She has a girl. She’s four now.
They came back to Boston a year ago.
Madolyn left. Brooklyn. Fucking Brooklyn. She went private, this real tiny family practice near a yoga studio and orthodontics office. She took to cruising Boston real estate websites late at night like it was the worst sort of porn. And then – they moved back.
She’s working on getting her daughter into a good kindergarten, one year out. These are the things that matter now: Her daughter. Her daughter’s education. Her own job. Keeping her own job afloat. Paying rent. Looking forward and not behind.
The other mothers look at her as if she’s failed a vital test of motherhood since her daughter’s name is not on any of the wait lists worth patience or money. Madolyn had failed the first of these tests when she failed to get her daughter into one of the prestigious local preschools. As luck would have it, a friend of a friend managed to pull some strings. Madolyn doubts there will be a second chance at the string-pulling, seeing as the first is considered luck enough.
“She’s a smart girl,” she tells the administrator at the third school she’s met with in as many days. The administrator nods, and then she asks Madolyn about the father. It’s always people asking about the father or wanting to ask about the father but possessing the social graces and lacking the appropriate context to ask.
“She’s a smart girl,” Madolyn repeats, quieter, that much more indignant and resigned. Like smarts have ever saved a girl. Jesus Christ, she’s failed so much already.
The day she left Colin, she had wanted him mad but instead he begged. He got down on his knees, his arms wrapped around her waist. He buried his face in the front of her sweater and he cried.
She liked to say to herself that Colin had become a stranger to her, but that implied she ever knew him, and she was tired of it. All of it. All the lies and all the misdirection.
Madolyn’s never been one for secrets and their keeping. It wears a person out. It hollows them out. You have to make room, for each and every lie. You run out of room for anything else.
“You can’t leave me,” he told her. Another lie: she could, and she would.
She thought she hated him. She thought that would make this all easier. It didn’t.
She didn’t tell Billy about the baby. She didn’t tell Colin either.
Billy found out on his own.
She ran into Billy before the baby was born but after she had left Colin. She was six months pregnant.
Billy looked like shit. He’d let a poor excuse for a beard grow in and there was a blank exhaustion to his eyes that made her nervous. That, she would think later, made it easier to walk away.
He didn’t challenge her about the baby or about her bare hands, no ring.
And she knew. When she took him back to her new apartment, let him ruin this brief chance at a new start – that was why he followed her home. That was why he fucked her. He was laying claim. Her body didn’t feel like her own, she didn't feel like her own, oversensitive and she couldn’t bite down fast enough on the noises that left her mouth, the way she had whimpered, don’t, when he asked the back of her neck, her body bent awkwardly forward against newly assembled and cheaply bought kitchen table, tell me you left him, tell me it's not his.
Responsibility, she knew, was half the battle. She let him in and she let him ruin it. Because wasn’t that supposed to be the point of all of this? Leaving Colin, cradling the baby inside her as a secret, the new apartment. To return herself to what she knew, take back some control. Take away these men, scratch them out from the equation.
She doesn’t see Billy again for four years.
There are so many details and fragments of that girl she can’t understand. Is too afraid to understand. The narrowed eyes and sharp unblinking focus. The dissatisfied bite of a frown she makes when she doesn’t understand why she is being denied. Her temper that builds silently until it breaks, a quick, violent crescendo that recedes just as fast. She didn’t learn that from Madolyn.
The next time she saw Colin after she left him was on the front page of the Globe two years later. Big bust through Internal Affairs. Cops on the take. All the suspected bullshit swept out into the light. In the photo, he was being led out of the station with two uniformed cops on either side. She always thought that Colin had the same eyes a failed boxer would have: here's a man who never learned how to take a hit. She would’ve liked to say his eyes looked the same, but the photograph was grainy and Colin looked so tight and self-contained. She never knew him to wear his anger like that and she thought perhaps it wasn’t anger he had felt as they led him away but something colder. He had played his cards and this is what it bought him.
She knew that feeling well.
Her daughter is four. She finds Billy idling outside her school, nine in the morning. “What the fuck are you doing here?” she asks. There’s no anger to the words, but rather it's like a balloon leaking air, all this unspoken despair clouding her voice.
“Heard you moved back,” Billy says.
“From who?” He doesn’t say anything to that, just jams his hands in his pocket and raises his chin.
“What’d you say we get something to eat?”
They get breakfast; he eats quickly and hungrily, as if there’s no enjoyment to it. She doesn’t blame him – the food’s not good.
He looks different, cleaner cut than she remembers him ever being. She thinks maybe that means he’s seeing a better shrink than her. She says as much, and he threatens to laugh. He says, “Something like that.” His smirk spills liquid through her and she blinks quickly, looks down at her plate.
She hadn’t realized she’d missed men. She’s not entirely sure she does; maybe it's just one man she's missed. There's her spotty dating record, her loneliness, her anger at letting anyone like him back into her life, even if it’s just this morning. Even if she canceled her morning patients, claimed a dental emergency.
The lie came easy, just like old times.
“I need to talk to you,” Billy had said on her office line. “I need – ”
“Okay,” she said. Sighed. “Fine.” There was a pregnancy test in the wastepaper basket under her desk. Positive. “Not here.”
They met at a bar, a dive bar, small, far from the precinct and her apartment. They sat in awkward silence; whatever Billy needed to talk about now impossible to say. He ordered a beer and she ordered a lemonade, extra lemon on the side. Colin would have had a joke ready about that: “Feeling extra tart tonight?” And those days, her reply would have been: “No, sour.” She took a sip and watched Billy.
She wasn’t showing yet but she imagined his eyes keep drifting down to her belly. She didn’t know what to do with that.
When Billy did start talking, she had a hard time listening. She kept thinking: the pregnancy test in the trash. She thought: Billy’s mouth and Billy’s hands between her legs. They should’ve met somewhere more private. She thought: Colin. The apartment. She thought of his face when she would tell him and – and nothing. She couldn’t picture it. She couldn’t picture much of anything then, nothing beyond getting herself into the same trouble that got her there in the first place.
“I need,” Billy was saying, but he couldn’t seem to get past that: simple need. He had dark circles under his eyes and the neon light from the lit beer signs around the bar did him no favors. Made him look older, haunted. She wondered if she looked the same. Not the same as before, but the same as him. Wondered if that was what happened when two people share in something awful, in a secret: they start to look like one another. They start to shade each other. Her mother would say, that shade is called sin, but then her mother had never met a goddamn thing she didn’t want to label such.
“I can’t give you any more meds,” she said on a sigh. He frowned, leaned forward.
“That’s not – fuck you, man. Come on. I got some real shit, I got – that’s not even.” He shook his head. She was tired just looking at him. Fuck, she was just tired.
And then, just like that, he told her the truth. He told he everything.
“Jesus Christ,” she said. “Jesus Christ.”
Maybe that was when the idea was born: she would leave them all behind.
He reenters her life quietly and surprisingly patiently. They meet for the occasional breakfast. He walks with her, from her office to the grocery, from the school to her apartment.
Madolyn does not let him see her daughter. He respects that. For now, she thinks.
The first time she lets him come up to her apartment, her daughter is at Madolyn’s mother. This is not an accident. Her place is nice, an open floor plan loft; “Real nice shit,” Billy says when he comes in, somehow making it sound both accusatory and approving at the same time.
He follows her into the kitchen, her dinner half-made on the stove. The two of them have never known small talk and that has not changed with time. Instead, he braces his weight against the kitchen counter and she braces herself against whatever it is he might say to her.
“What’s … what’s she think?” he finally asks. She blinks up at him, sees that he’s not even looking at her, but rather at the collection of toys spilled out in the corner of the room. A crooked stack of children’s books, a much-loved doll with matted, messy hair. A drawing with her daughter’s name written in overlarge, crabbed handwriting. “About her father?”
“She’s four. She hasn’t learned she’s supposed to think about that yet.”
“And when she’s older? What’re you gonna tell her then?”
Madolyn pauses, balances and then rocks the blade of the knife against the edge of the wood cutting board. “One-night stand,” she tells the knife. She shrugs, looks up at him. “It’s in the neighborhood of the truth.”
Billy scoffs, not unkindly, wraps his arms around himself. He shakes his head and shifts his weight from one foot to the other. Constantly in motion – that hasn’t changed. “‘The neighborhood of the truth,’ Christ. Lot of folks living there these days, huh?”
“Don’t. Don’t pretend you and I didn’t also have our share of false pretenses.” Her patient voice, the voice that implies patience and that she uses with them. He sees right through it.
He steps to her, around the kitchen island to stand beside her.
“You let me come inside you and then act like I don’t know you,” Billy says, dark and quiet. He’s too close to her.
Madolyn keeps her face and body still. She keeps still despite the fact every ounce of her is yearning to do something. Run. Hit him. Kiss him with teeth. Let him come inside her again.
"Look at you. Going all romantic on a girl."
He kisses just the way she remembers it. Like that first time, his hands cupping her face, mouth devouring hers. It’s just like the first time, only this time, she has seen how it ends.
The edge of the kitchen counter digs into the small of her back as she opens to him, kisses him back.
She thinks she is cursed to repeat the same mistakes of the past. She thinks she lacks the responsibility to truly make a change. They stumble from the kitchen to the couch, Madolyn beneath him. He drags her jeans down her hips and her breath comes fast and loud, panicked-sounding. It’s been a long time since anyone’s touched her, even longer since anyone touched her like this. Like he knows how to build that ache under her skin. Like he fucking knows her.
After, they lay half-dressed on the couch, the apartment dark, the city bright. She left a window cracked and can feel the cold air on her skin.
Billy turns his head, his profile shadowed. He asks her, too gentle and too quiet (she never learned what to do with a man when he goes gentle and quiet), “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Madolyn doesn’t say anything for awhile. When she does, she says: “What the fuck were we gonna do.”
“Is it better?”
His arm is still around her waist and she takes a deep breath. She thinks about the apartment and her job and her daughter. Their daughter. Theirs.
“It’s not worse,” she says.