The Woman Who Couldn't Breathe
It’s bedtime. She can feel the knots in her shoulders tighten and the bright lights of their apartment suddenly look brittle and sharp. She wipes the kitchen counter and places their leftover takeout in the fridge. She holds her breath as she opens it because something smells rotten and ugly and reminds her that she hasn’t cleaned the fridge out in months. She calls out to her son that it’s time to clean up his toys and take a bath, and he ignores her and continues to build a road out of wooden blocks that his grandparents gave him when he was born. She walks into the living room and squats down and smiles and asks him again to please clean up his toys. He shouts and throws the blocks. One hits her in cheek and she screams with pain and frustration, and her son looks at her with wide eyes and then opens his mouth and screams back.
She gets him in the bathtub and studies her face in the mirror while he pretends a volcano is erupting and splashes water all over the floor. There’s a bruise blooming under her right eye. She winces when she presses it with her forefinger. She doesn’t recognize the lines around her mouth and eyes or the extra skin that rolls up over the top of her jeans like foam. She clenches her jaw and helps her son wash his hair and his body. She wraps a towel around his shoulders when he steps out. She kisses the back of his neck and he wiggles away, leaving the towel in a heap at her feet. She chases him around their small apartment, wrangling him into pajamas, threatening to send him to bed before he watches his show. He stands still for a moment as she puts his shirt on, but then climbs on the couch and jumps across the cushions. She turns on the TV, and he sits while she gets him a glass of milk and Oreos. She pinches the bridge of her nose and eats the remaining Oreos from the package while she stands in the kitchen and waits for the show to end.
In his room, she reads the shortest book he has and ignores his requests for another one. Instead, she speeds through a song and rushes out of his room and closes the door behind her. He calls out for another hug, but she ignores him and throws herself on the couch, breathing in the quiet. She lays in front of the TV until her eyes hurt and her mouth feels dry. Then, she makes her way to her own bedroom, shimmying out of her jeans and slipping underneath the covers without removing her makeup or washing her face or brushing her teeth. She lays there and waits for sleep to come and when it doesn’t, she moves back into the living room and falls asleep to an infomercial for nonstick pans.
They both wake up late and she throws on some black pants and pops two frozen waffles in the toaster for them to eat in the car. She hustles her son out the door and he screams that he forgot his stuffed elephant and she pulls him along, ignoring his tears and explaining how late they are already. As she’s buckling his car seat he kicks her, and she walks away. She sits on the curb and the man with the honey eyes and broad shoulders who lives in their building walks by with his pug and smiles at her and asks if she needs any help. She holds up her hands and is about to say no, but she can’t. She nods, and he walks over to the car and talks low and soothing to her son and his screams turn to hiccups. The man buckles the car seat and holds up the pug for her son to pet. Her son laughs as the pug squirms and licks his chin and cheeks and the man laughs too and she doesn’t want it to stop. When he closes the door, she thanks him, and he tells her it was no problem and that hopefully they will run into one another again soon. His smile is warm, and she holds onto it as she drops her son off at preschool and walks into her office twenty minutes late.
Her boss frowns when she walks by and she ducks her head and boots up her computer. For lunch, she goes to the McDonald’s where the drive-through attendant recognizes her voice and her order comes up on the screen before she gives it. She sits in her car and eats the fries that burn her fingers and thinks about the man from her complex -- how easily he calmed her son down. She wishes that she had asked for his name. She thinks about her ex-husband who left them when their son was three months old and had colic and how he told her that he just couldn’t listen to the crying anymore. She thinks about how she stood there with their screaming son in her arms and watched as he packed his bags and felt nothing but relief. She works until her boss leaves and then speeds to the school to pick up her son. He is building a train track in the corner, and he smiles when he sees her and rushes over to hug her legs. He pulls at the hem of her shirt and she picks him up even though the weight of him strains her back and arms and leaves her out of breath.
She carries him to the car and he tells her about snack time and how they played with the big bouncy balls outside. It’s dark by the time they get home and she heats up their leftover takeout in the microwave. The noodles are spongy and slick, and her son refuses to eat them. She makes him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich which he pulls apart and licks the jelly off like a dog drinking water from a bowl. He makes dog sounds and she tells him he’s a good doggie and pats his head. They skip bath time and eat ice cream from the container while they sit on the couch and watch Curious George. Her son laughs when George falls in the lake and she pulls him into her side and he rests his head against the inside of her arm. He smells like sweat and ice cream and feels warm and solid. After he goes to bed, she sits on their tiny patio and stares at the stars bright enough to cut through the haze of lights that surround her.