(This graphic for my book-in-progress, called "Live, Fully-Dressed Girls" until a publisher tells me otherwise, was created by the divine Ms. Gwen Ajayi. She created this whole beautiful website, too, working painstakingly with me on all the details. She's also just a really cool, funny, brilliant lady. For all of your branding and style needs, Go with Gwen)
“For fuck’s sake,” Johanna whispered under her breath for the hundredth time that day. It was 10:00 a.m.
Looking up, she confirmed that the wailing was coming from her three-year-old, Charlotte, who appeared to be stuck on top of an enormous plastic climbing wall.
Six-year-old Gracie, hopped around on the ground below, helpfully hollering that if Charlotte fell, she’d, "Probably only break a hundred bones."
Jo slid her phone into her pocket. The work email would have to wait. She walked across the woodchips toward her marooned daughter, noting the other adults, all women, on the surrounding playground benches. Having to perform parenting theater in front of a live audience always made her sweat, but now, after the humiliation she had experienced on-air, after the event, she wondered if they also might recognize her as that infamous local radio host.
"Gracie, come on. Not helpful," Jo hissed quietly, before loudly, pleasantly calling up to Charlotte, "Honey, I told you not to go that high. Put your foot on one of the rocks and turn your body around…please.”
“No! I afraid!” Charlotte yelled, her eyes, and resolve, squeezed tight.
“I need you to try, love, "Jo said, firmly. "Just one step at a-“
“NOOOOOOOOO!” Charlotte went off like a teakettle.
Even standing on her tiptoes, Jo couldn't reach her. A nearby mom, helping her nice, quiet, kid up the steps of the slide, cast a concerned face their way, and Jo paused to give her a tight smile and shrug. This is fine, everything is fine, hashtag blessed.
When Jo turned back around, she lowered her voice and said, "Charlotte! Jesus. Just do it. Please."
Jo pushed her knuckles against the area between her eyes, trying to force back a headache, while she considered her options. She could climb up there, but if she was even able to haul her flabby body to the top, using the tiny plastic nubs on the wall, there was no way she could both hold herself up and help Charlotte down. They would both end up sprawled on the ground like playground roadkill. If some nanny on a nearby bench had the foresight and editing skills, that could make the next laughingstock viral YouTube video. No. That wouldn't work. What if she called the fire department and said that Charlotte was a cat that needed rescuing? What if Jo just walked away and pretended she didn’t know the loud kid on the wall at all?
While Jo waffled, Gracie darted up the rock wall and put her hand on Charlotte’s leg, placing her purple sandal on the next plastic outcropped rock. When Charlotte felt it, she opened her eyes and, seeing her big sister, managed a scared smile. Johanna felt a warmth in her chest as she listened to Gracie murmur reassurances to her little sister, helping her slowly turn around and make her way down. Not all heroes wear capes; some wear mismatched socks and stained Disney princess t-shirts.
Both girls landed safely and, ignoring the hug and debriefing Jo offered, sprinted toward the swings, squealing, and teasing each other as if lives hadn’t just been on the line. Johanna slunk back to her bench and her phone, avoiding eye contact with the other women. On one hand, she was proud of how the girls had handled themselves self-sufficiently, on the other, she felt like she’d failed to keep Charlotte off there in the first place and then been useless in getting her down. What did it say that she felt jealous of her first-grader's superior parenting skills?
A grandma from a nearby bench said, “Looks like you have your hands full with that little spitfire."
Jo rolled her eyes and nodded.
“She’ll learn,” the elderly woman said, frowning slightly while watching Jo’s girls, who were now dousing each other in dirt and woodchips under the swings.
Jo offered the woman a tight-lipped smile and squinted at the girls, tumbling in filth like wild cat cubs. For now, it seemed it was a mutually consensual dirt fight, so she stayed where she was. She wasn't sure she wanted them to learn. Charlotte was a spitfire. So was Gracie. Yes, it was hard to parent stubborn, fearless, independent girls, but she was also proud, and a little envious, of their tenacity and self-assuredness. Wouldn't these qualities serve them well as adults? Charlotte poured a handful of dirt down the back of Gracie’s shirt and Gracie swung around and punched her. Jo sighed and got up. They had better make some fucking top-notch adults.
“Ok, ladies, be cool. Who wants to swing? I’ll push.” Jo offered, as she walked to them.
They both jumped at it, Gracie plopping onto her own swing and pumping her legs. Charlotte wasn’t tall enough to hoist herself on the swing and needed Jo’s help to mount. Charlotte knew this, and Jo knew she knew this, but still, Charlotte insisted on struggling for forty seconds before throwing her head back and crying for help. Jo lifted her into the seat, gritting her teeth to prevent another ‘for fuck’s sake’ from escaping her lips.
“Faster! Mommy, faster! Higher!”
“Mom, look at me. Mom!”
“I want an underdog! Give me an underdog!”
“Should I do a trick? Mom? Mom? Should I do a trick?”
“Mom, underdog NOW!”
“MOooooooommmm you’re not watching!”
Jo took several deep breaths, attempting the therapeutic breathing she'd seen on Instagram, meant to calm her when the anxiety rose up her throat.
“Ok, ready?” she called, and pushed Charlotte as hard as she dared, darting out in front of her.
“Mom,” Gracie said, in a tattling voice, “That wasn’t an under-dog, it was a side-dog. You didn’t really go under.”
Jo stood in front of them, trying to decide if she should argue, laugh or just lie down in the wood chips forever and let nature take over and decompose her. Rolling her eyes playfully, she said, “Actually, I was afraid if I pushed Charlotte TOO high, she might hit her head on that cloud.”
Both girls’ heads shot up, looking for the errant cloud that was close enough to touch. Grace scoffed, and pumped higher and faster, but Charlotte kept looking, twisting her head to try to see behind her, and said, “What cloud, mommy?”
“That one. The one that looks like a foot.”
With a voice of authority, Grace said, “It’s not a foot. It’s a bear.”
“A bear!? You think?” Jo asked, craning her neck to see how it could look like a bear. “Maybe a barefoot?”
“Mommy, look, I’m flying!”
With Jo’s back turned, as she scanned the clouds, Gracie leaped from high up out of the swing and landed precariously. Jo spun around just in time to catch her and steady her before she pitched forward into the woodchips.
“Nice jump!” Jo said, squeezing Gracie to her. “I give it a 9.9.”
“Out of how many?”
“That’s pretty good then, right?” Gracie beamed.
“That’s REALLY good,” Jo said. She let go of Gracie and moved to Charlotte, who was wriggling, trying to get out of her swing seat while singing, at the top of her lungs, “Barefoot, barefoot, barefoooooooooot.”
Jo lifted her up and the girls skittered off to the sandbox while Jo scanned the benches for an available seat nearby. She sat down, and just as she was about to take her phone out of her pocket, the woman with a very aggressive mom bob next to her started talking. Dammit.
“You know,” Mom Bob said, in teacher voice, “I don’t think they’re allowed to be barefoot here in this park. It’s NOT sanitary.”
Jo made her tight-mouthed smile and said, “Oh, that was just a song. She’s not actually barefoot, she’s wearing sh-
“Isn’t that one yours?” the woman interrupted, shrilly. “That little blond girl pouring sand on that boy out of her sneaker?”
Jo’s heart sank. Before she even turned to look, she knew that, of course, it was hers. It was always hers. Why did she ever leave the house? She stuffed her phone in her back pocket and was rushing to apologize to the little boy and his adult, a tiny, beautiful, immaculately dressed woman, was who was crouching over him with wipes, when Cal walked up in workout clothes.
Jo stopped abruptly as she watched her husband step directly into the chaotic sandbox, pull Charlotte and her criminal shoe out, and also speak to the woman with the poor little sand-covered boy. Jo couldn’t hear what he’d said, but it must have been charming, because the woman smiled up at Cal winningly, shrugging like, oh, it’s nothing, kids will be kids.
Jo knew she should be glad for the help, but she winced, thinking that that is most likely not how the woman would have reacted to her. Also, now Cal would feel even more superior. He'd be judging her for just sitting there on her phone while the kids were accosting strangers. He got to be the hero and she was the shitty parent…again. At least when she failed, she failed publicly. Thanks to the radio show, all of Chicago knew what a garbage wife she was, now the whole park got to see what a terrible parent she was, too. Neat!
Jo approached the group, ready with an apology face for the woman, but the woman never looked her way. Cal did though. What-the-hell he mouthed, before carrying Charlotte away from the sandbox and moving, as a family, toward the park exit.
“So…eventful morning?” he asked, with his half-cocked smile.
“Actually,” Jo said, “Everything went pretty well. Char had a scary moment where she got stuck on top of the climbing wall but-“
“She shouldn't go that high.”
“Yes. Thank you.” Jo said, sarcastically, before turning to the girls, “But she was able to get down with Gracie’s help, weren’t you? You were both really brave, huh, guys?"
“Looks like you must have mud wrestled, too,” Cal said, poking at Charlotte’s filthy dress.
"A little," Jo said, feeling her stomach seize, that familiar judgment washing over her. She pulled a Tums out of her pocket and chewed it hard.
“I had a good run, thanks for asking,” Cal said.
“Oh, good, I-“ Jo began, before both girls started talking at once.
“Daddy! Can we go on the swings one more time?”
“Daddy has to see me on the swings. Daddy didn't get to watch my tricks!"
“No," Jo said, firmly. "We’ve had enough park time for today. Let’s go home and make lunch.”
“Nooooooo,” Gracie said, dropping to her knees and starting up her siren wail.
“What do you want to show me?” Cal asked, not consulting Jo, already moving away from her and towards the swings.
For fuck's sake. Jo chewed another Tum's. He's not even trying anymore. She guessed that was part of her penance.
Alone on the sidewalk, Jo looked longingly at her van in the parking lot. What if she just got in and left? Cal would be on the hook for getting the girls the two miles home, on foot. He'd be irate, obviously, but hell, he already was, and Jo would have some miraculous time by herself at home. Judging by how slowly the girls walked, between the whining, threatening squirrels with sticks, and messing with the neighbors’ plants, it might be three days before they got home. What would she even do with herself home alone? Dance naked to loud music? Bake a cake and eat the whole thing in bed while binge-watching murder documentaries? That was more realistic. Maybe she'd have friends over? Would anyone come? Melissa would, of course. Melissa was her long-time friend and co-anchor on their talk radio show. She was single and child-free, spontaneous, and always up for fun. Mel's real life was, basically, Jo's imaginary fantasy life.
Jo sighed. Truthfully, she wasn't sure she would invite Melissa to a pretend ladies' night at home. Things were weird between them, after the whole event on-air. She wasn't sure if they'd ever go back to normal.
“Mooooommmmmyyyyy, look what I can do! You’re not watching!” Gracie called from the swings.
Jo dragged her gaze away from her van and turned to look at the laughing girls and smiling man pushing them on the swing. This little family, her family, all joy and loveliness in the early afternoon sun. She felt the guilt settle cold and heavy in her stomach as she walked to them. What kind of evil woman would wish to be away from this beautiful family? Or worse, would consider tearing it apart? Maybe Cal was right and she was broken, never satisfied.
Also, come on, realistically, if she had three days alone at home, she’d wash the bedding and reorganize the LEGO bins, scrub the filthy floors and catch up on sleep. THAT was her dream now? She felt sad all over.
“Want me to push you?” Cal asked her, grinning over his shoulder as she approached.
Not trusting herself not to cry, she shook her head no.
“Ah, you’re no fun,” he said, returning his attention to the girls.
He was right; she was no fun. She employed her tight-lipped smile for the third time that day.
Maybe this was just her face now.