May 2, 2018 by The Citron Review
by Patricia Fuentes Burns
It has been decades since I’ve gotten up this early, but I learned when raising my own children that the time before waking them is the most precious part of the day. Time to make coffee, clear my mind from the weight of sleep, stand still and alone for just a few moments. And now, I need the time to also warm my joints out of their dull ache, practice my smile meant for children, find the things in my daughter’s house that are out of sight—the teapot on a high shelf over the stove, covered in a sticky layer of dust, the cutting board under a stack of cookbooks.
Once my daughter’s girls are up, for nearly an hour it is all tight braids, matching socks, missing shoes, smeared toothpaste, toast and jam, the school things slipped into their monogrammed backpacks. The girls argue over ribbons and head bands, make faces at each other, cry and complain, change their minds about breakfast.
They have dreams and sometimes nightmares to share, opinions about what radio station to play, homework that should have been done the night before and forms that were due last week, sports uniforms to gather. On and on it goes, so many plates in the air at such a young age, and then suddenly, they are out, running for the bus stop a few doors over. They wave to me, trip, recover. The doors jerk to a close, the bus rolls away, and in the silence of the house, I miss it all.
There are pictures everywhere. My daughter has put them in matching frames and hung them in grid patterns throughout the house. Children’s faces, mostly–infants, pig-tailed toddlers, toothy smiles on the first day of school. The girls, nieces and nephews, also herself, her siblings, her husband when they were children. It’s hard to know who is who sometimes, but there are bucktoothed grins, wrinkles of the nose, and widow’s peaks I recognize. I try to pull some traits forward —her husband’s boyhood lazy eye now only apparent when he’s tired, my daughter’s dimples that I loved, in the last year turned to creases down her thin cheeks.
There are things in my daughter’s house I didn’t notice when I was here only for celebratory dinners, quick coffees before errands, babysitting so my daughter and her husband could have a little time. She has drawers of lacy underwear in all different colors. She keeps her girls’ baby teeth in little wooden boxes on her dresser. She seems to read only books in series. And her husband has enough white undershirts to go without doing laundry for a month. In the family room he keeps thick books about history, a box of cigars I’ve never seen him smoke.
The hospital hallways are blue and shiny, and seem colder than the outdoors, but the girls don’t care. They run and reach out to swipe the walls with the tips of their fingers, skip into my daughter’s room, and climb on her without noticing that she winces. They demand her waning attention. A fall from a swing! The new classmate speaks French! The neighbors got a puppy!
Her husband sits in a blocky armchair and nods, smiles a little, closes his eyes for a few seconds at a time. He’s shifted his work schedule to start and end early. I’m perched on the edge of the bed, gripping the sheets, not saying much. The visit is for the girls. Mommy will be home soon. She will be just fine.
I can never find my way out of the maze of hallways, but my daughter’s husband is good this way and leads us. I hold the girls’ hands. It has gotten dark while we were inside and they are quiet now. In the car, I sit next to him, in my daughter’s spot. There’s no news, nothing to discuss, and even if there were we’d hide it from the girls. He sighs at every stoplight. I want to reach over and pat his face, but he is not my son.
I sleep in the family room where the windows are bare and the shadows of leafless trees swaying in the wind look like people moving with great slow effort. My hips and shoulders dig into the thin mattress of the sofa bed. I switch sides often, facing the windows, then the wall of photos, then back to the windows. I imagine my daughter in her hospital room, all elbows and knees and frail skin, not moving, sleeping more deeply than she ever has.
It was always in bed at night that I felt my babies move the most—those sharp little elbows and heels pushing outward and slowly moving across my belly. I followed those bumps with my fingers, pushing gently against them to feel the strong baby pushing back. Back and forth we pressed into each other, until we both tired and fell asleep.
Patricia Fuentes Burns has published fiction in TriQuarterly, Quarter After Eight, Another Chicago Magazine, The GSU Review, and Quarterly West. Her work is also forthcoming in Jellyfish Review and Grace in Darkness, an Anthology of Fiction by D.C. Women. She earned an MFA from George Mason University and has won several awards for fiction and poetry. Patricia lives in Arlington, Virginia with her husband and three daughters.