Back to Issue Twenty-Two.

with baby wynona

BY CADY VISHNIAC

 

            Baby Wynona’s strapped to my chest with a Moby we got from our Head Start nurse, but then she squirms one stubby arm free and reaches for the butterfly. “Red,” she says. “God, so perfectly red. Like a fire engine.” We’re at the Franklin Park Conservatory. Mike, my manager at the convenience store by the university, is sweet on me, so he bought the ticket.

            I stifle a yawn. “Wynnie, honey, that’s a Double-Banded Judy. Its Latin name is abisara bifasciata.”

            “I can read the sign,” she says, kicking my ribs.

            “Good,” I say in my best mom voice, “because the sign also said not to touch anything.”

            Wynona rolls her eyes, grabs the pacifier I keep clipped to my shirtfront, and sucks on it greedily. Then she spits the thing out again and says, “That guy keeps staring at you. Don’t look.”

            I look. There’s a man behind us with his brown hair in a ponytail, his gnarled feet in wide-strapped leather sandals. He has a Portuguese Water Dog on a footlong lead. I don’t think dogs are allowed in here, but then again, nobody’s stopping him.

            Wynona kicks me again.“He’s cute, right?”

            The man is cute, in kind of a hippie way, but I haven’t bathed in days and my bra is crusted with leaky breast milk. I doubt he’d really be interested in me.

            I ask Wynona, “What do you think of Mike?” because Mike definitely is interested. The other day, he met my eye over the rows of corn chips and beef jerky and told me I owe Wynona a father, and I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t feel any attraction to Mike, but a father would be nice. A father could drive us places, or play with Wynona while I bake lasagna, or hand her a bottle when she wakes up in the middle of the night screaming, the way she did last night. If Mike had been around, I could have gotten some rest.

            “Mike?” Wynona cranes her neck to meet my eyes. “You mean Mike as in your boss? I think if he ever asked you out, that would be sexual harassment.” Then she puts her pacifier back in and looks, pointedly, at a cluster of pupating danaus plexippus, monarchs, gold dots on their neon green cocoons.

            When I am just about fed up with the bright insects, the dappling sunlight, the pleasant shrubs and pots of milkweed, I make my way in the direction of the greenhouse exit. I want to catch the origami exhibit--the paper cranes with wingspans wider than I am tall, the herd of multicolored paper horses--then go home and put Wynona down for her afternoon nap. If I’m lucky this can be my nap, too.

            Except Wynona doesn’t agree with this plan. “Don’t you dare leave,” she says. “They release the painted ladies in three minutes. If we’re gone before then, I’ll puke on your chest.” She makes hurking noises to prove she’s serious, but stops when she sees the cute hippie and his dog have crept up next to us.

            The hippie taps my shoulder. “Did I hear your baby talking?”

            Wynona’s turned to the employees-only side door through which, I guess, she expects the painted ladies to arrive. Her plump body jiggles with anticipation. I can barely keep my eyes open. My ankles ache.

            “Babies don’t talk.” I gape at the hippie like he’s out of his mind.

            “Sorry,” he says. “My mistake.”

            A fresh-faced assistant, a college girl, wheels through the door with a mesh cage, transparent chrysalides hanging from the top. Wynona digs her fingernails into my armpits. I scoot closer. A couple other families are in here with us, grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins and babysitters in tow. We all gather in a circle around the cage, and the assistant starts her spiel. “Good morning. I’m so glad you’ve all come to watch my friends here emerge,” and so on.

            It takes a whole hour for all the painted ladies to rip through the chrysalides. Wynona is rapt for the painfully slow process. I’d be bored, if I weren’t so focused on staying awake. Watching each lady uncrinkle her feelers and spread her wings and flutter and fall and flutter and fall and flutter and fall and flutter and finally stay airborne is only a little bit better than watching paint dry.

            “Time to go free.” The assistant slides open the top of the cage and the ladies stream out. Wynona gasps. She is, I think, grateful I brought her here, and in exchange for her gratitude I won’t even mind that we have zero time left for the origami.

            We stand in place while the ladies swirl in the air around us, alighting in the corner, on a yellow-flowering tree with wide green leaves.

            The other children, their families, the hippie, and his dog file out.

            Wynona squirms her arm free again, then the other arm, then hugs my neck. She whispers in my ear, “Before we leave, you should know: I’m soaked with piss.”

            An emergency change under the yellow lights of Conservatory bathroom, then we start walking to the bus stop, but we only make it as far as the parking lot. The hippie is there tossing a frisbee to his dog. The dog catches the frisbee in rubbery lips and runs in a circle before dropping it at the hippie’s feet. Toss and catch. Circle. Drop.

            The hippie looks over at Wynona. “Wanna say hi?” His ears stick out in an endearing way.

            So I unwrap Wynona from her Moby and hold her up under the armpits. She takes several shaky, non-weight-bearing steps toward the dog, which licks her with its black tongue.

            She shrieks, saliva coating her face. She laughs my favorite laugh.

            We’ve been out of the house for almost three hours now. I feel grimy. Nap is going to be late, but what can I do? I pull an old towel from the diaper bag and lay it on the hardtop, then I lay Wynona on the towel on her stomach so the dog can sniff her butt and whine at her and try to give her the frisbee.

            Wynona giggles, but in-between giggles she has the presence of mind to whisper to me, “Talk to him. Please.”

            The hippie and I pull back to watch our charges play. I don’t talk.

            “Mike,” he tells me. He reaches out his hand, and I almost don’t shake it. I almost don’t remember shaking hands is something human beings do, because all I do these days is Wynona and work.

            “I know a Mike,” I say.

            “Yeah? He your boyfriend?”

            I see where this is going, but on second thought, I’m too tired care. Maybe Hippie Mike is cuter than Boss Mike, but so what? It’s not like I can date. It’s not like I can trust this guy to help me out with Wynona when he’s so young, as young as me, and he can’t even wear real shoes in this late-autumn chill. So I tell Hippie Mike the other Mike isn’t just my boyfriend, but my husband, Wynona’s father. I make him a Marine for good measure, and I’m satisfied to see Hippie Mike’s eyebrows shoot up like he knows he made a mistake.

            I pick up Wynona and say it was nice to meet him, and Hippie Mike doesn’t try to shake my hand again. I feel all right about it, but then, on the COTA bus home, Wynona gets mean. “What was that?” she says, “If you date your boss, I’ll pee on you.”

            “You already peed on me,” I say, shifting in the hard plastic seat. “But fine, I won’t date my boss . . . if you let me catch two whole hours of shut-eye.” It’s a desperate bargain, but I’m fading fast. I don’t even know how I’ll walk from the bus to our apartment.

            “Done.” A string of drool runs down Wynona’s chin. “But why did you run away from that man and his cool dog? I’m worried about you. Who are you supposed to love?”

            “You.” I wipe the drool with my sleeve. “I’ll just love you.”

            “That’s mushy,” she says. “And an awful lot of responsibility. Are you sure I’m up to it?” But she doesn’t stop me as I blow in her ears. Just yawns and curls up in her Moby, sticks her butt out and her face in my cleavage, and succumbs to the lullaby of the bus engine, its soothing vibrations. I arch my neck, stretching it over the steel bar of the seat, and look out the window. I’m not focusing on anything in particular. Columbus whizzes by, church moms in their minivans, a gaggle of shirtless hicks on dirt bikes, frat boys in their busted pickups and frat girls in their flashy red BMWs. The stadium and the science museum, pizza and florists and hipster cafes. It’s all a blur.     

 

 

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Cady Vishniac lives in Ann Arbor. Her stories have won prizes at New Letters, Mid-American Review, and New Millennium Writings. Her poetry has been featured in Verse Daily.

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