We were taking our nephew on a walk, H and I: buckling the baby into the stroller, finding his giraffe toy and tucking his blanket around his legs. He was a happy baby, startlingly so: I had heard him cry, really cry, only once.
‘It’s weird, isn’t it?’ H said. ‘How mellow he is.’
He was our younger sister’s baby – her and her husband’s baby, I guess. They were young parents and excessively chill. It seemed better that way – to be young enough that your self-conception hadn’t yet solidified, that there wasn’t some well-grooved lifestyle now under threat from the demands of parenthood.
‘Does he need socks?’ I asked. ‘Another jacket?’
‘The blanket is fine,’ our sister had said, barely looking over to H and me. ‘Don’t worry.’
The baby let his arms be guided, one by one, through the stroller’s harness. He blinked a few times, squinting at H as she pulled his beanie down his nearly translucent forehead. He was a Pixar baby, an angel emoji baby – his skin was rosy, immaculate.
My own skin was almost back to normal: in a panic over a particularly bad run of jawline acne, I’d ordered a benzoyl peroxide wash off Amazon. I used it once, and it seemed to work. Heartened, I used it again the next morning. Almost instantly, my skin went mottled pink, a peachy cast appearing on my eyelids and my face puffing out so I looked like I was wearing a mask. I took a series of photos in the full sunlight of my front window and sent them to H. The pictures were disgusting, bizarre.
‘Stop touching it,’ H said. I hadn’t even noticed my hand was on my face. ‘It really doesn’t even look that bad.’
‘It’s pretty bad.’
She shrugged. I couldn’t tell if she was annoyed with me, if it was annoying for me to complain about something so stupid. The rash was already fading.
‘Is he warm enough?’ I said.
‘I think yeah, with the blanket.’
We’d both taken H’s edibles, currant-flavored gummies from a tin, a label that made them look like a grandmother’s pastilles. Mine was starting to hit, a pleasant pulse in the chest. Leaves on the trees and on the ground looked very specific. I’d only had five milligrams, but H was up to ten. Her tolerance was high these days; anything less barely made a dent in the nausea. It helps with social stuff too, she’d told me. Made things easier. Being around the family, sitting through dinners.
I was only visiting for the weekend; she lived here all the time now. The same town where we’d grown up.
I zipped up my coat, a puffa jacket I’d grabbed from our parents’ closet. It was my coat from college: back then, I’d painstakingly used a Sharpie to color in the logo so the north face had just become no, some vague, lame protest against brand names, ‘capitalism’. The Sharpie had entirely faded: the north face had returned.
There was a water bottle in the stroller pocket and the jangle of our sister’s car keys.
‘Wait,’ H said, ‘they might need the keys.’
H ran back inside with the keys and came out with another water bottle. Her face was pale, her baseball cap down around her eyes. With the cap on, she looked normal. A young woman like any other.
The bike path was only a few blocks from our parents’ house. H pushed the stroller first, bumping along the sidewalk, crossing the creek. It was nearly dry, the rocky bottom exposed, the winter blackberry bushes growing by the barest trickle of water.
When we were kids, I’d found a copy of Penthouse down in the creek bed. H and I gathered around to goggle at the waterlogged pages before we were suddenly and simultaneously overcome with wordless horror, flinging the magazine down from where it came. I almost brought it up, but I knew without looking at H that she would be thinking of it, too, one of the many stories we repeated, the landmarks in our shared history – and there wasn’t anything new to say about it. We were born sixteen months apart: sometimes it felt like we had almost the same brain.
At the intersection, a pickup started to inch forward, then stopped halfway.
H gestured at the driver to go; he didn’t move, and we hustled to cross, feeling exposed and harried, the stroller tilting up the curb.
We passed the Christian Science building on the corner, the empty lot lush with winter green. Then my fifth-grade teacher’s house. The citrus trees along their fence were so bright and heavy with fruit that the sight was psychedelic.
‘Do you want me to push?’ I said.
When I rubbed along my jaw, a little skin flaked off. ‘Gross.’
I looked over to see what was happening in her face. Her smile was mild but her eyes were on the road.
‘I’ll push now, okay?’
The stroller was a little unwieldy. Pushing it made me nervous, aware of everything that might go wrong. When we finally got to the bike path, a cyclist passed us at a good clip: I tensed up, adjusting my grip on the stroller handles.
The silences between H and me were a half second too long – or were they? Maybe not. At least the bike path was mostly empty: a few older people out on walks, giving us abbreviated nods.
There were more blackberry bushes, a bare persimmon, a few buckeyes and a small pine tree that still had Christmas ornaments – in December, people decorated it with photos of their family pets. This kind of thing had often seemed silly to me, but lately it was easy to be moved by any display of sentiment or kindness or humanity, my eyes welling instantly. I only wanted softness. Thank you so much! I signed all my emails, then. I so appreciate your help, I was always saying, and I truly did. I was nakedly grateful, prostrating myself with earnestness, absolute desperate gratitude. I emailed doctors and authors of PubMed articles and a very kind Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist who had written a book about the same cancer subtype – a Pulitzer Prize winner! Surely God would note the prestige and reward H in the form of a good outcome.
The message boards and frantic research, my harassment of the Department of Managed Health Care, the calling in of all the favors I was owed – did H want me to do any of those things?
I hate you, she said. A few times, when she said this, she actually meant it. You need to stop, she said.
I did stop, at some point. Not soon enough, but I did stop.
The stroller bumbled along the bike path.
‘He’s so quiet in there,’ I said.
‘He’s probably asleep. I think he likes the cold air.’
Without saying it out loud, both of us seemed to agree that we would not actually check to see if the baby was asleep.
‘Who’s taking you next week?’ I said.
‘Mom, probably. I could just drive myself. It’s really not bad.’
‘No. It’s good to have someone with you.’
‘Yeah,’ H said. ‘I don’t know.’
H seemed to pause longer before she said things these days, like even her thoughts had become more private – she had gone to a place where we could not follow. If anything, she had gotten more composed, more contained. Even that first day, she hadn’t cried. I’d been home, hundreds of miles away. She’d texted me, my phone going bright on the porch table and I picked it up and I couldn’t believe it either.
WTF she texted, then a crying-laughing emoji.
The sun was so bright, that day, it was so lovely. Earlier, I had gone to the beach with Alex. Though it was October, the days were still warm, and I’d read a book on my towel about female painters in the fifties, drank the Trader Joe’s seltzer and picked at a bag of green grapes we’d brought. Alex ate supermarket sushi with his fingers. I’d been vaguely depressed about an old boyfriend. I spoke at length about feeling thwarted, like I would never feel at home in the world. Though probably I enjoyed the drama. The window unit had broken, my shower had stopped working. The bad things in my life seemed bad enough, and occupied me fully, but reading my sister’s texts on the porch, all at once I understood that I had entered a new kind of bad, and that I would miss the time when I had only worried about my apartment, my romantic failings, my bad skin. I missed it terribly.