By Dawn Davies
Stay up late on a Sunday night reading a book about a woman in medical school because you have gotten it in your mind that you, too, want to go to medical school. Not now, of course, but someday, when the kids are older.
Read long past the time when you should be asleep, until your eyes drip tears of exhaustion. Your husband is out of town on business, and you have allowed all three children to sleep in your bed, though you fear that, like feeding a begging dog from the table, you are creating a habit that will be impossible to break. Program ‘911’ into the instant dial function of your portable phone and nestle it next to your ribs in case someone breaks in and you have time to hit only one number.
Go to sleep and dream about vampires. Wake up ten minutes later to the sound of crying. It is the baby: let him nurse you dry. Notice the deflated shape your breast takes as it lies across the mattress. Go back to sleep. Wake up again to the sound of crying in the distance and locate only two of your children, sleeping curled and stiff, like the victims of Pompeii. Break the suction and peel the baby off your boob, then get up. Kick the Labrador off the bed, call him a nasty name, and then trip over him in the dark as you follow the sound to the children’s bedroom.
The smell of urine surrounds you. In the corner, the three-year-old is sitting on the wood floor in a swath of streetlight, marinating in a pool of pee, her footie pajamas half off, yet twisted and inside out enough to render her as helpless as if she wore a fuzzy, size 4T straightjacket. Note the eviscerated night diaper oozing from under her buttocks.
Change the child. Sop up the pee on the floor with your husband’s favorite bath towel. Pray that the child was not sufficiently stimulated to be interested in truly waking up. When she rubs her eyes, lay her gently in her own bed. Do not speak. When she falls asleep, return to your own bed because the baby is in it and he could roll over onto the floor. When the child hollers out, “I can’t sleep,” play quietly with her in her room. Crawl into her bed with her. She is warm and round and soft and trying to wheedle a story out of you. She calls you “Beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” and her dimpled baby hands explore your face sweetly, so you read to her until your words begin to come out garbled and you wake up from the sound of your own snoring amplified inside the Little Golden Book covering your face. The child is gone. You hear her in your bedroom shaking her tambourine and shouting the same, “Stick out my wiener!” she heard the next-door neighbor’s six-year-old future predator calling out of his upstairs window the day before. Note: it is 5:37 a.m.
Bring your hands up like an orchestra conductor and cue in the baby’s cries. Unzip the five-year-old’s pink Dr. Dentons and tell her to go use the potty. Outside, it is still dark, but you know that when the sun comes up, it will not be satisfying because the godforsaken Northeast, where you live, is exhibiting a record streak of cold rain, so bone chilling and wet that the sight of the sun, even for fifteen minutes, would make you weep for joy. You have not seen it in weeks and everything around you looks grey, including your own skin. At 6:15 a.m., take the children downstairs for breakfast because, even though you are exhausted, the onus is on you. It is always on you.
Let the dog out the back door. Put four frozen waffles into the toaster and make a 13-cup pot of coffee. Add sliced bananas to the children’s plates so you can at least say you offered them fresh fruit. Let the baby transfer all of the food in the dog’s bowl to its water dish, because he is happy doing it and, for three minutes, not hanging off your kneecaps. Drink your coffee. Drink it. The children pull all of their toys out of the toy box and scatter them around the house. Your resources are low and you do not know what to do with this day. Even though your husband has a burgeoning career at a newspaper, and you own a starter house, you are broke, nearly as broke as you were in your student days, when you worried about gas, and groceries, and paying the utility bills, only back then you could get a second job or sell some marrow in a real emergency, and now you are tethered to three other people who will die if you don’t feed them, and whom you can’t leave alone for five minutes.
Decide to take them to church because the day before the five-year-old asked, “What is church?” and because church is free. Remember the few times in your single days when you attended a local Unitarian church which offered a loose Pagan ceremony culminating in a barefoot group dance down the aisles with percussion instruments and pan pipes, and sexy, lean, bearded vegan men who scoffed at the Establishment. Look up “Churches” in the Yellow Pages and decide on a Methodist one a few miles away. Without yelling at the children or the dog, whom you find eating the crotch out of your only pair of stockings, get everyone dressed for the icy rainstorm that is predicted to last all day, choosing leggings, velour jumpers, and tight turtlenecks stretched down and popped over their enormous heads, making their hair collect static-like plasma balls.
Think of the ‘A’ you got in inorganic chemistry the semester before you met your husband in college. Think of the noble gasses, of neon filling thin, rounded glass tubes shaped into seedy, blinking signs in the window of a bar, a bar that serves whiskey—which you would like to drink—and of argon, and a gallon jug imploding when the oxygen is sucked out of it. Think of small amounts of krypton in a flash bulb, and of everything you know going up in a mushroom of white. While you get dressed, the girls rub their socks into the area rug and shock the baby with the tips of their fingers, making him laugh and cry at the same time.
Stuff their arms into their coats, fishing at the end of the sleeves for fingers to pull through to the other side. Think about rolling a condom onto a limp nob. Notice how, in their winter clothes, your children look like blood-stuffed ticks. They complain, like they always do when wearing coats, about being too hot. Ignore this and pack them into the nine-year-old wreck of a Saab and wonder if your husband is up yet and reading the paper in a quiet, clean hotel room on the other side of the country.
Find the church and park in the only spot left in the parking lot, which in the sleet looks impossibly far away from the church door. Carry the two younger children, who are now crying because the freezing rain is whipping them in the face, dragging the hem of your long, wool skirt in icy, slushy mud puddles as you go. The five-year-old, who must walk by herself, trails behind, stomping her boots into dirty potholes out of spite.
The service is pleasant and easy to endure. The choir sings hopeful songs about God’s love out into the clean, warm space, and neat, controlled people occasionally look at you and smile. Do not see one toy truck or Barbie littering the carpeted aisle and there is a faint smell of Lemon Pledge and old-fashioned perfume, the kind that would be found in matron ladies’ bosoms. All of this makes you want to go home and clean your own house. It makes you want to start over. It makes you want to confess something wildly, something that will make you feel better, something that will wipe your slate clean, although you know the Methodists do not practice confession.
When the service ends, wander down to the coffee hour in the basement. Look around for people who don’t have that glazed, New Testamentesque appearance, and absentmindedly switch the baby to your other hip to fill out a visitor’s card. Drink coffee. Notice that the L.L. Bean denim jumper/hunter green turtleneck ratio is high, too high for your comfort, perhaps nearing 70 percent. Get cornered by a woman in one such jumper whom you fear is a designated ‘greeter’ after she immediately begins asking you questions about yourself. Put your guard up. Lie when possible, especially when projecting the idea that you have your shit together, and that everything you do you are choosing to do. Nod when she mentions Sunday School and mothers’ groups, knowing you will not join these things.
Corral the children and force them out of the church, which they now don’t want them into their car seats. Insert the key into the wretched Saab, and for good measure, since you are in the church parking lot, pray that the car will start. Turn the key and accept the dull ‘click’ that follows to be punishment for teasing that soft kid, Jeffery, in fifth grade. Think about Karma, think about Jesus, think about the Holy Spirit coming down and filling you up like sunshine fills an empty room, renewing your mind like the minister preached during church. Squint your eyes. Try to make it happen. Feel nothing. Realize you don’t know how to pray.
Pop the hood and get out. Suck on the rain dripping off of your lips and stare into the engine as if you know what you are looking for. Jiggle the battery connectors and see a spark. Hear the children whining from inside the car and note the love of Christ the parishioners exhibit when they drive by you, blank and faceless. Mutter, “What the cuss frigging fudge muckers!” at them for not stopping to help, and marvel at this particular combination of almost-curses you have vowed to use ever since the five-year-old has asked you to stop being so foul.
Turn the key again. Sense a slight difference in the way the car doesn’t start and feel a surge of hope. Get in and out of the car eight more times, jiggling the battery cables and listening to the car almost start before it finally does, yelling, “Bite me,” into the open air only twice. Drive away in pouring, freezing rain, blasting whatever you can on the radio, which is Hootie and the Blowfish, to drown out the sound of the baby’s shrieking and the animated discourse between the three-year-old and the five-year-old in the back seat.
By the time you pull into the driveway, the baby is sleeping so hard he looks drugged. Bend over to scrutinize the depth of his unconsciousness and lift one of his lids to see if his eyes are rolled up—a sure sign that he is sleeping deeply. Take the two older children inside, intending to leave the baby asleep for the four more minutes it will take for him to be sleeping deeply enough for you to carry him inside without waking him, because you really need him to take a nap and get out of your life for thirty minutes. That’s all you are asking.
Check the answering machine for messages. There are none. In the dining room, while watching the car out of the window overlooking the driveway, read stories to your other children until your eyes start involuntarily tearing and closing. Lie down on the floor and suggest they play “Doctor Heals,” with you as the comatose patient. Lie like a corpse and drift in and out of sleep for perhaps four minutes while your children drop feathers, to which you are allergic, onto your face. Feel a nice, tickling sensation on your fingers.
Wake up to discover they have colored all of your knuckle joints with the indelible black magic marker you told them never to touch. Both girls are sitting on top of the kitchen counter eating a plate of cookies. There is a spilled bottle of delicious looking, ruby red antibiotic pills next to the five-year-old’s thigh, the ones you were prescribed for your quarterly sinus infection. Ask her if she opened them. When she says no, grab her shoulders and shake her, asking this time through clenched teeth if she ate any of them. When she says no again, multiply the number of pills you take per day (three) by the number of days you have been taking the pills (three) and subtract the total from the total number of pills that should be in the container (ten days’ worth). Thanking the God you just went to visit, find 21 pills on the counter. When your child asks to eat one, shout, “NO!” then hug her hard. Wonder how many milligrams of amoxicillin it would take to kill a thirty-four pound-person. Imagine yourself sweeping the crayons and paper and glitter off the dining table and laying your five-year-old across it, performing a gastric lavage with supplies you happen to have lying around the house, then see yourself walking in slow motion, down a hospital corridor in a white coat and stethoscope, your hair flowing perfectly behind you, forgetting the now-closed bottle of pretty drugs next to the candy fiend that is your child.
Suddenly jump up from the table and run outside. Find the baby shrieking in the car seat inside the nearly sound-proof Saab. Bring him out. Ignore your neighbor, the tire-shaped, middle-aged gossip, who is looking at you through narrowed eyes, and imagine how far this story will make it around the block by the time lunch is over. Go inside and nurse the baby, tuning out your other children for as long as you can, which is less than a minute, since one of them is jumping up and down on your feet and legs and the other is trying to ride the dog. Think about Sophie’s Choice and imagine, if you had to for survival only, worst-case scenario only of course, which of your children you would give away if you were forced to in order to save yourself and the other children. Weigh the pros and cons logically. Scare yourself with your own thoughts.
When the baby wakes up enough to put him down without him bucking and screaming and flailing, the phone rings. Lunge for it viciously, hoping it might be your husband. It is a lady from the Methodist church calling because you filled out the visitor’s card an hour and ten minutes earlier. It’s part of their ministry, she says, to reach out to newcomers. Leave the room to take the call, because you are considering pouring your heart out to the strange lady on the phone. Imagine her soft, grandmotherly bosom smelling of perfume. Imagine pressing your head against it and sobbing. Imagine the kind of hugs you could receive from these partridge-shaped church ladies. Remember standing outside of the church with the hood of your car up while all of these ladies and their husbands drove past you in the rain. When shrieks ring out from the living room, hang up the phone and rush back into it in time to witness your three-year-old flat on the floor, with the baby on top of her in a wrestling hold, trying to gouge out her eyes. Tell the five-year-old, who is climbing up the armchair to knock it off and to “stand up and just sit there.” Separate the fighting children and smack the dog who has jumped into what must have looked like a fun foray.
Calm down. Suggest to the three-year-old that the dog might like to play while you change the baby’s diaper on the couch. Watch her roll the dog onto his back for a belly rub then jump onto its extended leg, self-performing the Heimlich maneuver. When she vomits up several bites of cookie and one bite of cranberry bread and starts crying, jump up, and with one foot on the baby to keep him from rolling off the couch, reach for the three-year-old. When the baby starts crying, ask the five-year-old to hold him, and when she says, “No!” holler at her, making her cry, too. Don’t care when the dog immediately begins eating the vomit from the floor, as he is doing you a favor and you now do not have to clean it up. You must go somewhere where there are other people, you think, because you are so lonely you could scream, and besides you want to shake someone and this frightens you. Call your mother. Listen to the phone ring empty on the other side of the line. Call your husband’s hotel and leave a message. Take more Tylenol. Drink coffee.
Feed them grilled cheese sandwiches. Give the crusts to the dog, who has become an expert beggar since the children were born. Think about slipping under the table for a quick nap while they eat.
After lunch, stuff them back into their coats and boots and drive to the mall, cruising a few extra minutes around the mall parking lot until all three children are so deeply asleep that they could be hung from their heels and not awaken. Envy them. Park the car and decide to rest your eyes for a few minutes. Tilt back your seat and rest, feeling a deep fatigue behind your eyes, hoping that you will not fall asleep with your jaw gaping open to the point where you and your family resemble a Mafia hit to passers-by. Fall deeply asleep. Wake up to utter darkness with dried spittle crusted on your chin. Freak out, shouting, “Jesus Christ!” until you realize it is the middle of winter and only 4:30 p.m., 30 minutes after you fell asleep. Stare at two worried mall cops slowly circling the Saab with flashlights.
Drag the children into the mall and walk around. Thank whatever God you hope might exist for their public behavior, which for a change is orderly, calm, and obedient. Stop in the food court to buy them a giant muffin the size of a cauliflower with your last ten dollars. When your three-year-old starts hopping up and down and grabbing her crotch, yelling, “I have to do a dinky!” stuff the muffin into the diaper bag, then herd the children to the bathroom. Beg the three-year-old not to touch anything except the toilet paper and her own pants. Put the baby down and help the three-year-old onto the toilet, then go back out and unzip the five-year-old’s sticky zipper, and guide her into a stall. Stand near them so they won’t be abducted, until you notice the baby toddling out of another stall with festoons of toilet paper streaming from his mouth. Grab the baby and remove from his mouth a gray mass of wet paper molded into the shape of his hard palate. Hope that it came from the roll in the dispenser and not from the toilet.
Grabbing the baby, race back to the three-year-old, who is now shouting, “Mommy, close the door. Strangers can see my ganina!” Hold the three-year-old’s door shut while the baby bucks and kicks and flails in your arms, and the fiveyear-old initiates a display of linguistic skill by saying, “It’s not ju-nina, stupid, it’s bu-gina.” Don’t dare put the baby down because he might fling himself back onto the filthy bathroom floor and crack his head against the tile, possibly rupturing one of those fragile arteries that could cause a hemorrhage in his brain—you read about them last night in the book about the woman who went to medical school and now, for as long as your children are your responsibility, these arteries will forever worry you. Impress yourself by discussing in depth the types of bacteria that might be found in a public restroom with the five-year-old who asks questions about germs.
When the three-year-old, out of the blue, asks to get her ears pierced, look at your watch. Sigh. When she says it will help her look more like you, exhibit poor judgment and say yes, because this is the child who calls you “beautiful Mommy” and “Angel,” the child who knows how to use a gentle touch to get exactly what she wants from you. Walk to the piercing place quickly, lugging the bucking, screaming baby, as the five-year-old attempts a precise depiction of how much and how little it will hurt. At the piercing place, ask the three-year-old if she is sure and when she says yes again, whip out the credit card you only use for emergencies, then help her pick out a pair of heart earrings. Watch carefully with her as a slightly older child gets her ears pierced without crying.
Let a young sales clerk hold the baby. Sit in the piercing chair with the three-year-old on your lap as she looks around brightly, yet shyly. Love her to death. Feel like her betrayer when, after the piercing girl stabs her simultaneously in both ears, the three-year-old starts shrieking and does not stop. When the baby, never one to miss out on anything, howls along in concert with his sister, kneel on the floor of the piercing place and rock them. Yell, “No!” when the five-year-old asks you to buy her a fur-covered diary. Look at the three-year-old’s ears and notice that the earrings are wildly askew, and that that the piercing girl has completely botched the job. Get angry. Demand a refund, and although you are not ordinarily a nasty person, smirk when they tell you to come back for a free re-do when the holes have closed up. Tell them if they ever see you again it will be in court. Drag your screaming three-year-old and the rest of them three hundred yards through and out of the mall to where you parked the wretched rust-heap of a Saab. Feel the same small stab of disappointment you usually feel when you see it hasn’t been stolen. Buckle everybody in. Straighten up to get out of the car and hang yourself on the clean shirt hook. Ask the three-year-old to unhook you.
When you try to start the car 20 times and the engine doesn’t turn over, yell, “Fuck!” as loudly as you can. The sound of it echoes in the air and the five-year-old starts crying. Unbuckle everybody. Pick up 56 pounds of wretched children and carry them a hundred yards back into the mall to a pay phone. Call the AAA that your parents gave you for Christmas last year—a subtle hint that they do not think your husband is a good provider, with your finger plugging your other ear to block out the sound of the five-year-old who is still weeping, clearly trying to recuperate from your profanity. Wait for a tow truck while the mall shops close around you. Your three-year-old, recovered from the piercing ordeal, flounces about asking strangers, “Do you like my new earrings? I used to be a girl without earrings, but now I am a girl with earrings. My mommy made me get them,” then quietly, “It really hurt,” and the baby eats a third of a jumbo pack of sugarless gum and its foil wrapper.
Stand outside under an awning while the rain spits around you. Spot a tow truck trolling around the parking lot and run through dark puddles of slushy water as you chase it down. The tow-truck guy jumpstarts the car in the two minutes it takes you to buckle everyone back into their seats. Snort when he warns you to not stop anywhere else on your way home. Dig the leftover muffin out of the diaper bag and hand chunks of it to the children. A sense of frantic futility fills you as you drive down the highway, and you glance back at the five-year-old tracing raindrops on the window, the three-year-old, her crooked earrings in her beet-red ears, sucking her thumb, and the baby burping mint. They sit silently, slumped and broken-looking in their car seats, and it is here where your own tears unleash like rain from the clouds in your sky that have been living over you for months, for—truth be told—who knows how long. Cry hard as you drive down the highway. Imagine, on impulse, taking this highway south instead of north, and driving to a place filled with bright light and warmth and sunshine. Imagine pulling over, releasing your children into a field of flowers, where they happily chase butterflies into the distance, getting smaller, smaller until they are gone. Then imagine getting back into the Saab and following the road to a bridge suspended over a rushing river, and speeding up as you drive over the rail of the bridge, straight into the warm, blue water. Hate yourself. Hate everything about who you’ve become and what you are destined for and how much everybody needs you all the time, and as you pull into your dark, icy driveway, realize this: you will never go to medical school. Carry your sleeping children, one at a time, into the house, putting them straight to bed in their clothes. Kiss their sticky mouths and filthy cheeks and whisper, please forgive me, I promise to do better tomorrow. Feel like a crappy mother and wonder what kind of a doctor you would have made if you can’t even manage three healthy children through one long Sunday.
Check the answering machine. There are no messages. Wake up to check the locks on the doors and bring the portable phone into bed, making sure 911 is programmed into the instant dial function. Fall back to sleep to the sickening sound of the cat licking itself at the foot of the bed and dream of fat, milk-white lizards crawling through the round letters of the alphabet.
Author’s Note: It took me 14 years to write this piece. I would start it then stop, telling myself that no one would want to read anything in second person. But I needed the second person for two reasons: first, I was trying to capture how overwhelming it felt to have three really young children, and writing out the minutiae gave some sort of tribute to what mothers go through every day. More important, I needed the distance of second person, because every time I wrote “you,” I didn’t have to write “I.” I was depressed for a time after the birth of two of my kids, and I didn’t give it a voice for several years, because I was ashamed of it. I no longer am. Being able to see humor is what gets me through hard times, and I’d like to think this piece gives a voice to that as well.
Dawn S. Davies is an MFA candidate at Florida International University and the fiction editor of Gulf Stream Magazine. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in River Styx, Ninth Letter, Saw Palm, Cease, Cows, Fourth Genre and others. She can be reached at www.dawnsdavies.com.
Artwork by Katie M. Berggren