By Kira Smelser
I drive down the winding road, smoke from my cigarette clawing its way out of my cracked driver’s side window and into the freezing air. The sound of the engine hums through the car as I lean my head on my hand, my arm resting on the door—the vibrations running up and down my arm. My peach air freshener dangles from the rear-view mirror and swings back and forth as the car crunches over the loose gravel of the road.
I look over at the newspaper-wrapped gift sitting in the passenger seat along with the case of Bud Light. I push both of them back in the seat, not wanting them to fall onto the floor. I look up into the rear-view mirror and run my hand through my shaggy black hair, the few usual strands falling in my eyes. My hand wipes at my eyes to get any hung over crusts out of the corners, and I scratch at my dark stubble, regretting not getting up sooner to shave.
I pull into the driveway at the end of the road and park on the grass near the mailbox that I painted two years ago. The red paint is fading and chipping off, revealing the green paint that hides underneath. I frown at it as I get out of my car and pick at the paint, causing another piece of red paint to fall off. I hold the piece in my hand as I take one last long drag of my cigarette and then toss both to the ground, grinding my cigarette into the frozen grass with my boot.
“Todd, I really wish you wouldn’t do that.”
I look at the porch where Lauren stands, having just come out of the house, her arms wrapped around herself against the cold. Her face looks thinner and I wonder if she has been eating enough. I shove my hands into my jean pockets and smile.
“Where else was I supposed to put it?”
“You could quit, then you wouldn’t need a place to put it.”
One of her hands comes up to move away the tendrils of dark hair that are blowing into her face from the wind.
She stamps her feet on the porch to keep them warm, trying to hurry me along. I grab the case of beer, the present and my phone, and stick my keys in my back pocket along with crumpled dollar bills, my license, and my credit card.
Lauren stands watching from the porch and says, “Where is your wallet?”
“It started looking shitty a while ago.” I shut the door with my foot and walk up to the porch where I stamp my feet to get rid of anything on the bottom of my boots.
She opens the door for me, and I step into the house, Lauren following right behind me. As I walk into the kitchen, I see her mother, and her new boyfriend Jared sitting next to Grace at the table. I place the beer and present on the marble countertop and walk over to the table where her mother stands up to hug me quickly.
“How are you, Todd? It’s nice to see you.”
I shrug my shoulders. “I’m good.”
Jared stands up slowly as I extend my hand to shake his. “You made it,” he says. He looks at me for a moment and then shakes my hand quickly before he sits back down and picks up a tiny spoon that has gross looking orange mushy baby food on it.
“It’s okay, I can feed my baby.” I step over to his chair and look down at him.
He looks up at me, the spoon poised in the air near Grace’s mouth. He stares at me for a few more seconds while I keep my eyes locked on his. His eyes dart quickly over to Lauren who is standing by the counter, and then he nods, letting out a small huff as he drops the spoon back into the jar of baby food and stands up.
I sit down on the chair and pick up the spoon, getting a good-sized glob onto it, and lean forward to Grace who is leaning eagerly towards the food. When her tiny mouth clamps over the spoon, Lauren and her mother start talking about Grace’s appetite while Jared goes into the living room to watch television. My shoulders droop slightly as the tension leaves my body.
I look at Grace and notice how her dark hair that looks a lot like mine did as a baby is finally covering her head. Her chubby little body is bigger than the last time I saw her, dressed in a bright pink shirt with a kitten on it, tiny jeans and little pink ruffled socks. Her round large eyes peer at me as I feed her, her excited hazel gaze locking on my face in a way that reminds me of Lauren’s eyes when we went on our first date in college.
I look over at Lauren leaning into the counter talking to her mother. Her face is scrunched in concern as she listens, her full lips are stretched into a thin line that I imagine running my thumb over to smooth out. Her gray sweatpants hang off of her hips, exposing a little ribbon of skin that her shirt doesn’t quite cover.
Grace lets out a frustrated grunt, making me realize that my spoon has stopped in mid air. Lauren looks over at me looking at her, and her eyes squint slightly and turn cold. She tugs at her shirt and wraps her arms around herself, turning her body away from me.
I look back at Grace, whose tiny hands are reaching for the spoon, and I pop the food into her mouth.
Lauren’s mother suddenly claps her hands. “Cake time!”
Lauren brings over a small cake with a single candle in it and places it in front of Grace, but far enough away so that Grace can’t reach it.
Jared comes in from the living room, and they sing “Happy Birthday” to Grace while I continue to feed her, singing under my breath.
Lauren kisses Grace on the cheek and blows out the candle, and then starts cutting the cake.
“Want a piece of cake Todd? I’m sure you’re hungry.” Lauren’s mother hands me a piece of cake. Jared looks over at Lauren and smirks, muttering under his breath. Lauren glares at him.
Jared wanders over to the counter to get a slice of cake, looks at the beer I brought, and then turns around and says, “Todd, how many beers did you think we would drink? There are only four of us.”
“I didn’t know how many everyone would want.”
Jared lets out a tiny laugh and takes a bite of cake. “You better eat all that cake. It might help you sober up.”
“I am not drunk right now.” My voice takes on a slight edge.
“Judging by the look of you, you were hammered last night and probably were still fucking drunk this morning, so it counts.”
Lauren’s mother looks over at Jared, silently imploring him to stop.
“Lauren, tell your boyfriend not to swear around my daughter. We don’t need her growing up around that.” I look over at Lauren. She looks down at her feet.
I go to walk out of the room to go watch television when I hear Jared say to Lauren, “He shouldn’t even be here.”
“Shut up Jared,” I mutter under my breath.
“You’re telling me to shut up, you shouldn’t even be here. You don’t give two shits about Lauren or Grace!”
I walk back into the kitchen saying, “I don’t give two shits? I was with Lauren for five years! I was there when she had Grace! I was in the delivery room holding her god damn hand!”
“Yeah and even after she had your kid, you still couldn’t stop drinking! You couldn’t stay home and help her with Grace because you had to go out with your friends to a bar every night!”
Lauren opens her mouth to say something, but I cut her off.
“This is none of your business Jared.”
“None of my business? Who was the person that helped her take care of Grace when you left! Who was the one who helped Lauren re-do this whole house that you didn’t take care of when she kicked you out! You need to just get out of here.”
“Grace is my baby! I am allowed to see her whenever I want!”
Jared looks at me, his fists clenching and unclenching, his anger rising just like mine is.
Lauren goes over to pick up Grace who is now whimpering. Lauren starts bouncing Grace and says quietly, “Coming over once every few months doesn’t count as seeing her.”
My anger deflates, as she looks at me, sad and withdrawn. “Todd I think you should go.”
My head pounds as she comes over to me and stares up at me. She places Grace in my arms, signaling that I need to say goodbye.
I look down at the squirming girl and cradle her in my arms, walking over to the kitchen counter where I pick up my present. I walk into the living room and sit on the couch, sitting her on my lap as I rip open the paper. I place the circular chew rings on the couch and hold Grace up to my face so that her little face is directly across from mine. I place a tiny kiss on her dimpled cheek and stare at her. She looks back at me and her eyes start to tear as she starts to get upset from being held still. I sit her back on my lap and place the chew rings into one chubby hand.
“This is your toy, don’t let Uncle Jared take it away from you.”
Grace looks up at me, the chew rings already in her mouth and glistening with saliva.
I press my forehead to hers and stand up, handing her back to Lauren who stares at me, her forehead creasing.
I walk over to the counter and grab a beer out of the case, open it and take a long drink. “I’ll just take this for the road then.”
I turn and walk out of the house and down to the driveway where I get into my car and chug the beer. I slam the beer against the steering wheel and yell, the force making my face hurt. I turn on the car and start to pull out of the driveway when I change my mind and put the car in park and get out. I stomp over to the mailbox and kick it over with a swift thrust of my leg, letting it crash to the grass and then get back in my car.
As I put my car into drive, I look into my rear-view mirror and see Lauren come rushing out of the house with Grace in her arms. She hesitates and then comes down two steps off the porch, and then stops again. I wait a few seconds, my heart pounding in my chest.
She ducks her head, turns, and walks slowly up the porch steps.
I wait a few more seconds hoping, and then right as she opens the door to go into the house, I slam on the gas.
Part of the way down the road, I pull over and put my head onto the steering wheel. Fuck that guy. I try and make things right and all he does is mess it up. I try. I have tried to visit Grace and Lauren as much as possible, but it is too hard to see them. Every time I had to leave, I would always feel more upset and then go drink more. It would always start with one drink, and I would just keep going. I had started drinking in college and it just became a good way to keep my feelings for Lauren out of mind. I had been scared by how much I liked her and drank to keep myself from getting too attached to her. It didn’t work, and I kept drinking after she pushed me away when she had Grace to shut out the thoughts of not being with her.
I slam my hand against the steering wheel in frustration. I need to have Lauren, and I need to have Grace. I pull back onto the road and start to drive.
I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket and I pick it up when I see that it is my friend Mike. “Hello?”
“Hey man! I’m about to head out for some drinks. Where are you?”
“I just left Lauren’s.”
“Again? Hey man, lets go drink!”
I take a deep breath and try to shove away the familiar excited pull in my stomach, but it doesn’t work. “Sure man, lets go.”