“What, are you crazy?!”
No way. No matter how much I looked like a poor little abandoned girl, I was going to do what Jane asked me to do. Yeah, okay, she'd been my best friend for six years, we'd lived together and shared after-shower body milk and rent, but that was as far as it went. I wasn't going to do that crazy thing she was asking me to do.
“Did you hear yourself, you're asking me to lend you my boyfriend!”
“I know, it sounds weird, but I need it. Please, please, please, please.”
When Jane started begging she was a real chewing gumball in your hair. She would stick to you and there was no way to get her off. Only drastic measures worked with both of them and in Jane's case, it was to bend to her demands, even if the idea made me want to run away. All I could do was negotiate and look for alternatives. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
“Why Noah, you know hundreds of guys who would love to be your boyfriend.”
“What happened to that cute one from last week? This one... Phil, that's it, Phil. Why not him?”
“Well... because I already told my mummy.”
Her mummy. I don't understand how a 24-year-old woman still calls her mother that, but then again, everyone shows their childish side the way they want to. And Jane was pulling out all her 10-year-old weaponry to get what she wanted. She was sitting on our sofa, with her legs tucked under her body, clutching tightly to one of the heart-shaped cushions that one of her exes had given her. Her eyes were wide open, her head cocked to one side, her lower lip bitten, and she had that neglected little-girl expression that made the hardest of hearts go soft. And I was not immune to those big blue eyes begging me. I let out a sigh and sat down opposite her. As always, it was my turn to be the one to get her out of the mess she had gotten herself into.
“What did you say to your mother?" Jane flashed that million-dollar smile that the boys fell at her feet so many times, she didn't even count them any more.”
“Oh, you know mummy cares a lot about me. And she wants me to sit my head down and stuff.”
“Yes, I know.”
I was tired of listening to her talk to his mother every Sunday morning. They would talk for almost two hours. How were her studies, how was work, had she found a nice guy... I stopped paying attention to what they were talking about two years ago. Basically, it was always the same.
“Well, a few months ago I told her that I met a guy and that I had started dating him. He was nice, handsome and had a good job.”
“Well, a lot of guys you've dated this year fit that profile. “She shrugged her neck, I knew that what she was going to say now was going to annoy me.
“I told him I was a veterinarian, that his name is Noah and that we started dating eight months ago.”
“Shit, I knew it. So you've sold my sentimental life to your mother, but you're taking the lead role.”
“Just Noah's, I swear.”
“And what else have you told him?”
“I told him how we met at the practice where I worked, how he invited me to dinner and .... well, you know the story.
Yes, I knew the story, because it was my own. I had taken Flops, my grandmother's old cat, to the vet. When he died, I was the only one who wanted to take care of a cat older than a cold, and almost blind. What was I going to do? The poor animal had already lost its only owner, I wasn't going to throw it out on the street or give it a lethal injection. Even the vet couldn't believe he was still alive. How long could he live, anyway, one year? No, three! Three bloody years with the old cat on his back. Ailing and old, the cat was still crawling on the sofa. I thought he was immortal, when one morning I found him belly up and snoring awake, well, in a catatonic state. I took him to the emergency vet and there was Noah. All handsome in his blue scrubs, blond hair and brown eyes. My hero. He was by my side when he told me Flops was dying, that his lungs were waterlogged and taking air was painful for him. He held my hand as he waited for the lethal injection to take effect. When he stopped breathing, I drowned my cry in his chest. He invited me for coffee and sat in the waiting room with me. That week he took me on our first date. A Chinese restaurant on the other side of town. When he dropped me off at the front door he gave me our first kiss. Soft, tender, a caress on the lips, and then he waited chivalrously for me to close the door. And from then on we went out together.
“So now you tell her you've broken up with him, and everybody's so happy, see how simple it is? Oh, there he was biting her lip again.”
“She's coming to spend a few days in town with Tomasso, something about his little boy moving here, and they wanted to meet Noah, you know.”
Yes, I thought so. I'm sure meeting Noah was a "spur of the moment" thing. Alexis Di Angello was anything but impulsive. That woman had checked and double-checked the place where her little Jane was going to live. I was sure she even looked into my past. If she was friends with her little treasure, she had to be sure who she was leaving her with. Controlling was an understatement. Good thing her late husband kept her busy with other things. Tomasso wasn't Jane's father, but he was Italian, so the protective instinct was ingrained in her DNA. No, I was going to feel sorry for poor Noah in the end, suffering the third degree from those two guard dogs.
Well, break-ups sometimes...
“Ugh, you don't understand, they're coming tomorrow.”
“Great, you always leave things to the last minute.”
“You see? When I borrow Noah from you, it's because you are my only salvation.
“And wouldn't it be better to tell her the truth?”
“Mummy? No, no. You have to do it slowly, you know how she gets.”
Well, no, I had no idea how she got, because I had never, I mean never, seen her angry with Jane. Except for that controlling, manic streak of hers, she was a woman made of candy. If I hadn't had a mother, I would have stayed with her. Well, except when she went all FBI agent.
“Let's see, Jane. Understand, I can't go to Noah now and tell him... you know, Jane's parents are coming to town tomorrow and guess what, you'll have to pretend to be her boyfriend. Do I mind, not at all, Jane is my friend and I trust her as much as I trust you. You can cuddle in front of all of us with confidence, I'm not going to cut off your testicles with a pair of wire strippers afterwards.”
“Wow, you say it in a way that he won't want to.”
“No, Jane, I'm the first one who doesn't like it. That sweethearts don't lend themselves.”
“You're so selfish. I was the first one interested in getting you a boyfriend. Well, I didn't introduce you to boys or anything...”
Yes, I know. He would introduce me to the friends of her flings, mostly so that there wouldn't be any dangling legs, as you know, odd numbers never work in couple things.
“No, Jane. I don't think it's a good idea.”
“That's what friends are for. You remind me when you need to borrow something.”
Yeah, right. As if lending me the curling iron was the same as lending her the boyfriend. If she didn't think of men as "accessories", she'd have her own by now.
“Look, if you want to find another solution tonight, now I have to run out that door or I won't make it to my shift.”
“You think it over, you will see that what I am asking you is the only solution.”
I grabbed my backpack and left the flat. I didn't slam the door - what's the point, it's not the door's fault. And it wouldn't do to knock some sense into my flatmate's head either. Because of that last-minute assault, I had to run to get to the bus stop in time. My line was just opening the doors when I caught up with the last one in line.
On the way I pondered what Jane had asked me to do. I meditated as I changed from my sneakers to my hospital loafers. I meditated as I reached the paediatric nurses' station on the neonatal ward. But when Ivanna called my name, I decided I had meditated enough.
“Hello, Maria, I have good news for you today.”
“Yes? Tell me about it.”
“Next week, you will start your delivery rotations.”
Well, I wasn't jumping for joy because I was a big girl to do that. Fuck it, I jumped, and let out a little shout of victory, as if my team had won the Superbowl. I had wanted that job from the moment I saw my first baby being born while I was doing my hospital internship. Midwife was my dream, and my grandmother Caridad's dream. Her mother was a midwife in Cuba and she learned the trade as a child. When she came to the United States, she struggled and studied until she was able to work in the profession she loved so much. She was almost 40 years old when she joined the staff at the same hospital where I was now. Both Castillo and I called each other, the old and the young. I was happy for me and I was happy for her. A year away from retirement, her granddaughter was coming to take over from her. Working at her side was more than a source of pride for me. Her favourite granddaughter, she told me, and I know why. Out of five grandchildren, three girls and two boys, I was the only one who had followed in her footsteps in the health field. My cousins Helena and Cari (because she had to be distinguished from my grandmother), were full-time housewives. My cousin Manu (because Manuel was my father), was still at school. My brother Alex (because Alejandro was my grandfather), had gone into the car workshop with my father. The "tuners", as they were called in the neighbourhood, because they both worked in a big workshop that was dedicated to tuning cars. My dad was an upholstery "craftsman". His hands were in charge of the most demanding orders. And my brother was the decibel genius. He could install any audio equipment in anything with wheels. Fortunately or unfortunately I didn't have a car. Anyway, let's leave the family, it was time for work.
The worst thing about the neonatal ward was seeing the struggle some babies had with death. Seeing them so small and clinging with all their might to life was what motivated me to keep going. My problems were less important, always. They did the hardest part, I just gave them medicine, care and love.
When I got home in the evening, after watching those little warriors fight hand to hand, I was exhausted. My body was worn out, especially my legs, but my soul was full. Sometimes sad, when we lost the battle, sometimes happy, when we seemed to win.
When I opened the front door, I could tell something was wrong. Normally, Jane is sitting in the living room, watching some reality show, in semi-darkness and with a box of tissues close by. The sound of boogers was my almost daily greeting. But not that day. The lights were on and the voices I heard were not coming from the television. When I walked into the living room, I almost knew what I was going to find. Sitting on the couch were Jane's parents, well, her mum and her husband. And opposite, sitting on the armrest of the couch with her back to the door, was Jane. When they saw me enter, the first thing I saw were the smiles of Alexis and Tomasso Di Angello. Jane's face then turned to me and I saw her smile, but there was something about that smile that I didn't quite like.
“Oh, you're here already? We've been waiting for you.”
Someone's legs were sticking out of the armchair and I prayed that person had the same taste in shoes as Noah. But no, his head poked out of a gap and he smiled as his arm, which I hadn't noticed before, withdrew from Jane's waist.
“Hello, Maria. It's good to see you.”
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