by Madeline L. Taylor
Margot sat in her favorite bar, which was not quite a dive, but wasn’t exactly not a dive. She was trying to read, to unwind after work, but she was distracted by a few thirty-somethings celebrating a birthday. The birthday man and his wife had brought their daughter with them. Margot felt a sense of protectiveness towards that small face, pressed too close to the iPad, her cheeks smooshed even chubbier by the over-ear headphones. The little girl had a green balloon tied to her wrist; a wrist so tiny that it was shocking that it didn’t float away and hit the rafters, lifted by the angel weight of helium. The child’s parents turned their rimmed eyeglasses toward them every now and then — the dad spoke into the ear of the little girl, forgetting the fact that the ear was covered. Perhaps it was better that she couldn’t hear him. Perhaps it was one of those small childhood mercies: the barrier between them and parental attention was both narcotic and salvation.
Maybe Margot would’ve been better off if she had been raised by parents who threw her birthday parties in bars. Who drank with their friends while the gentle eyes of a motherly bartender kept a periphery saved for those chubby cheeks. Maybe she would’ve been a happier child had her senses been dulled by the blessing of a Netflix Kids account. Instead, her bedtime stories had been Bible chapters, read aloud solemnly, followed by the symphony of ice in a cobbler shaker echoing from the kitchen — far down the hall, out of sight. I have to give it to Mom and Dad: nothing puts you to sleep quite like Deuteronomy.
The mother pushed a sippy cup at the girl as she started to whine. She kissed her daughter’s cheek before lowering the headphones back on her ears. Margot watched as the glow of the screen made a silhouette of the little upturned nose. She wondered which saccharine soundtrack rattled through the headphones. Margot wondered if it would be enough to drown out the scene so that small girl wouldn’t sit at a rough-hewn table, at her neighborhood bar, when she became a 29-year-old Margot herself. Because 29-year-old Margots, she thought bitterly, were once small girls whose wide-open eyes and prickled ears picked up on every nuance, every movement, every word of the adults around her, and even if she couldn’t spell their words (but I probably could, I was very good at spelling) she could feel them snake around her ribs, and she would remember them, forever, because genetics have a sick sense of humor and delight to give these brains — which can hold the most detailed, the most sensory-laden memories — to the small children of angry parents.
Margot watched as the girl clambered off her stool and dragged her mother towards the bathroom. The mother grabbed her glass of chardonnay. The daughter was wearing a tutu. It was pink, and it fell just barely over her knees. It was pressed into wrinkles on the back, the imprint of a barstool visible.
The dregs of ice tickled Margot’s throat; she let the ice fall to the bottom of the glass, joining the bar’s symphony like an out-of-tune viola. She stood, holding her coat against her stomach, hesitating before following their path to the bathroom.
Against the bathroom door bobbed the green balloon, the ribbon loop that had affixed it to the girl’s hand now twisted around the knob. Margot smiled at the strangely specific hygienic practice of keeping a balloon outside the germy interior of a bathroom. She wondered whose decision that had been — the mother’s or the girl’s — and she thought she knew the answer.
The pair emerged, the girl still struggling to adjust her tutu. She tried to pull her balloon from the doorknob but it was knotted too tight for her chubby fingers. Her eyebrows formed frustrated caterpillars.
Margot’s hands shook as she disentangled the balloon and handed it back to the girl. The girl’s grin was radiant.
“I am Louise,” she said with funny solemnity.
“I am Margot,” Margot mirrored her tone.
There was no need to say more. Louise turned and ran back towards her now-distant mother, the balloon trailing behind. Margot saw that her layers of tutu were wrapped up in her waistband, in a tangle of pink tulle. The imprint of the barstool was no longer visible. Or maybe it was; Louise was too far away for Margot to see.
Madeline L. Taylor is a writer, program operations associate director, and writing instructor. She holds a BA in English & Creative Writing from Barnard College, where she received recognition for her non-fiction writing with the Schwimmer Prize and the Estelle M. Allison Prize for Literature. Her work has appeared most recently in the New York Times “Tiny Modern Love” column. She lives in New York City with her fiancée and their two cats Ginkgo and Juniper.