We’re ready for school:
1. Daughter’s mini REI backpack.
2. Son’s checkered backpack.
3. Lunch box.
4. Brown BPA-free water bottle.
5. Violet BPA-free water bottle.
6. Swim trunks for after-school swim lesson.
7. Flowered two-piece for daughter.
8. Hello Kitty towel.
9. Striped towel. The red stripes not the blue stripes.
10. Red goggles.
11. Lavender goggles.
12. Extra clothes for after-swim lesson visit to a dear friend.
13. Bag of hand-me-downs for the dear friend’s dear baby who is four months older than when I initially set the bag in the front closet.
14. Laptop because this morning while the kids are at school is the first time in three years I have time to write a complete sentence in daylight hours.
15. Reading glasses because my eyes have aged in those three years.
16. Cell phone so I can text my best friend from the coffee shop and say “I’m alone!”
It’s 7:55am. I started assembling our stuff last night while the kids were in the tub pouring water on each other’s heads with old Nancy’s yogurt containers. I packed the hand-me-down bag in the trunk. I lined up the backpacks by the door, along with my briefcase, shoulder bag and canvas swim bag. I checked the weather and lined up appropriate footwear and outerwear. I packed my son’s lunch, sliced kiwi, cut baby carrots in quarters, washed and dried snap peas, laid the sandwich container out on the cutting board with a knife for the peanut butter and a spoon for the strawberry jelly–to make in the morning–so his education is not hindered by a soggy sandwich.
I set my alarm for 6:00am and went to bed, safe in the knowledge that we had a running start at making the following morning smooth, in my eternal attempt to create memories of peaceful mornings, of a mother mixing porridge at the hearth with a bluebird on her shoulder. Stopping, from time to time, to dispense wisdom.
It was working. Humble as our bowls of cereal had been, I’d sat down at the table with them. I’d chewed and swallowed. Our table topics included: Autumn, Batman, and things we do in a swimming pool. We’d brushed our teeth. We had talked about teeth. And now, at 7:55am, the kids sat on the foyer step, shoes on, sweatshirts on, backpacks strapped on, my son’s blue glasses, my daughter’s perky hair bow. The sun shone in the living room window, highlighting the gold in their combed hair. We had thirty-five minutes to make a fifteen-minute drive. Their mother was an organized, competent woman who met the demands of the job with patience and grace.
“Where’s the car key?” I said.
I stir the bowl of keys on the table by the door. The bowl where all keys are kept. Always. I search around the bowl. I pick up other things on the table–sunglasses, the kids’ tuition bill, a drawing of a vampire submarine.
“Where is the car key?” my voice creeps higher. I search the table’s lower shelves. I find library books, one overdue, a puzzle of the solar system. No Pluto. No key. The only key we have to our Honda. Anyone could see it’s smart to get a copy made, which is why that task has been on my to-do list for three and a half years.
I move the table away from the wall, scan the living room, the end table, the Persian rug scattered with Legos. It’s 8:03am. Still time to get to school by 8:30. Still time to get there before the teachers open the door.
“We understand things happen,” said the welcome letter from the new teacher, “but please understand it is harder for your child when they arrive late. It can be challenging to enter a busy room after connections have already been made.” We have twenty-five minutes to get there before all the connections have been made. Before all the kids have paired up and my boy is left out.
“Did anyone use the car key for anything?” I try not to sound accusatory while I accuse them. These are, after all, the children who brought us Tillamook cheese under the bed, a measuring tape in the crisper, and a smiling crowd of bristle block guys face up in the toilet. “No,” says my son with a curious, supportive tone that says: this truly is a mystery.
I whip open the front closet. Maybe it’s in my green purse, maybe it’s in the brown purse I never use. Maybe I was thinking about winter and put the key in the pocket of my husband’s woolen pea coat.
“Where is the stupid car key?” Maybe I put it in the refrigerator when I was packing my son’s lunch. Maybe I packed it for his lunch. Maybe I put it in the dishwasher. The blender. The ice cube trays. Maybe if I lie down on the floor and scan my eyeball across the surface of the floor.
I can take the other car. But the car seats are in the locked car. I will bash the window with a pipe wrench and get the car seats out and put them in the Toyota, which I have thirteen billion keys for. I will call a taxi, but we still have no car seats. I will call a locksmith, but I still can’t start the car. I will hot wire it. I will call a criminal. I will call AAA and we will get to school forty-five minutes late and my son will today make no connections but he can still sit with his class on the blue rug and enjoy his carefully packed snack of snow peas.
It’s 8:12am. We need to leave in one minute. Where is the stupid, stupid, stupid car key?
“I think you’re saying a word we’re not supposed to say in our house.” says my son. Yes. The S-word. They don’t even know the real S-word. Or a bunch of other words that would help right about now. The kids are still sitting, picture perfect, on the step by the door, waiting for their mother, the only mother they have, to figure it out. The sun shines in the living room window. It makes me squint. I hate you sun.
My husband answers on the first ring. “Sweetie?” the question mark, as if he already knows I’m hanging in the balance. Like with one word he’s trying to pull me back to the light. To the Sweetie side.
But the S-word side is winning. I take the phone in the office and close the door. “I cannot find the stupid fucking car key. I cannot fucking do this any more. I am losing my fucking mind.”
“You had it last night,” he says, calm as oak. Yes. “You went to work out.” Yes. “You took a shower.”
AH! I race down to the basement, to the mountain of dank laundry, dig to the bottom, hear a jingle, dig hand into a sweatshirt pocket, there it is. “It’s here,” I say. “Found it?” he says. I’m happy and relieved, but I don’t know what to do with the leftover tension. The tension of trying every day to get it right. For my children? Or is it for me?
I’m kneeling in laundry, on damp towels and questionable underwear. I hold my face in my hands and I just start to cry. I just cry and cry. I can’t talk, I can’t catch a breath. The stress and the worry and the frustration. What kind of mother am I? What am I doing with my life racing around like a crazy woman? What happened to all the things I wanted to do with my life that did not involve racing around like a crazy woman?
We have thirteen minutes to make a fifteen-minute drive. So all I say is thank you, dear husband. Thank you thank you thank you. Gotta go. It’s 8:17am.
The kids are still waiting. They look at me. I find my Snow White. Staple a bluebird to my shoulder so it can’t get away. “We found the key. Daddy helped me remember, that was so nice of him.” Chirp chirp chirp.
“Now we can go to school!” my son chirps too.
Backing out of the driveway, bluebirds keep holding me up by the shoulders of my black, consignment-shop T-shirt, “So I learned something,” I say. “Each night when I’m getting us ready for the next morning, I will check for the car key and make sure it’s ready to go.”
My son makes an affirmative humming sound. And I pray to the God I have to believe in, please let my son find a partner better than the one my husband has. One who doesn’t shout fuckety fuckety fuck fuck to you on the phone at eight in the morning. And daughter. Oh daughter. This is not how it’s done.
My daughter has moved on. We stop at the stop sign, waiting to turn left. “I choose the Hello Song, please” she calls out. “Louder, please,” she calls out. The key thing is over, let’s go. Let’s sing “Hello, everybody” at the top of our lungs, as we drive east into the squinty September sun, ready to learn.