Sum of Us

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Ch.17: Poppy

Rhys, Harper, and I are in the master bathroom of a Miami hotel suite that will be our home for the next two nights.

The bathtub is the size of a small swimming pool. It’s fully equipped with jacuzzi jets and is large enough to accommodate four adults. Harp could do laps in it if she knew how to swim.

“Don’t fill it all the way. She’ll drown.” I drape a towel over the toilet to shield it from view.

Harper will cry otherwise. She truly is terrified of toilets.

“Or she could surprise us and turn out to be a swimming prodigy too.” Rhys measures out enough bubble soap to create enough foam to keep Harper entertained.

“How about we limit the trauma we inflict on our daughter?”

He sighs. “Fine. I guess I’ll teach Harp to swim the boring way -- with water wings in the shallow end of a pool.” He punctuates his joke by rolling his eyes.

“I commend you for your sacrifice.” I refold the towels Harper pulled off the rack.

We leave the tub jets off. The water’s temperature is checked before we allow Harper to get into every child’s dream bubble bath.

“Ubbles.” She collects an armful of them. “Wove ubbles.”

“Do Dina and Dudley love them too?” I ask.

They are her plastic dinosaur and rubber ducky.

“Uh-huh.” She tops Dudley the Duck’s head with bubbles. “Where, Daddy?”

“He is getting his guitar. Your sing-along is going to be extra fun tonight.” I begin to wash her back.

“DAADDDYYY!” Harper yells.

“Harrrpppperrr!” He sings her name the same way she sang his, standing in the doorway with his acoustic guitar in hand.

“Pway!” She slaps the water with both hands.

“No splashing.” I shield myself from the wave.

“Water stays in the tub or the guitar goes back in the case.” Rhys sits on the edge of the tub.

“Pway, Daddy, pway usic.” She angles herself towards him.

“I’d like to dedicate all of these songs to Harper Posy Wilde. Every day I spend with her is an Oasis.” He begins her private concert as he would any other.

They sing her favorite Oasis songs. I listen and hum along as I wash Harper’s hair and body. Their "Wonderwall" duet is the climax. "Don’t Look Back In Anger" is the grand finale.

She’s on the verge of nodding off to sleep when he finishes his rendition of the song. I rinse her beloved bubbles off of her body and abstract her from the draining tub.

Rhys sings "Field" for her as I change her into her pajamas. She’s asleep by the song’s end. Rhys puts her in the hotel-provided crib and tucks her in using the blanket I brought from home. I provide her with her giraffe. We take turns giving her a kiss goodnight.

“Are you tired?” He speaks directly into my ear.

The heat of his breath raises goosebumps on my skin.

“No.” My voice is breathier than intended.

“Wanna hang out in the living room?”

I nod.

Taking the baby monitor, the two of us go to the main room. Ian, Kyle, and Taylor are watching an action movie in the living room.

The suite has four bedrooms, a living and dining area, five bathrooms, and two private balconies. Ian and Kyle have their own rooms. Taylor and Rhys sharing a bedroom so that Harper and I can have one to ourselves. I tried to talk the boys out of giving Harp and I the master bedroom.

They wouldn’t hear of it. They never do.

“Hungry?” Rhys opens the room service menu.

“I could eat.” I walk to the floor-to-ceiling windows.

The nearby buildings’ lights sparkle like stars against the night sky. The water below amplifying its splendor by acting as a mirror.

The ability to see such things at my leisure isn’t lost on me. All of this would’ve been unattainable for us way back when. We are living in the dream Rhys spent a decade fantasizing about and striving toward.

“What do you want?” Rhys asks me.

“I’m fine with whatever.” My eyes remain outdoors.

The boys opt to order from a local Cuban restaurant using a food delivery app. He gets me a veggie take on a Cuban sandwich; it has Mojo marinated portabella mushrooms, roasted cauliflower, Swiss cheese, cilantro aioli, mustard, pickles, Cuban bread. It’s without a doubt what I would have chosen for myself.

We eat in the living room instead of the dining area. Rhys and I share a loveseat.

“Any good?” He checks on me.

I finish the bite of the sandwich I am chewing on. “Perfect. Thank you.”

“Still got it.” He smiles.

“You got lucky.” I take another bite of what is perhaps the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

“Nah. I’ll knock it out of the park next time too.”

“Who said you’re getting a ‘next’ time?”

“You’ll see.” He gives me his playful grin.

“Sure.” I play along.

“You will.”

“Uh, uh.” I struggle to ward off a smile.

And then he gives me a look, the one he used to do right before he kissed me to end a fake argument. I drop my eyes to the food in my lap, but the sizzling charge remains.

“Is it cool if XO comes over?”

I am thankful for Ian’s question, even if it does result in four sets of eyes shifting to me.

“As long as they keep the volume down. Harper is asleep.” I don’t dare to look at any of them.

Instead, I busy myself with tearing a bite-size piece off of my sandwich to eat.

There haven’t been any more disparaging teen mom comments, but I can tell they are not big fans of me. I’m a party pooper in their eyes; they’re not wrong. My daughter’s my top priority at all times. Certain activities are out of the question because of it -- namely, getting drunk. The guys have no qualms with my lifestyle and are willing to tweak theirs to accommodate it. They are family. That’s unrealistic to ask of strangers.

“They don’t have to, Pop. You can be honest with us.” Taylor presses with compassion.

“They can. Really. They can even bring alcohol with them.”

“You sure?” Rhys studies me.

I nod. “I don’t want there to be a divide between you. I feel like there is one right now.”

“If that’s what you want…” He presses.

“I do. Seriously.” I offer him a soft smile to put him at ease.

I want to limit the number of people that hate me on this tour. Their management team, Josie excluded, see me as public enemy #1.

“I’ll kick them out at any time. All you have to do is say the word.” Rhys says to me privately as Ian gives them the affirmative.

“What’s the word?”

“Wonderwall.”

“Harper would approve.”

“She’s the coolest. I want to be her when I grow up.”

“Oh yeah?” I laugh.

“I ask myself, ‘what would Harper do?’ before I do anything now.”

“That’s commitment.”

“I’ll get to her level of greatness one day…hopefully.” He goes back to his food.

Collecting and disposing of the empty food containers and stained napkins is my way of contributing. The boys are always telling me to relax and not worry about anything, but I want to earn my keep. Tidying the bus, suites, and dressing rooms is nothing compared to all that they do for me.

All of XO is in the living room when I return from the bathroom. I fight the urge to retreat into myself, fix a smile on my face, and stand up straight.

“Hello.” I wave.

They acknowledge me with more warmth than ever. I swerve my head to Rhys and shoot him a skeptical look. His expression is defiantly unapologetic as he shrugs a shoulder. I shake my head. He winks with a devious smirk in response.

“Beer, Poppy?” Troy, their keyboardist, offers me an uncapped Stella Artois.

“Sure. Thanks.” I accept it with a smile.

Step one of my goodwill venture is complete.

“Is this seat taken?” I ask to begin step two.

“No, feel free.” Gia’s response is clipped and cold, but I count it as a win.

I make myself comfortable in the armchair beside hers.

“What have you been up to today?” I initiate small talk.

Small talk is number 5 on my list of least favorite things.

“I’ve been on our tour bus.” She wryly answers.

“Of course. But what did you do on it? Are you a reader? Binge-watcher? Window watcher? Do you approach traveling as you would a cross-country road trip?” I persist.

“And you care because…”

“To get to know you better. The guys and Josie are the only adults I talk to daily. I’d like to expand that circle...for my sanity.” I resort to self-deprecating humor.

It’s my go-to in times of discomfort.

This comment makes a small smile form on her gorgeous face. “Not a bad answer.”

“What’s yours?”

“I do my best to stay active. I hate staying in the same place for too long. I do yoga every morning. I take a jog every time we reach a rest stop. When I have to sit down, I try to make headway on our next album.”

“Do you write all of XO’s songs?”

“Most. Jamie helps. My sister does too. We collaborate via Zoom.”

“That’s really cool.” I smile with sincerity.

“I can’t complain.”

There is a lull in the conversation without my guidance. I drink to make it easier to bear.

“What do you do for a living?” She says after several minutes.

“I used to be a receptionist at a business consulting firm and a cocktail waitress. I left those jobs before joining the tour.”

“You’ve had quite the come up.”

Ashamed, I shift my attention to my beer bottle. I trace the condensation with my fingers. “This is only temporary.“

“What are you going to do when the tour is over?” Gia continues to make an effort to talk to me.

“Return to Boston. I’m trying to go back to school in the fall.”

It’s something Rhys and I talk about often. He’s the one that initiates the conversations. It kills him that I had to drop out of school to take care of Harper. He’s insisting on making it right. It’s not something I’m going to fight him on. I truly do miss being in school. Academic settings are my favorite ones. The opportunity to return to higher education is one I’m unable to forgo.

“High school or college?” She asks.

“College. I studied environmental science at MIT for half a semester.”

“What do you plan to do with a degree in that?”

“I wanted to be a botanist. A graduate degree is needed to do anything significant. That workload would be too much to take on with a toddler. I haven’t decided what I want to study this time around.” I drink.

“You built robots and stuff? That’s awesome! Did you have them battle?” Troy makes it known that he has been eavesdropping on our conversation.

“Botanists study plants.” Gia corrects.

“That’s a florist.” He retorts matter of factly.

“Florists only arrange and sell flowers.” I clarify.

“You should be one of those. Your name’s Poppy.” He takes a swallow of the dark liquid in his crystal tumbler.

“That would be pretty cute.” Gia agrees. “Your parents were onto something when they named you.”

“Yeah.” My mood plummets.

I went by Penelope until I was six. My grandparents live in Montana. They have a field of wildflowers on their ranch. I used to spend hours upon hours playing in it when I spent summers with them. My dad started calling me Poppy because of it. The term of endearment became my full-time name. I was Penelope, not Poppy, when he kicked me out of his life.

Not wanting to draw attention to myself or ruin all the progress I have made with Gia, I stay in the living room and continue as though nothing happened. I nod and laugh at all the appropriate times, contribute to conversations, and nurse my beer. I bid farewell to everyone once I have finished my drink, citing sleepiness.

Tears are not shed until I’m in the shower. It’s been the only acceptable place to breakdown since Harper became cognizant of her surroundings.

My intense sobbing session leaves me legitimately exhausted. Once in my PJs, I shuffle out of the bathroom.

Sensing Harper and I are not the only ones in the room, I lift my eyes from the floor. Rhys’s seated on the end of the bed with his elbows rested on his knees.

“What are you doing here?” My voice is barely a whisper.

He stands. “You’ve been crying.”

“I’m just tired.” I shift on my feet.

“You’re a terrible liar.” He eats up the space between us. “Tell me the truth.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re not.” He lifts a hand to my face. “Talk to me.” He caresses my cheek with his thumb.

“Everyone was nice to me tonight. Don’t go after them.” I lean into his touch instead of pulling away.

Blame it on the alcohol.

“Answer the question if you want to prevent that from happening. The way it looks is damning.”

I sigh heavily. “I had an estranged father thought. It was a good memory, and then I was hit with our last conversation.” My voice quakes.

“I’m so sorry, baby.” The tenderness in his voice hits me in the heart.

“I think you should go.” I step out of his grasp. Head turned, I push away a stray tear.

“This is Harper related.”

We have an agreement: if it’s about Harper, it concerns him. Why did I agree to that?

“It’s late, Rhys.” I walk to the right side of the bed to put space between us.

“I’m not leaving you alone like this.”

“Harper’s here and I’m going to sleep,” I say, pulling back the covers.

“I’ll be here too.” He goes to the left side of the bed.

“And do what? Watch me sleep?”

“If that what it takes, yeah.”

“Takes for what?”

“For you to stop feeling alone.” His strong jaw is set, eyes intense, and his stubborn streak blazing bright.

“Okay.” I relent.

I slide beneath the sheets and situate the duvet over myself. Rhys lies atop the covers. His back is against the headboard and his legs are crossed at the ankle.

“Light on or off?” I reach to put my glasses on the nightstand.

“Off.”

I flip the switch, shrouding us in darkness.

I rotate onto my side and snuggle into my pillow with my back to Rhys.

“What was the memory?” He asks as I’m closing my eyes.

“He saw how much I loved flowers and started calling me Poppy. He was the first person to do it.” My voice is hushed.

“I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah.” I swallow the lump in my throat.

“Do you want to go back to Penelope?”

“No, even if it was the nicest thing he called me during our last conversation.”

“What else did he call you?”

‘We had big plans for your future. You were on the right track. All of your hard work’s been flushed down the drain because you couldn’t keep your legs closed. All anyone will see when they look at you is a stupid whore. I don’t want them to look at me and think I had a part in how you turned out. I raised my daughter better than this. I’m washing my hands of this situation. I’m not going to take responsibility for your poor decision making.’

His words reverberate in my mind.

I bury my face into my pillow and saturate its fabric with my tears.

Rhys joins me beneath the covers. He pulls me into his arms and guides my head to his chest.

“I’ve got you.” He breathes into my ear as he rubs soothing, pressured strokes on my back. “I’m sorry, baby. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to protect you,” He holds me tighter.

The steady thrum of his heart and warm embrace gives me enough peace to sleep.

~

“Maaaama! Maaama! Ake up!” Tiny hands squish my face.

My first sight of the day is Harper peering down at me with an eager grin.

“Where’s the fire, Lovebug?” I rasp.

“Beckfast!” She cheerfully chirps.

Quickly sitting up, I promptly push on my glasses. My mouth drops when I catch sight of the time – 12:07 PM.

“I’ll get food in your tummy right away.” I frantically flip through the room service menu for the children’s lunch options.

“Mama beckfast!” She bounces with exuberance.

“You first.” I lift the hotel phone off its receiver.

“Drop the phone. I’ve got it covered.” Rhys strolls in, pushing a room service cart.

A white ceramic teapot with two matching teacups, a glass of water, and a fruit-garnished champagne flute filled with orange juice are on it. Three silver domes keep the food out of view; if the size of them is an indication of the amount of food they harbor, he’s ordered half the menu.

The phone’s placed back onto its base. “Has she eaten today?”

“Twice. Breakfast and a mid-morning snack.”

“What’s all this?” I gesture to his buffet.

“Breakfast in bed for you and a lunchtime floor picnic for us. Isn’t it obvious?” He locks the cart’s back wheels with his foot when he reaches my side of the bed.

“No, not really.” I pry Harper’s fingers off of my glasses.

She whines and tries to go for them again. To end the struggle, I fold my legs into a pretzel, pull Harper into my lap -- her back to my front-- and wrap my arms around her waist.

“Harp was on wake-up detail. Take it up with her.” He lifts lid number one.

“Kangoo, Hug!”

“What’s that, baby girl?”

“When I hold her like this. I’m a kangaroo and she’s a joey in my pouch.”

He takes a beat to study our position. “I’ll have to remember that move.”

“It’s a good one to keep in your wrangling repertoire.”

“For sure. Now focus on the food, Pop. I have a perfect meal streak to uphold.” He snaps and points to the buffet he unveiled.

“Dark chocolate croissant, egg white omelet with spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, Swiss cheese and hollandaise sauce, a bowl of fresh blueberries and strawberries, English breakfast tea to ward off a caffeine headache, and a mimosa because you’ve never had one. Oh, and water. Because, well, we need water as humans.” He channels his inner game show host and presents each item with finesse.

Breakfast in bed is a sweet enough gesture, but the hopeful, boyishly vulnerable smile he sends me is my undoing.

I exhale the air from my lungs and my eyes go warm and wet. “Nailed it.” My lower lip trembles as I return his smile.

‘You okay?’ He mouths to keep Harper from getting involved.

I nod. “What is on the menu for you and Harper?”

“I’ve got a BLT with fries and a cup of tea for my voice. She’ll be having a grilled cheese sandwich, baby carrots, and applesauce. Her sippy cup has whole milk in it.”

“The duvet would make a good picnic blanket. How do you feel about changing lunch locations?”

“I thought you’d never ask.” He grins.

I’m on the right, Rhys is on the left, and Harper is comfy cozy in the middle. The three of us watch Moana on pay-per-view as we eat our lunch. We have to pause the movie several times to prevent Harper from choking. She has yet to grasp that singing and eating do not mix. She’s asleep 2/3rds into the film. Performing is hard work.

“The Miami Beach Arboretum is nearby. We can go when she wakes up.” Rhys suggests.

He has Harper in his arms. Her head’s on his chest and he’s rubbing her back. It’s almost the exact replication of the position we were in last night.

It finally dawns on me – he’s babysitting both of us.

“Helping with her is enough.” I finish the last of my mimosa and put the glass on the nightstand.

“It’s not.”

“I can tell how much you love her. You don’t need to try so hard to prove you want her in your life. I get it. You’re in this for the long haul.” I return my eyes to the television.

“This isn’t about her.”

“You’re harboring a mountain of guilt because of the way my life has turned out. I accomplished the biggest goal I set for myself; Harper has been well-cared for her entire life. I’ve done what I set out to do. There’s no reason for you to feel sorry for me.” Deep breaths between works keep my tears at bay.

“You’re not my charity case. You’re the exact opposite.” He says with sweet sincerity.

“Promise?” I turn to meet his gaze.

“I swear on my life.” Those emerald pools convey nothing but sincerity. “I don’t think I could’ve handled being a single parent. I sure as hell wouldn’t have been able to do it as well as you. Harper’s incredible. You’ve done a stellar job with her. I just want to look at some plants with you and our girl. The website made it seem fun.”

“If I find out you’re lying to me, I’m telling the guys you cry every time we watch Moana.” I shift my focus back to the movie.

“Her mom packs her bag and sends her off to follow her heart. It’s beautiful!” He whisper-shouts. “Tell them. It proves I have a soul!”

Laughter bubbles in my throat. “Give me something to hold over your head.”

“Losing you.” He abruptly switches to a serious tone.

“Rhys,--” My eyes go back to him.

“You’re more than enough. One of my biggest regrets is making you forget.”

“I should get ready. I want to be able to go as soon as our little singer wakes up.” I scoot off the bed.

Space. I need space.

His knack for stringing together pretty words is what did me in last time.

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