Learning to Hold One’s Breath and Other Uncomfortable Things
The house temperature at 4am. Attempts to keep quiet after stepping hard on the blunt, plastic head of an LOL Surprise Doll buried deep in her purple shag carpet. The too-thin pillows and too-warm blankets on her princess bed, where her bad dreams force you to join her at this hour. (Taggers, she’ll later tell you, on the drive to school; she was dreaming of taggers spray-painting her room, because you’d described to her what graffiti was after she’d found it on the park bench beside her favorite climbing tree and now she can’t stop seeing it everywhere: street signs, store fronts, bus walls, bathroom stalls, permanently hardened into concrete sidewalks.)
Socks with scratchy plastic tags that irritate small heel bones tucked in rainbow-light-up-mermaid rain boots. Attempts to wiggle and bend her reluctant spaghetti arms through unicorn-glitter-sparkle rain jacket sleeve holes. Missing the days you could choose her outfits, strap her to your front, and be out the door, just like that.
The always cheerful preschool teacher who stands close enough you can smell spearmint breath, coconut oil, berry shampoo. Your clumsy steps backwards, awkwardly bumping into sensory bins, thick with shaving cream heaps and plastic bugs, because the kids are learning about them this week; how not to be afraid of them. Feigning shared joy when your daughter’s covered palm reveals a carefully cradled, but half-squashed collection of snails, beetles, and tightly balled roly-poly pill bugs, all frightened for what’s left of their tiny, slimy, insect lives.
Small talk with the moms that starts promising, but somehow still circles back to post-baby weight-loss strategies. Small talk with the moms that makes you question your strictness (or lack thereof), your schedule (or lack thereof), your choice of a kindergarten (wait, there arechoices?), your basic parenting philosophies (yes, you dohave some). Small talk with the moms that question why you have only one. Small talk with the moms where they fake envy, like you have it so much easier than they do. Like that’s what fueled your choice. Like it’s any of their business.
Light-up cowgirl boots worn without socks, because she rolls them up and hides them in her Wonder Woman backpack moments after drop-off, once outside your jurisdiction. Wet hair stuck to pink cheeks, because she pulls the braids out on the playground on drizzly days and wears the neon plastic elastics like bracelets, etching deep pink grooves in still-pudgy wrists, because you aren’t there to remind her not to.
Dirt beneath rainbow-sparkle fingernails. Mud in shoes. Outgrown shoes. Outgrown leggings. Her outgrown need for adult supervision during after-school playdates. Walking her to the neighbor’s home; the one with the massive swimming pool (fenced) and the massive dog (tame), but no fire arms, you confirmed well ahead of time. The walk home without her.
The conversation about your own dog, now old, deaf and blind; now developing a dementia known as sundown syndrome; now barking at the walls at dusk. When the conversation turns to doggy Heaven despite your atheistic leanings, because you were once offered Heaven as a safety net, so why shouldn’t she have one, too? When the conversation takes a sharper turn to heavier philosophical follow-ups: if the dog goes to Heaven when his body gets old and isn’t working, what about Grandma, isn’t her body old and not working well? And how about you, Mom, when will you go to Heaven? Can I go with you? When do I get to go?
The belts of summer dresses, the sleeves of pastel cardigans, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s highly ranked 5-point harness car seat that she’s quickly outgrowing.
When the substitute swim instructor holds her too long in the deep end, his hands out of sight, while explaining to the class how to hold one’s breath.
Standing by, tear-free conditioner in hand, as your daughter and two swim-friends rinse chlorine from their small, naked bodies, spinning in the warm spray of communal locker room showerheads, opening their mouths to fill them with water and spit through gapped teeth; tiny fountains of joy. The realization that these tiny bodies, these babies, are sought after by predators. The documentary you’d watched the night before. All of them, just babies.
The skin along your thumbnail you pick at when you’re anxious. The strain on your lower back when she still wants to be held and you still want to hold her, asking her to wrap her legs tight around your waist so as to relieve some of the pressure from your shoulders and spine. Knowing this will only last so long.
Reminding your husband you need to draft a will. Deciding who you will allow to watch over her, if or when you become dead or unable.
The picture emailed by the preschool teacher in which your daughter huddles in a pile of classmates, her face nearly unrecognizable in its grown-up seriousness, because she takes the rules of her teachers seriously and they were very specific when it came to performing this particular drill: find a corner, stay together, be perfectly quiet. The message emailed along with the picture, explaining the active shooter lockdown procedures in stark, carefully-framed details.
The pictures your mind creates. The fear that by imagining such things—unimaginable, yet clearly imaginable things—you might make them more likely to happen. Realizing your own imagination is a sickeningly swift and gut-piercing weapon.
When you ask your daughter what the drill was for and she says “bears.” And you say, “bears?” and she says, “yes, bears. To keep the bears away.”
When she wakes at 4am to a nightmare of bears, and you say, “there are no bears here, honey,” while you stroke her sweaty head.
Knowing there are plenty of bears here.
Knowing they’re everywhere.
Kelle Schillaci Clarke is a writer, journalist and adjunct English instructor. She earned her MFA from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but happily left the desert in favor of rainy Seattle, where she lives now with her husband and daughter. She has recent work in Barren Magazine and forthcoming in The Citron Review, and can also be found on Twitter at @kelle224.