An eternity passed while Molly waited for Esther to pick up the phone. Her mother’s voice came from the three thousand miles distance. It was expectant, expectant as though Esther was waiting for her call.
“Mom, something happened.” In speaking the words, she realized she would relive the horror of it all over again. Her words pushed out in gasps as she walked through the moments of her discovery, when she woke, at dawn, knowing something had to be wrong. Stella did not cry out for her feeding, the cool breeze on her breast as it wept the milk awakened her.
“Mom,” she started again. “Mom, Stella stopped breathing. Sometime during the night, after her ten o’clock feeding, she went right back to sleep and then when I woke to feed her this morning she was gone.”
She expected wailing or recrimination, but Esther went inside herself as she did when Molly’s father died. “Did you call emergency paramedics?” Mercifully Esther was asking questions, leaving Molly to answer monosyllabically. She answered alternatively, yes she had or, no they could not resuscitate her or yes, they thought it was SIDS. She didn’t tell her that she refused to let them take her baby away, that it took three strong men besides Javier before she relinquished her daughter. That for a while, they let her sit rocking Stella, bundled in the softest of her blankets, that she crooned to her over and over, my pretty girl, my pretty girl until there was no breath left in her either. She didn’t tell Esther that she let her go only after they agreed to her written conditions for an autopsy on the forms and initialed them; that the coroner would look at all other means to a diagnosis, would take blood and other samples to arrive at what seemed obvious, then and only then would she let them take her away.
“Where did they take her?” Esther wanted to know, and Molly explained. And the inevitable and wholly predictable, be sure she is buried tomorrow. Molly could not speak further, other than to lie.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” she cried. “It will all be done right.” Javier stood beside her with tears in his eyes. She felt the warmth and weight of his hand on her thin shoulder that now rose and fell with her sobs, and she could not explain because he could never understand the Jewish tradition and Esther’s demand to have their child buried as soon as possible, tomorrow.
“Mom, please don’t misunderstand, but hold onto your tickets. Don’t come now. Wait till it’s all over and things are quiet. I can’t…” She stopped. She wanted to say, “I can’t have you here, I don’t have strength to comfort you. Who will comfort me, she thought angrily? Who will be here for me?”
“Will your mother come here for the church?” In his grief as when he was fatigued, English eluded Javier, but she understood.
“She will come later.” She wanted to tell him there was no need. That Esther was not the kind of mother to be a comfort the way his family, who were now arriving from Los Angeles and the San Joaquin Valley, could be. As their apartment filled with noise and genuine grief from the women and stolid strong faces of the men, she found it a respite in which she could hide away from her own grief. She let Javier’s mother weep for her. The tiny dark woman was very wise. Molly knew she saw through it all to where Molly really was. She placed a loving arm around her and hugged Molly to her warm, soft body, and spoke loving words in Spanish, as though she were rocking the infant who was now so absent from the room.
Something cold crept into Molly as she thought how it remained her little secret, because Esther was too far away to intervene and to know that Stella would be buried a Catholic instead of a Jew. There was time for Esther’s discovery and the consequent tirade that only Esther could whip up. More anger built in Molly with each new thought.
She looked at her watch, just after three. The phone had rung ceaselessly. She remembered to call her friends, Sarah and Helena. They called her school for her. She forgot it was a weekday, it felt almost celebratory, a Sunday, with the food, the surreptitious bottles of wine that quickly became Sangria. She drank the wine fragrant with fresh orange slices and sweet strawberries; the bold burgundy held up under all of it but did not touch her body much less her heart. The heaviness of the day progressed into a headache, allowing her to beg off and retire to her bedroom so that she could get away from the constant barrage of offers to eat something.
The bedroom still held the baby smell of her little girl, more so in the sheeting of her crib. She placed her hand flat on the mattress and it was cold, no sign of the miracle that so recently inhabited this space in the universe. She tore at the crib sheet and found under it a textured cloth meant to capture baby drool, and she inhaled Stella’s milky smell. How could this be and not Stella? How? Molly lay down on the bed and closed her eyes.
The door opened quietly and Javier sat down next to her on the bed. They remained still, as if they could reclaim their lives by doing so. She got up and sat in the rocking chair, her arms felt so empty. He passed his cigarette to her, a breach, already, from their agreement to never smoke in the house with the baby. She took a long drag and filled her lungs with the nicotine, felt her heart race because she was not used to its effect. But it was marijuana and as soon as she knew, she held it deep inside feeling her head swim, her body soften and relax.
“Querida. Go slow. Go mellow.” He spoke to her in a singsong fashion. And she did what he suggested and the day and the world began to fade away.
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