When she asks, it’s always at the wrong time: I’ve just plunged my hands into the ground beef or I’m nursing the baby or I’m finally eating lunch myself. Don’t forget to check on the flower, Mama.
I tell her that I will. Just remind me later, when I’m not in the middle of something.
It’s been a week since, inexplicably and at random, she went outside on her own to pick that flower. A week since I sat down with just her and unscrewed the wingnuts on my flower press, the one my dad made for me when I was a kid. She helped me position the petals just so and nodded when I told her we would check on it in a couple days when it had fully dried.
It will be too fragile to play with or hold too much, I cautioned. But we could pick up some laminating paper and make it into a bookmark or something. She nodded, serious and committed.
Now we’re running errands and I’m listing where we need to go. Pick up the pictures we ordered. Buy birthday cards for your cousins. Return books to the library. Get a gallon of milk.
And laminating paper! She calls from the back of the van. But I really can’t manage an extra stop. One more in and out of the car, bucking and unbuckling, baby in the sling. Hold hands. Look for cars.
Not this time, sweetheart. Sorry. I can’t see her face in the rear view. I have to keep my eyes on the road.
There’s an ache in my sternum sometimes. Right here, in the bone that joins my ribs. I only feel it occasionally. Like when I’m easing the sleep-heavy baby out of my arm. Or when I flop onto the couch after the final goodnight and lean to the right, sinking all weight into my elbow. Or when I roll my shoulders down and back, filling my lungs with air and pressing my heart forward. There it is, a twinge, deep in the bone.
I think something in there must be clenched too tight.
The girl jogs past me. No, she’s a woman. Young, yes. But taller than me. She moves fast. I don’t see her face.
Her ponytail hangs long and paints brushstrokes on the nape of her bare neck. Her running shorts are loosely cut so they swish side to side as she moves. She wears just a sports bra on top and I see the sweat shining on her shoulders, her spine, and in beads down the small of her back.
The path curves her out of sight and by the time I reach the straightaway she’s gone.
My feet feel heavy and hot inside my own running shoes. I only lace them up for walking anymore. A couple months ago, I tried to pick up running where I had left it in the winter when the holidays and my growing pregnant belly crowded out possibility. But my body balked at the root of things: ankles, Achilles, feet. So I walk. Baby on my chest, dog at my side.
The tall grasses that line the path rattle in the breeze, brown and brittle. It hasn’t rained in a month. Things are lush along the stream, but I haven’t gotten that far yet.
But here is something: some kind of weed, growing right at the edge of the gravel. It’s stem is more like a stalk, thick as my thumb, and it tops my shoulder. Its root must tap a source the grasses can’t touch.
The baby sleeps. I try to set her down but she senses the shift. No one else is home so I indulge in this: I lay her down on my bed and curl around her. With my pinkie in her mouth she stays asleep. The pad of my finger rests on the roof of her mouth and she pulls hard with her tongue from where she floats in the stream between awake and asleep. I close my eyes and go there too.
When I return to myself, there’s a cramp in my wrist and I know I should start dinner and more than anything right now I’d rather be reading a book. So I wiggle out of her grip. She stirs. I tense. I don’t want to be stuck here.
But her hand comes to her face and finds her mouth. Reflex. Instinct. She doesn’t part her lips but the surface tension parts and she slips back down into the deep. I watch her breathe then ease myself out of the room.
I sit. My mind is an empty room, paneled with floor to ceiling with windows, forming an octagonal shape. No, not octagonal…but…some other -agonal…one that means: uncountable. I sit in the center of the room.
Outside the windows it’s black. Side to side, above, below. Blacker than black. Delineated in space but part of space. I breathe and breathe and breathe.
When I open my eyes I see my legs crossed in front of me. The couch in shadow to my right.
If there’s a door to this room it doesn’t have a knob. But I can still go through.