We Go Way Back
I was digging in the dirt with Sarah when we were both seven years old. We were digging for dinosaur bones in the space between our houses, under a bush neither of our parents claimed as their own, which had become a no man's land prone to excavations like this. Sarah stopped digging because she found a tooth—she said so. She held it between her finger and thumb, trying to evoke jealousy, which I dismissed. That's just a rock, I said, even while reaching out my hand to examine it, to be sure. It was smooth and white, slightly crystalline, even pointed at one end, I had to admit.
After flaunting, Sarah lost herself in the threads of make-believe we so easily succumbed to back then, spitting on the rock to clean it, digging her fingernails into its crevices to remove every last grain of dirt, humming sweet hymns, little ditties, imagined conversations at beauty salons under her breath.
But I was still committed to the task at hand. I kept digging, and not only for bones. I was overcome with a feeling of freedom I had never felt before—the thrill of claiming land for myself. Why hadn't my parents thought of this space, this free space right here? I could find wood—leftover plywood in the garage, old birdfeeders—I could fashion myself a house, or at least a room, all of my own.
The soil became clay, clay became smooth and tightly packed. Black half-moons of dirt clogged my small fingernails. Then finally, treasure.
A curved ring of green glass appeared. It's an emerald, I said, mumbling along to my own imagination—I was a miner, I was a builder, and the earth was confirming. Here a broken beer bottle, a precious gem for you. Dig, proceed.
"Sperm look like balloons," Sarah said out of nowhere. The dinosaur tooth was gone. She was on her hands and knees watching me excavate the green treasure and must have needed something else to show off that wasn't mine, turning to the arsenal of her own knowledge. I didn't know what sperm was, I told her. She said she did.
"It's when the daddy pees inside the mommy to make a baby. He pees a special pee that has fish inside it. Little fish that look like balloons. They're called sperm."
As she said this, my finger slipped along the edge of the glass. It was startling how vividly painless my finger split open from the tip to the base.
Sarah said "Oh."
Bright red streamed. I cried and ran away as if to outrun my own hand, horrified by its attachment to me and its bloody new mouth.
I forgot about what Sarah said until junior high. I was then thirteen and a science teacher was showing our class a video of a sperm whale that had washed up on a beach in Florence, Oregon and had to be blown up with dynamite. A few boys in the class chuckled when he said sperm whale and I chuckled when they chuckled. I remember the teacher noticing this and instead of scolding us, he said something almost as if to goad us, to join in. A joke was said about blowing, about sperm—I can't remember if the teacher made this inference himself, or laughed aloud when another boy did, but I remember him encouraging it, entering the threshold of space between adult and child and running counter to an important internal rhythm. I chuckled out of requirement. I looked down at my desk feeling shame and uncertainty right as the dynamite blew up the whale. Blubber rained down. I looked at the long scar on my finger.
Sarah and I were no longer friends by then. She wasn't in the classroom with me—or maybe she had been and I just don't remember. Even the shrub between our houses was gone. During a winter storm, a tree had fallen from her yard and landed across our driveway and both our fathers had helped clear the debris. They sliced into it with a chainsaw, dividing it up. My father took some slabs to the dump, some to a local woodshop. I remember Sarah's mother out there on the driveway with them, seeming so flimsy and ill-advised. She tried to lift one of the stumps herself, she wanted to turn it into a side table.
"Does it need to be treated? Can I just paint it white?"
My father said the bark should be removed at least, then sanded. I remember all our mismatched cans of spray paint, pesticides, varnishes, the different warnings and labels, the noise of the metal ball inside being shaken, the smell of the jug of gasoline for the lawnmower cutting through the frost. My father had to show Sarah's father how to use the chainsaw, had to tell me to make myself useful. I was standing there, playing with the branches. I would pick the tiniest twig and break it inch by inch, feeling it snap, snap, snap.
"Hey you want to dig up that bush while we're all out here?"
Sarah and I ended up going to the same university. One night we reconnected with startling, unsophisticated ease, drunkenly yelling at a party.
"Sarah's mom hated my mom."
"No, that was his mom, and she hated me. She said I didn't wear enough clothes. She never let me come inside the house."
"Only because Sarah cut up our trampoline. She cut it into strips with garden shears and made a tube top out of it."
We spoke to each other in the third-person, with bodies between us. Donnie Darko was on the TV, the lights were off, everyone was smoking or watching something better on phones, opening and slamming doors, playing guitar, and we were two people who suddenly, gregariously knew each other more than anyone else, a tried and true connection dug up from miles under sand. Everyone watched in jealous awe, including ourselves.
Sarah cut her hair shorter at university. I wore new glasses and came out as gay. These changes were enough to encourage a new foundation to form beneath us, one that superseded all childhood fossils. There were still the performative remember-whens at social gatherings—we relied on those to usurp everyone else's careful social climbing—but we never used them on each other. Speaking alone together, texting, taking the same classes, graduating and posing for photos together in cap and gown—in those moments we were new people with clear delineations.
I remember how strange both of our parents had seemed the day of our graduation. Sarah's mother was fussy over everyone, touching up Sarah's hair, double-checking tickets, and my mother eyed this with unexplained scorn. Both our fathers were dads and not much else besides that, not much more than what they had been a decade earlier, chopping up fallen trees, shoveling snow, coordinating bake sales and basketballs. Maybe it was that suspended animation that I noticed, how our parents were still the parents they had always been, eyeing each other over the fence, and how Sarah and I must have still seemed to them—just two kids digging up dirt, trick or treat, kick the can, smear the queer—even though Sarah's parents had sold their house and moved away by then, even though that capsule of a world had been swallowed and fulfilled, dissolved and long gone.
We successfully taught our friendship pauses. Intermittent fasting. Sarah and I existed for each other in likes and comments, memes in group chats, birthday texts—never phone calls—watching passively as internships turned into jobs on LinkedIn, switching states, boyfriends, political causes. Sarah became an interaction that appeared in phases, ticks, recollections, contact suggestions, autofill. Then eventually Contact Not Found, new number, wrong area code, Sarah T. or Sara M.? Privacy locks, dormant accounts, wow she looks totally different.
I was thirty-four years old by the time I saw her again. We drove past her on a dusty road in Sunriver, Oregon. My boyfriend and I were spending a week with his family at their condo between forest fires and we passed her on our way back from a grocery store. My boyfriend was driving and suddenly I whipped my head around, shocked at how I had managed to spot her even though she looked so much like anybody else: a sun-stained zombie in a heat stroke daze. My partner—my boyfriend who I was starting to call my partner—said who?
"Sarah, this girl—my next-door neighbor growing up. We—" I tried to think of something but everything rushed by—peeing in bushes, butterfly killing, dinosaur bones, she was my first kiss, she sucked my blood that day, she put her lips to my finger and drank—my vision blurred, everything was too monumental.
"Do you want me to stop?" He noticed how I had jumped and whipped my head around.
I said it's probably not her. My ears rang.
Later that evening after dinner, we all went for a walk along a golf course, stalking a family of deer. The deer sat down in the middle of the fairway long enough for us to take photos. Their mouths munched in rhythmic circles, until they became unsatisfied with the clipped, fertilized grass and left. As they departed they revealed, on the other side of the fairway, Sarah.
She was sitting in a chair on the back patio of a house along the golf course. She must have also been watching the deer because now she was looking right at me. She hadn't needed to whip her head around.
The thwacks of a few last-call golfers echoed off in the distance. I told my boyfriend and his family that I'd meet them back at the condo and I walked alone, in a straight line across the grass.
"Hey you," Sarah said calmly, unfazed or perhaps successfully suppressing whatever monuments of her own were emerging in her mind. She wore a sundress and sandals. Her hair was mid-length now.
I cooed more than I should have—amazed at the coincidence, flummoxed at how long it had been since graduation, no—since Lindsay's wedding, three years ago, remember? I was in the bridal party, you were there with Sam, are you still together? That's crazy. Did you see the deer? It's so nice to be in the sun for once. To get away for a while.
"Are you on the fire side?" she said. She was so unmoved. Maybe I was doing too much, being too yearnful. Maybe I should sit down next to her. Maybe I should leave.
"The fire side," she said again. "The side the fire's going to—" she snapped her fingers.
"Oh," I said. "No, I don't think so. Or, I don't know. We're on the other side of the downtown—or the mall, whatever they call it, the town square. Isn't the fire heading east?"
"This one's heading east, but there's another one coming from the north. Every year people say that side will be the first to burn, as if the whole rest of the place won't go down with it."
I looked up at the angular house behind her. The wood slats were painted a light gray that leaned green. It was a modern house in a 90s sense. Straggly bits of timber had only been painted over, then painted over again, plastered to the walls, frayed near the windows.
"Is this your parents' place?" I said.
"Is this your place?"
No again. I was hit for the first time with an overwhelming sense that this woman was a complete stranger. We had been best friends but now we had unknown each other. I almost felt the need to ask her her name.
Sarah asked if I wanted to get a drink. I said yes and together we walked under a nine o'clock sunset to the shopping plaza in the center of town. Our conversation eased as we walked, but only under unspoken preconditions. We reminisced not about the long summers we had spent together as children—the mock wedding, the dog wedding, stealing flowers from neighbors, punching my brother—but of our university days and barely that, comparing degrees, loans, the Spanish minor that took her to Belize for a year, the rental markets we were both priced out of (she never explained whose house that was).
Between real estate offices and a bike shop we sat in the middle of a sparsely populated bar and drank two beers each, then two more, both of us flirting with the bartender's earnest recommendations of local brews, all of them tasting of dust and unwashed glass. Sarah asked about my work, my boyfriend, my parents, if I had kept in touch with Lindsay after the wedding. She's good, we text. She's having another baby, I think. I saw. I liked. Do you remember the time when Max ate the head off your Barbie doll?
"Max who? On the groom's side?"
"No, Max the dog!" I laughed, red in the face, too loud.
"I'm talking about the wedding."
"I know we were," I flustered. "But I just remembered Max and how we had to make him throw up the Barbie head. Remember how it came out whole and we put it back on the doll good as new?"
"Max was a dog?"
"Max was my dog!" I said. "Remember?"
She ignored this. She said, "Hey you see that guy over there? Wearing the baseball hat? Sitting at the bar?" She whispered in my ear. No, she leaned out of her chair, she leaned away. As if to pull away from me. "Do you see that guy? Well, last night—he—hey!—hey I see you!" Her body loosened from tension I didn't realize she had been holding as she shouted across the room. "You're such a sleaze! You dork. Yeah come on, like you're not gonna send drinks over to me again, is that it? Come over here, come over and meet my friend!" Her sweeping gestures transformed her into a bird in flight high above me. Our planes had not intersected not even once, this was clear. The deer on the golf course? No, she hadn't seen me when they dispersed. I had emitted myself into her line of sight.
A handsome man approached the table, bringing new beers for each of us. He was cordial with me, familiar with Sarah. They touched each other—playfully a jab to his chest, his arm draped around her shoulder—but with an unpracticed familiarity, gleeful tentativeness. Sarah said Amir was a whitewater rafting guide, here for the summer. They hung out last night, and the night before.
"He's using me for the golf course—I get a discount," she said.
"No, I'm using her for the hot tub," said Amir.
Amir told me about the river, how it was drying up and they were having to adjust their rafting routes nearly every week. Rocks normally kept underwater were protruding dangerously in places normally breezed over by rapids. Two rafts had already been punctured, a child had cut his head just yesterday.
"At least we're lucky with the wind," he said.
I questioned what that had to do with rafting—my drunken mind thinking of sailboats in a breeze. "Don't you just paddle and bounce your way down?"
"I mean with the fires," said Amir. "The wind's keeping the smoke away for now. But the minute it shifts and sends it over here, we're done. No one wants to go rafting when the sky's orange and you can't see the sun."
"Mad Max vibes," said Sarah.
I tried to smile. I tried to float alongside their friendly sparks and be jovial, be current, be coy and contained, but I couldn't begin a sentence without saying remember when, remember when—and I couldn't finish them either. Just remember when, and neither one of us could. I dug into nothing and lifted out nothing.
We made arrangements for Amir to take us all whitewater rafting. Everyone could come—my boyfriend and his whole family. But two days later, on the morning we had arranged, Sarah texted me a discount code for the tickets. The rafting, the shuttle bus, the life vest rentals were all free, but Sarah and Amir wouldn't be joining us, something had come up.
Whenever my family went away on vacation, my parents always asked another kid in the neighborhood to watch Max. They never asked Sarah.
I saw her again less than a year later in a Target parking lot. Both of us were putting our carts away at the same time.
"I was just in the store!"
"No, I was just in the store!"
Maybe our paths had crossed and I hadn't recognized her. After all, she was pregnant.
"I'm naming him Douglas like Douglas fir. But I know I'm going to regret it unless I really commit to DOUGLAS because I don't like just Doug. I know I'll end up calling him Dougie, which will lead to Doug, which is all just silly because I don't even know if it's a boy or a girl, I haven't been to any of my ultrasound appointments."
"You what?" I laughed. I was nervous. She touched my arm. She touched my hand and placed it on her stomach.
"I'm just—I don't know. I'm just going with the flow. I feel healthy and I know he's in there kicking around. Actually I feel better than I've ever felt before. I'm eating right, keeping active, got my birthing plan ready to go, bags packed—I'm due any moment, seriously—seriously! And no, it's not Amir's—well, it is, but it's not. He doesn't know. We never kept in touch after Sunriver. Actually it's funny, I was just thinking about you the other day when I was thinking of names. I was thinking about Sunriver and I thought, well if it's a girl I could name it River—well, if it's a boy I could name it River, too. Then I thought of trees, the Douglas firs, then I remembered that night we met up. You just appeared out of nowhere. But anyway—I know this is really out of the blue but—do you want—can you take me to the hospital?"
A raw, frayed emotion was behind her eyes.
"What, like, now?" I looked around the empty parking lot. The A on the buzzing Target sign was burnt out.
"Not right now." Sarah laughed. "Well, it could be now, who knows. Anytime in the next week or so. Here let me text you my address, I'm just over there. I'm planning on driving myself to the hospital, but you never know, just in case. Always need a backup plan. Do you want to come over now? Do you want to see my place?"
Over the course of a week, I transformed into what I had always been for Sarah, and the world—geography itself—seemed to accommodate this shift. Her apartment was nearby, closer than I had imagined, and I spent every evening there after work. We cooked dinner. We watched birthing videos on YouTube and I grimaced performatively at first, then watched with unshielded awe at life and how it was happening right inside her. We imagined who Dougie or River would end up being. I bought a cheap home ultrasound kit—I insisted—and listened to its heartbeat, listened to its breathing—"That's my breathing, silly!"—felt its little kicks and squirms.
"I wish I had a backyard for him to play in," she said one night. "I'll need to take him to a park every day. I'll need to put him in my car and drive down the freeway to the park every single day."
"Remember when we used to dig for dinosaur bones?"
Sarah didn't answer, but grabbed my hand instead. This time she didn't place it on her stomach, this time it was just for her. She held my hand in both her hands and turned it over, palm-facing. Slowly, she examined the scar that ran down my finger, pressing into it, rubbing it back and forth. Her hands were soft, cold, then warm. We interlocked our fingers. I put my arm around her and she leaned in against my chest. We slept that way that night and the next.
My boyfriend was supportive because there was a baby, there was a mother—but from a distance. There was a gulf of misunderstanding we both knew would simply exist between us and be avoided for some time and then pass—even after I said I wanted to be part of the child's life, even after I broke into tears, a flooded joy, when a text came from Sarah, right below her address, right below the whitewater rafting discount code: "I think it's time."
With factory precision the hospital swept us into its folds of wards, waiting, and administrative giddiness. The gentlest, kindest women in the world tended to Sarah, joked with me, praised our preparation, our spiritualism and modern parenting. Sarah's pain became immense as contractions hit in rolling waves. We were given a room, I helped her change, and her voice heaved into swallowing depths as nurses told her not to push, not yet. Just wait. Get comfortable.
I was nervous. I had read horror stories in the days leading up to this, about overly excited mothers and overrun hospitals turning them away, telling them to come back in a few hours when they were closer. About babies born in cars on the side of the road, not on their way to the hospital but on their way back.
Surely she's dilated enough, I said, going off my week of Wikipedia knowledge. I looked beneath Sarah's coverings—this was our relationship now, we were children again, I have an innie, you have an outie—and observed the stretching ring, the trembling muscles, I knew what I was talking about. But when I looked up the nurses were gone.
"Where'd they go?" The room was empty.
Sarah could only groan and cry. Suddenly I felt miniscule and helpless. I caught my reflection in the black screen of a TV on the wall and I didn't recognize myself. I didn't recognize the creature splayed behind me. It was like we were playing pretend hospital. Playing dress-up in Sarah's mother's clothes. You are forbidden from going over there. You are not to go inside Sarah's house ever again.
The nurses returned with a doctor. Thank God. Authority swept back into the room, in a wheeled leather stool, rolling right up to Sarah. She inspected and shone a light, she pressed both hands against the opening. She looked up at the nurses, then at me, then back at the crowning head. Something was wrong.
"Sarah?" the doctor said. She stood up in a strange manner. She wasn't as warm as the nurses had been, in fact, the nurses themselves were cold and scattered, standing around the edge of the room along the walls.
"There's a balloon inside you."
There's a what?
I heard "boy" at first and smiled, then stopped, then smiled again when I realized what the doctor had said. Balloon? Ha ha. The baby must have a big head.
Sarah hadn't heard. She was blanched with sweat, neither here nor there. I was at her side, holding her hands. One of them clutched only my index finger, squeezing the scar.
"There's not a baby inside you," said the doctor. Her face had fallen, white and green. "There's a balloon. A rubber, inflated balloon. Like a birthday party balloon."
"What are you talking about?" I said.
The doctor held up a mirror. There was the parting, the trembling, and inside there was the head, clearly that's the head, I said. It's not a head it's a balloon, said the doctor. "Here look—" She disappeared between the legs and Sarah roared with pain, only this time her scream bordered on rage, singed with a heightened yelp. The doctor reappeared and shone the mirror again. Now in the reflection was an unmistakable balloon knot, tied and taut. It was light blue.
One of the nurses fled from the room, another followed, another hesitantly took out her phone. The doctor said she had never seen anything like this before, it was absurd, it was disgusting, was this a game, was this a joke, are you both out of your minds, all while Sarah cried and moaned. The contractions kept coming. You're not pregnant, said the doctor.
"She's obviously still pregnant!" I shouted back.
The doctor shook her head with venomous disbelief and horror. She turned and sorted through a cupboard of supplies, boxes of plastic cups, drop cloths, metal and plastic equipment of every size.
"There'll be enormous consequences for whatever this is—this prank," said the doctor. Her chagrin was like a cold chain lashing. "We still have to remove it, obviously."
"She's giving birth to it," I corrected her.
The doctor inspected the cervix again. There were tools in her hands now. "I'm going to let the air out first."
In an instant Sarah became more present than I had ever seen a human be. "NO!" She kicked her legs, closing her knees together. She yelped from the pain.
"It's a balloon!" said the doctor. "We have to pop it if we want any chance of getting it out."
"It's my baby!" both Sarah and I yelled at the same time, sharing sweat and tears.
"You've got to be kidding." The doctor retched. "I'm calling the police. You're not wasting our hospital resources on a stupid little prank. What is this? Performance art? I'm moving you to surgery."
But Sarah's motherly instincts were already compelling her to stand. She was half covered by the hospital smock, exposed, wet, and in pain. I wrapped a robe and towels around her from the bathroom and helped her carefully into a wheelchair while the doctor ran in and out of the room, on the phone and shouting demands. A man at the elevator tried to stop us.
"She's having this baby either here or out there and obviously we're not wanted so BACK OFF." I jabbed him hard in the chest and he stepped aside.
"It's coming," I heard Sarah whimper. "Just a bit longer," I promised as I ran her through the lobby, out the front doors and into the parking lot. My car was in the very back. Sarah howled.
"I have to get up."
"We're almost there."
"No, stop. I have to get up." She hobbled out of the chair onto the sidewalk, then off the sidewalk, onto a grassy embankment that slopped gently downwards. Sarah howled into the air. A new housing development stretched out below us, whole swaths of grassland had been divided and flattened into square lots, roped off for cemented foundations. There was a show home faraway in the distance. Sarah waddled halfway down the hill until finally collapsing, practically disappearing into greenery and wildflowers.
I created a nest around her with the towels. I yanked out gnarled weeds that glowered too close. I took off my shirt and my shoes and fastened them into a sort of pillow to support her neck as she heaved and flexed backwards. Between her legs I placed my hands. Heat vibrated from her skin, from the emerging head.
"Sarah it's coming," I said. "Your baby is coming. It's time to push."
She screamed into a new octave. She chanted a mantra she had practiced. She babbled and cried more than all the babies in the hospital behind us combined. The balloon rubbed and squeaked. I guided it with my hands, giving it gentle direction, but by nature it knew what to do, how to rotate only slightly, how to crane and shrink, use its flexible body to squeeze through, ease through. And with the speed of a lifetime passing, the balloon exited the womb completely. It glistened in the sunshine, blue, floating—flying. IT'S A BOY was written in white letters across its round body.
I collapsed next to Sarah and we wept. We shook and trembled.
It was a windless, cloudless day and the balloon seemed to stand rather than fly, growing taller with each passing minute, rising into the sky.
You can watch a balloon fly away for a long time. It gets smaller and smaller but it stays in the sky, it doesn't leave. Birds threaten it, airplanes too, but it passes around them and you see it up there continuing its journey until it's the size of a star, a lifetime away. I had felt his kicking the day before. I had listened to his heartbeat. And now he was miles away.
We stayed there in the grass for a long time as we watched our child grow up, as we watched him grow taller. The sounds of the hospital echoed down the embankment and dissipated into the empty valley of futures below. Sarah and I would have looked out and picked a plot for ourselves. We would have surmised finances and logistics, called the number on the billboard, visited the website, put our name down for a reservation. We would have created mood boards, debated furniture trends, googled mortgages and balked at reality. We would have negotiated something to force fantasy into logic, some kind of agreement with my partner, with her family, with mine, about borrowing, loans, or perhaps simply had a conversation within ourselves, with one of the selves we had been before, with the boy with the bleeding finger, with the girl who had held it, squeezed it—she had licked it, she had kissed it better. But instead we kept our eyes on the sky and our balloon that disappeared slowly into it.