Liz had been asleep for a few hours by the time I arrived at her home. The night was young by my standards so I read a book for a while on the couch, flanked by a stuffed giraffe and a life-sized Elmo doll—the mandatory living room decor for someone with a 15-month-old child. After finishing two chapters, I called it quits for the night and went to bed. I grew drowsy within minutes. The mattress was relatively new and my side of the bed had been uninhabited for a while before I came along. Liz rolled over, wrapped her arm around me and kissed my earlobe mistakenly. For a few minutes we lay there, breathing slow and soft.
Her daughter, Violet, had kept her up much of the previous night. Another week, another ear infection. When Liz turned her back to me, I retrieved my phone from the nightstand and checked Facebook. I had changed my profile picture and wanted to see how many likes I’d gotten—only 24 after almost five hours. Certainly not my best. Worst of all, Nikki hadn’t liked it yet. That was really the reason I had posted it in the first place.
I put my phone back down by the baby monitor. Red lights flickered, accompanied by faint sounds from Violet’s room. I closed my eyes and had just begun drifting off to sleep when the crying started. The volume was fairly low and Liz didn’t seem disturbed. She moved her leg and moaned a little, but didn’t wake.
Violet’s crying continued for a few moments before it stopped. I considered getting up to check on her but it would probably upset her more to see the guy who randomly appeared at breakfast instead of her own mother. But now the moment had passed.
The crying began again, with more fury than before. Liz once told me she could differentiate between whining and a legitimate cry. It all sounded like sadness to me.
I got out of bed and walked into the kitchen. The fluorescents overhead blinded me for a moment as I walked to the dimly lit living room, stepping over some giant Lego pieces and a few thick books featuring brightly colored animals before opening the door to her room. Violet sat upright in the crib. When she saw me, she cocked her head, but remained quiet and then held her arms up for me to take her. This had been happening more lately. Of course, at this point, she would have accepted the help of any accomplice in escaping.
A few days ago, Violet cried when I left for work and Liz said this lasted for about five minutes afterwards. Once she called me “Dada” but Liz assured me she had said the same thing to the clerk at the gas station down the street and the elderly woman next door who perpetually watered her gardenias. But I wasn’t entirely convinced. Violet’s real father lived on the other side of the state with his new family. He left Liz and his daughter when Violet was only three months old. Now he had custody every other weekend. He also sent Liz rambling emails filled with misspelled words, misplaced modifiers and comma splices. Liz taught Composition at the university and, at times, his poor grammar infuriated her more than his asinine comments on her parenting style.
Violet and I walked into the living room as she continued to stare at me. This was my first time to ever be alone with her and I wasn’t sure what to do. So far she hadn’t cried again, which was a good sign. I sang the “ABC Song” as my knowledge of children’s tunes was limited. She randomly interjected her own version of the melody. When I finished, she sang the first three letters clearly. We sat there in silence again, rocking. She yawned. Perhaps this would be shorter than I had figured. Just as she started to fade, she perked up again, making some sounds and poking my chest. This could only mean one thing – she wanted more singing.
Being in the spotlight left me nervous and without a vast repertoire of toddler pleasing melodies, I thought fuck it and started to sing a carefully censored version of Ryan Adam’s “Come Pick Me Up.” She smiled a little and when I finished I said, “I know I’m not doing Ryan any justice, but I do appreciate you not being judgmental.”
She bopped my nose.
So I sang “When the Stars Go Blue” because kids like stars, I guess. The song was a bit out of my vocal range but I persevered until the chorus when I paused and said, “Okay, I may not hit this note.” She didn’t respond. My falsetto came through on the first chorus, but fell short the second time. “In my defense,” I told her when I finished, “even Ryan has trouble with that song sometimes.
I wiggled her toes and tickled the bottom of her right foot. She moved it away and then put it back again, egging me on, so we repeated the motions a few times. She curled up closer to me and nuzzled her head against my chest. The light blonde down of her hair felt soft against my fingertips. Everything about her felt soft.
She looked up and yawned again.
I wondered what Nikki was doing—probably out at the bar surrounded by every drummer and guitarist in the room. She could be the merch table girlfriend for any band in town and I hadn’t strummed my acoustic guitar since Bush was in office. I’d never asked Nikki out so she had never turned me down. In fact, she had a boyfriend until about a month ago, but even before then, I’d visit the coffee shop to joke around with her and talk music. All she wanted to do was discuss house shows. I shared stories about the time I’d seen Guided By Voices or Modest Mouse.
Violet spoke her first clear word since I’d taken her from the crib. “Momma.”
“Momma’s sleeping,” I said.
She whispered gibberish in my ear.
“Oh yes, I agree,” I told her.
She smacked her lips and leaned her head towards me. I turned my cheek so she could give me a “kiss.” After that, she looked around the room for about 10 seconds casting glances at the walker that played “Camptown Races” when it moved and the bag of blocks that had been half spilled and the doll house with the broken door. She laid her head against my chest again. I began singing “Oh, My Sweet Carolina” to her, but my throat grew thick and my nose burned. Tears blurred my vision.
It made me sick to my goddamn stomach. Here I was holding this beautiful, docile child, who clutched me like I’d given her half of my chromosomes, and all I could do was wonder when some barista with purple highlights and a septum piercing would like the selfie I’d only posted because she had once complimented the cardigan I’d worn to work today. I could have this child’s love and her mother’s and we could make a home together. But it wasn’t enough. Nothing was ever enough. I was 32 years old and most of my friends were married, many with children. But I couldn’t go a day without wondering what else I was missing, without wanting what I could never have.
I sang, “Oh my sweet disposition…”
She looked up at me.
“May you one day…”
She touched the whiskers on my chin and smiled.
“Carry me home.”
About five minutes later, I put Violet to bed. The yawns had increased so it seemed like a good time. When I set her down, she looked up at me and cocked her head, just like before. The shadow of the door swept across her crib as I shut it and stood outside her room, listening.
In the kitchen, I drank a glass of water and looked around the house. The living room was in a chronic, childlike state of disarray, but everything looked right that way. I put the glass in the sink and walked to Liz’s bedroom. She was still out cold, her back to me. I walked to the empty side of the bed and ran my fingers across the sheets. There was a vacancy and I had checked in. For a while anyway.