It’s always the same; one parent starts to look a little tired, while the other appears normal. Fast forward a certain amount of time, and one of them looks like his or her best friend died, and the other looks like a beautifully well-trained circus seal: plump and sleek and shiny, all over.
Sometimes the seal is a woman and sometimes it’s a man. I haven’t seen any great differential gap between who does the hurting and who gets hurt – between the jellyfish and the seal.
He crouched to look at the guinea pig. “So that’s Baxter, huh?” I tried to conceal the quick look of shock, but he saw it anyway. “Yes, Lola, some dads can actually still squat,” he smiled. “No, not that, I’m just surprised you know his name,” I said, feeling the colour creeping into my face, starting at my cheekbones. He noticed the blush, motioned towards the cage. “You have a tiny wooden sign with ‘Baxter’ written on it right next to the cage, Lola. I’d have to be much more tired, stressed and old than I actually am to not see it.” I nodded, in the usual way, where more of my head than my face is visual.
The director rubbed her temples, looked off into the distance. The middle distance? I don’t know. She stopped rubbing her temples and looked at her hands. “You’re only young for a moment, Lola,” she said quietly. “You should make the most of your life.”
I nodded. It isn’t anything anyone doesn’t tell me all the time.
Sometimes I stay up too late, writing. I tell myself at least it’s not Facebook and that gives me a righteous few minutes but it is late at night and my face will bear testimony to it tomorrow. And what can I tell my co-workers? “Yeah, stayed up real late. Writing and shit, you know. Real cool stuff.” No, I mean – no.
Ever stay up way too late and look like a panda the next day? I texted Elsa.
I sighed, looked at and in my change purse again. How much change can I use before I look poor? I wondered. Who cares? It’s not like I’ll return to this or any other Starbuck’s for the remainder of the summer. Maybe I have more money in the fall or maybe the falling leaves just kick my brain into some heightened level of excitement –
And suddenly my thoughts stopped, because I felt hot breath on the back of my neck. “Guess who?” a voice was asking, and I was pulling in my shoulders and jumping forward before I actually understood someone had been hugging me from behind. “Lola!” laughed Aviva, behind me, all teeth on display again, “Why are you so uptight?” I rubbed my shoulders, shivered a little. “Oh, hi, Aviva, hi,” I said, not knowing what to say – whatever the right thing to say was, it probably wasn’t ‘hi’.
“She’s my child’s teacher,” she waved at the barista, who was looking at both of us with extreme apprehension.
This was supposed to be the highlight of my day, I thought, and now all I want is to run screaming from this place.
“That’s one tall drink of water,” she said under her breath. I looked up from the toothbrushes I was labeling. The director’s accountant looked as she always had; sort of school marm-y, eyes always on the page. I’d heard her voice but she gave no indication of having spoken. “Excuse me?” I whispered, assuring myself if she doesn’t seem to know what you’re referring to you can just say did you hear something? and then that will be it.
“You must not know the expression,” she answered, adding figures in some dark corner of her brain, pen moving continuously, eyes still down. “I’m saying that’s a damn good-looking man, Lola.” Her eyes met mine, narrowed slightly. “Haven’t you noticed?”
I shrugged a little. “He’s a dad, Darla, a dad . . . ”
“A hot dad,” she muttered, resuming her additions.
I never want to ask the unhappy couples if they’re okay. Sometimes I can’t help myself, the words come out and I feel like a fool but they’re out already and there’s no stopping the response. “We’re fine!” they tell me, us, whomever. “Never better!” “Great!” “Happy!”
And then one morning you see pink around their eyes, or the sunglasses never come off, but the wedding ring is off, and they’re too busy to say good morning.
Invariably the children’s clothing is rumpled, his or her hair isn’t brushed – and no one is happy I said this.
“So you got another guinea pig?” I asked the children. They were eating applesauce and whispering amongst themselves. “You know what happened to the other guinea pig,” Lexie told me, eyes widening like we were sharing a secret. Yes, I knew. “Hopefully this guinea pig won’t leave,” Clary said, nodding for emphasis. “I love Red.”
“His name isn’t ‘Red’ Clary it’s Baxter!” hissed Lexie. “Don’t lie to Miss Lola!”
“I wasn’t lying! I changed my mind and now his name is Red.”
“He isn’t your guinea pig. You don’t get to name him. We had a, a . . . ”
“Vote?” I supplied. All such school decisions are settled by vote. She nodded. “A vote. His name is Baxter.”
I wish I could tell John the stories I want to tell him. I guess I never say what I set out to say but most of the time I don’t really care, or else the rhetoric of work is basic and easy to follow.
I wonder how it is for people who get to know friends and then see their children, smaller fragmented reflections. I’m only used to getting to know the children until one day I see a smile – a walk, a casual mannerism – in the adult that I immediately recognize from the child.
It isn’t the sort of thing to talk about, but I feel my lips curving into a smile nonetheless.