It’s snowing when our plane touches down in Washington, D.C. Christmas morning, cold and dark. The terminal doors slide open and we are hit with a blast of bitter air. We bundle the girl in blankets and she stares through the car windows at the falling flakes of snow. The wipers beat back and forth and the tires hiss through the slush as we pass through an ice-crusted expanse of overpasses and parking lots. Everything feels depressed, not well. It’s as if the entire East Coast is a contiguous gray highway. We’re not in California anymore.
This is Zoë’s first extended trip. She’ll be introduced to snow and cold, to new beds, to new people. Fourteen days of unfamiliarity and family. What were we thinking?
When we pull up to Elise’s brother’s house in D.C., I sit in the car for a moment and think, Let’s keep driving. Then the front door of the house opens and the relatives are on us. Actually, they’re on Zoë, hugging and kissing and squeezing her. Zoë’s cousins are sick. They’re little faucets of phlegm. The boy cousin holds Zoë by the ears and sneezes. Then he coughs. Then someone tells him to cover his mouth and he does, and coughs and wipes his hand on her head. Zoë just sits and stares. In fact, she’s in love. I love her cousins, too, though I’d like them better now if they were wrapped in plastic.
Zoë gets loads of gifts. The house is wall-to-wall wrapping paper and family. The family cat has gone into hiding. I’m hiding behind a book. I look over at Zoë and see that her cousin is exploring her nose with his tongue. That can’t be good. We should go for a walk. So I wrap Zoë in a snowsuit that makes her look like a yeti and we head out into the searing cold and come back in ten minutes. She naps with her face buried in a blanket.
After two days we cram with Elise’s parents into a car and drive north. We stop in Brooklyn, and visit Elise’s grandmother. Zoë is fascinated by her great-grandmother’s squeaky voice and amazed when her great-grandmother grabs her ears and drags her in for a mouth-to-mouth kiss. After lunch, after another mouth-to-mouth kiss, we head into Manhattan.
We’re on our own, finally. We spend the day in the Village hopping from café to café, searching for hot chocolate and a comfortable place to breast-feed. The first café has weak hot chocolate and hard wooden seats. The next café has hot chocolate you can stand your spoon in but only stools to sit on. We settle at Doma, a café with cozy seats and wide windows looking out on Seventh Avenue. The woman next to us gushes over Zoë. Elise whispers, “She looks like Hilary Swank’s sister.” It is Hilary Swank. She’s playing chess with her husband, and Zoë spends the afternoon tossing her toy under their table and they keep picking it up and giving it back. We spend the afternoon reading books and ignoring the fact that we recognize Hilary Swank. The only problem with Doma is its coffee, a problem for a café, which combines being bad with being expensive.
We spend the next day in more cafés drinking more hot chocolate. Occasionally we bundle up for a walk in the cold. Once we see Sarah Jessica Parker walking down the other side of the street with her baby in her Baby Björn and she waves at us and we wave at her before diving back into a café.
Night comes. Zoë’s nose was already running but now it’s sprinting. She sleeps fitfully, can’t breathe. We hear her wheezing on the makeshift bed of cushions we’ve set up next to our bed in the apartment where we’re staying.
It sounds as if she’s trying to drag the last bits of a milk shake through a straw. By midnight her nose is completely clogged. We get out The Snot-Suction Thing.
The Snot-Suction Thing looks like an onion with a nose. Its light-blue color could be called Hospital Sick. It is medieval, emphasis on “eval.” But when we shove its nose up Zoë’s nose, and release the onion, The Snot-Suction Thing yanks out a satisfying sinewy strand of goo. Zoë feels better and sleeps, at least for the hour until we de-snot her again. During the night, “de-snot” becomes a verb.
In the morning we take five minutes cleaning up the wadded tissues covering the floor. Then we slog out into the cold to visit friends uptown. Zoë is exhausted. We’re not feeling too great either. We make a bed for Zoë on our friend’s bed and she sleeps, then we head downtown and set up another bed at another friend’s house and she sleeps again. As we talk with our friends in the living room we want nothing more than to lounge around and catch up on gossip. But we have become nervous on-call plumbers, one of our ears always tuned to the gurgling from the other room, which at some point will burst into a full-on pipe malfunction that requires our services, our little baby plunger.
We retreat to New Haven, wads of tissues crammed in every pocket. My parents live outside of town on a farm. We spend New Year’s Eve playing charades and pumping snot out of Zoë and wondering how many pints of snot can be in one baby’s head.
Elise has an interview the next day for her predoctoral internship. While she’s gone I wrap Zoë in a blanket and walk around the farm, kicking snow into the air and onto the backs of my parents’ dogs. It’s odd to show Zoë where I grew up and it moves me in a way I can’t quite describe—she’s in a place where she never existed, but was always part of the future story. She’s nowhere but everywhere.
We return home and Zoë naps, snoring like a phlegmatic old man. The Snot-Suction Thing is clogged. It needs a suction of its own. Should I use a turkey baster on it? A turkey baster on my daughter? This is getting ridiculous. In the morning we bundle Zoë and drive up another slushy highway to visit my brother. He and his wife own the general store in a small Massachusetts town. They live above the store and treat it like a pantry, walking down for pints of Ben & Jerry’s whenever they want. I like visiting. But this year I’m walking downstairs to see if the store kitchen has a turkey baster. Zoë may not need anything, though. She’s getting better. Nursing has literally nursed her back to health. Her face is an ugly record of the ten days she’s been through: raw and red and covered with dried mucus that sticks to her skin like yellow lichen on a slick rock. She sleeps through the night. In the morning her snots are hard and I can shovel them out of her nose with the tip of my pinky. I don’t bother with tissues anymore and am wiping the snots on my socks.
Our last stop is in Boston. When Elise goes to another internship interview I stay with Zoë at a friend’s apartment. Another futon, another temporary bed, another pile of dirty clothes and winter jackets. Being in yet another place that is not ours makes me wish that I could pack an entire warm room in my shoulder bag, with Zoë’s bed and clothes arranged neatly inside. It would fold easily in and out, and if I could pack my child in the bag, too, and ensure that she was never sick, travel would be so easy.
Zoë naps and I sit in the kitchen and nurse a coffee and listen to the radio. A man is talking about how his baby got ill and died in her crib so I go check on Zoë. She is flat on her back, immune to her surroundings, breathing easy after all she’s been through. I guess The Snot-Suction Thing did its job. It expired in the process, though. It’s broken, like us. I return to the kitchen and put my head on the table. Outside, through windows fogged with cold, I hear the crunch of boots in snow, the swish of car wheels through slush, the occasional clatter of falling icicles. Inside I hear the asthmatic rattle of the radiator. I close my eyes and picture the produce section of Berkeley Bowl. I picture the tomatoes. I picture tomatoes that are a certain red that is rich and bursting to the point of being so full of color that you can’t imagine a deeper color in the world, where if you put your hands on them you can sense the soil they came from and the sun they must have grown under. I picture the leeks and the radishes, dripping wet. Each color distinct and sharp. And as I daydream my bag full of produce and walk outside into the sun and look up at the hills and smell that bright clean smell that is distinctly California, I want to go home. I want to go home to our home three thousand miles away.
The above appears in CRAWLING, copyright 2006 Pantheon Books.