|LABOR OF LOVE
On my island, Labor Day, like Memorial Day—that other symbolic bracket of the summer—is a signal for New Yorkers to get out of New York. I love my city, but I’m a firm believer that missing it for a couple of weekends each summer gives me an even greater appreciation for the myriad excitements and beauties of this incredible town. Or maybe it’s just that there’s a distinct lack of beaches in downtown Manhattan.
It was the Friday morning of Labor Day weekend, and the beach was at the forefront of my mind. Not a tropical beach, mind you, or even a trendy North Fork beach, but a nice, quiet, New England beach—rocky sand, grey water, ocean breezes. Keyword: breezes. Here in the city, it had been a long summer with record heat. August had melted into September slow and hot and by the time the weekend crept in, with the promise of vacation time, I was itching for a break. It should have been perfect: a three day weekend, a nice drive out to the cape, and a few nights at the gorgeous restored mansion-turned-hotel on the ocean owned by good friends of ours. Even the weather was supposed to improve.
In fact, I reminded myself as I propped my feet on my desk, the forecast for the weekend had been clear skies until we were hit with that lesser known natural disaster, the Great No, also known as Hurricane John. The fact that this hurricane had looked delicious in his polo shirts all summer was NO excuse for the destructive, gale-force winds he’d unleashed all over my weekend plans.
“I don’t think so,” he’d said calmly when I explained my brilliant idea to him, leaning against the counter and folding his arms across his chest. I glared and tried not to be distracted by the way the sun had bleached the hair on his forearms golden. Our kitchen was far too small for negotiations as important as this one; a good sulk was hard to work up when there were only three inches between my beloved and myself.
“But it’s LABOR DAY,” I reminded him, trying not to whine, which could be dangerous at such close range.
“Yes, it is,” he agreed, and to my credit I refrained from strangling him.
“John. EVERYONE leaves the city for Labor Day!”
“Tris. I said no last night.”
“Actually, you said ‘It doesn’t sound like a good idea,’” I pointed out carefully, moving out of his reach as subtly as I could.
He fixed me with a not nearly amused enough look and finished his sentence without taking much notice of mine. “…and now we’ve been discussing this for,” he paused to glance at his watch, “another twenty minutes. Do I really need to review all the reasons why we’re staying home this weekend, or can we wash the dishes in peace?”
“Tell me again,” I challenged politely. Surely when he went through them again, he’d come around to my point of view.
Had I mentioned that NO ONE stayed in the city for Labor Day weekend? It was the last weekend of the summer, and no matter how many years I’d been out of school I still guarded the beginning and end of summer rituals carefully. The year was about to start for real and damned if I’d be the only person sweating on the unbearably humid Upper West Side while everyone else we knew gamboled in the surf, sea breezes blowing their hair like a credit card commercial.
I dropped into a kitchen chair and John angled himself to face me, counting off his irritatingly sensible protests on his irritatingly sensible fingers.
“Even if the entire population of New York City goes away for Labor Day weekend, which is a gross exaggeration as we both know, that doesn’t mean we have to. The traffic is going to be hideous—do you really want to sit in a stopped car for three or four hours to drive out to the island, or a whole lot more if you’re serious about the Cape?”
He put up a hand before I could interrupt. I hadn’t even gotten my mouth open yet, actually—my man knows me so well.
“Having the city quieter than usual isn’t punishment, you know,” he continued. “It’s been a tiring few weeks and I’d rather we relax here for the weekend without the added craziness of packing and transit and travel. Okay?” he asked, but, being John, the question mark was really more of a period.
I narrowed my eyes and regarded the floor tiles. We’d argued about this somewhat more good-naturedly last night and I was beginning to sense that I was losing the battle. I switched tactics.
“You didn’t even LOOK at the pictures I showed you,” I pouted. An old colleague of ours had left the newspaper business and was currently running a hotel with his wife on Cape Cod in a lovely old Victorian home. It was right on the sea with beautiful views of cliff and water and, well, apparently SOME people didn’t appreciate the glory of nature, because John didn’t seem swayed.
“Let’s get the dishes finished,” he suggested, holding out a hand to me. I ignored it and glared at the table top. My eyes were starting to sting, maybe from all the glaring I’d been doing that evening.
“John, we’re going to be the ONLY people here! Can’t we PLEASE go away? A vacation is a good cure for exhaustion if you really think we’re so tired.”
“Honey. Did you hear what I said?” John sounded very patient. That made one of us.
“Yes I did. YOU’RE the one who’s not listening here,” I crabbed dangerously.
John raised his eyebrows. “Speaking of cures for exhaustion…” he said slowly.
Last night’s discussion had also ended with me in bed by nine. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could take this—I may have been awfully well-rested, but I still wasn’t getting a vacation. Damn.
I kissed John goodnight grouchily, wondering if I’d ever see the 10 o’clock news again.
That had been Monday night. Since then I’d been heartbreakingly good, not that John had noticed, and this morning as I watched several staffers take off early for the holiday weekend I’d vowed to end my well-behaved streak tonight. If he was so intent on staying in the city I was going to make damned sure he wished that at least ONE of us had left.
I checked my watch. It was almost ten am. Hardly anyone worked a full day today, and John was coming by at two to take me to a late lunch. He was really too sweet to stay mad at for very long, it’s true, but I was going to make an effort today. I crossed and re-crossed my ankles, then daringly tipped my chair as far back as I could.
I was BORED.
No one was around. I bet even Saint John was ignoring his work now. The air conditioning was buzzing but outside condensation was sweating across the windows. Yuck. THIS was the city he wanted to make us stay in all weekend?
I glanced around the newsroom. I knew a couple of the other reporters were out on stories, but most people were either wrapping things up or gone. Glen, editor extraordinaire—I stuck my tongue out at his office door with the utmost respect—had left for the Hamptons last night like the proverbial rat deserting the sinking ship. Not that the paper was sinking, but I was so annoyed about being stuck here all weekend I don’t think I’d have minded if it HAD sunk.
I was entertaining myself with a very complex fantasy involving Glen appointing me head of the news desk AND giving me a lovely time share in Southampton when a decidedly irritating voice interrupted my thoughts.
“Get your dirty feet off newspaper property, Cates,” Mel ordered cheerfully, swiping at my shoes with one hand and my head with the other. She’s a champion multitasker. Her desk is far enough from mine these days that I hadn’t even heard her come in.
“What is it,” I grumbled. “Aren’t you supposed to be flying to Tahiti or something?”
“Driving to Connecticut,” she corrected me. “I should be so lucky as to have in-laws somewhere tropical.”
“Why are you still here then?” I asked. “I mean, no offense,” I muttered. Mel is one of the few people in the newsroom on my side, and I figured alienating her was probably a bad idea.
Mel gestured toward Glen’s empty office and invoked a few choice words under breath. “The chief was kind enough to summon me,” she said bitterly. She told me what happened, but as Mel can be kind of long-winded, I’ll sum it up for you here. Glen had dragged Mel back into the newsroom to finish up the tail end of a story another reporter had backed out on—good old reliable Mel—and now she had to run out to get a statement in person and had to get there ASAP.
Insert deep breath.
“So go,” I said, admittedly not very helpfully.
She rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the advice, Cates. The problem is that…” she paused. “Well, you know the man I need to go source is a suspected mobster.”
“…who’s currently being questioned for a whole lot of unsavory things.”
I nodded again. “So? What’s the problem?” He sounded a hell of a lot nicer than a lot of the lowlifes Mel gets stuck writing up.
“The problem is THIS,” she confessed, and reaching behind the wall to her cubicle she whisked out a stroller, one of the annoying jogging kinds with the huge wheels. Suspicious snoring sounds were coming from the stroller or, more specifically, from my godson, who was currently lodged inside the contraption sleeping peacefully.
“Oh, hi!” I couldn’t help a little enthusiasm—he’s pretty cute. I reached out a hand and Mel swatted it away.
“DON’T get too close. You don’t want to wake him up, trust me. He’s entered a new stage of the terrible twos.” She shook her head in annoyance, then quickly reached down and touched the baby’s head, I guess in case he overheard and was offended.
“What am I going to do?”
I shrugged. “Leave the story and go to Connecticut.”
“Tris…” she looked pleadingly at me.
Light dawned. “Do you want me to watch the baby?”
“Would you? You’re the best.” She leaned across to give me a hug, jostling the carriage as she did.
Simeon opened big green eyes and blinked sleepily at me.
Mel crouched in front of him. “Simi? Uncle Tris is going to watch you while Mommy runs out to make the city safe for democracy. You be VERY good, okay?”
Simeon ignored her, keeping his eyes trained on me as he sized me up. Finally he pointed a chubby finger at me. “Bob,” he said solemnly, looking at Mel for approval.
She sighed and pushed a hand through her hair. “It’s a phase,” she explained. “At least I hope it is. He calls all men ‘Bob.’ My husband is going to divorce me if I can’t get the kid to call him ‘Daddy.’”
“Your husband’s name is Josh,” I pointed out.
“Thanks for reminding me,” she snapped. “That makes the Bob problem just that much stickier.”
I waved her away. “Go. We’ll be fine.”
“Really? I’ll be back by…noon at the latest. There’re plenty of supplies in the baby bag. I owe you one. Simi, say thank you to Uncle Tris!” she called as she disappeared around the corner.
“Bob,” Simeon replied cheerfully.
It was going to be an interesting morning.
Mel left at 10:03.
By 10:07 Simeon was sick of playing catch with my stress ball.
By 10:13 he had successfully shaken all the paper clips out of my holder and forced me to dig each one out of the industrial carpet before he could eat them.
By 10:15 my antics had stopped amusing him.
By 10:17 his had stopped amusing me.
We glared at each other in a stalemate for a minute or two.
At the moment I offered him a slightly brown banana from the fruit bowl on the common table, he screwed up his small round face, opened his mouth wide, and let out an enormous howl.
I watched him nervously. “Hey, what’s the matter?”
He ignored me and commenced shrieking as if I were sticking him with a pin. I covered my ears instinctively. And people said I was mercurial. Mel deserved a medal if this was the kid on a typical day.
I knelt in front of him, not really sure what to do, and watched in horrified fascination as he threw himself to the floor and began kicking in tempo with his howls.
Whatever was wrong had to be fairly serious, right? I mean, Simeon hadn’t been THIS upset at his bris. In fact, I think I’d been more upset than he was that day. After all, I was the one who’d fainted, and even though I apologized profusely neither the mohel nor John had been terribly forgiving about the incident with the kosher salami.
But this was irrelevant now. I stared at the screaming mass on the floor that had a few seconds ago been a cheerful toddler. I wasn’t cut out for this. I searched my mind, and then I searched my desk drawers, and then I searched Mel’s.
“Want a cookie?” I offered, having to yell to be heard over Simi’s howls.
It was like flicking a switch. Tears still drying on his round cheeks, he stopped crying immediately, sat up, and took the cookie from my hand. He chewed quietly, occasionally sniffling in a manner apparently designed to elicit sympathy.
He finished the cookie and held out a hand. “More,” he demanded politely.
“Are you even supposed to eat cookies at your age?” I asked curiously, already reaching into Mel’s stash again.
“Bob,” he replied firmly.
Who was I to argue with that? I gave him another cookie and checked my watch. I sure hoped Mel’s interview subject was a quick-spoken mobster.
I was in the process of bribing Simeon with a fourth cookie, hoping that Mel came back before her son exploded, when a call came through on my cell. Assuming it was John, I was going to screen on principle—but then I checked the display.
Forty-five seconds later I was hastily throwing my things together. Simeon watched me doubtfully from where he sat on Mel’s chair, swinging his legs. I crouched in front of him, clasping the arms of the chair.
“Okay. I realize you’re too young to appreciate this, so you’re going to have to take my word for it,” I told him seriously, trying not to be distracted when he grabbed a handful of my hair and squealed happily. “Big things are happening. I need to get to this press conference, and you need to come with me, so you need to be very very quiet and well-behaved so I can get my story. Okay?”
Simi’s mouth twitched slightly. Was it my imagination or was his lip protruding just slightly? Oh lord.
“And if you’re good,” I added quickly, “I’ll get you an ice cream cone.”
He considered this for a moment and then held up his arms. I scooped him up, tossed him and my bag over my shoulder and bolted. I’ve never taken a baby to a press conference before, I noted, shifting Simeon to my hip in the elevator, but the press was filled with multi-tasking, 21st-century type mothers, and surely it wasn’t unheard of.
I was racing down the street—Simeon, heartlessly, was shrieking with glee and loving the ride as he bounced wildly in my arms—when I realized that bringing the baby’s carriage might have been a good idea. Argh. In hindsight, though, I guess I was lucky I’d remembered the baby.
Throngs of reporters and cameras were already gathered, and I tried to push my way to the front using Simi as a shield, attempting to emit a sort of sympathetic, single father vibe. It might have worked—one exceedingly hairsprayed woman let me wriggle past her for a better view. Almost too late I realized I couldn’t write and hold the baby at the same time. Damn. I set Simeon on his feet.
“I know you can’t vote yet,” I whispered to him, “but this is an important election for my career. So be good if you want ice cream,” I concluded. I settled in to take notes, confidently secure in Simi’s small hands clutching my pant leg. I don’t know what Mel was always complaining about. Juggling a career and a baby wasn’t nearly the hassle she made it out to be.
Twenty minutes later, when Ron Giardelli had confirmed his removal from the mayoral race (“I always knew he was a crook,” Miss Hairspray whispered to me) pending investigation, I was extremely satisfied, bordering on elated. A juicy story was a great way to start the weekend, and I’d been trying to convince Glen for a month that something was rotten in Giardelli’s little corner of New Amsterdam. The primaries were coming up and I could sense my job was going to get a little more interesting in the coming weeks.
I checked my watch. 11:15. We had more than enough time to make it back to the newsroom with a quick ice cream pit stop. Oh, Mel was going to be begging me to baby-sit after today. My stomach rumbled. I could do with some ice cream myself.
“Let’s blow this pop stand, eh, Simi?” I asked cheerfully, turning to gather my companion.
Who was no longer attached to my leg.
I refused to let panic into my voice. He’d been here a second ago, and of course he was here now.
I stood on tiptoes, then crouched down. Oh God. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d actually noticed him next to me. How long had those stupid questions gone on?
Images of children on the back of milk cartons raced through my mind. I couldn’t believe this—I’d actually lost Mel’s baby.
I felt sick.
I fumbled for my cell phone, completely at a loss. I was two digits away from calling John before I slammed it shut again. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to explain to John how I’d misplaced 29 pounds of toddler entrusted to my care.
The crowd hadn’t thinned nearly enough for my liking. But surely if he were wandering around here SOMEONE would have found him. Right?
But that wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The world was full of crazy people. Apparently even Giardelli’s campaign was full of crazy people. Dizzy, I scanned the crowd.
What was I going to do?
I steadied myself. I was going to have to call 911. Or something. Or leave the country.
I’d been scanning the scene desperately for what felt like hours when I realized that I needed to flag down a policeman. My hands were shaking too badly to dial my cell phone and I was about to really panic when I stumbled, quite literally, right into a policeman.
“Hey, watch it,” he grumbled, turning to face me. His arms were full of a bundle of something dripping chocolate ice cream down the blue sleeve of his uniform.
I made a grab for the baby and the cop yanked him out of my reach.
“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?”
“That-that’s my baby,” I stammered. “I’ve been looking for him!”
“This is your son?” he asked, gesturing at Simeon.
“Yes. No. I mean, he’s not my son but I was supposed to be watching him,” I tried to explain.
The cop snorted.
“I WAS watching him,” I snapped defensively. “I just turned away for a second.”
“That’s all it takes,” he said sagely, turning back to the baby. “Let me see some ID,” he demanded.
John still had my license, so I surrendered my press pass instead, which the policeman scanned with a critical eye.
“What kind of name is THAT?” he asked.
I ignored him. “Can I PLEASE take him now?”
He handed back my press pass disgustedly, then beamed at Simeon.
“How’s that ice cream, kid?”
“Good,” Simeon responded enthusiastically. He was barely recognizable under all the chocolate coating his little face—I should have won custody of him back just by virtue of my knowing there was a baby under all that ice cream.
“Look, he’s my friend’s kid and I was supposed to be watching him and he got away from me for a second, but I really need to take him back to her now. Okay?”
The cop eyed me suspiciously.
“How am I supposed to know that you know him?”
“Of course you know I know him! I know his name, don’t I?”
“What is it?”
“Sim-e-on,” I pronounced the syllables carefully. “Like I said.”
Ignoring me, the policeman turned to the baby he was holding.
“What’s your name, kid?”
Simeon took the ice cream out of his mouth with one hand. “Bob,” he said contentedly, and tried to cram the policeman’s badge into his mouth.
Ha. See how much he wanted to keep the little darling now.
“Look, I swear he knows me,” I said desperately. “He’s going through a weird phase with names right now, but his name IS Simeon and I’m his godfather. One of them. I was practically there when he was born,” I babbled.
“Sorry, Mister. Lost kids are the property of the police department until they’re legally claimed. By someone they know,” he said pointedly.
My head was spinning. In the long moment before I spoke I felt wildly like Spencer Tracy desperately trying to retrieve his grandchild from a similarly hostile police department. Unfortunately Mel was no Elizabeth Taylor, and she was going to dismember me if I returned to the newsroom without her kid. Argh.
“Ask him if he knows me,” I said, mentally cursing myself for even suggesting it. I wasn’t Simi’s favorite person on a good day, but after losing the kid and denying him ice cream…why was I setting myself up like this?!
“Do you know this man, Bob?” The policeman asked sincerely.
I would have laughed if I didn’t feel so much like crying.
Simeon regarded me carefully and silently around his ice cream.
“Come on, Simeon. You know me. Tell the policeman,” I fumbled through my nearly-shut down brain. “Tell him about how I took you to the Central Park Zoo last month. And remember the Yankee game two years ago when your mom kept freaking out that you’d get hit by a ball, so she covered your head with a giant beer mug?”
Okay, fine. So at the game in question he’d been only a few months old. Still, if this were a movie, Simi would have started to get misty-eyed and we’d fall into each other’s arms. But apparently the kid isn’t sentimental. I looked at my watch. This was insane. I was never going to get Simeon back, and I was going to have to return to the newsroom and tell Mel that the police refused to surrender her child. Oh god.
“I’m sorry, sir,” the policeman said, not sounding sorry at all. “We’re going to have to take the child back to the station until someone he knows can claim him.”
He turned to leave.
“No! WAIT!” I cried, desperately enough that the man turned around.
“What is it?”
“You have to let me take him,” I insisted, losing all composure fast.
The policeman rolled his eyes, and I couldn’t hold back the tears any longer. Damn Mel, I should never have offered to baby-sit. Miserably, I scrubbed at my eyes, waving the cop away. “Fine, just go,” I blurted, not even sure what I was saying anymore. There was no way this could get worse. I should give up and leave the country now. Mel and John wouldn’t be nearly so inclined—or able—to kill me once I was hiding out in Peru.
I felt something cold on my face then. I opened my eyes to find Simeon watching me with interest, one ice-cream-sticky hand patting my cheek.
“Tris,” he said very clearly then. “Tris.”
My mouth dropped open and the policeman and I stared at each other for a moment. Then I let out a whoop of joy.
“Did you hear that?” I demanded. “Did you?”
I snatched Simi from the policeman and tossed him into the air. “YOU are the smartest kid I’ve ever met,” I told him, squeezing him tightly. “Let’s go. Your mom is going to be missing you.”
“Bob,” Simeon agreed, waving good-bye cheerfully to the policeman, who extracted his badge from the baby’s gummy hands.
Sniffling hard, I snuggled Simi into my arms, thanked the policeman as politely as I could manage—I HAD, after all, lost the baby—and strode as masterfully as I could toward a cab and the newsroom.
In the elevator I checked and double-checked my watch while attempting to scrub some of the deeply ingrained chocolate from Simeon’s face. Mel wasn’t due in for another ten minutes or so…we might actually make it.
“This could work,” I voiced to Simeon, who was showing more interest in the elevator buttons than in me. I hauled him away before he could push the emergency stop.
“Now listen,” I told him urgently. “That fun game we played before? With the ice cream and that…that guy? We don’t really need to tell your mom about that. She’s lactose intolerant anyway. Okay?”
Simeon grabbed the pen I forgot I’d tucked behind my ear and began chewing vigorously. I took that as a yes.
I peeked around the corner of the office, then tentatively entered, holding Simeon by the hand. No sign of Mel. We were alone; I had the baby in one piece, and we were back in the newsroom. Game, set, match Cates.
I poked Simi in the ribs. “I can’t believe this. We actually did it!”
“Did what?” a voice asked.
I froze, one hand extended to drop my bag on my desk, as my office chair swung around to reveal the owner of the voice.
“John!” Simi squeaked happily and I let go his hand as he clambered onto John’s lap.
Like most of our mutual acquaintances, Simeon seems to prefer my partner to myself. Of course, I couldn’t really blame him today.
“Hi,” I said nervously, glad Simeon was keeping John’s hands relatively busy. “Um, you’re early.”
“Yes.” He gently removed his glasses from Simeon’s grasp. “Where have you been?”
“Giardelli stepped out of the race,” I offered.
“I heard. Where were you?”
“Press conference,” I admitted, trying not to let my nervousness show.
He nodded. “I figured. It might have been nice to let me know where you were.…”
“I didn’t know you were going to come by so early!”
“And I had to rush over there when I heard. It was pretty sudden,” I explained.
“But I could have left you a note or a message. Sorry,” I said contritely, crossing my fingers that the inquiry would stop here.
He was silent for a moment, bouncing Simeon on his knee. “Where’s Mel?”
“She had to run downtown so I’ve been watching the baby, but she should be back any minute and then they’re going on vacation,” I said, not making much effort to keep the sullen tone out of my voice when mentioning the idea of a trip.
John ignored it. “Why don’t you get a baby wipe out of Mel’s bag? Next time, try feeding him the ice cream through his mouth instead of just letting him absorb it through his pores.”
I got him a wipe and handed it over. He dabbed at Simi’s face. The baby sneezed, we all laughed, and I started to hope that the tension might diffuse.
“How does Mel feel about your taking her son to press conferences?” he asked mildly.
I shrugged. “She didn’t say not to,” I said, then added quickly, “I mean she didn’t say not to take him out of the office.”
He nodded. “Listen, Tris—”
“Hello?” Mel called loudly, rushing into the office and tossing down her bag. “Tris? I’m SO sorry it took me so long; I hope he wasn’t any trouble. Oh, hi, John.” She scooped the baby off John’s lap.
“Hi, sweetie,” she cooed. “Were you good while I was gone?”
Simeon nodded enthusiastically and I snorted.
“You’re a doll to watch him—I got what I needed and now I really have to run; Josh is downstairs in the car and my in-laws are gearing up to spend the weekend subtly insulting my child-rearing skills.” She rolled her eyes and combed her fingers through Simeon’s hair, then licked her finger and dabbed at a spot of chocolate on the tip of his nose.
I was home free. I couldn’t help but smile—things NEVER worked out like this.
“Who got you ice cream, Sim?” she asked conversationally as she stooped to tie one of his little shoes.
My godson chose that moment to break out of his verbal rut.
“P’leesman,” he said cheerfully. “Big p’leesman. Lost.”
Time stood still as Mel froze, John regarded me with a frighteningly interested look and the baby smiled with satisfaction. Oh lord.
“Let me explain,” I began quickly, backing away slightly.
“Oh, good,” Mel said. “I was just going to ask you to.”
Hell hath no fury, unfortunately, like a mama bear protecting her Benedict Arnold of an offspring.
I glanced nervously at John, who nodded encouragement at me.
“Uh. Did you know Giardelli is out of the race?” I asked Mel brightly.
She glared at John. John glared at me. I stared at the floor.
“It’s kind of a long story,” I began meekly. “And Josh IS waiting downstairs.”
“If it’s such a long story you’d better start now, hadn’t you?” John commented gently.
“…and I got him back absolutely and completely unscathed and,” I finished and risked a glance up, “I’m really sorry. But he’s FINE,” I added quickly and firmly.
I stared at the carpet and waited for my certain death.
“I should have told you he’s going through a slippery stage,” Mel said finally. “He’s hell to hold on to—you have to watch him every second,” she explained, sounding an awful lot like the policeman.
“I know that now. I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
“It’s okay.” She stood up, lifting Simeon to her hip. “Everything worked out fine. Next time you watch him, I’ll bring you one of those telephone-cord leash things.” She poked Simeon in the belly. “He needs one.”
I raised my eyes to look at her. “Next time?”
“You’re going to make—I mean let—me watch him again?”
She laughed and kissed me on the cheek. “Of course I am. He’s your godson, after all. And he adores you, don’t you, Simi?” The baby nodded happily. I could have kissed him. “Listen, I need to run. You’ll be more careful next time. It could have happened to anyone—remind me to tell you someday about the time I almost took the wrong baby home from Starbucks,” she called over her shoulder as she headed out of the office. The door swung shut behind her, her footsteps receded, and that was that.
Slowly, I started to breathe again.
I turned slightly from where I was perched on the desk to see John, who was still sitting in my chair and looking a little too serious for my liking.
“Mel’s great,” I offered shakily.
“Yes. Lucky for you she’s so tolerant.” He stood up and offered me his hand. “Not so lucky for you that I’m not.”
It was a long ride home. I spent much of it staring with intense concentration at the people we passed, willing any one of them to dart in front of the car and give us good reason NOT to make it home so fast. This was New York. Couldn’t a pothole open up or something?
Unfortunately, we made excellent time back to our building.
I tried to lag in the lobby, chatting with the doorman (even HE had plans for the weekend!) until John took my elbow oh-so-politely and a little too firmly and excused us. In the elevator I left a safe amount of space between us, talking myself OUT of the old stay-in-the-elevator-while-he-gets-off-at-our-floor-then-bolt trick. It wasn’t something John would fall for again anyway, I noted ruefully. Ever since then, it wasn’t just his impeccable manners that led him to usher me ahead of him out of any open door.
“Everything worked out fine, you know,” I reminded him hopefully on the endless walk down the hall to our front door.
John paused to look significantly at me as he put the key in the lock.
Okay, never mind.
I held up a brave front until we were inside and John gestured me politely ahead of him into the living room. I flopped into my favorite lecturee position on the couch and buried my face in my hands.
“But nothing happened!” I blurted finally, lifting my face to see John standing a little too tall above me.
“Tris.” He sat down on the coffee table in front of me and tapped my knee. I looked at him reluctantly.
“I really didn’t mean to lose him,” I said softly, concentrating very hard on the top of John’s left ear. Anything not to have to look at him.
“I know that.” He reached out and pushed my hair off my face. “But we’ve talked about the wisdom of when to say no, right? If you’re going to take on a responsibility, you need to be responsible about it. Otherwise, there’s no shame in saying no to something you can’t or don’t feel like handling when someone asks you for a favor.”
“I can handle Simeon!”
John rolled his eyes. “Honey, at his age, even Mel can barely handle him.” I smiled slightly. John’s tone grew a bit more serious.
“And I know you know how to take care of him, and I have no doubt things would have been fine if you hadn’t gotten distracted by that story.”
Oh god. News leads causing me to forget my responsibilities—it was a familiar song and dance, and the result was always unpleasant, not to mention painful.
“It wasn’t dangerous or anything!” I said quickly. “It was just time-sensitive; I had to get there RIGHT then, but I’d promised Mel I’d watch the baby—”
John raised a hand to cut me off. “That’s called overextending yourself, and that’s where you need to prioritize. You risked Simeon’s safety because you didn’t prioritize it.”
I knew it was true but even so, hearing John say it brought tears to my eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered.
“I know you are,” he said. “But think how you—not to mention Mel—would feel if something had happened to him. He’s the most important thing in the world to her, Tris: if you’re going to take care of him you need to remember that. And you,” he touched me cheek, “are the most important thing to me. You owe yourself, me, Simeon, AND Mel more than what happened today. People are more important than stories,” he said firmly. It was a phrase he’d repeated to me often, with the substitution occasionally of “bylines,” “sources,” and “leads” for “stories.”
A tear dropped onto the knee of my slacks and I traced it in the material. “I really am sorry,” I repeated, not sure what else to say.
John lifted my hand off my knee and squeezed it, his blue eyes kind as he looked right at me. “I know. But sooner or later, you need to get the hang of this. You don’t risk your life for stories. You don’t risk anyone else’s life for them either. You don’t prioritize them over yourself or the people you love.”
I nodded, unable to help the embarrassed tears. I was a massive screw-up. I was worse than Giardelli—at least he hadn’t lost his friend’s baby…or made his partner hate him.
John let go of my hand and touched my chin, making me look at him. “I love you. You know that.”
I nodded. I did know. I just sometimes didn’t understand it.
He kissed me and nodded toward the bedroom. “Go on.”
Except we both knew what was coming next. This was an all-too familiar routine; there was no point to further debate. I’d found myself in this position too many times not to have the moves memorized.
John was peculiar about the way I got when I smelled a story—leftover from being an editor, I guess. When we first met I was used to cheerfully throwing everything aside when I sensed a lead and chasing it with all I had; it was what got me to the Sun in the first place. And if I hadn’t been assigned to John I’d probably still be doing that…it was John who objected to perfectly normal reporting techniques like twenty-four hour stakeouts in the backyard of suspected criminals (that would have worked, too, if it weren’t for that damned Doberman) or attempting to gain insight on the garbage union negotiation crisis by borrowing a uniform and carrying out the duties of a sanitation worker for a day (John maintains that ‘borrowing’ implies permission, and that ‘bribery’ and ‘blackmail’ are wrong).
I can’t explain his logic. And yet it had given stability to my life the like of which I’d never known. I knew what was what with John; deep down I trusted that he knew what he was doing even when I wanted nothing more than to be doing something else…and I knew he was behind me even when I wished I could disappear.
I stared at his hands now where they rested on his knees, unfortunately very aware that I was just buying time.
“Tris.” He nudged me gently. “Don’t drag it out, sweetheart.”
Easy for HIM to say. Wishing I were anywhere else in the world, I hauled myself off the couch and into our bedroom, tempted briefly by the thought of escaping via the fire escape. John knew me too well, I thought ruefully; if I tried it, I could be sure he’d meet me on the other end and be, if possible, even LESS pleased with me than he was now.
I dragged my feet into the closet and pulled the paddle off the lower shelf. It’s probably my least favorite thing in the closet; I hate it even more than the terrifying rubber galoshes John makes me wear in the rain. I held it out in front of me between two fingers. Maybe I should pitch IT out the window instead.
I was keeping him waiting. He didn’t have to say it. I trudged back to him, fresh tears forming in my eyes.
“John, please don’t.”
He held out a hand and reluctantly I handed it over.
I didn’t have a lot of arguments left. Rationally, I couldn’t even protest that it hadn’t been that bad. It HAD been bad. It had been awful. Just thinking of what could have happened made my chest squeeze with fear.
He pulled me closer and began to unbutton my pants. Numbly, I let him, my eyes on the slab of wood sitting so casually on the couch cushion. I squeezed my eyes shut as he drew me down across his knee, adjusting me until we were both reasonably comfortable, then ruffling the hair at my crown in a gesture so sympathetic I whimpered.
I didn’t want this.
But we had a deal, John and I, about when we dragged that hated instrument out of captivity, and I’d earned it myself by chasing after a story without thought to the consequences. But he fact that we’d had this discussion often enough for me to know better didn’t make me any less miserable about what was about to happen.
The first crack of the paddle shocked me out of my self-recriminations and made me cry out.
He ignored me and the paddle landed again, just as hard.
“Stop, I’m sorry,” I babbled; somewhere between terrified and reassured that I knew my pleas weren’t going to deter him.
He swung the paddle several more times, my backside burning more with each new stroke, before he spoke:
“Why are we doing this, Tristram?”
I sobbed into the couch. I hated my full name and John so rarely used it to me.
“Because I lost the baby,” I whimpered.
“No, Tris,” he said firmly. “Losing him was an accident. What should you have done to avoid that situation in the first place?”
“Remembered that…people are more important than stories,” I recited tearfully. “I never should have—OW!—brought the baby to the press conference. Or I shouldn’t have said I’d…that I’d watch him…”
I was growing more incoherent and the paddle landed again and again, covering every inch of available skin.
From one time to the next I never remembered how much this hurt. If necessary, I would never prioritize a story over ANYTHING again, I vowed as hot tears blurred my vision and sobs choked in my throat.
“Your safety and the safety of anyone you are responsible for is more important than any lead, any story, than the most exciting thing that could happen in the most crucial moments of a campaign, Tris,” he lectured. “You are going to understand this.”
I was beyond answering him but I sobbed my acquiescence.
The paddling went on and on. It was longer than forever before I heard, over the pounding of my heart and my own heavy weeping, the final-sounding soft thump as John tossed the paddle onto the couch beside him.
The material of the couch cushion was rough and wet under my face as I sobbed, but I made no effort to move. I might never move again judging by the searing in my hindquarters.
John let me lie where I was for a few minutes, one hand slipping underneath my shirt to rub the hot, bare skin of my back. I was damp with sweat and still shaking when he lifted me up, adjusting my clothes and pulling until we were both half-lying on the couch and I was stretched out on top of him.
My eyes hurt too much to open them but from memory I burrowed my forehead into the junction of neck and shoulder, curling my fingers into the open collar of his shirt. John was whispering something to me and I meant to stop crying, I think, but my chest wasn’t obeying my brain: it just thrust forth sob after sob until I was sure I would run out of breath.
“Okay, honey, calm down,” John’s voice was firm against me as his fingers wove themselves into my hair, pressing my face closer. “Tris. Breathe.”
Easier said than done.
But neither of us was going anywhere. He held me cuddled close against him and waited and slowly my crying eased off into hiccups. It was another age or two before the only sound I could hear was the quiet creak in the sofa as John rocked me.
I sniffed into his neck a few times and then turned my head. “I’m sorry,” I said hoarsely, watching his profile until he turned and kissed me.
“I know. It’s done; it’s okay.”
In spite of myself, I believed him.
The minutes ticked by on the wall clock as I lay quietly in his arms, thinking. Gradually I became aware again of the sounds outside, the roar of motors and the incessant chatter of honking horns. The traffic on the street below reminded me how glad I was that John had overruled my request for a vacation. The last thing and I wanted to do right now was to sit for six or seven hours of traffic on an extremely sore rear. In fact, all I wanted to do at this moment in time was to lie here with John and maybe, if utterly and unavoidably necessary, breathe. Those two actions took up pretty much all the strength I had left, thank you very much.
I could have fallen asleep right there, at two in the afternoon, but John nudged me gently. “Come on. Up. You need to eat something,” he said, easing me carefully to my feet and brushing my hair out of my eyes.
“I’m not hungry,” I mumbled automatically. All the fun had gone out of food years ago.
John ignored me, linked an arm through mine and tugged me kitchenward. “Come on, sweetheart. You need your strength for tonight.”
I nodded weakly and suffered him pulling grilled chicken breasts out of the refrigerator when his words struck me.
“What do you mean for tonight?”
John took plates out of the cabinet, then reached behind the glasses and handed me an envelope.
Curious, I opened it and pulled out a sheet of letterhead. I was too exhausted to try to figure it out.
“John? What is this?”
He took it from my hand and ruffled my hair. “It’s the reason I showed up early to your office today, and I would have given it to you sooner if we hadn’t been…” he paused for effect “…distracted.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I decided you were right…we’ve been working hard all summer, and you’ve been so good about the car these last few weeks. We could use a break.”
I cocked my head, wondering what I was missing.
John smiled. “It’s a surprise…or it was meant to be. Three nights at Leverett House, starting tonight, and we should leave,” he glanced at his watch, “as soon as possible if we want to beat any of the traffic.”
“But…the pictures…” I stammered. He’d meant to take me away all along? My head swam.
“I was thinking of changing my mind if you kept torturing me,” he teased. “But yes, it’s all set up. Come on. Steve and Sharon even promised us the honeymoon suite.”
Oh god. His blue eyes were warm and happy. He’d done all this to surprise me. It was exactly what I wanted: a weekend on the Cape…long walks on the beach…rocky coves to explore…beautiful, cool weather…no one but each other for company…
…and a minimum of six hours in the car, sitting smack on a sore and uncomfortably hot bottom.
Even when I won I lost.
I looked again at John’s face so sweet and expectant.
“Give me five minutes to pack,” I told him, crammed half a chicken breast in my mouth, and threw my arms tight around his neck, feeling him solid and loving against me.
Yup—if this was losing, the consolation prize was pretty damned great.