Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Camping

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Zoë slept like an old drunk or a well-run dog, mouth open, completely surrendered. Though it had taken fourteen rounds of harmonizing "Pop Goes the Weasel" with the worn-out sing-along tape, now her bare big toes were intertwined, two thick fingers hooking the corner of her mouth. They were already an hour into the drive, so the timing was just right--she'd probably stay asleep the rest of the way there. Abbie watched Zoë sleep with a mixture of pleasure and thin anxiety. It wasn't even that Zoë trusted the world to inflict no harm; at a mere eleven months, she was unaware harm lurked in the corners. It was an obliviousness for which Abbie was both grateful and greedy.

Gary smiled to himself and turned the radio back on--he was an inveterate talk radio fan. Abbie strained against the seatbelt awhile longer, twisting backwards to wipe the teething drool from Zoë's chin and pluck hard biscuit chunks from her lap.

Abbie turned to face forward again, catching from the corner of her eye another passing minivan. Gary drove too slowly. The pace was eating a hole in her belly.

The plan was to meet old college friends in a campground in upstate New York, four hours of driving from Boston. Shelly, Connecticut-based therapist and three-year roommate of Abbie's, had organized the long weekend, down to assigning cabins and meal duty among the ten friends, their spouses/partners/lovers/"For Nows" and children. So many children. Most of the couples coming had a child or multiple children in tow. Abbie thought it was slightly unreal and secretly bittersweet. The last time the group had gotten together, it was gin-and-tonics, flirting and bad poker. Now there would be graham crackers and whole milk and nap time, and not just for the youngest.

Abbie had always loved road trips; in high school and then college she took them as an opportunity to talk out issues both mundane and life-changing, balancing take out coffees on her knees and dutifully feeding the driver jelly beans or fries. It was like traveling in a bubble, moving forward in space while hovering between worlds, unaffecting for a short span anything outside the contents of the car. She hoped this could be the case with Gary, that the next two hundred miles with Zoë here/not here might allow them to recapture some of the ease from before, when every decision wasn't a parenting pass/fail or a marital slight.

She looked at Gary, watched him listening to the radio. The BBC World Service was detailing a dead despot's old war crimes and Gary nodded, ticking off some list in his head. What was it she wanted to say?

She settled back in her seat and willed herself silent, watched the road. Gary gently smoothed the fabric along her leg.

~

Abbie had Zoë and she no longer needed Gary. At least, that was Gary's fear. Abbie tried to reassure him, calling him every day at the office with some helpless, new-mother concern ("The furnace seems to be making a weird noise," "Do you think we should start Zoë on solids?"), but in her heart, she worried, too.

It just seemed so complete, the circle she and Zoë made together. Abbie to Zoë, A to Z. Gary, a "G", not even a "B," which would have at least made him next in line, given some feel of a natural progression, was a hitch, a tangle of leaves and small twigs that threatened to snarl up the stream between her and her girl. Abbie hadn't realized how fuzzy was the connection between herself and Gary until Zoë came and popped the world into sharp focus. Suddenly "kind of" being happy with someone wasn't enough, wasn't even close to being enough, and she mused how it might better to leave before Gary's detached Otherness eventually closed the rivulet off completely and she was lost with Zoë on the far banks.

~

Abbie watched Will from the safety of the picnic table. He shifted logs onto the fire with tongs, startling up wheeling sparks. Shelly sat down beside her.

"Damn," Shelly laughed under her breath, "If he doesn't still look good."

They watched him in silence and Abbie could see the self-conscious set of his jaw, the way he angled his chin. He knew they were there. He kept a steady rhythm, lifting and shifting the wood until the fire was high and hot and lit to the edges of the site. When he was satisfied, he tossed the tongs onto the woven blanket at his feet and turned to look directly at Abbie. He met her eyes with a pleased smile, the slightly cocky grin of a man at ease in his environment, but something in Abbie's face made him shift. His smile drew inward, his eyes grew hooded and although he still smiled, it became something private, a confirmation. Abbie saw this shift and knew that he had seen on her face a piece of what she had been thinking. She had been thinking about him.

After the babies were tucked in and the partners less desperate for company (Gary, of course Gary, and Will's Emma with their twins) had retired for the evening to the Scout cabins with the mildy rude graffiti and the lingering scent of mildew and mice, the die-hards stood near the campfire, banking it yet again, unwilling to let the night end. Abbie stumbled her way to the bathrooms by the parking area, but the two glasses of wine gave her night blindness and enhanced her fear of small, wild things in the dark. She gave up, found a quiet patch of trees and crouched low, feeling foolish and exposed.

She buttoned her pants and found their car with the others tucked in under the pines, in the darkest shadows. She sat on the hood, listening to the laughter on the hill and was suddenly swept by a deliciously syrupy-slow, lonely ache like in high school, the kind that made you feel weepy, intensely important and terribly overlooked. She heard the crunch of someone coming through the pines. Will stepped close, moved into the space her feet made where they rested on the front bumper of the car. She could feel the warmth of his hips radiate against her thighs. His jeans and hers whispered as they just barely brushed together. She waited for him to look into her eyes, but his face was in shadow. He didn't look up. His eyes and then hers as well watched his hand as he placed it on her waist.

His hand rested there, just along the curve of her hip, and they both looked at it as if it had moved there on its own and they didn't know what it would do next. He glanced at her then and slid his hand up to cradle the fullness of her breast. As their eyes met she felt a tingling and a dampness and realized that he had triggered her letdown reflex.

The front of her t-shirt was wet, two warm heavy circles. He didn't notice until she let out a tiny gasp, almost a sigh, really, and shook at the front of her shirt, frowning to herself as if flapping madly would erase the moment. Will took his hand from her slowly, letting it slide away, as if he wasn't put off or embarrassed, for which she was grateful.

She chuckled a little, not meaning it, and reached into the car for the extra diaper bag and fresh bra pads.

"I didn't even get to kiss you," he whispered. Abbie leaned forward then, cradled his face between her hands and caught just the movement of herself reflected in the dim of his eyes as she bent towards him. She stopped just shy of his mouth, their lips a mere breath apart. She knew exactly how he would taste. She inhaled, deeply, loudly, smelled coffee and clove and the coolness of the night in his dark hair.

~

It was one of those slate gray downpours, where the rain was painfully cold by the time it hit and the lights inside the house made everything look unnaturally bright. Abbie was driving home from her Tuesday afternoon Mommy's Group with Zoë in the front seat even though it wasn't as safe as putting her in the back. Zoë whined and dropped her chewy dinosaur where Abbie couldn't reach and she was cautiously passing the slow, old-women traffic on the main street, thinking about what was available for dinner makings even though it was only three in the afternoon because she was that bored by midday when she felt something tickle the nape of her neck. It felt like her collar was curled under, she brushed at it without a thought and suddenly the right side of her neck and part of her cheekbone was shockingly hot -- nettles? -- and she swerved to the side of the road. There was a wasp writhing on the dashboard and Zoë's damp crook of a thumb slid out of her mouth as she watched Abbie gasp and claw at her neck in panic.

Abbie turned to Zoë and said in a high, misty voice, "Mommy's okay. A bug bit Mommy." Zoë looked as if she couldn't decide whether to cry and a red Subaru behind them honked and that's when Abbie knew she had to choose to stay with him. Zoë would never be completely safe with just her. She could fall down the stairs or have an allergic reaction to strawberries or just simply go mad, walk off, coffee mug still in hand, and forget Cheerios and diapers and sticky toys. Zoë would be bleating in her crib for days until she slowly faded and stilled and curled back in on herself. With Gary, even just Gary, there was someone else, a low, solid bumper for her failings to catch against.

~

The Band-Aids kept peeling off and Abbie felt foolish anyway, could feel the eyes of the women at the supermarket slide over the crisscross of colored patches along her neck and cheek. Zoë, strapped in with a frayed red belt, banged her legs against the shopping cart in a discordant rhythm; it rattled and shuddered as Abbie wedged her foot against the bottom rack to keep it from tipping.

She pushed her fingertips along the fragrant melons, searching for a pliant flesh, and felt the round Barney Band-Aid along her jaw loosen. She smoothed it back with one hand while the other tickled across the pyramid of melons. Her finger suddenly broke through the rind, plunged into damp, green rottedness. The wet smell, the obscene flesh insisting itself against her fingertip was enough to make her bolt. She unbelted Zoë, swung her up and then under her arm, carried her in a move her father had always called "sack o' taters," Zoë's face slack with surprise. She thought about the cart, abandoned in the produce aisle, about what she might make for dinner now that shopping was an impossibility, about how quiet the house would be. She strapped Zoë in her car seat and belted herself in as well, and as she cried, she told herself it was a delayed reaction to the stings.


Barbara Card Atkinson‘s work has appeared in Salon.com, the Christian Science Monitor, Skirt! Magazine and numerous now-defunct multimedia websites. A screenwriter by training, she backed into fiction and essay writing and has yet to find her way out. Barbara is the mother of two magically mad children and is widely known as the crazy neighborhood lady who throws one mean Halloween parade.


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