Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
After Melina

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Sunday

Melina woke in a good mood, but by lunchtime she was not herself—at least not the self we like to think of as hers. She would not eat her yogurt or the peanut butter sandwich. She threw her spoon across the patio, cried for Peter Pan but after two sentences wanted Arthur's Tooth. After that, it was apple juice—no, not in that glass, in her cup—the red one.

Around then, the phone rang. I handed Melina to Gabe and dashed to the kitchen.

It was Janet, wanting to know if we were still on.

"Still on?"

"The Corn Dance. At the pueblo. Then dinner at your place. Remember?"

"Yeah, right. It's hard to hear. Melina is screaming."

Janet's the reason we're here. A friend from UMass, she comes to Taos every summer to paint. When Gabe wrecked his wrist and the restaurant gave him a leave, Janet said, "Gina, I bet UMass would be happy to give you time off this summer, and I know the perfect sublet for you in Taos.”

"Melina's coming down with something," I told her. "Or maybe she's just tired. Or hungry." Or spoiled rotten, I imagined Janet thinking. We probably shouldn't have fixed the sandwich, we should have made her retrieve the spoon.

"Or just being a three-year-old," Gabe called from the patio.

"Or just being a three-year-old," I repeated. "Of course what Gabe knows about three-year-olds comes almost entirely from Melina, who is two and ten-twelfths."

"Not true," he said. "I've done a lot of reading."

Maybe because Gabe had ulcers in his teens, he needs to think of himself as the laid back one. Me? I'd like that role, but truth is, I'm always ready to think sick—seriously so. Back in the peek-a-boo days, every "I-see-you" was for me the ICU.

"Janet, let me call you after her nap."

"Feel her," Gabe said, his hand on her forehead. I used my lips. A little warm, but quite possibly from all that kicking and screaming. We rarely use a thermometer, afraid the fuss she puts up will just make her sicker.

"I'm not feeling so well," Melina said.

"Where does it hurt, honey?" Gabe asked.

"In my tummy." She touched her chest.

Gabe and I nodded somberly.

"How about we bring Carlene a biscuit?" I said.

Melina broke into a fetching smile.

"Great idea," Gabe said, rising.

"I want to go with Mommy."

Gabe sunk down.

"Why can't we all go?" I said.

Melina considered this. Then, with eyes more knowing than any three-year-old’s I've encountered, she said, "Carlene likes you better."

"Oh!" Gabe gasped, clutching his heart. "You really know how to hurt a guy." He was acting of course, but I knew he was really hurt. Visiting Carlene, our neighbor’s retriever, was his and Melina's special thing.

"That's not true," I told Melina. "Carlene hardly knows me." But already Gabe was handing her over, insisting it was no big deal, he'd clean up.

"Thanks, honey," I said with a sigh. "Careful with your wrist."

Off we went, out the garden gate, Melina at last on her own two feet. For several minutes, she seemed fine, naming everything we passed: "Cottonwoods! Hollyhocks! Barking Boxer dogs." What a marvelous creature, after all! And how brilliant of me to jump at Janet's suggestion. She was right: This is paradise.

"Cactus! Russian olive trees! Lottery tickets." Melina's hot, sticky hand in mine, her brilliant mind at work, her hand-me-down turquoise shorts hanging almost to her glittery princess shoes—for a moment all was right with the world.

Then I realized we'd forgotten the biscuit.

I figured we'd go back and get it, but Melina threw such a fit. I scooped her up and said she was going straight to bed. She kicked for a block or so, but by the time we reached our yard she was asleep. Sick after all? And Gabe? He was sleeping too, feet on the table. Stumbling over the toy wagon, I managed to avoid a fall, but the reeling and racket woke Melina and Gabe.

"I see you've done a lot of cleaning," I snapped. Fortunately, he didn't hear. Or chose not to. Up in a flash to grab the door for me, he stopped halfway there.

"Could it be?" he said in his best Dr. Seuss voice. "There among the sweet William?" He reached in and, with a magician's flourish, presented it to Melina: her spoon. Still in my arms, she took it. Then, with impressive aplomb, she let it drop. Gabe started to bend.

"Don't," I practically shrieked.

"Excuse me?"

"That's how you encourage her!"

"She's sick! Give her some slack." He picked up the spoon and handed it to her.

"I thought she was just being a three-year-old."

"I've changed my mind," he said.

Melina flung the spoon across the yard, barely missing the hummingbird feeder she and Gabe refill every day.

Finally, it seemed as if the worst was over. We'd gotten some Tylenol down her and now she was sleeping between us on our brass bed. I could hear the squawks of magpies (an ugly sound up close but soothing from a distance). I was thinking how quiet the world could seem when Melina was quiet. How, at moments like this, so hard won, three didn't seem like such a bad number. How maybe I would lean over Melina and kiss Gabe on the lips. The shiny timbers on the ceiling reminded me of that hotel in the Yucatan, BM (Before Melina). I was trying to remember the last time we'd made love. Of course it was out of the question now with Melina between us. Still, there was something about the afternoon hour, the heat outside, the coolness within, the horrid lunch, our nasty tiff, the calm now, the view from our window: hot pink bougainvillea climbing the adobe wall, the dense branches of our apricot tree.

"Isn't this nice," I said.

Gabe nodded toward our sleeping girl.

"Well it is, isn't it?" I whispered, though there was no longer any point.

When the phone jolted us awake, Gabe cursed and Melina cried while I wondered which was worse—clamoring to get it or letting it ring?

I clamored. "Still sleeping," I told Janet. "Or was till you called." (BM I wasn't so peevish.) "Better go without us…. Dinner? We'd better postpone."

 

Monday

Melina seemed cooler; after the Tylenol, perfectly normal. Still, no question about daycare. You had to be fever-free for 24 hours, and as Anglo outsiders we didn't want to risk bending the rules.

Gabe volunteered to stay home so I could go to my dance class.

"What about your class?" I said, his in Native American Myths. A classics major in college, before he discovered cooking he thought he might get a master’s and teach high school.

"You like yours better," he said.

"Well—" I said, wondering. I used to dance in a little company—and waitress too—which is how I met Gabe. Then I had an injury and fell into that arts administration job at UMass. Dancing again, even in a silly class, feels fantastic, which feels—well—heartbreaking too.

"Well, maybe," I said, thinking this is a bad sign, this overly polite You! No, you! kind of talk.

"Besides,” Gabe continued, "I'd rather have time to ‘re-bond' with Melina."

"Okay, then," I said, grateful I was no longer the one worrying that one too many absences would tilt Melina inexorably toward Gabe.

Odd, I suppose, that I ever had to worry about that, but motherhood did not come easily to me. First, a C-section. Ongoing exhaustion. Those early days a nightmare of fluids going every which way. What did I expect, my therapist asked during our first session After Melina. (It took me six months to find time to call, then we had to cancel three times—Melina was sick, I was sick, Gabe's sous chef was sick.) The therapist's tone was not unsympathetic, but her question seemed to mock my fantasies.

"Long sunlit afternoons listening to good music. A baby nuzzling happily at my breast while I talked on the phone."

The therapist laughed, but, on a roll now, I kept going.

"The smell of bread baking?" We both laughed.

"Sex in the afternoon?" I started to cry.

No one had told me, or if they did it was with a chuckle or an emphatic "but." "But it's worth it a hundred —" "But I wouldn't trade it—" No one said, You can't go to the corner to mail a letter. It takes hours to get out of the house, weeks to finish a two-sentence thank-you card, months to address the envelope. Reading? The best you can manage are brief, condescending articles on postpartum blues, articles that blame it on your chemistry and ignore the possibility that your depression is a perfectly rational response to being a slave to someone who can't even smile but could manage to die if you made the tiniest slip, someone whose behavior is, at its best, what you are at your worst: "infantile." When friends call to offer support, you can't talk, you can't find time to call them back, you can't remember who called. They stop calling. Sex becomes something you see on HBOif you can manage to stay awake.

Gabe, on the other hand, was made for fatherhood it seemed—maybe because his own father died when he was five? Or because he wasn't post-operative? The sleepless nights hardly fazed him. He was content just to have her in his arms. No wonder Melina so often preferred him in those early days.

Eventually, of course, I found my mother-legs. And since then the tilts have been going both ways. Even so, it's Gabe who wants another kid—not me.

"How did it go?" I asked when I returned from my class.

"Fine," Gabe said. "We went to Walmart for art supplies, stopped for ice cream, made collages."

My mother would have said that was a pretty full schedule for someone who's been sick, but I didn't say it. I didn't say anything about the mess either. Gabe seemed so pleased, and Melina, so much better. We got her down for a nap, no problem, but an hour or two after she woke, she was hot again, so we gave her some Tylenol. Then, noticing our supply was low, I volunteered to go out for some more.

When I returned, Melina was shouting, "You're not my friend."

"Of course I am," Gabe said, for once his ever-patient Melina voice frayed.

"Not!"

"I wish you'd have told me you'd be gone almost an hour," he said.

"I picked up a few groceries. I'm sorry. I thought she'd be fine after the Tylenol. God, she's hot."

Gabe nodded. "And that's after I gave her a cool bath."

Melina pawed at the graham crackers I was unpacking. "Just a minute. Here." She took a bite, grimaced, threw it down.

"Are we sure we gave her the Tylenol?" I asked.

"We? You said you did."

"I did," I said. "I think."

"You think?

"I'm trying to remember. Yes! I did. That's when I noticed we were low."

"Well, how come it isn't working?"

"A new one," Melina was shouting.

"There's nothing wrong with this one." I retrieved the broken one on the rug, wishing I knew more Piaget. Maybe to a three-year-old a broken cracker was no cracker at all.

She took a bite and started howling.

"Maybe we should take her to the doctor," I said.

"It's after five," Gabe said. "Why don't you call Bender in Amherst?"

"It's later there. Please just try that Schreiber guy that what's-her-name from day care recommended."

"You do it," Gabe said. "No matter how I handle it, you'll have a complaint."

"Let's have another kid!" I said.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just that we're doing so well with this one." I plunked her into his lap.

Schreiber's office was closed. I finally got the doctor on call in Amherst. I'd been worried about meningitis, but she said it sounded like something that sounded like “cock-sucking.” I reported this to Gabe.

"Very funny," he said, but he chuckled.

"What's cock-sucking?" Melina asked.

"Coxsackie!" I said. "That was it. A virus, honey. Not dangerous, but it can give you sores in your mouth, or on your hands and feet."

Gabe and I shared an aha glance.

"Open up, honey," I said.

"Come on, pumpkin," Gabe said.

She opened wide. "Hard to see," Gabe said. I ran to get our flashlight.

"Maybe a little red," he said.

Becoming the perfect patient, Melina presented her hands and feet.

"Nothing," Gabe said.

"Well, sometimes there are no sores, the doctor said. Anyway, she didn't seem concerned. Said we should give it another day or two." We plopped down on the sofa, Melina between us—all of us sighing together.

"I think I'll make something with the leftover bulgur," I announced. No cooking for Gabe this summer. Doctor's orders, though I'm not convinced his bad wrist is from chopping and pounding. I think it could be from holding Melina. My wrist's beginning to hurt, too.

"How about I go get us some burritos?" Gabe said.

"I thought we were watching our pennies," I said.

"Mommy," Melina said. "Let's go see Carlene."

Another strenuous sigh from Gabe. "I'm going out for burritos," he said, rising. "Obviously I'm not needed here."

"Yes-you-are! How can I cook with her hanging on me?"

"Okay! Cook!" He reached for Melina, but she protested so much I took her back.

"Just call me when it's time to do the dishes," he said, snapping on the TV.

While I cooked, she stood on the bench near the stove and told me one of her hard-to-follow tales—something about Rosa and Sienna feeding the chickens at daycare and then one died. When dinner was ready, I sent her to get Gabe.

"I'm not hungry," I heard him say.

"He's not hungry," Melina reported.

"You sure, Gabe?" I called.

"I've lost my appetite," Gabe said.

We ate on the patio, Melina and I, the weather perfect as usual. And of course, after Gabe's crack about the dishes, I had to do them myself—and not just that night's, but all the day's cups and saucers with soggy crackers, and the counters with stray red peppers and cilantro sprigs from the pasta salad I'd begun whenever that was for the dinner with Janet. I sympathized with Gabe. My reading has taught me it's normal-ish for parents to regress to the age of their kids—and I was probably just as childish when Melina favored him. Still, if Gabe could sympathize with me, he'd realize I couldn't do it all myself. Surely this Mommy Phase would pass like all the others, more quickly if he didn't let Melina see her power to devastate him and he had to rise above it and help out, not because he loved me—who had time to consider that—but because—because we are a team.

What a team! There he was glued to the Olympics when, except for his recent obsession with running, he'd never shown the slightest interest in sports. I was halfway through the dishes when I felt something at my feet. Aluminum foil. A good yard already unrolled. "Enough!" I shouted. Melina blinked. First, that terrible silence, then the long, horrific cry.

"You–hurt–my–feelings," she finally managed.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm just tired. Why don't you go see if Daddy will read to you?"

"O-kay," she sang, prancing off.

"I thought you weren't my friend," I heard Gabe say. But soon the television was drowned out by his spirited rendition of Madeleine. I was imagining a hot shower when Melina reappeared.

"Daddy hit me," she said, with one of those looks of phony innocence.

That night it was Gabe's turn to put Melina to bed, but I ended up doing it, and, as is often the case, I fell asleep with her. Awakened by the sound of wild cheering on the television, I forced myself up, ran my hands through my hair, and went out to the living room. Gabe didn't look up. I put my hand on his shoulder. He didn't exactly flinch; he just didn't do anything. A snide comment was halfway out of my mouth, but I knew it would only make me lonelier.

"You don't want to be touched?"

"It's not that," he said.

"What then?"

"I'm watching. That's all."

 

Tuesday

Two, maybe three times overnight, I heard Melina cry out, but I didn't go to her. When I woke with the roosters, Gabe was in her room, grumbling. "I'm up half the night with you and now you want Mommy!"

"You're not my friend!" Melina said.

"That's it," Gabe said, storming back in. "I'm going running."

"No," I whispered. "Don't. Please." And then to Melina, still in her room, I shouted: "I don't care if you're sick, you can't treat people like this."

"I want Wheatena," she yelled.

"Maybe Daddy will make it!"

"No, he won't," Gabe hissed from halfway under the bed. "Where are my sneakers?"

"Hey," I said, "I know this is hard, but don't blame me."

One sneaker came flying out, just missing the mirror.

"Careful of your wrist!"

He emerged and faced me. "I'm not blaming you, but don't tell me you don't enjoy this."

"This?"

"I want Wheatena," Melina screamed.

"When she favors you," Gabe said. "You get a smug look."

"No. Not smug. Sympathetic."

"Yeah, sure."

"Don't you remember when the tables were turned?"

"No, not really."

"Well, I do. But if you're going to just disappear when I need you, you might as well really leave."

He looked stunned, yet I couldn't help adding, "She's the only reason you're still here."

We glared at each other, until we noticed her—Melina standing there in the doorway. Sometimes she drowns out our fighting by howling, now she was silent, looking small, and scared.

"That's nice," Gabe said.

"I'm sorry," I said. "It's the way I feel. The way you act."

He grabbed some socks. "See ya," he said, sliding past Melina.

She waited for the sound of the door and then flew into my arms. "It's okay, honey. He'll be back soon."

Maybe we dozed. Next thing I knew, "Wheatena!" again. By now it was 6:47 a.m., almost a respectable time for breakfast. Together, we measured out the milk and cereal. Threw in some raisins and molasses. Stirred. Waited for it to bubble. Ladled it into a bowl. Added cold milk. Blew. I gave her a spoonful. She ate it. And another.

"I don't like Wheatena," she said, sounding a little surprised.

"You don't like Wheatena," I repeated calmly.

"No. I want eggs."

"Eggs?"

She nodded.

"No eggs." I said, my voice quivering. "Plenty of Wheatena here."

"Eggs!" Melina said.

"No," I said. "Let's go back to bed."

Melina followed. "Where's Daddy?" she asked.

"Out running."

"I want Daddy."

"He'll be back soon."

"I want him now." She began to cry. Plaintively at first, then in a panic. She was on our floor now, kicking.

I got under the covers. I could hear "Daddy, Daddy," and sometimes "Eggs!" I just hoped the neighbors wouldn't call the authorities, though I was pretty sure they didn't have any around here. I thought: This is what they mean by "dysfunctional family"—parents fighting, father leaving in a huff, child hurling herself against the wooden floor, mother hiding under the comforter.

I forced myself up. Gathered Melina into my arms. "There, there. Daddy will be back." 7:39 a.m. "Let's get dressed. Then we can visit Carlene."

What was I thinking! Clean shirt, dirty shorts.

"Carlene. Carlene…" Melina was singing as Gabe walked in.

"Did you tell her to say that?"

"No."

"Okay, honey," Gabe said. "Let's go. But let's not forget the biscuit."

"I'm going with Mommy," Melina said.

I took a deep breath. "It was a misunderstanding. We'd been talking about it—about going together. She was just telling you. Not asking." I waited for his face to soften. "She missed you."

"Don't give me that."

"It's true. She was crying for you. I think she was afraid you'd left."

"Look," I whispered, leading him into the bathroom, closing the door behind us. "We can't afford not to be on each other's side. She's getting weird. She told me a story about some chicken at daycare dying. She told me you hit her."

"I didn't."

"I know, but sometimes I worry—about her brain, I mean."

"You worry too much."

"I know, but when those mothers of psychopaths tell Oprah their first memories of unusual behavior, I bet they start with something very minor, something they thought nothing of at the time."

"Stop it," Gabe said, but he was laughing at me, maybe even affectionately. "Let's go out for breakfast. We'll watch our pennies later."

At the café, Melina threw her bagel, barely missing the head of the lady at the next table. She kicked and shrieked, pulled off the sunglasses I keep around my neck, and knocked over my coffee. We had become the family I used to look at and think, "If I were in that one, I'd kill myself."

On the short ride home, she fell asleep. Gabe said he'd study in the car until she woke.

I took the bike up to the mesa, pedaling so hard I couldn't think. On the way home, I stopped for a soda at a roadside stand, and then I went into town and bought three pairs of earrings.

"Look, Mom!" Melina said greeting me at the garden door.

"A collage!"

"And look at these ones." She ran inside and returned with two more.

"They're beautiful, honey. I see you two have been having a good time."

"She cried for you when she woke," Gabe said, "but I stuck it out and things got better."

That night Janet came for dinner. "I like that sunset pink," she said, pointing to an area in one of the collages. "And what's this?"

"Wheatena!" Melina said.

"What a good idea!"

"It was Daddy's."

While Gabe and I brought the meal to the patio, Melina gave Janet a tour: "This is where we feed the hummingbirds so they don't get hungry. This is where we throw the compost because we don't want to waste anything."

The pasta salad, well marinated, was delicious. Melina ate several spirals and drank two glasses of milk. Gabe and I, having barely eaten all day, ate and drank excessively. Afterwards, we all went inside for coffee and the dulce de leche Janet brought. We watched the Olympics, and Melina fell asleep on the couch.

"Terrific kid," Janet whispered as we were walking her to the door. Gabe and I rolled our eyes.

The desert night was cool.

"You two are doing a great job," Janet said as we waved good-bye, Gabe and I with our arms around each other's waists. He felt lean and sturdy—the pay-off from so little cooking, so much high-altitude running. I turned to kiss him, but just before our lips met, I felt my mistake—damn sunglasses still on, digging into my chest.

Gently, Gabe rotated them around on their strap. But the moment, it seemed, had passed. We embraced now like comrades—one long squeeze, then a tap, tap, tapping of each other's backs. Retreating then to our shoulder-to-shoulder position, we listened to the quiet. No squawking magpies or barking dogs or motorcycles revving up. The air smelled faintly of the pinion fires they burn at the pueblo. That, and occasional stabs of something pungent.

"Apricots," I said, pointing, first up at the bountiful tree, then down at the scattering on the ground. "If one falls now," I said, "it will be a sign."

"Of what?" Gabe asked.

"Oh, I don't know. We'll make it? We won't? You tell me."

Gabe shrugged, but he took my hand. Three seconds? Five? We waited, we breathed, we stared out into the night. I suppose one of us stirred first, but it seemed we gave up at the same moment and turned to go inside.

He washed. I dried.


A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Award, Leslie Lawrence published fiction and nonfiction in numerous journals and anthologies. Her first book, The Death of Fred Astaire—and Other Essays from a Life Outside the Lines, is a finalist for the Foreward Indie Book Award in Memoir. She lives and teaches in the Boston area.


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