It’s some ungodly hour of the morning, possibly three or four o’ clock AM. Roxy is so tired she feels like her head might drop off, and let’s not even start on the headache. Who knew that three martinis, combined with no sleep, combined with the screaming howls of a devilish infant, would have such a deleterious effect?
She reaches for the bottle of alcohol she keeps stashed on the dresser, vaguely tempted to tip a teaspoonful down baby’s throat, but she knows that would be Wrong, so she doesn’t. Instead, she uncorks the bottle and takes a swig, not even bothering to find an appropriate glass. What has she become, she wonders moodily, and makes her way unsteadily across the room to the window.
The moon is bright tonight, throwing a pallid, ghostly light across the green lawns of her mansion. It’s perfectly trimmed, not a blade of grass out of place, and yet, if it weren’t for the lusty screams issuing from the lungs of a small child delicately placed in an ebony crib, it might be a mausoleum, with its hugeness and its emptiness.
She manages to get to the baby. Please, let her just want a song, a little crooning note until she drops back into slumber. Roxy doesn’t think she can face heating up another pan of disgusting formula. Oh, god, people who complain about breastfeeding! If she could breastfeed, if she could just open her shirt and let the baby latch on and take what it needed, instead of always preparing the wrong amount, hours wasted learning not to let milk burn. She always ate at restaurants before, but she can’t now, oh no, she has to stay home to mind the baby.
She knows this is pure self-pity. What kind of woman is incapable of raising one small infant daughter? Certainly no woman that Roxy Lalonde wants to be. And yet—she doesn’t understand.
What made her pick up the child from the wreckage? More importantly, what made her bundle the little girl into her decidedly expensive cashmere jacket? And, in a bout that was even more clearly insanity, what made her start adoption proceedings? She didn’t even like children!
She sighs. And yet, something about the little girl’s bright blue eyes, the way she pulled her lips back in something that might—almost—be a smile, the way she trusted you. She screamed, but when Roxy reached over, as she was doing now, she was quiet, looking up with those great blue eyes, as if she knew Roxy would make it better. It was mind-boggling. And frightening.
“Oh god,” she says, her words ringing out loud and hollow in the dark bedroom. “Oh god, why me? Why do you trust me?”
And the baby blinks big eyes, purses her little, perfect lips together, makes a faintly grumpy noise that to Roxy’s mind means, “Because you’re Mom, of course.”
She picks the baby up, rocks her back and forth and whispers to her, over and over again. “Yes, I’m Mom, that’s right, little girl, I’m Mom.”
But when the baby is finally asleep again, she can’t take this anymore, not even with the help of alcohol. She just knows she won’t sleep again, not now, and she is so tired that every bone in her body aches. She can’t be alone, not now.
She has to call him.
She hates herself a little bit every time she reaches for the phone, particularly at such an odd hour—and it’s an odd hour more often than not. But somehow, sometimes, she can’t not reach for it, and she doesn’t call her friends or her colleagues. No, instead she calls—That Man. That Man is the way she thinks of him, because she doesn’t have his name—just a memory of an old but excellently preserved hat pulled down low over his forehead, a firm yet gentle handshake, and his telephone number.
She has it memorized, and, as her fingers press down on the well-worn keys, she feels her heart speed up and leap into her throat, the old, well-known fears springing to her mind. What if he doesn’t answer? What if he’s angry with me for calling? The phone rings once, and she’s sure he’s not going to answer, who answers their phone at three in the morning?
It rings a nanosecond more, and then his pleasant, deep voice responds from the other end of the line. “Hello?”
“Hello,” she says. She’s stiff and awkward; it’s always like this at first—when she’s sober, at least, which is distressingly frequent these days.
“My dear!” he exclaims, as if it’s a nice surprise, as if it’s not some ridiculous hour of the morning when everyone ought to be asleep. Nobody calls her “my dear.” Sometimes she thinks that’s one reason she doesn’t tell him her name; she can’t bear to hear herself referred to by his beautiful voice in any other terms. “What can I do for you?”
She feels her throat closing up, just hearing those words, just hearing that he’s there, and she doesn’t know what to say, so she blurts out the first concern. “I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“You did not, as a matter of fact. John has been fretful this evening,” he says. “But you know you can always call me when you need to.”
“Yes,” she whispers. “I know.”
“Is everything all right?” There’s genuine concern there, and concern isn’t something most people show for Roxy Lalonde, bitchy, soused Roxy, with her money and her attitude and her baby.
“Yes—no—I don’t know. I’m tired.” The last sounds like a whine, and she hates herself as soon as it’s uttered. Surely now, surely this time, will be the time that he’s had enough, that he says he’s tired too and hangs up and she’s left with nothing but a buzzing phone line and a broken heart, but no. Instead there is a short pause, and he agrees.
“I’m tired too,” he says frankly. “Raising a child by oneself is a lot of work. And it’s tiring when you’re not keeping normal hours.”
“Oh god, you won’t believe what she did today!” There’s no one else she can talk to like this, no one else she can regale with her baby’s ridiculous exploits, no one else in whom she can confide her secret fears for her child’s future. But he listens and he laughs and he tells her his own stories and his own fears, in that ridiculously amazing voice of his.
She thinks he is the most wonderful man she has ever met.
She wonders, sometimes, why she doesn’t tell him who she is, where she is, why she confines her communications with him to these silly, meaningless conversations, snatched at confusing hours whenever they can both find the time. But somewhere, deep inside herself, she knows she can’t. He has to find her, and sometimes that’s another topic of conversation.
“I’ve begun tracing your DNA,” he says, with what sounds like the hint of a smile. Or could it be—even a grin?
“And what have you found out so far?”
There is a pause. “That you’re female,” he says quite calmly. “Which I must admit I had suspected.”
She laughs, as she suspects he’s intended her to, and she reminds herself that he has to find her, that oh god, this amazing man, it just wouldn’t mean the same if she handed herself to him like some pity-prize. And somewhere inside, she knows—they both know—that it isn’t time yet.
Not that that stops her from fantasizing. So many times she’s imagined herself in his strong arms, his safe arms, the two of them together at last, the two poles of a magnet, inextricably intertwined as soon as they touch. And she knows just how the first meeting will go; Roxy isn’t usually a patient woman in pursuit of romance, but it would be criminal to rush this. There will be wine and cakes and possibly tea and light talk, and even the holding of hands, but it won’t progress beyond there for some time, though she has already traced out that progression inside her fantasies as well, oh god; Roxy isn’t a prude anymore than she is patient. Just thinking about it makes her swallow half a moan; she firmly pushes those thoughts to the back of her mind and attends to the conversation again.
He hears the weariness in her voice and knows that she can’t hear it in his own, but he knows that she believes him when he says he’s tired, which is important. It’s important not to feel too alone. She is very alone, he knows; he can hear it in her voice, hear it in the way she almost never says anything about other people, apart from the baby. He wishes he could be there for her, because she’s never had anyone there for her, and he knows that it’s impossible.
She could no more tell him where to find her than he could show up at her doorstep on a hunch (because he has a hunch), because it isn’t time. Neither of them is ready for it, their friendship still new and tender, but he has faith that one day, he will find the mysterious woman in a scarf. He knows her, though he has only really met her once, knows her insecurities and her ridiculous bubbliness, the crushing despair she feels sometimes and the laughter she pretends is cynical (but really isn’t). Yet somewhere within that wine-soaked exterior lies a lady of extraordinary quality, whom he would be more than happy to court and someday (perhaps) espouse.
Now, however, he is the supportive voice on the other end of the phone, and more than that, he is a father! Which is something he certainly did not expect, but which is nonetheless most welcome, for though it tires him out sometimes, he finds that he is absurdly proud of the little chap and knows even now that he is going to grow into a lad to make his old man proud.
“You’re so funny,” she says, and he can hear that she has been drinking again, the alcohol only now beginning to have effect. He wishes she didn’t drink quite so much, for it cannot be healthy, but never let it be said that she cannot hold her liquor. If he had not spoken with her so often, he could easily have missed the slight lengthening of vowels and lowered sense of restraint that marks the onset of her inebriation.
“You, my dear, are wonderful,” he says sincerely.
“Oh gosh you think so?” She giggles, and the weariness, the awful weariness that drags her down into the mud and leaves her worn and cynical, is being banished, at least for a little while. At least for the brief span of this brief, beautiful conversation between two absurdly different yet ridiculously compatible souls.
“Of course I think so! You are a smart, sophisticated woman who is skilled in evading my detections, and you are raising a child by yourself.”
She grows silent. “Doesn’t that make me stupid?” she manages finally.
“No, it makes you brave,” he says, and she swallows a sob. “Don’t cry,” he adds, helpless ineffectual suddenly, his inefficacy immediately obvious as one sob follows another down the phone-line and he wishes he could take her in his arms and wipe the tears away.
“I’m going to make a terrible mother!” she wails. “I don’t know what I’m doing!”
“Do you think I’ll make a bad father?”
She sniffs. “Of course not!”
He allows himself a small smile. “I don’t have the least idea what I’m doing either.”
“But you’re—you’re so much better than I am!”
Somehow, that word and the stern, reassuring way he says it, banishes all her fears and she flushes and giggles girlishly again, winding the conversation off in another serpentine direction.
All too soon, the time comes for them to part and a pair of phones are laid down in a pair of houses in different parts of the country, both participants in the conversation giving a sigh and a last languishing glance at the phone, even though they are determined in their mutual separation.
The woman goes off to fall into a semi-awake stupor on her bed with a martini glass; the man takes out a pink scarf he has never yet failed to keep beside him and strokes it absentmindedly.
Then he heaves himself to his feet and heads for a cold shower because there are some thoughts that a gentleman should never entertain, even in his most solitary moments.