It is dark outside and the traffic is trickling along the river. She knocks on the thick glass of my bedroom door. Her lower lip hangs loose. She is crying. I am awake in a breath, carry her around the house, her chin digging into my shoulder.
I ask if she had another nightmare.
"No." She says. "I don't want to go to school tomorrow."
My heart falls.
It took months to organize documents and navigate through old rules and new ones to find a school that would be good for her. The children are gentle, the teachers thoughtful, the class is small, it is a few minutes walk from us.
I ask her what happened.
"Nooooooothing." She says.
I am suddenly brought back to last year when she cried like this every night - about the old detskie sad with its intrigues, the barking Soviet system of child education that taught her nothing, the cruelty of the children around her, the scandals, the chaos and the labyrinth of rules. I grew to understand what kind of grotesque place it was over time. It was very difficult to grasp what brand of overpriced madness was really going on there once I left her. I also did not have a choice, as her mother had enrolled her and I could not imagine how I would be able to change her school as a foreigner with no official status.
Walking around the halls of the apartment in the middle of the night, turning and taking tiny steps she rests her face against me. I remember the struggle to dress her, to leave her there. Once she threw up in the street, hysterical, terrified. I thought this was behind us. Maybe she is manipulating me, I ask myself. Maybe a page from her mother's book, or her own. Maybe she knows how to get what she wants from me with some well placed tears. Maybe she is a normal kid who just wants to stay at home surrounded by her toys, next to her father I tell myself.
These are familiar tripping stones, these questions. Raising a child alone is difficult in the moment when you hunger for the reality check, the guiding hand, the reflection of your fears processed and smoothed out. The easy decision is an agreement between two people steadying the course, not a shot in the dark by an exhausted and disappointed solo pilot.
This is the bubble.
I think of my favorite book from college, its simple robin's egg blue cover making me peaceful just seeing the spine on the shelf. How many times was I reduced to a few milk crates of possessions, with this as one of them? Blindness and Insight by Paul deMan. How I warped a book of critical modern literary theory by a mercurial author into parenting advice is no mystery to me. He had a single idea that explained quite a lot of life to me, much more than the trick of being a good reader. When we are very close to something - a story, a child - the details are overwhelming. We get lost in the space between the words, the nuance of every playground. When we get some distance, say when we have closed the book and absorbed it for some time, or when the child has been away for a few hours we gain perspective, even become detached. Both positions offer intense experiences for some, but leave you lost, half-baked and incomplete. The only solution is to dance between the two, between blindness and insight to find some kind of useful truth.
Things get very very simple.
We have a quiet talk at seven. I sit at her level, looking her right in the eye. I explain what it is to be six and a half. I explain why she needs to be around kids, not just me and her legos. I explain how there are things to be learned beyond the alphabet when she is in the new school. She stares at me the whole time without blinking. She is already nodding, understanding, coming to terms with what we will do.
We walk in silence, the joy sucked out of our usual morning walk. He lower lip hangs from her face, eyes giant and staring up at me. I wonder, maybe she is fooling herself and doesn't even realize it. I bring her inside, dress her in the summer clothes they wear within the warm thick walls of this place.
I promise to take her early, to buy her a cupcake or an eclair or anything she likes.
Pulling her wild hair into a ponytail, I rest my hands on her shoulders and guide her into the room. The children are poking their heads from the door in anticipation. They cheer when she enters the room. I know this was the right decision, the right place to be now.
She looks back once at me, not even moving her hand to wave. Her face is apologizing in a way, saying thank you, saying she is scared, lonely, full of doubt, but that she will be fine.
On the way home I feel awkward, alone.
The house is silent, dark. The breakfast plates stare back at me.
Outside I see a tree shaking wildly. A worker is whacking it with a long stick, forcing the leaves to fall as he rakes them up. I find this profoundly disturbing, assuming it to be an extreme act of laziness.
Let the leaves fall all by themselves, I want to tell him.