It’s twenty degrees and my toddler Iona’s parka is so stiff she’s liable to fall, so I carry her up the steps onto the green metro bus. She squirms until I put her down, then stomps her boots and grins at her freedom while I pay the fare. She’s happy when she can get what she wants, frustrated when she can’t.
“Da-da,” she says, pointing at the metro employee, because she hasn’t yet learned words like bus driver. He’s not paying attention, so I don’t have to explain she doesn’t actually think he’s her father.
Today the only seats available are those ones in the front that face each other, made for folks who have difficulty getting around, which in a way includes us. We could just as easily have taken the sedan, but I want Iona to be around people other than just me. She needs so much affection, and I have so little to spare. Crowds fill that void and help me to lighten up, so the bus has become part of our daily routine.
We sit down and the airbrakes release. A few passengers smile. I imagine they picture a home life full of games and discoveries and tickling and laughter. They’d be right. Iona’s also a good sleeper, giving me time to think, something I used to covet.
She’s now eyeballing a young couple across from us dressed in the drab colors of winter—I say young but really they’re probably a year or two younger than me, if that. The two of them look tired but satisfied, like embers still smoking the morning after a bonfire. Then again, maybe they’re just poor sleepers. In the months before Iona was born, my wife rustled around all night. Books, television, Internet—anything to feed her obsession over not just the pregnancy, but the myriad dangers our daughter would face in the future. She was concerned for Iona while I got eight hours. These days, I’m the one up at three in the morning, trying to be interested in some magazine but really perseverating over whether three years form now the kids at school will treat Iona right. Sometimes I think the worry is my wife possessing me. In a way, it’s comforting.
Iona points at the woman across from us and asks, “Ma-ma?”
The couple laughs, embarrassed.
I say, “Don’t worry, she calls all women mama,” not realizing until after that I should have added that in a week she’ll know more words. But they’re already whispering and it doesn’t take much to guess all their guesses. I smile, tussle Iona’s hair, and pretend to be oblivious.
Ross McMeekin’s fiction appears in Shenandoah, PANK, Passages North, Green Mountains Review, and elsewhere. He’s the recipient of a 2013-14 Made at Hugo House Fellowship and lives in Seattle.