Inside the dark living room, Darla waited for the bathroom. She counted more than 64 photos of a child on the walls, shelves, and piano. Many shots the same but in different sizes—the Sears pose with marbled gray background, the unknowingly sweet smile. The child belonged to Trevor and Mandy, who were hosting a pool party. The couple had set up house in the Valley, in a neighborhood of small square houses, many guarded by iron fences, the homes of car thieves and newlyweds in their twenties still renting. Their living room carpet crawled with Winnie-the-Pooh toys and bright plastic objects shaped into keys and school buses. Darla herself, just older than the couple, had been pulled to the party by her boyfriend Jon, Trevor’s pal since eleventh grade.
The pool radiated in the heat, its sides cracked by the ’93 earthquake, a lone inflatable zebra lapping against the far wall. Jon lingered outside by the pool, beer in hand, just close enough to get his legs wet when someone cannon-balled in. The heat of the day had just come, so a thick yellow mugginess had settled onto the patio, making limbs heavy as if filled with sand. White empty plates and plastic forks stood on the small metal table, used and smeared with ketchup.
Darla and Jon had been together just under a year. Already his mom bought her sales clothes from Macy’s and invited her to family dinners on Friday nights. What she liked best about him, Darla had realized earlier in the car, was that it wasn’t going to last, so she didn’t have to care that much really. She walked back out to the patio, pulling a small puff of air-conditioned air behind her. It took a minute for her eyes to adjust again to the brightness.
Jon touched her arm. “You OK?” he said. She could almost see behind his mirrored sunglasses. His purple board-shorts just grazed his knee.
She nodded. Their condom had split the night before, so they’d spent the morning going to two different Rite Aids to get the morning-after pill. The pharmacist didn’t say anything but had the same gray hair as Darla’s dad and looked just as disapproving. For lunch Jon had taken Darla to a Belgian restaurant on Ventura much too expensive for him, and she let him eat his mussels while she swallowed the first pill at the bathroom sink. When she came back, they both pretended everything was normal, and turned up the radio loud once they hit the freeway.
On the patio, Trevor was wound up in conversation. He was short, built for the military, compact frame, trimmed hair, muscley back. He was a cop, patrolled mostly shopping centers and the community college campus. “The guys with the best job,” he told Jon, shielding his eyes from the sun. “Those helicopter cops. They fly over the big houses in the hills where chicks sunbathe topless.”
Darla looked over to Trevor’s wife. Mandy was an ex-hostess of chain restaurants and now wore Keds and was still round with baby fat. She was out of earshot, fitting the baby into a swimsuit with a mermaid on it.
Trevor nudged Jon. “Can you imagine? The MILFs.”
Jon turned to Darla. “I’ve explained to you what a MILF is, right, honey?”
The first time Darla had met Trevor, he had just tackled a guy at the mall who had stolen a plastic toy camera. The first words he had ever said to her when Jon introduced them, there in the food court just outside the Mongolian barbeque: “I love catching these guys. Gives me a boner.”
On the patio, Darla said, “Great, Trevor.” She’d already gotten into a fight with Jon earlier that summer about Trevor going to a Hooters in the desert.
Trevor shrugged, his shoulders already burnt deep red. “Those helicopters,” he said, his accent vaguely reminding Darla of Frank Sinatra. “Some jobs have great perks.”
“There!” Mandy said, standing her baby up on the concrete and toddling her towards Trevor. “Who’s my baby?”
Trevor scooped up the little girl and swung her over his head, walking her into the shallow end of the pool.
Mandy leaned her hips out and picked up a wet dinosaur sponge from the pavement. She said, “Be careful.” Her wide white thighs caught the sun, her skin almost glowing.
Trevor waved an arm, “Don’t worry. The diaper alone could keep her afloat.”
Mandy smiled at Darla a smile that said One day you’ll know what I’m going through. “Did you get enough to eat?” she said. “There’s wings in the kitchen.”
Darla touched her middle, which felt like a void, which felt like static or white noise. “Good,” she said. “But thanks.”
“OK,” Mandy said, heading back into the cool of the house. “I trust you,” she called out to Trevor, then shut the sliding glass door behind her.
Jon ran a finger down Darla’s arm. “Does it hurt,?” he said.
“Want a sip of my beer, Darla? Might relax you.”
“It said no alcohol.”
“One sip isn’t going to do anything.”
She put her hand on his wrist. The package said the success rate was 99%. It was a sure thing. And besides, she didn’t know if that one time had really been enough anyway. “Just stop,” she said. Her throat dried up.
The cooler hung open under the shadow of the house, green and brown bottle necks pushing through the ice. Only root beer left in cans or cream soda that made Darla sick.
“I’ll be back,” she told Jon, who had taken off his sandals and dangled hairy legs in the blinding white-blue water. Trevor floated the baby on a raft tour of the outer edges of the pool. He pointed out the pump to her and the water filter and the black widow spider web under the diving board.
“Putting on your swimsuit?” Jon said.
Trevor looked over at her. “The water feels great,” he said. “Come in and join us.”
Darla reached a hand into the pool, which was warmer than she'd expected. “A little later,” she said, knowing that she wouldn’t, that she hated others seeing her in her swimsuit.
The kitchen had that familiar avocado-green tinge, the orange linoleum curling at the edges, the reminder that this was all new in the 70s. Darla already knew where everything was. She and Jon were house-sitters there a couple of months before, taking the cocker spaniels out to pee, sleeping in the master bedroom which was the only bedroom, swimming naked in the pool and then having sex on a couch covered in dog hair. Darla knew the kitchen had enough snack food to supply a small convenience store. She thought of the bright packages as bags of chemicals, preserving each other, as though they were something worth preserving.
Mandy sat at the kitchen table, her back to the doorway, looking through a Bed, Bath and Beyond catalog.
“Sorry,” Darla said. Mandy turned around, raising her eyebrows. Her brown hair hung down her back in frizzy swirls. “For disturbing you,” Darla said, pointing to the catalog and the Glamour magazine on the table next to it.
Mandy said, “No problem.” She was drinking iced tea, the ice cubes already melted in her tall blue glass. “Just need a break sometimes. With the baby and all.”
“Sure,” Darla said, looking at a flowering bush just out the window, the lace curtains hanging like bangs across a forehead, the potted violet in soil so dry it was struggling. “Of course,” Darla said. “I’d be horrible at it. I’d probably start drinking. I know I would.” Mandy’s back stiffened. She looked over at Darla. Darla shook her head. “Just kidding,” she said. “Raising a child must be so hard.”
Mandy said, “Can I get you something?”
“Diet Coke?” Darla said, edging to the refrigerator, where graduation photos and school pics of cousins hung under heavy fruit-shaped magnets. All eyes direct at the camera. Grade schoolers in green grass and corduroy overalls. Tiger and devil faces in Hallowe’en grease-paint, purposeful and wanting to be there. “I can get it,” Darla said.
Mandy flipped through the catalog. Still looking down, she said, “We need to get a new comforter. She threw up all over the last one.”
“That’s OK,” Darla said.
“I buy her new clothes all the time, she’s growing so fast.”
“I’ll bet,” Darla said.
“My own shirts are stained at the shoulders,” Mandy said. Darla looked at her shoulders and the T-shirt front of hatching eggs and the words Mother Hen in red, ropey letters. “Not this one,” Mandy said. “I never wear this one.” She looked back down at the catalog. “Things don’t stay nice, you know. You think they will but they don’t.”
Darla moved to the doorway with her Diet Coke perspiring coldness into her hand. “Don’t worry. Your house is really nice. This is what people want.”
Mandy said, “Jon’s a really good guy.”
Darla nodded and walked back to the patio.
Outside, the sky was losing its harsh whiteness. Darla could hear a lawn mower a few houses over, the sounds of cars on Balboa. Shadows of the grill and lawn chairs fell over half the patio. Jon was on his next beer, which was either number three or four. Darla never counted but just knew that later on she’d be the one driving.
“No swimsuit?” Jon swung his arm around Darla’s waist and pulled her down next to him by the pool. “At least get your feet wet.” He splashed water on her.
Darla held up her arm and pretended to push Jon into the water. “I’ll do it,” she said, putting her other hand over the Diet Coke.
Jon called out, “Officer. The missus is beating on me again.”
Trevor swam over with the baby, leaned in towards Darla. “Is this true?”
“Please.” Darla looked down at her legs. “I’m not a missus.”
Trevor said to Jon, “I’ll have to take her away in the squad car if you two can’t make up.”
Darla got up and said, “OK, OK.”
Jon had once told Darla he didn’t think Trevor’s marriage would last more than five years. Now they were in year four. Mandy’s mother had died of cervical cancer not long before they met, and, ever since, Mandy had clung to him. At the wedding, Trevor had teared up, said he was so grateful he found her, so happy he’d stopped by that chain ribs-restaurant that night and caught her attention, so glad he’d come back the next afternoon and nervously asked her out, ecstatic when she’d said, “Sure, I guess.” At the reception afterwards, Jon told Darla much later, Trevor had tried steering him to a tall redhead because she was so hot.
“Did you even bring your swimsuit?” Jon said.
“No,” Darla said. “It’s OK.”
Trevor said, “You could borrow one of Mandy’s. She wouldn’t mind.”
“It’s OK. I can sit it out,” Darla said, sitting on a gray wooden bench that splintered near the bolts. She leaned back and looked at the chain link gate on the fence, the patches of dirt where the dogs had tried to tunnel out. The neighbors had a hummingbird feeder hanging from a tree and a panel of cardboard on the side window where the glass was out.
Mandy came outside with a king-size bag of potato chips. She didn’t lift her flip flops all the way when she walked. She took the baby from Trevor. “How’s my girl?” she said, putting her face right up to the baby’s, touching noses, probably breathing out potato chip breath. “Anyone have a towel?”
Trevor threw her one with sailboats on it. He said, “Darla wants to swim but didn’t bring a suit.”
Darla waved her hand. “Oh no, I’m fine.” She felt the hot pavement with her feet, the comfort of it.
Mandy kept her face at the baby’s. “We have extras. Don’t be shy.”
Jon said, “Yeah, Darla, don’t be shy.”
Mandy said to Trevor, “Hey, can you show her? I have my hands full here.”
Trevor stretched his arms above his head. “Yo,” he said and pointed to the door.
Darla gave Jon a look and he shrugged. She thought of quicksand—if she were being dragged under, Jon would probably just stay there and give the same shrug. Whenever she got very sad, which happened sometimes, Jon acted as if leaving her alone was the best thing. He said sadness made him feel helpless.
The bedroom was smaller than Darla remembered from house-sitting. There were more stuffed animals, more VHS tapes of wrestling. The bed was covered in pillows.
Trevor looked around in the adjoining bathroom, which had a fake marble countertop and a whole series of toothbrushes in a line beneath the mirror. “Jon told me about the morning-after thing,” he said.
“He told you?”
“You know, we’ve been friends for a long time.” He came back into the room empty-handed and pulled a heaping clothes basket from the corner of the room. “Don’t worry, they’re clean.” He threw white shirts and towels onto the bed. “I think you made the right choice.”
Darla sat down on the bed, pulled a pillow into her lap and fingered the lace at the edges. “I’m sure of it,” she said.
“Though I think you wouldn’t have gotten pregnant anyway,” he said, looking over at her. “It broke one time? Come on.”
Darla looked at the photos on the wall, generic shots of little boys giving tulips to little girls. “Maybe,” she said.
He leaned into the clothes basket, digging through the bottom layer. “It all changes with a kid.”
“I know that,” she said, but she didn’t really. She’d heard about it from friends—her Mormon friend in Nebraska already trying for a second, and she and Darla were exactly the same age, same birthday. Darla knew the basic pattern of sleepless nights, of loving something more than anything else. It always sounded impossible to her.
“Do you like being married?” she said.
Trevor pulled a black swimsuit from the basket. “Here’s the fucker,” he said. It was a one-piece with gold rings on the shoulder straps. “This was Darla’s from a few years ago. Might be too big for you.” He threw it into her lap.
She stood up and draped it against her body, looking into the mirror. “Here,” he said, stepping forward. His fingers pinned the suit lightly to her waist. “Let’s see.”
She could smell the beer on his breath and the sweat and chlorine. “Do you?” she said.
He looked down at her, leaned closer to her face, really looked at it, it seemed to her, though it was probably just the beer. “Not always,” he said. His hand was on her waist, his other hand slid tentatively down her side. For a moment it felt good to be touched by someone else. She wanted to close her eyes and follow it.
“I think it would be too hard,” she said, opening her eyes. She put her hands up and gently took his arms off her, placed them at his sides. “I don’t know how you do it,” she said. “Especially so young. I don’t know how anyone does it.” He stood watching her. She thumbed towards the backyard and said, “They’re probably wondering about us.”
He said, “Right. I’ll let you get changed,” and headed for the door.
But she pulled him back by his arm and steered him to sit on the bed. She took off her shirt and unhooked her bra, letting it hang in her hands for a moment, knowing his gaze was on her. She slipped off her skirt and panties and stood there before him naked and let him look at her. Then slowly she took the suit from the bed and stepped into it one leg after the other and pulled it up around her breasts and then to her shoulders, where the little gold rings met her collarbone. It didn’t fit her, but she didn’t care anymore. She looked into his face and said, “Let’s go.”
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