If Not Now, When?

“Chained” by Judith Peck

 
 

There was a period when the girls were small – Laurel five and Rosie four – when mornings felt like consecutive sentences. I’d reached my limit, hit a wall, run out of track. That last morning, Laurel was down in the kitchen, angry, making her own breakfast. Rosie sat in underpants on my bedroom floor, dressing herself, waving a sock above her head. “Mom, what foot does this go on? Mom! Mom!”

I hung over the side of the bed. “Socks can go on either foot, Rosie, they’re not like shoes, remember?” She pulled it on with a weighty sigh. “Is Daddy still here?” I asked.

“No, he’s been gone a long time.” The alarm I’d ignored beamed 7:40, ten minutes since Jeff left for work – a long time for Rosie and lately for me too. Ten minutes to fill over and over again from a list as immutable as Moses’ tablets – only I had eleven commandments: dress the girls; feed the dog; walk Laurel to kindergarten; get Laurel from kindergarten; wash the dishes; make the beds; fold the laundry; buy the groceries; cook the meals; give the baths; pull off bedtime.

I could not, would not, Sam I Am.

“Want to go to McDonald’s?” I said to the ceiling.

“McDonald’s?” Rosie scoffed. “For breakfast?”

“Sure, they have breakfast.”

“They do?”

“Uh huh. Tell your sister.” By the time I went downstairs Laurel was all smiles, ready to hop in the car. I ignored the cereal splayed on the counter and the pajamas covered in paw prints on the floor. Rosie’s shoes were on the wrong feet but if they didn’t hurt her I felt no pain.

“Get Clyde and we’ll go,” I said. We predicted on the drive that breakfast would be scrumptious and before we’d even arrived, Laurel announced, “I want to do this again!

“We will!” I rejoiced. Daily.

Clyde howled out the window at the supermarket as we walked away from the car. “I wish he could come with me,” Rosie whined.

“I wish he’d go for me.” If Nana could take charge in Peter Pan, couldn’t Clyde be of some use?

Rosie perked up. “We could do it!” she said.

“I wish you could.”

“We could, Mommy. Really!” I grabbed a cart, swung Rosie to the seat and headed for the breakfast aisle where I chose two eight-packs of pseudo cereal, the kind with the tin-foil lining for eating right out of the box.

“Who’s that for?” Rosie marveled.

“You and Laurel,” I said, passing her one.

“To eat?”

“Of course. What else would you do with it?”

“You never let us get this kind.”

“Well, times have changed,” I said. She studied the packaging as we wheeled along, creating backstories for the cartoon characters, while I teared up with gratitude for the sugar-filled, preservative-laced junk food that got me through the store with a happy, quiet child. I grabbed a bin of baby wipes, considered putting the girls back in Pull-Ups to cut down on laundry, and headed to the snack aisle where I added several boxes of single-pack potato chips to the cart.

“How come you’re getting all this small food?” Rosie asked, suspicious again.

“Because it’s easy,” I shrugged. Out of nowhere I flashed on a dry shampoo I’d used in college, a strange substance that you sprayed on your scalp and fluffed through your hair on days with no time to shower. It was like aerosol baby powder. No, I couldn’t do that to the girls, but only because of the vague white residue that Jeff might – might – notice.

I bought pork chops and hot dogs and hamburger already molded into patties and dotted with green peppers and onions; buns, juice boxes, and frozen French fries; and six of those cartons of animal crackers with the flimsy string handles. Rosie studied the cart. “Where are we going?” she asked.

“Home.”

“With this kind of food?”

“Don’t you like this kind of food?” I asked, handing her a juice box.

“Yes,” she said, uncertain.

In the kitchen I filled Clyde’s bowl until the kibble domed like a muffin and threatened to breach the sides.

“That’s a lot of food!” Rosie yelled.

“You’re right,” I agreed. “That’s so Clyde can eat whatever he wants whenever he wants and I don’t have to remember to feed him every day. This way he’ll never go hungry. Good plan?”

“Yeah!” she high-fived me.

“Let’s go get Laurel.”

When we walked in the door I saw that Clyde had already cleaned his bowl and recycled most of it onto the carpet, centimeters from the parquet. The girls munched cereal as I swabbed stringy ropes of puke off the rug with reams of paper towels and sprayed it down with the Miracle Solution for Clyde’s other accidents. He crept to the outpost of the backyard, refusing to return until Jeff came home.

There was a time when Clyde preferred me, when he followed me like a stalker as I changed into running shorts and shirt and finally my shoes; when he panted in ecstasy at the front door as I searched for a water bottle and a leash. I’d kept up running after college and our mornings were blissful endorphin surges capped by a bountiful breakfast. I added a jogging stroller with Laurel, then a two-seater for Rosie, but by the time the girls were two and three their crying and whining and escape attempts had halved our daily runs and then killed them altogether. Clyde now moved around me like a child scarred by divorce, remembering a much happier time.

After lunch I unveiled the bin of wipes, hyping them as the latest in washcloths. “But easier!” I gushed, tamping my pleading tone. “In the morning, you wash your face and hands, then drop these in the trash. And you’re done! No laundry bag! Easy?”

“Yeah!” they shrieked, high-fives all around.

Later, as I picked up the house for Jeff’s return, I found the empty container and a jumble of wipes in and around the wastebasket. But I wasn’t throwing in the towel: I’d buy a bigger box – there might even be a Family Size – and a larger wastebasket. The laundry loads that afternoon had already seemed lighter.

Jeff came in about six, mentioned that Clyde felt chilled and patted the girls on the head. I arranged the pork chops, hot dogs and hamburgers on a platter and told him the coals were hot.

“It’s October,” he said. “We’re grilling in October?”

“Sure, why not? It’s a nice night.”

“It’s cold.”

“Well, the grill’s right outside – throw the food on and shut the door.”

“Me?”

“Yes. You.” He grabbed the plate and followed my instructions to a T. The meat bounced on the grill.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

“Nothing’s going on, ” I said. “You’re grilling dinner; you can help me with dinner once in a while.”

“I got you a crock pot,” he answered. Yes he did – for my birthday, and wrote a little card as if it was a sentimental gift. The next day I wrote a note for him, thanking him for the croak [sic] pot, and added it to his lunch bag but he never mentioned it. I had asked to see the data verifying that it was easier to dice vegetables at six a.m. than at six p.m.

I stared at Jeff, unable to form a sane answer.

“You’re my WIFE,” he added, insanely.

“Yes,” I said, my insides erupting volcanically, “and this is your HOUSE and that’s your DOG and those are your CHILDREN and you have to take care of them, not just own them!” I told the girls to finish their dinner and get ready for bed – they didn’t have to wash their face and hands – and went to the bedroom, pulled on a sweatsuit, crawled under the quilt and was dreaming before my eyes closed.

In the morning my fever was one hundred and one and my brain felt wrapped in something sticky but bouncy, like medicinal cotton candy. Jeff had left the kitchen spotless – I loved when he tried to outdo me – and the girls were dressed, fed (the easy cereal, milk in the box) and watching morning cartoons. I asked Ellen next door if Laurel could tag along to school, left Rosie where she sat, turned Clyde out into the yard – without breakfast – and collapsed back in bed. At noon Ellen found Rosie reeling from TV and me scarlet with fever.

“Your temp’s up to a hundred and two,” she said, alarmed.

“Are you sure?” I asked, floating back from neon dreams. “Because I feel great.

She peeled the Little Mermaid fever sticker off my forehead. “You’re going to the ER now.”

“Pneumonia, double,” the intern frowned. “I’m afraid I’ll have to admit you – we have to get control of the fever.Can you tell me when this started?”

“No,” I lied. “But it seems like a long time ago.”

I knew the nanosecond it started: the night I fed the girls their mac and cheese early, bundle-bathed them and hustled them off to bed. I’d baked Jeff’s favorite salmon dinner and we dawdled over cheesecake and wine. But it ended with a Molotov cocktail when he said no to sending Rosie to preschool so I could add feature writing to my book reviewing and eventually go back to full-time.

“No?” I said, confused.

“No means no,” he said, with a smarmy get it? smirk. “We don’t have the money for preschool.”

“We will,” I said. “I’ll be making more.”

He made a noise that sounded like pshaw and moved the plates to the sink. “No means no,” he repeated, patting my head. “Ready for bed?” He moved expectantly toward the stairs.

My thoughts unraveled faster than a fishing line hooked to a shark. I grew warm, then warmer, then hot with a fevered rage. This is not the end, I thought; did he think I was asking permission? I left the dishes and finished the wine, conjuring scenes from our wedding – obey was redacted from our marriage vows and we were never man and wife. And now, a handful of years later, he thought I was asking permission? As if he were a father controlling the car keys?

I was floating in a timeless black hole – it could have been hours or days – when the supernal silence was broken by the jungle-bird shrieking of a phone. “How did this happen?” Jeff asked, his voice climbing over the girls’ bickering. I heard what he was saying but answered questions I preferred to hear.

How are you feeling? “I’m getting better; they’re shooting me up with mega meds.”

“When are you coming home?”

You’re not thinking of hurrying home? “I’m really run down. I’m not going to bounce back quickly.”

“Call in the morning and let me know,” he signed off.

I pulled the jack from the wall.

The soft thrumming of machines pulled me back into dreams, into a scene of Sunday at the park with Clyde in the starring role. Jeff appeared too, batting a ball for the dog to fetch as a young couple strolled over to watch. “Who’s this big fella?” the man asked, tousling Clyde’s fur. Jeff puffed up like a blowfish, introduced Clyde like an Oscar contender and ran him through his tricks. “Cool dog,” the guy said, “he reminds me of Benji.” Jeff flushed as if his genes were involved.

“You really should tell them he’s adopted,” I quipped but he scowled and walked away.

A pink-smocked, middle-aged woman tapped me awake, a soft Morse code on my shoulder.

“I’m Mary,” she smiled, offering a breakfast plate, tilting the lid to flash hard scrambled eggs and lumpy oatmeal with a canned pear sliding in between. “And you’re – ?”

“Famished,” I said, as eager as Laurel on the road to McDonald’s. “That looks good,” I gushed. My favorite meal was anything that anyone served me.

She gave a clipped laugh, rolling the table to the bed. “I’m guessing you heard the buzz,” she said, fluffing the pillows behind me.

“The buzz?”

“We had a drop-off last night.”

I didn’t understand – wasn’t that business-as-usual at a hospital? “You know, a baby,” she added. “A Safe Haven baby.”

“Oh!” I said. “The Moses Law.”

“It’s always exciting, in a sad sort of way. We take turns holding and rocking and feeding them; I never want my turn to end.” She parted the curtains and raised the blinds.

“Does that happen very often?” I asked.

“Thank goodness, no,” Mary said. She nodded at my plate. “Was that good?”

“Oh, yes!” I said. She patted my leg and left smiling.

A nurse hurried in, scanned the walls, said, “So that’s the problem,” and plugged in the phone. “Your husband’s been calling the desk. I’m sure you want to talk to him.”

That’s not a given, I thought when she left, yanking the cord again. My mind was consumed by the buzz. Safe Haven: the name evoked a beach cottage or an island hotel, a get-away or a fortress. How did it work? Did they only take newborns? What about re-borns? Say, a mom born again as a person. I didn’t want to be adopted, though; I wanted to be surrendered.

A young doctor rapped on the door and poked in a head of glossy black hair that flowed down her back – mesmerizing hair, enviable hair, hair that was certainly never unwashed or tangled with baby drool. She read the clipboard, took my temp and flashed a penlight in both eyes.

“I could release you today,” she smiled, “if you promise to rest at home.”

Tears jumped from my eyes like a sprinkler, huge cartoonish drops like those in the girls’ TV shows. She paused, pulled a chair to the bed and rested a hand on my arm. “Or maybe tomorrow?” she asked. “Or later?” She waited out my silent sobbing until I could quietly wail, “I can’t. I can’t rest at home.”

“Well, then,” she said softly, “then I can’t release you today.” She held my hand between hers. “Shall we play it by ear?” she asked. I managed a nod.

I slept as if anesthetized, dreaming in my black hole, and when I awoke I recalled a thought that had silently floated by: I’d surrender myself. I’d refuse to leave, request asylum, like a refugee at a foreign embassy. And if they said no, no, with a questioning smile, I’d implement my plan. The hospital was as hectic as an airport or a mid-size city, crowded with distracted doctors and nurses, staff and aides, temps and techs, all scrambling like mice through a bewildering maze of corridors. I’d been adrift in those corridors once, when my mother was still alive. She had broken a hip and as I wheeled her to radiology I grew more and more lost and confused, despite arrows on the walls and color-coded floors. She never noticed that we circled the same red hallways but I grew increasingly panicked that I’d somehow caught her dementia.

Now I wanted to be lost here; a nobody to anybody. To be dismissed as just a family member napping in the surgery lounge, waiting for results; bathing in the women’s shower; pacing a hall or sunning by a window. I’d eat in the cafeteria, buy cosmetics in the gift shop (maybe even dry shampoo), exercise in rehab, or kill time in the lobby catching up on People. No doubt I could even work here, commandeering an empty office and filing stories at night.

Jeff had all the answers, he’d know what to do with the girls. Would they even miss me? Was I doing any good? Laurel had once asked me, after a particularly hard morning, “Mom, can you only count to three?”

“What? No. What do you mean?” I said.

“You always say ‘I’m warning you – one, two, three’ and then you stop.”

Was it already too late? Had I damaged them irrevocably? I didn’t want to be Mean Mom but I really didn’t want to be Dumb Mom, whose only obvious talents were mopping up dog barf and sculpting grilled-cheese-sandwich triangles.

But what if I were busted? For lifting a juice box from a tray on the floor or a leftover apple. For the same outfit week after week until someone finally noticed. For relishing three meals a day in the hospital cafeteria: who does that?

And what if my sentence was house arrest? That house: my house.

No, I wouldn’t seek asylum – a new box is still a box.

The radiant-haired doctor signed release forms two days later, murmuring an apology, something about insurance rules. I took a shower, washed my hair, changed into the sweatsuit I’d arrived in and settled on the side of the bed, waiting to be claimed by Jeff. I was going to miss this room, I thought – these windows framing only blue sky, the catered meals and solitude and my boundless black hole. When Jeff rang the desk, promising he’d be there soon, and an aide appeared with a wheelchair, I teared up yet again.

“Everything okay?” she worried.

“Yes,” I lied, not wanting to burden her. I rode the elevator to the lobby in silence, clutching my purse to my chest and the toiletries she’d bagged for me like stolen hotel goods. I’m ready, I assured myself.

But when the doors opened onto the lobby and Jeff was suddenly there, striding toward the south entrance – head down, unstoppable – I blurted Turn right! to the startled aide, adding calmly, “He said the north side.” She wheeled me to the double doors and when they magically divided, offering a welcoming sun and infinite sky, I counted one, two, three, leapt from the chair clutching my bags, and ran, ran, ran.

Author's Comment

This story came to me as I was struggling with another one and wishing I knew a lot more about fiction writing and had started a lot earlier in life. But I couldn’t. And I thought of the many obstacles that women often confront when trying to practice their art or realize their dreams.

Bio

J. F. Gross is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She lived in Boulder for 34 years working in various capacities for three Colorado newspapers, including writer, copy editor and production manager. She moved to Arizona to be near her daughter, son-in-law, grandson and granddog. Since retiring, She has been contributing essays to Crow’s Feet, and writing fiction.

7 thoughts on “If Not Now, When?

  1. You have done a great job capturing the dynamics of a young mother’s life with a husband like that one, and yet your young motherhood must be well behind you. I am impressed by your ability to create these characters and these events.

  2. Many years ago as the mother of four children I often felt that I was ‘doing time’ rather than
    spending time. I did not understand that I needed personal time and did not nourish myself-
    too many chores and ‘should’s.’
    Your story made me laugh and root for all moms who lose themselves, hopefully temporarily, in the all-encompassing role of motherhood.
    Wonderful writing:)

  3. love this story!! Been there — and with only ONE kid! The zingers for me are the Jeff blunders — arghh. Time to get outta there, girl! Yet, most of us don’t — some are lucky enough to get help standing their ground, negotiating the marriage, growing the clueless husband UP! But, in the end, I fell for a woman and got out, taking my son with me, to all our betterment Our traditions make prisons for many — and traps even for those in the prison guard and administrator roles.

  4. Great story. I’m sure most mothers have fantasised about running away from domestic responsibilities – I know I have – but this is a wonderfully subtle depiction of coercive control, and how it erodes a woman’s sense of self, and the subtlety makes it really powerful.

  5. I love this story. I never had kids, and never had to deal with any of these issues vis a vis a husband, yet the story drew me in, and more and more with each paragraph – so many little surprises. It made me laugh (“small food”) and made me mad.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *