“Hi Payton! Come give me a hug!” Ruth is blindingly bright and cheerful. She holds out her arms.
Payton’s face is blank and she hesitates. Instead of walking into Ruth’s open arms, she leans on me, uncharacteristically shy. She studies Ruth and David, uncertain if she should go with them.
I rest my hand on her shoulder. “Go over to Mom and Dad,” I whisper.
“C’mon Payton!” David grins and beckons her. Payton approaches slowly but then bypasses them when she sees toys on the waiting room table.
Ruth tries a different tactic. She gets down on all fours and barks, talking about Blues Clues and pretending to be the dog. This triggers a memory and Payton joins her, talking in a baby voice. “I see a clue!” She gets up and races to David, giving him a hug. I feel an unpleasant combination of emotions that I can’t name.
The social worker leads them into the visitation room. David takes Payteo’s hand and she goes with them; we stand there, forgotten.
Returning two hours later, we hear Payten’s infectious giggle. Now I can identify what I was feeling before; jealousy. In this moment I realize I have bonded with Payton despite how difficult things have been.
Payton comes into the waiting room, Ruth and David following silently. Payton walks over to the table and joins Andrew and Paige, who are playing with Lincoln Logs.
I don’t know if Ruth harbors negative feelings towards me but I take a leap of faith and hug her.
She squeezes me and my uncertainty dissolves. “I hope you guys are doing okay.”
“Actually, we are,” Ruth tells me. She pulls a tissue from her pocket and wipes her eyes. “It’s just really hard right now. But we’re really going to try this time!” I hope so, and yet I don’t believe her.
“Here’s $5 for Payton.” Ruth pulls a bill out of her purse. “Take her to the Dollar Store and let her pick out a few things.” I slip the money into my pocket, nodding.
“Time to leave!” David hugs Payton. “See you next week, Payton!” He walks towards the doors, pulling a pack of cigarettes from his pocket before he he’s outside. Crying, Ruth gives Payton a hug. “I love you, baby,” she says, sounding like she has sand caught in her throat. Payton slumps into Ruth, silent and staring over her shoulder.
Ruth stands up and walks to the doorway carrying our diaper bag. I open my mouth to say something but she notices. In the process of giving it back, she hands me her purse. Our eyes meet and we laugh awkwardly.
Morbidly curious, I ask the social worker how it went after they’re gone.
“Fine. They bought her a Mountain Dew and cookies for a snack… They plan to bring food from now on so you guys don’t need to feed her before the visits.” I plan to stuff her if Mountain Dew and cookies are what they feed her!
Payton slips her tiny, baby-fat pudgy hand into mine as we leave the building. At home, Andrew puts Paige down for her nap. I sit at the kitchen table, drained. Payton comes up to me and says, “I want to be with you.” She starts playing with my hair. Even though I hate having my hair touched, I close my eyes and don’t stop her.