Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Winged Petasos

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Two sounds after my sleep go up a little. Jay and you jay. I make noises.

In the northern regions of the county, the soil is accustomed to an overlay of warm on warm, and the land there understands this: chaparral. There used to be wind here. Buckwheat and sage, toyon, scrub oak and sumac were the prayers of coyotes, and there were roadrunners with lizards clasped in their beaks. Now there is a blue streak of toothpaste on the counter that surrounds the bathroom sink in Unit 14 at the Vista Mobile Estates. It is the shape of a winged petasos and was left there by the god Mercury.

No one has ever knocked on Michelle’s front door. There is no doorbell. She listens instead for the train. Fifty-two minutes past the hour in one direction, twenty-two in the other. It is a wide rumbling that can feel like a problem arriving, a storm with veins and pulse. Michelle is sometimes able to avoid the trouble, but there are trains with particular tremor that wedge rudely below her ribs. She carries those with her, holding them at her side until she cannot.

She is used to waiting for other sounds too, like the progress of rat feet on the roof of her mobile home. There has been an agreement. She will not mind what they do at night, their leeching of the darkness with their insensate searching, their heft and the torment of their horrible tails. She will allow them this, their rodenthood, and in exchange she asks them:  don’t come in here. There is no way in; don’t.

At night, she awakens. Her head alights into the darkness to a spot just below where a hawk has earlier perched, and announces: Michelle is awake again. This stirs the air, producing sounds like the careful cracks of walls straightening, or a faint flap just outside. Michelle admits she has awakened, and then the scratching renews. She creates theories to explain what she hears: they run in pairs. There is war. More than once, she hears the battles, the familiar high wail like pain. If it were one tone higher, it would depart from the human range. Michelle lies with closed eyes, then pleads aloud despite her promise: “Give me a break.” Often she leaves her bed and drifts. She has no plan. The hallway ends and provides no clues.

She sits in her upholstered chair. J.J. is coughing. It is an unfamiliar cough, each one short and weak, like the controlled work of a drumstick on metal: puh. The timing of the coughs is unpredictable. Puh. And only later: puh. He has a cold that makes his nose unpleasant to look at, the snot thick, wiped away by his hand and spread across his soft cheeks. Once spread it dries quickly and fades into his bisque skin.

She wonders if he has been at this all night. There is little she can do for a cough. She leans her head back and skirts the edges of sleep. She begins to dream of hawks. She awakens briefly and recalls her location. The hawk lingers beyond her dream, flies to a high corner and waits, peering down at her, uncomfortable. It has difficulty setting its feet. Then it coughs, a short puff, hard.

Michelle opens her eyes. She stands up, speaking uuh as she does, and moves to J.J.’s room. His lips are parted. Something will crawl in there, like a bold earwig, and it will throw off his balance further. She reaches with her index finger soft-side-up and touches his chin gently. That is not enough; she has to push, and when she does she rouses him. He turns away, his face looking bewitched for an instant, his one movement away from her familiarly jerky. When he settles back in, he is mournful, and his lips part again.

Michelle returns to the kitchen. She dislikes listening to phone messages. There are bills to pay. Borrowed things to return. Issues. Stop parking your car in front of my place, thanks very much. On an envelope: Paola 469-679-4. Next to that is a cube. It is traced fourteen times.

I have soft here. This, this, this, this, this.

 

It is seven hours earlier.

“Hi there. Hey guess who this is? It’s Paola, way back from Henderson. I’m not sure this is you.”

She raises for several seconds to her tiptoes, releasing the pull of her body’s biology: blinking and breathing. The intervals of her heartbeats become wrong.

“J.J.!” she says. “Please! I’m trying—!”

Water drips nonstop from his fingertips. He is near the blank screen of the television, moving with a caged animal: two quick steps right, up on tiptoes, down, then two steps left. The sound he makes is both murmur and whine.

“So if this is my old friend Michelle, I wanted to tell you that I’ll be in town for a few days next week. My husband’s going to a meeting there and we’re gonna come along and I thought I’d look you up…”

“J.J.,” she says. She hurries to him and puts her face near his. “J.J., Mama needs—sssh.” The message ends.

J.J.’s hands shake. Michelle knows this by feel; she doesn’t look right at him. She leaves him there to retrieve a stuffed monkey from his bedroom. J.J., let’s sit down. Here is Conroy. He metamorphoses into quiet and slips his thumb between his lips, the monkey against his cheek. His upper lip glistens.

“Good good good,” she speaks to him. She squeezes him against her side. He sniffs. She feels attentive as she pulls a tissue from the box near her and wipes his nose.

“Ucky,” she says. His body does not stop. The spaces between his ribs grow nervous. She recalls Paola’s dark, abundant hair, long and curly and coarse, and her smoky skin, her lively voice, her gestures. There was a way to tilt her head, a way to put her hands together, fingers splayed, almost baby-like.

J.J. eats his puffed rice cereal the next morning, silent but for his soft regular slurps. Michelle has grown to like the cadence of his poor manners. She edges toward the answering machine, eyes on her son.

Hi there. Hey guess who this is? Michelle’s stomach produces a faint and pleasing twitch. So much time has passed. We are older now.

Up. Up. Bird. Come. Dark on the under where it shows me.

By that second night, the hawk wants her to make a decision.

Return the phone call.

But I will feel awkward.

Life, the hawk says.

But there will be a man, a child, children.

On the morning of the third day, she picks up her phone. J.J. has refused breakfast but is content playing with his Spiderman. His nose continues to run, and the space below his nostrils again shines. Michelle looks away from him.

“Hello?” Paola says. The voice is brought forth effortlessly from the dark aging nodes of Michelle’s memory.

“Hi. Um, this is Michelle. I got your message the other day?” Paola seems happy. Michelle yearns for their conversation to end, exhausting as it is. They do not know where, or how, to meet. Finally Paola says she will call after they get in town and decide then.

“My last name is Wilson now,” she says, laughing.

“Really?” It is a curious replacement for Scrilatti. Michelle turns to J.J., who is flipping the Spiderman side over side like a fat log. Stop, she tells him silently.

The phone rings two nights later and startles her.

“I’ve had such fun,” Paola tells her. Her choice of words feels familiar. “It’s nice to see everything again. It’s been a while since I’ve been back.”

“Yeah. Yeah I bet.” Michelle enjoys the sound of Paola’s voice. It has always been like this. That was always there.

“So there’s a cute Chinese place right by me here called Five Moons or something like that. Wait, what? Craig says it is totally not even called Five Moons.” She laughs. “Well it’s something with a number in it. It’s just sort of right next to our hotel.”

Stop-no. Mama.

“That sounds fine.”

“Tomorrow’s okay? Do you care what time?”

“Sure. No.”

“Oh. Well then let’s do like 6:00? Is that too late to eat for your kids? How old did you say they are?”

“Um, he just turned five. My son. Just the one son. Um. No that’s okay. He’s kind of hard to predict sometimes and stuff.”

“Oh I was thinking he was older. Oh good well he and Ryan can play. Ryan will be five at the beginning of June.”

“Oh. My son. Yeah maybe.”

Late the next afternoon, Michelle decides to cancel. She will exaggerate J.J.’s runny nose, claim a cough, declare a moderate fever. Enough to win a little sympathy without too much concern. Convinced, she exposes a shoebox on the floor of her closet. Inside, she finds a Certificate of Completion for Gymnastics 3a,b,c and copies of her high school senior picture. There is an unsharpened pencil:  DIXON TICONDEROGA in stubby letters. There is a bookmark with a drawing of a dragon on it. Then, she feels a single whirr of satisfaction as she finds what she wanted: a business envelope, fat and unsealed, labeled “photos”. She remembers all of them. She smiles at a picture of herself at a swimming party, wearing that bathing suit she would keep for years. Next, she and two others are in the dark at a football game, turned ghostly by the camera’s flash. There is comfort in the predictability of what she sees, replaying visions she already knows. Paola appears in only three. There is a group of three kids, all laughing, Paola in the middle. In the next, Paola is in a line posing for someone else’s camera. And then, there she is, just her, holding a stuffed animal on her head. The last one is Michelle’s favorite. She holds the air inside her mouth and looks.

She stands slowly. She checks on J.J. He is watching a DVD, his favorite one that he views three or four times a day. As always, he stands in front of the television, moving rhythmically from one foot to the other. He does not notice when she enters the room.

“Okay,” she says. She watches him sway. “Okay,” she repeats.

She returns to her bedroom and looks at the mirror. She practices smiling, but the sight embarrasses her so she looks down. She goes into the bathroom. She has not washed the bathroom counter in days, and the winged hat of Mercury remains. She finds a lipstick, turns away from the mirror and puts it on without looking.

“J.J.,” she says when she returns to him. She is rubbing her lips together. She sits on the couch behind him and watches his rocking. He is a small boy; he can pass for 3 years old. His arms poking down from the short sleeves of his shirt look weightless. She stares at her son, content as he is at that moment, the waves of his hair in battle over direction. She remains on the couch, knowing not to spite him with an interruption, and waits for the show to end. She watches it with him, the music imprinted down her spine and behind her eyes.

 

I can fly.

 

They arrive ten minutes early, which Michelle regrets. She suggests a walk. He runs ahead. She feels as she always does, like a ball of string is unwinding before her, quickly, and she stands affectless for a moment watching. Finally she follows the string forward, believing that if she keeps tugging, the string will remain taut and the tension will save him. She quickens her pace. She regains, then loses sight of him. Finally he pauses, looking up. A light above a door, perhaps. Maybe he likes the pattern of the building.

“J.J,” she says. He does not respond and keeps looking up.

J.J. is running again. He has gone back the way they came, toward the restaurant. She does not bother calling his name, just straightens her neck, as if doing so will help her see. She begins a horse-like trot, not really running like he is, watching him. And then, from around the very corner that he is reaching, she sees Paola. Michelle averts her eyes and tries to look purposeful. Paola, she is pained to see, is still beautiful.

“J.J.!” she calls, not for him, her pace quickened.

“Michelle?”

Michelle stops, taking in a little more, pausing at the tall man near Paola, then returning to her momentum.

“Oh! Oh we’re—we’ll be right there!”

J.J. has slowed. Please, please do not watch me, she begs them behind her. She reaches him and lowers her eyes to his. She squeezes his arms.

“Jay,” she says. He does not look at her. “It’s time to eat, time to have dinner. Remember Mommy said? We’re going to a restaurant. So fun. Okay? Okay. Let’s go.”

“Napkin. Napkin?”

Michelle smiles weakly. “Yes, baby. There’ll be napkins. Let’s go.”

He lets her take his hand, and he walks at her pace. She savors the several moments of ordinary. “Mama! Napkin?”

“Um hmm.”

Paola has moved near the door of the restaurant. When she sees Michelle, she smiles politely. They hug. She introduces her to Craig.

“This is Shelby,” he says, looking at the baby in his arms.

“I’m Ryan,” a child’s voice interjects. The boy who peers at her is handsome, his hair a deep chestnut brown, cut primly around his smooth face. He looks thoughtfully up at Michelle. “This is Trevor,” Ryan explains, leaning his head toward the boy who stands near him, a similarly comely child, sticky in the cheeks.

“Hi,” Michelle says. She stops there.

“Do you like Chinese food?” Ryan asks. He has not broken his gaze upon her yet.

Michelle is not used to this boy’s determined eyes. “I think I do,” she says. “Um, yes, yes I do.” She thinks about asking him, “Do you?” but she does not. She lets herself eye J.J. He still holds her hand, swinging it forward and back. He looks up, several degrees above anyone’s eyes. He squints, the light up there being fiercer, even in the dimming shades of evening.

He looks alright, Michelle decides, and looks back at Ryan. She cannot look at Paola. Ryan is peacefully exploring J.J., admiring, she allows herself to believe, the swinging of their arms.

“I like Chinese food,” he tells her. “What’s your name?” he asks J.J. Michelle surprises herself and pauses, waiting for his answer.

“Um, his name is J.J,” Michelle offers finally, raising her tone on the second “jay” sound. The result sounds like a question.

“We ready?” It is Craig.

Michelle puts J.J. on the chair at the end of their long table, sitting between herself and no one. Ryan sits next to her. He is the first to speak.

“My favorite part of Chinese food is not the rice.”

“Really? Why?” she says. J.J. is looking at a menu, flapping it open and closed softly. “I mean, why not? Or why. Do you not like rice? Or…”

“I like it,” Ryan says.

“Oh.”

Michelle peers over at Paola. Paola looks right at her, and for a moment, neither averts her eyes. Then Michelle looks down, smiling.

Box! Dark, not dark.

“I’m four and three quarters,” Ryan offers.

“Wow,” Michelle says. “You’re a big boy.”

“Yes, I am.” He pauses. “What is your favorite thing?” he asks, then stops to look under the table. When he finds his brother there, he squeals.

“Boys,” Paola says.

Ryan has begun to lean on his arm. He looks again at Michelle.

“What’s your favorite thing to eat?”

“My favorite thing of all? Hmm. Ice cream, maybe.”

“That’s not good for you,” Ryan explains, shaking his head.

Dark, not dark.

Michelle laughs. Quickly, she is disappointed to realize that J.J. has disappeared. He is under the table with the two-year-old.

“J.J.!” She feels herself about to dip into failure.“He’s not good at sitting still at all,” she says, not looking at anyone.

“Well. That’s okay. Neither are my boys,” Paola says.

Michelle nods. She looks over at Craig, who is coaxing Trevor to return to his seat. It is somewhere to look.

“What’s your favorite thing to draw?” Ryan finishes.

“Me?” Michelle asks dumbly. Ryan nods deliberately.

“My favorite thing to draw. Um, I don’t know. I’m not a very good drawer, I guess.”

“I like to draw spaceships and rockets and jets and planes.”

“Wow that sounds like a lot.”

“Yes and this— I have, I have ten different jets at my house.”

“Wow, sounds like you have a whole collection.”

J.J. remains under the table. He is quiet.

“Does he have jets?” Ryan asks.

“J.J.? Oh. Yeah.”

“What kinds?”

“Oh.”

Ryan leans his head down to look under the table. “Do you have any jets?” J.J. tries to stand up and hits his head. His cry is familiar to Michelle, a sorrowful, abandoned cry. It is much too loud. Michelle takes him onto her lap and rocks him gently. He continues to cry. His nose begins to spill. She leans to one side to access her pocket and pulls out a broken wad of tissue. “Ew,” she breathes. Then Paola’s arm is across the table, a tissue in her fingers resting like a moth.

“Thanks,” Michelle says. Her eyes escape to look at Paola’s face again. Her stomach tightens, taunting her. She diverts her eyes to the children. The baby is eating a cracker, content in a high chair. The littlest boy has emerged from under the table. He stares at J.J. with impossible eyes, the twin orbs on a baby doll.

“Did you know that fortunes only come true in China?”Ryan asks, unconcerned with J.J.’s tears.

“What?”

“Fortunes,” he says. “Only come true in China.”

“Oh,” Michelle says. J.J. is breaking free.

“Napkin!” he says, sitting up.

Michelle grabs a napkin and tosses it on his lap.

He looks at it like a little animal inspecting something new. He has stopped crying.

“Fortunes only come true in China,” Ryan repeats.

“Oh. I hadn’t heard that. Have you been to China?”Michelle asks.

“Yes.”

Paola laughs. “Ryan.”

Michelle smiles. J.J. is still on her lap, shielding her from Ryan and his words. J.J. has put the napkin between his two thumbs and is rubbing it.

“Should we order family style?” Craig asks.

Michelle hasn’t lifted her menu yet.

“Sure,” she says. “Could you pick out some stuff for all of us?”

The meal is fine. Michelle is happy that J.J. eventually slides from her lap and returns to his chair. He begins to bob his head as if listening to music. Meanwhile, Paola is mostly distracted. Her baby finishes her food quickly and raises her arms. They talk a bit about Texas, where Paola now lives, and friends they knew back in high school.

“So you never left San Diego?”

Michelle shakes her head.

Sky.

“Yeah it is nice to be back. Do you ever see Dawn?”

“No. Not—no it’s been a long time.”

“I wonder what she’s up to.”

Michelle nods. “Yeah I don’t know.”

J.J. does not eat. Of course he does not eat.

“At school we are making paper stars,” Ryan tells Michelle.

“Mm hmm.”

“We put our names on them, and then the teacher puts it by your picture when it’s up on the wall.”

Michelle has grown unfamiliar with the back and forth of conversation. She looks at J.J., the napkin moved to a single hand, the caress shy among his fingers. She raises her eyes, and sees that Paola is looking at him too. She opens her mouth to speak, then closes it. She smiles at Paola, her eyelids pleading to overtake her: close your eyes. Paola’s smile in return is similar. There is a caution to her that she did not have years ago.

Ryan asks for a fortune cookie after the plates are cleared away.

“Please?”

“Mm hmm,” Paola answers.

“Want this?” he asks Michelle, an extra cookie in his hand.

“Oh, no thank you,” she says. “Oh, well, sure.”

She takes the wrapped cookie, closes her fingers around it, and slides it into her purse. Paola is peering at J.J. again.

“He, um. Yeah he really likes napkins,” Michelle tells her. “It’s, he likes to touch little smooth things like that. It’s part of, um, you know, what he has.”

Paola nods. She keeps looking at him. “I think it’s sweet.” Michelle’s chest quakes. She has to look down.

Dinner is over. “Well. It was nice of you to look me up,” Michelle says, but Paola doesn’t hear her. She is busy zipping her daughter’s coat. J.J. looks up. His face changes quickly as he locks his gaze on the little girl. Michelle sees the change and tightens her jaw. She hopes, for one second.

“Okay, time to go, kids,” Paola says.

Keep.

Oh. Michelle doesn’t need to look at her son. She tries a pre-emptive explanation. “He doesn’t like goodbyes. He really—” but she cannot be heard. J.J. begins his wail, his nose running, and puts his hands to his ears.

“J.J. Come on buddy, it’s okay. Yes that was fun, wasn’t it? Here, I brought Conroy for you.” She lifts the monkey out of her purse and sits him on the table in front of J.J. Her son takes no notice. Paola and her husband are both standing, tending to their children. Ryan climbs on a chair. He sits on his knees, looking at J.J.

“Why is he crying?” he asks.

“He doesn’t like saying goodbye.”

“Why?”

Michelle looks at Ryan’s bright eyes, his round, pleasing cheeks. She shrugs.

J.J. continues. Michelle pushes her hands under his arms, so she can edge him off his chair. His voice only magnifies.

“C’mere, Ryan,” Paola says, holding out her hand.

Ryan straightens his back. Quickly, he grabs a peppermint candy that the waiter has left with the check and the fortune cookies.

He holds it toward J.J. “Here.”

J.J.’s rhythm slows. He does not take the candy.

“Thank you,” Michelle says. “Look, J.J.,” she says, and she plucks the piece from Ryan’s little hand. His skin feels warm.

Michelle grasps J.J.’s wrist and tugs, and is grateful that he quiets and lets himself be urged forward. The two of them lead the way. Michelle doesn’t stop until they exit the restaurant. She looks at Paola a last time. Paola holds her daughter in her arms.

“Thanks,” Michelle says. “So cute.” She looks at the little girl, who puts her head on her mother’s shoulder. Paola extends her one free arm and gives Michelle a hug. Michelle does not let herself look into Paola’s eyes. J.J. still stands at her side, saying something, mum, repeatedly.

“Bye bye,” Paola says.

Michelle renews her grasp of J.J.’s wrist. She says nothing more. They make it to their car. J.J. consents to climbing inside. He sits on his booster seat, and Michelle pulls the seat belt across him. His eyes are closing.

“Tired?” she asks him.

She sits. She sighs for the dashboard. Her purse sits on the center console next to her, so she lifts it. She sets it down again, drops her hand inside, and removes the fortune cookie. She enjoys the sound it makes as she unwraps it, the characteristic crinkling. The second sound, of easing the cookie into two, is also pleasing. She unfurls the strip of paper inside.

Dream your dream and your dream will dream of you   

She looks at the pink letters. J.J. shifts in his seat, and Michelle hears the old sound he makes as he pushes Conroy against his cheek. She adjusts her rear-view mirror to spy him, small. The booster seat on which he sits reminds her of the red stool at home that he uses to lift himself to anywhere: to the highest shelf in the tiny pantry or a taller point above the toilet when he pees. When he was even smaller, he would bring it triumphantly to the side of the bed so he could climb in by himself. Michelle looks at her son on his booster seat, still squashing his stuffed monkey to his cheek, and lets herself linger there.

“That was nice, hunh?” she asks him. “Yes,” she answers.

The paper strip is still in her hand. She tucks it against the plastic wrapping, then crumples both inside a gentle fist and lays them at her side. The plastic springs back to approach its earlier volume, but the paper does not. It remains as it was, obediently folded at seven ugly seams.

They return to their home, and when they do, the door squeaks like a pony’s whinny, happy to see them. Blind, the door knows them by the smells that accompany them, and by their sounds, which tonight are almost nothing at all. Michelle decides that J.J. can sleep in his clothes. They will brush his teeth in the morning, she tells herself. She leads him to the bathroom and waits for him to stand on the stool.

“Did it!” he says.

She smiles. “That’s right! Good!” She is proud of his words.

His bedroom has little in it except his double bed. Michelle peels back his bedspread and he climbs in, immediately forming himself into a soft crescent, and he looks as if everything has left him. Michelle sits on the bed. He opens his eyes. He straightens his arms to her, and she drops herself into them.

“Mmm night,” she says. She slides further onto the bed, to the side nearest the wall, and puts her head on the empty pillow. She pulls the side of the bedspread over her hip so that she is two-thirds wrapped. She can hear nothing on the roof. She lifts her head to kiss J.J.’s shoulder. He is already asleep, she knows, but she murmurs words into the darkness where they rest: “Mommy’ll stay with you for a while. ’Til you fall asleep. Mama’s—,” and she stops.

It is another night, light leaking in from the neighbor’s porch and from J.J.’s attentive moon. She looks at his chest, slowly rising and giving up, rising and giving up, and rests her chin on his shoulder. He turns toward her in his sleep, and they become a nautilus, she the curving shell, he the raucous tentacles, and his breathing rocks them impossibly through the water. She feels their floating. She lies, envying the winged things. She lies, envying the whisper of his messenger god. The evening begins its work.

 


Rachel Stewart Johnson has a doctorate in developmental psychology and is a freelance writer based in San Diego County. The mother of two tweens and a 7-year-old, she is a frequent visitor to California’s Eastern Sierra, where she is an enthusiastic hiker and novice birdwatcher.


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