Nonfiction, Parenting

Beyond the Carousel.

Then, at dusk, we empty into evening, a downtown restaurant at our backs, an army of dragon paddleboats bobbing on the brackish water before us, and you in your father’s arms. On the Harborplace steps, we part ways with well-wishing relatives, watching them recede in the warm, black crowd. Night catches all the day’s promise in a satchel of tawny sky, tossing sparkles of memory and hope high above us. I gaze out at them glittering on the water’s dark surface as reality takes hold: we are alone.

The sensation is rare and foreign. It is not often that we are nuclear: father and mother and child. It should mean serenity or a kind of relief that for moments–however brief–we are a convincing spectacle of togetherness. But I am on the verge of detonation.

I do not know what to do with my hands when you aren’t holding one, don’t know quite where to look, if not at the damp and dewy wisps of hair against your forehead, if not at the oversized molars that loom so large whenever you yawn or cry.

You are too far away, up there. High in your father’s embrace, you are taller than I am. Occasionally, when he holds you, your downward gaze is regal. You’re an heiress deigning to acknowledge commoners. You’re a starling in flight, bored with the bits of breathing color below.

I give you both a wide berth, walking several paces behind, and wonder if you are too young to believe that the grass on your father’s side will feel lusher between your toes, will grow softer blades and brighter buttercups.

Tonight you are two. I am thinking of the way you used to belly-crawl, dragging yourself across the floor of my old apartment like a soldier wriggling under trip-wire; the determined set of your jaw when you finally hitched yourself up on all fours; the wideness of your eyes the first time you tasted a teething biscuit; the way you wailed as those pearly rounds poked through the pink of your gums; how you burbled and hummed–how you seethed!–before you could voice your demands. There is little left of the infant in you; your every gesture now is precise, the features of your face settled and firmly defined. You’re still aren’t talking much, but you make certain that we all understand you. I see you now as you will be at twelve, as you will be at twenty.

But then, I am always so far ahead of myself.

Before long, I close the space between us, ready to reprise my role as a merry member of a modern family. I play it well. In lockstep with your dad, skirting the Harbor’s perimeter, I am thinking of the day when he’ll be gone. I am turning the words over like flash cards, studying to answer the questions you’re too young to ask: Daddy has to go back to work. But he’ll be back. Remember? He always comes back. In three days, these are the exact words I’ll say to you. You will look up at him and frown, climb from my lap to his, rest your head on his chest and listen, as though recording his heartbeat to be played back as a lullaby. I will blame myself, because I understand exactly how much I am to blame.

And I am angry already, exhausted, though no casual observer could detect it.

I am too busy grinning at your pealing laughter, too busy pretending the bond between parents is as effortless as the bond of daughters and dads.

This is your first trip to the Harbor. It pleases me to see that it dazzles you just as it did me, when I was little. Your mouth is agape, your eyes brim with awe, a silver tiara enhaloes your massive afro puff, and for a moment, I wish that the time-space continuum would still until your father and I learn to make optimal choices, until you are old enough to ascertain how much of all this is an act.

Unbeknown to you, we are searching for a carousel.

You and your father tend to ride them. It is a ritual that began with his first visit to us after we moved here from Michigan. I am always asked to join you, and I always decline. You need a tether to each other that isn’t me. Perhaps neither of you will ever know how much I enjoy watching you whirl when I’m not there.

It may be selfish to admit, but I prefer you to myself. I believe he does, too.

We walk the length of the straightaway, passing party boats, a sparsely populated Italian ice hut, a closed smoothie stand, before curving toward the place where we expect to find the carousel.

It’s no longer there–or at least we don’t see it. Up ahead, there are dense crowds of volleyballers, spiking returns under harsh, high light. The sand under their feet is littered with Newports smoked down to the nub, with hard pebbles of debris. We stop before reaching them, unsure how to proceed.

You are still a lit torch burning from the inside out, eyes still dancing as they take in the water, the people, your parents and their touching shoulders and their smiles that work overtime to hide artifice from the camera that captures us all.

But when you are twelve or you’re twenty, I will explain to you how difficult it becomes for adults to pretend. The ease of make-believe is only accessible to children. I will tell you how fully I tried to commit myself to the ruse, how even the hope felt false, how only our friendship and shared adoration of you was honest. But I’ll refrain from describing what it is to spend years lying slack at the end of a line, how every breath is painful as you wait to be reeled in and believe that the hook from which you hang is love.

When you ask about your second birthday, I will say you spent it luxuriating in your parents’ affection. And at its end, we all sat in silent wonder, each at unexpected destinations.

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Nonfiction, Parenting

Crushes and Sundry: Advice in Advance of Your Second Birthday.

Beloved, as easily as if we were following a template of icing and gingerbread, we’ve erected an affectionate home. Lips brush skin here, as if it were canvas. I feel the daily tug of your arms ’round my neck. On occasion, out of nowhere, you place your palms on either side of my face and force my head forward so that we are eye to eye. You stare like a clairvoyant, hold my skull like a crystal ball, and kiss me square on the lips for as long as you see fit. Mmmwah! you exclaim afterward, wearing an expression that suggests you’ve just confirmed something for yourself.

It is not that you are loved; this needs no mouth-to-mouth reiteration. You feel love when I stroke your hair near the long, even part your granny has made. You feel it in the careful cornrows she weaves of your cottony tresses at night, hear it in our clicking, meticulous searches through a barrette tin for the perfect, color-matching clips to fasten to your ends. You are certain of it when you march up with urgent eyes and our hands stop, mid-motion, to direct food into your mouth rather than our own. And you listen with contentment to the melody of Ls, collect the uttered loves, stringing them ’round your neck like a strand of singing birds. You wrangle what’s left into a cage: love as a raging aviary. When that is overcrowded, the excess curls and crawls above our toes, wraps our wrists and stains our fingers: love as an intricate mendhi.

No, you needn’t kiss my lips to confirm my love–but you do it often, smiling secretly, knowingly, a punchline tucked behind your pucker. Perhaps you really are a seer; you understand that lips are to be read. In the blink of time between the buss and sound effect, you’ve ascertained a future.

Mine are the first in a line of lips you’ll kiss. A mother’s is merely the first of the many loves you’ll feel.

I will tell you this: crushes are the stones that skip seven times before sinking. They are never too heavy; they linger on a beautifully rippling surface. And when they leave your sight, any sadness you feel fades quickly.

Consider the older boy you met last week in Old Navy. He was four and alarmingly free, having broken away from his beleaguered parents and flirted his way through the children’s section, favoring brown girls with wrangled clouds of hair. I noted how close he got to the girl nearer his age, how he circled her, eager to impress, and how reticent her banter seemed by comparison.

When he lost her to the checkout line, he set his sights on you, bounding toward us with intense eyes and a delirious smile. This, you will find, is a tactic of boys at all ages.

Hi! he cried. Hi! you chirped back. He asked your name, asked your age, asked if you wanted to play. Hi, you said again, adding the string of nonsensical chatter you always employ back home. There was a pause when you’d exhausted your vernacular, and it was rapidly filling with the helpless disappointment that attends all language barriers.

Mmmwah! you declared, leaning toward him.

This wasn’t your first time attempting befriend an unfamiliar child with a kiss. You’d tried it on a tiny girl at the library and I’d pulled you gently back as horrified confusion rushed to her face.

This time, you tried something more intercontinental, opting for the cosmopolitan air kiss so popular in parts of Europe. This boy was similarly bewildered (but definitely not horrified), as I rushed you toward the flip-flop section.

When you’re older, I’ll assure you that it isn’t an error to make the first move but in the rare case when you do, it’s imperative you do not make the second.

The four-year-old we’d left behind caught up to us. He only looked away from you for a moment, and that was to turn his adorable face up toward me to ask in a tone both accusing and curious, “Where you going?”

I started talking to him like I would someone my own age. (I’ll admit having you hasn’t made my interactions with other children any less awkward.) But as I launched into a lengthy explanation about all the areas in the store we hadn’t hit yet, he was inching closer and closer to you. Before I knew what was happening, faster than I could react, he’d kissed your cheek.

Technically, it was your first non-family kiss. Technically, you and the four-year-old boy in Old Navy had just gone through an entire arc of courtship rituals in less than three minutes.

When you’re twelve, you will think I’m crazy, but this was a major McFly moment. In a flash, the future was now.

You will know your wiles early, will wield them with coyness, not cruelty. Men won’t be the mystery to you that they are to your mother. But seeing your own beauty as clearly as I do will not come as easily. It is simple for me: you are startling, the same as your father was. One minute, you’ve the stock cuteness all children hold. The next, at an angle, with a twinkle of eye or a baring of teeth, you are gorgeous in ways that will keep me up nights well into your thirties.

I am telling you this, my wondrous girl, because you’ll need to know it. In nine days, you’ll be two, and in what will feel like the space between sunrise and nightfall, you’ll be twenty. The rules do not change:

Be equal parts open and aloof. Do not falter in following your agenda; when you are valued, you are always followed forward. If an action is objectionable, protest then and there, but never pretend offense where there is none (you didn’t yelp at the kiss and because of that, neither did I). Mind your mother; more often than not, she knows of what she speaks. But above all, pay attention. Part ways when the time seems right, and do not think to tarry. 

The fact is that the time and the person will come from which you will never wish to part.

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