Lydia is not dying, though she does have a strong urge to leave her footprint in as many sidewalks around the city as possible. Finding wet cement has been the challenge.
“Maybe we’ll get lucky today, baby,” she says, as she loads six-month-old Eva into the stroller. The baby smiles, showing off her triple chin, and Lydia smiles back, humming, wets her thumb to rub a bright orange skid of pureed squash from Eva’s cheek, but the moment she makes contact, Eva opens her mouth, baring ridges of mostly toothless gums, squeezes her eyes closed so hard little knobs rise on her forehead, and lets out a howl.
“Oh baby, I’m sorry,” she says, immediately withdrawing her hand. Eva looks up at her warily, her green eyes cloudy, her smooth forehead still crumpled in warning. “I know, I know, it’s hard to be a baby,” she sings as she checks her backpack to make sure she has Eva’s pacifier, several diapers and Ziploc bags for the dirty ones, a box of baby wipes, a tube of diaper rash ointment, a change of snuggly in case she explodes from one end or the other, a burp cloth, a blanket and stocking cap for when the fog rolls in, a thin cotton blanket so that she can cover Eva and herself when she stops to nurse, a rattle, and a little duck that squeaks. Into the zipper pocket, Lydia puts her wallet, keys, cell phone, the address book with the pediatrician’s number, two PowerBars because nursing makes her ravenous, a book of short stories by Ann Beattie in case Eva falls asleep and she finds a friendly café to stop and read, a travel-sized container of hand sanitizer, and a map of the city. In the mesh basket underneath the stroller, she tosses a wash cloth, a liter of water, liquid soap, and Eva’s changing mat. She feels as though she is packing to run away, and in a way, she is.
She wheels Eva out the front door, looks down the stairs plunging to the street, sighs, and begins the process of removing Eva from the stroller. Every day, she thinks she’ll leave Eva in the stroller and bump her down the stairs, and every day she has visions of her daughter shooting into the air, like a pebble from a slingshot, and ricocheting off the hard cement. Eva gets mad. “Oh baby, I’m sorry,” she says for the fourth or fifth time that day. “I know you don’t like change. It’s hard to be a baby, isn’t it?” It would be much easier to live in ranch house, but there are no ranch houses in San Francisco. There are only impossibly tall houses with impossibly tall stairs.
Eva’s face is furious red by the time they reach the bottom. She raises a tiny fist and knuckles her eye as Lydia gets her resettled. Eva is named after Evan, Lydia’s husband. “It’s only fair, since we’re having a girl,” Lydia said as they were both taking BART back to their offices after learning the baby’s sex. “What do you mean?” Evan asked. “I’m happy to have a girl, honey. I like girls.” He squeezed her shoulder and looked adoringly at her then pumpkin-sized stomach. What she couldn’t tell Evan then – or now – is that she is afraid of girls. They’re more difficult than boys. She is certainly more trouble than Evan, whose spirits are generally good as long as he runs most mornings and has forty-five minutes to himself to pencil in answers to the day’s crossword after work. His job is to make computer hardware sound both sexy and dependable. Hopefully, Eva will take after Evan.
Sweat has beaded along Lydia’s hairline before they’ve even off on their adventure, but she knows once they get moving, Eva will settle down, and she’ll get her second wind. The search for wet cement, however, has been frustrating. It seems to her there is no construction happening right now, no new houses being built, no dips being molded into corners, no sidewalks being widened, no mighty tree roots flexing against cement ceilings and breaking through. Plenty of houses are being painted, touched up, prettified. San Francisco is a vain lady. She leans heavily on the stroller because her shoulder blades are starting to ache.
“We should move to Oregon,” she tells Eva when she checks on her after several blocks. The baby’s cheeks are so plump she can barely keep them up when she smiles. “Or Ohio. This city is too pretty for tough girls like us.” Eva widens her green eyes, looking at her mother with disbelief. “Stop it already. Don’t be a doubting Thomas.” The baby squawks, which is her way of laughing. “Don’t be a silly Willy. Don’t be a Scotty dog. Don’t be a dumb John. Don’t be a wilting Flora. Don’t be a sappy Melody.” She stops. Motherhood has made her stupid. She strokes Eva’s cheek. No matter how many times she touches her daughter, she is always surprised by her softness. “Don’t be a Eva Knievel,” she continues. What was she thinking? Eva is such a feminine name; she’ll probably become the kind of girl who dresses up as a princess every chance she gets and demands ballet and French lessons. Lydia starts to feel sad and worried all over again, imaging all the ways she might disappoint her daughter, the ways her daughter might disappoint her. She’s not supposed to think such things. She hurries behind the stroller so the baby won’t see her eyes tearing, and they rocket forward.
Since Lydia started looking for wet cement, she has become sensitive to sidewalk graffiti. “Elvis stood here,” is scrawled into the sidewalk in front of the purple elementary school on Haight Street. More ominous is “Buried alive” in front of a run-down Victorian on Lyon. There are dozens of initials, hearts encircling letters and first names, simple declaratives such as “I was here” or “Dave was here.” Cement graffiti is less artful, less amusing than the stuff scribbled on bathroom walls, since it’s nearly impossible to carry on a dialogue of insults, but Lydia likes its permanence. She and the baby swing left on Cole, heading for Diamond Peak, one of the highest points in the city. She hasn’t walked up there in many years, not since before she and Evan were married, when she still dated Burt (Burt the Yurt, Evan calls him, because he once took Lydia for five frozen days of skiing in the Sierras).
At the corner of Cole and Frederick, the sidewalk says, “Eat the Rich,” and Eva starts to whimper, which means, Feed me, or I’ll start to squall! “Are you hungry, baby?” she asks. “It’s hard to be a baby, a hungry, hungry baby.” Lydia doesn’t understand how such a little creature can drink so much milk. She stops at a coffee shop, vaguely wondering whether drinking coffee is really that bad. She checks out her choices of tables, looking for a spot where the people around her look friendly, but not too friendly. Eva is already an eavesdropper, easily distracted if Lydia tries to have a conversation while nursing. She un-velcros the cup of her bra, rubs her nipple against Eva’s pursed pink lips, and waits for her to latch on. Eva takes hold, and her fists open and close, kneading Lydia’s stomach. Her eyes sliver, and then widen, and a look of surprise passes over her face, as though to say: You mean this breast belongs to you? Lydia smiles and gently lays the blanket over her daughter, making a safe little cave. She believes that babies prefer the dark because their eyes are still sensitive. She also believes that her breasts will never return to their original plummish size, even though the doctor has told her otherwise. Shortly after Eva was born, Evan begged her to try on her swimming suit and then snapped a picture of her, cleavage like she’d never seen before spilling out of her bikini top. “Sexy Mama,” Evan said. She flushes with shyness thinking about it before she begins to feel bored. Someone should write a book, 100 Things to Do While You Nurse Your Hungry Little Monster.
Back on their journey, Lydia thinks about the future when she can take little Eva around to all the places where they left their footprints and show her how wide they ranged, even before Eva could walk, but so far, they have left no traces of themselves. Further up the hill, the top of Diamond Peak still far away, Lydia feels out of breath. At a heart scraped into the sidewalk that says, “Dennis + Denise” she turns around. It’s a good thing Evan isn’t Dennis because Denise wouldn’t do. Denise sounds like the name of a housewife. “Aren’t you glad we named you Eva, baby?” she asks. “You’re no housewife. You’re a glamorous baby.” Tears are collecting in the corner of her eyes again. “I’m a housewife,” she wails, even though she knows this isn’t true. It was her decision to spend the first year at home with Eva, though it doesn’t feel like a choice anymore. She thinks of her other life, the quiet work she did in a lab, where everyone wore white coats with the wrong names on the pockets – this was their idea of hilarity – and the room flickered with thousands of fish in giant glass tanks, and Lydia felt herself floating, even as she spent her days squinting at slides under a microscope and columns of symbols. She stops at a high curb that is not mother friendly, tilts the front wheels of the stroller up, lifts the back. The baby and all her baby paraphernalia seem impossibly heavy. “Fuck U,” the sidewalk says. “Fuck you too,” Lydia says back.
Eva is asleep by the time they get home, though the moment Lydia scoops her warm, yeasty, slumped over body from the stroller, she wakes up, and she’s not happy about it. Lydia paces up and down the hallway, jostling the baby, shooshing loudly in her ear, doing things that would drive her crazy, but evidently take babies back to the soothing environment of the womb. One of Eva’s hands tangles in Lydia’s long hair, tugging, telling her that she is failing once again. “What?” she asks, exasperated. “What do you want, baby?” She is exhausted, the thought of which exhausts her more. Before having Eva, she and Evan ran a six mile loop in Golden Gate Park every morning. ydia kept running until eight days before Eva was born. Now she and Evan alternate days, and on hers she jogs three miles very, very slowly, trying to remember why she used to like running so much. In fact, she is having a hard time remembering anything that gave her pleasure.
Finally, Lydia gives up, and following the advice of the numerous parenting books she has read, she puts Eva down and tries to ignore the screaming. The baby experts say you must establish a routine: “Crying may drive you crazy, but it’s up to you to act calmly and maturely. Your baby will learn to fall asleep all by himself as long as you give him opportunities to practice. This means not capitulating to his demands. Set a timer. If your baby is still fussing after 30 minutes, then you may check on him, but if you go a minute sooner, you will be setting a bad example, and your baby may grow up needy and insecure or with an underdeveloped respect for authority and a higher risk of incarceration.” Lydia sets the timer. She boils water for tea. She washes the dishes in the sink. She tries to ignore Eva’s cries. There are still twenty minutes to go. She eats a banana. She opens an electric bill. The crying continues. She thinks about taking a bath, dunking under the surface and floating like a fish, but she’s afraid she would miss the moment when Eva stops crying, the moment when she is allowed to peek in on her daughter to make sure that she’s still breathing, that nothing is really wrong.
With ten minutes remaining, she walks into the big hall coat closet and begins calling different municipal departments, trying to find a schedule of sidewalk replacement. “I’m blind,” she explains, aware that she has come up with this because after dialing each number she closes her eyes to block out the unbearable noise of the baby’s crying. “I can’t detour into the street because my assistive animal isn’t as savvy as he should be. He’s getting old, and between you and me, I think he may be suicidal.”
Most everyone acts like she’s out of her mind until a woman with a kind voice answers.“I don’t know about sidewalk repair,” the woman says when she comes back on the line, “but I can give you the numbers of several nonprofits that specialize in seeing-impaired issues. They might be able to help you get a healthier guide dog. And…” She pauses. “…this may sound strange, but I’d be willing to take your old one. My husband says I have a light touch with depressed spirits.”
“You would?” Lydia suddenly feels the heaviness lift. “You’d take Folly?” She thinks this is a good name for a dog.
“How fortuitous,” the woman says as though she means it. “I don’t answer the phones most days. Our secretary is out with the…”
Lydia interrupts. “Thank you. Thank you…”
“Joyce. It’s Joyce. Do you want me to pick up the dog?”
Lydia panics. She can’t have Joyce coming to her house and seeing that she has a baby. “Let’s meet for lunch,” she blurts out.
“That’s kind,” Joyce says, “but really unnecessary.”
“No, really, I’d like to take you out. As thanks.” It suddenly feels crucial to meet Joyce, friend to unwanted pets, lifter of depressed spirits. Perhaps she would be willing to take Eva, or at least tell Lydia how to make life lighter.
“Well, OK,” Joyce says, and they decided on a Cuban restaurant near the Civic Center, one that Lydia assures her that she loves, even though she’s never eaten Cuban food. Then Lydia trips, “How will I know you?”
Nervous laughter, like static, fills the line.
“Oops,” she says. “I mean how will you know me?” She realizes this question is similarly ludicrous. How many blind people show up at a Cuban restaurant on the same day? It sounds like a bad joke. “I’ll wear red,” she offers, and before Joyce can change her mind, she says, “See you Thursday,” and clicks off the phone. When she steps out of the closet, she realizes that the house is quiet, that she has missed the second that Eva settled down. She rushes down the hallway to make sure that her daughter has not spontaneously combusted or choked on her own golf ball-sized fist.
* * *
Later that night, after feeding Eva and before falling asleep, Lydia tells Evan she wants a dog.
“A dog,” he says, “but we already have a baby.”
“Not a puppy,” she whispers, afraid of waking Eva who is bundled between them like a land mine. “A grown-up dog. An animal companion. A friend for me.”
“You seem overwhelmed.” His voice is hoarse. “Wouldn’t a dog be more work?”
“You don’t know what it’s like to stay at home all day,” Lydia says, starting to cry. “You don’t know how lonely it is to be lonely. I mean to be alone.”
“I’m worried,” he says.
“I’m doing my best.”
“That’s not what I meant. Honey, I’m worried because you seem so unhappy.”
“I’m not,” she insists. “I just like dogs.”
“What about Clementine?”
“Oh.” In her sleep-deprived state she has forgotten about the cat, the poor cat who returned several nights ago missing part of her left ear. “Probably a raccoon,” the vet guessed, flipping Clementine upside down, pinching a fold of fur on her stomach and jabbing her with a rabies vaccine. In the car on the way home, the cat meowed frantically, and Eva joined in sympathetically, crying until she hiccoughed.
“My darling,” Evan says, carefully reaching over the baby to stroke Lydia’s head. “You don’t have to do this all by yourself. We can get some help.”
But it’s too late for help. Lydia can’t stand the thought of anyone else observing her incompetence. She – who has a PhD in biology, who is capable of hypothesizing about the most complex systems – can’t get the hang of her daughter’s routine. They’re unpredictable, the mommies tell her. They change from day to day. It’ll get easier. If she can just keep it together for the next six months, then she’ll go back to the lab, back to the stupid fish jokes (Q: Why are fish so smart? A: They live in schools.), back to being Liv or Margie or Ted during the days, and Mama for a few hours in the evenings. Eva will go to daycare – they’re already on a waiting list for the best one in the area – and no one will know what a miserable failure she has been. Your first year, she’ll someday say to Eva, you were a baby, and now look how grown up you’ve become.
“My sweet darling,” Evan says, but it’s too late, too late, and Lydia is already dreaming of the homeless man at the corner of Haight and Cole who recites the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…” The homeless man has a dog – a German shepherd who is always smiling – and a cat who never tries to run away. “Shouldn’t there be a baby in your manger?” her dream self tells the man.
The next-door neighbor, the girl with dyed pink hair and a tattooed vine climbing up her neck, agrees to lend Lydia her mutt for the afternoon.
“I gotta warn you,” Marjoram tells her as she kicks crumpled newspapers that fill her apartment looking for the dog’s leash, “that he isn’t so hot in the house broken department.”
“Neither is my daughter,” Lydia jokes. “What’s his name again?”
“Butch, but that’s supposed to be, you know, a little ironic. You can also call him Cassidy.”
“What are you doing with the newspaper?” She assumes it’s because Butch has peed all over the place.
“Making paper maché,” Marjoram says, leading her into a small back room which is furnished with a whole paper maché bedroom set.
“Shit,” Lydia says, “this is spectacular. Are you an artist?”
“No,” Marjoram says, picking up a small beautiful running shoe. “I’m an accountant for the school district. This is just a hobby.”
Lydia goes back home with Butch leading the way. She has already arranged a sitter for Eva, an older West Indian man named Mr. Philips, a recommendation from her mommy group. He has tended Eva several times before, when Lydia has her own doctor’s appointments to keep, and it’s true what the mothers say, Mr. Philips does have a magical way with babies. “I think God put me in the wrong body,” he joked the first time he came to her house. She expected him to confess he was undergoing gender reassignment. That was the kind of thing one expected in San Francisco.
Standing in front of her closet, Lydia can’t decide whether it makes more sense to wear sunglasses or the blinders that came in the little goody bag on the flight home from Paris, their last trip abroad, right after Eva was conceived but before she was a bump. They saw the whole city in their running shoes. The Paris Marathon started on the Left Bank, wound through the sixth and seventh and eighth, before crossing to the Right Bank, the wide grand boulevards blocked off and lined with spectators waving baguettes and drinking wine. She also knows that Butch should have a special harness, and for exactly thirty-five minutes (which is the duration of Eva’s post morning snack nap) she tries to fashion one out of one of Evan’s belts and some rope, but it looks ghastly, like the S & M restraints that her husband points out in the catalogues that come wrapped in brown paper, trying to convince her that they will bring the je ne sais quoi back into their exhausted love life. Hopefully Joyce isn’t intimately acquainted with any guide dogs.
Finally, with Eva tucked into the her Baby Bjorn, she sits at the kitchen table, a plate of leftover stir fried bean curd and broccoli in front of her, and tries to practice eating. Should she touch her food? Eat with a spoon? Take large bites or small ones? Somewhere she read about a blind person asking the seeing person to describe the location of the food in terms of a clock. But what if she forgets what Joyce says? Then she remembers she’s not actually blind – this baby really is making her stupid – and even though she’ll be pretending to be blind, she’ll still be able to see her plate of food through her sunglasses. Perhaps the lighting in the restaurant will be dim, making the whole experience of faking blindness more like the real thing.
Eva begins to cry. She’s been cranky all morning because Lydia’s disrupted her routine by not taking her out in the stroller. “Oh, baby, we’ll put our feet in wet cement tomorrow,” she promises, dancing around the house, the baby still pinned to her chest. Butch scampers around her feet, his toenails scraping the wooden floor. He begins to bark. Lydia takes Eva out of the baby sling and rocks her back and forth in her arms. The baby’s face looks like a dried apricot, orange and wrinkled. She unrolls her yoga mat, thinking she’ll nestle Eva on her tummy, but once she does lie down, Butch drops next to them and begins licking Eva’s face. “No, doggy,” she shouts over the baby’s howls. She hauls Eva up, sticking her nose straight into her daughter’s bum while Butch lifts a leg and pees in the middle of the floor. “You’re not wet, but he is,” she says, still jiggling Eva while she mops it up with a rag underneath her foot. She feels Eva’s forehead. She isn’t hot. Then, with a sigh, she sits down on the couch and gives Eva the nipple. She is being eaten alive.
* * *
As planned, Lydia arrives at the Cuban restaurant twenty minutes early. Bells jingle as she pushes open the door. Butch yelps, then paws at the red bandana Lydia has tied around his neck to make him look like her official friend. A pretty woman with a mass of dark hair stands in the entryway.
“I’m blind,” Lydia blurts out, “and this is my assistive dog. We’re meeting a friend here.” Then, she worries that she’s blown her cover because if she can’t see, how would she know the woman was standing there. Perhaps, she thinks, everything would go more smoothly if she closed her eyes, really pretending to be blind. She tries it.
“Let me take you to a table,” the woman says cheerfully. Butch tugs at his leash, and Lydia follows, taking very tentative steps until she bumps into something. She opens her eyes for a peek. The waitress is nowhere to be seen, and instead she’s standing at a table where two men with enormous plates of yellow rice and black beans before them look up at her. She wants to crane her head to look for the waitress, but it’s out of character. “Where are you?” she calls out feebly.
“Friendly dog,” one of the men says, patting Butch’s head. Butch barks.
“He’s assistive,” Lydia says, “but please don’t pet him.”
“Over here,” the waitress says.
“Where?” Lydia says helplessly. “I’m sorry but my dog is still in the training phases, and sometimes he doesn’t know who to follow. He must have thought we were joining these nice people.”
The men laugh. “Please do.”
The waitress returns and takes Lydia by the hand that is not holding the dog leash. Lydia senses that Butch is lagging behind, instead of keeping up the way a proper guide dog would.
“Here we are,” the waitress says. “Can I get you something to drink?”
Lydia orders a mojito, wondering how to pass the time until Joyce arrives. What do blind people do if they can’t see? It has been months since Lydia enjoyed a quiet moment when she wasn’t nursing Eva or pushing the stroller or trying to quiet her down or doing laundry or cooking dinner, and yet now that she has time to herself, the first thing she does is fish her cell phone out of her purse in case there is an emergency and Mr. Philips needs to reach her.
“I’m sorry,” the waitress says, “I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just coming over to see whether you’d like to order.
“Oh.” It takes her a moment to process the question. Out of habit, she glances at her watch before remembering that she’s blind. The watch is the one beautiful thing she has kept wearing since giving birth to Eva. She contorts her arm. “Can you see what time it is?”
“On your watch?”
“Has it stopped?”
“Is mine OK?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean, can I check my watch? I only do digital.”
Lydia lowers her arm in defeat. The watch has an old-fashioned face and a sturdy gold band.
“It’s 12:02 and 33 seconds,” the waitress says.
“I’m meeting someone here.”
“Lydia,” says a voice from behind.
She suppresses the urge to turn. “Yes?”
“It’s Joyce. I’m glad I found you. You’re not wearing red.”
The waitress giggles.
“I’m not?” Lydia asks, rubbing the fabric between her fingers and trying to recall what she put on this morning. She fights the temptation to open her eyes. “That’s funny. This shirt feels red to me. I guess I always wear it when I’m happy.” She doesn’t know where to look while speaking. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“So this is Folly,” Joyce says.
“I just thought it would be nice to meet,” Lydia starts.
“I mean your dog. His name is Folly, right?”
“This is my new dog.” Lydia laughs weakly. “Butch.”
“Your new dog?”
Why did she invent a new dog?
“I called the places you recommended and got a new one.” She wants to prove to Joyce that she’s a go-getter. “Folly is relaxing at home.” She reaches down to pat Butch on the head and accidentally flattens his ear. He whimpers. “I know, Butch, it’s difficult to be the working dog.”
There is silence. Lydia bites her lip, wondering whether she should admit what she has done, though now that she’s here, she doesn’t quite know how she would explain it. Maybe Joyce would understand that a depressed seeing-eye dog is not so different from a baby – that both are undependable, obedient one moment, wily the next; that both make stinky messes and require special diets; that both are cute, and in their cuteness lies their peril. Maybe if she tells the truth, Joyce will comfort her, even offer to take Eva. (I couldn’t let you do that, she’ll protest. What would I tell my husband? That I lost her at the supermarket?)
“Shall we order?” Joyce asks.
“Yes.” Lydia picks up her menu, opening it, closing it, slapping it down on the table. “I always forget.”
Joyce starts to say something. Stops. Starts again. It must be difficult to be with a blind person with such strange behavior. “You haven’t always been blind?” she finally asks.
“No,” Lydia says, searching for something to say. “No, it’s very recent. Six months.” Which is true, in a way, since her life changed dramatically with Eva’s birth.
“Six months,” Joyce gasps. “But I thought your other dog was old.”
“You’re right. He was my old dog, but he wasn’t always assistive. We were so attached, and I was so discombobulated by this…” She lays her hands over her sunglasses. “They tried to teach an old dog new tricks.”
Joyce is silent. Then: “I hope this isn’t rude, but how did it happen?”
“They sent experts, you know blind dog handlers, and you know…”
Joyce interrupts: “No, I mean how did you become visually impaired?”
“I thought the correct term was visually impaired?”
The mojito has loosened Lydia’s tongue. “Yes, yes, that’s the term the visually-unimpaired use.” She laughs. “It’s a joke. How did it happen? Well….” She drums her fingers on the table.
“I didn’t mean…”
“No, it’s no biggie. Well…” She clears her throat, buying herself time. She thinks about how much she wanted a baby, how every morning she shoved a thermometer in her mouth, noting the temperature in her baby-making book. A tiny spike meant she was ovulating, which, in turn, meant that she and Evan ran extra fast, skipped stretching, jumped back into bed, and engaged in sweaty baby-making, not love-making. No, this meeting of their bodies held more gravitas. Afterwards, Lydia lay on the floor, her legs pressed perpendicularly to the wall, urging Evan’s sperm to make like hell. “It was very sudden and somewhat mysterious…” she says vaguely. “Many things can make a person go blind, and then there are the unusual cases…” It took her more than a year to get pregnant.
“Oh,” Joyce says. Lydia imagines her leaning forward conspiratorially.
“Not that mine was. Mine was humdrum. An infection that went untreated for too long.” The answer seems vague enough to be persuasive.
“What a shock.”
“Yes,” Lydia says, thinking again of Eva, the push and pull of her feelings.
“What do you do?”
“Oh, you know, you adapt. You get along the best you can. You can’t watch movies, but you can listen to them. And everything takes so much longer, like matching socks!”
“I’m sorry. I meant, what’s your profession? Can you still work?”
“Oh.” Lydia thinks of the fish swirling around in their tanks of air, so light. “I’m a biologist, and in my particular area, observation is very important.” The picture fades, and when she tries to call it back, she can’t. “Perhaps I’ll return, but everything changes so quickly – it’s hard to miss a year’s worth of work, and jump back in mid-stream…”
Joyce murmurs supportively, and Lydia nods vigorously. On her first day back – still six months away – there will be a whole new generation of fish and new hypotheses about the electric emissions that sound like chatter but actually function as a kind of communication. If babies were a tenth as simple as fish, she might have a working hypothesis. She grabs the edge of table to remember that she’s not in a dark, empty place. Silence hangs between them, and it begins to feel as lonely as nursing Eva in the early morning hours. “Let’s order,” she tries cheerfully. “Can you tell me what’s good?”
She ends up getting a Cuban sandwich, fries. “Imagine my plate is the face of a clock,” she says when their food arrives.
“Yes?” Joyce says nervously.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“If you tell me the time of my food, I’ll be able to eat without touching everything to death.”
“Oh I see what you mean,” Joyce says. “Your sandwich is at three o’clock and your fried potatoes are at 9, or perhaps 9:30”
“I guess what I mean is that they’re between 9 and 10.”
Lydia goes for a fry and touches bread.“I think my fries are at three.”
Joyce laughs. Even without visual cues, Lydia is certain she can hear through the thin top layer of gaiety. It’s like when Eva cries just to cry, not because she’s wet or hungry or gassy, but because she has already started the process of reminding Lydia it doesn’t matter that she carried her for nine months, it doesn’t matter that Lydia is her mother. Eva is already her own girl with her own feelings.
“I’m sorry,” Joyce says. “I was thinking of the clock from my perspective.”
Lydia attempts a bite, but the sandwich collides with her cheek. Melted cheese swings from her chin. She feels around her lap for her napkin, and not finding it there, panics, touching the area around her plate. Something tips over.
“Here’s a napkin,” Joyce says.
“I’m handing it to you.”
Lydia raises her hand, palm up, trying to be patient. “Thank you.” She wipes her chin, wondering whether Joyce would tell her if she were still greasy.
They eat for several minutes. Lydia can hear herself chewing. “Do you like cooking?” she asks, trying to think of something to talk about.
“Yes. What about you?”
“Yes,” Lydia says.
“Any particular kind of cuisine?”
“Umm,” Lydia says. “All kinds.”
Joyce pauses while Lydia searches her memory for the last interesting dish she made.“Anyway,” Joyce continues, “do you need me to take Folly? I know I offered.”
In her lap, Lydia twists her napkin until it becomes as thick as rope. “Why?”
“Well, my husband and I shelter animals. Some of them are wild. Birds with broken wings, orphaned raccoons. Or we take sick animals from the humane society and nurse them back to health. That way, they’re more likely to get adopted.”
Butch shifts under the table. Lydia rips off a piece of her sandwich and feeds it to him. He has been such a good dog.
“That’s really kind.” Her phone rings, and without thinking, she opens her eyes and sees the incoming number is her husband’s. She quickly closes her eyes again, laying the phone back down. “Who knows who that was?” She turns back in Joyce’s direction. “I hate cell phones. You were saying…”
“We care for sick animals,” says Joyce more quietly than before. “Right now we have five dogs.”
“Five dogs! What a racket.”
“I’ll get him,” Joyce says.
“I’ll get Butch,” she says.
“He’s gone,” Lydia says. She screws around in her chair, her eyes still closed, and calls out, “Butch, come back,” even though he probably won’t obey an unfamiliar voice. “Oh shit,” she hears the waitress say. What if Butch has wandered into the kitchen, or worse still, stopped at someone’s table and scarfed down their sandwich? She opens her eyes. It’s worse than she imagined. Butch has laid a log in the middle of the floor. The waitress looks close to tears. “Do I smell an accident?” Lydia asks, rising from her chair and zig-zagging towards the back of the restaurant so that she appears unsteady.
“Can I get a bucket and a rag?” Joyce says.
Joyce scoops the shit into a metal take-out container, then scrubs at the floor. She pauses to scratch Butch’s head. “You’re just not used to people food,” she says. “Poor dog.”
Lydia can’t take her eyes off Joyce. She is nothing like Lydia pictured from talking to her on the phone. She was expecting someone old, or at least middle aged, maternal, meticulous, slightly frumpy, someone who drank one cup of tea each morning with precisely three seconds of honey dribbled from a honey bear. But this Joyce is about Lydia’s age, 31, with short yellow hair and gray-green eyes, a perfect constellation of freckles across her nose, and a permanent dimple to the left of her mouth. She looks well-rested, energetic. There are no circles under her eyes. She’s wearing a green V-neck sweater, a delicate gold chain with a tiny gem-encrusted hummingbird hanging from it, the kind of necklace Eva would break in a second, swallowing the hummingbird and choking to death. Lydia wants to ask where she got her necklace, wants to compare notes on jewelry stores in the city. She glances down at her plain white Oxford, worried that her breasts are leaking, and sees a stain – carrots or spit-up – and ignores her impulse to scrub it with her finger.
“Thank you,” she says when they’re back at the table.
“Don’t worry.” Joyce fiddles with her necklace.
Joyce might have been Lydia’s friend before she had Eva and became unfit for normal companionship. Now, she has the mommies, who are willing to discuss the pros and cons of breastfeeding past the first year, who share their tips for establishing routines with narcissistic babies, who don’t seem to mind when Eva cries and eagerly fish wadded tissue from their pockets when Lydia starts to cry as well. The restaurant has filled with a steady hum of talking. Lydia can’t make out the conversations just as she and her colleague haven’t figured out what the fish are communicating, but she can tell the talk is happy.
“Friday lifts everyone’s sprits,” she says, and as if on cue, Butch begins barking. “Even Butch is cheerful.” Perhaps there’s a chance to begin again, but Joyce says firmly, “I think it’s time for Butch to go.”
Outside the restaurant, after Joyce has helped Lydia pen in a large tip for the waitress, Joyce cups her hand in front of her. “I think it’s going to rain. Can I help you to the bus?”
“No,” Lydia says with conviction. “If you can’t see the rain, you can’t feel it.”
“You’re very funny,” Joyce says. “But I know you’re not blind.”
Joyce steps towards her, putting a hand on Lydia’s shoulder. They are almost the same height. “I know you can see.” Before Lydia can protest, Joyce removes her sunglasses, and Lydia finds herself blinking away dark spots as her eyes adjust to the light.
“I’m sorry. I can explain.”
“There’s no need.” She smiles – no hint of pity – and gives Lydia a hug. “My offer still stands – if you need me to take Folly for some reason.”
“No.” Lydia shakes her head.
“Well, it was nice to meet you,” Joyce says, “and thanks for lunch.”
Before Lydia can say more, Joyce turns and walks away. Butch barks once, but Joyce doesn’t even turn. Several stores down, she stops and inspects something in the window before strolling on. Lydia can’t believe how unhurried she appears, how relaxed, how indifferent, though by the time she realizes that Joyce has walked off with her sunglasses and calls out, there is too much distance to cover, especially with Butch stopping and sniffing every lamppost, and no hope of Joyce hearing her voice.
* * *
Back at home, Mr. Philips says that Eva has been a doll. “Not a peep. She sat on my lap, and we watched the birds at the feeder. She loves those birds.” He leans heavily on the rail as he goes down the stairs, and Lydia realizes that Mr. Philips is older than she thought, old enough to be Eva’s grandpa. As soon as Mr. Philips is out of sight, Eva starts to cry, and Butch whines. For reasons she doesn’t understand, Lydia feels intensely hurt that Joyce didn’t want to know why she was pretending to be blind. How could she just walk away? Wasn’t she at least a little curious about the story? Lydia loads up the stroller and takes the baby and the dog for a walk. The sidewalks are dark gray from the recent rain, and the day seems dark as well. As they walk uphill, Lydia strains to push Eva while Butch drags behind her.
They turn on to the street of mansions that runs parallel to the park and suddenly there it is – freshly poured cement where someone has repaired their driveway. Cordoned off with sawhorses and bright orange tape like a crime scene, the wet cement is still pristine. Lydia glances around to make sure no one is watching, sets the brake on the stroller, lowers herself to the curb, kicks off her tennis shoes, unrolls her socks. It’s too bad they are only a few blocks from home, she thinks, but it’s better than nothing. She gingerly takes a step into the square, feeling the cement squish between her toes, then reverses. Crouching over to inspect her work, she sees that her footprint looks more like a blob than anything human. Eva starts to cry again, either hungry or angered by the fact that the stroller isn’t rolling forward.
“You want me to pay attention to you every second,” Lydia says helplessly. “Well, I can’t.”
She lifts Eva out and plunks her in the middle of the wet square. The baby screams louder. What would happen if Lydia left Eva there? Would the sidewalk dry, making a human statue of her child, a monument to their first difficult months together? Butch ambles over and sniffs Eva before wandering over to a tree to mark his territory. Eva starts to lose her balance and plants her hands in the cement. It’s several seconds before she realizes that it’s the same gritty paste sticking to her legs and snatches them up again, holding them at her sides like useless wings. Even though she’s shrieking, Eva’s eyes are opened wide, and she’s looking directly at Lydia. What if someone walks by and yells at her, Lydia worries, or worse yet, walks by and says nothing? She scoops up her daughter. The cement is already hardening between Eva’s delicate fingers and in the delicious fatty creases her behind her pudgy knees. It will come off, she tells herself, kissing her daughter’s sweaty forehead. “Oh, I know, it’s hard to be a baby,” she sings from habit, though she knows that’s not what she means. In the wet sidewalk, the only recognizable thing are Butch’s delicate paw prints, groups of five ovals that make walking look effortless.