LIKE YOU MEAN IT: CHAPTER ONE

I stare longingly out my kitchen window into my new next-door neighbor’s backyard. I can see the smoke coming from his grill, smell the delectable scent of what I can only assume is burgers as it wafts through the air, and I rub my protruding tummy absentmindedly.

I’m pretty sure I’ve never been this hungry in my entire life, and that includes the week I did some weird juice cleanse because Tricia swore it would help me lose those few extra pounds that I’d put on over Christmas. That was at least five years ago, but I’ve never forgotten the way my stomach would twist and roll, desperate for something to eat that wasn’t a detestable blend of ginger root, celery and agave. Or something else equally as heinous.

But right this minute, I would bet every single dollar I have, swear on my life, on my mother’s life, that those burgers were sent to this earth as a divine gift from above. Unfortunately, a divine gift for my neighbor, and not for me, which is where my quandary lies.

I’ve only been in this house for a week. One incredibly long and emotionally exhausting week where we’ve eaten nothing but takeout and fast food, with the local 7-Eleven workers already greeting me by name on my morning run for a decaf coffee. One week of a new life in a new house, in a not-so-new state where I’ve been trying to unpack and get things settled for me and Jones, while also fighting the desire to burst into tears and collapse on the bed (or couch, or floor) at any given moment. So, needless to say, I haven’t really been able to go grocery shopping and fill the cupboards with the healthy stuff a good mother should feed her kid.

And now it’s getting late on a Sunday afternoon at the end of what I am sure is only the first of many more incredibly long and emotionally exhausting weeks in this new life of ours.

And I’m hungry.

Starving, actually.

Close to bursting into tears at how badly I want that burger.

Objectively, there’s probably nothing special about it. Apart from being a direct gift from Jesus himself, it really is just meat over a fire.

But just go ahead and try to tell that to my pregnant brain. Tell that to this human lounging around inside of me, yanking on the umbilical chord and throwing out demands like she’s J.Lo.

“I hear you!” I shout at my stomach. “But we don’t always get what we want!”

And then I catch another whiff, but this time of something else. Is that… it smells like baked potatoes. I love baked potatoes.

I glance back out my kitchen window, which overlooks my backyard and gives me a decent view of my neighbor’s, and feel like if I don’t get to eat whatever is being made next door, I’ll collapse.

Just right here, in my kitchen, I’ll drop to the floor and waste away into nothing.

Which I know is a stupid thought because even though I’ve barely had a banana all day, with the way this little monster inside of me is sprawled out, resting comfortably on all of my organs and pressing into my bladder and stomach, it feels like I just finished stuffing my face.

I’m sure when my mom drops Jones off in the next 30 minutes, he’ll be hungry too. And if I don’t have a plan for dinner, she’ll hover and try to make us food even though there’s still nothing in the pantry for anyone to cook.

And then I’ll get the sympathetic look. The one that says, Oh honey, do I need to go grocery shopping for you? Are you really capable of handling this by yourself? And then she’ll be inviting herself to handle things and move in and take over and I just…

Nope. No thank you. Not going to happen.

I love my mama. She is my rock. She has been there for me through so many ups and downs, and I can’t imagine my life without her.

But I moved out at 18 for a reason, and that was because Marybeth McAllister is the nosiest busybody to ever busy herself into anybody’s business. And an 18-year-old woman who wanted to enjoy some freedom would not have survived under Marybeth’s watchful eye.

So, no. I can’t let my mom come back from her grandma-and-me day with Jones to a barren dinner table, because I can’t deal with any questions or concerns anymore. I just can’t deal with it today.

When I consider my options, I know that not only do I not have enough mental strength to go grocery shopping, but I also don’t have the time to go pick anything up before they get home.

And realistically, the only thing my brain can focus on is the smell of those fucking burgers.

I feel like a zombie as I grab a Tupperware bowl out of an open box on the kitchen floor and make my way through my house. I know I should have spent the day getting things organized, putting things away, and trying to make sure that Jones and I are settling comfortably into our new house.

Well… a rented shack is a bit more accurate, but beggars can’t be choosers. And I really did have the best of intentions when I started unpacking this morning.

But the third box I opened, completely by accident, was filled with Andrew’s shirts.

They still smell like him.

And regardless of everything that’s happened, everything that I’ve found out and been through over the past few months – the past eight years, if I’m completely honest – he was all that I’d known. And now he’s gone.

So instead of getting through the list of things I absolutely needed to get done, like going grocery shopping or setting up the cable or scheduling an appointment with a new OB/GYN, or even finding a local mechanic to take a look at my barely functioning ’98 Toyota Camry, I chose to crawl into bed and snuggle with a pillow and let out the week’s worth of tears that had been building up with no outlet for release.

Because when you suddenly become a single parent to a 4-year-old and have another on the way that’s just about done cooking… and when you don’t have a real job or any friends or any way to actually keep your life afloat… you just don’t have the time to stop and cry in the shower. Hell, you’re lucky enough if you get a shower.

But that means today is nearly a full day wasted, and I have to figure out what to do for dinner for my kid.

So with only one thing on my mind, I clutch the Tupperware bowl tightly to my chest, walk out of my front door and down the three steps and tiny path, along the sidewalk, and then up the pathway and few steps to my neighbor’s door.

I noticed this house when I moved in last week. I’ve always wanted a grey house with a black door, and that’s what the neighbor has. It isn’t the most amazing house I’ve ever seen, but it looks like someone takes care of it, since the exterior looks freshly painted and a bunch of beautiful plants line the windows.

My rental looks like something out of The Great Depression in comparison. The grass is brown, since California is just about always in a drought. The paint on the tan exterior is chipped and flaking away, leaving a scattering of dandruff around the house’s perimeter. There are bars on the windows and a security gate on the door, which makes me feel just as safe as can be. And there are no plants because, like I said, drought.

But it’s mine and Jones’, and it’s what I can afford with how everything panned out after…

Well… just, after.

I take a deep breath and knock on the beautiful black door.

The second I’m done, I regret my decision. I feel like an idiot. I don’t know these people. I’m just the crazy new neighbor standing at their door with a bowl, hoping for some food? What the hell was I thinking? They are going to think I’m absolutely certifiable, and then someone’s gonna wonder if I’m even capable of taking care of my child. I can’t believe…

But before I can talk myself into slipping back over to my house with no one the wiser, I hear, “Hold on a second!” shouted from somewhere behind the door.

Should I still run away? I bet if I waddled fast enough, I could make it back to my…

My thoughts die as the door opens. The man that emerges is very nice looking and probably about 10 years older than me. Back in high school, I probably would have swooned and might have cared that he was seeing me with red-rimmed eyes, a gross hairball knotted high on my head, sans-shower and barefoot holding a glass bowl at his door.

But these aren’t my high school years. And while I might normally have too much pride to ask for anything, I feel too beaten down today to care what he thinks of me. I mean, really, I feel like he should just feel thankful that I’ve shown up at his door wearing pants.

He gives me a pleasant but neutral smile. “Can I help you?” he asks, his eyebrows tightening just enough for me to see that he wonders if he should be welcoming or concerned.

Definitely concerned, I think to myself.

I clear my throat.

Then clear it again.

“I’m sorry to just show up like this,” I finally manage to croak out, “but what you’re cooking smells so good, and this pregnancy makes me a complete whacko when I smell something that smells as amazing as whatever it is that’s coming out of your backyard. I haven’t been able to go grocery shopping yet since we just moved in – I’m Annie, by the way – and we don’t have a grill anymore because that was…”.

And to my absolute horror, tears begin to fill my eyes, and I know that the word vomit is just going to spill forth.

“… that was my ex’s thing, grilling the food. I never really figured out what I was doing and I’d just burn everything to a crisp, you know? But he was so good at it, and anyway I don’t have a grill and I haven’t been able to go pick anything up and I was just wondering if you wouldn’t mind sharing? Maybe? Because if my mother comes back with Jones and sees we have no food, she’ll just make herself at home and I don’t even know if I can handle that on top of everything else.”

I take a deep breath to continue, but stop when the guy puts up a hand to stop me.

“Sorry,” I say again, almost on a whisper, still gripping my Tupperware bowl so tightly my fingers are surely white, wiping the tears away with my free hand.

God, what must he think of me. He probably has guests or a family and I’m standing here asking him for food and crying about my dead ex-boyfriend not being able to grill me a burger?

I’m definitely a lunatic.

“You said your name is Annie?” he finally asks, after an elongated pause in which I’m sure he’s considering calling the cops.

I glance up at him and manage a watery smile. Nodding, I say, “Annie McAllister. My son Jones and I live next door.” I point at the depression house a few yards away.

He glances at our house next door, then back at me, and extends his hand, which I just now realize he has been wiping on a dirty rag since he answered the door.

“I’m Cole,” he says. “Cole Lannigan.”

I shift my grip on the Tupperware to one hand and stick out my other to take his. It’s warm and large, engulfing mine. It should be intimidating, but all I feel is an overwhelming sense of calm.

“Hi Cole,” I say.

He gives me a smile that hovers between sympathetic and concerned – two of my least favorite things – but I can at least see it’s genuine.

“Hi Annie. It’s great to meet you. So, here’s what I’m thinking,” he says, taking his hand back and leaning against the doorframe, crossing his arms across his chest. The move draws my eyes to his arms, which I belatedly realize are covered in tattoos. But I don’t spend time lingering on his ink, my eyes returning to his. How can I when I have the overwhelming force of his gaze laser focused on me? “How about you head on home, and I’ll pack all of this food up and bring it over once it’s done?”

My jaw drops.

“I’m making way too much to feed just myself, and I’m happy to help if my cooking – as subpar as it may be – might be able to solve the problem. I know I need all the help I can get when my parents swing through town, so I can definitely jump in if it gets you out of a jam.”

He says all this while he stands there, looking calm as can be, still in repose against the doorjamb.

I fight the urge to look behind me to make sure I’m the only person standing on his tiny porch. Because he can’t be seriously talking to me about coming over for dinner and bringing all of his food… can he?

When I just stare at him, he smiles again. But this time, his caramel colored eyes show a hint of warmth and brightness that wasn’t there before.

“Did I lose you, Annie?”

“No,” I manage to spit out. “No, you didn’t lose me, I…” I take a deep breath let it out slowly. “I just wasn’t expecting… anything. I don’t know, I was just… thank you.” I laugh. Just a tiny chuckle, barely a snicker. There isn’t really any humor in it, but it’s the first laugh I’ve let free in who knows how long that wasn’t directed at my son.

I lock eyes with him. “Thank you so much, Cole. You have no idea… absolutely no idea how much I needed something like this today. Thank you.”

He just continues to smile at me, so patient as I thank him profusely, and in a way that doesn’t do real justice to how I feel.

“No problem, Annie. You head on home. I’m just finishing up, so I’ll be over with the food in about 15 minutes. Sound good?”

I just nod at him, and then turn and speed-walk back down his steps as fast as my massively pregnant body can carry me before he can think any better of his decision to spend the evening with his crazy neighbor and her son. I glance over as I get to my door and see that he’s still standing at his own, watching me. I give him a small wave, which he returns with one of those masculine head nods, and then fling my door open and rush inside.

«««« »»»»

Ten minutes later, I hear my mom’s car pull up on the street out front. I’ve just finished the most impressive feat I think I’ve ever pulled off in such a small amount of time.

I managed to set the table.

Sure, there are still boxes everywhere, even if I’ve tried to shove them into corners and tuck their top flaps in so as not to seem so haphazard. Nothing has been put away, there is still no food in the fridge, and there’s nothing to actually eat on the table yet, but I was able to pull out and rinse off some real plates and utensils and cups and place them around the kitchen table that sits in the breakfast nook.

For a lady who tried to feed her son chicken nuggets with wooden chopsticks yesterday, I think it’s looking pretty spectacular.

I’m pushing the last box into a non-hiding spot that I think will somehow disguise the insanity that is my kitchen when I hear the front door open.

“I’m here!”

I smile when I hear Jones’ voice. He looks so much like Andrew that sometimes it makes me want to burst into tears just looking at him. But I don’t want him to have a mom who does nothing but cry whenever she sees him. I can’t imagine what it would do to me if someone cried every time they looked at me. Talk about developing a complex, am I right?

So when my little guy comes barreling through the house and into the kitchen, I squat as low as I can manage at 30 weeks and open my arms wide so I can catch him when he comes flying at me. And when he hits me, I go top over tail and splay flat on my back, with Jones tucked safely in my arms.

“Careful of mama’s tummy, remember?” I say, shifting him to the side slightly but still holding him close.

His little face looks so stricken for a moment, and he puts his little hand on my stomach and gives it a light kiss, whispering “sorry guppy” before turning back to look at me.

“You have fun with Mimi?” I ask, and his eyes instantly brighten.

“We went to the zoo!” he shouts in my face. “I got to pet a turtle and a monkey threw his poo at us.”

“Oh, wow! Sounds amazing. But,” I pull him closer and give him a sniff. “I don’t smell anything.”

No, mom, there was a window so the poop didn’t hit us,” Jones says, cracking up in that little kid way that just destroys your soul and makes you wish you had ten kids. When he laughs like that, I forget that our lives are anything other than perfect.

“You sure?” I sniff him again. “Actually I think I smell something.” He squirms and giggles in my arms “Yep. You smell like monkey poo, little dude.” He continues to laugh and wriggle his little body around as I tickle his stomach.

A throat clearing is the only indication that we’re not alone. When I turn my head, I see my mom standing at the kitchen entrance holding a plate of burgers. And standing behind her, practically filling the doorway, is Cole.

“I found this gentleman at your door when Jones and I got back,” she says, and then one eyebrow rises so high I fear it might get lost in her forest of honey blonde hair. “He said he was coming over for dinner?”

She says it like it’s one question that only has one answer. But what no one else would know is that there isn’t one answer because there isn’t just one question. There are at least ten questions in what she just said, but unfortunately for the busybody she is, she won’t be getting the answers to any of them this evening.

“As I said outside, Mrs. McAllister, Annie and I got to talking and I offered to cook us dinner as a welcome-to-the-neighborhood,” he says, giving me a wink. “Where should we put the good stuff?”

I get up as ungracefully as I’m sure can be imagined from my place sprawled on the shitty linoleum in my kitchen and motion to the table.

“Here’s great,” I say with a small smile, still unbelieving that Cole is here and he brought food. How does begging for food turn into a sit-down dinner for us and our new neighbor?

Cole seems immune to the laser eyes my mom is observing him with as he sets a ridiculous amount of stuff on the table. A stack of paper plates, red solo cups, a box of plastic forks and knives, a bunch of baked potatoes – I knew it! – buns, cheese, and various burger toppings. I don’t know how he managed to carry it all. I would have had to make at least three trips.

Then my mom walks over and sets the most delicious looking, amazing smelling plate full of burger patties down on the table with a plop.

My mouth is watering so hard, I’m surprised I’m not drooling.

Cole turns then and looks down at my Jones, giving him that same warm smile that disarmed me in seconds. He has his arms wrapped around my thigh and he’s positioned slightly behind me, as if he’s using my thigh as a temporary shield. I place a hand on his head and go to introduce Jones to Cole, but the man beats me to it.

“Hey mister,” he says, crouching down to Jones’ level. “I brought over some burgers for you and me to eat. But before we dig in, I wanted to check with you and see if it’s cool if your mom has some too?”

He says it as if he and Jones are already friends, like they’ve been talking about burgers on a regular basis. It’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen, especially because it works.

Jones isn’t a big fan of strangers, and I could tell he was startled when Cole just seemed to waltz into our house unannounced. But those big eyes of his seemed to ignite with excitement when Cole leaned down to get his permission to let me join in for dinner.

I was crying earlier today, feeling like a completely lost and miserable mess, and now I’m ready to break into laughter. This day has seen quite the range of emotions.

I see Jones look up at me, mull it over, then glance at my tummy briefly before looking back to Cole.

“She has the guppy in her tummy. I think she needs food,” he finally replies.

Cole gives him a stern look.

“Makes total sense, man. I like your thinking.” Then Cole sticks his hand out and Jones gives him a low five.

I glance at my mom, who is watching the two interact with bemusement on her face. Then, the nosiest busybody I know does something completely unexpected.

“Well, it looks like everything is under control. I’ll just head off to dinner with the girls.” She leans forward and gives me a peck on the cheek. “Bye Jonesie,” she adds, giving him a smooch on his cheek that he immediately wipes away. “Cole, I’m assuming I’ll be seeing you around,” she adds, wiggling her fingers at him in a wave before strutting off to the front of the house.

When I hear the front door open and then close, I let out a sigh. I should have given her a better goodbye – you know, given her a hug, a really big one, and a kiss, made plans to do something soon – but I can’t seem to be anything other than thankful that she’s not hovering like a bee. It’s what she does most nights, just making sure everything is okay Annie Bananie, even as I’m trying to shoo her out the door. I’m glad to be back near my mom, but we’ve only been here a week and I’m already desperate for some space.

I look back at Cole, who is taking charge, walking Jones around the table so he can take what he wants before getting him settled into his chair. Jones looks so comfortable with him, so happy and calm, even though he’s never seen the man before in his life.

There’s a part of me that enjoys seeing Jones like this. But there’s another part of me that’s dying inside. How can I enjoy seeing another man with my son? Andrew has been gone for barely 3 months. Even though every day is torture and feels like it lasts too long, 3 months is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Am I being disloyal to his memory by allowing someone else into my home? To bond with our son?

My thought process doesn’t feel like there’s a lot of logic to it, mostly because Cole is obviously not trying to be Jones’ dad, just a friendly adult. But I can’t help the bunny trail my brain is doing right now. I have a smile on my face but there are literal tears streaming down my cheeks. It’s safe to say that logical, rational thought processes aren’t really my forte right now.

Cole glances over and sees me standing awkwardly in the middle of the kitchen, being a total mess, and he gives me that sympathetic smile again.

Get your shit together, Annie. You have a human child that relies on you for things. And a very nice neighbor here that’s feeding you and your son. Stop being a creeper.

I wipe my face off on my shirtsleeve, because I’m classy like that, and step forward with a smile, grabbing a paper plate from the stack Cole brought over.

“Thanks for bringing plates,” I say, even though the ceramic plates I rinsed off are still out on the table.

“Easier cleanup,” he replies with a little shoulder shrug as he takes a seat to the right of Jones at the table. He moves the ceramic plates into a pile and sets them off to the side, then places Jones’ paper plate in front of him.

I just nod and put together my burger, then sit down on the seat that has a special pad for my pregnant butt to sit on. I let out an internal sigh, thankful that I kept this after my pregnancy with Jones. I don’t know about all the other pregnant ladies in the world, but damn do I have a sore ass. All. The. Time. Like, seriously all the time. How are pregnant women around the world sitting anywhere all day, everyday? It would be torture.

I take a decent size bite of my burger, proud of myself for not shoving the whole thing in my mouth at once, and watch Jones and Cole interact. Jones is telling Cole about his trip to the zoo, and Cole is looking at Jones like he is telling the most interesting story he’s ever heard. Which is both wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time, because even as I search through my deepest memories, I can’t once remember Andrew giving Jones this type of undivided attention.

When Jones gets to the part about the monkey poo, I know I should say something to him about mentioning literal feces at the dinner table, but it feels so good to see him ramble on and on and have someone other than me give him the attention he deserves, that I let it slide.

“Lets ask your mom,” is the phrase that yanks me out of my zoned out state.

My eyes lift from Jones to Cole, my brow furrowing.

“Wha..?” I ask.

And I shit you not, the entire half-chewed bite of burger falls out of my mouth and onto my plate.

  1. Am. Fucking. Mortified.

I immediately slap my hand over my mouth, as if that will erase the past five seconds.

This Cole guy has got to be questioning his life right now. Or at least questioning whether I’m fit to be a parent, or wondering how I’ve survived this long in life.

My cheeks are so warm that they must be glowing, and it doesn’t help that both Jones and Cole are giggling and smiling at me.

Suddenly it’s all too much, and I burst into tears.

But I’m laughing too.

I feel like a crazy person.

Absolutely nuts.

Today has been a rough day.

I can’t remember the last time I laughed and cried so much in a 20 minute period of time.

I rest my elbows on the table and plant my wet, sobby face in my palms and continue to cry and laugh and let it all out on the table.

I feel like I’ve given the term airing your dirty laundry for the neighbors a bountiful new meaning.

When I finally manage to part my fingers and peek at the two boys at the table, I see that Jones is happily dipping French fries into mayonnaise – he learned that disgusting habit from his father – and Cole is watching me, a small smile still on his face.

The fact he hasn’t left a Cole-shaped hole in the wall as he high tails it back to his own house is a flat out miracle.

I close my fingers back up and hide behind my hands for a second longer. Then I stand from the table, go to the kitchen sink, rinse off my face, pat it dry with a paper towel, and return to my seat.

“So,” I say, lifting up my burger. “What were you talking about?” And I take a new bite. That I chew fully. And swallow. In it’s entirety.

Cole grins at me, then looks to Jones.

“You wanna ask?”

Jones nods his little bobble head a million times then looks to me.

“Can I go swimming at Cole’s after dinner?” he asks.

My heart breaks a tiny bit. We had a pool at our old house outside of Chicago. I’ve always considered it completely impractical to have a pool when you live somewhere that freezes the earwax in your ear so quickly it feels like you have an ear infection. But when Andrew and I were looking for houses, he mentioned that he’d always wanted a pool growing up, but his parents didn’t want to deal with the upkeep. It was one of those random facts you learn about someone that you think you’ll forget, but for some reason I’ve always remembered.

When our realtor took us to the beautiful yellow house on Maple Street in Winnetka – the house we moved into when I was pregnant, the house we lived in when Jones was born, the house we lived in when everything fell apart and I was left trying to figure out all of the pieces – I knew immediately that the pool was going to seal the deal.

Jones has asked a few times about getting a pool since we moved here last week. California seems like a more realistic place to have a pool, with the desert and beach weather, but he doesn’t understand that I can’t just add a pool to a rental. He doesn’t understand what a rental is. He just knows this is our new home, and that he misses swimming and his old house and his dad.

So when Jones asks if he can go swimming, I feel the guilt. The guilt that comes with being a single parent, the guilt that comes when you try to alleviate the pain of losing someone by giving in to what your kid wants.

And even though we don’t know Cole at all, and it’s a little too chilly outside to go swimming, I smile at my sweet boy and say yes.


Do you want to see what happens next for Annie, Cole and Jones? Pre-order Like You Mean It now! It releases November 13.

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