At first, on account of the dress being all puffed up, we thought it was a jellyfish. One that somehow found its way to the wrong body of water, perishing as it glowed in the dark among the clementine rinds and condom packets and cigarette ash. But now, we think it’s a baby. A doll would be firmer, the limbs would have that plastic shine, and the hair would stand on end.
We hold our breaths. Because, yeah, we don’t want kids, but we’re not animals. Finally, it turns and laughs and splashes its palms on the surface of the water, and we’re pretty sure we see its parents smiling and waving on the grass. We exhale and suck on our joints.
“Who knew babies could swim,” you say, your voice thick before you blow out the smoke in an “O”.
“Me,” I say, snuffing my roach on the water. “That’s how I got this scar.” I kick my leg up to show you the loop of silver on my ankle. “Broken bottle in the water. Ma wasn’t watching.”
You press it with your fingers to check I’m not lying. It returns with a rose aura when you take the pressure off. “Huh,” you say. “Parents are shitheads.”
We laugh. Then, crocodilian, we go under. We can still hear the baby’s babbling from below, and we see its soft legs treading the darkness, its parents still perched on that bath towel—smiling and waving, waving and smiling under a drooping parasol. We swim away with our sativa smiles, sharp like ripped glitter, because it is not ours to concern ourselves with.
By night, when the stars rise in the sky and sink in the lake, the baby, still treading water, starts to cry. When we squint, we can just make out its parents on the bank, twisting their damn bodies together under a gum tree. But we can’t take it home. We would never get any sleep, and we couldn’t stand the crying. Besides, we’re sure its parents will collect it from the water soon, take it home and feed it sugar lumps and little white lies.
Years pass, and one day we drink watermelon wine, take our clothes off and swim once more in the lake in the woods. Which is foolish because it might make us want things. We have forgotten about the baby, the memory drifted between fronds. I ride on your shoulders and, when you feel my crotch on your neck, helter-skelter down your body like I used to. Until we hear a cry. Small at first then thickening into fat wails. We swim towards it, expecting to see something we can save—a lonely animal caught in plastic.
The baby has its back to us, its pear-white dress still pristine after all this time.
We are still.
You look at me, at the empty patch of grass under the gum tree. Your brow ruffles. “You can take this one,” you say, backing away.
And I think of all the “ones” I have taken since we have been “we”.
“We’re a team,” you say. “Right?” The daylight reveals your tattoos, now green and stretched over your bones. The drugs, before we gave them up, made you heavy, and your jawline is stubbled and blurs with your neck. “You’re better with kids anyway,” you say, handing me a broken bottle. You stand behind me with both hands on my shoulders, squeezing them. “Would’ve made a good ma.”
I look at the baby mewling and beating the water, and I shiver.
“Parents are shitheads,” I mumble and prod its leg with the soft edge of the bottle. The glass is faint pink from the watermelon wine, and it shines like a gem in my hands, and we both feel strong with it.
The crying stops and the baby paddles, and for a moment, we want it to turn around. We want it to smile and coo and have us as its gods. We sleep less now anyway. We have more than two seats, lemon popsicles, and leftover brisket in the freezer. But the truth is, we aren’t as quick as we used to be. Our hair is flashing threads of silver now, and you never have been good with kids.
We laugh and the baby laughs with us. How could this be a baby? It’s been years. Yet, we still don’t have the courage to look at its face, for fear it has your browbone, my too-close eyes. Or maybe because we know it’s just a lost jellyfish. A childhood doll nobody claimed. We laugh again—louder, looser. And we, all three of us, wait for someone to collect us from the water.
CATHERINE ROBERTS — Catherine is always writing something a little bit strange and bittersweet. Her work has been published/is forthcoming in Maudlin House, Bending Genres and Full House Lit, among other places. Find her on X under the handle: @CRobertsWriter
Art by LINDSEY MORRISON GRANT — Self-identifying as a neurodivergent, two-spirit, elder storyteller and contrarian deeply rooted in the roar and lore that’s become Portlandia of the Left Coast, The Artist attributes success and survival to superlative supports, mindfulness practice, and daily creative expression in words, sounds, and images. Currently, their visual work is represented by The Siy Gallery of San Francisco.