We pushed an air conditioner strapped to a metal dolly all the way uptown. We opened two bottles of beer by the window, sat cross-legged on an unfolded yoga mat, tapped the cold tips together under the sharp flow of air. Finally, we thought.
I don’t remove the air conditioner after you leave the city. The window remains clamped down; a mouse caught in a trap. Why would I, when the summer comes back like it always has? Again, and again, and again.
The neighbor pushes aside her satin curtains as I walk the stroller past. Her place is a crooked old man of a house above an Asian restaurant with bent shingles and American diner floors and a man who fucks the cashier woman behind the rice pans on Tuesday afternoons.
The neighbor only speaks to me when I am alone. She tells me how the fish man at the grocer with yellowing skin pretends he is scrubbing the cold floors so he can look up her skirt as she bends in front of the many cases of fish set in rows. I also have lice, she says.
I love you so much my hands are getting smaller. See? I can’t wrap them around your fingers and hands. They’re steady as ever, as always. But they’re getting smaller. I know they are. Can’t you see? Can’t you see how they won’t hold your fingers?
I found myself driving out of the city into the pale warmth of the country, watching through the windshield as sun licked nearby water. There was a storm coming, someone on the radio told me. I drove until the lights went out and I was the only one on the road. I ended up at your mother’s; one of four small homes on a street I never forgot the name of. Perfect, I thought. I parked near the mailbox and walked up the front steps. Your name is etched under the second one. A young, unfamiliar woman answered the door. I imagined how I must look, staring back at her in a tank top and knee length shorts, the wind sticking hair to my face like a mask.
May I help you?
I’m sorry. I thought someone else lived here.
I descend the stairs as she waits. Did you think people stood still?
Fran holds the child as I boil water on the stove. She places her on her knee, her hands wrapping her torso like a large belt. It seems her hair is darker than yesterday and the dimples in her cheeks are more pronounced, dug deep with the end of a small pin. She looks just like you.
I know every minute only adds up to one, they’ve told me. I know each moment can pass with little affliction if you let it. I know that it is possible she too will see me like I saw my own mother, dragging my shoelaces through her rotten carpet and pressing my face to the glass of the bathroom door, finding her reading a paperback.
I take her from Fran, let her touch my chin while I smell her hair. It almost smells like nothing except for a faint scent of bed sheets and powder. As I pull away, she holds my finger with her whole hand.
Where are the teacups you drank from as a kid? Do you see them in your sleep?
The books you read and your mother’s checkered linen?
Yes, I see them in my sleep.
Is that pain? Does it feel like that?
Like a beautiful place you can’t get back to?
The child and I are reading in the park. She is wearing a cloth hat embroidered with lilies and no shoes. The air is hot and touches us everywhere. I lift up her thin shirt and let her belly show visible in the sun.
We are eating strawberries and we dip them in raw sugar and let it hurt the backs of our teeth. I can’t believe how badly she needs a haircut, or how badly I need a haircut. I can’t believe I let her dip anything in a plastic tub of sugar.
The book I read aloud follows a young woman to Colombia where she falls in love with a man from London traveling to meet his mother. The story presents Colombia as a country of romance and dancing and the soft touching of lower backs. Something I had always imagined it to be. I hand the book to the child so she can play with the pages.
I nanny for other children. I show up whenever I am needed. I can hold these children in a way I cannot hold my own. How could I tell anyone this?
I have a dream that the child is older. How long have you been my mother? She asks. I do not understand. I have never been your mother, I lie. We stand and stare at one another for a long time.
While I nanny, a babysitter holds her.
When I found out the author wrote of Colombia without having ever been, without ever having seen it, I felt betrayed. Then I remembered I have written of love. I have written of your finger touching the back of my neck.
They’re getting smaller. I know they are. Can’t you see?
In college my hair started thinning. It seemed handfuls were under the bed, on the walls of the shower, on the backs of t-shirts. There were five us in a house outside the city, where my hair blew underneath door frames and lodged itself in-between sofa cushions. We stored Bombay inside the ebony grill on the porch and habitually cracked eggs in the tilted kitchen before sweeping fallen shell bits beneath the stove. We laid sweaters like towels under wall leaks and poured old soda from cans over the balcony extending from the kitchen. A paisley blue sofa from a church yard sale sat in the center of the open living room surrounded by nothing, threatening emptiness although it felt luxurious to me.
Two forks, eight spoons, one knife. Four bowls, six plates, five wine glasses. More mugs than anything. One painting of a single yellow rose dangling by fishing wire tied to a hook.
Curt was in a bad mess. Alex couldn’t be alone. Fran was tiny and we slept back-to-back like children, socks accumulating in the bottoms of the sheets. Kate was silent and made us wish on eyelashes. We learned to look out for one another. To be fearful of closed doors. To check each room when one of us was missing and it was quiet.
Fran stopped by last summer on her way back from seeing her parents. The sun was already hanging low and the light was failing, but she parked her car and stood on her toes outside the front window like a pet. She watched through the glass as a family of four set a dining room table with matching glassware and patterned napkins. A room full of everything needed.
My hands small but wrapping all the way around.