We both stood and her hand unfortunately dropped from mine. Stephanie gestured for me to follow her, something I’d gladly do. She was wearing a tight pair of black pants that day with matching heels, and the combination made her long legs look even longer. In those three-inch shoes, she was only about an inch or two shorter than me.
It was almost laughable how different things were. Two weeks before I had been planning on coming back from San Francisco and asking her out on a real date, one outside of the coffee shop. And now she had completely friend-zoned me and I was on my way in to meet my son.
She led me to a door labeled NICU: Level Two and stopped at the sink in front of it. She explained that we had to wash our hands before we went in so that they could keep the germ exposure down to a minimum. We hung up our jackets and her bag before washing in complete silence.
The second we were through the door, she grinned at one of the nurses standing in the room.
“Hey. How did it go last night?”
The nurse, a pretty brunette, let out a long sigh. “No more blind dates. He told racist jokes and laughed loudly at them when he did.” She stuck out her hand with her thumb down. “I’m just going to get some ice cream and a cat. That will complete my life, right?”
I couldn’t help but smile at that and Stephanie laughed quietly while rolling her eyes. “You need at least two cats for that plan to work.” She turned and gestured to me. “Kara, this is Jared Hart. He’s Chris’s father.”
God, his father. That hit me square in the chest but I tried not to show it. The nurse, Kara, extended her hand and shook my own lightly.
“Nice to meet you, Mr. Hart.”
“You, too.” I swallowed nervously and looked over at the multiple crib things. I had no idea which one held my son. “I guess I can ask questions now and you can actually tell me. Have you been here the whole time? Is he healthy?”
Kara nodded. “I was here when he was brought in and he’s made such great progress. The doctor should be in soon and he can give you specific information but your son is healthy, Mr. Hart. He’s pretty amazing.” A baby let out a cry and she glanced behind her before looking at Stephanie. “Steph can show you the ropes since she spends just as much time in here as I do. Let me know if you guys need anything.”
“Come on.” Stephanie led me to a small crib thing in the middle of the room and she stopped next to it. I stood behind her, unable to see into the bed yet, so I watched her instead.
A look of tenderness overcame her face as she stared at the baby and a smile lifted both side of her lips. The way she stared at him was with so much affection that if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought the baby was hers, not mine.
“Come here,” she said quietly, turning those pale blue eyes and smile on me. “Come meet your son.”
I stepped forward and looked at the baby for the first time, sucking in a sharp breath when I did.
He was wrapped up in a white blanket so tightly that he looked like a burrito. The only part of him visible was his head and even that had a blue cap covering the top of it. His eyes were closed as he slept and his mouth in the perfect ‘O’ shape. A cute button nose was settled between two chubby little cheeks and I felt a dull ache in my chest.
Was it possible that I loved him already?
“You can pick him up,” Stephanie said quietly, grabbing my attention. I glanced over at her and shook my head quickly.
“I don’t… How?”
The soft smile on her face was breathtaking. “Okay, how about this? Sit in that glider chair there and I’ll place him in your arms.”
Without questioning her, I took a seat in the small chair and watched as she lifted my son from his bed. He made a soft noise, like a coo, and Stephanie laughed softly.
“They took out his feeding tube this morning so all of the monitors and tubes are completely gone. That little thing on his ankle is just a safety device so he can’t be removed from this wing. He’s such a champ.” She settled him in arms, which felt completely stiff, and gave me directions of how to move.
“Just support his head, either with your hand or your arm. You won’t break him. I promise.”
He was perfect. I know all parents say that but he really was. That’s when I knew the answer to my earlier question. I loved the little guy so much. A lump formed in my throat and I swallowed quickly to keep from losing it.
“Hi,” I whispered, ducking my head a bit so I could inspect him closer. “Hi, buddy.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Stephanie step back and panic flooded me suddenly. I snapped my head up to look at her.
“Please don’t leave.”
She gave me an understanding smile, like I was an easily spooked wild animal, and nodded. After grabbing one of those rolling stools, she sat down. “Okay. I won’t go anywhere.”
Just having her close made me feel better and I began to relax again. When I looked up to meet her eyes a moment later, she was watching me. I could almost see the wheels turning her head but she smiled encouragingly again.
“You can touch him with your free hand.”
I did. His skin was so damn soft when I ran a fingertip along his cheek. Were all babies that soft?
Kara walked over to us, holding a baby with one arm and a bottle in the other. She made it look so easy. As she gently put the bottle to the baby’s mouth, she smiled.
“Any thoughts on what you’re going to name him?”
I gave her a confused look. “I thought he had been named Chris already.”
“That’s not set in stone,” Stephanie replied with a shrug. “We just wanted something to call him other than ‘Baby Boy Doe.’ He’s your son and you have every right to name him. I recalled the paperwork to have a birth certificate created once we realized you may be the father. You can name him whatever you want.”
I nodded and looked down at the baby. “My father’s name was Christopher. He’d love the thought of his grandson being named after him.”
“He looks like a Christopher,” she said and I looked up to find Stephanie smiling.
“He does, right?”
“Whenever he’s released, a notary will be waiting to have you sign his birth certificate,” she told me. “Start thinking about a middle name for him, too.”
Great. One more thing to be responsible for.
We stayed in the NICU for quite a while. Stephanie made small talk with both me and Kara and answered her phone once. When she did, it sounded like she was talking an employee through a procedure and I was amazed by how she could be so damn professional but helpful at the same time.
The ladies taught me how to feed Chris, change his diaper, and how to get spit-up off of my shirt when my son decided to let it go all over my shoulder.
I was completely mesmerized by the kid. Every coo, every smacking of his lips, every time he grasped my finger, he pulled me further under his spell. When he did something, I’d look over to Stephanie to find her smiling, too, and she would meet my gaze while we shared the moment together. It was almost too intimate for a couple of friends.
“I see it now,” she said at one point and I looked up to find her watching us again.