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Parallel Play: A Novelby Thomas Rayfiel
I didn’t get pregnant all at once. There were several men and several times and then one morning I woke up and said, “Oh God.” Believe me, I know that’s not how things are supposed to happen. My life had stopped obeying the Laws of Nature. I was so busy wondering if this was it. Every touch, every feeling, became a possible big moment, until I couldn’t even concentrate on enjoying myself, if that’s what I was meant to be doing. I remember thinking, There has to be more, doesn’t there? I still had a sense of future about to start, of a destiny, a calling, just for me. And then it was over, my life. I was staring at a pink dot, a period at the end of a sentence that hadn’t been written yet. Over before it had begun.
“How old is your baby?”
“Jasper is fourteen months.”
“Jasper! You’re a big boy, aren’t you, Jasper?”
We were sitting in the Tot Spot. Ann was either building a castle or digging a hole, I couldn’t tell which. She didn’t seem to know herself. The book lay open on my lap. I had brought it so no one would talk to me. I hated playground conversations. But what the other mothers said kept leaking in. I couldn’t close my ears.
“And how old is . . . is it a girl?”
“Chloe will be one in February.”
It had journal on the front and a blank page for every day of the year. At first I thought it was a novel and in a way it was. With no writing at all it was a perfect description of my life: Monday—nothing, Tuesday—nothing, Wednesday—
There had to be more, didn’t there? I remembered waiting for words to appear, some explanation or congratulations or even a stupid saying like in a fortune cookie. I still had the stick somewhere: Accu-Preg Early Warning System. Maybe if I peed on it again. . . .
He was standing on the other side of the fence. I had forgotten anyone existed beyond our closed-off little world. Though he’d called my name, twice, he still hesitated, not sure it was me. I don’t know why. I recognized him right away.
He came closer and put his hands on the bars.
“Is that yours?”
No, I wanted to answer. I was abducted by aliens and forced to become an incubator in one of their hideous breeding experiments. Instead I just shrugged.
“Is it a boy or . . . ?”
“What’s her name?”
I was surprised at how calm I sounded. I had imagined this meeting so many times, played it over in my mind, but now that it was actually happening, seeing Mark again turned out not to be such a big deal after all. Then I realized he’d asked me another question, about a minute ago.
“I said, Who’s the lucky guy?”
“No one. I mean, his name’s Harvey. Harvey Gabriel. He’s a doctor.”
He looked the same, as if the last two and a half years hadn’t happened, which of course they hadn’t, not to him. He wasn’t handsome. That was his secret weapon. He looked so ordinary, under a tangle of silly white-boy dreadlocks. The way kids don’t have fully formed features yet, how their faces are fresh, as if some wrapper has just been pulled back, that was Mark, even though he was twenty-four. No, twenty-seven, now. My age, still.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I moved. To one of those lofts near the bridge.”
Ann was licking a train that had been handled last by a child who looked like he had leprosy. I took it away from her and she began to cry.
“You mean, you live here?”
“For about a month now.”
I hauled her into my lap. She immediately started squirming around, rooting at the buttons of my coat.
“Great,” I muttered.
I could feel him watching.
“I can’t believe it’s you, Eve.”
I undid the coat and pushed up my shirt. It was cold but hadn’t snowed yet. That’s why we were all outside. Snow was going to be a death sentence.
“So what’s happening?” he went on. “What are you up to?”
“Taking care of her, mostly.”
“Does she do that a lot?”
“All the time.”
Her gums finally clamped down. I’d heard women say how much they loved nursing, how it made them feel “complete.” Apparently that was another gene I was born without, along with the Mindless Chatter gene, because all it did was make me feel I’d been attacked by a giant toothless rat.
“You should come see the place.” To give him credit, he wasn’t pretending not to notice, the way most men did. I kind of wished he had been. Instead, he gazed down at us, making me uncomfortable. “I have it fixed up just like before.”
We were quiet. There wasn’t much to say. There never had been. That was both the strength and weakness of our time together.
“Listen,” he began, “about what happened—”
“Ow! You little bitch!” I snapped.
He looked shocked.
I tried smiling, turning the whole thing into a joke. I just called my daughter a bitch. Ha-ha. Crazy Eve.
“Are you OK?”
“Of course I’m OK. She just bit me, that’s all.”
I changed sides.
All these irritating things about Mark were coming back, things I knew but had carefully layered over. For instance, the way he always dressed the same, as if weather didn’t affect him. He had on a tan-and-white-checked flannel shirt I remembered intimately, that I had buried my face in a hundred times, and jeans with a hole in each knee, the same wide slit, and those lace-up boots. . . . I fell into the memory, the sound of them banging over the floor of the Greene Street loft, that suction whoosh they made when he took them off. It was such a complex mix of anger and attraction. Not my type, not my type, I used to repeat, clinging to that objection, the last hope of someone about to drown in love, until it got turned upside down, into a virtue. What’s so great . . . is how he is not my type.
“I’m married too.”
“You are.” I said it as if I knew, then realized I did. He had a ring.
“No kids, though. Her name’s Iolanthe.”
I knew that too, somehow. Iolanthe was the only possible name Mark’s wife could have. Mark’s wife. There were two words that didn’t go together.
“She’s a dancer.”
Now there was really nothing left to say. I almost scolded him: Here at the Tot Spot, we do not talk about marrying dancers. The fence got higher. Wind worked its way under my clothes. I was being gnawed at and frozen solid at the same time.
“You,” he said, as if he just noticed, “look fantastic.”
I hit this air pocket in my thoughts, bounced once, hard, then saw he meant Ann. He had that goofy stare people without children get.
“Can you believe this?” Marjorie called, parking her double stroller and plopping down next to me on the bench. She pretended not to notice Mark, which I didn’t believe, since she was always commenting on men, even when they were across the street. “I mean, it’s only December. So what’s new?”
. . . just exposing my breasts to an ex-lover. Ex-boyfriend? Old boyfriend?
Luckily, Ann was finished. I admired her drugged open mouth. Now she would fall asleep.
“Well, hello there.”
Marjorie was the kind of mother I wished I could be, very outrageous and bitchy but so on top of things. With men, she used this extreme form of flirtation. You could never tell if she was kidding. I assumed it was in reaction to what had happened (her husband left almost immediately after the twins were born), unless that was the way she’d always been. I wouldn’t know. I hadn’t met any mothers before they had their kid. I barely remembered myself, from back then.
“Now, do you work for the Parks Department?” she asked. “Because I have a problem with the sandbox here.”
You’re married? I joined in silently, trying to pick up a little of her aggression. Who gave you permission to get married?
“Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean the sand shouldn’t be raked on a regular basis. My little Ian found a frozen dog turd the other day.”
“I mean what are you guys doing from nine to five?” Her eyes did this X-ray thing over his chest. “Besides lifting weights, apparently.”
“This is my friend Mark.”
“Oh!” It was all a joke, to make up for the big joke played on her. “So you’re not here to rake the sandbox? Because you look like you’d be really good at it. Maybe you’d have to take off some more of your clothes, but—”
“Mark’s a carpenter.”
“Contractor,” he corrected.
I frowned. That was new.
“What, like buildings and stuff?” Marjorie asked.
“Interior design. Private residences. I work with architects now,” he said, implying he’d moved up in the world, that I didn’t know him anymore.
Just then Alex, or maybe Ian, I could never tell them apart, woke up. While Marjorie was dealing with him, Mark leaned closer and said, “I’m sorry.”
I honestly didn’t. Then he gave me this look, as if he’d unloaded some burden by apologizing. He shivered, hugged himself, and stamped his feet. It destroyed the last of my illusions. In my mind he had stayed untouched by anything, guilt or cold or status. But now it turned out he was just like everyone else, standing there saying he was a contractor instead of a carpenter, trying to stay warm, apologizing for our past.
“So listen, if you guys were having a private conversation—”
I blushed at the urgency in my voice, how badly I wanted him to go away. He was embarrassing.
“Hey, we should all get together,” he said. “The four of us.”
“That would be great,” I answered, with the enthusiasm of telling a pure lie. “I’ll call you.”
I’ll look you up in the yellow pages, under Asshole.
“It’s just amazing, seeing you again, Eve.”
I had so much distance on him now. I could hear how he made his voice deepen, become husky, see how, before turning, he gave a shy apologetic smile, how he shrugged as if to say he was not responsible. That was Mark. Not responsible for how he made you feel, shrugging beautiful shoulders.
Marjorie cast a lingering, unashamed gaze as he hiked up the hill into the park. His dreadlocks bounced at each step. He had a red bandanna hooked through a belt loop. It hung down and wagged.
“He’s going to run.”
I don’t know why it sounded so revealing. Just that I knew his routine.
“Poor thing.” Ian, or maybe Alex, was whimpering. She jogged him on her knee. “Is Poopsie sad because the big strong bodybuilder man went away?”
“Annie’s mommy is a wee bit cranky this afternoon.”
“I am not.”
“She’s imagining what life would be like without children.”
Marjorie was the only other mother who understood. The rest of them pretended to complain, but meanwhile they were just glowing with barely concealed pride, in—what? That’s what I always wanted to ask. In having this greedy sucking puking pissing shitting thing practically attached to you for the next ten years? “You just haven’t bonded yet.” They smiled wisely, early on, when I was still stupid enough to say what I felt. Then, after a while, they didn’t say anything. I ranted on and on into a void. Finally, by mutual agreement, we stopped sitting together. I would look for a bench at the far end of the Tot Spot, under the trees, where sand collected and mixed with acorns, blown leaves, and dirt to form a stinking mulch. That’s where Marjorie camped out with her behemoth of a stroller. She had gotten so big, just in the time since we first met, as if there needed to be more of her, to cope.
“How can he run in those shoes?”
He was on the ring road now and had broken into a trot.
“He does everything in them.”
We both stared. He moved so comfortably, a big cat, a male lion, the kind who just basks in the sun or slouches through tall grass. Being with Mark was like watching a nature film.
“Well, almost everything, right?”
I didn’t answer. He disappeared behind some trees. As soon as he was gone, I came back down to earth.
“Dammit to hell!”
That was another reaction to parenthood nobody else seemed to have, that none of the books mentioned. I swore a lot. Words came out of my mouth, sometimes ordinary cursing, other times bizarre, shocking combinations.
“Sure it’s not you?”
Marjorie took out a plastic bag of teething biscuits. I got down on my hands and knees. Of course I didn’t have a clean white piece of cloth, the way everyone else did so they could create a sterile operating-room-theater environment. Instead, Ann thrashed around in the sand-dirt-wood-grub mixture that people said carried West Nile virus, wailing like a police car siren while I peeled off the bloated diaper with one hand and kept her legs trussed with the other.
“Lie still,” I said patiently.
“I had a boyfriend like that once.” Marjorie broke a biscuit in half and ate it herself. “He played the drums.”
“He was not my boyfriend.”
I put a finger between Ann’s feet so her two little ankle bones wouldn’t rub together (you did so much on automatic pilot, assimilated so many details) and tried dabbing away at the raw skin. She had an endless case of diaper rash. You’d think she would have been grateful for the cold air hitting it, drying it out, but her screams only rose higher, to the treetops.
“Stop crying.” I tried to confuse her by sounding concerned when I was really just furious. I squirted medicated talc on her chubby thighs. “Wait until something bad happens before you cry.”
“Brice,” she remembered. “Isn’t that a beautiful name? Or maybe it was Tony. Anyway, he showed up when Sherman and I were on our honeymoon. That was awkward. He was the chef at a restaurant we went to. He came out of the kitchen to say hello.”
“I thought you said he played the drums.”
“He did. At night.”
Boyfriend. Ex-lover. They were such ridiculous terms. Mark wasn’t any of those. He was a whole choppy period in my life, the embodiment of all that was going on then. I didn’t blame him for what happened. I always felt I was using Mark to make myself miserable, maneuvering him into place to torture me. That’s what made me mad when he apologized, that he thought he’d had power over me.
“It just pisses me off!”
I stopped. I had forgotten what I was going to say.
“Him showing up here and acting like nothing’s changed?”
“No. It’s not about Mark. I told you, he’s not that big a deal.”
“You’re just suddenly in a bad mood for no reason?”
Concentrating, I finished changing Ann and sat back down.
We put the children side by side. Each acted like the other didn’t exist, was in another dimension or part of nature, a force that stopped a leg from moving, caused a toy to vanish. “Parallel play.” It was supposed to be good for them, although I didn’t see how. There were whole groups devoted to it, signs up on the playground’s metal gate, now that the weather was getting bad. parallel play group thursdays 9:30–11. questions? call janice.
Ann tried to sit up. She leaned forward on one hand and balanced.
“Oh, she’s tripoding,” another mother cooed, passing by.
“Mind your own cocksucking business.”
Had I really said that? I checked my lips. No. They were still pressed together, holding the words inside. But just barely.
“What I was mad about.”
“Oh. Well, that’s good.”
“Look.” I showed her the journal. “Harvey gave me this.”
She fanned through the pages. I hadn’t written anything yet.
“I have no idea. Don’t you think that’s weird?”
“I mean, we’re barely speaking to each other, and his solution is to give me a blank book?”
“Harvey seems like a nice guy.”
“He is.” I made it sound like the last nail in the coffin of our marriage. “Very nice.”
“At least he’s not running around with a woman half his age who tells people she works in product branding.”
“What is that, anyway?”
“It has something to do with advertising. I think she hands out free samples. At least Sherman thought they were free. I’m sure he’s finding out differently now. No hitting, Alex.”
Marjorie’s life had been far more completely wrecked than mine. She used to be a lawyer. She didn’t seem to mind what had happened, though. I mean, she admitted what a horrible time she was having, what a rotten deal it was that Sherman had left, but she wasn’t losing it. Not like me. Maybe it helped that she was older, in her forties, and always wanted kids. Of all the regulars at the Tot Spot, we were probably at the two extremes, in terms of age.
“Are you leaving for the holidays?” she asked.
“No, I don’t think so. Why?”
“Will you water my plants? And take in the mail? It’s only for a week. We’ll be upstate with my mother.”
“Sure. No problem.”
“Are you celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah? Or both?”
She looked at me funny, took out another teething biscuit, and picked up the book again, as if an entry might have appeared since the last time.
“I think it’s nice Harvey gave you this. You should write something in it.”
I laughed, thinking she was joking, but an hour later, alone again, found a pencil and opened the journal to the first page. I held the point right over the paper and waited for something to happen. Of course nothing did. Finally, I just made some marks, scratches, what a chimp would do or, worse, a child.
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 2007 by Thomas Rayfiel
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