You waited until you were thirty-seven years old, in order to be ready. Emotionally ready, you told your friends, who were happy to watch you go first.
By thirty-seven, you thought, you’d done what you needed to prepare: you’d untangled from your family and fled straight to the heart of a difficult city, the first place you’d call home. You met a man there, a good one who made you food and played you music. You spent ten years together, just the two of you, working past love, through hate, to a place quieter than either. You adopted a dog and bought a house. The extra bedroom upstairs, groaning with sunlight, told you it was time.
But no one could tell you this: That your first child would not arrive to shine a light on the parts of you that you had made whole. That she was not your reward for good behavior or admirable self-awareness. That she was not, as you’d secretly hoped, the reincarnation of yourself, given to you to restore what you think you never had.
To prove this, she comes out looking nothing like you. Impossible, you think, that the coupling of two black-haired, dark-eyed lovers could produce this pale animal whose eyes are so blue you know they will not change. No one in your family, as far back as you can see, has had eyes lighter than the dirt they sprang from. You have never had a blue-eyed friend, have, in fact, been suspicious of all blue-eyed people, as if a lack of pigment equaled a lack of depth or gravity. Which is exactly the message your firstborn delivers in the cool blue gaze that sifts right through you: Not only are you not what you thought yourself to be; you are the very opposite of everything you thought you were.
For example: You are not a person who yells. Or slams cabinets, car doors, dishes. You are not, god forbid, the kind of person who will become a joyless parent, but this child will bring it out of you, bring back parts of you ignored for so long you’d thought they’d drifted away, until you find yourself here, on a Wednesday morning in late February, slumped in the driver’s seat, crumpled inside and out. It is 8:15 a.m. and already you have struggled and lost—with the hairbrush, the winter coat, the car seat, the thousand tiny arrows of an average morning. You press your head into the headrest, close your eyes and breathe. But it is no use. After three years, you are what your daughter wants you to be: the broken wall her heart-sized fists have brought down.
You throw the car into reverse and roll down the driveway. Catching a glimpse of your daughter in the rearview mirror, her brow a wrinkle of anger, you do not think you know what’s going on inside her spidery brain; you know you have no idea. Turning onto the street, you crank the heat and cue the music, hoping for a ten-minute truce in the car ride to school. You flip to the Beatles playlist you made in a happier time, when you imagined rollicking sing-alongs she’d recall fondly to her own children. Idiot, you think now, just play the music. You skip “Here Comes the Sun”—you don’t care if it’s her favorite—and hit “Hey Jude,” because that’s what you want to hear. The song begins, and you feel what you needed to feel: the opening bars—Paul’s low croon over brooding chords—slip into your spine. It will not heal everything, this music, but it will help, a little. You keep your eyes on the road and pretend you’re alone, just you and this song. Twelve miles. You can do twelve miles.
But a mile in, there’s a buzz, a tinny reverb behind Paul’s voice, and you think of course, even this small comfort will be taken, as you fiddle with the wires. Then you hear it again, differently: not a mechanical glitch but your daughter’s small voice, an octave higher, trailing Paul’s. You want to turn your head to look but you don’t dare. From the rearview, you see her, looking out the side window, her face softer now, her mouth moving along with the lyrics. How many times have you played this song for her? Not many, always skipping to the brighter melodies she demands. You watch as she moves from the obvious words to the parts you still mumble and, somehow, she knows it all, not just the chorus, but the meat of the thing—there she is singing the movement you need is on your shoulder, every syllable in its place. You grip the wheel hard but your eyes blur anyway. Your daughter sings and your skin prickles with—what? Relief? Regret? Apology? You don’t know. By the time she gets to let it out and let it in, her chest lifting the seat straps, the steering wheel is hot beneath your hands and fat tears burn your cheeks. You know better than to think this means something, to think this moment is anything larger than itself. After three years, you have learned that much. It is not a turning point or a new beginning, not the moment your life with your daughter changed, but even so, a tiny piece of you, a half note, rises up. It will not carry you through the rest of your days, will not even get you through the rest of the week, but it will take you to the other side of this morning, and, in days to come, will remind you that there is always another side to be carried to, another shore to be reached, but only after letting go of this one, the way a ballad can become a rock song in six minutes and fifty-eight seconds, but only after the tambourine shakes its way inside, making room for the drums, first the sticks then the boom of the bass pedal, until the door swings wide and a whole ensemble stumbles in—guitars, cymbals, a choir of drunken, off-key revelers, and from somewhere a full orchestra (trombones, cellos, bassoons), until the tiny theater of your Subaru thrums, floorboards to roof and back again.
Behind the steering wheel, you listen hard, maybe for the first time, to what Paul is doing in the middle of all this noise. How he navigates as the song buckles and slides beneath him. Six minutes in, it’s not the love letter he set out to write, or the jam session he was in a second ago. You lean forward and watch as he lets things go: first the story, then the lyrics, landing on a one-syllable chant Na-na-na-naaaa, that carries the tune for a minute and then dumps it out, until finally, as the whole orchestra is either rising up or crashing down (it’s hard to tell), he opens his hand one last time and lets it all spill, a long, rolling wave of ows and heys and yeahs. You notice how each syllable feels unchosen, how it rides whatever comes up.
In the back seat, your daughter is quiet. Up front, you are, too.
The sidewalk from the parking lot to the teacher standing at the classroom door is straight and long. From a distance, you think, you must look like a normal thing, a mother walking her child to school. When you hand your daughter over, you give the teacher a small smile, one you hope looks more like gratitude than guilt.
Back in the car, alone now, you cue the song and hit repeat. You sing it, from clarity to chaos, over and over, louder each time, hoping to lodge it deep enough for the rest of you to hear.
Carla Riccio, a former editor and teacher, lives with her family in Boulder, Colorado. She has work in Chautauqua.
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