The way things change is slow, but strong and steady. Like the tide, creeping up the sharp edge of the shoreline all day long. He remembers his mom explaining the tide to him when he was little—really little, too little to climb up the ladders and ropes of his castle by himself. They’d gone to his castle—he thinks it was summer, or early fall—and he’d been running around, gathering little shiny pebbles and pretty leaves and little florets from the hedges and collecting them on a patch of sand, lower than the actual playground, closer to the waves and the rocky beach. Late summer; the days were still long and long and long, and the ice cream truck had already passed by. (Always a cartoon character for him, always a ChocoTaco for his mom.) When he’d finally tired out, or maybe his mom had just had enough of salt spray in her hair—curlier, then, frizzing a little, softening her in ways neither of them knew how to appreciate—he’d gone to gather up his stash only to realize that the water had come in, bit by bit, and stolen all his treasures away.
He remembers being distraught that all the pretty things he’d put together for her were gone. Remembers blaming himself for not paying attention. He remembers how she’d picked him up and hugged him tightly and told him No, no, sweet boy. You don’t have to be sad. Because now guess what we get to do? Science!
They’d gone home, and she’d brought down one of the big black leather books from her top shelves in the study, and one of the big white picture books from his bottom shelves in the study, and laid them out side by side on the coffee table. With him in her lap and big, exaggerated illustrations of the moon and the beach under their left hands, she’d read out the macropedia explanation to him slowly, one sentence at a time, translating into words he could understand and terms he could see in The Way It Works.
It’d been cool. Pacifying. Not a term he’d understood, back then, but that was the sensation of it; having something bigger and scarier and potentially thwarting explained into something that made sense, that he could manage.
It’s the way she explains everything to him. Magic, when that’s put on the table. How she does it, the differences between spell casting and potion brewing and elemental magic. Slowly, carefully, breaking it down into small parts, building it all up together. Like they’re playing with Legos again, at the conference table in her office, showing Mr. Spencer why a temporary tax hike is absolutely necessary for the well-being of the town.
When—when the Bad Years have passed, it’s how they get back to Good Places. Taking these big messy concepts and emotions and memories and breaking them down into tiny parts, putting it all back together again. They cook together, back in their kitchen with memories of tembleque in the winter and yautia in the fall and maduros all year round, sweet treats for my sweet boy. It’s all the same thing: ingredients, chopped and sliced and ground and crushed, all put back together again.
Maybe it’s a metaphor.
It’s how she explains Emma. Well, no, that would make it sound easy and logical and not at all like he breezily walks in on his mom giggling between kisses from Emma, which quickly morphs into all three of them having minor simultaneous meltdowns in various corners of the dining room.
But when they do sit down, and she does break it down into small, understandable steps, puts them together so he can see how and not just what the hell—and somehow Emma knows to just let his mom talk, somehow Emma hangs on every word just like he does—he sees it. Like the tide. Rising up the whole afternoon but he hadn’t been looking.
Because it was slow, and steady, and strong. Getting him back, and putting them back together, him and his mom, and Emma’s been a part of that and not. There for them—him when he thinks small and selfishly, his mom when she thinks scared and scarily—but not in the way. A foundation, or a forcefield, or something necessary but peripheral.
Not so peripheral that when Emma got shot like a dumbass—he’s allowed to say that for this one, his mom said so—there was any question about his mom breaking speed limits and parking rules to get them to the emergency room in the middle of the night to be with her. Because that was their Emma. Their steady and strong Emma.
(Who got shot. Like a dumbass.)
His grandparents were a wreck in the waiting room but his mom was just quiet, and after half an hour of waiting he decided he was tired of being big and crawled into her lap like he was three again, and she let him, and he said, “I’m scared,” and she hugged him close, close, close.
“Me too,” she whispered back.
The doctors let them in another twenty minutes after they said Emma made it through surgery, and there was some confusion about his mom coming in and the doctor was frowning and Gramps finally just burst out with “For God’s sake,” and grabbed his mom’s wrist, pulled her along after him towards Emma’s room.
His mom snatched her wrist back and called Gramps a doddering brute and somehow that was the first thing Emma heard from all of them, and so when they all looked at her she was smiling from behind her elevated leg. His mom called her an overdramatic moron, but then she smiled back, and her smile looked like he felt: relieved and strong and just… pleased.
It was summer, then, for sure; mid-July, and he was still in those weird years where he was too old for summer camp and too young for a summer job. Or, that was how he’d argued it, and his mom had given in far too easily. It took Emma getting shot like a dumbass, and their subsequent nights and weekend camped out in her hospital room, for him to realize that his mom soaks up time with people like a sponge, especially when she gets reminded about big words like impermanence and mortality. She worked summer hours like she did when he was small, out of the office every day at four and off completely on Fridays, and when they got to the hospital at five (with smuggled Tupperware full of mofongo or fried chicken, and Emma doesn’t even like mofongo but she ate it like she’d been starved) his mom seemed completely content to just watch him poke and prod and tease Emma, and beat her in whatever game they’d both had on their phones back then, occasionally flipping pages of some magazine and looking between the two of them with that same relieved, strong, pleased smile.
When it clicked for him, about his lazy summer and the long hours in the hospital room, it was day three of Emma’s recovery and he’d started to worry about getting bored with nothing else to do to entertain them all. And then it clicked, that his mom was basically just basking in the fact that he and Emma were alive and she had time to waste with them, and he went to her side and pushed her chair closer to the bed and said, “Mom, can you read to us?”
Turned out the magazine was one of the ones his mom swore she was above reading, so no. She didn’t read to them, but she told stories. (Told them like she always did: small parts, stacking together like Legos until a whole tower stood before them.) Stories he knew, and stories he remembered, and stories that Emma hung on like she was the ocean and his mom was the moon.
It’s been slow, and steady, and strong.
When Emma was discharged, she came home with them. Because stairs, and she got shot like a dumbass (in the foot) and his mom said so. She couldn’t do stairs but she could get around the first floor on her crutches pretty quickly, and the few weeks that she was with them were a steady thump-thump-thump between the kitchen and the study. His mom complained that Emma was eating them out of house and home—Emma spit cocoa everywhere—and also completely upending the order of her study, unalphabetizing her books, the nerve. Except she still came home at 4:14 on the dot and Emma greeted her at the door every day with an open book in her left hand and an offering of her Super Special Summer Lemonade (Country Time with a quarter scoop of Nestea) in her right. His mom never refused the lemonade and she never judged Emma for it, either, even though they make lemonade with actual lemons and sugarcane and a secret twist of lime. She’d take the lemonade and sit and talk with Emma for a little bit, ask her how she felt and what she was reading and sometimes, if his mom remembered the book well, ask her what she thought about this bit or that bit and one time they got so wrapped up in it that they forgot about dinner until he came into the study with three stacked plates of leftover rice and beans and a hangry scowl.
Most days, his mom spent half an hour with Emma and then joined him in the kitchen to start on dinner, and Emma followed, thump-thump-thump, still with her book in her hand, and on days when they really knew what they were doing, his mom asked Emma to read to them. The first time, she’d been too wrapped up in peeling the skin back from the mangos to see the look on Emma’s face, scared and shamed and awkward. But she read, slowly and steadily, and it was confusing at first, some type of conversation between a man and god and some phrases banked deep in his memory like brother’s keeper and then there was something about just as you had the freedom to stop me killing abel and his mom dropped the mango in the sink and waved the knife hand over her now empty hand and there wasn’t even any blood but they all knew she’d been hurt.
The next day was the day the two of them forgot to eat, and when he was doing the dishes they were borderline shouting, and in the morning Emma made breakfast for all of them and his mom huffed and rolled her eyes and somewhere in there, Emma smiled.
She didn’t read that book the next time—he could tell, the phrasings were all different—but he thought then and thinks now, is sure now, that she’d been hoping for his mom to ask again. The next time, she read poetry, haltingly and with so much uncertainty that his mom put down the spice rub for the pork chops and watched her, openly and with this strange look on her face, like things were making a type of sense she didn’t like. “I can’t want to be something, but I have in me all the dreams of the world—”
After dinner, Emma did the dishes, and his mom stayed in the kitchen with her, and their voices were low and mingled and gentle in ways that felt familiar but lost. When Emma went back to the apartment the next week, finally, he realized how much silence they lived with. Not bad silence, but silence all the same, big empty spaces where nothing needed saying but he wished for his mom’s voice anyway.
After that, Emma came around every couple of days, sometimes joking that she was just proving she didn’t get shot again, sometimes coming in and sitting with them and watching PBS specials, sometimes just sitting with his mom reading in the study. Not too long before school was set to start again, he’d run down to grab markers from the den and heard their voices mingling in the study. Emma’s, reading softly at a measured pace: Come take my arm, walk with me. I too am returning this February from far away. His mom’s, with a strange hitch: That’s good, you let the lines break naturally. You’re doing well. Emma’s again: I—maybe I should stop. He’d gone upstairs again, markers retrieved.
Things change, slow and steady. He walks in on them a few days after school’s started, and even while they are all panicking he is thinking of the sound of his mom’s laugh, and when she is finished explaining that it was all these little things that kept rising and that they thought—maybe this could be—
He thinks of the first time he really saw her start to think scared and scarily and how Emma’d come over right away, followed his mom out to the still-dormant flower beds in the backyard, kept about two feet of space between them but held out her hand without tiring until, after agonizing minutes, his mom took it. He doesn’t think they said a word, back then.
He doesn’t think it could be, he thinks it is.
(He asks his mom to give him a minute with Emma, and when he demands to know “What are your intentions with my mother?” he can hear that laugh—happy and confident and revelatory—from just outside the study door. Emma starts to laugh, too, until he crosses his arms and taps his foot and waits.)
It’s the little things, building up into this bigger, larger thing. Sometimes his mom works late and when Emma picks him up from school, they go to the grocery store first, picking up the ingredients he remembers and fudging the ones he doesn’t. Some of their dinners go horribly sideways but for the smile in his mom’s eyes and the way she laughs at the worst of their disasters, it seems all right. Sometimes his mom works late and when she stumbles in the door at close to nine, Emma’s there to take her bag and her coat and sometimes she even takes off his mom’s shoes. Sometimes they both greet her, and Emma steps back to take care of peripherals while he leads his mom to the kitchen and the plate they’ve kept warm for her and he lists off the chores they took care of and the homework he’s done and his mom smiles, and hugs him with one arm around his waist and the other steadily bringing food to her mouth.
He tries to give Emma a hard time about dating his mom—the fact that they are constantly late coming home makes it easy, easy, easy—but sometimes when he comes downstairs to say goodnight, he’ll just look at them together. Sometimes his mom curls up with her spine pressed up against Emma’s side, and Emma holds her loosely but surely, and sometimes Emma will be reading to her and sometimes his mom will be telling stories with her eyes closed. Sometimes they don’t look at each other and sometimes he sees Emma reciting from memory and looking at his mom like—like all of a sudden something bigger and scarier and potentially thwarting just made sense.
He thinks of how Emma listens to his mom’s stories, and he thinks of the treasures he’d gathered for her before he knew anything about the tide. How his little flower offerings floated on the surface of the sea, and the small pebbles were left smooth and gleaming in the light, while the moon pulled the water further and further up the shore.