I see it when she sits down at the table, shoulders back. She tosses her hair and crosses her ankles. And then I see it when she talks, throwing words like 'satisfaction' and 'mysterious' into her sentences like they're no big deal. A lesson on astronomy here, a discussion about biology there. There's a chapter book and a flashlight by her bed; the words are in her head now, no need to be said out loud.
She is seven years old.
We are not allowed to hug her in front of friends. Even a blown kiss would be disastrous. She wants to be an artist. Or a scientist. Independent dreams that prove it to me: Mia is growing up so fast.
"This girl is popular, mom. So, so popular."
"She is? I wonder why?"
"I don't know, she just is."
"Well...what does that mean, though? What does it mean to be popular?"
"You know, mom...she's popular. It means there are always people crowding around her and trying to talk to her."
I start to worry about this new-to-her concept that only ever leads to exclusion, wondering what happened to my baby, but I stop. I step back and watch Mia's scene unfold. She's not talking about the popularity of a girl at school or an actress on tv. She's holding a doll with shiny black hair and unbending limbs. She's dressed her in a denim skirt and button-up blouse, and is settling her into the world of her imagination. The doll is ready for lunch. Mia breaks off three pieces of bread and places them in front of the doll before lifting a crumb to the painted-on lips. She whispers something to the doll without looking up at me again. The doll giggles in Mia's voice, and the two of them are lost in play.
It's okay, I breathe.
She is still seven years old.