I lie in my bed, heart pounding, wondering what it is that has awakened me. I stare into the dark, listening and waiting, trying to make sense of my confusion. Is there a raccoon at the bird feeder again? Trouble at work? I rise and go to the window. Part the curtains and peer into the darkness.
There is nothing.
I turn to the bed and I am flooded with memories.
I switch on the light. She stands there at the door, in pajamas too small. Her hair is knotted. I wonder if she brushed her teeth before she went to bed. I wonder when she went to bed. If. I sit in the rocking chair Liese bought for my thirty-eighth birthday and pat my knee. Tess wiggles her way onto my lap and leans against my chest.
“I’m afraid, Daddy.” She sticks her thumb in her mouth, a habit my sister comments on every time she stops over with another one of her crappy casseroles.
I begin rocking. “What are you scared of, Baby?”
She pulls the thumb from her mouth to whisper. “Forgetting.”
I tense then force myself to relax. I cannot be angry: Tess has had fewer years to manufacture memories.
“I try to remember her face, Daddy. But it’s going away. It’s like the pieces of her are falling off. I can see the parts, but I can’t put them all together anymore.”
I picture the curve at the tip of Liese’s nose. The long red hair. Her eyes. Green and fiery. Irish.
I put my hand against Tess’s chest. “She’s in here, Baby. You’ll never forget the love. Never.” I blink back tears, hold her tight, wonder how in God’s name I’ve allowed myself to wallow so deep in my own depression that I’ve started to neglect my children. “Go get Mommy’s brush.”
She slips off my lap and stares at me wide-eyed. Liese’s possessions have been off limits since the accident.
“It’s OK.” I run a hand across her tiny back, make a mental promise to myself to take her shopping next weekend. She returns to my lap and hands me the brush. I pull a strand of Liese’s hair from the brush and curl it around my finger.
“Are we going to be OK?”
“I hope so.” I begin working the knots from Tess’s hair, gently tugging, one hand against her head. When I am through, Tess skips to the mirror to examine her reflection. Her red hair bounces and sways the way her mother’s did. “You look just like her, Tess. You know that?”
She turns and gives me a shy smile.
“Let’s go make a cup of cocoa.”
“Should I wake David?”
“Not tonight. Tonight, it’ll be just us.”
The kitchen light feels too bright at this hour. The clock over the sink ticks too loudly. Tess measures out cocoa and milk; salt and vanilla.
“Be right back,” I whisper.
I return to the bedroom and open the top right drawer of my dresser. I reach to the back of the drawer; take out the last pair of socks. I remove the bottle tucked inside. I run my thumb along the cut glass, feel the weight of it in my palm.
If you’d asked me six months ago what my favorite possession was, I would’ve answered without hesitation, “the Ferrari.” The Ferrari was red and fast and powerful. It took me away from the troubles that seemed, back then, insurmountable: The credit card bill. The water in the basement. The demands of parenthood. Behind the wheel of the Ferrari, I could forget everything.
I remove the cap from the bottle in my hand and inhale deeply. I smell lemon and musk. I smell Liese.
This was her only extravagance. And now it is mine.
My children don’t know it. My sister doesn’t know it. Even the therapist that my in-laws insisted upon doesn’t know it. I keep it to myself: My greatest possession in life is a half-empty bottle of perfume my dead wife used to wear. Every night, just before I go to bed, I dab a bit on my pillow to color my dreams.
Because I’m scared of forgetting, too.
Tess stands in the doorway. “Cocoa’s ready.”
She steps in. “What are you doing?”
It’s unfair, really. Keeping this from her when her image of her mother has morphed into a Picasso. “Did you know that smell carries memories?” I open my hand, reveal the magic within.
She leans forward and sniffs.
I put the bottle into her hand. “You take it, Tess. Mommy would want you to wear it.” I’m sure my sister will have something to say about an eight year old wearing hundred dollar perfume. And somehow, this pleases me.
I help her dab a little behind her ears and bring her close. “Let’s go get our cocoa.”
We drop a handful of marshmallows in each mug. I pull a box of cookies from the cupboard. Tess takes a sip of cocoa.
“Yeah, Tess.” I smile at the chocolate moustache she wears.
“I think we’re going to be OK.”
I nod. “Me too.”
“Mmmm?” I rub my eyes, glance at the clock.
“When I’m a hundred years old, my memory of you will smell like cocoa.”
And somehow that makes me laugh and cry at the same time.
Note: This was written for Sandra’s Writing Workshop.