By Dorothy Rice
There was this time. Friday night and I was getting ready for a date. I plucked at my brows, first one, then the other, then back again to even it up. I sat cross-legged on the gritty orange shag in one of several apartments my son Fred and I lived in after the divorce, my face close enough to a full-length mirror to see my breath, a David Bowie poster taped to the sliding closet door. Fred, three at the time, lay on his tummy beside me, a He-Man action figure clasped in each hand. I would take him to my sister’s house to spend the night before my date arrived.
I had decided, what the hell, I’d have sex with this guy. I didn’t want to. Or not want to. I was ambivalent. But it felt weird not to after so many dinners, clubs and flowers delivered to the office. It loomed. I remember my brows after the tweezers, two thin, peaked lines I reinforced with brown pencil and that I wore a clingy purple dress and pink fishnet stockings. He was taking me to a French restaurant that at the time was reported to be the most expensive restaurant in Sacramento. The bill would likely exceed my monthly food budget, a fact that seemed to underscore the implicit expectation the evening would end in sex.
In anticipation of the rich food, I’d starved myself all day. Seated in the restaurant, I ordered and sucked down the first of several Margaritas. On an empty stomach, the cocktail made me woozy. I excused myself and wobbled to the restroom on six-inch platform heels. There was a girl in the john, early twenties. I was twenty-nine. She was bent forward over the washbasin, studying her reflection, staring at a pimple on her chin. Our eyes met in the mirror.
“You hardly notice it,” I said, lying.
We talked, neither of us anxious to get back to what we’d left. I showed her a wallet photo of my son. She showed me one of her cats.
“I’ll check him out for you,” she said, when I told her about my date and how I figured the evening would end. “I’ll shake my head yes or no.” We left the restroom, arms linked, leaning into one another, laughing. It was unlikely we’d ever meet again yet in that moment we were conspirators and friends.
When I returned to our table my date stood and pulled out my chair. I searched for my ladies’ room friend to give me a sign. She did a ‘meh‘ with her shoulders.
I don’t remember much about the sex. I do remember how fastidious he was. He arranged his creased pants and shirt neatly over the back of a chair. He folded his underwear and laid them on the seat. His shoes, with the socks tucked inside, sat side-by-side beneath the chair. Last, serious as a surgeon, he unstrapped a Rolex and laid it so it nestled on his Fruit of the Loom’s.
Saturday morning I drove to my sister’s house to pick up my son.
“Well?” she said, lifting her brows.
I shrugged then stooped to hug Fred. He buried his face in my neck. Soft, blondish hair tickled my nose. He was dressed the same as the day before, and the day before that—a pair of navy-blue tights with superhero Underoos over them.
My sister handed me his magic cape and the black rain boots that completed the costume. She wrinkled her nose. “I think it’s time to wash Superman’s cape.”
“He-Man,” he said, glaring up at her, his eyes like two raised fists.
“My apologies, little man,” she said.
“I’m He-Man,” he repeated, muttering softly as he clutched handfuls of my sweater.
Sunday evening I sat on the bathmat turning the pages of a Rolling Stone magazine while Fred whipped the bathwater with an egg beater, plastic bowls of water pudding balanced precariously on the tub’s rim. His costume lay on the bathmat. I reached for it, to add it to a white, plastic basket half filled with the week’s dirty laundry.
“No,” he shrieked. He stood abruptly, teetering on the slick porcelain and toppling two bowls onto the linoleum. I tossed a dry towel over the puddle.
“It’s dirty,” I said. “If I wash it you can wear it tomorrow.”
Tears gathered in his eyes. His chin began to quiver.
“We’ll go to the store while the washer runs,” I said. “When we get back, I’ll put the clothes in the drier. When you wake up in the morning, it will be ready for you.”
He cried in earnest then, with a ragged edge to his sobs. His skin was puckered and goose-pimply from the bathwater. I pulled the plug, wrapped him in a towel and lifted him from the bath.
“How about this,” I said. “We’ll get your pajamas on.”
“No. Only those.”
“Okay,” I said. “You stay in the towel. Come with me to the laundry room. You can put the clothes into the washer yourself.”
His body tensed.
“You can add the soap and put the quarters in.” He relaxed, a little, searching my face for adult trickery. “Then we’ll go to the store. But you have to wear something. You’ll get cold.”
“If we go to the store, somebody will steal it,” he wailed between sobs.
We didn’t go to the store that Sunday evening. We sat in the apartment complex’s laundry room while the washer completed its rickety cycle. We read books about superheroes and their super powers. I made up stories about a finger boy and a finger girl who could fly. Fred watched my fingers leap on the stage my hand made and for those moments his grip loosened and the fear receded from his eyes. We transferred the damp clothes to the drier, verifying that each piece of the costume had survived the wash. The clothes in the drier thumped and twirled, the laundry room grew warm and steamy, his body heavy on my lap. His eyelids fluttered and closed. In my mind I catalogued the meager contents of the cupboards and refrigerator, thinking what I could possibly pack for his lunch in the morning, what we would have for breakfast besides dry cereal.
Fred was in full superhero regalia when I dropped him off at daycare Monday morning. The mother of a tidy girl with a perfect French braid gave me her best down-the-nose stink eye.
My mother once imparted this pearl of wisdom. It is a parent’s job to break the child’s spirit, she said, so they don’t grow up with foolhardy expectations or with the mistaken notion that the universe revolves around them. In her opinion I wasn’t doing my son any favors. At the time I wondered if she was right. Not about breaking children as if they were horses, but whether embracing his fantasies was a good thing or had I inadvertently made life even harder than it already is. Both, I now think. The other boys and girls teased him because he wore his underwear on the outside. Yet that didn’t deter him. He knew what he knew.
The fastidious guy who took me to the French restaurant asked me to go to the state fair with him the next weekend. It was in my heart to say my son would enjoy the fair and could I bring him. But I wanted my date to be the one to ask. And he didn’t. So I left my son with my sister.
The fair was the fair, a monster agglomeration of all the county fairs, heat rising like swamp gas off the black top, carnies in the midway you’d cross the street to avoid anywhere else, everything battered and fried. Kids ran from ride to ride, tugging a parent’s hand. They watched baby pigs being born and new chicks toddling in the straw. I watched them, the children, not the piglets and chicks, and felt alone, sharing the horrors of the state fair with the wrong person.
That was our last date. No regrets there.
I do sometimes miss the little boy who clung to a pair of tattered blue tights. I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to deep six the underwear and cape. For those few months in 1984 they made the world a safer place than I could.
On my desk was a small album with a padded cover, favorite photos of my son, several of them taken while he slept, covers kicked off, clutching a stuffed penguin. Sometimes it seemed I rarely saw him any other way.
Most of the eighties I worked in California’s capitol building, in an office on the fourth floor of the new wing, as an analyst for a standing committee that heard legislation related to toxic waste, a political hot potato in the wake of Love Canal and countless other chemical disasters. The work was exacting and the hours long. I delivered my son to daycare early each morning. If I had to work late, as was often the case, my sister or mother picked Fred up from daycare and kept him for me.
It had taken me several years to work my way out of the clerical ranks and into the job at the state capitol. Lacking the educational credentials and experience of most of my counterparts, I compensated by researching the hell out of every topic and then checking and rechecking my facts. I never considered myself ambitious, though I may have appeared so. I was responsible for a child and received little to no support from his father. Holding onto my job and advancing were necessities, or so I thought.
Out my office window I watched squirrels leap from branch to branch, and at night the lights of cars bumping down L Street. On my desk was a small album with a padded cover, favorite photos of my son, several of them taken while he slept, covers kicked off, clutching a stuffed penguin. Sometimes it seemed I rarely saw him any other way.
Each year the Legislature worked long into the night in a mad scramble to complete its business before adjourning for the summer. One such night I wore a big-shouldered suit, turquoise with matching heels. It was past midnight and the building was ablaze, the capitol dome an electric wedding cake. Willie Brown, Speaker of the Assembly at the time, had stopped the clock so they could continue voting, though by any other measure it was a new day and the end of session. There was a carnival atmosphere in the halls and offices. The squawk box was cranked up high. Bells chimed to herald when the vote opened and then closed for each bill. The clerk intoned the ayes, the nays and the final outcome with rhythmic solemnity.
The office phone rang.
Our committee secretary answered. Winifred, or Winnie, was a tiny woman with lipstick and foundation thick in the cracks and wrinkles that radiated outward from her mouth. She seemed an ancient relic to me, though she was no older than I am now—this was before sixty became the new forty. Her fingers quaky from going too long without a drink, Winnie scribbled down the numbers of the bills due to be considered on the Assembly Floor in the coming hours. The analysis for each of these bills—which included a description of the problem, proposed changes to the law and who supported and opposed the change—needed to be reviewed, quickly revised and delivered to the eighty Legislators’ desks, all well before the vote was called.
Winnie stood behind my chair and set two tiny Snickers bars on my desk blotter along with the slip of paper on which she’d written my latest assignments. She gathered up the six-inch tail that trailed down my neck—my hair was short and spiky on top, long in the back, my attempt at an edgy rock and roll style. Her yellowed fingertips smelt of cigarettes and cheap perfume. She looked over my shoulder at the photo album in my lap, open to an image of my ruffled-haired, snoozing son.
“You okay, honey?” she said, her voice husky and thick.
I unwrapped a candy bar, ate it in two bites, chocolate, peanuts and caramel blending in my mouth, my gums numb, barely tasting. It wasn’t recreational drug use; given the unforgiving hours and the need to stay at the top of my game, the occasional line of coke was a necessity, or so I told myself.
I opened a document on the computer and pulled the latest amended version of the corresponding bill from a short stack on my desk to see what changes I needed to make to the text. The clock was ticking. The bells chimed to signal the vote on another bill. There was always the sense of an impatient machine, grinding on, waiting to be fed.
“I married the same man three times,” Winnie said, with a throaty laugh. She’d told me the story before. They would bump into one another on a street corner, have a drink for old time’s sake and wind up back where they started. As she reminisced, my fingers moved on the computer keys, one anxious ear tuned to the squawk box.
The backup secretary pulled my updated bill analysis from the printer.
“Want me to run it up to third reading?” he said, referring to the office that churned out the paper copies that would be delivered to the Legislators’ desks down on the Assembly floor.
I said I’d do it. I had energy to burn.
“You’re the boss,” he said, with a cheeky grin, because I wasn’t.
Outside, J, K and L Streets had been returned to the homeless for the night. Under the dome it was Mardi Gras—laughter from open office doors, a buffet spread in one, cookies in another, Irish Cream and KahlÃºa for your coffee, big boxes of See’s chocolate, tokens of appreciation from lobbyists, reminders of their sway.
I speed walked in my heels, ankles popping from side to side to ease the friction against nascent bunions. Not fast enough to match the beat of my heart. I shucked the shoes, tucked them under one arm, and sprinted down the hall. The polished floor was slick beneath my stocking feet.. One foot in front of the other, knees bent, I slid the final few feet, light from the bustling third reading office spilling into the darkened hallway. I slapped the paper on the counter, shouted out ‘hey’ to the faces I knew, the faces that knew mine.
Rumpled from the run, a big toe sticking through my stocking, I returned to our office bearing cookies. The backup secretary saluted. Waiting for me, on a clear corner of my polished wood desk, was another line of white powder. I pinched one nostril and sucked it in.
“It won’t be too much longer,” Winnie said, though she couldn’t know.
Fred was four when I started that job, eleven when I moved on. My first daughter, Veronica, was born in between, the product of a short-lived second marriage. It’s been over twenty-five years since her birth but I still recall what my boss, the Assembly woman we all worked for, said the day I brought my newborn baby into that capitol office for everyone to see.
“When the fuck are you coming back?” Those were her words, muttered around a skinny, brown cigarette clamped in her lipsticked mouth. I was back at my desk before Veronica was six weeks old. I added her sleepy-time photos to the padded album.
There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others, while I pounded out analyses for legislation long forgotten or superseded, flew through the capitol’s hallowed halls as if I owned the place, bantered and bartered with a cast of characters who thought no more of me than I did of them. It was the price I believed I had to pay to get ahead.
I was forty-five and pregnant when I married for the third time. Unlike Winnie, I married three very different men. The wedding was at a rural inn, with a garden-size, rocky waterfall out the tall dining room windows.
I was anxious about the marriage, about having another child at my age and about blending our disparate families. My soon-to-be-husband’s two boys displayed varying levels of animosity towards my kids and I. My son and daughter, seventeen and eight at the time, were resentful at being uprooted from their schools and friends.
I awoke with a migraine and as the hour of the ceremony neared, the pain intensified, pulsing behind my eyeballs, pressing against the sore spot on my skull. My son found me in the bedroom of our rented chalet, standing before the mirror, smoothing my bridal muumuu over my middle, convinced I would never see my waistline again. My eyes were puffy with tears, spoiling the garish makeup I’d had applied at the local Merle Norman. With fat, droopy curls framing my face, I looked like a frowsy, aging saloon girl on an episode of Gunsmoke. Fred was dressed in a pressed white shirt and tie. Though he would turn eighteen and start college in less than a year his cheeks were still round with baby fat.
“You okay, Mom?” he asked.
I dabbed at my eyes, sopping up streaks of black mascara.
“Hey, don’t cry,” he said.
“I’m just scared, I guess. It’s nothing.” I waved a damp tissue and forced a smile.
“If this thing,” he said, which I took to mean the marriage, “if it doesn’t work out, I’ll always be here. I’ll take care of you.” He studied the carpet, digging at it with the toe of a stiff dress shoe.
Which snapped something inside me back into place. It had been just the two of us for nearly ten years. And then, during junior high and high school, while his friends goofed off and did sports after school, Fred had helped me with Veronica. I took a deep breath and blew my nose.
There’s no reliving those days when the clock stopped at midnight and I left my kids, now as old as I was then, to the care of others.
Three weeks before my third and last child was born, we moved into a house big enough to accommodate seven and merged our two families. I started maternity leave a week later. I had parlayed my years with the Legislature into an executive position as the advocate for the California agency that regulates solid waste. A temporary replacement was conscripted to manage my programs and staff until I returned from maternity leave.
When my new daughter, Carolanne, was six weeks old I packed all the requisite baby paraphernalia into the car and drove to the office to show her off to my coworkers. The building was a three-story glass and steel box along the freeway, one of half a dozen cut from the same mold that hugged the exit. On the elevator, headed for the third floor where the executive offices were, one of the clerical staff, a plain woman with an active mouth, beamed at me as though I’d made her proud. She clasped my baby girl’s bare foot.
“It’s so wonderful that you finally took time to have a family,” she said, with a beatific smile. “I’m so happy for you. It’s the ultimate experience. Believe me, you have no idea how wonderful.”
It took me a moment to make sense of her words. “She’s my third child,” I said.
At the second floor, the elevator doors opened with a hydraulic whoosh. The woman stepped out. Before the door closed she turned and with an saccharin smile, said, “Well, maybe you’ll make more time for this one. So busy with your career and all, I just assumed.”
The director came out of his office to greet us. A trim man, he sometimes bragged he was the same weight as when he ran high school track. He was trussed up pretty tight. I was used to that. But it did seem as though his collar was even more confining than usual, his face a more uncomfortable shade of red and his jaw stiff with the effort of holding onto a smile.
“It’s good you’re here. Keith has something to discuss with you,” he said. Keith was our new Chief Deputy, second-in-command. “Better if someone keeps an eye on the baby so you two can talk.”
Carolanne had dozed off in her car carrier. I left her with the secretary. Keith rose from behind his desk. He looked more like a professor—classics perhaps, or philosophy—than a regulator. He wore a jacket with leather patches at the elbows. Wispy hair sprouted around his bald pate.
“Shut the door, if you don’t mind,” he said. “Sit. Make yourself at home.”
I tugged at a blouse button that kept springing open and hoped to God I didn’t leak. He dropped a manila folder in front of me as though it were a hot plate that had singed his fingers. Inside the folder was a duty statement for a job doing something called “data integration.”
“I’m sure the director has told you all about this,” Keith said.
“No he hasn’t,” I said.
Keith blinked behind his glasses. “This will be your assignment when you return.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Well, when you told him you wanted a less stressful job when you returned from maternity leave, I, um, he…”
I cut him off. “I never said that.”
I’d done what Keith was doing half a dozen times. I’d fired staff at the director’s behest. And I’d cooked up ludicrous special assignments like the one I was being offered. “Opportunities to fail,” we’d jokingly called them. It was my turn. I was being banished to the civil service equivalent of Siberia, consigned to the F Troop.
Through Keith’s closed door came Carolanne’s thin whine, working up a cry. I hugged my breasts tight to keep the milk from coming. But it was no use.
It had taken me fifteen years to get where I was in my career. I had charted uphill progress in terms of a growing paycheck, the size of my office and the position of my name on the organizational chart. I’d convinced myself it wasn’t only for me. It was for the kids, who deserved to live in a nice house in a good neighborhood and to go to college.
Clasping the baby seat for the long walk to the car, I felt the weight of those years, the choices I’d made, the many times I missed one of my children’s performances or events because of work. All those lost moments were rendered inconsequential by one swift managerial decision.
The next few weeks were a blur. I roused from bed to feed and settle the baby while the new house and its other occupants stormed around me. When even that became too much, I crept into our dim, walk-in closet and closed the shuttered doors, the baby in a small bassinet beside me, mercifully asleep.
At intervals there were voices at the door—my husband, one of my sisters, my husband again. Their words seemed distant, unconnected to me. Cocooned on the carpeted floor, with a pillow and my robe for a blanket, I drifted in and out of dream-choked sleep.
“Bob says you won’t come out.” It was my son. He’d started college and moved into the dorms.
“I will,” I said. “You didn’t have to come here. I’m sorry.”
Fred nudged the door open, just enough that we could see one another. He sat on the bathmat and hugged his bent knees. His eyes were round saucers of concern, his gaze steady, without judgment. I was simultaneously proud and ashamed. Proud of the young man he’d become, of his solid goodness, of how much he wanted to help. Ashamed that it wasn’t the first time he’d found his mother past coping and dealt with it as best he could, no matter his age.
“He shouldn’t have bothered you,” I said.
“It’s okay. You need me to take you someplace? A doctor or something.” I sat up and lifted the fussing baby from the bassinet. “I’m a heifer,” I said. “A fat, bloated cow.”
He gave me that sad smile.
“I missed your sixth grade graduation,” I said, my voice cracking. “There was some stupid deadline at work. I can’t even remember anymore.”
“You sat through an entire Depeche Mode concert with me and Chris.”
“Two Depeche Mode concerts,” I said, patting Carolanne’s behind.
“Oh yeah, that’s right,” he said, nodding. “Two years in a row.”
“Junior high. I missed that graduation too. Got tied up at work.”
“It’s no big deal, Mom. Remember that one time the sheriff drove me home. Woke you up at three in the morning. That wasn’t the only time. It was just the only time I got caught.”
“And the golf team,” I said. “You should have joined. You liked golf.”
“You needed me to pick Veronica up from daycare when you worked late.”
“You could have at least asked me.” Even as I said the words, I wondered whether the outcome would have been any different if he had asked.
“There are way worse parents out there. Believe me. My friends all thought you were pretty cool.”
“I bet they did.”
I looked at my son. Really looked at him. My mother was right. I’d told her she was crazy when she said he was starting to look like a concentration camp survivor.
“What do you weigh these days?” I asked. Fred shrugged.
“Stand on the scale,” I said.
I put out my hand and he pulled me to standing. I stood beside him, bouncing the baby, as he stepped on the scale. The electronic numbers flickered until he steadied. 117. My son had lost over fifty pounds since the wedding. Fred was skin and bone, jutting cheek bones, jaw and clavicles, wrists and ankles I could have wrapped the fingers of one hand around.
Consumed with getting married, moving into a new home, having a baby and losing my job, I hadn’t noticed.
I stood beside him as he stepped on the scale. The electronic numbers flickered until he steadied. 117. My son had lost over fifty pounds since the wedding… Consumed with moving into a new home, having a baby and losing my job, I hadn’t noticed.
I lay on the unmade bed with Carolanne. Two small, dimpled feet kicked at the air. She found them with her hands, first one foot, then the other and her eyes grew bright with wonder, with discovery, and she gurgled, telling me about it, telling herself, about these new things, attached to her, yet apart too, elusive, challenging her to catch them, and then the feeling when she did, of recognition, of touch that registered in the brain as pleasure and as an accomplishment, one of hundreds of discoveries brought by each new day. Light from the sliding glass door broke into dancing fragments all around us. She reached for it too, chubby fingers closing in fists, again and again, as slippery coins of light eluded her grasp and played on her soft skin and over the bedspread all around us, transformed into a tranquil sea of dancing, sunlit fish.
Though it would take months for me to shake the sense of shame and loss, being demoted within weeks of Carolanne’s birth allowed me an emotional freedom I hadn’t enjoyed when the other two were small. I returned to work after six months, rather than six weeks. I got back on my feet professionally, worked for another dozen years and ended my career as the Executive Director of a different state regulatory agency, yet my priorities had been irrevocably reordered. I never forgot that no matter how important or demanding a job may seem, it has no heart. I hope that I have been a good mother to all of my children, yet I know I have been more present this last time around.
I was a young twenty-six when Fred was born. He seemed to me an older twenty-six when he married. His wife once thanked me; giving me at least partial credit for the man he has become, always kind, thoughtful and empathetic. And with more pride than regret, I wonder, as I imagine all parents, and particularly single mothers, must sometimes wonder, did I just get lucky or did he feel my love and support, did he find what was good in me, in spite of all the rest.
Author’s Note: Fred, my eldest child, is now 35 and, among other things, an amazing husband and father of two. When he was small and it was just the two of us, getting through each day, balancing work and all the rest, often felt like a battle I didn’t always win. In many ways we grew up together and are, I hope, both the better for it. I know that I am.
Dorothy Rice lives in Sacramento with her husband and the youngest of their five children. Her fiction and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in The Rumpus, Still Point Arts Quarterly, The Louisville Review and The Saturday Evening Post website, among others. Her first book, The Reluctant Artist, a memoir about her father, will be published this year. At 60, following a career in environmental protection, Dorothy earned an MFA in creative writing.