For Stewart

I’m embarrassed by it. The cliché. The first thing I noticed about Stewart was his eyes: I thought they were blue. Or grey. (I was wrong.) They’re bright, like my father’s, another fact I hide. How Stewart’s eyes reminded me of my father’s, right away. How the first thing I thought when I saw him was, I know that light. And then, How do I stay?

We met in a park toward evening. I was early, so I walked the perimeter to bide time. I waited at a corner for the light to change. I stopped to watch a dog bark at an indifferent horse. I think about that time before Stewart arrived. I think about waiting. Circling. How I repeated blocks for nothing. How I avoided the forest behind me.

I think we hugged. I told him about the dog shouting at the stoic horse. I told him I was ready. And then we walked, toward a bridge that led to another. We walked toward the water like young people do—totally sure and resolutely away.

One time, he drew me thirteen miles. We were headed for a rough beach, some outpost drink stand. Another cliché: When we walked, I didn’t feel anything. There were no stones. I didn’t have legs. There was never any water. There were street food smells, cheap CDs, some man laughing, his gold teeth. There were windows, another family’s finished parlor, chalk games withering. And the stuff we said—the words we made wandering.

After we met, I left New York for a week in Vermont. I sent Stewart pictures from the north: a long highway with a cloud lingering; a stalled-out tractor; another dreamed field in the sun. And halved me, mute before it. Halved me, dumbed by stun. That’s what knowing Stewart is like: standing mute in front of the Grand Canyon. Watching nature perform itself blithely. There’s a panorama to it. A hollowing. And I wait, halved, on its promontory, watching the horizon tire.

On a date, Stewart said you know someone by the smell of their forearm. We were in an oak bar drinking. I don’t remember what he said about me—how my sunscreen interpreted. But I remember holding his arm in my hand. I remembering thinking, You could tell this man everything. I didn’t think he was dirty, though we’d walked for miles. I thought he’d never lie, though he has. So, a little drunk, hurt feet on a sticky floor, I picked him. And we started walking, toward a jetty Stewart heard of once.

One year later, Robin came. In the operating room where he was born, I waited alone for a time. A fluorescent light flickered above me. Some nurses twittered nearby. There was a blue crepe wall between me and the rest of me, hiding the place where Robin lay. And then Stewart came, suited. Then Stewart came, eyes watching me. And we waited, silent in that church we were in. We waited for Robin to cross a bridge.

Now, Robin speaks. He says things like, “ball.” “Book.” He points, arm next to his chin, to the street, a dog, nothing at all. He talks on the playground, and I don’t hear him. During the day, when we’re alone, Robin says to me, “Ma-ma-ma,” like a rope that pulls him forward. Like a need. But in the morning, at the end of the day, he says, “Da,” like a hymn. And the word rises. Robin says, “Da,” and a boat buoys.

When we’re alone, I say things to Stewart like, “I’m afraid.” Before we go to sleep, I turn to Stewart and I say, “I’m afraid.” Again. He blinks at me. Stewart says things like, “It’s the morning.” Or, “Let’s look again.” Stewart says things like, “Love is what makes us one thing.” And I think about the forest, the trees. How I lived, circling. How I repeated blocks for nothing, counting shapes lingering.

Later, Robin and I wait for him to come home. We play a wooden xylophone to kill time. I know there are patterns in music to be made, that you can make these things resonate. But I’m not good enough to do it. I make loud repercussions with sound. Somewhere, all the notes fall down. Robin watches me bang a tune the walls give back. Robin watches me cacophony. And we wait for Stewart to come home. We wait for Stewart.

My husband says things like, “We’re never going to end.” He lies. There’s a world where I circle a block after him. There’s a time when I wait at a corner for a light to change and it diminishes. I wait inside an unlit church, at the top of a hollow Grand Canyon. It’s evening. I wait, on a promontory, having seen things.

Tide.

Last May, I slept on my side. Robin due soon, I faced the door to his room, unlatched and empty. Each night, I thought someone came, stood there, and waited. Only the boundaries of him moved, like water. He never said anything. Beyond him, some better night kept going on, and I wondered how I got there, to where constellations made a net for catching.

When I was young, I ran. I was on a team for running. My coach used to say, I should have been a hurdler. I should have stepped over every plastic obstacle like a tall animal, indifferent to barriers. I should have been a long jumper. I should have launched off asphalt and shut my eyes, ignorant of the dirt that passed under. But I didn’t, because I was afraid. One May morning before a cold meet, I caught a heel on a hurdle and fell, face-first, into a painted track. I sat, rocked, thinking, I fell over. It’s over. I sat, afraid, while the other athletes passed.

In the bath, Robin plays with fear. He turns his back to me, and I watch the water make runnels down his spine. His hair lays flat on his back as he moves his head closer, closer to where room becomes water. He says something to the edge before he dunks his head, and then goes under, a little diver, a little further away from me. And for a moment, my kid’s in water. For a moment, my kid can’t see. When he pops up, freaked, he wears the bath like a mask, all wet and clear and racing. And he grins, sure he wins, sure the water has little to do with him.

Stewart’s like this. Like kids, he runs with his eyes closed, like glass never existed. When he and Robin play outside, there are no trees or roots or wires. There are no strangers or dogs or ticks. Stewart lives. Inside a body that’s his, his arm cuts, then bleeds, then stops. He watches hurt like science: curious, but uninvolved; like his body works, and he’s pleased. Stewart lives.

“I think, if I were pregnant…,” he says, and I listen to what follows, but I don’t really listen. I believe him when he says he’d greet it fearlessly. I believe him when he says, despite the visits, the rules, the dim shades of another grainy ultrasound, he’d believe the body works. He believes the body works out, like things. But I don’t, because I’m afraid.

When I was pregnant, I wondered all the things I could do wrong. Drink this. Eat that. Move fast. I wondered what ball I could set rolling that might strike down every pin, game over. Before Robin was born, I’d make Stewart park. Behind some bad café, some low field, I’d sit, sobbing, sorry Robin was upside down. Sorry Robin’s placenta was under his feet, like a mat. Sorry he’d be early, pulled this side before he was done sleeping. And we’d drive back, slow, while the other cars passed.

When we learned Robin would be a brother, we were in another pharmacy, but under different lights. Cold, these were blue, and I looked older. I kept watching a woman that looked like me move in the mirror. I kept thinking, If I were pregnant… If I were pregnant. And then, This one’s different. I know what to do. I’m the mother.

This one is different. This one likes to hide his face. Last week, while the nurse searched the night of another ultrasound, we watched his constellation build. One hand, two… We watched his skull shapes shift, another under water infant.

The nurse said, “Here’s his spine, like a stalk.” And she traced the ledge.

“Here are his kidneys, like clouds. See?” And she pointed to some shape we didn’t know moved.

And then, “Here is his placenta, like a hat. Like a high hat. Like a balloon.” And we sighed. Cried. Stewart and I, lost in the better night of this kid. This kid, holding his balloon.

Later, Stewart gave Robin a bath. I sat in the other room, facing a window. Behind me, they moved, and I could see their sound. Wet and clear and racing. Robin dunked his head. Robin dunked his head again. And Stewart laughed. Stewart put a cup on the faucet and said,

“This is how you balance water.”

And I nodded, alone in the room.

“This is how you balance water,” he said.

And I thought, I know. I know what to do.

Both boys laughed. Both boys, alive in the bath. And I’m the mother.

Night Diary 2.

5:45pm: We leave. Robin sits, flapping his wings, and I push, watching his wings.

We walk past the good dog.

“Dog,” Robin says, pointing to its lean body. And I confirm, “Dog,” to the air in front of me. Both of us—barking nouns at a late afternoon.

We pass the bad dog.

“Dog,” he says. And I repeat, “Dog,” as if there are no questions what things are. As if everything we saw, we understood and could name.

5:47pm: I walk under the block’s trees and watch the branches block the sky. The pattern breaks a vastness I can’t handle alone, and I consider giving it a name. I decide I can’t give it a name.

5:55pm: Robin laughs out loud. Robin coughs. I don’t know why. We pass a baby. We pass a stream. Robin drinks his milk. Robin addresses the stream.

6:10pm: We scale a small slope, and I stop to drink some water. I’m pregnant again, and I remember this often.

I stop to watch Vermont happen on our side. One flat lake and then a hill. Hill. Hill. As if that’s all it does. As if that’s all there was—some knownness. A hill. Hill. Hill.

Robin points to the fence.

“Fence,” I say, holding what keeps us in. “Fence.”

6:25pm: We pass a dog. We race the shade. Robin claps. I don’t know why.

6:30pm: Someone’s coming. I saw him, first, in a park, a few years ago. He’s always just one color: blue, or a red. So far, just one thing: alive, not dead.

Stewart sees us. “Da,” I say, alerting Robin. “Da,” and the word just keeps going—like hills. Like we found the only word that isn’t afraid.

Stewart walks toward us. And I think, for one moment, everyday, “He’s coming.” And, “This has just started.” I think, for one moment, everyday, “This won’t ever end.”

7:40pm: Robin’s food is burning. Robin’s bath is running. I stand in front of the sink while the dishes listen. I stand in front of the sink while the lilac blooms brown. All this sound means nothing bad can happen right this instant. Right this instant, nothing bad is happening.

8:10pm: Robin’s in his crib. There’s no sound in the bedroom where we live. Stewart and I are near the ground, facing up, ahead. We direct words to a borrowed roof:

“How long will she live?”—meaning my mother.

“What do we do next?”—meaning ourselves.

And then the words end, and sleep begins.

9:55pm: I’m awake, but Stewart is sleeping.

12:12am: I’m awake, but Stewart is sleeping. Someone’s here.

If I don’t open my eyes in the room, nothing bad happens. When I open my eyes in the room, something bad happens. Night lives. And I can see nothing enough to name what it is.

Ceiling. Lock. Jamb. Head. What talks? What gives?

2:55am: Robin is awake, but I’m sleeping.

Robin wakes up. Robin wakes up. Robin wakes up.

And I consider the chicken that pecks in his book about pigs. Peck, peck, peck, it says, and the chicken moves its head. Wake, wake, wake, I say, and the mother moves her limbs.

3:00am: Ceiling. Lock. Jamb. Head. What lives?

3:05am: I hold Robin in the middle of the night, in the middle of his room.

I hold Robin in the middle of our night, in the middle of a room.

I hold Robin. I hold Robin. I hold Robin.

Bud.

I don’t remember his name. One morning, he was my close friend. He kept saying, “You okay?” And I’d turn, look at him, and nod.

“I’m okay.”

The morning Robin was born, a woman put her hands on my back. We shut eyes. Stewart was there, but he wasn’t part of this. I thought about two fires, two nests and whether Robin was sleeping. She moved, hands on my arm. I thought about burns, mercury and whether Robin was turning. She left, and then the nurse came in.

Stewart and I must have said goodbye in that room, the one with the flower prints, but I don’t remember. He changed his clothes alone once I left. In the operating room, my friend numbed my legs with one hand on my back. I sat like a doll, stiff at the top and all dumb at the bottom. And I thought: I don’t feel itSomeone move my doll legs for me. And they did, up under a fluorescence.

“You okay?”

“I’m okay.”

Last week, I almost fell off my bike. We were riding and Vermont got pretty. Sun moved from behind a tree, a mountain, and Stewart and I stopped. Lost. For a minute, he didn’t have a face. I didn’t have a body, or a baby, or a head. We were just young and happy and totally blind. All around, spring worked quiet.

Earlier, I sat in the house and estimated the move. Every couch was cornered. Every light, adjusted to a height. The coffee table has one nick. And I ordered my thoughts like a room: Where’s the money? When’s the doctor? What if the birthday rains? What if my mother dies? Behind me, all the birds kept leaving the feeder.

From another room, Robin sounds. Flickering. Stewart and he play a game about tickling. There’s shrieking. A scream. Above that, laughing. Little fingers twist under the blanket. Hands reach for the cracked ceiling. And when I join in, we are one family in one room, young and happy and totally blind. Noise gets out by the window.

When Robin was born, there was no noise. He escaped, but I don’t know when. My friend said something, pointed. And I looked. Looked and nodded. Between us, a blood-specked sheet and some bright light, blinding. I imagine it hit Robin like the sun hit Stewart and I, breaking the need to speak; ruining thought in favor of bright. And that we were quiet then, all of us, like on the path. All these machines working around us. Spring, saying something we still don’t get.

After they left, I looked at my friend. I said his name like a question. “You’re okay,” he said, nodding. And I nodded. Nodded and looked. Looked and smiled, wild. Some light moved. Some person touched me. And then the nurse left. I waited with my knit-up gut, blinking, my doll legs still still, while Stewart hummed to Robin in the other room.

After our game, the one in the room, we have to settle down. Stewart plays the guitar while Robins sits, tipping like a top. Robin climbs sea folds to find Stewart’s sound. He puts his hands on the guitar. And I think two boys, two screams, and I’m the mother. He touches the strings. I think calm down, be sound, and when will this be over. Please don’t be over.

State Song.

“No, no, no,” I say, shaking my head and hands. “It goes: just like little birdies flutter right up to the sky.”

Stewart looks at me, then repeats.

I’ve been teaching my husband lullabies. My husband, who sings. My husband, who makes music. I teach him, broken-voiced and pitchy, in the car on our way to something cold. Robin looks from the backseat, turning his head toward me, then toward Stewart, watching a song bounce like a ball between us.

Vermont is hard. Every freezing weekend in winter, we’d drive sleeping Robin toward some bitter mountain. It doesn’t take long. At the base, we’d park, sit and peer at its body, stiff and interrupted by boulders. If we left, hatted and puffing, it was brief, tucking Robin’s soft limbs into a down suit. We’d take turns breathing on his face, watching his eyes close as a warmth touched him then left.

I didn’t have to teach Stewart Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. He remembered. In March, in April, in whatever month winter kept coming, we sang to Robin as the car cut two fields. Sugar shops steamed on both sides. Robin listened, nodding off. I listened, crying. I had forgotten how simple. One star, on and off, up high. It’s like a diamond, but not. And we wonder.

Two weeks ago, we went home to New Jersey. In the morning, we’d visit the park by my mother’s house, the one with the outdoor stage. When I was three, maybe four, I danced there. I wore blush shoes with an elastic ribbon and a stiff skirt I kept trying to smooth. When I moved, I pushed the little stones under my feet to a place closer to the edge. There, my father sat, taking pictures. There, my mother sat, waving. And now, all the benches split with rot.

One week ago, we went home to Alabama. Stewart brought us to the park where he used to run, alone, jumping off the tops of all the little hills. We put Robin’s feet in the creek with the wet stones. We put his hand on the wisteria, sweet. And he slept as we parked in front of the house where Stewart was young. There, the wet hill slopes fast. There, the street falls down into a river you can’t see.

Vermont is hard. When we left—in April—it snowed. We left lawn tracks at dawn. Betrayed, we drove to the airport in silent escape, as if speaking would give us away. Robin slept as we left the car. We slept as we flew away, leaving a place that never invited us anyway.

The other airports were kind, hot. We left the spot, dragging bags, and stopped in a familiar heat. We closed our eyes like Robin on the mountain, feeling some parent’s breath on our face. Some parent, loving. Some parent, dying. And we brought Robin to the places where we ran, fell, and left; where our families grew and then broke, little split diamonds. And we wonder what we are.

There are lullaby lines people don’t know. I didn’t know. It goes: As your bright and tiny spark lights the traveller in the dark, though I know not what you are, twinkle, twinkle little star. I read, then repeat, noting for the first time the imperative. The command. I don’t know what we are. Help.

When we came back, it was night. We drove up to another house that isn’t ours, tracks gone. And I looked up. Robin looked up. There, every single star Vermont just gives away. Every single star we had forgotten. And Stewart said, “Oh.” And Stewart said, “Home.”

Broken Passage.

We never slapped the tank. We just looked; Robin from his nylon nest, me crouching next to him, our eyes tracking the quick fish. Each silver body flipped, switched, then fled. His eyes raced to catch a path, to follow one through. But every flickering body that appeared disappeared, replaced by another. Quiet moviegoers, we watched until other noises called us away.

Like us, the fish aren’t home. The Great Barrier Reef is far from Mystic, where we were, fish gazing. But Google lets you look like you’re there, trained and breathing. Later, I looked, scanning the depth like a calm diver. I turned toward the reef to watch the living puzzle move. I turned toward the school to watch the fish read their home. And before I looked up to where breathing happens, I peeked at the blue miles facing us.

Robin likes whales. At the aquarium, Stewart strolled him to the window where the belugas press their soft spots. Children shrieked, ran away, then came back. Robin looked. Nearby, a placard claimed belugas are born gray, the color of their mother’s shadow, where they reside until they fade to white and drag their own.

Robin was born at 7:59am. Three weeks early, he was unsure: unsure how to breathe, unsure how to warm. He stayed tucked in the pocket of my issued gown for days, riding my ribs’ wave. He stayed under the shadow of my head until he bloomed pink and sighed.

The night before Robin’s birth Stewart had to help me wipe down every limb, every inch of stomach with an antiseptic cloth—prep for the C-section we anticipated. I lay in bed waiting, sticky but clean. Even then, I was amazed at how unremarkable the night was. I ate leftovers while my father read the paper. We moved from room to room, drinking water, setting alarms. Robin hiccupped.

We’d been waiting. For the last twenty weeks, my doctor asked I not lift anything, not exercise, not have sex. At 30 weeks 4 days, I woke up bleeding, and we moved around the dark house putting on shoes, grabbing keys. I think Stewart said something in the car, but I don’t know what it was. After that night, we stayed within a ten-minute radius of the hospital. Like fish from the reef, we’d trek just to return, humbled and afraid.

Placenta previa is a special kind of anxiety. Despite the message boards, the support groups, the specialists, no one can say what triggers a bleeding episode, which can lead to hemorrhaging and an early birth. No warning, every moment is an opportunity for fear. I’ve seen women try to pin it down. That morning I had to stand at work. Earlier, I picked up my toddler. I was driving too long. We wonder how still we could stay for months. We try to keep them tucked in a shadow that doesn’t leak.

We left Mystic remembering circling fish. On the way home, we stopped at a gazebo in a town we don’t know. Stewart took Robin’s hand, and they walked while dusk drew shadows around us.

I couldn’t have imagined this last year. I was afraid. Now, I study the scene like a deep-sea diver, breathing and grateful. I turn toward the boys to watch their hands seek balance. I turn toward the stairs to watch two flags pull away. And before I stand, I consider the blue miles facing us. That Robin has a brother. That fear comes. That a year is far. And Robin yelps from under Stewart’s long shade. And Robin walks.

Up in the sky.

Our gate in Philadelphia had more folks than the entire Burlington airport. Our flight in Vermont was late, so we strolled, investigating every torn seat, every vacuumed corner while we eyed the mountains far off. Mountainless, Philly offered throngs and kiosks. I pin-balled off strangers until I realized. The phone. It’s gone.

We flew with Robin before. Five months old, he slept in his car seat until the car seat was in Virginia, out of the airport and in the relief of southern weather. This trip, he was awake. Awake kicking the seat, spitting the milk, throwing the book, eating the safety card. We won a couple friends, clapping. We won a couple friends, hiding. Halfway there, the friends were old and his last nap even older. I handed him the phone, the bright thing, with the photos that move.

Next to the pretzel cart in Philly, I thought: It’s okay. You’ll get a new phone. And then. The photos. The photos are gone. Every photo I took of Robin. All thousand photos the chipped phone kept asking to store in my cloud. So many photos I couldn’t take one until I ditched one. All the photos are gone.

A few nights, I’ve gone back to the beginning, my face blue-lit in our late room. There’s the one of him, hand on cheek, eight hours old. The one of him tucked in my scratchy hospital gown, little kangaroo. The one with Stewart, younger, holding him up to a dusk-filled window, another mountain far off. Every picture of that room—the room I lay in alone after he was born, not alone. The room we slept in for a week, beds pushed together, clear crib touching my elbow.

By the time my dad found us I had unabashedly dissolved. Robin was asleep, but I was awake. Awake pushing the stroller, forgetting the suitcase, remembering the photos. I sobbed in a vacuumed corner of baggage claim until my dad touched my elbow.

When I was a kid—a teenager—I ran track. I high-jumped. I had a ten-step approach to the fiberglass bar. I’d rock on my heels after I fixed the tongue of my spikes. I’d replace the strand of hair the breeze moved until the breeze stopped. And before I flew, my dad would yell, “Up in the sky, bun. Up in the sky.” I have no pictures of this. The rocking. The spring wind. My father’s crowd call.

On the way home from the airport, I sat in the backseat, like a kid, and remembered the other trips—how the landscape of return had remained unchanged. My parents had collected me after my first trip abroad. I wore cheap leather sandals, a silk scarf, and a pinned-back bun. I was freezing in the parking deck. We talked while the suitcase wheels echoed. I have no pictures of this. The goose bumps. The bobby-pin pinch. The returning.

No photos. No photos of the sound of our shoes on the porch after Stewart and I were married. The way the ice cube melted in my whiskey as guests left. No photo of the light in our room the morning Robin was born. My disbelief we slept.

I don’t have the photos. But I remember them the way Robin likes—moving. I build the still until I have the story, true and false and long.

In Jersey, we play in the kitchen as I remember the one of him dressed like a bee: his bee antennae falling over his eyes, his black bee leggings kicking the blankets aside. I build a picture as Robin unwinds a ball of thread at my feet. I collect what’s spent, trying to rewind. Failing.