by Sara Lippmann
Of course it is: Ryan Goldblatt in the playground, twenty years later.
Saturday. I am kind of half-watching Addie in the sandbox, half-spacing out to the creak and sway of the swings, the sprinklers, the fatherly mash; I am absently following the line of trees, squirrels leaping from branch to branch as if each next nut they discover will be better, newer and improved.
This is what we do, Addie and me. My daughter plays. I trail her from station to station.
I hear him before I see him, his voice unmistakable, Hey, prompting my turn until his face is in my face, slightly rounder, looser in the jowls, as if he’s been fed well over the years, doorstops of brie, tacos of duck fat instead of tempeh but otherwise the same: solid frame, muscular calves announcing that he has not yet given up.
He’s wearing a baby in one of those popular bungee cord sacks, some kind of jolly jumper, springy legs and bald feet. I am wearing flannel pajama pants, madras plaid. My hair is … whatever. It is 8:30 in the morning.
Heyyyyy, he says again. Slower this time, with intention, as if he is stoned or I am slow and we both are missing something.
He does not say my name so I do not say his. I do not call him Ryan or Goldie or any of the things we called each other.
My mouth is cottony numb so I work on it, flex and rotate my jaw gently in small circles clockwise then counterclockwise, click click click. I muffle the urges beneath my breath: here is your tongue, your gums, your teeth, I tell myself, here is the hinge of bone.
He grins: I don’t believe it!
He yanks on the baby’s stubby toes like he is milking them.
It’s you! he says.
He calls me: a blast from the past.
I call him—
I can’t even look at him. If I look at him then what, so I shift my gaze to the kid stuck on his chest like Velcro, limbs flailing without coordination, a beetle on its back. I try to smile, coax my own cheekbones, wrinkle my eyes and nose. The summer we traveled through Ecuador we snapped into similar harnesses to zip-line through the rainforest, high above the treetops, which is apt, I guess. The baby suspended, face out and drooling like Ryan’s golden prize.
Dude! he says. What’s up?
The last time I saw Ryan he was double-teaming me with some other guy, his “bro” from the trading floor, another sweaty gambler, the three of us out of our minds; this was the nineties so we were game, we were up for anything. Who knew a girl could enjoy such odds? The elevator boasted a chandelier and gilded walls, which cast me in bronze; I drank it all up, I’d still be riding that metal box to the top had it managed to keep the light.
But—but, before all of that it was just us.
Fine, I say. That wasn’t his question. Great, I say.
Yeah? he says. Yeah. Louder, like I am deaf on top of it. He tightens his baby’s straps. I’m a dad now.
I see, I say. Good for you.
He sniffs. Then he strikes a pose, chest puffed, all neck and jaw, like he’s mounted a horse astride some other woman’s daytime fantasy. His nostrils flare. It’s not that hot. I look for the tattoo on his forearm, the one from Quito, red-faced devil on a surfboard—he made me hold his hand for five hours—but the design, it’s either faded or no, it’s been inked over. It’s now a tangle of bodies and stars.
Cute baby, I say. Nice baby. Sweet baby.
I have always performed to expectation.
I say, He has your eyes.
He’s a she, Ryan says. He cups her foreheads, fluffs up her feathers to reveal a long widow’s peak.
God’s way of getting even. He says this and chuckles.
In the playground Addie is filling up a dump truck with sand. She is vrooming around the dirt, the pigeon poo, shards of glass and twigs; she is whispering secrets to her imaginary twins. At four, my child is not about to save me.
Well, I say. I’m a mother.
He says, I bet you are.
How could I have given him the satisfaction?
To think: Once we were rabbits.
Which one’s yours? he asks.
To protect my daughter is my only purpose.
But it’s useless.
Over there, I nod.
Dude, he says. He takes a step closer so I can smell the baby on him, sour milk. I didn’t know you moved back. When did you move back? Are you, like, here for good?
He goes on.
Dude, you’ve missed all the reunions. No one’s even mentioned you, not at Haggerty’s or anywhere so I just assumed…what, have you been hiding?
I fold my arms. My luck, I am not wearing a bra either.
And then he says it, Carey Block! As if my name just occurred to him.
Talk to me, he says, until we’re so close we’d be touching if it weren’t for his kid dangling off of him. Come on, he says. His voice, low, his body looming over mine like I’m a bug he could squash, the heat rising off of him, ready, like some boomerang pheromone shot into the air because the universe is like that. Holy crap, he says, all intimate, almost begging, lifting my chin with his eyes, nudging out the brick in my heart, like he’d be there with a mop to collect me in a bucket if I spill. Doug was that way too for a while until Addie was born and then not so much, anymore, which is my problem. I get myself into situations.
After all these years, he says. He exhales, a cross between a sigh and a whistle, as if I were the one who got away. As if he never pushed object upon object into me like I was a Manhattan storage unit to see what I could fit. As if a person – as if in life -- there are no limits. There is always more we can take.
My eyes tear, I can’t help it.
He squeezes my shoulder like I’m a team player.
We should hang out sometime, he says, bouncing now, because his baby is complaining. His baby wants him, needs his attention. He bobs and half sings about old times and new and how cool (totally sick, he says) it is we are both parents, we are moms and dads, even though our pip squirts, as he calls them, are years apart, a generation in baby years, all to the tune of Bah, Bah Black Sheep, ABC, Twinkle, Twinkle, the interchangeable, universal melody.
Behind him the Saturday fathers are doing the same dance. Cracking open snacks, offering a hand with the stroller to divorcees and nannies, quarterbacking their toddlers while sidling up beside college babysitters with the pretense of a play date. Sometimes I wonder what the wives know. If they care, or if they are just relieved to be left alone for an hour.
His phone comes out from a back pocket. He narrates as he goes, spelling my name aloud—is that with a ‘y’ or ‘ie’?—until I am back in his book. I stand there while he thumbs the keys. Clouds are clearing. Children storm the jungle gym. A woman bounces over in a T-shirt and jeans. Koaled to her hip is a curly-haired tot who Ryan Goldblatt now reaches for with laddered veins, his arms glinting in the sun, saying, Say hello, love. And I say hello, because isn’t that it? People see themselves in everything.
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"Reunion" was originally published in the journal Lost in Thought. It is also in Sara Lippmann's story collection Doll Palace.