I Believe in God Because of Rainbows, the poster says.
Not good enough, I think.
The clerk, a bubbly college student, too young to know what is at stake here, thinks it is way cool, just the thing for a little girl’s room.
My daughter bounces from foot to foot. “I like rainbows, Mommy,” she says, pointing to the poster.
She is four. Of course she likes rainbows.
“Can I have that one for my room?”
It is her shopping trip. I had stripped her bedroom walls that morning. They were covered with teddy bear prints, rocking horse cutouts, and a plaque that said Shhhh . . . baby sleeping.
When I designed her nursery, I thought of hanging Mary Cassatt prints, but there was a self-indulgence in such a gesture that I could not reconcile.
On the eve before our shopping trip, she had stuck a Sponge Bob sticker on the wall, about her eye level and three inches to the right of her dresser. I moved the dresser to cover it, thought better of that action, and moved the dresser back again. I struggle over these things.
In any case, I stripped her bedroom walls. This is a cultural trip to the poster shop. There is a sort of seduction going on. I am luring her away from Sponge Bob, Hello Kitty, and an assortment of Disney princesses.
“Can I have the rainbow one?”
We settle on a Renoir, A Girl with a Watering Can. I like the greens and golds, the peachy-red of the cheeks. I am sure it is perfect. She wants to know about the little girl.
She is sleeping when we get home. I have to carry her into the house, holding my breath as I lay her on the sofa, where I cover her with a small cotton throw and slip off her sandals. I’m always amazed by how tiny her feet are, by the scale of her wardrobe—her tiny shoes, her dresses, mittens, little hats, a bathrobe just like mine but pint-sized and with a sash only two feet long that can still wrap around her twice.
I make another trip back to the car, careful to not let the door slam, in order to get the framed poster. My phone is ringing in my bag when I come back in the house. I scoop it from the floor and dig in it quickly, irritated by the pitch of the phone’s ring and certain it will wake her. She smacks her lips and flexes her fingers but doesn’t wake, just letting slip a delicate wheeze that used to worry me.
“Hey,” I whisper.
“Hold on,” I say. “She’s sleeping.” I walk quickly to the kitchen where I can talk without waking her.
“How are things?” he asks. He sounds happy. Things must be going well.
He’s been gone a full week now. He didn’t expect to be gone so long, but every trip seems to get longer and longer. He is in Santa Clara now, the other side of the country.
“Wrapping things up?” I ask. He chooses his own assignments so I know that this story he is working on, something about autistic children in Silicon Valley, is a choice to be away from us. I know this but I won’t say it aloud. There are places I don’t want to go. I have already traveled so far away from where we once were.
“Just a couple more days.”
“Maybe Tuesday night. I’ll catch a red-eye—maybe. We’ll see.”
We had argued before he left this time. I’m not alarmed. People argue. Things get complicated. But he left without saying goodbye to her—said the assignment had come up too quickly. I had just dropped her at preschool and I was walking in the door with two coffees. His bag was packed and sitting by the door.
I told him he couldn’t just take off without saying goodbye to her. It wasn’t right. He said that I was being ridiculous, that she probably wouldn’t even notice he was gone. It was only going to be a few days.
I offered him his coffee, but he waved it away. “I’m fine,” he said.
Of course he was. “Tomorrow’s the last day of school. There’s a picnic and . . . ”
“She’ll be fine,” he said in a voice once meant to comfort me but that now felt oddly patronizing.
“How do you know? How do you know she’ll be fine? These things are important.” I set the coffees on the hall table where they would soon cool and be forgotten. “You don’t know anything about it,” I said.
He reached for my hand and held it, saying nothing, but looking at me in a way that made me feel like I had a sponge lodged in my throat. He has nice hands. When I fell in love with him I fell in love with his hands. I liked to kiss his fingers when we made love. I would tangle my fingers in his and pull them to my mouth.
“She will miss you.”
“What about you?” he said, dropping my hand suddenly. “What about you?”
I stormed past him into the kitchen. Ridiculous question. And it didn’t matter anyway. I heard the crunch of Cheerios under my feet and looked around for the broom. “Just go.” I had things to do.
He said he loved me and so I know I could have stopped his leaving. Yes, I think I could have, but the effort to do so struck me as a sort of betrayal of her. It would have required something of me that I couldn’t spare.
In the beginning, I had boundless energy for it—the task of loving her. Oh, there was the exhaustion of fresh motherhood, true. But it was an exhaustion that rode the crest of euphoria. I was filled to the brim with all I had to give her. Even when I nursed her, my milk spilled from me with an ache that awed me.
I can remember the way she once felt in my arms, an infant, a doughy bundle swaddled in a bubblegum pink blanket, her breath as delicate as the rise of butterfly wings, her lips still wet and smacking softly, once, twice, in remembrance of my milk before parting at the touch of her tongue. I could drown in the smell of her. Sometimes, after nursing her, he would offer to take her from me, but I couldn’t always let go so easily. I would hold her to me, bottom heavy, curled and cupped in my arms, her blue-pearled eyelids fluttering. See, I would whisper to him. She dreams. It was a wonder to me. She dreams of what?—of all she knows, the reliable crook of my arms, the wonder in my voice, the feel of my breast against her face. She dreams of her too-new world. She dreams of me.
I hadn’t wanted him to go this time. Not with this small wound between us.
“Tuesday?” I say. “That would be good.”
I tell him about the poster, the Renoir. “She wants to know all about the girl in the painting,” I say, admittedly pleased with myself. “I’m going to do a little research later—see what I can find out about the girl, the subject.”
“It wouldn’t hurt to let her just wonder about it for a while.”
She begins to stir on the sofa. She’s always irritable when she wakes in the afternoon and I look around the kitchen for a snack for her, something to bridge the gap between crankiness and Lego-time. The bananas are brown. Fig Newtons are not her favorite and I steel myself for the possibility of a sassy protest.
He says he will call tomorrow.
She comes to the kitchen and proceeds to roll her face back and forth across my thighs, sloughing off the last traces of her nap. Predictably, she scowls at the Fig Newtons but nibbles the doughy parts, successfully avoiding the gooey fig filling. I brush her hair back and cup her face in my hands. She squeezes her eyes shut and opens her mouth to show me her chewed food. I have no idea why she does this. “You’re silly,” I tell her. She pops a whole cookie in her mouth and shoves it in with the heel of her hand, fingers splayed. “Careful, you’ll choke.”
After she was born, I began to love her so hard it scared me, to love her so hard I hadn’t enough heart left to love anything else. The more I loved her, the more I realized I was the only one who could love her that way.
I baby-proofed the house till there was nothing left of it. Locks on pantries and toilet lids, bells on doors, shelving bolted to the walls, a sticker on her window to alert the fire department that she was inside should the house go up in smoke. He joked that we could leave her alone for days with just food and water and she’d be safe in that house. Not so funny.
We made choices and decisions that seemed monumental at first—no formal church affiliation, charter schools, background checks on sitters—even the twelve-year-old mother’s helper merited a few phone calls to neighbors—was she trustworthy, was she kind, had she ever spent any time around infants, did she know the Heimlich maneuver? (She didn’t, but I was never out of earshot.)
Making it safe was one thing, but then I began to tamper with our life, the way we were together. I struggled with bigger things. The stack of glossy men’s magazines that were beside the bed, for instance. Should we let her discover them, thus prompting the appropriate discussions concerning sex and the body—or should we burn them?
“I think it’s pornography,” I said.
“Pornography-lite,” he said.
“She could get the wrong idea.”
“She’s only two! She can’t have ideas, for crying out loud.”
In the end, unable to decide—to be absolutely sure of the rightness or wrongness of one way or another—I boxed them, put them in the attic, and canceled the subscription. They’re up there still, the slick pages crisping in the attic heat. Just knowing they’re there reminds me of the times, before she was born, when we could share the pages together before touching one another.
I hang the poster on her wall, at the opposite end of her bed. The rest of her walls are so bare, but she doesn’t seem to mind. I think maybe I will take her out again tomorrow. There are walls to fill.
“Why doesn’t Aunt Maggie have a little girl?”
“She isn’t even married, Sweetie.” I cringe at my own conventionality and fall all over myself. Sitting down on the bed next to her, snuggling into the crook of her belly that she made by turning on her side toward me, I start again. “She’s very busy.”
This is true, I think. I envy Maggie. She goes to parties, dabbles in relationships, drinks too much on the weekends. She has a roommate who French-braids her hair. Our visits together are more important to me than they are to her. They’re filled with enticing intimacies about her colleagues that remind me that the world is a bigger place. I smile and laugh over coffee and between interruptions like skinned knees, wet panties, and demands for fruit pops. The coffee always tastes especially good during her visits.
“She has so many things to do.” She has so many things she must do. “She has to go to school and she wants to travel—”
“Do you have things to do?”
“I did them already,” I say, a little too sharply.
“And who took care of me when you did things and had things to do? Who?”
“You weren’t born yet!”
“Who took care of me? Who took care of me? Was it a babysitter, Mommy?” She is panicked. She is pleading with me.
“Sweetheart, you weren’t born yet, you didn’t ex—” But I can’t say it to her.
It isn’t so much her eyes, wide and bright, human eyes, the eyes perhaps, of any mother’s child. It is more the pink in her lips and cheeks that hush me, the glow of flesh. It is the color she is calling to her face. It is flaming denial. It is her trust in me.
“God,” I say, but not with enthusiasm. I am relieved, though not pleased with my answer. “God took care of you.”
“Was God nice to me? Did I like being with God?”
“I miss Daddy, don’t you?” she asks.
“But I have you,” I say, and I poke my finger to her belly. She giggles and rolls away from me.
The whole idea has quickly begun to appeal to me. Such a simple thing—God, a safety net, a sort of backup should I fail her.
I know he won’t be pleased when I tell him, but it won’t trouble him the way it troubles me. He doesn’t dwell on things.
The next morning she is out playing with the other children when I think to call him. They dig in the dirt, always digging. It is healthy, I suppose, but I am always annoyed at the dirt that gets under her fingernails. Sometimes, when we have to run out quickly, I forget to check her nails—I don’t notice until it is too late and she is handing her quarters to the cashier. I see her dirty little fingers and I say, very loudly, “How did you get so dirty?” as if I don’t remember that she was digging in the dirt before I whisked her away. Lately I have noticed that this makes her curl her fingers into the palms of her hands and so I always say, “It sure is fun to dig in the dirt, isn’t it, Sweetie?” And I kiss the top of her head and smile at the cashier, my boldest best-mother smile.
I didn’t sleep well. It was the God thing that kept me awake. It is a notion I’ve been backed into, but what bothers me more is that it appeals to me. When I think of it, when I imagine it as absolutely true, I can almost catch my breath.
When I did finally fall asleep, I dreamt of long corridors and wide, thick, fire doors. The three of us were walking down the halls but he kept getting ahead of us. The doors kept closing between us and they were so heavy and so hard to open with my one hand while I held tightly on to hers. My shoulder aches this morning, I suspect from leaning into the doors and pushing until I just couldn’t manage it anymore.
It seems to me that I should call him and tell him why I think I might believe in God. He will be sure to tell me he never would have let things get so far out of hand. I think first of calling my sister, but she always sleeps late on Saturdays. (Somehow this thought makes me want to call her more and it occurs to me that, when this is all settled, I may call her every Saturday.)
“It’s me,” I say when he picks up the phone. He is groggy. I pretend I don’t notice. He always sleeps in his boxers with the windows open. I can smell the lemon trees.
“It’s early, you know,” he says. “It’s, what, 5:30 a.m. here? Did you forget the time difference?”
“No,” but I did. “I figured you would be up.”
“Well, I am now.” He isn’t angry. He works hard to not be angry.
Eventually I tell him about our conversation, about God.
“Now you’ve even gone and invented God for her.” Then he says he never would have let things get so far out of hand.
“It’s important that we stick together on this,” I say. “And besides, I’m beginning to think maybe it’s true.”
He laughs. He is so sure of himself. For just a moment I think maybe he knows something I don’t know.
“Look,” I say. “If it’s not true, she’ll never know the difference.”
He laughs as if we are sharing a much better joke, as if he still knows me. “It’s no big deal,” he says.
I want to say that it is, but I don’t. “Still coming back Tuesday?” I ask.
“Not sure,” he says. I can imagine him sitting on the edge of the bed, massaging his forehead. “I might have to fly into Boston for a night.” There is an echo and I know he is standing in front of the toilet. I can hear him pee into the bowl. Hear the flush and the whoosh. He takes a deep breath. “Maybe not, not sure yet.”
Something is expected of me, something that will make a difference. But I can only think of the water whirling in a porcelain bowl.
We say goodbye, carefully.
It is early evening now. Teenagers are driving too fast down our street, honking their horns and calling out to one another. I send her to the backyard to play so that my heart won’t lurch with every tire squeal. She asks me for a jar so that she might catch fireflies with the other children.
“It needs holes in the lid, Mommy,” she says, “so they can breathe.”
Her father did this for her last summer. I don’t remember how he made the holes. I never thought to watch.
“Hurry, Mommy, please.” The other children are already out there, swinging their hands through the air, catching tiny pulses of light on their fingertips.
I find a nail and a hammer in his toolbox in the cellar. Using the nail, I pierce fat holes in the jar lid. “Not too big, Mommy!” She is angry with me. I pierce more holes and tell her the fireflies need plenty of air.
She is afraid they will escape and I wonder whose side I’m really on. “Daddy does it better,” she says. I know this already.
I hug her quickly and barely press my lips against her forehead before she squirms and breaks free from me.
I watch her from the window. It is that moment of dusk where the sky is blue-gray and shadowless. Her small hands reach up and delicately swoop the air.
As she comes closer to the window, I see that color in her face. Oh, how I love that color, the color of her flesh when it’s full of living. I am a prisoner of it, the perfect prisoner. Tonight she will set the jar by her bed and keep vigil.
I must remember tomorrow morning to take out all the dead fireflies before she wakes. I must remember. But now, watching the fireflies, I am willing them higher and higher, above her open hands, away.