Pulling into Rick’s apartment complex, Lauren glances in the rearview mirror right at the moment Harmony brings her hand back, pauses for a second to grin mischievously, then proceeds to slap the shit out of Justin’s face with a resounding smack that fills the air of the car.
“Harmony!” Lauren yells, slamming on the brakes and looking back right as Justin lets out a high-pitched laugh. Lauren glances at him, his mouth open to reveal the blank spots where he’s lost a few teeth. Harmony looks at Lauren like she’s innocent and points at Justin.
“He told me to,” she says quietly.
A glance at Justin and it’s obvious that it’s true. Lauren has absolutely no idea what she’s supposed to do in this situation.
“No hitting,” she says sternly. “No matter what, under no circumstances, no hitting. You understand?”
Justin keeps grinning until he sees Lauren’s actually upset, then his face drops and he nods solemnly. Harmony nods too, and has that simultaneously frightened and remorseful look in her eyes, the same look she uses whenever she wants Lauren or Sean to stop being mad at her. Lauren has no idea who she learned this from, but she can already tell her daughter’s going to have some poor, unsuspecting boy eating out of the palm of her hand the moment she becomes a teenager. With Lauren’s luck, probably before. Lauren shudders and faces forward, rubbing her face tiredly and putting the car back in gear. A moment later she’s parked and Justin’s grabbing his book bag.
“Wait,” Lauren says as he’s about to throw open the door and run out. Lauren moves her head closer to the back seat. “Give me a kiss before you go.”
Justin rolls his eyes, jerks over to her and gives her a peck on the cheek, turning to run out again.
“Wait,” Lauren yells again. He looks back, exasperated. “Your sister too,” Lauren says.
“Mo-om,” he says, glancing at Harmony, who looks like she shares his sentiment. Lauren eyes them both and Justin sighs loudly, pecks Harmony on the cheek then blurts out a quick bye and hops out of the car. Lauren watches him run up to the door, where Rick’s waiting. He waves at Lauren and she can see Lisa—the new girlfriend—behind him, waving as well. Lauren waves back and pulls off and Harmony’s just starting to go into one of her babbling rants when Lauren’s phone rings. Lauren picks it up and Caitlyn yells something at somebody on the other end before coming back on the line.
“Sorry,” Caitlyn says. “Derek’s being a dick. As usual.”
It still takes Lauren a moment every time she talks to her sister to process the fact that Caitlyn’s married. With a child on the way. Lauren has no idea how that’s been working out. She just knows it is.
“I’m sure the feeling’s mutual,” Lauren says.
“Fuck you,” Caitlyn says. “What are you doing?”
“Dropping off Harmony at Sean’s then headed to class.”
“Ooh,” Caitlyn says, sounding giddy all of a sudden. “Tell Harmsy I said hi and I’ll see her this weekend.”
Lauren puts the phone to her chest, glancing in the rearview mirror.
“Auntie Caitlyn says hi.”
“Hi Auntie!” Harmony yells, then continues talking about…whatever.
“She says hi too,” Lauren says, putting the phone back to her ear.
“I forgot you had class today,” Caitlyn says. “Was gonna see if you wanted to grab a drink. I have the next eighteen hours off and I don’t want to spend them sitting around here.” She pauses, then yells, “Alone! While my husband’s out gallivanting with his friends!”
There’s a muffled yell from the background and Caitlyn sucks her teeth.
“I swear, sometimes…” she says.
“You know you’re pregnant, right?” Lauren asks. “And you also know you’re not supposed to drink while you’re pregnant.”
“So?” she says. “There’s these things called virgin drinks, in case you hadn’t heard. The innovation of the night life industry, allowing pregnant woman to pretend to get drunk for decades now.” She pauses. “What about after class?”
“I can’t,” Lauren says, smiling and leaving it at that.
“You can’t?” she says. “Why the fuck not?”
“I have a date,” Lauren says quietly, glancing at Harmony in the rearview. She’s looking out the window and singing a song Lauren believes is from Dora the Explorer.
“A date?” Caitlyn says. “Like…an actual date? With a human male?”
“Just somebody from class,” Lauren says.
“Your professor?” she says, chuckling. “Trying hard for that A? Proud of you.”
“No,” Lauren says, scoffing. “He’s another grad student. And all my professors are women.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
Lauren groans and Caitlyn laughs.
“Does he know about the two brats?” Caitlyn asks.
“Which ones?” Lauren asks. “My children or my exes?”
“Good one,” Caitlyn says. “I take it you did the first of your rounds then.”
“Just shipped Justin off,” Lauren says.
“You make it sound like you’re running a factory over there.”
“Starting to feel like it.”
There’s a long pause as Lauren turns the corner into Sean’s apartment complex and another muffled voice says something in the background on Caitlyn’s end. She laughs.
“Stop it,” she says. “I’m on the phone.” Another mumbled voice then, “Derek, stop, I’m busy,” and she definitely sounds like she wants anything but for Derek to stop.
“Ewww,” Lauren says. “Get a room.”
“I’m already in one,” Caitlyn says, sounding distracted. She giggles then says, “I have to go. Make sure you call me after the date.”
“Ok,” Lauren says.
“I’m serious,” Caitlyn says. “I don’t care if you’re getting laid, I better hear from you tonight, or I’m calling the FBI.”
Lauren laughs, even as she feels a pinprick of longing.
“Ok,” Lauren says, then blurts out, “I love you.”
Caitlyn takes a long time to respond.
“I love you too, Sis,” she says quietly. “Have fun tonight.”
Lauren puts the phone down and puts the car in park, looking up at Sean standing on the balcony outside his apartment. Harmony hastily kisses her on the cheek and hops out of the car, running over to the stairwell. A moment later, she pokes her small face through the metal bars on Sean’s balcony, her head next to Sean’s leg as she sticks her tongue out then laughs and reaches her tiny hand through the bars, twitching her fingers around in a wave goodbye. Lauren smiles and waves back. Her smile falters a little as she focuses on Sean though, waving at him too. He nods back, and Lauren hates that it’s still so awkward between them. Not nearly as much as it was for a while there though, and she only hopes it’ll get less awkward over time.
Either way, this is her existence right here, right now. She’s not consciously aware of it most of the time, but the few times she does look at it all in the vast panorama that is her life on a canvas, it’s breathtaking. Jarring. Things didn’t exactly turn out the way she expected. Not to say that’s a bad thing. Nowadays, the unexpected is just as cliché as the expected, so you might say her never reconciling with Rick and her and Sean not working out was all a given. She’s starting to think none of that matters though, none of her previous expectations or inhibitions about moving forward. Going through the motions—knowing what’s going to happen next, knowing that a million people have done it all before her and will be doing it for centuries to come—none of that actually takes away from the experience. Because no matter how many movies she watches or books she reads, nothing compares to real life.
Lauren joins the rush hour traffic on the way to campus, thinking about her date tonight. It’s a pleasant way to pass the time as she moves at a crawl. Five feet here, five feet there, her car makes its way slowly towards her destination, and she admires the sunset the entire way.
There’s a knock at the door and Harmony jumps up, running to it and grabbing the doorknob before Sean hops off the couch, every nerve in his body flaring.
“Harmony,” he yells. “What’d I tell you about answering the door for strangers?”
Harmony flinches and turns to him, her face going through that crazy transformation from confused to frightened to sad, and he simultaneously hates and loves that she can do that in any given situation, make him feel completely like shit for raising his voice or smacking her on the butt when she’s being a brat, or even just giving her a look that isn’t always conveying the words I love every single thing that you do.
Sean stands, walks over and picks her up and she keeps the pout for a moment before smiling and hugging him.
“Sorry, Daddy,” she says.
If he was mad for even three seconds, that would be a fucking record.
Sean checks the peephole and Derek’s standing outside, holding his bass and amp. Sean opens the door and Derek completely ignores him, dropping his stuff and opening his arms wide to Harmony.
“Uncle Derek!” she yells, squirming out of Sean’s arms and jumping into his.
“Hey, beautiful,” he says, picking her up. His bass starts to slide down the wall and Derek nods at Sean. “Get the guitar,” he says.
“Dick,” he grumbles as Derek walks past him and Sean slams the door.
And, yeah, it’s absolutely nothing like where Sean expected to be right now. Shit, he doesn’t even know if he had any expectations, now that he thinks about it. All he’s ever wanted was to be happy.
Who’d have thought this would be how he achieved it.
Which is to say things are okay the way they are right now. And the way it is right now is like this: Derek and Marcus come over twice a week and Whatever practices for their increasing number of upcoming gigs. Besides that, Sean works at Shambles as the morning bartender now, Monday through Friday so he can have his evenings with Harmony three or four nights a week. Sean makes enough to get by, spends the rest of his free time in his studio at home. Other than that, there’s not really very much different. And yet, at the same time, so, so fucking much has changed.
The oddest thing about it all is where he ended up living again: right back in his old apartment, taking the lease back from Derek after he and Caitlyn moved into their house. Which made Sean feel, at first, like he was going full circle with all this bullshit until he realized he wasn’t depressed anymore. Which kind of changes things. A lot.
Everybody else in Sean’s life seems to have fallen into their groove too. Marcus is about a semester away from graduating with his Computer Science degree; Derek’s moving up in the D.A.’s office downtown; Caitlyn sounds like she’s using her nursing job to heal people in the most hostile way she possibly can; she and Derek have a kid on the way; and Lauren’s doing her grad school/teaching thing. Sean doesn’t ask many more questions than that.
And Sean? He’s here, chilling as usual. In his apartment, there’s some Nirvana playing in the background, Sportscenter’s on the TV and he’s got a six pack in the fridge with his name on it. Derek’s sitting on the opposite couch, fiddling with his bass, and Harmony’s sitting next to Sean wearing overalls and a Dora the Explorer t-shirt which are hidden beneath the Dwyane Wade jersey she snatched out of his closet the moment she got here, the jersey so big on her it’s like she’s wearing a fucking blanket. She’s pressing buttons on a Fisher Price toy that moos and meows and shit every time she finds an animal, and she laughs at every sound, presses all the buttons again, then laughs some more, pointing at each one and yelling “Daddy!” every single time.
Marcus shows up a few minutes later and she yells for him to pick her up and Marcus does, looking so much older and so sure of himself, and Sean’s happy for him in a way he didn’t think was possible a few years ago.
This is his life now. He didn’t ask for it, but he wouldn’t give it up for anything.
It’s impossible to plan things past a certain point, and even before that point your plans aren’t guaranteed. But if you can keep steady, drive down that road and get over those humps that are inevitably going to pop up, chances are there’ll be a nice stretch of paved concrete in between and you can enjoy the scenery.
…Or there might not be, who knows. The whole goddamn road could look like the surface of the moon and send you flying into a fucking tree. Doesn’t really matter, because the point is you have to keep driving anyways. Just keep driving and eventually you’ll reach a point where the scenery will be so beautiful, it’ll take your mind off how long you’ve been on that fucking road.
Which is really all you can ask for.