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“You’re not moving to Dallas with my baby.”
Gabi was in the middle of the floor, playing with eleven-month-old Joci, ignoring me with surprising ease. She was on all fours, crawling to one spot and waiting on Joci to use her newly acquired walking skills to follow. Just before Joci reached her, Gabi would take off across the room, eliciting a peal of laughter from their baby girl before they repeated the game.
“Watch me.” She tossed those words over her shoulder in such a casual tone that at first, I actually watched her as they continued their game. Then it hit me.
It was a taunt. It was a dare.
“Gabi… I don’t know what the hell is going on with you now, but this” — I held up the stack of legal documents— “Isn’t funny.”
“Would you look at this common ground we have?” She finally sat still, looking at me as she wrangled Joci into her arms. “I don’t think it’s funny either, Terrence. It’s a serious, binding legal document. You’re gonna sign it, and Joci and I are moving to Dallas.” This wasn’t the same girl that, just a few months ago, had been pleading me with to watch the baby for a few hours while she slept. There were tears in her eyes then, but I didn’t have the time.
Now? I only saw anger. In that moment, I wished she would just fly off the handle, hit me, do whatever she needed do, as long as she showed some sign of the fire I knew was there. But this was a cold anger. Her demeanor, her actions, her words, they were all meant to leave me frostbitten and numb in her wake.
Did I do this to her?
I brushed that thought away. It served no purpose right now, if Gabi thought I was going to go along with what she said simply because she said it.
“Why do you want to leave so bad?” That wasn’t what I’d meant to ask, but now that it was out there, I wanted an answer. It was the first thing that popped in my mind when I finished reading the custody agreement she had so casually dropped onto the counter in front of me.
She didn’t respond until she had strapped Joci into her highchair and presented her with a handful of Cheerios. “Why do you care?” she asked, brushing her hands on the fronts of the light-wash skinny jeans she wore. The move called attention to her new, plumper thighs, a remnant of the pregnancy that she couldn’t seem to get rid. That was probably my fault too, somehow.
“I don’t know, Gabi. Why shouldn’t I care that my girlfriend is trying to move our child three states away?”
Gabi laughed, a derisive bark that I didn’t recognize. “Girlfriend? You’re funny. You and I both know that’s not how you see me, so cut the bull. Besides, Dallas to Atlanta is a two hour flight. It’s not that serious.”
You and I both know that’s not how you see me…What?
“You’re making plans without thinking it through. Who’s gonna pay for those tickets Gabi? It’s not like you—”
“It’s not like I what, Terrence?” She stepped right into my face to stare me down. “Were you gonna say it’s not like I have a job? God, I hope not. Surely you’re not about to throw that in my face as if me being jobless didn’t happen by your design.”
My eyebrow shot it the air. “My design? Are you delusional? You wanted to be a stay-at-home-mom!”
Her eyelids fluttered. For a moment, her glacial front slipped, and I saw a trace of the old Gabi. Vulnerable, yes, but at least this Gabi was accessible. She dropped her head, pressing her lips into a thin line. “If you really believe that, I’m further convinced that I need to go.”
When she looked up again, her eyes were wet. “Just sign the papers, Terrence. It’s not like you spend a lot of time with Joci anyway.”
“What are you talking about? I see my baby girl every day!” Was she trying to imply that I was a deadbeat? That I didn’t care about Joci?
“Yeah, T, you see her every day. That’s not the same as being with her though. Can you even tell me how many teeth she has?”
Shit. No, I couldn’t. But she was still exaggerating the hell out of the situation, trying to paint me as something I wasn’t. Was it really that hard for her to see that I was working my ass off for her and Joci?
“Ok, you’re right. I should spend more time with Joci, especially now that she’s getting older. But how is that supposed to happen if you take her to Dallas? I’m not signing this. You do not have my permission to take my child to another state.”
Gabi tossed her head, and that wall of hers went right back up. “I didn’t want to have to do this.” Her voice was clipped, as if she were forcing herself to say the words. “But, I’m not giving you a choice, Terrence. I will do everything in my power to ruin you if you don’t sign it.”
I couldn’t help it. I laughed. Who, exactly, did Gabi think she was?
“Gabi, you were a junior associate for what, a year and some change before you stopped to take care of Joci? Please explain this power you think you have. I’m listening.” I relaxed into the back of the barstool, waiting for her to wilt into tears in front of me as she realized just how silly this was. Instead, she straightened her posture and her eyes went, if possible, even colder than before.
“Bravo, Terrence,” she said, sneering as she clapped her hands, an action that Joci repeated in the background. “Applause. That’s what you wanted, right? Congratulations, you tore me down, again. You are so good at that. And you know what? You’re correct. Now that I’ve dropped everything that mattered to me to take care of the baby, I’m nothing, right? No goals, no dreams, no drive, no ambition. Hell, I can’t get my body back. This is awful for you, isn’t it? Everything that attracted you to me is… gone.” She stopped speaking, looking past me as if she’d just realized something important.
Was that really how she saw herself? As someone who used to be?
Did I do this to her?
There that question was again, and it made sick to my stomach.
Her body was a non-issue to me. The extra weight she hated had settled into her butt, hips and thighs, something I would have appreciated if I’d been given the opportunity to touch her at all. The larger breasts, courtesy of nursing Joci, were a benefit in my eyes, but Gabi didn’t share those feelings. Whatever body issues she had were all on her, but she was right about the other stuff.
When I looked at her now, she wasn’t the eager, determined young lawyer I fell in love with. She was always tired, irritable, and if I didn’t know better, I would think her entire wardrobe consisted of yoga pants and tank tops. Gabi no longer carried the aura of a woman who was in control. Now, she just seemed… defeated. And she was right, it wasn’t attractive. She was nothing like her old self, nothing like Sabrina, who reminded me so much of the old Gabi that I could… That I could what?
“No,” she interrupted, snapping her attention back to me. “Let me say this. I may not have any power myself, but I have access to it. My uncle. Your boss. He considers me his own, and he would stomp you in a heartbeat if he knew how you’ve hurt me. He’s a big deal… very well connected, you know that. Uncle Bobby would destroy your reputation and career without a second thought, for me. I’ll tell whatever lies, cry as many tears as I need to, to make that happen.”
Who was this bitter, vindictive person?
“Do you really hate me that much, Gabi? If I don’t let you take my child from me, you’re willing to ruin my life?”
“Yes. I mean… no, I don’t hate you. I thought I did. I wish I did, but… I don’t hate you, Terrence. This isn’t about taking your child from you, this is me pulling out my big joker, the only card I have, to try to keep you from stopping me.” Her voice broke, and that icy facade fell again. “I don’t want to do that to you. I just… I have a chance to put my life back on track, get back to my career. If you just sign the custody agreement, it’s better for Joci.”
I frowned. “How the fuck do you figure that? Why can’t you get back to your career here in Atlanta, at Pritchard & Graham?”
“I can’t go back to P&G because I can’t work with you,” she said. “And it’s better for Joci because it would mean her mother wasn’t walking around miserable.”
“Miserable? I make you miserable?”
Was it really that bad for her? I was doing just what I said I would, taking the best care of her and Joci that I could. She didn’t have to work, and she didn’t want for anything. That’s what every single extra hour I put into these cases was about. Taking care of home, so that she could be a homemaker like she wanted.
“If you really believe that, I’m further convinced that I need to go.”
I looked at her, still waiting on to respond. When she dropped her I eyes, I repeated the question.
“We’re getting away from the point,” she said, glancing back at Joci, who had fallen asleep in her chair, with several Cheerios stuck to her face. “Terrence… you know how important my career was to me. I postponed that, to try to fit your perfect vision of what a mom should be, and now… I barely even recognize myself. You’ve gotten to brand yourself as this super-dedicated, hardworking attorney, the guy who stays up all night working on ways to leave destruction at an opponents’ doorstep before they’ve even had their morning coffee. But you did that at my expense, while I was killing myself taking care of the baby that we created.”
My mouth opened to contradict what she was saying, but I couldn’t. The tears she had been holding back were streaming down her face without abandon.
Did I do this to her?
Yeah. I think I probably did.
For the second time that day, I remembered her making that same tearful plea before. Was that the breaking point for her? When I knew she needed me, knew she needed the break, but ignored her anyway, to ‘brand myself’?
I tipped her chin up, hoping that she would see sincerity. “Gabi… I swear, I want you to be happy. But you’re talking about taking Joci away.”
“You would still see her really often. The agreements states that you would get her every other weekend, and I’ll spend the holidays here in Atlanta so you can always see her then. We both have smartphones, so I can let you video chat with her whenever you want. And you can come see her in Dallas at any time, as long as you give me 48 hour notice. I’m not trying to keep her from you Terrence, this is fair. Even if I stayed in Georgia, we would probably still have this arrangement, and if I moved far enough, it would actually take longer than the flight to Dallas to get to her.”
I offered her a slight nod as I tried to process what was happening. I knew without asking that Gabi had researched this into the ground. But…
“And what about us?” She tried to turn away when I asked that, but I gently forced her back, making sure my eyes met hers. “We’ve been talking about custody, and all of that, but what about us?”
Briefly, Gabi closed her eyes, and I got the distinct impression that she was gathering her strength. “I… There isn’t an us.”
I was expecting that, but it still felt like an ice pick to the gut. She backed away, clutching her arms around her stomach as if she was feeling the same cold, deadening pain. She was hurting, bad, and she had been for some time, while I avoided it, giving my attention to work.
I grabbed her arm, turning her to face me before I bent to place a kiss on her forehead.
And then I signed the custody agreement.