Earth, Sky, Sea
first published in the Winter 2020 edition of The Sewanee Review
The Sunshine Playground had been closed eighteen months for renovations before Erin resorted to the five-block walk that brought her and Ruby to their neighborhood’s remaining jungle gym and solitary swing. The sign on the corroded fence simply read PARK, the wedge of weedy dirt and crumbling asphalt too paltry to merit a name. For eighteen months Erin had been driving Ruby two miles over to the Bluebird Playground with its wooden play structure that spanned more square feet than their apartment. But these past few days just the thought of wrestling the buckles and straps of Ruby’s car seat had been enough to defeat Erin. Besides, the doctor said she wasn’t supposed to lift anything for a week, not that she could remember the last time Ruby needed more than a handhold to climb into the car’s backseat. Beyond the car seat or the doctor’s prescription, Erin just wasn’t up to the sight of all those other children: the toddlers, the nursing infants, the drooling babies. PARK—anonymous, failed—was the place that fit.
Because the neglected triangle was no one’s first choice, used instead as an apology for too many errands or a convalescent outing on the tail end of being sick, Ruby generally had the run of the place or warily shared it with whatever other child had been brought there as a consolation prize. Today, within minutes, she and the triangle’s other occupant—a boy, no less—were holding hands as they roamed the inside of the perimeter fence, calling out ice cream flavors as they jumped over cracks in the pavement. Maybe Erin’s state of mind was to blame, or maybe she’d been conditioned by years of playground isolation, but she didn’t notice the boy’s mother until the woman, legs crossed, with long shins like a figure from Giacometti, was sitting at the other end of Erin’s wooden bench.
“Well, that was easy,” the woman said as their two children collected pebbles and hooted at the gathering clouds. Her clothes, like Erin’s, looked more happy-thrift-store-find than mail-order-catalogue, and instead of swiping at her phone the woman was holding a square-bound magazine that clearly didn’t contain perfume samples. Erin felt a jolt of mutual recognition, that rare but instantly familiar sensation of encountering a stranger who belongs to the same tribe.
“I’m Andrea, and that’s Ben,” the woman said. “We usually go to the other playground, but when I checked the weather it didn’t seem like it’d be worth the drive.”
Erin glanced up: until now the gray September sky had matched her mood too perfectly for her to notice. “That’s Ruby,” she said. “I’m Erin. I wish they’d finish the renovations already.”
“Did you vote for it?” Andrea asked.
“The playground? No, did you?”
Andrea shook her head. “I thought it was fine the way it was.”
“Which budget proposal did you want?” Erin asked.
“The speed humps,” Andrea said. “Ben just takes off sometimes, and all the truck traffic makes me nervous.”
Erin nodded. “I voted for the dog run with the dedicated trash cans. I’m sick of scraping shit off the bottoms of Ruby’s shoes.”
“That was what, 2015? I remember I actually felt disappointed about that.” Andrea laughed. “It’s hard to believe there once was a time when my biggest political let-down was that the speed humps I voted for didn’t get elected.”
At the triangle’s farthest corner, Ruby and Ben were jumping up and down and shouting Yes, over and over again.
“Did you go the Bluebird rally?” Andrea asked.
“After the swastika graffiti?” Erin shook her head. “I was going to, until I went online and saw what it looked like.”
“Yeah, I remember thinking the first one seemed more like a sideways Little Dipper trying to mate with a square. Even the recognizable one had arms that bent the wrong way.”
“Which means that the twelve-year-old who almost certainly did it got way more bang for their buck than they deserved,” Erin said. “I mean, if you’re balls-out for spray-painting the universally recognized symbol for evil, at least practice a few times before going for it on a public surface.”
Before Ben and self-employment, Andrea had been a textile and surface designer in the art department for an upscale children’s clothing brand: as it turned out, the dogs on one of Ruby’s favorite baby onesies were hers. Erin was a freelance journalist who, post-Ruby, had become increasingly freelance, until the last editor with whom she had any kind of relationship moved to Florida to teach belly dancing. Now Erin was collecting credits toward a certification in childhood general education, a program she’d selected because it meant teaching kids old enough not to need constant babysitting and young enough not to have been transformed into hormone puppets.
“I wish I had the patience to be a teacher,” Andrea said, producing a chocolate bar from her bag and breaking it into squares. She offered Erin a piece. “In terms of making some sort of difference, teaching is the real deal.”
“That’s not why I’m doing it,” Erin said. “I just can’t think of anything else I’m remotely qualified for.”
“Well I admire you anyway,” Andrea said. “Teaching serves the greater good in a way that a pine tree dishware pattern just doesn’t.”
“Don’t knock a good pattern,” Erin said, letting a chocolate square melt on her tongue. “You bring beauty to people’s daily lives.”
Andrea shrugged. “The people who buy my pine trees already have beauty to burn.”
As the silence on the wooden bench stretched, Erin wondered if it would be her or Andrea to make a show of checking their phone or calling out to their kid, the playground equivalent of taking drink requests to gracefully exit the cocktail party conversation that’s run dry. When Erin glanced out the corner of her eye, Andrea was studying her.
“You know,” Andrea said. “Instead of small talk, I’ve always wondered what would happen if I started a playground conversation with, ‘Here we are, both mammals who’ve borne live young, stuck in the same small enclosure for at least the next hour,’ and saw where things went from there.”
As Erin laughed, something inside her lifted. She’d planned on letting Ruby run around a little longer before heading back, but when it began to rain Andrea invited the two of them to follow her and Ben home. As recently as two days ago Erin would have said no, but she hadn’t needed extra pads or Motrin since Wednesday, and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d met someone she wanted to talk to for more than fifteen minutes. Maybe a different day would have been better, or maybe the end of this particular week was just when she needed it most, but trailing a practical stranger from the playground felt like the parenthood equivalent of being twenty-three and getting lucky on a Saturday night.
Andrea’s apartment was in a building several stories taller than the line of row houses it had replaced. Erin had sneered at the new construction as it went up, but now, seeing it from the inside, she had to admit she and Paul would have jumped at an apartment like this had their own prior arrival to the neighborhood not been necessary to make such apartments possible.
“Even when we were renting, I always painted the walls,” Andrea explained as Ben introduced Ruby to each of his plastic animals on the far side of the open floor plan. “It drove Catherine crazy since it meant repainting or losing our deposit when we moved.”
Ben wanted to play zoo, but Ruby wanted to play hide and seek. Erin suggested hiding and then seeking the plastic animals, and when that didn’t work, Andrea suggested alternating between zoo and hide and seek for ten minutes each. After an egg timer was produced, Andrea led Erin down the pale pistachio hallway to two bedrooms, one divided between cornflower and faded denim, the other half-butter and half-tangelo. Andrea pointed to a bunk bed along an orange wall.
“I won the coin toss to see who would get pregnant first. We’ve got enough sperm left over from Ben that we’re good to go as soon as Catherine’s ready. If the second one’s a boy, it’ll make things easier, but either way we’ll probably just give Ben the top bunk and hope it gets the two of them through until he leaves for college.”
Erin tried to keep her voice neutral. “How old is Catherine?”
“Thirty-seven,” Andrea said and held up her hand. “You don’t need to tell me. But it seems like whenever I remind her that her eggs aren’t going to last forever, she gets promoted. Last year she made project manager, which apparently means she’s got a decent shot at department head. On paper, it’s a progressive firm—generous maternity leave, better-than-average diversity numbers—but, as Catherine keeps reminding me, there aren’t any biological mothers higher than senior architect.”
“Which does Catherine want more, a baby or a promotion?”
Andrea rolled her eyes. “Both. So now she’s saying she wants me to do it again. And thanks to her promotion we’ve got the money for a part-time nanny, but I just don’t see paying someone else to care for a baby if I’d be making less than what we’d be paying them.”
“Which do you want more?” Erin said softly.
“I just wish she’d been up front about it earlier,” Andrea sighed. “I mean, I believe Catherine when she says she didn’t know this was how she was going to feel, but if she’d won the coin toss the first time around, we would have had this conversation a long time ago. At least then I would’ve known what I was in for.”
“You never know what you’re in for,” Erin said.
From the day Erin and Paul received the test results to the day of the procedure, no one used the word abortion. Maybe abortion was what they called it when you ended an unplanned pregnancy, and termination was what they called it when you ended a planned one. Or maybe, at a time when the lines dividing people were growing sharper and more dangerous, no one said abortion anymore. Termination was no less definitive or direct, but because it was all-purpose—bus rides terminated, jobs terminated—it seemed euphemistic to Erin, less loaded, and therefore a cop-out. And yet, compared to miscarriage, termination felt unbearably final. Miscarriage was a kissing cousin to words like mistake, misunderstanding, all chance things that happened like bad weather. Over the past eighteen months, three miscarriages had happened to Erin: three pee sticks bearing double lines, three long-distance phone calls to her best friend and to her mother, followed four and then six and then nine weeks later by second phone calls bearing the bad news. And so for this pregnancy, she and Paul had agreed not to tell anyone until all the tests came back and the baby was a done deal. Fourteen weeks in with Erin not showing yet, it had still been their secret.
The office that had performed Erin’s termination was one floor above the labor and delivery wing in the hospital where Ruby had been born and where Erin had assumed she and Paul would go for their childbirth refresher course in January. That hallway had been yellow. The termination hallway was a grayish-blue. The office had been running late, so while the procedure itself took less than twenty minutes, the waiting had taken three times as long. Paul had alternately held her hand or squeezed her leg between reading an e-book and catching up on his inbox, but Erin had sat frozen, staring at cross-fading images of waterfalls and meadows cycling on the waiting room’s wall-mounted screen. It wasn’t a matter of doubt or regret: the moment they’d gotten the amnio results, she and Paul had been united in their decision, but knowing she was doing the right thing didn’t make it any less sad. Somehow Erin had managed not to cry until she was back in her street clothes and she and Paul had exited the elevator and were crossing the hospital’s sun-soaked atrium, at which point she’d grabbed Paul’s arm and buried her face in his jacket, locked in place as the hospital flowed around them. Three days later Erin was sitting on a bench, watching Ruby get along surprisingly well with a new boy. Erin might have said something had Andrea already been the friend Erin could picture her becoming, but on that day at the nameless park they were still merely strangers with potential.
They made several playdates over the next few weeks, always with that first magical meeting in mind. Each time Ben and Ruby bickered like a married couple unable to divorce. At the final play date, when Ruby sat stone-faced by herself in a corner with toys she’d brought from home while Ben jumped on his bed yelling, “No thank you!” from behind his closed bedroom door, Erin and Andrea were finally forced to admit that their children’s bond had been a one-time thing. For the remaining months before the Sunshine Playground’s grand re-opening, they resigned themselves to meeting at the Bluebird after school and sharing a bench while Ben and Ruby ran in non-intersecting patterns.
Erin’s health insurance didn’t cover IUDs. Purchasing one from a Canadian online pharmacy cost $500 less than ordering it through her gynecologist but also meant waiting five weeks for it to arrive through the mail. Erin told Paul, who hadn’t worn protection since the last Republican had been in office, that he’d need to use a condom in the meantime. Paul joked that the association between condoms and disastrous presidents was so strong he wasn’t sure he could use one without it killing the mood. Besides, he said, the doctor had told them there was no reason to think her next pregnancy wouldn’t be normal. They’d had the same kind of trouble before Ruby too; could she imagine if they’d given up back then?
“That was different,” she said. “If we’d stopped trying at that point, we’d have never had kids at all.”
“And if we stop trying now,” he said, “we’ll never have two.” When he reached to stroke her face, he looked genuinely surprised when she ducked his hand.
It was cold, and Ruby hadn’t wanted to leave the apartment, but Erin bundled her up anyway. The Bluebird’s population that day was divided between weather-resistant dynamos careening about gloveless and hatless, and children brought outside against their will. Erin and Andrea took nips from a thermos of hot chocolate that Erin had brought for Ruby as a bribe.
Ruby was climbing the slide. At the other end of the playground Ben was trying to outrun his shadow. A square of green paint two shades darker than the surrounding green of the jungle gym marked where the deformed swastikas had been.
Ben was having trouble reading. Andrea had found a tutor, but all the tutor seemed to do was read books with him, something Andrea already did without having to pay eighty dollars an hour. “I think it’s the sperm,” Andrea said. “He hates peanut butter. He’s afraid of those spots on the underside of ferns—spores. He’s great at imitating animal sounds, and then this whole reading thing. He didn’t get any of that from me. It’ll be interesting to see if those show up again with the second one.” She rapped her knuckles on the wood of the playground bench.
Erin’s eyes locked on her friend’s face.
Andrea smiled. “Catherine and I agreed not to share with anyone until I hit the first trimester mark, but I got special dispensation to tell you. So now that I have, I want to try to forget about it, except for taking my prenatal vitamin and no more wine with dinner. Of course, Catherine’s already got a list of iron-rich foods on the fridge and is talking about us eating beans and fish every day for the next nine months.”
Erin’s mouth went dry. “What made you decide to let Catherine off the hook?”
“You, actually.” Andrea beamed. “Until the day you and Ruby first came home with us, I’d never talked through the whole pregnancy stand-off. Saying it out loud made me realize Catherine’s reasons for not doing it were a lot better than mine. Are you and Paul thinking about a second? Because if we get the next ones together when they’re babies, they won’t have any choice but to like each other.”
Erin managed a tight smile. “It’s a little late for me.”
Andrea laughed. “No way. You’re what, 36?”
“38,” Erin corrected.
“38 is the new 32!”
Erin looked at her friend. “You’re 35, right?”
“At 35, your risk for Down’s is 1 in 378. At 38, mine is 1 in 175—and that’s just Down’s. The overall odds for chromosomal abnormality are worse.”
“Huh,” Andrea said, tilting her head to one side as if all those statistics had lodged unevenly in one ear. “I’m not a numbers person, but those odds sound pretty good to me.”
Erin looked away from her friend, took a breath, turned back. “You have no idea what you’re talking about,” she said.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Andrea said. “You’re right. I don’t.”
“Oh, sweetie,” Andrea murmured. “When?”
The tenderness in Andrea’s voice made the words catch in Erin’s throat. “Just before I met you,” she said. “It would have been a lot harder if the test results had been ambiguous, but Paul and I both knew we weren’t cut out for—that we couldn’t . . . ” Erin shook her head. “Paul wants to try again. I mean, we’ve both always wanted two, but now—”
Andrea nodded. “You’re not sure,” she said.
“Each time he brings it up, I get more certain, and he gets more sad. Then he waits a few days, brings home a pint of sorbet or a bottle of pinot, and we talk it through all over again.”
Ruby was ready to leave. For the past fifteen minutes she’d been stomping past the bench, demanding cocoa. One of her red sparkly gloves was missing. Erin said they couldn’t go home until Ruby looked for it. Ruby stomped away, her bare hand the eraser pink of a newborn mouse. Erin began to gather their things.
“Even if we did IVF along with all the pre-screening to make sure they implanted a healthy embryo,” Erin said, “I could still miscarry, and then we’d be left with nothing. Paul and I ran the numbers. We have enough savings for one go or for my teaching certification.”
“Is it just about money?” Andrea asked.
Erin shook her head. “Paul thinks we should keep trying the regular way for a while, then if that doesn’t work, take out a line of credit on the apartment so that we can do a baby and my degree, as if that would solve everything.” She could practically see her words in the vapor of her breath, bursting into the cold air. “For him it’s just a matter of waiting out those first few months each time to see if the pregnancy’s going to take and then, bang, he either gets to be a father again or we wait a few weeks and start over. He doesn’t get how when something goes wrong . . .” Erin was shaking now, her breath coming in quick bursts. “I used to think if I was careful, if I followed the rules and didn’t do anything stupid, then everything would go according to plan, but it turns out believing that isn’t much different than believing in astrology.”
“Hey,” Andrea said and reached for her friend’s hand. “You know what? Paul can talk all he wants about lines of credit, but you’re the one who gets to decide this.”
“That doesn’t make it feel any better,” Erin said softly.
The renovated Sunshine Playground was divided into Earth, Sky, and Sea. Traditional swings, slides, and jungle gyms had been replaced by more conceptual structures from Europe where play had been analyzed by theoreticians who’d determined that the old constructions stifled young imaginations and imposed limitations on recreation and mental growth. Earth was a large green pen filled with a multicolored sand alternative manufactured from recycled water bottles and sprayed with an anti-bacterial coating. Sky featured a zipline that ran above a bed of red rubber mulch. A rendering affixed to Sea’s closed gate displayed an artificial cliffscape dotted with water jets and divided by a small flowing stream. At the Saturday morning ribbon-cutting in early April, only Earth and Sky were being inaugurated: Sea would wait until summer, when temperatures were high enough for the city to turn on the water. The playground participatory budgeting initiative had been headed by the PTA president at Ruby’s school, a woman with designer eyeglasses and a vegan footwear blog who had founded a local chain of coworking spaces, adding a new location following the birth of each of her three children.
“Three?” Andrea scoffed. “I mean, everyone gets that the first is for you, and the second is to give the first some company, but unless you’re a farmer with fields to plow or livestock to tend, what possible reason is there to have more?”
“To prove to everyone that you can,” Erin muttered.
Andrea shook her head. “As far as conspicuous consumption goes, that’s the procreation equivalent of driving a full-size SUV or owning one of those single-serve coffeemakers that only takes plastic and foil cartridges.”
If Erin’s math was right Andrea would be showing soon. “You’re at what, ten weeks?” she asked. “Eleven? How do you feel?”
“I don’t know what to say to that anymore,” Andrea said. “I live in a city where my wife and I can hold hands in public and where our son attends a school with gender-neutral bathrooms, inside a country whose President president doesn’t believe in public schools or climate change and antagonizes foreign leaders on Twitter.” Andrea paused. “I’m tired and I’m probably not drinking enough water, but other than that I guess I’m good.”
The second of the PTA president’s children, a girl named Cheyenne, was in Ruby’s first grade class. Cheyenne was tall, self-possessed and—as Erin learned after several fruitless e-mails to Cheyenne’s mother attempting to arrange a play date—impossible to see outside of school: on weekday afternoons the girl had parkour, fencing, cello, textile arts, or computer programming, and the family spent most weekends at their house upstate. Ruby now watched admiringly as Cheyenne and her older brother waved oversized scissors at the respective entrances to Earth and Sky, assisted by their mother and their local city council member, who had recently announced a mayoral run. Cheyenne’s mother spoke briefly about community and about work-life balance, and the city representative spoke less briefly about community and about political engagement. After he finished his speech to scattered applause, Cheyenne and her brother were photographed cutting the ribbons to Earth, and then Sky. Ruby and Ben detached themselves from their mothers’ hands to join the crush of children pouring in.
Erin smiled. “So you’re at what, ten weeks? Eleven? And everything’s okay?” Her smile slipped. “I just asked that, didn’t I?”
“Look,” Andrea said, her voice gentle. “You won’t like this, but we’ve decided not to screen.”
Erin felt her mouth drop open, was unable to activate the necessary jaw muscles to make it close. Andrea’s statement felt no less ridiculous than Ruby’s random, irrational assertions of self-determination: I won’t eat breakfast! I’m not wearing shoes! Erin swallowed the urge to clasp Andrea’s shoulder and explain, in her best firm-but-patient voice, that she needed to decide something else.
Andrea shrugged. “With Ben we just lit a bunch of candles and hired the crunchiest midwife we could find to insert the syringe, and Catherine pressed the plunger. We were young enough that testing for things didn’t cross our minds. This time, even the crunchy midwife asked if we wanted to do something non-invasive, the nuclear—”
“Nuchal translucency,” Erin said.
“That,” Andrea concurred. “But we can’t imagine ending what we’ve started. I mean, we’re obviously both pro-choice, but for us, right now . . .” As Andrea’s voice trailed off, her eyes drifted to her belly. “It probably helps that Catherine’s job gives us top-notch health insurance. Plus we both grew up knowing special needs kids. Besides, thirty-five is right on the borderline, you know? Maybe it’s superstitious, but I like to think positive. After that whatever happens, happens.”
For a moment, Andrea seemed unfamiliar, like someone Erin would wordlessly pass on the street. “Wow,” Erin breathed. “That’s very . . .” She failed to return Andrea’s gaze, settled instead on the edge of her friend’s cheek. “Brave.”
“Not really,” Andrea said. “It’d be brave if we got the tests knowing that whatever we learned wouldn’t change anything. It’s more like we’re deciding not to think about it unless we have to.”
“But you know what might happen and you’re okay with that.”
“Yeah, because it’s my kid. In the end, I’m going to do whatever it takes for any kid of mine to have a good life, whoever they turn out to be. That’s the difference between you and me.”
Erin’s gaze snapped into place. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I’m selfish,” Andrea said softly. “I don’t give a shit about other people’s kids like you do.”
Erin nodded and turned away. She scanned the teeming playscape, looking for Ruby. When she turned back, Andrea had migrated toward the open playground gates and was talking to someone else.
Among the children, there was confusion about what to do in Earth. Any hole in the multicolored alterna-sand deeper than a footprint immediately filled itself in, and the plastic pellets—while possibly more sanitary than the sand they’d replaced—could not be compressed or molded, making construction impossible. Very quickly Earth was given over to the meek, those for whom pouring or scooping remained an end in itself. This left the older children to fight over Sky, where six zipline handles, somehow meant to satisfy every neighborhood child over the age of four, created a practical demonstration in scarcity. Ben and Ruby managed to cadge turns only when Andrea and Erin stood beside them, staring down the middle schoolers doling out rides to friends and to aspirants brandishing currency or candy.
At the time neither Erin nor Andrea noticed the outgassing issue, which would have been subtle then anyway, given the mildness of the late-winter weather. But when April ended hotter than usual, the petroleum smell of the rubber mulch became unignorable. Some children ran wobbly or complained of headaches while others, older or precocious, gathered in Sky’s far corners to lie facedown on the rubber mulch, or to crouch with plastic bags, trapping the vapors for sale or later personal use. Sky’s zipline handles were removed, its mulch confiscated to prevent intrepid children from unprotected mental growth or recreation with what remained. The Sunshine Playground remained open but abandoned: a barren plastic dune, an asphalt lot studded with metal poles.
When Erin’s IUD arrived, it was a slightly different model from what her gynecologist was familiar with. The online pharmacy sourced its orders from surplus international stock, and the packaging was in Turkish. While Erin lay on the table, her doctor typed the instructions for insertion into Google Translate. Erin thought of the funny YouTube videos she’d seen of mangled pop song lyrics that had been translated away from English and then back again. Now they seemed less funny. “Everything okay down there?” she asked as casually as possible. The IUD was exactly the same, the doctor assured Erin: only the applicator was different. She compared it to a Pez dispenser with a head that turned instead of tilting back on a hinge.
When Erin told Paul about it that night, they laughed. “What’s even crazier is they don’t know exactly why IUDs work so well,” she said.
Paul snorted. “If it was men who had to stick that thing between their legs,” he said, “the research on that would be comprehensive. But it works, huh?”
“Over 99% effective,” Erin said.
“So,” Paul said, his voice quiet, “unless you take that thing out, no babies?”
“No babies,” Erin said.
The GoFundMe campaign for an age-appropriate ergo-play structure for Earth, along with the change.org petition demanding a non-toxic replacement surfacing system for Sky, circulated through Erin’s inbox several times as she and Andrea failed to meet at the Bluebird each Wednesday afternoon. First Ben was sick, then Ruby had a dentist appointment, and after that Erin had an exam. Embarrassed, they swore to attend Sea’s unveiling together, promising to get back in touch as soon as either of them learned the official opening date. Weeks passed. Another senator resigned; the Supreme Court upheld another immigration ban; Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz. When Paul came home with bespoke donuts, Erin pointed out that if they stuck with one child they wouldn’t have to find a bigger apartment. Paul wouldn’t have to worry so much about getting a raise; they could start taking family vacations. Ruby was old enough to travel, almost old enough to remember the places they’d go.
Then, prematurely and unceremoniously, Sea was open, the gate having been unlocked and the water turned on along with the rest of the city’s playground sprinklers around Mother’s Day, after record-breaking temperatures surpassing eight-five degrees.
Sea’s fake cliffscape was convincing, with nonslip, umber-hued boulders of different sizes to accommodate legs of different lengths. At its highest elevation, the source of the stream could be dammed with a lever and then released, sending a surge of water down the slope to a splash pad. At the lowermost level, vertical water jets spurted up from the ground. Rounded rock formations emitted a diffuse spray that created rainbows when struck at happy angles by the sun. Erin was arriving with Ruby for their second visit when she spotted Ben on the upper cliffscape waiting his turn to play God with the lever. Andrea was sitting beside the splash pad. She’d been in the invisible early stages when Erin last saw her, but over the past month and a half she’d progressed through possibly overweight into unambiguously knocked-up, her belly swelling beneath the stretch panel of a maternity skirt.
“I can’t believe there wasn’t a grand opening!” Andrea yelled in Erin’s direction as Erin yelled, “I was going to call you,” neither of them hearing the other above the squeals of children. Andrea made room for Erin on her artificial rock. Having spotted Cheyenne, Ruby was staring at the girl’s orange two-piece like she was studying for an exam.
“When there wasn’t an official debut, it kind of took the wind out of my sails,” Erin apologized.
“Same,” Andrea agreed. “It’s been crazy this past month or so.”
“You look good. Twenty weeks?” Erin asked, trying to sound like she hadn’t been keeping track.
Andrea nodded. “Whoever’s in there is supposed to come out on Halloween.”
“Congratulations,” Erin said, the word making her friend blush. “I’m sorry I didn’t say that before.”
“Hey, you didn’t—I mean, it’s not—” Andrea stammered, then shook her head. “With babies, you get a nine-month window.”
Ben was between one child wearing a sunhat and a full-body sun protection suit, and another who was bareheaded and clad only in Star Wars underwear, the three of them spitting water at each other as they scampered over Sea’s boulders. Ruby was leaping through the water jets, giggling with each jump.
Andrea had been asked to be the exclusive designer for a dishware company that was giving her the option to work from home. Catherine had drawn up a plan for a workspace that could be carved from their open layout, with a door Andrea could close between her and the nanny.
“Catherine says if she could work from home, she’d do it in a second,” Andrea said, “but that’s because she’s never done it. Sure, you don’t have to commute, but you also don’t get to leave. Do you know that in the past six years, I’ve seen the city more in streaming videos than I have in person? If I’m going to put up with everything it takes to live here, then I want to actually live here.”
“Boy or girl?” Erin said.
“Who?” Andrea asked, first looking toward Ben and the cliffs. “Oh,” she corrected, directing her gaze downward. “We’re holding out. Ben’s gunning for a brother, and I think
Catherine secretly wants another boy, but I’m easy.”
Erin nodded. Gazing at her friend’s belly, her imagination boomeranged between two potential futures: Andrea crooning to a child with a perfectly formed head, regular features, and well-formed limbs, her face alight with love; and her friend’s face alight with love, crooning to a child with a misshapen head, blurred features, blunted limbs.
“It’ll be a straight shot on the train,” Andrea said. “My office won’t be as nice as what Catherine drew up, but it’s got a window with a view facing downtown.”
Ruby left the water jets just briefly enough to return with Cheyenne, gesturing her forward like a runway marshal guiding a plane to its gate. Ruby straddled a vertical jet and motioned for Cheyenne to do the same, until they were each standing wide-legged above their own geyser of spurting water. Soon their stares went distant. Each girl froze in concentration as if she were straining to hear a very soft sound, making minute adjustments of her body in relation to the erupting water hitting the apex of the triangle formed by her legs.
Erin started to laugh. When Andrea asked what was so funny, she pointed.
“Oh my god,” Andrea said, and then she was laughing too.
They couldn’t decide whether this meant that Sea definitely was, or definitely was not, designed by women.
Cheyenne’s mother called to her daughter and ran toward the two girls, pulling Cheyenne off the water jet as if rescuing her from a spout of blue flame. Cheyenne waved to Ruby as she was steered away.
Smiling, Ruby waved back. Paul was talking about London the summer after Erin finished school, maybe Paris the summer after that. He’d always wanted to travel but had never been farther than Florida. As Ruby scrambled up the rocks toward the stream, Erin turned back to Andrea and did the math. By the time Ruby was in fifth grade, Andrea’s baby would be three years old. Erin would be professionally certified, with a classroom of her own. Someone else would be running the country, and Erin could look back on this era as a period of temporary national insanity. Or maybe none of that would happen.