Read The Search Angel Online

Authors: Tish Cohen

The Search Angel (4 page)

By noon, the rain has cleared. Nancy from the adoption agency has called three times. Eleanor has hidden from every call. Nancy’s going to want to talk rescheduling and Eleanor doesn’t trust herself to not burst into tears. She’d hoped Jonathan would have realized by now that this was simply a poorly timed case of cold feet; according to what Nancy said during their earlier visits, it happens all the time. Particularly to husbands. But with every hour that passes, this explanation seems less and less likely.

Jonathan hasn’t called once.

She busies herself with inspecting diaper creams and baby lotions from an exclusive French supplier named La Jeune, pulling out several blue boxes wrapped in a rubber band. The tag identifies them as free samples. Oui ou Non, they’re called. French pregnancy tests.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” continues to obliterate her cello music. Ginny’s been complaining all morning about her headache. Faith from upstairs has passed by the window several times miming aural agony by cupping hands over ears and making a face. So when Eleanor sees the new store owner out front again, she puts away the samples and heads next door to find him kneeled on his own threshold, taping a Buzzcocks concert poster onto the door to cover Birdie’s hand-painted cupcake. Not that his store appears to be one note. Below the Buzzcocks are an Andrea Bocelli poster, a notice for the upcoming Classic Christmas on Frog Pond, and a gigantic sticker of a black crow.

Eleanor arranges herself behind his Sex Pistols T-shirt. The Buzzcocks poster is crooked. Before she can open her mouth, Ginny booms from behind her, “I’M GINNY, THIS IS ELEANOR. WE’RE PRETTY BABY.”

“Noel Bannon.”

His face is actually quite pleasing with its Labrador brown eyes and library-book softness. It catches Eleanor by surprise and she struggles to regain her former anger. “We’re just having a bit of trouble with your music. The volume.”

“The volume’s not high.”

“I LIKE YOUR SHIRT. SO COOL.” Ginny points to her own top. Then, in case he missed it, even louder, “COOL.”

Two giggling preteen girls in puffy jackets and UGGs stop on the sidewalk and squeal. One claps her hands over her mouth and the other calls out, “Are you open yet?”

“No!” says Noel.

Disappointed, they walk away.

Eleanor turns back to Noel. “We can hear your music from inside our store.”

He tapes down the corners of his crooked poster and Ginny thumps Eleanor in the shoulder. “YOU HAVE TO TALK LOUDER SO HE CAN HEAR YOU.”

“I’m not deaf, Ginny!”

“IT’S HEARING IMPAIRED.”

“He isn’t hearing impaired. He already introduced himself.”

“Why do you think he keeps his hair so long. To cover his hearing aids.” To Noel she motions toward her ears. “YOU
SHOULDN’T BE EMBARRASSED.”

Mortified, Eleanor continues as if Ginny isn’t there. “Could you turn it down a bit more? Ginny’s getting migraines—she spent the entire morning lying in the staff room with the lights off.”

Ginny reddens, smiles at him. “NOT THE ENTIRE MORNING.”

“My customers are complaining—there’s a woman who lives above you who works nights …”

He has the sweet, dusty-cotton smell of a house closed up for the winter. “I’m setting up my speaker system.”

“By playing the same song over and over?”

“It’s my test track. Has it all, the cappella, soft piano, thumping base, guitar riffs that could melt your face off. I can’t go playing something else mid-setup. I’d have no way to compare my adjustments.”

“I DANCED MY VERY FIRST S
LOW
DANCE TO THAT S
ONG.
TIMMY RICHARDSON. IT HAS SUCH SENTIMENTAL MEANING TO ME.”

“You don’t like ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?” he asks Eleanor. Noel and Ginny seem to be examining her for signs that she’s uptight, unsophisticated.

“Of course I do. I lost my virginity to it.”

“Wow,” says Ginny. “That is so not appropriate.”

“And don’t even get me started on Mercury’s voice,” says Noel.

“I
love
his voice,” says Eleanor. “I saw him sing live a couple of years ago.”

Noel blinks. “Mercury died in ‘91.”

“Oh my God,” Ginny whispers.

Eleanor feels her cheeks flash red. “Can we please just ease up on the volume?”

“I’m only playing it loud enough so I can hear it and make adjustments. I honestly do not have it turned up.” He affixes the last corner of the poster and stands back to assess it. “Does that look straight to you?”

At the same time, Ginny says “YES” and Eleanor says “No.”

With a grunt, he peels the poster off the door and starts over, this time taping it up even more crooked than before. “Something as random as the placement of my shelves can make the sound skip. It’s a delicate process.”

“OF COURSE IT IS.”

The tinkle of a bell announces a woman wandering into Pretty Baby. Eleanor nods toward the store. “Ginny?”

With a goodbye to Noel that Eleanor fears might turn into a blown kiss, Ginny heads inside.

Eleanor turns to him. “So how long do you expect this delicate process to take?”

“As long as it takes.” He tapes the poster up again and steps back to reassess.

His arrogance infuriates her. She snatches the poster off the door, sticks it back on perfectly straight, then marches
back into Pretty Baby. As Ginny’s customer inspects a wooden rattle painted in bold black and white graphics, Eleanor overhears her staffer say, “This is the kind of overpriced dreck you buy for your first kid. By the time you’re on your third, you’re handing them an egg carton and telling them to soften the cardboard by gumming it before they swallow.”

Eleanor drops into a chair in the break room and her cell phone pings from her pocket. An e-mail.

Hey guys
,

I spoke with Martina down in Palm Springs; you know how she can be. I want to give her a date just to keep things moving. Please get in touch as soon as possible
.

Nancy

Chapter 5

A
fter closing the store, she lets Angus out. Offers him dinner—which he ignores—and invites him to lie with her atop the bed, an honor he has never before been bestowed. He refuses, retreating instead to the dining room. Jonathan has been gone only twenty-four hours, but already the dog is upset.

Eleanor kicks off her layers and climbs under the cold sheet in camisole and panties. It’s too empty, the bed. She stretches one leg across the expanse and tucks it close to her body again. She’ll never be able sleep well without him here. Every night, without fail, she lays her head on his chest, wraps her leg over his thighs. It makes her feel safe. She reaches across for his pillows now and stuffs them beneath the sheets alongside her. The king-size for his hips and legs, the regular pillow for his chest. Pillow Jonathan looks lumpy and flat, so she fluffs him up to better simulate a man. Once she’s satisfied, she wraps herself around him and stares at Jonathan’s nightstand, the stack of books he’s been trying to read for years but cannot get through more than a page or two before falling asleep, worn out from another long shift. There, on
the bottom.
Crime and Punishment
. She bought it for him at a used bookstore.

It was a bitterly cold Sunday in January, before the strain of failed conceptions had tainted their lives. Snow on the sidewalks squeaked beneath their boots and taking even a shallow breath of outside air cracked the lungs. Tree branches were brittle with ice. The slightest pressure snapped them. Even the apartment seemed to have shrunk from the cold. Cupboard doors refused to stay shut and hot water taps ran warm at best. Eleanor and Jonathan needed to get out.

Bundled in big coats, jeans, and boots, takeout coffee in Jonathan’s MG’s cup holders, they blasted the heater and left town. The radio was broken and they were both too groggy for chatter, so they traveled along the I-95 with nothing but the snapping of road salt hitting the convertible’s underbelly to entertain them.

They had no particular destination, just an unformed plan to wind up somewhere vaguely amusing. When they passed a sign for Otterville, they got off the highway. The town, really more of a hamlet, was surrounded by velvety hills dotted with sheep and cows, and consisted of a handful of historic cottages set right at the edge of the road, and two stores: Otterville Dairy, a tin-ceilinged shop with shelving original to the 1840s store, and The Book Nook, a labyrinth of small rooms that made up the main floor of a narrow Victorian. The restroom and kitchen, fully intact, groaned beneath used books and mismatched shelving that soared to the ceiling.

The prices were high. No book, no matter what its condition or size or obscure nature, was priced below ten dollars,
and Jonathan and Eleanor determined ten dollars was too high for a used novel. The owner, a burly man in a fishermen’s sweater, was in and out of a door that led upstairs. Every time he came back down he carried with him the sound of young children.

They might have spent an hour or more looking for books they could afford, sipping lukewarm coffee from Otterville Dairy, where they trust you to return the mug when you’re finished. At one point, when the bookstore owner was shuffling papers from behind the counter in the store’s living room, there came a thud from upstairs, then a wail. The man was up the staircase in a heartbeat. Minutes later he returned with a tear-stained boy on one hip. He set the boy, who was sucking in a chocolate chip cookie, on the glass counter where he could keep an eye on him as he worked. Eleanor turned back to the Classics section, looking for a copy of Jane Austen’s
Emma
. They couldn’t walk out without buying something. God knew how rare it was that anyone came to Otterville. Jonathan nudged her. Motioned toward the living room. Silhouetted by the large drizzly window, the boy had leaned forward, put a hand on his father’s shoulder. He was holding his cookie out, watching while his dad took a small bite. The cookie went back into the boy’s mouth and the moment passed.

Eleanor pulled
Crime and Punishment
off the shelf and peered inside the cover. She held it up. “Nine ninety-nine.”

“I’ve been wanting to read Dostoyevsky.”

“Let’s pay for it and go.”

“I also want that.” Jonathan was still watching the father and son.

She pushed hair behind her ears. Smiled. “When?”

He took the book and headed for the cash. “Now.”

As they say, that was then. This isn’t. The sharp quill of a feather pricks her eyelid and she sits up, claps a hand over the stinging pain. She stares down at Pillow Jonathan, her eye watering. His abdomen, suddenly so downy and self-satisfied, infuriates her. Her well-being should not be dependent upon a man made of feathers! As hard as she can, she punches him in the gut. When the flattened pillow starts to inhale into the shape of him again, she unleashes her fury—kicking and punching until Pillow Jonathan lies in three battered lumps on the floor.

The phone rings from the nightstand. It’s him. She picks up without saying a word.

“Hey,” Jonathan says, the sounds of traffic in the background. A siren in the distance.

Breathing feels like a risk. Like a deer in a meadow, he could bolt if she makes the slightest sound.

“Are you still up?” he asks.

From beneath the dining room table, Angus stretches out and groans in his sleep. “Yes,” she lies. “Just walked in.”

“Did you get in touch with Julie?”

“I said you gave me a sinus infection.”

“But sinus infections aren’t—”

“I know!”

He’s silent while she fiddles with the phone cord. In the background she hears the static of a car engine, then the tick-tick of a turn signal. He’s driving. Maybe home.

“Where are you staying?” She tries to make it sound casual.

“My parents’. I thought about you all day.”

She realizes she’s been holding her breath and exhales. “Me too.”

“I know how much you want her.”

Eleanor’s pulse quickens. She tucks her knees in to her chest.

“No one would make a better mother than you. You mother
me
even, making sure the blankets don’t slide off me in bed. Checking the weather before I leave the apartment.”

She tries not to look at the pillows on the floor. “I love you. That’s why.”

“I love you too, baby.”

The sound of the engine in the background cuts out. Eleanor jumps out of bed to look out the window. Maybe he’s down on the street. About to get out of the car and come back to their bed. Their life.

A few cars drive past in the dark. No sign of his Jeep.

“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he says, and hangs up.

Eleanor tilts her face up to let the shower pelt her eyelids. The pain is distracting. In the hour and a half since Jonathan called, she has left him three messages she now regrets. She couldn’t help it. Why was he out at nearly one in the morning? Where was he coming from? Or, worse, where was he going? She tries not to think about the way the young nurses look at him and who may or may not have invited him to sleep on their sofa.

The best thing to do would’ve been to go silent. Not care. Isn’t that what they say? That makes men come back. Or maybe it makes them chase you in the first place. They cannot resist your resistance.

She could back down about Sylvie. Just tell him, tell Nancy, that she’s changed her mind. He was right. They were good before the pregnancy attempts.

When they found out she would never conceive, they walked out of the obstetrician’s office and into a May afternoon bursting with life. Sidewalks glowed green beneath an umbrella of leaves. Downtown flower beds grew wild with heavy perfume. Office workers lounged on the benches, steps, handrails, winter skin hungry for the sun.

Eleanor hadn’t said a word since they heard the news. She stood in front of the medical arts building, blocking people’s exit from the revolving door. Jonathan gently led her off to one side and sat her down beside the fountain. He didn’t suggest they stay hopeful. Hope was gone; they’d seen the ultrasound. He didn’t try to distract her with suggestions of movies or dinner. He didn’t try to talk.

He held her.

It was hours that they sat on that granite ledge. Her seat went numb, she remembers that much. The medical building had emptied out. Most restaurants had closed. But Jonathan continued to hold her. He’d have held her all night if she hadn’t stood up. That was Jonathan.

The steam of the shower is too much now. She turns off the water. Dripping all over the floor, she grabs the top item of clothing in the laundry hamper behind the door. Rumpled and holey. Soft. His. She watches in the mirror as dark, wet spots spread across the shirt. She takes off her ring, sets it on the counter. Hates the lightness of her finger. Grabs the ring and slides it back on her finger.

Bundled in the duvet from the bed, wet hair twisted down her back, Eleanor pads to the kitchen and roots through the fridge for something to quiet her stomach. Nothing that requires any preparation. She finds eggs, frozen bagels, a piece of cooked but frozen chicken. All too much work. She
takes a container of Häagen-Dazs ice cream, dulce de leche, and spoons it into her mouth.

Smooth cold ribbons of caramel melt on her tongue and she loses herself in the taste, dropping to the linoleum floor. Forget marriage, motherhood. Forget love entirely. All a person needs is dulce de leche and a spoon.

When she calls for Angus, he doesn’t respond. She gets up to drag the reluctant animal out from beneath the dining room table and into the kitchen. Forced companionship is better than none at all tonight. She pats the floor until he gives in and lies down beside her on the floor. Watching. To her left his food sits, untouched, in its chrome bowl.

Offered a spoonful of ice cream, the dog crawls closer, elbows thunking on the hard floor in a way that sounds painful, and licks the spoon, then the container, clean.

Her right hip and shoulder feel bruised. Her arm is asleep. The warmth of Angus shifts slightly beneath her. They’re still on the floor, the empty ice cream container between them. She takes his muzzle in her hand and wipes it clean with a corner of the blanket. His tongue slips in and out for what’s left on his nose, then he stares at her, panting, as if hoping she has a better long-term plan for them than this.

She does.

Eleanor gets to her feet and heads into the bedroom, dragging the ice-cream-stained duvet behind her. Drawers open and slam shut. A hairbrush clatters to the floor. She slips into jeans, a long-sleeved thermal shirt, a sweater. She pulls on boots. If she’s going to make a phone call this important, she’s going to be well protected.

It takes until 7 a.m. to get up the nerve to ask. She sits at the kitchen table, phone to her ear, and twirls the cord around her finger. The dazzling sun pouring into the kitchen earlier has gone, to be replaced by a dense cloud cover. But for the amber glow from the oven hood, the kitchen is bruised over with shadow. Suits the moment just fine, Eleanor thinks as she explains and then waits for Jonathan’s answer.

When she woke up, it became clear. There are two choices right now. She either walks into Nancy’s office and tells her the truth—that Jonathan is gone—and risks never seeing Sylvie again. Or she doesn’t.

A long sigh from his end. In the background, the muffled gong of the hospital PA system confirms what he’s already told her. That when he called, he’d been on his way to work.

“Is this why you called so many times?” he asks.

No. “Yes.”

“It’s ridiculous.”

“I don’t have the luxury of waiting around to see what happens between you and me. Nancy’s waiting for us and if she senses any trouble, they could give Sylvie to someone else.”

“You’re asking me to lie.”

“Not lie. Pretend.”

“Same goddamn thing.”

“It’s not like anyone’s going to ask any questions,” she said. “We look like we’re together. We’ll go in and meet with Nancy whenever she asks.”

“And I fly to California and put on the show of my life?”

“I won’t have you do that. We’ll have Sylvie brought in with Luiz the way they wanted to do it anyway, remember? You’ll just come with me to the airport.”

“I’m really not comfortable doing that. Plus, there’ll be follow-up stuff. You’ll never pull this off.”

“Please. I’m begging you.”

“I just—I can’t make such a big decision right now. I’ve got two cardiac cases waiting; I’ve been up all night.”

“Just say yes.”

“It’s a terrible idea, lying to get a child.”

“I don’t care.”

“It would be tough enough raising your own child all alone, let alone this way.”

“‘No one would make a better mother than you.’ That’s what you told me a few hours ago.”

“Where would this leave
us
, El?” he says quietly.

She lets the moment lapse into grainy silence by staring at a hairline crack in the wall and mentally measuring the length. Fourteen inches, maybe fifteen if it continues behind the shelf Jonathan hung to display her cookbooks. Outside, a truck roars down Newbury. In the next room, Angus groans in his sleep.

“Okay. I’ll do it.”

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