I’m not usually much of a stoner, but at this moment I’d sell my soul for a hit of pot.
Higgens shakes his head. “Won’t do any good. Contractions are comin’ too fast—you got an impatient one here.”
Fast? Fast? If five hours is fast, I don’t want to know what slow looks like.
What the hell are we doing?
This isn’t how our lives were supposed to go. I’m the quarterback. I’m the fucking valedictorian—the smart one. Jenny’s the homecoming queen and head cheerleader.
Or at least she was—until the baby bump got too big for her uniform.
We’re supposed to go to prom next month. We should be thinking about graduation parties and bonfires, screwing in the backseat of my truck and having as many good times with our friends as we can before college. Instead we’re having a baby.
A real one—not the hard-boiled-egg kind they make you carry around for a week in school. I cracked mine, by the way.
“I’m gonna throw up.”
“No!” Jenny screeches like a mad cow. “You’re not allowed to throw up while I’m bein’ ripped in half! You just suck it up! And if I survive and you touch me again, I’m gonna cut your pecker off and feed it into the wood chipper! Do you hear me?”
That’s something a man only needs to hear once.
I learned a few hours ago it’s best to agree with anything she says. Alright, alright, alright.
Lynn, the perky nurse, wipes Jenny’s brow. “Now, now, there’ll be no cutting off of things. You’ll forget all about this nasty business when your baby is here. Everyone loooves babies—they’re blessin’s from Jesus.”
Lynn’s way too happy to be real. I bet she took all the drugs—now there’s none left for the rest of us.
Another contraction hits. Jenny’s teeth grind as she pushes and grunts through it.
“Baby’s crownin’,” Higgens announces. He pats her knee. “A nice big push on the next one should do it.”
I stand up and glance over Jenny’s leg, and I see the top of the head, pushing against my favorite place in the whole world. It’s bizarre and disgusting, but . . . but kind of incredible too.
Jenny falls back, pale and drained. Her sobs make my throat want to close. “I can’t. I thought I could do it, but I can’t. Please, no more. I’m so tired.”
Her momma wanted to be here in the delivery room—they argued about it. Because Jenny said she only wanted it to be us. Her and me—together.
Gently, I lift Jenn’s shoulders and slide behind her onto the bed, bracing my legs on either side of her. My arms encircle her stomach, my chest supports her back, and her head rests against my collarbone. I brush my lips against her temple, her cheek, murmuring soft nonsensical words, the same way I’d whisper to a skittish horse.
“Shh, don’t cry, darlin’. You’re doin’ so good. We’re almost there. Just one more push. I know you’re tired, and I’m sorry it hurts. One more and you can rest. I’m right here with you—we’ll do it together.”
Her head turns to me wearily. “One more?”
I give her a smile. “You’re the toughest girl I know. You always have been.” I wink. “You got this.”
She takes a few deep breaths, psyching herself up. “Okay.” She breathes. “Okay.” She sits up straighter, bending toward her raised knees. Her fingers clamp down on my hands when the next contraction comes. The room fills with long, guttural groans for a dozen seconds and then . . . a sharp cry pierces the air. A baby’s cry.
Jenny pants and gasps with sudden relief. And Dr. Higgens holds up our squirming, cheesy child and pronounces, “It’s a girl.”
My vision blurs and Jenny laughs. With her own tears streaming down her face she turns to me. “We have a baby girl, Stanton.”
And we laugh and cry and hold on to each other all at the same time. A few minutes later, Happy Nurse Lynn carries the pink bundle over and places her in Jenny’s arms.
“Oh my God, she’s perfect,” Jenny sighs. My awed silence must worry her, because she asks, “You’re not disappointed she’s not a boy, are you?”
“Nah . . . boys are useless . . . nothin’ but trouble. She’s . . . she’s everything I wanted.”
I wasn’t prepared. I didn’t know it would feel like this. A tiny nose, two perfect lips, long lashes, a wisp of blond hair, and hands that I can already tell are miniature versions of my own. In an instant, my world shifts and I’m at her mercy. From this moment on, there is nothing I wouldn’t do for this beautiful little creature.
I brush my fingertip against her soft cheek, and even though men aren’t supposed to coo, I do. “Hey, baby girl.”
“Y’all got a name for her?” Nurse Lynn asks.
Jenny’s smiling eyes meet mine before turning back to Nurse Lynn. “Presley. Presley Evelynn Shaw.”
Evelynn is after Jenny’s nana. We figured it might go a long way if she ever finds those shotgun shells. She’s been searching particularly hard since Jenny and I announced we weren’t getting married—yet.
Too soon Nurse Lynn takes the baby back so she can get printed and poked. I climb off the bed while Dr. Higgens busies himself between Jenn’s legs. Then he suggests, “Why don’t you go outside and give your family the good news, son? They’ve been out there waitin’ all night.”
I look to Jenny, who nods her approval. I pick up her hand and kiss the back of it. “I love you.”
She grins, weary but joyous. “I love you too.”
I walk down the hallway, through the security doors to the waiting area. There, I find a dozen of the closest people in our lives wearing varying masks of anticipation and impatience.
Before I can get a word out, my little brother, Marshall—the nonidiot one—demands, “Well? What is it?”
I crouch down eye level with him and I smile. “It . . . is a she.”
• • •
Two days later, I strapped the car seat into my pickup—checking it four times, to make sure it was in right—and I brought Jenny and Presley home.
Home to her parents’ house.
And just two months after that, I left them. Traveling twelve hundred miles away to Columbia University, New York.
One year later
She was too precious, Stanton,” Jenny laughs. “She didn’t want to touch the icing at all, didn’t like it stickin’ to her fingers, so she just planted her whole face right in the cake! And she was so mad when I took it back to cut it. I wish you could’ve seen her—this child’s got attitude that puts Nana’s to shame!” She dissolves in a fit of giggles.
Guilt rides me hard. Because I should’ve seen the way Presley tore into her first birthday cake. The way she squealed over the bows and was more fascinated by the wrapping paper than any present it covered. I should’ve been there to light the candles, to take the pictures. To be in the pictures.
But I wasn’t. Couldn’t. Because it’s finals week, so the only place I can be is here—in New York. I force a smile—trying to infuse my tone with enthusiasm. “That’s great, Jenn. Sounds like it was an awesome party. I’m glad she enjoyed it.”
Try as I might, Jenny can still tell. “Baby, stop beatin’ yourself up. I’ll email you all the pictures and the video. It’ll be like you were right here with us.”
“Yeah. Except I wasn’t.”
She sighs. “You wanna say good night to her? Sing her your song?”
In the short time I spent with our daughter after she was born, and the weeks I was able to have with her over Christmas break, we discovered that Presley has an affinity for the sound of my voice. Even over the telephone, it soothes her when she’s teething, lulls her when she’s fussy. It’s become our ritual, every night.
It’s amazing how two tiny syllables can have so much power. They warm my chest and bring the first genuine grin I’ve had on my face all day.
“Happy birthday, baby girl.”
I chuckle. “Daddy misses you, Presley. You ready for your song?” Quietly, I sing,
You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.
You make me happy when skies are gray . . .
In her sweet, adorably garbled voice, she tries to sing the words with me. After two verses, my eyes are misty and my voice cracks. Because I miss her so much.
I miss them.
I clear my throat. “Time for bed. Sweet dreams.”
Jenny comes back on the line. “Good luck with your exam tomorrow.”
“Good night, Stanton.”
I toss the phone to the foot of the bed and stare at the ceiling. From somewhere down below, there’s raucous laughter and calls to chug—most likely from the marathon beer-pong game that started two days ago. In my first week at Columbia I learned that careers aren’t just built on what you know. They’re built on who you know.
So I pledged a fraternity—to make those lifelong connections. Psi Kappa Epsilon. It’s a good frat, filled with white-collar majors—business, economics, prelaw. Most come from money, but still good people, boys who work hard, study hard, and play hard.
Last semester a member graduated early, then got shipped abroad by his Fortune 500 company. My fraternity big brother lobbied strongly for me to get a room here in the house. A big brother is the guy you’re paired with when you’re pledging a frat. He’s the guy who gives you the hardest time. You’re his bitch—his slave.
But after you become a brother he’s your best friend. Your mentor.
As self-loathing threatens to swamp me, my big brother just happens to walk past my open door. Out of the corner of my eye I see his dark head pass, pause, and back up.
Then Drew Evans strolls into my room.
Drew is like no one I’ve ever known. It’s as if there’s a spotlight on him that never dims—he demands your notice. Claims your full attention. He acts like he owns the world, and when you’re with him? You feel like you own it too.
Deep blue eyes that all the girls go stupid for look down on me disapprovingly.
“What’s wrong with you?”
I wipe my nose. “Nothin’.”
His eyebrows rise. “Doesn’t look like nothing. You’re practically crying into your pillow, for Christ’s sake. I’m fucking embarrassed for you.”
Drew is relentless. Whether it’s pussy or answers he’s going after, he doesn’t let up until he gets his way. It’s a quality I admire.
My phone pings with incoming email—the pictures Jenny sent me of the party. With a resigned sigh I sit up and access the photos. “You know my daughter, Presley?”
He nods. “Sure. Cute kid, hot mom. Unfortunate name.”
“Today was her birthday.” I flash him one particularly endearing shot of my little angel with a face full of cake. “Her first birthday.”
He smiles. “Looks like she had fun.”
I don’t smile. “She did. But I missed it.” I scrub my eyes with the palms of my hands. “What the fuck am I doin’ here, man? It’s hard . . . harder than I ever thought it’d be.”
I’m good at everything I do—always have been. Football, school, bein’ a kick-ass boyfriend. In high school all the girls envied Jenny. Every one wanted to screw me and all the guys wanted to be me. And everything about it was too easy.
“I just feel . . . I feel like I’m failin’ . . . everythin’,” I confess. “Maybe I should throw in the towel, go to a shit community college back home. At least then I’d see them more than three times a year.” With anger I bite out, “What kind of father misses his child’s first fuckin’ birthday?”
Not all guys feel like I do. I know boys back home who knocked up girls and were perfectly content to walk away and never look back. They send a check only after their asses get hauled into court, sometimes not even then. Hell, neither of Ruby’s kids’ fathers have seen their children more than once.
But that could never be me.
“Jesus, you’re a mess,” Drew exclaims, his face horrified. “You’re not going to start singing John Denver songs, are you?”
I stew in silence.
He sighs. And perches himself on the edge of my bed. “You want the truth, Shaw?”
Evans is big on the truth—the harsh, crude, dick-in-your-face truth. Another quality I respect, though it’s not much fun when his critical eye is aimed at you.
“I guess,” I reply hesitantly.
“My old man is the best father I know, no contest. I don’t remember if he was at my first birthday party, or my second . . . and I really don’t give a shit either way. He put an awesome roof over my head, he’s proud of me when I deserve it, and kicks my ass when I deserve that too. He took us on fantastic family vacations and pays for my tuition here—pretty much setting me up for life.
“What I’m saying is: any asshole can cut a fucking cake. You’re here—working on the weekends, carrying a full class load, busting your balls—so one day your kid won’t have to. That’s what a good father does.”
I think about what he’s saying. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“Of course I’m right. Now dry your eyes, take some Midol, and stop with the premenstrual pity party.”
That earns him the flip of the bird.
Drew raises his chin toward my pile of notes for Statistics 101, the first-year requisite final I’m taking tomorrow morning. “You ready for Windsor’s final?”
“I think so.”
He shakes his head. “Don’t think—know. Professor Windsor’s a dick. And a snob. He’ll bust a nut if he gets to fail a redneck like you.”
I flip through the stack of papers. “I’ll look it over one more time, but I’m good.”
“Excellent.” He smacks my leg. “Then be ready to leave in an hour.”
I glance at my watch: 10 p.m. “Where are we goin’?”
Evans stands. “If I teach you only one thing before I graduate let it be this: before any big exam, you go out for a drink—one drink—and you get yourself laid. Standardized test-prep courses should add that to their rule book. It’s infallible.”
I rub the back of my neck. “I don’t know . . .”
He holds out his arms, questioning, “What’s the problem? You and your baby mama are doing the whole open relationship now, right?”
“Yeah, but . . .”
“That was a brilliant move on your part, by the way. I’ll never understand why any man would tie himself down to one woman when there’s so many to choose from.”
I don’t tell him it wasn’t my idea. That Jenny insisted on it after we talked—argued—when I was home for Christmas break. I don’t tell him the only reason I agreed is because the horny bastards in my hometown know Jenn is my girl, the mother of my daughter. I may only come home two or three times a year, but when I do I’ll happily rearrange the face of anyone who makes a move on her.
I also don’t tell him that I haven’t taken advantage of the new open-door policy in the five months since.
Instead I explain, “I’ve never tried pickin’ up women in a bar before. I don’t know what I’d say.”
Drew chuckles. “You just drop a few y’alls, a few darlin’s—I got the rest covered.” He points at me. “One hour. Be ready.”
And he cruises out of my room.
• • •
Ninety minutes later, we walk into the Central Bar—a favorite student hangout. It has good food, a dance floor with a DJ upstairs, and no cover charge. Even though it’s finals week the place is wall-to-wall drinking, laughing bodies. “What are you having?” Evans asks as we make our way to the bar.
“Jim Beam, neat.” If I’m only allowed one drink, better make it count.
I catch my reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Nondescript blue T-shirt, stubbled jaw ’cause I couldn’t be bothered to shave, and a thick blond head of hair that needs cutting. It’s practically immune to gel, so I’ll be pushing it back from my forehead all night.
Drew passes me my bourbon and takes a sip of his own—looks like whiskey and soda. Wordlessly we survey the room for a few minutes. Then his elbow nudges me and he cocks his head toward two girls in the corner, by the jukebox. They’re good-looking in the way that appears effortless but in reality takes two hours of primping to achieve. One’s tall, with long, straight blond hair and even longer legs, wearing ripped denim jeans and a cropped tank top that shows off a lacy black bra and a twinkling belly-button piercing. Her friend is shorter, with curly jet-black hair, a pink halter top, and dark jeans so tight they look like they’re painted on.
Drew walks purposefully toward them and I follow.
“I like your shirt,” he says to the blonde, gesturing to the writing across her chest: Barnard Women Do It Right.
After looking him up and down her lips stretch slowly into a flirty smile. “Thanks.”
“I’ve got one at home just like it,” Drew reveals. “Except mine says Columbia Guys Do It All Night.”
They giggle. I gulp my bourbon while the dark-haired girl checks me out—and seems to like what she sees.
“You guys go to Columbia?” she asks.
Drew nods. “Yep. Go Lions.”
Even though I have no real idea what the hell I’m doing, I try to follow Drew’s instructions, asking the most unoriginal question ever. “What are y’all majorin’ in?”
The brunette giggles again. “Y’all ? You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
“I’m from Mississippi.”
She eyes my bicep appreciatively. “How do you like New York?”
I think for a second . . . then it comes to me. With a lopsided grin I answer, “Right now, I’m likin’ it a whole lot.”
Drew nods almost imperceptibly—approvingly.
“We’re art majors,” the blonde offers.
“Seriously? Art?” Drew smirks. “Guess you have no interest in making an actual contribution to society.” He raises his glass. “Here’s to graduating without a marketable skill set of any kind.”
I know he sounds like an insulting ass, but trust me, it works for him.
“Oh my god!”
“Jerk!” The girls laugh, like they always do, eating up his cocky attitude and sarcastic humor with a spoon.
I take another drink of bourbon. “What kinda art do you do?”
“I paint,” Blondie answers. “I particularly like body painting.” She trails her hand up and down Drew’s chest. “You would be an amazing canvas.”
“I sculpt,” her friend tells me. “I’m really good with my hands.”