The Children’s Park
I spent a lot of time in Totland, and the details of the park are still clear to me, like the plum trees which weren’t supposed to bear fruit but did. When the plums dropped, they shriveled and lay just underneath the sand, indistinguishable from the cat shit that lay there too. This being California, the trees bloomed in February, and then the blossoms floated in the air like pink snowflakes. There was a little building in the corner of the park where they held art classes; the instructor had painted murals on its walls, and had laid tiles that the children had painted themselves. It’s a pretty place, Totland. It used to be that every thought of the park could catch me and pull me back to those tender years. But these memories seem to have hardened; they’ve lost the sweet pull of nostalgia, and now I remember the children’s park as if I were looking back on somebody else’s life.
During the many, many hours I spent there, I always wanted to meet somebody, to have a friend at the park. But when I finally found her, I didn’t recognize her as a friend — I didn’t even like her, at first. She had taken my favorite bench. She was not very attractive, and wore heavy, loose clothes. As I stood there, a few feet away from her, trying to decide on an alternate spot, she glanced up at me. I can’t remember if she smiled, but I do remember thinking that she wasn’t at peace, and moreover, that she didn’t want me to sit down next to her. This was an insult, so I took the seat right beside her. She adjusted her position, and had to pick her mug up off the bench to give me room. It was a ceramic mug, decorated with Degas ballerinas, but this woman had nothing to do with ballerinas. She was big boned; her features were hard, and clumsy.
The tension between us was potent, so I said something about the weather, and then she said something about the weather, and that’s as far as it would have gone, I think, except at that moment a woman appeared right in front of the bench, suddenly, like a puppet. I knew her, slightly; she was a fixture at the park, and always wore a hat, a kind of floppy bonnet, made out of linen or some other crushable material. For some reason this hat always irritated me. The woman under it had an inquisitive manner and bland features, and I wouldn’t have recognized her without the hat. She planted herself in front of my bench and said “You haven’t seen any strange men in here? Homeless?” When I shook my head she lifted her head in the air and actually sniffed, announcing, “It smells like semen.” When it was obvious that I wasn’t going to respond to her weird remark, she turned and left. For a moment I wondered if I’d heard correctly, but then the woman who sat beside me said “semen” and laughed, and we were friends. We began to talk, beginning, naturally, with our children. I pointed to my son; he was in the sandbox, digging. In those days he was energetically digging. I’ve never seen any being, before or since, as happy and intent as he, when he was digging.
“Mine? Art class,” she said, indicating but hardly glancing at the little building in the corner of the park. Then we talked for two hours, interrupted only by our children. Or at least, by mine. Her boy came out of his class only once, and she called to him. He looked up and waved, vaguely. He was a slight, blond boy — he didn’t look like his mother.
When I left the park that day I felt as if I’d said too much. That wasn’t a new sensation–often I would enter into conversations with other women that would make me feel like I’d gotten high, and when I come off of them, I would feel depleted, a little hungover. But when I went back to Totland I wanted her to be there, waiting for me, and so she was. We talked, and had so much fun that I began to wish I had found her before, because I knew I wouldn’t be coming to the park much longer. My son was getting too big and rough for Totland. These were the last days for me — because, although I’d been trying to get pregnant again, it wasn’t taking. We’d been working at it for a year, my husband and I. I would take my temperature, make my calculations, and then we would make appointments to fuck. My spirit hard, a harness, forcing the body to function, but the body always disappointed, and tears came every twenty-eighth day. Why was I so desperate? I wanted another child but, more than that, I wanted to continue being a mother. This is what I told my new friend, on our second day together. I told her that I wanted to stay in the park, because as dull as it was, as hard as it was sometimes to take care of a child, I didn’t want to do anything else. I wasn’t up to anything else. The world seemed too complicated, too hard-hearted, most of its business inconsequential to the real business of life, the blood, the breath, the sweet or disgusting smell of a child. And I’ve always loved being at home, I wanted to stay at home. When I spoke about this, I knew she agreed with me; I could hear the echo of my desires — I could almost hear notes ringing. (This must be what they mean when they say you’ve struck a chord.) We talked about it often; my desire for a second child. I cried one day; I couldn’t help it. “I’m being thrown out of paradise,” I said, and I actually used those words; they embarrass me now.
I remember her face, in profile, and her fleshy chin, the collar of her big coat as she said, “Yeah,” she said, “The world is a lonely place. People will fuck you over, out there. Having children is the only real thing… the only…”
“Well there’s the other side, you know,” I said, interrupting her, disturbed by the curse and the cliché. So I tried to change the tone of the conversation, laughing, “All the endless cleaning, the laundry, now we know what our sisters were complaining about — I mean our mothers — back in the…” I felt stupid, suddenly, and went on, unable to resist, “But it’s different for us, right? We made a choice. We’re… liberated.” Then I wanted to tell her my theory of God, how he hated women, and at the moment of their liberation had unleashed the dogs of unfettered capitalism, of mass destruction, of disintegration. We’d been promised so much — women’s liberation would turn the world into the garden, and everybody, men and women, into gardeners. But instead women had enlisted in the male army, to be captains and lieutenants of a dying world, leaving their less ambitious sisters behind to take care of the kids, in that backwater. I wanted to talk and talk, to make myself drunk with my ideas, but just then my son began to whack another child, and I had to go break it up. There it was: the other side, the terrible boredom of the children’s park; the intense, arrhythmic pulse of the mother world. The lethargy — lethargy? — I felt at that time, the inability to see anything clearly, was due to this state of mind: I was always on edge, waiting for the next interruption, then, as you calm your child, you must wait for a moment of peace, when you can complete your thought, although in the interval that thought will inevitably fade.
I returned to the bench. A little ways off, the hat lady was bending down to lecture a child who ignored her, with lovely disdain, as he played in the sand. She was actually shaking her finger at him. But before I could turn to share the joke with my friend on the bench, the woman stood up, her hat pushed back on her forehead, and stared at me with an odd, still expression on her face. I sat down, and for once I couldn’t think of anything to say.
The next time I went to Totland my friend was not there, and I came down with the flu, so it was more than a month before my friend and I met again. Now I felt shy, and awkward with her. She clutched her Degas mug, lifting it to her mouth, taking nips, eager to drink. Sometimes, when she would shift in her seat, I would catch a light, rich scent from her and it would cross my mind that there was something stronger than tea inside that mug.
She said she’d been shopping — she needed a new bed. It struck me that I didn’t even know where she lived, so I asked her.
“Actually, we’re moving,” she replied.
“Get a king,” I said.
“A king-sized bed,” I said, “They’re wonderful.”
“Oh, that’s right,” she said, but I’d said something wrong. It occurred to me that she didn’t have a partner, and I wanted to apologize for my assumption, but something, some kind of disgust with her stopped me. I wanted out of the conversation, and looked up, watching the slow unstable progression of babies in a day care, toddling down the sidewalk outside the gate, holding hands.
“I’ve been thinking about what you said,” she went on (and there’s nothing more flattering than someone telling you they’ve actually listened to you.) “The only life of contemplation possible now, is the life lived with children. When they’re quiet, when they’ve left you alone, then life is very quiet and — full” and she raised her mug to her lips and drank. “Better than sitting in some office, counting the minutes. Counting… the… minutes.”
Soon after that conversation, I decided to stop trying for another baby. I went down to the basement, and snuffling, snotty with tears, packed up my son’s baby clothes, putting them out on the porch for the Agency for the Challenged and Handicapped to take. Still, I kept taking my temperature, still set dates for intercourse, still screwed on schedule. Four weeks later, again drinking in the mild, interesting air of hope and fear, I waited for the blood, pausing each time before I pulled down my underwear to pee, happiness roaring when I saw no blood there. But on the 28th day the infernal clock struck again and I saw spots of blood. Four of them, as I recall. I remember carrying on a calm conversation with my husband, how there were so many things we could do. How our lives would be simpler with only one. Only one! How lonely he would be, I thought, in the dark. Who would he have, when we go? He didn’t even have any cousins — he would be all alone. I left our bed to sit in the living room. I sobbed, with such power that it was like sitting in the surf that hits you and wants to take you; frightening water. My husband tried to comfort me but I didn’t want him there–he looked so foreign, standing naked in the dark, he had nothing to do with this familiar and dangerous sorrow. I wept until I had emptied myself of any emotion, and have no memory of going to bed that night. But in the morning, when I woke, there was no blood. My period had stopped. A week later I took a pregnancy test, and it was positive.
It wasn’t until summer when I saw her in the plain sunlight, again, dissolute, and again the smell, this time somehow pleasurable. She looked awful — older, as if she were aging too fast. I should have asked her — what’s wrong? But I just wanted to tell her my secret.
“I’m pregnant,” I said, smiling fatuously. At once I felt embarrassed, and disappointed in myself. After all, this miracle pregnancy, should have made me a better person.
She said, “And now you’re perfectly happy, right?”
“Oh no,” I said, laughing, “Of course not — I’m not — I’m worried.”
I gave her every detail and she listened. I remember thinking how generous she was. After all she wanted what I had — but the thought didn’t bring me happiness, as it should. Still, I was very happy, that day in July, the park full of fashionable Japanese mothers, who, with wonderful lese-majeste, watched their beautiful children tumble over, then would laugh as they struggled to their feet, unassisted. My friend asked me how I was feeling.
“Fucked up,” I said, “But great, you know? And you! Do you want another — you should have another!”
She smiled and I felt tremendous affection for her. She said. “So you got what you wanted.”
“It’s going to be a girl,” she said, in an intense tone that dampened my liking for her.
“Oh, probably not.”
“Oh yes it is,” she said, and put her hand on my stomach. I didn’t want her to touch me, but I endured it and, after a moment she pulled her hand away. “You made her. You don’t love the world, and you pulled her up into it. Single-handedly. You dragged her up into this…” And she stopped. I didn’t like this. I felt as if she had drawn me into making some confession which I would never be able to deny. It seemed to me that I’d been tricked, somehow.
When I went back to the park I was seven months along and pretty heavy — I had gained too much weight. My son and I were going to see about art classes. It was early evening and the class was still in session, so we had to wait. My son ran to swings. The mothers began to call to their children. “Come on! We’re going home!” The lights went on in the little building. I walked up to the open door. Some children ran past me, and others still sat at the tables inside, scribbling. I turned away from the door and walked a little ways off, to stand under the trees and watch my son, who was swinging in the fading, violet light. Then, out of the congealing dark, the lady in the hat appeared. She said, “Are you O.K.?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, surprised. She stood a few feet away, and I had the impression of a searching intelligence, reaching out for me. I took a step back to avoid it.
“You seemed pretty upset the other day,” she said, pointing to the bench upon which I used to sit. “Pret-ty upset.” The woman’s puzzled and feral face was too close to mine. “You left this,” she went on, and held out the mug and its cloying ballerinas.
“Oh,” I said, horrified, but laughing, I was so relieved. “But that’s not me. That’s my friend.”
She paused. Her face disappeared in the gloom. Only her form and her insinuating voice moved in the darkness. She said, “We had a talk.”
“Oh yeah?” Then, not wanting to learn more, I said, “But she’s not really a friend.” All at once my pregnancy felt like an illness.
The woman paused. “She didn’t know where she was…” She put her hands out in front of her, feeling the air, a parody of a blind woman. I had to step back to avoid the wandering hands, and the mug. “What a mess! Hard stuff in this. Gin.” She still offered the mug to me, and there was nothing else to do; I took it. After a moment, she turned and left.
The children were leaving the art class, shouting, calling out to their mothers, each child so strange, so beautiful. Like young animals — but more than animals. Each made a complicated imprint in the night air. Here, the girl with the velvet dress and the flat nose, there, the boy with the runny eyes, each such a heavy being. And the child I carried — she was too heavy.
I waited for him. Even after the art building was empty and dark, I waited for a little blond boy. I knew he didn’t really belong to my friend. Maybe he was no one’s child; maybe he’d never existed. Or he might have just… melted away, because all the children seemed to have melted away, even the baby in my belly was gone now, and so I stood in Totland, alone, emptied of life, with the comforting smell of gin and the plum blossoms floating in the dark.