Main Such a Fun Age
Such a Fun AgeReid Kiley
Alix Chamberlain is a woman who gets what she wants and has made a living showing other women how to do the same. A mother to two small girls, she started out as a blogger and has quickly built herself into a confidence-driven brand. So she is shocked when her babysitter, Emira Tucker, is confronted while watching the Chamberlains’ toddler one night. Seeing a young black woman out late with a white child, a security guard at their local high-end supermarket accuses Emira of kidnapping two-year-old Briar. A small crowd gathers, a bystander films everything, and Emira is furious and humiliated. Alix resolves to make it right.
But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.
With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
But Emira herself is aimless, broke, and wary of Alix’s desire to help. At twenty-five, she is about to lose her health insurance and has no idea what to do with her life. When the video of Emira unearths someone from Alix’s past, both women find themselves on a crash course that will upend everything they think they know about themselves, and each other.
With empathy and piercing social commentary, Such a Fun Age explores the stickiness of transactional relationships, what it means to make someone “family,” the complicated reality of being a grown up, and the consequences of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.
You may be interested in
G. P. PUTNAM’S SONS Publishers Since 1838 An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC penguinrandomhouse.com Copyright © 2019 by Kiley Reid Inc. Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader. Grateful acknowledgment is made to Princeton University Press for permission to reprint an excerpt from Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence by Rachel Sherman, copyright © 2017 by Rachel Sherman. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Names: Reid, Kiley, author. Title: Such a fun age : a novel / Kiley Reid. Description: New York : G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2020. Identifiers: LCCN 2019009992 | ISBN 9780525541905 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780525541929 (epub) Classification: LCC PS3618.E5363 S83 2020 | DDC 813/.6—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019009992 p. cm. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. Version_1 Contents Title Page Copyright Dedication Epigraph Part OneChapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Part TwoChapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Part ThreeChapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Part FourChapter Twenty-one Chapter Twenty-two Chapter Twenty-three Chapter Twenty-four Chapter Twenty-five Chapter Twenty-six Chapter Twenty-seven Chapter Twenty-eight Acknowledgments About the Author For Patricia Adeline Olivier “We definitely wait for birthdays. Or even an ice cream. Like [my daughter] has to earn it. Yesterday we promised her an ice cream, but then she behaved horribly. And I said, ‘Then I’m sorry, ice cream is for girls who behave. And that’s not you today. Maybe tomorrow.’” —RACHEL SHERMAN, Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence PART ONE One That night, when Mrs. Chamberlain called, Emira could only piece together the words “. . . take Briar somewhere . . .” and “. . . pay you double.” In a crowded apartment and across from someone screaming “That’s my song!,” Emira stood next to her girlfriends Zara, Josefa, and Shaunie. It was a Saturday night in September, and there was a little over an hour left of Shaunie’s twenty-sixth birthday. Emira turned the volume up on her phone and asked Mrs. Chamberlain to say it again. “Is there any way you can take Briar to the grocery store for a bit?” Mrs. Chamberlain said. “I’m so sorry to call. I know it’s late.” It was almost astonishing that Emira’s daily babysitting job (a place of pricey onesies, colorful stacking toys, baby wipes, and sectioned dinner plates) could interrupt her current nighttime state (loud music, bodycon dresses, lip liner, and red Solo cups). But here was Mrs. Chamberlain, at 10:51 p.m., waiting for Emira to say yes. Under the veil of two strong mixed drinks, the intersection of these spaces almost seemed funny, but what wasn’t funny was Emira’s current bank balance: a total of seventy-nine dollars and sixteen cents. After a night of twenty-dollar entrées, birthday shots, and collective gifts for the birthday girl, Emira Tucker could really use the cash. “Hang on,” she said. She set her drink down on a low coffee table and stuck her middle finger into her other ear. “You want me to take Briar right now?” On the other side of the table, Shaunie placed her head on Josefa’s shoulder and slurred, “Does this mean I’m old now? Is twenty-six old?” Josefa pushed her off and said, “Shaunie, don’t start.” Next to Emira, Zara untwisted her bra strap. She made a disgusted face in Emira’s direction and mouthed, Eww, is that your boss? “Peter accidentally—we had an incident with a broken window and . . . I just need to get Briar out of the house.” Mrs. Chamberlain’s voice was calm and strangely articulate, as if she were delivering a baby and saying, Okay, mom, it’s time to push. “I’m so sorry to call you this late,” she said. “I just don’t want her to see the police.” “Oh wow. Okay, but, Mrs. Chamberlain?” Emira sat down at the edge of a couch. Two girls started dancing on the other side of the armrest. The front door of Shaunie’s apartment opened to Emira’s left, and four guys came in yelling, “Ayyeee!” “Jesus,” Zara said. “All these niggas tryna stunt.” “I don’t exactly look like a babysitter right now,” Emira warned. “I’m at a friend’s birthday.” “Oh God. I’m so sorry. You should stay—” “No no, it’s not like that,” Emira said louder. “I can leave. I’m just letting you know that I’m in heels and I’ve like . . . had a drink or two. Is that okay?” Baby Catherine, the youngest Chamberlain at five months old, wailed in the receiver. Mrs. Chamberlain said, “Peter, can you please take her?” and then, up close, “Emira, I don’t care what you look like. I’ll pay for your cab here and your cab home.” Emira slipped her phone into the pouch of her crossbody bag, making sure all of her other belongings were present. When she stood and relayed the news of her early departure to her girlfriends, Josefa said, “You’re leaving to babysit? Are you fucking kidding me?” “Guys . . . listen. No one needs to babysit me,” Shaunie informed the group. One of her eyes was open and the other was trying very hard to match. Josefa wasn’t through asking questions. “What kind of mom asks you to babysit this late?” Emira didn’t feel like getting into specifics. “I need the cash,” she said. She knew it was highly unlikely, but she added, “I’ll come back if I get done, though.” Zara nudged her and said, “Imma roll witchyou.” Emira thought, Oh, thank God. Out loud, she said, “Okay, cool.” The two girls finished their drinks in one long tip as Josefa crossed her arms. “I can’t believe you guys are leaving Shaunie’s birthday right now.” Emira lifted her shoulders and quickly dropped them back down. “I think Shaunie is leaving Shaunie’s birthday right now,” she said, as Shaunie crawled down to the floor and announced she was taking a quick nap. Emira and Zara took to the stairs. As they waited outside for an Uber on a dimly lit sidewalk, Emira did the math in her head. Sixteen times two . . . plus cab money . . . Fuck yes. Catherine was still crying from inside the Chamberlain house when Emira and Zara arrived. As Emira walked up the porch stairs, she spotted a small jagged hole in the front window that dripped with something transparent and slimy. At the top of the landing, Mrs. Chamberlain pulled Briar’s glossy blond hair into a ponytail. She thanked Emira, greeted Zara the exact same way she always did (“Hi, Zara, nice to see you again”), and then said to Briar, “You get to hang out with the big girls.” Briar took Emira’s hand. “It was bedtime,” she said, “and now it’s not.” They stepped down the stairs, and as the three girls walked the three short blocks to Market Depot, Briar repeatedly complimented Zara’s shoes—an obvious but unsuccessful ploy to try them on. Market Depot sold bone broths, truffle butters, smoothies from a station that was currently dark, and several types of nuts in bulk. The store was bright and empty, and the only open checkout lane was the one for ten items or fewer. Next to a dried-fruit section, Zara bent in her heels and held her dress down to retrieve a box of yogurt-covered raisins. “Umm . . . eight dollars?” She quickly placed them back on the shelf and stood up. “Gotdamn. This is a rich people grocery store.” Well, Emira mouthed with the toddler in her arms, this is a rich-people baby. “I want dis.” Briar reached out with both hands for the copper-colored hoops that hung in Zara’s ears. Emira inched closer. “How do you ask?” “Peas I want dis now Mira peas.” Zara’s mouth dropped open. “Why is her voice always so raspy and cute?” “Move your braids,” Emira said. “I don’t want her to yank them.” Zara tossed her long braids—a dozen of them were a whitish blond—over one shoulder and held her earring out to Briar. “Next weekend Imma get twists from that girl my cousin knows. Hi, Miss Briar, you can touch.” Zara’s phone buzzed. She pulled it out of her bag and started typing, leaning into Briar’s little tugs. Emira asked, “Are they all still there?” “Ha!” Zara tipped her head back. “Shaunie just threw up in a plant and Josefa is pissed. How long do you have to stay?” “I don’t know.” Emira set Briar back on the ground. “But homegirl can look at the nuts for hours so it’s whatever.” “Mira’s makin’ money, Mira’s makin money . . .” Zara danced her way into the frozen-food aisle. Emira and Briar walked behind her as she put her hands on her knees and bounced in the faint reflection in the freezer doors, pastel ice cream logos mirrored on her thighs. Her phone buzzed again. “Ohmygod, I gave my number to that guy at Shaunie’s?” she said, looking at her screen. “He is so thirsty for me, it’s stupid.” “You dancing.” Briar pointed up at Zara. She put two fingers into her mouth and said, “You . . . you dancing and no music.” “You want music?” Zara’s thumb began to scroll. “I’ll play something but you gotta dance too.” “No explicit content, please,” Emira said. “I’ll get fired if she repeats it.” Zara waved three fingers in Emira’s direction. “I got this I got this.” Seconds later, Zara’s phone exploded with sound. She flinched, said, “Whoops,” and turned the volume down. Synth filled the aisle, and as Whitney Houston began to sing, Zara began to twist her hips. Briar started to hop, holding her soft white elbows in her hands, and Emira leaned back on a freezer door, boxes of frozen breakfast sausages and waffles shining in waxy cardboard behind her. Briar Chamberlain was not a silly child. Balloons never sent her into hysterics and she was more concerned than delighted when clowns threw themselves on the ground or lit their fingers on fire. At birthday parties and ballet class, Briar became sorely aware of herself when music played or magicians called for screaming participation, and she often looked to Emira with nervy blue eyes that said, Do I really have to do this? Is this really necessary? So when Briar effortlessly joined Zara and rocked back and forth to the eighties hit, Emira positioned herself, as she often did, as Briar’s out. Whenever Briar had had enough, Emira wanted her to know that she could stop, even though sweet things were currently happening to Emira’s heart. For a moment, twenty-five-year-old Emira was being paid thirty-two dollars an hour to dance in a grocery store with her best friend and her favorite little human. Zara seemed just as surprised as Emira. “Oop!” she said as Briar danced harder. “Okay, girl, I see you.” Briar looked to Emira and said, “You go now too, Mira.” Emira joined them as Zara sang the chorus, that she wanted to feel the heat with somebody. She spun Briar around and crisscrossed her chest as another body began to come down the aisle. Emira felt relieved to see a middle-aged woman with short gray hair in sporty leggings and a T-shirt reading St. Paul’s Pumpkinfest 5K. She looked like she had definitely danced with a child or two at some point in her life, so Emira kept going. The woman put a pint of ice cream into her basket and grinned at the dancing trio. Briar screamed, “You dance like Mama!” As the last key change of the song started to play, a cart came into the aisle pushed by someone much taller. His shirt read Penn State and his eyes were sleepy and cute, but Emira was too far into the choreography to stop without seeming completely affected. She did the Dougie as she caught bananas in his moving cart. She dusted off her shoulders as he reached for a frozen vegetable medley. When Zara told Briar to take a bow, the man silently clapped four times in their direction before he left the aisle. Emira centered her skirt back onto her hips. “Dang, you got me sweatin’.” Zara leaned down. “Gimme high five. Yes, girl. That’s it for me.” Emira said, “You out?” Zara was back on her phone, typing manically. “Someone just might get it tonight.” Emira placed her long black hair over one shoulder. “Girl, you do you but that boy is real white.” Zara shoved her. “It’s 2015, Emira! Yes we can!” “Uh-huh.” “Thanks for the cab ride, though. Bye, sister.” Zara tickled the top of Briar’s head before turning to leave. As her heels ticked toward the front of the store, Market Depot suddenly seemed very white and very still. Briar didn’t realize Zara was leaving until she was out of sight. “You friend,” she said, and pointed to an empty space. Her two front teeth hung out over her bottom lip. “She has to go to bed,” Emira said. “You wanna look at some nuts?” “It’s my bedtime.” Briar held Emira’s hand as she hopped forward on the shiny tile. “We sleep in the grocery store?” “Uh-uh,” Emira said. “We’ll just hang out here for a little while longer.” “I want . . . I want to smell the tea.” Briar was always worried about the sequence of upcoming events, so Emira began to slowly clarify that they could look at the nuts first, and then smell the tea after. But as she began to explain, a voice cut her off with, “Excuse me, ma’am.” Footsteps followed and when Emira turned around, a gold security badge blinked and glittered in her face. On top it read Public Safety and the bottom curve read Philadelphia. Briar pointed up at his face. “That,” she said, “is not the mailman.” Emira swallowed and heard herself say, “Oh, hi.” The man stood in front of her and placed his thumbs in his belt loops, but he did not say hello back. Emira touched her hair and said, “Are you guys closing or something?” She knew this store would stay open for another forty-five minutes—it stayed open, clean, and stocked until midnight on weekends—but she wanted him to hear the way she could talk. From behind the security guard’s dark sideburns, at the other end of the aisle, Emira saw another face. The gray-haired, athletic-looking woman, who had appeared to be touched by Briar’s dancing, folded her arms over her chest. She’d set her grocery basket down by her feet. “Ma’am,” the guard said. Emira looked up at his large mouth and small eyes. He looked like the type of person to have a big family, the kind that spends holidays together for the entire day from start to finish, and not the type of person to use ma’am in passing. “It’s very late for someone this small,” he said. “Is this your child?” “No.” Emira laughed. “I’m her babysitter.” “Alright, well . . .” he said, “with all due respect, you don’t look like you’ve been babysitting tonight.” Emira found herself arranging her mouth as if she’d ingested something too hot. She caught a morphed reflection in a freezer door, and she saw herself in her entirety. Her face—full brown lips, a tiny nose, and a high forehead covered with black bangs—barely showed up in the reflection. Her black skirt, her slinky V-neck top, and her liquid eyeliner refused to take shape in the panels of thick glass. All she could see was something very dark and skinny, and the top of a small, blond stick of hair that belonged to Briar Chamberlain. “K,” she exhaled. “I’m her babysitter, and her mom called me because—” “Hi, I’m so sorry, I just . . . hi.” From the end of the aisle, the woman came forward, and her very used tennis shoes squeaked against the tile floor. She put a hand to her chest. “I’m a mom. And I heard the little girl say that she’s not with her mom, and since it’s so late I got a little nervous.” Emira looked at the woman and half laughed. The sentiment felt childish, but all she could think was, You really just told on me right now? “Where . . .”—Briar pointed to one side of the aisle—“Where these doors go?” “One second, mama. Okay . . .” Emira said. “I’m her sitter and her mom asked me to take her because they had an emergency and she wanted me to get her out of the house. They are three blocks away.” She felt her skin becoming tight at her neck. “We just came here to look at the nuts. Well, we don’t touch them or anything. We’re just . . . we’re really into nuts right now, so . . . yeah.” For a moment, the security guard’s nostrils expanded. He nodded to himself, as if he’d been asked a question, and said, “Any chance you’ve been drinking tonight, ma’am?” Emira closed her mouth and took a step back. The woman next to him winced and said, “Oh, geez.” The poultry and meat section came into view. There, the Penn State shopper from earlier was very much paused and attuned to Emira’s conversation. All at once, on top of the surreptitious accusations, this entire interaction seemed completely humiliating, as if she’d been loudly told that her name was not on a guest list. “You know what—it’s cool,” she said. “We can just leave.” “Now wait a minute.” The guard held out his hand. “I can’t let you leave, because a child is involved.” “But she’s my child right now.” Emira laughed again. “I’m her sitter. I’m technically her nanny . . .” This was a lie, but Emira wanted to imply that paperwork had been done concerning her employment, and that it connected her to the child in question. “Hi, sweetie.” The woman bent and pressed her hands into her knees. “Do you know where your mommy is?” “Her mom is at home.” Emira tapped her collarbone twice as she said, “You can just talk to me.” “So you’re saying,” the guard clarified, “that a random woman, three blocks away, asked you to watch her child this late at night?” “Ohmygod, no. That’s not what I said. I’m her nanny.” “There was another girl here a few minutes ago,” the woman said to the guard. “I think she just left.” Emira’s face checked into amazement. As it seemed, her entire existence had become annulled. Emira felt like raising her arm as if she were finding a friend in a large crowd, with a phone to her ear, and saying, Do you see me? I’m waving my hand. The woman shook her head. “They were doing some . . . I don’t even know . . . some booty dancing or whatnot? And I thought, okay, this doesn’t feel right.” “Ummm.” Emira’s voice went high as she said, “Are you serious right now?” Briar sneezed into the side of her leg. The Penn State man came up and into view. His cell phone was raised and recording in front of his chest. “Ohmygod.” Emira shielded her face with chipped black nails as if she’d accidentally walked into a group photo. “Can you step off?” “I think you’re gonna want this filmed,” he said. “Do you want me to call the police?” Emira dropped her arm and said, “For what?” “Hey, big girl.” The security guard got down on one knee; his voice was gentle and practiced. “Who’s this right here?” “Sweetheart?” the woman said softly. “Is this your friend?” Emira wanted to bend down and hold Briar—maybe if Briar could see her face more clearly, she’d be able to deliver her name?—but she knew her skirt was gravely short, and now there was a cell phone involved. It suddenly seemed like her fate was in the hands of a toddler who believed broccolis were baby trees, and that placing yourself underneath a blanket made it difficult to be found. Emira held her breath as Briar stuck her fingers in her mouth. Briar said, “Meer,” and Emira thought, Thank God. But the guard said, “Not you, honey. Your friend right here. What’s her name?” Briar screamed, “Meer!” “She’s saying my name,” Emira told him. “It’s Emira.” The security guard asked, “Can you spell that for me?” “Hey hey hey.” The man behind the cell phone tried to get Emira’s attention. “Even if they ask, you don’t have to show your ID. It’s Pennsylvania state law.” Emira said, “I know my rights, dude.” “Sir?” The security guard stood and turned. “You do not have the right to interfere with a crime.” “Holup holup, a crime?!” Emira felt as if she were plummeting. All the blood in her body seemed to be buzzing and sloshing inside her ears and behind her eyes. She reached down to swing Briar into her arms, placed her feet apart for balance, and flipped her hair onto her back. “What crime is being committed right now? I’m working. I’m making money right now, and I bet I’m making more than you. We came here to look at some nuts, so are we under arrest or are we free to go?” As she spoke, Emira covered the child’s ear. Briar slipped her hand into the V of her blouse. Once again, the tattletale woman took her hand to her mouth. This time, she said, “Oh man, oh shoot.” “Okay, ma’am?” The security guard widened his stance to match hers. “You are being held and questioned because the safety of a child is at risk. Please put the child on the ground—” “Alright, you know what?” Emira’s left ankle shook as she retrieved her cell phone from her tiny purse. “I’ll call her father and he can come down here. He’s an old white guy so I’m sure everyone will feel better.” “Ma’am, I need you to calm down.” With his palms to Emira, the security guard locked eyes with Briar again. “Okay, honey, how old are you?” Emira typed the first four letters of Peter Chamberlain and clicked on his bright blue phone number. Against Briar’s hand, she felt her heart bounce underneath her skin. “How many are you, honey?” the woman asked. “Two? Three?” To the guard she said, “She looks about two.” “Ohmygod, she’s almost three,” Emira muttered. “Ma’am?” The security guard pointed a finger at her face. “I am speaking to the child.” “Oh right, okay. ’Cause she’s the one to ask. BB, look at me.” Emira forced a gleeful expression into her lips and bounced the toddler twice. “How many are you?” “One two fee four fie!” “How old am I?” “Happy birfday!” Emira looked back to the security guard and said, “You good?” In her cell phone, the ringing stopped. “Mr. Chamberlain?” Something clicked in the earpiece but she didn’t hear a voice. “It’s Emira, hello? Can you hear me?” “I’d like to speak to her father.” The security guard reached out for her phone. “The fuck are you doing? Don’t touch me!” Emira turned her body. At this motion, Briar gasped. She held Emira’s black, synthetic hair against her chest like rosary beads. “You don’t wanna touch her, dude,” Penn State warned. “She’s not resisting. She’s calling the kid’s dad.” “Ma’am, I am asking you to kindly hand over the phone.” “Come on, man, you can’t take her phone.” The guard turned with a hand outstretched and yelled, “Back up, sir!” With her phone pressed to her face and Briar’s hands in her hair, Emira screamed, “You’re not even a real cop, so you back up, son!” And then she watched his face shift. His eyes said, I see you now. I know exactly who you are, and Emira held her breath as he began to call for backup. Emira heard Mr. Chamberlain’s voice at the top of her cell phone. He said, “Emira?” and then, “Hello?” “Mr. Chamberlain? Can you please come to Market Depot?” In the same controlled panic that started her night, she said, “Because they think I stole Briar. Can you please hurry?” He said something between What and Oh God, and then he said, “I’m coming right now.” Emira hadn’t anticipated that the heated accusations would be favorable to the silence that followed. The five of them stood there, appearing more annoyed than justified, as they waited to see who would win. As Emira began a staring contest with the floor, Briar patted the hair on Emira’s shoulders. “Dis is like my horsey hair,” Briar said. Emira bounced her and said, “Mm-hmm. It was very expensive so please be careful.” Finally, she heard the glide of an automatic door. With quick footsteps, Mr. Chamberlain emerged from the cereal aisle. Briar pointed with one finger and said, “That’s Dada.” Mr. Chamberlain looked as if he’d jogged the whole way—tiny beads of sweat on his nose—and he placed a hand on Emira’s shoulder. “What’s going on here?” Emira responded by holding out his daughter. The woman took a step back and said, “Okay, great. I’ll just leave you guys to it.” The security guard began to explain and apologize. He took off his hat as his backup arrived. Emira didn’t wait for Mr. Chamberlain to finish lecturing the guards about how long he had been coming to the store, how they cannot detain people without reasonable cause, or how inappropriate it was that they question his decisions as a parent. Instead she whispered, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” “Emira,” he said. “Wait. Let me pay you.” She waved no with both hands. “I get paid on Fridays. I’ll see you at your birthday, Bri.” But Briar had begun to fall asleep on Mr. Chamberlain’s shoulder. Outside, Emira jogged around the corner, in the opposite direction of the Chamberlain home. She stopped and stood in front of a closed bakery with cupcakes on display behind a gridded security gate; her hands were still shaking as she texted no one. Breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth, Emira scanned through hundreds of songs. She shimmied her hips and pulled her skirt back down. “Hey hey hey.” Penn State appeared at the street corner. He made his way toward her and said, “Hey, are you okay?” Emira slumped her shoulders in a miserable lift that said I don’t know. With her phone in front of her stomach, she bit the inside of her cheek. “Listen, that was super fucked up,” he said. “I got the whole thing on tape. I would turn it in to a news station if I were you and then you can—” “Oof. Yeah . . . no,” she said. She pushed her hair out of her face. “No way, but . . . thanks anyway, though.” He paused and ran his tongue over his front teeth. “Okay, that guy was a dick to you. Don’t you wanna get him fired?” Emira laughed and said, “For what?” She shifted in her heels and put her phone back in her purse. “So he can go to another grocery store and get some other nine-dollar-an-hour bullshit job? Please. I’m not tryna have people Google my name and see me lit, with a baby that isn’t mine, at a fucking grocery store in Washington Square.” The man exhaled and held up one hand in surrender. Underneath his other arm was a Market Depot paper bag. “I mean . . .” He put his free hand on his hip. “At the very least, you could probably get free groceries for a year.” “Oh, right. So I can stock up on kombucha and shit?” He laughed and said, “Fair.” “Lemme see your phone.” Emira jiggled her ring and middle finger as she held out her palm. “You need to delete that thing.” “Are you sure you want to do that?” he asked carefully. “I’m serious. This would definitely get you an op-ed or something.” “I’m not a writer,” Emira said. “And I don’t mess with the Internet, so give it.” “Wait, how about this?” He took out his phone. “It’s your business and I’m happy to delete it. But let me email it to you first, in case you ever change your mind.” “I won’t, though—” “Just in case . . . here. Type your email in.” Because it seemed easier to share her email than convince him otherwise, Emira held the strap of her purse in one hand and began to type with the other. When she saw the email address in the From section, reading KelleyTCopeland@gmail.com, she stopped and said, “Hold up, who the fuck is Kelley?” He blinked. “I’m Kelley.” “Oh.” As she finished typing her email, Emira looked up and said, “Really?” “Alright, alright.” He took the phone back from her. “I’ve been to middle school so you can’t really hurt me.” Emira smiled. “No wonder you shop here.” “Hey, I don’t usually shop here.” He laughed. “But don’t make me feel worse. I have two types of kombucha in this bag right now.” “Uh-huh,” she said. “Did you delete it?” “It’s gone.” He showed her the screen and scrolled backward. The most recent photo was a man she didn’t know with a Post-it stuck to his face. She couldn’t read what it said. “K.” Emira pulled a string of hair from the gloss on her lips. She gave him a sad I don’t know grin, and said, “K. Bye, then.” “Okay, yeah, have a good night, take care.” It was clear he hadn’t seen this exit coming, but Emira didn’t care. She walked toward the train while texting Zara, Come over when you’re done. Emira could take a cab—Mrs. Chamberlan would certainly pay her back—but she didn’t because she never did. She kept the future twenty-dollar bill and took the train to her Kensington apartment. Just after 1 a.m., Zara buzzed from downstairs. “I can’t handle any of this.” Zara said this from Emira’s toilet seat. Emira wiped her makeup off and locked eyes with her friend in the mirror. “Okay, because like . . .” Zara raised both of her hands up by her face. “Since when is the Running Man considered booty dancing?” “I don’t know.” Emira removed her lipstick with a washcloth as she spoke. “Also, we all talked about it?” She said this with an apologetic wince. “And everyone there agreed I’m a better dancer than you.” Zara rolled her eyes. “It’s not a competition or anything,” Emira tried again. “It’s just that I’m the winner.” “Girl,” Zara said, “That could have been bad.” Emira laughed and said, “Z, it’s fine,” but then she put the back of her hand to her mouth and silently started to cry. Two Between 2001 and 2004, Alix Chamberlain sent over one hundred letters and received over nine hundred dollars’ worth of merchandise. These free products included coffee beans, Luna Bars, makeup samples, scented candles, putty to hang posters on the walls in her dorm room, magazine subscriptions, sunscreens, and face masks—all of which Alix shared with her roommates and the other girls on her floor. While she majored in marketing and minored in finance, Alix did product reviews for a student newspaper during her sophomore and junior years at NYU. In her senior year, she quit the newspaper to become a beauty intern at a tiny publication, but she didn’t stop sending letters. On thick, textured stationery and with dreamy cursive handwriting, Alix asked nicely for the things she wanted, and it became a rare occurrence when she didn’t receive them. Over the next four years, Alix wrote letters to Ray-Ban, Conan O’Brien, Scholastic, Keurig, Lululemon, the W Hotel, Smartwater, and hundreds more. For the most part she sent requests accompanied by affirmation and praise, but there were often tactful complaints and suggestions for improvement. Alix had a knack for taking high-quality photos of the free merchandise she often received, and she posted these items and the letters that prompted them onto her blog. It was a project she’d started on a whim, but it gained her a small Internet following. Around this time, she met Peter Chamberlain. Alix met Peter in a bar at age twenty-five, and if she were honest about it, she’d admit that she thought he was much taller until he stood up at the end of their conversation. But in addition to her height he matched her personality. Peter did all these enchanting things that were fancy but not showy, like put mint in his water and privately tip thirty percent. What Alix immediately liked best about Peter was that he treated her side project like an actual job. Alix had a self-deprecating way of describing her letters: “Well, I . . . I write letters and reviews and I have this blog . . . but it’s tiny, it’s not a big thing at all.” Peter told her to try that again, but this time, to pretend like it was. Peter was a journalist-turned-newscaster who was raised in upstate New York. He was eight years older than Alix, he didn’t think it was strange to wear makeup on camera, and he firmly believed in building your brand. When Alix married Peter at age twenty-eight, the party favors, her shoes, and the white wine at her wedding were all items she’d received free of charge from hand-writing gorgeous letters and promising glowing reviews. On a honeymoon in Santorini, Peter helped her write each rave. Alix worked in student recruitment at Hunter College when a friend—a high school English teacher at Columbia Grammar and Prep—asked her to give a cover-letter-writing workshop to one of her classes. One of the attending students was seventeen-year-old Lucie, a senior with unrealistically white teeth, light pink hair, and an Instagram following of 36K. Three months after the workshop, Lucie posted a picture to her account featuring the cover letter and essay she’d drafted with Alix on top of acceptance letters from UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara, Fordham, and Emerson. I owe all of my acceptances to Alix, she said in her caption. Honestly never would have applied to half these schools if she hadn’t made my application so bomb. #allyouhavetodoisask #writealetter #LetHer. Lucie’s post received more than 1,700 likes, and, seemingly overnight, Alix Chamberlain became a brand. Her propensity for receiving free merchandise quickly turned into a philosophy about women speaking up and taking communication back to basics. In the middle of the night, Alix changed her Instagram bio to #LetHerSpeak. Peter suggested she do a rebrand of her website, and to not forget him once she became famous. During the year she turned twenty-nine, Alix quit her job at Hunter College. She held cover letter and interview-prep workshops at halfway houses, leadership retreats, sorority houses, and career-night events. Students signed up for her sessions at college-recruitment fairs and her inbox became loaded with Thank you!s, and I got in!s. Alix was also contacted by a high-end paperie to help design a new line of office stationery geared toward women in the workplace. The paper was ivory, the pens dark blue, and Alix made her second print debut since NYU, this time in Teen Vogue magazine. It didn’t hurt that Alix’s large blue eyes and surprisingly long legs were extremely editorial. The picture on her new website under About Alix showed her sitting and laughing at the edge of an office desk, two stacks of letters in overflowing mail bins at her feet, and her thick, sand-colored hair gathered on top of her head in a charming, exhausted heap. Peter believed in her; he always had. And the impact of her work was palpable in the gracious testimonials her new interns organized and photographed for her blog, but Alix was often shocked at the generous trust that organizations placed in her capacity. Alix was asked to speak on panels next to small-business owners on topics like “Hospitality in the Workplace” and “Designing Leaders for Creative Change.” She participated in feminist podcasts that discussed sustainable workplace cultures for women in tech and engineering. And once, Alix spoke at a workshop titled “Making the First Move” as two hundred single women drank champagne out of clear plastic cups inside a lecture hall. Alix loved writing letters and thought she was good at it, but it was consistently the confidence and excitement of the people around her that made the ideology of LetHer Speak bloom. It was during a morning brunch—as she spoke to a small group of educators about the importance of teaching cursive in schools—that Alix felt such an urgent wave in her gut that she thought to herself, I better not be pregnant. She was, and two weeks later, Peter cried on the corner of University and 13th when she confirmed the news. He immediately asked, “Should we move?” Moving back to Philadelphia, Alix’s hometown, had been a distant plan since they’d met four years prior. She’d wanted a backyard and children to put inside it; she’d wanted them to one day ride their bikes in a familiar cul-de-sac, or a street where no one was selling counterfeit purses or pulling down a large grate as they locked up a bodega. But at the height of her new career, one that she never knew was possible, Alix backed away from Peter. “No no,” she said, “not yet, not yet.” Briar Louise was born. Alix’s world became a place defined by Pack-’n-Plays, white noise machines, chafed areolas, and grapes cut in half. Her days were suddenly marked with third-person speech (“That’s Mama’s earring.” “Mama’s on the phone.”), referring to ages in months rather than years, putting the term big girl in front of everything to spark domestic excitement (big-girl naps, big-girl spoons, big-girl jeans), and accepting openmouthed, wet kisses from a tiny drooling person who only recently existed outside her body. By then, Alix had a team consisting of one editorial assistant, two interns, and an “office space” that overflowed into the kitchen in their Upper West Side apartment. Peter wanted to move. His vision of becoming a news anchor in New York City had been hit by reality: he appeared on television five nights a week to a Riverdale audience of no more than eight thousand, doing stories of charity dog marriages, toys being recalled, and Times Square tourists completing obstacle courses for the chance to win Best Buy gift cards. Several seasoned journalists in Philadelphia would be retiring soon, and their salaries matched Peter’s in Riverdale. There were also rumors of their current apartment potentially going co-op. Philadelphia had always been the plan, but Alix Chamberlain was just getting started. Alix’s revamped blog, detailing the success of other letter-writing promotion-receiving getting-what-they-want women, had six thousand hits a day. She was partnering with a hospital for a weeklong charity with a love-letter-themed fund-raiser. And in long dark gowns and caps, Alix spoke at two all-girls high school graduations to rows of keen, eager faces. In addition to her career, for the first time since college, Alix had a group of girlfriends. Rachel, Jodi, and Tamra were bright, sarcastic women with careers and young children of their own, and having a baby never seemed too scary with a group text of women who were doing it, too. But then, seemingly all at once, Briar started talking. Funneled by two massive front teeth, Briar’s voice consumed everything in its path. It was loud and hoarse and never stopped. When Briar slept, it was as if a fire alarm had finally been turned off, and Alix’s head throbbed with what she remembered was peace and quiet. Alix’s girlfriends assured her that their toddlers had done the same thing, that they were just excited to be able to communicate. Still, this seemed extreme. Briar was constantly asking, singing, rambling, humming, explaining that she liked hot dogs, that she once saw a turtle, that she wanted a high five, that she was not tired at all. When Alix picked Briar up from Peter’s mother’s apartment in Midtown, the woman opened the door with a desperate velocity Alix had come to know well. She could always hear her daughter’s voice from the elevator, even before she reached the proper floor. Alix was managing her business, savoring pockets of silence, and pitching book proposals to literary agents, when one day, as she picked up Briar’s rocking chair, she realized she was, once again, pregnant. Peter’s reaction, in the kitchen of their home, was filled with more confusion than joy. “I thought . . .” He shook his head. “I thought that wasn’t supposed to happen while you’re breast-feeding.” Alix pursed her lips with a face that said, So did I. “It’s rare, but it’s not impossible.” “Alix . . . We can’t do this.” Peter referred to the kitchen table turned receptacle for a current LetHer Speak project including Polaroid pictures and bulky brown craft paper. Sippy cups were drying on paper towels lined against the windowsill, and casserole dishes held extra recycling. That morning, Peter had come downstairs to an intern who hung her head upside down to put her hair into a ponytail. He then made his coffee as she and another intern put on white event polos with LetHer Speak embroidered on the pockets. “We don’t have enough pots to put a second child in,” he said. And two days later, after a letter arrived from the corporation that would be purchasing their apartment complex, Peter announced, “I’m calling a broker in Philadelphia.” What was she supposed to do, say no? There was a gap in New York housing so large that it would have been insane to suggest buying their place or renting a bigger one. Yes, she now made more money than she ever had, but no, it wasn’t enough to comfortably house two children in their current West Side neighborhood. And sure, she could look into Queens or New Jersey, but then she might as well just move to Philadelphia. Alix did work from home. Philadelphia wasn’t that far away. And more than anything, this was the person Alix had framed herself to be when she met Peter in that bar. “I think I’ve got like three years left in me for this city,” she’d told him. “Every time I sit in someone else’s butt sweat on the train, it goes down by about two weeks.” This was one of the things Peter had liked most about Alix: that she didn’t need to be at every event, that she liked getting out of the city, that she was an excellent driver, and that she wanted her children to trick-or-treat at houses, rather than apartment lobbies and Duane Reade. So she had to move. Alix and her family would be moving out of New York City. But the timing couldn’t have been worse. Alix had been busy writing a very important letter of her own to the campaign team of Secretary Hillary Clinton, who had just announced her run for the presidency. This was a cause that mattered to her, Hillary’s feminist platform completely matched her brand, and a link to Hillary could keep Alix relevant even when she wasn’t living in the most relevant city in the country. Luckily, Alix’s dear friend Tamra knew a woman who knew one of Secretary Clinton’s campaign advisors. After four drafts and constant switches from Always, Alix to All My Best, Alix, she pressed Send on a volunteer proposal that she hoped would become a paying gig. Weeks went by and she heard nothing back from the campaign advisor or the agents she’d queried. Abruptly, everything was packed, but Alix hadn’t allowed the tempo of her calendar to decline. She loved all of it: sitting on panels and listening to brilliant women in oversized shift dresses and dramatic lipstick, teens emailing her success stories of entry-level job offers they had accepted. But there was still no word from the Clinton campaign, or the six agents who received her book proposal. In the middle of fund-raisers and brunches, as she shook hands with earnest high schoolers, Alix thought, Is this it? Is this as far as I’ll ever go? But on the morning of her last talk in New York City—she was speaking on a panel at an event called Small Business Femme—Alix decided, in a quick and incomplete thought, to not use her breast pump. She called one of her interns in, the one with the most babysitting experience, and said, “How would you feel about having Briar on your lap during the panel?” On a stage in a SoHo theater space, Alix positioned herself between two male panel members, a podcast host and a reality TV show father who had quintuplet girls. Seated across from a crowd of three hundred, the panel discussed reproductive care and empowering books for girls as Alix’s breasts—particularly the left one—ached with expansion. Finally, after the audience laughed at a joke made by the host, Briar stirred and opened her eyes. Briar hummed and asked why Mama was up there and if the intern had any Cheerios and if she could get down. Alix held a finger to her lips toward her daughter in the front row. Her intern motioned to the door and mouthed, You want me to take her out? Alix shook her head. She waited until she was asked another question. “I think that women are often just asking for a seat at the table,” Alix said. The microphone attached at her collar bounced her voice to the back of the house. “But what’s heard is ‘I want special treatment,’ when that’s not the case. And the fact that . . . Actually?” Alix’s heart raced as she pushed forward. “I’m sorry to interrupt myself and the conversation.” Was she really doing this? Yes, she told herself. Yes she was. “I have a lot more to say on this topic, but my daughter is the very fussy person in the front row because she took a very long nap, and if it’s alright with everyone, I’d like to . . . well, I’m not really asking.” She stood and talked with her hands as she made her way to the front of the stage. “I’m going feed my daughter as I participate because I can definitely do both.” Whoops and cheers went up from the crowd. Alix bent her knees sideways as she reached for Briar, who was immediately met with awwws as she gripped her mother’s neck. “Will you throw me that shirt?” Alix motioned to her intern for the pastel pink T-shirt that had been given to her in a goodie bag. She threw it over her shoulder and walked backstage. The host of the show, a giddy graduate student, said, “You go girl!” into her mic. She looked backstage and whispered, “Should I just keep going?” But Alix was right on time. She emerged from backstage, Briar attached firmly to her left breast. The pink T-shirt was slung across her shoulder and blocking Briar’s head from sight. Briar’s shoes hung adorably at Alix’s right arm as she sat back in her seat. “Okay, now we’re in business. That didn’t take too long, right?” Alix turned back to the host and said, “I’m happy to pick up where I left off.” Alix did pick up where she left off, and when she finished, the swooning host thanked her doubly for her answer and candor. Just as Alix had predicted, the host then asked for her daughter’s name and age. Alix made sure her words were clear. “My client here is Briar Louise. She is two years old and she’s very good at it.” Alix’s smile practically dared the audience to bat an eye at the age of her daughter suctioned to her chest. The photographers for the event swarmed the foot of the stage. They backed up into the aisle to get a clear shot of Alix, crossing her ankles, breast-feeding her child above a pregnant stomach, and speaking between two suited men. At one point, a photographer whispered, “Can you adjust the shirt so that the logo is showing?” Alix laughed and said yes. She smoothed out the shirt against the side of Briar’s head and let the bottom hang flat. Blocking her daughter’s face were black letters spelling out Small Business Femme. That day, Alix earned another thousand followers. Small Business Femme posted a picture of the moment on their Instagram account, the caption reading Find You A Woman That Can Do Both. Two baby magazines wanted to interview her about child-led breast-feeding, and the stigmas and benefits that come along with it. Alix paid her interns double to stay an extra hour to answer the emails, calls, and interview requests. A representative from the Clinton campaign phoned her cell. They were so sorry they’d missed her email, but they’d love for her to participate in some events later this year. Two of the agents Alix had queried also returned her emails. Within ten days, Alix sold her book to an editor named Maura at HarperCollins, a woman with children of her own and an alarmingly fast email response time. The buzz from her center-stage breast-feeding carried her over the Pennsylvania state line, into her new home, and through her third trimester. Before she left the city, Alix took lots of pictures with her assistant and interns at the tiny good-bye party in her packed office, but she never posted them online. She never mentioned her departure from New York on her blog, on her social media accounts, or to the Clinton team. Instead, she’d take the train in when they needed her. She’d pretend like she was there while she wrote her book. She’d come back more when the girls were older. And then, in Philadelphia, after five short hours of labor, Catherine May was born, and her face immediately took the shape of her mother’s. Alix looked into her teeny, squishy, confused face and thought, You know what? Things will be okay here. And they were. All of those non–New York things came back to her in small bright moments. She had a car to put groceries into. A ticket to a movie wasn’t fourteen dollars, it was ten. And she lived in a three-story brownstone (seven minutes’ walk from Rittenhouse Square) on a leafy, shaded street. The house had a massive, marble-floored entryway and a charming kitchen on the second floor. The kitchen counter space was ample, and a table for six underneath a chandelier looked out to the street through a curved wall of windows. In the morning, with pancakes and eggs on the stove, Alix and her children could sit at the window seats and look down at people walking their dogs or watch the trash collectors go back and forth. Upon seeing these things and realizing their worth, Alix immediately felt a tiny pang of amusement, but then a painful longing to show them to just about anyone. Her girlfriends. Her LetHer Speak interns. A stranger standing across a filthy platform in a New York City subway. Before Philadelphia, Alix had never hired a regular babysitter. Peter’s mother was always available, and with three friends who also had small children, there was an implied sharedness when it came to watching one extra toddler while Mom ran to the dentist or mailed a package. Several girls were recommended by Peter’s new colleagues at the station, which led to interviews of Carlys and Caitlyns, camp counselors and resident assistants, on the bar stools in Alix’s new kitchen. They told Alix what fans they were of LetHer Speak, how they wished she’d been around when they applied to college, and that they had no idea she’d moved to Philadelphia. These girls, Alix knew, would never work. Alix had a knack for acquiring merchandise back in New York, and searching for a babysitter in Philadelphia was no different. Her girlfriends would never do this, but she created a profile on SitterTown.com and began to scroll through photos of caretakers. The whole thing felt very simulated and impersonal, but Alix had found two of her three Manhattan apartments from sketchy ads on Craigslist, and like the steals she lived in during her twenties, Emira Tucker’s profile did not come with a picture. Her description said she was a Temple University graduate, that she knew beginner sign language, and that she could type 125 words per minute. Alix said, “Huh,” and clicked Request Interview. They talked once on the phone before Emira came to the house. And when Alix opened the door and saw Emira for the first time, she found herself once again thinking, Huh. The other girls had asked Alix how her book was coming along and if she was having another child and if she’d gotten to meet Hillary Clinton yet, but Emira didn’t say much at all. Briar immediately saw this as a challenge and verbally attacked the twenty-five-year-old woman with stories about her new backyard and all the worms she was not allowed to touch and how floaties are only allowed in the pool. When Briar finished speaking, Emira bent down and said, “Okay, miss, what else you got?” Most importantly, Emira Tucker had never heard of LetHer Speak. “So it would be Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.” This was the sixth time Alix had explained the schedule to a potential sitter. “From noon to seven. Sometimes I’d take Catherine with me—she’s a super-easy baby—and sometimes I would just be writing at a coffee shop nearby.” “Okay.” Emira sat at the kitchen table with Briar and handed her a piece of Play-Doh. “Is it work writing or is it fun writing?” “I have my own . . .” Alix leaned on the counter separating them. “I’m actually writing a book right now.” Emira said, “Oh wow.” Alix felt hollow and impatient as she waited for Emira to ask what her book was about, or who her publisher was, or when the book would officially be out. “It’s more of a compilation of old letters . . .” she said in the silence. “Oh, okay.” Emira nodded. “Is it like a history book?” Alix fingered her necklace. “Yes, exactly.” She bent her elbows onto the counter and said, “Emira, when can you start?” Three times a week, Alix got to sit in the sun for hours—Catherine often slept next to her in the shade—as she read all the things she would have never been caught with in Manhattan. Us Weekly and People magazines. A tell-all from a recent Bachelorette who was known for sleeping with four of her male suitors. On one special Friday, Alix laid out her laptop, her writing schedule, and pages of her book proposal, only to watch three episodes of House Hunters International in the corner of a rooftop restaurant patio. Catherine only fussed when she was hungry, and Alix lifted her to say, “Hi, lovey,” before she slipped her underneath a complimentary nursing shawl. The fantasies of using Emira’s quick typing became quickly laughable, because Alix would have to have things to write down in order for them to materialize. In bed one evening, Peter said, “You just look so much happier here.” Alix couldn’t tell if she was happier or if she just cared less. She had definitely gained weight on top of the baby weight. She wrote much less than she had in New York and she slept much more than when Briar was born. But at 10:45 p.m. on a Saturday night in September, eggshells smashed against the front window of her home and brought her out of a deep sleep. The sound didn’t register right away, but when Alix heard, “Racist piece of shit!” it was like she came online. She reached out and touched her husband. Alix and Peter rushed to the top of the stairs and watched egg yolks break and splatter against their front window. Just as Peter said, “I told you,” two large eggs broke the barrier. Splintered glass, eggshells, and a long string of yolk and mucus flew into the Chamberlain house. The sound and surprise made Alix’s chest seize. She breathed again when she heard boyish laughter, sneakers running away, and someone saying, “Oh shit! Go, go!” Catherine cried out and Briar said, “Mama?” Peter said, “I’m calling the police,” and then, “Fuck. I told you this would happen.” That morning, Peter’s co-anchor Laney Thacker had introduced a segment on the creative ways students were asking their dates to a dance: a sweet homecoming tradition at Beacon Smith High School. Peter echoed her enthusiasm with, “Misty is on campus for the romance right now.” Clips of students were shown with Misty’s voice narrating. Teachers were interviewed, students were filmed next to huge balloon displays, and the volume at a pep rally turned to screams as a freckled girl was led to the half-court line. A football-jerseyed junior appeared with a box of pizza. He opened it to reveal words inscribed on the box’s lid: I know this is cheesy, but homecoming? Pepperonis were positioned as a giant question mark below. The segment ended with a five-foot-tall student with a flattop of thick hair above a white mask marching toward a group of girls. He set down a boom box and pressed Play. His masked friends helped clear the space for a dance to begin, and the girl in question covered her mouth as her friends took out their phones. After spinning on their heads and doing intricate shapes and patterns with their fingers, the group ended by revealing a white flag with Homecoming? written in Sharpie. The black teen in front removed his mask and held out a rose. Over the cheers of the girl’s acceptance, Misty turned the camera back to Peter in the studio. “Whoa!” Peter said. “That was very impressive,” Laney agreed. “I was definitely never asked to a dance like that.” “Well.” Peter shook his head. His teeth showed as he winced at the camera and said, “Let’s hope that last one asked her father first. Thanks for joining us on WNFT and we’ll see you tomorrow morning on Philadelphia Action News.” The backlash was immediate. In the comment section underneath the video—which was now available online—criticisms and questions popped up in between praise. Ummm, why would the black guy need to ask her dad, but the white guys don’t? That’s a bit sexist. Is this the 18th century? WTF? Why would he even say that? Alix was working at a coffee shop, which had turned into a smoothie, mimosa, and participating in the group text with her girlfriends in Manhattan. She told Peter that it was one high school, that it wasn’t that terrible, and that no one would even remember it. (In a weak champagne buzz, Alix caught herself thinking, If it didn’t happen in New York, honestly who cares?) But Peter was mortified. “It just came out,” he said. “I don’t even know why I . . . it just came out.” Alix assured him that it really wasn’t that bad. And suddenly it was. After the crash, Alix took her youngest daughter from her crib with such speed that Catherine practically bounced out of her arms, but Alix’s world moved underwater. What if Peter got fired? Peter had gone straight to the producers of the show to apologize for his fumble, and they’d chalked it up to something between “things happen” and “you’re still the new guy.” But what if the students were so angry that it made them reconsider? Once again, Alix peeked out over the stairwell and saw flecks of glass strewn across the tile floor and stuck in ooze. Would the Clinton campaign find out about this, and would they think her husband was sexist? Or even worse, racist? How did she even get here? And how was she this fat right now? Whose house was this anyway? Peter carried Briar, who secured both her hands to her ears. “I don’t like that noise,” she said. “I don’t . . . I don’t like it loud, Mama.” “Shh shh shh,” Alix said to Briar for maybe the hundredth time that week. She turned to Peter and said, “I’m gonna try Emira.” Peter nodded with his phone to his ear. And when Emira arrived fifteen minutes later in a tiny faux-leather skirt and strappy heels that she walked remarkably well in, Alix handed Briar’s little wrist toward her thinking, Wait a second, who is this person? Oh God . . . does she know what Peter said? All at once, it was somehow much worse to think of Emira knowing what Peter had said, rather than the hopeful first female president of the United States. As Peter gave two policemen a statement, Alix scooped up the glass with a hand towel in the glaring light from the chandelier. In between long, sad strokes, she told herself to wake the fuck up. To write this book. To live in Philadelphia. To get to know Emira Tucker. Three There’s a town in Maryland called Sewell Bridge, where 6.5 percent of the population (5,850 people) are hearing impaired. This is the town where Emira Tucker was born. Emira had perfect hearing, the same as her parents and younger siblings, but the Tucker family had a proclivity toward craftsmanship that was so dogged that it leaned into religious territory, and Sewell Bridge served this philosophy well. The Tucker family worked with their hands. Mr. Tucker owned a bee store with a long rooftop where the buzzing beehives were often kept. Despite hiring several deaf employees over the years, he didn’t waste any time training his fingers to do anything that wasn’t related to bees. Mrs. Tucker bound books in a shaded screened room attached to the front of the Tucker home. She made baby albums, wedding books, and Holy Bible restorations, and her worktable was consistently covered in leather swatches, needles, bone folders, and closures. Twenty-one-year-old Alfie Tucker won second place in the National Latte Art Competition in 2013. He was invited to serve as an apprentice at a roasterie in Austin, Texas, where he trained other baristas, wearing an apron made by his mother. And nineteen-year-old Justyne Tucker sewed. She had an active Etsy shop where she took orders for Halloween costumes and flower girl attire. Upon graduating from high school, Justyne was hired by a community college to create the costumes for upcoming productions of Our Town and Once on This Island. Because the interests of her family members had come so naturally to them, and because university seemed like an acceptable place to wait for her hands to find themselves, Emira became the first person in her family to attend a four-year college. It was Temple University where she met Zara (in line to take her student ID photo), where she got drunk for the first time (she threw up into the side pocket of her purse), and where she purchased her first weave from the funds she saved working in the library in between classes (long and black and wavy and big). Emira tried to make her hands find formal sign language at Temple, but it was surprisingly difficult to unlearn the conversational slang she grew up with back in Sewell Bridge. Emira also tried transcription, which seemed like a career path and narrative that made sense. In her senior year, Emira typed lecture notes for two deaf students for thirteen dollars per class. This was more or less the reason she ended her five years at Temple with a major in English. Emira didn’t mind reading or writing papers, but this was also mostly the problem. Emira didn’t love doing anything, but she didn’t terribly mind doing anything either. After graduation, Emira went home for the summer and desperately missed Philadelphia. She returned with a stern suggestion from her father: to find something and to stick with it. So Emira enrolled in transcription school, and she absolutely hated it. She wasn’t allowed to cross her legs. Memorizing medical terminology was insufferable. And when a key on her steno machine broke, instead of fixing it (which would have cost hundreds of dollars), Emira gave it up completely and applied to a part-time job she found on Craigslist. In a small office on the sixth floor of a high-rise building, in a large cubicled room labeled Green Party Philadelphia, a white woman in a T-shirt and jeans named Beverly asked Emira if she could really type 125 words per minute. “I can,” Emira said, “as long as you don’t mind if I cross my legs.” In a tiny corner with squishy headphones, on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 12 to 5 p.m., Emira transcribed text from speeches and meetings. When things got slow, Beverly asked her to cover the phones. Temple University had been kind to keep Emira as an on-call transcriber for the two years following her graduation, but they wanted to keep entry-level employment open to current students, and gave her fair warning that she’d have to move on by summer. Emira hadn’t told her parents about her departure from transcription school. She wanted to be able to replace it with something, rather than a passionless negative space. In a quiet panic, Emira changed her availability on SitterTown.com to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and two days later, she met Alix Chamberlain. Briar was a welcome break from Emira’s constant concern of what to do with her hands and the rest of her life. Briar asked questions like, “Why can’t I smell that?” or, “Where is that squirrel’s mama?” or, “How come we don’t know that lady?” Once, after Briar tried zucchini for the first time, Emira stood in front of her high chair and asked the toddler if she liked it. Briar chewed with her mouth open and looked all over the room as she articulated her response. “Mira? How, how . . . because—how do you know when you like it? Who says when you like it?” Emira was fairly certain that the caregiver-approved answer was something like, You’ll figure it out, or, It’ll make sense when you’re older. But Emira wiped the toddler’s chin and said, “That’s a really good question. We should ask your mom.” She honestly meant it. Emira wished that someone would tell her what she liked doing best. The number of things she could ask her own mother were shrinking at an alarming rate. Emira hadn’t told her parents that she was babysitting and typing for a living, which meant she couldn’t tell them about the night at Market Depot. Not that they would have any insights she hadn’t heard before, but it would have been nice to safely share her frustrations. In the fourth grade, a white classmate had marched to Emira’s lunch table and asked her if she was a coon (upon hearing this, her mother had promptly picked up the phone while asking Emira, “What’s his name?”). Emira was once followed by sales associates in Brooks Brothers while she shopped for a Father’s Day gift (her mother had said, “They ain’t got nothin’ better to do?”). And once, after a bikini wax was completed, Emira was told that because she had “ethnic texture,” the total came to forty dollars instead of the advertised thirty-five (to this, Emira’s mother had responded, “Back up, you got what waxed?”). It would have been nice to talk to her parents about the night at Market Depot because it was honestly the biggest thing to happen to Emira in a while, and it involved her favorite little person. Emira knew that she should have been mostly disturbed by the blatant bigotry of the altercation. But more than the racial bias, the night at Market Depot came back to her with a nauseating surge and a resounding declaration that hissed, You don’t have a real job. This wouldn’t have happened if you had a real fucking job, Emira told herself on the train ride home, her legs and arms crossed on top of each other. You wouldn’t leave a party to babysit. You’d have your own health insurance. You wouldn’t be paid in cash. You’d be a real fucking person. Taking care of Briar was Emira’s favorite position so far, but Briar would someday go to school, Mrs. Chamberlain didn’t seem to want Catherine out of her sight, and even if she did, part-time babysitting could never provide health insurance. By the end of 2015, Emira would be forced off her parents’ health coverage. She was almost twenty-six years old. Sometimes, when she was particularly broke, Emira convinced herself that if she had a real job, a nine-to-five position with benefits and decent pay, then the rest of her life would start to resemble adulthood as well. She’d do things like make her bed in the morning, and she’d learn to start liking coffee. She wouldn’t sit on the floor in her bedroom, discovering new music and creating playlists until three a.m., only to put herself to bed and think, Why do you do this to yourself? She’d try out a new dating app, and she’d have more interesting interests to write about: activities other than hanging out with Zara, watching old music videos, painting her nails, and eating the same dinner at least four nights a week (a Crock-Pot meal consisting of shredded chicken, salsa, and cheese). If Emira had a real job, she’d look at her wardrobe full of clothes from Strawberry and Forever 21 and decide it was past time for an upgrade. Emira constantly tried to convince herself that she could find another child, a little girl with nice parents who needed her full-time. They’d keep her on the books and she could say she paid taxes. They’d take her on vacations and consider her part of the family. But when Emira saw other children, anyone who wasn’t Briar Chamberlain, she felt viscerally disgusted. They had nothing interesting to say, their eyes had dead, creepy stares, and they were modest in a way that seemed weirdly rehearsed (Emira often watched Briar approach other toddlers on swings and slides, and they’d turn away from her, saying, “No, I’m shy”). Other children were easy audiences who loved receiving stickers and hand stamps, whereas Briar was always at the edge of a tiny existential crisis. Underneath her constant chatter, Briar was messy and panicky and thoughtful, constantly struggling with demons of propriety. She liked things that had mint smells. She didn’t like loud noises. And she didn’t consider hugging a legitimate form of affection unless she could lay her ear against a welcoming shoulder. Most of their evenings ended with Emira paging through a magazine while Briar played in the bathtub. Briar sat with her toes in her hands, her face a civil war of emotions, singing songs and trying to whistle. She’d have private conversations with herself, and Emira often heard her explain to the voices in her head, “No, Mira is my friend. She’s my special friend.” Emira knew she had to find a new job. Four The next morning, instead of setting Briar in front of a children’s program about colorful fish and animals in the ocean, Alix strapped her children into the double jogging stroller. There was so much more room to run in Philadelphia. She didn’t have to jog in place at stoplights to keep her heart rate up, and she didn’t have to make it to the highway to see more than one hundred steps ahead. Just after mile three, which felt more like the twenty-sixth, both of her children had been rocked back to sleep. Alix stopped in a coffee shop, asked for a latte, and took it to a bench outside. I need a conference call immediately, she texted. No death or sickness but very urgent. Alix had said the names Rachel, Jodi, and Tamra so many times that there was no other way to say it. She hadn’t texted her group of girlfriends this way since her move—most of their recent conversations concerned other women they knew, product advice, articles and books they were reading, and complaints about their husbands—so seconds after this text was sent, it was met back with two Are you okay? texts and one Tamra, can you start it? Jodi was a children’s casting director who had two redheaded children—ages four and one—who often appeared as crying extras on TV shows and movies. Rachel, proudly Jewish and Japanese, managed a firm that designed book covers while she tried to get her son to be not-so-good at soccer, because who the hell knew it was so intense? He was only five years old. And Tamra was the principal of a private school in Manhattan. Twice a year, the four women gorged on the wine, cheese, and hummus packages sent by parents trying to boost their children’s admission applications or keep their problem child enrolled. Tamra had two girls with inch-long dark afros, a two-and-a-half-year-old and a fully literate four-year-old who spoke beginner French. Tamra’s children referred to her as Memmy. With her knees spread wide on the bench and cold sweat at her temples, Alix told them everything. Rachel gasped and said, “What?!” In an overly enunciated tone, Tamra said, “They wouldn’t let her leave?” Jodi said, “All of this happened in one day?” “Jesus Christ, that would never happen in New York,” Rachel said. “Hudson, get that out of your mouth! Sorry, we’re at soccer.” Alix’s heart sped up to the same sickening point as it had the night before, when Peter returned without Emira and said, “Okay, everyone’s fine,” before he explained. Alix couldn’t help but ask what sounded like uselessly generic questions as soon as they left her lips. Was she crying? Was she mad? Did she seem really upset? If Alix had been asked about Emira and her mental state for all the Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the last three months, she wouldn’t have had an answer. Most days, Alix practically threw Briar into Emira’s arms on her way out the door, calling over her shoulder that Briar hadn’t eaten lunch or hadn’t really pooped. The Tuesdays and Thursdays without Emira included swimming lessons at the Y, where Briar swam so hard and desperately that she ended up taking three-hour naps. These naps were followed by a movie on Netflix, and by the ending credits, Dada was walking through the front door. This pattern had sustained Alix so well that she had no idea if her babysitter was the type of person to cry, sue, or do nothing at all. Tamra clicked her tongue. “You gotta call that girl right now.” “I’m Googling Peter’s clip,” Jodi said. “Okay, five hundred views . . . that’s not awful.” “Did anyone get a video of this?” Tamra asked. “You guys could probably help her sue the store,” Rachel said. “I don’t know. I’m freaking out.” Alix placed her elbows at her knees. “I’ve been terrible to her. She’s so good and she’s so on time . . . Briar adores her and I feel like I’m gonna lose her because of some stupid fucking grocery store cop.” Alix removed the side of the seat belt from Briar’s sleeping mouth, and looked around to make sure no one had heard her say the F-word in front of her children. “I’ve just been so sloppy with everything lately that it all feels like a big punishment. I’m late with my book, I’m gaining weight, and I have a dozen of Peter’s colleagues coming over today for Briar’s birthday, which Emira was supposed to help with. But the thought of losing her forever is making me physically ill. I’ll never be able to finish this book without her.” “Hey.” Rachel cut her off. “You will finish this book no matter what. You’re a badass and you finish things, but right now, Emira is the first priority.” Tamra said, “One hundred percent.” “Prudence?” Jodi took her mouth away from the phone. “You have to share with your brother, is that understood?” Then, closer to the receiver, she said, “I agree with everything that was just said.” “Of course. I get that. And I know I need to call her,” Alix said. “But what . . . how do I go about this?” “Don’t tell her to write a letter,” Rachel mumbled. Jodi said, “Rachel, this is serious,” in the same mom-ish way she spoke to her daughter. “Honestly,” Tamra said, “she might not even answer. And you need to be prepared for that.” Next to Alix, the bell attached to the coffee shop door rang as a couple came outside. The woman said, “I bet we can rent it on Amazon,” and the man replied, “But 3D was the entire point.” Alix dipped her head and sweat fell off her nose. “I’m literally gonna be sick.” “Hey, if she does answer,” Tamra said, “just tell her that you’re so sorry that this happened, and that you support her in whatever she needs, whether that means lawyering up or doing absolutely nothing.” “Yeah, just don’t get emotional,” Rachel told her. “Not that you would, but make it all about her. Hudson, it’s okay, bud!” Rachel could be heard clapping her hand to her thigh. “You wanna go home? No? Okay, fine.” Alix knew that this probably wouldn’t have been so daunting if it wouldn’t be the longest conversation she’d ever had with Emira. She took a deep breath and said, “Is this my fault for sending her there?” “Oh honey, no,” Jodi said. “I would have called her too!” Tamra said. “It’s your fault you moved to Philadelphia,” Rachel said. “I’m sorry, but again, this would never happen in New York City. When I pick Hudson up from anywhere they literally don’t trust that he’s my kid. But when Arnetta goes, they’re like, ‘Here ya go! He’s allergic to nuts, bye!’” “Pru?” Jodi called. “I’m gonna count to three, young lady. One, two . . . Thank you, ma’am.” Alix sat back and her sweaty top clung to her shoulder blades. In front of her, in her sleep, Catherine’s bootied feet ran somewhere in her dreams. Tamra said, “Go call her,” and Alix said, “I know.” “Alix?” Jodi beckoned. “I love you. And you’re beautiful, you always are. But I’m being a good friend right now and asking how much weight you’ve gained.” Alix looked down toward her neon orange shorts. A mushy pudge made up of baby weight, a gym membership she’d never gotten, and sugar-based smoothies consumed in the sun poked out over her waistband and underneath the damp tank top. Alix sighed. “I’m afraid to check.” “Oh, God,” Tamra said. “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” “Okay . . . sweetie?” Jodi said. “You need to get your s-h-i-t together because you are not this person. You are so good at confrontation, and you breast-feed in front of audiences, and you are going to write a very successful book. You need to hang up the phone, beg your sitter to stay, tell Peter to watch his mouth, and get a Fitbit or something, okay?” “Yeah, she’s right, A,” Rachel added. “’Cause when your book comes out your photo is gonna be everywhere and book covers add like seventeen pounds, I am not kidding.” “Consider this an intervention,” Tamra agreed, “but a very kind and very supportive one.” “Do they have juice there?” Rachel asked. “Should I send you a cleanse?” “I think they have juice, Rach.” Jodi laughed. “It’s not like she’s in Montana.” * * * — Emira didn’t answer her phone, so Alix took a shower and tried her again. This time she answered, and Alix delivered all the things her friends had suggested, mentally checking off each point. But as she said the words “It’s completely your call,” Emira replied, “Wait . . . am I late?” Alix heard Zara’s voice in the background say, “Who is calling you so early?” Alix looked at her watch. It was 9:14 a.m. Emira, Alix realized, was half asleep. “No, you’re not late!” Alix assured her. “The party’s still at noon, or eleven forty-five, if you can come early . . . but you don’t have to, but I’d love for you to come. We’d love for you to come. But it’s up to you.” “No, I’ll be there,” Emira said. “I’m coming, don’t worry.” “No, Emira, I wasn’t checking up on you. I mean . . . I’m checking on you,” Alix struggled. “But just to see how you are. But okay. I’ll see you at noon? Or eleven forty-five?” “Mm-hmm.” Zara’s voice, now more awake, said, “Would you get a bagel if I ordered one?” Alix said, “See you soon!” and Emira hung up the phone. I called. Alix texted Tamra. It seemed like she didn’t want to talk about it. Tamra responded, That’s her choice. Is she coming? Yes. Okay, be cool, Tamra texted back. Drink lots of water. No pasta. But you’re allowed to eat cake because your baby is three. Alix looked to Briar, who was playing with two combs on the floor in her bedroom. “Bri,” she said. “Happy birthday, lovey,” to which Briar very seriously responded, “Is it happy birfday pretend?” If the decision had been Briar’s, the theme of her party would have been glasses because the toddler savagely wanted glasses, and to touch everyone else’s glasses, and to see how she looked in all of the glasses. But Briar also loved airplanes and pointing at them and the sounds they made, and Alix felt that this, out of all of Briar’s other interests (smelling tea bags, other people’s belly buttons, touching the soft skin on Mama’s earlobe), should be openly encouraged. Alix pushed the furniture in the living room back against the walls and then evenly spread out white balloons that covered the towering ceilings. Hanging at the bottom of each twenty-foot string was a blue paper airplane with curved edges and wheels. Next she set up a snack table with a cloud-covered paper tapestry; by the door, she hung up soft aviator goggles meant for toddlers to take and wear. There were mini cupcakes dyed the color of the sky, and party favors were lined up in bright blue bags with tiny white propellers that could spin. Alix took close-up photos of the propellers and the cupcakes to post on her Instagram (so close-up that they could have been taken anywhere, particularly Manhattan). Peter brought a few of the balloons outside and taped them around the jagged hole in the window. When Alix peeked her head outside, he said, “Is this dumb?” She shook her head and felt a warm and sad affection for him. She knew he hadn’t meant what he said on the news. “No,” she said. “It’s not dumb.” Upstairs, Alix put on a loose-fitting denim jumpsuit and straightened her hair. Peter was singing “Baby Beluga” to Briar and Catherine, who lay on the bed as he secured his belt and buttoned his shirt. Between Way down yonder and Where the dolphins play, he stuck his head into the bathroom. “She’s still coming to help out, right?” Alix looked at him through the mirror as she applied mascara to her bottom lashes. “She said she was.” Emira arrived at eleven forty-five. She had her own key, and when the door closed downstairs, both Peter and Alix looked at each other above their children’s heads. Briar was finally in her birthday outfit, a hunter-green jumpsuit that made her resemble a Top Gun cast extra, and Catherine was cuddled in a cloud costume. Alix handed Peter a gold winged pin and said, “Give us a minute,” before she bolted down two sets of stairs. There was Emira hanging her backpack on the wall, in dark jeans, a loose braid down her back, and chunky black eyeliner. In her first week of babysitting for the Chamberlains, Emira took Briar to a painting class. She’d been wearing an oversized knit cardigan, the kind that paint would never come out of, and Alix offered her one of her many white LetHer Speak polos. “I actually have tons of these and you’re the same size as my old interns,” she’d said. “Well, they might be a bit big on you, but you’re welcome to wear one anytime.” This became Emira’s uniform. Three times a week, Alix came downstairs to find Emira slipping a white polo over her head. She hung it up on the coatrack just before she left. And suddenly, as Alix walked through blue ribbons hanging from the balloons above, the tenderness of this tradition made her throat start to close. She made it to the bottom step as Emira said, “Hey,” and pulled her braid out of the back of her collar. “Hey. Hi.” Alix stood in front of Emira and held both her elbows. “Can I . . . can I give you a hug?” This promptly felt like an ignorant response. Alix didn’t want this to be their first hug, but she had offered and she had to commit. In her arms, Emira smelled like body butters, burnt hair, nail polish, and cheap perfume. “First of all”—Alix backed away—“you do not have to be here today.” “Oh no. I’m here. It’s cool.” Emira turned to her backpack and took a ChapStick out of the front pocket. Alix crossed her ankles and arms as she stood. “I’m not going to even pretend to know what you’re feeling right now or how you felt last night because I never truly will, but I just want to extend my support in whatever way you need it. If that’s a lawyer or . . . a civil action suit . . . or . . .” Emira smiled. “A what?” “Emira,” Alix said. She realized her shoulders were up by her ears, and she tried to bring them down into her back. “You could sue that entire store. Seeking legal action is completely within your right.” “Oh no.” Emira pressed her lips together and sealed the lid of her balm. “I’m not tryna get into all that.” Alix nodded. “And I completely respect that. We just want you to know how sorry we are and—” Another voice from outside said, “Alix?” Behind Emira, the door slid open two inches. Emira reached for the knob and revealed two little boys and their mother: a family from Briar’s swim class. “Ohmygod, hi,” the woman said. “I know, I know. We’re so early. Hi! I’m sure you’re not even done setting up. But we can help and we won’t be any trouble. You look so cute!” Alix ushered them in with his and how are yous. The boys rushed the snack table and one of them took off his shoes. As the woman began to remove their jackets, Alix whispered to Emira, “Let’s talk about this later.” “It’s okay,” Emira said. “It’s honestly fine.” As she said this, Emira dug into a paper bag that she’d set beneath her backpack. She pulled out a small bowl with an orange ribbon around the rim, holding a bright yellow goldfish inside. “Oh, wait. Emira.” Alix put her hand to her heart. “Is that from you?” “Yeah.” Emira placed the bowl on the mantel next to a little paper airplane that read Presents Land Here! As she turned the bowl so that the ribbon faced forward, Alix remembered. Yes. Emira had asked if she could get Briar a fish for her birthday. She’d asked both Alix and Peter days ago. Alix hadn’t considered it would be a real one, because she hadn’t really been listening, but here it was, gold and wiggling. Emira had curled the ribbon around the tiny bowl, but it had bent and flattened in transit and now hung bitterly around the rim. Two minutes into their earliness, the first guest’s three-year-old threw up in the space next to the toilet seat, and he began to cry in an embarrassed whimper. By the time it was cleaned up and apologies had ceased, a group of Peter’s co-workers from WNFT had arrived. Alix turned on some music, went to the door, and said, “Hi, I think we met once before, I’m Alix.” (When she met people for the first time, Alix overpronounced her name—ahh-lix—with a strong emphasis on the second syllable.) Peter never seemed like he was eight years older than Alix—his waist was trim and his light haircut was boyish—but when she found herself in a room of his peers, Alix suddenly felt as if she were attending a gathering of her parents’ friends and counting down till she could retreat to her room and watch music videos. Peter’s female co-workers arrived in floral fit-and-flare dresses, wedges, and pumps. Even the one black woman there arrived with her hair teased, bobbed, and highlighted. These ladies wore massive statement necklaces with costume-ish gems and beads. The men looked like grown-up Ken dolls in khakis and golf shirts. The most popular point of conversation was the sharp hole in the foyer window. Before she’d learned of the incident at Market Depot, as she waited for the police to finish their report, Alix had worried that Peter’s co-workers possibly felt the same as the juniors at Beacon Smith High. That Peter’s career in Philadelphia had possibly ended before it began, and maybe they’d take him back at Riverdale . . . which would have been kind of amazing if it meant she’d be back in New York. But WNFT’s reaction to the toothed hole in the window was a strange home-court pride mixed with backslapping joy. It was as if Peter, the new guy in town, had been properly and jokingly hazed. They wanted to know the story. They laughed and said, “Don’t worry.” They clinked their beers to the top of Peter’s and said, “Welp, welcome to Philadelphia!” No one at Briar’s birthday party had heard of Alix or LetHer Speak. As she sipped on a club soda underneath a playlist of Kidz Bop and Michael Jackson, Alix decided to consider her anonymity a research-based challenge: to develop a clear elevator pitch that might appear on her book’s dust jacket, one of the many tasks she hadn’t yet started. But none of her descriptions seemed to work. “Ohhh, so you’re not exactly writing the book,” one woman said. “It’s like . . . what was that thing called, PostSecret? Do you remember that? And it was like . . . super raunchy?” “We saw some wacky movie called She, no, it was called Her, Her?” Another wife looked to her husband for confirmation, but when he didn’t give any, she still went on. “Maybe it was Them. But anyway—this guy’s job is to write love letters for people. People he doesn’t even know. It was so strange, is that what you do?” Alix pretended to hear Catherine crying and politely excused herself. Laney Thacker, Peter’s co-anchor, arrived with her four-year-old daughter, Bella. She also brought yellow roses, a bottle of wine, a mason jar filled with cookie ingredients and a recipe, and wrapped presents for both Briar and Alix. She greeted Alix with outstretched hands, and a look that said, It’s finally happening. “Ohmygosh, I just feel like I know you so well,” she said. “Gimme a hug. You’re Philly Action family now.” Twice, Alix thought their hug had reached its limit, but Laney hummed as she kept her hold. She gently rocked Alix from side to side. Bella went to Briar and rocked her back and forth as well. Back in Manhattan, Alix went to birthday parties at least twice a month with Rachel, Jodi, and Tamra. They sat in corners drinking wine from paper cups and took turns dancing with the children. They whispered about obnoxious extravagances like chocolate fountains or complete toddler makeovers, and they rolled their eyes at monogrammed favors and the hired Disney princess look-alikes who were always from New Jersey. But the guests attending Briar’s very simple birthday party seemed to be trying twice as hard. The women dressed as if they were pretending to live on the Upper East Side, not as if they actually did, or as if they’d actually been there. There was no way they were comfortable standing in pumps, and why wasn’t anyone wearing jeans? Alix felt out of place and uncomfortably large. But Peter had smiled through Alix’s luncheons and parties and conventions. He’d stayed up late, next to his wife, stamping five hundred letters that high school girls had written to their future selves. He’d put the children to bed when workshops ran late, after convincing Briar that her mother would come in and kiss her the very second she got home. Alix tried to remind herself of this and find someone she could relate to, someone she wouldn’t mind coming over to plop her kid in front of the TV with Briar, someone she could go to yoga with. But these women were as pleasant and sweet as they were old-fashioned and disconcertingly uncool. Peter’s co-anchor, Laney, fondled the wrap on Alix’s jumpsuit affectionately. “I always want to try one of these,” she said, “but I could never pull it off.” She leaned in to laugh and ask how Alix could pee in that thing anyway. Then it was apparently time for gifts. Children in Manhattan never opened presents at a party. Gifts were put in cabs and trunks, or in large, clear plastic bags to be taken home with leftover cake. If you remembered, you could hide a few in a closet and save them for a plane ride distraction, or for when your child peed in the proper place. But as Peter and Alix talked to a WNFT staff member, her five-year-old child came and clung to her knees. “When are they gonna do presents and cake?” he whined. Peter looked at Alix. “Should I set up a chair?” Briar sat on Alix’s lap while Emira handed them presents. After the second gift, Briar became overwhelmed, flapped her arms, and said, “I don’t like it I don’t like it.” Emira and Peter soothed her as Alix unwrapped each gift. In between a Make Your Own Jell-O Princess Mold and a tiara that reeked of toxins and plastic, Alix retrieved her cell phone from her pocket to text Rachel, Jodi, and Tamra. Kill me, she typed. I hate everyone here. Every present given to Briar was completely ridiculous, borderline sexist, or horribly clichéd. The three-year-old received a silver Fendi snowsuit, a white and pink Little Ladies Tea Set, an Edible Arrangement (had they ordered this online?), and a “birthday cake” scented Yankee candle with a Build-A-Bear gift card attached to the lid. At Alix’s feet, Emira stuffed wrapping paper into a large recycling bag. Briar held up a gift in confusion, a frilly blue apron with matching bonnet. Emira said to her, “That’s for you, birthday girl.” Alix wanted to grab Emira’s shoulders, both of them, and say into her face, This party is not me. Alix’s home was filled with the types of mothers she often saw in airports and had come to completely despise. Women with full faces of makeup, way too much luggage (Vera Bradley carry-ons and Lilly Pulitzer passport cases), cork wedge sandals, and plastic bags with souvenirs that took up all the room in the overhead compartments. They noisily called their husbands as soon as they landed or to let them know they’d made it to the next gate. They held up the line to get off the plane (“Do you have everything? Because we cannot come back”). In bathroom stalls, they detailed their activity of papier-mâchéing the seat with toilet paper, rather than doing what Alix always did: chalking up public bathrooms to exercise and just squatting over the bowl. Alix didn’t even own a stroller until she was pregnant a second time. She was an incredible packer, often only brought a backpack on weekend trips, and frequently found herself texting Peter that she’d jumped on another flight that got her home quicker. So as she looked around her living room, Alix wondered how she would ever call Philadelphia home. How she could keep her dexterity as a mother and small-business owner while surrounded by the type of woman who halted security check flow because she’d forgotten to remove her jacket. Alix stood by the door as parents struggled to squeeze shoes back on their children’s feet and the toddlers began to rummage through their favors. She said, “We have to get the kids together,” about four times as her cheek was kissed and her hands were squeezed. Again, Laney made her way to Alix for a heartfelt moment of connection. “I’m just so glad you guys are here,” she said. “We gotta do some cocktail time after the babes fall asleep.” It was clear that Laney was being very friendly, but also assuring Alix that while she sat next to her husband every day, she was a girl’s girl, and that there was no funny business going on. This had never even crossed Alix’s mind, and she felt guilty that it hadn’t. Laney had an embarrassing laugh, a disproportionate gum-to-teeth ratio, and she often said things like, “Holy moly.” Laney was the definition of sweet, and as Alix hugged her, she thought, I want to like you. Why is this so hard? Over Laney’s shoulder, Alix watched Emira bend down to help a little boy into his jacket. “We didn’t play my favorite game,” the five-year-old told her. “Oh yeah?” Emira pulled the sleeves down onto his hands. “What’s your favorite game?” He turned around to her and said, “My favorite game is called I’m a Murderer!” “Cooool.” Emira stood up and walked to the next room, calling out, “Hey, Briar? Come hold my hand real quick.” After Alix finally closed the door behind Laney and her family, she pulled out her phone again. Correction, she texted her friends. I hate everyone except for my sitter. You better give that girl a raise, Tamra said. Or an Edible Arrangement! Rachel replied. That night, Briar went to bed with her new fish on her nightstand, one of the few gifts Alix didn’t place in a donation bag. Newly three-year-old Briar promptly named the fish Spoons, and watched it swim in circles until she fell asleep. Five Just as Emira decided to distance herself from the now three-year-old girl, to check Craigslist and Indeed every day, and to only apply for jobs that hired adults and offered very adult benefits, Mrs. Chamberlain stepped in hard. The night at Market Depot had done something to her, and she tried to right the night’s wrongs with a forced casualness that made Emira quite cagey. Since that night, Mrs. Chamberlain started returning home at six forty-five, sitting down across from Emira, and referencing conversations that they’d never had. “Emira, remind me what you majored in?” “Tell me where you live again?” “Did you say that you had any allergies?” The timing couldn’t have been worse. These were the questions you asked at the beginning, and not at what Emira was trying to make the end. But for a part-time gig, the money was decent, making it difficult to get excited about potential jobs that offered less money and zero Briar. Every other Friday, Alix handed Emira an envelope with six hundred seventy-two dollars inside. Two weeks after the night at Market Depot, this envelope felt particularly fat. On the front porch, underneath a flushed sunset, Emira peeked inside the envelope flap to reveal twelve hundred dollars in cash. A small note on thick card stock was paperclipped to the hundred-dollar bills with Alix’s brilliant handwriting on one side. Emira—, it read. This is for the past two weeks, Briar’s birthday, and the awful night when you completely saved us. Thank you for everything. We love having you and we’re here for you. Xo P, A, B&C. Emira looked down the street. She laughed, whispered “Fuck,” and immediately purchased her first leather jacket. The subway was packed. Emira was pleasantly late to meet Zara, Shaunie, and Josefa for a dinner, followed by drinks, followed by all the other practices of twenty-somethings in the nighttime. Everything she wore looked shiny next to her new jacket. It was black with asymmetric zip fastening and was cropped just above her hip. The belt hung effortlessly at her sides, and she let the silver zippers sit open at her forearms. Emira’s jacket came in at two hundred thirty-four dollars, making it the biggest purchase she’d ever made other than her bed frame and laptop. With one hand holding the subway pole, and the other texting Zara that she was on her way, Emira found it both funny and sad that she could feel so cheap in the most expensive thing she owned. She turned her earbuds up loud and balanced into the subway’s turns. Behind Emira was a family of six, very much not from Philadelphia, and the mother was calling out, “The next stop is ours. Does everyone hear me?” Underneath her music, she listened to the conversation to her left, where a man in a suit was saying he needed an excuse to not attend a family function. The woman next to him said, “I don’t mind if you blame me.” Emira’s hip bones were prominent beneath her black leggings, and when she caught a flash of her gold multi-chain necklace, she flattened it out against her chest in the window reflection of fast-moving concrete and darkness. She smoothed her bangs and the dark waves at her shoulders, and in the space between one song ending and another beginning, she heard someone call her name. Emira turned to see KelleyTCopeland@gmail.com. Over baseball hats and ponytails and shoulders, he said her name again, but this time he said, “Emira Tucker.” Emira readjusted her grip on the subway pole and found herself remarkably nervous. He was cuter this time around, partially because Emira wasn’t babysitting or being accused of a crime, but he was also just cuter on his own. Kelley Copeland had dark hair and eyes; a long, pale face; and a big, strong-looking chin that for some reason implied he’d played sports all through college. Emira smiled from one side of her mouth, and Kelley said, “Excuse me,” as he inched his way toward her. “Do you remember me? Of course you do, hi.” Kelley laughed as he answered his own question. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I’ve drafted about six emails to you and I’ve never sent them.” He paused. “I’ve gotta know if you quit or not.” Emira was still startled by his very tall and friendly presence. She crossed her standing legs and said, “Sorry, what?” “Sorry,” he said. “I was curious if you quit your nanny job.” Kelley Copeland was so tall that he could press his hands flat against the top of the subway car, which was what he did in front of Emira. Emira thought this was both a painfully obvious show of masculinity and also insanely attractive. “Ohh, sorry,” Emira said. “Well . . . I’m actually not a nanny.” “Wow,” he said. “So you did quit. Good for you.” “Oh no, I’m still working.” Emira switched her purse strap from her right shoulder to her left. “But yeah, I’m just a sitter. I’m not a nanny.” “Can you tell me what the difference is?” Kelley asked. “I’m not trying to be weird, I honestly don’t know.” The subway car stopped and Emira stepped out of the way of a man with four shopping bags as he exited the train. Kelley motioned the empty seat to her, and Emira sat down. “Nannies are full-time,” she said. “They’re salaried and they get bonuses and vacations. And babysitters are part-time and they do like . . . date nights and emergencies.” “Okay, gotchyou,” Kelley said. “Sorry, I thought I heard you say you were a nanny at the store that night.” “No, yeah, I said I was a nanny so that guy would leave me alone,” Emira explained. “Which obviously worked really well.” “Right.” Kelley gave her the kind of goofy, annoyed look that passengers exchange when there’s a loud, drunk person on a train, or when the conductor keeps announcing that there will be more delays. “Well, if you stayed you obviously had a reason to. But I’m hoping you got a raise at the very least.” Emira swiped a strand of hair out of her lashes and the zipper at her sleeve jingled delightfully. She smiled and said, “They took care of me.” Kelley leaned both of his hands on the bar above Emira’s head. “Where are you going right now?” he asked. Emira raised an eyebrow. She looked up at him and couldn’t help but think, Really? It was Kelley’s casual determination mixed with the sight of twelve uncreased hundred-dollar bills that gave her the spirit to think, You know what? Yeah, okay. Fuck it. She pursed her lips and said, “Dinner with some friends. And then Luca’s. Why?” “Luca’s.” He put out impressed lips and said, “That’s very fancy.” Emira raised her shoulders in a sweet I don’t know motion. “What if I buy you a drink real quick?” he said. “Then we can go our separate ways. I’m meeting friends tonight, too.” The train stopped and a woman pushed past Kelley to claim the seat next to Emira. Emira feigned reluctance; she was enjoying this as much as he was. She was counting down to the last time she would see him tonight, and from what she could tell, it would be around two a.m. “I’m already late,” she said. “You could buy me a drink at Luca’s, though.” Kelley laughed. “Yeah, I’m never gonna get in there.” E