No wonder she tried to stay away from reflective surfaces. With a sigh, she reached for the toothpaste and began brushing her teeth. Before she’d finished, she felt Marah wake up.
Turning off the water, she opened the door.
Sure enough, Marah was screaming.
Kate’s day had begun.
When the big day arrived, Kate wondered why in the hell she’d planned such a ridiculous birthday party for her daughter. In the morning, after another sleepless night, she got up and began the preparations, putting the finishing touches on the pink Barbie doll cake and wrapping the last few presents. In a moment of obvious madness, she’d invited all the children from Marah’s Mommy and Me class, as well as two former sorority sisters who had similarly aged daughters and her parents. Even Johnny had taken the morning off work for the extravaganza. When they all arrived, on time, bearing gifts, Kate immediately got a headache. It didn’t help that Marah picked that moment to start screaming, either.
Still, the party went on, with all the women in the living room and the kids on the floor, making more noise than Sherman marching into Atlanta.
"I saw Tully on that really early show the other morning," Mary Kay said. "I was up with Danny."
"I was up, too," Charlotte said, reaching for her coffee. "She looked great, didn’t she?"
"That’s because she sleeps through the night," Vicki pointed out. "And her clothes don’t always have puke on them."
Kate wanted to join in, but she couldn’t. Her headache was killing her and she had this nagging sense that something was wrong. It was so acute that when Johnny left the party at just past one, she’d almost pleaded with him to stay.
"You’re awfully quiet today," her mother pointed out when the last guest left.
"Marah didn’t sleep again last night."
"She never sleeps through the night, and why is that? Because—"
"I know. I know. I need to let her cry." Kate tossed the last of the used paper plates into the trash. "I just can’t."
"I let you cry. It took three nights and you never woke up in the wee hours again."
"But I’m a genius. Clearly my daughter is not as bright."
"No, I’m the genius. Clearly my daughter is not as bright." Mom looped an arm around Kate’s shoulder and led her to the sofa.
Side by side, they sat down. Kate leaned against her mother, who stroked her hair. The gentle, soothing motion transported her back a few decades. "Remember when I wanted to be an astronaut, and you said I was lucky because my generation could have it all? I could have three kids, a husband, and still go to the moon. What a bunch of bullshit that was." She sighed. "It’s hard to be a good mother."
"It’s hard to be good at anything."
"Amen," Kate said. The truth was that she loved her daughter, ached sometimes with the intensity of that love, but the responsibility was overwhelming, and the pace of life exhausting.
"I know how tired you are. It’ll get better. I promise."
No sooner had her mother said the words than her father walked into the room. He’d spent most of the party hiding out in the family room, watching some sports team or another. "We’d best get a move on, Margie. I don’t want to get stuck in traffic. Get Marah ready."
Kate felt a flash of panic. Was she ready to be away from her daughter for a night? "I don’t know, Mom."
Her mother touched her hand gently. "Your father and I raised two kids, Katie. We can watch our granddaughter for a night. Go out with your husband. Kick up your heels and have some fun. Marah will be safe with us."
Kate knew her mother was right, even knew it was a good thing to do. So why was her stomach clenched?
"You have a lifetime to be afraid," Dad said. "That’s what parenting is. Might as well embrace it, kiddo."
Kate tried gamely to smile. "This is it, huh? How you guys felt all the time."
"How we still feel," Dad said. Mom took her by the hand. "Let’s go gather Marah’s things. Johnny’s going to be back in a couple of hours to pick you up."
Kate packed Marah’s clothes, making sure she had her pink blanket, her pacifiers, and her beloved Pooh bear. Then she gathered up the formula and bottles and tiny jars of strained fruit and vegetables, and wrote out a feeding and sleeping schedule that would have made an air traffic controller proud.
When she held Marah one last time and kissed her soft cheek, Kate had to hold back tears. It was ridiculous and embarrassing and inevitable, for it didn’t matter that motherhood had kicked the hell out of her and ruined her confidence; it had also swamped her so with love that she was only half a person without her daughter.
Kate stood on the porch of her new beachfront Bainbridge Island house, with her hand tented across her eyes until long after the car had disappeared down the driveway.
Then, back inside, she wandered aimlessly for a few moments, not quite certain of how to be alone anymore.
She tried calling Tully again, left another message.
Finally she found herself in her closet, staring at her prepregnancy clothes, trying to figure out what she had that was sexy and grown-up and would fit her. She’d just finished packing when she heard the door downstairs open and close, heard her husband’s footsteps on the hardwood floor.
She went down to meet him. "Where are we going, Mr. Ryan?"
"You’ll see." He took her hand and got her overnight bag and closed up the house. Out in his car, the radio was on. Loud, like the old days. Bruce Springsteen was singing, Hey, little girl, is your daddy home . . .
Kate laughed, feeling young again. They drove down to the ferry terminal and onto the waiting boat. Instead of sitting in their car for the passage, as they usually did, they bundled up in coats and hats and stood on the bow with the tourists. It was five o’clock on this cold January evening, and the sky and Sound were a Monet of lavender and pink. In the distance, Seattle sparkled with a million lights.
"Are you going to tell me where we’re going?"
"No, but I’ll tell you what we’re going to do."
She laughed. "I know what we’re going to do."
As the ferry chugged into port, they returned to their car. Once they were off the boat, Johnny maneuvered through the stop-and-go downtown traffic and pulled up in front of the Inn at the Market, where a liveried doorman opened her door and collected her bags.
Johnny came around for her and took her hand. "We’re already checked in." To the bellman, he said, "Room 416."
They strolled through the quiet brick courtyard and into the intimate, European-style lobby. On the fourth floor, they went to their room, a corner suite that had a sweeping view of the Sound. Bainbridge Island looked almost purple; the water was steel-blue; the distant mountains were back-lit by pink light. On a table by the window a bottle of champagne stood tilted in a silver ice bucket, a plateful of strawberries beside it.
Kate smiled. "I see someone wants to get laid in the worst way."
"What you see is a man who loves his wife." He swept her into his arms and kissed her.
When someone knocked, they broke apart like teenagers, laughing at their own passion.
Kate waited impatiently for the bellman to leave. The second he was gone she began unbuttoning her blouse. "I’m not sure exactly what to wear tonight." When Johnny looked at her—he wasn’t smiling now; he looked as hungry as she felt—she unzipped her pants, let them fall to the floor. For the first time in months she didn’t worry about her weight gain. Instead she let his gaze be her mirror.
She unhooked her bra, let it dangle from her fingertips and drop to the ground.
"No fair starting without me," he said, wrenching off his shirt, throwing it aside, then unbuttoning his pants.
They fell into bed together and made love as if they hadn’t done it in months instead of weeks, with every part of their minds and bodies. Sensation carried Kate away. When he finally entered her with all the pent-up longing of too many passionless nights, she cried out at the joy of it, and everything inside of her, everything she was, melded with this man she loved more than her own life. By the time she came, shuddering hard, holding him against her damp body, she was utterly spent.
He pulled her against him. Naked, panting, they lay entwined, the expensive hotel sheets tangled around their bare legs.
"You know how much I love you, don’t you?" he said quietly. They were words he’d said hundreds of times, so often that she knew how they were supposed to sound.
She rolled onto her side, instantly worried. "What is it?"
"What do you mean?" He eased away from her and went to the table, where he poured two glasses of champagne. "Do you want some strawberries?"
"Look at me, John."
Slowly—too slowly—he turned, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze.
"You’re scaring me."
He went over to the window and stared out. His profile looked sharp suddenly, distant. Damp, tangled hair obscured his cheek. She couldn’t tell if he was smiling. "Let’s not do this now, Katie. We have all night and all day tomorrow to talk. For now, let’s—"
He put the glass of champagne down on the windowsill and turned to her. Finally, he let his gaze meet hers, and in his blue eyes she saw the kind of sadness that made her breath catch. He went to the bed, knelt beside it so that he was looking up at her. "You know what’s going on in the Middle East."
His words were so unexpected that she just stared at him. "What?"
"There’s going to be a war, Katie. You know that. The whole world knows it."
The three letters coalesced into something as big and black as a thundercloud. She knew what this was about.
"I have to go." The simple, quiet way he said it was worse than any yell.
"You said you lost your nerve."
"There’s the irony; you gave it back to me. I’m tired of feeling like I failed, Katie. I need to prove to myself that I can do it this time."
"And you want my blessing," she said dully.
"I need it."
"You’ll go no matter what I say, so why the big act?"
He came up on his knees, took her face in his hands, and held her steady. She tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let her. "They need me. I’ve got experience."
"I need you. Marah needs you, but that doesn’t matter, does it?"
She felt the heat of tears flood her eyes; they blurred her vision.
"If you say no, I won’t go."
"Okay, no. You can’t go. I won’t let you. I love you, Johnny. You could die over there."
He let go of her, sat back on his heels, and stared at her. "Is that your answer?"
The tears fell, streaked down her cheeks. Angrily, she wiped them away. She wanted to say, Yes. Fuck, yes. That’s my answer.
But how could she deny him this? Not only was it what he wanted, but down even deeper, there was something else, that tattered, ugly remnant of fear that floated to the surface sometimes, reminded her that he’d loved Tully first. It made Kate afraid to deny him anything. She wiped her eyes again. "Promise me you won’t die, Johnny."
He climbed into bed and took her in his arms and while she held him as tightly as she could, already it didn’t feel safe. It felt as if he were dissolving in her embrace, disappearing bit by bit. "I promise I won’t die."