Joyland

New York |

Swings

by Lynn Steger Strong

edited by Amy Shearn

He was scrolling Twitter, trying to remember what time felt like when it was weightless and unstructured; he’d half-read three news articles about the risks of leveraged lending before a picture of a pair of pale boobs in a dark green bra, from a number that he didn’t know, popped up on his phone.

We talked on Tinder a few months ago, the text said below the photo. I’m back in Port St Lucie for the week. He wasn’t the person she had talked to. He didn’t live in Port St. Lucie--he lived in New York--though he had lived close to Port St. Lucie as a kid. He had been married since before Tinder was a term.

Wrong number, he said, sorry.

Well, she texted back, either Charlie was an asshole or he thought we’d get along.

I don’t know anyone named Charlie, he said. Though he did. The guy he knew would also not know how to go on Tinder. But Andrew’s wife was asleep right next to him, the baby snuffling, sleeping, on her chest, and he wanted just to get this girl to stop.

Well, she said, seemingly unfazed, what’s your name then?

Married with a kid, he texted. Old.

I like old, she said.

He felt his face heat up, deleted the texts.

***

The baby snuffled and she stirred and he picked her up before she started crying. He threw his phone under the bed and took her out into the hall before his wife woke up. He walked her, up and down the hall. She made more noise. She had a cold because she seemed to always have a cold and she made that scary sound she made when she tried too hard to breathe and then she squawked and then she settled her head’s weight onto his shoulder and he went into the kitchen to get food.

***

“Andrew?” his wife called from the bedroom. “Is she okay?”

He wanted her to keep sleeping, but he knew she wouldn’t. He’d stopped saying, when she woke up even though she didn’t have to, please go back to bed, Julie, because she never did, and he didn’t want to fight.

“Fine,” he said, spreading cream cheese on a bagel. “She fell back asleep.”

The sun was coming up and he had to be at work soon. He had to leave them, which he hated, but then his job paid more than her job and she’d wanted to stop working. They had to pay their rent and to buy food. That she had wanted to stop working, for this first year at least, because it would be a stretch but they could swing it, because her mom had always worked and she seemed to define what must be a good mother as everything her mother hadn’t done, she seemed to forget all this sometimes, to think her quitting was because of him. She seemed to think sometimes that he had chosen, declared out loud to her and not given her space or time to rebuke him, to be the one who got to leave.

***

She came out of the bedroom, bleary, her face swollen. She twisted her hair atop her head and tied it up. She wore one of his shirts and no pants and he thought briefly of the last time he’d fucked her, the last time she’d let him, which was what it felt like now, when they had sex. He asked while both of them pretended that he wasn’t asking. He begged without saying any words. The last time though, she’d come, he thought, for the first time since the baby. The last time, she’d straddled him, the baby in the electronic swing close to their bed and finally sleeping. They’d laughed even, together. Her bare breasts, swollen with milk, on top of him, they’d looked over at the swinging baby, rainforest noises playing too loudly, too afraid to turn it off, and they had laughed.

The swing swung hard and fast and Julie had been afraid at first to put her in it, but now, when he came home, the baby was almost always in there, swinging back and forth. Sometimes he worried about what might happen to her brain while she was swinging. She was quiet in it when she wasn’t quiet any other place unless in someone’s arms and walking; unless outside and strapped to someone’s chest.

Now, sometimes, he worried Julie might be leaving her in there the whole day.

***

“You want food?” he said to her.

She shook her head. She was getting thin, in the past month, thinner than she’d been since they met. For weeks after the baby she’d still looked pregnant. All of her still swollen, she’d lived mostly with her shirt off as her nipples bled and chafed from nursing. He’d been in thrall of her strange shape, the fact of her body, as this unknown, complicated space.

She’d had a c-section. She was in labor for forty hours and then they rushed her into surgery and for a while after the birth he’d resented the baby for what he’d seen Julie have to go through for the baby to be born.

It had all been so animal, her screaming and her writhing and him taking her for walks around the hallway, holding her hand, spending too much time maybe checking email on his phone as her cervix was examined for the three millionth time and the doctor shaking her head saying a number that was not the number they had hoped for and leaving the room without giving any information beyond that.

In the four-hour birthing class Julie’d signed them up for at her yoga studio the woman had said, so many times he and Julie had laughed about it after, it’s the most natural thing on earth, and for so many of the hours she was writhing, he’d been able to convince himself that this was true. He’d trusted she’d be fine and there would be an other side; until there stopped seeming like there would be, until there was an issue with the baby’s heart rate and Julie’s water had been broken for too long and there was, they said, greater risk of an infection, until they shot Julie full of drugs and she started to shiver and her teeth began to chatter and they wheeled her into a room where he had to wear a face mask and scrubs and everything was silver and looked sharp. He’d accidentally looked over the curtain and he’d seen her all cut open. He’d never felt so specifically desperate to help and equally as ill-equipped.

***

The baby stirred now on his shoulder. He didn’t resent her any longer. He loved her, which was the whole point, as he knew from the beginning. He loved her but also she didn’t talk or do much besides shit and sleep and eat and scream whenever she wasn’t in the swing or being held and walked around. She had maybe changed his wife irrevocably and he also didn’t love this about her. But he was glad that she was there instead of not there. He woke up sometimes, both of them sleeping, Julie and the baby, and he thought she was the best, the most perfect, the most painfully extraordinary thing.

“She’s hungry,” Julie said.

She always said this. Any time the baby made a noise, Julie thought the answer was a boob.

“Have some coffee,” he said. “Let me feed you first.”

He kept the baby in his left arm and cracked two eggs and pulled down the cast iron. He pulled the wrap off of the kitchen chair and twisted the baby in it. He chopped up peppers and onions and some gouda. He toasted bread.

She sat and watched him, smiling at him. “You’d be the best housewife,” she said, sipping the coffee that he’d poured.

“I know,” he said. He slipped the omelet on a plate and handed it to her.

He poured himself a cup of coffee and turned back toward her, but she looked sad then, and he wanted to yell at her to stop it. He wanted to pull her back from whatever thought had fallen on her, to go back to before.

“You okay?” he said.

“Just tired.”

He stayed quiet.

“I’m not a good housewife,” she said.

He knew enough to know there was no good response to this statement. She didn’t want to be a housewife. Even the word, from her mouth, felt absurd. She was messy. She didn’t like to cook, didn’t even like the kitchen. She also though did not love her job. She seemed to need to prove something about how much she loved the baby by spending all her time with her. She seemed to like, most of the time, the freedom to wander around the city with the baby in the middle of the day.

“You have to get ready,” she said, reaching for the baby, her omelet only a quarter eaten.

“I have time,” he said.

“You have to take a shower.” She pulled the baby free and she came immediately awake and grabbed for Julie. She took her in the other room and Andrew went to shower and to get ready for work.

***

At work, he thought about them sometimes and sometimes he remembered them, that they were home without him, and he was shocked that he’d gone however long he’d gone, an hour, forty minutes, without wondering how they were. He liked his job fine enough and knew he should be grateful not to hate it. It gave them health insurance, paid their bills. He often had to stay late and he came home to her having ordered another box of french fries from the diner down the block for dinner and he had to work not to tell her that he worried that they were all she ate.

***

It was two days later that he got the next boob text. It wasn’t her boobs, but it was the owner of the boobs. He’d deleted those texts, but the number had embedded itself inside his brain.

How are you? she said. Innocuous by contrast.

He was on the subway. He’d stayed late at work and his wife had texted to say she was getting takeout from the diner and ask if he wanted anything.

Tired, he texted to the girl whose name he didn’t know but whose boobs he’d seen, the color of her bra against her skin still easy to conjure in his brain.

She sent him a pile of emojis then that he didn’t understand and he deleted those and texted his wife and asked for chicken fingers and read an article about nuclear proliferation on his phone.

That night, he and Julie fought. He wore glasses. Technically, legally, without them, he was blind. He got up because he heard the baby crying and he came out to the kitchen. He saw her body but he couldn’t tell what she was doing so he asked.

“What are you doing?” he said because he couldn’t see her.

She had her back to him, he realized as he found his glasses on the counter. He knew his mistake as soon as he asked the question, but by then it was too late.

“What do you mean what am I doing?” she said, angry. “I’m fucking parenting,” she said. “Keeping the child that we made alive.”

He stood very still and tried not to yell back at her.

“My glasses,” he said.

“What did you do to keep her alive today?” she said.

“I worked,” he said.

“Right,” she said. “Because you are the only functional fucking person who lives here.”

She was mixing a bottle, which was part of her frustration. Her milk supply dropped around this time of night and she’d started giving the baby a bottle to get her to sleep longer, and, while he understood vaguely that she saw this as a failure, it scared him a little, how violently this frustration seemed to manifest itself each time she got up to mix the bottle in the middle of the night. How she seemed angry, even, each time she passed the round tub of formula that sat on the kitchen counter. He’d offered to do it instead, to let this be his feeding, but she’d said that was ridiculous that she couldn’t sleep when the baby wasn’t sleeping, that she still liked to hold her against her as she took the bottle, that if she wasn’t getting milk from her breasts, she would at least still get the skin to skin, her smell. He also had skin, but he did not remind her of this. He was afraid of his wife most of the time was the obvious truth of their lives now and when she said things, he mostly did his best to nod and go along.

***

Feeling better? The boob girl texted the next night while he was on the subway.

A little, he said. Rough night.

I know all about that, she said.

He laughed so loud that the woman sitting next to him looked at his phone’s screen maybe to see what he’d found so amusing. He imagined her, this girl he’d never seen beyond her green bra and her pale skin, out somewhere, drinking, dancing, thinking he might have been doing something like that too.

***

At work, he took a quiz, on Julie’s behalf, for postpartum depression and he (as her) got a one hundred percent. He googled what to do when your wife has postpartum depression and was told, no matter what he said, she’d think he was lying and feel bad. It said the longer you ignore it the longer it will take to fix; it said, he could still tell her that he loved her, could tell her he understood and would support her, though, it said, she’d probably also think this was bullshit.

***

That night, he went home early and he took the baby without talking and went to the diner and got her french fries and him chicken fingers and a six-pack of her favorite beer. He asked her very careful questions about what she’d seen on their walk that day and what the baby’d done, and, as long as the baby wasn’t nursing, he held her and made faces at her and they both looked, a little awed at what was theirs.

When he took the postpartum depression quiz again the next day he (as her) only got an 86.

***

The girl from Port St. Lucie started checking in with him once a day and he almost forgot who it was who was texting. He never pictured anyone when he got the messages, was just relieved that they still came. She’d ask how he was and he’d answer honestly and it felt good. My day was shitty, he’d say. I got yelled at again in the middle of the night. My boss called me a pussy. He worked at a private equity firm, almost all men. He knew vaguely that some of them had children, but they didn’t talk about them or seem to contribute much to their raising beyond the finances and he told her some of this. How strange it was to imagine they were also fathers. They also went home to wives and children, but somehow their versions of those words were wholly separate from his.

Port St. Lucie was in Florida, which was far from New York and there was no threat of having to run into her or to talk to her. It felt oddly more intimate than most things, telling her each day via text how his day had been. Talking about the baby, about work. At home, he took the baby when he got there; he tried to, but sometimes this also made Julie mad.

“You don’t trust me with her,” she said. “You think I’m negligent.”

He did not think this, but he did worry. She seemed so angry. He wondered what it was for the baby to be around her all day when she felt like that.

“I think you’re perfect,” he said to her. Which was the only thing he felt safe saying, though also, his wife was too smart to believe in stupid words like that.

“Jesus, Andrew,” she said.

He took the baby from her and wrapped her in the carrier.

“I’ll take her for a walk.”

My wife hates me, he texted from a bench in the park with the baby snoring and snuffling on his chest. I think parenthood has made her go insane.

Doesn’t that always happen? she said, as soon as he sent it. Like she’d just been sitting there, waiting for him to say something, waiting to hear again how he was.

I guess? he said. I didn’t think she’d be so angry all the time.

What was she like before? she texted.

I don’t remember, he said.

LOL, she said.

Funny? he said. She was funny, she was scary smart.

He typed a bunch of other things but then deleted them. She was, he typed but didn’t send to anyone, my favorite person in the world.

***

They’d fought before the baby. She yelled sometimes. She got angry also. She sat in the bathroom and she cried and called him names. But they always made up quickly. They went out and they ate and drank too much and she held her face close to his and laughed and talked and they went home and had sex standing up or on the couch or with her up on the kitchen counter his hands firm on her ass.

***

What’s your name? she texted the next night when he was on the subway.

Andrew, he said. You?

Sonia, she said.

Nice, he said.

So’s Andrew.

***

“I think I need to go back to work,” Julie said when he got home and took the baby and started to make them dinner.

“Okay,” he said. “When?”

“You think now’s too soon.”

“I think whenever’s fine.”

She watched him.

“Should we look for a nanny?”

“You mean should I?”

“I have…” he started. “I mean we could?”

“You never had a babysitter.”

“Of course I did.”

“Your mother was home with you.”

“We still had babysitters.”

“You hate this idea.”

“I think whatever you want is fine.”

“You think a nanny would be preferable to me.”

“I think you being happy is what’s best for her.”

“And you don’t think I get joy from her.”

“I think we could all use a break.”

***

Where do you live? asked Sonia.

New York, he said.

How old are you?

39.

I’m 26.

Young.

It doesn’t feel that way.

You’re in Florida?

New Jersey.

I thought you were in Florida.

I was visiting.

Okay.

You sleeping more this week?

Maybe?

***

“I’m sorry,” Julie said. The baby was in the swing again and she rolled herself toward him.

“Me too,” he said.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“You’re tired.”

“I just don’t know how to be good at this.”

“You are,” he said. “You’re wonderful with her.”

She rolled over and he thought maybe she was crying, but also that he didn’t know what else to say; he was too afraid of whatever small line had been built between them; he didn’t reach for her, worried it might break.

I come into the city sometimes, texted Sonia.

Cool, he said. Where?

Downtown, she said.

He laughed. Of course, he texted. I love downtown.

He was pretty sure she lived with her parents, a mother and a stepfather. She hadn’t said it outright, but she’d let slip too often things her parents said. They didn’t seem that nice. There was no mention of a dad. He knew she’d finished college recently. That she’d been on the “eight-year plan” as she called it and was now working part-time as an administrative assistant for the dentist she’d gone to as a child.

***

Why do you keep talking to me? he said. He was late again. He’d stayed late though he didn’t need to. He’d sat at work looking at pictures of Julie and the baby on his phone.

I like strangers, she said.

Is that a thing? he said. What does that mean?

He didn’t want to think the worst of her. He thought she maybe was not the type of girl he would ever have met or talked to in his real life. Port St. Lucie was the town further from the ocean than the town that he grew up in, the worse public schools, cheaper real estate, the place he went for coke a couple of times on trips home from college with his stoner friends who’d never left. Julie had told him, one of the nights he was awake while she fed the baby and she was telling him about all the terrible things that could happen to the baby that she’d read about on her phone while she was taking care of her, that there was this illness in which children were too nice, hyper nice, and it got them in trouble, turned people off and made it hard for them to make friends; they got anxious and depressed like nearly every version of their child fifteen to twenty years from now that Julie read about each day.

I read this thing online about how this girl was always afraid, Sonia said. Like she was always scared when she walked to her car at night, or left her office, or whatever. She said that was what being a woman is, to always be afraid like that.

He’d never seen blocks of text from her like this: big and blue and jarring somehow; somehow also comforting.

The idea was a woman alone is always an afraid thing, that that’s what we all are, secretly. It got like a billion likes on Facebook and whatever. But I felt so sure that she was wrong, or that she was wrong for me at least.

I’ve been hurt before, she texted.

She texted only this in its own bubble and he thought maybe he should say something quick and pithy to this, apologize to her, on behalf of whoever or whatever had hurt her. But the bubbles kept bubbling below this and he waited for her to finish, thinking, this is what listening is when it’s like this.

I’ve been hurt by strangers and I’ve been hurt by people who were supposed to love me and I can say I’ve always found the people that I knew, the ones I needed from, to be a much greater threat.

He considered sending an emoji, scrolled through ten pages of tiny animated pictures, but there obviously was not one that felt right.

I’m sorry, he texted back. I really am.

“She’s really wet,” he said, taking his coat off and picking up the baby, who was crying. He was tired and shouldn’t have said it. She’d been up the whole night before and neither of them had slept. He took the baby to the changing table. He unstrapped the heavy diaper and wiped her carefully, wincing at the patches of red skin between her legs’ folds; he wiped coconut oil on her and put on a fresh diaper, not looking at Julie the whole time.

“You think I let her sit in shit all day?”

She was standing close to him and he picked the baby up to take her for a walk.

“I just think she’s wet.”

“You think I’m awful at this.”

“I don’t Julie. Stop.”

“Fuck you, Andrew. You stop.”

***

Would you ever want to meet up? she said.

It had been three months of texting. The baby was crawling. Julie hadn’t gotten a job although he wasn’t sure she’d looked for one and was too afraid to ask her if she had. She was weaning the baby because she thought it would make her feel less crazy, but it had seemed to have the opposite effect.

I’m married, he said.

I know, she said. To talk.

He’d never cheated on anybody. He’d never even understood the point. One woman was enough work. He’d loved Julie almost his whole grown up life. He didn’t have that many friends and the friends he did have didn’t have kids. When he talked to them now it was over some massive gulf of their still sleeping and eating and fucking their wives like normal people They seemed mostly not to want to have to hear about what was actually happening at his house, just in case they wanted one day to have kids.

I guess, he said.

***

At work, he’d stayed late again and the office was empty. He went into the single-occupancy bathroom stall and double locked the door. He used his phone in case someone in IT was tracking what they searched on the work computers. He sat with his pants around his ankles on the toilet’s lid and googled boobs in a green bra and got a thousand hits and jerked off to a single image of the ones that looked least fake.

***

“I love you, Julie,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

She was nursing the baby, having given up on weaning. Her supply had dropped though in the meantime and the baby was fussing at her breast and she started to cry.

“What the fuck,” she said. “Is wrong with me.”

“I could make a bottle,” he said.

“Of course you could,” she said.

***

Waverley Place, he told her. Take the F train to West Fourth Street. He sent her a link to the coffee shop.

She was so normal looking he almost cried. Her jeans were too tight and she had too much makeup on her eyes. She was so young looking he realized he hadn’t known what 26 meant until he saw it up close, until it sat down and said his name.

“Sonia?” he said.

“Andrew,” she said. “Hi.”

He thought about how old he must look to her. When Julie was twenty-six and he was thirty they got married. It had felt almost like a joke then. No one they knew was married. They were New Yorkers. She went to art school. It felt like a lark, somehow made up; this weird extravagant party they’d thrown for all their friends. She’d worn a short blue dress and they’d walked over the bridge to the courthouse and back to Brooklyn, Julie in flat shoes so they could walk. They’d stayed up on one of her rich friends’ roof and watched the sun come up sharing a joint. It felt like moving impulsively to New Zealand, getting a back tattoo of one another’s picture, a strange specific gesture that belonged only to them.

Now, everyone they knew was married. Now they all talked too much about when and whether they’d have kids. He and Julie had been first to that as well, and it had felt equally like a sort of uncharted adventure that they’d go out for in advance of everyone around them. They’d thought themselves the most equipped. He’d had an okay childhood. She used to rub his back, up by his shoulders, down the middle, with this certain, easy care, while he pretended he was sleeping and he’d always wanted to have kids with her.

***

When he gets home Julie’s asleep and the baby’s in the swing again but she’s awake, staring at the mobile hanging over her, bobbing her head back and forth as the swing swings.

“Hey you,” he says.

He picks her up and she grabs at his glasses laughing and he takes her to the other room so Julie won’t wake up.

He thinks of Sonia, on one train then another, listening to the music she told him she listened to in one of their text chains but that he’s never heard of and never looked up. He hopes, whenever she gets home, wherever home is, she’ll be okay.

He lifts the baby up and holds her in front of him. He smiles at her, blows his cheeks out and she presses her hands on his face and he blows out and she laughs. She starts to fuss and he makes her a bottle in the kitchen and nestles her into his chest as she eats and falls asleep and he lifts her so her face rests heavy on his shoulder and he brings her back into the room with Julie and lays down slowly right beside her and watches both of them.

***

Sonia was nervous and they hadn’t talked about much. She’d asked about the baby and he’d told her and then his face felt hot and he wanted to go home. She kept touching her face and hair, holding a hand over her mouth whenever she tried to talk with bits of blueberry muffin in her mouth and he’d wanted to reach up and hold her wrist and tell her to please stop.

He’d thought maybe, oddly, he’d start crying. He kept thinking she was a child. He would never have thought that 26 years old was still a child, but the girl in front of him seemed so far from formed. He’d wanted to pick her up and make sure she got home safely, to call her parents so she didn’t have to go back home alone. He wanted to stand up and leave and go back home to his wife and say nothing, to hold the baby for her, to let her go to sleep.

***

He thinks, lying with them, his wife and daughter, that he understands for the first time how precarious most of living is. How small choices are just as big as big ones, how big ones are just as small; how he could have so much and have nothing and how close to one another those two feelings are.

He finally understands how very scared he is.