It’s Like This
There was no real reason for it to fall apart that morning. And, in fact, it didn’t. I did.
I could say it was because my dad—whom I adored to the point of absurdity—had died sixty-eight days before. I could say that watching him shrink into silence did me in, that grief bled me dry, that I was no longer a match for ordinary family life, that my radio station had lost the signal, the drone of static broken only by the occasional reception of two clear thoughts: He’s gone and Please give him back.
But the truth is that I’m always teetering between a mature acceptance of life’s immutables and a childish railing against the very same. In the time it takes to get the mail, I can slide from sanguine and full of purpose to pissed off and fuming. As for perspective, there’s a Hertz customer service rep in Des Moines who could release a tape of my recent “feedback” that would make the Internet break. All of which is not to say that I can’t spot the difference between trivial and tragic. I can. I do. I genuflect in gratitude for my health, my husband, my kids, my central heating. I just can’t stay bowed down. I keep popping back up, saying things like, Does anyone else’s back hurt? In those moments, I’m not that much closer to maintaining an adult frame of reference than I was the day I got my first period.
Speaking of menstruation, lack of perspective, and fits of irrationality, I have two teenage daughters. Georgia is sixteen, with Vidal Sassoon hair, almond-brown eyes, flat feet, and one killer dimple. She likes lacrosse and Snapchat and prefers precalculus and chemistry to the humanities, where there are too many possible answers. Her interest in me hinges on allowance and rides; offering more, like an opinion, visibly chafes her. Her independence tortures and impresses me. She is a world-class procrastinator who brushes her wet hair in the car on the way to the party and waits until we pull up to practice to put on her cleats. She is cool on a dance floor and sometimes, when she’s telling me a story, I am as captivated by her as I have ever been by another human being.
Claire is fourteen, has blond hair that turns brown in the winter, size 12 shoes, dark blue eyes she gets from her father, and a smile that can be seen from space. She plays volleyball and basketball because we make her, lacrosse because she likes being outside in the spring. Without our interference, her extracurricular hours would be dedicated to the lyrics of Lin-Manuel Miranda, decorating baked goods with special nozzles she found on Amazon, and throwing theme parties, six a year, pegged to the holidays. She designs her own invitations, finds snack and décor ideas on BuzzFeed, and plugs in a $14 disco light to energize the dance floor that is our deck. In fifth grade, she got every single answer right on a standardized test that was given over four days, but that doesn’t mean she can spell “skedule” or “arguement.” We like to think she might be some sort of creative genius, but anything is possible.
When they’re together, the girls are either watching reruns of The Office, ignoring each other in favor of whatever’s on their cellphone, or squabbling over how to say Wingardium Leviosa. Sometimes, the way they go back and forth reminds me of the way Edward and I bicker, and I feel sure that if only we had modeled bipartisanship, our children would be better and happier. Once or twice a year, they do a Bollywood routine they learned from Just Dance and I’m reminded of the days when being at home with each other was enough. When they do the Garth & Kat skit from Saturday Night Live, I dare to believe I can see the faint edges of a future friendship.
That leaves Edward, my husband. Growing up, he was told he looked like Robby Benson of Ice Castles. Now he gets Ben Stiller. His obsessions are swimming, having the proper gear for any occasion, ensuring that each person he comes in contact with has seen and fully appreciated all five seasons of The Wire, and the Golden State Warriors. He fanboys their impetuous power forward, Draymond Green, whom he calls Sack Tapper after Green kicked several players in the nuts during the 2016 playoffs. Other than taking upward of ten days to unpack a suitcase and nagging me about going to the dentist, Edward is fairly easy to live with. He is not afraid of the grocery store or the stove and helps me color the very back of my hair, painting my gray roots Medium Brown 5 with the mini plastic brush that comes with the kit. He is deeply rational, has work that matters to him, and almost always holds my hand as we fall asleep even though he doesn’t really like holding hands.
Me, I’m all over the place. I look like my dad, and like both the girls in different ways. My hair is naturally curly but not in the sexy beachy way. If I were a dog, I’d be the kind that’s easier to shave down than to groom. I have been told I have large teeth. I’m soft, and getting softer, and my ass is less pumpkin than helipad. To pretend I care enough to fix these things, I exercise every Saturday morning with Edward. I slow down when my forehead starts to shine—I’m not a huge fan of showers. I wear the same clothes all week and often get past noon before putting on a bra or looking in the mirror. I prefer projects to jobs. I’ve built “furniture,” been a “photographer,” and started a “company.” I am riddled with ideas, a dozen a day. My ambition waxes when I drink alcohol—one skinny margarita can have me filing to run for state senate—and wanes in the morning after the kids leave and I am alone with the work. The one absolutely good thing I do is volunteer for our local children’s hospital. Every Tuesday, from three p.m. to five p.m., I hold babies in the NICU.
That’s me, that’s us.
So, this one morning . . .
I’d slept okay. The usual five a.m. stumble to the loo, and back to the sack for another couple hours in bed until, like curtains snapping open, I am awake. There’s bacon cooking—I can smell it—which puts Edward in the kitchen attending to his clockwork need for breakfast meats. I sit up, set my glasses on my nose to read the slight curve of my slippers. Left on left. Right on right. Another day begins.
After I quiet my white-noise machine, the first sound I hear is a bit of edgy back-and-forth between the girls. Someone is wearing someone else’s shirt. Without asking. Bickering bothers me much more than it bothers Edward. Edward can tolerate it all day, coming and going, while I launch into action at the first whiff. If smoke always leads to fire, the reasonable mind begs to know, why not douse the kindling before the place burns to the ground?
Here’s why: Edward read a parenting book (just one) and the book said “Let ’em fight!”
As for the shirt, a $9 Circo crewneck from Target, it was purchased for Georgia. But last week, when I noticed it in her dresser, overflowing with options she hasn’t considered since she committed full-time to black leggings and a gray hoodie, I thought, Gee, I bet I could get Claire to wear this. I didn’t think Claire would like it. I thought I could get her to wear it, so it wouldn’t go unused. I need things to be used—the heel of the bread, the last page of the notebook, the rug from college. Our car has 148,412 miles on it.
So yeah, I gave Georgia’s shirt to Claire. I did not ask permission.
While the shirt thing is going down in the hall, my daughters’ voices rising, the phone rings, which suggests, as it does in households across the world, that someone should answer it. But here at Crest Road, the ringing is a dog whistle and I’m the only canine.
“Edward! The phone!”
He can’t hear me, what with the crackling bacon, the exhaust fan it necessitates, and the squabble in the hallway.
I hustle to grab the upstairs phone, only to hear “Hi! This is Joan from the Breast Cancer Awareness Fund, calling to talk to you about our Fun Run and Handbag Swap.” Oh no, Recording “Joan.” No, you don’t. I’ve had breast cancer. Chemo, surgery, radiation, the whole Party Pak. I gave. Click.
Meanwhile, the girls are really getting into it. It’s more than a shirt now; it’s I always! and You never! and That’s crazy! Then, Claire goes Real Housewives: “You don’t even know how to share, you selfish bitch!”
I am standing over her in seconds. “What did you just say?” Fuck Edward’s book.
“She—” Claire starts to answer my rhetorical question.
“Did you hear—” Georgia says.