The shadow of the apartment complex looms overhead as we make our approach to the one building in the world I despise more than any other. “Come on, Alice,” I say as we cross the wide city street, while the pedestrian light blinks at us to hurry. “We’re running late enough as it is.” We had to take several buses to get within walking distance of the building. Finally, we’re here. “Slow down, Mommy,” Alice says as I tug her along by the hand, faster than her fouryear-old legs can pump. “I’m sorry, but we need to hurry.” I hate to rush her like this, but I need to get today over with as soon as possible. “But, Mommy, I’m tired.” “We’re almost there, Bunny.” My daughter is obsessed with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. No doubt because of her name and the fact I’ve called her Bunny ever since she was only a few days old. The White Rabbit is her favorite character. She is too young to read the book on her own, so I read it to her every night. A well-loved copy of the hardcover sits in the little backpack she’s wearing.
We take the sidewalk toward the canopied entrance of the building. The metallic facade of the lobby blends seamlessly into the brick and stone complex, only adding more colorless gloom to the emerging rain clouds overhead. The combination makes the structure feel like a soul-sucking vacuum, built to draw in those with more money than sense. Like my ex-husband. A shudder runs down my spine as we reach the entrance, almost turning me around and away. I push my irrational thoughts aside as best I can and move for the oversize handle. It’s the perfect time for my anxiety to kick in. “Mommy?” Alice asks, in her sweet, innocent voice. Her question brings me back from the brink and allows me to grip her hand once again. “I’m okay,” I tell her with a weak smile.
This isn’t the first time my daughter has had to witness this behavior from me, and I know it won’t be the last. I try my hardest to hide it from her, but children have a way of knowing that something isn’t quite right without ever needing to say so. Alice scrunches her brow at me, unconvinced I’m okay and in control. She resists a little when I tug her along to go inside the building. “Let’s get a wriggle on, Bunny. We just have to get permission to go inside and ask to use the elevator. Then we’ll take a quick ride up to the top to get your dolly back.” Alice pulls back at the prospect of riding the elevator. Ever since she was born, my little one has always feared the damn things. I wish I understood what caused her fear to develop, but unfortunately, I have no clue.
“Please, Mommy. Can we take the stairs?” I think about her question, though I knew she was going to ask it. Typically, it wouldn’t be a problem. I don’t try and force Alice to face her fears. We generally take the stairs wherever we go, but we’re short on time today, with fourteen floors to climb, and I have a splitting headache. We don’t really have a choice, do we? “I’ll think about it, okay?” I’m rewarded with a huge grin. I’ll probably cave, as usual, when the time comes; her smile could convince me to do anything. Alice stops fighting my grip and allows me to reach for the door handle again. I see my reflection on the glass surface of the doors, as clear as day. I didn’t put enough makeup on, and my dark brown hair has become frazzled in the breeze.
I tried my best to straighten it in a rush this morning, but I slept through my alarm again. My eyes have bags under them that no amount of cheap makeup can conceal. Only my lipstick has managed to add any polish to my appearance. I open up the heavy door only to see a secondary entrance ahead, with an intercom off to the side. The receptionist inside, smartly dressed in a suit and tie, has to unlock the door before we can come into the building. The setup is a new addition to the apartment complex, where I used to live. I can’t even contemplate the amount of money the tenants now pay for this kind of security. I wave to the receptionist to grab his attention. He barely looks up from the smartphone in his hand to acknowledge our existence and takes his time to buzz open the door. We approach a central desk, placed between two support columns.
The counter is three times the size it needs to be. The uninterested receptionist is still tapping away on his smartphone. I’ve never seen him on duty before. He doesn’t appear to be a day older than twenty-five, with a clean-cut look that matches the front of the building. “Yes?” he says with a huff as he places the phone down on the desk, but not out of sight. His gruffness catches me off guard for a moment. I consider giving him a piece of my mind, but I don’t want today’s trip to take a moment longer than it needs to. I study the man’s nameplate and see his name is Henry. “I’m here to see Michael Walls. He lives in one of the top-floor apartments: 1402,” I say.
Henry stares at me for a moment and turns to a computer monitor at his side. He keeps his eyes level as he types the name into the system. Something comes up on his screen to prompt him to glance back to me. “And you are?” “Erika Rice,” I say, quieter than I’d like to. This makes the guy shake his head at me slightly as another sigh escapes his lips. His phone vibrates on the counter, drawing his gaze. Without a care in the world, he reads the notification that is begging for his attention and chuckles to himself. “Excuse me,” I say. “I’m in a bit of a hurry here.” Henry’s smile fades as he returns to his job.
“And how do you know Mr. Walls?” he asks. I look up at the intricate architecture of the lobby and fight back the urge to lose it. This young idiot is terrible at his job, but I shouldn’t let his question get to me. “I’m his ex-wife.” Henry responds with a raised brow before he resumes typing into his computer. I’m somewhat concerned for a moment. Has Michael not listed me in the system? It’s been a while since my last visit directly to his apartment, after the unpleasantness of our failed marriage. Maybe he hasn’t updated his file. Henry studies the screen and leans closer to it; his furrowed brows put me on edge.
What’s written in there that is making this take so long? “Okay, I’ve found you on his list of contacts as Erika Walls. I take it Mr. Walls hasn’t updated your name in the system.” “Guess not,” I mutter. “Sorry?” he asks, clearly not hearing my utterance. “Nothing. So can I see him?” “Is he expecting you?” he asks. I close my eyes for a moment as I try to find some patience. I can’t help the feeling that’s brewing inside. I refocus on Henry and answer him.
“No, he isn’t.” “I’ll need to call him first then.” “Fine by me,” I say. “Just tell him that Erika is here with his daughter.” Henry gives me his confused face again. I don’t know what this guy’s problem is. Alice starts to grow bored of the conversation and amuses herself by walking underneath the lip of the counter to touch its smooth surface. She is a master at always finding something to do. “Not much longer,” I whisper to her, as Henry calls Michael’s apartment. I brush aside a stray hair that is covering her eyes.
She’s so cute; I can’t help myself some days. Henry hangs up the phone after a short time and returns to his screen. “He’s not responding.” “Are you sure?” I ask. I know Michael is in. His schedule doesn’t change. He’s like a robot in that way. Henry furrows his brows. “He didn’t answer.” “Can you try again, please?” A huff of contempt spills out of the man’s lips as he picks up the phone again while averting his gaze.
A long moment of silence passes until Henry places the receiver back down. “I’m afraid Mr. Walls is unavailable. You will need to come back another time.” “But…” I don’t complete my thought. There’s no point arguing with Henry. “Fine. We’ll come back later, I guess.” “Have a nice day,” he says, as he picks up his cell and resumes his texting. I resist making a final comment and pull Alice along by her hand toward the exit.
Alice stares up at me with her big, beautiful blue eyes. I don’t care that she got the color from Michael. All I see is my Bunny when I look into them. The thought reminds me why we are here. Alice left a particular toy behind during a recent visit to Michael’s apartment. It’s one of her favorites: a small princess doll. I have to get it back, so I decide we’ll head out to Central Park for a short while to kill some time and then try again later. If he doesn’t come back, though, we’ll have to continue on with our plans either way. Alice tugs on my arm. “Mommy, I need to go to the toilet.
” “Okay,” I say, as I try to think of where to take her. I figure our best bet is to use the facilities here instead of the ones in the park. I turn around and call out to Henry. “Can we use the restroom?” Henry scrunches up his face without looking at me before he nods. His eyes stay glued to his phone. I’d kill for his boss or someone important to stroll in here and catch him doing a terrible job. “Why is that man so grumpy, Mommy?” I chuckle at Alice’s question. “I don’t know, Bunny. Maybe he doesn’t like his job very much.” Alice nods, her mouth half open.
I don’t know if she understands me or if she is just pretending. I can never quite tell. “But you know what? It doesn’t matter, because we’re going to go to the restroom and then run out to the park for a play. And after that, we’ll come back and hopefully see your daddy.” “Will Daddy have my dolly?” she asks. “Of course he will. I’ll bet he’s got it out and ready for you to collect.” This brings a smile to Alice’s face that damn near kills me. Michael and I aren’t exactly on good speaking terms. The divorce was hard enough to deal with without the constant thought that Alice still needed to see her father once every two weeks.
Today is an unscheduled visit so I can retrieve her toy. I know I should have checked with him first, but I hate talking to Michael on the phone as it is. Plus, I have a good reason to spring this whirlwind visit upon him. Alice forgets all about the grumpy man as she giggles away to herself and swings my hand, skipping along to the restroom. Her little green and yellow backpack bounces up and down. We come close to reaching the restroom, but an opportunity presents itself that I cannot resist. The elevator in the middle of the building opens up and some resident walks out. I stop on the spot and see Henry is busy dealing with another visitor I didn’t notice arrive. I need to get Alice’s doll back, and I figure knocking on Michael’s door will be better than trying to call him. If he really isn’t home and is not ignoring Henry, then I’ll know I’ve done everything I can to get the toy back before we leave.
“Come on, Bunny,” I say as I drag her toward the open door. Alice slows me down a few paces from the elevator, gripping my hand tighter than she has all morning. “It’s okay. We just have to go for a quick ride up the elevator to see if your daddy is home, so we can get your dolly. It’ll only take a minute. You won’t even notice.” Alice looks up at me with hope and says, “Why can’t we take the stairs?” “We don’t have time for that, Bunny. But you know what? I’ll be with you the entire time, okay?” Alice lowers her head and leans closer to my side with her little four-year-old face. I’m almost tempted to take the stairs when I see her sweet, innocent frown, but I know the door to the stairwell needs a keycard to open it. I pat her head and walk toward the closing doors.
A tremor runs down my spine all of a sudden, as Alice tugs on my sleeve. “Mommy, the doors are closing.” I spin around and shove my arm through the doors without thinking. I feel my heart boom in my chest. I should never have done that in front of Alice, but I’m in a hurry. We walk into the elevator a moment later and settle into place, staring out into the lobby. I can’t help but think about why I am so desperate to get Alice’s doll back, and what I have planned. It’s not going to go well. Nothing ever does. My hands begin to shake as another hit of anxiety does its best to attack me.
I try to steady myself by pressing my palms against my face so I can concentrate on my breathing, but my tactic fails to work with thoughts of Michael cramming my brain. I slap the close-door button with one hand, frustrated that the elevator has chosen now to take forever to shut. “Mommy?” Alice asks as the double doors seal tight. As the outside world is cut off, my daughter’s voice brings me back. “Sorry, Bunny. Mommy isn’t feeling well today.” “Are you sick?” Alice asks with a curious voice. She’s trying to make sense of why I am the way I am, and I hate that I can’t explain it to her. I wish I could hide it better, so she didn’t have to feel even a second of worry. “No.
Mommy just needs a moment to relax a little. Now, enough silly business. We need to travel up, so we can go see your daddy and get your dolly back. Just a quick ride and we’re there.” “Yeah, Daddy!” Alice’s eyes light up again at the mention of her father—not so much for her dolly. It pains me to see that face, but I tell myself that this visit is to get her toy back. She’s going to need it over the next few weeks. After a few short breaths in and out, I fumble with the level-fourteen button. The jolt of the motor kicks into action. Alice grips on tight and lets out a tiny squeak as we head up to the top floor.
I should be reassuring her that everything will be okay, that we’ll be seeing her father in no time, but I can’t stop thinking about what I’m going to say if he is home. Will he know what I’m up to? Alice wraps herself around my body as we ascend at a rapid pace. I refocus on the task at hand and try to push out my twisted thoughts. The visit is going to be hard enough without any distractions, because little does Michael know that I am here to get Alice’s doll back and leave with Alice forever. If he is home, he is about to see his daughter for the last time. TWO THEN I couldn’t wait for Michael to get home to our tiny one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. He had no idea that I had taken the day off sick, using the free time to do something I’d been dying to do for two years. I’d gotten home from the doctor’s office after a two-hour wait, with a blood test confirming I was pregnant. For the last two years, we’d been trying to conceive a child. Michael and I were determined to have a baby and start the family we both craved.
After being married for six years, through all of the good and the bad, we’d reached that point where we both wanted to take our relationship to the next level. The decision felt right. But want and reality were two different things. Like every person before us that had decided to have a go at becoming a parent, we thought conceiving a baby would be a breeze. At most, we thought we’d have to wait three months before I’d get the positive test result. When five months had gone by, I started to doubt our ability to fall pregnant. “It’s never going to happen,” I’d say to Michael. He’d shrug me off with a smile and tell me not to worry. Maybe I was in a rush, but my intentions were pure. I just wanted to hold a little person in my hands who looked like the perfect blend of Michael and me.
The next thing we knew, it had been a year. Twelve months of failed tests and crushed hopes. Nothing either of us said or thought could change the fact that something was up. We had sex like clockwork at the right times, yet still I could not get a positive test result. Michael was thirty. I was three months out from my twenty-ninth birthday. We had no medical history that would suggest there was a problem, but something was causing a delay. “What if this never happens? What if we can’t have a baby? Will you still love me?” I’d ask. “It’ll happen,” Michael said. “And of course I’d still love you.
I’d love you no matter what happened. We simply have to keep trying. That’s what the doctor said.” We’d just come back from getting fertility tests done. The results showed no issues with either of us. We were told in a dismissive tone merely to keep at it until we got a positive test. “But what if it doesn’t happen?” I asked him over and over. He’d tell me what I needed to hear, reassuring me it was nobody’s fault. But another month would go by without anything happening. The pressure was beginning to take its toll on my hopes.
By the time we were eighteen months past the first night we had tried, Michael avoided talking about our attempts to fall pregnant. It wasn’t that he didn’t care; he was merely trying to spare my feelings. With our attempts to have a baby out of the spotlight, Michael started spending more time working after hours on his résumé, doing everything possible to get a foot in the door at a bigger law firm. After some time all he ever talked about was his attempts to get a job at a big firm, where the “real money” was. When we were one month out from the two-year mark, I almost gave up on the idea that we’d ever have a baby. I spent the next thirty days getting used to the fact that it would never happen and tried to think what I would focus all of my energy on instead. So that morning, when I got a positive result, I could barely believe it. I took another test. Three positive sticks later, I called into work for a full day off, so I could go to the doctor’s and confirm everything with a blood test. None of it felt real until the doctor confirmed what the tests had already told me.
I felt weightless, looking forward to the wonderful surprise I’d get to give Michael. It had finally happened! I let a sense of relief wash over me; I could now go to my husband and give him the news we’d wanted to hear for so long. I left everything out on the counter for Michael to see, as I waited patiently for him to arrive. He would be home any minute. When he discovered that I was pregnant, he would see that there was still hope for us, that we could be a family. I’d make him see that there were more rewarding things in the world than a career, and that I could be a good mother. The door to the apartment unlocked with a click as Michael twisted his keys and jiggled the lock. He pushed the door open and shuffled inside, briefcase and coat in hand. His tie was already undone, his collar unbuttoned. He had killed himself again, trying to climb the ladder.
My news would show him that he didn’t need to do that anymore. We could focus on our child instead. “Hi, honey,” he called out when he saw me. He dumped his gear down and ran a hand through his tousled hair. “Hello,” I said, as I stepped over to him, trying to contain the smile dying to burst out of me. “How was your day?” I leaned up and kissed him on the cheek. His tired face edged into a smile. “Good to see you too, honey,” he said. “You’re never going to believe what happened at work today.” I glanced back to the counter to the blood test.
I couldn’t wait. He had to know. “Can I show you something first?” “Just a sec. I’ve got something important to tell you.” He drew me in with both hands on my shoulders. I gazed into his eyes, trying to predict what he was about to tell me. It was something big, I knew that much. “I got the job,” he whispered. “Sorry?” I asked, as if I didn’t understand English. “I got the job,” he repeated, with a lot more vigor.
“You are now looking at the newest lawyer to join the team at Morris & Wilcox.” “Oh my god, honey. That’s amazing,” I said, almost stunned to hear his news. I twisted back to the counter. My big news would have to wait a moment. “You’re damn right it is. We’re talking triple the salary for the same number of hours. Things are going to change, so much. We can finally afford to move out of this damn shoebox apartment into a real place with a few spare bedrooms.” I faced him again with a smile at the thought of those spare bedrooms and gave him a hug.
I spoke over his shoulder as we embraced. “I’m so proud of you, honey. You got the job! I can’t believe it.” “Thank you. I was beginning to doubt myself for a minute there, but I knew if I just kept persisting, they’d take me on. Damn, it feels good.” “I’ll bet,” I said, as Michael moved further into the apartment. He went past the test results on the kitchen counter, straight to the fridge. He pulled out two beers and twisted them open. He handed me a bottle and clinked his against mine with a “Cheers” before taking a big swig.
I stood there and watched as he swallowed a third of the liquid in one gulp. He stood there, one hand on the counter, the other lifting his beer for another swig. He glanced over to me once he had finished smiling to himself. “You gonna drink that or what?” He knew I should have been on my period by now. I’d thought I was just a little late—my scheduled test had come back negative. But a few days later, I was still late, so I’d tried another test this morning. “I can’t,” I said. “What do you mean you can’t? It’s a beer. I’ve seen you drink them plenty of times before.” “Okay then, I’m not allowed to.
” Michael stared at me with a confused frown. He still wasn’t getting it. “Wait. If it’s because you want to drink the good stuff to celebrate, I understand. The beer is just a placeholder. You and I are going to hit the town tonight and do this right.” “That’s not it, honey,” I said, my voice slightly above a whisper. “Why don’t you take a look at those pieces of paper sitting there.” Michael leaned sideways a little. “What is this?” he asked as he picked up the medical note.
His eyes darted left and right as he absorbed the information. “Wait. Is this saying…?” “Yes,” I said, as I leaped toward him. “We’re pregnant. It finally happened.” I was right in front of him, gazing into his eyes to see his reaction. His mouth hung open. A smile slowly stretched out across his face. “Is this for real?” he asked with a chuckle. “It is, honey.
We did it.” “We did it,” he echoed. “It finally happened. We’re having a baby.” My mind was filled with a thousand different things at once. All of it good, for a change. To see Michael smile with happiness that could not be matched by anything else was beyond amazing. I had stupid fears that he would leave me for someone who could give him a child. Especially considering the amazing opportunity he had just received. I shoved my doubts away and focused on our celebration.
We hugged for a long while. Michael kept muttering in my ear: “I can’t believe it. This is crazy. First I get the job, now this.” I pulled back. “You’re happy about this, right?” “Yes. More than anything else in the world. I just can’t believe how lucky I am right now.” “We deserve this,” I said. “It’s been two long years.
Finally, we’re getting rewarded for our hard work.” “We are,” he said. “This is our time. Things are going to be perfect.” That was almost five years ago. Our future seemed bright. The possibilities felt endless. Little did I know that our marriage was on a downward spiral I could never stop.