But it wasn’t nearly that simple.
“What is it, then?” Nana Jo asked.
Jess leaned her elbows on the table and propped her head in her hands. It weighed about eighty pounds. “Oh … just life.” She picked up her phone again, opening it before handing it over to let them read the Jennings email. “This was one of my bigger accounts. We disagreed on how to move forward, and they’re letting me go.”
Nana’s face fell and she placed her hand on Jess’s. “I’m so sorry, sugar.”
“Money can be fixed,” Pops said. “We’ll always help you.”
Jess squeezed his hand in wordless thanks. They had raised Jamie and Jess, and now helped with Juno. She was supposed to be taking care of them at this point in her life, not the other way around.
“It’s not just money.” Jess took a breath, trying to arrange her thoughts in some sort of order. “I mean it is, but it’s also me. I feel like I’m in this holding pattern, raising Juno, making ends meet, trying to keep things moving until my life actually begins. I was just starting to think how silly that is and how I need to get out more. But now this,” she said, waving her phone for emphasis. “I worked my butt off for this account, and they’re going to replace me tomorrow because there are a hundred other people with looser morals who can do what I do.” Jess pressed her fingers to her temples. “I need to look for a second job. I don’t want you taking care of me.”
“Are you kidding?” Pops argued. “Who takes us to our appointments? Who helps us when we don’t know how to use a damned iPhone? Who found our trainer and helps Nana Jo with the garden? You work hard, Jessica, and you’re raising that amazing little girl.”
The amazing little girl herself bounded back in and pointed accusingly at her great-grandfather. “Pops! Your glasses are on your face!”
“Would you look at that!” He adjusted them over his nose, pulling his crossword closer to peer down at it. “I bet you know a three-letter word for ‘regret,’ don’t you, Jess?”
Jess smiled. “Rue.”
“See? What would we do without you?” He grinned at her over the top of his glasses before penciling the word in.
ONCE HER GRANDPARENTS were gone, Jess leaned against the closed door. Fatigue settled flabbily into her muscles, aching deep into her bones. She felt much older than thirty. Walking through the quiet apartment, she picked up Juno’s shoes, the stray socks, the cat toys, more than one cup half-full of milk, pencils, food orders on Post-it notes from Juno and Pops playing Restaurant. She set the coffee timer, packed up Juno’s backpack, loaded the dishwasher, and glanced around the space for any other random detritus before flicking off the light and walking down the hall to her daughter’s room.
Juno had fallen asleep with Frog and Toad Are Friends open on her chest again, her mermaid light still on. Jess deposited Pigeon on her fancy three-tiered cat post near the window, but she immediately jumped down and onto the bed, happily curling herself into a ball at Juno’s feet.
Jess closed Juno’s book and put it on the nightstand, tucked the blankets up to her chin, and sat carefully on the edge of the mattress at her side. In her sleep, Juno frowned. Her hair spilled coppery across the light pink pillowcase. Jess hadn’t seen Alec in almost two years, but looking at their daughter was like seeing him every day anyway. She had Jess’s eyes but got his strikingly metallic chestnut hair, dimpled smile, and grumpy crease in the middle of her forehead. Jess smoothed her thumb across Juno’s warm, kid-sweaty brow and gave herself two deep breaths to wish he were here, before remembering that she hadn’t loved him in a long time and didn’t need his help. Empty companionship was lonelier than being alone.
Alec wasn’t a bad guy; he just didn’t want to be a dad. He’d never pressured Jess to terminate the pregnancy, but he’d made it clear where he stood. In the end, Jess chose Juno over him, and they both had to live with that. He got to enjoy his twenties, but every one of their friends thought he was an asshole; Jess got a delightful child but had to learn how to hustle to make ends meet. She never regretted her choice for a single breath, though, and was pretty sure he hadn’t, either.
Heavy with exhaustion, Jess switched the lamp off and slipped quietly out of the room, startling in the hallway when the doorbell pierced the silence. Pops left his glasses at Jess’s more nights than he didn’t, and pulling her sweater tighter around her chest, Jess walked quietly to the living room to peek out the window. But it wasn’t Pops.
It was Jamie.
Jess used to feel a potent mix of reactions when she saw her mother—relief, anxiety, excitement—but at this point it was primarily dread, and as a mother herself now, she found that realization so deeply bleak.
Taking a deep, bracing breath, Jess hesitated with her hand on the knob before opening the door. Jamie Davis had worn many labels—cocktail waitress, addict, stadium usher, girlfriend, recovering addict, homeless—but none of them had ever been “devoted mother.” On the rare occasion she had shown up to one of Jess’s school events or a softball game she was usually hungover—sometimes still drunk—and reeking of cigarettes or marijuana. She would make a show, cheering for Jess, being proud of her. Sometimes she would bring a group of her rowdy friends calling themselves “Jessie’s Cheering Squad.” Inside, Jess would die of embarrassment, and then panic that Jamie would see it all over her face, that she would leave in a fit of anger and not come around again for weeks.
And there she was, still beautiful—she’d always been beautiful—but with a powdery finish to her beauty now, something both artificial and dull. A lifetime of bad habits had finally caught up.
“My girl!” Jamie pushed forward, wrapping her daughter in a quick one-armed hug before stepping back and shoving a set of bath bombs in Jess’s hands. They’d started to disintegrate inside the cellophane, and the brightly colored dust leaked out onto Jess’s fingers. She knew her mother well enough to guess Jamie had bought them as an afterthought while grabbing a pack of menthol lights at the convenience store down the street.
Jamie stepped around her and into the dark living room.
“Hey,” Jess said, closing the door. “What’s the occasion?”
Her mother set her giant purse on the coffee table and looked at her, wounded. Her lipstick slowly bled up into the tiny lines around her mouth. “I can’t see my baby on her twenty-eighth birthday?”
Jess didn’t point out that Jamie was off by two years, or the many other birthdays she’d missed. Frankly Jess was surprised her mom remembered her birth date at all; her sporadic visits weren’t generally timed to life events.
“Of course you can,” Jess said. “Do you want to sit down? Can I get you something?”
“No, no. I’m fine.” Jamie walked into the kitchen, tapping her acrylic nails along the counter, and then glanced down the hall. “Juno, honey? Where’s my beautiful grandbaby?”
“She’s in bed, Mom.” Jess shushed her. “It’s late, and she has school tomorrow.”
Jamie threw her an annoyed look. “Kids should go to sleep when they’re tired. All these rules just make them anxious and depressed. That’s why we have so many of them on medication these days.” She scanned Juno’s spelling test on the refrigerator, the birthday card she’d made for Jess, a grocery list. “People need to listen to their bodies. If you’re tired, sleep. If you’re hungry, eat something. Parents need to stop scheduling these kids to death.”