Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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You cannot remember winter. You cannot remember the way the weeks of gray stitched themselves together into a patchwork of cold, the sky the color of a galvanized bucket, and the mud frozen at the lip of the pond. You do not ache for color the way you did in early March: going out to cut naked branches with a knife and then plunging them into warm water at the kitchen sink before arranging them in a jar on a sunny windowsill. Those first forced forsythia blossoms burst upon you like an orgasm. Now summer’s verdant foliage has stained your memory green.
You cannot remember the way the trees were bare, the way you were always cold in the house despite your warmest sweater, or the way the heat from the fire was swallowed by the chimney’s frigid throat, because now the air folding around you is warm and fragrant with the scent of lilac and serviceberry. The shady woods resonate with the calls of orioles and tanagers. In the fields tractors mow the first cut of hay. Dogs bark; kids play whiffle ball; people sit on porches drinking sun tea, their laughter rising up as the sky turns vermilion and then pale rose at the end of the day.
You try to picture the way the frozen branches made jagged silhouettes against the snow, or how your hands cupped a steaming mug of tea, but your recollection is eclipsed by this: your husband smells like grass and salt and honey. Standing at the screen door in the gathering dark, you rest your head against his chest and hear his heart beating. A chorus of night sounds builds around the rhythm of his pulse: bullfrogs chant; tree frogs trill; and around your ears the insidious treble of mosquitoes. Just when you turn to press your lips against his, coyotes begin to howl. You pull back and watch him tilt his head like a dog, listening to their wild yapping. You look where he does and glimpse them at the edge of the woods, fleeting shadows crossing the upper meadow. Even as you’re watching, they disappear. Then you’re tumbling into the summer night, his hands running up your shirt. You’re falling into knee-high grass. You cannot remember winter now.
You cannot remember giving birth. Your body has forgotten the way the contractions gathered like stitches in a quilt, the way you moaned and rocked to and fro. Standing at the mirror, you run your fingers over the silver filigree of stretch marks on your belly, but you can no longer feel the moment of your water breaking, warm and sudden, splattering your bare feet; the pushing until your temples throbbed, your eyes ached, and your ears rang; the scissors as the doctor cut the bridge of skin holding your baby’s head back from the world; how you gripped your husband’s hand as that sensation tore through you like fire; and the look of anguish on his face, eyes wide, sweat dotting his forehead. These fragments are jagged and uncertain, like the tissue of a scar.
You cannot remember the weight of your son, nestled for the first time on your belly, his umbilical cord still pulsing, or the way his newborn head smelled like something that belonged to you. You can’t recall, because now there is only this: when you press your nose into his blond hair, your boy smells of cut grass and shampoo and vanilla cookies. He squirms from your arms and runs naked across the lawn toward the hose. He wrestles with the spigot, and water splashes his knees. You can’t help staring at his little body, so lithe and agile, frog belly floating out in front. You watch him squat to inspect a June bug and then race toward the garden. When he flops down on the grassy path, where wildflowers flutter like prayer flags, you lie down next to him and feel the earth spin. You cannot remember giving birth now.
You cannot remember the sound of your father’s voice. You cannot remember the way he looked driving his old Ford Ranger down unmarked dirt roads for the sake of adventure, or if he grinned when he showed you the proper way to look over the edge of a cliff: on your belly. You try to recall his arms, his shoulders, his knees, his windblown hair, sea spray spattering his blue parka as he went ahead of you, jumping from rock to rock, looking for tide pools at the beach. Your hands no longer remember the weight of his.
At the washbasin, he would scrub with Fast Orange hand cleanser after repairing the well pump or replacing the carburetor in his truck, and watching him, you thought the shape of his hands resembled your own. You cannot pinpoint when his changed, becoming birdlike and clutching as the tumor grew. You cannot remember if you lay awake or slept deeply in your childhood bed when you went home for the last time. The hills were scorched by summer’s heat, and the tarmac on your parents’ drive stuck to the soles of your shoes. You watched the sunlight move across his walls; replaced morphine patches on the smooth white flesh of his distended belly; shaved his sunken jaw with trembling hands; held a cup for him to drink.
The image blurs when you try to remember the way he looked at you, fully conscious for the last time. His breathing jagged and irregular: inhale, pause; exhale, pause. Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen seconds. Inhale. Then that sudden rush of spirit that moved over you when he finally exhaled for the last time.
Now moths with frothy chocolate wings beat against the window screen, trying to reach the light inside. In the morning you will find their delicate corpses scattered on the sill. You cannot remember your father alive, or dying, because it is summer and your small boy is curled between you and the man you love. Both of their faces are washed with moonlight. Both of them are dreaming.
Christina Rosalie Sbarro