desert woman

July 12

I am still as I stare up at the new apartment, shrouded by trees on either side and leaning slightly to the left. I am already tired of standing but I can’t seem to move my feet forward. The narrow, lopsided steps leading to the front door have been taken over by moss and ivy and they appear insurmountably tall. I watch a woman walk towards me on the sidewalk with a small dog, one hand clutching her phone to her ear. She smiles as she walks past, eyeing the round belly that protrudes over my feet. I nod my head back but by the time I have attempted a smile she has already looked away. I step over the buckled sidewalk, eyeing the enormous tree root underneath the cement, and climb the steps, feeling out of place among the dark, leafy green that wraps the property.

I briefly imagine my own mother walking up to our little adobe house when she was pregnant with me, sweating even in the brief walk from the air-conditioned car to the cool, dark house. She was a desert woman, my father always said. Desert women planted cacti with their bare hands, breathed in the oven-hot air like they had dragon lungs. My mother never dreamed of leaving her arid environment.

I will teach myself to unlearn my desert roots, become a rainforest woman instead. There are no cacti to harm me, only delicate leaves and soft moss. Here, I can shroud myself in clouds that protect much better than open skies. My daughter will grow her own roots in soft, moist soil that is meant for planting. The harsh desert rejected my roots, and so I leave, to find a new place to call my home.

August 1

When my baby arrives, she is silent. Without her small body resting within mine, I suddenly feel just how alone I am. I always pictured this moment different in my mind; you would be here still, and my mom wouldn’t be thousands of miles away, worrying.

The doctors are trained professionals, well-accustomed to keeping the worry off of their faces. Still, terror grips my heart in iron fists that make it hard to breathe. The nurse who wipes the sweat from my brow congratulates me, smiling as if everything is fine. I know not to trust their calm expressions, counting the seconds in my head as they whisper just out of earshot. Her loud cry finally comes, and I immediately pass out.

When I wake again, a nurse is ready, waiting to hand this tiny, tiny body over to me. My daughter is clean, wrapped in a soft white blanket, and her face is scrunched but not unhappy. I don’t even realize I’m crying until I see a teardrop land on her cheek. I name her Eva, after your grandmother, and hope she’ll inherit the dark, curly hair you both had.

August 16

After I get her back to sleep after a middle of the night feeding, I watch Eva in the crib for a few moments before walking out to the kitchen. The faucet sputters as I fill a cup up with water, misting onto the hem of my shirt. It’s lukewarm and tastes metallic from the old pipes, but I gulp it down. A cool breeze from the window blows into the cramped space and I pause for a moment with my eyes closed, letting a long sigh escape between my lips. When I check my phone to see the time, messages pop up on the screen. More texts from people wondering where I am. I don’t even read most of them, just swipe to delete and power the phone off. My body aches all over and I crawl into the tangled sheets on the empty bed. Once upon a time you would be here waiting for me to return, ready to soothe the aches and take over when it became too much. Ready to rock us both to sleep. Once upon a time, we would still be in our own little adobe house, well-equipped for the heat, built for desert women and their desert babies. Here, I am alone, and the old wood of the walls soaks up the heat of the day, saves it for nighttime.

September 7

When Eva cries and cries and nothing seems to help, I have discovered that just the sound of my voice can soothe her. It’s the strangest realization, and the only reassurance I’ve gotten that I am a mother now. I tell her stories she won’t remember, about me and you falling in love, about when I was a little girl and I fell down on my bike, about my father’s business, about the parties you and I had with our friends that would last all night. My heart swells, threatening to explode with love, as she quiets down, face unscrewing, and snuggles closer to me so I can feel her small, fast heartbeat. My ears are still ringing from the constant bawling, but I fill the silence with more stories. I tell her how you swindled your way into that mail carrying job, charmed your way into an office downtown with huge windows, tall enough to see the big saguaros far out in the desert. How you sweet-talked your way into my office down the hall, talking up that view. For weeks we would sit together on the windowsill and watch the sun go down, gradually scooting closer and closer to each other. You bought us sandwiches, I brought pizza. You snuck in some cheap wine or a couple of cans of warm beer.

Eva is long asleep, but I don’t want to put her down just yet. I am content to stay in this rocking chair, looking out the window at the orange leaves on the big oak tree, illuminated by the glow of the streetlight. This scenery is still unfamiliar to me, but it’s the only home she knows.

September 30

We have been going it alone for almost two months now. I realized this last night when I walked to the supermarket with Eva strapped across my chest. I am running out of money, but I try not to let it worry me. I scan the canned goods aisle for sales, presenting coupons carefully cut out of the flyer that comes in the mail. She grasps my finger as I check out, smiles at the lady bagging our food.

During her nap I scroll through the same job listings that were up yesterday, and the day before. I had hoped to find one where I could bring Eva until I could afford daycare, but at this point I’m going to take anything.

October 15

I remember how, after you and I finally got married, my mom liked to talk a lot about babies. She would sit at the stiff-backed chair at the head of the table and recount stories from when she was nursing me, when I was learning to walk, all the milestones she cherished so much. She would pass around heavy dishes of food and nudge my shoulder, mentioning how Charly, down the street, was pregnant and how much she “glowed” with happiness. You and I would roll our eyes at each other but secretly imagine our future with a little baby, creating a family for ourselves. Back then, the future meant hot days spent in the shade of the porch, putting our daughter to sleep together, sitting outside watching the orange glow of sunset touching the tips of rolling hills in the distance. Back then, the future meant trips as a family, bedtime stories, taking turns feeding and caring for the small life that would be ours.

It’s been much different from what I expected. Sometimes I cry right along with Eva, feeling like I am experiencing the same unkind world that she must see around us; overtired, overhungry, overstimulated. Orange trees, green grass; vivid colors surround us when all I want is the flat, dry brown of home.

November 9

It’s hard getting used to the weather here. Eva didn’t like the heat when we first arrived, and now I don’t like the cold, stormy days. I can’t shake my desert roots, longing even for a dry breeze carrying eye-stinging dust. I’m trying, but it’s hard to love the rainforest when these storms threaten all its inhabitants.

Eva breathes evenly in the corner of the room, but I can’t find sleep. I watch the outline of the tree outside the window, its branches flailing and threatening to break. The wind whistles, low and threatening, yanking the last of the leaves from the safety of the tree.

When I do fall asleep, I have a dream that someone has broken in, and lurks in the dark shadows of the kitchen. Before I can see who it is, a gunshot rings out and the intruder falls. When I run to see if he is okay, I see your face staring up at me, blank and lifeless. I wake up sweating in the cold room.

December 2

I’ve found a job. It’s a receptionist position and doesn’t pay very well, but I’m allowed to bring Eva with me. She spends some of her time in the small daycare downstairs and some lying on the floor behind my desk. Everyone loves to come say hi, squeezing her chubby cheeks and making up words to respond to her little noises.

I used my first paycheck to get a new phone, a new number. I got tired of blocking numbers and always turning off my phone to avoid everyone. The amount of calls and texts had decreased but still I feel better now, no longer stuck in the past.

When we ride the bus home at night, she stares wide-eyed at the people around us, at the buildings flashing by outside the window. Her mouth opens in the same way yours always did when you were focused on something. I’m beginning to see more and more of you in her and I try not to let it break my heart.

December 17

It snowed today. I got to take Eva out at lunch and let her touch it. She hated the cold on her little fingers, scrunching her face up before beginning to cry. I watched in wonder as the flakes swirled around us, landing on branches and bricks and pausing there for a moment before melting.

I haven’t seen snow since my family drove up to Montana when I was eleven to visit my aunt and uncle. I remember building a terrible snowman with my brothers and watching my parents dig the car out of the driveway. Maybe Eva will grow up sledding and skating like I always dreamed of when I was little. My dad would joke “it’s okay if it doesn’t snow – it’s always a white Christmas!” when we passed the old white man playing Santa at the mall. But I wished for snow even as we wore shorts to the Christmas Eve service at church.

I can’t help but think of my family as everyone at work tells me who’s visiting for the holidays, or who they are going to go see. When I was making dinner tonight, I imagined them sitting at their table worrying about me and forgetting to decorate a tree. My dad would rub my mom’s shoulders, lighten the mood with a joke, but stare stonily out the window after eating. If I close my eyes, I can feel the rough wood of the dining table, hear the clatter of dishes over the hum of voices when everyone congregated at our house for a meal. Eva doesn’t even know she has family other than me.

January 8

Eva can sit up and roll over. Sometimes it feels like she’s doing dog tricks for me. I imagine you playing with her, delighted by her two small teeth. You would throw her high into the air and have more patience with rolling the ball back and forth than I do.

Sometimes her personality reminds me of you. The other day I was feeding her some mashed carrots and she stuck her tongue out at me and laughed her screeching laugh. You would be absolutely enamored.

February 3

My father found my new phone number. I’m not sure how he did it, but I have three voicemails from the past few weeks. He is delicate, not asking anything of me, merely an informant – what things have been like since I’ve been gone. I haven’t gotten any other calls, so he hasn’t passed the number around. My heart aches a little to picture him guarding this information so carefully.

He describes your memorial service back in July, and I can imagine everyone spilling out of the tiny church, a celebration of life lasting into the night. I can practically see my mother planting her herb garden on the back stoop, carefully dropping seeds into the fresh soil and moving the pots around throughout the day so the small leaves don’t get burned. At the end of each message he says, “talk soon,” just like he did when I was a kid.

I think about calling him back but every time I pick up the phone I end up staring at my hands or out the window until I put it back down again and find something productive to do.

February 28

Eva babbles to herself, to her stuffed dog. She is learning to pull herself up and stare out the window at the birds making their nests in the big oak tree, which is beginning to sprout tiny green buds.

Last night I invited a couple of women over from work and we had a playdate with our small children. Without giving away too much, I told the women about you, about the desert, about my family. I even played a voicemail from my dad. We are all still weepy young mothers and cried together, our children vaguely concerned but distracted by toys and each other.

It’s very different from the wild desert nights when you were there to joke around with everyone and over-serve all our guests, but it’s beginning to feel normal. I’m slowly building a new life, and it no longer feels as wrong.

April 4

Springtime here is magical. I underestimated the power of seasonal change. All the grey, misty mornings and long cold nights have made way for small flowers and soft grass illuminated in morning sunlight. Back in the desert, April meant running barefoot across the hot concrete of the driveway, sipping from sweating glasses. I loved it dearly, but I don’t miss it now.

I don’t cry as much as I used to. Maybe my tears come as often as the rain wherever I am; back in the desert my tears were all dried up, and here when it rained all the time I could never stop. Now it’s infrequent, mimicking this new weather.

The breeze that blows in through our open windows carries the scent of fresh-cut grass and cherry blossoms, and it ruffles Eva’s little curls, makes her laugh when they tickle her cheek. It’s hard now to imagine my life as any different as it is right now.

May 12

My new mom group went hiking together today. Just a short trail, but it took us out of the city. When I mentioned that I hadn’t been anywhere yet, they all got excited to show me their favorite places. Everyone here loves the outdoors. It’s unfamiliar but the excitement is contagious.

When we got to the top of the trail, we all sat and ate and took pictures. Eva sat in the dirt and watched a snail, which I had to repeatedly tell her she couldn’t touch. She fell asleep on the walk down, entranced by all the bird calls and rustling branches. She really will grow up to be a rainforest girl, running around with these other kids in the lush.

The air among the trees is moist and humid. It smells like nature, and there’s so much moss you can’t even tell there’s bark underneath. It baffles me that there is so much life all around. Mud and puddles and perpetually damp fallen logs all are home to different creatures.

June 1

My dad left a voicemail last night and called again this morning. It was unusual, but like always, I let it ring. I waited until I had finished feeding Eva her breakfast and cleaning the dishes to listen to the message.

When I pressed play, it was my mother’s voice. Crying. Saying something about my father and the hospital. His heart. There was a lot of silence, as she sniffled. And then before she hung up, all she said was, “please come home”. Her voice is rough like sand and it’s hard to hear her, but I know it’s what she said. I know immediately it’s what I have to do.

When I pulled on my blouse for work, I watched my hands shake as they pushed the buttons through to the other side. Eva screamed from her high chair, today just like any other for her.

June 2

The plane is cold, but Eva keeps trying to take her socks off. Finally, I let her, and she kicks happily, pleased with herself for getting away with it. I haven’t stopped shaking since I listened to that voicemail yesterday, and I can barely remember what happened since. At some point I booked a flight, packed clothes, fed Eva, put her to bed.

I haven’t had time to consider what it means that I’m coming home. Here, I can sometimes ignore your absence, but I know that back there, it will be impossible.

June 6

I’ve shed many tears over the last few days, and I can’t seem to turn them off. Maybe I’m less like a raincloud and the crying is really a result of circumstance rather than location. Eva cries less, constantly entertained by her newfound family. She has barely been put down, just passed between loving arms.

When we arrived on the first day, I nearly collapsed when I walked in and saw my dad connected to tubes and wires. He was sleeping, and he was alone. I didn’t even know what to think. But as soon as he heard Eva babbling and me crying, his eyes opened and he sat up, a small smile forming under his oxygen tubes.

I put Eva down on a chair to go to him. When he reached over to embrace me, I sobbed harder, feeling like a child in his still-strong arms.

They released him today and Eva rode in his lap as we wheeled him down to the car, my family talking over each other and laughing loudly. My mom held me against her, tight and secure and like she never wanted to let go again.

June 10

They are still trying to convince me to stay, but I am evasive. It was one thing to be back in the desert when all I saw was the inside of a hospital, a hospital that could be anywhere. But now that we’re back in the little adobe house I’ve known for so long, it’s impossible to ignore the pain and sorrow surrounding me. I see you everywhere I look. The table and chairs we bought from Home Depot, piling them into the back of your truck until it sagged under the weight. The mirror you found at Goodwill and painted for my birthday one year. Everything is here, waiting to be loved again.

I don’t feel stuck in the past though. These memories are painful but not unbearable in the presence of so much love. I watch my dad pull a pink dress over Eva’s head, watch her smile up at him and gather the hem in her little fingers. My mother feeds her a fresh tortilla, blowing on it first before handing it to her.

I show Eva the magic of the desert, the open air and hard ground so different from our new home. She fusses in the heat, so we spend most of our days inside, only coming out to the patio after the sun goes down. I can tell that she is already growing up to be a rainforest woman though – she went straight for the patch of soil soaked by the dripping garden hose, ready to get muddy.

Tonight I will pack and refuse the money my dad will inevitably try to offer me. I will promise them that we will visit again soon, I will let them hug and kiss Eva as long as they want. I will cry a little, not from exhaustion or sorrow, but from joy.

June 11

Before we left for the airport, we visited the spot where you rest. At first it broke my heart a little to see the lush green grass in the middle of the dry desert you always loved. Then I saw Eva sitting in the familiar soft grass, running her hands across it, and knew it was fitting; desert meets rainforest.

Eva sleeps on the plane from home to home. Her features are soft and when I rub her head, her dark curls coil around my fingers the way yours did.

Maybe it’s possible to have my heart in two places now.

Emma Williams is an MFA student at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Washington. She likes drinking tea, playing with her kitten, and failing at baking projects. She is previously unpublished.

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