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Other People's Children


There were thirteen children listed on Ms. Eve’s Threes roster, but only twelve parents scrunched into the plastic blue classroom chairs a few minutes after seven-thirty. Loulou considered the empty thirteenth chair beside her with surprise. Parent Orientation had stood in emphatic red typeface on her calendar for months now. Who, after the deferred school year and the resultant stretch of isolation and the extraction of the hefty tuition deposit, could have forgotten or double-booked this? She caught the eye of the woman seated across from her—Alec’s mom, read her nametag in large printed letters, beneath the illegible scribble that Loulou supposed was the woman’s signature—and saw her surprise mirrored there above the sea-colored surgical mask. And then, an instant later, the two women’s shoulders slumped as the obvious dawned on them. Someone must have developed a fever or a dry cough and, mercifully, stayed home. 

Well, thank God, thought Loulou, and she tried to transmit this thought to Alec’s mom through eyebrows with eighteen months’ practice doing the work of her entire face. But Alec’s mom, like the other parents, had turned to the front of the classroom. 

“Each of you has a card with your child’s name on it,” Ms. Eve was saying. Her carnelian-beaded bracelet flashed as she swept a hand around the room to indicate the low tables piled with fresh crayons, the construction paper rectangle before each parent. “Feel free to color them in as we chat tonight! When the children arrive on Monday, I’d love for them to see reminders of home—pictures of their favorite things, sweet messages from their grownups, or anything you’d like to help with the transition. For all those interested.” 

They were all interested, of course; every parent went straight to work. All starved for opportunities to show off their diligence and affection. As Ms. Eve read aloud her notes about the classroom policies, the almighty Covid-19 protocols, and so forth, Loulou began crayoning the bubble letters that spelled her daughter’s name—B-E-L-L-A—in an ombré of pinks and purples, Bella’s favorites. Across the table, Alec’s mom adorned her son’s name card with a parade of little construction vehicles. 

“I’m going to pass around the milk schedule for your reference,” said Ms. Eve. She was a tall woman, early forties in a long tulle skirt, her face still freckled from summer. Her clarion alto sliced pleasantly through the parents’ chatter as it would their children’s cacophony on school days. She wore her faded red-gold hair wound in a bun, bright rings on all but the marriage finger. Twice so far this evening she had mentioned a pair of cherished nephews, which told Loulou she had no children of her own. Already Loulou adored her. Ms. Eve displayed a laminated yearlong calendar, and then handed it to the nearest parent, who studied it for a moment before passing it on. 

When it reached Loulou by way of her neighbor—Thierry’s dad, per the parenthetical on his nametag—their fingers touched briefly in the handoff. Loulou shivered with mild pleasure at the contact. There was still an undercurrent of naughtiness to all of this, several non-housemates all seated together in a single room, even with the windows open and the boxy little air purifier humming conspicuously in a corner. 

Loulou searched the calendar and found Bella’s name on the first Monday of October. Someone had circulated an email about this: Once per semester, each child would bring in a gallon jug of whole milk to be kept in the communal refrigerator for the week’s lunchtimes. 

Loulou took a photo with her cell phone and passed the laminate along, reaching over the empty chair to her left. 

“We expect challenges in the first few weeks,” Ms. Eve continued, pacing the room as she spoke. “We’ve all had a tough year, your children especially. We understand that for many of them, Monday might be their first day away from you in a long time! The whole staff is committed to helping everyone feel comfortable in our little community, and you all are essential to that.” 

It was pat but felt sincere after a year-and-a-half’s trip through hell. It jogged something in Loulou; she glanced over at the empty chair beside her, the untouched name card: LOGAN. On an impulse, she set aside Bella’s name card, the pink and purple crayons along with it, and sketched a spray of blue hearts in the corner of Logan’s. 

“I was just gonna do that,” whispered Thierry’s dad, and gestured. Loulou slid the name card his way and watched as he used his yellow crayon to add a shooting star. 

“Can I?” Alec’s mom watched them with wide dark eyes. With impressive dexterity, she reached across the table and wrote, upside-down, 1st day of school! 

Ms. Eve had reached their part of the table and paused, taking in their handiwork. Though her mask hid any smile, Loulou felt the beam of her approval and warmed. 


§


The school had staggered the orientation meetings to minimize exposure, allowing in only a few classes at a time; and so, at eight-fifteen exactly, it was over. The parents shuffled toward the door. Some visibly lingered, admiring the primary-colored decorations, and the picture books stacked in the plush reading corner. Loulou wondered which others felt lightheaded with the freedom of being apart from their children for the first time in months. 

Displayed throughout the hallway were photographs of pint-sized alumni on the school playground in the Before Times. No masks, no distance, their little arms and legs entwined. 

Smack in front of the door to Ms. Eve’s classroom hung a canvas portrait of a child Loulou recognized: the younger son of her former friend Briallen, who before the deferred school year had not only sung the school’s praises but forwarded Loulou the application and provided a recommendation, though the school required none. She had insisted Bella would thrive here as her children had. 

Briallen and Loulou hadn’t spoken in months since their clash over safety protocols had come to a stressed-out head. And so it had been that long since Briallen had sent any of the usual candid photos of her children; longer still since Loulou had seen them in person. She could only assume they were still the same adorable kids they’d been back then, bright-eyed and vividly communicative, products of an environment that had filled up their socioemotional toolbox. Of course Loulou had wanted the same for Bella. Briallen was always right, except when she wasn’t. 

Loulou pulled her eyes from the photo and filed along with the other parents through the exit, into the warm night. 

Masks were pulled down, faces revealed themselves in part or in whole. Loulou had already done her quick wedding band inventory: no other single parents. They had all taken care of their dress for this evening, but that meant only clean clothes, not nice ones. In the low light, they ranged from passably kind-faced to movie-star winsome. 

Thierry’s dad was especially good-looking—a few years older than Loulou, dark curls salted with silver and a dimple carved deep in each cheek. With a movement of his muscled forearm, he signaled first at Loulou, and then at Alec’s mom. The three hung back and exchanged introductions. He, Thierry’s dad, was Jonathan; Alec’s mom, a tight Pilates brunette in the first bloom of pregnancy, was Halley. 

“Patrons of the unrepresented child,” said Jonathan, touching each of their elbows gently. 

Loulou tensed, then relaxed. Old habits were hard to break, but she followed the news closely. Aerosols were the thing; touch was not the thing. And anyway, in less than three days their children’s little limbs would be jockeying for carpet space in Ms. Eve’s classroom. 

“I was expecting to be out at least two hours tonight,” said Jonathan. “My husband is probably already halfway through the bedtime song-and-dance. Anybody want to grab a drink?” 

Back home, Loulou supposed, her mother had gotten Bella bathed and into pajamas, and was sneaking her extra snacks and screen time. Take your time, she had said twice as Loulou made her exit, arms folded around Bella. Among everything the past year had stolen, foremost for her were these small opportunities to spoil her grandchild. For once, there was no hurry. 

A pub up the street had well-spaced outdoor seating. Jonathan ordered a red Zinfandel, so Loulou did the same. 

Halley stared wistfully at their glasses as she was handed her sparkling water. “For the record,” she said, “I’d have one too, if I could. The moment calls for it.” 

“So true,” said Jonathan, and lifted his glass. “To school starting, finally. To sainted Ms. Eve, God bless her.” 

Loulou and Halley clinked their glasses against his. “And,” said Loulou, “to regular four-hour blocks of peace, starting on Monday.” 

The others laughed. “Whatever do you mean?” deadpanned Jonathan, then made a show of chugging his wine. 

Just as Loulou had hoped, they were smart and down-to-earth, self-deprecating and humble in the way they talked about their children. Her former friend Briallen had warned her that nursery school was full of children whose parents would swear they’d been toilet-trained and reciting Neruda since the age of six months. But not these two: Jonathan described Thierry as a timorous little bastard; Halley told a string of stories about the penchant Alec had developed for bombing Zoom calls with his pants down, using his penis as a puppet because he was too shy to show his face. 

Loulou sympathized. Bella had started cowering behind her mother’s legs when they passed strangers during their twice-daily walks around the neighborhood, even when the strangers were masked and half a block away. This was the dispatch from the past year. The children and their antisocial behaviors would be horrifying if they weren’t so understandable. 

“And so,” said Halley, and pointed to her belly. “My husband and I went back and forth, back and forth. Another kid, now, here, like this? Really? But then there was Alec, talking to his Cheerios. And so, finally, Let’s do it, we said.” 

“Well, congrats,” said Jonathan. “And you’re happy? It feels like the right decision?” 

Loulou took a long pull from her wine and let herself sink into listening mode. Exactly as in the Before Times, in any conversation among peers under fifty, it was only a matter of minutes before things meandered toward the neverending checklist. Single or taken? Married yet, and if not, was it on the horizon? Would there be a baby, and when, and if not, why not? And now: Another baby, a sibling for the first one? 

For Loulou, a single mother by choice, it was rather a relief to be exempted from that sort of interrogation. And the wine was good. 

“Of course we’re happy!” said Halley. “Though, off the record, had we known for sure that the school would reopen this year….” 

They all laughed, but Jonathan’s brow furrowed. “Wilkes and I want another one,” he said, resting his chin on his fist in the posture of intimate disclosure. “We thought we’d have one this year, actually. Thierry’s surrogate? We were working things out with her again. Didn’t happen, though, unfortunately.” 

The women leaned in. “What happened?” asked Loulou. 

“She backed out at the last minute. She and her husband decided they wanted another baby, and so we got this, you know, disappointing phone call. Grr.” Jonathan shook his fist, then laughed and sipped his wine. “I mean, I’m kidding. She’s a totally amazing person, one thousand percent entitled to do what she had to do for her family—all of that goes without saying. She’s become a good friend. Pumped breastmilk for Thierry for his first three months and all that stuff. God, is this an overshare?” 

The women laughed. “Breastmilk? An overshare?” Halley cocked an eyebrow. 

“You’ll have to try harder than that,” agreed Loulou. Bella had been conceived via syringe; the bodily matters endemic to childbearing were old news. 

“Okay, good. Anyway, you know what I mean. We’re happy for her, but it sucked. Wilkes took it really hard—he’s kind of interior-focused, not a lot of friends, you know—so we were sort of tiptoeing around each other for a while. For maybe two weeks, every night was cocktail hour after Thierry went to sleep. And then, you know. Onward.” 

Loulou did know. It rather reminded her of the days before her own long-awaited pregnancy—how each month until that final triumphant one, the arrival of her period had sent her into two weeks of full-on hedonism. 

“We’ll figure it out and try again,” Jonathan was saying. “It’s just that it would have been nice, having that foundation with her and all that.” 

“It’s been such a weird time,” Halley said. “I mean, Platitude City, but what I’m saying is that people have had to be selfish to make things work. You’re stuck at home with your own family for months, these people you more or less chose, and the world is on fire and every day there are all these reminders that you would do anything for them. To keep them safe, to make them happy.” 

“Well, sure,” said Jonathan. “We don’t hold it against her. Not really, I mean.” 

Loulou fought a surge of germophobia and touched his arm. Her heart raced. God, to be out again having actual interaction with actual humans! 


§


At home, she could hear Bella’s howls even before the elevator reached her floor. She had barely opened the door to her apartment when a thirty-two-pound cannonball slammed directly into her upper thighs, braids half-undone. “Mommy,” wailed Bella, an accusation. 

Her mother sat slumped on the sofa, her mask askew and a deep crease on her forehead. “We had a wonderful time,” she said with forced brightness. “But somebody missed you.” 

Loulou looked around and saw that even for the hard time Bella had given her grandmother, the apartment still looked neater than it had in well over a year, the dishes washed and stacked, the ten thousand toys relegated to one corner of the living room. “Thanks, Mom,” she said. 

“We tried to get through bedtime, but it just wasn’t happening without you.” 

“I understand,” said Loulou wearily, and hefted Bella onto her hip. 

“I would stay and have a cup of tea, let you tell me about the thing,” added her mother, rising, “but, you know….” 

Loulou did know. Her mother had almost an hour’s drive ahead; her warm, clean house and CNN awaited. And now the seal was broken; there’d finally be other babysitting to do, and soon. 

“I’ll be back,” said her mother, as if reading Loulou’s mind. “Now that it feels safer, I’ll help more.” 

They walked her to the door and said goodbye, Bella’s head heavy on Loulou’s shoulder. Once she was gone, Loulou took Bella into her pink bedroom, turned on her purple strobe nightlight, and tried to lay her in bed. “No, Mommy,” said Bella, propping herself on both elbows. “We need to read five books.” 

“Two books. It’s late.” 

“Ten books, Mommy.” 

Loulou sighed and found three short books. 

“Also the blueberries, Mommy!” 

Loulou added Blueberries for Sal to the pile. Her phone buzzed in her pocket. 

“Read, Mommy!” 

Loulou sat on the floor beside Bella’s bed and opened the first book. Reciting it from memory, she glanced at her phone and saw she’d been added to a group text thread: Patrons of the Unrepresented Child. Her heart lifted. 

“That’s not the words!” cried Bella. 

“Oops.” Loulou had read the group text title aloud. She cleared her throat and started over, trying even harder this time to track the words on her phone screen while powering through the words in Bella’s book. Nice to meet you tonight! This is Jonathan btw, read Jonathan’s initial text. 

You too! Halley

Only 4,980 minutes until Monday! 

Loulou fumbled to text with the fingers of her left hand, turning the pages of Bella’s book with her right. But who’s counting, right? she wrote back. 

“That’s not the words!” 


§


Out of curiosity, she googled surrogacy after Bella had gone to bed and found a bunch of informational websites laying out the basic structure. Legalities aside, the basic qualifications were straightforward: a potential surrogate had to be under forty, be generally healthy, and be parenting a child already. Easier than she’d guessed. 

Beyond that threshold, there were psychological bars to clear, but nothing complicated. Honestly, it was hard to imagine it going wrong, even in what Halley had called such a weird time. Certainly, Loulou knew people who’d recently changed their baby plans, nervous about the dangers hovering in the stagnant air of OB waiting rooms or put off by the idea of laboring while masked—but none of that seemed to apply to Jonathan and Wilkes’s surrogate, who’d be doing all that anyway for her own baby. 

The selfishness of some people! No longer buzzed, but still giddy from the evening’s outing, Loulou scrolled the websites until an utterly irresponsible hour. 


§


On Monday, she awoke at dawn to an elbow in her ribcage and little knees at her hip. She peeled herself free of Bella and made for the bathroom to start her rapid ablutions; mid-routine, she remembered what day it was, and yelped with joy. 

“Mommy,” whined Bella, appearing at the bathroom door. 

“School today!” said Loulou around a mouthful of toothpaste foam. She spit into the sink and lifted Bella off the ground; swooped her back into the pink bedroom down the hall, where the Moana bedclothes had been cast aside for Bella’s nightly pilgrimage to the primary bedroom. Together they’d laid out an outfit, an ivory T-shirt with ruffles at the collar and lavender denim skirtall: a grandmother purchase. 

“No no no no no,” said Bella, her little face pinched with displeasure as Loulou tried to pull the ruffled shirt over her head. 

“No? You picked this!”

Bella burst into tears. “I don’t want to wear these ruffles!” 

Negotiations ensued; forty minutes later, Bella wore the lavender skirtall over a polka-dotted shirt that didn’t match quite as well. Someone had circulated a first-day checklist, which Loulou now reviewed. She’d gathered the spare outfit, the just-in-case pull-ups, the ziplock full of non-perishables in case some disaster left Bella in Ms. Eve’s care long-term. For these difficult early days, a single stuffed animal was allowed; she tried packing a cheap, replaceable bunny of reasonable size. 

Bella pulled the bunny from her backpack and shook her head. “No, this.” She shoved in, instead, the toddler-sized stuffed bear a relative had bought her at Harrod’s on a long-ago trip to London. 

Loulou sighed. It was already eight o’clock. “Just for today.” 

Breakfast was normally a lot of quid pro quo: a bite of fried egg for a sliced banana, and so on. Today Loulou just skipped to the banana. She had imagined staging their kitchen like the set of a Kellogg’s commercial, the Peer Gynt suite streaming from the dirty-secret Alexa on the countertop, but now they were already running behind. Time to triage. While Bella ate, Loulou pulled out the hair grease and trusty Denman brush, arranged Bella’s dark curls into three braids, and slicked the edges with her thumb. She wrote Bella’s first day of nursery school! on the Crayola easel and shoved it up next to the kitchen table, snapped a photo. Sent it to their family, banana smears and all. 


§


They were a few minutes late, but today it didn’t seem to matter; the parking lot was filled with parents cajoling their children to march from minivans to the school. Bella clutched her Harrod’s bear to her chest with one hand and gripped three of Loulou’s fingers with the other. “Is this my school?” 

“This is it!” said Loulou brightly. And then, as they stepped through the wide front door, a sudden terror clutched at her heart. All these months of canceled plans, of FaceTiming relatives, of panicking every time Bella sneezed twice or slept late—and now they were marching right into the unknown. Paying thousands of dollars to do so, no less. Loulou’s pulse stuttered, and her brain whiplashed at the sudden switch from protective mode. 

“Is this my school?” Bella asked again. 

“This is your school,” said Loulou, but faintly. She kept walking but reached down to adjust the mask on Bella’s tiny, smooth face. 

And then all of a sudden, here was Ms. Eve’s classroom, and the teacher herself standing at the door, a beacon in a bright, purple tunic dress. Her red-gold hair hung in thick ponytails down her shoulders, and she knelt as each child approached, all eye contact and elocution behind the seal of her carefully fitted mask. When it was Bella’s turn: “Hello! Is your name Bella?” 

Bella shrank behind Loulou’s legs. Loulou’s brief terror gave way to a different sort of panic as behind them, parent-child pairs began to pile up. An email had circulated with protocol reminders: No parents allowed in the classrooms, and drop-off was to be kept short. Minimal aerosols. 

“My name is Ms. Eve!” Ms. Eve knelt and squeezed the Harrod’s bear’s ear. “I like your bear. Would this bear want to read a book I have about bears?” 

A little voice behind Loulou chirped, “I would like to read a book about bears!” 

Loulou and Bella turned and here was another child, accompanied by a grownup Loulou recognized from Parent Orientation: Anna’s mom. 

“Where is that book?” asked Anna, lunging forward. 

“Right this way!” said Ms. Eve, opening her arms wide. Anna sailed past Bella, who stared after her and released Loulou’s fingers. Ms. Eve took a subtle step forward and took Bella’s backpack from Loulou’s other hand. 

“I’ll be back in four hours, kiddo,” said Loulou, but Bella had already taken another tentative step forward, following Anna into the classroom. 

“I think we’re dismissed.” Anna’s mom winked at Loulou, then spun and made her exit. Dizzy and awed, Loulou followed. 


§


For the first time in eighteen months, the apartment was quiet, still, empty. Loulou was alone except for the smells of hair grease and Bella’s unfinished bananas. She thought about going back to bed, wondered how many Iron Chef episodes she could finish in three-and-a-half hours. Briefly considered masturbating. And then she remembered it was nine o’clock on a Monday, and rushed to boot up her work laptop. 

How quickly she could read her emails in total silence! How simple it was to type out a reply on the first try, and not have to follow it up with an immediate apology for typos made while tending to a child’s meltdown. For the first time since the move to full-time telework, she messaged several of her coworkers just to say good morning, and sipped coffee as she read their replies. 

A little green dot meant Briallen was online. As she often had over these few months, Loulou considered removing Briallen’s name from her list of frequent contacts but stopped herself just before clicking the button. 

But now that she had a moment to think about it for a minute, she wondered if it wasn’t, all of it, completely ridiculous. She and Briallen went back ten years, to their first meeting at the consulting firm’s new hire orientation. They had started out as work friends, sharing lunches and after-work happy hours; then Briallen had invited Loulou to be a bridesmaid in her small wedding—an overture that changed the terms. Loulou met Briallen’s family, and held her hair as she vomited too much champagne into the grass after a barnyard rehearsal dinner. A few years down the line, Briallen, in turn, had read Loulou’s pregnancy tests, discarded the negatives for her, and furnished therapeutic vodka and chocolate. All of that even though she had frankly moved past the family-building stage herself, her own children by then thriving at the little suburban nursery school. Late to the party, Loulou was grateful for a friend who could still muster up the interest. 

When finally a test came up positive, Briallen had said, Welcome to the club! It’s the best and the worst. I’ll help you survive. 

She took almost as much interest in Bella’s infant milestones as Loulou did. More, even, than Loulou’s mother, who had older grandchildren and had already spent all her excitement at first steps and smash cakes. 

Nicest of all, during Loulou’s maternity leave, Briallen had started a tradition: The first week of every month, a gourmet food delivery from a high-end grocery store appeared on Loulou’s doorstep in a wide-mouthed royal blue bag. Always it was something decadent and special: butternut-squash lasagna, a savory chicken-and-chestnut pie. Briallen savvily included offerings that even a picky toddler would eat; a favorite of Bella’s were the jumbo-lump crab cakes with almost no filler, which Loulou was all too happy to watch her douse in organic ketchup. 

Briallen kept up the food deliveries after Loulou returned to work, past Bella’s first birthday, and then her second. The dinners were a small and welcome constant as the reality of single parenthood set in. Sleeplessness and bones sore from kneeling, lifting, twisting, chasing Bella from one end of the apartment to the other, bending and straightening to assemble toddler furniture. Routines were everything: takeout Mondays, pizza Fridays, and the monthly feasts from Briallen. Even Bella came to look forward to the arrival of the royal blue bag after the appearance of a new calendar page. 

And then, the pandemic. Even if the nation as a whole couldn’t manage anything resembling a coherent response, Loulou had been terror-driven into enacting a small-scale lockdown. She and Bella had hunkered together for days that stretched into months, seeing their extended family only on FaceTime, most friends not at all. Bella as a baby had loved the grocery store; but they shifted now to weekly deliveries, Loulou learning to make do with sad produce, the wrong brand of toilet paper, a leek brought as a substitute for fennel. Because what would happen if Loulou caught it from some unmasked asshole at Trader Joe’s? Bella might have to be raised by her sixty-something grandparents, that’s what. 

She put Bella’s nanny, a kind-faced Haitian woman she couldn’t afford, on extended paid leave to be on the safe side. Two months later, the nanny was dead. 

All of that, and meanwhile Briallen, whose children were now five and seven, seemed to carry on more or less as normal. Per Facebook, they still took vacations in both summer and winter of that first terrible year. The beach and then a ski lodge. They celebrated Briallen’s birthday at a farm-to-table restaurant in a neighboring county with no mask mandate. They hosted Briallen’s vaguely Trumpy in-laws for Christmas and posted photos on social media in Mardi Gras masks, their noses and mouths uncovered. Get it? read the caption. Briallen’s hair in the photos was freshly colored to the roots. 

Loulou had regarded the photos with bile in her throat, exhausted from the weeks of entertaining a toddler within the 950 square feet of her apartment. 

Briallen sent the school application, and Bella was accepted, and then the school closed for the upcoming year, like so many other things had. Briallen texted: Damn it! But she’ll love it next year. 

And Loulou couldn’t resist writing back: If only people could stop going to fucking farm-to-table restaurants, we could get through this and schools would stay open. 

It wasn’t meant to start a fight, but of course it did. I have to put my family first, said Briallen, by way of explanation. I’m trying to do what they need. And so should you. It’s totally naïve and stupid to think anybody is basing life decisions on other people’s children. 

That fight felt remote and ridiculous now that everything was so different. The threat hadn’t disappeared, but it had receded enough that Loulou, so close to her wit’s end, had seized the opportunity to enroll Bella in school when it reopened, a year later than planned. The school was open, and there Bella was, enjoying her first day. Presumably, Briallen’s children too were enrolled somewhere. And now, this little green dot. 

But also, her phone, buzzing with notifications, texts from Jonathan and Halley: 

I saw our guy Logan this morning! He’s so cute! I hope he likes our drawings

He was at school? I thought we thought maybe the family was sick?

He has an au pair, I think that’s the situation, just busy parents

Loulou wrote back: So glad he’s ok, also moment of thankfulness for sainted Ms. Eve and her many miracles and the blessed, blessed SILENCE

Jonathan and Halley both liked her text. 


§


The next day was easier; and the next, easier still. Within a week, Bella was willing to leave her Harrod’s bear on the sofa, and to hold her new friend Anna’s hand as the two marched into the classroom together. 

Four hours a day wasn’t much—Loulou routinely found that by the time she’d returned home from dropoff, refreshed her coffee, and settled into a groove at work, it was already time to leave for pickup. Still, after eighteen months of working with a child in her lap, it was enough to find new footing. Slowly she got the housework under control, fighting piles of laundry into gradual submission. During breaks, she cleaned the kitchen, planned and prepared activities for Bella to do after school. She earned kudos for picking up her glacial pace at work, finally finished an overdue project on a mid-September Friday morning. She found herself wanting to celebrate and started to text the Patrons. But then she had an idea. She deleted Halley’s name from the recipient list, and finally texted Jonathan only: Celebrating a win at work. Boozy playdate this evening? 

They met at a central playground, coffee mugs filled with their cocktails of choice. Loulou’s was a makeshift greyhound: random amounts of vodka and grapefruit juice. She sat at a picnic table; Jonathan sat too, at a respectful distance, and both lowered their masks. He was, as at nearly every dropoff and pickup, completely pulled together, with crisp jeans and a richly colored knit pullover. 

“No Wilkes?” said Loulou. 

“Nope. He’s taking advantage of the quiet. Probably napping.” 

She was disappointed. She had met Wilkes a few times by now—Jonathan did most but not all of the school runs—and appreciated how well they complemented each other. Jonathan was chatty and friendly, as warm as if he’d known every fellow school parent for decades. By contrast, Wilkes was shy and soft-spoken. He had been the one to bring the milk this Monday, handing the gallon jug over to Ms. Eve in a canvas tote. Then he bent to tie Thierry’s shoelaces with deliberate hands, and whispered something into his son’s ear. Dairy delivery! repeated Thierry, grinning, as Loulou and Ms. Eve laughed. 

Now, Bella and Thierry headed in two different directions, scaling opposite sides of the jungle gym. Though not particularly friends, they had grown comfortable around each other. Loulou and Jonathan watched, then clinked their coffee mugs. “To a job well done,” said Jonathan. 

She took the first sip of her cocktail. It was mostly vodka and emboldened her. “I wanted to tell you,” she said. “If you and Wilkes are still thinking surrogacy?” 

“Yeah?” 

She took another swallow. “I don’t know if this is inappropriate or awkward or whatever. I just wanted to mention that it’s something I’ve thought about, too.” 

Jonathan cocked his head to one side. “You’ve thought about hiring a surrogate?” 

“Oh—ha!” Her stomach fluttered. “No, no. I’ve thought about being a surrogate for, you know. A family that needs one. Is that weird?” 

Jonathan shook his head. “It’s not weird. You have the bandwidth for all of that?” 

Bandwidth? The question surprised her. “I had a really easy time with Bella,” she said. “No complications.” She ticked off the qualifications on her fingers. “I’m under forty. I’m pretty healthy. I have a kid already, and zero interest in having another one. So no last-minute changes of heart.” 

“I see,” said Jonathan. “I mean, that’s almost too good to be true, you know?” 

She continued, “I had a lot of help when I had Bella. I’ve felt pretty compelled to pay it forward if that makes sense.” 

Jonathan said nothing, tensing as Thierry lost his footing on a segment of the jungle gym, then righted himself. 

“I mean, no pressure,” said Loulou. “But you could mention it to Wilkes if you wanted. Just something for all of us to think about. Now that things are getting, you know—” 

“Back to normal,” Jonathan finished for her. 

“Exactly,” said Loulou. 

They were silent for a moment, sipping their camouflaged cocktails. 

“Anyway,” said Loulou. “Have I mentioned lately that I love Ms. Eve?” 

“Love her,” echoed Jonathan. “Thierry told us the funniest story about her yesterday.” 

And they lapsed into their more typical chitchat, gossip about the other school families, recent parenting challenges, and how they’d persevered. What a relief, to talk shop without competitiveness! Every so often Loulou found herself leaning in too close and had to pull away. The daylight faded. 

At six-thirty, Jonathan’s cell phone beeped an alarm. “Thierry, buddy,” he called. “Five-minute warning! Dinner’s probably almost ready.” 

Jonathan was the play parent; Wilkes, the at-home chef. Loulou liked to imagine the two of them at home, splitting up the duties, Jonathan engaging Thierry with Legos while Wilkes stirred a Bolognese on the stovetop. She angled her phone away from Jonathan as she pulled up an app and placed her own Friday night pizza order. Then she slid the phone back into her pocket. 

They watched the kids, curly-haired Thierry cresting the jungle gym, Bella turning herself into a mulch mermaid on the ground twenty feet away. 

“Are they even at the same playdate?” Loulou wondered aloud. 

“Not so much,” said Jonathan. “But I guarantee you he’s glad she’s here.” 


§


The weekend. Both days, Loulou awoke at dawn to an elbow in her ribcage, and sharp little knees at her hip. On Saturday, she pleaded with Bella to eat something other than bananas for breakfast; laundered their clothes and linens; emptied the contents of Bella’s backpack, mummified sandwich crusts and socks that had gotten inexplicably wet; booted up her work laptop after Bella had gone to bed. On Sunday, wash day, she rubbed oil into Bella’s scalp; wrestled her howling into the bathtub; detangled, shampooed, and conditioned; worked grease through her curls with the Denman brush. Set furious, whimpering Bella in front of the television—by Sunday, all bets were off on screen time—to work braids into her damp hair while simultaneously compiling the grocery order through the app on her phone. 

A familiar sort of weekend, a sprint like all of them, but now with the light at the end of the tunnel. Monday, just around the corner. 

Once she’d placed the grocery order, she exhaled and texted the Patrons of the Unrepresented Child. Only 960 minutes until school! 

Halley replied: YESSSS

But who’s counting, replied Jonathan. 

“Mommy, can I use your phone? Mommy?” asked Bella. 

But Loulou was sending another text to Jonathan. Not even 5 o’clock and wash day is almost done, groceries are ordered, school is on the horizon, who could have imagined such riches? 

He wrote back, Ok superwoman! 

She tucked Bella’s braids into a satin cap and hustled her outside for the obligatory half-hour of fresh air, their usual circuit around the neighborhood. The same alternating rows of buildings and oak trees they’d memorized a hundred times over by now. 

“I want to see your phone,” whined Bella. 

“Later,” said Loulou. She texted Jonathan: Dinner inspo? 

He sent back a photo: Wilkes at the counter, hand-tossing a salad of spinach and radicchio, a little bowl of mandarin slices waiting to be poured in. In the corner, Thierry, aproned and pulling a face at the camera. 

It was too late to add anything to her grocery order in progress, and she’d have to warm Bella up to the idea of radicchio—or, really, of salad itself—but it was a good idea for next week’s grocery order. 

She was typing a note into her phone when up popped an email notification and, unbidden, a preview of the message: Dear families, we are writing to notify you that we have been informed a student in your child’s class has recently tested positive—

She sank to the nearest curb and hooked Bella around the waist, pulling her out of the street. Though she suddenly thought she might be sick, she forced herself to read the email in its entirety, down to the gritty details. Per the mandate of the health department, Bella’s class would be closed for two weeks. Loulou thought of her tenuous foothold at work, the piles of laundry she’d only just conquered. She thought also of Bella’s tiny three-year-old lungs and nasal passages, the number of times she’d had to readjust her child-size mask at dropoff. Despite the September breeze, she found it hard, suddenly, to catch her breath. 

Right on cue, here came the texts from the other Patrons: 

God damn it

SERIOUSLY

Everybody here ok? Aside from wanting to punch a wall?

We’re ok, it’s not Alec

Loulou stared and willed her fingers to type a response. 

“Please, Mommy,” whined Bella, grabbing at her phone. 

Not Thierry either, Loulou you guys ok? 

She tapped out two letters, Ok, and then relinquished the phone to Bella, who had somehow learned to navigate to Moana songs on YouTube. Eventually, she stood, took Bella by the hand, and led her home, where of course the groceries were waiting at the door, all five price-jacked bags of them. 


§


They had endured worse than this, ten days was nothing, but somehow in these few golden weeks, Loulou had forgotten the art of survival. Bella woke up even crabbier than usual, disappointed each day there was no school, no Anna, no Ms. Eve. There seemed to be nothing in the house she wanted to do; no crafts or coloring books, no cousin she wanted to FaceTime, no toy that could hold her interest long enough for Loulou to complete even a single work task. There was only screen time, Bella’s eyes glazing as she watched terrible, ear-splitting movies ten feet from Loulou’s workspace. 

She thought of calling her mother, but there was the question of exposure, the murky incubation guidelines. How ironic it would be, after all this time, to get everyone sick! 

Work was understanding but with limits. She had burned through her paid leave ages ago. Her boss made it clear, in typical magnanimous fashion, that he would take no issue with her completing her hours after Bella’s bedtime if that suited her. Really, he wouldn’t even peek at the timestamps on her emails. To this message, he added a winking emoji as if to say it was their juicy little secret. 

By the fourth morning, the dishes were sky-high again and Bella had watched every kiddy movie in existence. As Loulou frowned at a work document, Bella collapsed dramatically across her lap and whimpered. “Mommy,” she groused. “I want to see Ms. Eve.” 

“I know,” said Loulou. 

“Can I go see her today?” 

“It’s not the day yet,” said Loulou. 

“Which day is it?” 

“Not the right one,” said Loulou. “Soon.” 

Bella slithered to the floor and began to cry. 

Loulou texted the other Patrons. Anybody comfortable with an outdoor playdate this evening? 

Their replies were long and apologetic but amounted to so many nos. Jonathan and Wilkes were using vacation days, four each, to cover the lapses in childcare; today was Wilkes’s turn. Halley, claiming pregnancy privilege, was taking the day off from parenting; her husband had driven Alec to some local park. 

Ok, wrote Loulou. Nevermind. 

But, wrote Jonathan, only ten million more minutes until school! 

Irritation surged along with Bella’s howls as Loulou lowered herself to the ground, rubbing the little girl’s back as she reread the string of texts. Haha, she typed bitterly. You poor things! 

Halley wrote back: ??

Loulou gathered Bella into her arms and freed up both her hands, making it easier to type quickly, before she could stop herself: Only being able to rely on your husbands between 50 and 100 percent of the time? How on earth are you surviving? 

The group text abruptly went quiet, though on-screen ellipses suggested the other Patrons were considering and then backspacing various replies. Finally, Loulou set her phone aside and climbed back into her desk chair, bringing all thirty-two pounds of Bella along with her. Eventually, Bella cried herself to sleep on her mother’s lap. Loulou thought maybe now she might get some work done, but her head had begun to hurt. And so, afraid to make any sudden moves, she sat staring at her computer for the next thirty minutes, watching the little green dot that meant Briallen was online. 


§


The next few days were easier, school and Ms. Eve seeming to recede from Bella’s mind. Each day Bella woke up fever-free and dry-nosed, Loulou felt the gradual loosening of the knot in her own chest. 

On what she knew was one of Wilkes’s work days, she texted Jonathan during Bella’s nap. Hey, she wrote. When it’s safe to get together in person again, maybe we five could go for pizza?

Lol sure, he wrote back. 

Heartened, she opened her internet browser and navigated to the surrogacy website from a few weeks earlier. There was the stock model, pregnant and joyful, a pair of proud-looking men—the implied fathers—off to one side. She took a screenshot of the page and texted it to Jonathan. Us! she captioned the photo. 

He didn’t write back, but because Bella woke up half an hour early, Loulou didn’t notice until later. 


§


And then there was only a day left, one they had to spend playing catch-up. There was the promise of school to buoy Loulou—now it was only twenty-four hours away, now only twelve—but there were still so many things to be done. The dishes and the laundry and the groceries and Bella’s hair. 

But then she had done them, and she awoke at dawn on the first Monday of October—the end of their quarantine—to an elbow in her ribcage and insistent little knees at her hip, and she exhaled with her whole body. 

They had fallen out of practice. Bella, who had whined nonstop for Ms. Eve these past two weeks, would not bend her arms to be inserted into sleeves. Would not take a single bite of the egg Loulou optimistically fried for her. Insisted on bringing her Harrod’s bear again, stuffing his expensive body into her grimy backpack. 

But finally, they were out the door, and then on the road, and then in the school parking lot, Bella’s fitted white mask in place on her soft little face. They were on time, a rarity, enough so that Loulou stood a chance at being back at her desk on time after dropoff. And here, at the door to the classroom they had missed so much, was Ms. Eve, the usual smile in her eyes as she knelt to welcome Bella, and as she straightened and said something to Loulou. 

“What?” said Loulou. She’d been distracted, trying to peer around Ms. Eve, to see whether Thierry and Alec were already in the classroom or whether she might run into their parents in the parking lot. 

“The milk?” said Ms. Eve. “I have Bella on the schedule to bring the milk today.” 

Loulou gasped. 

“It’s totally fine if you forgot,” said Ms. Eve. “We can make it work without—” 

“No, no,” said Loulou. Her ears had gone hot. “I’ll run out to a store and get it. I’ll bring it right back.” 

Ms. Eve touched her arm. “Please! Don’t worry. Half the kids don’t drink it anyway. It’s really all right. We’ll send Bella a reminder email next semester.” 

Bella glanced up at the sound of her name, then followed Ms. Eve’s gesture and flounced into the classroom. 

Loulou walked back to her car, feeling idiotic for the embarrassment she felt. Bella was three, too young by far to care about any of this, to be ashamed of her association with the missing milk. But Bella wasn’t the only goddamn person on earth. What if one of the other children, Alec or Thierry or Logan or Anna, absolutely couldn’t eat lunch without whole milk? Wasn’t the reliable replenishment of the communal milk the very sort of commitment on which the school itself was run? And she knew for sure, for absolutely sure, that Bella did drink the milk when it was available. 

At a stoplight, she pulled up the photo she’d taken of the milk calendar and found the second appearance of Bella’s name on the third week in March. She added it to her Google calendar, and texted it to her mother. She held the thought of it in her mind as she let herself into her apartment building and boarded the elevator, meaning to write it on a physical Post-It note once she reached her desk. 

She stepped off the elevator and approached the door to her apartment. To her momentary surprise—but of course, she realized, it was the first week of a new month—here on the ground was a royal blue delivery bag; and right on top, surrounded by ice packs, four absolutely luscious-looking crab cakes. 


 


SHANNON SANDERS is a Black writer and attorney. Her debut short story collection, Company, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in fall 2023. Her short fiction has appeared in One StoryTriQuarterlyElectric LiteratureJoyland, and elsewhere, and has received a PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She lives near Washington, DC with her husband and three sons. Connect with her on Twitter!





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