I watch through the doorway, her taking hours to smooth out fistfuls of shiny, synthetic hair. Her own hair, thin and still holding the butteriness of babyhood, doesn’t want any brushing. She herself goes through two outfits, and snaps and fastens tiny clothes around Cecile, her doll. Cecile has been with her since 2016. She holds that precarious place of all toys: occasionally indispensable, once lost for a month behind a bookcase.
Eighty three days.
We count them, these long rotations of light and dark since she’s seen a living friend. She grows giddy as the hour approaches, every pea and mouthful of rice a measure against the eventual opening of the door.
I ride the waves of her celebratory mood, ask her what she thinks they’ll do. She enumerates her friend’s many assets: her pool (complete with hot tub), dolls and all the tiny accouterments. We choose an old burp cloth for Cecile’s towel, and she goes on about the possible activities for this momentous afternoon. I sneak cell phone shots during these passing chats, realizing that I am less trying to document this momentous change in our routine, more making a desperate bid to hold onto the illusion of safety isolation has convinced me I require.
Rain bands from Christobal start to pass. The possibility of a pool narrows. I text the other parent, ask if they have a covered outdoor space. No. Inside it is. I force smile, thinking of the tight quarters, infection vectors. I kneel down, meeting her eyes. The school’s computers were returned in this week, the Zooms she stopped participating in anyways are over. Now her eyes, free of electronic scramble, sparkle. I cannot retract this lifeline. “You know,” I say, “Maybe we should sleep apart tonight. You’re going to another house, I’m going to church tomorrow…” My pneumonia memories and unsaid fears flood the space between us, and I leave my mouth open as if I can suck them all back into myself.
“It’s ok.” She smiles simply as she says it, this child who has cried and raged and been unable to spend nights alone for months. I nod, knowing this tearing will also become normal. Time to clip the sutures. The strings binding a wound must be tough enough to stand up to swelling, but they cannot become part of us. Left too long, skin grows around them. It consumes them until the body recognizes them as foreign and spits them back out in pieces.
We are at her friend’s house before a song can complete. Time and space have become everything, and nothing.
She leaps from the car. The front door is opened before my knuckles can reach the wood. The two children stand uneasily in place, staring, lower faces covered sporadically with tee shirts and hands.
“You’ve lost two teeth,” her friend finally says.
Their feet tap the concrete and wood, respectively. Their hands don’t return to their mouths. A cat runs out of the house, and the friend steps through her doorway. They are now both on the porch, two feet apart.
And then I am seeing her back, and then they are away. It is as natural as breathing, as that time someone leaned in to place their lips perfectly against yours. It is as painful as knowing that nothing in this world remains still, neither pleasure nor torment.
We are weaker, we are stronger. We will all feel the skin tingle after the bandages are removed, and the uncomfortable freedom of relaxing back into joy. I turn back into my cocoon. I have broken 5 bones – 6 or 7 if you want to count toes. Doctors always gave me the casts when they cut them off, foul relics that I couldn’t resist slipping back into under the cautionary light of healing. The old confines never lasted more than a minute.
Christobal is turning the clouds that shade of yellow-gray that warns of change. All of us stand on the porch: of hurricane season, reintegration, decayed friendships, and loss.
We are all before the yellow light, waiting for the next change.