Sum of Us

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Ch.13: Poppy

The Four Seasons is a far cry from a Holiday Inn. One night’s stay in Rhys’s suite cost more than four times my monthly rent. It’s easy to tell why. There are amenities upon amenities, spacious living, dining, and sleeping areas, and marble bathrooms. Everything looks too nice to touch, let alone live in with a toddler. But we do it. For two weeks. Harper breaks much less than I thought she would -- only two vases and a lamp.

There’s discomfort the first couple of days between Rhys and I. We tiptoe around each other, unsure of the best way to communicate. We spent four years as a couple, but co-parenting is a much different ballgame. We love through Harper. Setting those boundaries takes time.

Getting her last name changed and Rhys’s name added to her birth certificate only takes three days. I have reprints of her social security card and birth certificate in my hand by day five.

Having money gets you special treatment. Who knew?

On day 15 of our reunion, we are boarding his tour bus at 10 PM to drive to Columbus, Ohio.

I carry a sleeping Harper. Rhys takes care of our bags. I follow him to the room in the back of the bus. He switches on the overhead light and places his armload on the bed.

A top-of-the-line crib is secured to a wall in the corner. The bedding that lines it is a beautiful watercolor floral pattern. There’s a little pillow and quilted blanket to match.

He assists me without my needing to ask by unhitching and lowered the crib’s railing. I lay Harper in bed and strip off her jacket, careful not to wake her. I drape the blanket over her body and tuck her favorite stuffed giraffe beneath her arm.

“Sweet dreams, Lovebug,” I whisper, pushing her hair out of her face. Once I’ve pressed a kiss to her forehead, I trade positions with Rhys to allow him to say goodnight to her.

“Mama and Daddy love you.” He adjusts her blanket and gives her a kiss.

I secure the crib’s rail in its upright and locked position. The two of us watch her sleep. Standing side by side, taking on parenting responsibilities together, has become second nature.

“There are extra blankets and pillows in the hall linen closet. I’ll be on the long couch upfront. Wake me if you or Harper need anything.”

“We should be fine. Thank you for all of this.”

“Thanks for agreeing to come.” The boyish smile he gives has me on the verge of telling him to stay. “Night, Pop.”

“Goodnight.”

He tiptoes out the room, softly clicking the door shut behind him. I strip out of my jacket and shoes, switch off the light and climb beneath the covers. The bed and pillow smell like him. The intoxicating aroma and gentle vibrations of the moving bus lull me into a peaceful slumber.

I’m rested to the point of disorientation the next morning. As I scrub my eyes with the back of my hand, I reach for my glasses on the nightstand. Vision restored, the first thing I see is an empty crib.

“Harper!?” I throw off the covers.

My lightning-fast scan of the room comes up short. I trip over the tangled ball of covers on my way out of the room.

“Where’s--?” The words die in my throat when I hear Harper’s melodic giggle woven with Rhys’s low chuckle.

Silently passing the sleeper bunks with their curtains drawn, I come to a stop where the hall and front lounge merge.

Rhys is seated on the couch, Harper is on his lap, and an electronic keyboard stands before both of them. They’re wearing Bluetooth headphones, which are allowing them to play without disturbing the others on the bus. They’re pressing keys simultaneously; her little fingers are intermixed with his large ones.

Harper’s enraptured by what they are playing, displaying far more poise and dexterity with the instrument than she should be able to at her age. The reason for their laughter is revealed when Rhys bangs on the keys of the piano with both hands. More laughter ensues as she does the same.

Smiling to myself, I return to the bedroom to give them their bonding time. Once dressed, I go to the bathroom, tame my bedhead, and brush my teeth. Back in the bedroom, I make the bed and fold the blanket in Harper’s crib. Free time is such a foreign concept that I feel lost. It takes twenty minutes of sitting on the edge of the bed for me to decide what to do with myself. I read chapters of a book uninterrupted. It’s glorious.

“We have to check on Mama to make sure she’s okay.” I hear Rhys tell Harper in the hall.

He opens the door. Harper’s in his arms, her arms around his neck.

“I’m okay.” I close my textbook. “I didn’t want to interrupt your collaboration. How’s it sounding?”

“Hi, Mama!” She waves at me.

“Hello, Lovebug, did you have fun with Daddy?”

Harper nods adamantly.

Rhys is beaming. “As soon as she gets bigger, she’s replacing Taylor in the band. Our chemistry is better.”

I laugh. “Good luck with that.”

“Did you know Harp’s a musical genius? She already plays the piano better than him. She’ll pick up the guitar like that.” He snaps. “She’ll be a superstar by the time she’s five. Mark my words.”

“You’re going to have an Oasis-level falling out with Tay.”

“He’ll get over it eventually. Studying?” He nods to the textbook in my lap.

I look down at it, tucking my hair behind her ear. “No. Just reading for fun. This is leftover from my MIT days. I haven’t been able to crack it open in a while.”

“No wonder our girl’s so smart.”

“The musical ability is all you.”

“Together, we made a prodigy. Go us.” He puts her on the floor.

Harper runs to me. I lift her into my lap and give her a kiss on the cheek.

“Has she eaten?”

“Yes. Apple cinnamon oatmeal, half a banana, and a cup of milk. Teeth brushed, and her diaper has been changed too.”

“How much oatmeal ended up in her hair?” I attempt to tame it with my fingers.

“About a third of it. I wiped it out with a washcloth. It is a good thing she put it in if you think about it. Oatmeal keeps hair shiny. She’s got natural grooming instincts. I’m so proud.” He wipes away a fake tear.

I shake my head with a smile. “You’ve been handling her morning routine like a champ.”

“She walks me through it. I didn’t know one-year-olds could talk so much.”

“Some do, but not most. Her doctor said she’s in the highest percentile in terms of communication.”

“See. Genius.”

“Her IQ hasn’t been tested. We can’t apply that term to her.”

“I will be.”

“I can’t exactly stop you. Doing it won’t hurt anything.”

“Cwoes.” Harper alerts us that it is time for her to change into her day clothes.

“You’re right, Lovebug. Let’s pick something out for you to wear.” I transition her back to the floor and place her suitcase on the bed.

“When did she wake up?” I ask Rhys as I lay each article of clothing out on the bed.

“Her usual time. The alarm on my phone’s still set to 5:45. I came in here to check on her. She was sitting up in her crib, rubbing her eyes and looking around.”

“Was she crying?”

“No. She quietly held her arms out for me to pick her up when she saw me. I think she wanted you to sleep in.”

“Change your alarm. You can’t make a habit of waking up with her. You work late and need your rest.”

“I like waking up with her. It’s a great way to start the day.”

“You can see her as soon as you wake up.” I put Harper on the bed to explore her clothing options.

“Not the same. There’s something special about being the first person she sees when she wakes up. She gives you her sleepy smile and the warmest of hugs. I love it.” He’s smiling as he reminisces about it.

Harper pays the clothes I laid out no mind. She climbs into her suitcase and presents a long-sleeved Wonder Woman tutu-dress to Rhys and me.

I look to Rhys, questioning with my eyes why he would buy it for her.

“Halloween is next week. She needs something to wear when we go trick-or-treating.” He shrugs.

“You have a concert on Halloween.”

“I don’t go on until 9 PM. That’s plenty of time.”

“You’re actually going to take her house to house?”

“You’ll be there too. And once she goes to sleep, we’ll eat all her candy. It’s a rite of passage as parents.”

I breathe a laugh, unable to keep from grinning. “Is it okay if she wears it today? We’ll be in public.”

“That makes it even better. Our baby girl has style. Everyone will know it as soon as they see her.”

“Okay, Lovebug, Daddy says it’s okay for you to be a superhero.”

“Yay!” She claps her hands.

“Arms up.”

She lifts them for me. I strip her pajama shirt.

“May I dress her?” Rhys timidly asks.

“Sure. I’ll get her leggings and shoes. Wait to put on her dress. Putting the leggings on first makes it easier to dress her.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

“How long ago did you change her?” I pull out her red leggings and a pair of black boots.

“It’s been about two hours.”

“Baby, did you go potty?”

“Yes.” She holds out her legs so that he can get her socks and pants off.

“Tell Daddy when you need a new diaper, okay? Like you do me.”

“Daddy, I potty.” Harper tells him.

“Okay, I’ll get you cleaned up.” Rhys says as he’s ruffling her hair.

She giggles.

“Do you want to do her hair too?” I put the boots and tights on the bed.

“If I can.” He collects her diaper bag.

“Totally. You’re good at it. Did the Wonder Woman headband come with her dress?”

“It was sold separately.”

“Of course it was.”

“I bought it. It would be wrong not to.”

“Falling into corporate America’s trap. You have to fight the power, Rhys.” I tease.

“Not when it comes to superhero costumes. They’re serious business. You can’t mess around.” He continues the joke.

“I saw the Spiderman pajamas.”

“I couldn’t pass them up.”

“You went wild in Target.”

“Who doesn’t? It’s impossible to leave the store with only the thing you walked in to buy.”

“It’s a magical place.” I agree.

“You look great.” Rhys compliments Harper once she is dressed.

“Tank you.”

“I’ll be right back.” He kisses her forehead.

He leaves the room, taking her old diaper and used wipes with him.

I join Harper on the bed.

I begin refolding all of the clothes I laid out for her. She “helps” aka rolling the clothes into a ball before moving on to the next article of clothing. I refold them when she’s not looking.

Rhys is gone longer than expected. When he returns, the reason is revealed – he changed clothes.

His black Henley shirt is pushed to his elbows, exposing his tattoos. The dark wash jeans he is wearing fit him perfectly, hugging all the right places. And then there’s the effortlessly tousled hair. Even his choice of watch is sexy. Until today, I didn’t know watches could be a turn on.

I blush and shift my focus back to the task at hand.

He’s oblivious to his affect on me as he collects her bathroom supplies bag from the corner.

“We’ll be at the venue soon.” He sits on the other side of Harper.

“What does your schedule look like today?”

“An interview in an hour, lunch, soundcheck at noon, dinner at 5:00, meet and greet at 6:00, perform at 9:00, and back on the bus by 2:00 AM.”

“Harper and I will stay on the bus until lunch. After she wakes up from her nap, we’re going to go to a park near the stadium. We’ll meet up with you for dinner. I’ll put her down for another nap after that. We’ll stay for the first part of your set, and then it’s bath and bedtime. Expect us to be asleep when you get in.”

“Soundcheck usually doesn’t take more than thirty minutes. I can meet you at the park.” He’s brushing her hair.

“You should probably relax before the show. This your first one back from your break.”

“Should Daddy go to the park, Harp?” He addresses her.

“Daddy pawk!” She cheerfully replies.

“The genius has spoken. Going is a smart decision. Oh! And before I forget, Harper wants you to push both of us on the swing. We talked about it the last time we were at the park.”

“You’re ridiculous.” I can’t resist a smile.

“I’m trying to make my little girl happy. If that makes me ridiculous, so be it.”

Her hair is styled into a half-up, half-down do. The top portion twisted into a high bun, the rest touching her shoulders. Her headband is slid into place last.

I might be a bit biased, but I must say, she is the cutest little Wonder Woman I have ever seen.

“Smile, Lovebug. I want to take pictures of you for Aunt Chelsea and Grandma.” I lift my phone from the nightstand.

“She’s gotta be standing for the full effect.” He places her on the floor. “Hands on your hips, Harp.” He shows her the universal superhero pose. She copies it.

“Perfect. You look ready to fight some crime.” I snap pictures.

“Send me those.” Rhys requests.

“Of course.”

“I hungey,” Harper announces.

“Good thing it’s snack time. How do applesauce and grapes sound?” He puts her on his hip.

“Yummy!”

“Will you share it with me?”

Harper nods, smiling.

“And that’s why you’re replacing Uncle Taylor in the band.” He gives her a smooch on the cheek. “Are you ‘hungey’ too?” He uses her terminology with me.

“Yes. I think I’ll go with cereal and coffee, though.”

“No juice box?”

“There was no mention of a juice box. The answer is always ‘yes’ to juice boxes.”

“We’ve got fruit punch, orange, and apple. Choose wisely.”

“Orange. It’ll Round out my breakfast of champions.”

“Good call.”

I follow them to the front of the bus, where the lounge and kitchenette are located. Rhys one-handedly collects her snack before sliding into the dining booth with her on his lap.

He peels back the foil on her applesauce and inserts her toddler spoon, but keeps it out of her reach. The small Ziploc bag of green grapes that are sliced into smaller pieces are dumped on one of her cartoon plates.

Harper’s drinking her juice box as she waits for him to finish preparing her snack. She trades the straw for a mouthful of apple mush when he brings the spoon to her mouth.

I join them at the table with my breakfast and Keurig-produced coffee.

Turns out, it’s difficult to focus on eating when your ex is proving what a great dad he is while looking hotter than the Sahara as he does it.

It’s frustrating that our banter flows with ease, his presence is comforting, and he is putting forth the effort to help me and Harper acclimate to our new environment. Growing reliant on him would be stupid. Putting faith in him is a mistake. Resisting his charm is as hard as ever.

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