The first time she saw him, after, he was leaning against his brand-new car in the parking lot of her apartment complex, waiting.
She saw him from the corner of her eye as she stepped out of her car, but there was something about the way he stood there that made her feel exposed, as if he could see the skin of her stomach, rumpled like a deflated balloon, two months postpartum. As if he knew her heart would lurch the first time she saw him.
Truthfully, Olive wasn’t sure what she had hoped for, when she hadn’t seen him in 10 months, when he had yet to see his son, even. Their son.
Maybe she was hoping he’d found his way back to the sweet boy she’d met two years before in that college newsroom.
Maybe she was hoping for “I’m sorry,” even—“Sorry things didn’t work out;” “Sorry I made things harder.”
But Olive could tell by the way James leaned against his car that he hadn’t come with sweetness.
And as she strode toward the steps to her apartment without another glance in his direction, opened the door and shut it behind her, she knew that even though he was finally here, he was also gone.
“You did what?” Maureen shrieked when Olive called to tell her.
“I made him find a hotel,” Olive said, cupping her cell phone to her ear as she walked from her apartment toward downtown. It was a hot July day, too hot to be walking more than a mile in her work dress and heels for an ice cream cone. But Olive had taken the rest of the day off, and if she wasn’t going to spend it forging a connection with her ex-boyfriend, then she would damn well enjoy an ice cream cone before she picked up the baby from the sitter. “Told him he could come over this evening to meet Hunter, and tomorrow morning, too, so long as he’s not staying with me.”
“But you didn’t even try to talk with him,” Maureen said. “You haven’t seen him since you found out you were pregnant, practically. Don’t you think you owe it to Hunter to see if you two could make it work?”
“I knew everything I needed to know in the way he stood there in that parking lot.” Olive hiked the purse that doubled as a diaper bag higher onto her shoulder.
“How could you possibly know that?”
“I think I’ve known that all along.” Olive felt the weight of her disappointment settle in her chest as a traffic light forced her to stop.
“I just refused to see it.” She remembered those middle-of-the-night conversations she’d had with James as he weighed whether he’d be there for Hunter’s birth: “If I’m there, it’ll be for the baby, not for you.” Those words had pierced her with sadness, then. Now, the memory of them made her want to sock him.
Maureen said: “Well.”
And for the first time since she’d met Maureen, way back in kindergarten, yelling as she charged through the creek at the park where their daddies’ factory held its annual picnic, Maureen was speechless.
“I’m proud of you,” she said finally.
“Because I told him to take a hike?” Maureen had never been a fan of James. “He thinks he’s all that,” Maureen had told her once, “and no offense, but he is not that nice to you.”
“Because you’re doing this on your own, and you’re totally okay with it.” There was a long pause. “You’re brave, Olive. You’re probably the bravest person I know.”
But Olive didn’t feel brave as she trekked toward downtown with her shoes gnawing at her ankles. She felt jittery, as if she could burst out of her own skin. Her very being craved the one place she’d only ever felt at peace in this small Indiana town.
Olive slid into the ice cream shop on the corner of 1st and Main. She always felt home in that first moment, surrounded by the smell of warm butter and sugar, vanilla and cream, even though home—her parents’ home—was six hours away. These days, the only area of her apartment that felt like home was the nursery. She’d smell the sweet strawberry down on Hunter’s head and rock and rock until both their bodies sagged with exhaustion.
“I was beginning to wonder if I’d see you again.” From behind the counter, Will, who had hand-rolled dozens of scoops of ice cream for her during her pregnancy, lifted his head to greet her. “What, you have a baby and suddenly you can resist my culinary prowess?”
Olivia cocked her head. “Culinary prowess? You scoop ice cream.”
A customer at the counter whipped her head around to look at Olive sharply, but Will just smiled. “How do you know I didn’t make the ice cream?”
She stood there and considered it. “I guess I don’t.”
He nodded and put the finishing touches on a banana split: three tiny towers of whipped cream; a sprinkle of chocolate shavings; a chocolate-dipped cherry balanced artfully on top.
He turned to Olivia as the cashier tallied the order. “I know what you need.”
Olivia could feel heat rise slowly from her neck to her cheeks. “Really?”
“Mm-hmm.” He grasped an ice cream scoop that glinted in the sunshine that streamed in from the front window.
“See, all the while you were pregnant, you were all about the chocolate-and-coconut ice cream sundae with peanut butter sauce on top. And I’ll admit, I questioned your culinary sensibilities.” He leaned forward. “Much like you’re questioning my culinary prowess.”
“I didn’t mean...” Will shushed her with a quick shake of his head.
“See, if you’d covered it with hot fudge sauce, the flavors would have complemented each other, like a Mounds bar. But you chose flavors that competed with each other. The chocolate and the coconut—that’s decadence and sweetness right there; they work together nicely. But to top it with peanut butter sauce—something warm and rich? That’s like adding a layer of comfort on top.”
He lowered his voice, as if he were about to tell her a secret, as Olive stood before him, slack-jawed. “Did you know that peanut butter sauce is the equivalent of mashed potatoes in the ice cream sauce genre?”
My god. “I did not.” Even from behind the ice cream counter, Olive caught a whiff of his cologne: woodsy with a hint of citrus.
Will pointed his ice cream scoop toward Olivia. “You said you were from Iowa, right? I’ve got a flavor I’m pretty sure you’ve never had. If you let me try it out on you, I’ll give it to you on the house.”
Oh, I can pay,” Olivia said quickly. She didn’t want him to think she was some charity case. But Will insisted: “I know the owner.”
He pointed to a seat in the corner as the cashier went outside for a smoke break. The shop was empty, save for the two of them.
She tried to imagine what he’d choose for her, this boy-man who couldn’t be older than 22, which would make him two years younger than Olive, at least—and she’d become an even older soul in the past 11 months. She felt ancient. Too old to be flirting with Will. “Get some!” she could imagine Maureen telling her. But the thought of someone thinking of her that way—especially after he’d seen her at her most ginormous, with her feet swollen and, oh, God, probably her belly button pushing against the summer dress she’d worn the last time she was here…
It’s just ice cream, she reminded herself.
When Will came forth bearing a glass bowl with a single, very large, hand-rolled scoop of blue ice cream. Olive let out a belly laugh. “It’s Smurf ice cream!”
“You’ve never had it, have you?” Will handed Olive a spoon as she shook her head. “Here. Tell me what you think.”
Olive dug in.
She’d expected something tart, but it was soft and creamy, with hints of sweetness that teased her tongue.
“Mmm.” Olive relaxed against the back of her chair. “So good. What is it?”
“Blue moon,” Will said. His eyes lit up as he watched her dig in for another bite. “Some people say it tastes like Fruit Loops, or the milk that’s left over at the end of the bowl. Some say it tastes like almond, or marshmallows. Maybe both.”
Olive considered this as she took another bite, letting it roll slowly over her tongue. The flavors brought her back to the Fourth of Julys she spent running through the grandstand with her cousins, playing ring toss for pop bottles and gorging on sno-cones. “It’s like blue cotton candy. Maybe bubblegum, too.” She took another bite, getting lost in the flavors.
“Told you,” Will said gently.
“Told you I knew what you needed.”
Olive felt herself smile. “Indeed you did.”
They talked for a full hour, in between the customers who filtered in and out. “So show me Little Man,” he said, and she brought out the brag album her mother had made for her—Hunter cooing at the dancing sheep that hung from his mobile; Hunter displaying the dimples on both sides of his mouth the day after he was born.
Will paused when he got to the photo of Olive and Hunter, asleep on her apartment couch. “Beautiful,” he said. Then: “Who took it?”
“My mother,” she said. “The day I brought him home.”
“And his dad?”
“Hasn’t seen him yet.”
She probably should have told Will that James would be meeting Hunter that day, but there was something about the way Will’s jaw set when he heard that James hadn’t been around that made her feel as if he were on her side. And so she didn’t.
Will took another look at the photo of Olive and Hunter together before handing the album back to Olive. “You should bring him in sometime,” he said. “Treat him to his first taste of Valparaiso. No pun intended.”
Olive pointed to the chalkboard that listed all of the flavors the shop sold. “He’s only just beginning to discover he has taste buds, you know,” she said. “You think he’s ready for all this?”
“One spoonful at a time,” Will said.
And he nodded as if it were settled.
That evening, James sat on the apartment couch next to Olive as she lifted Hunter out of his car seat carrier and into James’ arms for the first time.
Hunter looked at James and smiled, as if he knew exactly who James was.
“Hello there,” James said, holding Hunter underneath his arms. “Hello.” And he pulled Hunter to his chest.
“Please, could I stay?” James asked after she’d put Hunter to bed. He rested his hand on her arm, and for a moment, she thought she’d felt tenderness there. But then she’d remembered the way he’d pleaded with her not to keep Hunter, not when he’d just begun graduate school, wasn’t employed, even.
We can have others, she remembered him telling her the week after two blue lines shone brightly on the test she’d bought with a pack of Twizzlers.
I’ll call you in a few weeks to discuss options, he’d said the night he’d called to break up with her—without emotion, as if he’d carried the decision with him for weeks.
But there were no other options, not for her.
Olive stood up from the couch. “We’ll see you in the morning.”
Every Sunday, the one day of the week Olive could count on having the day off from her job as a reporter at the local paper, Olive would place Hunter in his stroller and walk downtown to the ice cream shop.
He’d be fast asleep by the time they reached the shop, and Will, who learned to watch for Olive at about 2 p.m., would rush to open the door for her.
She and Will would sit and talk during his break while Hunter slept, and when Hunter awoke, Will would treat him to a bite size sample of one of 59 of the shop’s flavors—but not the 60th: Guinness ice cream. “When you’re older,” Will promised Hunter, who stared at him seriously and batted him with a spoon.
“Not black licorice, either,” Olive said. She made a face. “Too bitter.”
Olive learned that the shop had been owned by Will’s family for three generations and that the ice cream they sold was manufactured by the family in a plant just two blocks away. “So you really do make the ice cream,” she said when he told her.
“Nah. My dad creates the flavors. But I do have a gift.” He took a long sip of his green river soda.
“Oh, really?” Olive asked as she dabbed orange sherbet drool from Hunter’s chin. “A gift for what?”
“I can match ice cream flavors to a person’s mood, or their personality.” He took another sip. “You might say I’m an icecreamologist.”
Olive looked at him in wonder, remembering the scoop of blue moon he’d presented her: comfort and sweetness, on the day she’d needed it most. “What else can you do?”
“Well, I’m studying to become a teacher. I’ll be a senior this year at the university.” Will took a napkin and dabbed at the folds of Hunter's neck as he waited for Olive’s reaction.
“What do you want to teach?”
“Upper elementary, hopefully.” He ran a hand through his ash-blonde hair—Olive noticed, for the first time, how very long his fingers were—and sighed deeply. “I have a paper due this week, in fact. It’s about ‘the exceptional child.’”
He tickled Hunter’s cheek. “You are exceptional, did you know that?”
“You sound like you’re dreading it. The paper, I mean.” Olive curved her spoon around the edges of a scoop of peppermint stick.
“I’m not a great writer,” he admitted. “I can write well enough to get by, but I won’t get higher than a ‘B.’”
Olive thought for a moment. “You know, I could look over it for you when you’re done. Help you smooth it over when it’s finished, if you like.”
“Are you sure? You’ve never seen my writing, you know. You don’t know what you’re in for.”
Olive nodded confidently. “I have a bit of a talent for it.”
She wrote her e-mail address on a napkin. “Send it to me and I’ll proof it when you’re done.”
“I’ll owe you dinner for that, you know,” he said. “There’s a Spanish restaurant down the street. My treat.”
Olive’s stomach squeezed with nervousness. “Let’s see what grade you get first.”
Will’s writing skills weren’t nearly as bad as he’d made them sound, Olive realized with surprise as she read his paper a few days later. A little tightening here and just a tiny bit of massaging, and she could feel the paper come to life, could hear his voice as she read his words.
She was walking past the shop on a Friday afternoon as she headed toward the county government building for a meeting when she heard a knock on the window. She turned around and saw him bound out of the shop toward her, holding a stack of paper in his hand. “I got an A-minus!” Will waved his report in the air. “First time ever!”
She held up her hand to give him five. “I knew you could do it!”
He held tightly to her hand. “Dinner,” he said. “I owe you dinner. What do you say?”
Olive’s breath caught in her throat. “Let’s talk on Sunday.”
Will squeezed her hand, then pointed to her as he walked backward away from her. “I’m holding you to that! We’ll pick a date on Sunday.”
The next morning, James arrived for his monthly visit with Hunter, who squealed when James walked into the living room.
“I really don’t see why I have to pay for a place to stay,” James complained as he helped Hunter hold a tiny bear cub. “It’s not like you don’t have the room. And I’ve already paid $3 a gallon for the trip. Do you have any idea how much it costs to drive here?”
“I said no.” Olive was already feeding James for the weekend. I’m doing this for Hunter, she reminded herself when James’ very presence in her apartment set her on edge.
“Don’t you have a friend you could stay with? So I could at least stay here with him on my own? Or maybe you could go see a movie or something.”
She did want to see that new Rachel McAdams movie, even if she had to go by herself. She thought of e-mailing Will, to see if he could get together for dinner, but it seemed too bold. She’d wait until she saw him tomorrow. She’d wear that new sundress her mother had sent her. “I could see a movie, I suppose.”
“Cool,” James said. Hunter cooed as James held him above his shoulders. “Bring us back some wings or something when you’re done, OK?”
“Figures,” Olive muttered.
Three hours later, Olive arrived home with a stomach sloshing with Diet Coke and a plastic container of teriyaki wings.
Something pushed against the apartment door when she tried to open it. “Hang on,” James yelled. She heard a rattle of metal before he opened the door.
“Stupid stroller,” he said, motioning to where it stood in the kitchen. “I couldn’t get it to fold up again. Ended up having to put Hunter in his crib while I wrestled it through the door.”
“Where did you take him?” Olive inspected the stroller. It was scraped in one spot.
“We walked downtown,” James said. “I took him for ice cream. You don’t think he’s too young for that, do you? He seemed to like it pretty well.”
Olive’s heart stopped. Then it began to race.
She took a deep breath. “Did you guys have fun?”
“Heck, yeah. Everybody thought he was cute. He even smiled at the guy behind the counter like they were best buds or something.” James sank into the apartment couch with the box of wings in his lap. “He even recommended a flavor for me: black licorice. Best ice cream I’ve ever had.
“You mind if I watch some football while he sleeps?”
Olive shook her head. She walked back to the bedroom, shut the door—and began to cry.
It was 9 o’clock when she awoke to James sitting on the bed beside her.
“You OK? You sick or something?” He smoothed the hair back from her face.
She stared at him, trying to comprehend what he was doing there. In her room. On her bed. And in that moment between sleep and awareness, James bent down and kissed her.
He slid his hand up the back of her shirt and began to lie down. “Olive,” he whispered into her hair. She could feel his breath in his ear. Her body trembled at his touch. How long had it been since anyone had touched her?
Hadn’t this been what she’d wanted months before—for James to come back to her?
Except that now—now that he was finally here; now that he seemed to want her, too—she found that she didn’t.
She didn’t want bittersweet.
She didn’t want bitter at all.
She yearned for something sweeter.
“No,” she said, pushing him away gently.
James looked at her, confused. “I thought . . .”
Olive shook her head. “Not anymore.”
“I don’t deserve Will’s kindness,” Olive told Maureen when she called to spill her guts about two seconds after James left.
“What do you mean? You act like you’re this awful person or something,” Maureen said. “It’s not like you cheated on Will. You’re not even together. Yet.”
“I kissed James.” Below her, Hunter rolled on the floor. “Bah!” he said.
“You kissed him back. There’s a difference,” Maureen said. “And you only did that, what, once, maybe?”
“Maybe.” Olive curled up on the floor beside Hunter, passing him Kanga, then Roo.
“Then what’s the problem?”
“The problem is that Will is so good . . .”
“And you’re not?” Maureen’s tone challenged her.
“I have baggage,” Olive said, enunciating each word carefully. “I have an ex who is not going to go away for a very long time, and a son who is absolutely adorable but who will require most of my attention for most of the next 18 years, and Will is on the brink of his whole freaking life. He doesn’t need me dragging him down.”
“Who says you’d be dragging him down?” Maureen demanded.
Olive could only sniffle in reply.
“What I wish,” Maureen continued, “is that you’d stop selling yourself short. You are a good person too, you know. And I would love for you to love yourself as much as you love that little boy—and to let someone else love you, too, when it’s right.”
The first time she saw him, after, it’d been three weeks since that afternoon downtown when he’d emerged triumphant from the ice cream shop with his A-minus paper. She couldn’t bear to take Hunter to the shop the Sunday that James left, or the Sunday after that, or the one after that.
She’d received an e-mail the first Sunday evening, and the second. There were no words, just a single snapshot in each one: A scoop of blue moon with a halo of whipped cream and a cherry in the center. A scoop of chocolate and a scoop of coconut, melded into the shape of a heart.
She was sitting at her desk in the newsroom, rustling through pages of notes from a county council meeting, when her phone buzzed. “You’ve got a delivery,” Rose, the receptionist, told her. “Hurry, before it melts.”
Before it melts?
Olive craned her neck toward the front desk, but the potted trees blocked her view. She walked toward the front of the office. The ladies in advertising stared as Rose handed her a bouquet: a bouquet of ice cream cake flowers—a dozen flavors dipped in white chocolate and decorated with sprinkles—in a vase of blue moon.
“Read the card,” Rose urged, pointing to a card glued to a stick of chocolate that stood in the middle of the bouquet.
Olive carefully detached the envelope and slid it open with her pinky. She pulled it out gently.
“Please,” it read.