The playground is crowded. Grace sits on one of the benches at the perimeter and wonders if the average person here would be able to tell who she belongs to. She assumes it’s obvious she isn’t here alone. But is she here with the old guy tossing a football with his middle-aged son to the right of the little climbing wall, presumably killing time while the grandkids scale higher and higher? Is she the mother of the woman about Mallory’s age who stands at one end of the monkey bars, dodging kids’ swinging legs and talking frantically into a cell phone? Is she alone after all, taking a break from a solitary trail walk to indulge in a little nostalgia?
Grace’s daughters loved this park when they were little. Brianna and Mallory begged her to take them here nearly every weekend, and she usually relented once or twice a month. She remembers the boredom of waiting for her daughters to tire themselves out, remembers how she used to remind herself that her own mother never brought her anywhere just for the purpose of play. It was okay to be bored, she’d tell herself. She just had to do better than her own mother had done.
Amelia Purcell wasn’t a terrible mother. The early years of Grace’s childhood sounded like a constant refrain of “Go out and play,” which was fine, perfectly fine, except Grace never learned how. She was good at competition: climb the tallest tree, sell the most lemonade. When she became an adult with children of her own, children she took to the park, children who knew how to have fun even if they didn’t learn it from her, it was never enough, and somehow her mother was still part of the problem. Her father used to ask her why she couldn’t make more of an effort to be close to her mother. “Your brother rings us up all the time,” he’d say during a rare Sunday phone call, leaving Grace’s estranged sister out of the conversation entirely. “It means so much to Amelia.” But what was the point in trying to insert yourself into the life of the person who made you feel like the reason her own life had ground to a halt? Grace never found a proper answer to her father’s question, and she didn’t learn how to humbly ask to be part of someone’s life until Frankie squatted her, letting Grace know over and over again that she wanted to be part of hers. (“Why can’t you make more of an effort with Frankie?” Robert used to ask on the way home from office holiday parties and awkward potlucks.)
From the bench she’s chosen, Grace can keep an eye on both Frankie and Faith. Faith has spent the last few minutes spinning the same X in the big tic-tac-toe panel built into the side of the largest play structure, and Frankie keeps smiling down at her like she’s a genius. A small child in overalls joins Faith at tic-tac-toe, and a young man with curly black hair and a big beard—presumably the kid’s father—takes his place standing next to Frankie. Frankie laughs at something he says, then she leans in to say something that makes him throw back his head in laughter. She radiates enough energy for the whole world to have some.
Just then, Frankie turns away from the play equipment and looks over at Grace. She grins and presses two fingertips to her lips. The motion just manages to be a kiss. The man follows Frankie’s gaze and looks at Grace too, and Grace feels rather than hears the way Frankie starts to tell him about her. She smiles faintly, then turns away as soon as Frankie and the man turn back to each other and the showdown at tic-tac-toe.
They keep going farther and farther. It started out when she invited Frankie back into her bed for the first time since she left Nick. It started out as kissing in the dark and not talking about it during the day. Spending the long hot sunny days trying not to think about the way Frankie sighs into her kisses, or the way she whimpers into Frankie’s mouth. Now the days have become tunnels leading them through a series of obligations until it’s nighttime and they can go to bed again. Something’s stopped them from having sex—it’s the awareness of Robert and Sol asleep down the hallway, the temporary yet persistent feeling that their space isn’t entirely their own—but that’s where they’re going. In bed at night they take off each other’s shirts and kiss and scratch and bite and soothe everything they expose. They keep each other up for hours. They hold each other as they finally fall asleep. Grace has never received or given so many backrubs. She’s never had someone touch her more gently than gentleness, with such persistent detail that even the soft brush of Frankie’s knuckles against the side of her breast lights up every nerve ending, every pathway of feeling.
She's never been ready to have sex for this long without having it. She’s never lived so long in the before place, so long that it doesn’t feel like the before but like an enormous, overwhelming present.
This morning, when it was nearly time to leave for a long-planned weekend of babysitting Faith, Grace stood at the kitchen counter and sliced a grapefruit into bright pink wedges. “They’re so perfect,” Frankie exclaimed, and Grace’s heart bloomed in the glow of her praise. Frankie kissed her—kissed her vertical, in the kitchen, in the daytime, proud and intentional. “So perfect,” she said again, and Grace stood frozen in place as Frankie darted around the house collecting last-minute items for their overnight bag. Eventually, Grace had to put the grapefruit into a ziploc bag to eat later.
At Bud and Allison’s, Allison apologized for having made up only the guest bed. She’d stripped the sheets from the bed in the master bedroom, but the clean set was still in the dryer. Grace (proud and intentional) told her not to worry about it, that she and Frankie could share the guest bedroom, and Bud gave her a long, thoughtful look from across the room.
Grace doesn’t care if Bud and Allison spent the drive up to the vineyard talking about them. She doesn’t care if the people at this park see her walk up to Frankie and Faith, surprised that they’re her people. She stands up and slings the big tote bag—full of things Frankie’s sure Faith might need—over her shoulder, and walks over to join Frankie. She wraps her arm around Frankie’s shoulders and Frankie mirrors the gesture. She smiles, all that sun directed at Grace.
“Grace, Hector, Hector’s son Leo,” Frankie says by way of introductions.
“Hi,” says Grace. “Leo’s encouraging Faith to eat mulch.”
Hector and Frankie both cringe. “Snack time!” Frankie says.
Grace manages to lure both Frankie and Faith away from their new friends. They walk to a clearing not far from the benches. Grace spreads out the quilt from the tote bag onto a patch of grass beneath the shade of an expansive tree. Some of the benches and play equipment might have been replaced since she started coming here, but this tree has been around forever. Faith settles into Frankie’s lap and Frankie pulls a book from the bag: Langston Hughes for Young People. Faith holds a plastic cup full of Cheerios, her expression a look of faraway but focused snack-book-snuggle happiness. Grace stands to the side, uncertain, suddenly aware that she hasn’t sat down yet and now the blanket looks complete without her. Faith knows Grace well enough to feel comfortable around her, but Frankie is her grandmother in every sense. Faith wants Frankie to hold her. She squeals with delight when she sees her even if it’s only been a couple days. Grace starts to walk back to a bench. She can always blame her knees.
“Come down here with us?” Frankie asks. It isn’t polite; it’s what she wants. It takes a moment for Grace’s knees to cooperate, but she manages to sit right next to Frankie, who places an arm at her back.
She smiles at Faith, who smiles back. “Book,” Faith says.
Frankie opens up the book but doesn’t start to read right away. “Grace, you should eat something,” she murmurs. She turns her attention back to Faith. “Okay,” she says, using her free hand to flip through the pages as if in search of a favorite.
The contents of the bag have settled. The ziploc with the grapefruit is right on top. Grace pulls out a slice and takes a bite. Her mouth fills with the sour pink burst she’d expected this morning when she got something sweet instead. A breeze lifts the hair from her neck. She thinks about tonight, how she and Frankie will go to bed in a strange room with a baby monitor glowing on the nightstand. She thinks about right now, the way Frankie signals her belonging with an arm against her back. She closes her eyes as Frankie starts to read.
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.