Listen Nicole VanderLinden
Listen: when you were three weeks old, the baby monitor went off, your cries coming into our room as if from the bottom of a well, and I stumbled up to get you. I wanted to do anything else. The floor was cold; the cat woke up. I took you to bed and laid you down next to me, you in your flannel pajama sack, and I pulled my shirt up so you were at my breast, skin to skin. We didn’t have a rhythm back then, you and me. Your toothless gums pinched me, and so I reached over and took your little arm, and I pinched you back. Your eyes were closed, and I wondered what your father would think. You wouldn’t remember this, of course, but are you surprised?
I know. A confession from a mother to her child. I can see you rolling your eyes, because now we do have a rhythm, and the beat of it is this: we’re each sorry we’re known by the other so well.
Once, you had a different name. Your father and I started off wrong, it turns out, about who you are. So now you have your real name, which you chose, and when someone compliments it, I take the credit. I say, “Yes, it’s beautiful, right?” But listen: I did cry, just once, for your old name. That was the summer you were nine, when your name was new and we remodeled the kitchen — remember? Your father and I were doing dishes in the bathroom sink, one dish at a time, nothing touching. It took so long that I worried we’d divorce over it. I rinsed a cup under faucet water and said your first name very softly. Not even the cat could hear. Your first name and your middle name, which are gone now, and your last, which isn’t. You’d call it a guilt move to bring this up, but did you know you were named after my first boyfriend?
Okay, I know. Your name is not my story. In that story, I’m peripheral. In this story — my story — it was early, and you were a toddler. The sun wasn’t up, but you were, and the floor was cold again. You’d ditched your pajama sacks for footies, and my robe was too thin, the thermostat set low. You padded around the big wooden block in the middle of the living room, the one with all the pointless knobs and levers, the little wire track we ran bright-painted cubes through and called a roller coaster. I wanted it to be your father’s turn to wake up so early, but it wasn’t. It was mine. We were there forever. I lived a whole life watching you in the predawn light, one bleary lamp awake in the corner, as you pulled the blue knob and pushed the red block through the roller coaster and then made me do the same. We’re still there — did you know?
Listen: it seems I owe you an apology. More likely, I owe you a few.
The time I lost you and the children’s museum went into lockdown until someone found you asleep in the Reading Tree. The time you didn’t want to hike anymore in Waimea Falls, stomping along in your swimsuit, your pace downright glacial, and I pulled you aside. I pulled you off the path and over to a grouping of yellow hibiscus, hard enough that you stepped out of your flipflop, and I said that you’d ruined the day. The time I watched another child push you down on the schoolground and into the snow, the hood of your coat twisted over and onto your face, and I asked what you’d done to provoke all of this before I asked if you’d been hurt. The times I played Invisible Earmuffs and pretended I couldn’t hear you.
I know. You’re not surprised.
Listen, though: in the early morning light, I set you in your Elmo chair. I pulled the piano bench over to you, making a little table, and I left you with your favorite show while I went to make you cereal out of millet and egg. The sun was coming up; the cat was curled next to you. I’d been reading about superfoods, and every cell of your body was a miracle. We sang “Chicken Soup with Rice”, you and me, me in the kitchen and you in the living room, waiting for me. “Chicken soup! Chicken soup!” you sang.
When you told me your real name, years later, I told you there wasn’t a name in the world more fitting than the one you’d given yourself. I said it like I should, on the periphery of your story.
When you were three months old, we took you with us to see the Body Worlds exhibit in Chicago. All those human bodies, real but now plasticized, no skin at all, and your real body against me, nestled in a sling, facing inward. It was Easter weekend, and you were wearing a rabbit-eared cap. We weaved through the crowd in a towering hall of the Museum of Science and Industry.
“Are you comfortable, little baby?” I whispered as we moved among the bodies, this one playing tennis and that one riding a plasticized horse. My miniature, my heart against me. “Little baby,” I said and said, “what can I do for you?”
Nicole VanderLinden’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in New Ohio Review, Shenandoah, SmokeLong Quarterly, Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine, and MoonPark Review. She currently serves as associate editor of Colorado Review and is a reader for Ploughshares and the Masters Review. She lives in Iowa City, Iowa, and is working on a short-story collection and finishing her first novel. You can find her at nicolevanderlinden.com and on Twitter @vandanicole.
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