Practice Makes Perfect (Single Father) (7 page)

BOOK: Practice Makes Perfect (Single Father)
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“I’m still struggling with that. My grandfather, my father, all these generations…and now she’s just selling out to some anonymous conglomerate. I’m—”

“Speechless?” Her sudden flash of anger had abated, and he made a mental note to steer clear of professional issues. As he cast around for something to say, she grinned.

“Wanna do something?” she said, suddenly sounding like the ten-year-old Sarah he’d once known. “Go for a hike, ride bikes down Lopez Hook? Look for fossils?”

He tried to remember his schedule for the coming week. He was on call at least one day. And he’d promised Lucy something he could no longer recall until he checked his calendar. “Ah, let—”

“That’s okay,” Sarah said, her voice artificially bright. “You’re busy, I know.” She smiled. “Unlike me, unemployed and footloose—”

“Sarah, shut up. I’d love to do something, I’m just trying to remember what I have going. Let me check my schedule and talk to Lucy.”

“I was thinking of driving out to Agate Beach,” Sarah said. “There’s this little girl in Nicaragua she was…probably about twelve. I used to tell her about the fossils. I promised I’d take some pictures for her.”

“She was one of your patients?”

“One of the girls in an orphanage. They were all my patients. Pepita was special, though.”

“I never asked you why you left.”

“Difference of opinion with the people who ran the place. More and more bureaucracy. As much as I loved the girls, I could just see the way things were going. It was time for me to leave, to do something else. But I miss the children.”

“You stay in contact with Pepita?”

Sarah nodded, her expression faraway. “Ted and I even discussed adopting her, but her birth mother fought it. The mother had fallen on hard times, which is why Pepita was in the orphanage, but the mother had first rights.”

Matthew thought of a dozen things he wanted to ask her, but she’d retreated to that secret place again where questions felt like intrusions. And then as though a curtain had parted, Sarah was back again. “Remember when we got trapped by the tide at Agate Beach?”

“I know, I was just thinking about that. And that time you split your head open—”

“Trying to get away from you,” Sarah said. “You were trying to make me eat seaweed.”

“Why don’t we all go to Agate Beach?” he suggested. “Checkout the tide pools. I think Lucy would enjoy that.” But even as he spoke the words, he was imagining Lucy’s reaction. As though he’d proposed a root canal sans anesthesia. “It would be educational for her,” he said. “Left to her own devices, she’d spend all her time at the mall.”

N
OTHING
WAS
RESOLVED
of course, but walking through the hospital lobby after seeing Matthew, Sarah couldn’t stop smiling. She smiled at an old woman in a brown raincoat, smiled at a young mother holding the hands of a curly-haired toddler, smiled at the janitor. This feeling of happiness could get addictive, she thought as she walked out to her car. Just spilling her guts to Elizabeth, that surprised her no end, then actually confronting Matthew instead of just hiding out—which she would have done if Elizabeth hadn’t suggested talking to him. It was like lancing a boil or something, letting all the poisonous feelings out. Maybe one of these days, she would tell him about Ted.

In the car, she dug out her cell phone and called Elizabeth at the restaurant. “If this is a bad time, I can call back,” she said when Elizabeth answered, sounding distracted. “I just wanted to say thanks for the suggestion. About talking to Matthew, I mean. I did and I feel a whole lot better.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Yeah, well, I can’t always say I feel better after I’ve talked to him. Mostly he makes me feel like throwing a brick through the wall, but, hey, glad to be of help.”

“I thought maybe I could buy you lunch?”

“Can’t get away,” Elizabeth said. “I
serve
lunch, remember? But call me, okay?”

O
N
THE
WAY
back to her apartment, Sarah stopped at her mother’s house to pick up the rest of the boxes still stored in the basement. As she let herself in, an enormously fat tabby met her in the hallway and hissed at her. Since Rose had always professed to be allergic to cats, the cat was something of a surprise. It seemed to take an instant dislike to Sarah, hissing again as she moved past it.

“Listen, buddy,” she told it, “I lived here before you did.”

Undeterred, the cat followed her down the stairs but then largely ignored her for the next half hour as she sorted through the stack of boxes piled against one wall. She’d just opened one that contained some of the tools she’d collected during the year or so when she was deciding whether to go against family tradition and become a geologist instead of a physician when she heard Rose on the stairs. The cat rose from its noisy slumber to greet her.

“Where did he come from?” Sarah nodded in the cat’s direction.

“He was down on the ferry dock, spitting at the tourists. Fred at the chamber of commerce picked him up. They were going to take him to the pound. But—” she picked up the cat “—he has a sort of rascally charm, don’t you think?”

“No.” She eyed Rose, who was cradling the cat like a baby. “What’s his name?”

“Deanna.”

“Deanna?”

“I know, I know.” Rose buried her face in the cat’s fur. “But before him, I had this sweet kitten that I just adored and her name was Deanna. Unfortunately, she ran off with the ginger tom that lived next door. Never saw either of them again. When this one came along, it seemed easier to give him the same name. When he misbehaves though, I just call him Cat.”

“I never thought of you as a cat person.” Sarah hauled a box down from the shelf and sat on the floor to open it.

“What are you looking for?” Rose asked.

“Collecting things for a fossil-hunting expedition.” She looked under an old ski sweater she vaguely remembered from her childhood. “Eureka. A rock hammer!” She held it up to show Rose. “Remember that?” She dug into the box again. “And here’s my ice pick and sledgehammer.”

“Lovely,” Rose said. “Shall I pack you some freeze-dried meals? Maybe a little caribou jerky.”

“Would you?” Sarah stood and wiped her hands down the sides of her jeans. “I’m sure it would go down well with Matthew’s daughter.”

“Spoiled child, that one,” Rose said tartly. “Elizabeth brought her in for acne treatment. Quite the little princess.”

Sarah absorbed that piece of information, wondered whether Matthew contributed to the spoiling. What had Elizabeth said about her being a daddy’s girl? A vague unease settled in, clouding the prospect of the outing. Maybe she wasn’t ready for Matthew, the doting daddy. Matthew and Elizabeth’s daughter, flesh-and-blood proof that ultimately Matthew had chosen Elizabeth. Even if it hadn’t worked out.

“I said,” Rose’s voice filled the basement, “what about Matthew’s daughter?”

“Oh.” Sarah shook her head, clearing her thoughts. “Well, we’re all going to Agate Beach.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s there.” As she grabbed the sledgehammer, she knocked over an adjacent box. The silver sandals she’d worn when she married Ted fell out. “Oh, no.” She picked up the left one, threw it back in the box, tossed the other one in, sealed the box and hauled it back onto the shelf. “Why do you keep all this stuff anyway?”

“Why did you send it back, anyway?” Rose mimicked her tone. “I’d assumed it had some significance to you.” She rubbed her hands together. “Well, I’m starving and it’s freezing down here.” She started up the stairs, Sarah following her. In the kitchen, she watched as Rose opened a can and dumped the contents into a bowl, which she then put in the microwave.

Sara picked up the empty can. “SpaghettiOs? You didn’t tell me you were having a dinner party.”

“Deanna enjoys them,” Rose said. “And so do I.”

“Yeah, why slave over a hot stove?” Sarah crossed her eyes at Deanna and the cat darted under the table.

“So.” Rose pulled out a chair and sat down. “Matthew won’t play. Now what?”

Sarah leaned against the sink. “Could you please not use that tone of voice? I am not ten and Matthew and I are not talking about building camps in the woods. To answer what I think was your question, Matthew isn’t interested in joining me, which means I have to look at other options.”

“You could make things a lot easier for yourself if you just called CMS tomorrow. Probably start work Monday.”

“No, thanks. I’d rather flip burgers.”

Rose shrugged. “Want to stay for dinner? I picked up some pad thai.”

“Antibiotics should clear it right up.”

Rose shook her head. “You’re like your father.”

“Actually, I meant to go to the library.” Sarah grabbed an envelope from the table, which was littered with newspapers, napkins with notes scrawled over them, grocery receipts and medical journals. Although Matthew had only mentioned tide pools, Agate Beach was also a great fossil-hunting area. Maybe Lucy would enjoy that. On the back of the envelope, she made a list of other things they’d need: crowbar, chisels, ice pick, a camera, tape measure. Notebooks, of course.

Glancing at the list, Rose inquired, “You’ll be gone for one month, or two?”

“Have you ever been fossil hunting?” Sarah asked.

“No.”

“Then don’t mock what you don’t understand.” She made a mental note to discuss rags, paper towels and newspapers to wrap the fossils in when she called Matthew later. “D’you think the library’s still open? I’d like to pick up a couple of books. Maps, too.”

“Why are
you
making such a production of this?” Rose asked. “She’s a kid. Take her to the beach, let her run around and call it a day.”

“This will be educational, as well as fun.”

“Maybe the girl would rather
just
have fun,” Rose said mildly. “By the way, I was also going through some of those old boxes.” She reached for something on top of the refrigerator, then handed Sarah a notebook. Across the front, carefully printed in neat black lettering, it read: Sarah Benedict’s Book of Ideal Qualities.

“Look at page one,” Rose directed her.

Sarah felt her face color. Under the heading Ideal Qualities of The Perfect Man it listed the qualities he should possess.
Handsome, Friendly, Loyal and Trustworthy.
She’d underlined
trustworthy.
In the back of the book, something Rose probably hadn’t discovered, was a small envelope glued to the last page. Inside was a picture of Matthew.

She looked up to find Rose watching her.

“By the way, chapter two lists the Ideal Qualities of a Perfect Mother,” Rose said. “Didn’t recognize myself anywhere.”

Sarah pushed her hair behind her ears. “Did you think you were perfect?”

“No,” Rose said. “In most families, there’s only room for one perfect individual. You’d clearly assumed that title, I decided not to fight it.”

CHAPTER SEVEN

E
LIZABETH
SIPPED
her iced tea. George had taken her to Fidel’s, Port Hamilton’s only Mexican restaurant. The food wasn’t as good as the Mexican food she remembered from her childhood in L.A., but for Port Hamilton it was okay. Plus, after serving up food all day, it was nice having someone wait on her. And she really liked George. Enough that she’d started waiting for the phone to ring, obsessing about the weekends. He was a musician, too. She had this thing for musicians.

“Where’s your daughter tonight?” he asked.

Elizabeth eyed him over the top of her glass. He had a goatee, which made him look slightly devilish. She liked devilish. “Sleeping at her best friend’s house. Then tomorrow, my ex is picking her up.”

George grinned. Under the table, she felt his foot touch hers. She smiled back.

“So—” he was still smiling “—how’d your day go?”

“Pretty good. This friend, well, she isn’t really a friend…but we grew up together and then she went off to Central America. She’s a doctor.” She saw George’s eyes widen slightly, just like they had when they first met and she’d told him Matt was a doctor. “Anyway, she came into the restaurant. She didn’t know I worked there and…it was kind of nice. We had this long talk.”

George leaned back in his chair. Candlelight flickered on his face. “Yeah?”

“I was all bummed out about Lucy and…” She laughed. “It’s strange, I can’t even remember what Sarah said, but after she left, I felt a whole lot better.”

“Huh,” he said. “Interesting.”

“It was,” Elizabeth said, disappointed. People usually said
interesting
when they meant just the opposite. “Sarah’s… I mean, she’s not like me. She’s very smart.”

“You don’t think you’re smart?”

“Well.” She bit her lip. “I don’t think I’m
not
smart. It’s a different kind of smart, I guess. She and my ex used to be good friends.”

“They’re both doctors,” George said. “They would be.”

“Even before that,” Elizabeth said. “It was as if they had this secret world together. They thought the same way, laughed at the same jokes. But they were just friends…”

“Right.” George smirked. “Typical chick thing to say. Guys are never
just
friends with women. They always want something.”

“I don’t think it was that way with them,” she said, but he was still smirking as if she was naive. “It’s hard to explain—”

“Is she attractive?”

Elizabeth considered. “Well, she’s…I don’t know. The intellectual type. No makeup, that sort of thing.” She drained her iced tea. “That was good.”

“Want another one?” When she nodded, he waved his empty glass at the waitress. “She probably had the hots for your ex,” he said after he’d ordered more drinks. “But he went for the best-looking woman.”

“Thanks.” Elizabeth smiled. “I did used to be good-looking.”

“Still are,” George said. “You’re just carrying a few extra pounds, is all. I like that. Can’t stand skin and bones.”

“Then you wouldn’t find Sarah attractive,” Elizabeth said.

“Probably wouldn’t.” He smiled and stared into her eyes.

E
LIZABETH
WAS
IN
the bathroom when the phone rang. She ran into the bedroom and answered it on the second ring.

“Lucy?”

“No. It’s Sarah. Sorry to call so late. I tried to call Matthew, but he was at the hospital. Anyway, we’re taking Lucy to Agate Beach tomorrow to look for fossils—”

“Fossils?” Elizabeth sat on the edge of the bed.

“…anyway, I just wanted to make sure Lucy has boots.”

Elizabeth thought for a minute. “She’s got this cute pair with fake fur around the tops and—”

“We’re going to be in the water,” Sarah said. “Actually, I might have an old pair that would fit her. She’s about a size seven, right? If you have a pen, I also have a few other things she’ll need…”

Elizabeth tried to think where a pen might be. “Okay, found one,” she said. “Go ahead.”

After hanging up, Elizabeth couldn’t stop thinking about Sarah and how upset she’d been about whatever it was she’d said to Matthew. The difference between Sarah and herself was that Elizabeth was like some uncomplicated kid’s toy, wind it up and it chugs merrily along, but Sarah was like a difficult jigsaw puzzle. You always had to look at the little pieces from different angles, trying to fit them into the picture. Sometimes you’d think a piece was going to fit, but even though you’d try to make it fit, it wouldn’t and you’d get frustrated and want to just knock the whole thing to the floor.

Still, it was good talking to Sarah. Except, knowing her daughter, she was pretty sure Lucy did not want to spend a day climbing over rocks.

O
N
THE
MORNING
of the beach trip, Matthew woke before the alarm clock, which he’d set half an hour earlier than he usually got up. Sarah had left a message the night before.

“I just checked the tide tables,” she’d said. “Low tide is at ten-fifteen and, if I remember correctly, it’s a couple of hours’ drive to Agate Beach. So we need to leave no later than eight. Oh, Lucy might enjoy looking for fossils. She’ll need boots. Okay, never mind, I’ll check with Elizabeth… Hey, Matthew. You think Lucy will like me? I’m not exactly a kid person…well, that’s not true. The girls at Saint Julia’s liked me, but…okay. I’m going to shut up. Good night, Matthew.”

And then she’d left a second message. “Hey, I just wanted to say I’m glad we’re doing this. Okay, now I’ll really shut up. Good night again.”

Matthew had played the messages twice, smiling as he listened to her. Talking fast, rapid burst of words. Just as she’d always spoken, he remembered, when she was nervous. It had been after midnight by the time he got home from the hospital, too late to call her. Although, knowing Sarah, the time wouldn’t have mattered.

He lay with his hands behind his head. Lucy was still at her friend Sierra’s house where she’d spent the night. He’d left a message with Sierra’s mother that he’d be by at seven to pick up his daughter. She’d laughed and said something about that being the middle of the night as far as kids were concerned. He’d said nothing about the beach expedition. He rehearsed his response to Lucy’s inevitable protest. “Lulu, you need to do more than hang out at the mall. We live in one of the most beautiful areas in the Northwest and it’s time we started taking advantage of it.”

After a while he became aware of a new sound. Rain beating against the window. He dragged himself out of bed and shuffled downstairs to make coffee. It was not an auspicious start. He turned on the TV. The rain would clear, the relentlessly cheerful announcer informed him. He showered and dressed, then made two fried-egg sandwiches.

“Why couldn’t we just go to McDonalds?” Lucy complained when he presented her with the sandwich, doubled wrapped in foil to keep it warm.

“This is just like McDonalds,” he said, biting into his as they drove. “I even put cheese on it. And it’s better for you.”

Lucy, cocooned in a red goose-down coat, her hair hidden under a square hood, took a cautious bite. Then another.

Matthew shot her a sideways glance. “Good?”

“It’s okay.” She flipped the hood of her jacket, shook out her hair and turned to look at him. “So what’s going on? How come we had to leave so early?”

“We’re going to Agate Beach,” Matthew said. “To check out tide pools.”

“Huh?”

Matthew explained the day’s itinerary, trying to make it sound every bit as exciting as a trip to the mall. Lucy’s expression told him he’d failed. “You’ll enjoy it,” he said with more conviction than he felt. “There’s a lot to see. Starfish, sand bars.” He reached out to ruffle her hair. “Come on, Lulu.”

“But I don’t get it,” she said as he parked outside Sarah’s apartment. “Why do we have to do this?”

“I already explained.” Matthew saw Sarah at the window as though she’d been watching for them. Knowing Sarah, she probably had been. A moment later, the front door opened and she appeared wearing a yellow oilskin slicker, black boots and carrying a large canvas bag. He smiled. A blue felt hat and she’d look like the Paddington Bear he’d once tucked into Lucy’s crib. “Remember you were asking me about Sarah? Well, you’re going to get a chance to meet her.”

M
ATTHEW

S
DAUGHTER
LOOKED
just as she had in the picture Elizabeth had shown her. Glossy dark hair, green eyes, a rosiness to her cheeks that, as it used to with Elizabeth, reminded Sarah of Disney’s version of Snow White. But while Lucy had been smiling in the picture, the Lucy who greeted her from the backseat of the car, huddled into a bulky red parka, just barely managed to be civil.

“I’ve heard so much about you,” Sarah said as she reached to shake Lucy’s hand. “And your dad was right, you look just like your mother.”

Lucy frowned and met Matthew’s eyes in the rearview mirror.

“Sarah means when your mother was your age.” Matthew started up the car and winked at Sarah. “Right, trooper?”

“M
OM
GOT
the wrong socks for me,” Lucy said some thirty minutes later. “I told her the kind I wanted and she got these weird ones.”

“What kind did you want?” Matthew asked.

“The kind that wick the moisture off your skin. They have them in Brown’s Outdoor, but they were ten dollars and Mom said that was too much.”

“You know, I think I saw the kind you mean at Goodwill.” Sarah turned to look at Lucy. “It’s amazing how people buy stuff like that, spend a bunch of money on it and then decide they don’t really need it after all. Lucky for us though, we can pick it up for a fraction of the price.”

Lucy smiled politely.

You’re talking too much,
Sarah told herself.
Shut up. Don’t try to ingratiate yourself. Be cool.
Looking at Lucy, she had the oddest sense of talking to the old Elizabeth. But unlike Elizabeth who, despite her formidable beauty, was always sweet and kind, Lucy had clearly been brought up to believe that she was the center of the universe.
She’s just a kid,
Sarah reminded herself after Lucy had continued to complain about the socks.

“When I was in Nicaragua,” she said when Lucy finally ran out, “I met this woman who was probably about my age, but she lived in a grass hut and washed her clothes in a stream.”

Matthew shot her a glance, no doubt guessing where the story was going. Lucy seemed to be watching his face in the rearview mirror. Or watching her own, Sarah couldn’t tell.

“Anyway,” she forged on, “I started wondering what it would be to live like that, to have nothing—”

“Pretty hard for you to imagine that, huh, Lulu?” Matthew asked.

Lucy rolled her eyes.

“But the point is, I could see this woman was eyeing my backpack. I’d just bought it to go on the trip and it was really expensive, but I figured it would be like winning the lottery for her to have something like that so I thought, what the hey. I was just about to unstrap it, when she looked at me and shook her head. Then she asked me what it was like to have to carry such a heavy load around all day.”

Lucy smiled faintly.


She
felt sorry for
me,
” Sarah elaborated, not sure whether Lucy had understood the point.

“What d’you think about that, Lucy?” Matthew asked.

“I don’t know,” she replied, an edge of irritation in her tone.

“It must have been quite a culture shock for you, coming back here after all those years away,” Matthew said. “Not that Port Hamilton is exactly a thriving metropolis.”

“No, but you’re right.” Sarah turned back in her seat, grateful that at least Matthew seemed interested. “Even in a town the size of Port Hamilton, the quantity and variety of things you can buy is amazing.”

“Port Hamilton needs a mall,” Lucy said.

Matthew chuckled, then reached into the backseat to squeeze her knee.

Sarah felt oddly defeated. Reading the newspaper yesterday, she’d found herself turning from an article about the Manila slums, where mothers supported families with garbage salvaged from a dump, to an ad for Ikea. Worse, she’d been reading both with roughly the same degree of involvement.
Maybe I should just volunteer for the Philippines,
she’d thought.
Or maybe I should buy some candles, some new sheets. Invite Matthew over.
No, she had a better shot in the Philippines. If there was even an outside chance Matthew might reconsider the practice idea, complicating it with a personal relationship would be disastrous. If he’d made up his mind to join Compassionate Medical Systems, she still had all the work of setting up the practice, but without Matthew. Complications enough. Besides, she hadn’t picked up the slightest hint that Matthew saw her as anything other than a friend.

Which, all things considered, was probably a good thing.

“Daddy, when we get home, can I stay the night at Brittany’s?”

“We’ll see,” Matthew said.

BOOK: Practice Makes Perfect (Single Father)
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