Afternoon Miniature 12.19.21

Yesterday afternoon in a rare moment of quiet she observed a single Darjeeling leaf floating in the steaming liquid gold, a strainer escapee swimming around her spoon. Why can’t this gorgeous elixir awaken the body like the bitter coffee it seems to demand instead, she mused. But this morning had started in the usual way, obscenely early and with the first coffee taken in the shower, the better to awaken and prepare ahead of the child, who would stir soon enough. When she dared to rest a while longer, when the child woke first, she’d have no choice except to pull clothing onto her unclean body, do what she could with a pile of unruly hair, and face the day.

The spoils of the long, late afternoon the day before had been swept away and order restored in the toddler’s room while he slept. Shelves lined two long walls, neatly organized with bins of blocks and cars and crayons. The room smelled of innocence, a sweet perfume of talcum powder and laundry soap, befitting a gorgeous child with swarthy ringlets on his head and an infectious laugh. Titles imprinted in juvenile typeface stood at attention in a tall bookcase, broken here and there only by a cherished plush toy or small art object. On the walls, artwork in the pastels of infancy would change demeanor over the course of the day as the sun’s angle shifted in the sky overhead, spilling through the bedroom windows and making the task of naptime more difficult still, perhaps. Every day was different.

On this day the child arose unsettled and seemed inconsolable. She navigated the morning through a series of ill-conceived doings that engaged him for moments before he tired of them and demanded the special brand of care and attention no other child she knew did, nor could their parents commiserate in quite the way she desired. She marveled at children who kept to schedules and seemed willing to play by some tacit rulebook that eluded this child, but could not bring herself to say aloud the words floating in her mind’s eye: not normal. It was a notion her child would shriek out some years later in utter anguish. She waved it away like smoky wisps in the atmosphere.

By noon she was exhausted and finally drew a warm bath for the boy, a strategy that worked almost unfailingly to settle him and thus gave her some pause. She eased herself into a cross-legged position on the floor beside the tub and swirled her hand around in it, hypnotized by the rainbows within each frothy bubble, while the child chirped quietly and seemed content to scrawl on the tiled wall with soapy crayons, but soon enough he grew restless. Carefully she wrapped a towel around him, plucked him up, and tiptoed across the slippery floor. He giggled while he batted her face and hair as she pulled clean clothing onto his soft, pink body that still looked so babylike. But a half hour later, squirming around in her lap and fighting sleep, he became disagreeable.

The mall overstimulated her child. She knew this, but had depleted every other tool at her disposal on an oppressively humid afternoon and finally relented to the short car ride across town. This whitewashed distraction at least offered refuge from the heat and a surprise around every polished, gleaming marble bend. Once inside the bowels of the building, the child squealed and gestured for a bizarre frozen concoction formed into minuscule beads and served in a cup, the ‘wainbow’ kind, he insisted. She complied instantly and watched his tiny fingers curl around the waxy cardboard, a bit unsteadily, while the other hand plunged a plastic spoon into it. At the nearby coffee counter, she dropped a dollar into the plastic tip bin, downed her first swallow of creamy iced brew like a jonesing junkie, and then exhaled deeply. Out in the open she settled onto a bench under the domed skylights for a moment while the child finished his treat. Somehow much of it had found its way down his front, across the straps that held him tight, and between his chubby legs. The sticky substance would seek the far corners of the stroller and remain there for perpetuity.

At home he still fought sleep. She made a peanut butter sandwich, hauled out the shiny red Radio Flyer wagon, and wheeled him out to the curb, around the corner, and down an exquisite street where the tall trees met overhead. A neighbor tending to her hedge with loppers covered her brow with one hand to take in the spectacle. She waved hello.

“That looks like fun!”

She smiled back and answered, “I can’t get him to sleep. We’ve been busy all day, and now one of us is ready to drop.”

The woman tilted her head and smiled again warmly, as if in the know. But nobody really knew. A little while later they’d arrive home and it would be time to get supper started. She wanted just to sit down and read, maybe listen to some pretty music with her feet up. She yearned for the kind of adult conversation that fortified her husband every day of the week, her husband who would soon pull into the driveway. He’d come inside and sweep the child into his arms, and the child would squeal with glee. She would spend the next hours keeping him awake so he might stay asleep all night. And then she would try diligently to answer her husband’s inexorably cheerful questions about what they’d done today. And he would never understand why this exercise tested her to her limits.

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