"He's very cute."
Pearl started in surprise. She'd drifted off into daydreams once she made sure the stroller was secure. Steven was a happy baby and didn't mind entertaining himself on public transportation. He tended to babble happily at nearby strangers or gnaw on his Cookie Cat teething ring.
The woman who spoke was holding onto the pole at the nearest door, even though there were plenty of open seats. She was wearing a purple sweater and denim jeans that accentuated her long legs, along with a pair of dark glasses. Pearl wondered if the stranger had vision problems, but she'd just said that Steven was cute.
The silence had gone on too long. Pearl coughed and then said, "Ah, thank you."
The woman trailed off and Pearl wasn't sure what she was asking until she bent down in front of Steven. She offered him her hand, as solemnly as if he were a fellow adult, and he reached out and grabbed her fingers. She shook their grasp gently, and then Steven reached out and tangled his hands in her hair. Pearl saw her eyebrows arch in surprise.
"Sorry," Pearl said, embarrassed. "He loves touching people's hair." She reached up and tangled a finger in the curl that trailed along one of her ears. It was a little bit sticky, and she shuddered, diving into her bag for a cleaning wipe. When she reemerged, the strange woman was carefully untangling Steven's fingers from her afro. Pearl should have been helping, restraining the child, and again she felt a flash of embarrassment.
"Steven!" she said, but it wasn't much of a scold. She leaned forward over the stroller and began pulling at his little fingers. The woman stopped her own efforts and met Pearl's gaze, letting the glasses on her nose drop enough that Pearl could see her eyes. The irises were a strange purple-ish color that Pearl had never seen before. She glanced away quickly, and then back, because it was impossible to finish rescuing the woman's hair from Steven's grasp unless she was actually looking at the tangle.
"His name is Steven?" the woman asked politely.
"He's not mine!" Pearl blurted out, and although the stranger didn't react visibly, she felt the need to clarify. "I mean, he's -- I'm babysitting for my -- my friend. She and her husband are on vacation."
She unhooked the baby's fingers finally, holding his little fists in her hands. He really was a beautiful baby. Even if she didn't like Greg that much, she could admit that. He'd done a decent job contributing DNA. Of course, Steven's beautiful eyes and soft form were all Rose.
"That's kind of you," the woman said. "I'm Garnet."
Pearl admitted her name, still kind of embarrassed. She covered it by cooing to Steven, who talked right back to her, kicking his legs with enthusiasm.
"He's quite the talker," Garnet said, and Pearl latched onto the opportunity to talk about Steven, going on and on about the various milestones he'd already achieved. When Rose had told her that she was going to have a baby, Pearl hadn't reacted well. She'd seen her best friend, her ex-girlfriend, slipping further away from her into parenthood, and to Pearl it felt like the death of their relationship. But Rose had begged her to be there in the delivery room with her, and even though Greg was holding Rose's other hand, Pearl had been there to see Steven arrive. She'd felt rather faint at the time, but she'd been there, and she'd always be there for Steven.
The train slowed again and Garnet glanced up.
"I have to go," she said, and as soon as the train stopped, she stepped out of the door, leaving Pearl watching her, open-mouthed. After a moment, she looked up at the sign indicating the next stop. She'd missed her stop almost five minutes ago, and probably she'd annoyed that woman so much that she thought she needed to escape at the next opportunity. Pearl blushed all the way down her neck.
"I'm glad you can't talk yet," she said to Steven, and stood up so they could get off.
Pearl kept a very regular schedule. She had classes on Mondays and Wednesday, TA'ed on Tuesdays, and did her grocery shopping on Thursdays. She spent most Fridays with Rose and Steven; Greg was usually at band practice, and although they'd come to a certain understanding, it was easier on everyone that way. Saturdays she liked to do yoga in the park with the group from the local senior center, and then chores and reading and rest.
The week of babysitting had occurred over spring break, and Rose returned that Saturday. Pearl was soon back to her normal schedule, catching her usual trains and spending absolutely no -- almost no -- only some time thinking about the beautiful woman she'd encountered there. She hadn't seen her since and had convinced herself that she'd scared her off of public transit entirely until Rose pointed out kindly that it was pretty unlikely. She was amused at Pearl's crush, Pearl could tell, but also supportive. She'd always encouraged Pearl to go after her crushes, and Pearl knew it was because she couldn't stand to think of anyone missing out on true love. Rose had found Pearl and Greg, and she'd had other partners at other times in her life. She had enough love to give.
Pearl loved Rose, and for a long time, she had no room in her heart for anyone else. But she couldn't stop thinking about Garnet. She wondered what Garnet did, what she majored in if she was in school, how old she was, if she had a child of her own. She'd been so good with Steven, and that counted for a lot with Pearl.
When she saw Garnet again, she didn't recognize her at first. She was wearing a different pair of dark glasses and this time she was in a sharp black suit and polished oxfords. Pearl was on her way to Rose's, running a little late because of a delay on the previous train, and she'd been typing out a text to Rose to let her know when Garnet's hair caught her eye. Her heart had leapt dozens of times in the past couple of weeks whenever she saw dark curls, and the shock still hurt in a good way when she recognized Garnet.
Suddenly she didn't know what to do with her hands. She shoved the phone back in her bag, text unfinished, and stared, frozen, across the car. Despite her formal dress, Garnet seemed relaxed. Her tie was loose at her neck and her buttonfront and blazer rolled up to the elbows. Pearl wondered if Garnet would recognize her without Steven in tow. She wondered if Garnet would remember her at all, but she found herself darting between people across the train car. The train screeched to a halt just as Pearl arrived at Garnet's side, and she lost her balance, flailing for the pole and catching it, but then there was a hand on her shoulder for support. She looked up into Garnet's face and watched her expression brighten in recognition.
"It's Pearl, right?" Garnet asked. Breathlessly, Pearl nodded, regaining her balance and straightening as people pushed past them to get off the train.
"Hi," Pearl said. "I mean -- hi."
"Where's your little shadow today?" Garnet asked, lifting her hand from Pearl's shoulder and latching onto the pole above her head. Pearl felt oddly protected in Garnet's space.
"With his mom," Pearl said. She laughed awkwardly, even though she hadn't meant the statement to be funny.
"What a shame," Garnet said, and then a slow smile slid onto her face. "Well, only a little. I don't want to keep you, but can I give you my phone number?"
"I'd like to buy you dinner," Garnet clarified. "Another time, since you already have plans."
"Uh, sure! Yes. Definitely," Pearl said, and made herself stop talking and dive into her bag, digging for her cell phone, which had of course slipped to the bottom. When she found it, she unlocked it and handed it to Garnet, who put her number in. Pearl just watched, still not quite sure this was happening until Garnet gave her phone back. Pearl dropped it into her bag, caught in the blank gaze of Garnet's glasses. The train slowed again.
"This is my stop," Pearl said reluctantly, but she had to get off. She didn't want to follow Garnet to her stop by accident; that would be awkward.
"Tell Steven hello for me," Garnet said, releasing the pole and letting Pearl slip around her to get off. Pearl turned back and waved as the train door shut behind her. She immediately felt silly, but Garnet waved back.
She walked the rest of the way to Rose's with a spring in her step.