The generic hotel comforter pressed down on her, decidedly uncomfortable. Despite the fact that Nanchang in early December felt more like late April in New York, the thermostat in their tiny suite was locked, unwavering, at an unbearable eighty-two degrees.
She sighed and pressed her cheek against the damp pillowcase. Her right arm was pinned under the over-sized head of the tiny, slumbering body beside her. She wiggled her tingling fingers, watching them dance in the bluish light streaming in through the rain-spattered windows. The city beyond and twenty-odd stories below was alive and teeming and deeply unfamiliar, unaware of her own small, alien intrusion in it, here, in this anonymous room. She didn't belong here. This wasn't her place.
She brushed her hand across David's warm shoulder, feeling the rise and fall of his breathing. He was deeply asleep. He had been so very nervous, a bundle of raw energy, waiting for their local guide and facilitator's phone call earlier this evening. The call that signaled a change so fundamental, so permanent in their lives, that she could hardly suck each breath through her parched mouth, even now, hours after it had happened.
Water. She sat up, wriggling her arm free, gazing down at the sleeping child beside her. Black, course hair cut brutally, indifferently short, still slightly damp from the hour-long bath she took after the minders from her social welfare institute had left, nodding and smiling and pressing their fingers into her slight shoulders, telling her again and again, Ta shi nide mama! Ta shi nide baba! Pointing at her and David like they were exhibits in the smallest, most overheated museum on the planet. This is your mom! This is your dad! Is this FABULOUS?
She took a long pull from the water bottle on the nightstand. It was warm and tasted of minerals. They couldn't drink the tap water here. She missed her ice water. She missed their apartment. She missed the cats and their loud upstairs neighbors and and the coffee shop around the corner that had the best coffee in town. She missed knowing exactly what would happen next.
What about the six-year-old asleep beside her, head now tucked into her new father's armpit? What did she miss? What would she miss, from her old life? She had gotten carsick on the long van ride, and her too-big coat had been matted with sour chunks of vomit, which had been pointed out to us by the ayis in the same joyful, detached way we had been introduced to her.
After they had left, still manically babbling in Mandarin to the small girl they were now leaving with two white strangers, she had helped the child – her child - take off the two, three, four layers of clothing she was wearing and gotten her into the tub. Something turned on behind those dark brown eyes the moment her feet hit the bubble-infested water. She loved it. She didn't say much, but she laughed, and she made herself a beard of bubbles. David already had his own beard, which she seemed to find hilarious. She finally spoke, a harsh, gravelly sound, pointing, "Babade hu xu!" Dad's beard!
The bath and an enormous plate of shrimp fried rice lulled the girl into a subdued stupor, and she and David put her in the giant bed between them. David had drifted off quickly, and she didn’t blame him. But here she was, still wide awake. She left the bed carefully and tiptoed into the small sitting room of their suite. The skyscraper she could see from the window had multicolored lights cascading down the side of it in waves, dozens and dozens of stories stretching into the sky. With its crushing tide of people, the only direction China’s architects could go was up.
She could hear David's snuffling, snorting snores, in irregular spurts, coming from the bedroom. The rain spattered relentlessly against the windows, drooling down in neon-tinged streaks. The great, near-distant roar of the traffic, of the masses of humanity, on the street below, whooshed in her ears alongside the relentless radiators. Then she heard another sound, and unfamiliar one. A muted creaking that made her think of late-night intruders and ghost stories around the campfire.
Emma’s heart sped up. She crept to the tiny hallway leading to the hotel room door. Nothing. No sound beyond, in the hallway, either. She walked back to the living room. There it was again. She walked into the doorway of the bedroom, listening, heart thumping in her throat. Yes. It was coming from in here. She bent over the bed, oh so carefully, and waited. Yes.
She looked down at the sleeping girl in the pajamas she had bought for her last month, sight unseen, in a faraway country in a city she would soon call home. They were too big for her. It was her.
She was grinding her teeth.
Her jaw was locked, her chin a sharp point. Her mouth pulled tight. She could see the child’s cheeks working as everything in her mouth moved underneath them.
The sound made Emma shudder. Bone against bone, rubbing. She pulled down on the girl’s lower lip, then her jaw, and waited. She gasped, made a small sleeping sound. Then pressed her mouth back together. Her cheeks started rippling again as the grinding sound commenced. Again.
Emma’s stomach heaved and shook. She brushed her palm across the child’s warm forehead, feeling a flash of something. Disgust? Love? Terror? All of them. Every single one. She pulled her hand away, covered her mouth. Groaned a little.
The girl’s full rosebud lips pursed and twisted, and her teeth complained to each other, and to her. Her eyes fluttered, with a dream or a nightmare or something else entirely.
Emma gently put her hand back on her cheek, feeling her teeth rotating beneath her fingers. Rubbed her thumb against her closed lips, her closed eyelids. Felt the grinding vibrate deep in her chest, in a tender spot just above her heart.
This was it. She was a mother.