Avery, eyes closed, counts off the seconds, her tongue tapping against the roof of her mouth. Beside her, the baby lies sprawled across the mattress, milk dribbling from the corners of her mouth, her breath rattling with the tail end of a persistent cold. Caroline is such a light sleeper, even when she isn’t sick, she can move from sleep to wakefulness without reason or warning, so Avery ticks a few minutes longer just to make certain. Downstairs, she hears laughter, the party continuing without her.
Every time they come here, it is the same. Freddie, almost the same age as Jackie’s boys, has no trouble joining the pack, grabbing armfuls of toys and throwing them around the house in gleeful abandon. Grownups pass the time in the kitchen, and Jackie’s husband Steve, who makes money for a living, touts his expertise on absolutely everything.
“Heartbreaking,” she hears him say as she makes her way back to the open kitchen, “a fucking tragedy…” his voice peters out, but he is breathing heavy and waving his arms like he is trying convey the urgent immensity of something he can’t quite put into words. Jackie, smiling, grabs one of Steve’s arms and holds it, a steadying attempt that throws them both further off-balance. Keeling at first, Jackie manages somehow to right herself while her husband’s hulking body plummets floorward.
“Lucky Avery,” he says, holding her face with his eyes as Jackie helps him up, “you got here just in time.”
Moments later, everything is fine, although Avery can see that her Ted is already useless – a quick drunk, he has entered invisibility early, and will remember nothing. Now she understands what is happening, that while she was upstairs with Caroline, the evening slipped from one sort of thing into another entirely.
One of the other guests, a friend of Steve’s, offers her a bump and she takes it, even though she always says no and hasn’t done this since she was a teenager. Patterns explode behind her eyes and she remembers how snorting her parent’s stash always put the world at right angles.
Quietly, Jackie sidles up beside her, all smiles.
“Remember when we could read each other’s thoughts?” Jackie asks.
She must be high, Avery thinks. Time ticks by at a clip, but not fast enough.
“Understand this,” Steve says gravely, wagging a finger, “the most important relationship in this room, Ted, is the one between me and your wife.”
Very quickly, one right after the other, everyone notices the hour and begs off to home, except for Ted and Avery, who took the train from the City and are stranded until morning. When she and Ted reach the second-floor guest room, they find Caroline just where Avery left her on the blow-up mattress in the corner, and Freddie knocked out under the covers of the overstuffed guest bed, or so it appears, until he sits straight up, his eyes open but not seeing.
“Xenops is a kind of bird that lives in the rainforest, mommy,” he says, before Ted helps him to lie back down. (Years will pass before she thinks back to this moment, but when she does, she will recall it with a fondness that surprises her.)
Zooming, zinging, thrumming, singing, her head pulses in rhythm with the beat of her heart as she lies down beside Caroline, tap tap tap tap tap.
Sarah Kunstler is a criminal defense lawyer and documentary filmmaker born and raised in New York City, and a member of the Rumble Ponies Writing Collective (helmed by the fabulous Sara Lippman).