(b. March 19, 2020)
ONE OF THE NURSES held you up in the air so we could see you for the first time. You screamed, all mauve and pruned, your arms outstretched, eyes squeezed shut. You looked like a jack-in-the-box. You were perfectly healthy, nothing was wrong, although there’d been a bleed, the placenta tore from the uterine wall, and if it had gotten worse, we wouldn’t have been able to do anything. You had a liver, two lungs, and a heart that would never again beat so fast. At home, you stared at the madrone tree outside and the play of its long, shiny leaves. Like any other infant, at first you could barely see. Later, you learned to smell the flowers in people’s yards, and we told you their beautiful names. And sometimes you pressed your nose to the skirt of your mother’s dress, its floral print, and inhaled, trying to smell those flowers too. If you saw something whose name you had learned, you would shout it, delighted: dog, bird, truck.
We didn’t know what was happening. We could feel our brains softening, we said. We both hated our jobs and feared that this bitterness would be among your first thoughts one day when you remembered us. We had grown up in the same town, had known each other for most of our lives; we shared so many memories, and wondered if someday you would find this quaint. Before you were born, we used to say we didn’t know if we ought to have kids. As you slept, we would watch videos of you on our phones. You learned to toddle around, soft belly first, wrists tilted out.
A lot of time had passed. Ten years earlier, in Baltimore, we rented a car for Labor Day weekend and drove for many hours until we reached the Outer Banks. A solemn woman I worked with had said it was a good thing we were visiting now, since soon those islands would all wash away. I nodded, grimaced. I wasn’t sure what soon meant. When we first arrived at the run-down motel, it was too dark to see how narrow the sandbar was—just 150 yards across in places, with wide spans of specular water on either side. In the middle of the day, driving in the fierce sun, you have to trust that you won’t crash—it’s dizzying, the way light glares off the sand and the waves. The sea was much gentler and warmer than the Pacific. We swam out and let ourselves drift under the immense, empty sky.
Sometimes we felt seized by happiness. You would lean forward, your pink tongue stuck out, and kiss us, and your stuffed rabbit, and photos of other babies in books. You splashed around in the bathtub, shrieking and watching to see what we thought, if this was allowed. You learned to laugh when other people laughed, and to say Oh no, and Oh wow.
We had moved back to California, close to where we grew up. It was one of the hottest weeks of the year, with smoke from the wildfires blowing in from both the north and south. You were about five months old, crawling but not yet walking, and we had brought some floor fans into your room, and an air purifier, though we weren’t sure it would actually do anything. In the morning, when an even coat of white ash covered the car, I pulled the lever beside the steering wheel to spray some fluid and wipe the windshield clean. We tried not to take you outside much; even after ten minutes, our heads would start to ache. Night after night, we read you the same bedtime story. After playing in the street all day, we read, a young boy pocketed a snowball. For tomorrow, he thought. But when he checked again, after his bath, his pocket was empty. That night, the boy dreamed that the snow outside had all melted away; but when he woke up, his dream was gone. The snow was still everywhere.
The light in the room would fade. You sat in my lap, listening. The boy called to his friend from across the hall, and they went out together into the deep, deep snow. We would sing you a song, and then you would sleep.
JONATHON ATKINSON teaches high school English, and creative writing with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. His writing has appeared in Bright Wall / Dark Room and The Third Rail. He lives in Alameda, CA, where he is at work on a novel.