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Jen’s startled to find Judy all the way out of bed by the time she opens her eyes, and even more startled to find she’s already changed.

“Judy?” she grumbles, blinking through her own bleariness. “You didn’t turn my alarm off again, did you? I told you, it doesn’t matter how little sleep you think I got, or how many times you think you woke me up—”

“I know,” Judy says. “I didn’t.” With a crinkle of her brow, she adds, “But I didn’t mean to wake you up, either. Sorry—”

“Nope,” Jen says, before Judy’s even finished pronouncing the word. She glances quickly at her phone, scoffs as she adds, “Yeah, the three minutes you stole from me, that’s the thing I’ll be feeling for a week—not my back deciding I’ve reached the ‘this bitch is ancient’ point of no return.”

“You’re not,” Judy says, so quickly it feels like reflex—but maybe “routine” is more apt. “It did seem like you finally fell asleep around two.”

“Shit,” Jen says. “You didn’t have to stay.”

“No, no,” Judy insists. “I was fine, I wasn’t awake the whole time, just—you just seemed like you were in pain.” She says it the only way Judy could say it—concern fraying the edges of every syllable, brows drawn tight together, her fingertips grazing Jen’s wrist like a physical manifestation of her sincerity.

“Uh, wow,” Jen says, pointedly, finally blinking thoroughly enough into wakefulness to register the dress Judy’s chosen—not to mention the way she’s done her hair. “You look … nice. How long have you been awake, exactly?”

Judy’s never awake this long before Jen’s awake, and the disruption to what has apparently become a Saturday morning rhythm is proving more disorienting than Jen would have thought to expect. Saturdays always unfold from Friday evenings: drink a moderate and totally reasonable amount of wine in Jen’s bed, watch somewhere between one and three mediocre movies, fall asleep to the promise of Jen’s Saturday morning alarm. (It had come as a mistake, at first, a product of exhaustion and wine that had found them both fully dressed and sharing a pillow the next morning. But by the time Jen had spent a third Friday trying to shepherd a tipsy—and/or slightly stoned—Judy quietly through the hallway and back to the guesthouse, without giggling either of the boys awake, it became clear there was only one option that made sense.)

“Oh,” Judy says, “thanks. Only about an hour. I just thought I should, you know, start preparing early for our little neighborhood meet-and-greet. Get everything set up.”

“Fuck,” Jen groans, slumping back into the bed and burying her face into the pillow. “No,” she mumbles into the fabric. “Fuck. That’s really today?”

“Really, really,” Judy says, much, much too brightly. “Jen, I promise, I’ve got this. All you have to do is show up—”

“No ‘all’ about that,” Jen contributes, helpfully.

“—and say hi to a few people. Oh, and eat some of my mushroom risotto, because—listen, I don’t want to exaggerate, but I really do think this is the recipe that might change your entire life. I think it’s the one.”

“If that includes a personality adjustment, make sure Charlie gets several servings,” Jen says, even though she doesn’t really mean it—he’s still an asshole about 80% of the time, but he’s no longer an asshole who’s selling drugs (or he’s gotten way sneakier about it, which she’d kind of have to respect), he’s an asshole who comes home (nearly) every night, and he’s an asshole who consents to letting himself be hugged at least once every couple of weeks, these days.   

“He already did a taste test for me,” Judy says, and it’s like her whole face brightens with the sudden, staggering force of her smile. “Him and Henry both. Harding boys’ stamp of approval.” 

Jen’s still not at all sure how she ended up getting roped into this weird neighborhood gathering—as if there’s ever been a single fucking one of her neighbors she’s interested in mingling with. (The word alone is enough to turn her stomach, repeatedly.) She maxes out at about thirty minutes with Karen per week—and, on top of that, she’s now doing her time in, like, actual therapy, which should give her a pass on tolerating assholes for the next lifetime or so.

So maybe that isn’t exactly how her therapist would see it, and it also definitely wasn’t how Judy saw it when she broached the topic originally. I just thought—I don’t know, we could do something nice for her, Judy said, then. I know it’s still hard for her, after everything with Jeff.

Because of course Jen knows exactly how she ended up here. Fucking Judy, who had somehow dug through all of Jen’s absolutely the fuck nots and you’ve got to be fucking kidding mes and dragged out a reticent I’ll kick them out whenever I fucking feel like it, Judy, don’t think I’m kidding.

(It hadn’t hurt that Judy dangled in her pitch the prospect of a wider-ranging friend buffet for Karen, which would have the potential to translate to less time spent appearing at their front door. And, sure, Judy had been taking most of those requests, lately, but that didn’t mean Jen was suddenly in the clear as much as it meant Karen had been making herself way, way too comfortable at their house way, way too many days in a row. With her seemingly endless supply of orange fucking wine.)

“Remind me when I should be preparing for the masses to descend on us,” Jen groans.

“Not until 12:30,” Judy answers. “Plenty of time for your run – and for your shower. And coffee should be ready any minute.”

“Ugh,” Jen says, because no amount of Judy’s planning around her schedule can soften this particular blow.

But she reluctantly clambers out of bed, earns herself a smile from Judy far too delighted to suit a task Jen literally accomplishes every day. “There are painkillers on the bedside table. Do you need the brace?” Judy asks.

“No,” Jen says, after a moment, pulling her workout clothes from the dresser. “But I hope you bought more wine when you were out. Like, infinitely more.”

“Obviously,” Judy says, before she closes the door behind her, pulling a little at the very nice—and not especially lengthy—dress she’s chosen on her way out. 

 

 

It isn’t until (not nearly enough) hours later, when people start making themselves at home right in the middle of her dining room, that Jen realizes why Judy’s so dressed up: Michelle’s here. Which she now definitely remembers Judy saying something about, only it had been in the middle of a lot of other shit, shit like, So I did a little research, and it turns out Nextdoor.com is by far the most effective way to reach out to neighbors these days, and We’ve gotten 25 RSVPs!

And since “25+ random strangers (it doesn’t matter if they share our neighborhood, Judy! They’re strangers! Would you suggest Henry jump in the car with one based on their zip code?) arriving at Jen’s fucking doorstep” necessitated several more glasses of wine, by the time the vague mention of Michelle had arisen, things had been a little more difficult to keep track of.

Besides, it had gone something like this: I thought, um … I thought maybe I’d send Michelle an invitation, just … I don’t know, in case she wanted to catch up, or something. I know she’s not technically our neighbor but—

Of course invite her, Jen thinks she remembers saying. What’s one more in a hundred-person invading army?

I feel like that’s maybe a question for the Spartans.

They all still fucking died, right? Anyway, whatever, obviously she wants to see you. She was the one who up and disappeared on you, so the only question should be how much you want to see her.

Well, she was going through a lot, Judy pointed out. I just think – it’d be nice to catch up.

Catch up, Jen said, pointedly changing the inflection. I guess that’s one word for it.

Now, Jen watches from the corner of her eye as they, apparently, catch up—the ingredients of which seem to be a lot of very charged eye contact and a near-obscene degree of casual hand touching between them. If Jen were the degree of drunk she wishes she was—messy, frat boy drunk—she’d probably be yelling, Jesus, get a room, you know? across the room. (Supportively. Obviously. Judy deserves a life full to the brim with things that make her happy. Even the four new crystals they picked up at the gem faire last weekend. Even the woman whose ex happens to know Jen’s a murderer.

But Perez is no longer a cop, and she and Jen even went out for drinks, once, so maybe she could stand to take the judgmental down a few notches.

Trying to wingman for Perez again, though? She’d take a lifetime of jail first.) 

Instead, she’s (only) a few glasses of wine deep and wearing an expression she’s pretty certain constitutes deeply inviting, except—

“How are your boys?” asks a voice to her right, and it’s only a miracle that keeps Jen from spilling her glass of wine all over both of them. (Must be the crystals, she thinks, amusing only herself, though the thought has her reflexively glancing in Judy’s direction again. She’s laughing this wild, bright laugh, because apparently Michelle’s that funny.)

“Jesus Christ,” Jen mumbles; when she turns to face the woman, she finds she’s only vaguely familiar—a couple kids that attend the same school as Henry, she thinks, and maybe Ted invited her and her husband over, once. Maybe. If she was more interesting, Jen would probably remember, but Jen’s pretty fucking sure that says more about her than it does about Jen. Like, make an impression, Jesus.

“Oh, they’re doing fine,” Jen says, instead of, They lost their dad about two years back and we’ve come millimeters from Charlie having a rap sheet of his own more than once, so you do the fucking math. “Charlie’s over at a friend’s, and Henry will be home from practice in a couple hours. You know what they say, Christian … rock … choral groups, they never sleep.” She could not mean the smile that she offers any less.

“Oh!” the woman says, her faux earnestness so unbearably saccharine it sticks to the back of Jen’s throat. “Alice is still a little too young for it, but I can already tell she was made for the stage. She has a real gift for it.”

“Yep. Uh-huh. How old is Alice, again?”

“Her third birthday is a week from tomorrow!” she says. “My little star.”

“Two years old,” Jen mumbles, half under her breath, though not so quiet she cares if the woman hears. “Yeah, I can see how obvious that gift would be.”

Jen doesn’t think the woman’s paying her any mind, though, because she’s already saying, “It was – well, I think she was born right around the time that Ted – we all still miss him, you know. I guess it’s one of those weird things about life, right? I was holding this brand-new baby girl, thinking about how much loss you must have been feeling, and … I guess He really does work in mysterious ways.”

Jen’s a half second away from saying something like, Would it help solve that mystery if I punched you in the fucking face? followed by punching her in the fucking face, but suddenly there’s Judy, fingertips resting gently on her wrist, like maybe she’s read the future all over Jen’s face. “Did I hear you talking about the Holy Harmonies?” she asks, refilling Jen’s now near-empty wine glass with her own. “They’re so lucky to have Henry. I mean, they’re a super talented group of kids, don’t get me wrong, but he’s…” She glances back toward Jen, shares the warmth of loving a kid they both adore beyond measure before one corner of her mouth turns down in a half grimace, a pointed acknowledgement of this stranger being a huge asshole in the fucking (!) middle (!) of their fucking (!) house (!). “Like, get on his level, right?”

“They’d probably take Alice early,” the woman says, and Jen has to fight the urge not to mime sticking her tongue down her own throat. She does not manage to fight the urge to roll her eyes, but the bitch with the prodigal baby is now too focused on Judy to pick up on it. “Her talent can’t really be contained by her age category.”

At that, Jen can’t quite keep herself from snorting out a laugh, which draws looks from both of them. “I’m sorry, just—you don’t think she should maybe, I don’t know, master the art of walking first?”

“Oh, Alice has been walking for years. You wouldn’t even believe it—I swear, five months old and she was on two feet, just strolling across the living room.”

“Right, of course she was,” Jen says through a tight, too-wide smile. “I’m sure Julliard will be calling by the time she hits middle school.”

“Let’s just say,” says the woman, leaning forward like it’s a secret, “I wouldn’t be surprised.”

Jen looks pointedly at Judy—intending to offer a look somewhere between is this bitch fucking serious? and we should have charged for entry, but Judy’s still looking at the woman, asking, “Have you seen any of their performances? You should totally stop by with Alice sometime.” She’s reaching for her phone when she adds, “I mean, Henry could do whatever he wants with his life—you can put anything in front of him and he’s just immediately good at it! He’s amazing—so I don’t want to make any predictions—I’ll leave that to the impressive number of professionals in the L.A. area—but I’m sure if he decided to take this path, he’d have no trouble.”

Jen is much less convinced of the smoothness of any path that leads to “trying to become a Broadway star,” however much she loves her son, but what she says instead is:  “You don’t automatically qualify for ‘professional psychic’ when you hit 50 crystals? I thought at least that might explain why we have so many of them.”

Judy’s already holding her phone out to share with Mrs. Toddlers & Tiaras, and it’s only a moment before Jen recognizes the sound of Henry’s tinny voice. “Actually,” Judy whispers over it, looking up to meet Jen’s gaze, “I definitely remember you saying something about how pretty the amethyst one was.”

“Nice. At best I said nice. It’s a nice rock,” Jen counters. “It’s better than, you know, sprinkling gravel all over our furniture.”

Jen very purposefully tunes out whatever bullshit critique the woman who will never be allowed back into their house offers up next about the choreography, cutting very suddenly through the easy comfort of pretending she didn’t exist; instead, Jen focuses on downing the rest of her wine glass—again. (Fuck off. She’s more than earned it.)

“I’m just gonna …” she tells Judy, gesturing to the empty glass, though not before casting a thoroughly disgusted look at their other companion; she manages a quick enough escape, Judy sliding a hand briefly and reflexively into Jen’s in acknowledgment, squeezing once.

It’s with another full glass in hand that she heads outside—there are fewer people here, and all thoroughly engrossed with one another, although Jen quickly realizes that probably has something to do with the wind chill. For a Southern California afternoon, it’s bordering on fucking frostbite.

So, like, fifty degrees, at least.

Folding her arms across her chest and reminding herself—repeatedly—that she came here from Brooklyn, she yearns mostly for the cigarettes, still hidden on one of the high shelves. But it’s the high shelf with the spare mugs, now, okay, Charlie? So, ha.

It’s not that Jen lacks the capacity to interact with the neighborhood invaders, it’s just that she lacks the will. It’s just that there have never, ever been so many people bursting the seams of her house, and it’s just that the idea of collecting more than two friends hasn’t been a compelling one for well over three decades.

No, these days a path to genuine friendship apparently only begins with “driving a ’66 mustang into Jen’s husband and leaving him to die” and only ends with “buying out the rest of Jen’s house and co-parenting her two children.” The laugh she chokes out startles her, which makes her wonder if she isn’t more drunk than she realized.

And maybe it’s just that some days are still harder than other days, even when they’re not supposed to be. Maybe it’s just that some days she doesn’t have anything to give—or maybe, she reconsiders, thinking about Judy, she just doesn’t want to enough.  

“Hi,” says an unfamiliar voice to her left, and, again, she startles, though this time isn’t quick enough to prevent much of her wine from sloshing over the edge of the glass.

“Fuck, did everyone in this fucking neighborhood attend the same spy school, or what?” she says.

The woman who emerges at least has the decency to look a little sheepish; she also has a better haircut than anyone inside, so at least that’s something different. (And she can’t be less than a decade Jen’s junior. Or if she’s not, Jen will have to decide whether to kill her or have some very serious conversations about skincare routine.)

“Uh, sorry about that,” she says. “It was kind of a toss-up between coming off like a total stalker when you discovered me five minutes from now or scaring the shit out of you immediately.”

“Well, consider my shit scared,” Jen says, wondering if there’s a legal way she can cease having all conversations.

“I’m Isabela, by the way,” she says. “And—I just moved in, so if there’s a spy school, I haven’t yet been inducted. Fingers crossed, though.”

“Well, then, I guess—welcome to the neighborhood,” Jen says, trying not to sound like too much of an asshole. “Jen.”

“Oh, of course,” Isabela says. “Henry and Charlie’s mom, right?”

“Thought you said you didn’t want to come off like a ‘total stalker.’”

Isabela laughs. “Yeah, shit. Guess I’m not doing myself a lot of favors,” she says. “No, just—your wife’s been showing off pictures of those kids to just about everyone.”

“My,” Jen starts, stops, like her brain’s processing aloud without her consent. “Oh, no. Judy and I aren’t … no, we’re not together.” It’s not that it’s a brand-new assumption—Judy may be the only one with a history of dating women, but Jen’s not a total moron; she knows what kind of picture the four of them paint when they’re out together, knows that devoid of context it’s an easy assumption to make.

It’s just that it’s never happened within the neighborhood before, and definitely never inside the bounds of her own house; it’s just that it’s never been phrased exactly like that. Which is a weird thing to matter.

“Oh, sorry,” Isabela says, again. “I just thought—the way she was showing them off, I guess I just figured she was their mom.”

“She is,” Jen says, before she’s even thought to say anything else. “No, she is. She is their mom. It’s just that Judy and I, we’re not …” She’s drunk enough that she’s halfway to making a V with her fingers (and then doing fucking what with it, Jen?), a concept she decides she’s willing to surrender when Isabela interrupts.

“Oh!” she says. “Oh, got it. Sure, of course. That’s really cool, that you still get along so well, though. That must be awesome for your kids.”

It’s nearly forty minutes and a couple cigarettes later—Isabela had dug them out of her coat pocket, and Jen had suggested that next time her new favorite neighbor lead with that—when Jen, now sitting alone on the porch, shivering just a little bit and valiantly pretending not to, thinks to process the “still.” Realizes she hasn’t explained anything at all.

But, fuck—there are worse things to be than a fictional divorcée. Like the lady with a dead fucking husband, she thinks, and hears herself make a sound like a laugh again.

“Jen?” says a voice from the doorway, what might be minutes or hours or years later, and this time it’s so familiar Jen feels herself breathe out a sigh drenched in relief. “Jen, it’s freezing, how long have you been out here?”

Judy kneels onto the chair beside her, rubbing her shoulders to warm her like she’s a hypothermia victim. “I told you I’m a Brooklyn girl,” Jen says, answering nothing. Or maybe answering the wrong thing.

“And tomorrow you’re gonna be a Brooklyn girl with a serious cold,” she says. A beat, as she gives Jen a quick once-over. “On top of that serious hangover.”

Jen grabs the hand she’s offered, but doesn’t move. “No more of these assholes, Judy,” she says. “No more assholes. I’ve got one, and it’s more than enough.”

“Is it really more than enough?” Judy asks. “I mean, what’s the alternative? Half an asshole?”

“Maybe I’ve just got a really giant asshole,” Jen says. “Maybe some of us could do with 70% less asshole.”

“Maybe you just need to learn to accept your beautiful, monster asshole,” Judy says, pulling on her hand. “But lucky for you, all the excess assholes are gone. It’s just the kids and Michelle—I told her she could stay for dinner, if…only if you don’t mind…”

When Jen waves her assent—one Michelle she can handle, even if that means joint third wheeling with her children in her own home—Judy pulls her to her feet and, in another one of her rousing attempts at a Brooklyn accent, adds, “Now get the fuck inside, Brooklyn girl.”

“It’s honestly embarrassing,” Jen says. “Like, I really don’t think I can be seen with you.”

“Come on,” Judy says, sweeping the notion aside with her hand. “Fuhgedaboutit.”

Jen exhales a short, reticent laugh, utterly in spite of herself. “That is the worst fucking thing you’ve ever done. I can’t even look at you.”

“…is it, though, because—”

“Ever,” Jen insists, and lets it be a joke she can make.

Dinner is delicious, because of course it is—because it’d be good even if Judy wasn’t cooking for the hot lady chef she wants to fuck. Michelle and Henry comment on this most often, but Charlie eats every damn bite and then grabs himself seconds.

It’s easy enough—especially because Charlie decides not to devote the majority of the meal to being a dick, although Jen suspects that’s mostly a product of the phone tucked away in his lap pulling 90% of his focus throughout the evening. And, yes, dinners are technically a no-screens zone, but Jen figures tonight gets a pass; not only does discipline sound like a task for a slightly more sober mom, but trying not to fuck anything up for Judy seems like it should be the night’s number one goal.

The strangest exception to his quiet involves, of all things, Judy speculating on the location of her corduroy jacket, which has been missing for nearly a week. “You sure it’s not in Mom’s room?” he asks, which seems like an innocuous enough question if not for the oddly defiant way he delivers it, and if not for the fact that he’s looked up from his phone long enough to make the suggestion at all. Before anyone has a chance to respond, he turns to Jen, adding, “I mean, it is still your room, right?” After which, most bizarrely, he levels a look at Michelle, who seems to be blinking through the act of absorbing whatever inexplicable nonsense is pouring out of his mouth.

“Charlie, there is not a single person at this table who has any idea what the hell you’re talking about,” Jen says, looking at Judy; she shrugs a little in answer, her brows drawn with the kind of concern that Jen thinks probably befits a good, compassionate mom. That makes one of them. “Of course it is.”

“Just trying to help,” he says, with a play at a look of innocence so unbelievable that Jen’s short burst of laughter is really the only answer it deserves, before returning to his phone.

Luckily, Henry immediately pitches in—for his part, sincerely—to suggest it may have been stolen by birds ("They steal things for their nests, sometimes!"), which is really a reminder that this theme has grown into something completely unmanageable, and also a reminder that maybe she gave in to one too many Cinderella rewatches when he was younger.

(“You think maybe you could cool it a little bit with all the … you know … bird stuff?” Jen leans in to murmur to Judy a few minutes later, beneath Henry describing his favorite Harmonies performance to Michelle. “Like, the statues, and the ornaments, and the pillows, and that … truly terrifying surrealist painting that we had to hang above his bed…”

“But he loves them,” Judy protests.

“I know. I know he does, but before we know it he’s gonna be a thirty-year-old Bird Guy, and I just don’t know that we can pretend that’s a healthy lifestyle on anyone.”

“Okay, I’m not really sure that’s a thing,” Judy whispers. “Besides, I already bought him the owl succulent pots he wanted, and I don’t think they come with a return policy.”

Jen sighs, resigning herself to a son who will probably be asking her to, like, go birding with him in less than six months; Judy’s smile, the brief touch of her hand to Jen’s knee, suggests she understands it as the victory it is.)

By the time Judy reaches over to collect their plates, Jen has long since excused the boys from the table, and is strongly considering extricating herself so this situation can become … whatever it would be, without her in it. What kind of a best friend would she be if she didn’t give Judy the space to pursue the woman who broke her heart? In the middle of her own house?

“Stop,” Jen says, batting at Judy’s hand. “You did everything else. I’ve got the dishes.”

“No way,” Judy says. “We’re not risking your back. You spent too much of the day standing up already.”

“And I’m fine,” Jen insists. “I didn’t even need the brace.”

“It’s not worth it,” Judy says. And then, pointedly, “No.”

“Judy, it doesn’t count if you’re saying it on someone else’s behalf,” Jen calls after her, since she’s already whisked the dishes away to the kitchen. “It defeats literally the entire purpose, actually.”

When she receives no response except some distant humming, she rolls her eyes, turns back to face Michelle. “We’re still … working on ‘no,’” she offers, somewhat reluctantly, by way of explanation.

Short as the span of Michelle’s relationship with Judy was, it’s not as if she and Jen had much opportunity for one-on-ones – not that she’s ever been especially difficult to talk to. In fact, what little time they’ve spent in the same spaces would be a better argument for exactly the opposite; it’s maybe just a question of whether Jen can convince herself she has anything she wants to say.

“Oh, yeah, she mentioned something about that, uh, journey,” Michelle says, around a smile. “Sounds like it’s still a little touch and go.”

“Prompt her enough times and these days she can eventually figure out how to land the plane.”

“Well, it sounds like she’s lucky to have you,” Michelle says.

Jen exhales something that might almost be a laugh. “Oh, you already know Judy,” she says, taking a sip of the wine that Judy, in all of her truly infinite wisdom, has left on the table. “So I think it’s probably damn obvious to both of us how lucky I am to have her.”

“It’s not every day you meet someone like Judy,” Michelle concurs, simply, draining the rest of her own glass.

Understatement of the fucking century, Jen thinks, letting a beat of silence settle between them before she asks, “How about a refill? There are some beers in the fridge, too.”

 “… okay, you got me,” Michelle says. “I hope you mean that offer and haven’t mistaken me for one of those people capable of turning down free beers.”

“Can’t fucking trust any of ‘em,” Jen says. “So you passed the test.”

Michelle breathes out an exaggerated sigh of relief, wiping her brow as she follows Jen into the kitchen. It’s charming, probably. “If only school had come with a lot more exams like that, I might’ve ended up becoming the lawyer my mom always wanted.”

Before Jen can even reach for the refrigerator door, Judy turns abruptly to face them. “Jen Harding, I am not afraid to bodily remove you from this kitchen,” she says.

“Alright, settle down, Rocky. We’re here just here for some beers.”

“I could’ve gotten them for you,” Judy says, like she’s almost hurt, like this isn’t the most ridiculous thing in the entire world for them to be arguing about.

“Jude, seriously,” Jen says. “I’m gonna have to walk up an entire flight of stairs at some point tonight. Consider it rehearsal.”

She grabs two beers, offers one to Michelle; they settle down in the barstools at the island as Judy returns to her task of washing the frankly ludicrous stack of dishes that have gathered from the day. “Sorry, just—one second,” she says, to Michelle, before calling Charlie’s name—loudly, and repeatedly. It’s on the fourth time that he finally decides he can hear her through his headphones, though to his credit he actually comes downstairs to face her.

Not at all to his credit, the “Yeah?” he delivers sounds like he’d rather be anywhere else. (She thinks for a moment that maybe she can relate—then thinks that’s a pretty shitty thing to think.)

Yeah?” she echoes, dropping her register to mimic his tone; she thinks she almost sees him smile. “Go help Judy with the dishes.”

She can read the protest before he even opens his mouth, which is enough for her to add, “Okay, call me psychic, but what I’m pretty sure you’re about to say sounds something like ‘of course I’ll go help the woman who spent half the day making the food I spent half the day shoveling into my mouth like an animal. Wait, that’s so weird—it’s like I can take that description and apply it to every other day of my life, too. Maybe it’s about time I start offering to help out around the house? All on my own?’’” She tilts her head, offers him a close-lipped smile; he sighs, but he also drags his feet in front of the sink, almost like a civilized fucking person.

“They seem like really great kids,” Michelle tells her, after several moments, beneath the rush of water and the sound of Judy’s laughter.

(“I’m fucking serious!” she hears Charlie say. “It was huge, and it just jumped out of the bush, right at his fucking face! Hope he comes back with rabies.”)

“Oh, trust me, you haven’t seen Charlie on his bad days,” she says. “This conversation will sound a lot different then.” The will sticks uncomfortably in her throat, just a bit; she takes a drink, washes it down.

It’s about the time Jen reaches the bottom of her drink that there’s a loud, “Mom! Are you seeing this?” What she finds is Charlie staring her down and Judy pointing the sink sprayer directly at his face. “You’re just gonna let her threaten me like this?”

“I don’t know what you did to deserve this,” Jen says, “but I’m sure it was something.”

“See,” Judy tells him, “you should always listen to your mom. She’s very wise.”

“That’s just what she wants you to think!” Charlie insists to Jen, backing steadily away from the sink.

“Char,” Jen says, gesturing to the woman with the makeshift weapon. “We’re talking about Judy, here.” To Judy, she mouths, You’re not actually gonna— because she suddenly sees the entire life of her kitchen flash before her eyes.

No, of course not, Judy mouths back.

It’s enough to convince Jen to rise from the barstool, to intercept Charlie from behind and wrap her arms around his waist, trapping him there. “What the fuck?” he objects—and, Jesus, he’s so tall, she can’t help but think, first, and it weighs heavy in her chest, warm, aching.

Of course, it won’t keep her from pushing him toward the sink, toward Judy. “We really need to get a fucking swear jar,” she says. He’s struggling against her, but not forcibly enough to actually escape, because the only time he can enjoy doing anything with his family is when he’s pretending not to. It’s usually easy enough to blame it all on him being a sixteen-year-old dumbass, but she thinks, suddenly, of all the stupid things she’s given him, of what real inheritance is and how much of it she sees reflected in every spiteful choice she’s ever seen him make.

“Yeah, you’d fucking fill it up in an hour,” he mutters.

“Oh, that’s really the position you want to take? Right now? That’s what you’re sticking to?”

“Yeah,” he says, digging in for no other reason than being challenged on it. “Yeah, it fucking is.”

“Okay, give me that,” Jen says, when they’re close enough that she can grab the sprayer from Judy’s hands—which, no, she had expressly planned on not doing, but that was before. Still, she only squeezes it for a second – just long enough to spray a little bit of water down the back of Charlie’s neck, although he yelps like she’s drowning him in it.

There’s nowhere to go from here but down, which is exactly why Jen hadn’t wanted to start this whole mess in the first place. By the end of it, even Michelle’s not completely dry—though she jokes that behind the bar definitely hadn’t been demarcated clearly enough as still within the splash zone—but it’s somehow Judy who emerges most thoroughly soaked. 

(“Emerges” is a kind word; it takes four attempts between the three of them to make their rise to standing permanent, from where they’ve each found themselves sprawled on the slippery floor. The first involves Charlie stumbling and toppling both Jen and Judy in the process—a mistake that underwrites their second attempt, which Jen spends laughing at him a little too hard to make much of an effort.

Judy’s insistence on offering Jen her hand, making worried noises about her back, is the downfall of their third: Judy lands half sprawled across Jen, but they’re still holding hands. “Shit,” Judy says, wincing, “sorry.” When she moves to extract herself from Jen, she skims a hand across Jen’s thigh, their faces briefly close enough for their noses to brush.

But: “Oh, not a chance, bro,” Jen tells Charlie, who seems to be in the process of walking away and leaving them there; there’s really no other option but to drag him back down with them.

“I hate you guys,” he says, with surprisingly little conviction, and Jen laughs about how dumb he looks, and they spend the next five minutes doing little but laughing against the kitchen cabinets before attempt number four proves a success.)

“Jesus Christ,” Jen says, once they’ve safely returned the sprayer to the sink. “Go get Judy a towel,” she tells Charlie, reaching up to brush some of the wet hair from her friend’s face. “How the hell is it even physically possible that you’re this wet? You could’ve gone for a midnight swim and not come back this wet.”

“She’s right, it’s honestly kind of impressive,” Michelle affirms.

“I mean, I can think of a few other options,” Judy says, quietly, before glancing not at all subtly in Michelle’s general direction.

“Yep, okay, and, trust me, I get how that would normally be my cue, I really do,” Jen says, “but if we don’t clean this up right now, I’ll be paying for a completely new kitchen floor tomorrow morning.”

“No, I would never have left this,” Judy says, earnest and a touch offended. “You have such nice floors.”

Really, Jen should have known better—as soon as Charlie returns with the towel, Judy’s on her hands and knees, using it not on herself but on the stupid fucking floor. “Judy,” Jen says. “Seriously, Judy, that’s for you, not the—give it to me.”

They really do have arguments over the dumbest shit, Jen thinks, not even for the first time that night, and it’s—well, after months and months of arguments about things with consequences that range from prison to murder, it’s still sort of nice.

After much back and forth, Jen agrees to delivering materials (including dry clothes) while Judy, Michelle, and—to his great, great reluctance—Charlie wipe down the kitchen.

“Okay, bedtime,” Jen tells Charlie, gesturing him toward the stairs once they’ve finished. “Get out of here.”

Bedtime?” he asks, dubious. “You know I haven’t had a bedtime since I was a baby, right?”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she says, in a whisper, pausing at the kitchen entrance to point back toward Michelle and Judy, giggling together at the bar like children. (She’s one to talk, tonight.)  “This is something you want to stick around for, buddy?”

“Gross,” he says, turning on heel—and apparently deciding that accepting the escape route he’s been waiting for all night is more important than being such a fucking contrarian. It takes a beat longer than it probably should for Jen to think maybe she should clarify the response with him later—that is, that it’s gross in the way family making out is gross, and not because women making out with each other is gross.

But tonight, she’s tired, and she’ll take it as the win it is. “I’m heading to bed,” Jen says, too loudly. “It was nice seeing you again, Michelle,” she adds, because she’s fucking nice, and because Judy’s smile brightens, just a little.

“Actually, I think it’s about time for me to head out,” Michelle says.

“Are you sure?” Jen asks, because it doesn’t take looking at Judy to feel her rush of disappointment. It’s definitely not Jen’s. (Look—no offense, Michelle.) “You’re welcome to stay.”

“Thank you,” Michelle says, “that’s really generous. But my neighbor’s been committed to a 6:30 start time for his balcony construction for the past week? So that’s committed me to becoming an eighty-year-old. I wasn’t ever a light sleeper, but this … well, it really gives a new meaning to ‘noise complaint.’”

“Probably good that you weren’t a light sleeper, with this one, right?” Jen says, thumbing in Judy’s direction; she doesn’t even know why she’s still talking, hasn’t caught up to a single word spilling out of her mouth. “She really latches on at about two in the morning, just about the time you’re dead fucking asleep, doesn’t she?”

Michelle’s looking at her closely enough to be unsettling. It makes Jen itchy. “I guess she does,” Michelle says, as if it’s something she can almost remember, through a dream—then again, how many nights did they ever even spend together? Maybe she’s never thought about it before. Maybe she never shared a bed with Judy long enough to notice. What Jen knows definitely is that neither of those things have any impact on her life; the only thing that matters is what Judy wants.

Jen’s a little bit relieved to see Judy’s smile come easy when she says, somewhat conspiratorially, “Jen’s a really light sleeper.”

Anyway, you should at least stay long enough to finish off your beer,” Jen says, clearing her throat. Before Michelle can protest further, Jen offers a quick goodnight—but Judy rises to catch her, still in the doorway, as routine has come to dictate.

She hesitates there for just a fraction of a second, long enough that it’s Jen who opens her arms, Judy who steps inside them, squeezes her close. “Goodnight, Judy,” Jen says, and she hears Judy breathe gently out, like maybe there’s stability there, in having the routine at all. (Or maybe that’s just a rare moment of self-awareness from Jen after one too many therapy sessions, and it’s Judy who just really likes hugs.)

“Goodnight,” Judy says, quiet enough for only Jen to hear.

Jen grabs one of her hands as they separate, glances back toward Michelle to add, pointedly, “Have fun.”

She’s already halfway up the stairs when Judy reemerges from the kitchen, calling for her. “I almost forgot—Henry said he wanted more Warriors tonight.”

“Is that the one with the cats?”

“Yes, the cats! But not the cats ones – I think he was really enjoying the bears? Wait, maybe that’s called something else.”

“The cats books, but no cats. Sure, why not,” Jen says.

“Seekers! Seekers?” Judy says. “Pretty sure there’s seeking involved. Also a lot of dying.”

“Oh, wow, you totally cried,” Jen says. “You cried about the bears.”

“Don’t even pretend I didn’t just sit with you through Coco last week.”

“I don’t know how you could possibly see anything I was doing with the rivers coming out of your eyes,” Jen says. “Anyway, it’s a great fucking movie.”

Judy’s right, of course: Henry does want to read the books about the bears. It’s not like it isn’t something he could read on his own, but maybe everyone in the house could go for a little comfort in routine. (Besides, he still likes to hear them do the voices.) It becomes very clear very quickly that Jen’s not the only one this day has taken a toll on; Henry begins nodding off before Jen’s even finished one chapter, although he rallies just long enough to insist on a second, as is tradition. For the record: Jen does not cry about the bears.

Still, it can’t be more than a few minutes after she finally begins settling into her own bed that Judy gently turns the handle of her bedroom door, whispers her name.

“Judy?” she says, unnecessarily. But it’s certainly not the way she saw this night playing out.

And Judy—well, she looks close enough to miserable that Jen immediately pulls back the covers, gestures for her to join. “Hey, what’s gong on?” she continues. “Is it Michelle?”

Judy nods and climbs into bed beside her, while Jen makes a noise of outrage. “Who the fuck does she thinks she is? What the fuck did she say to you?”

“Um,” Judy says, and it comes out trembling. “That I – that I had things I probably needed to work out. She was really nice about it.”

“Wow. That’s really classy. It's not me, it's you,” Jen says. “She’s out of her mind. Look at you – no one else at that whole party would have turned you down, guaranteed.”

The smile Judy offers isn’t insincere, but it is wavering. “She’s not wrong,” Judy admits, pulling the blanket over herself and fiddling with the corner. “I do have …  I have things to work on.”

“Yeah, and so does the pope.” But Judy finally can’t keep from crying: she takes a sharp breath, and Jen pulls her in, cradles her head, runs her fingers through her hair.

“She doesn’t deserve you, okay,” Jen murmurs into Judy’s hair, again and again and again. “She doesn’t deserve you.”

And though it’s not Friday—or sometimes Tuesday—maybe there are exceptions to every routine.

 

*

 

“Keep an eye on your brother, okay?” Jen yells at Charlie’s back as he takes off toward the surf – she’s made the unforgivable error of giving him the surfboard he asked for (“all his friends were doing it,” obviously), and as he carries it under one arm into the waves, she thinks it’s probably Henry she should be asking to keep Charlie alive.

“Why the hell did I ever buy that thing for him?” she asks aloud. 

“Because you’re a very generous mother,” Judy says. “And because he really was doing everything you asked—”

“Like not forming a drug empire in the high school bathroom?” Jen asks. “Yeah, I really know how to set a high bar.”

And he offered to set the table for me, twice in one week.”

“You mean, both the times I told him to take his damn headphones off and ask if you wanted him to set the table?”

“Yes, and he made it sound like he really meant it.”

“God, you’re so fucking soft,” Jen groans.

“You’re the one who bought him a surfboard,” Judy teases. “I mean, what were you thinking?”

Jen laughs, shortly, says, Well, Judy, you’re welcome to go fuck yourself, to which Judy is halfway through an answer about how the beach is just a few shades too voyeuristic for her when they’re interrupted by the sound of Henry’s voice, which startles them both on instinct.

But he’s smiling when Jen spots him standing at the edge of the water, waving for their attention and not because some newly terrible thing has happened, not because there are officers with handcuffs and sharp eyes waiting and ready, not because there is blood running from between her fingers, blood running down the sand, blood darkening the water—

(The nightmares aren’t what they used to be. There are still bad nights.)

“You take this one,” Jen mumbles, waving Judy off, and leaning back pointedly in the beach chair.

And Judy—even still, even now, Jen watches the way her eyes widen just a bit, the slightest tremor at the corner of her mouth, the kind of hesitation borne of uncertainty, of a woman who has a history of making things mean too much.

Jen watches them from a distance, drinking from a very nondescript, very opaque mug what anyone nearby could mistake for coffee; she watches Henry point something out in the sand, watches them share equally wide smiles.

Only much, much later—because of course Judy hasn’t returned, of course she will remain buried knee-deep in mud if Henry so much as looks at her the right way, of course mothering comes to her like some stupid, inborn instinct of the kind every fairy tale demands—when they’re partway through building a sandcastle, does Jen startle at the sound of a voice beside her. 

“She seems like such a wonderful, dedicated mother,” a complete stranger tells her. Jen has to squint into the sun to see the woman—she’s older than Jen, but probably not by more than a decade (a terrifying thought, Jen thinks, before she can help herself), and smiling kindly like lingering to comment on strangers’ families is just a thing people do. God, sometimes she still misses New York.

“Oh, well, thanks, thank you, she is,” she says, smiling a smile that could maybe look a little more fake, but only if she really tried at it. It’s not that she’s wrong, it’s just that Jen didn’t come to the beach for small talk—or moralizing—with invasive weirdos.

“It reminds me so much of raising my youngest,” the woman continues, as if Jen’s invited her into any kind of conversation. “Is she the birth mother?”

At that, Jen nearly chokes on her drink, turning to meet her gaze with utter disbelief. “I’m sorry, and you’re basing that assumption on—what, exactly? ‘Wow, yeah, that stranger can make a mean sandcastle, and that’s a skill you only learn when you’re midway through shoving an entire fucking kid out of your vagina’?” Jen says, hardly interested in clarifying the nature of their relationship to today’s drive-by asshole. “Look out, Nancy Drew! I mean, holy shit.”

“Well, aren’t you touchy,” the woman says, and it’s so steeped in condescension that Jen has to take a slow, slow breath, just manages to keep the oh, lady, you have no fucking clue under her breath.

“Everything okay?” she hears from beside her, and of course it’s Judy, it’s always Judy—Judy with her wide, concerned eyes, looking between them but mostly at Jen. What Jen offers is a vague stabbing motion.

“I only came by to say that you seem like such a wonderful mother,” the woman tells Judy.

“Oh—oh, no, I’m not their—” Judy begins, glancing a little nervously at Jen.

“She is a wonderful mother,” Jen’s already saying, over the sound of Judy’s protests. “She’s a great fucking mom, way more of a natural than I’ve ever been, because there’s no magic in the fucking placenta juice that teaches anyone how to not fuck it all up. And Judy sure as shit didn’t need two months of morning sickness to prove that she can love those kids. It’s just who she is. So does that answer all your questions, or did I leave anything out?”

They’re on the way home when Judy rests a light hand on her thigh, catches her eye. “Thank you,” she says, beneath the sounds of Charlie and Henry having a rousing discussion about (maybe?) superheroes in the backseat. “Everything you said—I mean, I know that you were kind of hoping to antagonize her with all of that, but you still didn’t have to say it. It meant a lot.”

Jen holds Judy’s gaze, bright and full, for just long enough that the light turns green, long enough that there’s a honk from some impatient asshole behind her.

“Yeah, she was fucking awful,” Jen agrees, eyes back on the road when she covers Judy’s hand with hers, intertwines their fingers. “But I didn’t say anything I didn’t mean.”

Even without turning to face her, Jen knows Judy’s looking at her with those eyes—like by articulating this thing that’s been obvious for a long, long time, Jen’s somehow plucked the moon from the sky and offered it to her. Or, worse: like she’s orchestrated—Jen shudders to think—a flash mob in Judy’s honor. “Oh,” Judy says, a little shaky, and Judy squeezes Jen’s hand, and Jen squeezes back.

And it’s okay, Jen decides, if she wants to make this mean everything. It’s okay for the kids to have someone who thinks loving them is the most important thing in the world.

“Alright, who’s up for ice cream?” Jen says, because it’s summer, and it’s a post-beach tradition, and because she wants to hear the overflowing sound of Henry’s unbridled joy.

“Pretty soft,” Judy teases, stretching the first syllable, and Jen scoffs; when she glances over, it’s to find Judy turned mostly toward her, cheek pressed against the headrest, not quite crying, but not quite not crying, either.

“Maybe I just really want some fucking ice cream,” Jen says, brushing her thumb against the back of Judy’s hand, and Judy laughs like she knows it’s a lie.

 

*

 

“You can’t be serious,” Jen hears Charlie say, loudly, from the kitchen. She’s still on her way down the stairs, but it spurs her on—it’s never a good sign to hear Charlie yelling before noon. It’s never a good sign to hear Charlie before noon on a weekend.

She can’t make out the next part of the exchange, but she does recognize the sound of Judy’s voice – steadying, gentle. It’s been good, for everyone—having a parent in the house who won’t rise to meet Charlie’s bait.

“You know I’m going away to college in less than two years, right? And you guys still really think I’m that stupid?”

Jen turns the corner in time to hear Judy say, earnestly: “Of course we don’t. Never. I just had no idea that you thought—” She breaks off when she spots Jen, and when Charlie turns to face her, as well, mouths something that Jen can’t quite make out. Except “fucking.” Definitely “fucking” is involved.

Jen looks between the two of them—Charlie, arms folded across his chest, scowling; Judy, now gesturing between herself and Jen, just on the brink of desperate. “Who’s fucking?” Jen says, aloud.

Charlie rolls his eyes and glances back at Judy, who abruptly drops her hands, stands stock-still, smiles too wide. “You,” Charlie says, sharply, this time directly to Jen. “And of all the things you want to protect me from, this one’s definitely the most bullshit.”

“Okay, you think you maybe want to take a rewind and begin this conversation with me like you’re an actual human and not like some—” When she glances at Judy—who she thinks might now be mouthing a mildly frantic bow chicka wow wow as she continues to gesture between them, it suddenly clicks. “Oh—oh, you—oh, wow, Char, no.”

“Oh, give me a break, Mom,” he says. “You haven’t even had any guy over since Ben. Judy literally lives in your room.”

“Um, first, Judy lives in the guesthouse,” Jen protests. “Which, second, I know that you already know, because you’ve been raiding her stash again.”

Charlie has the audacity to send a wounded look in Judy’s direction, like it’s Judy’s fault that he stole from her—and of course her face immediately melts into something deeply apologetic and totally unwarranted. Before she can say anything, Jen adds, “Hey, uh, dude? Yeah, it’s me, still here, and what you’re not gonna do right now is blame Judy for you being a fucking underage thief. You’re also not gonna yell at Judy—or me—about shit that isn’t true, just because you’ve decided it is, okay?”

“Do you even know how long it took her to realize any of her weed was missing?” Charlie says. “Because she never even uses that one, because she’s never fucking there. I’d bet my whole college tuition that she has one in your room, too.”

“You realize that money you’re betting is coming from every person in this room except you,” Jen points out.

But Judy’s already spinning the conversation back into the shape of something genuine: “I do sleep there, Charlie,” she says, taking a step forward, and pointedly not addressing the variety of bet no one but Charlie would win. “But sometimes I also share with Jen, which is only because—” She glances at Jen, tilts her head, like she’s making a request; Jen thinks maybe she offers a shrug, and then thinks that she really wishes she was drinking. “—well, we both have trouble sleeping, and sometimes it’s just easier when—”

“I ask her to,” Jen says, frankly, aiming for dismissive nonchalance—like ripping off a band-aid, like just another day of exposing the heaviness of her humanity to her kid. Like she’s accepted, somehow, that the cost of her oldest son growing up is seeing all her open wounds on fresh display. (She fucking hasn’t.) “It’s not something I’ve always been … great at, and since – since the accident, it … it’s nice. It’s been … nice,” she finally manages, only meeting Judy’s gaze briefly, maybe accidentally, in the process—just long enough to see those gentle, gentle eyes.

Charlie sighs. “You know it’d make more sense if you were fucking, right? It’s no wonder you can’t find anyone who wants to date you,” he says, like there’s anything left for him to be angry about; he also pointedly ignores the Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize “angry pot thief” was the dating expert credential we were missing that Jen calls after him as he stomps his way up the stairs. I hope you don’t think that’s a conversation we’re done having, she adds, taking a single step forward only for Judy’s hand to rest gently at her elbow, keeping her in place.

“Maybe a little later?” Judy asks, and Jen sighs, accepts the recommendation without pausing long enough to consider anything else. It turns out that maybe not everything has to escalate, all the time—that if everything isn’t always razed to the ground, then everything doesn’t always have to be rebuilt. (And Jen no longer bears the weight of every decision alone. She hasn’t found the words to put to that feeling, at least not ones that don’t feel like she’s carved open her own chest and invited someone in to handle her organs—but how do you express aloud that having someone around who will engage with stupid, mundane questions like what should we do for Henry’s birthday? with thoughtful earnestness still sometimes feels just a breath shy of monumental?)

“I feel like ‘angry pot thief’ could work as a Tinder profile,” Judy adds, once they’re both sitting at the island; Jen throws up her hands as if to protect herself, or maybe to silence Judy, or probably both.

“Judy, I barely even know what that is,” Jen says, “and don’t even think about explaining it to me.”

It’s been a while since the idea of dating even seriously occurred to her—since Ben, she supposes, although that entire premise was such a fucking mess that she’d found herself more consumed by a fun combination of attraction and self-loathing than any realistic concept of how dating him would actually look. It’s just—except for her nonexistent sex life, no worse than the last year of her marriage, it’s not really like there’s any space to fill.

“Maybe you could give it a try,” Judy says, like she’s inside Jen’s brain. “Probably with a different bio, though. Depending on what you’re looking for.”

“I’m not looking for anything,” Jen grumbles. “Closed for business. Off-limits. Trespassers will be fucking prosecuted.”

“—shot,” Judy’s finishing, at the same time, before visibly wincing. “Prosecuted. Definitely prosecuted.” A moment later, she adds, “You’re sure? Because I could help you set something up. There’s not just Tinder, either, there’s also—”

“Not a chance,” Jen says. Her instinct is to immediately reach for the nearest bottle of wine, but she’s been working on this stupid thing where she tries to “set limits,” and there’s still an hour left until 2 p.m. (Jesus, she never said anything about miracles, okay.) Instead, she gestures vaguely in the direction of Charlie’s exit, says, “So that was … weird.” She says weird because it’s easier than trying to explain that she feels like the room hasn’t stopped spinning for several minutes.

“Right?” Judy says. “Super bizarre! I had no idea he’d been thinking any of that—this whole time? So weird.”

“Well, Jesus, you don’t have to make it sound like a total fucking nightmare,” Jen says. “I mean, you’re the one who owns a women-friendly business. If anyone should be allowed to express shock, it should be me.”

“I don’t know if that really makes it any less…” Judy begins, but Jen’s already saying: “I mean, the only time I ever made out with any girls was during Lilith Fair, but everyone was gay at Lilith Fair.” It’s way, way past 2 p.m. somewhere, she thinks.

“That’s true,” Judy says. After a beat, she adds: “But … don’t you think it’s kind of a good thing?” The look Jen directs at her must be an obvious enough combination of confused and skeptical for her to clarify: “He’s angry because he thinks we’ve been hiding something from him, not because he thinks you’re interested in women. That didn’t even come up. I mean, I think that says a lot about him, and … how you’ve been raising him.”

And she’s right. Of course she’s right. Which should probably make Jen feel less like there’s something clawing its way from inside her rib cage, but maybe she’s the homophobic piece of shit. Like her own son assuming she could ever be attracted to women has suddenly unveiled some dark, hideous piece of herself, kept carefully tucked away and out of sight, all this time.

But maybe the whole point is raising kids better than she is, with someone better than she is, and maybe that’ll be doing something right.

“Jen?” Judy asks, softly. “What is it?”

“No,” Jen says, “no, it’s nothing. You’re right, is all. It is – it is a good thing.”

 

 

Hours later, Jen’s heading up the stairs alone when she hears quiet voices from Charlie’s room. And since she’s already walking down the hallway, well—she wasn’t the one who left the bedroom door open, so—

“I’m, uh,” she hears Charlie say, as she nears. “I’m – I’m sorry. About earlier. I just thought …”

“I know,” Judy says. “It’s okay. You thought we were keeping you in the dark. Trust me, I totally get it.”

“Yeah,” Charlie says.

“But is there … is there something else?”

Jen hears him clear his throat, mumble something she can’t make out. And then, finally, just loud enough (and, yes, okay, maybe she strains to hear, sometimes you eavesdrop on your kids and your best friend like an asshole; it’s called being a mom), she makes out: “I guess, just—Mom’ll hate it, when you leave. And … Henry, too. It’s really gonna fuck him up. And I figured, if you were … I guess it’d be a reason to stick around.”

“Charlie,” she hears Judy say, her voice spilling over with all the emotion Jen can’t see. “I have so many reasons to stick around. I can’t think of a single reason not to stick around.”

“Yeah, and what about when you finally start dating someone new? How’s that gonna work? What, everyone’s just gonna move in with us? And don’t you want to have kids, or something? Maybe we can all just start a fucking circus troupe, while we’re at it.”

Jen’s instinct is confrontation—does he have to be an asshole about everything?  Especially when it’s Judy, always drowning in this ocean of uncertainty about what she’s allowed to deserve—but it’s not just Judy’s voice that’s trembling, and maybe, more than that, Jen just wants to tell him how much she loves him.

She stays where she is. Judy says, lightly, “Well, you have been looking for a job, haven’t you?” There’s silence between them for several moments, and Jen’s so unbearably curious she can barely keep herself from looking—but she keeps herself in check, just long enough.

“I’m already gonna be leaving for college,” he says. “I just – I don’t think they should have to lose both of us.”

Jen doesn’t realize she’s crying until she reaches a hand up to wipe away the tears she finds. She doesn’t know how it happened, but by some miracle, she thinks she really does have the best boys in the whole fucking world, after all. “Here's what I know,” Judy says. “As long as everybody in this house wants me here, I’m staying. I don’t know exactly what comes next, but … I’ve never had a family like this one, and I’m not giving it up. I promise.”

There’s a quiet exchange between them that Jen can’t make out, that ends with Judy saying, “I love you. Goodnight. And … at least don’t take so much of it next time, okay? It was, like, super obvious.” 

“Yeah,” Charlie mumbles, just as Judy begins to close the door to his room. “Love you too.”

By the time she emerges into the hallway, Judy is awestruck, starry-eyed, glowing, and when Jen opens her arms, she falls into them like taking a breath.

 

*

 

Jen’s in a hurry, this morning – she’s running behind, her shower was cold, and the coffee she already spilled all over herself required an entire wardrobe change. It’s why she doesn’t explicitly mention the papers she leaves behind for Judy on the island, just marks the places she’ll need to sign before she rushes out the front door.

“Jen, what the hell is going on?” is the first thing she hears when she picks up the phone; Judy’s voice is shaking, and it’s gone high-pitched the way it does when she’s mid-panic.

“What do you mean?” Jen says, genuinely. “Judy, is something wrong? Are the boys okay?”

“I don’t know,” Judy hisses, now in a frantic whisper. “That seems like something you should answer. Why are there adoption papers on the kitchen table?”

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Jen says. “I thought something was actually fucking wrong. Uh, sorry—I was planning to mention it, but this morning’s been …”

“I know,” Judy says, and even now her voice gentles a little at the edges with sympathy. “Hopefully that outfit was okay – you look really good in forest green.”

Only Judy. “Yes, it’s good – and … thank you. I mean, at that point, I would have probably gone for a paper bag.” She pauses, briefly, adds, “But this is definitely not a paper bag,” so she doesn’t come off like a totally ungrateful piece of shit. “I will have to go soon, though—the place is, like, two minutes from here.”

“You still haven’t told me anything,” Judy says, as if suddenly remembering herself. In her version of stern, she adds: “You need to tell me what’s going on.”

“Nothing – Judy, nothing’s going on.”

“Really?” Judy asks. “Because it sure seems like something’s going on. Have you talked to the boys about this? Are you sure they’re really—”

“I talked to them,” Jen confirms. “Henry greeted with the news with a whole dance number, and Charlie even smiled—like a real fucking smile—so you know that’s pretty much the equivalent of a parade through the Laguna streets. Trust me, they’re really.”

“Oh,” Judy says, although it’s so shaky and breathless it’s almost hard for Jen to make out, at first.

“Come on, Judy, of course they’re into it,” Jen says. “They’re fucking crazy about you. Henry won’t even go to sleep if you don’t talk to him before bed, and Charlie let you kiss him on the cheek last week. I don’t know what they’d do without you—I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

“They love you, too,” Judy says, like she thinks Jen needs to hear it. And, well – sure, fine, maybe Jen does, sometimes, on the nights that involve things like one of the kids running out on her to live with fucking Lorna.

But now is not that time, and it’s not cloaked in bravado when she answers, genuinely, “I know they do. They love both of us. That’s kind of the whole point.” When she doesn’t receive an immediate answer, she adds, quickly, “Hey, if this is one of those ‘you’re allowed to say no’ moments, that’s okay too. Okay, Judy? Seriously, this was—one hell of an assumption on my part. Like, ‘surprise, here’s your legal fucking obligation to stick around forever to take care of two boys you never actually chose to have as they leap headfirst into their ‘Walter White apprenticeship’ and ‘realizing you’ve probably fucked them up irreversibly and they’ll spend the next decade hating you for it’ years.’”

Nothing. Still nothing. She checks her phone, just to make sure the call hasn’t dropped. “Judy, I’m gonna need you to just—make a noise. Any kind of noise. I could just about go for a yodel, right now. You get how bad that is.”

Instead, what she hears is desperate, heavy, wracking sobs. “Shit, Judy. Judy, Judy—I can come home. I’m turning around right now. Fuck this asshole, anyway, he spent thirty minutes trying to explain the local housing market to me, he doesn’t deserve this beachfront palace—”

“No,” she thinks she hears Judy say, although it’s difficult to make out between all the sniffling. There’s another breath on the other end. “No, go. I’m good—I’m really, really good.” Every syllable wobbles around the edges, so Jen isn’t completely convinced—but she’s also heard insincerity from Judy before, and it doesn’t usually sound like this.

“Okay, because right now it sounds a little bit like I might come home tonight to find a lake where our house used to be,” Jen says.

“Sorry, I’m sorry,” Judy says (it’s a long, long process, but Jen figures she can give this one a pass). “Do you mean it?”

“Which part?” Jen says, breathing out a laugh. “The part where you get to be stuck raising two sons with anger management issues that for sure have nothing to do with their totally unflappable, extremely chill birth mother?”

“You’re such a good mom,” Judy says, softly. Jen only has time to fit in a scoff—and, really, there’s so much to say, among them such high points as “scaring the shit out of her children,” “decking her husband in his last hour alive,” and then, of course, “literal murder”—before Judy adds, “’Forever.’ You said … forever.”

It takes Jen another moment to even recall the context, leaving a beat between them before she says, “Well, uh, there’s no end date to the adoption, if that’s what you’re asking. And I won’t have them … they can’t lose another parent. Not after all of this.”

Jen decides against pointing out that leaving now would still fall well within that category. That it’s a few years too late for this shit not to matter, legal mother or not. That she was there, wasn’t she, when Charlie begged her not to leave, in his own dickish teenage way?

But if she said that, Judy would never fucking go, no matter what she actually wanted, and Jen might be a piece of shit, but not that kind. Not about her best friend, who can’t seem to figure out how to stop surrendering pieces of herself to every asshole who walks into her life and requests another slice.

“Yes,” Judy says. “Yes, of course. Jen, of course.” She falters again, and Jen can hear the trembling breath she takes through the phone. “I’d be honored.”

“Okay, no, you can’t say that until you get a call from some administrator telling you your son’s joined the mafia and you missed all the signs,” Jen points out, although this only seems to lead to significantly more sniffling on the other end of the line. Of course, the truth is that Judy’s taken all kinds of calls about Charlie and Henry, already—she’s the second emergency contact on just about every form Jen’s ever filled out, and she’s dropped her whole life way more than a handful of times to swoop in to take care of a sick kid, even once spent an entire day stumbling through video games with Charlie. (“I didn’t even know someone could be that bad,” Charlie informed the table, over dinner, while Judy beamed, and beamed, and beamed beside him.)

“As long as it’s not the Greek mafia,” Judy says, and Jen snorts.

“Yeah, why don’t we just give him a heads up?” Jen says. “Follow your heart, sweetie, and if your heart leads you to the mob, just make sure they speak Italian first.”

“You know, he’d probably be great at it,” Judy says. “He’s really smart.”

“The way he keeps getting caught, he’d end up in jail in less than a week.”

“He has time to grow into it,” Judy says, and Jen just smiles, a little, into the phone, because it’s all so stupid, and because Judy’s been parenting her kids for years, and because she wants to stay.

It makes how much Jen wants her there—this constant, looming feeling that she mostly only sees in her periphery, too vast and too unwieldy to ever look at directly—feel less like it might overwhelm her completely.

They spend another few minutes talking about nothing before Judy says: “Wait, weren’t you supposed to be there already?”

“Fuck that mansplaining douchenozzle,” Jen says—Jen, who’s been parked for well over five minutes, sipping coffee from the mug Judy refilled, like she has all the time in the world. “He can wait.”

 

*

 

Jen’s spent at least the last six months trying very, very hard not to think about Charlie living the next four years of his life on the other side of the country—which changes nothing about the fact that today marks exactly three weeks before his move-in date.

(“He’s only been to New York twice, and that was for a few fucking days—I mean, the kid’s never had to fend for himself. And forget life skills—it’s not like he got his ability to cook from his dad. Sure, he’s capable of operating a washer and dryer, but he’s used public transportation maybe three times his whole life. Jesus Christ, I raised such a California dickwad,” she’d been ranting the night before, partway through (rather violently) scrubbing off her makeup—though she’d emerged from the bathroom so many times to continue aggressively expressing her concerns that it had been at least twenty minutes since she began the process.

And Judy, leaning against the headboard, already buried beneath the covers, had said, “I’m gonna miss him, too.”)

It also doesn’t change the fact that Charlie’s made a habit, lately, of leveraging this in favor of things he wants to do. Tonight has been a rousing success on that front, because—

“Where the fuck did that shell come from? Was it that mushroom piece of shit? Because, oh, motherfucker, I will take you down, you just messed with the wrong bitch,” Jen’s saying, smashing a series of buttons in a pattern she doesn’t fully understand, although so far it’s been enough to get into fifth place.

Or, it had been—now she’s stuck in a heated race for sixth.

(Judy’s crashing repeatedly into walls back in eighth.)

“Okay, Mom,” Charlie says. “It’s not like you got knocked out of first. Maybe don’t break the fucking controller over fifth.”

“She’s not gonna break the controller,” Judy says, from beside her, reaching over to lay a hand on Jen’s knee—which, to be fair, does little to decrease the effectiveness of her current racing strategy.

“I bought this fucking controller, I’ll do whatever the fuck I want with it,” she says, even as she loosens her grip on it; Judy’s thumb brushes fleetingly along her thigh, like she can tell. (She probably fucking can.)

“Don’t worry, you’ve got a whole other course to go,” Charlie says, and even she can’t pretend the sarcasm it’s drenched in isn’t familiar. “A whole other chance to reach that fifth place prize.”

In the end, Jen does score fifth—and Henry makes it to first, just under the wire, leaving Charlie in second.

“Look at you!” Judy says, offering Henry a high five he exuberantly takes her up on. She doesn’t know much longer they’ll have him, like this—he’s nearing fourteen, now, and high school fast approaches, but somehow he still smiles at them like he means it.

“Next time, you’re going down,” Charlie tells him, but Jen’s just watching his face, watching the smile he almost keeps to himself about a game he almost certainly threw away.

Judy volunteers to make up some snacks for the next round, and Henry rushes to join her; in the space they leave behind, Jen wraps an arm around Charlie’s shoulders and says, You’re a good kid. He doesn’t even protest being called a kid, just shrugs and loops an unexpected arm around her waist, like maybe it’s not just being an asshole they have in common.

Like maybe she’s not the only one who’s scared out of her mind.

 

 

For all that it’s taken to get them to this point, the suddenness of it being nearly over makes Jen feel a little like her entire chest is caving in: she examines the unpacked dorm, has to sit down on the edge of the stupidly tiny bed and take a long, slow, therapist-sanctioned breath to combat the rush of dizziness that nearly buckles her knees.

The opposite side of the room—Eli’s, the kid Charlie’s about to spend the next year of his life with—is actually impressively well-organized, though whether that’s the sole influence of his parents is a question that can only be answered with time. He’s kind of an eerily nice kid, from everything Jen’s seen—full-on tucked-in shirts and introductory handshakes included—but maybe that’ll make him a good influence for Charlie.

Better still—his parents are locals, and Jen’s already collected that for future use. (“Score!” Judy had whispered, nudging her, grinning. “Point of contact achieved.”)

Jen smooths the comforter beneath her, looks up only when she hears Henry’s familiar laughter through the propped-open door. And there they are: Charlie, Henry, Eli, hands full with lunch, looking for all the world like this day isn’t about to change everything.

“Where’s Judy?” Jen asks, peering around them.

“Flirting with some mom in the hallway,” Charlie snorts, dropping onto the floor; the others join him, setting up a kind of makeshift picnic, which would be endearing if not for—

Seriously?” Jen says, rolling her eyes, and immediately emerging into the hallway—though not before colliding loudly and painfully with the top bunk on her way out, which resulted in an aggressive series of expletives she couldn’t even pretend the boys weren’t already intimately familiar with. (Sorry, Eli.)

Sure enough, Judy’s standing in the hallway just a few doors down, engaged in conversation with some lady who looks like she’s been cut directly out of a 1950s cooking magazine, and who’s also touched Judy’s shoulder about eighteen times in the ten seconds since Jen started watching.

“Judy?” she calls, making her approach; they both turn to look at her, but she hardly spares a glance for the stranger. “Our son wants to spend some time with you before we get out of here,” she says, casually, like she’s not at all making a point of leaning into an assumption that she expects this woman to make. Like she doesn’t reach for Judy’s hand in case she’s paying as little attention to Jen as is true in the reverse.

“Well, it looks like I should … but it was lovely to talk to you,” Judy tells her, earnestly, though not before directing a fleeting, concerned look toward Jen. “I hope Alex has a wonderful year! I’m sure he’ll do amazing.”

It occurs to Jen that the thing she’s feeling about the vaguely stricken look on the woman’s face is smug, which Jen would probably use as a moment of reflection, if she were a better person.

“Charlie just saw me,” Judy says, though she doesn’t protest being led back down the hallway, doesn’t pull away. “He and Eli were having a great time. What’s going on?”

“You really wanted to keep chatting with Stepford Wife #3? Over spending the last hour we’re here with our kid?” It’s less than a second after the words have come out of her mouth—not even enough to fully process the effect they’re having on Judy’s face—before she cringes, visibly. “Nope. Shit. I didn’t mean that. That was a stupid thing to say. I’m sorry.” Another breath, slow. Slow. “What I’m trying to say is … I’m way too sober for this, but having you here makes everything feel less …” She gestures, vaguely, with her hands, as if indicating the grand, suffocating scope of this single, life-changing moment.

“Impossible,” Judy offers, pressing a hand to Jen’s cheek as they pause in the hallway, just before they’ve reached Charlie’s door.

Jen wraps her arms around Judy, and Judy clutches back like it’s something maybe they both need. When Jen opens her eyes again, she finds the lady’s still standing in the hallway, now with someone Jen presumes is her son. (And if Jen briefly considers flipping her off—well, she doesn’t, which is a considerable fucking display of impulse control she deserves credit for.)

Jen doesn’t cry when they say goodbye at Charlie’s door—she doesn’t cry again until much, much later, when they’re back in the hotel room, when there’s only Judy there to hear it, to hold her through it—but Judy sniffles into Charlie’s neck and runs her fingers through his hair, which he puts up with for a solid five seconds. It’s one of Judy’s more impressive feats.

“No selling drugs,” Jen says, once she’s sent Henry out the door. “Always have a designated driver. Study. Wear a condom. Always get an enthusiastic ‘yes’.”

“Mom,” Charlie groans, as Eli chuckles in the background.

Very enthusiastic,” Judy agrees. “And be sure to set expectations. It’s never a good idea to make assumptions about things someone hasn’t actually said.”

“Just—don’t be an asshole,” Jen says. “And if you tell a single girl she’s ‘being hysterical’ because you decide to throw away my wisdom in favor of being an asshole, I will fly the three thousand miles to get here, and you will be real fucking unhappy to see me.”

“But college is a time to, you know – explore yourself. Learn about how you want to, like, move through the world. You should enjoy it,” Judy encourages.

“Enjoy it safely,” Jen adds. “With minimal illegal shit. I’m not paying several shitloads of money for you to just spend years of your life fucking around.”

“But a little fucking around is okay,” Jen hears Judy whisper, on their way out; she turns back around to see Judy holding up her thumb and forefinger, offering a wink.

“Judy, seriously, what kind of teenager needs encouragement to party in college?”

“I never said party,” Judy says. “You said party. Maybe I just meant exploring the wonderful possibilities of making love with someone who you really—”

“Not another word,” Jen says, covering her mouth. “We’re leaving!”

“Fucking finally,” he mumbles, flushed pink – which Jen takes as a rousing success. What legacy would they be leaving behind as mothers if not the deep and abiding embarrassment of their teenage son?

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Jen asks. “What did you say? You want us to stick around for a sleepover? Maybe all cuddle up in your two-foot wide bed?”

“Pretty sure you guys already have that covered,” he grumbles, quietly enough that it takes Jen a moment to decipher it. At which point he’s already saying, before she can call him on it: “I’ll call you guys, okay?”

Judy wraps him up in one final hug, and Jen joins a moment later; she feels him sigh into surrender. When they release him, Judy’s crying again, a little. “You better believe it,” Jen says, pointedly, and that’s it.

Somehow, that’s it—a closed door behind them, Henry between them, and one more night in New York ahead of them. And then home.

 

 

Judy has, of course, spent the entire trip exploring every single tourist trap the city has to offer; it’s more family selfies taken in less than a week than Jen can remember taking cumulatively the boys’ entire lives. (Judy’s been, apparently, “establishing a presence on Instagram.” Wherever the fuck she heard that from, and whatever the fuck it means. Jen’s only question had been Can we use it to spy on Charlie? but that had devolved into a truly baffling conversation centered on the word “finsta” that, honestly, Jen’s still pretty sure even Judy didn’t understand.)

But their last evening, just the three of them, is a more low-key affair; they’ve spent most of it wandering through Central Park, Judy and Henry (loudly) serenading each other with Hamilton several paces ahead of Jen, which they’ve been doing virtually nonstop since Tuesday’s Broadway excursion.

Yes, seriously.

“I don’t know,” Judy says, and Jen startles, realizing she’s stopped directly in front of Jen; indeed, she’s so close that Jen grabs for her arm, steadying herself reflexively, “you don’t look like much of a tough Brooklyn girl now.”

“Fuck off,” Jen says, glancing around to find Henry’s split off to snap photos of a couple birds in a nearby tree. “You don’t see me serenading everyone out here minding their own business with songs that were popular seven years ago.” 

“Not yet,” Judy acknowledges, provoking a disbelieving combination of scoff and laugh from Jen, “but you seem pretty happy about watching it. Also, I’ve seen you deliver an excellent George Washington.”

“Drunk,” Jen points out, automatically, because only now that Judy has pointed it out does it occur to her that she is smiling, and now she can’t seem to notice anything else. If it looks even half as stupid as it feels, she’s sure it’s pretty fucking embarrassing. “That doesn’t even count.”

Maybe it’s the stress of the day. Maybe after spending most of the morning trying to deal with her oldest living three thousand miles from her doorstep, this is exactly the dumb thing she needed—Judy and Henry, feeding off of each other’s energy, spinning around and around together in some impression of a dance. Judy, who has spent more hours than Jen can measure practicing harmonies with Henry, diligently taking all of his notes.

“Mmm, if I have the video on my phone,” Judy says, triumphantly, “I think it probably counts.”

“I do know where you keep your phone at night,” Jen points out.

“Um, yeah,” Judy says, “but you’re gonna have to get my face if you want to unlock it.”

“You’re the one who always wants to cuddle at two o’clock in the fucking morning,” Jen says, reaching to cup both of Judy’s cheeks. “All I have to do is wait.” She releases her again as she adds, “I mean, I can’t seem to get away from your face, so I don’t see that being the issue.”

She’s pretty sure this conversation stopped making sense almost before it started—but Judy’s grinning like she knows one too many things about Jen, in this way that makes things feel easy instead of complicated.

“Oh, okay, so I guess we’re just not gonna talk about how sometimes you—”

“Nope,” Jen says, already sidestepping her to continue down the path, heading directly for Henry.

“You mean, you’re saying there aren’t nights when you can’t fall asleep until—”

“Absolutely not,” she calls back.

“—you just, like, bury your entire face right in my neck, and I wrap you up in my arms—”

“All I’m getting is the sound of you begging for a defamation suit.”

“Honestly, Jen, you shouldn’t be embarrassed,” Judy says, tracing Jen’s steps. Always within reach. “It’s actually really adorable. Sometimes in the middle of the night you even—”

“Henry! There you are,” Jen says, waving him over. “Get some good photos? Ready to go?”

“You know you can’t hide behind our son forever,” Judy whispers, teasing, and Jen watches her smile brighten a little around the words, even now; Jen thinks suddenly of the day after the adoption was finalized, of Judy fitting those two words into every conversation Jen watched her have. Which probably didn’t advance any accurate understanding of their relationship, but Jen cared about that just about as much as she ever had.

No: what mattered was Judy maybe finally believing the thing that had been true long before it was scrawled across a piece of paper. What mattered was the way Judy had buried her face into Jen’s shoulder and thanked her so many times the words began to run together into little more than unintelligible sounds. (Like Judy hadn’t done this all herself, like Judy wasn’t exactly the kind of mom everyone who had ever gifted a World’s Greatest Mom mug pretended for a day their mom could be.)

What mattered was Henry’s history teacher asking Judy who she was, and Judy pronouncing the words I’m Henry’s mom without stumbling, without explanation.

Jen knows this vision of family never fit the contours of Judy’s dreams—but maybe that doesn’t have to matter, when it’s still this good.

“Oh yes I can,” Jen says. “I changed his diapers. The kid owes me.”

It takes the rest of the day and half the night for "Helpless" to no longer be stuck in her head.

 

 

They’ve already spent three and a half hours at the airport—delays on top of delays, because why wouldn’t there be?—when Jen decides to take Henry on a hunt for something that resembles actual food. (Although what Jen needs most is at least three more cups of coffee, preferably injected directly into her body.)

The lines are outrageous, but it’s not like their time is better spent anywhere else—and a quick text to Judy confirms nothing’s changed.

They’re nearly at the register when Judy stops texting her back altogether, which is … weird. Not that their exchange had been over anything important (although the last text she sent was a picture of Henry in some kind of “tick-tock” pose Jen still doesn’t understand, and Judy willfully ignoring that seems unlikely), but it’s not like there are a lot of options in the middle of the airport that aren’t texting Jen, so—

Then again, it’s Judy. “Not a lot of options” still includes engaging with whatever weirdo might have taken the seat next to hers.

And, as they make the trek back, it turns out she’s kind of right—several feet from their bags is Judy, being chatted up by some middle-aged douche in a full-on fucking suit, who Jen hates from his outline alone. She hates him even more as she nears, and finds that she recognizes Judy’s body language—the smile she doesn’t mean, the way she’s clutching at her own hand.

“Hey, Boop?” she says. “Would you mind just keeping an eye on our stuff for a minute? I’ll be right there.”

Given she doesn’t know exactly how this confrontation might end, she suspects no mothering book has ever included advice on punching a guy out in front of your young teenage son. And, God, she’s dying to punch him out.

Instead, she makes her approach casual: “Hi, honey,” she says, pointedly, wrapping an arm around Judy’s waist and handing her one of the coffees. “This asshole bothering you?”

On top of having the smile of a total fucking sleazeball, he’s also, clearly, a moron. The one time Jen needs someone to assume the wrong thing about them, and what she gets is—

“Oh, no, not at all,” he says, “your charming friend and I were having a lovely conversation.”

“Seriously?” Jen says, looking between them. “What, you need the signs to kick you in the ass before you’ll get a single fucking clue? Because, trust me, that can be arranged. I’ve got a couple free feet right here, just say the word.”

“Listen, I think you’ve misread this whole situation—” he begins.

Jesus Christ,” Jen mutters, glancing back at Henry to make sure he isn’t watching. When it’s clear he has almost no perspective on them, she breathes, Trust me? low enough that only Judy can hear it, pauses just long enough to see Judy nod—and then leans in to kiss her soundly. It lasts only long enough to prove a point—the fucker does not deserve a show, gross—but it’s not a peck, either, and that much is clear from the time Judy has to reach out a hand to brush the side of Jen’s neck with gentle fingers.

“You think you can fill in the blanks now?” Jen says, tugging Judy with her before he can formulate a response.

“Okay, they had to have made him in a laboratory somewhere, right?” Jen says, on their way back to Henry, and Judy smiles, a little distantly. “That haircut alone. I mean, don’t get me wrong, Ted went through some phases, but that outperforms even his bowl cut.” The lack of response from Judy becomes a little worrying as they settle beside Henry, and Jen flashes her a look of concern—there’s no way that—she couldn’t possibly have misread—

“You didn’t—you didn’t want to talk to him, right?”

“No. God, no,” Judy says, with enough conviction that Jen thinks maybe her own relief is actually palpable. “You’re right. He really sucked.”

They have little time to get into it; Henry’s serving the food, and it’s looking like their boarding time may actually be approaching. If they’re lucky.

(Jen takes a sip of her coffee and thinks, inexplicably, of the feather-light brush of fingertips, and of the tiny noise Judy made in the back of her throat in the same moment she realized what was happening.)

Somehow, it doesn’t really hit Jen until they’re all seated on the plane that she’s fucking stupid. That she overstepped. That just because she thought it’d be an easy win doesn’t mean Judy wants Jen to just—to fucking accost her—

Fuck. Fuck. Fuckshitfuck. Shit.

Henry’s claimed the window seat, Judy the middle—again—in spite of Jen’s protests that she didn’t have to, that she’d be fine to swap this time. (“No way. I’m surrounded by two of my favorite people,” she says, which is one of the only normal things she’s said to Jen since they boarded, and that in itself is enough to shut her up.) 

At least Judy’s still being normal with Henry, Jen thinks. She’ll broach the subject—apologize, obviously—when they land, but the idea of having a meaningful conversation on an airplane, where at least fifteen people can you hear at all times, makes Jen queasy.

“Oh, that one’s cute!” Judy’s saying, peering over Henry’s shoulder at the Switch Charlie left behind for him. (Yeah! Seriously!) “Is that one your favorite?”

Henry seems to consider this very, very seriously, for several long moments. “I think it’d have to be in the top fifteen,” he says.

Though Jen brought along her laptop, she begins the trip mostly ignoring unread emails in favor of just watching the two of them—admiring Judy’s ability to dig into an endless well of enthusiasm about literally any of the hobbies the kids pursue. For the first couple hours, everything’s fine.

Around hour two, the plane hits its first bump.

Here’s the thing about Jen: she’s never loved planes—really, who does?—but they’re fine. They’re mostly fine. They’re fine until they run into “rough patches,” and suddenly all Jen can think is that karma better be exactly as bullshit as she always says, because this seems like an unnecessarily high stakes way to test that theory.

By the time the seatbelt lights reappear, Jen’s white-knuckling the armrest.

“Don’t worry,” she hears Judy tell Henry—and thank God, because Jen’s pretty sure she could not muster that level of conviction about anything right now. “It’s kind of like a roller coaster, right?”

“I’m not worried,” he says, returning to the game—like Jen needed a reminder that her thirteen-year-old son is ten times as brave as she’s ever been.

“Fuck,” Jen breathes, almost without realizing it, startled by another sharp jolt. When Judy looks at her, it’s the first time she’s really turned to face her the entire flight.

“Jen?” she says, quietly. And then, “Hey. I’ve got you.” She wraps her hand around Jen’s, and Jen holds on probably way too tight, the way her jaw is too tight, the way her chest feels too tight.

“That’s only comforting if you’re about to reveal you’re also secretly Supergirl,” Jen says, finally.

“Shit,” Judy says. “What gave it away?”

“You have to be an alien to be that nice all the time,” Jen says, and Judy strokes her thumb across the back of Jen’s hand.

Jen feels her grip on Judy’s hand tighten, suddenly, when they lurch. “Do you want your … meditation tapes?” Judy asks.

She’s already reaching to grab Jen’s phone from her bag, and while Jen accepts it, she says, “Would you actually – could you just keep …” She nods toward Henry, toward the easiness of their earlier exchanges.

It’s like watching Judy’s entire body go soft, from her eyes to her shoulders to the slope of her mouth. “Okay,” she says. “Of course.” With that, she turns back to face Henry, resuming their previous conversation about Henry’s favorite “types,” whatever that means, only she never lets go of Jen’s hand.

It’s not until some time later – Henry’s pulled on headphones, though he’s still playing the game, and the plane’s rattling has improved, at least, but still not enough for anyone to give her a new glass of shitty wine that she could have used about an hour ago – that Jen says, abruptly, “I’m sorry.”

Judy sends her an utterly baffled look. “Sorry for what?” she says.

Jen drops her voice so low Judy has to lean all the way across their shared armrest to hear her properly. Which is exactly the goal, because fuck the rest of these eavesdroppers. “I shouldn’t have – at the airport, it was stupid,” she explains. “I should have just punched him in the face.”

“Your version was less likely to get you taken into custody,” Judy says, just a little too brightly. And Jen’s sort of a little proud of Judy, for not telling her it’s okay, and more than a little terrified. “Which is probably a good thing.”

“This doesn’t mean I’ll be … springing surprise makeouts on you every time we leave the house now, I promise,” Jen says, too loudly, with the cadence of someone making a joke and none of the humor. The smile that stretches across her face is like an impression of happiness devised by an alien race, with little sense of the practice; she drops it almost immediately.

Judy’s suddenly not looking at her, and that’s—really, really not a good sign. “Judy,” she says, and though she’s remembered to bring it again to a whisper, even she can hear the way it edges toward frantic. “Never again. Seriously.” A pause. “I know I’m an asshole, but if you could say something to me before we crash, that would be great.”

“We’re not gonna crash,” Judy says, squeezing Jen’s forearm, and—Jen knows it makes her a shitty person, that she barely even regrets knowing exactly how to exploit Judy’s kindness, if it means not being shut out.

“Why, because we’re aligned with Mars?”

“It’s just statistically very unlikely,” Judy says. “Did you know you’re actually more likely to get hit by a meteorite? Or become a nudist.”

“Honestly, Judy, that’s not as comforting as you think it is,” Jen says. “I really don’t feel like it’d take much to convince you to dabble.”

“Okay, that happened once,” Judy says. “And it was only my shirt that came off, and I was very high.”

“Oh, I remember,” Jen says.  “That was the day you broke my lamp. And it was a dress, not a shirt.”

“Oh, right. The black one, right, with the—”

“Sunflowers,” they both say, before Judy adds: “I like that dress.”

“Not as much as you seemed to like it on the bedroom floor,” Jen says, pauses. “…okay, Jude, that one you can have for free.”

But instead of taking up the joke so magnanimously offered, Judy says, suddenly: “I want you to.” It’s quiet and a little bit pained, brows pulled together into an expression veering perilously close to desperate—none of which succeeds in making the statement any more decipherable to Jen, but all of which succeeds in making her really fucking antsy.

“What does that mean?” Jen asks, maybe a little sharper than she should—but seriously, who the fuck makes mysterious, terrible confessions mid cross-country flight? “You want me to what?”

“I want you to do it,” Judy says, voice low—though she hasn’t looked away from Jen once. “I want you to do it again.” And then, “I’m sorry.”

“Okay, I really have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about, so if you’re gonna drop some new bombshell on me fifty thousand feet above Nebraska, you could at least finish the job,” Jen says.

“I think they said closer to thirty-five,” Judy says, distantly.

“Judy.”

She watches Judy glance back at Henry, which is a fun new way to frazzle all of Jen’s already well-frayed nerves. She watches Judy lean all the way into her, so that even if Henry were not listening to his headphones, he’d be unlikely to distinguish it. “I want you to kiss me,” she says, a little bit frantically. “Again.”

“What?” Jen says, not a single part of her having caught up fast enough to a reveal that was nowhere in the vicinity of anything she’d been expecting. Arson, maybe. But this—

This is—

“Um, I think what I said was,” Judy begins, although her voice has suddenly gone up about two octaves, and the volume is no longer near a whisper, and Jen quickly covers Judy’s mouth before she can scream any of their dirty laundry to rows of waiting spectators. Seriously? she mouths, gesturing with her free hand toward Henry, then toward the surrounding passengers, a little wildly.

“I think I said…” Judy barrels on, breathing it against Jen’s palm. “I said—um, is it really warm in here? It feels, like, maybe unseasonably warm—not that airplanes have seasons, but maybe the air conditioning is broken? Do you think maybe we should get someone’s attention? I think I see one of the flight attendants heading this way—”

Judy honest to god looks like she’s halfway to raising her fucking hand when Jen says, again, sharply, “Judy.” But maybe that’s her own mistake, because the silence between them abruptly fills the space for a beat too long, and it’s enough time for her brain and Judy’s confession to finally met in the middle, enough time to—

“No,” Jen says. “Nope.”

Judy recoils a little bit, and Jen watches her swallow, which is just about the time she realizes— “No, I didn’t mean … I mean, no, Judy, absolutely not. Jesus Christ. I am not having a fucking midlife sexuality crisis thirty-five thousand feet in the air. It’s not happening. No.”

I’m having the fucking crisis!” Judy says, luckily muffled by Jen’s hand. “Wait, you’re having a crisis?”

“No,” Jen hisses. “Oh, no, I am not having any kind of crisis here, with an audience of hundreds of strangers and our thirteen-year-old son. I am going to focus on making it to the other side of this in one piece, okay? That is … more than enough to worry about for one evening.”

“Okay,” Judy says. Pauses. Then, “But, just to be clear, in the hypothetical where we’re having the grounded version of this conversation, you’re having a sexuality crisis?”

“I don’t know, Judy,” Jen says, sharp and quiet and frenetic—and she thinks about Judy, smiling wide as she catches Jen stealing a bite of the cheesecake she swore she shouldn’t have off Judy’s plate; she thinks about Judy, mouthing Wow over Charlie’s shoulder, the first time he’d let her really hug him; she thinks about Judy’s first parent-teacher night, thinks about Judy reaching for her hand over the sound of Mrs. Reyes’ praise, thinks about what it means that all it takes is turning her head to find someone who cares that Henry scored higher on his math test than anyone else in the class. “Maybe!”

Judy’s quiet, again, this time for so long that Jen finally pulls her hand away—but she’s still looking at Jen, like she’s trying to peer all the way down into her, and Jen does not have the capacity to hold all of this at once, not when—

“Okay, can you please just,” Jen says, gesturing wildly in the direction of Judy’s face, “stop doing that.”

“What?” Judy asks, confused.

“With your face. Just—take it somewhere else,” Jen says, shoving slightly at her cheek. “Go talk to Henry. Take him to … work out in a gym, or whatever.”

“Work out? Where would he go to work out in the middle of a—oh! I think he battles in gyms. No one works out in them. Well, I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to make broad assumptions, maybe some of them—”

“Jude,” Jen says. “We are not even in the same universe right now.” She waves her away, turning to stare pointedly forward.

Somehow that’s not quite enough to miss Judy’s smile, which comes sudden and bright, before it turns just a little sly. “Are you calling my face a distraction?” she whispers, playful.

“Nothing I said sounded like that,” Jen says, like she can think about anything that isn’t the sound that Judy made when Jen—when they’d—

“Is this a distraction?” Judy says, and when Jen huffs, and turns, she finds her making a goofy, cross-eyed face that used to make Henry laugh. The laugh Jen exhales, now, takes her a little by surprise; Judy’s smile turns abruptly warm in answer.

“So I’m just not allowed to look at you for the entire rest of the trip?” Judy asks, after a moment.

“Jesus, it’s, like, two hours,” Jen says. “And it’s not like you were looking at me for the first two hours. And then, when you—seriously, I thought you were about to tell me you committed arson back in the city.”

Arson?”

“Oh, come on, you can’t tell me you aren’t a walking fire hazard—all the incense, and the candles, and the joints, and the—” She swats at the air for a few moments, in the barest impression of something she only vaguely understands as a cleansing.

“Oh!” Judy says. “Sage. By the way, I really think we should organize a charades night. No one would stand a chance against us.”

“Okay, here’s one,” Jen says, and promptly flips her off.

“I really think you’re wasting our potential,” Judy says, with utter sincerity. The whole situation is fucking ludicrous—Jen’s pretty sure maybe five minutes have passed since her best friend-slash-mother to her children-slash-criminal accomplice said she wanted to kiss her, and then there’s the fact that if Jen thinks about it for a moment too long, she’s still not totally convinced they won’t be hurtling to their deaths any minute.

Leave it to Judy to push through anything. Leave it to Judy to guide her gently into the kind of conversation whose rhythm she knows by heart.

Jen must have paused long enough for Judy to add, “Anyway, I don’t know when you think I would have had time for arson,” as if, in the end, that’s the part of the scenario that deserves to be quibbled over. (She might have a point.)

“I don’t know,” Jen says, “how about all the times you went running off to flirt with strangers?”

There’s a long moment of silence that stretches agonizingly between them, before:

“Hold on,” Judy says, and Jen watches her eyes widen, watches the realization unfold slowly, mortifyingly across Judy’s face, the perfect complement to the way it had taken speaking the words for Jen to hear them. “Are you—”

“Fuck you,” Jen says. “And by the way, your taste is for shit.”

“I didn’t realize there was another option!” Judy protests, and Jen shushes her noisily. “I wouldn’t have been flirting with Cindy-Lou.”

“No,” Jen says. “That is not her name.”

“Oh yes it is.”

“What the fuck?” Jen says, and the laughter comes unbidden, uncontrollable—and only a little hysterical. “So what was your plan, to get married in Whoville?”

“Jen, we talked for five minutes,” Judy says, smile playful. “Marriage plans require at least a thirty-minute conversation.”

“I knew you were flirting with her,” Jen says, pointing an accusatory finger. With her voice pitched into a whine that could not sound less like real Judy, she mimics, “We’re just talking about our kids.

“We were,” Judy argues. “I’m a pretty good multitasker.”

The thing about the rest of the flight is that it’s normal: Judy shares Henry’s headphones, asks attentive questions about his games—and glances over at Jen every few minutes, which Jen suspects at first might be an intentional mockery of Jen’s request that she keep her face out of Jen’s line of sight. But the small smiles she offers Jen whenever they make eye contact never match the pattern of a joke, and when Jen moves to stand in the aisle to spend just a minute or two stretching, she watches a flicker of concern melt immediately into relief as Judy spots her.

The first thing she wonders is where the fuck Judy thinks she’s gonna go—whether she envisions Jen making a break for the nearest emergency exit when she’s had a hard enough time just sitting in one stupid, rattling seat that isn’t falling through the sky.

But it’s the second thing she thinks—it so often is; it’s sometimes just a matter of keeping her mouth shut long enough to get there—that she suspects has more actual resonance: that it’s a lot less literal than that. That Judy has cracked something open between them, and named it, and it could make everything different.

Judy, scooping her heart out of her chest and placing it in Jen’s hands to await judgment, like it’s just another Tuesday.

When Jen returns to her seat, she leaves a hand on Judy’s thigh; Judy must take it as the reminder Jen means it to be, because she spends little of the remaining flight seeking her out, and when Jen closes her eyes it’s to the sound of her own meditation playlist—Think of one word to change the world/And now put it into action/Fuck!—and the light brush of Judy’s fingertips across her knuckles.

 

 

Henry’s dragging by the time they land, listing a little against Judy in a way that suggests he’s maybe just woken up; it reminds Jen how young he used to be, when she would wrap him up in her arms and he’d fall asleep against her chest, even sometimes when he got a little too heavy for it, even sometimes when her arms almost gave out. It had never been easy to tell Henry no.

Now, Judy sweeps some of the hair from his eyes, wraps an arm around his shoulders, guides him gently into the aisle.

They don’t separate until they reach the bathrooms; it’s quiet between Jen and Judy, and all of the delays have meant an arrival that veers close to the middle of the night, even traveling west, even in the face of Jen’s temper. (She’d kind of forgotten how unmoved New York could be.)

But that means they’re alone, too—alone and grounded in a way they haven’t been since well before Judy could barely look her in the eye. And Jen decides that she’s too tired to think about it tonight, too tired for most things, lucky enough just to be upright.

But when Jen looks up, she finds Judy’s eyes already on her, in the mirror; Jen watches her long enough to watch her look away. And she’s halfway through drying her hands when Judy looks over her shoulder and meets her eyes again, and they haven’t spoken for minutes, but somehow now it feels like hours, maybe years, maybe lifetimes, have passed between them in the quiet of this trembling, buzzing, breathless uncertainty. 

“This is fucking ridiculous,” Jen mutters, dissolving the distance between them in less than three strides, cupping Judy’s face with both hands, and kissing her like it’s something that belongs to them. Judy reacts almost immediately, kissing her back in earnest, as if at least one of them has been preparing for it; she slides her hands beneath the collar of Jen’s flannel, grip tightening on it when Jen pulls back only to keep her in place long enough for them to be kissing again.

It’s not that Jen had expected Judy to be bad at this—she hadn’t brought many expectations to the table so much as she’d just acted—but it feels like taking it too far, somehow, to be this good in the dead of night in the middle of an airport bathroom, both of them barely standing and probably barely alive. It also feels like something out of a bad porno—only she’s well past two decades too late for that starring role—in setting, and in the way the sound of Judy’s voice breaking around her name, sharp and soft, until it’s nearly two syllables, threatens to undo her in ways she never could have guessed.

They’re only barely not kissing, the space between them just enough for the rough, heavy sounds of each exhale; Judy’s eyes are a little wide, trapped somewhere between dazed and uncertain—and something else, if the amount of time she’s spent staring at Jen’s mouth in the seconds since they’ve parted is any indication. It’s only when Jen brushes a gentle thumb across her cheek that Judy looks up suddenly to meet her gaze, the corner of her mouth softening into something that might be grown into hope.

“What the fuck,” Jen mutters, under her breath, not sure if it’s a question she’s asking herself, an explanation she’s demanding, or a surrender, a why not, a we’ve already come this fucking far, a when has anything about our entire life ever made sense on paper—

So she kisses her, and this time Judy responds by pulling her as close as she can manage, one hand at the back of her neck, the other sliding just beneath the hem of her flannel—

It takes Jen a moment to recognize the source of skittering warmth across her torso, sparking inside her rib cage, crawling up her chest in a slow flush, as fingertips sliding across the bare skin of her stomach, but—Jesus fuck, Judy.

The idea of them taking this any further, right now, is completely certifiable, because Jen isn’t twenty-one, and she’s not making a break for so much as second base anywhere with a tile floor that’s housed thousands of strangers shoes’ today alone and their son nearby, and because there’s more baggage to unpack not far from the gentle path of Judy’s wandering hands than can possibly be contained inside the four gross wall of an airport bathroom.

Just as Jen reaches for her wrist, Judy takes a half step backward, dragging Jen with her, and stumbles suddenly into the paper towel dispenser fastened to the wall behind her, hard.

“Shit,” Jen hears—feels—halfway against her mouth, as Judy grips reflexively onto Jen’s forearms in an effort to steady herself, wincing. “Ow,” she adds, after she catches Jen’s eye, but by the time she does it’s already buried inside the heady rush of laughter.

Jen can’t help but exhale around a laugh of her own before pulling Judy away from the wall and the offending object. “One of the many reasons public bathrooms aren’t sexy,” she points out.

“No? You don’t think it was sexy the way I was trying for a concussion?” Judy says. “There are some really great romcoms that feature amnesia, you know.”

“I’m not sure that’s really the genre that matches this setting,” Jen mutters, glancing around them as she presses a probing hand to the space between Judy’s shoulder blades, checking for injury.

“And we’re not telling anyone our first kiss was in an airport bathroom,” Jen adds, like that’s information she’d go around sharing regardless. What is she, a fucking thirteen-year-old child? (If she were completely honest with herself, she might admit she’s desperately continuing to fill the space between them with the kind of trite nonsense that could give her enough time to still the tremor in her hands; she clutches them together, tightly.) “Christopher would never let me live that down.”

“I mean, technically our first kiss was at the gate,” Judy points out, but even now it’s still a little shaky with breathlessness. Fuck. Oh, fuck.

“That’s a relief,” Jen says, dryly. “’Cause here I thought we’d missed our shot at classy.”

For a moment, the quiet between them verges on unbearable—it leaves too many openings, extends too many possibilities, rattles too heavily inside Jen’s chest. It’s ominous and tantalizing and uncertain.

And it’s just long enough for Jen to sink back inside the confines of her own skin—the skin that belongs to a middle-aged woman who’s paired flannel with a messy bun and the most comfortable shoes she owns, who’s spent endless, impossible hours trapped in a tiny seat inside a death trap, whose lower back has begun a rousing protest in ways she will not long be able to ignore.

“So,” Judy breaks it, “my place or yours?”

Judy’s flirted with her before, but not like she means it, not with eyes this dark or from just a little bit underneath her lashes or with a hand still clutching one side of Jen’s collar. She’s kidding, of course, but she’s not kidding, too, and were it not for the reminder that Henry’s definitely waiting for them outside right now (even though he never, never skimps on a very thorough hand-washing routine), Jen thinks maybe she’d kiss her again. In an airport bathroom. In the middle of the night. Bone. Fucking. Tired.

Instead, Jen clears her throat, loudly, obviously. “I know I did just kind of finish … attacking your face, and that probably sends a certain message, but … honestly, Judy, I don’t even know if I’ll still have enough energy to be standing in an hour, forget…”

Jen shrugs, palms up as she gestures between them, her face doing the work of the well, you know that she doesn’t say. The problem is: Jen barely knows. Not the mechanics part—it’s not fucking 1800, she gets the concept of women getting each other off, but she doesn’t know. Beyond light petting, she’s never even—holy fuck, she thinks suddenly, because the idea that she’s closing quickly in on fifty and somehow also preparing to experience a new first time makes her suddenly wonder if she hasn’t completely lost her mind.

But she also watches Judy’s playfulness vanish into something utterly sincere. “Come on, of course,” Judy says, smoothing Jen’s collar before running a hand comfortingly down her arm. “Jen, you know this isn’t … you never have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

“I know that,” Jen says, like it’s not still nice to hear the sound of Judy’s warm assurance. “I was just worried about you—I don’t know that I’ve ever been this irresistible.” She gestures down at herself in an obvious show of mockery.

“You are,” Judy says, quietly, and Jen scoffs, loudly. “No, I mean it. I like you like this.”

“Like I just don’t give a fuck?”

“No,” Judy says. “Cozy-sexy. Like how you look on family days.” She plays a little with the edge of the sleeve, her thumb brushing Jen’s wrist inside it. “It makes me feel like I always have somewhere I belong.”

Sometimes, the raw openness of Judy’s sincerity is a little like issuing a challenge Jen must rise to meet. “Of course you do,” she says, sliding a hand to cup Judy’s jaw, holding her gaze. “You’re ours.” Judy’s smile is almost watery, even now, even here. Like someone who’s never heard a promise she got to keep.

“Now, come on,” Jen says. “Let’s go home.”

 

*

 

The house is filled with noise the way it only ever is because of Judy’s ideas—and this might not be the worst of them (something she suspects she’ll regret thinking once she has to survive Lorna in her house for multiple hours at once). But Charlie’s back for his first Thanksgiving break, currently putting up with Lorna’s many, many college-related questions, and Karen even made Jen laugh once, today.

Still, there are a lot of people—enough that they’ve had to move dinner out back to set up a table with space for fourteen—and Jen’s wine glass is dangerously low, so she takes the opportunity to retreat inside, ostensibly in search of a new bottle.

It requires little more than showing up in the kitchen with said glass for two brand-new wine bottles and the bottle opener to appear on the island before her, courtesy of Judy, offering a playful wink.

The rest of the kitchen is occupied by Michelle, who’s sharing in food prep duties, and Henry, who’s lately become thoroughly committed to the role of Judy’s sous-chef. As Jen takes a seat at the bar and pours herself a new glass, she tries very hard not to think about the fact that Judy and Michelle’s first date involved a scenario not, in some ways, unlike this one.

Luckily, that’s easy enough to ignore in the face of Henry’s delight, as he takes to the cutting board to begin chopping vegetables with remarkably serious intent, if very little speed. “About this size?” he verifies with Judy, and she beams at him.

“That’s perfect,” Judy says, earnestly. “You know there are people who go to school to learn how to chop vegetables that well, right? Like, people spend whole years of their life aspiring to a technique that precise.”

“She’s right,” Michelle says, as she checks the oven. “You’d have been top of my class no question.” 

“Cooking school isn’t just for chopping vegetables,” he says, rejecting the very notion.

“No,” Michelle agrees, “but I bet you’ve got range.”

Don’t be a cunt, Jen thinks. Do not be a cunt. Keep your fucking mouth shut. She keeps herself occupied instead with a long, long drink of wine, reminds herself that Michelle has kindly volunteered to help put together this stupidly enormous meal that she’d be getting paid for, most days. That being good with Henry should not look like a downside on anyone.

“Hey, are you okay?” Judy asks, and Jen startles, meets her eyes, hadn’t even realized she’d been looking.

“What?” Jen scoffs, so exaggeratedly baffled that even Jen doubts there’s a world in which Judy takes her seriously. “I’m great. I’m doing just great. So good. Do you guys need an extra hand?” she adds, hoping to divert from the subject and evade the way Judy’s looking at her.

“No, no,” Judy assures. “We’re fine. Besides, we’ve got ourselves a professional.” At this, she holds up a sample of Henry’s sliced green beans, as if to prove her point.

Jen almost considers noting how fucking expensive cooking school is, and is that really the direction she wants to steer him, but she’s not enough of an asshole to chill the warmth of a kitchen bright with easy laughter and Henry’s brimming excitement, even if Michelle brushes Judy’s shoulder gently when she passes her. “Okay, but—seriously, Judy, I can cut up, like, a fucking carrot,” she says, instead.

“You want to put carrots in this casserole? That doesn’t sound much like sound judgment to me,” Judy teases.

“Ugh,” Jen groans. “You know what I mean.”

Judy eventually decides to take pity on her—perhaps realizing midway through that Jen is looking for any excuse to linger here a little longer, bullshit insecurities or not, to watch two of the people she loves most sharing a thing they both love. (So she’s not about to win any hostessing awards. Extending invitations to two of Judy’s exes should really balance those karmic scales.)

“How about this?” Judy says, unnecessarily rounding the table to set the grater and cheese in front of Jen, beside her wine. When she leans in, it’s to press a kiss to Jen’s cheek, warm and lasting, one hand reaching to cup Jen’s jaw, to keep her in place; it’s something she’s only begun to make a regular habit of very recently, though Jen supposes it’s safe enough for public consumption. (Never once has it felt platonic.)

Because, right, that’s the other thing: it’s only Charlie and Henry who know, in part because Jen and Judy have both nearly seen themselves buried alive beneath the guilty weight of secrets kept, and because the boys have been lied to enough.

It’s not that Jen loves swearing them to secrecy, either—even about something so mundane—but she’s relished having time with Judy that doesn’t belong to anyone else. Before other people have opinions, before other people come along to unload the burden of their own expectations at the Harding-Hale doorstep. It’s not like it matters—Jen’s certainly not in the business of accepting anyone’s unsolicited advice—but the opportunity to not know, to not be sure, to stagger, haltingly, in the direction of figuring things out … it’s something she’s needed.

She knows that Judy wouldn’t wait. She knows, if it wasn’t for Jen, the whole neighborhood would probably know by now. But Judy’s been agonizingly patient, sworn up and down that Jen can have all the time she needs—especially (she’s joked—well, mostly) if Jen will keep kissing her.

(And, yeah. It’s an ask Jen can handle.)

“Hey,” Judy whispers, “are you sure you’re okay?”

“Yeah,” Jen says, a little more convincingly than before, sliding her hand fleetingly over Judy's. “Yeah, I’m sure.”

“Okay,” Judy murmurs, like it’s something she’s willing to accept for now, at least, “well, you look really hot.”

Jen drops her hand, turns to face Judy with arms folded across her chest and narrowed eyes, before she glances down to skeptically reexamine the outfit she’d chosen this morning. Besides at least being presentable, there’s nothing special about it—a simple black button-down tucked into blue jeans, both articles that have been in her closet for many, many months. “Seriously?”

Judy, on the other hand—Judy clearly took “presentable” to another level; she’s wearing one of Jen’s favorite dresses—burgundy patterned with white flowers that just reaches mid-thigh—paired with tall black boots, her hair tied back into a top knot that Jen suspects has to do with an entire day spent in the kitchen, especially considering how much she’s begun letting it grow, recently.

And Judy also seems to have taken Jen’s self-appraisal as an invitation to follow suit, but her version is much slower, and when Jen looks back up she finds Judy just looking at her, in a way that brings their proximity very suddenly into focus.

It still feels a little unsettling to have someone around all the time who’s so openly attracted to her—unsettling in this way that sometimes she feels like she’s crawling out of her own skin with it, unsettling in the way the awareness of it leaves her to vacillate between disbelief and overwhelming, fathomless possibility. It’s not that Judy’s ever been shy about telling her she looks good, but the shift from who wouldn’t want you? to I want you makes it sharply immediate, erases the distance of the hypothetical.

“I mean,” Judy says, lightly, a teasing play at nonchalance, “if you wanted to add the reading glasses at some point to really complete the look, I wouldn’t say no.”

 “Oh, so you’re dictating my outfits now?” Jen asks, and it’s strange, how they’ve completely disintegrated the boundary between playful and flirting in a way that makes her wonder if a divide ever even existed. Flirting seems daunting, insurmountable; flirting seems like something she did when she was twenty and sad in a way that she let herself mistake for brazen. The thing she does with Judy—it’s familiar, and stupid, and fun, and occasionally it sends warmth skittering down her spine. “And you don’t think that’s a little presumptuous?”

“I’d consider it more of a suggestion box, really?” Judy whispers. “Friendly advice. Very, very friendly advice.”

Before Jen can take them any further down this road, Charlie appears; generously, he waits until he’s sure Michelle’s back is turned to mime gagging, which is the first time it really occurs to Jen that Judy’s standing in the space very nearly between her legs, and that Jen is midway through curling a strand of hair around Judy’s ear before she’s even thought about it. Jesus, just get a loudspeaker next time, she thinks.

“Who let Mom near sharp kitchen objects?” Charlie asks, looking pointedly at the grater and then at Judy, who’s now returned to the stove.

Jen reaches across the island to grab the spare knife; when she turns to face him, she’s raising it in his direction like something out of Psycho. “You want to say that to my face, bro?”

“Pretty sure I just did,” Charlie says. “Maybe you’re losing some tones. I mean, what, you’re pushing, like, eighty now, right?”

“Your mom is not old,” Judy calls from behind the counter.

“Yeah, well, you would say that,” Charlie says, “you’re the one who’s fuck—” Jen gives him a sharp, warning look, and I says a lot about the place that they’re in, the lightheartedness of this particular exchange, that he pivots to: “—ing … biased.”

“Wow,” Jen says. “So smooth.”

They continue to bicker long enough for Jen to finish her assigned grating—long enough to remind Charlie, too, she’s been using a knife to cut off the crusts of Henry’s sandwiches for years, thank you very much—and long enough for Charlie to be summoned to the backyard, mysteriously, just in time to avoid pitching in.

And then it’s just Jen, sipping from her wine glass and watching Judy move easily around the kitchen, humming quietly under her breath as she fishes another knife out of the utensil drawer, and—fuck it, Jen thinks, rounding the island, making a grab for Judy’s wrist. “There’s something I have to show you,” she says. “Yep, right now. Super important. Can’t wait.”

Once Michelle vows to watch over the stove—and Judy reminds Jen that she really will need to check the pie in the oven in a few minutes—she lets Jen pull her out of the kitchen and up the stairs, along the way shifting so they’re holding hands instead.

Jen wonders if this is what being nineteen is supposed to feel like—this dizzying rush, impossible to hold inside her body, that has her pulling their bedroom door shut behind her and immediately kissing Judy against it.

She thinks it’s all worth it for the surprised little noise Judy makes—an oh that dissolves into a whimper inside Jen’s mouth—and the arms she throws around Jen’s neck, reflexively pulling her closer almost before she’s had a chance to begin kissing her back.

This part, with Judy, still feels a little bit different, a little bit brand-new—like things with Judy are an open canvas, like there’s no going off script because they never had one at all. Like Judy brings no qualms, no doubts, no hang-ups; like she can disappear all of Jen’s uncertainties through the sheer force of her earth-shattering open-mindedness. In Jen’s whole life, sex has never felt less rote; it’s profoundly terrifying, and it’s the hottest thing Jen’s maybe ever experienced.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with Michelle, does it?” Judy says, lightly, when Jen pulls back; she’s leaning her head back against the door, breathing still uneven.

“Who?” Jen jokes. And then, “No, not … most of it.”

“You know there’s nothing going on. You know I’d never—”

“What?” Jen says, leaning way too hard into spluttering indignation. “Obviously. Really? Of course I know that.” After a beat, she adds, more seriously, “I do. I do know, but she’s gorgeous and you’re all dressed up and she thinks you’re single, and…” She trails off as Judy winces guiltily. “What?”

“Okay, so she might not…exactly think I’m single,” Judy says. Before Jen can inquire further, she adds, “She doesn’t know it’s you. She just knows I’m dating this smart, amazing woman, and that we’re super, super committed—”

“Wow, super, super? I don’t remember agreeing to that.”

“You think I went too far?”

“Eh, I would have capped it at one.”

“Noted. She also knows that I’m really, really happy,” Judy says. There’s a pause before she adds, “Jen. I didn’t wear a dress you love for Michelle,” and, fuck, what the hell is Jen supposed to say to that? She kisses her again, slower and more deliberate, and less like it’s something that’s bursting out of her.

“Jesus Christ,” she says, when they finally separate; this time, Judy’s slid her hands into Jen’s back pockets, so there’s little space between them even so. “Jesus Christ. I feel like a … total insane person.” When Judy’s look turns questioning, she adds, “I haven’t wanted to fuck anyone this much all the time since I was a newlywed. How does anyone live like this at fifty?”

Judy slides her hands up to cup Jen’s face, kisses her again, thoroughly, earnestly. “You’re not insane. Apart from being insanely sexy,” she jokes, exaggeratedly, and Jen exhales a sigh. “Don’t even think about telling me I don’t mean it,” Judy says, but this time, when she moves to kiss her, nipping lightly at Jen’s bottom lip, she grabs one of Jen’s hands, slides it between her thighs and under her dress and beneath the hemline of her underwear, guided by her own; they share a sharp, sudden breath.

“In the immortal words of Madonna,” Judy says, almost conversationally, were it not for the way her breathing goes ragged at the edges. “I’m crazy for you. Touch me once and you’ll know its true.”

“Start singing and I’m going back downstairs,” Jen says, but it doesn’t take long to become apparent that the curl of her fingers is clearly already working for Judy, whose exhales have become punctuated with low moans.

“Shhh,” Jen murmurs, and Judy whimpers, fisting her hands in Jen’s top and burying her face in Jen’s neck, like maybe she could use a little grounding; Jen nearly stumbles before she recalibrates, adjusting them both against the wall so she’s not solely responsible for keeping Judy upright, and cradles the back of Judy’s head with her free hand.

It’s not long before the awkwardness of the angle begins to wear on Jen’s wrist, but stubbornness has always been the fuel to spark the match, and motivation here isn’t exactly hard to come by. “I wanted to fuck you in the kitchen,” Jen says, frankly, because she knows it’s the kind of thing Judy likes to hear, and because it’s true. “I mean, I wanted to fuck you all morning, actually.”   

“That would’ve left an impression,” Judy manages, hips rolling abruptly. “I would’ve included ‘entertainment’ in the invite if I’d known what you had in mind.”

“You’re the one who wore the dress,” Jen says, as if there’s anything Judy could wear that would make her attractiveness manageable. (Jen would already know by now if that were true; there are more than a couple pairs of sandals Jen wouldn’t mind burning retroactively.)

Whatever Judy might have been about to offer in answer disappears behind a soft, desperate noise. “Has anyone ever told you you are very, very good at this?” Judy finally breathes, several minutes later, high in her throat and muffled against Jen’s skin; her voice falters for so long halfway through the question it’s a wonder she manages to pick up the thread again.

“Yep,” Jen says, like she’s trying for exasperated and misfires directly into smug, instead. “You have. A lot.”

So, yeah, fine, it’s a fucking ego boost—not just that Judy keeps saying it, because there’s a lot of shit Judy would say in an effort to make her feel good about herself, but because the opportunity to watch the effect she has on Judy unfold like this is … something else.

It’s not like two months ago she was introduced to the concept of “watching someone you love as you get them off“—but she’s starting to realize that the structure of her marital sex life often left little room for reveling in moments like this, not in the face of the inevitable march toward the Main Event.

Or maybe its just something about Judy’s shameless responsiveness, about her total lack of pretense—and about the breathless, needy whine she injects into the sound of Jen’s name when she’s close—that always makes Jen feel like she’s one step away from unraveling. 

Judy bites Jen’s shoulder when she comes, and Jen scratches her fingernails lightly down the nape of Judy’s neck, and Judy finally lifts her head in order to kiss Jen, sloppy and needy and more than a little dirty, the brush of her fingertips a gentle contrast, pressed featherlight to the underside of Jen’s chin.

Jen’s still working her through the last of it—Judy’s head on Jen’s shoulder, Jen’s spare hand cupping the back of Judy’s neck—though she’s found there’s little boundary in place to prevent this from spilling over into working her back up, and, honestly, they have a fucking chef in their kitchen, it’s not like anything will fall to pieces without—

“Judy?” Henry calls from much too close to the door, and Judy startles as quickly as Jen’s fingers still. “Mom?”

“What is it, Hen?” Jen asks, because if she can tell anything by the shit Judy breathes against her, it’s that Judy might need a few more seconds before she’s prepared for a normal conversation.

“I think it’s time to check on the pie,” Henry answers. “It looks like it might be ready.”

“Okay,” Jen says, sliding her fingers through Judy’s hair. “Judy’ll be right down, okay?”

Once there’s no longer an audience on the other side of the door, Jen retrieves her hand from between Judy’s legs, and Judy breathes a quiet laugh that becomes hopelessly contagious.

“We have got to stop meeting like this,” Judy says. “We have got to stop meeting the kids like this.”

She still looks a little gone—her cheeks are pink, her mouth slightly smudged with Jen’s lipstick, her top knot made unruly—so Jen drags her into their bathroom; she rinses her own hand before she makes quick work of the lipstick, and Judy manages to return her hair to a respectable state, with Jen sliding her fingers through her bangs from where they’ve stuck to her forehead. “Get out of here,” Jen says, finally, shoving lightly at her shoulders.

“Right,” Jen says, turning toward the door, “okay. I’m leaving.” Instead, she turns back around almost immediately to kiss Jen—long, and warm, and lingering, like Jen wasn’t the only one thinking about a round two.

“Come on, baby, I thought you wanted to go make your pie,” Jen teases, afterward.

Judy makes a hopeless gesture in Jen’s general direction. “Okay, but look at you,” she says.

Jen glances at the mirror—she hasn’t made it through unscathed, either: her cheeks, too, are a little flushed, part of her shirt a little untucked, her lipstick a little smeared. But it’s catching Judy’s eye in the mirror—watching her expression transform her face into something wanting and awed—that makes her wonder just how many times Judy can change everything.

 

 

In the hour before entrees are finally served, Jen spends some time mingling; there’s Christopher, of course, although he and Alan are gross enough about each other that it’s a reminder why she’s so rarely pathetic enough to third wheel with him. Isabela, at least, tends to make for laid-back conversation, and Nick’s brought a girlfriend who’s charming and easygoing and seems like she’ll be good for him. And Perez—well, she’s never been anyone’s definition of easygoing, but there’s something about her that Jen gets in a way that makes it feel simpler than it should, once you’ve confessed a murder to someone. Weirdly, it’s only been up for them since.

Karen, on the other hand, has little room for one-on-one time; she’s brought with her a date, or a maybe-date, or some guy she thinks is really hot. And she’s right: he is ridiculously hot, although he may also be the dumbest person Jen’s ever met. But why not, right? Go, Karen.

There’s also, of course, Lorna, who she’s spent most of the day evading as often as possible, with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, it’s Lorna who somehow finds a way to sit directly across from her once they’re seated, which could have been prevented if Charlie would have stopped grabbing extra appetizers for three seconds and followed her wild hand gesturing to the seat first.

The spread before them is massive, even from the perspective of someone living in the house with the woman who had made most of it, prepared over the last couple of days. There’s variety, too (Judy had wondered aloud about the possibility of a “nontraditional meal,” once, for Thanksgiving, to which Jen had said, “It’s a fucked up holiday anyway, who cares what kind of food we have?” thereby turning the holiday into an annual food experiment), and Judy made every effort to incorporate requests from the kids in the process.

Everyone’s appreciative, to say the least; Jen suspects Judy will be hearing weeks from now about how good everything was. (Though that might have something to do with the amount of leftovers sure to last about that long, even with fourteen people to dig in.) Lorna eulogizes some of the classics, but ultimately even she can’t help but enjoy herself.

“Looks like you’ve outdone yourself again,” Jen tells Judy, who’s—thank god—sitting to her left. Judy brightens, immediately, rests her head on Jen’s shoulder as she says, “I’m so glad you liked it.”

After barely a moment, Judy moves to pull away, which Jen knows is in part a matter of respecting the public boundaries Jen’s erected—but, Jesus, it’s not like they didn’t used to touch, and it’s not like it’s a secret they’re keeping much longer, so Jen reaches with her right hand to press lightly against Judy’s head, an offer to linger.

She does. Jen curls a strand of hair behind Judy’s ear, fleetingly; it’s cooling, now, the stray breeze suffused with a hint of chill, the sky slowly beginning to darken. And Jen’s tired, and maybe she thinks there are things she’s allowed to want.

Judy reaches for her hand beneath the table, and Jen lets her take it; even Charlie’s smiling just a little when he rolls his eyes at her, pointedly, and when Jen reaches her hand from just far enough under the table to flip him off.

“Charlie’s on dish duty,” she mutters; she’d have made it loud enough for Charlie to hear, but that would mean loud enough for Lorna to hear, and, no thanks.

She can hear Judy smiling into her shoulder when she says, “We can’t, he’ll never come back home.”

“And we’re sure that’s a problem?” she mutters, and she knows Judy’s thinking about the day she found Jen just curled up in Charlie’s bed, the week after they’d left New York behind, stroking the pillow like a full-on psychopath. (Or maybe like a mom.)

“Jennifer,” Lorna says, “whatever will you do when she moves out? Ted was – a rare specimen, to be sure, raised by an attentive and well-rounded mother, but you’re unlikely to find a man to attend to all of your … cooking needs, again.”

“She’s not moving out,” Jen says, taking a long sip of wine. “Haven’t we been over this enough?”

Judy lifts her head, immediately; Jen tightens her grip on her hand, beneath the table. “And I suppose you expect to find a husband with a … tenant?” she asks.

Charlie snorts, nearly choking on his food; Jen shoots him a dirty look and the barest hint of a smile. “No, I really don’t. And believe it or not, I also really don’t care. Judy’s not leaving. End of discussion.”

“Listen, Jennifer, I didn’t want to make the offer too soon, before he’d been thoroughly vetted, but – an old colleague of mine has a son, himself a widower, and I think you should consider—”

“Oh my God,” Jen says. “No.”

“And I suppose you have prospects lining the block, then?” Lorna asks. “You still have—well, with enough make-up, and under the right lighting conditions, at least another year or—”

“Jesus Christ, Lorna,” she says, “I’m not fucking single.”

She feels Judy squeeze her hand, turns just enough to meet her eyes, for a single, fleeting moment. “Now,” Lorna says, “you don’t honestly expect me to believe—”

“You know what?” Jen says, sharply, like a challenge. “It’s Judy. We’re dating. We’re dating each other. And it’s fucking great. And if you love these boys as much as I think you do, then you should be over the moon about it, because that’s the one thing all three of us have in common.”

The table has, of course, fallen completely silent, for the first time the entire night. Because why not fucking make a giant spectacle of it, right? “You’re dating your…roommate?” She whispers roommate a if it might be something dirty, unwarranted in mixed company.

“Actually, Judy’s pretty great,” Charlie says.

“Yeah,” Henry agrees, “Judy’s the best! Lots of people don't get a second mom.”

Jen can already feel the smallest tremble in Judy’s hand before she turns to meet her eyes, finds exactly what she suspected—they’re sparkling, full to the brim with warmth she can hardly keep contained.

“Is this why you let her adopt the children, because you were—”

“Because we were what?” Jen says. “Boning? Banging? Waxing each other’s beans? Engaging in a little carnal knowledge? Making some bacon? Maybe even fucking? You know what, Lorna, you caught me: I just drop adoption papers on everyone I screw.”

Jennifer,” she says, hand raised to her mouth in some theatrical version of horror as she looks at Henry, and even, hilariously, Charlie.

“Oh, they’ve heard worse,” Jen says, dismissively.

“We have,” Henry agrees.

“Lorna,” Judy says, finally, in the face of a rare moment of silence, “I know you’re worried about them. I would be, too. I am. But I love them, so much. I’d do anything for them. And you should really know that Jen would, too.”

Lorna still doesn’t seem especially happy whens she takes her leave—when does she ever?—but Michelle says, Yeah, no shit it’s Jen with a wide smile before she hugs Judy goodbye, and that’s not so bad at all.

Still: “Sounds like you were really subtle,” Jen says, once they’re alone in the hallway.

 “I don’t remember dragging you up to our bedroom in the middle of Thanksgiving,” Judy points out.

“I mean, I closed the door,” Jen says, and Judy laughs.

“Has anyone ever told you you’re kind of easy?”

“Oh, fuck you,” Jen says.

“It’s tempting,” Judy says. “But I’m kind of involved with someone, and it’s just, like—you wouldn’t even believe how hot she is.”

 

 

Though the last time they did this Henry was almost too young to remember, once the night finally belongs to them again, they all pile into Jen and Judy’s room for a movie night pajama party. It was something they’d do, sometimes, the three of them, when Ted would go on tour, when the sting of his absence grew too sharp to ignore—when Charlie would beg for things he was too young to see, and Henry would fall asleep before they’d even reached the third act.

That it takes no convincing at all for Charlie to join them is more of an I missed you, too than Jen could have ever dreamed, enough that she mouths an exaggerated He loves us! to Judy, propped against the headboard.

What is less surprising is his insistence that they all immediately follow his suggestion—in this case, the beginning of a Star Wars marathon. “Judy’s never seen them,” he insists. “Any of them. You can’t just never see Star Wars.”

“Yeah, it's just like Dante said,” Jen tells Judy, dropping her register in a mockery of Charlie, "ninth circle of hell—nothing but Star Wars virgins."

Charlie gets his way, in the end: Henry's happy enough to vote with him, and any journey Charlie invites her on is a journey Judy's thrilled to take. For her part, Jen sets a cap at three movies ("It's not a marathon if we don't watch at least three movies," Henry reminds her, because God forbid she do them the disservice of a mere double feature) and lets Charlie explain the basics to a thoroughly attentive Judy (she isn't kidding about knowing nothing; she comes up empty on even the matter of numbering).

By the time A New Hope's opening crawl begins, Jen finds her focus pulled mostly to her family, lets herself revel in the mundanity of sharing a movie and having no one to miss. She leans her head against Judy's shoulder, and Judy slides an arm around her waist; the last thing she remembers is Leia's capture, and Judy pressing a kiss into her hair.

When she wakes, it's to silence, to darkness, and to a dull ache in her neck; she's still trying, blearily, to process this sudden turn, when she feels the bed shift, feels Judy climb in beside her. “Judy?” she says. “Where are the boys?”

"They're in bed," Judy whispers back.

“Shit, what time is it?”

“Still only tenish. We just finished a few minutes ago,” Judy says. “You never fall asleep watching movies. And you definitely never fall asleep before nine. Should I be worried? Or is the celestite working?”

“You only got through Episode IV? Fuck, Charlie's gonna kill me,” Jen groans. “That's what you should be worried about.”

“He was okay,” Judy says, although from Judy that could mean anything. “I promised him we'd pick it up tomorrow.”

Jen groans. “Sorry. If it's the thought that counts, I really was gonna pull the glasses out after the boys went to sleep.”

“Ooh,” Judy says, and Jen can hear the implicit eyebrow waggle; when she turns onto her side, she finds Judy's already facing her. “What else were you gonna wear?”

“Who said I was gonna wear anything?” Jen says, just to say it; it hadn't actually been her plan.

"Wow. If you're asking me to draw you like one of my French girls,” Judy says, “the answer is yes.”

“Definitely not the thing I'd be asking you to do,” Jen says.

Judy kisses her—soft, lasting, full of promise but without expectation. They both know there’s nowhere for it to go tonight, but Judy’s smiling when they separate.

“You’re happy,” Judy observes in a slow whisper, like she’s afraid to say it too loud, for fear of rattling the very foundations of the fragile thing she’s named; it’s tinged with just enough inflection to spill into a question.

And Jen thinks: mistakes is a word many degrees too kind for all of the wrong choices she has made. She is full of damned spots, and no amount of scrubbing will remove the things now carved into her skin, only reignite the ache of them.

She thinks: maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe none of it matters, because the world has never spun around the axis of deserving. Maybe all she has is fighting for the things she wants, and then letting herself get to keep them.

So she sighs, shifts down the bed just enough that when she curls up against Judy, there’s space for Judy to slot her chin on top of Jen’s head. “Must be the celestite,” Jen says.

Judy runs quiet fingers through the strands of Jen’s hair until Jen is all the way asleep.