Bug schlepped a canvas bag weighed down with five books and a beach towel to school on Friday. This was on top of his normal overstuffed backpack. With a parade of literary events, his class had been celebrating Dr. Seuss’ birthday all week. The grand finale had the kids lounging around the classroom on their towels like a pod of beached bibliophiles. It was a Key West siesta under fluorescent lights. When I picked him up, he told me someone special had come to his class to read.
“Was it Horton?” I asked. “The Cat in the Hat?”
He rolled his eyes. “They’re pretend!”
“Oh, so it was Santa Claus, then.”
“No! Guess for real!”
“Let me see. Was it. . . your daddy?”
His face lit up. “Yep!”
Tee is one of the three Class Moms for Bug’s kindergarten room. He is a regular volunteer and he manages all the electronic communication to keep the rest of us absent kin in the loop. The twinge of envy I feel about his extensive involvement is eclipsed by relief. At least my kid has a parent who is a solid presence in the school. (Even typing this, I am quelling the urge to explain all the reasons why this is the way it is, and how I am doing my best given commutes and job demands, etc. etc. Maternal guilt is a bottomless pit).
“So,” I said, turning into the driveway. “What did Daddy read?”
“Scuppers,” Bug said with a grin.
“Sailor Dog!” I cut the engine and twisted around to face him. “Boy, we read the heck out that book when you were little. ‘Born at sea in the teeth of a gale, the sailor was a dog.’ That is your daddy’s most favorite book ever.”
Bug jutted his chin. “How do you know?” This is Bug’s latest gambit: haughty skepticism. I take it as a sign of charisma and burgeoning self-reliance. This helps me bite my tongue.
My better self won out and offered up a shiny smile. “A long, lo-o-ong time ago, back when your daddy and I were first dating, he did nice things to try to get my attention.” I stretched toward him over the console and whispered, “I’ll never understand why, but he kinda liked me.”
Bug’s wall of snottiness crumbled. He unsnapped his seat belt and ooched forward. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. And you know how sometimes, when big kids or grownups like each other and start getting romantic and silly, they bring flowers and chocolate, all that lovey-dovey stuff?”
Bug nodded. His eyes were wide.
“So, your daddy and I had only been seeing each other for a few weeks. This was long before you were born. It was before we were married, before we really knew each other at all. One day, a package came for me at work. It was all wrapped up in paper. It didn’t say who it was from. I took it back to my desk and tore it open. Do you know what was inside?”
Bug shook his head. “What?”
Bug took a second to absorb this. Then his face split open. “Scuppers?” He burst out laughing.
“Your daddy had sent me a picture book to show me he liked me.”
Bug rocked back with a whoop and collapsed into his booster seat. He laughed so hard he could barely catch his breath. “He sent you Scuppers? What?”
“Yep. I kept looking at it and turning it over. I couldn’t figure it out! He hadn’t even put a note in it. Some guys surprise you with a big bouquet of flowers. Not Tee. Nope. He sent me. . . ”
“Scuppers!” Bug snorted. “A kid’s book.”
I shrugged. “That’s when I knew your daddy was a giant goofball. And I also found out what his favorite book was.”
Bug shook his head and opened the car door. “I can’t believe Daddy. I just can’t believe he got you Scuppers.” He bounced out of the car and up the driveway. I grabbed the backpack and books he invariably forgets without a reminder from me. This time, I let him off the hook.
Bug knows his daddy loves him because Tee is there. Every time my kiddo turns, he finds his father all over again. Tee’s care is a physical presence. His love is relentless. (Long may it last)
Bug knows I love him because I lay with him every night and rub his back. Three books, three songs, without fail. We greet the dark together.
Bug knows that his daddy I once loved each other, too. I do not want him to forget. Our story is the prelude to our son’s. It was calm waters before it was storms and shipwrecks. It didn’t end the way storybooks are supposed to, but it was ours. It was love. All that remains of it is our son’s. There is treasure down there somewhere. It is his for the taking.
Brown, Margaret Wise. The Sailor Dog. Golden Books, 1953.
The comment was not meant for my ears.
The young couple walked over a carpet of grass under a smiling May sky. The shared yes shined all cheeks including those of the two-year-old daughter brought by the bride into the union. It was a postcard moment. The problem is that moments never sit still.
The groom, a co-worker, pulled the twosome into his grip. From the early courtship, I worried for mother and daughter both. He had a repellant tendency towards conceit and control, and the thought of their having to build a life with the guy made me shudder. I had tried to befriend the girls but he inserted himself into our interactions every chance he got. The mom was sweet but passive. Young, too. She believed her daughter needed a strong male role model. I wanted to beg her to run. How could she possibly have seen enough in the guy to want to stay? She claimed to love him. Ah, yes. Love. What do I know about the secrets that unfold when the door closes? And there they were, standing before the glittering lake together. Vows, rings, flowers, cheers.
One must wish for good.
As they walked away, legally bound now, I heard one of her male relatives lean over and say sotto voce to his neighbor, “Boy, she really got lucky with that one.”
The other fellow replied, “I don’t know how she managed it, but I hope she can hold onto him.”
A frost wrapped its grip around my veins.
This is how it is, I suppose: How we learn what is allowed for us, and how we come to know what we can expect from these messy lives. Hearing this whisper helped me understand more of the bride’s story. (With family like that, who needs enemies?) Yes, perhaps she had heard enough about her wasted chances that she believed she needed to be saved. And perhaps she had also been tromped on by stupid, arrogant men enough that she mistook dominance for devotion.
Also, though, didn’t that whisper shout a truth shared by too many of us? He is the prize, and it was just dumb luck that she picked the golden ticket. With all that baggage, she shouldn’t look too closely at the fine print.
Single moms have to take what we can get. If we hope to find companionship again in this life, we might as well accept that we are going to have to settle for less. Most men (even single dads) will take one look at the kiddos we bring into the relationship and will think twice. The sooner we face that we are not the hot commodities we once were, the better off we’ll be.
Or something to that effect.
How much of this do we internalize, despite knowing better?
Lately, I have been struggling with the beginning of a budding something-or-other with a fine fella who has a couple of kids of his own. We have enjoyed a few friendly, casual quasi-dates and exchanged some thoughtful emails. Our conversation has deepened, and something like interest has begun to push up through the polite chit-chat.
Now, I pause.
In the midst of this growing interest, three things happened rat-tat-tat to throw me off my game. First, a weekend work event and last-minute childcare issues had me scrambling to find 11th-hour care for a super-early Saturday morning. Two days of stress, planning, and pleas to friends later, it was resolved. Right on the heels of that, a freak roller skating accident busted up my wrist and ankle. In a splint and in pain, I was out of driving commission for the better part of a week. Both my work and my son’s school commutes had to go through some major contortions during that time. Finally, as soon as I was driving again, a tire puncture left me flat as we were pulling out of the driveway on the way to school. Several more days of commuting kerfuffle ensued.
Needless to say, I was exhausted.
This new fellow, he heard about all of this going on. He continued to express his interest. To ask me when I wanted to get together. To send me friendly texts about his thoughts, his day, and even to inquire into my well-being.
Not once did he offer to help.
I am a tough mama. I can go it alone. I have friends and family, and hell, I got this shit down. Nevertheless, as the two weeks went by and his chatty calls and emails cropped up, I felt a growing sense of disappointment. It is early enough in our friendship that I am unlikely to ask straight out for help. I didn’t feel like I should, as we haven’t built anything solid between us yet.
Of course, this isn’t the whole story. I also notice that part in me that wants to make sure he sees me as capable instead of needy. I want him to association me with fun! And Lightness! And not to create a link in his mind between me and having to work at something. Aren’t there a dozen other single moms lined up behind me that would rip my arms off for a chance to get at this guy? And wouldn’t it be stupid of me to destroy my chances on something as insignificant as a missing offer of help? I mean, can’t I live without that? Haven’t I learned to manage just fine anyway?
Isn’t he the prize? And shouldn’t I just be smart and not look too closely at the fine print?
So, instead of asking outright, I simply breathed through the confusion and decided to wait. I kept being friendly, kept responding with politeness, and waited to see what would happen. I sat in that open not-knowing, leaving the door wide open for him to decide what role he wants to play in my life.
The last time he called, he asked AGAIN about the flat tire. I told him it was not yet fixed, I was having to rely on my folks and friends, and I would be hauling my kid with me to the service station in the morning. He said, “Well, good luck. Let me know if you want to get together for a play date or something if your plans change.”
Like it did on that beautiful May afternoon, the frost wrapped its little fist around my veins.
A successful, attractive, sharp-as-a-tack fellow is expressing interest in me. He continues to reach out, ask me for drinks, and accompany me on walks. But in that moment on the phone, I realized something chilling. He has not once asked me on a date-date. He’ll say, “Hey, let me know when you’re free.” But he has not actually said, “Can I please take you out to dinner? There’s a performance I’d love to take you to see.” Something along those lines. If I honestly look at our exchanges over the past couple months, I’m a little embarrassed by how much I have made myself available to this guy. It has been me showing up with the token gift every time we get together. Me sending him suggestions when he has a project or is planning an event. Me making the arrangements for where we will meet. Me going over to his house for a glass of wine and a chat. I jumped from initial interest to courting him without him following a similar trajectory.
I was feeling happy and thankful that someone was interested, and doing whatever it took to keep it moving in the right direction. It didn’t occur to me to even acknowledge what I want, let alone ask for it. Isn’t it realistic to hope for him to put in the effort to keep me feeling good about us, too?
All of us carry the scars of our past relationships. The voices of the old lovers, fathers, friends and villains clang against our ribs, making it hard to discern the unique tattoo of our own hearts.
Sometimes distant echoes freeze us inside the threshold of our own home base.
I’ve been told I overthink things, that I crave drama, that I am cold and distant, that I don’t know how to love and that I fall in love too easily. That I am selfish and that I give too freely. I have clung, I have dismissed. Every time, these choices seemed both right and wrong, taking me both further from the easy catch and closer to my true path.
And so I wonder: Is it time to stop trying to make myself wantable, and instead seek partnership that guides me towards my purpose? Am I finally going to respect myself enough to build a relationship that honors my best self?
I do know how to love, and I also know there are hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of ways it can unfold between two people. Whether this guy and I are a good fit for each other is more about how we handle the places where we grate than it is about easing into a postcard-perfect embrace.
It may be the case that we will move to the other side of this, talking with care and creativity the way we have in every conversation so far. Perhaps I will learn that he is not as generous with his time and support as I would like my fella to be, and then I will be faced with a choice between acceptance and moving on. Perhaps he will surprise me, and I will be the lucky one to be on the receiving end of his generous spirit. Who knows?
Whatever happens, I will not put my head down and just be happy for any old attention I get because it is all I can hope for on this side of divorce. Instead, I picture a full-to-spilling life, with friends and love and meaningful work. I invite in the crazy ups-and-downs with my headstrong kid, the long walks over distant mountains, learning and then forgetting the names of birds calling from branches. I welcome garlic popping in oil on the stove, a sugared ginger decadence cooling on the counter, the jars and books and paints and splattered messes. In all of this, I feel the presence of someone near who places his hand on my arm and says, “Here, let me get that.” In all of this, I also feel the warm throb of solitude calling forth words on a page and candlelight in an empty room.
In any event, I do not feel frost gripping my veins.
I know that all of us – the fella, the Me, our children, the bride and her baby girl and everyone else besides – are precious and miraculous beings. We have it in us to craft a life meant for storybooks. But we have to be our own heroes, and we have to believe against all the forces whispering cold wind across our hearts that we are more than the lucky ones. We are also the gifts. Each and every one of us is the prize.
I told him I do not like cut flowers.
Colombian workers, pennies per hour, chemicals baths,
pick your poison.
Porn is no fun
when all you can think is
Those poor girls.
In autumn, he brought a cutting of lavender
dried and dropping a cascade of violet nibs
all over the bedroom floor.
It came from a local farm
where it had been put up in the rafters last spring.
At our first dusting of snow,
he wound silk ribbon in purple and blue
around a taped stem
until it became two roses
fastened in place with pins.
In February, when other women in the office
received their fragrant splashes
carried in on cargo planes from sunnier places,
he set upon my desk a Dracaena
in a pot of soft soil,
its minute trunk grown from infancy
in the shape of a heart.
When April became summer,
he plodded, sleep-deprived and stomach growling,
on a winding trail along a creek
because I asked.
I saw a spray of white blossoms
but walked on because he needed to eat.
He stopped for me. Planted his feet.
“Come look at your flowers,” he said.
I did. Sugared petals threaded with candy floss.
He motioned to the purple ones and bent to help with those.
Wild Sweet William.
Blue Creeping Phlox.
My collection grows.
the names bloom
from my tongue.