As I waited in the school pickup line, I liked to imagine my husband turning up in indecently surprising ways. It was because Jake was such a good and predictable man that the exercise was fun. But here he was, in my imagination, arriving with his arm around a girl a decade younger than me at a restaurant. Would I watch from a distance, or confront him and make a public scene? And there I am at the pharmacy, accidentally picking up his multiple prescriptions for oxycodone in addition to our son’s antibiotics. Was he selling pills to pay gambling debts?
Of course not – I had access to all of our accounts. I was one of the few who actually opened the paper bill to check for mischarges.
Our son Benny resembled my husband in most ways: blonde, angular, quiet, patient. He was the only child not beating a stick on the ground in the kindergarten pick-up line. He politely waved the clouds of dust away from his face when he saw my car approach. He had basically raised himself, while I, for example, read plot spoilers for movies I would never see.
“It looks like it might rain,” he greeted me. This was an understatement – the weatherman had told us to prepare for tornadoes that evening.
“Hello to you, too. Would you like to go to the park before it rains?”
“Yes,” he said. “I could use some fresh air.”
I texted Jake before we pulled out: going to the park! might land in Oz!
I sold insurance in a previous life. I hadn’t meant for it to be past tense, but after a baby, imagine telling people: say your house floods, you wake up with rats in your china cabinet, your grandmother’s antique dresser floating down the road, your wedding ring in an alligator’s mouth.
I liked going to the park on the brink of extreme weather. There’d be less people. Upon arrival, Benny sat down in the damp sand, perfect for building castles. I imagined Jake screeching up to the park in a stolen car, asking me to get in right then. Would I join him? I took stock of the witnesses – two women, chatting on a bench. One wore a shirt announcing, “I Love Jesus but I Cuss a Little.” Would either of them call 911? They wouldn’t have a reason to suspect anything was illegal – a medical emergency, perhaps.
“You are a butt,” one of their girls screamed from the slide.
I paused my hypothetical decision and watched as Benny pushed a girl much larger than him – she looked to be about four years old – down to the ground. I revered in the silly insult, in my son’s pouting toddler face. Maybe the girl had deserved it. It had been so long since I’d seen Benny’s pudgy cheeks wrinkle with such indignity, watched his curls cloud his face, so round and rosy, which is when I realized he wasn’t my son at all.
I stood up, panicked, looked for Benny. I saw my lanky five-year-old unperturbed by the action, engrossed in engineering.
I walked to the toddler, who still pouted, though the girl he pushed had run away. He looked to be about two, and up close, the perfect match to toddler Benny: the oversized eyelashes that made his brown eyes so cavernous, the gap between the teeth that reminded me of Dennis the Menace, who probably had perfectly straight teeth.
Nobody could be such a perfect match.
Lately, Jake found a way to turn everything into an invitation to have another baby, something he wanted and I didn’t. I could often sense where the conversation was going and had to cut it off prematurely, so that we were talking unnaturally, middle school stage actors reciting a line when the previous person hadn’t quite gotten it right.
“Why not?” he had asked the night before.
I wanted to say: say I sat at a playground so long I fossilized into a bench, but our kids were too scared to visit me because it was rumored I was actually a gargoyle and ate children at night? What then?
But I knew his next line: logic, data, statistics, etc.
The push on the playground had been physical – I had seen the impact, the laws of physics and gravity that I’m sure didn’t pertain to spiritual worlds, so this had to be real. I glanced at the bench and caught toddler-Benny’s Jesus-loving mother watching me.
“Is everything all right?” she asked. “Benedict?”
“Benedict,” I repeated. Benny looked up from his castle, then went back to his work. He didn’t know what a rare name it was, partly because his parents muddled with nicknames, something I had sworn we would never do, something I was helpless to stop.
“Oh,” I said. “How funny. My son’s name is Benedict, too, but we call him Benny. They look alike, don’t you think? Different ages, but…”
Benedict’s mother glanced at Benny, but she couldn’t know what her son would look like in three years. Could she even see his eyelashes from there? “They do look alike,” she said, politely.
This woman looked nothing like me – she was wearing sweatpants and had wavy auburn hair, and she held herself so casually – as though a trip to a park with her friend was all she wanted to do with her entire afternoon. “Is it a family name?” she asked as an afterthought.
“No,” I said. I didn’t want to talk to this woman, but I couldn’t not talk to her. I wanted to watch this toddler Benedict – if he could push down girls, maybe he would throw a rock or something else exciting. Where had he come from?
“Well, it looks like it’s going to rain,” the other mother said. Perhaps she was feeling left out of the conversation. “We should probably go.”
“Yes,” Benedict’s mother responded. “Time to go, Benedict.”
My Benedict looked up again, and if he was glad to get to stay, his face didn’t show it. He looked mad, but I knew that was just his concentrating face, dark, hollow, and full of secret building thrills.
I touched toddler Benedict’s head, which we both knew was a weird thing to do. The toddler looked up at me, scrunched his face in disgust again, and ran to his mother. I wondered if she cussed around the children. She probably did, if she was announcing it to the world. I hoped she was a good mother.
“Goodbye,” I told him, surprised at the sorrow that choked my words.
My phone buzzed, Jake texting back: what’s for dinner?
“Why not?” Jake asked the night before. “Why not have a second baby?”
I had almost killed Benny once, when he was an infant. Jake had gone back to work, my mother had returned home, and I was alone to keep myself and the baby alive. He cried without ceasing, except in his car seat, and I would daydream about a train where we could be strapped in and ushered around, productive in our miles journeyed while we slept. I loaded us up in the car for the KFC drive-through. I streaked grease across my steering wheel and counted cows on my way home to stay awake.
When we got home we were both satisfied – he asleep, I full, and I walked inside and promptly took a long nap – over three hours. I woke up and my breasts were cocked fists, hard, ready, which is when I realized I had left Benny in the car.
I knew he would be dead when I got to my driveway. It was a warm fall day, and I peered into the window and saw his eyes closed, his body still. I opened the door. He was breathing. He had napped as hard as I did, enjoying the warm car, the sunlight on his face. It was as peaceful as he had ever been, and from that day on, his marathon howling disappeared.
But I had forgotten him. I had forgotten him. The sentence repeated itself as I poured coffee, as I pumped milk, as I cleaned dishes. I had forgotten him.
I forgot about Benny again, momentarily, on the playground, as engrossed as I was thinking about toddler Benedict. I imagined Jake walking down an aisle with She Who Cusses a Little, two ring bearers, like the aged photos of crime victims. Jake never traveled for work. He often came home for lunch because he worked in an open-concept office, its glass windows allowing passing pedestrians to look in. Sometimes I would try to surprise him, looking in as he worked to see how long it would take him to feel someone staring at him. But Jake was singularly devoted to his computer screen, devoted to any pursuit in front of him.
After realizing I had almost forgotten about Benny at the park, I grabbed him and held him. He was too big for me to do this, but he placated me.
“Time to go home, bud,” I said, and carried my child to the car.
Another text from Jake: make food with iron. good for future baby.
What if I had forgotten Benny during the summer? What then?
After dinner, with medium-amounts of iron, we watched the sky turn green from our front porch and I waited for Jake to joke about seeing a cow fly by, the same joke he made every spring, even though the joke was a horrifying thing to think about – fifteen hundred pounds of helpless wrecking ball, who knew as well as we did what was coming, but what could a cow do about it? Moo? But the joke referred to a scene from Twister, not real life, so it felt okay. He would make a comment about the cows who lived across from our subdivision and I would respond about cutting Coke cans and we would proceed with our evening, superstition completed, tornado kept away.
“Would you like some water?” Jake asked.
“I’d like a cocktail,” I said.
I could see him analyze this iceberg as it emerged from the fog. What strange sea creature stalked the freezing depths of my demand? I couldn’t even know. I imagined Jake picking up a cocktail and pouring it over my head. “Enjoy your cocktail,” he could say. But this, too, felt like a middle school play.
“Wait until Benny’s in bed,” Jake finally said. “Maybe a drink will put us in the baby-making mood.” He weighed the statement. “Though, bad for the future baby.”
“What if there’s a tornado, though?”
“Then you can have some milk,” he said. “From the cow that blows in.”
“Get Dorothy ready,” I said.
“Time to get Benny ready,” he said.
“Ready to ride the flying cow?” I asked.
“For bed,” he said.
Say a meteor crashes through the roof and lands on your husband’s head, you haven’t worked in five years, you can’t remember the last time you changed a flat tire. What then?
I wondered if Benedict from the park liked tepid baths like Benny did. If he dismantled logical fallacies in every picture book. If he put himself to bed after brushed teeth and a hug, insisting he liked to unwind by himself.
“Don’t wear anything you wouldn’t want to be filmed in,” I said. I imagined Jake holding Benny by our flattened home, dirt as sports paint, clothes as trauma metaphors. Where was I in this picture?
“They’re just PJs,” Benny said. “No one will see me in them but you and Dad.”
“Goodnight, Benedict,” I said, and tousled his hair, which he immediately fixed.
I had almost seen a tornado once. So had Jake. We had been driving home from visiting my mother when the sky turned green. We pulled off the road into a gas station, one with a Subway. A church youth group had been there too, fearlessly led by a college kid, who asked the gas station attendant, also probably a college kid, what they should do. The wall cloud approached, the tip of a funnel oozing out like an udder. A few people who presumably loved Jesus cussed a little. Jake had raised his voice, announced that everyone would be going in the walk-in cooler. Hypnotized, we pivoted and shuffled in behind the Mountain Dew, Bud Lights, and extra ham.
This was a man to have a child with, I had decided, when we came out unscathed. The rice fields beside us were not so fortunate.
“Why not?” Jake had asked the night before. Then again in my silence, “Why not have a second baby?”
I thought of the things I wanted to say. I remembered Jake in the gas station cooler, holding my hand, rolling his eyes at the enormously loud fart some highschooler ripped, immediately fixing the orange juice someone’s elbow had bumped out of line: when certainty in the face of disaster had seemed so appealing.
Jake said, “We agreed to two. You said once Benny was in kindergarten. We don’t want him to have to take care of us by himself when we’re so old we can’t remember the president.”
Could I remember how to renew my car tag even now?
“Benny is a great kid,” Jake said. “He’s brilliant and well-behaved. There needs to be more Bennys in the world. So why not?”
“I’ve forgotten,” I said, and left the room to fold the laundry.
Jake and I lay in bed, on our phones, about to sleep, when the sirens went off. I pulled up the radar and saw the hooks in the clouds approaching our subdivision, the field of cows, our town in general. It was time.
“Ready for a cocktail?” Jake asked.
I looked at him. He pulled himself out of bed and stretched, his long arms brushing my shoulders by accident, then again. He looked over his shoulder to gauge. I didn’t move.
“The sirens,” I said. “We need to get Benny.”
“Let him sleep,” Jake said. “It’s not too close right now.”
He slipped on a white t-shirt and rose like it was Saturday morning. He made his way to the kitchen as I refreshed my phone, watched the line of red jump unsteadily across my screen.
Jake returned with a glass of wine. Not a cocktail, but then again, the kitchen was full of windows, of glass dishes, of toppling furniture. I thought about Benedict’s mother. Stereotypes said she would want a glass of wine, too.
“I saw the strangest thing today,” I said. “At the playground.”
“Are you really going to drink that?” he asked.
“I saw toddler Benny,” I said.
Jake rolled his eyes. “Come on.”
I knew he couldn’t mean come on, let’s go to the playground, but I let him pull me out of bed, in my one pair of real pajamas, through the bedroom, to the foyer. I imagined Jake flinging open the front door, stepping outside into a cauldron of floating branches and grassy bullets, of two giant brown eyes, night sky and ground, a suffocating scarf of streaming milk, rain, and sleet.
“I guess we should get Benny,” Jake said, not in the daydream.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’s okay.”
I opened the front door and felt the humidity, the eerie stillness, the warmth.
ALLISON FRASE REAVIS lives in Fayetteville, AR, and holds an MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.
The art published alongside this story is by Anna Buckley.