“Tom Ricktman’s bachelor party,” he says.

“Robin Lister’s Bat Mitzvah,” I say.

“My dad’s workshop when I was eleven. Do I win?”

“Oh man!” I snap my fingers in disappointment. “You do. Eleven?”

“Yeah, he beat the tar outta me when he found out, too.”

The way he says it is not funny.

I drink to break the quiet but the lull is too long, “Well sir, I ain’t afraid a nothin’. Not with this here liquid courage.”

“You are!” he announces. “You’re afraid of everything.”

I’m surprised at this. How does he know? I raise my eyebrows.

“Helene blabs when we canoodle,” he explains.

I am stung. Does she tell him my secrets?

“Don’t you have better things to do when you canoodle, like canoodling?” I ask.

“Don’t be mad. I’m sure I don’t know everything.”

“What am I afraid of? According to blabby, Helene.”

He smiles and ticks his fingers, “Dairy, car fires, getting a divorce, staying married, that you won’t amount to anything, Barney, bullies, clowns, a barista at the Starbucks on Kanan and that someone will hurt Eli.”

“I will,” I blurt. Two quick gulps of tequila have soaked my inhibitions—I’ve said it before I can think.

“What?” he says.

It’s the fear I never told, not even to Helene. The one I didn’t know myself, but really I did and it almost killed me. I want to tell. I want Danny to know me. I want him to react badly, maybe even be a jerk. I’m already drunk. I say it fast.

“When Eli was born, I got so depressed and I was afraid of everything and really, I was afraid that I couldn’t do it.”

I look at Danny. He nods for me to go on.

“It felt like I couldn’t be his Mom and I wanted to run,” I look away from him then back again. I can’t read him so I risk it.

“I hated every other mother I saw, because I thought she knew what she was doing. They were so fucking smug and really I was afraid that I couldn’t keep him alive and then I wanted out so bad. I was scared that I might hurt him. I was terrified that I’d hurt my child.” Shame and relief burn my cheeks. I watch him for so long, he gets blurry.

Some other person would have said something stupid. Another man would have looked awkwardly around and put an uncertain hand on my shoulder. If a woman were there she would have felt superior and hugged me. Danny does none of that. He does not look away. He has heard me. He may be judging but I can’t see it. I will the tears back.

“Demons,” he says finally and my longing ignites. I know this will happen if I let it. He smiles at me. A frat-boy grin, mischievous and wild.

“I seem the dark type, huh,” I say.

I want this but not the aftermath. I could love this man, so I say, “Helene.”

“Helene,” he repeats. He has been leaning in toward me.

“It was Helene. She saved me.”

He sits back. “Yeah,” he says, “I get that.”

He sips his drink and we are comfortably quiet for a long time.

After awkward good-nights, we go to our tents. I gently lift Eli’s head to my chest and sink into his smell of dried leaves and sage.
 

 

We eat breakfast—tiny sips of orange juice and Farmer John’s sausage, all that is left at the bottom of our cooler. The thought of a processed pork product would have turned my stomach a week ago, but in three short days I’ve become a camper. No chance for an epic love affair but at least I’ve found the great outdoors.
 

 

It is five hours to home in Danny’s huge truck. We are easy with each other, taking turns flipping stations on the radio. Country music for him, 80’s easy listening for me. The boys sing along when they know a song, although Tanner seems quieter than normal. Danny’s eyes move to him in the rearview mirror now and then.

“Ok, buddy?” Danny asks.

“Yes.” Tanner sounds like a grown man. He is so formal.

“I took lots of pictures of that fish,” I say turning to him from my front seat. “It was so huge.”

His eyes lift to mine for a moment, then drop. I catch Eli’s grin, gap-toothed and pleased. He blows a frizzy curl from his eye. That fish will carry him, like a tiny boat in the most gentle of waves, until his father hears the story.

Be kind to him. Listen without your fucking phone in your hand. Be so sorry you didn’t come. I close my eyes to seal this wish, and I smile at my love.

Tanner makes a small sound like a bird and vomits in the back seat.

“Ugh,” Danny says softly. “You’re sick?”

“I’m sorry,” Tanner cries through orange crud.

“No worries,” Danny says without irritation. “There’s a gas station, right up the road.”

A block later I hop out and open Tanner’s door.

Eli has his arm around Tanner’s shoulder and is holding his hand. My boy will likely catch Tanner’s bug and miss school, but I am so proud of this gesture, I forgive the freedom it may cost me.
 

 

“I got ‘ya,” Danny says.

“Linda,” Tanner says. He looks at his dad. “I want Linda.”

“You puked, buddy,” Danny says.

“I don’t mind,” I say lifting him out from his seat. “Stay here with Danny, Eli. We’ll be back in a sec.”

Tanner weeps in the filthy bathroom. I crouch, careful not to touch the floor with anything but the bottom of my shoes as I wipe pungent muck from Tanner’s clothes with damp paper towels.

“Good thing it’s warm out,” I say.

Tanner is wringing his hands. I’ve never noticed how nervous he can be.

“It’s not your fault, honey, we all get sick.”

“I know,” he sniffs. “I miss my Mom.”

“Me too,” I say.

I pull him to me. His blonde hair is so much softer than my own six-year-old’s. After three days of no bath, it’s like raw silk. I kiss his temple and he holds me tight. I make sure that he lets go first.

I look into his gigantic eyes. “You ok?’

He nods and almost smiles.

We head back to the truck hand in hand, and I try to skip a little to show how cool I am about this. I won’t cheat with Danny, but I want him to want me anyway.
 

 

Another hour and we pull into his driveway. Helene is already walking toward the car. I wave to her, but…maybe she doesn’t see me. Tanner is pulling at the door handle before the car has stopped. Once it does, the child lock releases and he is across their grand lawn. He flies into his Mother’s arms. The rest of us exit slowly, shaking our limbs from atrophy.

Helene’s face is in Tanner’s neck.

“Hey,” I call to her.

She lifts a hand but not her eyes. She stays in her son’s embrace.

Danny is standing a few feet away from them with his arms crossed.

“What’s up?” he asks her.

I grab my bag out of the back and touch Eli’s head. I pretend there is no tension. I walk to Helene. “It was great.” I touch Tanner’s hair and Helene pulls him away. A slight motion but she is upset.

“You okay?” I ask with my hand still in the air.

She shakes her head.

“Helene?”

She looks at me. “I’m sorry,” she says, “this is just…fucked up. I’m sorry.” She is crying. Helene has been my best friend for five years. These are the first tears I’ve seen from her. She turns with Tanner in her arms and walks quickly into the house.

“Helene,” I call but I know not to follow her. I’m paralyzed in their driveway.
 

 

“Let’s go, Mommy. I want to see Dad.” Eli pulls the back of my shirt. I look at Danny. He shakes his head.

I put my hand on Eli’s shoulder. “Say thank you to Danny.”

“I have to say bye to Tanner,” Eli says, running into the house.

Danny follows him while I stand in the driveway like I’ve been punched.

Eli comes out too quickly. “I can’t find ‘em. They must be in the bathroom,” he says.

“Let’s go,” I say. If not for Eli, I may still be standing there.
 

 

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