[ToC]

 

THE CRITERIA FOR A KISS IN QUARANTINE

Danielle Harms

 

On the trail to the lake, he deconstructs a kiss into its parts, shuffles them into new orders. What creates a kiss? Pursed lips, pressed together, that sound as they come apart. Mouths and spit and air. He is not yet two.

Two weeks after Wisconsin shelters in place and the time at our family cabin in the Northwoods becomes indefinite, he starts to stitch words together. Yellow sun. Baby gnome. Little puppy. Somewhere he learned to say pieces. I once knew everything he knew, kept a catalogue of his words, inventoried his syllables with mine. My child has outgrown my ability to contain him. This virus creates a before and after in history that intersects with the time when I see his thoughts become his own.

I am thinking of everyone who is no longer alive to witness this. Every morning, we talk to the gnomes who sit along the trail to the frozen lake. My aunt painted their ceramic figures one after the other, each with absurd, red lips. She won runner-up ribbons from judges at an Idaho county fair for her brush strokes, sent fleets of gnomes across the country in foam-packed boxes to her sisters and their kids. For you, for you, for you. They arrived with notes to describe how she chose the colors just for you.

My child still says "ow" when he hurts me. I am trying out new responses so I'll stop repeating a litany of no's. "We must be careful with our bodies," I say, listening to my voice sound like a parent. "Be careful with your body. Be kind to other people's bodies," I repeat. Body, he says, slapping his own cheek to know how it feels. He is trying to understand the limits of pain and pressure.

My aunt died a month ago in March. Two weeks before our routines were overtaken by the virus in the cabin where her gnomes are everywhere. My mom brought a gnome home with her from the funeral, packed in a snow boot in her suitcase. The gnome didn't break on the flight from Idaho to Wisconsin, where we placed it under the pines. It balanced an axe over one shoulder.

My aunt died so abruptly we didn't have time to understand it was the end until her brain was bleeding. We were still making jokes about the Betty Boop lips on her gnomes when my grandpa called to say it was already over. He said her fingers had become blue. She was the third sister of six. I learned from her obituary that she had once been a teacher, before cancer transformed her body in her twenties, then left her to survive for decades longer than any doctor predicted. All things considered, it was good timing, we admitted. Two weeks later and her sisters never would have been able to cross the country to clean her home, cut her hair, feed her dog, sign her papers, cremate her body.

My child kisses the gnomes my aunt painted each morning. He met her once, when his eyes were just starting to understand the shapes of faces. Now he touches their red lips, mapping the shape of a mouth. Hi gnome. Night gnome. Baby gnome. Bye gnome. "Did you sleep well?" I say to the gnomes, looking for reasons to laugh. "I wish I woke up looking that good." Sometimes his timing is muddled. He presses his mouth to their cheeks silently, walks away, looks back, and makes the sound of his lips smacking from across the forest. What I always thought was part of the mechanics of the gesture is just a sound effect we've learned to make, a way to complete a kiss.

I cannot tell how time is moving. Is it accumulating or progressing? I look for changes to track as evidence we are still in motion. Our patterns repeat into rituals. We walk to the lake from the house and offer the gnomes new versions of a kiss. He is closer to two than before. We decide he's the right age for a pandemic. He's won't remember much. We don't watch what we say as scientists create models exposing the criteria for who is expendable. We don't replace corona with euphemisms, answer questions of why or when.

We follow him down the trail, where he stops in front of the altar of gnomes on fallen tree stumps and finds their permanent smiles. "Gently," we remind when his hands are too rough with their rosy-cheeked faces. "Be careful with our bodies." We count the days and then the weeks. He revises his idea of a kiss, getting the gesture just right. We keep walking to the lake.

The ice recedes into open water and wind-whipped waves. Trumpet swans arrive one morning and are gone the next. An otter leaves the shore on its back. Loons cackle. Ticks emerge. My child assembles the parts of a kiss into the sequence we all know, pursed lips, pressed together, that sound as they come apart. He says good night to a gnome painted with the initials of someone who isn't here as he learns the criteria of a kiss.

 

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When I began writing this piece in March, school had just moved online, shelter-in-place orders had made their way to the Midwest, and the world felt re-aligned into something new. My toddler started chatting with ceramic gnomes and I found myself fixating on the small in an attempt to approach the large. Breonna Taylor was shot to death around that time, and weeks later George Floyd was killed too. By the end of spring, a different transformation was happening that made those first weeks indoors seem all the more insular in retrospect. But long before we took our kid to his first Black Lives Matter protest, and then his second, the violence and racial injustice that made them necessary was happening, even as snow was falling in Northern Wisconsin and my kid was learning to talk in the trees. I'm still trying to hold myself accountable for doing the active labor of looking back and realizing all I missed.