My twin daughters rest their heads against me, nestled into the space between my head and my neck, flanking me like earrings. Above us, their ceiling is low, an attic roof sloped steeply and covered in stickered glowing stars. The sun sets only moments before I finish their bedtime story, only seconds before I turn out the lights and the green stars glow like radioactive material.
They are in their big bed now. Two days ago, my husband, Tim, and I finally made the trip to the mattress store for our new bed, roamed among the mattresses like they were flowers and the right one would catch our eye, even though they all looked the same, felt the same, and I imagine cost the same. The saleswoman, Nina, was rough and near the end of her career. She spoke about beds and box springs like I talk about being a mother now, effortlessly, like the correct words live just inside our mouths and we only have to lift up our tongues for them to spill out.
The correct mattress is not about comfort, Nina informed us. It’s about support. Support isn’t always comfortable at first; it grows on you over time.
The new bed for us means the girls get our old bed. The sixty-dollar toddler beds were too small for them now, all of a sudden. One day they were three and the toddler beds were a welcomed surprise for them from the tan bars of their cribs. Then, on what felt like the very next day, they were five, and their feet threatened to get stuck between the planks of the footboard, anchoring them to toddler forever.
As the three of us lie on the queen bed, my old bed, we sing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and our voices rise and fall like ribbons intertwined. Samantha sings in a low whisper. Penelope is a higher pitch, a softer child all around. My voice is low, brings up the bass. It doesn’t bother me that this was my bed, that they were conceived in this very spot, the way it should. After Twinkle, Twinkle, Samantha wants to sing Take me out to the Ball Game, but can’t sing it without acting it out. I tell her no, and force her to cuddle up against me in the cold wind of the air conditioner. I am strict with bedtime, it’s important to me that they learn good sleep habits, that they are able to sooth themselves when the waters are rough.
I know they are sleeping when their breaths slow. I know this from the years of reaching over crib sides and rubbing their small backs. A pattern developed, a routine. Before I knew them well enough, Tim and I just sang to them, rocked them, did cartwheels if it meant their eyes closing at the same time. But then, months later, I broke the code. Samantha first. She slept with her legs tight up under her, like a snail protecting it’s underbelly. She curled up tighter with every touch of my palm down her soft back. She was like velour, something you stroke for hours and still can’t understand its composition.
Samantha was first because she had to be. Penelope could stay quiet, begin the process of sleep on her own, whereas Samantha needed me. If left unaided she would climb the walls, construct cities in her crib, hatch evil-genius-like plans from behind the bars. But Samantha was easier. Five minutes of back rubbing and her eyes were like weighted doors, begging to slam shut. Once they did, it was Penelope’s turn.
To say Penelope is a happier child is incorrect. Penelope is a worrier; she carries the weight of the world on her tiny shoulders. But she is pleasant when she is calm, when all is right in her universe, she is the softest child I have ever seen. She was a smiling, laughing baby. Rubbing her back over the crib’s side was difficult because she was so inviting. She rarely laid on her belly like her snail of a sister. Penelope welcomed me, her arms and eyes wide open, facing me, tempting me to climb into the crib with her and spoon.
Tonight, they are five and a half, almost six, and for the first time in their lives, I can lie in a bed with them as they drift to sleep. Against the hum of the air conditioner, I can’t hear the slight sighs that I know come from their mouths when they’ve crossed the threshold of sleep. It is a moment I know well: the fluttering of the eyes behind closed lids stops, the chest rises slower and slower, and then finally, a small, barely audible yet deep breath slips from between their tiny cherry lips, and suddenly my job is done.
I lie there with them for what feels like hours as they sleep. I think about this mattress under us. About the years I spent with the wrong men at the wrong times, trying so desperately to get to this place, right here. About the five apartments where this bed and I have lived, the negative pregnancy tests and enough tears to float this bed down the nearby Lackawanna River. And I think about Tim, about the promises he never made but kept anyway. About the wishes he answered, the support he offered like the right mattress: he held me up just enough to stop the pain.
I know, minutes later, that I have to leave. That I cannot stay in this bed with these beautiful girls all night. I want them to be independent, to survive without me, to thrive when they are alone. I want to spare them the moments in which I cried myself to sleep on this very bed. So I lean left and slide my arm from under Penelope’s matted dark hair. She squirms for a split second before settling on her side. I do the same for Samantha, and then begin a contortion of my body that I’m only able to manage after having taken ten plus years of ballet. I kiss their foreheads, walking slowly on the floor to avoid the inevitable creak, and fade slowly from their view as the stars over their heads grow dim in the darkness.