then I think of her decision to go into rehab, and about her overture in offering me the chance to be with Noah for the whole two weeks. Possibly because she’d couldn’t turn him over to her friend Nicole and certainly not to the drug dealer.
But maybe, despite everything, she still wants me in Noah’s life. And wants us to be that family she always wanted; the three of us, intact.
“Why don’t we get back in the water?” I say.
Noah’s legs swing back and forth, a sign of happiness, like a puppy’s wagging tail. And then without a word he gets down off the chair and picks up the half-inflated ring and jumps in.
Suddenly I want nothing more than to hug him. I bend my knees, lowering myself until the water comes up to my chest, so Noah and I are eye-to-eye. I grasp the float and pull him close and kiss his cheek as I wrap my arms around him. To my surprise and wonder he leans into me, accepting the hug and then patting the top of my head, as if he suddenly knows how much I need his affection.
I smile through tears, thinking once again of the cologne I wanted to wear, and the need for him to remember me at this moment, as he tilts his body back, and kicks hard, and swims away.
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