Home > All Fall Down(10)

All Fall Down(10)
Author: Jennifer Weiner

“Is ten dollars enough?”

How was I supposed to know? I had no idea . . . but I nodded anyhow. “Have a good day, then. Happy birthday!” She gave me a kiss and a cheery little wave before I got out of the cab and closed the door gently behind me.

I hadn’t braved the restaurant. It wasn’t Wednesday, but I could still imagine sitting at the counter and seeing Kelly and her mom in a booth. I didn’t even know whether an eight-year-old could be in a restaurant and order by herself—I could read the menu, of course, but I was too shy to talk to a waitress, and shaky about the mechanics of asking for a check and leaving a tip. I went to the bakery counter instead, where I ordered by pointing at the case—two glazed doughnuts, two chocolate, a jelly, and a Boston cream. There was a path through the woods that led from downtown to my school, and in those days a kid—even a girl—could walk through the woods alone, without her parents worrying that she’d get kidnapped or molested. I walked underneath the shade, kicking pine needles and gobbling my breakfast, devouring the doughnuts in huge, breathless mouthfuls, cramming down my sadness, trying to remember what my mom had said—that she loved me—instead of the way she’d made me feel. By Language Arts, I was sick to my stomach, and my mother had to take a cab to come get me. In the nurse’s office, still in her tennis whites, she’d been impatient, rolling her eyes as I checked my backpack for my books, but in the backseat of the taxi her pout had vanished, and she looked almost kind.

She had on a tennis skirt and a blue nylon warmup jacket with white stripes. Her legs were tan and her thighs barely spread out as she sat, whereas my legs, in black tights underneath my best red-and-green kilt, were probably blobbed out all over the seat.

“I guess breakfast didn’t agree with you,” she said. She reached into her tote bag for her thermos and a towel, giving me a sip and then gently wiping my forehead, then my mouth.

In Ellie’s doctor’s office, I sighed, remembering how special I’d felt that my mother had shared her special blue thermos, how I’d never have dreamed of grabbing it out of her bag, let alone backwashing, when Ellie’s doctor came striding into the room.

“Hello, Miss Eloise!” Dr. McCarthy wore a blue linen shirt that matched his eyes, white pants, and a pressed white doctor’s coat with his name stitched on it in blue. Ellie sprang out of my arms and stood, trembling, at the doorway, poised for escape. I gathered her up and set her onto the crinkly white paper on the table, ignoring my back’s protests. The doctor, with a closely trimmed white goatee and a stethoscope looped rakishly around his neck, walked over to the table and gravely offered Ellie his hand.

“Eloise,” he said. “How is the Plaza?”

She giggled, pressing one hand against her mouth to protect her single loose tooth. Now that she had a handsome man’s attention, she was all sweetness and cheer as she sat on the edge of the examination table, legs crossed, poised enough to be on Meet the Press. “We went for tea for my birthday.”

“Did you now?” While they chatted about her birthday tea, the white gloves she’d worn, the turtle she had, of course, named Skipperdee, and how her computer game was “very sophisticating,” he maneuvered deftly through the exam, peering into her eyes and ears, listening to her chest and lungs, checking her reflexes.

“So, Miss Ellie,” he said. “Anything bothering you?”

She tapped her forefinger against her lips. “Hmm.”

“Any trouble sleeping? Or using the bathroom?”

She shook her head.

“How about food? Are you getting lots of good, healthy stuff?”

She brightened. “I like cucumber sandwiches!”

“Who doesn’t like a good cucumber sandwich?” He turned to me, beaming. “She’s perfect, Allison. I vote you keep her.” Then he lowered his voice and took my arm. “Let’s talk outside for just a minute.”

My heart stuttered. Had he seen the quiz I’d been working on? Had I done, or said, something to give myself away?

I handed Ellie the iPad and walked out into the hallway as a young woman, one of the medical students who assisted in the office, stepped in to keep an eye on the patient. “Do you like Broadway musicals?” I heard my daughter ask, as Dr. McCarthy steered me toward the window at the end of the hallway.

“I just wanted to hear how you were doing. Any questions? Any concerns?”

I tried to keep from making too much noise as I exhaled the breath I’d been holding. Maybe I’d picked Dr. McCarthy for shallow reasons—he was the first pediatrician we’d met with who hadn’t called me “Mom”—but he’d turned out to be a perfect choice. He listened when I talked, he never rushed me out of his office or dismissed any of my ridiculous new-parent questions as silly, and he provided a necessary balance between me, who was prone to panic, and Dave, who was the kind of guy who’d wrap duct tape around a broken leg and call it a job.

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