The light changed yesterday, the way it does mid-March. We've been under layers of gray: snow, sleet, fog refracted through dirty windows and a jumble of coats that were once cream-colored, but have accumulated a winter's worth of ash. My daughter and I wait at the bus stop, squinting in the sun. I hand her a string cheese to help her pass the time while we wait. I notice that she has changed during winter, no longer requiring such a distraction, being content in her own thoughts.
When did she change? Was it during the moments she lay in the pre-dawn darkness, too cold to venture from her blankets? Did she learn to be peaceful then? Did she devise games and imaginary friends in those minutes before she called out for me and roused herself from the safety of her bed?
The Columbus bus pulls up and I hand her the Metrocard, which she releases at just the right moment to be sucked into the mechanized slot near the driver. She's starting to be a New York kid. It's early afternoon, but the bus is crowded, and I carry her to the back in search of a seat.
It's loud here, but there's one seat. She easily fits in my lap, she's only 3. We sit, blinking in a pool of light. I'm sweating in my winter coat, so I ask her if she wants to take off her parka. She doesn't hear me, which surprises me, because she always wants to take off her parka.
She's gazing at five girls who have taken over the upstairs deck of the bus. Their conversation is thick with posturing, bad-mouthing of boys, sharing of cell phone photos, discussions of upcoming parties and scatological humor. I wonder about conversations I'll be listening to as my daughter leaves the insulation of home and starts school in the coming year. I wonder about the conversations I won't be privy to.
I've been preparing since my child was born, relaxing my grip every time a possessive thought dares cross my mind. My life, I remind myself, begins anew when my child's branches out. I'll have more time to breathe and more time to work. I, too, will be able to daydream while waiting for a bus. Portals to private worlds will open for both of us, not just for her.
She's mesmerized by the girls, and I'm fascinated by her. I can feel her leaning into them. It's written in our DNA: we are social animals and her timer has gone off and she wants to participate. She wants friendships and cross talk with children her own age. She yearns to be close to older children, older girls. I hold my breath, but panic surges through my breast like water from a burst dam.
I don't say anything to her. I know she wants to listen to them and to simply feel an inexpressible longing that is new to her and strong. She observes them discreetly from the fortress of my arms.
One of the girls notices her. She prods her friend to look at the cute little girl. They discuss her tiny shoes and her red socks and how adorable they are. I don't know if my daughter catches this and if so, what she makes of their commentary. Does she feel patronized, or is she so in love with them that a compliment thrills her?
Our stop comes and I tell her she can pull the cord. She asks me why we are getting off. She is really telling me she doesn't want to. But we have to, this is our stop. We stand on the sidewalk as the back door slams. She is motionless, watching the bus glide down the avenue.
I crouch next to her.
"Did you want to stay near those girls?"
She smiles. She is rarely shy with me -- this, too, is new.
"Mama, yes, I wanted to. Did you see those girls?"
"Yes, I saw them," I tell her. "It won't be long before you'll be out with your friends, and you'll call me or Daddy to tell us you'll be out a while longer, that you're going to the movies or to get pizza. Did you know that will be you in a few years?"
She smiles again.
"Really? Do you promise and you won't break your promise?" This phrase has become my daughter's favorite method of extracting assurance that something longed for will materialize.
"I promise and I won't break my promise."
"Mama, can I jump?"
She jumps and I lift her into my arms, carrying a long 3-year-old down the sidewalk and the whole way home. Lactic acid builds in my arms but I don't put her down. Her legs squeeze my trunk and she rests her head on my shoulder.
"Mama, I wanted to stay near those girls."
I think about the longings of young adult life, of the dark passageways and of the ties teenagers form -- loose knots that are imperiled by the faintest of breezes. I remember my own yearning to be someone else, a part of something else, to be like a particular idol. Maybe her youth will be a gentler passage than mine. Where is it written that our early years will be marred by rivalry and exclusion and a raw hunger for a different set of physical traits?
I catch my breath. She is already three, but she's also only three.
We stroll in the spring sunshine, and the world feels new.
Autumn -- and school -- are a long way off. When our shadows stretch as the Earth tilts next fall, my heart will stretch too, that it may include the friends my child will run to.
But right now, it's spring. For a little longer, she's only, if already, 3.