Fear, Guilt, Love

They leave at 11:05 this morning. I know it’s 11:05 because I look at the mantel clock to see how many years, months, weeks and hours since the last time I was in my house overnight alone. It’s a quick tally as I realize: never.

Sure there was Girls’ Weekend in Vegas in 2008 when I fell apart crying as my best friend backed us out of my driveway, my son in the window. There was a solo trip to Arizona, I cannot remember what town, in 2010, booked on Expedia ten days after my daughter weaned herself. I lay by the pool reading Eat, Pray, Love–perhaps the only circumstance under which I could have focused on a book with no pictures.

But these 28 hours alone in my house, in my own habitat. This is new. And brought to me by my dear husband who sensed that I needed some time to myself agreed that my staying home this weekend was cheaper than another trip to the American Southwest.

“Good-bye, good-bye, I love you,” I call as they back down the driveway. As much as I’ve looked forward to this, as they enter our street I think, “What have I done?” My whole life is in that car, and they’re about to hurtle down the interstate. Watching their little arms wave, I pray once again to the God I have to believe in, one that can keep rain from making the road wet, that can make drunk drivers stop in their tracks and say, wait a minute, this is dangerous. Standing in my slippers in the driveway, it’s all I have: bring them home safe bring them home safe bring them home safe.




Now, how can I have these two feelings at the same time? The ache to hold my babies and the giddiness that they’re not here?

Giddy starts to gain ground. I step back inside, take off my slippers. Inside is quiet, like church on a Monday. I can’t believe I’m alone. I shake my head and chuckle like I just opened a letter with good news, like I forgot an old bank account with four thousand dollars, like there was a typo on my birth certificate and I’m actually six years younger.

I feel like I don’t want them to come home. How could a mother think that? What kind of self-centered degenerate am I? I just want to be, to breathe, to read a poem, think a thought. I want to say, “Hello, self,” and see if anyone answers, if anyone else is still there, under all this momness.

And I want to get a ton done! I have great plans for these 28 hours alone:

Clean out the front closet
Organize the closet in the office (all those yearbooks) (and a bag of yarn)
Vacuum the upstairs especially under the beds
Take all the stuff to Goodwill, after recording it for tax purposes
Clean out the refrigerator (how long does tofu keep?)
Bleach the shower curtain liner
Read a book
Finish my screenplay
After I finish the screenplay, take a bath
Scrub the bathtub marker off the bath (this should come before that last one)
Work out
Remember my locker combination (this should also come before that last one)
Return four emails
Write thank you notes from my birthday
Watch a romantic comedy my husband would willingly sit through but it’s not the same when the other person isn’t moved by Hugh Grant.
Pack away the train set, Erector Set, race track, Legos, the other Legos, train station, barn animals, tow truck, fire truck, doll house, doll bed, doll stroller, doll wagon, doll clothes, tea set, easel, scissors, magnets, crayons and markers, three sizes of drawing pad, wooden blocks, bristle blocks, ABC blocks, trampoline and Sit and Spin and see if the kids notice.

By lunch time my throat is dry. I haven’t spoken a word. Not a “Whaaa-aaat?” or a “Just a seccccc-ond” or “I’m commmmmm-ing.” (We do a lot of shouting between rooms.) I’ve texted and emailed two people, I’ve crawled in bed to read two chapters in If Walls Could Talk and taken a twelve minute nap. (No reflection on the book which is quite interesting if you like historical stuff.) I heat up a bowl of soup and say, out loud, “I’m so happy” because I am. I don’t want them to come back.

I’m so relieved to be alone that I wash the lunch dishes smiling. I laugh, at nothing. I twirl from one end of the kitchen to the other, arms out wide. I march like a mouse in the Nutcracker. I’ve found my self and she is apparently in kindergarten. I don’t want them to come back. I want to carry a basket of clean laundry from the basement to the upstairs without being flagged down to make waffles, read Maisy, or find Edward’s tender. Without someone shouting “Wait!” and wanting to come upstairs with me so I stand halfway on the stairs holding the laundry basket and then they don’t want to come upstairs anymore but every time I take one more step upstairs they shout “Wait!” again but they won’t move. I want to go up my stairs. I don’t want them to come back.

I want to open a drawer and put away the T-shirts and then close the drawer and open another one and put away the pants. I find it incredible that putting away one load of laundry can take me hours. I don’t like being a person who takes hours to put away one load of laundry. I used to be quite fast at it actually. I don’t want them to come back.

I talk to the kids on FaceTime, my husband holds up the phone to show me them dancing around their bedroom at Grandma’s. One in navy thermals, the other in green. Their freshly scrubbed faces are the faces of heaven. It hurts that I can’t touch them. They dance and shout and squeal. Are they always that loud? I know that they are. Happy kids. Happy, loud kids. Miracles. Happy, loud miracles.

I stay up late that night. I write with the door closed. It usually causes a disturbance when Mom closes a door, it shakes people up. They wonder why Mom would need to be alone and immediately knock on the door to see if she needs help finding something to do. I go to bed at 11 and read until almost 12. It is so quiet. I love reading in bed. I want to lie in bed and read and be quiet and not talk and not listen to anyone. I want it to stay like this. I miss this. I don’t want them to come back.

In the first episode of Downton Abbey, there is a sharp rap on housemaid Anna’s door, waking her to the dawn and the day’s work. She wakes wearily from sleep and says, “Just once I’d like to wake up natural.” I’ve been curious what time I would wake up naturally, would it still be 5:50am without the sound of a three year old singing out that she needs to go poop. The answer turns out to be ten minutes after nine. It’s light. I look at the clock and smile, stretch. This is like one long extended orgasm. This feels amazing. This is so, so good.

I don’t want them to come back. I assume and expect that this feeling will change, but I start to worry that it won’t. I get nervous. My husband calls again and we do FaceTime again. The kids have a show they want mommy to see: my son is sort of running in place with his arms pumping over his head. My daughter is circling an exercise ball while trying to bounce it. They each sing a song of their own invention. They have not worked out the melodies together.

“Honey?” I say, curious.

“Yeah?” He puts the phone to his ear.

Something has occurred to me and I just need a quick confirmation. “They’re always like this, aren’t they?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

I love them intensely. I don’t want them to come back. It’s almost noon on the second day. I’m really starting to worry. I am going to miss them at some point, right?

I take a shower and use up all the hot water because there’s no one to save it for. I give myself a facial. I read–I can’t believe it–the newspaper. This is my third cup of coffee drunk while still warm. I keep thinking of more things that are hard to do when the kids are here, like listening to Keb Mo instead of “Listen to Your Body When You Need to Go Potty.” (This sounds ungrateful, this has been a really helpful song.)

About two o’clock, the sun comes out. Light hits the leaves. Lipstick reds and fiery plums. I put on boots, coat, and head outside. It’s that simple. It takes thirty seconds between when I decide to go for a walk and when I am on the walk. I forget how simple things are.

I stop at nothing. I don’t look at ants on the sidewalk, I don’t jump in puddles. I don’t complain about the breeze on Claiborne and want to turn around. I don’t ask how manhole covers come off. I stop at stop signs. No one takes my hand. I don’t wonder anything, and I don’t forget anything.

Baltimore, Washington, New York. I remember other cities I have walked through. On Sunday fall afternoons like this one, alone, a family of one. I would walk and walk, for miles. I don’t know why exactly. I was younger and I think I thought I was absorbing life by walking through it, soaking up the collective urban experience. That I would learn the rhythms, take on the beats as my own. Or maybe that I would finally turn a corner and find my street, a strange place I would recognize instantly, and with a wave of relief I would finally, somewhere in this world, feel at home.

I want them to come back. I turn left and left again, along the park and then north toward my house. I know it’s going to be empty when I get there but I still want to get there. I know there will be only more hour on the couch by the fireplace, one more chapter of a book, one more cup of coffee. I’m tired of coffee. One more hour until they pull safely into the driveway. My son will enter first, asking if I’ve found his night vision goggles. My daughter will want me to jump with her “higher higher higher”. My husband will mention that the kids haven’t eaten. Within minutes there will be shrieks and whining and arguments about stuffed animals. Duffel bags sprouting dirty clothes.

I won’t love it. Say what you will. I still won’t love it. But I want them back. In an hour.

In a minute.

Watch the clock.


Anatomy of a Playdate

What day is a good day? What time is a good time? Is this the right child for my child to spend extra time with? Will they have fun? Do they play together at school as much as I think they do or will they not have anything to say to each other like a bad first date? Am I supposed to suggest a beginning time and an ending time? I had that happen once and was a little surprised, like they wanted to make sure we would be gone by a certain time? Were they slotting us in between two better playdates?

My son is five. Am I still supposed to invite the parent or am I way behind the times? If I say they can drop off the child, does that seem reckless? Or were they planning to go up to Starbucks for a couple hours and read Harper’s and now they’re disappointed? Wouldn’t a parent want to accompany their child to our house for the first time in case we were nice, safe, nonsmoking people who, it turns out, also run an illegal prostitution ring? Have wet Andrew Jacksons hanging from a clothesline in the basement? What if we have a pit bull?

Can I work out details with the other parent in the morning at drop-off time? But I also don’t want to talk about the playdate in front of other parents. It seems to detract from the communal feel. Plus what if a parent who had previously suggested getting together for a playdate hears and knows I followed up on another playdate before theirs? Or do people talk in generalities about playdates but don’t really intend for them to happen the way my husband and I say during a rainstorm that we should get a condo in Arizona sometime.

What if there’s a child who never gets asked for playdates and hearing about this playdate makes the mom feel bad? What if I think my child has lots of playdates and it turns out he has one-tenth the playdates other kids have? What if other kids are getting together all the time– they’re at playparks, science museums, building snowmen at Mt. Hood then going in the lodge to drink hot chocolate and we don’t even know about it. Maybe they’re making oblique comments “Think we’ll have snow this year?” and it’s a secret code for all the snowmen-making friends, which is everybody, except us.

Once the playdate is scheduled it’s time to start hating my house. The house that on any other day, I love like a favorite sweater. Seeing it through someone else’s fresh eyes, my house and its decor meet only with disappointment. I’ve never liked that chandelier. The couch cushions sag. That picture is sooooooo depressing. I see the giant rusty-taupe wall with one, count it, one thing hanging on it, like a tiny bullseye.

Then there are the toys. There is a permanent garage sale going on in my living room. Toys suffocate our old life like ivy sucking the life out of a tree. We still have the sofa table but it’s now heaped with library books. We still have the heirloom dining table, but now it’s covered with wipeable oil cloth. The Persian rugs are blitzed with blocks, crayons, squares of petrified toast (she told me she finished it). A pile of paper dolls becomes a flash mob when the heat vent blows. Six inches off the ground, a maze of yarn for trapping robbers stretches from the refrigerator to the piano. My daughter’s twenty-nine favorite cds are dealt across the dining room like a bad poker hand.

The kitchen, the heart of the home. The place where every visitor loves to gather, drawn to the hearth. I wonder if I can keep everyone out. “I’ll get the coffee. No, no, you sit. Sit!” Is this kitchen hideous and I never realized it? Have my relatives been thinking that for years? There is no break for the eye in a red and yellow kitchen. I was a passionate young woman when I chose the scheme. Now I find it overstimulating, like a Craftsman McDonald’s.

An hour before the playdate and we don’t have enough for snack. I mean, we did until I dismissed the apples and crackers as too pedestrian. Where’s the fresh mango? Where’s the quince jam on rosemary scones? We have apples from Costco and a box of crackers. I might as well put up a sign that says “We are mildly interested that you are here with us today.” I should have made the blueberry muffins like my son suggested. The recipe was from their class, it would have been too perfect. Their classroom, their recipe. And you know no parent makes the recipes they send home. It would have been a coup.

“When are they coming?” my son asks. “Any time now,” I say, looking at the clock. Five minutes till. I glance around at the house one last time. It’ll do. Then it’s time. Then it’s five minutes past. I go play with my son so when they come it will seem like all I do in the afternoon is sit calmly and drink up my son’s thoughts and ideas. Ten minutes past. They forgot. When someone is five minutes late, even someone who is say, driving across the country during a blizzard, I generally think that they’ve forgotten our plans. I know in that part of your brain that is sensible that this is not true and I know in that part of your brain that stops you from teaching your neuroses to the next generation that everything’s fine, yet after five minutes of waiting, I prepare myself for the possibility that his friend is not coming and now I will have to break the news and watch sadness well in his perfect, innocent eyes.

Except they’re here, of course they are, pulling into the driveway. And we’re glad to see them and the kids run off to play and the mom and I chat in the kitchen while I pour coffee. When she asks if she can help I ask if she could grab the half and half out of the fridge and I don’t even worry about the leftover pizza in plain sight revealing I at least occasionally serve my family cardboard food. The mom and I have plenty to talk about and the kids enjoy two hours of creative interactive play. I have not specified an ending time to the playdate and this does not prove necessary as activity winds down to a natural end. A good time had by all. And I wonder why I worry so much. “If you could let go a little,” my husband says, “you might have more fun.”

And I truly consider it. But in the end, I know what happens when you let go. Something creeps up and smacks you from behind. Something comes shooting out of nowhere and knocks you on your bum. Something my husband and people like him–people who have faith in life–don’t realize is that worrying is a lifelong commitment. You can’t just dip your toe in the water one day and think you’re going to swim the English Channel the next. Worrying is a calling. It requires all of you. Practice, practice. Wax on, wax off.

Our friends have gone and within minutes I am thinking about what could have been better, things I had forgotten to worry about while we stood on the porch with my son calling “Good-bye, see you at school!” and the friend calling  “Good bye, see you at school too!”

Within minutes I see that our welcome mat, far from cozy and inviting, is scroungy. You can’t even see the design on it anymore. And this we offered friends as a place to wipe their feet. The petunias in the planter, scraggly. Why did I not pluck them out? Hello, compost bin? Clearly they gave the impression that this is not a healthy, robust household.

I step back inside the house? Did our house always smell like this? Is it from the compost? Something growing in the front closet, moldy shoes? I never liked this closet. It has a poor design and an overabundance of unusable square footage. It looks like we don’t have a grip on our architecture. And I wince, remembering that our friends got out their own coats, and she’s taller than I am, which means she saw the mass of scarves, mittens, costume accessories, the recyclable shopping bag hall of fame–all entangled on the shelf, like that garbage island the size of Texas that’s supposed to be floating in the Pacific.

Stepping past the closet I grimace as I see the box of crackers on the dining table and realize that I served the crackers out of the box and not in serving bowls with cute, kid-sized tongs. It would be so neat if I owned cute, kid-sized tongs. My mother makes hamburgers and serves the mayonnaise in a bowl, the mustard in a bowl, the other mustard nobody likes in a bowl. She serves other bowls in a bowl.

And I think of how many crackers my child ate compared to his friend which makes him look like he can’t control his snacking, a sign of weak character. The other child ate more of the vegetables, which is something my children usually like to eat, and which usually gives us an edge in playdates. Not to mention that these were bunny crackers. What was I thinking. They want bad guy crackers. Darth Vader crackers. My son liked bunny crackers when he was three. I am not allowing him to grow up, which must have been apparent.

And finally, I go in to use the bathroom and see that the window is wide open, the window I opened ten minutes before they came to give a burst of fresh air. And which I forgot to go back and close. Which means when the mom asked to use our restroom she saw the open window, which makes one think we were trying to get rid of a bad smell, which makes one think of things in the bathroom that cause bad smells, which means that this new family we were making friends with is now going to know that our family poops. This is mortifying. I’m ready to crawl under a rug.

The longer I think, the more I could come up with. For example, I had provided no craft projects, no making Thanksgiving decorations out of two Q-tips and a bay leaf. My children had displayed no knowledge of a foreign language. And I had not managed before the playdate to become a dedicated runner or violinist, something I could have worked into the conversation at least twice. All of these things could have shown that we were the cultured family, the healthy family, the enriched and enriching family. So enriching that it oozed off of us, landing on any other family lucky, so lucky, enough to spend time with us.

“Did you have fun at the playdate?” I ask my son.

“Yeah,” he says. “It was fun.”

At the end of the day, my husband asks about the weather. He asks about our daughter’s nap. His third question is about how the playdate went.

“Great,” I say. “It was really fun.”

Why, when I am also thinking all these other things, do I leave all those things out? Why, an hour later, son happy, content and fulfilled. House clean, warm, safe, and dry. Why is my only response to smile and say that everything was fine? And to say it like I mean it.

Pass the bunnies.