I lie in bed, my eyelids pressed tightly together, the drawn out thump pushing in through the half open doorway. A heartbeat in my ears- blood in, blood out- like a finger striking the wooden coffee table at midnight, knocking a coded message, tapping out bullet points of decisions I’d rather not face.
There were lazy summer mornings when the sun spilled through the glass windows, heating them warm to the touch. He’d tilt his head up towards the light, mouth open carelessly, uninhibited laughter spilling down into the coffee. He’d run his fingers, warm from the ceramic cup, though my hair, brushing the top of my ears. I’d close my eyes for a brief second capturing the moment, setting it gently in the place I stored all happy things.
No one told me the dangers of having such a place. Or maybe they did and I never listened, stupid in love and naively thinking everything lasts forever. Millimeters at a time the marriage stretches, two people holding the ends, walking towards the sunset, not realizing they’re inching further apart. Then one day, snap! One person lets go unexpectedly, or the tie simply breaks from the strain of elongation.
Only then do I see that although we are on the same horizon together, I can draw a line in the space between us, one that connects us on opposite sides of the room, the town, the world. One day it happens, while I’m watching the slow motion closing of the butterflies blue wings. Time speeds forward and slams me together with a shattering crack that echoes in the hallway for days. It curls its resonance into the spaces through the house like a cat cozying up to the fireplace, tail swirling round its body.
Now in my house I find the air heavy and suffocating, seeping into my mouth like an empty cloud of fog with no raindrops to wash it away. I place my hand on my abdomen as I lie in bed and wish the monotonous thump was the low drone of the ceiling fan circling slowly like a shark above me. I press my eyes together tightly to erase the flashes of pictures that come uninvited – his fingers on walking across the mountain of my swollen belly telling us stories of all the places he’d go, the one who we’d never seen. The cold against my arms and legs, the searing burning pain, his face above me, white light haloing around his head. New eyes, deep and drowsy, bluish gray, huge in that tiny face, a slow blink of recognition as if he’d known me all along, his entire hand clasped around half of my pointer finger.
I remember thinking about kittens, how their eyes change after birth, and wondering if his would turn, that maybe it was only a fleeting trick of nature, what could have been. It’s strange how the simplest things come back to you, the things that don’t, how the mind chooses between them with no set rhyme, plucking them with three pronged fingers from the subconscious ocean, from that secret place.
I know what the thump is and I know eventually I will have to get out of bed. The hallway is dim and smells of broken dreams. The picture frames catch dust in the moonlight at the boney edges, along the inner steams, cradling the fossils of extinct animals with four limbs and smiles in their hearts. My feet make no sound. I am a ghost of what roamed the house before, the carpet absorbing me as if I weigh nothing. I do not breathe because I am watching his private moment, his solitude, his prayer.
My little boy with the bluish gray eyes that turned hazel, hair brown and curly like my own. Down the hallway with the dust fossils, past the long wooden table cluttered with dried pasta shells, glue and paper, down two steps. His silhouette casts a backwards shadow. He raises his arm, throws the ball against the wall. Thump. It rolls back to him. He picks it up, throws it again. He is crying in little fractured sobs as though it’s his fault, trying to hold it in, to be strong, but it seeps through the cracks. David called it his wishing wall. I hate the sound of his name. I want to dissect the letters with scissors. D made it up as a game when it was raining outside.
“This wall is magic,” he’d said, “like a wishing well. You throw the ball to knock and it awakens the magic. Then you ask it for whatever you want.”
“Does it come true,” Gus had asked his eyes wide.
“It’s magic,” D had said. “No one quite knows how magic works.”
Gus had believed him in spite of my stern talk with D about my desire not to feed him lies. D had laughed. “Magic is magic. Let him believe.” And I couldn’t bring myself to take it away from him even when D didn’t come home from work in time to throw the ball with him. Gus would yell when his car pulled up clutching the ball in his fist, “See Mom. He’s home now. Magic.”
I often wonder if Gus knew it all along: that it was all going to crash like an imploding star, if he kept to the ritual in hopes that it would save us.
He is crying now, whispering things in the half dark, under the moonlight filtering in through the glass window. I run both my cold hands through the sides of my hair covering my ears so I won’t hear his incantations. Still, I would know his wish if I was on the other side of the world. I press my palms into my ears and shut my eyes, elbows touching in front of my chest. I collapse into myself, let the tears rush down my face, mouth open in silent scream.
The heartbeat goes on, a telltale symphony etching into my bones. I sit there for days, years, our entire lives. If I don’t move it’s not real. If I don’t acknowledge it, it doesn’t exit, like the boogey man my daughter insists lives in their closet and comes out at night to sleep under their beds.
Finally I get up. I go to him. He crumples in my arms. The ball rolls along the floor coming to rest in the moonlight, the glow folding in a crescent shape at the edges.
“Mommy, do you believe in magic,” he asks, his face splotchy, eyes intent and watery. The question holds the weight of the world. His body trembles from his ribcage out. He is so small. He is too small to bear this. He will break under the weight. His little bones will bend and snap.
I try to smile but cry instead. Smile and cry. He studies my eyes and places his warm hands against my checks, touching his forehead to mine. His hands are on fire. My tears melt them.
“Yes,” I say looking into his eyes that were once bluish gray, his entire hand that once fit around half of my finger. “Yes, I believe in magic.”
I pick up him in my arms and it feels like truth. Maybe we all believe in magic but we just call it something different. Words limit even as they define. I walk back to his room and put him in his bed. He won’t let go of my arm wrapped around him so I lie next to him, his chest gasping for breaths every few seconds. I should have known she wasn’t asleep; my daughter is just like me. She takes it all in quietly. Sometimes you don’t realize she’s there. She makes herself small and protected, curls up in a hard little ball. If I don’t speak it’s not real.
I hear her footsteps from the other bed. She covers us with her comforter, white with rainbows, not the bright kind but dull, the kind that shine even when things aren’t pretty. She gets into the bed behind me, pushes the warmth of her body into my back. She takes my hair and twirls it between her fingers in slow circles.
Against the wall is a constellation of stars that glow in the dark. Gus put it up for her when she started having bad dreams. He told her that when she woke up she should look for the stars. If she saw them, then she would always know she was home and safe. He’s brilliant, a heart like an ocean.
I stare at the constellation, looking for the brightest star. I feel Gus’ breathing begin to steady. The hand through my hair twirls sporadically and then not at all. We are all smooched together on a bed meant for one.
I find the brightest star and make a wish.