By Joelyn Suarez
In the days after I gave birth to my son, Mosley, we spent most of our time skin-to-skin. I lay on the hospital bed, surrounded by pillows, my hospital gown untied and opened so that my chest was exposed to the crisp air-conditioned room. Mosley’s mouth suckled on my breast until he tired from the motions and he dozed off in my arms. I propped him up so I could examine his face while he slept. His lids were puffy with lashes. barely visible, his nose tiny and nostrils wide, his perfect cupid’s bow and puckered lips sucked in by chubby cheeks. He was born with a full head of hair, straight and black like mine, and peach fuzz from the nape of his neck to the top of his thighs. I spent hours watching him sleep, brushing his hair back with the palm of my hand, kissing him in the sweet spot under his chin. In those moments, I thought: I could spend all my days doing just this. Three months later, I still feel that way. Sometimes I lay awake in the late hours, Mosley in his sleeper beside my bed, and I watch him in the dim light of the television. I notice his wispy lashes slightly curling at the tips, his brows thickening, and his cheeks growing more full every day. He has lost some of the baby hairs framing his face, though much of it has stayed, and lengthened past his small ears. He has Jonathan’s ears, mouth, and chin some of my favorite attributes of his. Most nights I doze off with my glasses on, so the moment that my eyes open in the morning, I can see him clearly.
When my sister and I were too young for school, we lived in a townhouse with my parents on the south end of San Diego. I remember the homes were crowded together. Our driveway curved around a corner, and winded down a small hill, like a maze outlining our neighbors’ outer walls. We lived next door to a couple, in their 60s, who loved to garden in their tiny front lawn. They had pots of plants lined up with various fruits and vegetables. On one of the sunny afternoons that my parents slept in, coming down hard from a high, my sister and I decided to venture out. We found our elderly neighbors tending to their mini-garden, and went over to explore the scene.
“What’re you doing?” My sister asked the wife.
“Just watering these plants here,” she responded.
My sister and I hovered over her to watch.
“Where are your parents?” The wife asked.
I wonder if the wife had noticed the swarm of people buzzing in and out of our house late into the night. I wonder if she ever bumped into a face of a fiend at our front door when she was approaching or exiting her own. I wonder if she caught Mom or Dad for neighborly conversation while they were coked out and fidgety. Or, perhaps, she was just wondering what two very young girls were doing outside alone.
“They’re asleep,” my sister, answered, “Can we have some lemons?”
“Sure.” The wife handed over two lemons.
My sister collected them with both palms and we ran back towards our house.
“Let’s cut these!” She said to me. Her face was small and round with eyes that overwhelmed her other features. Her pointy, crooked teeth hid behind an innocent smile; and her straight, tame hair was tucked neatly behind her ears.
She dragged one of the bar stools to the other end of the kitchen counter and we sat opposite of each other. I remember we didn’t bother to turn on any lights; all we had was the light of the sun creeping in from the slanted blinds. The kitchen had an L-shaped counter covered with white tile and grout in between. My sister grabbed two butter knives and handed one to me.
My parents had recently discovered I was left-handed, but I still didn’t know right from left. I knew I couldn’t cut a straight line, no matter how much I pressed my tongue to my top lip for focus. Mom and Dad decided it was because most things were made for righty’s, including the basic hand-eye coordination that I didn’t possess.
I was shaky with the butter knife. It made me nervous sitting across from my sister and having to mirror her motions. I watched as she held the lemon steady with her left hand and the knife with her right. She touched the knife to the center of the lemon and began to cut down slowly. The peel was hard, too tough for her little fingers. She brought the knife up and out a few times to repeat the motion over again. Her movements were precise and her lemon cut cleanly in half.
At three months old, Mosley has learned to recognize Jonathan and me. When he gets sleepy in the afternoons, I put him in his bouncer that sits close to the floor, and I rock it with my foot from the couch. Sometimes I hum him a lullaby, and other times, I just watch his eyes glaze over. I see him fighting his tired feeling by trying not to blink. He’ll keep his eyes on me for as long as he can. His lids get heavier, until he can no longer carry them, and his eyes finally surrender to sleep. Mosley does this when we are out as well; he looks for my face for focus when the scene is overstimulating. Recently we were at a birthday party with my siblings and a bunch of other unfamiliar faces. The music was blaring from an outdoor speaker and children ran laps around the backyard. I carried Mosley in his Baby Bjorn and rocked him back and forth. I kept the top clasps unhooked and held his head in my hands, so that he could see all around. My older brother hovered over my shoulder and snuck kisses from him when he could, but Mosley kept his eyes on me.
“He’s staring right at you! Does he always do that?” My brother asked.
“Yeah, when he gets tired, he just stares at me.”
“He must love you so much.”
I never took my eyes off of her. I held the lemon in my right hand and the knife in my left. I didn’t look down to see if my initial incision was at the center of the lemon, like my sister’s. When she brought her knife up, I followed, and when she sliced down, I did too. I watched the strain in her face and fingers when the knife hit the hard peel. I felt it too, but eventually it subsided. I moved my knife in a sawing motion. I fixated on my sister’s movements. Soon, I was no longer imitating her. I sawed back and forth without lifting the knife.
By this time my sister had cut her lemon into quarters. Her eyes met mine with a proud grin, and I returned a giddy smile. She looked down at my lemon and her smile faded into shock. I watched her eyes widen and her shoulders shoot back. I was still smiling.
“Joelyn, there’s blood! There’s blood everywhere!” She screamed. Her words didn’t register at first.
In the middle of the day, I remember my parents telling my sister and me that they were going to take a nap. Maybe one of us would object and plead for a few moments of playtime, but we never won. The two of them went to their room and shut the door behind them, while my sister and I were left to entertain ourselves. Maybe they napped for an hour, perhaps less, but as a child, it felt like an eternity. I brought out my stack of white printer paper and my special pen the one with the multicolored ink that changed colors when you pushed down different levers. I tried to draw the perfect girl, a mix of Princess Jasmine, Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and my mom. I always started with the eyes. I drew one almond-shaped eye on the left center of the page. If it wasn’t perfect, maybe too small or the lines were shaky, I started over—and over and over again. Sometimes I went through a whole stack of papers before I had an entire face drawn.
“What was wrong with this one, Joelyn?” My dad lifted one of the sheets with a single curved line near the middle of the page.
“I don’t know. It didn’t look nice.”
“My daughter, the number one paper waster.”
I made sure not to look at him or even crack a smile. You don’t even know how to do art, I thought to myself.
“I don’t care. I have a lot of paper,” I said, pointing to the stack.
“You should. You know how many trees you’re wasting?”
I rolled my eyes: What do trees have to do with it? The tip of my tongue pressed my top lip and I held the pen firmly on the page. The first eye was good, the second too, but this time it was the nose that sucked. I tossed aside the umpteenth failed attempt, and looked to another clean blank page in front of me. I swiped my hand across the sheet and could feel indents from the last drawing. I held the sheet up into the light and saw the two eyes and sucky nose engraved into the paper, and the one behind that, and behind that. I balled up these blank sheets and tossed them aside too. My dad laughed and shook his head at me. I wanted to tear up every single piece of paper I had. Go back to sleep.
“You’re bleeding!” My sister screamed from across the table.
I looked down and saw that the lemon had been sliced in nearly the same spot multiple times, while my middle finger lay mangled beneath it. The grout between the tiles was stained red and there was blood pooling off the edge of the counter. My breaths became short and panicked. I lifted my hand and the middle finger dangled. A sliver of bone peeked out from the open skin. I could feel my entire body tremble with fear.
“I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die! I’M GONNA DIE!” My voice got louder each time.
Jonathan and I moved into our new apartment three months before Mosley was born. It’s a cheaply renovated two bedroom, two bathroom in an undesirable neighborhood of San Diego known as El Cajon. The complex is small with 12 units total. We get two assigned parking spots and the rent is manageable. Jonathan wasn’t entirely convinced by the place, but I pushed for it. I think he would have preferred a room in his dad’s cozy, upscale track home in Carlsbad. However, I wasn’t willing to live under anyone else’s roof when the baby arrived. Jonathan’s family was kind; I just didn’t know what to expect with motherhood, and I didn’t want anyone witnessing a meltdown. Besides, I relatively like our place. The fresh coat of paint may be peeling, but it’s a thousand square feet of our very own space. When I was pregnant, it was the best feeling to come home, take off my clothes, and blast the air conditioning. I loved getting off from an early shift and napping on the couch when the complex was quiet, because the neighbor kids were still at school or daycare. At the time, I don’t know if I felt safe or was too pregnant to care.
It wasn’t until Mosley was born that I gained a heightened cautiousness. I began to think differently about the sweet old man that lives a few doors down. I see him throughout the day, crouched by the dumpster, smoking cigarettes. He wears plaid pajama pants and a sport coat. Sometimes when I pull into the complex at night, I find him walking in the middle of the parking lot, unaware of my headlights or the sound of my car behind him. I inch forward, with each slow step he takes, to get to my assigned spot in the front. A part of me grows impatient, while the other part wants to wait for him to shut the door of his apartment before Mosley and I get out of the car.
At night before we all go to bed, I’ve picked up a new routine. I open the front door to check that the security gate is locked, then I lock and chain the front door, and stare at it for approximately five seconds. I walk to the kitchen and look at the stove and say “OFF” aloud,five times for each knob linked to the burners and oven. I touch the freezer and fridge with one hand, then shut off the lights, and go to the bedroom. Jonathan thinks it’s silly, but we’ve been safe so far.
I was too afraid of the sting that cleaning the wound might cause, so I hardly ever let Mom or Dad come near me. I kept it covered until the puss was putrid to any nearby nose. Nonetheless, my finger healed within a few weeks, and a thick scar took the place of the cut. Every morning, a voice came over the loudspeaker and instructed everyone to put their right hand over their heart and stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. I rubbed my thumbs over the inside of my middle fingers. One side was smooth, while the other had a sliver of raised skin where my scar was—I knew this was my right hand. I finally had a way of distinguishing right from left.
The scar served other purposes as time went on. It became a trigger for my OCD as a child. I rubbed my thumb over it once, then twice, then 29 times until it felt right. If I had to overcome a fear, like walking into another classroom to deliver something from my teacher to another, I touched the scar to remind myself that I would survive. I had survived my first major injury and I would survive twenty unfamiliar fifth-grade students staring at my unfamiliar face when I entered their classroom. I worried those students might find all my faults in our twenty-second encounter; they might notice my pigeon-toed walk and whisper to each other about it through recess. I rubbed my scar and faced my fears. The worry never left, but the anxiety subsided just enough to get the task done.
Today the scar still remains on my right middle finger. It never faded or flattened. It has become less about what I thought, as a child, to be a “near-death experience by a butter knife” and more so a lesson in parenthood. A lesson about the kind of parent I do not want to be, as well as a realization that mistakes are inevitable. I used to look back on my childhood and pinpoint our parents’ faults. Although many of their mishaps were avoidable, as a new mother, I have a better understanding of the struggle to make the ‘right’ decisions. I look at my scar now and can laugh. I know that kids get hurt. If Mosley is anything like Jonathan or me, he’s going to take some tumbles. Sure, I have urges to be the overprotective mom, breathing down his neck with hand sanitizer and hugs, but that’s just not realistic or healthy. I have to blink every once in awhile. I have to look away. I have to work; and I have to show him that his mom is strong and independent. I want to teach him to be strong and independent. I want to teach him how to cut lemons.
Joelyn Suarez lives in San Diego, CA with her fiancé and son. She will be receiving her MFA in Creative Writing from UCR Palm Desert this month. Her essay “Home” was featured in NoiseMedium magazine as a part of their premier contest. She is the Nonfiction Editor for The Coachella Review.