- This Is How It Always Is
Aggie peered at her new neighbor. “Want to see my room?” She ran off at a wobble without waiting for an answer, it being, apparently, obvious, at least to the six-year-old set. Poppy ran off after her, laughing already. It was love at first sight.
Rosie and Penn met two Melissas, two Jennys, a Suzy and a Susan, a Mary, an Anne, and a Maryanne, a Kiki and a Mimi. They met Doug, Erik, Jason, Alex, Baylor, Aiden, Isaac, Gordon, Josh, and Cal. The names went in Penn’s ears and out Rosie’s. There were too many to stick. “Nice to meet you,” they said, over and over again. And “Five,” they answered all night long, and “Madison, Wisconsin,” and “Yes, we like it here so far.” And, pointing, “The turret house next door.” Rosie answered, “The neighborhood school,” which was met with delight, and “For work,” which was sort of true, and “Doctor. Family practice. Right at the top of the hill.” Penn answered, “Struggling writer,” and “No, you probably haven’t read anything I’ve written.” They answered, “Fourteen, thirteen, eleven, eleven, and six.” They answered, “Four boys and a girl.”
Over two red plastic cups of very good sangria, one of the Melissas said to Rosie, “You must have been so glad to finally have a daughter.” She was drinking while rocking in place to keep her own pink-clad infant asleep in the sling on her chest.
Rosie sipped and nodded. “We were thrilled. Just thrilled.” This was mostly true as well.
The older kids stayed late at the party, but Rosie and Penn said their good nights in order to take their youngest home to bed.
“Stories?” Poppy asked hopefully.
“Tomorrow,” Penn promised. “It’s way, way past your bedtime tonight.”
“Did you have fun?” Rosie tucked the sheets in all around the corners of the bed. It was too warm for a blanket.
“So much,” said Poppy, and Penn and Rosie both looked hard at their baby, so fervent was this reply. “No one here knows. They say she and they say her, and it’s like they’re not even pretending, you know?”
“They’re not,” Penn said.
“It’s like I’m not even pretending too.” Poppy’s eyes were closing, sleepy-happy.
“Well, no one here knows who we really are,” said Rosie.
“No, it’s the opposite.” Her daughter shook her head happily. “It’s like they know exactly.”
Poppy would have been asleep a minute later except there was a tap-tap-tapping behind her blinds. She opened them to see Aggie leaning out her own window to poke at Poppy’s with a yardstick duct taped to the end of an umbrella. Their hill was so steep that Aggie’s second-floor window looked out over the roof of most of Poppy’s house, but Poppy’s turret put them feet from each other.
“Hi.” Aggie grinned.
“Hi.” Poppy rubbed her eyes, maybe because she was sleepy or maybe because she couldn’t believe luck as magical as this.
“I’m so glad you moved here. We can be rival princesses in neighboring castles.” Aggie had been waiting a long time for someone sufficiently royal to move in next door. The previous occupants had been an elderly couple who used the turret for storage. “We can climb up and down each other’s hair.”
“We can pass notes and letters,” Poppy wonder-whispered, “and spells.”
“Or cupcakes,” said Aggie. “Like if you earn dessert and I don’t.”
“We can trade books and dolls and cool rocks we find and pictures we draw back and forth.”
“We can tell secrets,” said Aggie. “We can tell each other things we can’t tell anyone else in the whole world. Up here, no one will ever know.”
Poppy went to bed tingling with happiness, ecstatic with impatience. She wondered how long she would have to wait before she had something secret to tell.
Mr. Tongo’s point was a little more on the nose: “It doesn’t smell like anyone else’s business.”
Rosie had been sorry to leave her colleagues in the ER. She’d been sorry to leave her mentors and her residents, the nurses and the attendings, the place that had made her a doctor, and her home for so many years, but it was Mr. Tongo, with his peculiar wisdom and quirky comfort, to whom it was somehow hardest to say goodbye. Then, at her farewell party, he’d reminded her that he wasn’t officially her therapist or her social worker but in fact her friend, and this meant he could be in Seattle whenever she needed him.
“Teleportation?” Rosie put nothing past Mr. Tongo.
“Telephone.” He winked. “It’s only nineteenth-century technology, but it’s more effective because it’s not pretend.”
Three weeks later, not even fully unpacked yet, she’d called him. Their life felt unfolded, a cardboard box they’d broken down and flattened back to a plain square then refolded into something unrecognizable. Rosie needed a voice of reason, no matter how unreasonable. And that was what he said: “It doesn’t smell like anyone else’s business.”
“Well, it certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else’s business, does it? Don’t think of Poppy as Claude under wraps. Think of Poppy as a girl with a penis, a girl with an unusual medical history. Do you usually discuss what’s in children’s pants with the other moms on the playground?”