Fiction: Ongry by Lauren Fox

The worst thing I've ever done wasn't cheating on my adoring spouse. It's the shabby way I treated my lover

Topics: Five Chapters, Books, Lauren Fox, Fiction,

April swallows a sip of her drink, tucks her smooth brown hair behind her ears, and scans the other guests at the table with a sly look on her face reminiscent of Mr. Fuzzy, a cat I once had who used to sneak up behind people and pounce on their backs. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” April asks. Then she dabs at her red lips with her napkin and laughs, a low, murmuring sound.

“I killed a man in Reno,” Brian says, “just to watch him die.”

“Me, too!” I say. Brian shoots me a wink, a silly, exaggerated scrunching of the entire left side of his face.

Erin, Brian’s wife, elbows him and rolls her eyes at me. “I never finished writing thank-you notes after Livi was born,” she says.

I’ve known Erin for three years, ever since we gave birth on the same cold day in November, at the same hospital, in adjacent rooms. Our shared terror brought us together. This feels like a bitch, she said to me, under her breath, when we met, pacing the hallways, in active labor.

Does this thing come with a money-back guarantee? I whispered to her from her doorway the next day, a hospital gown tied loosely around my blobby middle; pink, bald baby Daisy bundled in my arms like a precious little rat.

Exactly forty-eight hours after that, we sat next to each other in the hospital lobby in our unnecessary wheelchairs, smiling nervously, waiting for our husbands to pull around and pick us up. I looked at little Daisy and felt my life crashing down around my ears, and I said to my daughter, “You’re not the only one who wants to cry, kid.”

“I know what you mean,” Erin said, swiping her long bangs from her eyes. “Call me sometime. We can compare notes.” She blushed hard then, her pale skin darkening in the greenish hospital light.

It was two months before we finally managed to get together, two months before we were able to get synchronized, get showered, get Olivia and Daisy dressed and get out of our houses to meet for a distracted forty-five minutes in a coffee shop. But in the meantime, we talked on the phone for hours every day, two trapped, sleepless, lactating Rapunzels on maternity leave.

Our friendship has consisted of three years of crucial play-by-play analyses of our lives: Erin is witty and patient and honest, and she’s my lifeline, but the truth is I don’t really know what her heart is made of. Maybe not writing thank-you notes really is the most dastardly thing she’s ever done. If she’s done worse, she’s not about to let on now, to her dinner guests: April and Javier, Rob and me.



April takes another pull on her Orangina bottle. “Who’s next?” she says, tapping her shiny fingernails against the glass and looking at each of us. “Who’s next?”

Rob shrugs. “I shoplifted,” he says. “I stole a Walkman from Target. When I was ten.” He shakes his head ruefully. “Big mistake.” I turn to Rob, my mouth agape. There is no way my straight-arrow husband has ever shoplifted. This sheds an entirely new light on him.

“Did you get caught?” Erin asks.

“Actually,” Rob says, grinning, “the worst thing I’ve ever done is lie about shoplifting a Walkman from Target when I was ten. I didn’t do that.” He giggles.  I’ve always loved that about him, how he laughs like a nine-year-old girl. There’s a little nick under his chin from where he cut himself shaving. Right before we walked into Erin and Brian’s house, I noticed the tiny square of Kleenex still stuck to the cut, red with his blood. I reached up and peeled it off as he rang the doorbell.

“We’re all very good,” I say. I put a forkful of risotto into my mouth and then, surprised, hold it there. It’s overdone, somewhere in consistency between solid and liquid, and my teeth aren’t sure how to handle it. My tongue retreats from the ricey mash. I bite down slowly.

“Come on, now,” April says, a scolding tone creeping into her chipper voice. “There must be some good, old-fashioned sinners among us!” Erin rolls her eyes again; I think I’m the only one who sees it.

“April is trolling for material,” her husband, Javier, announces, his lightly accented voice skipping like stones over the R’s. He swigs his beer and glances over at Rob and me. April is an editor at MyMilwaukee.com. “Sweetheart,” Javier says, “I’ve told you not to do that until people know us better.” April laughs again. Everyone laughs. Mid-laugh, and for just the briefest second, I feel like lobbing a bottle of Orangina at someone’s face. From the other room, April and Javier’s son, Will, screeches, “GIVE IT BACK!  MINE!  IT’S MINE!” with the passion of a scorned lover. And the familiar tightrope tug of tension comes over us all. But then, since no one else screams, we resume our dinner.

Rob and I met April and Javier tonight, although Erin has mentioned them frequently. Erin and Brian and Javier went to college together and had lived in a crappy apartment above a blood bank their senior year. “We always had beer money,” Brian likes to say, “but a severely decreased tolerance for alcohol.” Erin has alluded to some bed-hopping in their shared history, and she and Javier do seem to have an extra little something, a shimmery ribbon of energy floating between them. April came into the picture five or six years ago: She interviewed Javier for an article she was working on, and, she told us, took one look at him and immediately abandoned her journalistic ethics. Rob and I smiled politely at her anecdote. It sounded like the thing they tell people about themselves.

In high school, proximity and then exclusivity draw you to your friends: Your last names both begin with R and you agree that your health science teacher has bad breath. You admit that you kind of like that guy with the dreadlocks, she confesses a crush on the senior in your archery phys-ed elective, and you swear each other to secrecy. Bam! Best friends! In college, maybe you meet in a botany class or at an orientation meeting for the student newspaper. Maybe you share a budding interest in saving endangered marine life and you sit next to each other at the inaugural meeting of the University of Wisconsin Students & Manatees Club (which the administration quickly forces you to rename, explaining that “The University of Wisconsin S & M Club” will not fly). You become specific in your desires, and your new friends are a miracle.

But somehow, these days, we’re just all here together, a soupy risotto of people at the same stage of our lives. Oh, you have a three-year-old? So do I! How’s his sleep? Is he a good eater? He’s still in diapers? He doesn’t nap? Oh, that’s hard, that’s so hard. Are you thinking about having another one? So are we! I was once a person with complex and varied interests. Then I became a demographic.

Which is not to minimize the shared pleasures of a dirty joke, a cheeky confession about your diminished sex-life, post baby, or an inappropriate comment on your wavering regard for your own darling child.

But still, here we are. Here we just are.

Part Two

“Well, what about you, mi amor?” Javier asks. “What is your deepest, darkest confession?”

There is something off about a husband asking this question of his wife, the cheap odor of reality television, or maybe a whiff of  “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” I stare at them, fascinated. April has a polished gleam to her that is foreign to me and hints at an exacting and merciless quality. The word “veneer” comes to my mind.

“Oh, honey, you know I’m as pure as the driven snow.” She smiles at Javier and squeezes his arm.

“Well, we’ve all made mistakes,” he says. He downs his beer. Will screams again, a feral howl. “My mistake,” he says, “was agreeing to have a kid!”

April glares at him as he gets up and heads into the other room to see how many of the children have been mangled.

“I wonder who came up with the name Orangina,” Erin says.

“And why they just assumed people wouldn’t pronounce it Orange-eye-na,” I say.

“Orange-EYE-na,” Erin says, grinning, holding up her bottle. “An elixir for your lady parts.”

“Elixir?” I say. “He hardly knows her!”

April holds up her own bottle and tilts her head, her lips pursed, and then she looks at us and laughs – not the low, breathy purr from before, but a loud and raucous cackle that makes me suddenly like her. “Orange-EYE-na!” she says.

My husband shakes his head at Erin’s husband in mock disapproval. This is all a part of our game. Dirty jokes and vague innuendos in mixed company! We can pretend like anything could happen, because nothing could. Once this party is over, we’ll go home with our spouses, argue about whose turn it is to run the tub, clean up the kitchen, put the baby to bed, and we’ll fall asleep in a haze of ambivalence and exhaustion. Sex lurks close to the surface of our recent memories, a fun, abandoned hobby, like rollerblading, or reading.

“I’ll tell you what,” April says, her finger haphazardly tracing the opening of her now-empty bottle. “Before Javier, my life was something … else. I’m not saying I did anything regrettable.” She stops her finger on the lip of the bottle and runs her tongue across her teeth. “But I knew how to have a good time.” Her voice trails off, and she looks at us all as if she’s only just noticed we’re here, Rob and me, Erin and Brian. “Oh!” she says, shrugging and grinning. “It wasn’t like that! But don’t you feel like it was all so much easier, back then?” Will lets loose another deadly scream; more high-pitched yowls intermingle with it, setting us all on edge yet again. Javier’s low, reassuring tone vibrates underneath the screeches, the soothing murmurs of an expert animal tamer, Hey, you three, okay, hey now. “I wouldn’t change anything,” April insists. “But I do get nostalgic.”

I notice for the first time April’s skin, a little bit pocky and uneven underneath a layer of makeup. Erin puts her fork down and rests her chin in her hands, gazing at us all. The flame from a tapered candle in a glass holder in the middle of the table flickers.

“Yup,” Erin says, a little bit dreamily. “Nostalgic.” Brian tugs at his beard for a second and then just keeps eating, inserting the food into his mouth, breathing through his nose: either oblivious to Erin’s little dig or deliberately ignoring it.

“Malaise,” Rob says.

April looks at him. “What?”

“You get to this stage of your life, and you love what you have …” He leans against my arm reassuringly. I know he loves what he has. “But life becomes routine, and you find yourself fighting a sort of … general malaise.”

“You know who reports to general malaise?” I say. “Corporal punishment!” Erin sticks her tongue out at me and crosses her eyes.  I point to her with my fork. “I hope your face stays that way!”

“Do you know,” April says, “I was on the pill when we got pregnant with Will?” She stabs a thin slice of yellow pepper on her plate. “And, I mean, I had been religious about taking it. So to speak. Never missed one. We were not trying to get pregnant. We were trying not to get pregnant. But here he is, in spite of it.” She gestures vaguely in the direction of the other room. I’m wondering where this is going, wondering what a mother who has just admitted that her son was the result of a hormonal fluke will say next. This woman is definitely growing on me. “So I think,” April says quietly, “here is a child who wanted to be born. Who demanded to be conceived.” She looks up, her mouth curved into a little smirk, betraying a smug pride at her admittedly very loud three-year-old’s burning life force, his inevitability. It took Rob and me eight long months to get pregnant with Daisy, our quiet, pale, shy girl, and I bled throughout the nine months, every week, sometimes every day, certain each time I saw that smear of blood that my body would expel her, would just shoot her lifeless little self right out – that I was not meant to carry a child. “He’ll probably grow up to be president or something,” April says.

“Or a serial killer.” Javier slides into his chair, and April glares at him, and then, again, to my surprise, laughs.

“Or a serial killer,” she agrees.

Brian slings his arm around Erin. She startles, then settles into his embrace. “Well, I’ll admit it,” Brian says, “because I happen to be a little bit tipsy right now, but Erin and I were plastered on the night our beautiful little zygote came to be.”

Erin snorts. “The fateful meeting of your virile sperm and my patient, domestic egg.”

“Their glorious, drunken union,” Brian says.

I laugh, thinking about the night we conceived Daisy – the afternoon, really, memorable mostly because the next day I woke up with sore breasts and the vague hope that maybe now we could finally stop slogging through the tepid, carefully scheduled sex we’d been having every other day. I felt better that morning than I had in months. I felt optimistic.

Rob elbows me now, a light jab in my side; Daisy has sidled up to the table, is standing next to me now, crying silently, tears streaming down her pale face.

My heart rockets in my chest. I bend to scoop her onto my lap, pull her slight, heaving body to mine. “Honey, what happened?  What happened?”

Rob reaches over and strokes Daisy’s wispy blond hair, hair so soft it won’t even hold a barrette, hair just like his; she’s an exact replica of him, bearing no trace of my brown eyes, wide mouth, olive skin, coarse dark hair. She’s a delicate flower, not a hearty daisy but a hothouse orchid, and she always has been. She snuffles and buries her face in my neck. I run my hand across her forehead, checking for bumps and bruises. “Did you get hurt, sweet girl?”

“Livi took my dolly,” she whispers, barely audible, gasping with sorrow and surrender. “Livi took my dolly.”

“Oh.” A prickle of irritation shoots through me. So take the goddamn dolly back! I look at Rob, his face crumpled in a sympathetic frown, his lips pressed into the same sad pout as hers. I shrug.

He nods, stands, hoists Daisy from my arms. “I’m sure Livi didn’t mean to,” he says heartily. He glances at Erin and Brian, who are newly engrossed in their food. “We’ll sort it out, sweetie. Daddy will help you.”

Livi skips into the dining room, empty-handed. “Come on and play!” she says, a cheerful demand; Daisy turns her head with a whimper and burrows into Rob’s collarbone.

Part Three

Rob and I met in Minneapolis. I was in grad school, studying for my master’s in social work, working part-time at Grounds for Divorce, a coffee shop on 27th Avenue. (In its legendary origin story, the owner, whose ex-husband had played for the Vikings, changed the shop’s name from the Perk Up Café when she bought it with her settlement money.) Rob strolled in early one spring morning, smiled at me and asked for his usual. I arranged my face into a blank stare and gazed back at him.

“My usual?” he said again, and I shook my head at him politely. He was lanky and handsome in a regular, even-featured kind of way. He looked like a catalog model or an “after” picture in an advertisement for anything. “But I come in here every day!” he said. He was still smiling. “I always order the same thing.” I shrugged. “I’m even here on the weekends.” His smile was starting to droop a little. “Large cappuccino? Low-fat milk? Easy on the foam?”

“Sorry,” I said.

“But we …” He wrinkled his forehead in confusion. “You told me yesterday about how it was your cat’s and your grandma’s birthday, so you baked them both a cake. Shaped like a fish.”

“Oh, that’s weird,” I said. “I would never do that.”

A look crossed his face like he had just figured something out. He took a little step away from the glass counter. “Um,” he said, “well … can I just get that cappuccino?”

My hand fluttered like a moth in front of my face for a quick second. “I know who you are,” I said. “I was just …”

He pressed his lips together. I had taken the joke too far, and now the cute guy I’d been flirting with for a month was repelled by me. I was always doing this kind of thing, thinking I knew someone better than I did, overstepping. This was the end of it for us. I felt my face go hot, the furnace of my own stupidity stoked high. I turned to the bank of espresso machines and got to work on his drink. Well, anyway, what did I want with such an oversensitive, easily wounded creature? He couldn’t even take a joke. Even if it was a really stupid joke that had accidentally turned kind of mean.

I set his cup down on the counter, resigned to my failure, and Rob stepped close and met my eyes. I breathed in. “Do you want to go out with me sometime?” he asked quietly. He reached for his cup. His fingers skimmed mine. I didn’t let go.

“Yes,” I said.

*   *   *

“We’ll have a good story to tell our kids,” he whispered to me that night, in my apartment, after we’d been kissing for a half-hour. I gasped. There is something intoxicating about a thirty-year-old man who will utter that sentence on your first date while his hand grazes your breast. “We’ll tell them how Mommy played a mean, mean joke on Daddy that she thought was soooo hilarious, but it wasn’t funny at all.”

“I was trying to be funny,” I said.

“Yes, he said. “You were trying.”

I kissed him again, and then I stood and pulled him into my bedroom.

That was the bumpy beginning of us, but it inaugurated the smoothest, easiest ride I’d ever been on. Rob was gentle and adoring and funny and sweet. He brought me soup when my throat hurt, even just a little. He drove us forty-five minutes in the middle of the night in July to show me a meteor shower. We did crossword puzzles in bed. By the time we’d been together for four months, we were talking seriously about spending our lives together, and references to our future children were no longer glib.

And then something else happened.

Part Four

A musician happened. He lived across the hall from me. He played the guitar. Whenever we ran into each other in the hallway, he ducked his head and hid behind his long mop of dark hair, and once in a while he would grunt at me. He registered on my radar only as my supremely grouchy neighbor. I made a game of trying to get him to say hi, which he never did. Hi! Hiya, neighbor! Hi there, YOU! After a while, I gave up.

Well, the musician was shy, of course. That was all. There was a week in August when Rob was out of town on business. He worked as an architectural intern at a design firm, and he was in Colorado at some kind of go-green, build-ethically, use-renewable-resources, consider-dirt-floors! conference in the mountains. The musician was playing his guitar late, late, late at night. I had class the next morning. I threw on a T-shirt and shorts and stomped over and banged on his door and planted my hands on my hips and said, Would you please, please keep it down. He rubbed his eyes and smiled in a way that unmasked his whole face. I blinked back my surprise, and he opened the door wide.

I don’t know why I went in. I don’t know why I accepted the bottle of beer, why I sat on his sagging red sofa and let him play for me, don’t know what was going through my head when, after three more songs and two more beers, I let him kiss me. My heart was unaccustomed to racing. It skipped, sometimes, occasionally galloped. But raced? Never.

I wasn’t even thinking about Rob. It was as if Rob existed on another plane, in a parallel universe where I went to work at the coffee shop and studied the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and my boyfriend and I made spinach lasagna together and planned our future, but on this hot night, in this galaxy, I was rolling around on humidity-dampened white sheets with a musician named, what did he say it was? Adam.

I skipped my class the next morning and stayed in bed with him for four days. Holy God, I did not know until then that two bodies could do that, could melt and re-form, could liquefy and yet remain somehow intact. In my weak, weak defense, I had simply had no idea.

He had been a lawyer, he told me, but he’d hated it. So now he was back in school studying music theory. He touched my cheek and said that he heard me laughing sometimes from the hallway, that he’d been wanting to talk to me for a full year. I told him about Rob; they’d met once or twice in passing. On our third day together, Adam eased over to me, propped himself up on his elbow and said, “I want to keep doing this with you.  It’s not just about the– ” he motioned from my body to his, fanning the air between us. “I want to keep knowing you.”

I licked my lips, chapped from kissing. I would have to break up with Rob. I closed my eyes and his sweet, wide face floated in front of me like a balloon. I was, it appeared, entirely prepared to do that. Adam pressed his mouth on my neck and moved his hand down my stomach. I was shockingly prepared.

On our fourth morning, Adam said, “I have something to tell you.” He crooked his arms above his head and I slid up next to him, my stomach pressing against his side, my head nestled into his neck.

The next moment exists for me, even now, like a frozen blast of air in my lungs, like Minneapolis in winter, how the icy wind sometimes howls in from the Arctic Circle and just stills you.

“I lost the lottery,” Adam said. “Genetically.” His father had died of Huntington’s disease four years ago. Adam had been tested. He would get it, too. It was just a matter of when. “Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a lot of good years ahead of me.” He was silent for a few minutes. I almost thought he’d fallen asleep. “But I won’t live to a ripe old age. And when it happens, it won’t be pretty.” He rearranged himself and swiped a hand over his face. “I have to live with this,” he said. “But in the end, there are no guarantees for any of us.”

I couldn’t breathe. I mean, I could breathe, but it felt wrong, my inhalations labored, exhalations jagged and incomplete. I felt like I had just run a marathon. I thought about Rob; he came crashing back into my mind. Kind, solid Rob, healthy and strong. I put my arms around Adam, I pressed my body even closer to his; I murmured, “It’s okay, it’s okay,” and I felt stupid and ox-like; a huge, dull, mooing farm animal in the presence of unbearable fragility. I ran my fingertips slowly over his rough, unshaven face and his ticking time bomb of a body, and then I climbed carefully on top of him; I rocked and rocked until we were both exhausted and done.

When Rob came back the next day, I told him I wanted to move in with him. I told him I wanted us to find a new place together. I was ready, I told him. I knew he would be, too. A week-and-a-half later we were settled into the top floor of a duplex on 31st and Emerson, miles away from my old building. Three months later we were engaged. I never saw Adam again.

So, what’s the worst thing I’ve ever done? Oh, I don’t know. Cheating on the man who adored me? Falling in love with someone else in an instant, flipping like a pancake; being ready, guiltlessly ready, to throw Rob over? Nope. It was the running. The blind, groping, desperate escape. How I saved myself.

“I think the worst thing I’ve ever done,” I say to my dinner companions, “was collecting money for Unicef one Halloween when I was nine, and then never handing it in. I mean, I didn’t collect that much. Like ten bucks. But I kept it!”

“Gwen!” Rob grabs my arm, horrified.

“I know!”

April laughs. “I bet you’ve been donating to charities ever since, to compensate.”

“Yep.”

“What did you spend it on?” Brian asks: the pragmatist.

“Candy,” I say. “Ironically enough.”

“I cannot believe your wife,” Erin says to Rob.

“I can’t, either!” Rob loosens his grip on my arm and then strokes it indulgently, as if I were a charming, four-year-old imp. I smile at him. Rob, my husband. Daisy is on his lap now, having refused to re-enter the fray. She’s picking daintily at the food on his plate, poking her index finger into his sweet potatoes, carefully lifting and examining bits of lettuce, drinking his water in tiny, deliberate sips.

All I want right now is to leave this party, to take Daisy home and tuck her in and then crawl under the covers with Rob, into our big warm bed where nothing can touch us. Maybe make a new baby, or two more, or three, a fortress of squalling babies to surround us, to shore us up against the marauders at the gates.

Erin goes into the kitchen and brings out ice cream and pie. At the word dessert, Will and Livi come running, holding hands, panting like tiny addicts. They climb up into their chairs, hands still clasped. Their faces are flushed with desire. Next to me, on Rob’s lap, Daisy tenses.

“Aw,” Erin says, slicing the pie. “Look at the two of them.” A wisp of her blond hair falls in front of her eyes, and she blows it back.

“I hear wedding bells in our future,” April says to Erin. “Sister-in-law!”

Javier and Brian clink glasses and laugh.

I am, suddenly and snarlingly, irritated with everyone: at Erin and April and Brian and Javier for indulging in this nauseating fantasy, the Darwinian union of their hearty, good-looking stock. So who is Daisy in this cloying equation: a future usher at their wedding? Maybe the old friend who holds up the bride’s six-foot train while she pees? I even feel a fleeting spark anger with Rob, and for what? For his perfect DNA? I reach for Daisy and pull her across Rob’s legs over to mine. “Will you sit on my lap and share some pie with me?” I ask, wrapping my arms completely around her little-bird body. She leans into me. I rest my cheek against her silky hair and breathe in her sweet smell of baby shampoo and Play-Doh and heat.

She eyes the ice cream and tips her head to me. Her skin is so pale it’s translucent. A blue vein snakes up her forehead; purplish circles smudge the thin skin under her eyes. She points to the ice cream and pie. “I want a lot,” she whispers.

I squeeze her. “Me, too.”

Part Five

Later, after the children have been wiped clean and deposited onto the sofa to watch cartoons, and the dishes have been stacked and cleared and loaded into the dishwasher and the adults have dispersed, I pull the broom out from the pantry and start sweeping under the dining room table, the most disgusting place in any house where children live. The parties I went to in my twenties ended in the early morning, with happy, drunken revelers wobbling out the door, and now they end this way: with cartoons and cleaning up. From the hallway off the dining room comes a rising swell of voices, furious, hissing whispers of a marital argument that can’t wait. I stop sweeping for a second. Javier’s accent bursts through the liquid murmuring: I’m so ongry, he says; I am so damn ongry. He’s still hungry? I think for a second, and then realize. Oh, God, Javier! April teeters on the edge of tears, her voice pitched high and wrecked. I’m sorry! I said I was sorry! Please, not now!

I feel like I’m hearing them having sex, private and keening and raw. As much as I want to stay, I slip out of the dining room, away from their voices, and step back into the living room, where Brian is stretched out on the sofa with the kids, as engrossed in the cartoons as they are. They all laugh at something Spongebob says. Brian leans forward, smiling, then back against the couch. His bare feet are propped on the coffee table, poking out of his jeans, naked and white, his toes like spiny fish. Olivia is sprawled across his lap, and with one hand he strokes her hair; the other rests on her leg. This is the pure and easy love he will send Olivia into the world with, a father’s sweet, uncomplicated affection. This is where it lands, right here. Live it up now, kid. And Erin – I can see it clearly, the unfolding of it, like I am some kind of prophet of incremental ruin – Erin will retreat, just a little or a lot; Erin will back away.

It’s never what you think it will be, never the way it’s supposed to play out, and it seems to me from my quiet vantage point on the edge of the living room that it doesn’t matter, at least not the way we thought it did. After all, we’re just agents of procreation, gene carriers, randomly coupling, repopulating, spreading ourselves like dandelion seeds thickly across the earth. And here we are, we’re doing that! We’ve done it!

I go in search of Rob, quiet in my socks, padding through the house, ready to leave this party, ready to drive home with my little family through the darkness of an early winter’s evening, and so I find him, sitting at the kitchen table; I see them as if I’ve sneaked up on them with suspicions, but I haven’t. They’re just sitting there, side by side, two dark brown bottles of beer in front of them, two blond heads next to each other, and Rob’s hand on Erin’s. Is it? I consider that my eyes may be playing tricks on me, that these hands could not possibly be touching. But they are; Rob and Erin are sitting there silently, his familiar long fingers molded over hers, holding tight and then releasing fast, and the look he gives her, shadowed in the low light but unmistakable: I know the look that passes across his face, the particular contortions of mouth and brow; it’s pure longing.

“Mama,” Will yells, his feet thundering through the house; Livi and Daisy and Brian are close behind. “Done watching TV,” Will announces. He folds his little arms across his chest. “Where is my mama?” April and Javier step into the kitchen, no trace of their argument on their faces. “Let’s GO!” Will commands. “I want to go!” and at the idea of it Livi starts crying, huge, ramped-up wails that demand attention, that fill the room.

Rob and Erin turn, and I smile like I’ve just this very second walked into the kitchen, then quickly bend toward Daisy and scoop her up.

“Ready?” I ask Rob.

“Yup.” He nods and hoists himself up from the table and moves toward me in three of his long, loping strides, and I hand him our child, our Daisy, tired and heavy, and Rob takes her, willingly, happily. He lifts her from my arms and eases past me, making his way across the kitchen and down the hallway to Erin and Brian’s bedroom, where our coats lay in a pile on the bed.

Lauren Fox is the author of the novels "Friends Like Us" (now in paperback) and "Still Life With Husband"

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