You are asleep when I get to your room. I watch your back rise and fall, your face toward the window, toward the Domino Sugars sign lit in the distance. The thick window slightly tinted so the sun doesn’t seem too bright, so it doesn’t need a shade with a cord.
I strap you as a newborn to my chest, wrapping the long maroon cloth around me over and over again, tying the knot under your padded diaper butt. You start out tiny, reclined, but by eleven weeks you squall to sit up and face out, to see the world. I switch you to my hip and you reach over a tiny hand to grab my breast and nurse, watching the world with my nipple in your mouth.
“This new medicine is really sedating.”
I turn to my favorite nurse. An older black woman with silver hair, two months from retirement, she’s told me. You call her “Miss M” when she holds you.
“They gave him a new med, Mary?”
“Yeah, this one’s a rough one. He’ll probably sleep all day.” She shakes her head. “He had a bad night, mom.”
“How old is your baby?” one mom asks at the new mother hospital support group. “My baby gets so distracted. He won’t nurse half the time!”
“Almost three months,” I say and right then you begin to burrow, watching her like you understand our conversation. You pull at my shirt, the buttons popping, and you settle into place and began to eat.
I don’t ask about the empty room, all your books and art supplies gone now. About why you’re wearing a hospital gown instead of the shirt and sweatpants you had on yesterday. A few stray Legos lay scattered by the side of your bed, from the set I watched you put together days earlier. A Star Wars kit with over two thousand pieces that you completed in six hours, pausing only to pick up and take a bite of the sandwich I brought you from the cafeteria downstairs. To drink your Coke, a luxury allowed only here, where parenting rules crumble, disintegrate, blow away.
“Jesus Christ,” the group leader says.
“Is that normal?” asks another mom.
“There is no normal,” the group leader assures everyone, recovering. “Every baby is different.”
I take out the can from my bag and walk over to you, open it by your ear so you hear the crack, the hiss. Take out the sub I’ve brought and wave it in front of your face like you’re a dog who wants a treat.
“Wake up, baby.”
“He’ll probably sleep all day, mom. Go home and get some rest.” Mary leaves.
“Baby,” I say and accidentally drop the can. It lands on the edge of the mattress and tips toward you before I can stop it.
I smile. Tuck my hair behind my ears and kiss your bald head. I look out the window at the Domino Sugars sign, the sun barely visible behind thick layers of clouds. Last night you reached for me, called “ma ma ma” like a baby bird. “That’s not possible, mom,” the pediatrician said, but I know what I heard.
“Fucking shit!” I yell and grab the can, use my sweater sleeve to stop the flow of cold soda down your neck and back, but it’s too late. You’re drenched. I lean my arm down further, my sweater repelling the liquid instead of absorbing it, and I stay there frozen, helpless as Mary comes running in.
“What happened? Oh goodness, I’ll go get a towel.”
You eat and eat while the other moms talk. You fall asleep with your mouth on me, your fingers fluttering against my bare skin.
I stand up, breathing hard. You don’t stir. The sub lays on the floor, ham and cheese and lettuce and black olives flattened and slippery where I stepped on the bread, Coke soaking the paper wrapper, a mashed lump. A pickle stuck to the side of my shoe.
Hannah Grieco is a writer and an advocate in the Washington, DC area, as well as the CNF editor at JMWW and the fiction editor at Porcupine Literary.