By Sujana Vangala
Your mother’s eyes cradle something shattered and forgotten in their pooled darkness. She draws you in with slow, still whispers, and sometimes you wonder if she breathes at all. Her rib cage swells and caves, but you’ve never heard her gasp, sigh, heave earth shaking sobs. Your mother stands at the windowsill and, for a second, you’re sure she’s going to take flight. Instead, she fixes a flower box of wilted orchids and lets sunshine sear her retinas.
Your mother pinches color into your cheeks before your first school dance. She takes a tie pin from between her lips and presses it to the satin. Before you leave, awkwardly skirting around your date, she cocoons you in her arms. You smell spearmint on her breath, jasmine in her hair, vanilla on her hands. When you leave her arms, you take a little bit of her scent with you.
When you take family pictures, your mother always sits in a chair at the center. Sometimes your father stands behind her; other times, you take his place. Before you learned all your numbers, your mother clutched your plump body close, shifting so her sequined dress never skimmed your skin. Your mother sits in the center, and every head leans toward her smile.
You are planets in her solar system.
On nights when the thermometer’s mercury tumbles from its peak, your mother drapes another blanket over your sleeping form. A ghost’s touch on your body. The brush of an angel’s wing. On particularly frigid mornings, you’ll catch her on the phone, twirling the cord between her fingers.
“Oh yes, he’s terribly sick,” she says, winking at you. She calls before you think to ask.
On those days, when an artist’s hand stretches time long and thin, you and your mother fold yourselves into blankets on the sofa and listen to the static of the television. You whisper secrets you’d never share with your father or your friends, and your mother confesses she wanted to be a singer. She brings you a cup of cocoa topped with a mountain of cream and dustings of icing sugar. The whine of the kettle signals her tea is ready, but you both remain in the blankets, huddled around the mug like a hearth. The kettle wails, but neither of you moves.
Your father returns home to find a full cup of cocoa, untouched. Your mother and you flee the cardboard box you call home to find refuge in the park. Here, the snow melts and bleeds and blends together from the marks of use: footprints and tire tracks and softened newspapers. Your mother wraps her scarf around your throat just a little too tight, but you say nothing. She presses pink fingertips to her lips and lets her breath wash away the frost.
The city stills with indolence; a refusal to leave the house because a trip calls for hats, gloves, coats, boots, socks. Wind whistles through the park, a solo in the normal symphony of the town. Your mother walks in the footprints of the people before her, and you follow her path.
When you were four, you begged your mother for a swing set. Back then, creases never framed her eyes. Except when she laughed, which was often. Then, she burned with determination, petitioning the city council for a playground. With the pace of government, the swing set didn’t arrive until you abandoned childhood in favor of girls, hormones, and other middle school terrors.
Now, the seats of the swings sway idly in the wind, never touched by the cause they were born from. Your mother smiles, as if she recalls the same memories. As if she remembers this time when you were both younger, wilder, and sheltered a piece of each other in ungloved hands.
The plastic seat burns icy, and the metal chains prove impossible to brush without gloves. Still, your mother clutches onto them as if they hold her to the earth. Her knuckles scream white, and the swings creak from age, from rot, from the weight of her body.
Your mother swings higher and higher, the watery winter sun forming a halo over the crown of her head. She laughs as she passes you by, and this startles you most. The laugh echoes the same way as when you were four years old, when your mother was your only friend, and blood tethered you together. She laughs, and the birds listen. She laughs, and the air stills. She laughs, and you remember that your mother was not always your mother.
In another life, your mother becomes a singer. She claims a stage, a lover, a home, a daughter this time, instead of a son. Your mother dreams and catches the vision in between fingers before breathing it to life. She never meets you, never pinches your cheeks or makes you cocoa, and she is still happy.
“Ready to go?” she asks. Her cheeks flush, maybe from the cold, maybe from exhilaration. When you realize how unlikely this moment is, your presence, your mother’s soft smile, all taste sweeter on your tongue.
“I am,” you say, taking her arm. When you feel around the edges of time and know the exact places it may shatter, you become all the more determined to keep it whole.