This is a problem I’ve never really had.
Yesterday I went on a school field trip with my oldest son, and the ride home took two hours longer than usual for a total of four hours on a shrill, cramped, steamy school bus.
(Oh, how I appreciate my own particular kids after spending the day and much of the evening with the offspring of others. Is it me? Is it them? Do my children spring horns when they’re out of my range? I don’t suspect it, but if so, let me know. While T and I drew our own version of Calvin and Hobbes comic strips on the translucent windows, children around us fought and mouthed off and tossed trash hither thither. I was proud of my quiet, respectful kid.)
Around the three hour mark I finished my book and T dozed off against my shoulder. The woman on my other side offered me a can of espresso, for which I wanted to kiss her. We talked. We talked about how convinced we were that we were crap at our jobs, how difficult it is to stay married while renovating your house, how setting fire to your yard isn’t the best way to clear the land for a vegetable garden. Then she told me she’d recently gotten a promotion and to celebrate, she’d bought her husband a mustang.
I thought, but did not say: “When my husband got a raise we each bought new pants at J.C. Penny.”‘
I liked her a lot, and that can be unusual for me – I’m reserved and shy and a tiny bit suspicious about new people, so when I find someone I can connect with fairly easily I’m thrilled. But – a mustang? “Mustangs are so expensive!” she moaned to me. “Of course it costs way more than my raise!”
I’ve heard about this trend on the news. The consuming trend. But she was so coherent of it. She knew buying the mustang was a bad idea, and she did it anyway. She didn’t mention plans to sell it, but maybe that’s just not part of the story she told me. I hope they sell it. Sell it and put the money in the bank. Or invest the money in their house, because it sounds like they are barely able to survive their oddly modeled bedrooms and the weirdly situated kitchen and the flooded basement.
I only just met her, but I’m worried about her.
But, what’s that thing about that which we despise in another person is that which we see in ourselves, something something? While no mustang will ever appear in our driveway we do splurge perhaps too often on takeout Chinese food. And M bought an afghan he didn’t need today. And I do find it easy to click PURCHASE when I mean to click READ FREE SAMPLE. I am far from innocent. I completely understand what my new friend was reaching for when she bought that car. For just a moment to feel successful, accomplished, worthy of the admiration of her family and friends. Of course it only lasts a day or two, until the payment comes due and once again you are a woman approaching forty who has never, ever earned more than $22,000 a year.
Dear woman on the crowded school bus: let’s make a pact and avoid the shops for a while.
And thank you, again, for the espresso. It made all the difference.
Here’s a short story I wrote. Actually it’s the first chapter of a novel I’ve given up on. It was previously published on an online literary site I should’ve researched more thoroughly before submitting to.
Twenty years later, Samantha wouldn’t remember his face.
She wouldn’t remember the slight cleft in his upper lip, or the v-shaped image of concentration on the bridge between his eyes.
She wouldn’t quite remember his name: Kurt? Bart? Something mono-syllabic, short. Once sweet, then a curse.
Twenty years later Samantha would try and fail to recall his clothing – jeans, white T-shirt, black flannel jacket – and even his smell wouldn’t quite come to mind, though at the time, lying under him on the damp grass, it was an overpowering and effective scent. And when she smelled it two days later at school she had to fight not to vomit right there in the hallway with a hundred other kids milling around as if it were just another gray, awful Monday.
She wouldn’t remember his hair. His hair was blond and wavy, slightly too long for his thin face, but he had a habit of tossing it out of his eyes that had been the first thing to catch her attention. He sat in front of her in history class at Belchertown High School. Whenever he looked up after reading or writing on his desk he had to do that, flip his bangs out of his way, and every time the motion pinched Samantha hard and a slight gust of breath escaped her chest.
His hands: rough, chapped, lacking grace. Twenty years later Samantha wouldn’t remember how sharp they felt when they shoved up inside her, further up than her own fingers had ever explored in the safe darkness of her bedroom, under a protective layer of blanket and sheet. And now this, in the open dark of her own backyard, a boy’s fingers, uninvited, intent on their own needs. Those fingers were the first sign that time had split into a Before and an After.
She wouldn’t remember his mouth. She wouldn’t remember that Before she had thought his mouth sensuous and kind, the kind of mouth that would always listen before uttering anything unforgiving. And that After, after their first date, after a sweet walk along her own street where safety had always been a suffocating given, that his mouth would change into a sneer that didn’t know anything about kindness. His mouth had turned into an extension of his terrible fingers but she wouldn’t remember that twenty years later.
A mist had started down. Already parts of her were wet: her hair, her calves, her feet. Her feet were bare; one sandal was hooked around her ankle and the other was gone, somewhere between the gate to the street and here, this spot on the grass where one summer she had set up a wading pool that had killed dead the grass underneath. Her mother had been mad.
Now she felt him grasp her breast. She had an inkling that she could rise and walk away if only she could move her limbs – but his weight. His weight had her pinned against the scrawny grass that every spring her mother nagged her father about aerating and replanting and fertilizing, the grass Samantha had killed one summer with a kid’s wading pool. The pool had been blue and made the water inside blue like the ocean even though it was only a scant foot deep.
One hand squeezed her breast and the other shoved and shoved and shoved and pinched.
Now his hand moved to the other breast. Like he’d find something different.
Twenty years later she wouldn’t remember his breath, the way it caught and held and exhaled into her face, how he smelled like the greasy french fries they’d shared at the mall.
Her parents – if she could scream, she could wake them up. They were in the house over there, her house, the house dark but for the pale pink glow that marked the upstairs bathroom, a night light that had burned every night Samantha could remember. Could she scream? Her mouth was open but felt filled with a plug of tamped air, an invisible gag. She hadn’t know this part of nightmares was true, this muteness.
Her hands – violent, grasping, poor desperate hands – reached his face and started to scratch whatever she could feel. She wanted to feel the squish of popped-out eyes but now she was distracted by a low, muffled growling. The growling was her. Finally, some noise, but not loud enough to attract any help and Hart reacted, dragged the blousy tie-died scarf from her neck – the scarf was the only article of clothing she ever borrowed from her mother – and stuffed it into her mouth and grabbed her hands and stretched them way over her head which almost hurt more than his fingers had in her crotch and now she was more afraid.
Hart held a finger to her stuffed mouth and whispered “Shhh.” She could smell herself on his finger – a seaweed smell; it took effort not to gag around the scarf. Her gorgeous, powerful scream that would have raised armies of dead to come save her transformed into a snort that burned her nose.
They had had a good time. Three hours ago Hart had arrived on time at the end of her driveway to take her to the mall. They had wandered, found friends, recognized much of the crowd, speculated about strangers. They discovered they both liked horror movies and could quote a few classics at length: “They’re dead, they’re all messed up.” They’d driven home with salsa music loud on the radio, dancing in their seats like they actually liked it. When they’d arrived back in front of her house she’d wondered if he’d simply let her out and drive away and she thought that would be okay; she liked him, but something in his face made her unsure if he liked her back. He was polite, he was kind, but a few times he seemed to be listening to a sound that wasn’t her, that she couldn’t hear.
Twenty years later she would forget most of the events that transpired there in her backyard, beyond her ability to stop them. She would remember the barking dog a few houses away. The dog’s name was Charlie and two summers ago she’d walked and fed the thing while its family vacationed in Florida. The dog had peed on the living room rug and the family blamed Samantha and never paid her as much as they’d agreed to. That Halloween Samantha left rotten eggs in the mailbox. Now the dog wouldn’t shut up. Samantha wondered if he was trying to save her, protect her.
Quiet above her. Samantha opened her eyes. She realize she’d closed them. Hart wasn’t looking at her. The hand not busy holding her arms above her was jerking on his belt, unzipping his fly.
Her eyes closed again on their own, as if to save her in some small way.
In her own dark space Samantha felt her tissues split and gaseous bile rose up. He might not let her turn her head to vomit and she’d choke and that would be preferable to this. Now something else was inside her, not fingers, something more blunt, something that burned.
The breathing above her turned rhythmic, short. He seemed to reach a fast edge and whimpered, like he was falling. Then, violently, he tore himself from her and she was left wide open to the now soaking rain.
Eyes still closed, she heard him shuffle his pants up and run away from her, then the gate squeaked over by the house and he was gone.
She waited. The rain – she imagined it washing away his remnants. Hair, skin and sperm running off her body into the ground, soaking into the grass and dirt below, leaving her clean. Her jaw clicked when she dragged the scarf out of her mouth and closed her lips against the rain. No reason now, to scream.
On shaky legs she wobbled to the house, underpants pulled up and skirt pulled down with liquid fingers. A chilled gob ran down her leg. She grasped the top bar of one of the decrepit, second-hand lawn chairs her father was proud to have found. She smoothed her hair. At the kitchen sink the running water felt like a flood against her hands, a safe flood, and she lifted fistfuls to her face again and again and felt parts of her returning, parts that had escaped when Hart first hooked her ankles with his and caught her as she landed on the grass. At first she wondered if this move was a less graceful chapter in their story, precluded by the one tender kiss they’d shared at the gate to her yard, a kiss that made, she’d thought, a kind of promise of mutual patience and slow swimming toward an easy goodnight. But then Hart changed. Like an asymmetrical face that suddenly turned its ugly side to her. He’d tripped her.
She wanted to shower and then she wanted to sleep. And then she wanted to wake up and have no memories.
Samantha’s mother waited in the dark living room and spoke when Samantha went through to the stairs. “Well, hi,” Evelyn said in a low voice.
“Jeez, Mom, you scared me,” Samantha said, her body tensed and electric. I cannot take one more shock, she thought.
“So, have a good date?”
“Fine. Waiting up for me?”
“Well, yes. I am the parent.”
“You don’t have to wait up for me.”
Strange, Samantha thought, how we fall right into this conversation, the same one we’ve had so many times before. As if everything was exactly the same as it had been earlier this evening when Evelyn raised her eyebrows at Samantha’s short skirt, sparking a rally of comments and defensive comebacks until Samantha stormed out to meet Hart at the curb, his car humming benignly in patient wait.
“Obviously, I do.” Evelyn pointedly scanned Samantha’s body with her eyes. Samantha did not have to glance down to know that her clothes were skewed, her legs were smudged with mud, her mouth was red and raw. She looked, she knew, like she’d had sex in the backyard. And she had, but not the kind her mother thought.
“You don’t know anything,” Samantha said, hating the shake in her voice. She should just tell her mother the truth, that would shock that superior look off her face. But the truth, somehow, would not come to the surface.
“I know enough,” Evelyn answered, rising from the chair. “I’m going to bed. I suggest you do the same, missy.”
Samantha was left alone in the dim light of the living room. That feeling of aloneness would last and she’d remember it twenty years later and debate about forgiving her mother, forgiving herself. The boy would fade, as tragedies do, but the harsh taste of her mother would last a long, long time.
I keep wandering into the kitchen and trying to fill my food craving. After eating a short bread cookie and a handful of salt and vinegar chips I realize – I’m just very tired. It’s not a food craving, it’s a sleep craving. I didn’t get much last night. My nose is stuffed up so whenever I lie down I can’t breathe. And a medium-sized boy joined our bed early last night. When the small-sized boy woke up and tried to squeeze in, he and I switched to the medium-sized boy’s bed (empty) where I got a couple hours, but then there was the not breathing and on top of everything just a sense of doom, pending failure, low-grade anxiety about everything I have not managed to accomplish.
So. I’m tired. Driving to West Leb to get a birthday present may not have been the smartest choice. But the alternative was to drop the largest boy at his Boy Scout overnight camp. I hate the Boy Scouts. They discriminate against gay people and they take my sons away from me for overnights. In the freezing cold! Damn them. I was afraid I’d get teary, and that would make T teary, and then those damn Boy Scouts might sense weakness. So I made his dad take him. Turns out, he still got teary. But at least he didn’t have his nearly unconscious mother sniveling into his hair.
I’m supposed to be working right now. I missed two deadlines last week. Projects are piling up at the office. No wonder anxiety has come to visit, right?
Two injured chickens have been using our mud room as a rehab center. Today M put them out in the sun. They look like two old women sitting on their metal porch chairs, house slippers at the end of their nearly-useless mottled legs, smoking cigarettes and gossiping about whomever walks by.
Maybe some leftover spaghetti will do the trick.
Play well, dears.
I know I’m ready for spring when I strip our bed of its flannel sheets. Not just to wash and replace, but to tuck away in the dark recesses of the linen/BB gun closet until the temperature drops next fall. I’ve been waking up in the tiny hours with a sharp craving for smooth, cool sleeping surfaces. And fresh mozzarella cheese. Either it’s time for spring to arrive or I’ve got pneumonia. That happened once. I thought I was just hot all the time because it was April and our bed was still in winter mode, but it turned out I had a fever. For three weeks. I’m pretty sure, though, that this year it’s a seasonal thing.
What I love about spring:
the diminished wardrobe
deer prints in the mud
the once again acceptable taste of white wine and gin. Not together.
We’re not quite there, yet, despite the cotton sheets rumpled under me right now. It’s still red I reach for in the evening. Snow pants still clog the living room floor around the heater vent. If I look hard I can spot a snowflake or two weaving its way down from the skies. But it’s coming. Soon.
Play well together in the mud and wind.
Way back in my time, you’d listen to the radio. Your mom would wake you up with a whisper – “Snow!” – and you’d bounce to the living room radio and do your best to find a station that was announcing school closing, holding your breath and standing very still on just your right foot. There was no spoon-under-the-pillow, no backwards-pajamas, no ice-cube-down-the-toilet nonsense; we knew, back then, that the only way to effect School Closing Magic was to stand on your foot while you listened for the list.
Now we get an automated phone call, and an email, and the news is posted on the school’s website. The feeling, though, is the same. That surge of potential injected into a day you were expecting to be sameasusual. Suddenly, there is space, room, temporal stretchiness. Usually we make pancakes to celebrate.
Now, though, there’s also a sinking feeling paired with the joy. Snow days mean arrangements. Snow days mean projects pushed back, scrambled phone calls, desperate email pleas, that sinking feeling of resignation that the work you want to do is not going to get done, not today.
But, mostly, there are pancakes and happy boys. Play well, dears.
We make the hike up the mountain to find the Fort. Walls built from sticks and string, a fire pit alive with someone else’s fire. We marvel. The boys succumb to ancient rhythms of stick swinging and destruction. We warn them: someone else built this place. It is not ours to destroy even just a little. They listen with awed eyes. They get it. They fall into the underbrush to satisfy their need to pummel.
We are about to leave. We call through the woods for the boys to come back. One of them, my middle boy , is still swinging his stick when he enters the clearing. A bottle of Heineken is ripe for bursting there on the ground, half hidden by a tree root, and my boy’s stick barely breathes in that direction to result in a POP and shattered glass. He looks up with wide and pained eyes and says, “Oh, sorry,” his apology half a question. He’s shocked at his own power and worried at the level of punishment he faces.
“No, honey. It’s okay,” I tell him. I kneel and pick up every piece of glass and wrap the collection in a red checkered handkerchief and store it in my camera bag. “It wasn’t your fault. That beer bottle wanted to burst.” There are times for admonishment and there are times for immediate reassurance.
We start back down the mountain. We’re all tired, and one of us smells like beer.
Things I should be doing instead of this:
Folding clean towels.
Packing for tomorrow. We’re not going anywhere but the soccer field and a birthday party and to the store to buy a bra, but yes, these trips require packing.
But I’m doing none of those things. I’m updating a blog nobody reads. A blog I’m reluctant to publicize. A space I’m weirdly considering my own. The internet, I know, belongs to everyone and no one, and should never, ever be considered private. I hesitated, just then, before writing the word “bra.” Too personal. But then I felt a bit rebellious. That’s my name up there. This is my second of data. I can write whatever word I want.
I’m writing a novel. I’m writing my third novel. You have no idea, or maybe you do, how depressing this is. I love the writing part, but the realizing part, I hate. The realizing that my two previous novels are never going to be published, not because the industry is in a slump but because they are not good enough. I’m not good enough. Maybe this next one will be good enough, but that’s not likely, and what will I do after that? Write another not-good-enough novel, I suppose. But it’s tiring.
Let’s talk about cupcakes for a minute to get our minds off depressing things like unpublished novels. Cupcakes are marvelous. I could eat them night or day. I eat the bottom part first, the boring part, so the rest of the bites are mostly frosting. I am a save-the-best-for-last kind of person, not an eat-dessert-first kind of person.
Goodnight, lovely nobodies. Play well.