The Coffee Break
The car doors slam. She unbuckles her son from his car seat and sets him on the pavement. The air is heavy with humidity and the clouds are low and dark, crouched in waiting. She reaches for her son’s hand, but he has already waddled away. Her heart beats fast in her throat. She can feel the pulse of it in her neck as she moves to catch him. He is fast, and she jogs to catch up with him. His hand is sticky from the chocolate covered pretzels her mother gave him to eat while they drove. He has chocolate smeared across his cheeks, in a ring around his mouth. The three of them walk towards the center of town. She needs coffee, and according to Google Maps, there is a Starbucks there.
Her mother came with them on this trip as a last-minute addition, and she's glad. Her son loves his grandmother, follows her from room to room, insists he holds her while she cooks. They are staying at a cabin in nearby National Park. It took them two days to get there from Texas, her mom in the backseat entertaining her son while she drove. He is eighteen months old and screams when he wants something. Her son pulls at her hand and reaches for his grandmother instead. She lets him go, watches him clutch her mother’s finger instead of her own. Her mother offers to walk him around the small shops that line the streets and give her time to drink her coffee in silence. She smiles at her mother and ducks into the coffee shop. She watches as her mother leans down to her son and whispers something into his ear that makes his eyes light up as the two of them take off. He is laughing, and his hair is blowing in the wind. Her fingers itch to tuck it behind his ears, but she is already in line, the taste of coffee across her tongue.
Back at the cabin, she lets him run through the trees, grabbing rocks and pine needles and hurling them through the air. She catches him trying to eat a pinecone; he runs his tongue along the sharp edges, tests the scale with his teeth. She is calm in this place with the light streaming through tree branches and the smell of wet earth. The cabin is set into the base of a mountain, surrounded by boulders that remind her of castle guards. She runs her hand down one, feels its dimples against her palm, its warmth. Her son places his cheek against the rock and smiles up at her. She kisses his head, and he lets her scoop him up and snuggle his body against her own. When she sets him down he is off again, exploring the layers of leaves and dirt and tree roots. He fills his palms and studies the debris he’s collected.
By the time they make their way inside for dinner, he has dirt in his ears and his fingernails have brown moons underneath them. For dinner, her mother has made pasta with vegetables and chicken. Her son is uninterested in the bowl she sets before him and insists on eating slices of bread thick with butter. He scoops it up with his finger and eats like it is whipped cream. She and her mother sip red wine and watch the sun go down around them, the whole cabin cast into fiery reds and oranges. Once it is dark, they leave the curtains open and turn off all the lights so that they can see the stars that are never visible at home. She wishes she knew their names, but instead she makes them up and whispers them into her son’s ear as he presses his hands against the cool glass of the window. Her mother offers to give her son a bath and she lets her, releasing him into her arms.
When he is done, she closes all the curtains and turns on a lamp in the corner of the living room. He runs around the room, towel flying behind him like a cape. He shouts for milk and makes every animal noise he knows as he climbs onto the back of the couch. She hands him his milk and her mother coaxes him into pajamas and tries to get him to shake the water from his curls. He ignores this and grabs one of the books they brought with them and sits in her lap. His hair leaves a dark mark across her t-shirt. The book is about hippopotamuses and her son laughs each time she turns the page. When it’s time for bed, he asks for his grandmother. She hugs him and he pulls her mother towards the bedroom.