In my dreams, I must have sensed a presence in the room because Clara did nothing to wake me. She sat perfectly still on the floor beside the bed, pulled her ratty flannel nightgown over her knees, and silently stared at me. The room was large and sparse; she looked waif-like in the midst of the dark wood and expensive drapery. My first thought was how I wished she’d let me throw that nightgown out.
“I can’t sleep.”
I was usually black and white in my dealings with Clara. A particular action had a particular result. But occasionally I made an exception.
“What do you want to do?” I asked.
Her eyes widened — she’d expected resistance — but she said nothing. She stayed on her spot and shivered. I got out of bed and put on slippers.
“Do you want to play cards?”
She nodded. She loved Go Fish. I picked her up and she laid her head on my shoulder. We walked down the hallway towards her bedroom. I could feel the cold wood even through my thick soles. I stopped for a moment to turn up the heat, and a hint of color shone from under the living room door. I’d left the Christmas tree lights on. Clara picked up her head and turned towards it, her body becoming rigid, as if to resist movement.
“Can we play in there?” she asked.
I made her put on socks and get a blanket from her room, and then we set up our game by the tree. Clara spread out the blanket and smoothed the creases into perfect flatness. She made a high-pitched sound in my direction as I stepped onto it and it crumpled, but I raised my eyebrows at her and she fixed the disorder without any further noise. I dealt the cards and she went first.
“Do you have a swordfish?”
“Nope. Go fish.”
She drew a card, slid it into its appropriate place, and waited for me to take my turn.
“Do you have a catfish?”
She handed me a catfish card.
“Did you know the largest catfish ever caught weighed 293 pounds?”
“Mmmhh. You told me.”
“It was caught in Thailand.”
“I remember. Are you going to take your turn?”
“Do you have a clownfish?”
“I have two clownfish. Here you go.”
“Male clownfish can turn into female clownfish. Isn’t that weird?”
“It’s weird for people. You can tell me one more fish fact, then we are going to talk about something else.”
“You shouldn’t eat salmon from farms. It has bad stuff in it they use to kill sea louse.”
“You’re right. Yuck. Do you have a beta fish? All right! I have four now. Tell me what you and your mom are going to do on Christmas before you come to Nani’s.”
“I’m going to be with dad.”
I asked what she and Matt were going to do.
“I have to go to Aunt Lora’s. Aunt Lora’s house smells like stinky vanilla candles. It makes me want to throw up.”
“Maybe it will smell like good food instead. Turkey, potatoes, pie. And you’ll probably get more presents while you’re there.”
“Yeah, but they’ll stink. I’ll have to let them sit outside to get the vanilla smell off.”
I hid my laugh in a yawn and we finished the game. I looked at the wall clock in the kitchen. It was close to one. Clara slowly put the cards back in the box.
“I don’t want to play anymore,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
I knew if I suggested sleep she’d protest. Better to wait another 30 minutes than battle with a mommy-missing Clara in the early hours before dawn. In a little while, she’d go willingly.
“Let’s look at the lights,” I said.
Clara and Marta lived in a four-plex on 34th street, bordering a historic neighborhood near downtown. In a community spirit, all of the little fairytale-like villas hung white lights, each draped in unique patterns. The effect filled me with nostalgia and longing. I lived ten miles north in a gated apartment complex; sometimes I still mistook one of the other identical buildings for my own.
“Can we listen to the Sugar Plum song?”
I found the Nutcracker album and put it on the old record player. Whenever we used it, I always noticed the sound of the needle catching the track. It reminded me of childhood, sitting under a table in my room with my brother, listening to Read-A-Long 33s. Marta was too old for our games, and didn’t understand Ari’s little quirks like I did.
Sometimes I thought Clara should have been mine, somewhere farther along the reach of time. One day — perhaps — I’d end up with the miniature Marta that she should have had.
This night when I heard that needle — catch, a tight ache filled my chest. I didn’t usually feel anything like pity towards Clara — life was hard for everyone in some way; a lot of kids had it worse than her. But this night I dismissed her privileges of wealth and private schools with therapy and plenty of people to love her – and saw only my little six-year-old insomniac; my sibling-less, uniquely made niece, spending her vacation with her childless aunt, while her recently divorced parents traveled for work. What a happy holiday!
When the music started she laid her head on her arms, still keeping her eyes on the window. A light rain began to fall and the lights outside shimmered through the wet glass.
Within minutes, she turned away from the window, snuggled down into the cushions, and fell asleep. I tucked the blanket around her and watched her sleep. She had Marta’s dark hair and olive complexion, Matt’s handsome features. If they could have known how it would turn out- how they would join the ranks of fractured families raising kids every other weekend and on Wednesdays- I knew they would do it anyway. They wouldn’t miss out on Clara because of the consequences. But what a rotten ending.
I wondered how people had the courage to do anything. So much ended in failure and disappointment.
Marta had taped a scrap of paper behind the door of her medicine cabinet a few weeks ago that said, “Brought low, you will speak from the ground; your speech will mumble out of the dust. Your voice will come ghostlike from the earth; out of the dust your speech will whisper . . . Suddenly, in an instant, the Lord Almighty will come.”
I thought it was a terrible thing to read every day, but she told me I was focusing too much on the condition of the people and not enough on God’s response. “I need to hear this every day,” she said, “because I can get up, take care of Clara, go to work, do all the things I have to, but I feel terrible, and nothing I do changes that. I can barely ask for help, and I need it.” She said I shouldn’t worry because she was doing better. I had to believe her — she seemed better.
It was strange to me — how differently children raised in the same house could turn out. Ari encountered life through the lens of his personal exceptionality; I never compared him to us. But in a million tiny ways, I was unlike Marta, though only two years separated us. I loved her, but I often felt we were made of contrasting material. When she told me of this inability to recover her peace, I felt closer to her than before. Not in similarity of belief, but of feeling. This night I understood her even more. I’d been carrying my own pain for some time, though I wouldn’t compare it to hers. I wasn’t a single parent; I hadn’t gone through a sorrowful divorce. My husband would bring coffee and donuts in the morning, take Clara for a walk through the icy streets. But . . .
I’m in the dust, I thought. The dust, the dust. The words came out of my mind like a moan. I can’t get out of the dust. I don’t know who or what I sent these words to. But out they came, on this particular sleepless night, as I folded my hands over the increasingly concave surface of my belly, as if they were going somewhere.