Joyland

New York |

Our Girl

by Alison B. Hart

edited by Kyle Lucia Wu

Annie liked Rya’s way with Maeve right off the bat. Maeve could be so aloof with strangers. But when Rya got down on her knees during the interview and offered the toddler her index finger, their fingers meeting in an explosion of giggles, Annie was ready to offer the job on the spot. When Scott came home half an hour later, he joined in on a game of dress-up, stretching their daughter’s pink striped socks over his ears. Rya was the cousin of someone Annie worked with. They asked for her professional references, but they never called the numbers written on the torn sheet of journal paper Rya gave them. They met her on Friday; she started on Monday.

This was the second nanny they’d hired for Maeve. Annie still hadn’t gotten over the mental disconnect of the word. It made her think of Mary Poppins, governesses, fusty English manors, or, in more modern terms, of Stepford wives and children who should be seen but not heard. It seemed absurd to have a nanny when they were so often scraping by just to cover their mortgage. But it was the way childcare worked in Brooklyn. By the time they factored in the sick days whenever Maeve picked up a bug at daycare, it was cheaper to pay someone to watch her at home. Plus, she was so tiny when Annie went back to work, just six weeks old.

First they found Shirley, who was from Trinidad and had taken care of two other children in their building. She had excellent references and she was older: overtly motherly, even grandmotherly. She was tough with Annie—shooing her out the door to work in the mornings—but she was gooey like pudding with Maeve. She thought it was adorable the way the baby just stared at all the adults in the apartment, as if scrutinizing them for their qualifications. In truth, Annie never really warmed to Shirley, though she was profoundly grateful to her for being someone she could trust. It also didn’t break her heart when Shirley said she was moving to Georgia to take care of her niece’s kids. It was just the process of letting someone new into their lives that Annie found daunting.

Rya was a few years out of college and didn’t have any formal nannying experience, though she’d babysat in high school and was clearly great with kids. Her cultural reference points were different than Annie’s, younger and more West Coast.

“Awesome sauce!” she would say whenever Maeve deserved praise.

Rya’s hair was dyed blonde and she wore it in a top knot that showed off her dark roots and a small tattoo of a bird on her neck. Somehow the white tendrils that fell down were downy soft, not brittle. She wore boxy t-shirts with the necks cut out and cut-offs or tights.

One night after Rya left, a thought occurred to Annie. “You’re not attracted to her, are you?” she asked Scott. He was watching Maeve swipe a crayon across a newspaper on the kitchen floor.

“Is this a trick question?” he asked. He scooped the baby up and threw her over his shoulder, running her around the apartment.

“No…I just…,” but it was ridiculous trying to be heard over the grunts and yelps. She gave up and went to the bathroom. Her bladder felt like it was being kneeled on, which in a way it was—by an ovarian cyst. Her doctor had been keeping an eye on it.

“Are you?” Annie tried again five minutes later, when they sat down to dinner. There was a dull ache in her lower back.

“What?”

“Rya. Attracted to her.”

“Oh. She’s a pretty girl,” Scott said. “But not my type.”

“Great,” Annie said, putting down her fork.

“What?”

“Well, isn’t that the kind of thing men say when they actually are interested?”

As if in agreement, Maeve jammed a fistful of macaroni in her mouth and then burped.

“Okay,” Scott said. “I’m gonna give it to you straight. She eats too many carrots.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look at her palms sometime. They’re orange. Too much vitamin A.”

“How do you even know that?”

But he just smiled and shrugged, because they both knew he was a repository of odd information and was ready to deploy it with precision timing. It came in handy with grantwriting. He was a bass player, but he’d needed a full-time job to look good on the mortgage application; there was money in music but it wasn’t reliable. Then they got pregnant and here he was, still at the day job.

“She’s like a rabbit,” he continued, “and everyone knows that rabbits aren’t sexy.”

“No, everyone knows that rabbits procreate indiscriminately. Hello—“ and here she put her hands over Maeve’s ears—“they fuck like bunnies.”

Maeve batted Annie’s hands away.

“Rabbits are sexy to other rabbits, sure. But not to humans. I mean this—“ and Scott scrunched up his face and pretended to nibble ferociously—“does not get me hard. The opposite, in fact. Terrifying.”

Something in Annie’s stomach did a little flip. They didn’t talk this way to each other much these days. Everything was so g-rated all the time. She looked at the clock and made some mental calculations about how long it would take to finish dinner and get Maeve to bed.

But after that was accomplished, Annie was so tired, and Scott was parked in front of the football game. She climbed into bed with a book to wait for him. Of course she fell asleep. Morning sex used to be a real possibility, but not when Maeve woke up at 5 every day, and the only way the whole family could get a couple extra hours of sleep was if they brought her into bed with them. Then the alarm went off and so another day began.

At 8 Rya arrived, knocking once before letting herself in with her key.

“Hey Rya,” Scott said, passing her on his way out.

“Hey Scott,” she chirped, her mood naturally enhanced by the yerba mate in her to-go cup.

Behind Rya, Scott made rabbit faces at Annie as he exited.

On the train to midtown, Annie let her thoughts of Maeve recede, along with the traces of her oatmealy fingerprints on her cheeks, and turned her attention to the day ahead: a doctor’s appointment at lunch and a tense day in the office. Her summer samples were arriving from the factory, and her mood boards for the fall were due at the end of the week. The first protos had been an abomination, as usual, but Annie had given the factory a long list of changes to make. She’d promised her director that she could fix it. She wore a knit top that was loose in the shoulders so no one would know how much she sweat over these decisions. They were, after all, only children’s accessories. At this price point and given the manufacturing relationships already in place, there was a very narrow margin for any actual design. Basically it was all about glitter. And sequins. And pink.

The trouble was, Annie needed this. It wasn’t like they were sitting on a huge pile of cash. They hardly had anything in savings and no family nearby. She’d been let go once before when the economy took a downturn. She’d been hired back three months later—when times were tight, it turned out parents bought more cheap crap, not less—but it was only part-time at first and she’d felt on shaky ground ever since. And that was before Maeve.

By lunchtime, the samples still weren’t in. Annie decided to walk the dozen blocks to her doctor’s appointment instead of taking the subway. She headed uptown, away from the Empire State Building and the tourists in Herald Square. In Bryant Park the tents were going up for the fall fashion shows.

Annie couldn’t say she’d ever really imagined having her own show in one of those tents, although it had been officially The Dream for everyone in grad school. Most of her classmates had been to art school first or had majored in art at a liberal arts school. Annie went to undergrad at a state school in the Midwest, where she grew up. She’d majored in business and minored in art. It took all her courage to come to New York, but after one semester at design school, Annie decided it just wasn’t practical to create her own clothing line when so few succeeded. You had to be rich first, or have rich friends, or at least know how to talk to rich people in such a way that they could see your spark. She still thought there might be a way to do something small, on her own time, maybe online. Maybe when Maeve was a little older.

At the doctor’s office, just as she was about to fall asleep in the reclined exam chair, there was a knock on the door and Dr. Mittl came in.

“Okay, Annie, the sonogram you had last week showed that the cyst isn’t resolving, so it’s time to talk about going ahead with the procedure. Once we remove the cyst, the discomfort you’ve been feeling will go away, but, more importantly, we really don’t want this developing into anything more serious.”

“You mean something like cancer,” Annie said, though they’d had this discussion a couple of times already and she knew the answer. She just needed to hear all the key words said aloud.

“Right. It’s unlikely to be malignant, although we can’t rule it out completely. But the good news is that your fertility won’t be affected, and afterward, if everything goes as we expect it to, we shouldn’t have to watch you as closely as we have been.”

She and Scott had decided they were one and done anyway. It was already keeping her up at night worrying about college and retirement and all the other things they were supposed to be saving for.

“When?” she asked.

“I can put you on the schedule for next week.”

“Wow, that soon.”

“We can do it outpatient, but you’ll need to rest at home for a week. You have help? Remember you won’t be able to lift the baby for a while.”

“We have a new nanny. And Scott will be around in the evenings.”

“Okay. Then let’s take one more look,” Dr. Mittl said, and she patted the stirrups.

On her way back to the office, Annie strategized how and when to tell work about the surgery. Before she showed the summer samples to her director? After? In person or via email? She walked past the tents in Bryant Park again. The great machinery was erecting itself. The fashion kids peeking over the barricades reminded her of Rya, more than herself. Annie had never been that edgy, apart from a Mohawk she got in high school, after her senior photo had been taken. Rya would have fit right in at the fashion institute, but her plan was to go to film school.

What Annie should have been doing on this walk was gathering inspiration for the fall. But each season she found it harder to get inspired. She didn’t want Maeve aping the fashion kids or the high-end designers whose racks Annie should have been combing. So she dressed her in hand-me-downs and gifts from the grandmothers, samples from work that weren’t too gaudy or too branded, whatever was basic and free. There would come a time when it would be impossible to shield Maeve from the frenzy to ride a trend or get ahead of it. For now, she wanted to keep her little girl in a bubble. In meetings, the directors talked about “our girl,” as if the accessories the designers pitched would be donned by one iconic child whose edges had already been smoothed away in toddlerhood. They said things like “That’s not fashion enough for our girl” or “That’s too butch for our girl.” But in Annie’s world, “our girl” was a name she and Scott were just beginning to try on for size, now that Maeve’s hair had grown long and her bowling ball of a stomach was disappearing and the words “our baby” seemed only barely still to hold.

When Annie got to her desk, the summer samples were waiting. She was relieved to see they were not so abominable anymore. Her director wasn’t so sure. She studied them as if they were stone tablets. After some silent moments, she said, “More glitter.”

***

Back in Brooklyn that night, a guy sat on Annie’s front stoop, reading a copy of The New Republic. Just from the way he sat there, as if he had all the time in the world, and the way he held the magazine’s pages, lightly, as if trusting that the words’ meaning would seep into his consciousness and mate with other ideas lodged there, all in their own time, she could tell he wasn’t a parent. No wedding ring either. Once upon a time, she’d known plenty of men like him—met them for drinks, befriended some, argued with others, slept with one or two. Now it was like encountering a unicorn.

“Excuse me,” she said, preparing to hopscotch over him, but he stood and came down to the sidewalk. “Oh,” she said involuntarily, realizing he was not just idle but good looking, too, with surprisingly blue-blue eyes that she couldn’t look away from even though they’d only met hers for an instant. “Are you looking for somebody in the building?” she asked.

“Just waiting for a friend,” he said, gesturing for her to go on in while he remained outside. She did and as she cleared the inner door to the lobby, she looked back and saw him take up his spot again on the stoop, one knee raised, the other leg stretched out straight, like something out of a catalog.

Rya and Maeve had built a fort in the living room, where Maeve was encamped along with all of her stuffed animals, who were also wearing diapers and socks. Annie never would have walked in to a scene like this when Shirley worked for them. Shirley always left the apartment neat as a pin, the toys put away, the dishes clean and drying in the rack. She handed Maeve, in fresh clothes, to Annie and after delivering the vital statistics of the baby’s intake and output, headed out the door as quickly as possible. She called Annie “Mommy” in a way that was both condescending and appreciated. In fact, Annie often had the feeling that she was being managed by Shirley, who must have learned—either through experience or the nanny grapevine or both—never to bond too closely with the child, never to appear to have had too nice a day, never to act like the primary caregiver once a parent returned home, in short: never to make the mother jealous, ever. And, to be honest, Annie welcomed the deception. She hated to leave Maeve, hated to think of all the time she was missing with her, couldn’t bear to think the baby might love anyone more than her, even Scott.

Rya didn’t seem to have a strategy where Annie was concerned. She was focused on Maeve and on having fun together. Now that Maeve was older, 20 months, Annie didn’t mind so much that there was another woman in their lives. On weekends it took all her capacities to keep up with her daughter. And Rya had so much energy! She seemed as if she would play with clay and crayons even if it weren’t required of her. She sometimes took Maeve to the playground in the carrier, strapped to her chest like a monkey, because, she said, it was better for her alignment than hauling a stroller up the stoop steps. The important thing was that Maeve was a happy child, and it almost didn’t matter to Annie that her daughter fussed when anyone else tried to tote her that way.

Rya was kneeling on the rug, her head craned inside the fort.

“Hi!” she said, when she heard the door shut behind Annie and extricated herself. “Hey, baby, look who it is!”

“Mama?” Maeve squawked from within the couch cushions. “Mama!” she said again with more certainty, the fort tumbling around her as she summoned herself to stand.

“Hi, Sweetie,” Annie said. She put her keys and her bag and the mail on the table.

“Me carry you?” Maeve asked, reaching her arms up to her mother.

“Okay, just a minute, Sweetie,” Annie said, tugging off her boots.

“Mama, me? Carry you!”

“Okay, here you go, up,” Annie said, hoisting Maeve up onto her hip and kissing her face, the two moves inextricably linked. Why lift her if not to kiss her, too? But once the kiss was deposited, Maeve began to squirm to get down again. Annie placed the girl back on the rug, and she toddled back to Rya and the fort.

“No no no,” she complained as Rya put the cushions back on the couch.

“It’s okay,” Annie said to Rya. “You can leave it. We’ll play with the fort after dinner.” Then for Maeve’s benefit: “After dinner, Sweetie.”

Now Maeve followed Rya to the door. She held onto one of Rya’s boots forlornly while Rya put on the second. Rya asked, “Other boot?” and Maeve dutifully handed it over. “Thanks, baby,” Rya said, giving her arm a squeeze.

Annie said, “Let’s say, ‘Bye bye, Rya.’ ‘Thank you, Rya.’”

Maeve was mute, salutations being something she hadn’t learned yet to produce on demand. She looked uncertainly from Rya to Annie and back again.

“Hasta manana, baby,” Rya said. “See you tomorrow.”

Annie picked up her daughter and shut the door. She turned the lock, which threw itself into the mechanism with a loud clunk, sealing mother and daughter into the quiet apartment. Alone at last. It was the moment Annie raced toward everyday and everyday she felt unequal to it.

“Bye bye,” Maeve said to the door.

Annie took a big breath. What now? Get in the fort? Get out the crayons? Play with the musical instruments? She pictured performing each of these activities, as if captured in a photograph, the square kind with rounded edges, to be collected in an album along with the other memories they would make during her daughter’s childhood. The pressure to be remembered as an integral part of it, not a passer-through, weighed on her. She peeked down the back of the baby’s diaper and confirmed it didn’t need changing. Then she remembered, with renewed purpose and some relief, that it was time to make dinner.

That night, after they’d gotten Maeve asleep, Annie told Scott about her upcoming surgery, when it would take place, how long she’d be at home, the implications for Maeve. They’d discussed this before, when the prospect of surgery first appeared and again two months ago when Dr. Mittl told Annie to get used to the idea. But Scott looked at her now, across their living room, as if this was all news to him.

“Oh shit,” he said.

“What?” Annie said.

“I got a call from Derek today.”

“Okay.”

Derek Johnson was a pianist who had played with everyone, jazz greats, R&B stars, and even a rapper or two, and he’d recorded over a dozen albums with his own trio since Scott met him at Berklee. Scott hadn’t gigged with him in years, but it had always been understood between Annie and him that he would drop anything to play with Derek. They never knew what might come of these chances.

“Oh,” she said, getting it. “Really?” She collapsed into the armchair. “Right now?”

“He’s doing 2 nights at Scullers next weekend and Mike’s daughter is getting married in Indiana. They need a bass.”

“Scullers. That’s…”

“Boston. Yeah.”

Annie rubbed her back. Even without the sonograms, she could tell by the ache where the cyst was, down low on the left.

“I know the timing’s not great. But I’d be here for the worst of it. I wouldn’t need to leave until Friday, and by then you should be feeling much better and getting up and around.”

“But I won’t be able to pick up Maeve yet. How do I get her in and out of the bathtub? Or the crib?”

“What about your mom?”

“She can’t afford the plane ticket. Neither can we right now.”

“My mom?”

“It’s too last-minute. She’s always busy with your sister’s kids.”

“Okay.” He paced the living room. He placed one palm on his forehead and tugged his hair upward. He was overdue for a cut. “How about Rya? Maybe Rya can do bed and bath before she leaves.”

“But what if Maeve wakes up in the night, and I can’t pick her up? This isn’t going to work.” Annie heard her voice becoming sharp, even shrill. Then she tried to sigh but instead she barked. “Of all the weeks for Derek to call. Honestly.”

Scott perched on the edge of the coffee table, seeming to contemplate his feet, which nearly touched hers. He looked at Annie.

“Okay. I won’t go if you don’t think we can swing it.”

She looked at his tired eyes, behind the glasses he wore every day at the office, the ones he hadn’t needed in order to play music. He looked resolved but crushed.

Annie took a deep breath and held it. “Maybe Rya can sleep over a couple nights. I can ask.”

“You think?”

“We’d have to pay her extra.”

“Sure. Would it be weird for you to have her stay over?”

“What are the alternatives?” There was only one, for Scott to stay home, to miss this chance to play again. Her breath came forward now in a genuine sigh. She shrugged a smile. “And this way you could go.”

“That would be awesome, Chicken.”

She’d been, ironically at first, his Little Chickadee; then, with real love, the shortened Chick; and, at last, the more adult Chicken, once Maeve arrived and claimed from them both every diminutive label from Baby to Puppy to Bunny.

Scott kissed Annie, and she stroked the stubble on his jawline. He put his arms around her and slid his fingers below the waist of her jeans. The ache in her back turned away in an offer of privacy.

“Wait,” Annie said. “Let me go call Rya and get this over with.”

So they pulled their bodies apart in order to discuss what they felt would be fair payment to offer Rya, after which Annie made the call. Rya said yes, she would do it.

“You can take the night to think it over. I know I’m springing this on you. You might already have plans.”

“It’s fine.”

“We would pay you extra,” Annie said, giving the figure she and Scott had come up with.

“Okay,” Rya said.

Annie didn’t know what to say next. There was an awkward silence on the line, unlike anything they’d experienced in person. They’d been so genial at the beginning and end of Rya’s shifts that it had obscured the fact that they weren’t actually friends. Now that Annie realized this, she understood that Rya staying over would be weird.

“Thank you so much, Rya. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Annie returned to the living room, where Scott was now watching TV.

“She said yes.”

“Great.”

“So you know what that means,” she said. Her eyes glossed over the faces on the late night comedy show, having sat down too late to get the jokes. She thought of everything she’d need to do to prepare. Rya could sleep on the fold-out sofa. They should get new sheets.

“What?” Scott asked.

“We should have sex tonight.”

“That’s what it means?”

“No. What I mean is—“ and here she failed, as she often did, to summon the necessary enthusiasm to both explain her thinking and make it persuasive. So she settled on just explaining herself. “My period starts tomorrow. And then comes the surgery. And then we’ll have to wait a few weeks for me to heal. So tonight’s the night, big guy.”

“Well,” he said. The audience roared with laughter, but he watched them straight-faced. “That is some offer.”

Annie stood up and walked to him. She took his hand. “Come on.”

In the bedroom they dropped hands and undressed themselves. They climbed over the comforter and took up their stations. Gradually the physical routes to each other took on greater importance than the mental. Annie cleared her mind of her to-do list, her anxieties about Maeve and resentments toward Scott, and focused instead on giving and receiving pleasure.

***

The Friday after surgery Scott left for Boston at lunchtime. Annie had spent Tuesday and Wednesday on the couch in a haze of Percocet and TV. On Thursday she learned that the cyst had been benign, after which she made a sort of office of the couch and started answering emails again. All week Rya fed Maeve and took her to the playground and got her down for naps. On Friday Annie moved her office into the bedroom, since the couch would be Rya’s bedroom for the next two nights.

She felt slightly more mobile once she was erect, but standing up and sitting down were such productions, it seemed easier to stay put. Still, she hoped she could make it outside at least once. If it had been sunny earlier that week, she hadn’t noticed, but today the sun made warm stripes across her bed. She missed going for walks with Maeve. She wanted to know how many acorns she had learned to hold in her fists since last week, when it had been three in each. She was sure the number was higher now, judging by the quantity littered around the apartment and by Maeve’s upward developmental trajectory overall. Her daughter seemed to be changing in every direction. Perhaps it wouldn’t seem so dazzling if Annie were home with her every day; each accomplishment might not seem like another great leap forward but just the gradual extension of reach and ability.

After lunch, though, Annie was summoned onto a conference call about the fall mood boards, after which she would need to spend the afternoon searching the forecasting service for more ideas and sketching. As she listened to the VP drone on about a headband that wasn’t “emotional enough for our girl,” she watched Rya coax Maeve into a sweater, without the protests Annie so often received. Was there a secret password? But Annie couldn’t hear the soft conversation that passed between them in the hallway. They disappeared around a corner. Annie heard the front door opening, some shuffling and cooing, and then the door closing.

She felt filled by a cold longing for a different life. Sometimes it seemed as though first Shirley and now Rya were living her life—or parts of it, anyway; the best parts. Annie knew it wasn’t rational. She didn’t wish to be a Caribbean immigrant or in her twenties again. But it seemed they had all the joy of occupying her home and being with Maeve, and she had all the drudgery. They didn’t have to worry about where it all came from, the electricity and the diapers and the bananas and the new toddler shoes for growing feet. Rya, especially, at her age seemed immune to the particular terror—a small but persistent panic—that Annie now felt as a baseline and chalked up to the responsibility of being a mother. Rya had certainly not handed over her body completely to anyone yet, as Annie had to Maeve.

While she waited for an image to load on her laptop, she pressed her fingers lightly over the bandages on her abdomen. Her skin felt terribly itchy in some places and eerily numb in others. The doctor had made three incisions, one in Annie’s belly button and one on other side, a little below the first. The scars would be small, the doctor said, but right now the evidence loomed large, the bandages forming a giant frown over Annie’s pelvis and the no-go zone below. When she was pregnant she’d figured she would have a C-section. Everyone seemed to have them these days, but somehow she’d avoided it. She’d managed to deliver Maeve the old fashioned way, something she was foolishly proud of. And now here she was, marked anyway.

Later that night she sat on the edge of the tub and dragged a wet cloth around the bandages. Not only could Annie not lift Maeve in or out of the water, but she couldn’t lean over the tub to brush the baby’s teeth or to hand her Octopus, not without putting pressure on the stitches. So she’d watched from the door as Rya did these things, just as Scott had done them the last few nights. Annie always did bathtime and it hurt her feelings to see how readily Maeve had let others into their ritual. If only there were a bandage for that. Afterward, wrapped in a towel and hoisted on Rya’s hip, Maeve had leaned into Annie’s neck and received a kiss goodnight.

“Mama, me carry you?” she’d asked.

Rya had looked at Annie to ask, how are we going to play this? Annie’s hand had been cupping the back of Maeve’s head but it shifted, as if drawn by attachment hormones, to Maeve’s armpit. The baby leaned in further and gave her weight to her mother. The three of them became, for a moment, a kind of Madonna-and-child hydra, their bare flesh a confusion of fingertips skimming soft bellies. Someone tickled Annie somewhere, but she didn’t know who or where. It sent a charge through her regardless. She put her other arm under Maeve’s rump, pinning the baby against her chest. If she could just keep her perched up high like this, she thought, she might manage to get to the changing table without help. But then Maeve gripped Annie’s ribs with her knees and her little toes darted into the bandages on her mother’s abdomen. Annie winced.

“Here, baby,” Rya had said, unpeeling Maeve from Annie and taking her back.

“No no no,” Maeve had cried. “Mama! Mama!”

“Come on, Baby Maeve. Let’s read some stories.”

“Thank you,” Annie had said. “Night night, Sweetie.” And then she’d stood outside Maeve’s room, ready to intervene with a kiss or a lullaby, but the crying soon subsided, rendering her useless.

So instead Annie had come to the bathroom to have a wash. By agreement, Rya had left the water from Maeve’s bath for Annie to use later. It was a measly, meager kind of bathing, this, but she felt closer to her daughter here than she had standing outside the nursery door. Who else but a mother would want to splash her baby’s bathwater between her legs and under her arms? They’d shared much more over the last 20 months—29 months, really—than used bathwater.

Afterward she listened at Maeve’s door and heard the humidifier whirring, signaling that bedtime had begun. On the way to the kitchen to get a glass of water, she caught a glimpse of Rya undressing in the living room and she froze. Rya lifted her t-shirt over her head and tossed it on the couch. She wasn’t wearing a bra, and she stood there, bare-chested, for a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity. Annie held her breath. Rya’s breasts were like figs, small but perfectly shaped. Beneath them was an expanse of skin, pale as cream, not a ripple in sight. It wasn’t fair. Not even when she was young had Annie looked like that. Suddenly, as if a pause button had been depressed so that the action could resume, Rya began to hunt around. She found a tank top and pulled it over her head. The ease with which her body performed this task felt like an affront to Annie’s recovery. She went to her own room, tugged open the dresser door the minimum distance required to retrieve something out of it, and carefully put on one of Scott’s t-shirts without involving any of her core muscles. Her window was open a few inches, which had let in just the right amount of fresh air during the afternoon and now let in a chill. She didn’t want to ask Rya to help close it. She could put on a sweater if she had to.

She lay back on the bed, but she couldn’t sleep. She’d forgotten to pull back the sheets and she couldn’t face getting up just to do that. Then she thought she heard something. Voices in the living room. Rya’s and a man’s. Was it Scott, home early? Her hopes soared. But no, the voice wasn’t deep enough to be his. She hadn’t heard the doorbell ring. Was it a neighbor? He was getting louder, and Rya shushed him.

Annie roused herself, put on a robe, and went to look. Here, in her apartment, was the catalog-looking guy. Good God, why hadn’t anybody tidied up? He wore a cashmere blazer and shoes that, she knew, cost about $700. Annie, however, wasn’t wearing any pants. She tugged her robe tighter over the t-shirt.

“Hello?” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Rya said. “He was just leaving.”

“Hi,” he said to Annie. “We meet again.” She felt a quick thrill that he had remembered her from the other afternoon on the stoop. There were those blue-blue eyes that must have been opening doors for him forever, but now she saw that they were red around the edges. He was tired, or drunk, or possibly he’d even been crying.

“I didn’t catch your name,” Annie said.

“Clark. And you’re—?” His eyes twinkled, but his attempt at charm felt like a demonstration. She put her hands in the pockets of her robe and her fingers hit flesh. She remembered the hole in the front of the robe, through which her thigh was undoubtedly showing. No, she was a mess. This display wasn’t for her benefit.

“I’m the lady who lives here. That’s the room where my daughter is sleeping. And that’s the door you’re going to leave through right now.”

“Clark. Go.” Rya pushed him backward and he stumbled, light on his feet. She followed him through the door and looked at Annie before shutting it. “I’m so sorry. I’ll be right back.”

Back in her bedroom, Annie heard the door to the street open and clang shut, the panes of glasses shuddering in their frame.

“You don’t get it,” she heard Rya say on the sidewalk one floor below. “It has nothing do with you.”

“I just—when I think—.” Annie could only make out snatches of what Clark was saying. She leaned over the windowsill to look. He was mostly hidden beneath an oak, but Rya’s face was in view, and the light from the building’s entrance showed her frustration.

“What do you want me to say?” she asked.

He pulled her in by her hips, but she put her fists on his chest. He bent his lips to her ear, and Annie thought Rya might soften, but instead she shoved him away.

“Are you even sorry?” he yelled.

He sounded both defiant and pleading. Annie wished she could see better so she could figure out which it was. She tried to climb onto the radiator cover to get a better angle, but a piercing pain radiated out of the incision on her left side. She eased herself back down.

Rya brushed a few acorns to the curb with her foot. Then she folded her arms and looked up.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “And I’m not sorry.”

Clark stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets. He murmured something again, and then he walked away. Rya stood her ground, arms still folded, but she wasn’t watching him anymore. She’d turned her head to the sky.

Annie lowered herself onto her bed and slowly fidgeted her way under the sheets. Her fingertips danced around the bandage, trying to soothe the stinging underneath. Her heart was racing. To have the power to unsettle a man like that. To make no accommodation—to make him beg. Her hand wandered lower. She turned her face into the pillow. She saw Rya sitting on top of him, his arms pinned by her knees, her neck long, chin arched, the bleached-out tendrils of her knotted-up hair teasing, too elusive to grasp, the tattooed bird humming out of reach. He couldn’t move anything but his lips and his tongue, but he didn’t want to escape. He wanted to make that bird sing. Annie’s breath grew ragged and hollow. She was close to coming, shockingly close, and she felt her face breaking open into a gasp, her body cresting just behind. But the smell of cigarette smoke suddenly blew through the window, bringing her back to herself. She pulled her hand away.

She hadn’t known Rya smoked, had never smelled it on her. The fight must have upset her.

She wondered whether she should get up. Rya might need to talk. But Annie wasn’t sure she could look at her so soon. She stayed in bed.

She throbbed between her legs. Thank God she could still throb! The doctor had only needed to take the cyst, but if things had gone another way Annie might have lost the entire ovary, or two, and been pushed into early menopause. She wasn’t ready to give up this feeling, to have to fight for it through all of life’s changes. To say nothing of cancer—who could ever be ready for that?

But as in all things, time had its way. The throbbing ebbed and there was the stinging of the incision, keeping its meter. She took something for the pain and, eventually, fell asleep.

She woke in the morning to the sound of a phone ringing. She inched over to her nightstand as quickly as her dreaminess and her abdomen would allow.

“Hello?” she said.

“Chicken,” Scott said. “Did you just wake up?”

“No,” she said reflexively. “I mean, yes. What time is it?”

She looked at the clock, startled to see it was already after 10.

“Wow, somebody slept in,” he said.

“Shit. The baby.”

“She’s at the playground. Rya texted a picture of her on the swing.”

“Oh,” Annie said. “Damn.”

“Relax. She’s okay. She’s having fun.”

“But I wanted to spend more time with her today. I feel so out of it.” Her head felt like it was buried under a stack of pillows. She could have slept all day.

“You doing okay?” he asked.

“I’ve been comatose for over 12 hours and somehow I’m still exhausted. So, yeah. Never been better.”

“How’s it going with Rya?”

She suddenly remembered Clark: his unlikely appearance upstairs, the argument on the street, the image of Rya spread open and him, a willing prisoner, burying himself inside her. She remembered Rya’s unblemished skin, her perfect breasts. Annie found it too difficult to remember which parts were real and which were not. It all swirled together as in an erotic dream, the kind in which you keep rising, rising, but you never make it to the top.

“We’re fine,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. She’s been a big help.”

But if Scott had been here, Annie wouldn’t have slept in. She wouldn’t have taken another pill last night. She might have made her family breakfast and then walked with them to the park where she would be pushing her daughter, right now, on the swing. She would have felt needed. It didn’t matter in this accounting that she actually needed the pain medication and the morning’s sleep. It didn’t matter that Rya, and not Scott, was the only one who could let Annie have these things. Annie resented her anyway.

“I gotta go,” she said. It wouldn’t occur to her until much later that she hadn’t asked Scott how his first night of shows had gone or wished him luck for the second. Right now she was mad at him, too.

When they came home, Maeve was asleep in the carrier, drooling into Rya’s armpit. Rya supported the baby with one hand and reached behind herself to unbuckle the straps. She took Maeve to her bedroom. Annie had just enough time to make rice balls, the baby’s favorite, for lunch. Rya joined her a moment later in the kitchen.

“Can I help?”

“Nope.”

Annie could feel Rya hovering, but she was determined not to look at her, which would only invite assistance or conversation. To Annie’s relief, Rya disappeared to use the bathroom, but afterward she returned and planted herself in plain sight at the kitchen table. She cleared her throat.

“I’m really sorry about last night. I didn’t invite him up. A delivery guy let him in and he knocked at the door. He only wanted to talk, but I know it wasn’t the time.”

“Friend of yours?” Annie rolled the balls of rice between her palms and then set them in a frying pan.

“No.”

Annie glanced over. Rya was wearing a Minnie Mouse t-shirt. She chewed her cuticles. Now she was lying to her. And this was the person Annie left her child with? She shook her head. “Come on.”

“He wasn’t my friend, he was my boyfriend.”

“Past tense?”

“Yeah. We broke up.”

Annie turned around. Rya looked sad. Not young, just disappointed. You could mistake disappointment for youth, but they weren’t the same thing, just frequent traveling companions.

“I’m sorry,” Annie said.

The rice balls hissed in the pan and Annie turned back to the stove to flip them. The kitchen was warming up, and Annie put out her bottom lip and blew her hair upward off her forehead.

Rya gave a short, quiet laugh. “Maeve does that, too.”

“What?” Annie said, turning around again.

“This,” Rya said, demonstrating the hair blow.

“She does? I guess she does have enough hair now.”

“She looks like both of you, but all of her gestures are yours.”

“Wow,” Annie said, chastened by this kindness. “Thanks,” she said softly.

They both heard Maeve cry out then, her nap finished. Rya began to stand, but Annie stopped her.

“No, let me. Can you just take these off the heat?” she asked.

In the bedroom she found Maeve standing at the crib rail, her long hair plastered to her face with sweat.

“Daddy shirt?” she asked. Annie looked down and realized that she was still wearing the shirt she’d slept in; she’d only managed so far to pull on a pair of yoga pants underneath it.

“You’re right. Mama’s wearing Daddy’s shirt. Isn’t that funny?”

But Maeve looked too sleep-addled to play. She just wanted to be held, lifting her hands up high, and before Annie had time to think about it, she’d picked her daughter up and kissed her on the cheek. Maeve tucked her nose in the crook of Annie’s collarbone and yawned, sending a sweet shiver up Annie’s neck.

“Mama,” Maeve said.

“Yes, baby,” Annie said.

“Funny Mama.”

“Funny Mama,” Annie agreed.

It felt good to hold her girl in her arms again. And she had done it! She had lifted Maeve without any help. Now Rya could go home, and Annie and Maeve could spend the rest of the weekend like this, following each other’s rhythms and whims. Annie patted her daughter’s bottom and felt the fullness of her diaper. She carried her to the changing table and began to lay her down. Maeve arched her back and shouted, “No! Me carry you!”

“It’s okay, Sweetie,” Annie said. “Let’s change you.”

“No! Don’t want it!”

Maeve went flat as a board and kicked out. Annie yelped and collapsed forward, tenting over her daughter, who was now frightened and screaming into her ear.

Rya came running. She put her arms on Annie’s shoulders and guided her backward.

“Can you stand?” she asked.

Annie nodded. Tears squeezed out of the corners of her shut eyes. Getting kicked in the gut felt like getting branded with a hot iron.

“Here,” Rya said, guiding her the few steps to the rocking chair. “Sit down.”

Annie felt a dampness on her left side. She looked down and saw that she was bleeding.

Rya was back at the changing table now with Maeve, who was still crying. In a moment, Rya had her changed into a fresh diaper.

“I’ll be right back,” Rya said, carrying Maeve out of the room.

Alone, Annie allowed herself to whimper. But the sounds that came out of her throat were so small and private, compared with the baby’s howling, that she felt pathetic. She reminded herself that she had made it through childbirth. This was nothing.

Rya appeared again in the doorway.

“She’s okay now. She’s watching a video.”

“The first aid kit is in the cabinet under the sink. In the bathroom.”

Rya went to get it. Origami cranes, set into flight by the accident, now sailed in smooth circles over the changing table. A month ago Annie had climbed a ladder to shorten the string and raise the mobile higher. She’d been that capable. The birds’ orbit slowed, reversed itself for a while, and then reversed itself again.

Rya returned carrying a bowl of soapy water, a washcloth, a towel, and gauze and tape. She looked to Annie for permission. Annie nodded, lifting her shirt up and tugging her yoga pants down below her hips. Rya sat on the ottoman in front of the rocking chair and arranged her things around herself. Then she reached forward and peeled back the tape from the skin. Annie noticed her long fingers. Her palms were, indeed, a little orange, as Scott had said. Goosebumps spread down Annie’s leg.

“Does that hurt?”

“My pride more than anything else.”

Rya touched around the edges of the scar.

“Okay?”

“Yeah.”

Rya put her thumb and index finger on either side of the scar and gently stretched the skin. The bleeding had almost stopped but it oozed a bit more now.

“This is so gross. I’m sorry,” Annie said.

“Don’t worry about it.”

Rya plunged the washcloth into the soapy water and rang it out. The bird on the nape of her neck bent its beak as she lowered her head and dabbed at the blood. Little wisps of eyelash brushed her cheekbones. Her skin had that firm quality that Annie’s had lost when she wasn’t paying attention.

“You’re so young!” She’d meant to think it, not say it aloud. “Sorry. I just feel like a rental car that everyone has driven.”

Rya shook her head. She reached down and tugged off a sock. She flexed her foot and wiggled her toes. They were lumpy and misshapen, the knuckles pockmarked with pale red calluses. “I used to be a dancer.”

It made sense. It explained her posture, why her head sat so tall on her neck, the way she dressed.

“I started when I was six,” she went on. “I did ballet, jazz, tap, cheerleading even.” She swallowed hard. “After college I danced burlesque. My boyfriend—my ex. That’s what we were fighting about.”

Annie had seen burlesque show up again and again, in corsets and fishnets, on the runways. Now its influence was spreading to the girls’ departments, tutus and removable tattoos. But she’d never been to a live show or even a regular strip club.

“He didn’t like that other people saw you that way?”

“It’s not the same thing as sex, you know. It’s a performance, not that sex can’t be a performance, too. And burlesque isn’t specifically about showing desire, though it’s debauched, for sure. It’s talking about gender and class; it’s satire. Most of the time I was on stage with other women, and we were dancing for each other as much as for the audience. My girlfriend at the time was in the show, too.”

Bisexuality was another piece of information to absorb, not that Annie found it surprising. “Did it bother your ex that you dated a woman?”

“Not really. He lives in Brooklyn, he went to Oberlin, he gets it. Or he thinks he does. But at the end of the day, he’s pretty traditional. Stuff like bondage, power play—that’s pretty far out for him.”

“Me too,” Annie admitted and then regretted it. She didn’t want Rya to think her timid or judgmental. She looked down. The scar on her belly looked like a little pink earthworm, swollen after a rain. Rya patted it gently with the washcloth.

“Well, we all have a past,” Annie offered. She wanted Rya to keep talking. “Isn’t that what makes us interesting? He really can’t get past the dancing?”

“If it had just been the dancing, he probably could. But when you do burlesque, a lot of other things come with it, ways you can make money. I mean good money, fast. Which you sort of need, because it’s not like you can stay in it for the long haul unless you want to change your middle name to Boobs.”

They both burst out laughing.

“Owwwww.”

“Sorry.”

Rya checked to make sure the blood hadn’t come back. “Okay, we’re good,” she said. She placed the towel over the scar.

“Here,” Annie said. She took over the job of holding the towel.

Rya tore off pieces of tape. “I was a dominatrix for a couple months.” She looked at Annie as if to gauge whether or not she should continue.

“Mm hmm,” Annie said. “What was that like?”

“Weird.” She took the towel from Annie and laid a fresh piece of gauze over the scar. She began to tape it in place. “Actually it was boring, mostly. But it turns out I was pretty good at it. It’s either easy for you to boss some guy around or it’s not.”

This sounded so simple that Annie felt it must be true. She did not like to boss Scott around—she wanted respect and an equal partnership—but in the context of a hotel room and an anonymous transaction, she thought she could probably take charge.

“It was always men?”

“Yes. Then one time, a guy wanted something else. And I gave it to him. And he paid me for it.”

Annie understood that Rya was talking about sex.

“It didn’t seem like it would be a big deal. I was already getting paid for doing all this frankly much weirder shit. And this guy was so vanilla.” A heavy tear formed along the side of her nose. “It was so normal with him that the only weird thing about it was that I was getting paid. So it ended up being a big deal after all.”
“When did this happen?” Annie asked.

“About six months ago.” Rya wiped the tear away like it was a nuisance.

The words sex worker appeared in Annie’s consciousness. Had she known, she never would have hired a sex worker to be their nanny. But more than that, she was ashamed of her own voyeurism. All the assumptions she’d made—that Rya had had it easy because she was young with a boyfriend who was handsome and well-read and spent a lot on clothes, that she was untouched—were stupid. Rya was someone’s daughter, someone’s friend. That thing happened where a heavy shade dropped down over Annie’s conception of Maeve’s future, veiling the inevitable hurts that lay in store for her daughter. Too painful to imagine.

“I mean, of course I regret it. But I’m not ashamed. My girlfriend and I had broken up. It was before I met Clark. I wasn’t cheating on anyone. Some people just seem to know what’s right and wrong automatically. I don’t know if they’re lucky or have no imagination. I have to try something first. I have to fuck up—.” She looked up at Annie, aghast. “Obviously not with Maeve, I’m just talking about in my own life.” Annie nodded, go on. Rya settled herself. “It happened, and after it happened I knew that I never wanted it to happen again. So I sold all my stuff in San Francisco and moved here. And I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be now. But Clark wants me to be ashamed. I’m not sure he actually cares that it happened. He’s just pissed that it didn’t happen with him.”

Annie got that. It has nothing to do with you, she’d heard Rya say last night. But who would want to believe that the most important thing to happen in their lover’s life, sexually or otherwise, had happened without them? Children were magic that way. They dimmed everything that came before.

“You were brave to tell him. I’m not sure everyone could understand, though.”

Would Annie have told Scott, if the secret had been hers? She couldn’t say. The road to marriage could be ecstatic and fragile both, and half the time you weren’t even sure you were on it.

Rya looked up from the ottoman, anything but brave. Annie took her hand and squeezed.

The new bandage was on. They sat quietly. Annie could pick out the high-pitched voice of a cartoon character.

“Thank you,” she said.

Rya nodded and gathered back up the supplies.

Annie pushed herself up slowly and treaded carefully out to the living room. Maeve was on the rug in front of the TV, clutching her teddy, her gaze fixed upward. A pair of fuzzy monsters sang a song about the seasons.

“Hi, Sweetie.”

Maeve eyes darted to her mother, then back to the TV.

“Mama okay?”

“Yes,” Annie said, lowering herself to the floor. She stretched her legs out on either side of Maeve and then scooted forward so that their bodies were touching.

“Daddy okay?”

“Daddy okay, too,” she said. She held the baby’s thighs and kissed the top of her head.

“Rya okay, too?”

“Rya okay, too. Everybody’s okay.”

Rya came into the room. She stepped behind them and sat on the couch under the window. Behind her, the old oak tree outside stood guard. Its long branch reached its fingers to the fire escape, tapping out a little tune in the breeze, watching them watch their girl and the brightly colored monsters dancing.