Chloe stood outside Lakewood Elementary in the suburbs of Atlanta, GA with her daughter. They stood in the line marked “Mrs. Simon” with about ten other kids and adults.
A woman who appeared to be in her mid-thirties cheerfully greeted everyone. “Okay, friends, let’s all follow me into my classroom. I’m going to have you go do a fun activity with Mrs. Reed and Mrs. Black while I talk to your grown-ups.”
Chloe took one more look at her daughter to make sure her name tag was securely pinned to her shirt before letting go of her hand and watching her join the line of students. She swallowed a lump in her throat as she watched her daughter follow the school administrators toward the school cafeteria.
She sat in a tiny chair and listened to the teacher give a rundown of a typical day in kindergarten, what they’d be learning, and some basic classroom rules.
When the teacher asked if there were any questions, Chloe felt like she had a million. Mrs. Simon answered each one patiently. Before she knew it, the kids were back in the classroom, proudly showing their parents a craft they’d made.
“Mama, look! It’s my name and I spelled it all by myself! R-A-C-H-E-L!” She pointed to each letter sticker she’d placed on a foam pad that Chloe quickly realized was a doorknob hanger. In true “Rachel fashion,” she’d also added rainbows and unicorns.
“You sure did, baby,” said Chloe.
“Do I get to come back tomorrow?” she asked.
“Yes, but only for a half of a school day.”
“So, I don’t get to buy lunch tomorrow?”
“You want to buy your lunch at school?” asked Chloe.
“Bella said that’s what she does.”
“Maybe once a week, okay? We’ll look at the lunch menu they gave us and pick your favorite each week.”
“Okay,” said Rachel, giving her mother a grin, showing off the gap where her two front teeth had recently fallen out.
As they made their way to the front door of the school, another mother caught up with Chloe. “First kid off to kindergarten?” she asked.
“It’s that obvious, isn’t it?” asked Chloe.
“I did the same thing with my oldest,” said the mom. “This one here is my third. I’m Ashley and this is Violet.”
“I’m Rachel,” said her daughter before Chloe could introduce her.
Violet and Rachel immediately recognized that they were each wearing a dress with a unicorn on it. They began to compare their unicorns, giggling the whole time.
“It looks like they’re hitting it off.”
“My middle kid was the same way. I could barely pull my oldest off of my leg when we came here,” said Ashley.
“I think I’m having a harder time with this than Rachel is.”
“That means she’ll be okay. Even Aiden, that’s my oldest, was all smiles when I picked him up that first day without me. I knew my Carter would be just fine.”
“That makes me feel better.”
Ashley gave Chloe a friendly pat on the shoulder. “We all go through it. You’re doing fine.”
Ashley lowered her voice. “Would you and Rachel be interested in going to get some ice cream? It’s a ‘first day of kindergarten’ tradition in our family, and I’d love it if you joined us.”
Chloe looked over at her daughter, who was still giggling with her new friend, and readily agreed.
They went to an ice cream shop right near the school, and the girls both ordered a cup of vanilla ice cream with extra sprinkles, whipped cream, and a cherry on top.
Ashley looked back and forth between Chloe and Rachel and smiled. “You can definitely tell she’s yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“She looks just like you!”
“Do you think so?”
“There’s no mistaking that red hair!”
Chloe laughed. “We get that a lot.”
That night, Chloe and Rachel talked about the day.
“What was your favorite part of the day?” Chloe asked.
“The ice cream. Violet is my new best friend!” exclaimed Rachel.
“What about Bella?”
“She’s my best friend too.”
“I guess you can never have too many,” said Chloe. “Now, you know what to do tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, Mama. You’re taking me to school after lunch, and then you will pick me up.”
“And, the next day?”
“I am going to ride the bus to school, and then I go to Lakewood Kid Lounge at the end of the day.”
“That’s right. That’s my big girl,” Chloe said, tears in her eyes.
“Why are you crying, Mama? Are you sad?” asked Rachel.
“I’m not sad, sweetheart. I just remember how tiny you were when I first saw you, and you’re so big now. I’m so proud of you.”
Rachel threw her arms around her mother, giving her a tight squeeze. “I love you, Mama.”
“I love you too, baby girl.”
Chloe tucked her daughter in and shut off the light. She still couldn’t believe she was the mother to a kindergartener.
The next day, Rachel headed off to the classroom, hardly giving her mother a second look. Ashley walked up to Chloe and gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder as she’d done the day before.
“I don’t know whether to smile or cry,” Chloe said.
“If you’re free, why don’t we get a cup of coffee? You can do one or the other, or both. I won’t judge,” said Ashley.
“I’d love that,” said Chloe.
The two women spoke over coffee. Chloe learned that Ashley stayed home while her wife Jessica worked as a project manager.
“I’m not sure what I’m going to do while I have three kids in school during the day,” said Ashley.
“My house would finally be clean,” said Chloe.
“Until Rachel gets home, maybe, if she’s anything like my three,” said Ashley. “What do you do?”
“I’m a veterinary technologist at VetFriends Animal Hospital.”
“I know the place. So, you’re a vet tech?”
“It’s a similar job, but I have a four-year degree. I am thinking of going to vet school soon.”
“That’s cool. Will they pay for you to go?”
“Our parent company will reimburse me for my classes as long as I get at least a C+. I have to front the money for two semesters, though, at first.”
“Are you married?”
“No. I never have been.”
“Is there another parent in the picture? I apologize if that’s too personal.”
“I don’t even know where her father is,” said Chloe. “It’s always just been the two of us. I have been telling her about a lot of different types of families since before she was old enough to understand. It also helps that her best friend has two moms.”
“Good for you. My kids have gotten a few weird comments about our family, but it hasn’t been anything too bad.”
“It’s definitely more common than when we were kids.”
They chatted a little longer over coffee, and, before they knew it, it was time to head back to school to get their kids. They exchanged numbers before parting ways.
“Mama!” Rachel called as she ran toward her mother.
“Hi, baby girl. How was school?”
“It was good. I sat with Violet. Did you know she doesn’t have a dad either? She has two mommies like Bella. And her name means purple.”
“That’s super cool,” said Chloe.
“Yeah. I can’t wait to ride the bus tomorrow.”
Chloe fought back the tears that were forming in her eyes. “That’s such a big step. Are you sure you don’t want to ride in my car?”
“I know. You’re a big girl and you can ride the bus.”
“That’s right. I’m going to sit in the front and follow directions.”
“Of course,” said Chloe. “Let’s go home. It’s your turn to pick dinner.”
Rachel watched some television for a while when they got home. She didn’t surprise her mother in the least when she asked for spaghetti for dinner.
She got Rachel to help load the dishwasher, and she ran the water for Rachel’s bath. She was going to help her until Rachel reminded her, rather forcefully, that she could bathe herself.
She texted her coworker and best friend once Rachel was in bed.
C: I’m not ready for tomorrow
S: I totally get it
S: Is Rachel?
C: Oh yeah
S: It’s better than having to peel her off of your leg
C: I guess so
S: You can cry and vent all you want at work tomorrow
Chloe tried to watch some television to relax her mind before bed. When that didn’t work, she settled for one of her cheesy romance novels.
The next morning, Chloe barely held back the tears as she watched her baby board the bus. She managed to hold it together while her daughter waved to her, grinning the whole way. She finally let the tears flow as soon as the bus pulled away from the curb.
She wiped her eyes as she walked back to her house to grab her work things.
“Hey, Chloe,” said Stacie as Chloe entered the animal hospital building. “How did it go this morning?”
“I didn’t cry until the bus pulled away.”
“That’s better than I did on Bella’s first day.”
“What? You always told me about Aubrey crying,” said Chloe.
“I didn’t want to admit that I was way worse.”
“I’m amazed that Bella didn’t die of embarrassment.”
“I was just thinking back to how little she was. It doesn’t seem that long ago.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Stacie. “Does Rachel know about….?”
“Oh, totes. I mean, not everything. She knows enough.”
Fat Amy, the animal hospital’s receptionist, came in. “Dr. Conrad, your 9:00 is here. I copied his records for you.”
“Thanks.” She took the chart from her.
Chloe went out to the lobby. “Crackers?” she called.
A petite woman with brown hair stood up. She tugged on the leash. “Crackers, come on, dude.” Her black and tan dachshund was under the bench.
“May I try?” asked Chloe.
“Be my guest,” she said. “He’s always been terrified of the vet’s office.”
Chloe sat down on the floor to get on the dog’s level. “Well, we do our best to make this a positive experience.” She laid a treat on the floor just a few feet away from the dog. He scooted out from under the bench, snapped up the treat, and retreated back under the bench.
“Crackers…” said his owner.
“It’s okay. That was a good start.” Chloe continued to place treats down further and further from the dog until he’d finally gotten all the way out from under the bench. She gave him a bunch of praise, and even his owner seemed surprised he hadn’t hid.
“There’s a good boy,” Chloe said. “Let’s go see Dr. Conrad.”
The owner followed her.
“Let’s walk him over to the scale. Okay, twenty-five pounds. That’s a good, healthy weight. He’s five years old, right?”
“Yes. He’s here for his shots. We just moved here from LA.”
“Okay, great.” She took his vitals and then got Stacie to do the exam.
“Hi, I’m Dr. Conrad.”
“Pleased to meet you. How has he been? Any sneezing or coughing?”
“How is he eating?”
“He had a few days when we first got here that he didn’t eat much, but he’s fine now.”
“Great,” said Stacie. “And what is he eating?”
“Pedigree. I give him a mix of wet and dry.”
“Also good. Any vomiting or diarrhea?” Stacie asked.
“He had a little diarrhea when we moved, too. But he’s been okay since about three or four days after we settled in.”
“Just let us know if he has a problem again, but it probably was just stress-related,” said Stacie. She put the stethoscope on his chest. “Okay, his heart sounds good. Let’s look at those teeth. Chloe, can you give me a hand?”
“Sure thing,” said Chloe.
“I can’t believe he’s letting you do that. His vet in LA had to have three people restrain him,” said Beca.
“Well, Chloe is amazing with animals. She has such a big heart.”
“I can see that,” said Beca. “She got him out from under the bench.”
“She’s something else,” said Stacie. “I can’t believe she’s single.”
“What?” Stacie asked, feigning innocence.
Beca just laughed.
Stacie continued the exam. “Okay, it looks like this handsome boy of yours is the picture of health.”
“Great,” said Beca.
“It looks like he’s due for a rabies vaccination. I also recommend vaccination for Bordetella and canine influenza,” said Stacie. “If you board him here, we require those vaccines, as do most kennels.”
“Okay. Let’s have him get all three,” said Beca.
“Great. I’ll have Chloe come back in a minute to give them to him. Welcome to VetFriends, and, by the way, I love your music,” said Stacie.
“Thanks,” said Beca, her face flushing.
“I’ll be back shortly,” said Chloe.
As she followed Stacie to the back room, she said, “Stacie, what the hell?”
Stacie rolled her eyes. “I’m just trying to help. How long has it been since you got some?”
Chloe sighed. “Since when has it been your business?”
“Well, David gave me a few orgasms last week. He really knows how to push my buttons,” Chloe said, winking.
“Wait, do you have a boyfriend?”
“Oh my god, Beale! Do you have a friend with benefits?”
“You could say that.”
“Get it, girl,” said Stacie. “Beca was totally checking you out.”
“She was not.”
“She was making eyes at you, and I saw her glance at your ass at least twice when you bent down.”
“If you say so. By the way, what were you talking about before? What music?”
Stacie looked at Chloe incredulously. “You didn’t look at the chart? That’s Beca Mitchell!”
“I can’t believe I didn’t realize that! I’m so used to seeing her all dressed up. I thought I read that she was moving to Atlanta!”
“Well, you’ll be seeing her from time to time. Now, go give her adorable doggie his shots.”
Chloe grabbed the vaccines, double-checking that she’d brought the correct ones with her, and headed back to the exam room.
“Hey, Crackers. I’m going to make this as quick as possible. Beca, you should probably give him some attention to help distract him.”
“Sure. Come here, Crackers.” Beca murmured soothing words to the dog and rubbed his ears while Chloe gave him two shots.
“Okay, now, this one is a nasal spray. Here we go, Crackers.” Chloe administered the spray with record speed. Crackers flinched and shook his head. “I know, that’s pretty gross and stinky stuff. You were so good! Have a treat!”
Crackers quickly recovered, happily taking the treat from Chloe’s outstretched hand. He began to wag his tail so fast it was a blur.
“I can’t believe how well that went,” said Beca. “You really do have a gift.”
“Thanks,” said Chloe. “You guys are done. Dr. Conrad wants to see him in six months. Amy will have some paperwork for you to sign as well as a new rabies tag.”
“Awesome, thanks so much.”
“My pleasure. Have a good day!”
After Beca and Crackers left, Fat Amy called Chloe over to her desk, grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
“It’s your lucky day,” she said.
“Why is that?” Chloe asked.
Amy showed Chloe the credit card slip Beca had just signed. Below her signature, she’d written “Give Chloe my number.”
“I told you she was checking you out,” said Stacie.
At lunchtime, Chloe sat down, staring at the phone number Fat Amy had written on a sticky note. She hadn’t been on a date in well over a year.
Stacie sat with her. “Call her.”
“I don’t know.”
“What’s the holdup?”
“This is a lot at once,” Chloe said. “My baby just went to kindergarten. I don’t know if I’m ready.”
“Call her,” Stacie repeated. “It’s a date, not a marriage proposal. And don’t say you don’t have a babysitter. Rachel can stay with us. She and Bella haven’t had a sleepover in a while.”
Chloe opened her mouth to protest and then shut it.
“I swear, Chloe, if you don’t shoot your shot…”
Chloe sighed. “Fine. But I’m not calling her while you’re in the room.”
“Say no more,” said Stacie, taking her drink and leaving the break room. Chloe knew Stacie would be standing outside the door, though.
Chloe took a deep breath. She let Stacie’s words run through her mind again. It was a date, not a marriage proposal. She knew Rachel would have a blast with Stacie and Aubrey, two of the only people she trusted implicitly with her daughter. She and Bella were two peas in a pod.
She checked the number on the note three times before hitting the call button.
“Hi, this is Beca Mitchell.”
“Hi, this is Chloe. I work at VetFriends.”
“So, that receptionist passed you my number. I wasn’t sure she would,” said Beca.
“She was far too entertained by the note on the credit slip not to,” said Chloe.
“I figured that out. You and Dr. Conrad are hilarious to watch.”
“She’s not usually that obnoxious.”
“Good to know. So, are you free Saturday night?” asked Beca.
“I have to make sure I can leave my daughter with Stacie, that’s Dr. Conrad, but I should be able to.”
Stacie opened the door. “What night?”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “Excuse me, Beca. I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that Stacie was eavesdropping.”
Beca laughed. “Go ahead.”
“Saturday night,” said Chloe.
“Works for us,” said Stacie.
“Great, now get out!” She could hear Beca laughing. “Okay, I think she’s back to listening at the door. I’m free on Saturday.”
“So, you have a kid?” asked Beca.
“Yeah, just one. Is that a problem?”
“I don’t think so. I was just a little surprised. You look so young.”
“I am. I became a mother at a younger age than I would have imagined,” said Chloe.
“That’s life, I guess,” said Beca. “What time can I call you tonight to work out details?”
“9 is fine. My daughter will be in bed by then.”
“That sounds like the perfect time to talk.”
As soon as they hung up, the door to the break room flew open.
“Get it, Beale!” Stacie exclaimed.
Chloe rolled her eyes. “You’re obnoxious.”
“Beca is going to think we’re all crazy, you know. She’ll have to take Crackers somewhere else for his vet care.”
“No way,” said Stacie. “She’ll come back because she knows we care.”
“You guys,” said Chloe, sighing.
Chloe was relieved when Fat Amy came into the break room to eat lunch and tell everyone far too many details about her latest “boy toy.”
The afternoon passed as usual - a cat who had been sneezing, a dog who had broken a tooth on a deer antler, and a few other animals who were there for their exams.
Chloe couldn’t wait to get Rachel from after-school care after work.
Chloe headed up to the Kid Lounge, signed in, and saw her favorite little girl grinning as she walked up to her.
“How did it go?” Chloe asked.
“It was so fun. Mrs. Simon had us write our names and draw a picture of ourselves. She’s going to put it on our lockers. She said we’ll do it again at the end of the year, so we can see how much better we can write and draw.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“And I ate all of my lunch.”
“That’s great, baby girl. Let’s get home so I can make dinner.”
“Can we have spaghetti again?”
“It’s my turn to pick, sweetheart. I’m making chicken.”
“Why do I only get to pick dinner on Wednesdays, Mama?”
“You aren’t the one who has to cook.”
Chloe headed home with Rachel and immediately put dinner in the oven. She knew chicken wasn’t her daughter’s favorite, except maybe in the form of a nugget. She did, however, put some tater tots in the toaster oven to go with the chicken. Rachel was borderline underweight. She knew it wasn’t the healthiest way to put a little weight on her daughter, but she knew it was something she’d eat.
Rachel picked at her chicken, but she polished off the tater tots.
“Come on, sweetheart. You need to eat your chicken.”
“I don’t want to. Why can’t I have dinosaur nuggets?”
“They’re not healthy.”
“But they’re yummy!”
Chloe looked at the mostly untouched chicken on her daughter’s plate. She hated to negotiate, but she constantly worried about her underweight child.
“Can you try to eat half?”
“How many pieces?”
Rachel sighed in a way that Chloe recognized all too well before eating exactly five pieces. Chloe let her have some whole milk yogurt afterwards and hoped she’d eaten enough calories. The pediatrician had suggested supplementing Rachel’s diet with nutritional drinks. They were expensive and Rachel didn’t like the drinks, no matter what brand, flavor, or variety Chloe purchased. She didn’t want Rachel to think the drinks were a punishment, so she tried to only push her to drink them when she knew she hadn’t eaten enough.
Dinner was usually a battle with her. She was generally good about breakfast and lunch, but she whined through most of the dinners Chloe cooked. She refused to survive on pizza, spaghetti and dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, and she wasn’t cooking two meals every night.
After dinner was cleaned up, Chloe told Rachel the news about Saturday.
“Guess what? You’re having a sleepover with Bella on Saturday!”
“Really? That’s great, Mama.”
“You’re going to have so much fun.”
“Yeah. We’re going to play ponies!”
“That’s a good plan, but make sure you let Bella have a turn to decide what to play,” Chloe said.
“What are you going to do, Mama?”
“I’m…” Chloe thought for a beat. “I have plans with a new friend.”
“Who is your friend?”
“Her name is Beca.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Why not?” Rachel asked.
“I’m going to talk to her on the phone about it tonight after you’re in bed.”
Rachel went to her room, telling her mother she wanted to color. Chloe took the opportunity to read for a while before she had to run a bath for her daughter.
Chloe’s phone rang at 9:00.
“Hi!” Chloe answered.
“You sound surprised. Did I remember the wrong time?” asked Beca.
“No, we said 9:00. I guess I’m used to people not calling me when they find out I have a child.”
“I would have told you if that was a problem. I’ve dealt with enough liars in my time to know that’s not what I want to be.”
“That’s refreshing,” said Chloe.
“Thanks, I guess? Anyway, what time on Saturday? I guess it depends on your kid?”
“Stacie - Dr. Conrad - would probably take Rachel at any time. She’s weirdly interested in my dating life.”
“That’s funny. Would dinner be okay? I’m not sure what to do afterward, but I should tell you I’m not big on movies.”
“Dinner is great. We can play things by ear. Stacie is keeping Rachel overnight.”
“Nice friend,” said Beca. “How old is Rachel?”
“She’s five. Stacie has a daughter who just turned six. The two of them are quite a pair. She’s probably happy to have her daughter entertained overnight.”
“That’s cute. So, I don’t know what’s good here. I’ve only been here for a few weeks. Do you have any suggestions?”
“I’m trying to remember the last time I went somewhere without Rachel in tow. Let me ask around. Maybe we can both try a new restaurant,” said Chloe.
“I like that idea a whole lot. I’ll pick you up at 6 unless you’d rather drive.”
“I don’t care much, but it might be easier if I drove since I know the area. You can meet me at my house if you’d like.”
“Great idea. You pick the place and make reservations, but it’s my treat,” said Beca.
“Sounds good. I’ll be in touch,” said Chloe.
“Great,” said Beca, and Chloe was certain she could hear a smile in her voice.
Chloe was relieved that Beca was going to treat because she’d just spent a lot of money on Rachel’s school supplies. She couldn’t believe a five-year-old really needed twenty pencils and ten large glue sticks, but she wasn’t going to have her daughter be the kid who didn’t have what she needed.