As I walk along these cold floors to your room I hear the sweep of my nightgown sliding like a breeze through my aching legs. I am tired, Hanna, worn out from carrying too many boxes into this borrowed home full of someone else’s love for the color green. Why are you calling me now? Even the radiators have finally stopped the hissing that reminded me of angry cats and babies and the fact I am in bed alone. All that guides me is the pink of your night light shining down this hallway, which has yet to see the tracks we will burn each night.
I move through the kitchen to check the time, but remember the clock is hidden in some carton, somewhere inside our house with too few outlets. Besides, we are from Laramie, Wyoming, and the time here in Atlanta is not ours anyway. It is no wonder you are awake. At Pablo’s house, the dinner plates are just being cleared. Auntie Amy is probably pushing Matthew’s stroller with that dog of hers colliding into the wheels as they start and stop along Front Street. Your Grammy is watching her programs, still moaning that we did not ask her to join us here where there is no snow. Loneliness, I know, can come to anyone like a dull arthritic ache in the bone. When she hugged me at the airport, she whispered, “I’m too sick to be shoveling, and if you think your sister Amy cares, think again.” These were her last words, the reason it will take me weeks to write home. I will try not to do this to you.
I’m not able to sleep tonight either. I am at an age when I need curtains to feel at home, a deadbolt to feel safe, a body curling next to mine to fall asleep. I do not know when this happened.
I stand at the doorway to this room that is not yet yours, a room referred to as “that one.” You stare up at me. You look unchanged and lovely under the soft light. This comforts me more than it should.
I put on the pleasant face of a mother happy to move twenty-five hundred miles so her husband can work fourteen-hour days at the inner-city hospital of his dreams. I have seen your notion of marriage, Hanna. It involves only the first step, the wedding: a long dress, flowers made from tissue paper, a smile as full as high tide, and those purple heels far more crucial than any groom. But weddings are the easy part, the moment when plans are joined as neatly as a zipper. I have never told you how I tossed my white satin pumps into Hanson Lake where your father and I tumbled and moaned, already aware of the futility of anything white.
You ask, “Mommy, will Pablo still be younger than me when we move back?” You love Pablo but you marry him only when he’s around.
“Yes, Pablo will always be three weeks younger than you.”
“Good,” you smile, looking more awake than I’d like. “Can we call him and tell him that?”
“Pablo is sleeping,” I lie as easily as any mother in the dark, “and you should be, too.”
“So when I turn six, how old will Pablo be?”
“Almost six. Hanna, it’s late. Go to sleep.” I sound tough, but take a few steps closer to your bed. I am drawn by the way you hug your doll, as if you need more than string and cloth to cling to, and by the strongest seduction of all: the notion that you are somehow mine.
“Will he come visit me in this new country?”
“Georgia is a state, honey.” I say this as if it puts everything in its place. “But you’re kind of right; it’s like a new country.” I sit next to you, once again a failed teacher, and feel your small fingers touching the back of my flannel nightgown.
“Will Pablo come? He could fly in an airplane like us. He could. He would wear his seat belt.”
“I hope so, but I don’t know for sure.”
“Not for a while, if he can come at all. Hanna, Laramie is far, far away.”
“Maybe he will come, but maybe he will be too busy.”
The inference you have drawn is sadder than a locked door. I want to change the world for you, put a band-aid here and here and there, tell you Pablo will arrive February 14. But disappointment is the deepest wound, especially to someone who is forty-three pounds of open invitation. I have set up your narrow bedroom before finding even my own bag of toiletries. Curious George is clutching your lamp as he has every night for the past four years. Your favorite sheets are wrapped around you. But when I look at your aquarium pumping bubbles through this quiet night, I cannot tell you anything remains the same. I cannot let you believe that our life here will somehow bypass the pain of missing and wanting. I have moved to better places, Hanna, and found myself longing even for small things: a vase upon a windowsill with western sun, a shelf somewhere useful, the sound of a certain door opening, a phone ringing. You have learned the dismissive power of a tilted head and the phrase “never mind,” and yet this is no guard against losing what you wished to keep.
I brush back your bangs, feel the warmth of your forehead, realize I cannot leave you now. Your body is my atlas. I lie next to you and hold your hand, thinking it is you I am making feel safe.
“Does rabbit Fufu like Atlanta?”
“Rabbit Fufu isn’t real, Mom.”
I laugh a small, uneasy laugh. In your tone, I hear the determined shattering of the make-believe.
“Right,” I say, thinking how much you sound like your father who loves one-word answers.
“Want to get under?” You lift your blankets. “It’s cold in Atlanta.”
“It’s just cold because a few of the windows are cracked. No one even lived here for six months,” I say, and smell again the stale scent of vacancy. “This place, believe me, is going to be much warmer.”
“How come?” You offer me part of your pillow.
“Because we’re in the South.”
“Oh,” you say in that way which makes me know you’re still looking for an answer.
“And because we aren’t in the mountains. It’s always colder in the mountains.”
“The mountains are tall, that’s why?”
“Yes, the mountains are tall,” I say.
We are quiet together. Minutes pass with just the sound of the aquarium pump. I feel calmed. I am glad to find we are situated far from streets with lonely nighttime traffic. I cannot know what you hear, what you imagine. You begin rubbing rabbit Fufu’s floppy ears. You draw him toward your chest. You breathe slowly and I think of sleep for the first time since morning, which began back in Laramie with frost and luggage and last-minute affection. I close my eyes and feel my tired legs.
“Yes.” I look into your eyes and you say nothing. I brace for the wild-card question that defines you at almost six years of age, obsessed with death and holes in the body and time.
“Why is Daddy working when it’s dark out and everybody is sleeping?”
“Some people get sick in the night and need to go to hospitals, and they need doctors to help them get healthy.” I mimic the chalky tone of neutrality my mother used to explain everything, including why my brother was sent to reform school. “Well, dear,” she had said, “he just didn’t know his own strength is all.” That Christmas she told us we could write letters, but she never gave us the address.
You ask, “Does that make you mad?”
“Of course not, Hanna. People can’t help when they get sick.”
“That Daddy’s working when it’s dark outside?”
“Oh, I’m not mad about that.” Your eyes so close make me hesitate. You cannot possibly understand how his simple remark about calling “to check in later” infuriated me so. I do not want you to see me red and too loud for love. But Hanna, I am not his patient. In my softest voice, all I can tell you is, “I kind of wanted him to stay here during our first night in this house.”
“Yeah, oh well,” I say, wanting to talk to you as though you were not a child whose feet reach only to my knees as we lie in this small bed. I begin scratching your neck. I am hoping to silence the questions that keep us both awake inside this dimly lit room with walls the color of clover and windows overlooking roads the names of which I do not know.