“Hey, Tiff,” Rip said softly. He touched her elbow. As if he were consoling her, she thought. “Do I have to apologize for Grace?”
“What do you mean?” Tiffany said, staring down at the pinwheel of apples, making sure there was a quiver of hurt in her voice. Whatever Grace had told him, or whatever Rip had deduced, Tiffany knew that in a conflict, it was always best to act like the wounded party.
“I don’t know.” He slumped over the counter and dragged his short fingers through his unruly hair.
The sun caught the stubble on his jaw, making him, she thought, momentarily attractive. In a nineties Seattle- grunge kind of way.
“What’s up?” Tiffany said. “You can tell me anything. You know that, silly.”
“Well”—he paused—“Grace came out of the kitchen. And she was wearing that look. I know that look. I get it when I’m in deep shit with her.”
Tiffany laughed. “Oh, sweetie. Everything’s fine. My skin isn’t as thin as you think it is.”
“So she did say something!”
Tiffany liked the churning anger in his voice.
It was her turn to sigh, and she did it nice and slowly. The only thing better than playing wounded was playing forgiving and wounded.
She nudged him with her hip, and the hair on his legs tickled her naked calf.
“She must feel like such an outsider with all of us moms. You know?” Tiffany said. “I feel kind of sorry for her. I really do.”
Rip lifted his head and looked at her from under arched brows, “You’re such a good person, Tiffany. I just don’t know”—he stopped, and checked the kitchen door, “how much longer I can take this,” he whispered. “This life with her.”
He let his head fall heavily into his hands.
“It’s okay,” she said as she rubbed his back. His muscles were small hard hills under the curve of her hand. Had she noticed them before? Or the V that started with his shoulders, tapering to his waist?
“I can’t remember the last time she, like, asked me how my day was,” he mumbled into his folded arms. “Or when she last touched me without . . .” He stopped.
As her hand moved in circles, heat rising through his shirt, she smelled him. Something both sweet (honey?) and sour (the brine of the sea?).
“You do the best you can,” she said. “No one. And I mean, no one, is as good a daddy as you.”
“I’m not sure Grace would agree with you,” Rip said with a sigh.
She knew what he wanted to hear, what he’d heard from all the moms in the playgroup at one time or another. He had a way making them want to comfort him. Poor daddy Rip.
She whispered, “Hell, you’re a much better mommy than most of them out there.”
He looked up at her. Their faces were close, close enough that she could see he really was near tears, and to her surprise, instead of repulsing her (she liked her men tough), this pulled her in with a magnetic force, and she felt that urge to jump, the way she had as a girl standing on the balcony of her grandmother’s condo in Florida, the delicious longing to give in to the very thing that would destroy you. It would be so easy to lean in. When had she last felt that shiver of recognition, a hum in the air calling her, commanding her to move closer to someone? With Leigh—yes. But with a man? Sure, she and Rip had teased each other before. A playful slap at his chest. Or their bodies pressing together briefly as they squeezed past each other in a hallway jammed with parked strollers. When they tweeted at each other—mostly comically mundane details of their parenting life—they always used the hashtag #favorite.
But this? This was different. She felt hunger.
“I better go back,” Rip said, and spun toward the door, but not before she saw him shuffle a bit. Ever- nimble Rip was a bit off – balance, which meant she hadn’t been the only one. Even as a girl, she’d known what that shuffle meant. A guy trying to hide his boner.
She moved back to the sink, turned on the hot water, and picked up another cereal bowl. The back of her neck tingled with heat. The running- water sounded like the booming rush of a waterfall. He was at the door, one hand raised to give it a push, when she said, “Wait. Oh my God, I’m having that déjà vu thing.”
“I love it when that happens,” Rip said, smiling in that half-cocked way she’d grown to think of as almost handsome. The smile of a lead actor’s sidekick.
“It’s crazy. It really feels like this has happened before. Like we’ve been here. Done this already.”
“You getting all new age on me? Going to pull out your crystals and shit?”
“Whatever.” She laughed. “You know what I mean.”
A wail sliced through the door. It was Chase. Tiffany knew all the children’s cries, each with its own specific pitch.
She remembered the pinwheel of apples. The children’s snacks. If they weren’t fed before they slammed into that wall of hunger, it spelled tantrums, and she would be the one the mommies blamed. Especially grudge-holding Susanna.
“Fuck!” She waved Rip over. “Can you reach me something?” She pointed to the shelves above the kitchen sink. “See those little plates? The plastic ones.
You got them?”
As he brought down the plates, his shirt lifted, and there was her favorite part of man—the hollow above hip bone and below ribs, where the pelvis arched like a rainbow down, down, down.
Follow the rainbow.
It was easy. She took a few steps forward so she was in front of him, at the sink, the sponge and a soapy dish in her hands like props, like the wooden kitchen toys the children used. Make-believe time. His breath was hot on the back of her head. He was close, but still not close enough.
“You can just put them over there,” she said, pointing at the far corner of the counter with a soapy finger, so he had to move into her—she as stationary as a block of stone. And it was so easy to take a little step back. How wrong could a baby step be, she thought, when nothing was even happening, they weren’t doing anything, and when his dick pressed against her ass, they both froze, the hot steam from the running water billowing up into her face so her skin felt dewy. As if lost in a cloud.
She picked up another dish, soaped it, and began to rinse it clean—ignoring the water that was so hot it felt like ice sheathing her fingers. She shifted her hips as she wiped the dishes dry—circles with her hands, circles with her hips—and she felt him grow harder.
She reached behind her. She wanted Rip to touch her nipples. She liked Michael to tease them over her shirt, the friction of fabric between his fingers and her nipples just right. Rip flinched when her hand grazed his thigh, and she stepped back to meet him. To return him to her, as if to say, “Come on back, boy.”
When his hand reached around, cupping her hip bone, they arched forward together, Rip whispered, “Um,” and then she felt the wet warmth in her bikini bottom.
Just like that, he was gone, and there was cold empty space behind her, as though a gust of wind had picked him up and carried him out to sea. She turned in time to see Rip’s sandals disappear up the back stairs leading to the second floor.
Tiffany returned to the living room, her thighs tingling, the crotch of her bikini bottom damp. She wondered if she should change, then thought of Rip upstairs. Jerking himself off as he thought of her.
Dusk settled, and the crickets took up song, reminding Tiffany of back home. A hole-in-the- earth town another two-hour drive out east on the North Fork that stank of rotting clams and the dog-food factory on its shore. A memory she chased away with another swallow of wine before refreshing her drink at the makeshift bar Nicole had set up on a wobbly card table.
Rip returned, passing her on the way to the kitchen without a second look, asking the room, in typical Rip cheer, if anyone wanted another beer. It was easy to pretend things had never happened. She’d been practicing forgetting most of her life. She laughed at the melodrama of the thought—nothing had happened.
The children returned from baths just as the white moths began to flutter against the window screens. The boys rushed down the stairs in their tighty whiteys and undershirts—or as Tiffany’s father had called them, wife- beaters. Tenzin had combed their wet hair back, slick and parted, and Tiffany thought they looked like an old photograph from Life magazine. A distant boat blew its horn, and the boys rushed to the window, their hands cupped against the glass reflecting black sky and silver sea. Then her Harper was there, leaping off the third step, the wide skirt of her nightgown a ballooning sail. Mommeee! Tiffany tried not to think about Rip, or Michael, or Grace, as she held her little girl, buried her face in Harper’s saltwater- crisp curls that smelled like sun and baby shampoo, and she remembered she was Mommy now, nothing like the old Tiffany, who put men and sex before everything else because she confused them with love— and, she thought (to be honest), because sex just felt fucking good.
Tiffany had bought Harper’s nightgown just for that weekend, knowing how Harper would look, the pure white cotton vibrating against Harper’s bronzed skin. The mommies’ eyes wide with envy of her girl. She had splurged nearly $200 on the dress of handspun organic cotton, using the MasterCard she kept hidden from Michael, tucked in the dusty breast- pump bag at the top of the closet.
“Aw, sugar,” Tiffany said, and dropped to her knees to flatten the wrinkles in the dress with her palm. “You look so pretty!”
Harper pushed her away with a sharp twist of her torso. “Mama, I don’t wanna look pretty. I wanna look cool!”
Tiffany released her, and the little girl skipped to join the boys, the hem of her dress fluttering like moth’s wings. “Let me see!”
Tiffany looked around the room, talking to no one and everyone at once, “My little prima donna.” So it was clear to all that she was a patient mother. A good mother.
The baths had soothed the little beasts, and they turned the pages of books lazily as they nibbled carrots and spooned yogurt. The mommies and daddies were loosening, too, Tiffany thought. Thanks to the wine. Even Grace, who acted as if their kitchen duel had never happened.
Michael built a fire, and trills of laughter rang through the cozy living room. Tiffany’s wineglass had been filled once, twice, then she lost count. The cool, salt- tinged air filled with bossa nova and she felt a thrill in her chest that meant she was buzzing. She felt as if she could sashay from person to person, light on the balls of her feet, and touch them with her magic, sugar- plum- fairy wand to make them love her.
Michael pulled her into his lap, and she stayed, even though it made her feel small, and these were surely not people who appreciated PDAs. Tiffany had learned quickly that the urban sophisticates admired subtlety over all else. Anything loud, lewd, or lascivious should be filtered through irony or irreverence.
Susanna and Nicole were whispering, their foreheads nearly touching. Tiffany wondered if Nicole had really wanted to invite her that weekend. Leigh might have convinced Nicole, she thought, and reminded herself to be grateful for the bond she’d made with Leigh.
But if Leigh honestly loved her, then why was she so hesitant to loan Tenzin for three freaking hours a week? Maybe, Tiffany thought, she’d be doing Leigh a favor. Extra time with Chase might be what Leigh needed to accept that Chase would always be Chase.
Tiffany had seen many Chases. She thought of all the mothers who brought their “busy” sons to Tiff ’s Riff s classes, those supersophisticated women with perfect hair, and perfect teeth— Women so thin that Tiffany wondered if they ever ate. They were models of refinement. Their sons the very opposite. They had their lines memorized. He’s just so excitable! He’s a real boy- boy, never sits still! Tiffany had seen many boys like that, a year or two away from a diagnosis on the spectrum, from neurodevelopmental- pediatrician visits and tours of private schools specializing in behavioral disorders.
She was blessed with her girl. Her Harper. Her mind sailed into a harbor she seldom visited, where the waves were the same crimson as her wine, as dark as the blood that lines the womb, and she wondered if the babies she’d aborted had been boys. Maybe it had been for the best, she thought as she tipped the velvety wine back, back, back. Maybe Fate had intervened so that the baby she did choose to keep would be a girl.
In the mellowed light of the wine, the conversations dotting the room were each its own little planet, and Tiffany their sun. It was her energy making them spin, she thought, as she danced from one constellation of mommies to the next.
JULIA FIERRO‘s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, was recently included in Library Journal’s “Spring Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions and Flavorwire, Brook
Adapted from Cutting Teeth, by Julia Fierro, Copyright © 2014 by Julia Fierro. With the permission of the publisher, St. Martin’s Press.