It's late when you return home. You pay the babysitter, who slips out the door and rides away on his bicycle into the warm night. You make yourself some tea - ginger peach, with ice cubes to stay the heat - and sit in the darkened living room, listening to the quiet, wondering how late the husband will be, thinking about how tired he will be in the morning.
Thinking about how tired you will be in the morning.
You take your tea and climb the stairs. The child was fine, the babysitter said. She cried when you left and protested his accompanying her to the park, but very quickly decided that the swing was the thing, and that it didn't matter who accompanied her there. They had had a good evening, he said. She'd gone to sleep easily.
You stand outside her door, and listen to the soft whirr of the fan above your head. She'll be sprawled across her bed - yes, her bed, the crib having been disdained for more sophisticated comforts - her feet pressed up against the safety bar, her arms thrown back above her head, one set of chubby fingers clutching her lovey. Long legs, long torso, long toes; her body is so much less a baby's in sleep, her limbs stretched in full extension, a dancer frozen in mid-flight. Her face, though. In repose her cheeks bloom like cabbage roses and her mouth settles into a soft round O, a perfect little berry. You would want to nibble those cheeks, were you leaning over her, brushing soft blond wisps back from her forehead. You would want to run a finger over her impossibly pink lips. You would want to breathe in all of the baby that remains of her, breathe it in and hold it in and never exhale.
But you don't, you won't, because she is sleeping and because this is not your time to be with her; this is night-time, sleeptime, dreamtime.
You go into your bedroom and sit down on the bed and sip your tea, cool now from the ice. The cat winds its way around your legs, flicking its tail against the back of your knee. You think about getting ready for bed.
You didn't say goodnight to her, of course. The babysitter would have said goodnight. She would have asked for you, though. You know this. You can hear it, almost, if you shut out the sounds of the night: the lilt of her voice, the little trill on the last syllable of 'Mommy,' the question hanging in the night air. Mommy?
You want to go in. You want to go in and climb into bed beside her and pull her to you and kiss the top of her head. You want to rest your hand on the swell of her belly, feel the rise and fall of her breath. You want to breathe her in. You miss her.
You don't know why, but you miss her.
Sitting on your bed, you feel the whole of your future spill out before you like so much ribbon, unfurling onto the floor, a mess of loose tangles. You feel the unfolding distance, the lengths that will stretch between you, even as she remains within arm's reach. You feel the future quaver in your heart, that quaver that will come when she insists that you no longer call her baby. When she asks to be left alone. When she shuts the door against you and hides away in that room, holding her mysteries tightly, pressing them against her chest and shielding them from your view.
That moment will come. You know it. You will smile bravely, if uncertainly. You will accept her distance. You will understand it. Will you hate it? You don't know. From here, from the vantage point of this moment, it seems unbearable. You're pretty certain that you will hate it.
But she's here, now. So close.
You set down your tea and turn out the lights.
You tiptoe down the hall, silently, and ease open the door to her bedroom, silently, silently. You reach out in the dark and feel the curve of her back. You hear the whisper of her breathing, small sweet sighs.
You climb in beside her, and pull her to you. Quietly, quietly.