I take my news like I take my tequila—shoot the bitter news down first, then chase it with the good part, fresh lime juice, before the burning sensation takes hold.
This time, though, I don’t know which order to take them in. When Dr. Burberry asks me if I want the good news or the bad news first, I simply don’t understand. How can a paternity test yield both good and bad news? I’m either, A, the father, or B (and please, God, let it be answer B), not the father. There is no all of the above.
“I just want the result,” I tell her matter-of-factly. “Please tell me I’m not the father.”
Dr. Burberry hesitates when she sees how invested I am in not being the father—already a bad sign that I probably am, in fact, the father. My stomach tightens even more when I realize how calm my ex-girlfriend Clarice is in comparison to me, sitting across the room, cross-legged and eerily unmoved.
Looking at Clarice, at least in this moment, you’d never take her for the type to try to mow you over with her red Fiat 500 as payback for breaking up with her. Clarice’s hair, once a strawberry blonde bird’s nest, is now aggressively combed back into some kind of tightly knotted hairdo. She looks back at me, unfazed, her eyes expressing an almost terrifying amount of confidence.
“Mr. Rodriguez,” says Dr. Burberry finally. “You are not the father.”
"Not the father?" I ask, amazed.
"You are not the father," she repeats, this time making sure to emphasize the word not, the way test-makers always underline and capitalize the word NOT on academic exams—as if you’re not smart enough to notice the word not but still smart enough to figure out which of the following is NOT true about the Aztec Empire.
“Not the father,” I repeat under my breath, the tenseness in my back suddenly relaxing. Just hearing those words alone makes me want to dance, maybe even do a backflip, Maury-style. But, instead, I nod and pull out my phone to text my sister, my brother, practically anyone in my life who had the sense to recognize the seething pot of malice bubbling beneath Clarice’s deceptive veil of harmoniously placed features.
Me: NOT THE FATHER *raised hands emoji*
My sister: Good! Lesson learned?
My old college roommate: *man in a rowboat emoji rowing in the opposite direction of pregnant woman emoji*
As more congratulatory texts flood in, I fall into a daydream, imagining what my new life will be like Clarice-free. No more rapid-fire phone calls at two in the morning. No more ten-minute voicemails detailing every flaw about me, from my uneven facial hair to my tendency toward introversion. No more texts popping up on my screen asking what we should name our baby, which always seem to pop up while out with my current love interest Zoey.
Although I would have expected Clarice to have gone ballistic by now—perhaps even throwing the glass jar of cotton balls at Dr. Burberry’s face while declaring that I am, indeed, the father—she’s still sitting in the same position she was before—cross-legged and eerily unmoved.
“Dr. Burberry,” she says suddenly, calmly smoothing down her black, knee-length skirt. “You said there was more news.”
Before Dr. Burberry can answer, Clarice holds her stomach. She appears to be on the verge of tears. “Is it that there’s something wrong with my baby?” she asks, making me, for a moment, feel sorry for her.
“Absolutely nothing is wrong,” answers Dr. Burberry. “The baby is perfectly healthy.”
“Then what’s the bad news?” I ask, impatient now.
Dr. Burberry taps her pen. “Well, the good news, as I said, at least to you, Mr. Rodriguez, is that you’re not the father. The bad news?” She hesitates. “You’re the uncle.”
“The uncle?” I ask.
“The uncle. Clarice ordered two paternity tests. I thought you knew—one for you and one for brother. Peter Rodriguez?”
“That’s correct,” Clarice chimes in, unashamed. “Peter Rodriguez, his brother.”
Peter Rodriguez. I look down at the message thread on my phone, still trying to put the pieces together.
Me: NOT THE FATHER *raised hands emoji*
Peter Rodriguez: *Read two minutes ago*
I try to recall when the two of them met. They followed each other on Instagram, yes, but after seeing her alarm-sounding posts, my brother warned me to stay away from her, telling me that he saw something in her that I didn’t.
Apparently, he did.
Just then, my brother starts typing. Three pulsating bubbles that quickly disappear. Before excusing herself from the room, Dr. Burberry tells us to reach out to her with any further questions. And while I have a number of questions racing through my mind, none of them are questions Dr. Burberry, or even I, could ever answer.
Once Dr. Burberry leaves the room, silence swallows Clarice and I, who are sitting alone together for the first time in months.
“He’s going to propose,” she says suddenly in a half-whisper. “I can just feel it. Who knew we’d go from lovers to in-laws? Maybe one day, at a family reunion, we’ll go back to being lovers. Like the water cycle!” She laughs. “JO-king! God, you take things so seriously.”
Without a word, I get up from my chair and leave the room. I walk quickly to my car, Clarice’s noisy heels clacking against the white linoleum tiles behind me.
“Antonio,” she calls. “Antonio?”
At that moment, my phone goes off. A cheery notification tone for a solemn text.
Peter Rodriguez: I’m so truly sorry, Antonio. I can’t even express how terrible a person I am.
Peter Rodriguez: You don’t actually care about her, right? It happened after you ended things. I’m going to call you.
When I get inside my car, my phone rings. “Do you hate me?” asks my brother desperately.
I spot Clarice in the parking lot, walking toward me.
“No,” I say. “Are you actually going to marry her?”
“No,” he says. “Why would you think that?”
I shrug, a gesture I realize can’t be translated over the phone. “You know, you’re crazy. I mean, wh—what were you thinking? It’s not that I feel betrayed. We were only together a week max. It’s just, like, she’s eternally tied to my life now through you."
"I know, I know. I would've never gotten involved with her if I knew about the whole Fiat thing. Crazy, man. She messaged me at a low point. Like, she knew I was vulnerable. I don’t know what I’m even saying. I honestly thought you broke up over typical stuff. I knew she was off, but I thought it was the type of off I could handle.”
“I guess you are five years younger than me,” I say in an attempt to lighten the mood. "She wanted the newer model."
My brother laughs.
“Plus, you always got my hand-me-downs. Oh. And by the way, don’t even think about bringing her to family reunions.”
“Never. She’s a bunny boiler.”
“A bunny boiler,” he explains. “Like that one character in Fatal Attraction who gets mad and boils that guy’s pet rabbit.”
I laugh, and now we're both laughing, the way we did when we were kids, long before Clarice came into my life, which, I guess, is now our lives.
By now, Clarice has given up and gotten back in her red Fiat 500. She checks her face in the mirror and then speeds off, thankfully this time away from me. Thankfully this time as merely an unofficial in-law, not a lover.