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 letdown 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.