Then, at dusk, we empty into evening, a downtown restaurant at our backs, an army of dragon paddleboats bobbing on the brackish water before us, and you in your father’s arms. On the Harborplace steps, we part ways with well-wishing relatives, watching them recede in the warm, black crowd. Night catches all the day’s promise in a satchel of tawny sky, tossing sparkles of memory and hope high above us. I gaze out at them glittering on the water’s dark surface as reality takes hold: we are alone.
The sensation is rare and foreign. It is not often that we are nuclear: father and mother and child. It should mean serenity or a kind of relief that for moments–however brief–we are a convincing spectacle of togetherness. But I am on the verge of detonation.
I do not know what to do with my hands when you aren’t holding one, don’t know quite where to look, if not at the damp and dewy wisps of hair against your forehead, if not at the oversized molars that loom so large whenever you yawn or cry.
You are too far away, up there. High in your father’s embrace, you are taller than I am. Occasionally, when he holds you, your downward gaze is regal. You’re an heiress deigning to acknowledge commoners. You’re a starling in flight, bored with the bits of breathing color below.
I give you both a wide berth, walking several paces behind, and wonder if you are too young to believe that the grass on your father’s side will feel lusher between your toes, will grow softer blades and brighter buttercups.
Tonight you are two. I am thinking of the way you used to belly-crawl, dragging yourself across the floor of my old apartment like a soldier wriggling under trip-wire; the determined set of your jaw when you finally hitched yourself up on all fours; the wideness of your eyes the first time you tasted a teething biscuit; the way you wailed as those pearly rounds poked through the pink of your gums; how you burbled and hummed–how you seethed!–before you could voice your demands. There is little left of the infant in you; your every gesture now is precise, the features of your face settled and firmly defined. You’re still aren’t talking much, but you make certain that we all understand you. I see you now as you will be at twelve, as you will be at twenty.
But then, I am always so far ahead of myself.
Before long, I close the space between us, ready to reprise my role as a merry member of a modern family. I play it well. In lockstep with your dad, skirting the Harbor’s perimeter, I am thinking of the day when he’ll be gone. I am turning the words over like flash cards, studying to answer the questions you’re too young to ask: Daddy has to go back to work. But he’ll be back. Remember? He always comes back. In three days, these are the exact words I’ll say to you. You will look up at him and frown, climb from my lap to his, rest your head on his chest and listen, as though recording his heartbeat to be played back as a lullaby. I will blame myself, because I understand exactly how much I am to blame.
And I am angry already, exhausted, though no casual observer could detect it.
I am too busy grinning at your pealing laughter, too busy pretending the bond between parents is as effortless as the bond of daughters and dads.
This is your first trip to the Harbor. It pleases me to see that it dazzles you just as it did me, when I was little. Your mouth is agape, your eyes brim with awe, a silver tiara enhaloes your massive afro puff, and for a moment, I wish that the time-space continuum would still until your father and I learn to make optimal choices, until you are old enough to ascertain how much of all this is an act.
Unbeknown to you, we are searching for a carousel.
You and your father tend to ride them. It is a ritual that began with his first visit to us after we moved here from Michigan. I am always asked to join you, and I always decline. You need a tether to each other that isn’t me. Perhaps neither of you will ever know how much I enjoy watching you whirl when I’m not there.
It may be selfish to admit, but I prefer you to myself. I believe he does, too.
We walk the length of the straightaway, passing party boats, a sparsely populated Italian ice hut, a closed smoothie stand, before curving toward the place where we expect to find the carousel.
It’s no longer there–or at least we don’t see it. Up ahead, there are dense crowds of volleyballers, spiking returns under harsh, high light. The sand under their feet is littered with Newports smoked down to the nub, with hard pebbles of debris. We stop before reaching them, unsure how to proceed.
You are still a lit torch burning from the inside out, eyes still dancing as they take in the water, the people, your parents and their touching shoulders and their smiles that work overtime to hide artifice from the camera that captures us all.
But when you are twelve or you’re twenty, I will explain to you how difficult it becomes for adults to pretend. The ease of make-believe is only accessible to children. I will tell you how fully I tried to commit myself to the ruse, how even the hope felt false, how only our friendship and shared adoration of you was honest. But I’ll refrain from describing what it is to spend years lying slack at the end of a line, how every breath is painful as you wait to be reeled in and believe that the hook from which you hang is love.
When you ask about your second birthday, I will say you spent it luxuriating in your parents’ affection. And at its end, we all sat in silent wonder, each at unexpected destinations.