Dirty Red Page 2

I bite my lip to keep from saying something really nasty. I have a malicious side to me that Caleb finds offensive, so I curb it when he is around. When he is not around, I swear like a sailor and throw things.

“How long is she staying?” I grumble.

“Burp her …”

“What?” I am so distracted by my mother’s imminent visit; I do not notice Estella is half choking, milk bubbling from between her rosebud lips.

“I don’t know how.”

He comes over, takes her from me and places her against his chest. He pats her back in short little taps that make a heartbeat sound.

“She’ll be here for a week.”

I roll over and hide my face in a pillow, with my butt sticking up in the air. He smacks me on the rear and laughs.

“It won’t be that bad.”

I grit my teeth. "Nope."

I feel the couch give as he sits next to me. I peek at him through my hair, which is wrapped around my face in a red mask. He holds the baby with one hand and uses the other to clear my face, swiping hair gently over my shoulder.

"Look at me," he says. I do, keeping my one exposed eye away from the little lump against his chest.

"You okay?"

I swallow. "Yup."

He purses his lips and nods. "Nope and Yup. Have I ever told you, you only say "nope" and "yup" when you're vulnerable?"

I groan. "Don't psychoanalyze me, Boy Scout."

He laughs and pushes me over so that I roll onto my back. I love it when he plays with me. It used to happen a lot more, but lately...

"It's gonna be okay, Red. If you need me, I'll jump on a plane and come home."

I smile and nod.

But, he is wrong. It will not be okay. The last time I saw my mother was when I was seven months pregnant. She flew down for my baby shower and complained the entire ride there about the horrible venue my girlfriends had chosen.

“It’s a tearoom, Mother — not a bar.”

At the shower, she refused to speak to anyone and sat in a corner sulking because no one had announced her as mother to the mother-to-be. A fistfight almost erupted with the tearoom’s owner because they did not serve organic Brazilian honey. I had refused to see her since.

Caleb — ever forgiving, ever understanding — encourages me to see past her flaws and help her understand how to be a better mother to me. I love this about him, but I learned long ago, that trying to be like him is beyond my reach. I pretend to understand what he is directing me toward and then do my own thing, which usually entails some sort of passive aggression. So, I agree with him wholeheartedly. I promise to make an effort with my mother and retire upstairs to get away from him and the noisy baby. I want a cigarette so badly it’s killing me. I go to the bathroom and strip, then I look at myself long and hard in the mirror. My stomach has thankfully deflated. A few more pounds and I’ll be back to normal. Now all I need to do is get my life back to normal.

Chapter Three

My mother arrives on Monday as scheduled. We all go to the airport to pick her up. Caleb is wary about taking the baby out in public so soon, but I convince him that she’ll be fine if we keep her in the stroller. I'm tired of sitting at home, tired of holding bottles and tired of pretending that eight pounds of screaming human flesh is cute. Besides, I want a Jamba Juice. I'm sipping on my juice and following Caleb and the stroller around baggage claim when we spot her obnoxious blonde head coming down the escalator. I roll my eyes. She is wearing an all-white pantsuit. Who travels in all white? She waves at us brightly and trots over, first hugging Caleb and then me.

She leans over the stroller and claps a hand over her mouth like she’s wrought with emotion.

God, I want to be sick.

“Ooooh,” she coos, “She looks like Caleb.”

This is absolute bullshit. I decided a day ago that she looks exactly like me. The kid has fluffy red hair and a heart shaped face. Regardless, Caleb smiles broadly, and they engage in a five-minute conversation about Estella’s eating and pooping habits. I’m confused as to how she knows anything about babies eating and pooping since a nanny raised my sister and me. I tap my foot impatiently on the tacky tropical carpeting and look longingly at the exit. Now that I’m here I just want to leave. Why did I think this was a good idea?

When Caleb’s attention is diverted with the baby, my mother pokes me accusingly in my stomach and shakes her head. I suck in my belly and look around guiltily. Who else noticed? True, I had a baby only three days ago, but I was being so careful to stand up tall — suck in the belly fat. My momentary lapse embarrasses me. It’s all I can think about on the ride home. I make a pact with myself to stop eating until I reassume my former figure.

At home, my mother insists on taking the room next to Estella’s, even though I had the larger guest room prepared for her.

“Mother, what is the purpose of having this room?” I ask as Caleb deposits her bag next to the bed.

“I want to help you, Leah. Get up with her in the middle of the night and all that good stuff.” She bats her eyelashes at Caleb, who smiles at her.

I hold my eye roll.

She is pretending to be enamored with the baby, but I know better than that. Public doting is what she does to spunk up her image, and when her audience is gone — so is the love. I remember being a child, having her stroke my hair, kiss my face, comment on how pretty I was — all in front of her friends. After they left, I would be sent back to my room to study or practice the violin — basically get out of my mother’s hair, until the next of her ‘good mommy’ performances.

“Really, Mother?” I say through my teeth. “How will you hear her after you’ve taken your sleeping pills?”

Her face becomes splotchy. Caleb elbows me in the ribs. We’re not supposed to talk about her addiction to sleep aids.

“I won’t take them tonight,” she says decidedly. “I’ll do the feedings so you can rest.”

Caleb gives her a quick side hug before we all go downstairs.

I watch suspiciously from my barstool in the kitchen as she carries Estella around and sings show tunes to her. We small talk, or they do. I pick at my split ends.

“We’re going to have a wonderful time while Daddy is gone,” she coos to the baby. “You, Mommy and I.”

Caleb shoots me a warning look before going upstairs to get the last of his things for the trip. I am itching to make a snarky comment, but I remember my promise to him and hold my tongue. Besides, if she wants to play ‘Grandmother’ and take care of all of Estella’s needs while Caleb is gone, so be it. It would save me the trouble.

“Her hair is red,” my mother says as soon as he’s out of earshot.

“Yes, I noticed.”

She clucks her tongue. “I always imagined that my grandchildren would be dark like Charles.”

“She’s not,” I snap, “because she’s mine.”

She shoots me a look out of the corner of her eye. “Don’t be so touchy, Johanna. It doesn’t become you.”

Always critical. I can’t wait until she’s gone.

But, then it hits me. When she’s gone, Caleb isn’t going to be staying home with the baby. I am. This business trip is the first of many during which I am going to have to pull all-nighters and change … human excrement … and — oh God — give baths. I almost fall off my barstool. A nanny, I have to break Caleb on this and make him see how much I need the help.

“Mother,” I say sweetly — almost too sweetly because she looks at me with her eyebrows raised. “Caleb doesn’t want me to get a nanny,” I complain. I am hoping to get her on my side enough to talk to him about it.

Her eyes dart to the stairs where Caleb disappeared only moments before. She licks her lips, and I lean in to better hear what nugget of wisdom she is going to impart. My mother is a very resourceful woman. It comes from being married to a controlling manipulator. She had to learn how to get her way, without getting her way.

When Court was eighteen, she wanted to go to Europe with her friends. My father had refused. Well, in actuality, he’d never verbally refused. He slashed his hand through the air as soon as the words were out of her mouth. The SLASH. It was a common occurrence in our Greek home. Didn’t like dinner? SLASH. Had a bad day at work and don’t want anyone to talk to you? SLASH. Leah crashes her fifty thousand dollar car for the fifth time? SLASH. At the end of all the slashing, Court had gone to Europe.

Remember when you were a poor boy? How much you wanted to travel? My mother.

She’s still a child. My father.

It’s good that she goes while we can still control her. We pay for the trip, the hotels, and the safest travel … much better than her going when she’s in her twenties, sleeping her way through France. My mother.

My father hated the French.

He’d looked thoughtful. Mother’s logic was appealing. He booked everything a week later. Court was under careful, controlled watch, but by God she got to go to Europe. I went to community college. She gave me a small painting that she bought from a street vendor. It was a red umbrella suspended in the rain like an invisible hand was holding it. I’d pulled aside the paper and had immediately known what she was trying to say. I’d started to cry and Court had laughed and kissed me on the cheek.

“Don’t cry, Lee. That’s the point of this painting, yeah?”

Two months in Europe and she was saying yeah at the end of all of her sentences.

Court is … was … so cute. I want to bring her up, ask Mother about her last boyfriend, but the subject is still touchy.

“What your husband doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” My mother’s voice snaps me back to the task at hand.

That’s it? I stare at her blankly. How am I supposed to translate that nonsense into full time baby help?

She sighs.

“Leah, darling … Caleb is away on business trips much of the time, is he not?”

I catch her drift and nod slowly, my eyes becoming wide at the possibility. Could I do it? Hire someone to come in and take care of the baby on the days that Caleb is gone?

My mother is an expert in the art of deceit. Once, before Caleb and I were married, we took a break at his request. He had just been in a terrible car accident and suffered major memory loss due to a blow to the head. To my absolute horror, he didn’t remember who I was. I remember thinking, How could this happen to me? I was about to get engaged to the man of my dreams, and here he was, looking at me like I was a perfect stranger. I had quickly gathered my wits and resolved to be supportive until his memory came back. It was only a matter of time before he would remember how much he wanted to be with me and placed the huge Tiffany’s rock I had found in his sock drawer on my finger. But, instead of getting closer to me as we waited for his memory to come back, he pulled away, opting to spend more and more time alone. Soon, he announced that he was … seeing another girl, if seeing is the right word for the shadiness that was going on, and girl is the right word for the cunning, worthless tramp that almost ruined my life. I called my mother right away to report what he had told me.

“Follow him,” she said. “Find out how serious it is, and make him end it.”

I had done just that, following him one evening to a tacky apartment complex in an even tackier neighborhood. The blocky buildings were painted a bright salmon color. I glanced at the pitiful attempt at landscaping that did nothing to cheer the place up and parked my car a block away from Caleb’s Audi. I was an emotional mess, knowing that he was probably going to see the girl. Through my rearview mirror, I watched as he walked right up to a door and knocked. He hadn’t consulted a piece of paper or his phone to find it. It was as if he knew exactly where to go. The door opened, and though I couldn’t see who was standing inside, I knew it must be her, because his face immediately broke out in a grin that was usually directed toward me; flirtatious and sexy. God, what was going on here?

I waited for several minutes before climbing out of my car and approaching the door. Just to make sure I was doing the right thing, I texted my mother, who responded with a firm: Go in there and get him before he does something stupid!

— Which was followed a few seconds later by a single word: Cry

I did both, and Caleb left with me that night. But, it was a short-lived victory. The girl he was seeing was an old girlfriend from college. Unbeknownst to both Caleb and me, she was pretending to have just met him, trying to squeeze her way back into his life for another round. I found this out after breaking into her apartment. I went straight to his condo with the evidence clutched in my fist, ready to out her scheme. She looked like trouble. I should have known the minute I laid eyes on her that it wasn’t a casual thing by some unsuspecting girl he’d met. It took me some time to figure out. He wasn’t home when I got there. I let myself in with a key that he didn’t know I had and studied the mess he left behind like I was f**king CSI. He had obviously cooked dinner for two. There was still the unmistakable smell of steak lingering in the halls. Had she been here with him? I felt sick. I found two wineglasses in the living room, and in a panic, I rushed to the bedroom for evidence that they had been together. His bed was unmade, but I saw no sign of sex anywhere in the room. What traces would he leave behind anyway? Caleb didn’t — wouldn’t use condoms. I’d gone on birth control shortly after we started dating because of this. He said the sight of them turned his stomach, so I wasn’t going to find any wrappers lying around.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I went to his dresser and opened a drawer, running my hands along the back of it until I found the square Tiffany box that held my engagement ring. I cracked it open and felt tears spring to my eyes. It had almost happened. He was getting ready to propose when that damn accident wiped me from his memory. I deserved to be with him, wearing my two-carat, princess cut diamond ring.

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