I lean back on my hands. It’ll be warm-ups first, then batting practice, and then the clipboards will come out, and the girls will move through positions. Just like every year, I will pretend I’m happy with any outcome but will watch like a hawk as my daughter plays third base. Her arm has gotten better and better with each passing day, and her father and I agree it’s time for her to move to the infield. Her father has to stand at the far corner of our yard now, just forward of a thorny shrub I can’t seem to kill, and hit her crazy grounders to give her a real workout. If she stays calm and bouncy on her toes, doesn’t sit back on her heels at every down moment, this could finally be her year.
I’m snapped out of my reverie by a series of stimuli, one after another. Celeste, packing up the food, reminding me I’m starving. Zoey and Bridge and the rest of the hopefuls running up to the coaches. Linus sighing and turning over to flop in the other direction. My phone buzzing in my purse—Seth asking if we’ll be home for dinner. Presumably he did not see the note, did not finish the laundry, did not renew Linus’s bus pass for tomorrow’s field trip.
By now, five other moms have arrived with their own blankets and camp chairs. Their daughters, already on the field, run to their breathless moms, grab their water bottles, and then jog back to the field. We all settle in. The other moms tell me about the traffic between town and school—twenty minutes at the best of times, an hour at the worst. We all talk about how we were panicked we wouldn’t make it here from work on time. How Sara, who works from home two days a week, offered to run a carload of girls over here from school to save time.
How lucky I am, we all agree, that Celeste lives so close to us and is free all day long to ferry my child around. Never mind that it comes with a side order of guilt.
We are friends, all of us, a small, highly efficient cluster of overworked, overtired women who will do anything for their children. Where we live isn’t cheap, but it’s one of those magical villages with a wonderful combination of diversity, great schools, and proximity to downtown, where we all work. Two incomes are all but required to afford Birchboro Hills, and the working-mom hustle combined with the team-crazy kids gives us a lot to bond over, normally. But tonight there’s a bit less camaraderie. A bit more tension. We are only hoping that it will not be us with the crying child in the back seat on the way home.
It will have to be someone in this group. There are more of our daughters than spaces on the team. Just as there are more tasks to do than minutes in the day, more chores than helpers, more cars than roads, more bills than dollars to pay them. Our lives, as mothers, are made up of these small scarcities—eleven spots for starters but seventeen players good enough to start.
Silence falls, and we watch the girls start to bat. Things start out predictably. Davi is a slugger. Sofia hits like a pitcher. Isla and Jordyn are solid. Bridge settles into a rhythm, hitting one, two, three tight right hoppers.
“No coach could say no to that,” says Davi’s mom, a lawyer downtown.
“You’re golden,” says Jordyn’s professor mom.
“Who’s that?” asks Daria, Sofia’s mom, looking at the next batter, who seems able to get her stick on anything in the strike zone. “Is that Zoey Mason?”
I nod. We fall silent for a moment, all eyes sliding over to Celeste, who is barely watching—she seems to be taking photos of her kombucha jars.
“Damn,” says Daria.
“Where did she come from?” asks Davi’s mom.
“Apparently the minors?” I say.
Isla’s and Jordyn’s mothers say nothing.
The coach keeps pitching to her. He pitches until he runs out of balls. Not one is coming back to him via the catcher. They are scattered all over the field. Left, right, center. Finally he claps his hands together. “Well, ladies, looks like we have a new secret weapon. Gloves on!”
The girls stand there, dumbfounded. Even Zoey. It’s clear she isn’t quite sure what just happened.
After a couple of seconds, Coach has to blow his whistle to snap everyone to attention. “Gloves!” he shouts again. “Wake up, ladies!” Our daughters burst back to life, grab gloves, and move into lines for drills. Clipboards come out. I cut another glance to Celeste. Her phone is down, and she seems to be looking back at me and the other team moms. Quickly her eyes slide from our cluster of chairs to some far-off spot in the grass . . . to her son, Samuel. He seems to be chasing his compatriots with a stick the size of a bludgeon. I pat Linus on the back, a silent thanks that he is not that sort of kid. He squirms away. When I look back at Celeste, she’s looking at Zoey on the softball field again, trying to keep her expression blank.
But there’s no mistaking that smile. It’s a 6:30 p.m., adirondack-chair-sitting, wineglass-hoisting smile. She turns it on me and says sweetly, “I’m starting to think you and I will be spending lots of time in this park together in the near future. How fun.”
Fun indeed. Tryouts are one thing. There is no universe where I can attend softball practices four afternoons a week at 3:30 p.m., smack in the middle of my workday, and I’m pretty sure Celeste is aware of that. She will be sitting on her pretty blanket with her nutritious peanut-free snacks all alone. Well, not all alone. Now that Zoey Mason is a sure thing for the team, I have no doubt that my own daughter will be mooching food, rides, and extra hand-sewn scrunchies from Celeste on a regular basis.
Guilt, annoyance, and that awful sensation of a never-repayable debt rise up in me. Celeste is a special kind of stay-at-home mom. A woman who plays her leisure against the rest of us at every turn, and all we can do is thank her for it. And here she is now, winning another battle without even trying.
And never missing a chance to let the rest of us feel like losers.
In a shocking turn of events, I find I am a softball-mom pariah by the day after tryouts.
The shocking part is sarcasm. Almost a year into our move, I am not a key in the lock of the Birchboro Hills social scene. In this suburb, our homes are expensive, but not “old money” expensive like the estates around the garden or the river. Still, most of my neighbors need two good paychecks to live here. A doctor and a teacher. An attorney and a therapist. Not like Hugh and me. A vice president and a . . . well, a stay-at-home mom, though being at home is only a small part of my job. But there’s no good single term for what I do. I do everything. And pretty damned well too.
In Birchboro Hills, using the term full-time mom would be slightly ridiculous. Working for pay or not, it is all work. Those few parents who don’t have a full-time job have charitable projects and intense artistic pursuits. Whereas I am “just” a mom. I don’t run a foundation or do monologue festivals. I just do mom stuff, and ever since we moved here, I’ve wondered if I should apologize for it. In my childhood, when the shoe was on the other foot and our family couldn’t always count on having both a full fridge and the electricity to run it at the same time, my mom would always say, so proudly, “Celeste, honey, you can cope with anything with a smile on your face.”
Thinking of her—missing her—I keep trying to plaster on that smile and thaw the ice in our new neighborhood. I started with doing as the Romans do, going against every private bone in my midwestern-girl body. I put our outdoor seating out front—actually, Hugh did it, sweet man; those damned chairs are so heavy. He set them up right smack in the middle of the grass, and now he has to turn them on their sides when he mows and then turn them back again to get the entire lawn. And Mom was right, as usual—I enjoy sitting out front at night while the kids play. I like seeing our neighbors biking with the kids, taking the dog for a walk, or just going out to the grassy play park opposite us to burn off that last bit of energy before bed. My littlest—Joy, we call her—loves taking note of the comings and goings of every dog around as she crisscrosses from one edge of our yard to the other. And Samuel, my middle kiddo, will recruit anyone with a pulse to stop what they’re doing and play with him in the thinning light. Zoey will sometimes make me scooch my butt as far over as I can and wedge herself into the same lawn chair as me and tell me important things, like a play-by-play of what’s happening in her latest book or who she sat by at lunch today or whether or not she should start wearing lip gloss.
It was on one of these evenings earlier this spring that Zoey told me that she’d seen our neighbor’s kid, a girl Zoey’s own age, playing baseball in their backyard. “Out the backa the house,” as even Zoey calls it now. Bridget Charles, she told me, was the girl’s name.