Posted on: September 25, 2014

Continued from "Tequila Sunrise" and "Salt on the Rim."

“Can I play on the monkey bars today?” Paloma asks.

The playground stretches in front of them: an ancient thing, untouched by safety concerns. Vibrant paint peels to reveal shiny metal. It feels familiar to Lori, and that’s why she insists on coming here, even though there are four other parks closer to their apartment. Familiarity is a luxury.

“If you can reach ‘em today, then sure,” Lori replies. “If you fall, just spit on it.”

“Gross,” Paloma says, then nods. She tugs at the hem of her favorite sweater, mustard yellow with a big teal dove embroidered on the front. It’s starting to pull, and soon she won’t be able to wear it at all. Maybe Lori can make it into a cute pillow. Better yet, maybe Lori can hire someone to do it for her. It’s something Beth would’ve done.

“Hey, is there anyone here you like?” Lori knows from Paloma’s expression that she hasn’t phrased the question right, so she tries again. “I mean, do you have any friends here you might want to invite over? Like for a play date?”

“I like everyone,” Paloma says, and runs off to join an in-progress game whose purpose is only understood by children.

Lori realizes that without Paloma, she is alone. A dozen mothers mill around the perimeter of the playground, their pristine New Balance sneakers crunching over the bark. Most of them wear tasteful pea coats in shades of coal, pewter, and cocoa. There are a couple of outliers — a jade and eggplant — but they still feel restrained compared to the bright pink blazer Lori wears over her favorite gray sweater.

Lori stands off to the side, afraid to break into one of the established groups. How would that conversation even go? ‘Hey, have you ever thought about who your kids’ godparents are, and what that means? My sister didn’t. How about one of your kids comes over for a play date? Draw straws. I’ll wait.’

Her cell phone cuts through the silence of the morning. She has to get a new bag, one that won’t swallow everything she owns. Everything about her feels loud and obnoxious.

“I think it’s in your pocket,” the mother with the eggplant coat gives her a helpful smile. Lori groans and retrieves her iPhone from her blazer.

“Got an email from one of our little lovebirds. Whitney wanted to make sure you were doing okay. What should I tell her?” Nicole doesn’t bother with pleasantries.

“That I’m fine, of course.”

“Really?” Nicole asks.

“I can’t stop thinking about how Paloma will never know how great her mom was. She’ll never taste Beth’s triple chocolate brownies, or listen to her read the Harry Potter books, or make snow angels at Christmas. I have to do all of those things, except I almost put Kahlua in my last batch of brownies, and I can’t get Hagrid’s voice right, and my last snow angel looked disturbingly phallic.”

“You won’t let anyone forget Beth, but don’t suffocate yourself with the weight of her memory. Plus, I’m pretty sure Kahlua bakes out, but maybe Google it just in case? No one can ever get Hagrid’s voice right except Robbie Coltrane. Make snowmen instead.”

The two women make small talk until Paloma falls. It happens in slow motion: tripping over herself and splaying out in the bark. Lori hangs up on Nicole mid-sentence, watching her delicate niece right herself, inspect the skinning knee, and spit on it. Paloma looks up and waves at Lori.

“I think it worked!”

Unfazed, Paloma skips over, dark hair a tangled mess. She has Beth’s button nose, but her dad’s light blue eyes. Her smile is entirely her own.

“Look what I found!” Paloma chirps, cupping her hands around a small wooden heart.

“Cool,” Lori takes it from her. “Uh, you didn’t put this in your mouth, did you?”

Paloma shakes her head.

“Good, ‘cause you’re not supposed to do that.”

“Can we get hot chocolate?” Paloma asks.

“Sure,” Lori says. Paloma grabs her hand and Lori doesn’t flinch this time. It feels like a tiny victory.

She looks back at the wooden heart and a long-buried memory surfaces. It is a happy memory, one with Beth. They buried treasure together, when Lori was a kid and did everything Beth told her to without a second thought. Why did they bury it when they could have gone looking for it?

Grief has taken root in her, a dull throbbing ache that resides under the surface of her skin. Its only benefit is that it offers her perspective, gives her new acuity with which to view past events. At the funeral, Lori experienced an odd revelation about why Beth stopped lending her clothes. Beth’s were too adult, too sophisticated for a high school kid, and then too professional for a college kid. They grew apart in yards of fabric and heel height.

They buried the treasure because others might need it more than they did.

“I don’t think we should take it home,” Paloma says, pointing to the heart. “It belongs to the park.”

They find a small patch of dirt near the pond. The earth is damp, and their hands get dirty from digging. Lori tucks Paloma’s hair behind her small, perfect ear, and leaves a smear of dirt behind.

When the hole is large enough, Paloma places it in with the stoic reverence of a child mimicking adult behavior.

“When you plant a garden, you start with earth and seeds,” Lori says. “We’re lucky, because we live somewhere with good soil and good weather. We’ll plant it here and love will grow.”

“What kind of love?”

“Does it matter?” Lori smiles.

“Can it be like the way I love Mom and Dad and you?”

Lori can’t look at her. Paloma has seen too many tears. She has watched Lori’s grief beach itself, an immobile leviathan. Instead, she takes the child in her arms and hugs her.

“Of course it can,” Lori whispers.

Written by: Erin Justice
Photograph by: Pekka Nikrus

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