I can still hear the laughter, still feel the warmth of the sun on my shoulders, the spray of the water being picked up by the occasional breeze.
It had been hot that summer, hotter than any I remembered. The electric bills were through the roof from having run the air conditioning non-stop.
We’d woken up late, having gotten to bed late, with too much drink in our systems. But it had been good to have a date night, and the expense of the sitter, and the two bottles of Malbec at our favorite neighborhood restaurant were worth it. Lately we had seemed to be just co-existing, passing each other in our daily routines, but never quite connecting. We needed that reset.
I tried to extract myself from Jason’s embrace without waking him, but he pulled me in closer. I snuggled into his chest and whispered “Bathroom”, so he eased his grip. After using the bathroom, instead of crawling back into bed I took a pair of pajamas from the dresser, not having quite made it to putting any on last night after we had made love for the first time in … well, I don’t know how long … and made my way towards the kitchen.
As I passed the living room, I saw Lizzie already plopped in front of the television watching some Saturday morning kid’s show. I looked at her from the doorway for a minute, her hair going off in all directions, sleep still in the corners of her eyes. She giggled at something happening on the screen, her entire body quivering along with the sound. The sound of her laughter always put a smile on my face.
In the kitchen, I brewed a pot of coffee. No single k-cups today. I made pancakes with chocolate chips, carefully placing each one to form happy faces in the flat surfaces. Normally I frown on giving Lizzie process sugar, especially first thing in the morning. But I was in such a good mood that morning that a fun breakfast seemed appropriate.
Jason came into the kitchen just as I was finishing up the first batch. His hair was also askew. Lizzie got her hair from him, thick, sandy blonde, curly and wild. Jason was due for a haircut. Actually, both of them were due for haircuts.
He gave me a peck on the cheek as he hugged me from behind. Grabbing a cup of coffee, he went to bring Lizzie in from the other room. The two entered, both now giggling. Her green eyes with flecks of gold, just like mine, were crinkled up with her laughter. I could see the space where her top front tooth had fallen out last week, also visible as she laughed a full, open-mouthed laugh. I grabbed my DSLR from the counter and quickly took a snapshot. I must have over a thousand photos that still need to be edited on the computer, and at least 60 more still on the camera’s memory chip. I bet at least 95% of those photos were of Lizzie.
Breakfast was comfortable and filled with laughter. It is always the laughter I remember most clearly.
Jason had a big work presentation on Monday, and we were supposed to drive out to visit his mother on Sunday. So, I suggested that Lizzie and I spend some time at the playground and then I would see if I could get her a haircut at Supercuts on West Street, to give him quiet time to prepare. Jason told me to text him when I was heading to the hair salon, and he’d meet us there so he could get his cut before Monday too.
After breakfast was done, the dishes washed and all cooking supplies put away, I quickly changed into a sundress. I had to pull Lizzie away from yet another kids show on television. I remember thinking that Jason and I should discuss how much television we should be letting her watch. It’s hard though, because with our lives being so busy, the television is like a surrogate babysitter. At least the shows are more educational nowadays than they had been when Jason and I were kids.
I dressed Lizzie in a swimsuit and slathered her with SPF 50. In addition to my green eyes, Lizzie had also gotten my fair and freckled skin. On top of the swimsuit, I put her in the coral colored sundress with the tiny purple flowers. The final touch was the purple jellies with the orange flowers. I remember seeing them in the shoe store window and thinking how perfect they would be for the dress. I even bought them in two sizes, in case she outgrew the shoes before she did the dress.
I’d managed to wrangle her hair into a giant bushy ponytail, knowing it would be short-lived. She always pulled out the ponytail holder, complaining it gave her “head acheys”.
A few fruits thrown into my backpack, along with a towel, the tube of sunblock (to be reapplied every hour), my DSLR and a book that I’d never get to read, and we were out the door.
It was only a few blocks to the playground, but it took longer to get there than normal. Lizzie was alternating from hopping on one leg and then the other, as if she were playing imaginary hopscotch down the sidewalk. I was taking photos of her, mid-air, hair flying above her … the ponytail already lost to the universe.
When we finally got to the playground Lizzie immediately spotted her friend Ashley playing in the water jets. She quickly stripped off her sundress but kept her jellies on as she ran to join Ashley. I noticed Carol, Ashley’s mother, sitting on the bench on the far side of the water jets. I weaved through kids laughing, screaming and running in all directions, avoiding stepping on those making chalk drawings on the ground and made my way to sit with Carol.
We chatted amiably, while watching our girls. Carol is nice, but not someone that I would probably have been friends with, had we not had daughters the same age. Not that there is anything wrong with Carol. She’s perfectly nice. Just not the type I have anything in common with other than a daughter who is also five years old. After what seemed to be enough time to not seem rude, I excused myself to go take photos. I snapped Lizzie and the other kids, splashing and laughing, from all angles. Lizzie and Ashley were trying to time their movements so that they were directly in line with each water jet, as it sprayed upwards towards the sky. Sometimes I wished that the camera had the ability to film as well as to take still shots. That way, while maybe not as artistic as my photos tended to be, I would have been able to capture the squeals of laughter coming from all around me in the playground that morning.
I had heard someone crying behind me and turned to see that a little girl was on the ground, with a slightly bigger boy standing over her. I could tell that it was her feelings more than anything that were hurt. I remember thinking that her mother would probably tell her that the boy pushing her liked her and didn’t know how to show it. I remember being annoyed that it would perpetuate the negative behaviors that we allow from boys, but not girls. Girls needed to be sweet and friendly and smile. Boys could be rough and tumble, and it was all just “boys being boys”.
When I turned back and looked towards the water jets, I couldn’t see Lizzie. I saw Ashley, but not Lizzie. I scanned the rest of the playground, but I couldn’t see her. My heart started to beat faster. Perhaps she was inside one of the tubes in the jungle gym. I ran to the metal structure and began looking in all the tubes. No Lizzie. I started to call out her name, my voice rising to higher and higher octaves with each call. Carol came racing over and when she realized that Lizzie was nowhere in sight, she ran back to Ashley to ask where Lizzie had gone. I ran back to Ashley with Carol. I don’t remember hearing Ashley speak, I only remember the shaking of her head from side to side, her shoulders raised to indicate that she didn’t know.
Now my heart was pounding so hard, it felt it would break out of my chest. My limbs simultaneously felt like jello and electrified. I began screaming her name over and over and over, hoping to hear her tiny voice say “Mommy, I was just playing. I was hiding behind that pole all the time.” But nobody answered my call.
I vaguely remember all the other parents, tightly clutching their own children, begin to do their own searching. One Dad was on his cell phone, presumably calling 911, while his wife, in tears as if it were her own child that was missing, hugging her son so tightly, he had begun to cry. Lots of the kids were now crying. No more laughter was coming from that playground. Not that morning.
I don’t know how long it took for the police to arrive. Some of the other parents had searched the surrounding blocks while we waited, but nobody had seen my daughter. A police woman took my statement, while the other police officers did their own search of the playground and surrounding area. I don’t really remember what I had said to the police woman. I just remember her asking if “the child’s Father” and I were still together, as if maybe it were a custody issue situation. It was then that I realized I hadn’t called Jason to let him know. Later on, Jason would somehow blame me for my delay in telling him, as if he would have been able to find her, if I had only called him right away. He won’t admit that he feels this way, but I know it’s true.
There were neighborhood searches, interviews with the police, questions asked of all the adults and the kids that had been at that playground that day, last summer. But in the seven months that have passed, there have been no leads in finding Lizzie, no sightings. At first, I would go to the playground every day. I would search every inch of concrete and metal structure, looking for some clue to help me find my baby. After a month or so, I stopped going. It hurt too much. Summer was turning to fall and seeing that playground with colored leaves scattered on the ground only reminded me that time was passing without her. And hearing the laughter of other children was no longer something that would make me smile.
The flyers that were plastered everywhere in the neighborhood have mostly either been removed or fell off from where they were taped up. Jason moved out almost 2 months ago. He blamed me. Not out loud, but he did. He couldn’t even look me in the eyes anymore. Maybe because when he did, he would see her green eyes looking back. I didn’t blame him for moving out. It was actually a relief when he did. The quiet of the apartment was easier to handle when there wasn’t another person in there with me. It is supposed to be quiet when nobody else is around.
I’m sitting on the bench that I sat on with Carol seven months ago. It’s 5 in the morning. Too early for the kids to be here, so I don’t have to listen to laughter today. I can’t. Not today. Today is Lizzie’s sixth birthday. I brought the purple jellies with the orange flowers. The ones that were a size too big. By now, they would probably fit her. I pulled them from my bag, place them on the bench, and I walk back home, alone.
Copyright 2019 Lisa Savitzky