The hand on her cheek weighed no more than a birthmark. It fluttered, stirred by the breeze of a dream, but remained tethered to Becky’s face.
Her neck stiffened. A neutral position was out of the question. She was trapped at an odd angle between the arm of the porch swing and the breath of the child.
With one foot planted on the porch’s floorboards, and the rest of her a cradle, Becky kept the swing in motion. A smooth backstroke. Hesitation. Then as she lifted her foot, the forward stroke was accompanied by a two-toned creak the baby must have thought white noise.
Becky guessed thirteen pounds. The bulk lying stomach-down across her torso like a seatbelt might have come into the world a wisp of six—less than a gallon of milk. But seven hundred bottles later, give or take, and he could hold his own against the Costco-sized bag of sugar.
A sweat bee did a fly-by. Becky waved it off. Baby drool puddled at the top of her breastbone. She let it be, let it be.
The rich, woody scent of the neighbor’s cottonwoods melded with the lingering aroma of her caramel latte, the one in her favorite pottery mug on the small table just out of reach. The mug, her book, sanity—so much seemed just out of reach.
The baby lifted his head. Feather lashes still closed, he nestled the opposite cheek into the hollow of her neck. She patted his diapered bottom with a rhythmic, unspoken “Shh. Back to sleep, little one.”
The buzz returned, but not above them. Underneath Becky’s right hip, her cell phone thrummed. She reached for it, motionless except for the espionage-worthy stealth of her retrieve arm and the unbroken choreography of her swing foot.
The phone buzzed again, against her ear. She held it away from her, saw the familiar caller ID, and hit the “talk” button with her thumb. “What’s up, Lauren?”
An opportunity, no doubt. Chance du jour.
A finals study group that included two brainiacs and a certified member of the National Honor Society had invited Lauren to a cram-fest.
“Please don’t stay out late.” Becky felt the vibrations of her words in her chest. The baby lifted his head and nestled facing the other direction again.
Not late, Lauren answered. No. But Becky did realize the group would have to go get something to eat after studying, didn’t she?
Becky disconnected the call. She may or may not have remembered to say goodbye.
The baby oozed awake and pushed against her chest until he’d raised himself enough to lock gazes with her. Those denim blue eyes looked so like his father’s, if her suspicions were correct about the child’s paternity. She brushed strands of corn silk hair off his cherub forehead.
“Your mommy called.” Becky kissed one barely-there eyebrow, then the other. “She says hi.”
Dodging scattered mounds of clothes—distinguishable as clean or dirty only by odor—Becky crossed Lauren’s room to the crib lodged between Lauren’s dresser and her shoe jungle. Well-practiced, Becky eased the baby from her shoulder to the mattress. She pulled a blanket from the corner of the crib, but its sour smell told her it belonged in one of the piles on the floor, not wrapped around her grandson. Stifling a groan, she bent to the plastic storage tub tucked under the crib. One clean blanket, too thick for an Indian summer afternoon.
Laying babies on their backs? The “let’s change everything we knew for sure” revised recommendation from the pediatric society or some other entity still disturbed her. Hard habit to break. Aren’t they all?
Her dentist wouldn’t appreciate her new habit of grinding her back teeth. She untensed her jaw, laid the blanket to Jackson’s waist, then exited the room with an armload of laundry she shouldn’t have to wash.
Mid-hallway, she leaned against the wall. Baby socks and a pair of skinny jeans drizzled to the floor as she searched for a way to readjust her load. Not the laundry. The pieces that stuck to the rough edges of her fractured hopes.
Monica’s well-intentioned voice thundered through the throbbing tunnels in her head. “Don’t do everything for Lauren, Becky. You’re enabling her. She’ll never take responsibility if she doesn’t have to.”
Great advice, Monica. And who suffers if I don’t bathe that child, if I don’t put diapers on my grocery list, if I don’t make sure he has something to wear that doesn’t smell like curdled milk? Lauren won’t even notice.
Drafting an apology for words her friend would never hear, Becky pushed off from the wall and aimed for the laundry room.
Jackson’s cry stopped her before she recapped the Tide.
Mamas don’t get to stay out past midnight.
How had pushing a baby through her woman parts given Lauren the right to abandon the house rules? And on a school night?
Becky steeled herself for a confrontation. She’d say, and then Lauren would say, and then she’d say…
No. That hadn’t worked the last four times they’d had a similar conversation.
She drowned another tea bag—fragrant, impossibly smooth white peach—and forced her gaze away from the clock on the kitchen wall. But the digital display on the stove and microwave mocked her attempts to forget what time it was, where her daughter should be, the lure of her pillow, and the fact that Lauren’s father was missing all the fun.
I hope you’re enjoying California, Bub. She should probably use his real name. It wasn’t Gil’s fault his job demanded the kind of travel she’d find more fulfilling than he did. Wait. It was only a little after ten, Pacific time. She could call.
One ring. Two.
“Hey, honey. How’s my angel?”
“She’s not home yet.”
“I meant you, Becky.”
The sincerity in his voice was like ointment for a scraped knee. “I—”
“Are you okay, my pugalicious?”
“Gil. Not in the mood for nose-related terms of endearment, okay?”
Of course he was. Good man. The kind she’d hoped Lauren would choose one day.
“Is Jackson sleeping?” He whispered as if he could wake the baby from six states away, as the stork flies.
She swirled her teabag through the steaming water. If it were her typical daytime choice—Black Pearl—it would by now be over-steeped, the deep molasses of Gil’s eyes. “Jackson? Sleeping obliviously. Like I should be.”
“I wish I were there.”
“What’s Lauren’s excuse this time?”
Gil’s exhale traveled through the fiber optic phone lines and tickled the hairs in Becky’s ear. “Is she still talking college?”
A slosh of tea left a mini-puddle on the white countertop. She swiped at it with her palm, which turned the small puddle into a smear. “We want her to further her education, don’t we? I mean, providing she gets through this last year of high school.” She ripped a paper towel from its holder. “That’s not a given.”
“We knew this would be hard.” Blistered. His voice sounded blistered, like life’s shoes had rubbed too long on a tender spot.
“He’s our grandson.”
“And she’s our daughter.”
“That’s been confirmed, hasn’t it?”
Gil chuckled. “You mean, how did two fully responsible, completely mature adults manage to raise a daughter who seems allergic to responsibility?”
“Something like that.”
“She’s not fully grown yet, Becky.”
“Oh, that’s comforting.” The baby monitor let Becky know her not-fully-grown-yet daughter’s infant son squirmed in his crib.
“Do you want me to call Lauren on her cell?”
“I tried that. It went to voice mail.”
Gil huffed. “That’ll be the last time.”
“It’s on my list.” Becky turned away from the glare of the microwave’s time keeper.
California said, “We’re in this together, hon.”
She should have replied instantly with something that meant, “We sure are.” But six states of separation and full-time versus part-time parenting left an awkward gap she didn’t have the energy or wisdom to fill.
Somewhere beyond the walls, a car door slammed. “Never mind. She just got home.”