"All babies are cute," Stacy said darkly.
"I know, but this one is above average."
"All babies are above average."
I paused to make a face at the baby, who was blowing bubbles. "Luke is in the top one percent of above average."
"Hold it. Tom's home for lunch. I want him in on this. Tooooooom!"
I waited while Stacy explained the situation to her husband. Of Dane's considerable number of friends, Tom had always been my favorite. There was never any boredom or melancholy when Tom was around . . . wine flowed, people laughed, conversation coursed easily. When Tom was around, you felt witty and smart. Stacy was the taut and dependable clothesline from which the colorful Tom was free to wave and beckon.
"Can you put Tom on the other line?" I asked Stacy.
"At the moment we only have one phone. Tommie dropped the other one in the potty. So . . . have you talked to Dane yet? "
My stomach lurched. "No, I wanted to call you first. I'm stalling because I know what Dane is going to say." A stinging haze came over my eyes. My voice came out thin and emotion-cluttered. "He won't go for this, Stace. He's going to tell me not to come back to Austin."
"Bullshit. You come right back here with that baby."
"I can't. You know Dane."
"I do, and that's why I think it's time for him to step up to the plate. This is a grown-up responsibility, and he needs to handle it."
For some reason I felt compelled to take Dane's side. "Dane is a grown-up," I said, blotting my eyes on my sleeve. "He has his own company. A lot of people rely on him. But this is different. Dane has always been clear on not wanting anything to do with babies. And just because I'm being forced into a situation I didn't see coming doesn't mean Dane has to suffer as well."
"Of course it does. He's your partner. And having a baby is not suffering. It's—" She paused at a comment from her husband. "Shut up, Tom. Ella, when a baby comes into your life, you have to give a lot. But you get even more than you give. You'll see."
Luke had begun to blink slowly as the need for sleep crept over him. I kept my hand on his tummy, feeling the small digestive gurgle against my palm.
". . . had a terrific childhood," Stacy was saying, "and he's at the right age to settle down. Everyone who knows him thinks he'd make a wonderful father. You need to force the issue, Ella. Once Dane sees how fantastic it is to have children, how much they add to your life, he'll be ready to make a commitment."
"He can barely commit to owning socks," I said. "He has to have total freedom, Stacy."
"No one can have total freedom," she pointed out. "The whole point of a relationship is to have someone there when you need him. Otherwise it's just a . . . wait a minute." She paused, and I heard a muffled voice in the background. "Do you want Tom to talk to him? He says he'd be glad to."
"No," I said quickly. "I don't want Dane to be pressured."
"Why should he be spared?" Stacy asked indignantly. "You 're being pressured, aren't you? You 're having to face a tough situation—why shouldn't he have to help you with it? I swear, Ella, if Dane doesn't do right by you, I'm going to give him such shit—" She paused at a comment from her husband. "I mean it, Tom! For God's sake, what if Ella had gotten pregnant the way I did? You stepped up to handle the responsibility—don't you think Dane should? I don't give a damn if it's his baby or not. The fact is, Ella needs his support." She returned her full attention to me. "No matter what Dane says, come back to Austin with the baby, Ella. Your friends are here. We'll help you with him."
"I don't know. I'd be running into Dane . . . it would be weird living near him but not with him. Maybe I should just try to find a furnished apartment here in Houston. It's only for three months."
"And go back to Dane when the problem is solved?" Stacy asked, outraged.
"Well . . . yes."
"I guess if you got cancer you'd have to take care of it all by yourself, too, so you wouldn't inconvenience him? Make Dane part of this. You should be able to rely on him, Ella! You're . . . here, Tom wants to say something."
I waited until I heard his resigned voice. "Hey, Ella."
"Hey, Tom. Before you say anything . . . don't tell me what Stace wants me to hear. Tell me the truth. You're his best friend and you know him better than anyone. Dane's not going to budge, is he?"
Tom sighed. "It's all a trap to him, anything that smacks of the house, the dog, the wife, and the two-point-five kids. And unlike Stacy and apparently everyone else we know, I don't think Dane would make a wonderful father. He's not nearly enough of a masochist."
I smiled with rueful sadness, knowing Tom was going to catch hell from Stacy for his honesty. "I know that Dane would rather try to save the world than try to save one baby. But I can't figure out why."
"Babies are tough customers, Ella," Tom said. "You get a lot more credit for trying to save the world. And it's easier."
"I've been put in a situation I can't walk away from," I told Dane on the phone. "So I'll tell you what I want to do, and after you hear me out, you can tell me what choices I have. Or not."
"My God, Ella," he said quietly.
I frowned. "Don't say 'My God, Ella' yet. I haven't even told you my plan."
"I know what it is."
"I knew the moment you left Austin. You've always been the cleanup crew of your family." Dane's resigned kindness was only one step away from pity. I would have preferred hostility. He made me feel as if life was a circus and I had been permanently assigned to walk behind the elephant.
"No one's forcing me to do anything I don't want to do," I protested.
"As far as I know, taking care of your sister's baby has never been on your list of life goals."
"She only had the baby a week ago. I'm allowed to revise my list of life goals, aren't I?"
"Yes. But that doesn't mean I have to revise mine, too." He sighed. "Tell me everything. Believe it or not, I'm on your side."
I explained what had happened, the conversation with Tara, and I finished with a defensive, "It's only three months. And the baby's hardly any trouble at all." Unless you happen to like sleep, I thought. "So I'm going to look for a furnished apartment in Houston, and stay here until Tara gets better. I think Liza might help out, too. And then I'll go back to our apartment in Austin. To you." I went for a brisk finish. "Sound like a good plan?"
"It sounds like a plan," he said. I heard the soft, slow expulsion of a pent-up breath, one from the bottom of his lungs. "What do you want me to say, Ella?"
I wanted him to say, Come home. I'll help with the baby. But I told him, "I want to know what you're really thinking."
"I think you're still locked in all the old patterns," Dane said quietly. "Your mother snaps her fingers or your sister screws up, and you put your own life on hold to take care of everything. But it's not just three months, Ella. It could be three years before Tara is able to screw her head on straight. And what if she has more kids? Are you going to take them all in?"
"I've already thought of that," I admitted with difficulty. "But I can't worry about what might happen in the future. Right now there's only Luke, and he needs me."
"What about what you need? You're supposed to be writing a book, aren't you? And how will you keep the column going?"
"I don't know. But other people manage to work and take care of their children."
"This isn't your child."
"He's part of my family."
"You don't have a family, Ella."
Although I had made similar comments in the past, it rankled to hear him say it. "We're individuals bound by a pattern of reciprocal obligation," I said. "If a group of chimps in the Amazon can be called a family, I think the Varners qualify."
"Considering the fact that chimps occasionally cannibalize each other, I might agree with that."
I reflected that I shouldn't have confided quite so much about the Varners to Dane. "I hate arguing with you," I muttered. "You know too much about me."
"You'd hate it even more if I let you make the wrong decision without saying anything about it."
"I think it's the right decision. The way I'm looking at it, it's the only decision I can live with."
"Fair enough. But I can't live with it."
I took a deep breath. "So where does it leave us if I go ahead and do this? What happens to a four-year relationship?" It was hard for me to believe the person I had depended on more than anyone, a man I trusted and cared for deeply, was drawing such a definitive line in the sand.
"I suppose we could consider this a hiatus," Dane said. I considered that while cold distilled worry seeped through my veins.
"And when I come back we'll pick up where we left off? "
"We can try."
"What do you mean try?"
"You can stick something in the freezer and thaw it out three months later, but it's never exactly the same."
"But you'll promise to wait for me, right?" "
Wait for you how?"
"I mean you won't sleep with someone else."
"Ella, neither of us can promise not to sleep with someone else."
My jaw dropped. "We can't?"
"Of course not. In a mature relationship there are no promises and no guarantees. We don't own each other."
"Dane, I thought we were exclusive." I realized that for the second time that day, I was whining. A new thought occurred to me. "Have you ever cheated on me?"
"I wouldn't call it cheating. But no, I haven't."
"What if I slept with someone else? Wouldn't you feel jealous?"
"I wouldn't deny you the chance to experience other relationships freely, if that was what you wanted. It's a matter of trust. And openness."
"We have an open relationship?"
"If you want to label it that way, yes."
I had rarely, if ever, been so stunned. The basic assumptions I had made about Dane and me were being casually overturned. "My God. How can we have had an open relationship when I didn't know it? What are the rules for that?"
Dane sounded vaguely amused. "There are no rules for us, Ella. There never have been. That's the only reason you've stayed with me this long. The minute I tried to confine you in any way, you'd have been out of there."
My head was filled with arguments and demands. I wondered if he was right. I was afraid he was. "Somehow," I said slowly, "I've always thought of myself as a conventional person. Way too conventional for a relationship with no structure."
"Miss Independent is," he said. "The advice she gives other people follows a definite set of rules. But as Ella—no, you're not conventional."
"But I'm Miss Independent and Ella," I protested. "Where's the real me in all of that?"
"Apparently the real you is in Houston," he said. "And I wish you'd come back."
"I'd like to bring the baby home for just a few days, until I figure things out."
"That doesn't work for me," Dane said promptly.
I scowled. "It's my apartment, too. I want to stay in my half."
"Fine. I'll crash somewhere else until you and the baby are gone. Or I'll move out and you can have the whole place—"
"No." Instinctively I knew that if Dane were forced out because I had chosen to take care of Luke, I might lose him for good. "Never mind, you stay there. I'll find a temporary place for me and Luke."
"I'll help any way I can," Dane said. "I'll assume your share of the monthly rent for as long as you need."
I was annoyed by the offer. And I was as irate as a flank-strapped bull because of his refusal to accept Luke. But most of all I was frightened by the revelation that we were in a relationship with no rules and no promises. Because it meant I was no longer certain of him.
Or of me.
"Thanks," I said sullenly. "I'll let you know where we end up."
"The first thing we have to do, " I told Luke the next day, "is find a nice place we can rent or sublet. Should we focus on the downtown area? Montrose? Or would you be open to finding something close by in SugarLand? We could always go to Austin, but we'd have to take care to avoid you-know-who. And it's a lot more expensive to rent in Austin."
Luke looked contemplative, sucking slowly on the bottle as if he were mulling the possibilities.
"Are you thinking it over?" I asked him. "Or are you working on another dirty diaper?"
I had spent the previous evening doing a lot of Googling, mostly on infant care. I had read pages on diapering dos-and-don'ts, milestones for the first month of life, and schedules of pediatric visits. I had even found directions on how to trim a baby's nails. "It says here, Luke," I had reported, "that you're supposed to be sleeping fifteen to eighteen hours a day. You need to work on that. It also says I'm supposed to sanitize all the stuff you put your mouth on. And it says you're going to learn how to smile by the end of the month."
I had spent several minutes with my face right over his, smiling at him and hoping for a response. Luke had responded with such a solemn grimace that I had told him he looked like Winston Churchill.
After bookmarking a dozen baby-care sites, I had started to check out available furnished apartments in the Houston area. The ones I could afford looked cheap and depressing, and the ones I liked were astronomical. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find something in a decent location and nicely decorated that was also offered at a mid-range price. I had gone to sleep feeling anxious and depressed. Perhaps out of mercy, Luke had only woken three times during the night.
"We've got to find something today," I told him. "And get out of this expensive hotel room." I decided to spend the morning targeting possibilities on the Net, and going to see a few places in the afternoon. As I wrote down the first address and telephone number, my phone rang.