I've just come home and settled on my couch after an exhausting day at work when my home phone rings. My first thought is to let it ring, as I'm not in the mood to talk some more, but then I remember the two missed calls from my sister on my cell. I sigh as I get up from the couch and walk over to the sideboard to retrieve the phone. My sister's name flashes on the display and I answer.
"Hi sis." I greet her and let myself fall back to the couch.
"Hey Owen." her voice sounds as tired as I feel.
"How are you, sis?"
"Good. You?" she answers curtly and I sense she's not calling to talk about me.
"I'm alright, but you've sounded better." I challenge her to avoid the small talk and get right to her problem.
"I'm fine but Grace spent the night at the hospital." she sighs and I can hear the worry in her voice.
"What's wrong with her?" I exclaim.
"It's not that bad. She has a virus called hand-mouth-and-foot-disease. It'll go away on it's own but we had a real scare because of the high fever she came down with." she explains and I calm down a little.
"But why did she need to stay in the hospital?" I ask and she fills me in on the details.
"So you have her home again now?" I ask as she's finished.
"Yes, I'll stay with her for the next couple of days, doing some research work that I can email to the office. Grace is still contagious so I can't take her to the day-nanny. Luckily Elsbeth is very understanding." she sighs and I hear the relief in her voice, but I sense there is something more.
"Can't Peter fill in for a day or two?" I ask as my call-waiting tone rings in the line.
"Can you hang on a moment? I have another call. Just let me check who it is." I tell her before she can reply, taking the phone from my ear, a surprised grin spreading on my lips as I see the other caller's name.
"Hang on. I need to take this." I inform Alicia, not waiting for her reply before I switch to the other call.
"Hey Owen." he greets me in a similar way as my sister and he sounds as exhausted as she does. Something tells me it's not a coincidence.
"How are you?" I ask, though I already know what he'll tell me. And I'm not mistaken as he starts telling me about Grace's illness. I'm tempted to let him know that I already heard the news from Alicia but something makes me hold back, as I sense from his tone that there is more, like I did with my sister. That reminds me that I still have her on hold.
"Peter, I have another call. Can you give me a minute?" I ask once he's finished telling me about Grace and I lose no time in switching back to my sister.
"Sorry, sis. A student asking about the assignment I gave them today." I lie to her.
"You shouldn't give them your home number, Owen. You need your free time. You sound exhausted." she states and I flinch about the change of topic.
"I know. I never thought that actually teaching would be so much more stressful than my job as assistant." I admit.
"So what about Peter? Can't he help with Grace?" I steer the conversation back to the previous subject before my sister gets lost in questions and remarks about my new job.
"No, he's in court all week." she answers plainly.
"Is everything alright with the two of you?" I dare to ask, trying to get to what I think is the real reason she called me.
"Yeah, everything is fine." she says slowly and I can hear the dishonesty in her voice.
"Sis!? Don't lie to me. What's up?" I challenge her and she sighs on the other end.
"Something happened and I'm afraid it will change everything though I don't want it to." she slowly declares.
"What happened?" I ask but she stays silent and I have no idea what to think, no idea what went on between them.
"If you want me to help you, you need to tell me." I try to persuade her but she's still not answering. During my sister's silence I remember I still have Peter on the other line.
"Sis, I'm sorry, I have another call again. Let me get rid of whoever it is while you think about if you want to tell me, okay?"
"Okay." she replies faintly and I switch to Peter.
"It's alright, Owen." he accepts my apology.
"So Grace will be better soon, right? But you sound like something else is bothering you."
"Maybe." he answers monosyllabic and sighs.
"Did Alicia give you a hard time? Don't take it too seriously. I bet she was out of her mind with concern for Grace." I try to find out from him what went on between him and my sister.
"No, it wasn't that. I think we made a really big mistake but thinking about it now I'm no longer sure I should tell you, Owen." he says slowly, like he carefully chooses his words.
"Hey, Peter, I'm your friend. Just forget Alicia is my sister."
"Easier said than done." he snorts. "You might think differently if you knew." he adds warily.
"Now you have me worried, Peter. What happened?" I ask him, concern rising inside me as I remember my sister's behavior.
"Well,…we spent a night together." he admits hesitantly.
"So?" I reply at first until his words sink in and I realize the real meaning.
"Oh, you're not saying…?" I exclaim surprised. "How did that happen?"
"You don't want any details, do you?" he snaps, but I know he doesn't mean it.
"I'm sorry, Owen. I'm freaked out because I think it might have ruined our friendship though she says it won't change anything between us. And she acts like nothing did change for her but I struggle with it, Owen." he sighs and the confusion in his voice is palpable.
"I can't help you as long as I don't know a bit more, Peter." I get up from the couch as I just decided I need some wine to go on with this conversation.
"I knew it was a mistake the moment she kissed me, but I kissed her back against my better judgement. I think I took advantage of her vulnerability because of Grace. I don't know." he sounds desperate and I can make little sense from what he tells me. I step into the kitchen, retrieving a bottle of red wine and a glass from the cupboard. I get the corkscrew and hold the phone between my ear and shoulder to open the bottle.
"So she kissed you first?" I ask, trying to find out more as I turn the screw into the cork.
"Yes, but I should've never let it happen. But how could I not kiss her back, Owen? She means so much to me but it seems like it didn't mean anything to her." I can hear the guilt in his voice and I know he's mentally kicking himself.
For the moment I have no idea what to tell him as I pull at the corkscrew, but as I use the arm I also hold the phone up to my ear with, the jerk loosens the handheld and it falls to the floor. I put the bottle away and quickly bend down to pick it up.
"Peter, listen. I can tell you one thing. My sister wouldn't have slept with you if it didn't mean anything to her." I try to calm him but he stays silent on the other end.
"Peter?" I ask hesitantly as the silence lasts for another few seconds.
"You have Peter on the other line?" I finally hear my sister whispering.
"Alicia?" I exclaim, quickly taking the phone from my ear to check the display. My eyes widen as I realize it switched to the other line.
"Oh shit, Alicia. That damn phone. I dropped it and it must have switched to your line." I explain.
"I don't care, Owen. You feign ignorance to me though you already know what happened. How could you?" she says icy and I fear she will hang up.
"Alicia, please don't hang up." I pause to listen if she's still on the line.
"Does it really matter from whom I learned it? I would've told you the same. You wouldn't sleep with someone you didn't care for, right?" I ask her cautiously.
"I don't think so." she replies after a few moments of silence.
"See. From the little I know, I think that's what it comes down to, sis. He thinks he took advantage of your sadness and worry for Grace but he also told me you kissed him first. And knowing you, sis, I'd be surprised if you did it without really wanting it. What you're not sure about is why you did it, right?" I analyze the situation with the few information I got from Peter.
"Sometimes I hate it that you know me that well." she finally says and I can hear in her voice that her anger is already fading.
"No, that's why you always come to me for advise." I chuckle.
"True. But this time I think you can't help me anymore. This time I need to find out myself." she says reflectively.
"Well, could it be that you still love him?" I ask carefully.
"If I only knew if I loved him while we were together." she sighs and I wish I wasn't nearly 2.000 miles away.
"What do you mean? You looked so much in love, sis."
"I don't know. It's just that when I was with Peter I kept on waiting to fall in love with him, but my feelings for him never really changed. Even now I don't feel any different from when we started dating."
"You're right. Only you can figure this out, sis."
"Thanks, Owen. I don't know how you did it, but I feel a bit better now." I can hear the smile in her voice.
"You're welcome, sis. Go to bed now. And give Grace a kiss from me."
"I will. Good night, Owen." she says goodbye and I hear the soft click of her hanging up.
I turn back to the counter to finally pour my glass of wine and place the phone next to the bottle. I suddenly remember that Peter might still be holding and reach for the handset again but the display stays dark and I figure Peter has hung up. I pour my wine and retrieve my cell from my bag in the hall as I walk back to the living room, intending to text him I will call him back tomorrow. But then I remember his confusion and think I owe it to him to call him back right away.
"I'm sorry. I think I kicked you out. I dropped the phone." I greet him after he answers.
"Thanks for calling me back."
"Well, I couldn't leave you hanging." I chuckle but he doesn't join in.
"So, you said you think it didn't mean anything to Alicia before we got interrupted." I steer the conversation back to the previous topic and hear Peter make a sound of agreement.
"Don't think like that, Peter. I know my sister. She wouldn't sleep with anyone unless the person means something to her. My guess is that she is even more confused by what happened than you are." I offer, trying not to reveal too much from what my sister told me earlier.
"But why does she refuse to talk about it? What do you suggest I should do?" he asks in a low voice.
"It's typical Alicia not to talk about things that bother her. Give her time to think about what happened. She will try to ignore it but deep inside it won't let her go. I can't promise you that she'll decide to live happily ever after with you but I don't think what happened is a bad thing." I try to cheer him up.
"Yeah, maybe." he stretches his words and I can hear the doubt over my words in his tone.
"Just try to act normally. I know it'll be hard but you won't get anywhere if you start to press her." I advice him, knowing how hollow my words must sound to him.
"I know." he says wearily and I wish I could tell him what my sister confessed to me earlier. But I can't do that to her and thinking about it, I doubt it would be of any comfort to Peter now. We say goodbye a few minutes later and as I hang up I really hope this will come to a good end one day.
Two weeks have passed since that night. Grace is alright again and everything is pretty much back to normal. Well, everything but my relationship to Peter. I realized pretty soon that my wish that nothing changed between us was one made in vain. He acts cautiously around me, never staying longer than absolutely necessary, even during the time Grace was still sick and like he did earlier when he picked her up for their first weekend without me. I offered to help him once more during the day but he refused and I know it's to avoid to spend time with me. I couldn't really protest as I'm sure he will manage and I can't blame him for turning me down. A few months back I would've wished for a silent weekend and the chance to finally read a book again but now I dread the two lonely days that lie before me.
I wander through my apartment, looking for something else to do, but as Peter had Grace for two afternoons this week as well, no housework is left for me to do.
My eyes flicker over my book shelf but nothing catches my attention enough to stretch out my arm and grab the book to start reading. So I finally walk over to my desk and switch on the laptop to check if Elsbeth or Jake have sent me an email, I could work on. But as I log into my work-email no new message awaits me. I sigh as I turn the computer off, briefly wondering what Peter and Grace might be doing now. I glance on my watch and think he might be getting her ready for bed now, probably giving her a bath. I can see the image clearly in front of me and I feel a stitch at my heart as I realize I'd love to be there. I walk over to the couch, letting myself fall on it and reach for the rest of my wine that I had with dinner. I take a deep sip, trying to push the longing to be with my family away. I nearly choke on my wine as I recognize I included Peter when I thought of my family. I still have no idea what he means to me but I suddenly know that I not only miss Grace but him as well. I'm tempted to reach for the phone and call him, just to check on Grace. That's what I would tell him of course but deep down I know it would be to hear his voice. But I don't get up to get the phone, but reach for the remote instead. Maybe there is something on tv that will catch my attention and distract me from that thoughts occupying my mind, thoughts that I know I need to think through at some point but have succeeded in procrastinating so far. An attitude I want to keep, at least for tonight.
I switch through the channels but nothing appeals to me, so I soon shut the tv off again and get up after all. I retrieve the wine bottle from the kitchen and bring the phone with me as I return to the living room. I scroll through my phonebook but have no idea who to call until I see my brother's name. I haven't talked to him in a while, precisely since the day after Peter spent the night, so I decide to try and reach him but after a few rings his voicemail answers and I hang up. I briefly consider calling my mother but decide against it as I'm sure she will have a go at me because I haven't been in touch during the last weeks. I continue scrolling through the names and halt at Elsbeth's. I press the call button and she answers after a few rings.
"Hi Elsbeth." I greet her.
"Hi Alicia." she sounds tired and I hope I haven't woken her but as I check my clock It's hardly 8pm.
"Did I wake you?" I ask nonetheless.
"No, not really. I was just dozing in front of the tv. I'm watching a documentary about animals mating for life. There are more of them than you think. We all know about swans being faithful to one partner but did you know that a wolves pack usually consist of just one family? And Albatrosses always fly back to their partner when it's breeding time? It's totally fascinating. You should switch it on. Let me check the channel." she starts blabbering in her usual manner.
"It sounds interesting but also as if I already missed most of it. I only knew about penguins." I interrupt her, wondering how she kept all that if she was half asleep like she said.
"Oh, you are right it's over now. But not all penguins are faithful to just one mate, like the emperor penguin. They mate with a different partner each year. Imagine we would do that?" she laughs and I join in, at a loss for words.
"But I'm sure you didn't call to discuss the love life of animals, right? Though I also thought it was interesting to learn termites are monogamous too. I bet you didn't know that either."
"No, I didn't. I just thought I'd give you a call to ask if you wanted to have dinner with me tomorrow night. Peter has Grace over the weekend on his own for the first time and I…" I trail off, not really knowing how to finish the sentence, how to voice what I'm feeling.
"…need to fill that new free time, right?"
"Yeah." I state surprised at how easily she summarized my way too complicated thoughts.
"I know that feeling. I went through the same when my ex-husband started to take my son regularly. Soon you'll appreciate that time and use it to catch up on the sleep you lose during the week." she explains and I smile at her admission.
"But sure, let's have dinner tomorrow. My son is with his Dad too. That way I don't have to think about what to cook for myself." she adds and I know I would've taken her last comment the wrong way when I first met her, but by now I'm used to her practical approach to anything.
"Great." I smile looking forward to the next evening.
"Let me handle the reservation. There is a restaurant I wanted to try for ages, but I can't remember the name. But I'll find out. How about I pick you up at 7:30pm tomorrow. I'm sure you live closer to the restaurant than I am and if not it'll be fine too." she offers and I smile at her enthusiasm.
"Sure, Elsbeth. Thank you."
"I'm glad you called, but now I need to find out the name of that restaurant. See you tomorrow. Good night, Alicia." she quickly ends the conversation and I manage to wish her a good night too before she hangs up. I chuckle and shake my head as I imagine her hurrying to her laptop to research the restaurant.
I reach for my glass and take a sip, considering drawing myself a bath as the phone next to me rings. I check the caller and hesitate a second as I see Peter's name on the display. But then the thought about something being wrong with Grace pops into my mind and I answer quickly.
"What's wrong?" I ask him without a greeting and can instantly hear my little girl screaming in the background.
"I'm not really sure, but she won't stop crying." Peter tries to drown out her squeals.
"Is she hungry? Did you change her diaper?" I start going through the essentials, though I'm sure he did all that, while my heart clenches at Grace's screams.
"I did. I also took her temperature but she has no fever and I checked for injuries. Nothing happened, Alicia. Everything was okay. She slept when we arrived here and after she woke I fed her and then I gave her a bath. She was laughing but after I put her diaper back on she started to scream. I tried everything but I can't calm her down. I don't know what to do anymore." he informs me quickly, the desperation palpable in his voice. I'm no longer that worried anymore after he told me she doesn't have a fever and isn't injured in any way.
"Did you notice something unusual in her behavior?"
"No, not really. Just that she is chewing on anything she can get her hands on and she's drooling more than usual. Any idea what that means?" he sighs.
"Yes. No need to worry. She's teething, Peter." I explain to him and hear him sigh in relief.
"Okay, but is there anything I can do to calm her down?" he sounds distraught and Grace's wailing reaches a new high.
"Give her a cold wash-cloth to bite on and if you have any ice cubes put some of them in water to cool it down and then give it to her to drink. This should sooth the pain." I offer and hear him move around, opening cabinet doors and soon I detect running water.
"Okay, I'm giving her the wash-cloth now." he explains and for a second her screaming dies down.
"Shit!" Peter exclaims and a moment later Grace screams louder than before.
"What happened?" I ask anxiously.
"She threw the cloth away and the rest you can hear." he says resigned.
"Didn't we buy a teething ring for you to keep?" I ask him, trying to raise his spirit again.
"Maybe. I don't know what to do anymore, Alicia. Can you come over?" I can hear the pleading tone, though from the increasing volume of Grace's crying I guess he has taken her in his arms.
"Okay, I'll be there soon. Try the cold water in the meantime." I advise him, already on my way to the door to put on shoes and leave the apartment.
"Thank you." I hear him say relieved, before I end the conversation, reaching for my keys and purse to head out the door.