Jasper pushed a kid at the park today. I stood far enough away to watch the kid stumble back, tangle himself in his own feet, and then fall to the ground. Nothing about the push surprised me and I have no reason to tell you except that this was a moment we anticipated together and now it’s over.

I can’t give you any other details because I stared too long at the kids swinging from the new metal climbing web. The web is our excitement and what we’ve waited for. Thousands were raised to hire one of Seattle’s premier architects, who then charged a couple thousand more to draft our dream dome of multi-colored bars and unsteady drawbridges and one twisty slide that drops straight down the middle. If you’re trying to picture this, don’t. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece I’ll never understand, but the web will leave the kids worn and hungry and ready for bed. And what more can we want? If you were still here, you’d deliver the long list of what I once wanted, so for just this moment I’m glad you’re gone.

“No push,” I screamed, as soon as I could. I did. “Jasper, we don’t push.”

The other kid stayed face down in the dirt; his kid fists pounded the grass. Jasper stood over the kid and then tilted his head and clapped.

“He’s yours isn’t he?” a woman next to me asked.

“Not the crying one.”

“No,” she said. “The crying one’s mine.”

“Sorry,” I said. “He didn’t mean it.”

“How old is he?” she asked.

“Almost two.”

“He’s big for almost two. Is he verbal?”

“Of course,” I say. “Sort of.”

“They say the best thing to do in this situation is to help the children talk it out.”

“Right,” I say.

The other mother told me her name was Amy and her crying, now dirty, son was Paul.

“Dana,” I said. “And I’ve got Jasper.”

“Love that name,” she said. “I thought I’d never get pregnant, so we named our cat Jasper.”

I appreciated her honesty. I sensed she was open. I wanted a friend.

“We’re going to get them to talk it out,” Amy said and for a second I forgot what had brought us together. Amy pointed down at Jasper. “They’re going to learn to coexist.”

Paul had taken a stick and drawn a line that he refused to let anyone cross over. He held up his hand and we stopped. Amy bent down, but she was nowhere close to Paul’s eyes.

“Paul,” she said. “Can you tell us what happened?”

“Jasper.” I took her lead. “Jasper,” I said again.

“Mama,” he said.

“Jasper,” I said. “Did you push Paul?”

“No.”

“We’ll have to move it along for them,” Amy said. “Paul, why did Jasper push you?”

“He didn’t push me.”

“He’s embarrassed,” Amy whispered. “Wouldn’t you be?”

“Yes,” I said, then realized I was expected to lie. “Probably.”

Last month, one of our friends (I won’t say who) told me she thought I didn’t have the makings to be a mother. She’s recently upped her intake of a pill I can’t pronounce and she’s always been a bitch, but how could I not take this personally? How could I not count my missteps?

In the early months of pregnancy, you saw me strong; you saw me transform. Together we watched my body grow, more naturally than either of us could’ve imagined. Often I relive the minutes we’d spend in front of the mirror each day, you leading my fingers to outline new curves.

“You look great,” you had to remind me. “I’d dare to say the best.”

So I still like to pretend motherhood looks different on me.

I lie to Jasper too. When I share the story of his birth, I say you and I held him for hours and then I think of new dramatic words to describe how the three of us became one. But now that I’m being honest, I’ll say that when you took him in your arms for the first time I’d never felt a quicker exchange. He was gone from me and onto you. You pushed him into your skin and kissed his cheek and for a second he was yours. I mean really yours.

“You made the perfect baby,” you said. “I’d never compete with that.”

You winked. It stung me behind the knees. And I might’ve shown you some tears.

But that’s when I started counting our days.

That’s when the photographer the hospital hires to take pictures of all the new babies stopped by our room. When she saw you holding Jasper she put down her camera and scribbled the name of her website on a stained napkin and offered to do her duty by including us in her three-page spread of local queer families. Something like “We’re here and queer and we’re just like you except we’re still quite different too.” It was then that you reached across to so tenderly tighten Jasper’s swaddle without waking him; from the beginning you thought he was too cold.

The photographer blew into her steaming coffee and said we screamed “perfect family” and better yet, “family with edge, family for the era.” We never called her and now I’m grateful that we don’t have a recording of what we were then, because we must’ve been magnificent.

***

I should’ve recognized the signs—the many nights Jasper served as a buffer in the middle of our bed, how we learned to inch farther away from each other and fall asleep before a goodnight kiss. Neither of us could’ve known how quickly vomit and crusted breast milk and unwashed skin would’ve made us withdraw. Now I think we should’ve just closed our eyes and pushed forward, but we elicited the great sex of our youth instead, all the bodies we had before we had each other.

“Did you see how unhappy they looked tonight?” you’d often say after a night spent with other couples. “At least it’s not just us.”

During one of our last dinners, right after Jasper learned to love music, I put our favorite playlist on repeat and you ripped Jasper from under his mountain of stuffed animals and blocks to spin him a few times. Then you extended your arm and his to step like a couple in full swing. Still singing, I joined you from behind and the three of us moved together in a scene we’d seen before, in other people’s images, until you said you couldn’t fake it and we stopped.

I’d slept in that morning and you’d made me pay by taking Jasper without telling me. You silenced three of my calls. And when you came through the front door an hour later with four bags of groceries in your hands and a grinning, red-cheeked baby strapped to your chest you said, “See, your family always comes back to you,” as if to say, “I’m really fucking trying.”

If you were here, you’d say I sculpted these memories from loneliness; you’d say these aren’t the thoughts for someone you hate. But this is all I have to describe what happened to us: we thought we were immune when we weren’t. We thought our clocked hours would stand for something more than time spent and that we’d be . . . okay.

During our family dance, you must’ve felt my breath hit the side of your face and then my hand brush against yours. It was not something I meant to do. I pulled away before you noticed that I couldn’t even hold your hand.

***

Jasper doesn’t know apologies yet. So this morning when he took off running, away from me and Amy and Paul, I didn’t stop him. Soon he had a few other kids chasing him. They made it look easy for Amy, this being a kid: they all cheered and stopped and cheered and ran. Paul pushed the dirt into small mounds and then collapsed them with his feet.

“Maybe we can try to get them to just play together first,” I offered to Amy. She was in the dirt too, making mounds of her own.

“That’s a good idea,” she said. She stared into her cupped hands. “What’s a safe space?”

“Safe space” is the phrase of the month at the park. “Safe space” is what we’re now supposed to shout when we see bullying in action. We have yet to find out what, exactly, constitutes the bullying and when we need to yell twice as loud, but most of the mothers agreed we’d know when we saw it because we wouldn’t be able to help ourselves – we’d feel it from below.

When Jasper pushed Paul I didn’t yell “safe space.” I didn’t feel anything. I wanted to leave right then. We’ve left the park twice before and stayed away for weeks.

The first time was right after the crash. You must’ve heard about the crash. That day, with the numbers rising and the sun far from setting, we were all too afraid to leave the park. One by one we reached for our phones until we all learned the bus carrying two classes of children had overturned on the way to the Science Center. By the time we heard the news, I refused to picture dead children. I thought about the chaperones, the teachers, the driver, the random guys who cursed themselves for getting on the bus with a bunch of screaming kids. And what I thought right after this was not about the obliterated parents who would have to go on living, but of you, and that if anything could bring you back it would be this.

Another mother who had never spoken before suggested we drink. When nobody could muster up a response, she went across the street to the gas station and returned with a case of beer. We pulled our sleeves over our hands so we couldn’t fully feel the cold of the can and we shared with the transients who were always kind and usually kept their distance.

“Thank you,” one said when I popped open the beer for him.

He looked at me and I looked at him and we held this silent exchange as we took down our beers, one that stated neither of us had ever tasted anything quite as good.

“You’re here a lot,” I said when I could no longer take the quiet. “Tell me your name.”

“No,” he said.

“Please,” I said.

“You don’t really want to know me.”

***

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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