The Life Of Riley by Linda McMullen

I had been looking forward to lunch – I’d met Taylor and Alyssa at Parent/Child Pilates and (unlike Nicole, Samantha, Claire, and Leah) they hadn’t squinched away – and I’d scored 12:15 Saturday reservations at The Porch, a surf-and-turf restaurant with an outdoor seating area, a cedar deck over the river – and now Taylor’s Lily is French-braiding her American Girl doll’s hair and Alyssa’s James is paging through The Monster at the End of This Book with a Princetonian air and my Riley has gotten her head lodged in the lattice.  

She just hasn’t realized it yet.

A few moments ago, she demolished her spaghetti, then detected the cinnamon-tinted-diamond fence ringing the eating area.  Obviously, if her head fit, it was meant to traverse that magical threshold.

Three, I think.  Two.  One…

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!” begins Riley.  I sally forth to extract my panicky, stentorian, flailing-limbed young land-octopus from her paling necklace.  I think of how many weeks of pilates it has taken to overcome the inherently misnamed “pants incident”.  How many yoga mat owners have embraced tactical retreat once our purple-pineapple floor-banner unfurled.  How many micro-bladed eyebrows have arched.  I try talking her through it.  I crane her delicate neck left and right, like the finicky faucet of an antique shower.  Nope.  Then I’m trying to coax the head backward: an anti-birth.  

I fail.  

As I susurrate, chanting the eternal mother’s mantra, It’s going to be OK, I’m lying to myself and to her.  Because she’s always going to be the child who gets her head stuck in the fence.  

All nearby mothers arrange a dutiful fireman’s (firewoman’s?) brigade, passing me pats of butter, napkins, water, the weight of their smug judgment.  Alyssa moves to comfort James, who has dropped his Little Golden Book to clutch his tiny peachy ears.  Lily is demanding her mother cede her own ponytail holder to secure the braid for Blaire, a detail which seems sadly spot-on.  Riley’s animal screams have brought dining to a standstill four restaurants away.  

She has so much energy, my mother always says, charitably.  

Hence the pilates.  Our rec department had gotten imaginative, realizing they had to appeal/cater to Working Moms Who Rue Those Lingering Ten Postpartum Pounds But Feel Guilty About Taking Any Time Away From Their Children During the Weekends.  So they offer the equally democratic “Parent/Child Yoga” and “Parent/Child Tai Chi”, even though it’s eleven mothers and one bemused, widowed father.  They don’t have Branded Exercise for Desperate Introverts Who Love Their Children But Don’t Particularly Like Them.

Ten minutes later, after the real fire brigade has arrived but before they’ve tested their axes, I ease Riley’s head out.  She promptly burrows into my chest, her tears leaving a dark spot directly over my nipple.  Taylor and Alyssa coo haikus:

We’re so glad she’s safe

We had a lovely time but

Better get going.

Riley waves to the other two children; they don’t wave back.  She looks up at me with haunted squid eyes.

It’s going to be OK, I murmur.

Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred fifty literary magazines. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.

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