At twenty-three you shouldn’t have your life worked out. Ethan Dacey knew this and it worried him. At twenty-three you’re supposed to have muddled your way through college, after changing majors four or five times, and surrendered to moving back home when scores of employers didn’t show up with offers in hand. They were anticipated but not insurmountable frustrations, meant to contribute to the sum of who you were supposed to be. This didn’t happen to Ethan. He knew what he wanted to do since the age of six when building blocks became intricate cities, constructed by flashlight at times, under a makeshift tent in his bedroom. By the time he was twelve, Ethan was passing on bike rides to the arcade with his friends, preferring to spend hours sketching the things he hoped to someday build. A degree in architecture came as a surprise to no one, a promising career befalling him like a chunk of blue sky.
This focus, this surefootedness, concerned Ethan, but not nearly to the extent that Carly Pappas did. At twenty-three, finding the perfect woman seemed too great a gift. Though, actually, he’d tripped over her during a freshman Frisbee mixer five years before, swiping the coveted plastic disc from her tender, albeit muddy, grasp. Carly Pappas’ look of surprise hadn’t stopped him cold, but a face that drove through him like lightning did. Ethan did the unthinkable that day, handing her the Frisbee, forfeiting the game and his heart in one ceremonious gesture. A traditional Greek Orthodox wedding came four years later. It was so full with sacrament and mysticism that a Presbyterian from Pennsylvania should feel not only married, but wholly received into another culture when it was over. It was as though God Himself had given the bride away, life taking such an orderly and obvious path that Ethan could see their names carved into the horizon: Mr.& Mrs. Ethan Dacey. He liked the sound of it, the feel of it even better.
When obstacles did rear up he was more relieved than upset, telling Carly that bumps in the road were expected and necessary. Things like a month or two when their budget didn’t stretch to cover the electric bill, or the day Carly didn’t see the car in front of her stop short. Her frantic phone call to Ethan had sparked visions of a life-flight team descending upon the scene, along with every emergency vehicle in Austin, Texas. Only three blocks away, Ethan raced barefoot to the corners of Greenwood and Park where he promptly burst out laughing. Gasping for a breath, he collapsed onto the curb, merciless Texas heat and his imagination resulting in a greater need for medical attention than any predicament his young wife had encountered. He was grateful for a downpour of perspiration; it had kept Carly from seeing the tears in his eyes. Something short of a fender-bender, a lone traffic-cop stood writing her a ticket while the man whose car she’d hit insisted that he was already late, and could they just forget the whole thing. Carly didn’t find Ethan’s reaction as amusing and he spent the next hour climbing out of the hole he’d dug for himself. He wasn’t laughing at her—just wildly relieved that she hadn’t so much as a broken nail. Still, he counted it for a bump in the road.
They planned to move into married housing that first fall while his wife pursued a master’s degree in communications. It was last minute change in plans, Carly suggesting the idea a day before the registration deadline. Ethan was all for it, swayed by her dreams no matter how impromptu they were. He happily forfeited a trendy downtown flat to pay for Carly’s tuition. But having decided so late they ended up on a waiting list for the dingy one-bedroom apartments that the university offered to married couples. It was a real glitch, Ethan envisioning the two of them setting up housekeeping in the back of his ’91 Explorer. The only other option was to live with Carly’s parents. But marriage was new and the idea of moving into their house made Ethan feel like a boy bedding somebody’s daughter. No matter how often Milo Pappas offered him a beer, his big screen TV or the use of his boat, Ethan felt as if he’d already taken the most precious thing the man had to give. So when Joanna Gale, Carly’s best friend, offered to take them in Ethan was grateful, guessing they’d swerved around the bump in the road.
He liked Joanna enough. She was complex compared to Carly, which wasn’t to say that Carly was not. It was just that to Ethan, Carly’s complexities were effortless or rather something he enjoyed understanding, like the intricacies of an involved design. Joanna, on the other hand, had tendencies that caused his brow to knot on sight. She had no real plans, living life ten minutes at a time. It did complement a cutting sense of humor that demanded you pay close attention, like the dialogue from a well-crafted script. It gave the illusion of a captivating personality, though he never could say for sure. Aside from her comedic timing, Joanna Gale was a beautiful woman, the kind of pretty that was impossible to ignore, even if you were madly in love with your wife. She was well aware of her physical assets, and Joanna made them pay by modeling her way through college—catalog work mostly. Initially, her job struck Ethan as it did most men: titillating and curious to know if Victoria’s Secret had ever employed her. But in 900 square feet of apartment the novelty soon dulled. There was something disconcerting about using the bathroom only to have a stack of Joanna Gale’s best work and an offer for free shipping staring up at you. To remedy this Ethan made sure there was an equal supply of Architectural Digest on hand. Modeling gigs, as Joanna called them, were short notice opportunities that suited her come and go lifestyle. On a Friday, she’d fly off to a regional shoot on the Texas Gulf Coast or South Florida. On Sunday nights she’d stumble through the apartment door, fresh off the redeye, lugging a suitcase past the pullout sofa where Carly and Ethan slept. A few weeks into their stay Joanna began to spend Monday mornings talking about a photographer from Brazil, Marcelo Souza, who she met while on a shoot in Miami. Carly thought this was the best possible news since, according to her, Joanna was more or less estranged from her parents and hadn’t had a steady boyfriend since sophomore year. Ethan didn’t really care one way or the other as their time with Joanna was coming to an end. What he did consider telling his wife was that instead of the potential boyfriend perks, she might want to challenge Joanna as to exactly what kind of a guy Marcelo was. Ethan noticed, though he tried not to, that along with the intense boyfriend chatter were the Monday morning signs of someone who was in need of a fix. Joanna was beyond thin, trembling hands, a bead of sweat that didn’t make sense in central air. He also found it odd that for a woman who made a good salary, Joanna never had a nickel to spare. Only a week before she’d asked Ethan if he could help out with a little more than his half of the rent. When he mentioned his concerns to Carly, she dismissed it: Joanna was thin because she modeled, she’d probably just been exercising, she never was any good with money.
Like a cancerous scare, Ethan’s concerns about Joanna were relegated to the back of his mind. He wasn’t about to dwell on it, never mind do anything about it, as he did not see it as his place to intervene. It faded further when they moved out on a Tuesday, Carly announcing her pregnancy that Saturday morning. Apparently a pullout sofa in a cramped apartment had more going for it than a musty mattress with a spring poking through the middle. An understandable state of disbelief carried Ethan and Carly through the next few months. After all, there had been precautions and plans and now a person who was eight or ten years ahead of schedule. At least this was what the doctor assured them, speaking about a fuzzy image on a monitor that to Ethan looked like a melted marshmallow.
Bypassing a waiting area full of pregnant women, there was a moment of panic in the men’s room, a deep wheezing breath and a quick flash about vanishing to Argentina or New Zealand or Milwaukee. But by the time he returned to his stunned wife, only a minute or so later, Ethan had gotten it together. He never looked back or applied for a passport, accepting the baby as deep but blessed curve on that clear path. In fact, it had an incredible affect, his unborn son or daughter easing Ethan’s worries that everything had fallen too perfectly into place. If this was life’s unforeseen glitch—and clearly it was—well, damn, he’d handle it.
Carly had a bit more trouble paring down her changing life and body. As the months passed, Ethan understood that she needed to be reassured. He wanted to soak up her doubts, be the buffer between uncertainty and what came next, promising Carly that this was just a variation on perfect. Her last spoken worry came on Friday, right before a final exam. Ethan had prepared her breakfast early that morning, serving it out on their tiny balcony. Any later than seven and you might as well take the eggs out raw, crack them on the table, and let the sun do the work. A Texas native, Carly was impervious to heat. Ethan, whose Northern blood ran thick, appreciated a change of season, and was usually a puddle of sweat before ten. Though heat, he would tell her, was the smallest thing he was willing to endure for them. It was the way he dove into most conversations nowadays—an armor of confidence and some head’s up thinking. It seemed to be working, Carly accepting the idea of parenthood like an unexpected relocation to a foreign country. Once acclimated, you might enjoy the local flavor. Just that week they’d learned that the baby was a girl. The news pleased Carly, therefore pleasing Ethan, a smile edging around her mouth when it was announced. Carly insisted that the sex didn’t matter, but Ethan knew that his wife was more drawn to shades of pink than blue. Now seven months pregnant, she spoke less about tight budgets and tiny apartments, more about baby names and the safest car seat on the market. She seemed willing to latch onto Ethan’s enthusiasm, his ideas about how she might finish her degree and what he was going to do make that happen.
His talent had landed Ethan a job with Austin’s most prestigious architectural firm. Pratt & Tully designed the future and Ethan Dacey was going to be part of it. They were dynamic and bold, pressing the boundaries of industry standards. He liked the commercial end, but Ethan truly loved the residential aspects. The idea of plowing through dated developments and erecting 21st century houses excited him, putting into motion designs that had been building in his head since he was six. Every morning he’d dress for work, Carly cleverly rotating the three suits he owned with a sports jacket so he’d look polished, anxious and privileged to be living his dream. Always mindful of a first impression, Ethan would double check in the bathroom mirror, making sure that every hair was in place. Carly would wrap around from behind, admiring the professional image, insisting that he was ready to take on the world. “Some men were just born to wear a suit,” she’d murmur. “You look perfect.”
In his short tenure, the senior partners had been so enamored with Ethan’s work that they were willing to allow him a few courtesies when he asked. Next fall he would work from home two days a week while Carly attended classes. It would ensure her the time to finish her degree and Ethan a chance to be with his daughter. Fatherhood was a concept that Ethan had grown to love almost as much as his wife and career. He might have to work a few of those designs at three a.m., but he was more than willing.
Putting breakfast on the table, his plan was to tell Carly that night, celebrating the end of the spring semester and his news. He was feeling pleased with himself, sure that this would smooth any remaining bumps in the road. Ethan glanced up as Carly wandered out onto the balcony. She looked drawn, more like those first few months when he felt guilty as hell as she sat nauseous and pale on the bathroom floor.
“Oh Ethan, I really don’t think I can eat a thing. Besides, I’m going to be late. My bus will be here any minute,” she said, looking past a wilted geranium toward the bus stop, which was visible from their balcony.
“Toast, how about a piece of toast?” he coaxed. “You hardly ate anything at dinner last night either. Are you sure you feel okay? I can drive you to class.”
“If you do, you’ll be late for your meeting; the bus is fine—and the air conditioning works better than in your car. I’m fine. Test stress,” she said, massaging her temple.
“Let me get you some Tylenol,” he said, already on his way. “It’s just in the kitch—”
“I had some already.” Stopping him, Carly clasped his arm and smiled. She shrugged at his concerned look and eyed the geranium instead. “You know, this is absolutely dead.” Walking three scant steps toward it, Carly switched from rubbing her temple to rubbing her stomach. “We can’t even take care of a plant.” She turned, thrusting the dead thing at him. “How are we going to take care of a baby?” Her dark eyes brimmed, looking like a watery mirage against the dry heat of Texas.
Well, perhaps the road wasn’t entirely smoothed. He followed through without hesitation, easing the terracotta pot from her grasp. “It’s a plant, Carly. I think babies generate better awareness—had it cried, I would have watered it. We’re going to be fine, all three of us.” Holding onto the plant and her, Ethan breathed in the smell of an early summer wind that tangled with her hair, feeling the flutter of a kick against his own stomach. I’m with you, Dad. “See that, she’s onboard, no worries.”
Carly pushed away, a small smile winning over her tears. “Maybe she’s just kicking you for being a hopeless optimist.”
“What’s not to be optimistic about?” he asked, ensuring that even a trace of worry was something she could not see. “It’s a new millennium; I have a fantastic job, the perfect wife, and a ba—”
“Ethan,” she interrupted, putting a finger to his lips. “You know I couldn’t imagine, not for a moment, having this baby without you.”
He stepped back, perplexed by the comment. Out of any real concerns, it wasn’t a remote possibility. “Why would you say something like that? I’m right here, you know that.”
“Because the baby and I, we’re so very lucky. I want you to know that I realize that. When I first met you, I thought, ‘Oh, there’s really cute guy’—okay, hot in a textbook, deep into his designs kind of way. And I wondered if you could be as passionate about anything else.”
“And?” he asked, furrowing a brow at her.
“Clearly,” she said, glancing at her stomach, “you could.” He laughed, tugging her closer. “But now, with all this, everything that’s happening, I see just how endless you are. It’s a gift Ethan, the ability to make someone who’s so unsure feel like they can take on anything—do anything. And personally, I can’t wait to see the rest.”
“The rest of what?” he asked, thinking that the hormone meter was on overdrive today.
“Your life,” she said, pecking him on the cheek. Carly picked up her backpack and walked back into the apartment. “Even if I’m only a so-so kind of mother, it’ll be okay, because my daughter already has the world’s most fabulous dad.”
While the compliment did produce a flash of pride, the acceptance in her voice made an even greater impression. “Your daughter,” he emphasized, “doesn’t have a chance at a so-so mother. Mine wouldn’t hear of it.” He followed her into the living room and kissed her as she edged her way toward the door. A bus, an exam, an eight o’clock presentation in Oscar Pratt’s office all suddenly seemed negotiable as Ethan slid the backpack from her shoulder, steering them toward the bedroom. Carly’s hands moved from his shoulders to his tie, tugging at the knot. But she stopped, her forehead pressing against his cheek.
“Yeah?” he said, his mouth following a practiced curve, her lips, her neck, the fine line of her shoulder.
“I spent the last two weeks studying for this test.”
“Is there a makeup?”
“I… I don’t think so,” she whispered, clearing her throat, straightening his tie. “You fail if you don’t show up.”
He smiled and sighed, “Well, in that case, tonight we’ll just have to celebrate an A.” Before letting go, Ethan’s hands traveled her body avoiding, for the moment, a growing baby bump. While he loved the look of a pregnant Carly, the swell perfectly fitting her frame, he also missed her old body. It was something he’d never be foolish enough to say aloud; he’d have it back soon enough, the compact curve of a frame that rendered an enticing silhouette. “I’ll, um, I’ll make sure there’s an extra special reward,” he added, handing her the backpack.
“Oh, no pressure there,” Carly said, her dark eyes flashing. “But just in case, what would I get for a B?”
“Same thing, I’m pretty sure.”
“Sounds like a deal,” she said, heading out the door. He waited until the elevator arrived, Ethan waving, Carly blowing a fast kiss good-bye as the doors shut.