After an hour of precarious switchbacks, Molly had tackled the Sandia Peak. She perched proudly, peering at Albuquerque through her mighty plastic sunglasses. This was her moment to breathe while Rick was in the bathroom.
This wasn’t unlike the stage where she used to dance in understated lilac costumes. Her skirt flew around her like the petals of a cactus flower. She raised her hands above her head in a perfect arc. She encompassed the whole city. En pointe on the top of the world, she encompassed passion itself. Thousands below were witness to the majesty of two strong legs and an uncorrupted zeal.
Rick, with the baby strapped to his chest, interrupted her. His hands dripped with lemony sanitizer. He dropped his feet against the pavement, letting his shins collapse like buildings in a demolition; his knees then toppled and jumped up as if taken by surprise. His signature gait. It must be exciting, she thought, to always be taken by surprise.
“Are you ready to start?” He looked up at last from his slippery hands. “I don’t think Serenity is going to give us much trouble. Should be a nice walk.” He tilted his chin towards the baby.
“I’m sure she won’t.”
“Are you excited?” Molly could practically hear the enthusiastic sweat glistening down his forehead. She hoisted her water bottle up from the ground and waltzed past her husband so she wouldn’t have to watch him bounce around. It seemed his heavy sandal flops reverberated across the entirety of the valley.
“Well,” he continued. “I’m excited. And I’m sure Serenity would be excited, too, if she could only say it. Hey!” He stopped bobbing. “Look at that!”
Molly swiveled on the ball of her foot, the way she used to. The first time Rick came to one of her recitals, he nearly killed her bringing flowers. No one ever came to see her dance, but there he was, and with flowers. He was wearing these awful brown pants and a tacky blue shirt with the tag sticking up and was just about the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen. Thinking about it now, she almost leapt from the side of the mountain.
“Isn’t that something?” he asked. His front tooth was a bit crooked.
“Isn’t what something?”
“That.” He motioned vaguely towards the great expanse of beige.
“Everything is something.”
“I bet Serenity likes it.” The baby churned in her carrier as if in agreement. “She’s going to be a big dreamer someday.”
“I used to be a dreamer.”
“That’s why I liked you, you know. Always the dreamer.”
“But I stopped.”
“Maybe it’s hereditary. I see it in her eyes–oh.” He laid a well-sanitized palm upon her gleaming sunscreened shoulder.
“We all have to stop some day. Even you.” She was set sordid against the gravel, her jaw as unwavering as the heat.
“Let’s keep walking.” He didn’t give her time to respond.
Their shared room was juxtaposition. She woke up in suffocated pirouettes beside a man who could have easily been mistaken for an eccentric body pillow. He kept a covered glass of water on the nightstand. “For health,” he told her. Molly herself had a shoebox of ballet flats tucked under her while she slept. She never opened it. Rick carried any spiders he found to the window on a piece of printer paper. There were sixteen pairs of legs on the wall next to the space where Molly let her hand dangle at night.
“I still like you, though,” he said, causing her to stumble on a rock.
“I still like you.” He glanced backwards. Molly made sure she was too busy realigning her braids to return eye contact. “I just didn’t want you to think–“ He looked ahead again. “I didn’t want you to think I didn’t still like you.”
“Why would I think that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well,” she said. “Okay.” If she kept looking at the ground, she wouldn’t stumble on another rock. Or on her words.
“Okay.” He embarrassed himself by continuing. “I have a question. It’s stupid, but, well, I don’t know.”
“What is it?”
“I was just wondering if you still–” Swiftly, the baby dealt Rick a mouthful of tiny, sharp fingers. As his lip flopped against his chin, glistening with saliva under the relentless New Mexico sun, the baby dropped its jaw to release a shock of laughter. Her pacifier, suspended for an instant by a gossamer thread of spittle, made a ceremony of tumbling over the ledge, whirling slowly in the air. Rick hugged the baby to his chest as if she might jump down after it.
And then she started screaming.
Rick, startled, bounced up and down, turning the entirety of his being into the rocking chair of his knees. “Shh, shh,” he murmured, twitching his eyes between the plunge of the pacifier and the squealing infant in his arms. “Shh.”
“Would you rather I took her?” Molly asked, toeing impatiently with perfect form. She became uncomfortable, suddenly, with the brief distance between the baby and the guardrail.
“No, I–” Decisive, he pinned the baby against him with both arms and sighed. “Don’t worry.”
“You’re going to suffocate her like that. Let me have her.”
“She’ll be fine.”
“Let her breathe!”
“I’ve done this before. It’s fine.”
“Please, let me have her.”
“When she stops crying.”
“Maybe she needs something!”
“She needs to stop crying.”
“Maybe she” Molly suspended her breath until it was as still as the unwavering sun over cloudless Albuquerque.
Serenity, subdued at least into quietude, sucked in a few puffs of her mother’s last exhale, her tiny lips caving in. “Do you need something?” She didn’t answer. Their noses were nearly touching.
“I’ve done this before,” Rick reminded Molly.
“I know.” The rocky path of the mountain was not the flawless wood floor of the room she used to practice in. These hiking boots had too much grip to function as flats; the sky, an endless, thin blue, was nothing like the mirrored walls in which she once saw herself exactly as she wanted to be.
“Do you still like me?”
“What?” Molly didn’t look away from her daughter. There was something in that little face, something imploring. Molly used to watch herself dance in that practice room, in the basement of the performing arts building, and here was her daughter, sprawled against Rick in some fanciful leap, looking eerily like the girl who once decorated every wall.
Her mother used to tell her to get a real job. “You’re married, honey. You’ll have a kid soon.” Those same words smacked her over and over, but it wasn’t the worst bit. And as she stared into the unending eyes of the person she had created, she encountered a memory as urgent as the New Mexico sun.
“I can’t help it,” he’d said. His breath was cold. The two of them were drinking water in their tiny apartment, squatting in hard chairs and trading gasps of late fall air. “I’m busy with work.”
“So am I,” she returned.
“My work makes money.”
“So does mine. And it’s important to me.”
“Money is important.”
“Love,” she said. “Love is important.”
“We have to eat.”
“And we can’t do that on love alone. That’s why I have to work. That’s why I have to miss your performances, Molly. It’s because we have to eat.”
“Okay,” she said. “We do have to eat. And I have to dance.” She huffed out a sigh. “You don’t get it.”
“You’re right,” he replied. “I don’t.” Molly remembered standing up and dumping her water into the sink. She didn’t remember much else after.
The Sandia Peak bustled around them in a conformity of brightly colored tourists.
“Do you still like me?” Rick repeated.
The pacifier hadn’t fallen too far down–maybe twenty yards, maybe forty. Maybe Molly could remember her grand jeté and fetch the thing for the sake of Serenity. The conifers loomed from the ridge far below, motionless in the nonplussed air, glinting rays of white light from their pines; beyond them, Albuqueruque glared, accompanied by the vast blank stare of the desert. It was a mess of vertigo. But so was Rick. Through her sunglasses, the drop didn’t seem too bad.
“Let her breathe.” Molly swerved her head gracefully, locking eyes with her husband. “Give her to me.”
“Because I want to hold her. I want to carry her.”
“I can do that.”
“So can I,” she answered. “Let me prove it.”
“Do you still like me? It’s okay if you don’t.”
“I like Serenity.” Molly reached her hand out to the baby, who beheld it with wonderment. She was a dreamer, that was for sure. “Right now,” she murmured. “That’s the best we can do.”