I thought nothing would bring us back after the crash, but the Fall Festival did. By then it was October and we could count the remaining sunny days on one hand. The mothers hired a clown with a karaoke machine to perform. Jiggles had been known for his face painting and balloon animals and when every face had whiskers and each kid carried a twisted latex poodle, Jiggles sent them all away and wiped off his white face paint and red mouth and turned up the music. It was supposed to be a way for all of us to let loose and even without alcohol most of us could. Jiggles had a songbook of over 2,000 songs and as the other mothers sang Madonna and Michael Jackson and Queen he kept quiet against the tree; he wouldn’t remove his nose and big shoes.

Husbands came out of hiding to play air guitar and sing the pop songs of hot teenage girls. At first they were awkward, but then they were attractive in a way you could never be because you hate karaoke. And if you ask me, the goofy husbands serenading their then adoring wives made me feel more single than I’d ever felt before. Ask me. I couldn’t bring myself to sing, not even with a clown. I slumped in the sandbox while Jasper slept in his stroller and I waited for music to hit me.

“No babies at the tea party,” a small girl across from me said.

She and her messier friend had filled all the plastic pails with sand and there were noticeable holes around where we sat.

“He won’t bother you,” I said. “I promise.”

“Maybe you can turn him away a little?” the girl said.

I did. I felt something for her. Maybe her mom was one of the ones dancing on the top of the monkey bars, swinging her hips to the Spice Girls. I asked the girls if I could make castles with the pails and the messy one gave me the go ahead. I liked her immediately.

“We can put a stick in the sand mountains,” the messy one said. “It can be my cake.”

“We can pretend it’s your birthday,” the other girl said.

“But it is my birthday.”

“Then how do we play pretend?” the non-birthday girl said. “I know,” she said before her friend could answer. “We can just pretend it’s my birthday. And you can make me the cake.”

“That doesn’t seem fair,” I said.

“Forget birthdays,” the non-birthday girl said. “Now we’re in a volcano. See the lava coming for us? We have to save all the creatures! But you can’t save her!” Mean girl pointed at me.

Real birthday girl shrugged.

“Here,” I said. “How about this?” I opened my water bottle and dumped all that was left onto their sandcastle/birthday cake/erupting volcano.

“Hey!”

Then I sang, “Happy-birthday-to-you. Happy birthday to you.” First really fast, then slow, then loud, then a whisper, just like we practiced every week in Jasper’s music class. I sang until Jasper woke up and screamed and the mean girl covered her ears and ran.

“Thank you,” the messy, birthday girl said. “I don’t like my birthday today. I don’t like Saturdays. If we were in school, there would be cookies.”

***

“Let’s go to the sandbox,” I said to Amy. “That’s Jasper’s favorite.”

“Paul likes it there too,” she said. “It’s quiet.”

“Then it’s meant to be.”

“We’ve had Paul tested,” Amy said. “There’s nothing wrong with him.”

Amy dragged Paul to the sandbox and I carried Jasper and we plopped them both in the middle of the sand as if we expected them to stay. Someone had left behind a small shovel and that’s where we started, by forcing the boys to pass the shovel back and forth, by learning to share.

“I hate this,” Paul said.

“Me too,” Amy said. “But we just hate this moment, remember? We don’t hate this altogether. We don’t hate that big.”

Sometimes I think of how we must appear to passersby outside this world. Once every few weeks, a pair of twenty-something girlfriends will veer off their jogging path to gauge if this is what they really want. I have yet to meet them between the trail and the start of the playground. “We don’t need you here,” I’ll say to them when I’m finally bold enough to step close. They only ever stay long enough to stretch their arms and backs and reach down to their toes. They get a perfect view from where they stand.

Jasper handed the shovel to Paul when he needed to. He laughed. He knew the rules.

The day you left, I began flirting with the nannies. All of them. Come to the park and you’ll see that not one of them is ugly. I wasn’t sure of what I wanted with the nannies, but there was one I would imagine even before you left, a girl no older than twenty. And oh, all the things I could show her, especially if she was straight. What a cliché I had become, like a man, with a need to feel wanted and weightless, as if my words and my hand on her shoulder would get her to follow me to the bathroom and spread her legs across the bars in the handicapped stall.

“Um,” she said as soon as I touched her. “Um.”

I wasn’t even that close. “Right,” I said. “I know.”

“I mean, I’ve done this before,” she said. “But sorry.”

Jasper had had a friend. Ingrid. She was like the little girl we used to dream for ourselves, with blonde pigtails and round, toddler belly.

“Bye-bye, Jasper,” she said as her nanny pushed her away.

That’s when I taught Jasper “bye park” for the second time and that’s when the crying began – my crying – at the grocery store, at the gym, at Baby Play while the kids pushed plastic balls down a padded slide, because all the space you gave me turned out to be emptiness.

During one sharing circle, a mother handed me a baby wipe from the back pocket of her jeans and said, “Well what did you expect would happen? No, really?”

We ditched Baby Play two weeks ago and now we’re back at the park for a final shot, because each of us can cry freely here, in open air.

“It was really nice meeting you,” I said to Amy and I made sure I looked at Paul too.

“You’re going?”

“We have to,” I said.

“Bye,” Paul said.

“Five more minutes,” Amy said. “I feel a breakthrough brewing.”

“We can play again,” I offered. “Maybe on Friday?”

“Do you ever feel that you need just one thing to give?” Amy asks. “Just that one thing to go right to make the day worth bearing? If I can leave the park knowing Paul is okay, then –” but that’s when she stopped herself.

“Then what?” Then what?

***

Jasper still likes to look for you in the morning; he runs from his room to mine and calls out your name. You are a game now – Where is Mommy Hiding? Then it’s time for breakfast and his shouting stops. He’s learning to prioritize needs over wants.

In another time I would’ve felt the need to write my phone number on Amy’s hand. I would’ve wanted to meet her that same night and drink well into the morning. After today we might wave from behind the windows of the new metal web, but that’s as far as we’ll take it.

For a final goodbye, I gave Amy something like a hug; my arm crossed her shoulder and the rest of my body pressed against her right side. Whatever it was, I didn’t let it linger.

Before I go you might like to know that Jasper can fully handle a fork now, so well that all of the food ends up in his mouth. Once a week I take a cooking class. I prep a hot dinner for us every night. I move Jasper’s chair and he sits where you used to and we stare at one another from across the table. Jasper bangs on the table for more, more, more. I hand him more, more, more, until he accepts one of my offers, which is never the meal I prepared, but peanut butter and jelly or plain banana or cereal. I throw the hot food away; if Jasper eats peanut butter and jelly or plain banana or cereal, then I do too.

“Good?” I ask.

“Mmm,” he says. Then he smiles. He always smiles.

“What should we talk about tonight? Can I tell you about our day?”

When he doesn’t answer I recall our hours for him: the books we read and songs we sang; the birds spotted in the trees; the seventeen sticks he had to pick up on our way to the park; when I sang “Wheels on the Bus” for a record ten times in a row, and then an eleventh time when he asked for it again; the morning’s meltdowns – the throwing of the Cheerios and the banging on the wall, a minor slap to the face; the exploration of each crack in the sidewalk and blade of grass; the moment when Paul finally passed along the shovel and shared, much to his mother’s relief; how Jasper’s own handling of objects is gentler, now that he has more control.

Jasper nods. And I have to believe he’s listening, that he’ll continue to listen. And this is how we pass time. This is how we grow tired, every evening, together.

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