You walk your kid to the beach, alone, although it’s Sunday, and for the last six weeks or so, Sundays have kinda been your thing– the four of you– your son, three and a half, plopped all gangly-legged, blue eyes glowing in the summer sunlight like freaky marble orbs, into the jogging stroller with its tray sticky from last week’s ice cream, despite the hose-down you gave it; his daughter in tow, five and a half, in her pink, heart-shaped sunglasses, her hipster bikini printed with wall-eyed kittens, her face wearing its perpetually curious expression, brows sloping down in their pitch-perfect imitation of her fathers’: she counts the white stripes of the crosswalk as we trudge along in the heat;
but that was last week, or the week before, or any other sunny Sunday when the two of you were off, together. This week, storm clouds gather on the horizon all morning, so all morning, you fart around– walk on the boardwalk with your perpetually-in-motion mother, who seems, these days, to want to spend her time proving at least one law of physics is #thetroof: she cannot sit still, and even in the lack of sitting still, questions whether she should be moving somewhere else, or moving more, the two of you plop your kid back into the aforementioned jogging stroller, head for the boardwalk to exercise, and you’re not two blocks out, barely over the rickety drawbridge that separates your part of the island– a little funky, a little low-rent– from The Island: St. Leonard’s Tract, Atlantic Avenue, Margate with its clusters of high end boutiques; you live in, have always lived in, “The Heights,” an ironically titled place, since it’s the lowest stretch of local land, and was more or less taken out by Hurricane Sandy– so you trudge over the drawbridge, and silently note the flood tide in the bay, how good it would feel to dive beneath the water and swim for a long, slow length of indeterminate time; writing this, now, you stare at the swiftly running clock, recall you have no long, slow lengths of indeterminate time, recall how only those fantasies feel stretched out and slow, indeterminate: you sink beneath the heat of the day, the salt water is cool and coarse, and the light buoys you up to the top where you begin to swim in long, sleek strokes to no place in particular, delightfully alone, but the reality is your mother, talking over the public bus that roars past you on the drawbridge, so heavy it practically bounces the linked wood planks you’re pushing your son over, and your mother is complaining that you need to pick it up, then cautioning you about the storm clouds, how we’re about to get wallopped,maybe we should turn back–
and on the way home, still dry, clouds receding, you run into his father, with whom he and his daughter, much like you and your son, live– his father, always on a bike, awkward, chatty, says too much, complains about his son in the way you know your parents complain about you– difficult, edgy, lazy, a pain in the ass, tough, temperamental, the long and varied list of shit you’ve been playing in your brain like a looped sample since you can remember being conscious that you were anyone at all– we’re rounding the corner onto our little street when you see him, and sure enough, he stops you, with a faint gleam of nastiness in his eyes– Go get my son up, will you, and moving, and out of my house, Jesus Christ– and rides away as your mother looks the other way and smiles, awkwardly, which you interpret to mean she’s not surprised he sleeps so late on a Sunday, and with a daughter at home, I mean, look at him, I mean, really, Em, did you think this was going somewhere? Oh, the fantasies you play out for your poor mother’s brain, your poor father’s– nothing slow and indeterminate about those: they can hack you down in no time at all–
For months after he moved in, you didn’t speak to him, but you wanted to, and you knew he wanted to speak to you, too, although he is supposed to have had a girlfriend, then, a six-foot skinny blond, but you have no memories of ever seeing a six-foot skinny blond hanging around, and Christ knows you’d have noticed, especially after you finally called it forever quits with your lame-ass on-again-off-again-perpetual-ex-boyfriend with whom you’d been fucking around for the better part of– literally, now– two decades. Even as you write this down, it seems impossible, but there it is– nearly fifteen years of dating the same non-committal dickhead, with a brief stopover to marriage to a gay man, and a wild love affair with a sociopath that resulted in your beautiful son, in between. Shit, girl, you’ve been through it, he said to you, once, the morning after you told him you loved him, your face buried in his chest, arms and legs smushed and tangled together on your parents’ chaise lounge, the babies asleep in your respective houses, their windows facing one another– I didn’t meant to, you say, it just happened– but he shuts you up with kisses, as he’s been doing now for months. He loves you, too. You can tell. And you didn’t mean to, tried, in fact, to safeguard yourself against it, knowing all the while it was impossible, having fallen in love with the way he spoke, and moved around, the long, lean muscles of his legs rippling with artfully colored tattoos as the two of you climbed the jungle gym with your kids and he made some under-the-breath off-color remark about how he caught a glimpse of your panties, and then vaulted off and chased after his squealing daughter, your squealing son– you tell yourself repeatedly this could be disastrous, this could hurt really, really bad, that it should disturb you how easily the four of you seem to fit into a little, lovely, funky family, but the only disturbing thing about it is how not disturbing it is, how it just falls into place– mid-summer, you’re housesitting for a friend, finally alone, the kids on the floor with juice boxes, watching Ghostbusters II, the two of you tucked into one another, your head against his chest, and it’s not fifteen minutes in before you look at him and say, Being here with you and the kids gives me feelings–
(this is one of his jokes– You should watch that movie, but it might give you feelings)
I know, he says back, me too– later that week he stands at the window in the early morning, before the kids are awake, without his clothes on, and you are actually astounded at the tenderness you feel for his body, with its art and its scars, his olive skin, his lean, tapering fingers– there is something happening inside of you that feels like it’s slowly splitting you in two– does your heart have to break to fall in love? Is that the only way it can learn to be big enough to topple the colossal wall of shit you build around yourself to get through each day? You recall him telling you, as the four of you walked along the Atlantic City boardwalk, that when he was 15, he worked as a human target for a paintball company on Steel Pier, how this led, almost by accident, to him telling you about living on the street for a month, or was it two, 15-years old, his family falling apart, having nowhere to go, sleeping in soccer fields, on the monument bench, frozen in the wet salt air of March, and you want a time machine, just for a moment, a ripple in the air’s continuum, so you can save him, even if he saved himself, so you can love him hard enough to make up for all the people who failed him, hold his head in your lap and stroke his hair, throw him in the front seat of your car and drive him to some, to any, warm place where you can love him for an indeterminate length of time–
You get home from your Sunday walk with mom. You wander over to his house, and yell up to his window. You can see his face through the screen– he’s shirtless. If you knew it was the only glimpse of him you’d get all day, you would likely have said something flirty and saucy, or yelled how you loved him like some sort of gender-flipped Jersey girl Romeo, begging him to come down and kiss your sunburned, sweaty face. But you’re annoyed that he gets to sleep in, annoyed that his dad said some shit in front of your mom that made him seem lazy, when you know he’s not, when you know he does everything he does because his heart, too, is bursting with love for his daughter. You’re tired of people in your life refusing to see what is so clear to you. The colossal wall of shit has added another row of flinty bricks this morning. Get up, you yell, it’s too late to be in bed.
I’m not in bed, he says, quietly, and you can tell he’s annoyed, and maybe hurt. You lay another brick on. You’re annoyed, too. You’re tired. Maybe you need a break, and don’t know it. Maybe you’re terrified. Oh, how it would hurt to lose him, to lose his lovely daughter who your heart already loves, to lose the goofy way your son lisps his name, to lose the way he covertly grabs your ass every chance he gets, and makes you feel happy and comfortable eating French fries and ice cream, the way you get to lay back against him and smoke one delicious cigarette when your son is tucked safely into bed, the way he just makes you laugh, everyday, all the time, the sheer impossibility of staying mad at him for even five minutes–
Whatever, you say, and walk away, alone. Which is how you’ll stay for the rest of the day, walking over the bridge, the tide going out now, the sun beating down, feeling wholly like this is a perfect summer day, when someone might fall in love, or be attacked in the breakers by a hungry shark.