This story is by Charles Puccia and was part of our 10th Anniversary Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
I loathe my ex-wife for making me a bachelor, so her call blindsides me.
“Jake, can we meet? It’s important,” Sally says. Her watery voice disarms my anger. I foolishly accept and wait a half-hour in a cafe with pink wallpaper and checkered tablecloths. I tap my foot. Does she remember this day our one-year divorce anniversary? Now she’s late. If meeting me is so important, then show up on time.
I finish my beer ready to pay the bill and leave. Why didn’t I make an excuse and not show up? I grind my teeth and know why. To see her once more, escape my life of solitude playing video games and staring at walls.
We met under difficult circumstances, at least for me. Sally chaired a committee that reviewed grant applications. At my presentation, she claimed my early research inconsequential and shredded my proposal for insufficient analysis.
A few days after receiving the rejection letter, she called to invite me to lunch. I took it as remorse and an opportunity to resubmit a revised grant application. After exchanging inane pleasantries, she confessed, “Jake, I like you very much. I see a future together.”
Choking, I spilled coffee over my notebook. I laughed as her seductive voice described my strong bulwark jaw and seductive, verdant green eyes. I’ve heard this from other women. Sally’s words tittered in admiration of my fit body and stylish dress without the flash.
Her carved body accented by foil-shimmering blond hair had wowed me and still does. When Sally enters a crowded room, other women back away and men stampede toward her.
For a while, we were the perfect couple. We cooked gourmet; selected craft beer; jogged; held hands in the park. Our bed mixed intimacy with gymnastics for delirious excitement. And we cuddled, consoling on bad days and exalting the good. I miss that the most.
Over the years, my research expanded, requiring frequent travel. Sally was promoted, working sixty-hour weeks. The days I was home, she wasn’t; or she home, me away. She cited her work too important to cut back. I parroted the same. My stomach cramped the day we signed our divorce papers.
I now live a bachelor’s life, spending too much time in airport lounges and rarely socializing. Online dating proved barren. I celebrated my thirty-fifth birthday alone in a hotel room.
Not wanting to waste more time waiting in the cafe I wave my hand at the bat-eyed server, but she flutters to the kitchen. A door swings open, letting in cool fresh air, and Sally pushing a stroller.
“Sorry I’m late, we got delayed,” she says and nods toward the stroller.
“You take up babysitting?” I ask with characteristic sarcasm. I know the tyke is hers. My hand shakes. She’s found someone and I’m still searching. She has his baby, the one we never had time for. Is this meeting a cruel joke of hers?
She sits, wedging the stroller between us to leave a passageway. The server hovers table side. She fusses over the baby. Sally waves her finger. “Don’t disturb him. It took ages to get him to sleep.” She orders tea.
“You’re looking well.” Her hand squeezes my arm. “Working out?” She’s right, as usual. I’ve hit the gym hard, training with a muscular, overzealous PT. No time to engage with others.
Long-swallowed rancor rises. I pick up the menu to stop me from staring at Sally’s provocative glow. “You too,” I say. The best I can muster.
“Jake, you always were a bullshitter. I gained twenty-five pounds in pregnancy and only lost eighteen.”
“It suits you. Really.” It’s true. Somewhat broader hips and an upgraded bosom from breast-feeding boost her hour-glass shape.
Neither of us recognizes which version sits opposite the other—sweetness or the ticking bomb of self-righteous rage. Discontent wails from the stroller. Sally retreats to the bathroom, baby in tow. I order another beer and tell the server to put Sally’s tea on my tab.
She returns, placing the baby on her lap. As babies go, this one is very cute. His mop of blond hair, like Sally’s, highlights shimmering green marble eyes.
I can’t escape my juggernaut of malcontent. Who’s the father? Do I know him? When did she have time to meet someone?
The kid’s eyes circle the room like a gleeful explorer. He babbles “Mama.”
“Yes, poppet,” says Sally, and kisses his forehead.
Am I an audience to her motherhood performance? Bravo!
“How about you tell me why we’re here?”
“I thought you’d like to meet your son, Jacob.”
My head wobbles in dizzy frenzy, my throat constricts, my silence all dark edges.
“He has your eyes, if you didn’t notice.” Sally flashes a glittering smile that costs a king’s ransom.
“How? We’re divorced a year today and separated months before. Uh… you’re sure?” I’m unsure I should have asked.
“Jake, you’ve forgotten. We both procrastinated… too busy with work, taking seven months to file the divorce papers after you moved out. Jacob’s first birthday is next month. He was premature by two months. Do the math. You’re good with numbers.”
It comes back to me. The day I left we divvied up possessions and boxed items. Two hours in the kitchen and living room. We stopped to have a few beers to soothe our snapping nerves. We sweated from the heavy lifting. I removed my shirt, and Sally loosened her blouse. My excitement rose, and her hands were all over me. We gave the bed a farewell tryout and another go before ordering pizza that ended with renewed grievances.
“You were on the pill,” I say, recalling she didn’t want a baby interfering with her rising career.
“I’d come off to give my body a rest, two months before you moved out. You were cursing my self-centered conceit. I was sure we’d never be together in bed.”
“So, your pregnancy is all my fault, is that it? No one in the meantime?”
Sally waves a dismissive hand citing a self-imposed chastity until after our divorce finalized.
“What now? You want child support? I’m good with that. How much?” I slam my hand on the table. It doesn’t come out the way I want. My shock tramples my joy that I’m a father and anger at missing the birth.
Sally jostles the infant on her lap. “You think this is about money? I have…”
I put up my hand. Her income is twice mine.
Her face relaxes. “Maternity leave ends in a month. I can get an extension, but I’m bored. You know me.”
I do. My hands clamp my beer glass. She wants something from me.
“Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I love being with Jacob but it’s not the same excitement as work.”
Her counterfeit solicitude shrouds her underlying selfishness. She enjoys power, slaying hopeful applicants with an emperor’s thumbs down.
I shrug. “Get a babysitter or au pair. Money, as you point out, isn’t of concern.” My spite conjures old times.
“My concern is Jacob. I want him with family, and my parents are too far away.” Sally’s voice drops. Her mutable mood changes from pissed off to pragmatic.
I point to the baby then to myself and shake my head.
“You’re a quick learner,” she says, her eyelids drooping.
“I have my work too and it’s just as important as yours.”
We trod this very soil to our divorce.
“It won’t be every day. I’m splitting my work between the office and home.” Sally kisses Jacob’s forehead.
Blood from the base of my neck rises to my eyebrows. Now she’s willing to compromise her sacred career. She had scoffed when I suggested she reduce her hours for more time with me, and she rebutted it was me who needed to cut travel.
“I can’t look after a baby.”
“You can,” Sally says, as if the arbiter of my abilities.
Within a month, my apartment looks like Toyland. She stays the first night, guiding me through baby maintenance: diaper, bottle, and bedtime story. He can’t talk, yet I’m reading a picture book.
Baton swapping Jacob becomes routine. The initial irritation pinging my skin diminishes. After a half-dozen exchanges, I greet my son with arms wide, corral him to my chest, and kiss his forehead. I lessen my travel and work more from home. I nap along Jacob in the afternoon and rise less sullen. Sally teaches me nursery songs, and Jacob bounces in his playpen to my out of tune singing.
A work promotion comes up meaning less time at home. I have a sleepless night, vacillating between fatherhood or career advancement. In the morning, I go to Jacob’s room. He’s standing, hands gripping the crib’s railing. He beams a galactic smile. My heart races to keep pace with his unbounded joy at seeing me. He babbles a new word, “Da-da,” and tips the balance.