Our daughter knows the word lawn, of course she does, and the word still sounds green, it still sounds like leisure. And there are still people, rich people, like the Stanhopes on the other side of the wall, who have private lawns.
But when we take Lulu for a very special fifth-birthday outing to the Botanical Garden across the city (bus, subway, bus, grass for the masses) and promenade on the lawn where the cherry trees are blossoming, she asks, “What’s all this grass for?,” and then I feel bad, like why the heck didn’t we bring her here when she turned 2, 3, 4?
And then I’m remembering that time last summer when we rode the subway out to the shore and I said, “Don’t you love the sound of the sea?,” and she said, “Yeah, just like WaveMaker!,” which is the machine we’ve used ever since she was born to try to drown out the sound of sirens and other bad things. And then I’m remembering when we took her to the urban stables, five-minute pony rides on the sidewalk for $16 a pop every Sunday morning, the dirty white pony (Marshmallow) stepping carefully among blowing candy wrappers, and though Lulu was so stiff with terror that I had to pull her off after 45 seconds, she insisted I feed Marshmallow a few of the baby carrots we’d brought along.
The truth is, we hadn’t taken her to the Botanical Garden when she turned 2, 3, 4 because we’d taken her there when she turned 1. We’d set her down on the lawn, so pleased with ourselves, all ready to snap a bunch of photos, but she’d burst into tears—she was scared of the grass, she kept jerking her hands up as though the grass was burning her. She looked at us like, Hey, what’s wrong with the floor?
Lulu, 5 years old now, staring at the lawn at the Botanical Garden. Lulu. A spritely, springy name. A name for feeling carefree. But our Lulu is serious. The friendly cashiers always say, “Those eyes!,” but I can hear the note of fear. I get it. The largeness of her eyes. The darkness. My dark little thin little odd little glittering shadow child. I put my hand on her disproportionately large head, 90th percentile. Big brain, we told her when a kid on the playground said something a little while back.
“It’s a lawn,” I explain. “For playing.” My throat surprises itself by clogging up. In the city parks, the streambeds are empty except for old soda cans, used condoms, dirty napkins, plastic bags, cigarette butts, rabies-vaccination pellets. Back where I grew up, or I guess more accurately, back when I grew up, I was king of a creek.
“No,” Lulu corrects, pointing at a wooden sign: no playing on the grass.
Sarah gives that cold laugh of hers. “Kid’s right,” she says. Don’t get me wrong, Sarah is the best, my great big love, but she didn’t grow up anywhere she could be king of a creek, and sometimes that makes her less kind than, say, me.
“It’s for looking,” I correct myself. “For enjoying. For feeling the green in your eyes. The green in your bean.”
“The green in your dream,” Lulu plays.
“That’s my girl,” I say like a dad in a movie. I shoot a look at Sarah. Sarah smiles back at me. So nice. A family on a lawn, or near a lawn, at the Botanical Garden on this fine day, half a decade into the life of Lulu, into the life of Sarah and Danny as parents.
“Well,” I say, “maybe you can’t play on it, but you can walk on it. Go ahead, Lu. Walk on the grass. Walk on it. It’ll feel nice.” I push her gently forward.
Lulu pauses at the boundary between the paved path and the grass. She dips her foot in its jelly sandal onto the grass as though the grass is a body of water with a dangerous current.
“It tickles,” she whispers.
“It’s nice, right?,” I encourage. “It’s nice. Go ahead. Walk on it.”
I place my own foot on the lawn, the prickles of grass poking up between the holes in my sandals. In a sudden fit of exuberance, I throw myself down. Until this moment, I hadn’t realized that Lulu is old enough to find me embarrassing. I can see the love and the embarrassment fighting on her face as she watches me. But there’s no one nearby, and I decide to go all the way. I fling my legs out and lie star-shaped on the grass.
“Yodeleheho!,” I say.
“Danny,” Sarah says. She too is half-ashamed, half-admiring of the way I am. The joy I can contain. She points at a second wooden sign: no walking, sitting, or lying on the grass.
“There’s a guy coming,” Lulu says.
“Hello, guy,” I say unconcernedly. But I stand up, hoping I’ve gotten a grass stain or two on my khaki shorts.
The Botanical Garden employee changes course.
“Does this remind you of anything?,” I ask Lulu, gesturing wide to encompass the rolling lawn, the trees and trellises, the prettiest place I have to offer her. I’m thinking of a print book we like to read together, an old textbook called Flora.
Lulu follows the sweep of my arm as it directs her gaze toward more green than she ever gets to see in one place.
She grabs my other arm and looks up at me soberly, hopefully, aiming to please.
“It reminds me of money,” she says.
I don’t know if Lulu meant money because money is green, is the sort of green she sees more often than the other sort of green, or if she already understands that rich people have lawns whereas people like us don’t whereas some people don’t have produce or computers or homes. I didn’t want to probe, back there at the Botanical Garden, but my mood did a nosedive, that’s for sure, a nosedive that’s landed me in the concrete enclosure behind our apartment building at 10 o’clock at night, but I’m not out here to dump trash or recycling, I’m just checking on the moon, orange through layers of smog. The moon never looked this awesome when I was a kid. I stand there looking at it, challenging myself to ignore the smell of overwarm trash, until the moon scoots a couple of inches and gets obscured by the wall.
On the other side of the wall, where the moon is still visible, the Stanhopes are splashing in their pool. I can hear it over the noise of their generator, humming as it always hums, purifying the air in their yard, incinerating the mosquitoes.
How do I know all this about the Stanhopes’ yard? Well, there’s a hole, believe it or not, a peephole at the place where the Stanhopes’ amalgamated quartz-and-rubber wall meets the side of our concrete enclosure, a fact that came to my attention some months ago, a fact that I haven’t shared with Lulu or Sarah, because what good would it do them to see this. It is a wrong thing, one of the wrong things, how near to each other the rich and the not-rich live. Steve Stanhope is an inventor, or not an inventor, an investor in inventors—he finds the scientists who are doing the cool things and figures out how to get those things to the people. I think you have to admire that.
“Daddy! Daddy!” the sons (twins) cry out as Steve Stanhope throws them again and again into the pool. I scoff at the irresponsible parenting—who lets their kids stay up this late? Sure, Lulu’s bedroom might be a cubbyhole carved out of our bedroom with a temporary wall, and sure, maybe I was a little wounded when Lulu proudly led a new friend into her room and the girl said, “Why is your room so dark and small?,” but at least we put her to bed at a healthy hour, and read her print books beforehand, and give her a bit of the special organic kids’ toothpaste, arm and a leg but worth it, God, well worth it, for her. And now I’m remembering the time a few weeks back when I happened to peek through the wall during the twins’ birthday party, and who should I see there but Marshmallow—looking maybe a tad cleaner, sure, but skinny old Marshmallow nonetheless, marching wearily up and down that lawn just as he’d marched up and down the sidewalk.
Right as I’m trying to get myself onto my high horse about what great parents Sarah and I are, Mara Stanhope steps out onto the patio in these soft gray harem pants, and I realize with a start that she’s pregnant, pregnant as a pumpkin but still somehow so lean, standing in the light of her double glass doors.
Three children. Imagine that. It was a luxury to have two. Even if we could somehow get the money together again for the fertility treatments (which no way could we), no way could we afford a second. It had taken Sarah two years to conceive. “Plastics,” the doctors explained. So you go home and it’s like, the yogurt’s in plastic, the shampoo’s in plastic, the toothbrushes are plastic.
Mara Stanhope bore the twins surrounded by a pod of dolphins at sunset in the ocean off a black-volcanic-sand beach in Hawaii. The pics were gorgeous, and public, on the Internet, with her privates blocked out. Dolphin-Assisted Childbirth Success! Dolphin Midwifery Leads to Dream Birth! “It’s about coexistence,” Mara Stanhope was quoted as saying. “It’s about total relaxation.”
“Boys!” she says now, resting a hand on her pert belly. “Aiden! Landon! Bedtime!”
When Sarah was pregnant she would always say, “I’m starving for something but I have no idea what it is.” One night I spy Mara Stanhope lounging on the torch-lit lawn with a tray of small bowls, eating a bit from this one or that one with a tiny fork, but I can tell she’s just like Sarah was, starving for something that hasn’t yet been tasted by anyone on this planet. She reaches into a stainless-steel cooler, then settles back into her lounge chair with plain old Coca-Cola in a can.
“Hey, witness,” Sarah says, coming up behind me.
I startle. It’s nearly midnight—Lulu has been in bed for hours, and so has Sarah. She’s wearing her great little blue robe.
“There’s a peephole here,” I say stupidly.
“I know.” Sarah smiles in the slight light. “Pretty fun, huh?”
I love my wife.
“She’s had some wild cravings,” she says. “All those capers.”
Above us a spot of light moves across the purple clouds.
“Another fucking searchlight,” she whispers. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?”
Sarah and I, we get sad about different things.
Like that night, later on, I think about how Lulu doesn’t recognize stars except as a shape in coloring books and on stickers and stuff. I say that to Sarah. “Isn’t that sad?,” I say.
“It doesn’t make you sad?”
“Everyone has lots to learn about everything.”
When I get home from work that Friday, Lulu is sitting on Sarah’s lap, helping her order the groceries. Lulu has outgrown this activity a bit, her skinny legs splaying awkwardly over Sarah. I remember going to the grocery store with my mom, helping her choose the honeydew based on how hollow they sounded when you knocked on them.
“No, Mom!” she says to Sarah, both of them staring at the screen. “Rutabaga only gets two and a half stars this week.”
“It’s on sale, Lu,” Sarah explains. “A girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do.”
Lulu jumps off Sarah’s lap and runs over to me.
“Daddy! Let’s search for something!”
This is it: getting home from work on Friday, better than cool water.
“Sure thing. Hmm, how about …”
“The world’s tiniest marsupial?”
“Sure thing,” I say.
“Okay, but after dinner,” Sarah says.
“Lemme guess,” Lulu says. “Rutabaga?”
“You bet,” Sarah says curtly.
After dinner Lulu and I search the Internet to find the world’s tiniest marsupial.
“Don’t touch,” I say when she goes to press her fingertips against the close-up of the creature’s fur. “You’ll leave marks.”
She pulls her hand away from the screen.
Sarah takes the trash out after Lulu goes to bed, but she doesn’t come back. After 10 minutes I go to look for her. I find her in the concrete enclosure, face glued to the hole in the wall.
“Hey, witness,” I say, pushing her aside so I can see.
“Hey, addict,” she counters, pushing me back.
“Is that what I think it is?” Mara Stanhope’s low moan stretches over the wall, over the noise of the generator.
“No, sicko,” Sarah hisses. “You think I’d wanna watch that?”
I arrange myself above Sarah, like the next head up on a totem pole, so that we can peer through the hole at the same time.
In the light of many moon-shaped paper lanterns, Mara Stanhope is crouched naked on all fours, clinging to the thick grass of the lawn, rolling her hips around and around, emitting groans that swing back and forth between pleasure and pain. A slender woman in a gray shift pours golden oil onto her back and kneels to rub it in. A second slender woman in a gray shift crouches in front of Mara, also on all fours, groaning along with her.
“Those are the doulas,” Sarah whispers. Sarah had wanted a doula (just one) for a hot second, until we learned how much they cost. Not a biggie, she’d said back then.
“I guess they got sick of the dolphins,” I say, hoping Sarah hasn’t noticed the rose petals floating in the pool.
I await her laugh but she ignores me.
“Wonder where he is,” I say.
Whatever else you might say about Lulu’s birth—that the nurses had cold and impatient hands, that the anesthesiologist didn’t inspire confidence as he poked the needle yet again into Sarah’s spine, that the doctor yawned seven times while stitching up Sarah’s vagina—I was there, instant by instant, and as she pushed Lulu’s head out I said to her, I didn’t think I could be in more awe of you than I already was.
Music swells up from the Stanhopes’ outdoor speakers, music that sounds like it was composed by the cosmos, and Steve Stanhope strides through the glass doors. Mara Stanhope’s moans unite with the chords of the music, and he comes over to her, and the doulas tactfully move aside, and he gets down on all fours facing his wife, and he too moans the moans of the universe, and believe me, I wish it was a laughable sight but somehow it’s not.
“You are now 10,000 times more relaxed than you’ve ever been,” the doulas chant.
If only Sarah would laugh. Instead she mutters something.
“What?,” I demand.
“The rich still get to be animals,” she says.
Lulu emerged with the assistance of K-Y Jelly, but the Stanhopes’ daughter is born into a rush of imported organic olive oil, the doulas pouring cupful after cupful of it to serve as lubrication, and as the baby’s head emerges onto the candlelit lawn, Mara Stanhope seems to be having the deepest orgasm of her life, and I’m ashamed by my hardening, but more ashamed by the way Sarah waggles her butt against me to acknowledge the hardening, but mainly turned on by the idea of going inside with Sarah and filling her up with triplets.
Two people in medical coats race onto the lawn to collect the blood from the umbilical cord. Which, yes, will cost the Stanhopes 75 percent of our monthly income to store in a private blood bank.
“Please no,” Sarah says when the doulas present to the Stanhopes the disk of the slimy, wound-up umbilical cord. (Once it dries out, it’s the ideal chew toy for the baby!)
By Saturday afternoon, Mara Stanhope is stretched out in her lounge chair beneath an umbrella. She looks like a woman at a spa, not a woman who gave birth less than 24 hours ago. That smell of newly cut grass. She’s holding a tall glass containing a blood-red drink, sipping the liquid through a long straw.
“OMG,” Sarah says after taking a peek. “A placenta smoothie. Let me take Lu to ballet today, okay? All these good vibes are killing me.”
I saw Sarah’s (or, I guess, Lulu’s) placenta for about five seconds before it was tossed into a container of organs and wheeled away.
A nurse carries a woven basket out onto the lawn. It takes me a minute to realize that the baby is inside the basket. The nurse places the baby on Mara Stanhope’s chest and Mara pulls her robe aside and the newborn takes the nipple easily, almost lazily, like an old pro. Those early days with Lulu, when she barely nursed, and then there was the heat wave, I prefer not to think about, Sarah hooked up to the breast pump for hours every day, me trying to pretend the pump didn’t freak me out. “What’s wrong?,” Sarah sobbed, her nipples extending and retracting inside the plastic tubing. “Nothing, sorry, sorry,” I kept saying, cradling Lulu.
The nurse leaves and Steve Stanhope comes out. He looks happy, healthy. He sits at the base of Mara’s lounge chair, stroking her shin. They smile and talk quietly. I can’t tell what they’re saying, except that I keep hearing the word lake, lake, lake, the syllable punctuating their every sentence.
He wanders off and she reclines, closes her eyes. Their vegetable garden is thriving already, even this early in the season. I can see the kale and mint from here.
“Excuse me,” the voice says, or rather the mouth, the mouth right against my eye, breath in my pupil.
I leap back and cover my eye as though it’s been burned.
“Pardon me,” the mouth says. “I noticed this hole the other day. I’ll have our guy seal it up ASAP.”
Steve Stanhope speaks graciously, maybe even with compassion, as though he knows it isn’t good for me or anyone else in my building to witness the activity on his lawn.
“Oh, no problem,” I say, annoyed with myself for how grateful I feel that he’s playing it as though he’s inconvenienced me rather than the reverse.
Then it’s his eye at the hole. His eye upon the deteriorating brick, the row of trash cans swollen with garbage, Lulu’s hand-me-down scooter chained to the communal bike rack. The eye lingers.
“Hey, screw you!,” I say.
The eye doesn’t react. Had I whispered it too softly for him to hear? Had I said it at all?
“Say, neighbor,” Steve Stanhope says. “My wife gave birth to a baby girl last night, and I’d love to give you a little something as a kind of celebratory gift, because, well, there’s nothing like having a baby girl.”
As if I don’t know.
“Sort of like the way I’d have given you a cigar back in the day, you know?”
“Okay,” I say.
“Just a sec,” he says. And even though I don’t want anything from Steve Stanhope, I stay there at the peephole, waiting. Maybe if he hadn’t said “Say,” I might not have stayed. But it’s a tic of mine too sometimes, to say “Say.”
I’m keeping an eye on the peephole when suddenly I sense a flutter at the top of my head, like a bird just pooped on my hair. I look up to find the tiniest drone I’ve ever seen hovering above me. The drone beeps and drops something small onto the concrete beside me.
“Hey, pick it up,” Steve Stanhope requests. I bend down to retrieve the object. It’s a perfectly round pebble, pure white, like the moon of my boyhood. “You can plant it in cracks in the concrete. It’ll grow wherever.”
“Ste-eve!,” Mara sings out across the lawn. “Ste-eve!”
“Gotta run.” The eye winks. “Enjoy, okay? Nice chatting with you. And don’t worry, the hole will be repaired any day now.”
“Does it need water?,” I remember to ask only once he’s out of earshot.
“You can do it!,” I say to Lulu. Dusk on Saturday, and we’re standing above the seam between two slabs of concrete in the enclosure behind the building. Sarah refused to come outside.
“A weird random magic pebble seed thingy?,” Sarah had said, scrubbing hard at the nonorganic apples in the sink. “From Steve Stanhope? No thanks.”
“It’s a gift,” I countered. “From a neighbor.”
“Isn’t he the one who put those radioactive fish in the canal to eat the other, even more radioactive fish?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied.
“Well don’t let Lulu touch it,” she said.
Now, as we stand at the back of the building, I drop the seed into Lulu’s palm.
“It’s cold!” she gasps.
“Looks like the moon, right?,” I say, before remembering. “I mean, that’s what the moon used to look like.”
“Okay,” she says.
“So,” I say. “Plant it.”
“Where?” She looks around the concrete enclosure. “Is there some dirt?”
“Well actually,” I explain, “this is a special kind of seed. It doesn’t need even the teensiest bit of dirt.”
“Okay,” she says again. Sometimes I worry about Lulu. She doesn’t seem like a child at all. She never uses words like teensiest.
“So all you have to do is just plant it right here between these pieces of concrete. See?” I stroke the seam with the tip of my sneaker. I’ve never seen anything green here in our enclosure, not even weeds poking up out of the cracks.
“So I should plant it?” she says. “Like, put it here?”
Carefully, she places the seed on the seam.
“Well,” I say, trying to pull my mood up by its own bootstraps, “is that where you want your plant to grow? You have to think these things through.”
“Well,” Lulu says, “I guess someone might step on it when they’re taking their trash out. So maybe we should—put it somewhere else?”
I get the distinct feeling that she’s humoring me. Lulu is so good at love. I’m the oldest in our household, followed by Sarah and then Lulu. But in terms of souls, Lulu’s the oldest and I’m the youngest.
“Plant it somewhere else,” I correct her.
“Yeah,” she says.
“You decide.” I pluck the seed off the ground and place it in her palm again.
She walks around the concrete enclosure, cupping the seed, examining all the seams. It takes her about 45 seconds. We’re talking eight feet by 10 feet, max. A siren wails by on the street and—absentmindedly, accurately, the way I used to hum along when a familiar song came on the radio—Lulu imitates its howl under her breath.
Then she stops and plants the seed between two slabs. By “plants,” I mean she shoves the pebble as far as it can be shoved into the crack.
On the other side of the wall, the Stanhopes’ generator hums maddeningly. I wonder if we reap any benefit from living so close to it.
“Fun, huh?,” I say as she stands up. I’m expecting her to be polite and accommodating when she glances at me, enthusiastic for my sake.
But there’s an actual glow in her eyes, the delight moving slow and stately across her face.
She says, “I should water it, right?”
“No,” Sarah whispers. I’m holding her, spooning her from behind on the bed. Tomorrow will be Monday. “It’s not right. I just think—I just think kids now. I mean, our kids. The kids of people like us. They face—they face a lot of—they don’t have—the world—the schools—a lot of disappointment, you know? On a daily basis, right? Like, I heard of a boy who got a ticket for drawing a chalk dragon on the sidewalk. Her school doesn’t own a single microscope, okay? So I just don’t think—”
“It’s too late,” I whisper back. “She planted the seed. She watered the seed.”
“It’s not a seed,” Sarah hisses.
“Be that as it may,” I say serenely.
“ ‘Be that as it may’!” she whisper-yells. “Are you stupid? Seriously, sometimes I seriously think you are stupid.”
“She can hear us maybe, you know,” I say. Because if Lulu is awake, which hopefully she isn’t, but if she is, she can hear us even over WaveMaker. That’s how thin the walls are.
On Tuesday evening, the temperature is 45 degrees higher when I leave my office building than when I entered it in the morning.
“Feels like end times, huh?” a janitor says, laughing as I pass him on my way out to the street.
“Sure thing,” I say to be nice, but then my words stick with me all the way down into the subway. Sure thing sure thing sure thing sure thing.
“Where’s Lulu?,” I ask Sarah the second I step through the door. It has been a long, bad day. I spent nine hours feeling like my computer was an eye disapproving of my every action.
“Out back,” Sarah replies, scrubbing rutabaga in the sink. I can feel her blaming me.
I throw my bag down and run out the door.
There she is, staring at the crack in the concrete. She looks up at me and the day falls away from my shoulders.
“Hey, kiddo,” I say.
“It disappeared!” she announces like it’s good news.
So the seed is gone. So a rabid squirrel squirreled it away, or the super finally got around to sweeping up.
“I can’t see it anymore!,” Lulu says. “It must’ve sank down to put in its roots!”
I’ve always thought Lulu is more like Sarah in temperament. Darker, tending toward pessimism. But now it occurs to me (with horror) that maybe Lulu is more like me. Relentlessly optimistic.
“Well well well,” I say, far more accustomed to Lulu’s solemnity than to her glee. “How about that. Let’s go in and have some dinner, okay?”
“Aren’t you glad, Daddy?” she says.
“Oh,” I say, feeling sad. “I am so glad.”
“Thank you for the seed.” Lulu gazes down at the crack in the concrete. “I gave it a few more drops of water. Is that okay?”
She’s wearing her blue school uniform. The humidity frizzes her hair and shines her skin. Sometimes she looks so wonderful, I have to shut my eyes.
I say, “Let’s go see what Mom came up with for dinner.”
Inside, Sarah has set the table with cloth napkins. She’s lit a candle. Sarah is the kind of person who can create something out of nothing, a skill that’s coming in handy more and more. Cleverly, she sautés rutabaga leaves with garlic. She roasts the flesh with oil and Italian seasoning and calls it rutabaga gnocchi, and sure, the chunks of it are not entirely unlike gnocchi.
I have this trick where I flick my fingers against the side of my taut cheek to make a sound like a drop of water falling into a body of water. It’s a refreshing sound, and Lulu loves it. Given the hotness of the night, I make the drop-of-water sound a bunch of times as we sit down to dinner.
Lulu claps. Sarah rolls her eyes.
“Ugh, stop it,” she says. “That sound depresses me.”
“Why?,” Lulu demands.
“Reminds me of the drought.”
“Well it reminds me of the rain!,” Lulu says.
Parenthood is underrated, because there’s no way to talk about it. How can these chemicals and minerals, the chemicals and minerals of Lulu, add up to this?
We try to be good parents. We try to foster compassion, independence, thriftiness. We permit Lulu to go by herself down the street to the bodega. We give her an allowance if she makes her bed every day. We let her hang out with Mason Mitchell, the unpleasant boy on the third floor whose parents don’t care if he plays video games all day and whose home doesn’t contain a single print book. We try to not freak out when Mason’s mother gives them Mountain Dew for dinner. A kid needs friends, especially an only child.
But sometimes I don’t think we’re doing it right. It feels, at times, impossible. I’ve come upon Lulu browsing the Internet, staring silently at pictures of starving children and people drowned in tsunamis. I’ve watched her watch a video billboard screening a liquor ad in which seven almost naked women dance around a man in a tuxedo.
Sarah is strong, but sometimes at night she’s been known to weep. We’re all she has, and we’re not enough.
Yet on Thursday evening, when Lulu meets me at the front door of the apartment building, jumping up and down, grabbing my hand, yanking me along toward the back door, it feels like we are doing something right.
Bless Steve Stanhope. Because there’s a half-centimeter chunk of glittery white matter emerging from the crack in the concrete. Before I can bend down to examine it more closely, Lulu flings herself into my arms as she hasn’t since she was a toddler. That’s the thing, you hold your kids less and less with each passing day until one day you hardly get to touch them at all.
Sarah refuses to come outside and look at the growing thing. She barely glances at our glowing faces.
“I’m sure it’s great,” she says.
I head to the kitchen for a glass of cold water. I like to drink cold water when I’m annoyed. Put out the fire. My hand is on the tap when Sarah calls from the other room, “Contaminated!”
“What?,” I snap.
“They put out the announcement an hour ago.”
I grunt in her direction, as though it’s her fault.
“Only for 24 hours. There’s a gallon of bottled in the fridge. We can boil more, too.”
“But it’s so hot in here already,” I say.
Lulu and Sarah are silent in the other room.
“Thank you,” I say, ashamed of myself, and open the fridge.
The night turns out just great, though. We have rutabaga with brown sugar and allspice for dessert. Lulu and I go out to check on the growing thing after dinner and it’s still there, a small sparkle in the dark. The Stanhopes’ generator purrs away on the other side of the wall. And though I can hear the twins splashing in the pool, the moist noise seeping through the peephole, Lulu doesn’t seem to notice—she’s never been in a pool, so maybe the sound doesn’t even register. We come back inside and boil a bunch of water and hang out and read print books and Lulu falls asleep smiling.
Then I turn on WaveMaker, and the apartment takes on that special hush, and Sarah pulls out the CockFrolick and steps out of her work dress and skin is still skin, you know?
“No respite,” Sarah says at two in the morning.
What’s driving her crazy is the noise from the upstairs neighbors, who stream violent movies all night long.
I get up and go into the bathroom and buy a campfire app. I return to bed, a fire flickering on the screen of my phone, the sound of crickets and crackling sap joining WaveMaker in the battle against the sound effects. I place the phone beside her on the pillow and swipe the volume up to its maximum level. The audio is fantastic. I can practically smell the wood smoke.
“Turn that off,” Sarah says.
“No,” she says.
When I listen hard, I can still hear the movie raging upstairs, and maybe it’s almost worse, listening for that beneath the sound of the campfire. But I don’t pause the app.
“Please,” she says. “Seriously, it sucks. Don’t you think it sucks?”
“I think it’s good,” I say.
“That’s depressing,” she says, rolling away from me.
I pause the app. I consider and reject the possibility of proposing a nighttime stroll. We do that sometimes, when we both can’t sleep, use Google Maps to take a walk on a Greek isle or through a Peruvian village. We hold hands while one of us scrolls.
Sarah rolls back toward me, apologetic.
“You know what I hate?” she says. “Those screen savers at work that show one gorgeous nature scene after another.”
A siren down the block launches its long wail. We lie there listening.
“Remember Lulu dancing naked in front of the mirror when she was 2, wearing all your necklaces?,” I say.
Sarah stiffens, surprised out of her crankiness.
“She’s experienced plenty of joy,” I say.
Our heads are so close together that I can feel her nodding.
“There’s something I haven’t told you,” Sarah says.
I get nervous.
“Sometimes when you take the recycling out and I hear you through the window clanging the metal bucket against the container,” she says, “it sounds like the opening drumbeat of this awesome and never-before-played rock song.”
By the time I get home from work on Friday, Lulu’s plant is a quarter of an inch tall, a glittering globular dime-size cluster oozing out of the concrete. She crouches down to drip a few drops of preboiled water on it. The contamination warning has been extended through the weekend.
“I’m sure contaminated water is just fine for it,” Sarah said, sweating in the kitchen where now there’s always water boiling on the stove.
But Lulu insisted.
“Do you love my crystal-plant?,” Lulu asks, looking up at me.
I steal another quick glance over her shoulder. The thing glints in the dusk. This is a good one, Steve Stanhope. Flowers for city kids. Magic for the contamination generation. Thank you, sir.
I’ve never seen Lulu this happy. Being happy, that’s how you thank your parents. That’s all you have to do.
All evening Lulu and I are like two mirrors, reflecting excitement back and forth at each other. She strokes my arm while I read Flora to her. Together we do an Internet search about cacti.
“You two,” Sarah says.
After Lulu goes to sleep, I head out back to examine the crystal-plant in the orange moonlight. But en route I get waylaid by shouting coming from the Stanhopes’ lawn. I shouldn’t rush over to the peephole. I rush over to the peephole.
It’s been covered over. Thank goodness. Who wants to see that damn lawn anyway?
I put my ear up to the place where the hole used to be. In the great distance, Steve Stanhope is yelling a one-sided fight, presumably into a cellphone. “Beta? Beta!”
“What’s eating you?,” Sarah says back inside.
“You should go and check out that thing back there,” I say. “Pretty cool stuff.”
Early Saturday morning, before Sarah and Lulu are up, I’m taking out the recycling yet again (I don’t know how three people can create so much waste), and there, in the bald humid light of day, I see the crystal-plant for what it is.
I drop the recycling bucket and kneel down.
Five or so pebbles, rolled in glue and then glitter, stacked messily atop one another, drizzled with more glue, more glitter. The same old-school glue they sell at the bodega. The glitter from tubes.
I am stupid.
I go back inside, shutting the door against the grind of the Stanhopes’ generator.
Sarah is sitting at the table with a cup of instant coffee. We switched to instant after they doubled the tax on imports. I’m touched by the sight of her.
“Thanks for doing that,” I say, ashamed. “It’s not totally convincing, but thank you.”
“Hm?” she says absently. She’s reading the news on her small screen. For her this is as good as it gets. Saturday morning, silence, coffee, screen.
“The ‘plant.’ That you made. For Lulu.”
“ ‘UN Considers Proposal to Construct International Landfills in North Pole,’ ” she reads. “Is that good or bad?”
I open Lulu’s flimsy door and step into her room. I turn off WaveMaker. She’s sleeping on her back, her arms flung above her head as they were whenever she slept as a baby. Her breathing sounds as good to me as water running in a creek.
Before I slide open the drawer beneath her bed, I already know what I will find hidden in the back corner: the glue, the glitter.
When Lulu was newborn we called her Muskrat, though neither of us really knows what a muskrat is. It was just that she seemed like a small, mysterious mammal. I remember the way she would arch her tiny eyebrows when I picked her up after she’d finished drinking as much as she could get from Sarah’s nipple. I’d hold her under her arms, in constant fear of dislocating them from her little shoulder sockets, and she’d raise those eyebrows, halfway a queen disapproving of something, halfway an animal startled out of its nest in its moment of deepest respite. I have no photograph of this face Lulu used to make, it was far too fleeting to ever catch, but that face of hers, those eyebrows peaked, imperious, disoriented, that is the face of my life.
How many times did I call Sarah from work to ask, “Is she still breathing?”
I don’t touch the glue or the glitter. Lulu is awake now. I can feel it, can feel her pretending she’s still asleep. I shut the drawer and leave the room and (what’s this giddiness I feel?) wait for Lulu to come out, whenever she’s ready. The thing is, the organism survives no matter what; the organism even thrives.