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Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow

When I was thirty-seven weeks pregnant I dreamt of faraway lands. I might be sitting at a meeting at work, my belly squeezed uncomfortably against a conference table or debating the merits of bumpers versus an unadorned crib when I’d drift away to India, sitting on an elephant outside the Taj Mahal, my huge ungainly body magically reduced as I rode into the sunset.

After the difficult labor and birth of my daughter I spent the first weeks at home mostly in bed, staring at her mysterious face. I was enraptured and, well, trapped. Wanderlust continued.

When Esme was three months old, we left for London to visit my best friend who had also recently given birth. The plane was surprisingly easy; she was still technically completing her “fourth trimester” and because I was nursing, felt like an extension of my body. I took comfort in her comfort, nestling her to sleep in my arms, feeding her, taking pride in anticipating her needs moments before she’d wail. It crossed my mind that I hadn’t done anything on the plane. My book remained with its spine firmly intact, my magazine crisp and unopened. The movie had been a blur. But then Esme herself was something; she was everything.

I spent the first weeks at home mostly in bed, staring at her mysterious face. I was enraptured and, well, trapped.

The house looked like sugar cake, a white fondant identical to those that surrounded it for three or four blocks in both directions. Inside I hugged my friend as tears of joy and communion streamed from our eyes. We had done it! And so had they. I had spent all night, two nights at the hospital and so had she! Her baby, a boy, looked like her and mine like me! It was an immense comfort to land next to my close friend as if we were the only two women in the world who had had children, who had relinquished the external world — that of work and social life — that of selfish pleasures: 6 p.m. movies, impromptu dinners, sleeping late, for this world of bodily mess, unconditional mutual adoration, sleeplessness, and near dementia and also bottomless, finally selfless love. Now here we were together sipping loose tea at a worn butcher block, while we fed the babies.

“I think I’ll go for a walk,” my husband broke in.

“Where?”

“You know, around, to get my bearings. ” He looked toward the drizzle longingly. I needed him.

“But — we just got here!”

“I need some context to see where I am, to walk.” We called my husband “The Matrix,” because upon landing in any new city he had an uncanny ability to look at the map once and then download it and thereafter consult only his brain when determining which way to go. He never got lost.

“Just don’t go too long.” I needed him to hold her, I needed his help. “Besides, it’s raining. ” Just then the rain stopped and a buttery sunshine coated the streets.

He brightened. “How about this — you take a bath,” I’d been saying I wanted one, “and I’ll take Esme.”

I balked, “I’m still feeding her.”

“As soon as you’re done, just give her to me; you get some rest.”

He walked toward the large front door and peered out then started to fasten the baby carrier to his chest. I finished the second side and lifted her to my shoulder to burp her. She spit up into my hair. My arms were aching from holding her for most of the six-hour flight. To put her down, to simply let go … but she was wide-awake, her dark eyes roving the new room with rapt fascination. Perhaps a walk would lull her to sleep.

“Really?”

He assured me he’d have her back for the next feeding.

“How psyched are you?” my friend asked when he left. I smiled and made my way up to the bath. I rinsed the gunk out of my hair with a hand held shower and then filled the tub and stepped in. My arms felt strangely buoyant, empty. The hot water cleared away the stale, metallic feel of the plane. I sunk lower into the tub and watched the English June sky cooling to a cornflower blue above the neighboring green. I stayed so long the water cooled too and I added more hot. Then that supply cooled and the sky had turned a definitive gray. I hesitated a bit; maybe he was back downstairs in the kitchen waiting for me to take Esme while he showered before dinner. I found a loofah and scrubbed my heels. I stood up, freezing and not sure where she kept the towels. It occurred to me that my husband and baby were not back yet. A white stack of towels was in the windowsill and when I reached for one a terrible thing happened: A deep rumble of thunder growled like unknown hunger. The sky cracked and opened, the lightening so bright and sharply zigzagged it was almost comedic. Rain flooded the small back yard, bending the branches of trees and whipping nascent green buds to the brick patio.

I hurried out of the bathroom and downstairs where my friend remained with a book. “He must have gone somewhere,” she said, “a museum, you think?”

“No. No he walks. He walks and walks and never stops. He likes to be outside. Did he have an umbrella when he left?”

“He must be inside, they’re probably in a cab right now on their way back.”

I dressed and paced. An hour and forty minutes had passed. Soon it was two hours. I watched my friend change a diaper holding both tiny ankles in one hand, with strange longing. I listened as she returned a call to an electrician and then ordered some Indian food. How I wanted her ordinary life.

I stood by the door. Two hours and fifteen minutes. I heard a splash and on the floor saw that I was leaking fat drops of milk. I went and changed my shirt. It was telepathic; Esme was hungry again. My body knew this. She needed to be home. She might be cold or wet.

“Well, nice of him at least to give you this time right?” She poured me some wine.

“I guess,” I said holding back a lump in my throat. “No! Where the hell is he?”

“He’ll be here any minute.”

But he didn’t arrive another shirt later, or after one glass of wine, or even when we had flicked on BBC and paid for the samosas and the korma. Her own husband walked in, my disappointment obvious.

When mine came in I had never been so irate yet relieved. His coat, a light blazer was secured comically around Esme, a copy of the Guardian balanced over her head. One pink foot dangled from the hem of the blazer its sock permanently lost. He was panting, out of breath. “I tried to call — ”

“Where were you?”

He started to describe his route. “Give her to me. She must be freezing.”

“She fell asleep. She’s fine. It started to rain and we went into a pub.”

“A pub?”

“It was right there, so I took her in to stay dry.”

“She must be starving.” Frantically she fitted herself against my body as I sunk into a chair to nurse.

“We stayed dry even though they kicked us out. No kids allowed in pubs. Can you believe it? As if I were about to order her a stout — so we stood under the awning for a while looking for a cab.”

“And then?”

“And then we ran.” He described his route to our friend’s amazement. He had run nearly two miles to get home.

“No wonder her foot is so cold.” I squeezed her tiny foot to warm it up.  It was my foot, one of my four feet — a part of me had been gone. It was my job to protect her. It was my job to keep her alive. I realized I was trembling. We were not in India but in England and it was cold in the summer time. We had gone away, we had escaped but we would never escape the heavy weight of new love. He came to me and kissed my hair in apology, saying I smelled good. I’d had my bath and she was back in my arms. He stood up to get a beer and I remained grounded; I wasn’t going anywhere.

Visit MacMillan for your chance to win a copy of Thea Goodman’s newly released book, The Sunshine When She’s Gone (Henry Holt and Company, 2013).

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