Because it’s two o’clock in the morning and my son’s been up for hours and my arms are heavy tired and he can’t look at me yet, can’t smile, can’t coo, can’t do much but eat and crap and complain, I think, You don’t look anything like me. You can’t be mine. You don’t belong to me.
How hard it must have been for her, nineteen, alone for weeks at a time while her husband soldiered in the field.
Two babies crying.
Two mouths gaping wide with their own primal grief, four lips set against her.
She paced and chain-smoked, swallowed uppers, watched the clock, and when we slept, or when she thought we slept, or when she stopped caring if we slept, she cracked open can after can after can.
Even now, I salivate when someone opens a beer.
It takes both hands to breastfeed. To dial the phone, I have to choose between letting go of my breast or letting go of my baby.
Me: There’s a baby hanging from my breast. I had to tell someone.
Someone: It’s okay. You’re okay.
Me: What is it about being a mother that makes me long for mine?
Someone: It’s okay. You’re okay.
No one knows how long she was gone before my father came home from field exercises. He’d been gone for days. She took half their stuff but left the babies.
Both eyes closed, I dial from memory.
Me: Did you get the photos? Did you see your grandson?
Her: Yes, but I don’t know what to say. That’s why I don’t call.
Me: I just wanted to make sure you got the photos. You saw them?
Her: Yes, but I don’t know what to say. That’s why.
Her: He looks like his father.
The year I drop out of college, I rent an apartment in the same complex where my parents lived just after I was born. It has an avocado-green fridge. It’s across the street from Gibson’s Discount Center. Most days, while my father was at work, my mother went there to walk the aisles and imagine all the things she’d buy if (when) she had more money. She left me at home.
When I lose my job, I go there, too, to see all the things she never bought: gold-plated barrettes, headbands with thick plastic teeth, Love’s Baby Soft, denim skirts with studded hems, patent leather heels, gauzy summer blouses with eyelet lace on the sleeves, peach shampoo, sweet almond lotion, thirty shades of Revlon nail polish and their matching lipsticks, hard-sided suitcases she would need to pack these things and take them with her.
It takes months to touch each object.
Her brother took the photo when he went to visit her at the orphanage. My mother as a young girl in Korea, her family too poor to keep her. Their mother must have been off to the side or behind him as he framed the shot, as he told his little sister to duck down so he could watch her emerge from the weeds. I wonder if he told her to smile, told her to pretend she was running toward them. How many weeks or months later did she run away?
It sat on an end table, next to a black leather couch in an anonymous high-rise in Queens, a one-bedroom she shared with her mother (bamboo mat rolled and stowed in a corner) and her two other daughters (some weekends, blankets on the floor) and then my brother and I (just this once, tucked between our sisters at night).
Downstairs, in the lobby, another couch, a boy I met at an arcade who slipped his hand beneath the damp edge of my swimsuit and said, “I’m nineteen. How old are you?”
The same age my mother was in that photograph with her Catholic school-girl uniform, her thin smile—hard lines in a field of tall grass.
We are lying on the floor, and my son is staring up and out at the world, not at me, but at something just beyond me, and for a moment he’s calm, mesmerized, almost happy. Then the moment is gone. He scrunches up his face and wails, and I think, When you’re sad, your face looks just like mine.
When he’s sad, I know he belongs to me, to our mutual frustration. It’s as if he knows how hard I’m trying to change the circumstances of our births.
Whenever he cries like this, I want to cry too, but instead, I pick him up and pat his back. “It’s okay,” I say. “You’re okay.” Over and over until he falls asleep.