“Mama,” my small daughter says, as she stands beside my bed. “I think I need you change my diaper.”
“Okay,” I say, groaning and tearing myself from sleep. It is 3:30 a.m. I follow her into her room, where she lets me pick her up and put her on the changing table. Trying not to fully wake either of us, I quietly slip off her old diaper and replace it. Placing her gently back into the center of my bed, where I know she’ll fall asleep again, I slip in beside her and lie down. Within minutes, her breathing settles into the sweet, wet rhythm of small children.
Her knee rests just below my right shoulder blade, while her foot gently twitches on my hip. I lie in bed, listening to the even snores of my spouse, but my brain and hungry stomach will not rest.
Quietly, I tear myself from the warmth of the family bed and slip downstairs to write.
It’s 4:30 a.m. and the doors slams shut behind her. Baba’s small and heavy footsteps scurry to my side of the bed.
“Mama, Mama!” she says. Half-asleep, I have already moved over to help her climb in and she does so, settling in under the blankets. “Mama, Mama,” she says again, clutching my neck and face obsessively before rolling over and thrusting her backside into my chest.
“Hi Baba,” I say. “Now, shhh…it’s too early.”
“Mama,” she says, pulling my arm over her. “You put your hand on my tummy.”
“Okay,” I say, settling in with my arm around her as my heart melts. The warmth of her relaxes me, just as the warmth of my much-missed cat would when he would curl up next to my side.
My eyes just close.
“Mama!” Baba says impatiently. “Don’t touch me.” She returns my arm to me, indignant at my daring.
Baba stands up in her sleep sack and balances precariously on the rocking chair. She reaches out for the light, which I have just switched back on in order to let her turn it off again. She twists the switch, then settles again in my lap and throws her head back into mine.
“What song will we sing?” I ask her, as I always do.
She doesn’t answer.
“See saw?” I ask.
“No,” she says, giggling.
“No, no ABC song.”
“NO TWINKLE TWINKLE.”
“How about horsies?”
She’s silent for a moment and I take my chance.
“Hush-a-bye,” I sing. “Don’t you cry. Go to sleep, my little baby.”
“No baby!” Baba says agreeably.
“When you wake, you will have all the pretty little horses.”
“Blacks and greys, dapples and bays–“
“All the pretty little hor-es-ses.”
“No horses,” she says, snuggling into my armpit. “No horses.”
The children are a mix of ages, from four to seven, but their thin limbs sprawl equally across the newly painted merry-go-round. Merry-go-rounds are now an artifact of time, an icon of the American landscape that has been sacrificed to this new world of safety and caution, and Baba has never seen one before. Despite all of my efforts to distract her to slides and swings in the toddler-sized playground, she goes running towards it, arms outstretched like a tiny fun-loving zombie.
When they see her, the children on the merry-go-round drag their feet in the dirt to bring it to a screechy halt. “Wait,” says a little girl with brown hair that is desperately escaping from her fat braid. “There’s a baby.” She pulls on the metal bars, dangling her tiny bottom over the edge, her hips moving back and forth with all the energy of someone who hasn’t yet figured out how to sit still.
“Baba, no-no,” I say desperately trying to distract Baba. “No-no, Baba!” There are no harnesses on the merry-go-round and she’s certainly not stable enough to cling to the bars. Everything in the New Parent Handbook says that this is a very, very bad idea.
“No-no!” Baba says, cheerily.
“It’s okay,” a young boy says, his words slurred by his missing lower front tooth. “We can push her.”
“We’ll go slow,” the girl promises. “Since she’s a baby.”
“Alright,” I say, then help Baba scramble up onto the merry-go-round. The other children part, making room for her tiny body in that amorphous way that groups of children move when they are en masse. Baba stands in the middle, smiling and babbling in her joy of being part of the group. “Sit down!” I tell her, thinking that at least if she sits, she shouldn’t smack too many body parts when the merry-go-round begins to move. I climb on with her and sit cross-legged on the cold metal, secretly pleased at my flexibility.
And let’s be honest, it’s not just pleased. I’m delighted to have an excuse to sit on a merry-go-round again. It was my favorite playground equipment and Baba has given a fabulous excuse to pretend I’m a child.
“Is she ready?” the brown-haired girl asks. “Because my dad has taught us the right speeds.”
“That’s right,” the boy says. “For babies, you have to go really slow.” He hops down and begins gently pushing us around, at a speed that would make the teacup ride at Disneyland yawn in boredom. “And for older babies, you can go less slow. And for a little older than that, you can go walk speed. And then, when it’s only older kids, you can go fast. And then, when you’re five, you can go super fast.”
“And when you’re six,” the girl interrupts, “you can go super-mega-awesome-fast.”
The moment is right. The days of slow percolation are over, as the months of procrastination disguised as thinking have finally come to a close. The notebook with the rapidly jotted notes is taken from the commuter bag and consulted, with a final nod of satisfaction at the contents.
The writer has an hour, a simple hour before her train pulls into the terminal, before she has to turn into someone else for an entire work day. She competes for a seat by the window, in a carriage with few people in it, in the hopes that no one will talk to her. The train whishes-whishes-whishes as it speeds along the miles, and she focuses, thinking about the plots and the scenes and the characters that she’s imagined for weeks prior to this final moment.
At last, she begins. She opens her computer and clicks open the program that she’ll spend the next year working with, gnashing her teeth at, sweating blood on. It pops up a dialogue box.
“File name?” it asks.
“Crap,” she mutters. The entire process grinds to a halt, while precious minutes tick by.
“I don’t know how he did it. Our father used to take us fishing and let us wander through the woods after we got bored of it. We’d fish for maybe twenty minutes, and then we were off for our adventures. Just free, like. But now I don’t understand how you could do it.”
We are lying in bed with the lights out. It’s late and I can feel the sleep drawing on me, which is just the hour when my Beloved is most prone to reminiscing. “Maybe he secretly hoped you’d be eaten by bears.” I suggest. “I know the kind of child you were.”
“Ireland doesn’t have bears.” He pauses and thinks. “Or snakes. Or large cats.”
“This sounds like a very pansy sort of island. Don’t you have any real predators? What about wolverines? Or maybe wolves?”
“There’s badgers. But they’re mostly underground during the day.”
“Badgers! I said real predators. Not ones that just slap their tails at you.”
“Badgers can really hurt you!”
“What about foxes? They have sharp little teeth.”
“Oh, those would be well off, gone before you even saw them.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fox, outside of a zoo. Isn’t that sad?” I pause. “You must at least have seals. Or selkies. Or trolls.”
“That’s hilarious.” The only sound in the dark is the cadence of fingernails scratching against a day-old beard. “Well,” he says, his voice hitting that special soprano pitch only available to Irish men, “we do have nettles. You’d be sorry if you ran into a patch of them, to be sure you would.”
Behind the counter, José is fast at work, with an efficiency that I adore. Bagels fly in his hands, as he takes the orders of six people at a time, his hands and his mouth seemingly disconnected. He slathers jelly on a whole wheat bagel while I tell him I’d like my low-fat cream cheese on a pumpernickel.
“Toasted? Next, next, next!”
There is a man talking to him, near him, his sentences loud and choppy. The man is loud, so loud that I hold my hand up to my ear to block out his booming voice. No matter which way he turned, his voice echoed off the counters, the walls, the neat lines of refrigerated shelf.
José turns his back on him and the man turns to me. “Fat is good for you, you know. It’ll fill you up until lunchtime.”
“Mmmn,” I said, not eager to converse with a stranger under the best of circumstances, which the current situation certainly was not. The long night of teeth and milk and interrupted sleep was not nearly far enough behind me.
“No, really,” the man continues. “They’re doing studies on it now. They say all the problems now are with carbs, with gluten.”
“Oh?” I ask, feeling a creeping rage at this stranger. “Change my order then, please. I’ll have the low-carb bagel. With low-fat cream cheese. And some privacy.”
José laughs and turns, his hands pulling out my dark bagel. He grabs a sheet of tin foil, his right hand already reaching for the knife.
The boy is tow-headed, in the classic sense, his hair blonde in the way that you only see on young children. He crowds in to the park bench with his brother, who might have been a twin, and his small sister. They all stare at Baba, from ever-decreasing distances.
Baba, for her part, stares back at them. She hasn’t had much experience with children that can walk, and she finds them interesting, nearly as interesting as standing up. The girl, a curly-headed two-year-old reaches out to touch Baba on the face, while her brother repeats his question impatiently.
“Is it a girl or a boy?”
“She’s a girl,” I say, uncertain how to navigate this minefield of children. Near me, his mother shakes her head, while his sister pokes Baba in the cheek. “She’s pretty!”
“But she’s wearing blue!”
“Really?” his mother asks him. She stands a few feet away, ready to swoop in the second her daughter crosses a line. We had met just a few moments before, strangers bonded in a quick alliance against greater numbers. “Really? You know we’ve talked about–“
“I like blue very much,” I say quickly. “I’m a girl, aren’t I?”
“Yes,” he says, looking at his brother for confirmation. The other boy nods, shoving his hands into camouflage pants pockets.
“I would even say blue is my favorite color.”
He digests this for a moment, then speaks again. “But, are you sure she’s a girl?”
The crow-like bird hops along a wall built high on top of a mountain, craning its head toward us, the curved, black beak opening and closing hopefully.
“No way. Ravens are huge. That bird is small,” I say, clearly demonstrating my expertise in all things avian.
My Beloved laughs. “They’re little! Like that one.”
“Don’t you know about the ones at the Tower of London? Huge. At least three feet tall. But not as big as that eagle I saw when I was running on the beach in Washington. That one was at certainly four feet tall.”
“Four feet! No way. They don’t come that big. That would be a gigantic bird.”
“It was gigantic. I was afraid it was going to eat me. It’s one of the scariest things that’s ever happened to me.”
“Four feet.” He laughs again. “Was it standing on its tippy-talons or something?”
“I swear it was at least four feet tall.”. I pull out my phone, determined to prove my point immediately.
His baritone giggle ripples out of his chest, filling the cavern of the car. “Tippy-talons,” he says. “That’s a good one. Tippy-talons!”