Stay or Leave
Today is her daughter’s second birthday and Sylvia’s been busy decorating their railroad apartment for the party. Streamers and a crepe paper tablecloth over which are scattered plates of appetizers. The useless fireplace is full of lavish ferns that have managed to survive even the most voracious Pretty Kitty incursion. The grey and white cat currently curled on the wicker rocking chair only occasionally glanced about at the mayhem.
Sylvia peered into the refrigerator one more time to check on the cake she had spent the night before baking. Her daughter Waverly is spending the afternoon with Aunt Frances who was scheduled to drop by shortly, bearing both her baby girl and some bottles of wine. Cheap wine but Sylvia knew her guests expected nothing more.
She glanced yet again at the time and moved to the bathroom where she quickly did some last minute touches to her appearance—one more sweep of hairspray to hold everything in place, another slice of eyeliner, and a final layer of lipstick. Across the bed on which she had conceived her daughter, she had laid out the Georgette floral flouncy dress that was in fashion as time shifted into the mid-sixties, a style that flattered her shape by hiding rather than hugging her figure. Except for the jewelry she planned to add to her ensemble, Sylvia was ready and about to light a cigarette and catch a quick breath when the front doorbell buzzed.
Frances was a bit early but better early than late although Sylvia wouldn’t need as much help as she had initially thought. Without a second thought, she buzzed the front door open and cracked her apartment door open before heading to the closet where Waverly’s presents were hidden deep in the corner. Waverly had a way of getting into every secret place of the apartment, curling beneath the sink cabinets and up one of the pantry shelves in the narrow closet in the kitchen. Sylvia’s closet, with the low hanging coats and skirts was a favorite hiding place and many times she’d found her daughter face buried in a layer of fabric. “Gotcha,” she would announce and Waverly’s face would emerge, smiling huge and content.
Sylvia nearly dropped the brightly wrapped items at the sound of a man’s voice. “Noah?” she asked, hoping it was her nephew.
“No. It’s me. Ernest.”
He had no need to identify himself. Sylvia knew the voice, would know it forever, unable to forget the man whom she still loved desperately and relentlessly. The man she had forgiven in hopes of forgetting.
She put the packages down on the bed they had once shared and stood slowly, inhaling and then exhaling in relief, grateful that he would see her again on a day when she knew she looked her beset. Not running around in curlers and jeans but dressed as if ready to go out on a date.
“Ernest.” She repeated the name to feel it on her tongue before turning to look at him.
And there he was, the same slender man with greying hair, almost feminine delicate features, his face barely shaved. Slightly scruffy the way she liked him although his hair was more closely cut than before, when they were a couple.
Perhaps she prefers it that way, the internal accuser reminding her of the other woman even as she remembered how the satin softness of his hair felt when she tangled her fingers around his head when they kissed most deeply.
There he was, a shopping bag with what looked like store wrapped presents in one hand and a large teddy bear in another, a bright pink polka dotted bow around the bears neck.
Polka dots were her favorite; Ernest would know this. She smiled because he remembered so many things, the little details of her life.
Even from where she stood she could smell the cologne he was wearing, her favorite, a musky blend they had discovered one day at the art fair as they were walking home and a sudden summer storm had forced them to seek shelter inside a shop where, among other things, the owners created their own blends of scents. The one they found, the one they loved, had been called, appropriately enough, “Rain” and smelled lovely on them both.
Sylvia’s small bottle ran out over a year ago and she couldn’t afford to replace it; as she inhaled she wondered how he had managed to make his last so long. Then she remembered that they couldn’t afford two bottles and had shared the one until the day he had moved out.
Moved out with no good-bye or explanation.
“What are you doing here?”
“I came to see her.” He had that contrite puppy look that seeped pathos, begged forgiveness. “You look wonderful.”
“It’s her birthday.”
Sylvia moved forward to close the door to the apartment which he had left ajar. “I know it’s her birthday.” As she heard the click as she shut the door she thought better of what she was doing and opened it again. “Get out.”
There wasn’t much time. Frances would be here soon, here with Waverly who had never met her father and wouldn’t understand who this man with the presents was, a birthday Santa who would get an eager kiss and smile from a child who was easy with her affection even with strangers, something that alarmed Sylvia endlessly but she hoped Waverly would eventually outgrow.
“Sylvia please,” he held out the bear as if the gift would bridge the distance of the two years and nearly two months of his absence and erase the loss and loneliness he’d left behind, the devastation of facing the final weeks of her pregnancy alone.
“No, you can’t do this.”
“I wanted to come sooner.”
There was an unspoken “but” lingering somewhere in both their mouths. “But” she wouldn’t let him come see his bastard daughter, not when he had two children and a wife to take care of. “But” he didn’t know how to apologize for the unforgivable. “But” he didn’t know if she would say “welcome” or “fuck off” and hated confrontation.
Hated confrontation so much he never said good-bye.
How could his name still sound and taste so sweet? She would not look at his hazel eyes, the amber flecks of nearly gold that made them shimmer even when he was not near tears as he apparently was now.
“No. I can’t. You can’t. She deserves better.”
She deserves better but . . .
Which she? Sylvia? Waverly? The nameless wife?
“Get out, Ernest.”
“Can I at least leave these things?”
He moved to set the bear and bag on the rocking chair, saw Pretty Kitty flipped onto his back, belly up and sleeping through the intrusion of this other male.
“No,” Sylvia moved to block his progression as he shifted towards the sofa. “No you can’t leave them.”
“Sylvia, don’t be like this.”
Like what? she wondered. Like a mother protecting her daughter from the hurt he had left behind when he disappeared from their lives? Like a mother who could see a lifetime of his coming and going when it was emotionally convenient for him but never often enough for either of them? Like a woman who loved him then and now and would forever love him and forgive him? Like a lover who knew that if she did not love herself and her daughter enough to say no now they would both carry the pain she had been carrying for over two years?
“No,” she moved back to the door. “Get out.”
“Sylvia,” Frances called and there was Waverly’s echo “Momma” almost immediately afterward.
She was again in the bathroom, shaking and determined not to cry.
“Look Momma.” Waverly toddled to the open bathroom doorway, barely able to hold up the teddy bear with the pink polka dots in a bow around its neck. “Polka bear.”
“Someone left some stuff outside the door.”
Sylvia lifted Waverly into a stifling hug, moving the bear as best she could to move through anything that might separate her from her darling daughter.
“I love you, pussycat.”
“Love you Momma. Happy birthday.”
“Yes,” Sylvia agreed. “Happy birthday.”
Frances handed her the shopping bag and Sylvia saw an envelope with Ernest’s familiar scrawl across it. For Sylvia. She removed it and threw it into the trash can. She had the best he could ever give her and there was nothing more to say.