10. Boredom and Babysitting
Bullying Lisa into getting up in the morning and taking a shower is of little entertainment value. A chick, Pete decides, is only hot if she's acting like she's hot. There's nothing to inspire wet dreams in the way Lisa drags herself out of bed and into the bathroom, there's no titillating banter to accompany her progress, and there isn't even an eye roll when he asks whether her nightwear is a hand-me-down from her grandmother. When he recounts his trials and tribulations to Wilson, he'll have to garnish his tale with choice fictional titbits if he is to retain any sort of street cred with his friend.
Clad in a bathrobe and with a towel wrapped around her hair, Lisa pokes at the breakfast he has made for her in a desultory fashion.
"I can make pancakes if you like," he offers half-heartedly.
Lisa shakes her head. "Muesli with fruit is fine," she says.
"As is shown by the hearty manner with which you're digging in."
"Don't nag. You're worse than Mom."
Ouch, that hurts!
Lisa pushes her chair back. "I'll get ready," she says.
Pete's eyes move from her bare feet up her legs. "You haven't shaved your legs," he says, frowning.
Lisa pauses, tugging at a stray lock that has escaped the towel. "Neither have you," she says.
"I never shave my legs, so in my case it isn't an aberration. In your case it is."
"Fine, so it's an aberration. Sue me."
"You're going to work with stubbly legs?" She must be in a worse state than he'd estimated.
"I'm wearing pants. Satisfied?"
No, he isn't, but at least she's aware that she can't appear at work without attracting attention unless she hides her legs. Is he going to have to blow dry her hair and help her apply her make-up? But half an hour later she's ready. Her make up is rudimentary, her hair is pulled back into a simple ponytail, but she has concealed the rings under her eyes and her wardrobe is neat. He snatches the car keys from under her nose.
"Oh, no, you're not driving," he says. He has bad memories of the last time she drove.
"I'm depressed, not mentally or physically —"
"Shut up and let me drive," he says, ushering her out of the door. She doesn't protest; maybe she sees the sense behind his offer, maybe she's too tired to argue.
"Who's your primary care physician?" He glances over at her as they leave the suburbs and hit the morning rush hour traffic. "I can find out, so you may as well tell me. Have you seen anyone? Are you taking medication?"
She stares at him resentfully. Then she asks, "Do you know the way?" She leans forward, programmes her GPS, and then leans back again, closing her eyes and turning her face away from him.
'Mandy' tells him to turn right at the next intersection. He promptly silences 'Mandy', making a mental note to download some other GPS voice (Homer Simpson maybe?) at the next opportunity. "Medication?" he prompts, keeping an eye on the navigation screen.
She sighs. "Not a good idea."
"Says who? Oh, sorry, I forgot. You have a degree in medicine, right? And sometimes you even indulge in a bit of doctoring."
She ignores the sarcasm. "Says HUP."
"Who asked HUP?" The Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania is a leading transplant centre — the leading centre in the area — but Philadelphia Central has a large gastroenterology department of its own. Post-transplant recovery is something they should be able to handle.
"Hamadi, our leading gastroenterologist, after my liver values refused to recover."
"I want to see your files."
She sighs again. "There's nothing to see, no puzzle to solve. It's rare, but it happens, and there aren't enough case numbers to make an educated guess on cause and effect. It's … the way it is. And normally it really doesn't matter. With Wilson around, I wasn't drinking anymore anyway. It just means … that I have to get through this without any medication."
"SSRIs don't mess with the liver."
"Normally they don't. But there have been cases, and until they know why my liver's still acting up, they don't want to take the risk."
He wouldn't hesitate to give it a try, but donor livers are notoriously hard to get hold of, so the people at HUP have a point. "Okay, but I want to talk to Hamadi, and —"
"Hamadi's off my case. It was awkward having someone from our staff handle it, and I was glad when HUP took over. Turn right at the next intersection; there's a construction site on the Interstate."
They drive the last two miles in silence.
"Drop me off in front," Lisa says. "Are you picking me up after work?"
Now that he's managed to ensure that she isn't driving anywhere by the simple expedient of taking her car keys, he's inclined to tell her to take a cab, but if he does that, chances are that she'll insist on driving herself tomorrow. So, he rolls his eyes as though he feels imposed upon and says, "I guess I may as well. What time shall I pick you up?"
"I should be done by five. Park in my space in the parking deck, and I'll meet you there."
"I need Amy's telephone number," he says by way of a parting.
"I'll text it to you." She takes a deep breath, checks her appearance in the mirror, and then enters the hospital without a backward glance.
And then he's at a loose end. He employs his time gainfully by hiring a cleaning lady for Lisa — and a gardener while he's at it. Then he sorts Lisa's books, which are still imprisoned in boxes, onto the shelves. He's occupied with that when the telephone rings.
"Hello, my name is Sarah Blecker from Germantown Academy, PA to the head of Lower School," a breathlessly airy voice says.
"Am I speaking with Rachel Cuddy's parent? I'm afraid Rachel hasn't appeared in class today. Is she sick?"
He briefly considers lying, but for all he knows he'll be asked to produce a doctor's note or something. Not worth the bother, he decides. "We've outsourced her."
"She's staying with her aunt for the week."
"Mr Cuddy, the school has a strict attendance policy. If you wish to take your child out of school during the semester, you need to apply for leave in writing in advance, stating your reasons, and then the head of Lower School —"
"It's a family emergency."
There's a short pause. "I'm sorry, but if Rachel isn't sick, then —"
He interrupts. "Are you offering to take Rachel? Drive her to school and pick her up afterwards? Catheterise her, bathe her, get her ready for school, do her physio routine with her, take her to her medical appointments, etc.? Because if not, I suggest we end this conversation." He counts till three to give her time to respond, then he slams the phone down. Lisa is going to be pissed, but that's too bad.
Two book boxes later it's time for the online Q&A session with his Oxford students. He uploaded the lecture the night before, giving the students a mere eight hours to watch it and then prepare questions, which should keep any but the most intrepid from wasting his time. Actually, it's not a bad way of going about this lecturing thing, he decides. No fixed dates that he has to attend, no direct contact with the students, no lecture halls filled with 90% morons and 10% smart-asses, no stupid questions during his lectures.
One hour later he decides, Never again! It's a good bet that two-thirds of his students didn't spot the uploaded video in time to watch his lecture and thus couldn't participate in the Q&A, but the few that came, saw, and asked were an obstreperous bunch. When he lectures in person, hardly anyone dares to ask questions afterwards, and the few who are suicidal enough to doubt his methods or his conclusions are easily shot down. A sarcastic word here, a put-down there, and a racial or sexual slur thrown in for good measure (delivered while looming over the offender) usually suffice to nip all student-teacher interactions in the bud. No such luck with the online version. His students, far from being deterred by the sarcastic answers he types to their questions, actually respond in kind now that there are barriers of distance and anonymity to protect them from his stinging barbs. Questions are followed up by more questions — he has to admit that some of them have a certain degree of justification — and his students don't let up until they are satisfied with his answers. Perhaps they aren't complete idiots after all, but there's no doubt that this is more strenuous than a regular lecture.
Lisa has sent him Amy's number as promised — with an injunction to remember that Los Angeles is in the Pacific Time Zone, but hey, with The Screamer around, no one is going to get any shut-eye after six a.m. anyway, so he calls L.A. next.
"James?" Amy says. "James left yesterday."
"Where'd he go?" Pete asks.
"Home?" Amy surmises. "He said he has to start working today."
Obviously Amy is no help whatsoever. Wilson seems to have gone MIA, but maybe he obtained a new phone before disappearing into his Second Life. "Do you have a contact number?"
"I can give you Lisa Cuddy's number. She stays in the same house, so —"
"I'm phoning from Lisa's place, and Wilson. Isn't. Here," Pete enunciates slowly. "Now Amy, think! Where could he be? He must have said something or talked to someone on the phone or mentioned taking the kid somewhere."
"I don't know. We didn't talk much, you see."
Yes, he's beginning to see, and he can't blame Wilson for avoiding heart-to-hearts with Amy. He also can't fault Wilson for not sticking it out the entire week; he, too, would have fled from Los Angeles. Then again, he wouldn't have gone there in the first place from a misplaced sense of obligation towards the kid's birth mom. If Amy wants to see her son, then she can make the trek down to Philly. But it isn't like anyone is asking him.
He goes for a run to work off his frustration: Lisa's place is on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and soon he's out on narrow lanes that wind among wooded hills, with houses few and far between. There's hardly any traffic; it's so quiet that when he pulls out his ear buds all he hears is the wind in the leaves, birdsong, and his own panting breath. Finding his way back is slightly trickier than heading westwards, but the navigation app on his cell saves the day.
When he gets back to the house, the phone is ringing persistently. Thinking that it might be Wilson, he lunges for it.
There's silence. Then, "Hi, it's me. Rachel."
He's bent over double, catching his breath, sweat running down his face. "Your mom's at work," he finally presses out.
"I thought she's sick," Rachel says.
"Gimme a sec," he says, heading for the kitchen, where he places a glass under the faucet. As it fills he says, "She's too sick to go to work and look after you. So she's going to work and earning lots and lots of nickels and dimes, so that when she's better, she can look after you and still have a job."
"Oh." There's a longer pause, which makes him hope that the conversation is over. "Then she's not dying?"
"No. What gave you that idea?" He chugs down the glass of water.
"Last time — you know, when Mom had her liver taken out — I didn't have to stay at Julia's place. I had to go to school, even though she was nearly dying."
"She wasn't 'nearly dying'. Who told you that?"
"Nana. She says Mom could've died and left me an orphan. And that it's typical for Mom to get sick and make Julia deal with the consequences. I think she means having to look after me. And that if Mom did die, Julia would be saddled with me forever."
He expels a frustrated breath. Jesus, but the Cuddys are an exhausting bunch!
"Your Nana is an idiot. Your mom didn't ask to get sick and she certainly didn't do it in order to dump you on Julia." He considers adding that Julia loves having her and would gladly look after her till the end of her days, but the lie refuses to pass his lips. No one, least of all a mother with three children of her own, wants to be saddled with a fourth one with so many special needs that she'd have to neglect her own family in order to cope.
"If you're there, can't I come home? You could look after me," Rachel says in a wheedling tone.
"I don't have Tanja to help this time around," he says succinctly. "I thought you liked Julia."
"Yeah, but she's at work. So's Rob. And Ben, Sam 'n Ethan are at school. It's boring here."
That leaves … Lisa's mom. Who, if Lisa is to be believed, is close enough to dementia that leaving Rachel in her care isn't what your friendly social services worker would recommend. What the hell is Julia thinking?
"So you're alone with your grandmother?" he asks carefully.
"Yeah, and Rosa. She came in the morning to keep Nana company. But they watch television and play stupid card games. Leastways, that's all they've done till now. I want to come home!"
Okay, so there's a caregiver or companion of sorts. "Stick it out for a few days," he advises. "Then your mom should be coping again and Wilson will be back." Or so he hopes.
"I'm bored! What am I supposed to do all day?"
"I can phone your school and ask them to send course work for you," he suggests drily.
He has had enough of this conversation. Rachel's life sucks at the moment, but that isn't his problem. "I gotta take a shower."
"Can I talk to Mom when she comes home?"
"Yeah, I'll tell her to phone you." He disconnects the call before Rachel finds some other reason to keep him talking.
After his shower he drives back to the hospital to pick Lisa up. Lisa is already waiting for him when he draws into her parking space. She sinks into the passenger seat without a word, not even reprimanding him for being late.
"Do we need to get groceries?" he asks. What he ordered and had delivered was rudimentary, enough to get her and Rachel through a day or two, but not exactly a source of culinary inspiration.
"We'll order takeout," she says.
She hates takeout; he knows that. He needs to get her more involved in everyday activities, re-introduce routine into her life. When they pass a supermarket, he turns the car around and pulls up into the parking lot. She protests weakly, but accompanies him inside when he insists. He even manages to coerce her into making food choices of her own by the simple expedient of throwing a few pork chops into the shopping cart. Converting the vegetables that she puts into the cart into something he won't mind eating will be a challenge, but — so is everything connected with Lisa.
"Wilson isn't at Amy's place," he says offhandedly as they drive home. He doesn't want to worry her, but it's possible that she has an idea where Wilson could be.
"No, I know," she says. "He phoned me at the office."
"Where is he?"
She has to think about that real hard. "I think he said he was in New York. He said something about visiting someone. His brother Danny, I think."
"Is he coming back anytime soon?" Pete asks, fighting to stay casual.
Lisa frowns. "He … didn't say anything about coming back earlier than planned. Why?"
Why, indeed, would he want to be informed about his son's whereabouts? Why should he be worried when his son is in the care of a depressive alcoholic who has just had a major emotional crisis?
"Oh, no reason at all," he says lightly, braking harder than necessary in Lisa's drive. (When he doesn't concentrate, he still has problems dosing the force of his prosthetic.)
When Lisa has recovered from the backlash she says, "You don't need to stay because of me. I can manage, now that Rachel is with Julia."
"You mean, like this morning?" He gets out of the car and pockets the car keys. Better safe than sorry.
She follows slowly, tugging at her lower lip. "If you weren't there, I wouldn't rely on you to get me out the door in the morning. I let myself go today because I knew you'd pick up the slack."
Her confidence in his reliability and interest in her health is heart-warming, but misplaced. "I'll stick around till Wilson reappears," he says with finality. "Did he give you a contact number?"
"Yes, he's gotten himself a new cell. I should have texted you the number." She rolls her eyes at her own stupidity.
"You should phone Rachel," he tells her as they enter the house. "She called here today."
He brings the groceries into the kitchen and sorts them into the fridge and the cupboards. When he's done he goes to the living area. Lisa is on the landline, talking to Rachel in all probability. He goes to her purse and takes out her cell. It's locked, a safety precaution he wouldn't have credited Lisa with, but he cracks the swipe code at the first try: it's an 'L'.
Lisa covers the telephone receiver with her hand, saying, "Hey! What do you think you're doing?"
"Getting Wilson's number," he says, which is a half-truth. While he's at it he checks her calendar, memorising her appointments for the next few days. Chances are that one or more of them are health related: Lisa may be off her game, but she's too much of a control freak to neglect her health. Then he goes through her calls and forwards all the numbers which she called and from which she received calls today, including Wilson's, to his phone.
He takes Lisa's phone into the yard to call Wilson.
"Yes?" Wilson says.
It takes Pete a moment to realise that he has no idea what he wants to say. He wants to vituperate Wilson for disappearing off the face of the earth without as much as a 'by your leave', but …
"Hello?" Wilson says.
"Bastard!" Pete counters.
"House," Wilson says, surprise and disbelief in his voice.
"Where the fuck are you?"
"Boston," Wilson says cheerfully. "Forgot my phone in Philadelphia, though, in case you're wondering why I'm not taking calls. Did Cuddy give you my new number?"
"Yes," Pete says through gritted teeth.
"Then she's talking to you again; that's good."
"What are you doing in Boston?" Hadn't Lisa said he was in New York?
Some of his aggressiveness must be penetrating the ether, because Wilson picks up on it. "Visiting my family. Got a problem with that?"
"You're needed here," Pete says.
"Philadelphia. Lisa has had a melt-down."
"Wait. You're in Philly?"
"What kind of a melt-down?" Wilson asks. "I called her at work and she seemed okay."
"Depressive episode, as far as I can make out. Could be liver-related, but I haven't had the chance to hack her medical files yet."
"House, …, don't! Don't … oh, forget it. Just call Julia — no, wait, make Cuddy call Julia — and get out of there."
"I have called Julia, which reduced the problem, but didn't solve it. Julia has taken Rachel to Princeton, but I'm still stuck here."
"You … called Julia? And your balls are still attached and functioning?"
"Probably better than yours. When are you returning?"
"I've booked a flight for Saturday."
There's a note of finality in Wilson's voice that Pete doesn't like. He considers how to phrase his next request/threat/turn of the thumbscrew. "You're gonna leave Lisa here with me, the guy whose guts she hates?"
A snort from Wilson practically deafens Pete. "Cuddy doesn't hate your guts. She's much too efficient to waste her energy on useless emotional turmoil. You're just trying to find an excuse to bail out on her again."
"She isn't my responsibility," Pete points out.
"Well, she isn't mine either. I have enough responsibility to last me the rest of my life and probably a bit beyond that, thanks to you."
Pete chooses to ignore the direction in which Wilson is trying to take the conversation. It's a dead end down which they've been before. "She gave you half her liver. If it weren't for her, you wouldn't be around anymore to shoulder your responsibilities."
Wilson chuckles. It's not a nice chuckle. "Nice try, House. Do you want in on your son? You wanna look after him, play with him, watch him grow up? Then show that you can do it. Show that you can shoulder responsibility, that you can be more than a fair-weather parent."
"You're making my access to the kid conditional on whether I jump through hoops for you?" Pete asks, a vice clamping around his heart.
"House, again, don't! Don't try to make me out to be the villain of the piece. You want me to entrust my son into your care? Fine. I accept that you feel a sort of attachment or a sense of responsibility or whatever you may call it for your biological offspring, but I — love him. With all my heart. If I am to entrust him to you, I need to know that you'll be there for him, even when things get rough. Especially when things get rough. I'm not prepared to give you the benefit of the doubt, because I'm responsible for him, not for you. I need to make things right for him, not for you. So maybe this isn't fair on you, but — news flash, House: life isn't fair. It hasn't been fair on Joel so far, and now it isn't fair on you. If you want in on his life, you'll have to prove that you can do more than watch cartoons with him and take him to monster truck rallies. I'll see you on Saturday." And with that Wilson disconnects the call.
Someone has issues, major issues. The question is, is Wilson being pissy because he's generally mad at him or are his reservations about Pete's paternal abilities justified?
Considered objectively, the latter is probably the case. He, Pete, isn't exactly inclined towards philanthropy, and so far there's no evidence to suggest that he makes an exception for children. He doesn't actively dislike them, but he wouldn't go so far as to say that he enjoys spending time in their company. If Wilson suggested that he spend an afternoon with Joel, he'd be challenged to find something to do that wasn't utterly brain numbing.
But that doesn't disqualify him as a babysitter. Heck, there are parents who do a lot worse than just ignoring their kids. Wilson knows that, and Wilson also knows that he's capable of assessing dangers and dealing with medical emergencies, something your average parent is incapable of. Either Wilson is out to punish him or he knows something that Pete doesn't know, something that casts more than a faint shadow of doubt on his ability to bond with a kid.
When he returns to the living area Lisa is studying the bookshelves with a frown. "Did you pile the books haphazardly on the shelves?" she asks. "I don't see any sort of system. My fiction used to be sorted alphabetically by author and that's the way I put the books into the boxes, but now … . Wait, there it's alphabetical. … No, it isn't. It just looks like it, but then you've got a completely different author right between two books by the same author."
"Thank you, Pete, for unpacking my books and sorting them," he mutters.
"Sorry," Lisa says, "that's what I meant to say, but I still don't understand what you've done. I'll never find a book like this."
"They're sorted by first publication date. It makes more sense than sorting them alphabetically by author. There's no logic in placing War and Peace next to The Lord of the Rings; they'd be next to each other solely because their authors' last names share the first letters."
"I don't have any Tolkien. I don't read fantasy," she says querulously.
"Trust me, Rachel will read Tolkien."
Lisa moves over to the nearest shelf and pulls out a book, looking doubtful. "So now I have to know that To Kill a Mockingbird was first published in … 1960. It's miles away from Go Set a Watchman. How am I supposed to find a book whose publication date I don't know?"
"I'm giving you credit for a smidgen of general knowledge." When she rolls her eyes at him he adds, "You don't have to know the exact publication date; if you know the rough era, you can find it. Or you can check online. Woman, your bookshelves now mirror the evolution of modern fiction — or they would if your taste in literature were more eclectic. This is a hands-on lesson in the history of literature for your kid. Show a little more enthusiasm, please."
She takes a deep breath. "Thank you, Pete, it's lovely. Next time, ask first."
They eat in subdued silence, Lisa chasing thoughts of her own, Pete replaying the conversation with Wilson in his mind. Lisa doesn't ask about Wilson, for which Pete is glad even as he notes the uncharacteristic omission. Then Lisa goes into her bedroom. Pete hangs around in front of the television, but the programme is as unsatisfactory as the entire day has been so far. He needs something to help him calm down, to get a perspective on this, to stop his thoughts from exploding in his brain in little puffs of smoke. He gets up, gets the car keys, and leaves the house.
Two hours later he's sitting comfortably on the steps leading from the deck to the yard when Lisa appears. He's a friendly kind of guy, so he holds out his spliff.
She sits down next to him, but pushes the spliff away. "What's wrong?" she asks, hugging her knees.
"You're harshing my mellow, that's what's wrong."
"I mean, why are you frying your short-term memory?"
"So that it matches my long-term memory. The asymmetry was bothering me."
She nods slowly. "Good point."
And that's it. No lecture on how an addict like him should stay off drugs altogether, no reprimands for indulging in illicit activities on her back stoop, not even an eye roll at his general state. Lisa Cuddy, his former girlfriend, benefactor, and general babysitter, doesn't care a damn about what he does to his health, mental or physical.
"Thought you were going to bed."
"So did I, but it didn't work out." She sighs, then she says nothing for a long while. "When I was a kid, there were more stars."
"The number of stars has remained the same, give or take a few," he feels obliged to point out. "Light pollution has increased. Too much sky glow here." They're facing due west. Betelgeuse is barely visible above the horizon, while further to the north Capella fights valiantly against the city lights.
"Uh-huh. And where's the Polar Star?"
"Ursa Major, Ursa Minor," he mutters, scanning the sky above him. "There."
"I thought it was that one." She points to Arcturus, misleadingly bright. "I can't even find the Polar Star anymore. That's pathetic."
"It is," he agrees.
She mulls over that. "Last winter Rachel had to do a science project during winter break. She was supposed to draw her own star chart. It was awful. You couldn't even get a good view of the sky from our apartment, let alone see any stars, so we drove out of the city, maybe a few miles west of here. And then — we tried to map the stars. Have you ever tried mapping a sphere onto a rectangular piece of paper?"
"You should have done an azimuthal projection, where you map all the points in the sky onto a circular area." He draws an imaginary circle on the step beside him.
"Thank you," Lisa snaps with something akin to her former energy. "That information would have been useful if I'd had it before heading out into the wilds. We spent about two hours freezing our backsides off, looking up at the sky and then trying to sketch the result onto paper in mittened hands with the help of a flashlight, before we gave up. Rachel got a C for the project, a fucking C, after she and I spent half a night in the wilds and nearly got frostbite. I don't remember elementary school being so tough in my day."
Pete figures that Lisa Cuddy never got anything worse than an A minus during her school days. "There are star charts galore on the internet. You could have downloaded one of those and made her copy it."
"What, encourage her to cheat?"
"It's 'using the advantages of modern media', not cheating. That's what all the kids who got an A did. There's no way fourth graders can make a decent star chart by themselves." He takes another drag. "Rachel's school called."
"Shoot, I forgot all about them. I'll fix that tomorrow."
"I fixed it already. I think they got the general idea," he says, cocking his head to one side as he contemplates the end of his reefer. Then he stubs it out, saying meditatively, "I don't see why she goes to school in Germantown, now that you live here."
Lisa gets the subtext. She buries her face in her hands. "I was hoping, hoping, that she'd be able to complete lower school over there with her friends. I didn't want her to have to switch schools in the middle of the school year. I suppose I can forget about that."
"Nah, I don't think it's that bad. I only pissed off the PA, not the head. If you're worried, up your donation." He gets up; he's starving. If he doesn't get carbs soon, he'll collapse in a soggy mess on the deck. "I'll drive you to work tomorrow. When do you want to be there?"
"Same as today." She hesitates, then she says with studied casualness, "You don't have to pick me up in the afternoon; I'll take a cab."
Okay, so she has a medical appointment that she doesn't want him to know about. If she's returning by cab at a time that won't arouse his suspicion, then the appointment has to be between three and four p.m. The only item he can remember seeing in her calendar at that time was 'Lang'. That narrows the possibilities down considerably; Google should do the rest.