Jessica Sucato

For Nadia’s twenty-second birthday, I am determined to make her happy, so I place all of my faith in material things. Among the items I buy for my daughter are a hopeful two: real pearl earrings and a kitschy photograph of a cat playing the violin. The photograph is mostly black-and-white, except the cat wears a dress, ballet slipper pink, with puff sleeves. I wrap the gifts well, in flowered paper that numbs my fingertips, and carry them to the car, on my way.

I am stuck in traffic outside the Squirrel Hill tunnel when my husband calls to cancel. “Work,” he sighs as if it needs no explanation.

A familiar refrain plays on the radio. It is a song I suspect Nadia must love, and persuaded me, also, to love, because though I know the melody by heart, the artist’s name is lost on me.  I try, for a moment, to remember, but then it’s gone. Rolling down the windows halfway, I tune my ear to the sounding board of construction and car horns, and breathe in the miasma of tar and gasoline.    

“Did you at least pick up the cake?” I ask him.

“Cake? Oh, the apple cake? I didn’t think you were serious.”

The ever-young and small part of me wants to yell at my husband, as traffic lurches and I reach out to guard the presents in the front seat beside me. I pause. “We’ll have to settle for something else then,” I say.   

“There’s always Jell-O. They have great Jell-O there.”

I ponder over Jell-O—the wobbly mold, the cloying, fluorescent taste of it that Nadia and I both hate on principle. For the moment I feel a bit like letting myself go, being taken over and in by the loud smells and noises outside, the strange symphony.

“We’ll miss you.”   

“Can you stop doing that?”

“Doing what?”

“You’re just making it harder than it has to be, Eileen.”

I wait for my husband to go on and I keep waiting, even though I have hung up the phone; waiting is something I have always known, and take comfort in knowing. 

In the rearview mirror, I blink past my reflection, past the worn woman finally sunk deep in middle age who stares back. Instead, I glance  past her, toward the line behind me of cars snaking up the steep, winding road. How endless they seem.

Once I arrive at Mercy West, I immediately petition the nurse to mount the cat photograph on the wall next to the TV. I explain that when Nadia wakes up, one day soon, this way she can admire it easily. The nurse tells me no Something about nails… hospital policy…. I have not given up, but I stop listening, stop breathing. Words.  “We have balloons, if you would like some,” she says.

I exhale, and we fill the room with them. The nurse helps me tie the balloons with string and it is my idea to anchor each one with cups of Cafeteria Jell-O stacked in twos.

When I am alone, later, I prop the cat photograph up onto the arms of a high-back chair and grab hold of Nadia’s hands—beautiful hands, piano hands, my mother’s—long and lithe.

I count the steady pulse of her heartbeat on the monitor until numbers fail me. I convince myself she’s happy. The balloons float around the photograph like another frame, all red and blue and green.

I will save the pearls for a better time.