Authors: Kristen Strassel
I knew it was too good to be true. Josh said he’d take my phone number off of the forms I’d filled out for Landon, but I’d been so flustered I forgot to ask him for his number. Plus, a major disagreement had broken out over blocks as we wrapped up the meeting and it needed to be diffused before I was dealing with not one, but two tantrums.
Anyway, Josh hadn’t called, and to top it all off, I got in a huge fight with Daisy over her sister’s wedding. Mercury had to be in retrograde, because today just sucked.
I decided to try to break my funk by having an indoor picnic with the boys. We ate hot dogs and ice cream on the living room floor, they thought it was a treat that I didn’t make them eat at the table. The picnic blanket was actually a shower curtain, because I could easily wipe up all the goo the boys dropped. I gave them the choice of a movie or a story before bed, and they picked the pigeon books, like they always did. None of us ever got tired of those.
My phone was blinking when I came back to the couch with a second bowl of ice cream. My plan for the rest of the night was to watch The Spotlight and sulk. I expected the message to be from Daisy, either bitching at me more or apologizing. But I knew how stubborn she could be, so I didn’t get my hopes up.
Instead, it was from a number I didn’t know.
Sorry I didn’t get in touch with you right away. I turned in your paperwork then realized I forgot to write down your number.
I dropped my spoon too loudly against my bowl as I read the words. Landon used any excuse to get out of bed. The next message read,
It’s Josh. I hope it’s okay that I texted you.
Hey! Yeah it’s okay.
More than okay. But then I wasn’t sure what to say.
What are you doing?
Hanging out, watching TV
, he answered almost immediately.
It was just past nine, and I thought I might see an early pattern emerging. I’d had a lot of guys text me only at night. The last thing I wanted to be was the booty call of the guy who ran Landon’s school.
My eyes widened.
Are you outside my window?
I giggled. Then I realized Josh did have my address and that was a possibility. Just because he had a real job didn’t mean he wasn’t a stalker. I was sure plenty of them were gainfully employed. Mentally stable or not, most guys made fun of my reality show obsession.
Nope. Lucky guess.
Still, I got up and looked out the living room window, over the parking lot. No activity.
Did you hear that guy from the show opened a bar in town?
Another Cam fan. Like it was possible to think Josh was more adorable.
Actually, my best friend just moved in with him.
What? You didn’t tell me you were famous!
I’m not, silly.
I probably shouldn’t try to sell the Cam angle too hard, because Daisy wasn’t exactly talking to me at the moment. One of the reasons she was irritated with me was because I got a little too excited about her boyfriend being famous. But come on. Things like this never happened to people like us. I couldn’t help myself.
He’s working on putting together a new album.
Like I said, I couldn’t help myself.
Sweet, maybe you could take me to go see him play sometime at the bar.
I’d like that.
My hands shook as I typed. What was so different about this guy that had me so jittery? That was exactly it. Josh was different. But I thought that every time. I needed to manage my expectations.
Maybe I could take you out first? I don’t know any famous people, though. I hope you won’t hold it against me.
I held my hand over my mouth, my smile threatened to split my face.
“Mama?” Landon’s little voice was right beside me. I didn’t even notice him padding out of the bedroom. “Can I have some water?”
“Yes.” I got up to fill a cup for him, and when I came back, he had my phone. “Hey, put that down, mister. Back to bed.” I was hip to this game. I took him back to his room, tucked him in again, and kissed his forehead.
Then I had to go back because I realized he took my phone with him to bed.
Landon sent his own message to Josh.
Reading back over the messages, I realized I laughed at him asking me out, and then sent him gibberish. Awesome.
Sorry. Landon got my phone.
I was wondering what happened to you.
I’d love to go out with you but I have to warn you, I have a hard time getting a babysitter.
He didn’t answer right away.
I needed someone to read these messages back to me before I sent them. It sounded like I was trying to blow him off.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.
That sounded ridiculous too, but it was true. It wasn’t like it was any surprise I was a single mom.
It’s just that, well, you’ll see.
I get it, Bree.
Of course he did. He saw people like me all day long. But still, I stared at my phone in disbelief, because it was the nicest thing anyone had said to me in a long time.
The only reason I actually answered the phone when my mom called was so I didn’t have to dread calling her back. I know, that’s awful. My mom had been older when she had me. She’d thought she’d gone into menopause and was absolutely shocked to find out her baby making factory was still open for business. It had set the tone for our relationship.
She’d retired before I graduated from high school, and now her social life revolved around her doctors’ appointments. When she got bored, she invented a new reason to go to the doctor. That was the only way to get her to leave the house. She had everything else delivered, even the groceries.
“Have you ever taken the boys to the Cape Cod Aquarium?” she asked without even telling me about any of her appointments. Odd.
“No. I never thought of it.” They’d probably love it, I brought them to the beach every chance I could. They loved anything that had to do with the ocean. But I couldn’t afford to bring them to the aquarium.
“Would it be okay if I brought them there today?” Her voice quieted, and I wasn’t even sure I heard her right.
“Do you have the wrong number?” I usually had to beg her to come up and see the boys. Even when they were asking for her, it was hard to get her to come. She never offered.
She laughed. “No, Bree. It was in my Deal of the Day email. I saw the Aquarium and I know how much Lucas likes that fish.”
“Right.” She always zoned out when I tried to correct her on details. “Do you think they’d want to go?”
“I’d think they’d love to go.” Even if this was totally weird, I didn’t want to ruin it by questioning it too much. On the Deal of the Day website, Mom usually bought a bunch of electronics she didn’t understand and never used. But if today’s deal actually got her to finally be a grandma, I could live with that.
Still, I was skeptical, so I didn’t tell the boys she was coming. It would be much better if the whole thing was a surprise than a disappointment.
And no one was more surprised than me when she actually showed up. The boys were ecstatic, especially when they found out they were going to see real, live Bishes. After I switched their car seats to her car and buckled the boys in, I had the afternoon to myself.
It was awesome for about five minutes. Then it was too quiet. Then it was just plain lonely.
Things had been looking up in the last twenty-four hours. I decided to capitalize on it and called Daisy.
“My mom took the kids.” The words didn’t sound real coming out of my mouth.
“She did?” Daisy’s voice went up an octave.
“Yeah, believe it or not. Do you want to do something today?” I didn’t want to just apologize, because I wasn’t sure I really did anything wrong, but I knew I didn’t want to fight with her anymore.
“I mean, I don’t know what you’re doing now that you moved out, and school ended.” I should have just apologized and made this less weird. “So if you’re busy, it’s cool.”
“I just said okay.” Daisy chuckled, and the fight was forgotten. I should play the lottery today. “What do you want to do?”
“Shopping and lunch?” It was a beautiful day, and we should probably have gone to the beach, but I wanted to do adult stuff while I had the chance.
“As long as we can eat outside.” Daisy was thinking the same thing I was.
Daisy’s sister Ev was getting married, and Daisy was having a really hard time with it. She’d only been married for a year before her husband Jordan was killed, and so many emotions were still so raw for her. Now she was the maid of honor in her sister’s wedding, and she was struggling to keep her game face on. It didn’t make it any easier that she hated her sister’s fiancé. The strain was starting to show, and I hated it. I was close to both sisters, and there were so many things neither them were ready to say to each other. It was tearing them apart, and I wanted nothing more than to put it all back together.
Ev had called me, upset about her fight with Daisy and even more upset about her fiancé. I told her to just call her sister and make everything right. But she wasn’t ready to apologize to Daisy yet either, because like me, she wasn’t sure she’d done anything wrong. Nothing was going to get better that way, and it had been so easy once I’d picked up the phone and said something. Sometimes people didn’t want my help, but if I didn’t say anything, this was going to eat me alive.
“Have you talked to your sister?” I asked as soon as I got in the car.
“If you remember correctly, she’s not talking to me.” Daisy’s mouth was a hard line.
Here goes. “I think she’s going to call off the wedding.”
“What?” I thought Daisy might drive off the road. “Why?”
“Because, and don’t get too excited about this, she realized you were right.” When I turned back from the window, I already knew she’d be smiling. “She’s putting together this whole thing and Roger’s doing nothing but looking out for Roger. He’s not excited about the baby, and he says
he has to focus
.” I lowered my voice to sound like him, he was a skinny little thing with this unexpected deep voice.
Roger had worked as a freelance artist forever, and he just got a job as an adjunct professor at an art school up in Boston. He wasn’t a flat-out jerk like Daisy claimed, but he never warmed up to any of us. I wasn’t very artistic, and didn’t pay attention to things like politics or anything else that he was interested in, and I always felt like he’d looked down at me. But I’d always thought he was good for Ev. They were having a baby together, and I really wanted it to work out for them. Saying it out loud, I realized something. “He’s just totally being selfish.”
“No shit he is. He’s always been a self-absorbed prick. He hates everything about Ev that makes her awesome. He likes having a hot little girlfriend on his arm and that Ev wants to make everyone happy. He can’t compete with a baby. It won’t be about Roger anymore.”
He can’t compete with a baby.
Interesting. Landon and Lucas didn’t have the same fathers. Things started to break down in the relationships both times around mid-pregnancy. Seth was seventeen when I found out I was having Landon, and as much as it hurt at the time, there was no way it could have lasted. He’d gone away to college, and he’d all but forgotten the chapter of his life that had us in it. I hoped one day, he’d be ready to be a father to Landon, but I wasn’t holding my breath. Troy had been much older when I met him, twenty-five, but no more interested in being a dad. Lucas wasn’t his only kid, and I don’t think he saw any of them very much. I had to take out a restraining order on Troy after he tried to strangle me. He never showed up for his supervised visits, but it didn’t stop the boys from asking about him.
I hadn’t been planning on babies, either, but I didn’t run away because things were too hard. I didn’t get that choice. Maybe I really should take a break from dating. Just because a guy seemed to have his shit together didn’t mean things were going to automatically work out.
All I could think about as we looked around in all the shops downtown was Josh. Of course, every relationship started out good. Maybe it was just a matter of time before he started to demand to know where I was every second of the day, or went through my phone messages, or stole my identity. Or tried to kill me. But Josh deserved a chance to prove me wrong.
“I’m seeing someone.” I hadn’t been sure if I was going to say anything to Daisy until I went out with him, but after a couple sips of my drink at lunch, I wasn’t so nervous to tell her anymore. “Don’t judge. He’s an administrator at Head Start. I registered Landon and had to go in for orientation. We’ve been texting each other ever since.”
But I didn’t have a chance to tell her much else before all hell broke loose.
Cam Hunter had brought a lot more baggage than usual back with him from Nashville. He’d put out an amazing album that the industry turned its back on, then he got dropped from his label when said album didn’t meet their expectations. He’d also brought back a crazy ex-wife. Well, he tried not to. That I could sympathize with. Ashley, his ex, was playing games not to sign the divorce paperwork, and Daisy had really struggled with the fact he was technically still married. I knew she was also struggling because in her mind,
was technically still married.
It was going to take time, but I was proud of her for trying.
Ashley was at The Blue Eyed Crab, the same restaurant that we chose for lunch. At first I wasn’t sure it was her because I’d only seen her on TV. She had a reality show, too. I’d watched it a couple times but I wasn’t sure what the point of it was. She had absolutely nothing to offer. “Ashley’s here,” I practically choked on my drink when I said it.
“What did you say?” Daisy’s head flipped around to make sure she heard me right. Ashley narrowed her eyes at her, and then smiled like she just saw her best friend. Daisy turned back around at me, mouth open, unsure of what to do. I glared at Ashley, who had the actual nerve to wink at me. My mouth dropped as well when Ashley got up, approaching us the same way I’d imagine a rattlesnake would attack.
“She’s coming over here with one of her girls,” I warned Daisy, who’d frozen, staring straight ahead. I took a long sip of my drink and prepared for the inevitable.
“Oh look, it’s the fat bitch who’s fucking my husband.” Ashley sat down between us, her friend standing behind her with her hands on the back of her chair. I glared at both of them, I wanted to pounce on these bitches so bad, but this wasn’t my fight. In person, Ashley was frighteningly skinny. I think I could have closed my thumb and forefinger around her wrist. Everything about her looked unhealthy, her skin was tinged gray, and her hair was thin and limp. Her eyes looked like red stained glass, and I was pretty sure her weight loss regimen went right up her nose.
“And it’s the crazy bitch who isn’t fucking him,” Daisy countered, picking up her beer. I wanted to cheer. “What are you doing here?”
“Having lunch, of course.” Ashley eyed Daisy like she was the crazy one. “Which you should skip.” She looked up at her friend and they both laughed. All the color drained from Daisy’s face. She was really sensitive about her weight, she’d gained a lot since she came home. I always thought she looked great, but her mother was always giving her shit about it. When she was ready, she’d do something about it if she wanted to.
That was it. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut any longer. “Listen, bitch, people talk around here. And word on the street is you’re fucking nuts. If you’re trying to look make Daisy look bad to get Cam back, it’s not going to work. He doesn’t fucking want you.”
So this is what bad decisions looked like when they happened to other people. What an eye opener.
“Who the fuck are you?” Ashley’s friend moved toward me just enough that I knew she meant to threaten me.
Good try, bitch. Daisy might be new at this, but I had way too much experience with girls just like Ashley and this chick. “Who the fuck are you?” I countered.
“Is everything okay over here?” My good luck streak wasn’t totally broken, my friend Derek was bartending today, and he came over to see what the hell was going on. Derek had been my neighbor for a while, and we’d flirted a lot, but I always had some other guy around and nothing ever happened with him.
“Hi, Derek.” God, was I happy to see him right now. “Our friends came over to say hello, and they’re going to pay their tab and go, right girls?”
Ashley had to get in a couple more empty, insane jabs at Daisy before tossing money up in the air and letting it float down to the floor around her.
Derek brought us another round without even asking.
Daisy looked up the ceiling. “Oh my God, I can’t wait for that frigging paperwork to get signed. How did Cam put up with her?”
“She’s like stage five psycho.” And I knew psycho. “Learn when to take a fucking hint, you know? Dude left the state to get away from her.”
Once we realized where Ashley was headed, we paid our tab the way that civilized people do and rushed across the street to The Lonely Heart Saloon.
I knew we were too late. Ashley was already in Cam’s office when we got there, sobbing hysterically, begging him to take her back. She lunged at Daisy when we came in the office. I grabbed her arm, hoping it actually snapped. “If you touch her, I’ll kill you,” I warned her. Daisy was trying to play it cool, but that didn’t mean both of us had to.
“Girls, enough!” Cam yelled. “Ashley, get the fuck out of here. Now! The next time you set foot in here, I’ll call the police.”
“So what,” she slurred as she tried to pull away from me. I closed my grip tighter. “I don’t care about the police.” The argument escalated, and I let her fall away from me, stumbling, when she bared her teeth and growled at Cam. If she bit me, I’d probably need to get a shot.
Cam dropped his forehead to the top of Daisy’s head once Ashley stormed out. This was only the second time I’d met Cam in person. The first time was the night Daisy met him on her birthday, and I was drunk and fangirly. I’d followed his career, so he seemed so familiar to me, but actually knowing him was totally different. Daisy was really happy, but I hadn’t made up my mind about him yet.
This whole thing made my battle scars throb. “This is why I’m never getting married.” I declared as I sat in front of Cam’s desk.
“Oh, bullshit.” Daisy laughed. “Like if things got serious with that Head Start guy, you’d say no if he asked you. I don’t believe that for a second, because—“
“State pensions are sexy!” Daisy had an aunt who always encouraged us to think ahead. We made fun of her because she had more boyfriends than I did. I didn’t want that to be me, when I was in my fifties, still searching for security. With two kids, I didn’t have that luxury.
One of the bartenders burst into the office minutes later. “There’s been an accident. In the parking lot. Someone got hit by a car.”
Cam ran out the door without asking any questions. Daisy and I began to follow, but the bartender grabbed Daisy’s arm. “Someone said something about Ev.”
“Oh my God.” Daisy pulled away from her and started running. She only stopped in the parking lot because a police officer wouldn’t let us go further. Once we told him why we needed to get past the police tape, he brought us to a place that had too many answers.
Daisy fell to the ground when she saw her sister’s body bleeding on the hot concrete. I sunk down beside her, my legs couldn’t hold me up anymore. I rubbed her back, because maybe if I could calm her down, this would all go away. But it got worse, and I couldn’t keep my brave face any more. Not for anyone. I slumped against Daisy and cried.
“She’s pregnant!” Daisy screamed, but everyone ignored her and kept working. She tugged on the policeman’s pants to get his attention, and he made sure the paramedics knew. It was pretty obvious, her stomach still swelled in her bloody dress.
I couldn’t breathe as the paramedics lowered the sheet, but they didn’t cover her face. This couldn’t be happening to Ev. Ev who thought anything was possible. She had to be okay. Because we needed her. And there was nothing any of us could do to make it better.
I couldn’t stay at the hospital for long before I had to go home. Ev was still in surgery when I left, and I just wanted to get home and see my boys. Thankfully, they had a great day, and I had them tell me all about the dolphins, penguins, and the bish while I tried to think of anything but Ev’s bloody body lying in the middle of that parking lot.
They were exhausted, and both fell asleep on the couch right after dinner. The phone rang when I came back out to the living room from carrying them to bed. I froze, afraid to answer it. Ev had to be out of surgery by now. Forcing myself to pick up the phone, I was surprised to see it was Josh.
“Did you hear about the accident at The Lonely Heart today?” he asked.
“I was there.” My body shook, talking about it made it real. “It’s Daisy’s sister that got hit. It’s real bad, Josh.” I covered my face with my free hand, like it might keep me from falling apart all over again.
“Shit. I’m so sorry. I’ve been watching the news, and it’s unbelievable that someone could actually do that.”
“His ex-wife was in the bar before it happened.” Fighting with us. Ashley had been looking for trouble all day, and she had no idea when to stop. Now she was sitting in jail, charged with two counts of attempted vehicular manslaughter. “I don’t know what she was on, but it was something. It was awful, even before she did that.”
“Are you alone there with the boys right now? Do you want some company?”
I didn’t know Josh yet at all. But it said something that he was willing to come over on a night I was a complete mess. “Okay.”
Josh showed up with a bag full of Chinese food. “I didn’t know if you had eaten or not, but it seemed like the right thing to do.”
My stomach rumbled at the smell of it. “I didn’t. And it’s fantastic.” The boys were too little for Chinese, so I hadn’t had it in ages. Too much food just for me. Josh pulled the containers out of the bag. “You got crab Rangoon. How’d you know that’s my favorite?” I asked as I opened them.
He wiggled his eyebrows, he seemed so much younger now that he was standing in the middle of my kitchen in shorts and a T-shirt. “Lucky guess.” He dropped two fortune cookies on the counter in front of me. “Dessert before dinner?”
“Sure. But why aren’t you having one?”
“You don’t know the tradition?” He motioned to the cookies. “You can’t pick your own fortune. I already gave you yours, so now you need to give me mine.”
I carefully considered the cookies before sliding one back over to him. I cracked mine open and pulled out the fortune. “What does yours say?”
He looked down at the piece of paper and smiled. “Tell me yours first.”
whatever your goal is in life, visualize it, embrace it, it will be yours
.” I needed to tape that on the fridge.
your shoes will make you happy today.”
He looked down at his feet. “They haven’t wronged me yet.”
It felt really good to laugh. I hadn’t been sure if I should’ve let him come over, but his fortune told me I’d made the right decision.
“How are things at school?” I desperately needed to hear something normal as we sat on the couch and dug in to our food. If we’d been smart, we would have brought all the containers out here with us.
“Busy. We’re still getting everyone registered, finalizing curriculum. This is my first year here and we have a lot of new teachers. We’ve been working really hard to make sure the year starts smoothly for everyone.”
“I appreciate that.” Landon couldn’t wait to go to school, and I’d be crushed if he got there and hated it. “Where did you work before?”
“Nowhere.” Josh looked down at his plate. “I just got my master’s degree in January. These guys took a chance on me, and I’m really grateful for it.”
“That’s awesome.” He did say he was new, but I thought maybe he’d been promoted.
He ran a hand through his hair. The curls didn’t go back to the exact same place. “Does it bother you? To have someone so new be in charge of Landon’s school?”
“Are people giving you a hard time because you’re young?” I asked. I did some quick math in my head, and settled on Josh being twenty-five.
“Yeah.” Josh looked a defeated. “The administrators wanted someone fresh, but then they’re not always open to new ideas. It’s a struggle.”
“This is what I think. I’ve been in charge of Landon up until now, and something tells me you’re a couple years older than me. I’m a little biased, but I like to think I’m doing all right. So if I can do it, you can totally handle him three mornings a week.”
Josh leaned back on the couch, relief washing over his face. Maybe his age did bother some other people. Whatever. People judged first and asked questions later. I stopped letting it bother me when I had to bring Landon with me to high school. “I knew I liked you,” he said.
“Did you?” A smile spread across my face.
“You were the best fifteen minutes of my day.” He nodded. “Those evaluations can be pretty stiff, but with you guys, I felt like I was talking to friends. That’s why I asked if I could see you again. To be honest with you, I shouldn’t be doing this.”
And there it was. The catch. “Why?”
“It’s against school policy to have a relationship with the students outside of school related activities. That includes their parents.”
“That makes sense.” There were so many creeps out there, in most circumstances, I’d be one hundred percent in favor of that rule. But now I was wondering what the loophole was.
Josh had gone back to the kitchen for a second round of food, and dropped another Rangoon on my plate when he came back. “That’s actually why I didn’t get in touch with you right away. But I just moved here, and you were the first girl I couldn’t stop thinking about.”
My heart stuttered in my chest, confused. He couldn’t stop thinking about me, but he already had his doubts. He was putting a lot on the line by just being here. “I’d said on the way to the meeting that I was never going to date again.”