I lay across the double bed, the sun filtering through dirty blinds. Measuring my son’s cries from the floor below, I curled up my knees to a fetal position. Outside, a woodpecker slotted his beak against a crack in the telephone pole. I counted to myself, down from one hundred, hearing the bird so percussive, hungry. But, then, the child, my boy, was downstairs and wailing louder. Sam—why couldn’t he help me? I needed the soft death grip of sleep.
It was the fall of 2006. The rains had not yet started in earnest, here in Portland, Oregon. I was a forty-one-year-old woman, with money worries. I couldn’t sleep at night. My husband wasn’t getting steady animation work, and I had to hustle for freelance writing projects.
At two years old, Eli, our son, loved overturning rocks to see the worms’ pink flesh squirm and writhe. To feel the cool, pulsing life in his tiny hand, worms he called his pets. This afternoon, a Sunday, I leaned my head over the side of the bed. I smelled cat pee afterburn from the previous owner’s pet. I could count down from one thousand. I could recite the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t believe in God, but the prayer was good enough to ward off vampires or rapists when I was young and my pelvic bones felt like knives.
“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.”
“Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven, ninety-six.” I pretended he wasn’t crying for me. His “mama” was someone else, his Chinese mother. We didn’t know her name. But what baby knows his mother’s name at first? He knows a smell. He knows a touch. It’s the primal word, the word he screamed at night if my husband went to get him from his crib instead of me.
Eli ran upstairs, crying, into our bedroom, away from his dad. I felt that adrenaline pinch. Why couldn’t Sam take care of him? Climbing on the futon bed, across a quilt I’d made, Eli put his face toward mine. I put the pillow under my head and smiled. “Baby,” I said. “Why couldn’t you stay with Dada?” I wanted to scream. I sang a made-up song in my mind, in a peppy tone like a dish-soap commercial: “I can’t get anything done.” I loved him. I’d lost my old life. He had, too. We brought him here to America.
He had no choice.
He had a huge, round head, round cheeks, dark-brown eyes, and faint eyebrows that looked half-shaved. A red scab filled the space between his flat nose and cheeks. It was from a runny nose that never got wiped enough at daycare.
He sat and jumped on me. “I bunny rabbit,” he said. He smiled and put his body perpendicular to my head and pushed his feet under my pillow, to burrow under it.
He liked to pretend he was inside me, in my uterus that he called a universe. I sat up, unable to ignore him. He’d made me into a mother this past year, since we adopted him at ten months old. I leaned against a large black pillow, against the crack in the plaster. We were too lazy to fix it. He sat in the crook of my legs. I moved him against my chest and zipped him inside a large hoodie.
For the rest: Mutha