Quarter Life Crisis: Step Six: Restructuring

-25-

Lauren keeps telling Rick he doesn’t have to come to these doctor’s appointments with her. But every time she tells him she has one, he insists on joining—to the point of annoyance—so that she eventually caves in just so he’ll stop whining. Like today: he took the day off and everything, even though Lauren told him it was a waste of a vacation day and that the appointment will only be an hour at the most and then she’s heading back to work. He insists though, and as Lauren settles onto the exam room bed, he hovers around her like a hawk, refusing to move more than a foot away at any given moment.

Rick touches Lauren’s stomach for the millionth time today and she glares at him.

“Rick,” she says. “Stop it. Sit down.”

“Why?” he asks.

“Because you’re being weird,” Lauren says.

“It’s weird for me to want to be close to my child?” he asks, and he even manages to say that without any hostility. A little hurt though, she can see it in his eyes. It’s like he’s been possessed by a polite demon.

“No,” Lauren says. “But you’re still close to him if you sit over there.” She points at the chair in the corner of the room. “Chill out,” she adds.

“Or her,” he says.

“What?” Lauren snaps.

“Or her,” Rick says. “You said I’d still be close to him. Could be a her though.”

“Fine,” Lauren hisses. “Him or her. Either way, sit the hell down.”

“That reminds me,” he says, his eyes lighting up as he completely ignores her request. “Are you sure you don’t want to know what it is?”

“It’s a baby,” she says.

“You know what I mean,” he says.

“No,” Lauren says. “I want to find out in the hospital.”

“But I want to paint the room,” he says, actually pouting.

“It’s Justin’s room still, first of all,” she says. “And it’ll be both of theirs when the baby’s born.”

“Could still paint,” Rick grumbles.

“If it’s another boy the room is fine the way it is,” Lauren says. “And what are you going to do if it’s a girl? Paint Justin’s room pink?”

“No,” he says. “Yellow, maybe. Yellow’s androgynous.”

Every once in a while Rick surprises Lauren by pulling a word like androgynous out of his ass. Rick’s a technical guy, limited vocab and not the most literate of the lot. He’s much better with his hands, tinkering with motors and electronics and anything that can be taken apart and put back together. Sometimes Lauren thinks he approached their marriage with the same mindset.

Lauren pats Rick on the arm.

“The baby will be fine in the room the way it is,” Lauren says. “Now, can you please sit down?”

At that moment the room door opens and Dr. Sanchez walks in, head down in a clipboard as he starts doing his checks. Dr. Sanchez’s a short, older man with a full head of gray hair and a speckled beard, almost one hundred percent like what Lauren always imagined a doctor was supposed to look like when she was growing up, except for his one defining characteristic: a tattoo of a hawk climbing up his neck, the beak poking out about four inches above the collar of his medical coat. It looks odd against the rest of his features and Lauren can’t help staring at it whenever she’s in here, wondering how many others he has beneath his long sleeve dress shirt and slacks.

Dr. Sanchez squeezes some jelly stuff on her stomach, rubs it around with the little ultrasound device and Rick all of a sudden decides to channel the spirit of Lauren’s mother.

“Everything’s fine, right?” he asks.

“Looks in order so far,” Dr. Sanchez replies, staring at the ultrasound screen. “Haven’t really started yet.”

“So far,” Rick says, glancing fearfully at Lauren. “So there could be something wrong.”

“I’m sure everything’s okay.”

“You don’t sound very sure.”

Dr. Sanchez glances at Rick and then at Lauren.

“Rick,” Lauren says tiredly. “Let him do his job.”

“I just want to make sure you’re getting the best care you can,” Rick whispers, which is pointless considering Dr. Sanchez is right next to her.

“Rick, you’ve met Dr. Sanchez a million times,” Lauren says. “Stop acting like this is the first time we’ve done this.”

Rick leans towards her, close to her ear.

“It’s different this time,” he whispers again, raising his eyebrows and nodding conspiratorially.

“No it’s not,” Lauren says. “It’s exactly the same. Can you sit down? You’re making me nervous. Nerves aren’t good for the baby. Right, Doctor?”

Dr. Sanchez smiles and nods, vague annoyance and relief touching his face when Rick finally takes a seat in the corner, sulking. Dr. Sanchez resumes the process, but Lauren looks at Rick from the corner of her eye and thinks about how this is almost becoming commonplace, this new mentality Rick’s adopted. Ever since she moved back in, he’s become this overprotective, hyper-sensitive version of himself, a development she still hasn’t been able to process, what with all the other things sitting on her conscience.

Not an hour has gone by that Lauren hasn’t thought about the moves she’s made and pondered the distinct possibility that she could burn in hell for what she’s doing. Most hours of the day she can effectively ignore the alarms blaring in her head. Every once in a while though, she can’t help but think about two things in particular:

  • She’s lied (by omission) to Rick, her mother, and Caitlyn about her pregnancy. She’s let them all assume her unborn child is Rick’s, though that’s most definitely not the case, a fact that will be fairly obvious when her baby comes out half-black, or Hispanic, or whatever Sean is (the fact that she doesn’t know this is just one more thing she tries not to think about).
  • She’s lied (again, by omission) to her mother and sister about the real reason she’s back with Rick.

That reason—as she’s come to realize over the course of many sleepless nights watching the alarm clock change minute by minute, hour by hour, Rick snoring away next to her—is actually fairly simple: she wasn’t heartbroken by his cheating, and was therefore freed by it.

This seems to be the dichotomous result of infidelity, at least in the case of her and Rick’s relationship. Lauren could have very well been unbelievably devastated forever by what Rick did. She could have become her mother (who Lauren’s now totally convinced was truly, hopelessly in love with her father and therefore absolutely broken by his indiscretions). But that isn’t what happened.

Instead, Rick’s move effectively liberated Lauren. It opened her up to the possibility of a life without Rick, without expectations, without the future she had resigned herself to prior to him cheating. And that freedom is, ironically, what made it possible for her to come back. She basically can’t—or, to phrase it better, doesn’t want to—do this alone. Rick was an untapped source of support that she knew (subconsciously or consciously, Lauren has no idea anymore) she could exploit without any unnecessary long-term consequences.

The fact also is that—regardless of what happens between them in the future—he is still Justin’s father. He is going to be in her life for as long as Justin is a part of it, which Lauren’s going to allow herself to believe will be as long as she’s alive.

That’s essentially the reason why she’s sitting in this doctor’s office right now with Rick moping in the corner, as opposed to being here by herself. Which, at the thought, sounds like it would be so much more relaxing.

As her stomach expands, her bladder shrinks, and everything else falls into the familiarly foreign territory of pregnancy, Lauren finds herself more and more content being alone for extended periods of time. But she honestly doesn’t think it would be like this if she didn’t have the insurance policy that is Rick.

Which brings everything full circle and gets down to the true essence of why she’s back with Rick.

Lauren’s truly back with Rick because she remembers what her last pregnancy was like. She remembers the last few weeks of immobility, the cravings and wavering emotions, the uncertainty about everything. She remembers those feelings and knows that she’d go completely insane if she didn’t have somebody around who at least thought they had an obligation to help her survive through labor.

Lauren doesn’t know what she plans on doing once the baby is born, once her secret is out. She doesn’t have a plan as to how she’s going to fake interest from now to then in a man who she’s been growing apart from for some time now, much longer than these recent issues indicate.

But she does know that she’d rather be here—with Rick, going home tonight to their son—than back at her mother’s house.

And with that thought, she glances at Rick and smiles to appease the situation, then turns to the ultrasound screen and listens as Dr. Sanchez announces that the baby is healthy and progressing nicely. All the while trying with all her might to ignore the feeling of Rick’s eyes studying her from across the room.


-26-

“Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaith!” Sean yells, the inside of his throat like a pissed off cat’s been clawing at it.

Sean stomps the distortion pedal off and his guitar tones down, ringing through the amp as he wiggles his fingers against the strings to get the reverb effect he learned from this Youtube web-series he’s been studying. The echo of the snare drums trails off behind him from Marcus’s computer. Derek’s fiddling with the tuning on his bass, looking bored.

Sean stretches, the bones in his neck and arms cracking, and he suddenly wants more than anything to go for a run. He’s taken it up lately, waking up each morning after his parents and Marcus leave for work/school, putting on his shorts and lacing his shoes and jogging around the neighborhood until he’s panting and his chest is burning. But the desire right now isn’t so much about exercise, and he doesn’t care that he’s wearing sandals and jeans. He just wants to take off around the block, maybe yell the whole way like a banshee.

“How long was that set?” Sean asks.

Marcus glances at his computer.

“Seventy-two minutes,” he says. “Fourteen songs.”

An hour. Over an hour. Sean’s fingers are on fire, his throat raw from screaming that last cover of Limp Bizkit’s “Faith.” And it all feels amazing. Fourteen songs, over an hour, and he lasted the whole time, almost like a real show.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Derek says suddenly, still fooling around with his bass as he studies Sean.

“Fuck what he’s thinking,” Marcus says. “I know what I’m thinking. That was awesome.”

“Don’t,” Derek says. “Just—don’t go there. This is fun. But we’re not doing that.”

“Doing what?” Sean asks.

“It’s different when you take it in that direction,” Derek says, shrugging. “It’s not fun and therapeutic anymore. Let’s keep it here, in the garage.”

“What are we talking about again?” Marcus asks.

“I just know you two,” Derek says. “You’re both going to start getting all these grandiose ideas in your head about doing some shows and all that, when all we’re really doing is having fun. Passing some time.” He stretches lazily. “So. Just don’t. Leave it in here.”

“I’m not getting you,” Sean says, even though he is getting him. His heart’s jackhammering in his chest, his blood pressure rising, beads of sweat breaking out on his forehead, that’s how much he’s getting him.

Derek must see the anger rising in Sean’s face because his eyes go wide.

“Sean,” he says, turning his head to the side a little. “I mean—you weren’t actually serious about all of this, were you?”

Sean opens his mouth, but he’s suddenly too pissed off to say anything. Or not pissed off enough, he guesses. He’s in that area between confusion and blind rage, that moment when you can’t do anything but stand there with your mouth open even though what you really want to do is hop across the room and wrap your hand around the person’s throat, ask them over and over again “what the fuck is wrong with you!” until they either go unconscious or squeeze out an answer.

Derek points outside, where the sun’s about to set and the old couple from next door are walking across the street with canes they say are for support but which Sean has actually seen them use to beat away the ducks that hang out by the lake a block away.

“Did you really think we were going to go out there and strike it rich off this?” Derek asks.

“Nobody said anything about getting rich,” Sean growls.

“I knew it’d come to this eventually,” Derek says, shaking his head. “I was just hoping you would recognize this for what it was before I had to be the voice of reason.” He pauses. “As usual.”

“Bro,” Marcus says quietly. “Buzz kill.”

“I’m being realistic,” Derek says. “I love you two like brothers. I just don’t want to see you disappointed.” He looks at Sean. “We all know how that affects you.”

Sean takes a step closer to Derek and resists the urge to punch him in the face.

“Derek,” Sean says. “What. The fuck. Is your problem?”

“What?” he says, taking a step back. “Sean, you know what I’m saying is—”

“Fuck you!” Sean says venomously.

“Sean,” he says, taking another step back and holding his hands up. “Bro, chill out.”

“No,” Sean yells. “You are not doing this right now, Derek. You always pull this shit. Every time somebody tries to do something they might actually enjoy, if it’s not in your little bubble of security you automatically reject it and make them feel like an asshole.”

“I don’t do—”

“When I first bought my guitar,” Sean says, holding his Ibanez up in the air like a spear, “you made me feel stupid about it.” Sean lowers the guitar and points at him. “At FSU, when me and Leon bought that regulation beer pong table, remember that? You made us both feel stupid. When Maria broke up with me, you somehow managed to make me feel stupid about that too. Even after Leon died.

The entire mood in the garage gets a sudden, drastic shift, and they all pause for a moment of silence.

“You only come to me when it’s something negative I’m doing,” Sean says quietly. “Everything you say is so fucking negative. And you’re going to stand there and tell me you’re not trying to keep me from being happy?”

“Sean,” Derek says, holding a hand out. “You know I love you like a brother—”

“Really?” Sean says sarcastically.

Derek’s face flushes and he stutters a little, but Sean doesn’t give him an opening.

“Do you have an issue with people being happy or something?” Sean says.

“No,” he says. “I just—”

“Then what is it?” Sean asks. “What is it why you’re always murdering the vibe like this?”

“I’m not murdering anything.”

“This is the third time this week you’ve talked about the band like it’s just some bullshit excuse to pass time,” Sean says. “And that’s fine if you feel that way, but last time I checked you’ve been here damn near every day with us now for—what?” Sean glances at Marcus, who immediately looks away. “Six, seven months?” Back to Derek. “Seven fucking months. I think, at that point, it stops being just a hobby.”

“I know,” Derek says, sighing. “We have been spending a lot of time on it. And it’s fun, amazing. And we’ve come way farther than I thought we would, but—”

“But not far enough,” Sean says. “Not for your standards, huh?”

“That’s not what I’m saying, Sean.”

“Then what are you saying?”

“Sean,” he says, his voice pleading. Sean keeps glaring at him though, so he turns to Marcus. Marcus keeps his eyes on his computer as he presses buttons and pretends nothing’s happening around him. Derek groans.

“Sean,” Derek says. “I’m not trying to mess with you or anything. I’m just trying to be realistic. I mean, we did this for you, bro.”

Sean freezes, looking from him to Marcus, whose eyes are suddenly wide, startled.

“You did this for me?” Sean says. “What the fuck is that supposed to mean?”

Derek winces and looks away from Sean to Marcus, whose mouth is now opening and closing repeatedly though nothing’s coming out.

“What the fuck does that mean?” Sean repeats, louder.

“Sean,” Marcus says.

“All it means,” Derek interrupts. “Is that we were trying to look out for you. Marcus and I did this to help you get better, because you needed help.” Derek motions towards Sean. “And it’s working. I mean, look at you! It’s been forever since I’ve seen you this happy, bro. You’re sober, wearing normal clothes again, smiling more. Exercising.” He throws his hands up. “Who could’ve seen that coming.” Derek sets his jaw, shakes his head and waves his arm. “But it doesn’t go past here, Sean. I’m not going to contribute to you getting all these stupid ideas in your head that are just going to send you over the edge again when they don’t pan out.”

“You did this for me,” Sean repeats, nodding. “So I’m a fucking charity case now?”

“Sean,” Marcus says. “It really wasn’t like—”

“No, Marcus,” Derek says, holding a hand up. “Yes, Sean. Yes, you are a charity case. You’re a fucking tax write-off. You never used to be, and you’re starting not to be anymore, but you were for a while, and it was driving everybody fucking insane.”

He pauses then, glaring at Sean, Sean glaring back.

“Go home, Derek,” Sean says, teeth grinding.

“Gladly,” he says, picking up his guitar, amp, and guitar bag and storming to his car. He pauses at the entrance to the garage, like he’s going to turn and say something, then changes his mind. Seconds later he squeals out of the driveway and Sean grabs the nearest object that’s not his guitar—a box of old magazines—and throws it across the garage. It bangs off the washing machine and Sean hears his dad yell something from inside the house. Marcus clears his throat and Sean spins towards him, fists clenched. Marcus holds his hands up in surrender.

“It wasn’t my idea,” he says quickly.

“I can’t believe you’re on his side!”

“Whoa,” Marcus says. “I am not on Derek’s side. Get that shit out of your head.”

“Really?” Sean yells. “You and him did all this to make me ‘better’? What the hell was that about, Marcus?”

Marcus squirms on his stool, but Sean is too pissed to give a shit.

“Alright,” Marcus says. “It kind of started like that. We just wanted to help.”

“Help what?” Sean says. “Help how?”

“Derek called me after your birthday and told me you were moving back home,” Marcus says. “He said it was because you’d spent all your money on this guitar and stuff—I seriously wouldn’t have let you pay if I knew it was your rent money, Sean.”

Sean stays quiet, his eyes practically burning a hole through Marcus’s forehead.

“Whatever,” Marcus says. “Derek called me and told me what was happening, and…I don’t know. He just called it. It was weird, kind of creepy.”

“What are you talking about?”

“He told me that he knew you, and he knew you’d hate living back home, for a little while, but that the guitar was a good thing, that you’d practice and get better and sooner or later you’d start talking about putting a band together, and that when you did I should just roll with it.” Marcus starts picking at his fingers nervously. “That I should ‘just be a part of it and help your brother out,’ is how he said it, whether you wanted me to or not, and that I should get you to call him so he could help out too.” Marcus motions to his computer. “So I started looking up all this stuff about DJ programs on computers and all that and I didn’t really think it was going to happen the way he said it would but I kind of started liking all this shit. They’re fun, and the programming is pretty simple, and they sound good. Then it was like two weeks later and you were in my room, just like he said.” Marcus shakes his head. “It was crazy, bro, how much he knew you. He just wanted to give you something to do so you’d stop walking around in your underwear.”

“He told you about that?” Sean says. “What the fuck?”

“It only started out like that though, I swear. But then—I don’t know.” He looks at his computer. “Then we started to sound pretty good.”

Sean shuffles his feet, still glaring at his brother, though his anger is subsiding.

“I wasn’t that bad,” Sean mutters.

“Just tell me,” Marcus says suddenly. “What is it with this?”

“With what?”

“The guitar,” Marcus says, pointing at Sean’s Ibanez, smeared with sweat and fingerprints. “What is it with the band?”

“Not following,” Sean says.

“I just”—he says, then pauses to search for words—“I don’t understand. Why this did it and other things couldn’t. Me and Mom and Dad were trying to cheer you up for months.”

“You were?”

“Come on Sean, you really think I needed a ride home all those times?” Marcus says. “Or Mom and Dad really needed all that help taking care of me? I’m not a baby. They just wanted you to feel like you were part of the family again.”

“I am,” Sean says, staring at the ground, distant.

“You weren’t acting like it.”

“So wait a minute,” Sean says. “You’re saying everything that’s happened with you the past year and a half was staged?” Sean’s mouth hangs open. “Did you ever even get suspended for those hall passes? Or the piercing thing?”

“Yes, dumbass,” he says, waving at Sean like he’s a fly. “This isn’t some conspiracy shit. Mom and Dad just wanted you involved more. But it didn’t help. And this did.” He pauses. “Why this? How did a garage band—fix you?”

Sean opens his mouth to answer then realizes he doesn’t really have one. He leans against the wall, glancing at his amp, the red power light on the front and the knobs for volume and tone and the “Marshall” nameplate above them, in gold lettering. His fingers instinctively rise to the strings on his guitar and he glances at them, like they’re disembodied appendages with a life of their own.

“Because,” Sean says, raising his hand so the calluses on his fingers are right in front of his face. “It’s something I’m doing. Actually doing. Not studying or talking about or pretending to do on a video game, but actually doing. Something that I did myself, that nobody expected me to do.” Sean fingers the strings on his guitar again. “I guess it kind of just gives me hope.”

“Hope for what?” Marcus asks.

“That someday I’ll actually know what the fuck I’m doing with my life.”

Marcus sticks out his bottom lip a little, moves his head from side to side like he’s contemplating the answer, then smiles.

“Works for me,” he says. “Might have gone over better with Derek if you’d said it like that though.”

“Derek’s a dick,” Sean mutters.

“He’s just Derek,” Marcus says. “He was trying to help you. Can you call him, please? I hate when you guys fight.”

“Wasn’t a fight,” Sean grumbles. “We’re not dating.”

“Call him,” Marcus repeats. “You guys are friends, and he’s only looking out for you. And he’s our bassist, and we’ve got a gig in two weeks so you shouldn’t be pissing him off right now.”

Sean shakes his head, facing the street. A moment later his face drops and he spins back around to face Marcus, who’s grinning with his computer screen turned to face Sean.

“What did you say?” Sean asks.

“Two weeks from Friday,” Marcus says. “At that bar you’re always talking about, Dill’s Tavern.”

“How did—”

“Good question,” Marcus says, sticking his index finger in the air and wiggling it. “Guy I sold hall passes to a while back, his older brother’s dating one of the bartenders there. Got him to pull a favor for the rest of my stash.”

“I thought they made you give the hall passes back,” Sean says.

“How long have you known me?” Marcus says with a sly smile.

“Good point,” Sean says, walking over to the computer.

“We’ve got a Facebook event and everything,” Marcus says. “You’d know about it if you ever actually went on Facebook, like a normal person.”

Sean stares at the Facebook event screen, which boldly announces the debut performance of Whatever.

Whatever?” Sean says, smiling. “You named our band Whatever?”

“No,” Marcus says. “You did.”

Sean has no idea what he’s talking about but is too busy studying the computer screen to care. The event’s got a picture of Sean, Derek, and Marcus standing on a stage looking pissed off with a bunch of instruments behind them, which is hilarious considering none of them has stood on a stage individually any time recently, much less as a group. It’s obviously Photoshopped; nice job though, Sean has to admit. Sean’s drunk in his picture (surprise surprise), Derek’s pointing at the camera and yelling and totally unaware that his expression’s going to be immortalized on the internet, and Marcus is wearing sunglasses, no shirt and skinny pants with all of his teeth showing like he thinks he’s Lil Wayne or something.

The guest list has thirty-four people attending, which almost floors Sean. He would have been surprised if there were five. There are comments all over the page too, from people Sean’s never met, saying things like “sounds like fun” and “I’ll try and make it out” and “glad to hear your brother’s doing better, Marcus.” That last one pisses Sean off a little.

“You did all this?” he asks, getting that sucker punch of affection that he hasn’t felt in a while.

“Don’t get all mushy on me,” Marcus says. “I did it for us. I knew you weren’t going to get us out of this goddamn garage.”

“Shut up,” Sean says.

“Call Derek,” Marcus says.

Sean studies Marcus’s face, the desire in his eyes as he nods at Sean’s cell phone, sitting on top of his guitar amp. Sean sighs, walks over and grabs it right as Derek’s number pops up on the Caller ID. Sean should be surprised, but he’s not. He answers the phone and puts it to his ear.

“Sean,” Derek says.

“Yeah.”

Moment of silence.

“My bad, man,” he says. “I don’t know what happened. I just—you know how I get sometimes.”

“Yeah,” Sean says. “Me too.”

“I just”—and Sean can tell this next part’s hard for him—“I don’t want to see you like that again, bro.”

Sean feels another burst of affection—getting ridiculous with the emotional stomachaches here—then feels kind of shitty about thinking things were any other way.

“You got another half hour or so?” Sean asks. “Marcus got us a gig. We need to practice.”

Sean waits for him to respond with something that’s going to piss him off again, but instead he just says:

“Yeah, be back in five.”


-27-

Lauren shuffles through Dadeland Mall while Justin and Caitlyn stroll next to her, her stomach bulging beneath the waist of her maternity pants. She glances down at it and tries to take full-on footsteps, but it’s nearly impossible at this point so she just resorts to sliding her feet across the floor, barely lifting her heels to at least give the illusion that she’s actually walking.

Though she knew what to expect this time around, it’s still been only marginally easier than it was with Justin. Keeping active seems to make everything run smoother though. Up until a couple of weeks ago, she was walking two miles every morning, and today’s the first day she’s taken off from work in months.

So, yeah. Physically, she’s fine.

Mentally, though, the stress is starting to get to her.

Lauren glances at Caitlyn and they meet eyes, Caitlyn smiling and immediately staring at her sister’s swollen belly. Caitlyn does this every time she looks at her, and Lauren somehow finds it both sweet and unnerving. Which basically sums up her feelings about Caitlyn.

Lauren’s seen her sister only occasionally over the past few months, the tension at full tilt ever since the day Lauren told her she was back with Rick and pregnant. And Lauren admits—she misses her sister. They clash when they’re with each other, but being around her is better than not talking to her at all. Caitlyn seems to have finally gotten over it all though, which makes her easier to handle now. Amicable and energetic, she’s practically bouncing as they walk, and Lauren wonders if being an aunt for the second time is what’s got her sister so bubbly.

“Who the hell buys all this crap?” Caitlyn says suddenly, stopping in front of a window.

“You know,” Lauren says, laughing. “For someone who professes to love shopping, you seem to be very much against actually buying anything.”

“Shoes are not in the same category as this stuff,” Caitlyn says, then points at the Victoria’s Secret up ahead. “Neither is lingerie. There’s an art to women’s clothing, a calculation that makes it far superior to”—she turns to the window, a display for Sharper Image, pointing at a contraption sitting in the front window with at least twenty buttons and all sorts of lights on it—“That. There’s nothing beautiful about that. It doesn’t make me feel anything special. It’s just…depressing.”

“It’s a coffee machine,” Lauren says.

“Exactly,” Caitlyn says. Her shoulder jerks a little, Justin yanking on her hand and pointing at the Auntie Anne’s booth near the food court.

About a month ago, the three of them were here for another afternoon hang-out and—without Lauren’s consent—Caitlyn bought Justin a giant M&M cookie. Ever since, Justin has associated the large Auntie Anne’s sign with giant M&M cookies, oohing and aahing and—eventually, if his mom and aunt don’t succumb to his initial cuteness—crying his ass off whenever they pass by anything even resembling a pretzel.

“This is your fault,” Lauren says, pointing at Caitlyn.

“What?” she says, shrugging and smiling mischievously. It’s so odd for Lauren to see her interact with Justin. She’s even worse than their mother when it comes to spoiling him. It’s revealing, Lauren thinks, of a deep-seated sentiment that they both hide behind this barrier of female chauvinism. Lauren would never bring it up to her sister though. She’s pretty sure she’d start acting different toward Justin if she did, and he loves his Aunt Caitlyn. Lauren ruffles his hair and he gives her a pleading pout, pointing at the sign. Lauren rolls her eyes.

“Fine,” she says, scowling at Caitlyn. “You’re buying though.”

“It’s just a cookie,” she says.

“He’s a three year old,” Lauren says. “I don’t need him more hyper than he already is. That stuff leads to diabetes and obesity and all that.”

“You can’t shelter him,” Caitlyn says as she walks away. “It’ll backfire in the long run.”

“Says the mother of the year,” Lauren says.

Caitlyn shoots her a glare and lets Justin drag her towards the stand. Lauren’s following behind them when somebody bumps into her and she drops her JCPenney bag of baby clothes. The girl bends over and apologizes profusely, and something about her hair—dirty blonde and flowing to the floor, covering her face—and her voice prick Lauren’s attention. She feels a flush of heat that she knows shows in her face as the girl slowly stands with her bag outstretched in her hand. She flicks her head a little and her hair hops out over her eyes, revealing young, beautiful features: carefully plucked brows and shiny red fingernails and dark brown eyes laced with recognition.

“Mrs. Gallo,” Natalie says. There’s a long pause, during which her facial muscles twitch a lot, so she looks like she’s on the verge of tears. Lauren takes the bag and Natalie’s hand shoots back to her side, as if she’s afraid Lauren’s going to slice it off. “Uh…hi,” she says.

“Hello, Natalie,” Lauren says, exhaustedly. She doesn’t want to have this conversation right now—this entire encounter actually. She knows what’s coming, and part of her wants to close her eyes, stick her fingers in her ears and hum until Natalie goes away.

But there’s also another part of her that seems to have been waiting around for this opportunity. Lauren didn’t know this other part of her existed until now, this strangely conniving woman who’s been peeking from behind her eyes, sneakily scanning every populated area she’s visited since she and Rick quasi-reconciled after he fucked the girl standing in front of her right now. That woman in Lauren—she’s a sadistic voyeur who’s been waiting impatiently for the chance to give Natalie the condescending look she’s giving her right now, the type of look only someone in her position can justify. For some reason, it makes Lauren feel empowered.

“How have you been?” Lauren asks.

“Fine,” Natalie says. She shifts subtly from leg to leg, itching to get away. Lauren notices the other girls standing next to them, looking in the window of the Victoria’s Secret as if they have no idea what’s going on behind them. Lauren guesses these are Natalie’s friends, and she’s surprised she feels no embarrassment at being this close to a lingerie store while standing in front of a girl who she’s physically seen her husband putting his penis in. The last person to allow his penis in them, actually, from what Lauren can tell. Because she for sure hasn’t. Sure, he’s tried, a couple of times a few weeks after she moved back. The pregnancy and his cheating combined to create a pretty effective excuse though.

“Haven’t seen you around in a while,” Lauren says.

“Uh, yeah,” Natalie says.

“Let me be blunt,” Lauren says. “I know what happened between you and Rick. And I’ve come to terms with it.” Lauren pauses. “Actually, I don’t think there really ever were any terms. I guess it’s just one of those things that happen to people.” Lauren chuckles.

“Mrs. Gallo, I’m so—”

“Please, Natalie,” Lauren says, holding up the arm with the JCPenney bag hanging from it. “Call me Lauren. I think we passed the formality stage a long time ago. And don’t apologize. I hate fake remorse. It’s cliché.” Lauren gives her a sickly sweet smile and thinks of her mother.

“I—” Natalie says, shaking her head then dropping it. “I don’t know what to say.”

“There’s one thing,” Lauren says. “How long?”

“How long?” she repeats.

“Yes, Natalie,” Lauren says, still smiling. “How long were you and Rick fucking before I found out?”

Natalie’s eyes widen and she starts doing this thing where she keeps opening her mouth like she’s about to say something, then closes it, then opens it again. Her eyes flit around a lot, focusing on anything but Lauren. Caitlyn stands in line at the Auntie Anne’s, watching her as Justin points emphatically at a picture of an M&M cookie on the menu. Lauren holds up her index finger towards her sister then sets her eyes back on Natalie, expectantly. Natalie silently pleads with her friends for help, but they offer none, their backs still turned.

“It’s a simple question, Natalie,” Lauren says. “I’m not trying to trick you into anything. I just want to know how long.”

“I-I don’t know,” she stammers. “It all just kind of…happened.”

“That’s usually the case,” Lauren says. “But a girl like you, you must know how long.”

“Like me,” Natalie repeats, and there’s a flicker of annoyance in her eyes. Lauren keeps hers focused and Natalie returns to her submissive, head-down stance.

“I guess,” she says, letting out a heavy breath. Her eyes roll up as she thinks. “A few months. Six, seven maybe.”

Lauren nods, her teeth grinding.

“And when exactly did you stop?” Lauren asks.

“I haven’t seen Rick”—she pauses—“Mr. Gallo, I mean. Or Rick—whatever, I haven’t seen him in months. Three. No, four.” She shakes her head and holds up her hand. “I swear, it’s been a while. He told me you two were working things out and what we were doing was wrong. And it was, I know, I really do. I don’t even know how it started, it just did and then it was hard to stop it. He always said he wanted to though.” She pauses again. “Stop, he said. He always said he wanted to stop, not always said he wanted to be with me or—he felt terrible about it, is what I’m saying. It was me, though. I pushed it.” Her eyes well up a little, and it’s right then Lauren realizes this girl is in love with Rick. Good for him. “I’m really sorry, I never meant to cause problems for you two.”

“Thank you, Natalie,” Lauren says, nodding again. “For the honesty.” Lauren reaches a hand towards her and she flinches ever so slightly. And Lauren can’t say it doesn’t give her some pleasure. She pats Natalie on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you. Stay safe. Hope school’s going well.

Relieved, Natalie turns and speeds away. Lauren watches her for a moment, lets the gap between them grow until she has to yell for her to hear.

“Oh, and Natalie,” she says. Natalie turns to her, wide eyed. Lauren smiles, tilts her head a little. “Try not to fuck anybody else’s husband in the future. It’s unattractive.”

Natalie’s face flushes and she nods, hurrying away with her friends following, whispering. Lauren can’t help but chuckle. She’s never been the best at math, but she passed her classes in high school. College Algebra at FIU. Besides, the math problem she’s doing in her head right now is fairly simple arithmetic. She’s eight months pregnant. She was a month pregnant when she moved back in with Rick. Natalie just told her the last time she “saw” Rick was three, maybe four months ago. Not since then. She swears.

Lauren’s still smiling when she finishes shuffling over to where Caitlyn and Justin are waiting for her.

“What was that all about?” Caitlyn asks.

“Nothing,” Lauren says, standing closer to her and Justin and laying her head on Caitlyn’s shoulder. Caitlyn seems surprised by the gesture, and after a moment reaches a hand up to stroke her sister’s hair as they move forward in the line.

“Didn’t look like nothing,” Caitlyn says. “Who was that?”

Lauren chuckles.

“Nobody,” she says. “Absolutely nobody.”

Click to Read Step Seven

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