She watched his head come over the edge. He hauled his legs over the plastic lip of the wall and jumped on the landing with pride. She couldn’t remember when he had gotten so big, how he could now climb up the mini rock wall on the playground all by himself. When she thought of him, she could still feel his small head against her chest in the middle of the night, her tears falling on his cheeks as she begged him to sleep. She could see the glow of the television that she left on for company in the darkest hours when it was only him and her, the never-ending images of Netflix streaming continuously, her eyes scratchy with the need for sleep. She could remember feeling stranded like she had lost something that she couldn’t quite place.
All her friends with kids had seemed to balance it so well. They had seemed so happy, so prepared, so perfectly adjusted to this strange new way of life. They never had spit up stains across their shoulders or running down their backs like strings of beads. Her eyes had looked so vacant and hollow compared to theirs – bright and excited, gushing about the baby toes, the smiles, the sweet alone time at night. All she had wanted was sleep, to find a hotel with blackout curtains and sleep for days and days until her muscles turned to jelly, and all her milk dried up, and the fog across her brain lifted. She couldn’t even remember when he had said his first word, when he had started walking, what time he was born. It had all felt like sand falling through her fingers, through the cracks in their floorboards onto the stray cats who snuck under there for warmth.
Every day had been like wading through water that got deeper and deeper until she was so far out she couldn’t remember which direction she had come from. When her husband would get home at night, she would pass off their son, run to the bedroom, and breathe like she was coming up for air for the first time the whole day, gasping and holding onto their headboard for support. Every morning when he left again, her stomach would drop, flood with nausea. She would send him off with tears streaming down her cheeks while their son cried in her arms. Her husband would kiss her forehead, squeeze their son’s feet, and shut the door behind him. It took all her strength not to call him the moment he turned the car on, beg him to come back in and rescue her. Somehow, the two of them had made it through his first year, and here he was running, and climbing, and moving through life at top speed without needing her. He was so little, but already so big, so ready to stand in front of the world and let it know he was there. He waved to her as he sped down the slide, freefalling across the slippery brown plastic, hair blowing backwards in the wind.
They started coming to this park when he was two. He would only play in the swing, sit in it for hours, grasp the front of it with his fingers, and throw his head back while she pushed him. He wouldn’t move until she pried him out, wedging him from the plastic bucket seat with all her strength. He would kick and buck; he never wanted to go home. He always wanted to be doing, to be moving. It was hard to believe that she was responsible for him, responsible for teaching him how to separate his laundry, how to be a friend, how to navigate this messy world. It felt like someone had made a mistake, chosen the wrong person; she was ill equipped for the job. Every day felt like a battle ground or test center, each of them just trying to figure the other one out. He would shout at her, and she would shout back, and they would both be so angry that their hands would shake. It amazed her how easily she snapped. He would push and push until she couldn’t take it. She would start counting down the hours until bedtime, when she could pour a glass of wine and let it loosen her rigid muscles.
She watched as he took off at full speed across the field next to the playground. His arms and legs pumped up and down until his whole body was absorbed by motion. His abandon made her wish she was still a kid – trusting and all in. He ran to the very edge, where the grass met the street and the heat beat off the pavement in sheets. Then, he turned around and took a runner’s lunge, fingertips to the ground, like he was waiting for a shotgun to go off before he sprinted back towards the picnic table where she sat in the shade. His chest heaved up and down under his shirt, and when he reached her, he placed his hands on his knees and grinned. “I’m fast mommy!” He shouted. She nodded her head in agreement – it was all too fast.