Steam shoots into the air as the ball of noodles hits the boiling water. My daughter’s eyes dance, following the cook as he performs his choreography, accompanied by a cacophony of hisses, sizzles, and splatters. He is an artist; a simple white bowl awaits his creation.
I stare at my own masterpiece, savoring the strokes of blue in her eyes. A stranger once said to me, “Her eyes are the sea and yours are the sky.” We are the sea and the sky, always connected, one born of the other. I think about that day, exactly three years ago. I can feel the dark ocean waves of labor, the tide coming in, closer and closer. I feel the pressure I swore would break me in two. Then the relief. Hello, Baby Girl. I’ve been waiting for you. On the hard days, I remind myself that I prayed for this child.
The waitress delivers our drinks, soda for Mommy and apple juice for Baby Girl. We clink our glasses together and laugh. “Cheers! Kanpai!” A birthday is something to celebrate. On the day she was born, fireworks went off in our tiny hospital room. All that beauty, surprising and sparkling, soaring and shooting, then bursting, and slowly falling back to Earth. After the crackle of the fireworks had faded, new sounds filled the space between the walls of our home. Cries, whimpers, and wails were our nightly soundtrack. Even when she was quiet, I heard her in the whir of the fan and hum of the shower. There were other noises, too. When she was hungry, she was a little warthog grunting until she found the breast. Giggles, coos, and raspberries were the antidote to my exhaustion. Then there were the cheers of proud parents. “You can do it!” “Roll, roll, roll!” We cheered her on as though she were stealing third base.
Our lunch is ready. We watch with eager eyes as the chef ladles piping broth over now-softened ramen, carefully placing the finishing touches of onions, bamboo, and pork on top. Oishii! Delicious. We reach for our utensils; wooden chopsticks for Mommy and kid-sized cutlery for Baby Girl. We swirl and pull noodles from our bowls, each one as long as an afternoon of endless rocking, wishing I could will my child to sleep, craving a nap. Afternoons became evenings full of bouncing and nights of constant line-dancing across the bedroom carpet. The days are long, but the years are short. I didn’t believe them, the well-meaning mothers who said these words to me with a knowing smile. They were the warriors, those who had gone before me and done battle with the days that slapped you with exhaustion before 10 a.m. They had vanquished the frustration of a child who is hungry but won’t latch. They had conquered the loneliness. Victorious, they were preparing me, painting bold lines of black and red war paint along my cheekbones, down my nose, and across my forehead. They convinced me, turning me into a fellow warrior, a believer.
Baby Girl pokes and slices her food with the precision of a surgeon. Gone are the days of the splat mat and plastic bibs. The restaurant is quiet except for the noodles we slurp, spraying salty broth onto our shirts. I fish through the murky contents of my bowl, excited when I find a noodle, a lucky koi among the weeds. We’ve been having ramen lunches since we moved to Japan, when Baby Girl was only 15 months old. At that time, separation anxiety crippled our drop-offs with baby-sitters. She discovered the power of “no.” A missed nap turned Baby Girl into a fire-breathing dragon. But that little dragon could talk and walk and play. She didn’t need me to rock her to sleep anymore. No more line-dancing for us.
Our bowls are almost empty. Drained. I’m still digesting the drama of a morning soured by tantrums, tears, and terrible-twosing. I think it had something to do with the fact that she didn’t want to wear shoes. Or maybe it was that she couldn’t find her shoes, or that she did want to wear shoes, but she wanted to tie them herself. Emotion constantly boils, spilling over in the form of flailing limbs, crocodile tears, and incoherent speech. The days are long.
My gaze settles on the bright orange vinyl that covers our seat, worn out from other patrons, strangers who also shared a meal in this spot. The absence of a diaper bag sitting next to us in the booth surprises me. No diapers for this girl. She goes on the big potty and rides a bike and dresses herself. She giggles and kisses and snuggles and tickles. Her hair is long now, her face less rounded. “Don’t grow up,” I tease her, beckoning her back to Neverland. The years are short.
A few small scallions taunt me as they float in the broth that remains. They are daring me to grab them with my chopsticks, to show the true level of my ability. I grab my bowl with two hands and lift it to my lips, silencing the scallions and their remaining comrades. And just like that, the bowl is empty, and my Baby Girl is three years old.
Melissa Kutsche currently lives in Japan with her family. She is a former educator and now stays home with her two young children, ages three and 10 months. She enjoys reading, dancing, and traveling.