An excerpt from “I’ll Be Your Fever” from How to Get into Our House and Where We Keep the Money (c) 2017 by Panio Gianopoulos. Appears with the permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
It was getting harder and harder to bring Stella to weddings. With each ceremony, she had grown wilder, and once-mischievous behavior had advanced to recklessness, unruliness, and outright vandalism. Three weeks ago, at the Penn-Watson wedding, Ted had caught her scrawling her name on the side of the wedding cake with her fingernail, and only by chance had he been able to sneak her out of the room and smooth out the fondant without anyone noticing.
“What were you doing?” he demanded, while she leaned sullenly against the banister of the rented Mission Revival house, the toe of her golden shoe driving into the clay tile floor.
“I was bored,” Stella replied, pushing off the banister with her palms. She used the momentum to turn a lazy pirouette.
“I asked you to wait for me for ten minutes, fifteen tops, and then I’d—” he stopped short as she completed a second pirouette, the bright California sunlight slicing through the banister to slash her back with criminal stripes. “Your dress! What did you do to it?”
“I was on the hill,” Stella said, smoothing down the lattice hem with both hands.
“It’s covered in grass stains. The whole back is—I don’t even know if a dry cleaner can get this out.”
Stella raised her chin and gazed at him, her pale eyes luminous with defiance.
“They don’t need to.”
“Stella . . .”
Her petite nostrils flared. “I like it like this.”
It was true. Stella didn’t believe in perfection. Nor restraint. Nor precaution, vigilance, and certainly not afterthought or regret. Stella believed in Stella, first and foremost, and it was for this reason that, on the morning of the Hayden-Waddell wedding, Ted intended to leave without informing her of his true destination. He had stashed his suit in the car the night before while she was asleep, and dressed in jeans and a tee shirt, he waved casually from the front door while Stella sat in the living room a few feet away, watching television and eating cereal with a pink plastic spoon.
“Kiss!” Stella demanded.
Dutifully, Ted lowered his head over the side of the couch. She encircled his head with her arms and crushed their faces together, breathing him in. He wiped the sugary milk-smear from his nose.
“Great. All set. If you, uh, need anything—” He motioned toward Juliza, who was sorting the laundry into color-coded piles in the hallway.
“You shaved,” Stella said.
“You shaved,” she repeated. “You never shave on Saturdays.”
“What? That doesn’t—I shave whenever I feel like it,” Ted said and reflexively touched his smooth cheek with the back of his hand, begrudging its betrayal.
“You shave for weddings. Are you working today?”
“No, no, not . . . I have errands. Business errands. It’s not really work.” He shuffled backward to the door while she studied him, his hands raised high as if to demonstrate that he was unarmed. “Just watch your shows and I’ll see you in the afternoon.”
The moment he was outside, he heard Stella scramble around the L-shaped body of the couch. He ran to the car, searching his pocket for the keys and unlocking it in midstride. He hadn’t wanted to leave his camera, lenses, and gear overnight in a vehicle parked on the street, they were too valuable, but now he regretted his caution. He couldn’t photograph the wedding without his equipment, but if he ventured into the house to retrieve his bags, discreetly stashed in the coat closet just outside the living room, he would run into Stella.
He sat in the front seat, unsure of what to do. Maybe he could call a neighbor and ask him to pick up his bags and bring them out to his car. It was a simple enough request—
And then he saw her. She was skulking along the edge of the concrete pathway in bare feet and pajamas, her shoulders low, her head craned forward. From this angle, she looked tiny and slight, almost kittenish, nothing like the formidable adversary that shared his home.
Fighting back his guilt, he switched on the ignition, pressed his foot to the accelerator, and sped away. In the rearview mirror, he saw Stella’s head pop up. She held a hand to her eyes and squinted across the lawn of the apartment complex and out toward the road, searching for him, her darling, her beloved, her captive, her father.
Three blocks from the apartment, Ted pulled over and, cradling the phone in his palm, texted Juliza.
Please take Stella to the park now. I forgot my bags and need to get them from the closet.
A moment passed and then his phone sounded its joyful two-tone chime.
Y do u need yor bags?
I thot u wernt wurking!!! U sed u wernt wurking!!!
“Damn it,” Ted muttered, pressing his face into his hand and squeezing his temples with his thumb and ring finger. Somehow Stella had gotten hold of Juliza’s phone.
Y dint u tel me yor going!!! she texted.
It’s not a big deal, he wrote. I’m just helping Byron
I want to com!
I won’t have time to watch you there
Juleeza can com 2!
People can’t just go to weddings they have to be invited. I’m only going because I was hired
Not troo u want to go widout me
COM BAK AN GET ME
U DONT LUV ME
YOR THE WURST DADDY EVER
Ted dropped the phone onto the passenger-side seat to stop himself from replying. Stella’s anger had spilled over into a tantrum and no response, however reasonable, would bring it to an end. Only indifference was capable of quelling her indignation.
But first, it inflamed it. Every second, the chime sounded and another message appeared on his phone. For minutes, the screen remained floodlit as little blue dialogue boxes succeeded each other in hasty outrage and appeal, accumulating like pages of a manifesto.
When, at last, the outpouring had concluded, Ted retrieved the phone and scrolled through the messages. There were at least a hundred of them, exhausting in their repetition but inspired, he had to admit, in the variety of their emotional distortion. Stella also showed considerable imagination in her use of punctuation. While she clearly had no idea what a semicolon was for, it didn’t prevent her from stringing seven of them together, followed by a trio of fussy brackets and one desperate tilde.
He had waited so long to respond that the air in the car had grown warm and stale. Unrolling his window to let in a breeze, he heard a violent knocking sound coming from down the street. He peered through the windshield and saw a woman slamming the nose of a plastic stroller against the bottom step of a flight of stairs. She had taken her baby out of the seat and was balancing him with difficulty on her hip as she shoved the handlebar with her free hand. The rough, fitful motion caused the diaper bag to slide down from her shoulder and against the neck of her child, whose small face darkened like a peeled apple.
Ted unrolled his window and called out to her. “There’s a button on the underside!”
The woman continued to shove the handle as she rammed the stroller against the stair.
Ted unhooked his seat belt and leaned out the window. “Try the green button.”
When the mother didn’t respond, Ted got out of the car and walked over to her. She was older than he’d first thought, thirty-five, maybe forty, and her bitten fingernails were as ragged as movie ticket stubs. Sensing her uneasiness, and remembering that he was a stranger to her, he drew back a step.
“You have to press the green button,” Ted said.
“I already tried that,” she said.
“You have to do it while you rotate the handle. Press and then twist. Do you want me to?”
“No thanks,” she said, grimacing as she strained with the handle.
“Crank it like you’re revving a motorcycle.”
With an abrupt swoop, the stroller collapsed into itself, the handle tipping forward and folding into the back. The woman nearly fell over from the suddenness of the motion.
“Oh,” she said. “Thanks.”
“Sure. I had the same stroller when my daughter was a baby,” Ted said. “The big basket underneath is great for groceries, but it’s a drag to get the thing shut.”
She smiled, her dark eyes crinkling at the corners. It was nothing like the frustrated glare he’d received when he’d approached. But then the baby let out a mewling, fussy cry, and the woman’s mouth tightened. She seemed to be reminded, in that moment, of her wariness, reminded of those fearful, suspicious shards that embed themselves in a parent’s heart when a child is born.
He returned to the car and drove home for his equipment. An apologetic Juliza confronted him in the kitchen. “I sorry. I have no idea she take it!” Juliza was the fill-in babysitter while Stella’s regular babysitter was away on holiday. A short, plump Guatemalan in her fifties, Juliza worked during the week as the housekeeper for a married couple whose anniversary portrait Ted had shot. For the past few Saturdays, she had come to Ted’s, where she spent most of the time doing laundry, mopping floors, and otherwise ignoring Stella. Ted had a soft spot for Juliza because she reminded him of his mother, a tiny Greek immigrant with equally broken English and a knack for disappearing into housework.
Waving away her apology, he slipped the straps of the backpack over his shoulders and bunched the handles of the duffel bag in his fist. Then he yanked the duffel into the air and, supporting it on the palm of his other hand, carried it out to the car. After carefully arranging both bags in the trunk, he circled to the passenger side, where Stella was sitting in a white dress, her hands folded in her lap.
“I’m coming with you,” she said.
“Stella . . .”
“I put on my dress.”
“I’m not supposed to bring anyone. Byron doesn’t want—”
“You can’t leave me! I don’t want to be alone all day.”
“You’re not going to be,” he said. “Juliza will be there with you.”
“That’s a kind of alone.”
“Life is a kind of alone.”
She turned her head, gazing up at him. The wide black seat belt looked like a strip of highway ripped up and laid against her chest.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That’s not true.”
He did not know if she believed him. She was seven years old, and what she thought of the world was a mystery to him.
“Fine,” he said, reaching across to close her door. “You can come with me. So long as you behave.”