by Elizabeth Niarchos Neukirch
I take my coffee warm and black with three spoonfuls of sugar. The granules melt slowly, white flecks dissolving into stained water. Warm. I am wearing a robe. The robe is warm. Outside the sun is resisting the horizon. When Kyle and I found out I was pregnant, we went to a pediatrician who said I should stop drinking so much caffeine.
I dump another heaping teaspoon of sugar into my mug. Then another. Outside, the sunlight begins its daily assault through the trees we planted last year. They’re still saplings, not big enough to provide shelter from anything. I get up and close the kitchen blinds. When I sit back down there’s no visible trace of sugar in my coffee. Like it was never there at all.
The phone rings. It’s mother again. “Do you want Mike to help you pack the last few things up?” I don’t. I think it’s funny that she refers to my father by his first name when she’s talking to me. “I’ll be over in an hour,” she says, and hangs up before I can argue.
She’s been calling every day, hoping I’ll ask for help. I’ve been taking my time getting everything moved out of the room. That’s all. It took longer to put it together. Kyle and I spent at least seven hours on the wallpaper alone, pasting rows of bears and balloons on top of one another until the adhesive was dry and cracking between our fingers. The corners are curling up from the wall now. We weren’t cut out for wallpapering.
By the time mother arrives the coffee is cold. She has makeup on and everything. I pour my mug into the sink and ask if she wants me to put another pot on. She wraps her arms around me and says nothing. She smells like baby powder and hairspray. I’m still wearing the robe and I don’t know what I smell like.
“I thought you said Kyle was taking care of it,” she says.
“He is.” We start walking upstairs. There’s nowhere else to go. “He’s perfectly capable of doing it. There’s nothing wrong with him,” I say.
The other night I couldn’t sleep. I found Kyle on the floor of the room, using a stuffed bear as a pillow.
Mother reaches the door before me and pushes it open. The room is dark. She draws the curtains and sunlight blasts onto the boxes scattered across the floor. A mobile on the ceiling casts an undulating pattern of reflected light on the wall over the crib.
“Kyle spent a long time on that,” I say, pointing at it and squinting. “He’s really good at that. At building things.”
She takes a step towards it and crosses her arms. “It would have been perfect,” she says.
I nod. Mother helped me pick out the frilly pink comforter and sheet set when we found out it was a girl. In one of the ultrasound images she looked the perfect lady, sitting upright at high tea. Kyle made a photocopy of the image at work and drew in the teacup, a fancy hat. When I saw it tacked on the fridge I laughed so hard I almost peed.
“Thank God we can take the sheets back. They were expensive,” I say.
Mother peers into a half-empty box and drags it next to the shelves across the room. On the side of the box is written “Salvation Army.” She places stacks of books inside it, three or four at a time. The titles of the books are things like Mary-Ann Takes a Bath and Jane’s First Birthday.
I was going to name her Violet.
Mother continues working with her effortless efficiency. I run a hand along the side of the crib. The wood is smooth. Kyle and I spent hours checking for nonexistent splinters. Inside the crib is a folded blanket from his sister. We can’t donate it; she knit it herself. Maybe she’ll want it back. But probably we’ll have to convince her to take it. Another difficult negotiation.
I sit down and watch mother as she starts on the next shelf. My hand absently trails down one leg of the crib until it reaches the break. I tripped walking into the room one day. Wasn’t even carrying anything. Tripped over my own feet and fell into the crib. Kyle tried to fix it, but the glue that dried outside the leg is still visible.
Mother turns to look at me and I think she’s going to say something. She just smiles that tight smile people offer when there’s nothing left to be said. Kyle and I smile that way, too. When we get another casserole from a neighbor. Another card. When someone apologizes because they asked about her and didn’t know.
I crawl over to my mother on hands and knees, aware of the vast space beneath me. We clear the rest of the shelves. As I fold the last box closed, I realize we forgot the bear. It isn’t in the room.
“Have you seen the bear?”
Mother shakes her head.
I nod. There’s nothing left to do in the room. We go downstairs and Mother says something about groceries or Mike getting home late from work tonight. It doesn’t matter. She hugs me again, enveloping me in her clean, coiffed smell. Then she’s gone.
I’ve been napping on the couch. Today I’m industrious; I make it upstairs to the bedroom. Kyle left the curtains open. Outside the sun is where it always is by this time. Light infiltrating the room. Warm. I lay on the bed. The bed is warm. An oblong patch illuminated from the windows. I roll over to push aside the mound of pillows we keep there and then I see the bear. Nestled among the rest. Its little eyes catching the light.
I pull it to my chest. I think of Kyle placing it here for safekeeping.
I hold on.