Short story originally published in Literary Pasadena: The Fiction Edition.
When you walk out of the house, leaving your three children behind, there is a part of you that thinks you will never go back. But it is a small part. Mostly you tell yourself that you just need a minute, just one minute to breathe, and once you feel your legs solidly beneath you, something that is just yours and meant to carry you alone, it’s going to be okay, you’re going to be okay, and you can go back to what you created.
But you don’t.
It is the middle of the day and you just made lunch—hot dogs for them, rolled into flour tortillas because the whole wheat buns went moldy, and a salad with leftover chicken for you, no dressing—and the baby needs a nap soon and you promised the big kids you’d clean off the slip n’ slide, and there are things to do around the house, things you promised your husband you’d take care of like call the phone company about the outrage of last month’s bill; take down the birthday decorations from your daughter’s party two weekends ago, a dental theme that you thought was impossible for an 8-year old to imagine or execute; clean the spider webs from the front porch so they don’t nest in the baby’s swing; bleach the boy’s baseball pants for the game on Saturday, when it will be 95 degrees and he won’t want to play and you won’t want to watch him, but because you paid for it and he’s got talent or at least a waning interest, and you are a good mother and want to give him the opportunities your parents gave you, deserving or not, desired or not, you will force the entire family to go cheer him on.
And there’s more: you need to defrost something healthy and interesting for dinner, something they won’t complain they just had, something you won’t read about the dangers of on that mothering blog that sends you email updates you don’t have time to read; re-frame the family portrait that slipped from the matte in the heat wave and now sits cockeyed in the corner of the frame, exposing the cardboard lining behind the matte, making you feel cheap and lazy every time you walk by it, like you left an old pair of underwear soaking in the sink before a neighbor’s unexpected visit.
So much to do, yet not enough to keep you there.
Three steps out the door and you hear someone calling your name: “Mom-my,” not a name really, more of a condition, a label that sounds most days like an accusation, but you don’t turn around. “Go back inside,” you say over your shoulder, and even though you can tell them apart in the dark by the sound of their breathing, you don’t even know which one it was.
After, more to yourself, you say, “I’ll be right back,” but even then, at the edge of your yard, the grass thick like it’s man-made—so different from the grass of your childhood, silky and dark like spinach, always cool beneath your feet—you question whether you’re telling the truth. Will you be right back? Will you ever be back?
The heat of the driveway surprises you, gritty like a beach-side parking lot. You are barefoot, you now realize, and the complete lack of surprise surrounding this fact, the bitter truth of it, makes you smile. Of course, you think, why would you stop to put on shoes? Why take care of yourself when there are so many others to take care of?
You keep walking. The sidewalk is partly covered by fallen magnolia leaves, the underside soft like suede. These are the same leaves your kids collect and use as tickets to the shows they produce each afternoon in the backyard, your ears ringing from their pitch-less voices, yet proud that 21st century kids can still use their imaginations, can play for hours without batteries. Your heart pounds in your chest, as if you’re running uphill. You fight the urge to hold your breath. Instead, you inhale; feel the butterflies land at the bottom of your stomach as you remember how much you love your children.
But still, you keep walking.
Ahead, beyond your neighbor’s house, you see the distant San Gabriel Mountains. Now you have a focal point, a goal, as you imagine those peaks to be your destination, tell yourself you’re taking a scenic hike, the kind your neighborhood is known for, instead of abandoning the three human beings you intentionally brought into the world. The foothills are famous for cultivating poppy fields and bobcats, suburban legend boasting about the bobcat who took a baby from her carriage while her mother was gardening. You’re not sure how the story ends because you refused to keep listening, but the words bobcat and baby and mother and garden were enough for you to know it was a warning not to have a baby or a garden, though you didn’t heed either piece of advice. You also knew intrinsically that it was the mother’s fault, not the bloodthirsty bobcat, though he had the two-inch incisors. No matter what, it is always the mother’s fault.
Before you had children, you thought the most difficult part would be when they were babies—the diapers, the night feedings, the constant worry. In fact, those were the easy years. With babies, you don’t have to answer questions or mediate arguments. You don’t have to supervise their homework and their play-dates, clean pee off the toilet seat, toothpaste off the walls, and blood from surprise nosebleeds while they sleep; you don’t have to shop three times a week to keep them in pretzels and pasta and crackers shaped like the alphabet, things you’re embarrassed to put in your cart but will later save you hours of complaint and refusal.
You thought motherhood was a territory, a place to stake your claim and plant seeds, watch them blossom, when really it’s a negotiation between border states. You didn’t realize there would be so much unrest. Before them, you and your husband barely argued. Not about time or money or responsibility, you argued about silly things like your ex-boyfriends wanting to meet for coffee or a co-worker who texts too late at night. People don’t make you jealous now, but time does. His Wednesday night card games, basketball playoffs in the neighbor’s den, a conference in Dallas that puts him on a 3-hour flight all by himself and gives him four nights in the air conditioned silence of a chain hotel. When he sits in the driveway listening to NPR after his commute, waiting for the story to end. You could slap him across the face for that—as if you ever get to complete anything. A conversation, a meal, an article, an argument. That is the problem with motherhood—your life becomes a To Do list you never get to complete. The satisfaction of a job well done, of being done at all, constantly eludes you.
Your only hope for accomplishment is escape.
Your only escape is in the bathroom.
Reading The New Yorker used to be something you did to keep up with colleagues, but now it is a strategy, a ploy that buys you a few moments of solitude. You distract them with snacks and sneak off to the bathroom like you used to sneak off to smoke in high school, the magazine tucked under your arm like contraband. Five, or god-forbid, ten minutes alone, is worth the hassle of installing the key locks yourself, the occasional knocks from the little one to make sure you’re okay, the strange looks as you sheepishly exit, lighting a match in your wake. You’d exchange anything for this solitude, let them think you have dysentery, that you’re throwing up the four ice cream sandwiches you just ate, anything is better than the truth, which is this: you need to pretend, for a few minutes everyday, that they don’t exist. You need to know you have the option of escape. That you are something more than, something beyond, their mother.
You have walked two more blocks without realizing it. You don’t turn around, but if you did, the roofline of your 3-bedroom craftsman would be visible. You would see that your house looks peaceful from this distance, and fake, like an architects model of a typical suburban home, and you wonder just how typical you are—how many mothers have left their children unattended? How many other women have traded their name for a label they don’t recognize, playing a part with lines they don’t want to recite?
You feel your phone vibrating in your pocket. The screen says your husband’s name, yet has a picture of the baby kissing you. How sweet. You send it straight to voicemail by pressing the “reject” button, then see that you have 3 missed calls from him. A text reads: Call me. Now. Another one: Are you okay?? You drop your phone back into your pocket.
A car passes by, slowing down at the corner. The driver looks back to see if he knows you. You look away. You don’t want to be seen.
The street is suddenly quiet, unfamiliar. You stop short, stubbing your toe on a crack in the sidewalk, the concrete split by the roots of a tree you cannot name. The surface is still hot under your feet, though the sun is barely a suggestion in the sky. What is it about the desert, you wonder, that allows everything to hold such heat, yet never explode?
The phone vibrates again. You pause mid-step, half your body wanting to keep going, the other half ready to face what you’ve done, to explain, to justify. Your mind races to make up a story, something he will buy without too much effort or apology. Instead, you draw a complete blank. You wonder if you are out of words. You wonder if you are out of your mind.
You hold the phone in your hand. You feel his desperation, feel your own. You look at the picture of your baby, read your husband’s name like it’s a foreign text.
You press “accept,” and hear your husband’s voice before the phone is even touching your ear.
“Julia, are you there? What the hell happened?”
You start to speak, but instead of words coming out they go in. You swallow them in a gulp with the hot air. Your finger slides over the power button and you disconnect the line.
Seconds later, as you round the bend on Prospect, a street you can’t afford to live on, you hear a familiar sound: the annoying jingle of the ice cream truck. The clown-shaped speakers that assault you with “The Star Spangled Banner” everyday at exactly 3:45, predictable as an alarm clock, have found you. You stop cold, fury mounting. The sound makes you want to hurt someone, to forget yourself and become a criminal. You imagine screaming at the driver, threatening to slash his tires so he doesn’t ever come back to your street, writes this block off as being borderline, beyond the god-like grasp of gentrification, but then you realize this isn’t your block, and you’re not on your street, and this truck, this mobile merchant, this man who deals with dozens more children in a day than you do, has as much of a right to be here as you. Probably more.
As you pass the truck, you glance at the stickered window, opened just a crack, yet large enough for a child’s hand to slip through. Though trying not to look, you can’t help but see the hobbled back, the loose off-brand jeans, slick with wear, and most surprisingly, the expression on the driver’s yielding face, his cloudless eyes, and your heart breaks with compassion as you realize he is of your tribe, like a teacher or social worker: he knows the burden of a life spent sustaining children.
For that you walk over and give him the only money in your pocket, a twenty dollar bill, and tell him to keep the change in exchange for half a dozen ice cream sandwiches, wrapped in the same thin paper as the ones you devoured in high school, studying for geometry exams you aced in vain, never using the math aptitude that made your father so proud, instead studying Religion and Theater Arts in college, things that made you interesting at cocktail parties but had yet to get you a job paying more than $40,000 a year. But what did it matter in the end, when you married young and well and had left those dead-end jobs for the glory of motherhood?
“Hope the kids enjoy ‘em,” the driver says as you walk away, the ice cream sandwiches tucked under your arm and melting against the heat of your abdomen, hollow now that your womb is empty.
Hearing them mentioned in a collective, like they are a destination, some fun-filled place you’d visit, makes you think of turning back. You are filled with a sudden longing, a pure, clean desire to hold them, to feel the snap of their limbs bend around your neck, the weight of brimming bodies in your arms, yet inside you know it’s too late.
You are no longer a mother; you are a monster.
Who else would leave their children home alone? To walk the streets like some addict? You hear the refrain in your mind like a nursery rhyme: You don’t deserve to have these children, to be anyone’s mother, when you can’t even take care of yourself. Because if you could, you wouldn’t be here, would you?
You carry the ice cream sandwiches, damp with sweat. Together they feel like a wet book under your arm, a book you might have written, your autobiography perhaps, if you had the time or inclination to create something outside of your own body, if you could remember who you were.
You pass a familiar house, one you’ve often dreamt was your own, and spot three children playing together on the front lawn, children that could belong to you. A boy you imagine as Max is holding the baby, a head full of soft curls, while a girl named Bailey or Sasha taps the cat with a stick, making them all laugh when the cat falls over, chasing his own tail. As you look at them now, knowing they are someone else’s children, some other happy family, you think how easy it is to be kind to strangers, to smile and wave, to offer them melted ice cream sandwiches as you pass by, comforted by the fact that you aren’t responsible for their happiness or well-being. That you don’t owe them anything at all.