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The sheets are drenched. Again. Andi takes a long time to wake up, drifting in and out, aware she is hot, then freezing, then finally, when she moves into a state of consciousness, wet.
Opening an eye, she looks at the clock—4:02 A.M. It's always four in the morning, these nights when she awakes, when she cannot get back to sleep. She turns her head to see Ethan, his back to her, his body rising and falling in deep sleep.
In the bathroom, she pulls the wet T-shirt off, slides the PJ bottoms down, and pads naked into the closet, pulling a dry T-shirt and boxer shorts off the shelf. But that leaves the sheets. Warm and wet.
The linen closet is in the hall, at the other end of the corridor, where the girls' bedrooms are. Andi knows she shouldn't open their door, shouldn't check up, but she is being a mother, she tells herself. This is what mothers do. A stepmother may not have the same rights, but she is trying, has tried so hard to turn this into a proper family, and that includes treating the girls as if they were her own.
How she wishes she had children of her own. Still. Even though she is in her early forties, on a good day she could surely pass for thirty-six.
Every month, she keeps her fingers crossed that this might be the month, this might be the month a miracle happens. Every month, she swallows her disappointment and hopes for the next time.
She pushes Sophia's door open gently to see her, fast asleep, the bald teddy bear that she cannot sleep without, now lying on its side, on the floor next to her bed, Sophia's hand curled out toward it, as if she is waiting for the bear to jump back in. Andi stands in the doorway and smiles, feeling a wave of love for her stepdaughter. Her daughter. And Sophia is her daughter.
She was eight when Andi and Ethan met, and instantly fell in love with Andi. Sophia now tells people she has two mothers, no differentiation in her head between Andi and her real mother.
That first family date, they had gone into the city, dim sum in Chinatown, then walked down to the ferry and taken it out to see the sea lions around the bay. Sophia had grabbed Andi's hand, skipped alongside her, and when they sat down for ice cream, she climbed on Andi's lap and leaned into her, like a much younger child, as Andi stroked her hair, thrilled.
Emily, on the other hand, at twelve, had sulked the entire day. She had squinted evil eyes at Andi, and when Andi had attempted to engage her, asking her questions about school, attempting to share some of her own stories about going to school in New York, Emily had just grunted.
"What is she?" she had sneered at her father, at one point, with a savage gesture toward Andi. "Your girlfriend?"
"She's my friend," Ethan had said. "That's all." Which wasn't true. They had, by that time, been sleeping together for seven weeks.
* * *
On their first date, Ethan talked about his children nonstop, which was, as far as Andi was concerned, an unexpected bonus.
They met through Match.com, a continual embarrassment to Andi. But where else did anyone go to meet people? she wondered.
She had done a series of evening classes with what she thought was a masculine bent—Fundamentals of Investing, Estate Planning 101, and Beginner's Best Barbecue. (Which was a dud. What red-blooded American man, she realized, as she sat in an empty classroom, would admit to not being able to barbecue?)
None produced so much as a date. There were, admittedly, random times she would meet men, or be flirted with in a coffee shop, but they never led to anything permanent.
At thirty-seven she realized, with a shock, she had to be proactive. Sitting back and assuming, as she always had, that she would be married with a large group of smiling kids wasn't the natural order of her life, and unless she took the bull by the horns, she was possibly going to find herself single, frighteningly, for the rest of her life.
It wasn't as if her life wasn't full. Her twenties were spent working in interior design, for a small store in Fairfield, Connecticut, where she had grown up. As she approached thirty, her mother suggested she get a real-estate license, and although Andi enjoyed selling houses, it was what she had to suggest to the homeowners they do, in order to sell their houses, that was her true passion.
Andi loved design. She saw how the addition of new rugs and curtain panels, and moving furniture could transform a home. She started offering her services as a "home-stager"—someone who would come in and beautify the interiors, for minimum cost, in order to sell. Soon she had a warehouse filled with furniture she would rent out to her clients, and reams of fabrics from which she could have curtains, or pillows, or bedspreads quickly made.
It wasn't long before it was her primary business.
Her mother got sick after that. Breast cancer. She fought hard, and won a reprieve, for a while. She assured Andi that moving to California with Brent, the man Andi thought she would marry, was absolutely the right thing to do.
Even when the cancer returned, spreading to her bones, then finally to her liver and lungs, she insisted that Andi stay in California. She knew that Andi had found a peace on the West Coast she had never found at home.
It was true that one week after landing in San Francisco, despite having spent her entire life on the East Coast, Andi knew that at heart she had always been a West Coast girl, through and through.
The sunshine! The warmth! How laid-back everyone was! San Francisco! The Pacific Coast Highway! The redwood forests! The wine country!
The list was endless.
Brent married someone else: in fact, the woman he had started sleeping with almost as soon as he began his new job in San Francisco, and Andi stayed, staging homes all over the East Bay.
Match.com was fun for a while, then disheartening. She always prepared for a date, terrified he wouldn't like her, that somehow, although she was blond, and green-eyed, and girl-next-doorish, they would be disappointed.
All of them wanted to see her again, but she rarely wanted to see them. Until Ethan. He seduced her with his open face, his wide smile, his easy charm. They had met for drinks, which had become dinner, and when he left to go to the bathroom, Andi had watched him walk through the restaurant with a smile on her face. He has a great butt, she found herself thinking, with shock.
He had been divorced three years. His little one, Sophia, was great, he said, but Emily was harder. His eyes had welled up as he talked about Emily—how much he loved his firstborn, how difficult this had been for her, and how he would do anything, anything, to bring her some happiness.
I will help you, Andi had thought, her heart spilling over for this sensitive, kind, loving man. One date led to two, led to them sleeping together, led to Andi realizing, very quickly, that for the first time in years, she could see herself spending the rest of her life with a man. With this man.
She could see herself building a life with him, having children with him. He was clever, and creative, and hardworking.
Ethan was supposed to have been a banker, he told her soon after they met. Or have run a large corporation. He was supposed to have done something that would make his parents proud, not to have started a landscaping business in school—merely to pay off his loan—a business that became so successful, so quickly, he had decided to devote himself to growing it once he had left school.
He'd started mowing lawns himself, paying a cheap hourly rate to Carlos and Jorge, who had recently made the arduous trek from Mexico.
"I was a clean-cut college kid with good ideas." He dismissed Andi when she said how talented he must have been. "And I was willing to work hard. That was all. I'd show up with some men to mow a lawn and start chatting with the homeowner, asking the wives if they'd ever thought of planting a lavender bed next to the path, or the husbands if they'd ever considered a built-in barbecue, or fire pit."
"I bet they always said yes." Andi's eyes sparkled in amusement.
Ethan just grinned.
He took on a mason, and by the time he had graduated from Berkeley, he had four full-time crews working for him.
When he met Andi, he had six. Now he has ten, plus a thriving landscape-design business.
Andi couldn't have imagined a more perfect man for her had she tried.
* * *
He cooked her dinner at his house in Mill Valley; during the appetizers she silently redesigned the whole place. She would remove the 1950s windows and replace them with French doors spilling out to a gravel terrace with olive trees and lavender.
The kitchen wall would come down, opening up into one great big kitchen/family room, a place where kids would be happy, a giant island with a host of kids lined up on stools, tucking into pancakes she would be happily flipping as the children laughed.
They would be, she thought, a great combination of the two of them. Would three children be too much to ask for? Five in total? She shuddered at the thought and reduced it to two. A boy and a girl. The boy dark, like Ethan, and the girl a towhead, much as she had been.
She tuned out Ethan for a while, so caught up in the fantasy, so convinced this would be her future, she couldn't think of anything other than how to create the house she had always wanted for the family she would now have.
Coming back to earth, she noticed there were photographs all over the house. Ethan and his girls, all of them laughing. Gorgeous girls, dark-haired, dark-eyed, who clearly adored their father. Andi had picked up one of the photos, Emily hanging around her father's neck with a huge grin, at around seven or eight years old.
Difficult? she thought, looking into the laughing eyes of the girl in the picture. No. She just needs love. She needs the security of a loving family, of brothers and sisters, of a stepmother who will love her.
Ethan didn't talk much about his ex-wife, which Andi liked, not being the sort of woman who needed to know everything. He had said that his ex was damaged, and cold. That he realized he couldn't carry on without affection, with the constant negative sniping, that he felt he might die if he stayed.
"How about the girls?" Andi had asked. "How is she with them?"
Ethan's eyes clouded over with sadness. "Distant," he had said. "And disinterested, although she would never admit it. She prides herself on not having a babysitter, on being there for her kids, but when she's not at work she's out with her drinking buddies."
Ethan had nodded.
"You didn't go for sole custody?"
"I wanted to," he said. "I tried. But she cleaned up her act for a while, and I agreed to joint. The girls want to be with me all the time, but she won't let them. She'll scream at them and guilt them into staying, even if she's going out."
"You can't do anything?" Andi was horrified.
He shrugged. "I'm doing the best I can. I'm trying to provide a loving, stable home for them, and they know they are welcome here all the time. They're both reaching ages where Brooke won't be able to control them, and if they want to stay here, she won't be able to stop them."
They need love, Andi had thought. Love, and care, and a happy family. And I will make them happy. I will create the home they have always wanted. I will create the perfect family.
* * *
Even when Emily had been rude, and difficult, and squinty-eyed that first meeting, Andi had known she could get through to her.
Children loved Andi. It helped that she looked vaguely like a fairy-tale princess, or at least, had the correct hair and eye color. She was fun, and bubbly, and cool, and kids had always gravitated toward her.
But Andi loved children more. As a little girl, she couldn't wait to be a mother. Couldn't wait to have a family of her own, wanted to fill the house with children. Ethan's already having two children of his own was a bonus, and when he said, initially, he would have more children, better still.
On their next family date, Ethan had made the mistake of quietly taking Andi's hand as they walked side by side, the girls walking in front of them, Emily scuffing the pavement as she walked, hunched over to hide the changes puberty was bringing her.
Emily had turned around briefly, and had seen them holding hands. Ethan dropped Andi's hand like a hot stone, but Emily came whirling back and literally, physically, shoved Andi aside and grabbed her father's hand.
Andi, shocked, waited for Ethan to say something, but he merely looked adoringly at his daughter and gave a resigned smile to Andi.
Other times there were tantrums. Many of them. Emily would explode in anger, with a rage that left Andi shaking in fear and bewilderment.
"I hate her," she would hear Emily scream. "She's ruined our life. Why? Why, Daddy? Why, Daddy? Why, Daddy? Whhhhhhhhyyyyyy?" Her voice would become a plaintive moan, rising to shrieks and wails. "If she stays, I'm going," she would shout.
Ethan, bewildered and guilty at his child's pain, would sit and talk her through as Andi sat alone in bed, quaking, wondering why no one stood up to this child, no one stated that this behavior was unacceptable. And then she understood.
Ethan was as scared of the screaming as she was.
Emily had all the power.
And yet … and yet. Amidst the tantrums, the screaming, the slamming doors, and those first, tumultuous years, were moments of glory. Moments when Emily would come and sit next to Andi on the sofa and lean her head on Andi's shoulder, when Andi would feel herself overcome with love to the point of crying.
Moments when Emily knocked gently on the door of their bedroom and asked to snuggle. Ethan would be in the shower, and she and Andi would watch funny animal videos on YouTube, and giggle together, tucked up in bed.
Andi would take the girls shopping, and buy them anything they wanted, within reason. She spoiled them: American Girl dolls for Sophia, and cool teenage clothes for Emily. All Andi wanted was for them to be happy.
And to have children of her own.
They married two years ago and stopped using protection on their wedding night. Ironically, that was the first night Andi woke up drenched.
Her next period hadn't arrived, and she had never been late. Andi had run out to the pharmacy and come back with a pregnancy test, knowing the pink lines would indicate pregnancy. She peed on the stick with a huge smile on her face, staring at the stick in disbelief when it came back negative.
Twenty-four sticks later, all negative, her period came. She had looked at the blood and burst into tears, at a client's house, in the small half bathroom to one side of the mudroom. She hadn't wanted to come out, and the client had eventually knocked on the door and asked if everything was okay.
They kept trying. Several months later, Andi, who hated going to the doctor unless she thought she was truly dying, went to the doctor. The night sweats, she had decided, after spending an afternoon on the Internet on various medical websites, were cancer.
She wasn't sure which kind, but she was sure it was cancer. Ever since her mother's diagnosis, every ailment, every mole, every headache was something more.
It was the fear that always hung over Andi. A headache was never just a headache, it was a brain tumor. A stomachache was pancreatic cancer, and so on. Except Andi never actually went to a doctor about it, instead using the Internet as her unofficial diagnostician. She would convince herself she had something terrible but would not go and see a doctor, and after a few days, she would have forgotten about it entirely.
But these night sweats were bad. Usually whatever symptom it was she was worried about would go away, but this was happening more and more often.
"Will you just go to the doctor?" Ethan had finally said. "If nothing else, it will just put your mind at ease."
And so she had.
* * *
Dr. Kurrish had peered over her glasses at Andi and asked a series of questions. Had her periods changed? Yes, Andi had admitted. They either came every two weeks, or sometimes not for six, and when they did, they were shockingly heavy.
How were her moods? Dr. Kurrish had asked. Terrible, Andi had said, but that was largely due to a stepdaughter who hated her most of the time, who had started coming back drunk at fifteen (although she didn't actually tell the doctor that part), and to a husband who refused to do anything other than tell his daughter he understood her pain.
Any unusual changes in hair? Her hair had become thinner, she said and, with embarrassment, admitted she had taken to plucking out a few stray whiskers on her chin.
"I think," Dr. Kurrish had said, "you are going through perimenopause."
"Menopause!" Andi had exclaimed, louder than she intended. "But I'm only forty-one. I'm trying to have children. How am I going through menopause?"
"Not menopause." Dr. Kurrish smiled. "Perimenopause, the period leading up to menopause, and it can happen to women even in their thirties. It doesn't mean you can't get pregnant," she said gently, although the expression on her face told a different story, "but it's unlikely. Your ovulation is much more erratic, and it becomes harder…"
She stopped at that point, as Andi started to sob.
* * *
She and Ethan talked about IVF, but the chances of its being successful, given her age and the added bonus of the perimenopause, were slim, and not worth the vast expense.
They talked adoption, although vaguely. Ethan wasn't a fan, and eventually he pointed out that they already had two children, that although Emily was difficult at times, Sophia loved and adored Andi, and perhaps … wouldn't it be better … might she find a way to be happy with the family she had rather than the one she didn't?
She agreed to try to reconcile herself, still hoping that she would be one of the lucky ones, that despite the advancing menopause, it would still happen, but the hope was fading. She would wake up in the middle of the night, particularly those nights when she woke up cold and wet, feeling an empty hole in her heart.
They hadn't used protection ever, and still, every month brought disappointment. There were times she cried; couldn't stop herself gazing longingly at the young mothers in town, with newborn babies cradled in slings around their necks. She felt a physical pang of loss.
She loves the girls, Sophia particularly, but the longing for a child hasn't gone, and these nights, as she moves quietly around the house, looking in on the girls, she feels it more strongly than ever.
Andi moves quietly from Sophia's room, stands for a while outside Emily's. Emily is seventeen now. She drives. The tantrums have lessened, but there have been other problems.
Last month she lost her car for a week, for coming home drunk. She wasn't driving, was a passenger that night, but still, there had to be a consequence.
"I hate you!" she'd screamed, this time at her father. "You can't tell me what to do! I'm almost eighteen! I'm an adult, not a fucking child!"
"Don't swear at me," Ethan said, sounding calm, although the muscle in his left cheek was twitching, always a giveaway. "And I am your father. While you are living in this house, you will follow the house rules."
"Fuck you!" she shouted, throwing the car keys at her father, who ducked, so they hit the door frame, leaving a small chip and a grey mark. Emily stormed out while Ethan just sank down on the sofa, looking dazed.
"You can't let her speak to you like that," hissed Andi, standing at the bottom of the stairs with her arms crossed. "It's disgusting. I've never heard of a child speaking to a parent like that."
"What am I supposed to do?" His voice rose in anger. "You're always telling me how to deal with my child, but you have no idea what it's like."
There was an icy silence.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Andi asked slowly. Her voice was cold.
"Nothing." He shook his head, burying his face in his hands. "I didn't mean anything. I just mean I don't know what else to do."
"You did the right thing," Andi said eventually, breathing through her anger, for she knew what he meant: she wasn't a mother. She couldn't understand. "You took the car away for a week. Now you have to stick to it."
Ethan nodded. "I know."
"Really," Andi warned. "When she comes to you tomorrow, crying and saying how sorry she is and she'll never do it again, you can't do what you did last time, you can't give her the car back."
Ethan looks up at her sharply. "Last time? I've never done this before."
"No, but last time she was drunk you told her she couldn't go to Michaela's party, and when she apologized, you said she could."
Ethan sighed. "I'm trying," he said eventually. "I'm just doing the best I can."
The latest transgression resulted in a curfew being imposed. Midnight. This is for two weeks. Starting three days ago.
* * *
Some of the time, when Andi wakes up drenched, she changes and goes straight back to sleep. Tonight is not one of those nights. Back in bed she tosses and turns before sighing deeply and reaching over to click on the bedside light.
Next to her, Ethan moans slightly and rolls over to face away from the light, but he doesn't wake up. Damn. Her book is downstairs.
Reluctantly—sleep is no longer an option, and what else will she do—she climbs out of bed again, padding out of the bedroom to go downstairs.
The woven wool carpet is warm and comfortable, and she braces herself for the cool wood floors of the hallway, making yet another mental note to buy some slippers.
At the far end of the hallway, Andi notices a light coming from Emily's bedroom. Strange. Surely she should have been asleep by now. Perhaps she has fallen asleep with the light on. Andi moves down the hallway and gently pushes open the door, shaking her head in dismay as she surveys the chaos.
Crumpled clothes are strewn all over the floor. A pyramid of makeup, with a fine dusting of face powder covering the carpet, lies by the mirror. The comforter on the bed is scrunched up, and it is hard to tell whether there is anyone in it until Andi, gingerly stepping over odd shoes, bowls half-filled with days-old encrusted food, draws closer.
The bed is empty. Emily is nowhere to be seen.
Copyright © 2011 by Jane Green Warburg