Ann Prayer wished that she could hijack a plane. At least that would be exciting. Instead she was making dinner for her helpless children. Although two of the four were not quite helpless. They could make themselves a peanut butter sandwich in a pinch. She knew she could be arrested for the very thought, or for articulating it, not by her children or husband but by the government. She was going off again on a tangent in her mind, hearing the song “Leaving on a Jet Plane” going round and round until she thought, I must memorize some poetry that I really like so I will quit getting these songs stuck in my head that are starting to make me crazy. She would find herself switching the laundry around and “Michelle” by the Beatles would suddenly flash into her head, no reason. Sometimes she heard music without lyrics, orchestral, symphonic. Odd that she could invent this beauty, she had never even played an instrument.
The doorbell rang once, loudly. That meant it was the FedEx guy leaving a package on the porch. It was likely to be a work-related envelope for her husband who was on a business trip. Ann was glad she didn’t have to answer the door but could scurry out there quickly to retrieve the package later after the driver had gone. After her second child, Ann had suddenly, and freakishly almost, gained 100 pounds. Plopped onto her diminutive 5-foot 2-inch frame, that put her at 250 pounds. Sometimes she could not believe it herself. Her face in the mirror still looked normal. She hadn’t developed a double chin or even any puffiness, so much so that a headshot photo would never reveal her actual size.
She was stuck in her body and didn’t really have a plan for getting out of it except through long and excruciating dieting and exercise, the prospect of which made her feel hungry and nauseous. She pulled out the nacho cheese chips from the cupboard next to the sink and sat down heavily on a stool next to the kitchen island. Some people drank their Cosmos or Margaritas or Martinis, this was her stress reliever and secret pleasure. Not so secret since it all showed up on her body. Every last bite. It would be easier to hide a drinking habit. She tore open the chips and sat there munching, content, for the moment.
The kids were outside playing with the toy guns she had bought for them. She figured it was going to be a losing battle, prohibiting them, and that they would fashion their own out of sticks and pieces of bread, or whatever, anyway so she decided to let that go too—like her own body she mused—and let them get the plastic automatic toys she had seen at Walmart. They were delighted and were mowing each other down in good spirits up and down the driveway. It seemed there was no getting away from the guns, the flagrant patriotism, the fear of thinking and saying aloud something subversive.
Play guns were at the bottom of her list of worries.
What worried her now was why in the hell she wanted to jump in a plane and direct it where to go. That was it. Not hijack it but simply point it in the direction of her choosing. Her whim. The French Riviera? That would be good. But then she looked down at her triple large-sized t-shirt (also bought at Walmart) that was only slightly camouflaging her folds of fat, and sighed. There was no running from that. If she managed to get away, she’d be bringing her own bulk with her. Besides it was impossible. Three boys and a baby girl (our little accident she told people of Annabelle, and she was) and a husband who traveled a lot for work. She wasn’t going anywhere.
Joe was in Dubai again, working as an engineering consultant on construction projects. There was no end of building to do there and he went for a week almost every other week. Anything could happen while he was in Dubai. Why would he not choose to be unfaithful, with her as obese as she was? Of all places, she thought, Dubai. If she considered places where a man could be unfaithful the Middle East would not have come to mind. But then of course she knew nothing. She had been to Europe just out of college and had blissful memories but her experiences were so limited. She had attended a small Lutheran college in her hometown—a working-class, factory town that she escaped from as soon as she graduated and could buy a decent car to get out of there.
The screeching of the delighted boys reached her in the kitchen. She had turned on the air conditioning, enough so that it was decidedly chilly in the house, the way she liked it. The windows remained open however. She liked the breeze. It was in the 80s outside. To her embarrassment she immediately started to perspire as soon as she stepped out the door. People would stare at her. One day at Menards when she was browsing in the outdoor greenhouse area, another shopper had touched her elbow gently and asked, “Are you alright, ma’am?”
“Ma’am.” How strange it had sounded. She had almost looked around behind her to see if the woman was speaking to someone else. Then she realized it was because she was sweating profusely and because she was obese and the woman must have thought she was about to faint or have a heart attack. The sweating had been something that happened to her long before she had put on all the weight. She had answered the woman, “No, thank you. I’m fine, really,” and gone back to looking over the lupines.
Joey came into the house, crying and racing around the kitchen island.
“Jack pushed me up against the garage and then hit me with his gun!”
My, Ann thought, if anyone heard that, they would probably not believe that I am a liberal Democrat. On one side of her, her neighbor had placed not one but two bright, new American flags at each corner of the porch steps going up to their front door. On the other side of her, the residents kept an extra large (like her own clothes size) pickup truck parked in the driveway with yellow ribbon and a “Support Our Troops” sticker on its tailgate. She was outnumbered. But they didn’t have a clue. What with the kids playing with guns in the driveway and their own GMC SUV—and her size for that matter, if she was really going to take apart the demographics—her views were safe. She was flying under the radar. She would have liked to proclaim her loyalties but it wasn’t worth the discord. At the onset of the Iraq War in 2003, in the last town where they lived, she had written a couple of scathing letters of protest to the editor of the weekly small town paper and had had to suffer the consequences for a long time after that: people shunning her in the diner, friends of friends who had written their own replies to her letter, stating their unflagging support of the war, mostly because they knew someone in the military and couldn’t very well, under those circumstances, not support the war. She had written back, that her own father had served in World War II, a bit of defensiveness that she felt had been rather ridiculous in hindsight. Who didn’t know someone who had fought in the “Good War” and what did that have to do with anything?
Annabelle was crying upstairs and needed to be changed. She was a beautiful baby. She knew because she heard it so much from the neighbors who would drop by and beg to hold her. Ann thought her daughter had one eye slightly larger than the other which tended to give her a little of a cross-eyed appearance but no one else seemed to notice it.
Ann had gone through most of the bag of nacho chips and had stuffed it under the counter when Jack had burst in. Now she took it out again, found a big plastic clip in a drawer, carefully rolled the top of the bag down and clipped it shut. This would be her treat for later. Maybe that and some ice cream after the kids went to bed. Maybe she’d let them have some ice cream. Joe would be checking in late from Dubai on the webcam and Jack, Mike and Joey Jr. always looked forward to that.
Mike came in wearing his camo shirt and pants. Her three boys were running around in camo and shooting each other. She pictured tousle-haired boys looking cheerful in a Gap ad, wearing polo shirts and chinos and here she was, implicitly condoning militarism and violence, maybe setting the scene for their future as foot soldiers somewhere in some God-forsaken hot, dry, forbidding country.
The house two doors down was being foreclosed on and stood empty and unkempt. It “had potential” the realtor said, and Ann could not help but blanch. She’d done the fixer-upper gig and would never go back. Meanwhile the foreclosed house was a blight on the neighborhood. Its stucco façade was gray and pockmarked, the porch sagged and the white trim around the windows was chipped and dirty. There was some thrown-on lean-to addition on the driveway side and a tumble-down playhouse in the backyard.
“I’m hungry!” yelled Mike, while Jack pulled on her short’s leg. She smelled that Jack needed a change. Mike started rummaging in the cupboard and she was afraid he’d find her stash of chips so she shut the door quickly, almost on his fingers.
“What the …? Mom! You almost broke my finger off!”
“Don’t say, ‘What the …,’ because it sounds like you’re going to say something bad after that. I don’t want you looking for snacks a half-hour before we’re going to have dinner.”
“You mean ‘heck,’ or ‘hell,’ like you say, Mom? Is that what you mean?”
“Don’t smart off, sonny boy.”
“It’s what you say, Mom. I’ve heard you say that.”
“That’s not the point,” she said. “Don’t say that.”
She sighed. Where was this all going? Why couldn’t Joe be here to help her figure this stuff out, where to draw the line with these boys. The good thing was they played with each other, being at the most eighteen months apart. Ann didn’t have to call up friends for play dates all the time.
But there was the soccer, the endless soccer practices and games. What a mistake that had been. Joey Jr. and Mike had her running around town and to far flung suburbs and towns within a fifty-mile radius. She kept telling herself this was absolutely the last year she would do this, but then Jack was going to be coming up on the age where he would begin and then she would have three kids to follow around to games, or rather “matches,” when the weather always seemed to be either too hot or too cold. She’d drag the canvas folding chair out of the trunk, the kind that scrunched up into something that was supposedly easy to carry. She’d bring along the big cooler full of juice bags and pre-packaged peanut butter crackers when it was her turn to provide the after-game snack. All this schlepping. They were out on the field maybe an hour and a half and then they were fed a few hundred calories as a reward. It was better than no exercise at all. If they had it their way, they’d probably be flopped on the couch watching reruns of SpongeBob SquarePants all day.
“There’s nacho cheese chips!” yelled Mike who had succeeded in accessing the lower cupboard. I should have put them up high, thought Ann.
“No, you can’t have those now,” she said.
“Why not? What are you saving them for?”
For myself, she thought, but said, “It’s almost dinner time. We’re going to eat soon. Come on, you’re a big boy.”
“Yeah, I’m seven, almost eight. You’re only two, Jack. You’re just a little boy. Ha!”
“No, I am not! I’m a big boy, too,” Jack wailed.
“Of course you are, Jack,” said Ann. “You’re a big boy, too.”
“No, he’s not and you know he’s not,” said Joey, taking Mike’s side.
“Oh, will you all just stop it.” Ann’s voice started to rise.
None of them were listening. Joey was pushing Jack and Jack’s face was starting to crumple up, his eyes squeezing shut as the tears began to form.
“I am not a little boy, I am not,” he cried.
“Ew, Jack, you have a poo,” sneered Joey as he got up close to Jack. “See what a big boy you are, Jack!”
Now Jack was really howling. Ann was sweating even in the air conditioning. She heard Annabelle crying upstairs, awake after her naptime
“See, you’ve woken Annabelle up with all your shouting. Stop teasing Jack. Jack, you are a big boy. Here, let me see your diaper.” She bent over, grabbed the back of his diaper, pulled it out and looked in. “You do need a change, Jack.”
“No, I don’t!” Jack shouted at her. “I’m fine.”
“You just gonna go around like that?” mocked Mike. “Walk around with a poo in your butt?”
“All of you just stop it right now or you can’t play Lego Star Wars on the computer after dinner.”
“You mean Lego Star Wars II,” corrected Mike.
“Whatever,” Ann’s voice loud now. “Leave Jack alone. You used to wear diapers, too, you know.”
“Did not,” said Joey.
“Yes, you did, Joey. I remember,” Ann said. “And you did, too, Mike.”
This seemed to work. The two older boys stopped mocking Jack, who continued to whimper but at least wasn’t howling anymore. Now Annabelle really was. Ann hurried to go get her, afraid she’d climb out of her crib again.
“Don’t touch the stove,” she shouted behind her as she huffed up the stairs.
“Duh, Mom,” said Mike. “We know that. We’re all big boys, remember?”
“Stop it,” she said over her shoulder.
She wasn’t even Catholic, she thought. She was sure the neighbors thought she was. They rarely went to church, just because it seemed impossible and even cruel to get everyone up early on Sunday, get them dressed and fed and out the door for the service at the Lutheran church that was a five-minute drive away. It was often the day that Joe arrived back from one of his trips. Just to get Annabelle ready was a project by itself. If she didn’t pick out the boys’ clothes they would wear their military gear to church and she just couldn’t have that. Maybe it was a lame excuse. They would get their religion, sooner or later. There was a Catholic school nearby that she was still considering sending the kids to, mostly because it was only 5 blocks away and that would shave off a lot of prep time in the morning. Everyone would be able to get up later to get there. As it was now, they had to catch a bus down at the corner promptly at 7:20. Since she couldn’t see the corner from the house, it meant she had to bundle up Annabelle and Jack, too, when Joe was out of town. Often it was just easier to drive Jack and Mike herself. They liked that since then they didn’t have to stand out in the cold. Or heat. Or rain. Minnesota always seemed to have weather. It was too hot, too cold, too dry, too rainy.
Ann longed for a climate that stayed relatively the same, like San Diego, maybe. She held visions of California as some sort of ideal—the weather, the spectacular geography. Every now and then, she’d check out the MLS listings for San Diego homes for sale and just lean back in her chair and sigh. The prices were impossible. Even if they sold their house for $350,000 or $400,000, a reasonable price for their 3,000-square-foot home in Camdenville where they lived, a mere half-hour from Saint Paul, and even if they put $100,000 down on a decent house for, say, $600,000, they’d still be sinking themselves into a huge mortgage, a stupid move unless they had to.
Joe didn’t necessarily need to be based in Camdenville. He had a virtual office and he could work anywhere. They had ruled out the South—residual pervasive racism, the Southwest—too dry; the East coast—too crowded, also too expensive and not great winters either. That left California, which was also expensive and crowded—but with good weather. L.A. was simply out of the question—sprawl, highways, fog, ugly.
She would be sure to buy a lottery ticket today, she thought. Was there really a better life there? California’s state government had just cut funds from education, health and social services, and freed a lot of criminals due to overcrowding and budgetary shortfalls. They had closed a number of state parks. These were hardly selling points. The people there were probably looking with envy on Minnesota’s smooth functioning state. They probably didn’t care that the weather sucked. They were probably all underwater with their houses and as stuck as she was.
She remembered the Christian catalogue they used to get at her home in the 70s. It had various banners, plaques and stationery with inspirational sayings, all done up in “mod” graphics and colors. One of them said, “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” Her mother had bought it and put it up on their kitchen wall where they could see it every day. Now, it seemed hokey and ridiculous although it had become so ingrained in her, from staring at it so much, that she also believed it—that she should “buck up,” “man up,” or “suck it up” (expressions she hated). Maybe not “bloom” exactly but be resigned. No, not resigned either. That seemed awfully negative but maybe “be grateful.” That was a big one in recovery programs, “Be Grateful.” But that was hard, too! She was grateful she hadn’t been forced to leave her home, like the Jackson’s had from their foreclosed home down the street. There was really no sense to why they and not her family were the victims of terrible circumstance. Four kids under eight and her own obesity were all she could handle. “Blooming” and “being grateful” were not feelings she could muster just now.
Her mother had also bought and put up “Make Love Not War” which, in hindsight, when she came to understand its more literal interpretation, Ann realized her innocent mother hadn’t really understood the jist of.
“Annabelle, I’m coming, just hold on.”
Annabelle was trying desperately to get out of the crib. She had one leg on the top of the railing and was trying to throw the rest of her body onto the top so she could flip herself out onto the floor. She had wiped her tears all over her face, making it look like she was sweating profusely, her hair was awry and her diaper was sagging it was so full.
The light made bands across the bedroom floor as it filtered through the half pulled up venetian blind. It was cool and sleepy in the room. In the corner there was a big oak rocking chair that slid back and forth instead of forward and back through some tricky way it was built. It sat on a small rug that protected the rocker from the wooden floor. The rocker had been used with all four of the kids, for nursing and comforting and putting to sleep. It looked oversize and clunky but was comfortable. A mushed up pillow was pushed into the back of its seat, holding the form of her lower back.
The window behind the changing table looked out onto the driveway. Ann could see the boys out there shooting at each other. She saw that they had confiscated the chips too, and Mike was doling them out in fistfuls to his comrades. She was about to yell out the window for them to put the chips away but then thought better of it. They’d still eat dinner and if they ate the chips she wouldn’t have them around tempting her. The evenings were the hardest, especially after all the kids went to bed and Joe was out of town. That was when all the food temptations would come soaring into her brain like a raucous flock of crows. Even when she kept away all of the treats, didn’t buy them at the store to have in the house, she was still capable of making a snack out of just about anything around: Cheerios, a peanut butter and honey sandwich, slices of cheese and on and on. If only she was one of those people who eat to live instead of someone who loved to eat, or rather live to eat.
She brought Annabelle over to the changing table set up by the window. The boys were now wrestling in the front yard. Their toy guns were left discarded on the lawn. As she began to change Annabelle, the thought of dealing with cloth diapers actually made her shudder. Her poor mother had taken care of four children under the age of five using only cloth diapers. Her friend Carla termed the “crunchies” people who used all natural cotton diapers and went through the rinsing, washing and reusing of them, using, Ann decided, tons of good, clean water in the process. Ann was hard pressed to think of anything in her current daily life that would be more miserable than dealing with cloth diapers, even with a pricey diaper service. Her children’s disposable diapers were going to be food for landfills and she was sorry and somewhat worried about that but not sorry or worried enough to stop using them. There was only a finite amount of time that she would continue to be a guilty polluter. It was just another dirty little secret, like her nacho cheese chips. Otherwise she recycled.
Her high-tech diapers (what were they made of anyway?) were filling up landfills somewhere, surely, but they kept Annabelle and Jack dry—because they really did pull away moisture—longer. Jack was late on the toilet training train and Ann didn’t have the motivation at present to get him going any faster than he was. He’d be three and it was high time, especially if she planned to have him go to preschool half days in the fall. They were strict, but not too strict and were used to regularly occurring accidents. After all, thought Annabelle, these sprites had only been on the planet a couple of years, everybody ought to cut them a little slack about the potty training. They didn’t seem to mind so much. It was the parents that got sick of dealing with the mess. For Annabelle it had become part of the day-to-day. She loathed it but there it was.
Annabelle was wrestling to get off the changing table. Ann took a baby wipe and swabbed Annabelle’s face, cleaning away the drool and sweat that she had smeared from her forehead to her chin. She smoothed back Annabelle’s hair gently with her fingers then dropped the wipe and the rolled up wet diaper into the trash bin. Annabelle was, for now at least, clean.
Ann really felt like having a glass of wine but only drank when Joe was home. She felt that drinking alone was somehow unseemly, even if it was only a glass. It was a throwback to her childhood where at parties with relatives it was the rule that no one ever started drinking before noon. It was not a morning Mimosa-and-Bloody Marys kind of crowd. This was the Midwest after all. Aunt Judith always had Seagram’s and 7UP out and ready to go, ice cubes released from the metal trap and stacked in a bowl. Ann’s mother would be standing behind Judith and rolling her eyes. No sooner had noon struck then the crowd was either gathering at the kitchen counter waiting for Judith to make them a drink or opening and closing the refrigerator getting themselves beers.
So it was noon, or five p.m., before dinner drinks when her dad got home from work. Her mom would run water on glasses and then frost them in the freezer just a few minutes before he got home, then they would have vodka Gimlets. No drinking alone. It was just easier to horde chips and splurge on ice cream than it was to venture into the minefield that was her family’s history with alcohol, and therefore her likely propensities. If she felt edgy or tired, she’d have a snack.
She got Annabelle dressed in a t-shirt and shorts—just like her mom but a hundred times smaller, she thought. Their colors even matched but no, that wouldn’t do. She didn’t want to draw any attention to herself if friends stopped by, didn’t want them to notice they matched and thereby draw attention to herself, to her big, fat self. If a magazine wasn’t harping on how we need to love ourselves and accept ourselves then it was harping on losing weight and what recipes to cook to “lose that abdominal fat in 6 weeks.” You just needed to cook and eat these exact recipes every day for 6 weeks—that would be 2 recipes per day plus a light breakfast—no snacks—and lo and behold, all that nasty excess would be gone. But who had time to shop for, and then prepare, all those specific foods. It was ridiculous! She’d love to know how many people actually did that or was it just grist for the mill of the magazines, something to generate copy. She suspected so. Tonight, for her and the kids, it was macaroni and cheese from a box (plus milk) and a salad from a bag. At least there was salad. She was still thinking about making some brownies (also from a box—plus an egg), but hadn’t quite decided yet. If Joe called in on his webcam before eight she would, if not she wouldn’t. Every day it was another machination and rationalization about what to eat or not to eat and nine times out of ten she caved in and ate the “bad stuff” as she and Joe called it. Miraculously her kids were still normal weight but Annabelle loved her food and she could easily put it on. The “food righteous” be damned, she thought. It was a personal choice. It’s just that the choosing part seemed so out of her control almost all the time.
Joe had been losing weight steadily for the last four months or so, although he seemed to eat pretty much what the rest of the family ate. He had cut out his morning pastry that he always got with his coffee down at the coffee shop and he took smaller portions of everything and walked every night after supper, whatever the weather. Sometimes she walked with him but other times she busied herself cleaning up the kitchen. She was self-conscious about neighbors seeing her through their windows as she walked past their houses, she so obese alongside her slimming husband. His new interest in his health had pleased but also worried her. She didn’t quite know what to do with this new development. Make brownies? While she thought about it? Yes, she would make brownies tonight. Her mind was drawn to the exact place in the cupboard where the brownie box was, just waiting for her to take it out and add that egg. It couldn’t really be easier. And once the box was gone and the brownies eaten, why she could get started again on watching what she ate.
She went through this insanity in her mind and was actually satisfied with the outcome of her thinking process. She was granting herself a general amnesty from overeating because she had planned the next place down the road where she would be good. Good. Well, not bad. She would still eat all the things she liked, just less so. When Joe was gone, she couldn’t even go for a walk for that matter. So how was she supposed to get on board with this whole project? Just leave the kids alone while she walked around the neighborhood?
The treadmill in the basement, meanwhile, stood unused—a sorry relic whose potential had never truly been exploited. One time one of the older boys—she couldn’t remember now if it was Joe or Mike—had gotten hold of the little red card that was inserted in the machine to make it start. She’d thought she’d hidden it but obviously not well enough. They had been taking turns on the treadmill for awhile, as they later recounted to Ann, but then Joe had turned up the speed while the Mike was on it and Mike had gone flying and scraped his chest and arms as he fell on the still moving belt. Luckily he hadn’t wound up in the emergency room. There were just a lot of rug burns. She’d washed him off and spread antibiotic ointment on the scrapes and then had hidden the tag for the treadmill better. So much better that she didn’t know where it was anymore.
Now the boys were going to be rallying in earnest for their dinner. As she entered the kitchen, her three boys and a couple of the neighbor kids were all trooping into the house through the side door.
“No, no, no, no! Everyone stay outside until I call you for dinner. It’s a beautiful day. You should stay out! Before you know it, it’s going to be twenty below and you’ll wish you could go outside!”
“But Mom, we’re thirsty. We just want to get a drink. We’re hot.”
Ann looked at all the little faces in front of her. They all had rosy cheeks and looked sweaty. It was hot out. She couldn’t very well deprive them of a drink. There was no soda in the house. That was another self-imposed rule that bolstered her self-esteem a wee bit. For all her personal failings in the area of diet, she at least wasn’t filling her kids up with sugar water. She did keep 100% juice on hand, but for these thirsty lads it was going to be good, pure water from the refrigerator door. She pulled out a stack of plastic cups and one by one stuck them into the little cavern in the refrigerator door, pressing the icon for the crushed ice and then switching to the water (a drop like a raindrop) and filling each cup. She repeated this, in all, five times and passed them all around until all the boys were clutching a cup. One of the neighbor boys seemed fascinated by the whole operation. He stared, slightly slack-jawed, through the whole process. She knew his mother to have a very basic, no frills, refrigerator and she felt a little flush of something like shame as she surveyed the stainless-steel behemoth machine that spit out reverse osmosis, filtered, softened water from its front.
The boys filed out again, Jack bringing up the rear, sipping from the cup as he walked and sloshing water on to the floor. Ann thought of scolding him but didn’t. He walked with his back in an almost exaggerated arch, chin slightly jutted out, leading with his belly. It was a kind of strut and looked almost comical since it made his little “outy” belly button stick out even more.
Annabelle was still resting on her hip, three fingers shoved into her mouth and spit bubbling around its edges. She was now clean and dry and only needed to be fed. It always got back to the feeding. The feeding and the watering, as her mother used to say. She had spent the better part of her day doing only that, plus the cleaning of the clothes, the dirty butts.
In the predominantly Catholic neighborhood where she grew up four kids was no big deal. She knew many families with five or more kids. The bigger families seemed more interesting. More chaotic but more fun. Of course looking back, certainly at least half of them were on some level dysfunctional. Now she was one of those old-time stay-at-home moms, a throwback. If there was dysfunction, it was just in the functioning. Period. Getting Annabelle up from her nap, changed and downstairs to get dinner ready was a project. And then there were the boys.
Jack had a particular look. His skin was porcelain light with two dollops of rosy cheeks, wide blue eyes with long, thick eyelashes. His hair was pale orange with curls that laid flat and framed his face. He spoke in a chirpy staccato that was difficult to understand but highly entertaining. Presently he was wandering around the kitchen with a load in his diaper.
She was starting to feel the cracks forming around her sanity. While Joe was gone, there was no one to fall back on. She was the mom and had to keep it together. Ann actually shuddered at the thought of this. What if she had one of her panic attacks? She stepped over a plastic toy gun that one of the boys had dropped in the middle of the kitchen, plopped Annabelle down in her high chair—at least she could sit up by herself. She scooped up Jack, brought him into the family room and changed him. The kitchen door slammed shut again.
It was like the whole scenario had come as a surprise to her. Where was she when they were passing around the sign-up sheet? She had evidently written her name down because here she was, 40 years old, older than most of the mothers with children under one. She felt out of place but at the same time it was one of the few areas in her life where she felt a little superior, like she had a leg up on them. A couple of the other mothers were almost half her age. She could be their mother. Well, almost.
The macaroni and cheese was cooking on the stove. At eight o’clock Joe would be tuning in on the webcam. By then, everyone would be in their pajamas and nearly settled for the evening. If all went smoothly.
Dinner was uneventful except for Annabelle throwing pieces of marcaroni all over the floor where they got sticky and stepped on by the other boys. She decided to leave them there until they dried so they would be easier to sweep up.
Ann stirred up the congealed pasta in the bottom of the saucepan and scooped out a helping for herself then she filled up the saucepan with cold water to loosen up what was left before she washed it out.
The boys went off to change and then settled in with their Lego Star Wars II game. Around 7:30 they each had a small bowl of ice cream and then went through their teeth-brushing ritual in which each of them took turns on the step stool in front of the sink, with some inevitable shoving and arguing. There was the seemingly endless brushing, snatching the water cup away from each other. Ann supervised the whole operation while balancing Annabelle on one hip.
The gang gathered in front of the computer a few minutes before eight. They squeezed into the swivel chair in front of the desk as best they could, arms and legs dangling. Annabelle clung to a bottle, Jack played around with a sippy cup and talked to himself.
“Daddy’s going to be on the computer, Jack! Shut up!”
Ann stood behind them and watched as the screen lit up with a message to log on to her email to receive a streaming transmission. They all watched as the screen flickered to life with the image of her husband who looked like he was chewing something.
“Hey guys, how are ya?”
“Daddy, Daddy, you’re on TV!”
“No, he’s on the computer, stupid. Duh! It’s not TV!”
“Where’s your mom, boys?”
“I’m here with Annabelle, honey.” Ann moved around the chair so she could be seen within the small scope of the webcam’s eye.
She’d had no time to freshen up, even comb her hair. Her big, loose t-shirt had some splotches of orange from the mac and cheese that Annabelle had tossed at her. Sweat had flattened some wisps of hair onto her cheeks. She was makeup-less, having had no time to put any on and no one who would notice. She felt a wreck. The chips beckoned for later. Oh, no, she’d forgotten. They’d been eaten. And there was only a little of the ice cream left! It looked like she’d be feasting mainly on Cheerios tonight. Only a little while longer before the kids went to bed. The obsessions would begin again in the morning and she’d have to look at herself in the mirror and see that nothing had changed. She flushed with shame and began to move herself out of range of the webcam, when Joe said, “Where are you going, beautiful?”
Beautiful. She remembered, would always remember, when she had first learned to spell that word in the second grade. The teacher had written it large on the board and it had remained there for days. She remembered perfectly looking at it again and again. The “e-a-u” of it didn’t seem in any way wrong, that the letters would make the “ooo” sound. The word had seemed perfect to her, its spelling matching what it represented. The word was, itself, beautiful.
“How’s my beautiful wife?”
Daddy thinks Mommy’s beautiful!”
“You gonna kiss Mommy through the computer, Daddy?”
“Boys, it’s time to go to bed. I love you all. I want to talk to mommy now.”
“Joe, they won’t just scamper off to bed. I have to actually tuck them in and they have to wind down and Jack needs to triple check his night light and Annabelle took a big nap this afternoon so who knows when she’ll go down, and what about you? How are you? Is it really hot there? I can’t imagine. I have the AC at 68 here and I’m still sweating.”
“Yes, it’s very hot here, and sandy, and rich. I miss you guys. There are lots of foreign workers like me doing lots and lots of building. Hey, I’m sorry. I forgot about the putting-to-bed rituals.”
“It’s alright. I know, you’re a long way away. It’s good to see your face and hear your voice though. When will you be back?”
“Sunday night around eleven. I’ll let you get back to the kids. I love you. You’re beautiful.”
There it was again.
“I love you, too,” and she switched off.
A breeze picked up the sheer curtains at the window next to the computer as she shut down the computer and then leaned over to switch off the power cord on the floor. She felt a little breathless as she stood back up. The curtain billowed against her leg and she felt acutely aware of its light, cool, silkiness. She felt light.
There was a racket upstairs. Something heavy fell to the floor. There was a patter of bare feet on the wood floors, lights switching on and off.
Jack yelled, “Mikey, cut it out! Mommy!”
“I’m coming, boys!”
She hoisted Annabelle back up onto her hip, glanced back at the computer and smiled at the webcam. She grabbed the banister to help pull herself up the stairs, leaving the window open and the curtain fluttering.
Elli Hazit was born in San Francisco in 1960. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her master’s degree from Boston University. Hazit lived in Paris, France from 1983 to 1997. Her writing has been published in the International Herald Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and the Cambridge News. She has also produced radio programs for WORT-FM, Madison. One of her stories, “The Tangerines and the Dogs,” was broadcast internationally on the BBC World Service Programme.
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