Our last week in Paris, I begin to gather the linens that my younger sister will take to the laundromat in a duffle bag, under pouring rain. We use baby wipes to clean the wobbly Ikea desk in the bedroom, the 50lb. Sony TV, the glass dining room table. I replace the shattered coffee pot and the broken broom with new ones. I treat the morning’s spills on the carpet near the table with a spot cleaner from the Monoprix. Fill up the landlord’s glass jar on the microwave with the week’s leftover coins. We (my sister, my two young girls, and I) have spent nearly five months in the one-bedroom apartment on the 15th arrondissement—the wear and tear is minimal, but we’ve determined to leave all as we found it. This is, of course, a nearly impossible task, as “all” seemed to collapse, break, go out, and catch on fire upon first use. We work in earnest. In any case, there was no initial inspection to speak of, so impossible to anticipate that most, if not everything in the apartment, was on its last leg—a leg, I made add, my children often find and play with, the second we turn our backs. And in spite of our numerous, “Please, let it be.”
During our last two to three days, I roll bundles of clothes and place them neatly in the suitcases, making room for the books in one corner, and toys in another. “I’m going to miss Paris,” I whisper to the girls, my eyes moist, teary. I try to memorize how they look at this moment, all skin and round bellies, bouncing on the mattress. One still in pull-ups, the other as naked as the day she was born. “No, no,” I say. “Don’t jump. You’ll scare the downstair neighbors.” They stop and dive head first into the pillows. The headboard bangs against the wall. The bed is suspended in the air for a second. Then a thud, soon followed by three hard knocks on the floor. “There you go,” I say. “Now they’ve heard you!” Panicked, eyes peeled, they hide under the covers and reach for the lights. “Lights out!” They say in unison, as if it were ever that easy.
The truth is that I’m ready to go home to California. To my husband, our dog, and our two cats. To the sweet quotidian chaos of life under one’s own roof. After months of conducting research in Paris with two children under five, and a younger sister so inclined to make life difficult in the final weeks, I am exhausted. The tears come out one by one and roll down my cheek. It isn’t Paris that’s making me cry. It’s anxiety, exhaustion, and an overwhelming sense of panic at the thought of so much packing still left to do and two children who, surely—also anxious and distraught at the thought of yet another move—will not want to go to sleep. Even when the lights are out. To make matters worse, my sister has suddenly announced over espresso and pain au chocolat that she’s forgotten to change her travel reservations. In short, I will be flying home alone, with eight pieces of luggage, a stroller, two small children, a laptop case on rollers, and two pillow pets. Animated by dust bunnies and bacteria.
We make it home, not without more tears, suppressed anxiety attacks, near-misses, and a broken stroller. Things could have gone much worse, had I not asked a pharmacist friend in Paris for some herbal remedy (all natural, all benign) to calm our nerves. Quietude [tranquility, serenity] was the name on the bottle, a combination of chamomile, lavender, and other herbs that promise to calm our nerves enough to be able to sleep all the way home. The girls gag before their lips touch the brimming bottle cap. Refuse to drink it, so I make it my own. Finishing what I hope will be a magic potion moments after I collapse in my seat. I don’t fall asleep, but I also don’t kill anyone seated behind me who doesn’t understand why in God’s name children are allowed to recline their seat. “They’re not even asleep,” she says. They would be, dear, if only you’d stop huffing and puffing and poking me on the shoulder.
Only days after we arrive, still groggy from jetlag, and stifled by a house whose windows my husband surely forgot to crack open at least once while we were gone, I open an e-mail from the landlord. I may add here that the landlord was a former colleague from LA. Among her many concerns is a piece of chewing gum she’s discovered stuck to the back of the sofa bed. Surely, she knows that although I gave no second thought to nearly force feeding Quietude down my beautiful children’s throats, I (like any parent concerned with the health of my children’s teeth and their early acquisition of what I consider an annoying habit) would never offer them chewing gum. Surely, had there been an initial inspection (and had she been available for a final one), we would have confirmed that the gum was a pre-existing condition in the apartment—one, among many. Way too long to list. “The condition of the apartment as I found it,” she writes, “is well beyond what is expected from the normal wear and tear. See pictures attached.” Is this woman out of her mind? And what, after all, does she know about the normal wear and tear of an apartment under the rule of two very wise, but mostly small children? She has no children of her own! The last e-mail (there are several) concludes thusly: “Now I know how you get to have it all.” What exactly does this mean? That the state of the apartment, according to her, is an indication of how I go about the world? That the only way I can possibly manage to travel to Paris to conduct meaningful research with two children along for the ride is by neglecting the place I called home for nearly five months? That I have two children, a marriage, and a career? Or, perhaps the final blow, that I had help from a family member in tow?
I don’t respond the way I should, complying instead to her request for reimbursement of money spent on cleaning supplies. According to her, the brand new products I left behind and the three hours I paid for a professional cleaning service do not seem to do the trick. When I refuse to send her any more money, she writes one more e-mail: “The neighbors downstairs,” she says, “send their love to your little wrestlers.” I feel defeated and confused. I had gone through great lengths to maintain the apartment—to improve its condition, even. We stayed away for hours at a time to avoid disturbing the neighbors and were out and about most weekends. What else should I have done? Bind my children’s legs to the dining room table? Tape them to the wall to prevent them from moving?
I should have said that, yes, I do have it all. Thank you for noticing. I have a husband and two beautiful daughters who love me and support what I do. We own a home and live in a nice neighborhood, with nice neighbors. I have a career, and family who supports it. I should have also said that in order to “have it all,” I have often sacrificed my health and the health of my marriage, that my children make me crosseyed on most days, that to keep a career that I know she, too, finds demanding, I wait until the children are asleep and work until 4:00am. And that due to a chronic condition, my good days would be a challenge to most people. But yes, she’s right, I get to have it all. The good, the not so good, the bad, and the ugly. I have earned it.
There is, however, poetic justice. Recently, I learn that my former landlord has been blessed with beautiful twin sons. The universe has done its part: she, too, gets to have it all. I can’t help but smile and wish her well. May those little wrestlers wreck good and healthy havoc on her home.
Susannah Rodriguez Drissi is a Cuban poet, writer, translator and scholar. She is Visiting Assistant Professor of Hemispheric Studies at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She’s Contributing and Review Editor at Cuba Counterpoints, a new journal dedicated to dynamic analysis and commentary on Cuban affairs.
She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two daughters. Currently, she’s finishing her first novel.