You can’t belong to the sky
Her lips pressed against each other in a glistening pout when she said it, the melted ChapStick spilling over the top of its plastic cylinder in her chubby-fingered grip. The lid had been lost months ago and I had meant to toss the ChapStick while she was napping or playing in the bath. But then I never could take my eyes off the bubbled surface of the water when she was in it, capable of slipping out of sight, her sweet face dripping from air into water, and I never could stomach the risk of waking her while she slept under the canopy of white roses and twinkle lights.
So, the ChapStick had lain at the bottom of the toy bin with discarded Mr. Potato Head limbs and forgotten Legos and a few cards from the Disney princess matching game that would never fully match up again.
Today, she had discovered it and I objected, at first, pleading with her, sweetie, that doesn’t have a lid, it’s probably covered in dirt or crumbs or who even knows. But she had screamed, and my mother-heart had been torn, as it always was and as it always would be, between protecting her and upsetting her, and I had chosen not to upset her. There were worse things she could eat, I thought to myself and now her lips were smeared with the icy blue contents that were supposed to mimic what Elsa and Anna’s village of Arendelle smelled and tasted like, I guessed, minty and sharp like winter air. She wouldn’t set the lidless ChapStick container down, probably more afraid that I would take it from her than that it would get dirtier.
We were outside, me trying to occupy her with something other than screen time, her peppering the air between us with why and how and what is. “What is the sky?” she had asked, lying down on the asphalt of the driveway. “Why don’t you lie down on the grass,” I responded, gesturing a few yards away at the softness of the lawn. “Because I want to lay here,” she retorted, “and I want you to lay here with me.” I wanted to correct her, to tell her you say lie and not lay, but she was only three, and sometimes I worried that I inundated that growing toddler brain of hers with too much should be and shouldn’t be and that I wasn’t leaving enough space for just what could be. I shook my head instead, one hand instinctively swinging around to my lower back. “No honey, I can’t, the ground is too hard for me.”
“But you can, you can,” she screeched, sneakered feet swinging up and stomping down onto the black surface beneath her. “You just come here, and you just lay down. You can do it.” And she was right, I could, I was capable, I could do it and I couldn’t argue with that, so I did lay my sore mother-body down next to her tiny chubby one and set my head flat against the driveway, the smell of the tar in the summer sun staining my hair.
“Do you want me to get out the chalk?” I asked her, the smell of the asphalt conjuring up the idea of pastel colors running along its rough surface. “No, I just want you to tell me what is the sky,” she said. Of all the parts of motherhood, my favorite was watching her absorb a word, a thought, an idea, observing as she swished it around in her head like glitter, listening as she whispered it back out to me in a new form. In all this shaping of her world view, I tried so hard not to squish her imagination of what things could be.
I stared upwards along with her, longing for a cloud that looked like a bunny, or a sheep, or a dinosaur, to point out to her. “The sky is, I don’t know, I guess all the air that there is, up there, above us,” I said. But I thought: The sky is vast. The sky is unobstructed. It is nothing and it is everything. She is a chameleon, at times, gray like the mood, or pink watermelon streaks and coral swirling into sunsets. She is light; she is breath; she is calm until she is storm. But that was too much poetry and intangibility for a girl who just wanted a concrete answer, so I let that answer simmer within me instead.
“Why is it up there?” she continued her prodding. “Well,” I said, “that’s where it belongs.” She didn’t respond right away, and I wondered if I had ever explained to her what belonging meant, how toys belonged to her as possessions, how a person belonged to a place, or not, how I belonged to her the moment she left my body.
“But you can’t belong to the sky,” she insisted, her wet lips forming a frown the color of the sky.
I sighed, smiled a little, turned my head to the side and pressed my cheek against the tar so I could take her in.
“Oh, but you can,” I told her, “you can belong to the sky, the same way we can belong to each other, if we want to. You just have to decide.”
She lifted her ChapStick and dabbed it onto her lower lip, smacked it against the top lip in satisfaction. She let the ChapStick drop from her fist, roll away down the driveway. She unfurled her fingers and reached her hand to mine. She squeezed my hand tightly, pressed my fingers into the asphalt between us. “Okay Mommy,” she said finally. “We can belong to the sky.” And we laid there that way, belonging to nothing and everything until the sky darkened and cooled and sent us skittering away from its possession of us.
Annie Marhefka is a writer in Baltimore, Maryland whose writing has been published by Lunch Ticket, Fatal Flaw, Literary Mama, Reckon Review, and others; her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. Connect with Annie on Instagram @anniemarhefka, Twitter @charmcityannie, and at anniemarhefka.com.