That had better be almond butter at this peanut-free playground, I think, while hiding the bag of McDonald’s under my passenger seat. Peanuts are the number one cause of food-allergy deaths in America. If that’s Jif Creamy lurking under those ants on a log, she’s officially a monster.
I park. Linus has unbuckled and climbed into the front seat, clutching his Happy Meal, before the car has even released the child safety locks. Linus, my sweet, simple boy, who is still happy to wear Costco joggers and plain tees everywhere. I could leave Bridget’s meal in the car, try to signal to her that it’s here if she wants chicken nuggets and a fruit smoothie, her annual season kickoff meal. Maybe that way Celeste wouldn’t see the fast food. But the jig is up anyway. Linus is halfway to the blanket, excited to tell his sister about the trading cards that came in the box with his hamburger. I grab Bridge’s food off the seat and slink to the blanket behind him.
“Celeste,” I say, trying to sound, if not happy to see her, at least not audibly mom shamed over some chicken nuggets. “Hello.” Then I turn to my daughter. “Bridge! Y’all know you don’t have to beg for food!”
“Of course she doesn’t,” Celeste says, her grating northern accent all consonants and edges. “But I did bring too much, because Samuel is too busy playing soccer over there to even slow down for a bite.” She gestures with her head to a passel of boys the same general age as my own son, but each at least twenty pounds bigger.
I smile hopefully at Linus. “Do you want to play soccer with Sam?” I ask him, and he shakes his head. The charm of soccer, like all outdoor pursuits, evades Linus. He likes things you can do inside, like building with K’Nex and playing Minecraft and forgetting to flush the toilet after he poops.
Our son’s homebody self drives my husband nuts, but I was an indoorsy kid myself, and I have found the other side of that coin—the side that allows me to spend hours focused on a problem or find rainy-day bliss by a bay window with a book—to be perfectly satisfactory recompense.
Seth, though, is a sculptor. He likes to work outside with big, heavy power tools and sparks flying. He likes weighty work and endurance sports and protein smoothies. I like those things, too, from a distance. I like men wearing welding masks but not actually wearing my own welding mask. When Seth and I met, he was already getting commissions for office parks and city-owned courtyards, and I was in what felt like year thirty of my PhD in industrial organizational psychology. I would bring my laptop to his workshop and stare at data sets while he tossed about great hunks of enameled metal like a Scotsman at a caber-tossing competition, and then, when it was safe to approach, I would bring him beer with the cap already off and gaze upon his sinewy forearms and think, Well, this is pretty much perfect.
I think it would still be pretty much perfect if it weren’t for the two kids we made, as well as the fact that I finished my PhD and then got a job and then started my own business and now am too busy to bring anyone beers and kind of wish the sinewy forearms I once enjoyed so much spent more time loading and unloading the dishwasher.
If Seth were here, I’d make Linus go do something specific that meant he couldn’t play soccer even if he wanted to. I’d give him some homework or have him do my business expenses. I’m my son’s sportiness beard.
Happily, Seth’s not here, so when Linus says no to soccer, I hand him the book bag I have in the car at all times. He can choose between a new Jeff Smith graphic novel that is probably way too adult for him and The Hobbit, which he has already read thrice. He flops, boneless, on the farthest edge of Celeste’s blanket and vanishes into Middle-earth. Bridge looks up at me, all eyes and heart. “Don’t make me read, Mom,” she says. “I’m too nervous.”
Celeste hears this and laughs quietly. “Zoey too,” she says. “At least they’re eating.”
So they are. Zoey, with her almost-red hair and too-long limbs, is sitting elbow to elbow next to Bridge, my almost painfully lovely girl, whose beauty is tempered only by an omnipresent sheen of sweat in her brown hair and dirt on her skinned knees. The two of them feast on Celeste’s healthful snacks. My McDonald’s offering sits greasy and unnoticed while my daughter eats foods with antioxidants and fiber simply because, what . . . they are there? Zoey is doing it? Celeste is using Jedi mind tricks? I don’t know.
“Thank you,” I remember to say, at last. “For bringing her over here. I appreciate it, I surely do. Is that almond butter?”
“SunButter,” she says smoothly. “Last thing I want to do at my daughter’s first tryouts is to poison the team captain.”
“Oh, is Sofia allergic to peanuts?” I ask. Sofia is the pitcher, and she’s got a windup that makes me think their family should be saving up now for a good orthopedist. But Bridge—probably the best hitter on the team—can’t pitch to save her life, so we have to bow to Sofia’s authority.
“Extremely. Daria sews an EpiPen pocket into all her clothes.”
“Smart,” I say. “I’m allergic, too, but Daria hasn’t offered to sew me anything.” I deliver this with a smile. This is me trying to be funny.
Celeste gives me a polite sound that some might call a laugh. That is her trying to be nice. Then she raises an eyebrow. “Daria’s probably too busy with her new trainer.”
And . . . attempt at bonding instantly over, at least as far as I’m concerned. This is the kind of neighborhood gossip that makes me so, so glad I work full time. It passes from house to house via dog walks and playground chatter, and those of us with real jobs miss out in all the best ways. As for me, I can just lie low and pretend my name never crosses their lips. I mean, what exactly can the Mom Squad say about me? My husband is hot? My son is pasty? I can live with that.
“What are the girls talking about so secretively?” I ask Celeste, to change the subject.
“No idea,” she tells me, unconcerned. “It’s been going on since pickup. They sit in the way back when I drive them, you know. Even when I don’t have the baby and there’s room in the middle.”
I smile and pretend I already noticed the absence of her third child, who I had momentarily forgotten existed. “Where is Anna Joy?” I ask, the second name poison in my mouth. Anna Joy, for heaven’s sake. She’s not even southern. Where does she get off taking two nice names when there are so few good ones left to choose from in the neighborhood? Because of her greed, some poor newborn is probably going around with the name Bertha-Sue.
“She’s getting special playtime with Daddy. I wanted to be able to focus on Zoey today. It’s her first time going out for a sport, you know.”
I smile gently and try to look reassuring. “It’s great that she’s giving it a shot.” The truth is, our Little League softball team is crazy competitive. Bridge has been playing softball since she was six, and even she’s not a sure thing today. Zoey is probably a lamb to slaughter.
“Do you know what’s always fun in the fall?” I tell her. “Soccer. There are three leagues right in Birchboro Hills, all with varying levels of competitiveness. It’s such a nice thing for the kids. I like the idea of having some team sports that are just for fun.”
Celeste looks at me. “The girls are eleven. What else could sports be for, if not for fun?”
“Well, right. Of course,” I say. It is a great tribute to my self-control that I do not roll my eyes. If she tells me children should stay children as long as possible, as though I am sending Bridget to work at the Nike factory every day, I may not be able to hold back any longer. “And competition can be really fun,” I add, because I can’t not. “Girls don’t always get the chance to learn that, and some parents seem to think it’s something that should be avoided at all costs.”
Celeste smiles at me tightly. There’s nothing she can say back to that, after all. What exactly can she tell her daughter about healthy competition? That she who makes the best homemade Halloween costume wins? That’ll take her really far in life. Exactly as far as it’s taken Celeste.
“The girls should go up now,” I say. I see the coaches, who feel like old friends, dragging out the ball cages. I nudge Bridge and point to the helmets in net bags that need to be taken to the first base side of the backstop. She hops to it with a team enthusiasm that fills me with pride. Sure, at home she can leave a half-drunk glass of milk on her desk until it’s science-lab material, but out here, she’s all in.