Limberlost

We could both feel the request in the air, and the fact that I wasn’t asking it was embarrassing us both. Oh, for God’s sake, I told myself. It’s just a fill-in. It’s just one time. Everything will be fine. So I gave her my most assured smile and said, “So, do you want to make some extra money next week?”

Becky arrived at my door wearing her usual oversized black sweatshirt and military messenger bag. Pins lined the strap that crossed her chest, and I thought of her as a decorated Girl Scout. You see what you want to see.

“Let me show you where everything is,” I said, leading her to the table where my papers were piled up for grading, and where Mia was mounted on her bouncer seat like a Thanksgiving turkey. I started to say something about Mia’s favorite toys, but Becky was looking at the wall. “What are these?” she asked.

On my walls were framed antique maps of far away places that no longer exist. Places with new names and new borders, places I tried to write about in my dissertation.

“Those are Plan A,” I said. “Funny, huh? I came here to become an expert in those places.” I unbuckled Mia and picked her up. “And this is Plan B, Plan Baby.” I lifted her to my shoulder and pressed my lips to her ear. “Aren’t you, Mia? Plan Baby Mia.” I kissed her a hundred times, breathed in her baby scent. God, I hope I did that.

“Are you going to finish?” Becky asked. “Your degree?”

I consulted Mia. “Are we going to finish? We don’t know, do we?”

“You should finish and leave,” Becky said. “Or just leave. Get out of dodge.”

I rocked Mia, patting her back. Becky had told me bits about her home life, her brother’s meth problem, her parents’ fights about it.

Then she said, as if the idea had just come to her, or as if she wanted it to look that way: “And you could take me with you.”

“What’s that?”

She spoke in a sudden rush. “You could leave and take me with you. I could help with Mia. You could finish your degree.”

Her tone was pleading, and her request was too intimate, of course, totally inappropriate and certainly disproportionate to our relationship, but it stirred me because it was something I’d wanted to hear. I gazed at the maps on my walls. It was what I had wanted Mia’s father to say to me.

But my sleep-deprived mind was on more practical matters: the semester, the cost of diapers, the class I was about to teach.

“Right now I do have to leave,” I said, “for class. I’m going to put Mia down for her nap. You ought to have an easy time; she should sleep until I get back. Won’t you, Mia-Moo? Say hi to Becky.” I held up Mia’s arm and waved it.

“Hi, Mia. Bye, Mia,” Becky said, a bit dejected, as I carried Mia to the room we shared.

It’s too easy to think it wouldn’t have happened if Rose had been there. But I do, I can’t help myself. When I returned home after my classes, Becky – Blameless Becky, It’s-Not-Your-Fault-But-I-Blame-You-Anyway Becky – was on the couch watching TV. Mia had been dead for at least an hour.

My Mia. Sweet Mia. Sudden-Infant-Death Mia.