By Jennifer Mattern
Decide that you have ruined her. Hold yourself fully accountable. Assume all blame. Then call your mother and ask if she’ll take her off your hands.
Say, “With the right outfit, she’d make a great garden gnome.” Wait for a response. None will come. Describe the pointy knit cap you saw at T.J. Maxx, the one that would work perfectly. Sell the package, really sell it: “I could have her knee-deep in your petunias in five and a half hours, just say the word.” Strain to hear what your mother is muttering under her breath. It sounds like, “They call it an inner monologue for a reason,” but you can’t be sure. When your mother hangs up, put down the phone and stare down at the sullen face of your three-year-old daughter.
She stares back accusingly. Don’t bother drying out your eyeballs this time. Blink and get it over with. You always lose anyway.
You are not happy today, and neither is she. “I need to play with someone or I will die,” she intones.
“That’s what imaginary friends are for,” you say. “Go make some.”
“You have to play with me or I will die,” she threatens. Tell her to wait, for the ninth time this morning.
The clock chuckles. It is 11:34.
Realize you have forgotten to medicate the dog. Fish one and a half tablets of phenobarbital from a small vial. The dog is not happy, either. But he gets phenobarbital to take the edge off. Resent him as you fold the white tablets into cream cheese and cram them down his throat. Lucky damn dog.
From the living room, the sound of grunting. Think fast. Tell your daughter you will tell her a Jig-the-Pig-and-Pam-the-Lamb story if she will just poop in the toilet, just this once. “Don’t think about my poopy,” she commands. Ask her to repeat herself. “Just don’t think about it or I will die,” she says, before grunting again and digging her fingers into the ottoman. The ottoman yelps. Notice the claw marks she is leaving in its chenille upholstery.
Hear yourself saying, “If you poop in your new Dora the Explorer underpants, I will die.” Watch her consider this. Rub your temples as she walks away from you and climbs the stairs to her room. Stand at the base of the stairs. The sound of crackling plastic. She is changing out of her Dora the Explorer underpants, into a pair of disposable Pull-Ups. More grunting. Then, silence. You are defeated. You are always defeated, in the end.
Gurgling from the kitchen. You have forgotten about the other one. Go to her. She gurgles again in her ExerSaucer, then coos. She coos, and then she goos. Amuse yourself by thinking that Central Casting has sent her here to play the role of “The Baby.” She laughs, although she does not understand the joke. She laughs all the time. She is happy. She is the only one.
At the back door, a hissing noise. It’s the Future again, exposing himself in your backyard. Third time this week. Leering, he opens his ratty trench coat to reveal your older daughter in her twenties, now an expressionless, bruised-looking Goth, busily carving up her unshaven inner thighs with a razor blade.
Pull back. Get your bearings. Your daughter is in the Jerry Springer Show Green Room, waiting for the aging host to call her onstage, where she will confront her transsexual-lover-housemates about the blood- drinking fiasco that went down the other week. You can’t tear yourself away. Watch the audience nod sympathetically as your daughter blames her self-mutilation and confused sexuality on the inconsistent mothering she received as a child.
That’s your cue.
Shoo the Future away. Tell him next time, you’ll call the cops.
Look at the baby. She bangs a chubby hand on the side of the ExerSaucer, then jams one fat finger into her mouth, smiling widely. She thinks you are the cat’s meow. Take a moment to wonder about the phrase “the cat’s meow.” Then wonder how much drool the baby generates in one twenty-four-hour period. Wonder why children are so moist. Wonder why your eyes are no longer moist.
Phone coughs, then rings. Caller ID. It’s the one who might be your best friend, but neither of you talk like that, so it’s impossible to say. She wants to know if you’re coming over to watch The Bachelor. All of the other mothers are. Say you can’t, not tonight. Tell her that bedtime has become The Exorcist, full of blood-curdling howls and splattering body fluids and spinning heads.
You sense she is biting her tongue. Pry, but pry cheerfully. Be blithe. She is concerned about you, she says. Clear off the kitchen countertop as she begins the intervention. Hear her tell you she thinks you are a woman imprisoned. Smackdown. Allow your jaw to hit the countertop, hard. “What was that?” she asks.
Return jaw to starting position and divulge nothing. Encourage her to finish airing her concerns. She picks up right where she left off. “It’s just that you used to be a lot more social in college,” she explains. “Now you’re always overwhelmed.”
Hang up and call your husband at work. Ask him if you seem overwhelmed. “Of course not,” he responds. “You’re just overwhelmed.”
Try hard not to be a woman imprisoned. Decide that today is the day. You will leave the house. You will take the three-year-old and the baby somewhere. Together. You have seen other mothers accomplish this. There must be somewhere you can go.
Spend the next seventy-three minutes preparing for departure. Four bowel movements, two minor tantrums, and one pile of dog vomit later, you are ready to go. You feel good, capable.
On the dining room floor, strap the baby into her car seat. The sound of tapping on glass. As usual, the Future won’t take a hike. He presses himself lewdly against the low window on the side of the house. Draw the shade quickly.
Ask your three-year-old if she’s ready to go do this thing you’re only doing for her benefit. There will be toys. There will be other children. There may be muffins, but no promises. “I’m working on another poopy,” she says. The baby laughs from her car seat.
Leave the three-year-old alone, bracing herself against oversized furniture and growling like a feral animal. Remove the baby from her car seat. Check your watch: 1:22 p.m.
Chirping sound at the back door. Shift the baby to your hip. Investigate. The Future cartwheels into view in the backyard, narrowly missing a pile of dog crap. He flashes you again. This time, it’s a glimpse of the baby—Ã¼ber-successful and desperately unhappy at age thirty, leafing through a dog-eared copy of My Mother, My Self.
Damn Future. Flip him the bird. Threaten to sic the dog on him. Turn around to look for the dog. Find the dog cowering under the kitchen table.
Check on the three-year-old. “I NEED PRIVATE TIME OR I WILL DIE,” she screams, clenching her tiny buttocks together.
Head to the front porch with the baby. The mailbox nips at your fingers. Smack it hard on the nose and bring in the mail. Wonder why your husband is getting promotional flyers from Phantom Fireworks in Hinsdale, New Hampshire. A box of Pyro Pandemonium costs just $24.99, and you get the second box free. It seems like a good deal, but you’re not sure who to ask.
More grunting. Foul stench in the living room. The three-year-old insists there is more to come. Postpone fresh Pull-Up.
It’s 2:17. Lunch is a lost cause. Naps are a lost cause. Head for the computer. Stretch the baby across your knees. Nurse her while you check your e-mail. Your breasts are ten inches long now, so this is not difficult to do. Sit up as straight as you want.
One new message. It’s from your father, who just read your latest essay, the one nobody likes but you. “Too esoteric. Plus you use the word ‘I’ too many times.”
Spot the Ninja in the corner of your dining room. Signal to him. The Ninja nods and hurls seven Chinese stars into your back. The baby does not notice. She goes on nursing and kneading the flesh of your right breast with her sharp fingernails. Wink at the Ninja. It is impossible not to admire his work. So efficient. He bows and leaves silently through the dining room window, startling the Future, who bolts around to the back of the house again.
The computer clears its throat. New e-mail, from the same friend. The concerned friend. It reads, “What about a three-day, sixty-mile walk into historic Boston, to raise money for breast cancer? Lots of survivors do it. Hard-core walking, lots of fem-bonding, a very inspirational, embrace-life kind of thing.” Stare at the screen for two full minutes. The baby bites your left breast and laughs.
The last time you checked, neither you nor your friend was a breast-cancer survivor. Chew your thumb. Think. Think some more. You don’t know anyone who has breast cancer.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with it,” says Jerry Seinfeld, climbing out from under your desk. He hands you a pink ribbon, then stands up and offers to walk the dog. Tell him maybe next time. He nods. “I’ll be here all week,” he says as he climbs into the coat closet.
“I’m all done my poopy,” calls your three-year-old. “You can change me now.” You do. Poof. You change her into a thriving potted plant, with the help of Fairy Godmother, who has just popped up behind the couch. The kid makes a terrific plant, she really does. Shiny, healthy leaves. No stinking, no whining. Just a little fertilizer in the winter months. Finally, a commitment you can feel good about.
You exchange high-fives with Fairy Godmother, who sneezes at a passing tumbleweed of dog fur. The tumbleweed snarls and attacks Fairy Godmother’s leg. Poof. Your three-year-old is back. She sticks one finger into her Pull-Up and starts to cry. Fairy Godmother titters apologetically. She flings a little complimentary fairy dust on the baby. The baby laughs, then bawls. Both children are bawling.
Fairy Godmother beats a hasty retreat. This time, your three-year-old inserts an entire hand into her Pull- Up. She wails harder. Carry both children up the stairs, under your arms, like architectural blueprints. Try not to smear poop on the baby or the wallpaper. It’s too late for the three-year-old.
Half past three. You and the offspring are ready to rock and roll.
Bundle children into coats and hats. Heave and hoist children onto the front porch. Heave and hoist them down the front steps. Heave and hoist them into the car. Pretend the gas tank is not empty. Drive downtown past the art museum. Heave and hoist children out of the car and into the Toy Library. Greet the other mothers. Watch as your three-year-old ignores the other children. They are all ignoring each other.
One mother asks how you are coping with two kids. Be strong. Resist the urge to tell her that having a second child was a dreadful, mind-blowing error of judgment. Do not yell “MY BAD” at the top of your lungs. Do not whisper, “The authorities should not have let me breed.” Do not tell her about the bumper stickers you like to paste all over your brain: STERILIZATION: NOT JUST FOR BREAKFAST ANYMORE and VASECTOMY: ANOTHER GOOD IDEA COME TOO LATE.
The other mother is still waiting for your reply. Your options are limited. You can smile politely, of course. You can joke about sleep deprivation. You can exclaim, “The things the books don’t tell you!” and open your eyes wide in an attractive sort of way. However you choose to respond, it is important to seem calm, benevolent, and good-humored. Do not seem overwhelmed. The Toy Library is not a place for the overwhelmed. People will talk.
Look at your watch. It is four o’clock, and the Toy Library is closing. You have been there for twelve minutes.
The other mothers and children are heading across the street, to Brewhaha, the local coffee shop. Tempt Fate. Join them. In forty-five minutes, Brewhaha will earn its name, and someday, if anyone asks, you will be able to say that you were there.
* * *
Do not stop to wonder what went wrong. Know that it was not the carob-and-flaxseed muffin too late in the day. Know that it was not the child who nailed your child in the eye with a Cheerio. The fact is, the fault lies with you, and only with you. The kid simply goes mad in your presence. Too much time together, and she begins frothing at the mouth. You make her rabid.
This is how it goes down: First, scald the roof of your mouth with your coffee. Then, listen for the loud slamming of the Brewhaha bathroom door. Slam. Bam. Thank. You. Ma’am. Execute a cursory visual sweep of your immediate area. Realize that the slamming is being done by one of the four arms that have passed through your vagina.
Bolt for the bathroom, overturning your coffee. Your three-year-old will not come out. She cackles maniacally, your spawn, unleashed on the unsuspecting coffee-shop public. Decide that you are getting your tubes tied next week. Any tube they find, you will tell them to tie.
Crouch by the closed bathroom door. Cajole. Wheedle. Do what you must, but get her out of the bathroom. Imagine her licking the base of the toilet bowl. Bang harder on the door. Command. Threaten, if necessary. No luck.
Be creative. Wedge a knee in the bathroom doorframe. Seize the child. Return to the table, where another mother is mopping up a pool of your spilled coffee.
Grab your coats and stuff them under one arm. Yank the three-year-old toward the exit. By all means, yank too hard, but only half as hard as you’d like to yank. Hold on for dear life. This is not easy, as at some point between your table and the door, her skeletal system dissolves. Be furious. Think, Give her an inch, and she turns into an invertebrate. It is impossible to respect her.
She wriggles out of your grip. Catch her. The sensation is familiar. Recall a toy you once had, a water balloon, shaped like a tube, that kept squirting from your hands. Waste four seconds trying to remember its name. The Water Willy? Next thing you know, you will be thinking of other artifacts of your childhood, Chinese jacks and Jordache bags and Rubik’s cubes, while your child breaks free and slithers up some old man’s pants leg to grab his Water Willy.
She continues to pitch and roll as you drag her to the door. But there will be no quick getaway, oh no. You have forgotten the other one, as usual. She is still sleeping in her car seat, obscured by the Brewhaha recycling bin. Bare your teeth at your three-year-old to stun her momentarily. Think, Who’s feral now, punk? Then shift your focus to the baby in the car seat, at least ten long feet away. Attempt telekinesis. The car seat refuses to levitate. It refuses to even scoot across the floor. Pray for a miracle, a satisfying quickie.
Your prayer is answered in the form of your husband, who walks into the coffee shop at this very second. Hiss, “Thank God” at him through clenched teeth. Flail one arm wildly in the direction of the baby. Your husband understands what is expected of him. He fetches the baby and her enormous diaper bag.
Haul your coatless three-year-old out the door. She will not walk. She is pretending to be dead. Pick her up and heave her across your back, perpendicular. Lock her in place with your arms. Head grimly for the car, one block away.
It is a very long block. Walk slowly, with as much dignity as you can muster, while your child-crucifix screeches and sobs uncontrollably. Scowl as she begs for mercy. Grind your teeth as she pleads hysterically with you to be put down.
You sense movement on your left. Turn your head. It is Jesus of Nazareth, trudging along with his cross. Say, “Pssst. Hey. Jesus.” He regards you with melancholy, indie-rocker eyes. Say, “You really do look like your pictures.” Jesus nods, sadly.
Ask Jesus if he’d mind trading crucifixes, just until you can get your car door open. He declines. Stop dead in your tracks. Do not attempt to hide your disgust. Snort. Say, “‘Suffer the little children’? Ring a bell?”
Jesus looks around nervously for his escort, a burly Roman soldier who’s leaning against a parking meter and perusing a museum brochure. The Roman soldier taps his watch pointedly. Jesus shifts his cross on his shoulders and sprints away from you, as fast as he can. He and the soldier are just in time for a guided museum tour.
Struggle to get the car door open. Buckle your still-sobbing child into her car seat. Your husband approaches with the baby. Put her in the backseat. Look at your husband. Say nothing. Get in the car and turn the key in the ignition. The clock on the dashboard snickers: 5:12.
Pull out of the parking space and head for home. The three-year-old stops sobbing, suddenly. Innocently, she asks, “Mommy, what happened at Brewhaha?” Whip your head around to glare at her. Run a red light. The baby laughs.
When you park in front of your house, the three-year-old demands to hear the soundtrack from the movie Chicago. “ALL THAT JAZZ! I WANT ALL THAT JAZZ RIGHT NOW!” Ignore her. Sit in the car with both children until your husband pulls up behind you in the other car. He gets out and waits dutifully on the curb.
Admire his insight. Hand him both children. Flee into the house and up the stairs.
Give yourself a time-out. Sit on the toilet. Try to relax.
The three-year-old bursts into the bathroom. Leap off the toilet seat. Pee down your leg, into your sock.
“You have to give me a bath,” she yells. “Or I will die.” Another bumper sticker appears in your mind: CALGON, TAKE HER AWAY. Dry your leg, remove your soiled sock, and run her a bath.
At first, ignore the long strands of your post-partum hair floating on top of the water. Put the kid in the tub anyway. Quickly realize that there is too much hair to ignore. Shift gears. Pretend that the floating hair is seaweed. Say, “Ooh, what nice seaweed you have, Miss Mermaid.” She squints at you, like she can’t quite figure out who you are. Mermaids are so last year. She has a better idea. “Let’s play Mean Man and Nice Man,” she instructs.
Be flexible. Be pleased that you will finally get to use that M.F.A. in Drama for something. Say, “Toot-toot! Who’s on board for some Drama Therapy?” Watch as your three-year-old sticks a plastic moose in her privates. Try distraction. Yell, “Drama Express, now boarding at Bathtub One!” and wave your arms like the person you are, a person who has no working concept of the gestural life of a train conductor. She smiles vaguely and says, “He’s my Happy Meal moose.” Tell her moose can drown, even in shallow water. Remove the moose. Try to take her mind off the moose. Ask if you are Mean Man or Nice Man.
You are Nice Man. Endure vicious epithets from Mean Man, like “STUPID! YOU’RE STUPID, NICE MAN!” for forty-five minutes. Refuse to take any more verbal abuse from Mean Man. Mean Man explodes with rage, displacing half a tub full of tepid water. The bath rug is soaked. You are soaked. Abandon ship. Abandon child.
Pass your husband in the hallway. He hands you the baby before entering the bathroom with his shoulders squared and head down. More howls. Thumping and wailing. The baby laughs in your arms, grimaces, then poops. Change her diaper. Ignore the sounds of objects being hurled against bathroom tile.
Nurse the baby. Sing her a lullaby to mask the sound of her older sister being dragged down the hallway to her room. Rock the baby as your husband barricades the three-year-old in her room for a time-out.
Four minutes later, the three-year-old refuses to leave her room. “Your time-out is over. Did you hear me? You can come out now,” says your husband. Silence. “You can come out now,” he repeats, helplessly. More silence.
Tuck the baby into her crib. She sighs quietly and is still. Shut off her nursery lamp. In the hallway, your husband bellows, “I mean it, just TWO more minutes in time-out! You hear me? Just TWO more minutes and THAT’S IT—” This is followed by mumbling, and then all is still. He is a broken man. Soon you hear your three-year-old in her room, singing cheerfully to herself.
Leave the baby’s room. Step carefully over your husband’s prone, inert body in the hallway outside your three-year-old’s closed door. There is nothing more for you here.
Head downstairs and park yourself on the couch. A tumbleweed of dog fur leaps into your lap. It wants to nurse. Bat it away, back under the couch, where it belongs.
You hear the refrigerator door open. The Future has let himself in through the back door. He enters the living room, carrying two bottles of beer. He sits next to you on the couch and hands you a cold one.
Stare at his coat, which remains closed. “Go on,” you say. “You know you want to.”
The Future shakes his head and tightens his belt. It was once a really nice trench coat, you can tell. He reaches for the remote and channel-surfs. He looks disappointed. Say, “No cable.” He settles for UPN.
You wait. Nothing. “Go on, flash me,” you say. “I can handle it.”
The Future gestures to a ballpoint pen lying on the end table. Hand it to him. Watch as he pulls a Post-It pad from his coat pocket. He writes, “YOU THINK I DON’T KNOW WHAT KIND OF DAY YOU HAD?” in small, precise block lettering on a Post-It and sticks it on your knee. He holds out his bottle. You clink. You drink.
Watch America’s Top Model with the Future in companionable silence. The phone sniffles, then rings. Do not pick it up. Keep watching America’s Top Model to see if any of the girls will drown during their first underwater shoot. Glance at the Future. Poker face. Say, “Nobody drowns? Not even the one with lupus?” Watch him smirk.
On a commercial break, check your voice-mail: the concerned friend again. Listen to her message. Listen to it again. Put down the phone and finish your beer.
The Future glances your way. Ask, “Do I seem overwhelmed to you?” He shrugs and picks at his teeth with the cap of your pen. His teeth are fantastic.
The Future turns off the TV. He yawns and rises from the couch. He’s got an early morning.
Feel suddenly desperate. Try to make conversation. Say, “You know, I feel really bad about the way I talked to Jesus today.” The Future shoots you a look. He prints another message on a Post-It and sticks it to your TV screen. He exits through the kitchen, through the back door. He likes the back door.
Yell, “That’s it?” Go to the back door and scream, “I’ve seen better, you know.” Return to the living room. Kick the ottoman. See the Post-It on the TV. “I DON’T DO REGRET,” it says. “TAKE IT UP WITH THE OTHER GUY.”
It is 9:24. The dog is staring hopefully at you. Feed him. Cram another dose of phenobarbital down his throat. Say, “Lucky bastard,” and pat him on the head.
Sit at the kitchen table and stare out the window. The Ninja and the Fairy Godmother are leaning against a telephone pole, groping and making out like teenagers. Think, Get a room. Close the kitchen curtains.
At ten o’clock, your husband enters the kitchen. Share a Slim-Fast bar. Reminisce about the old days, before there were kids. Mussels and beer in Montreal. New Year’s Eve in Calgary. Lazy weekends in Westchester. Say, “Someday we’ll get our life back.” Smile reassuringly. He regards you carefully. “This is our life,” he says.
Raucous applause from the coat closet. Stamping. Whistling. “Thank you very much,” says a voice. “You’ve been a terrific crowd.” Your husband looks around. “Did you hear something?” he asks. Say no.
Head upstairs to get ready for bed. Admire your husband’s elegant flossing style. Hold your breath as the three-year-old yells in her sleep: “YOU’RE STUPID! STUPID NICE MAN!” The baby wakes up, says, “Ga,” then goes back to sleep.
* * *
Half past eleven. Go downstairs to check your e-mail one last time. The computer belches. Three new e-mail messages.
Read the first one. It is a rejection from a literary magazine, for an essay on motherhood that you submitted less than forty-eight hours ago. “Subject matter too mainstream.”
Read the second e-mail. Another rejection, this one from the editors of an anthology of motherhood essays: “Too alternative.”
Press your thumbs into the inside corners of your eyes. Press harder. Wonder how the universal condition of motherhood can be too mainstream and too alternative at the same time. Wonder why your right breast is leaking milk. Tell it to behave itself.
Read the third e-mail. It is from another mother you know, the one who is exasperated with you because you do not enjoy talking on the phone. She hates e-mail, but she is writing today to tell you that she is exasperated with you for a different reason. She is thinking about having a second child, and you are giving her “mixed messages” on the subject. If her child never gets a sibling, it will be all your fault. If her child does get a sibling, it will still be all your fault.
The dog paces. Remember that he needs to go out. Open the back door for him and follow him outside. Watch as he lifts his leg and pees on the rusting barbecue grill, the one you forgot to put in the shed after Labor Day.
The air is cold. Realize you have lost the belt to your robe. Look around the backyard. Not a soul. Open your robe and flash the dog. He regards you with mild interest then poops next to the garbage can, which begins to cry. Go back inside with the dog.
On your way up to bed, pause at the front door. Someone is shuffling around on your front porch.
Look at the dog. He does not seem not concerned. A tumbleweed of dog fur leaps onto your shoulder to get a better look. The tumbleweed does not seem concerned, either. Remove the tumbleweed from your shoulder and put it on the floor.
Continue to observe. Your eyes slowly adjust to the dim light. Sure enough, a heavyset man is lumbering aimlessly back and forth on the porch.
Notice how overdressed he is. He is dressed in too many layers, even for this climate. Notice how odd his head looks. He is wearing an unflattering hat, the most unflattering hat you have ever seen.
Notice how clumsy he is, how he lurches. He sits down awkwardly. No good. He gets up. He squats. He falls over. He leans heavily against the three-year-old’s tricycle. This guy just can’t get comfortable.
This guy, you think. The other guy. Turn on the porch light. He stops.
He blinks at you through the door. Blink back.
You see that the man is obese, with terrible skin. He looks vaguely familiar. Wonder if the two of you have met before.
He smiles hesitantly and holds up one hand in greeting. You know him from someplace, but you can’t quite put your finger on where.
Open the front door and invite him inside. As he steps over the threshold, notice that the hat on his head is actually a lampshade. Ah, you think.
Say, “New Year’s Eve?” You know the joke.
He is clearly delighted. “Seemed like a good idea at the time,” he says.
Say, “Best punchline of all time.”
Offer him a seat on the couch.
Before he sits down, he removes his top layer of clothing: gladiator sandals, Edwardian topcoat, and an ostrich-feather boa. Underneath, he is wearing embroidered Chinese slippers, leather chaps, and a “Welcome Back, Kotter” t-shirt.
Check your watch. It is midnight. Ask if he has time for a beer.
“All the time in the world,” he says.
Think, Of course. Hand him a coaster.
Say, “I know exactly what you mean.”
Author’s Note: At the time I wrote this, I had never known anyone with breast cancer. That changed this past summer. Here’s to Rebecca T.-S., one of my very favorite “Brewhaha Mamas,” who’s fighting the good fight this winter with extraordinary grace, uncommon courage, and a first-rate sense of humor. Just say the word, Rebecca, and we’ll all tromp to Boston in the pinkest snow boots you’ve ever seen.
Jennifer Mattern (www.jennifermattern.com) is a freelance writer and mother of two based in western Massachusetts.
Brain, Child (Winter 2005)