Sometimes they were quiet at the school bus stop and sometimes they talked.
“Marco thinks it’s weird I call you by your first name.”
“Most people probably do.”
“Why? It’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Some people get all exercised trying to do things to suit other people, trying really hard not to be different in any way from an ill-defined norm and constantly checking to see if they still conform. Uses up a lot of energy.”
“Seems stupid to me.”
“Me too. I’m still your mom, whatever you call me. Nothing can change that.”
“I suppose there’s an assumption that using the relationship word shows more respect than using a first name, but the way I hear some kids say the word, ‘Mom’, that’s not respect.”
“You mean, like a whine?”
I’m in a privileged position, thought Dara, able to observe Ned putting the world together in his mind. From the very first moment of his life, when he stared around him bug-eyed for a full two hours before falling asleep. This morning when she had gone to wake him, rubbing his arm as she always did, he had peeled his face from the little wet spot on his pillow, captured her hand and wouldn’t let it go until she sat on the edge of the bed and leaned in to put her cheek on his.
These days, she was spending more time alone with her son, in the mornings and after school, than with anybody else. Her husband left even earlier and came back later. Her friends were all much busier than she was and only available evenings and weekends, when she had her hands full with family obligations. Every day she explained her actions to Ned and to no one else; thought aloud, balanced different possibilities and outcomes, goaded him on in the list of morning duties, in the hunt for house keys, step counters, jackets, to get out of the house by a quarter to seven to be sure of catching the school bus. Then on the walk to the corner they might go over the schedule of the afternoon, or he might tell her a joke, or how the phrase “false pretenses” was redundant, any flotsam or jetsam that had floated to the top of his brain while he slept. Or they might just ramble to the corner in companionable silence.
This morning when she had said, “Look, the street lights went out! Just now, the sunlight must have hit the sensor and turned out the street lights, but look on the next block, they’re still on. Shall we watch to see those go out too?” and her twelve-year-old had watched for a couple of minutes with her, but then took up where he left off with the story of the astronauts mining energy crystals on the surface of Mars. Soon it will be finished, this hidden time when just being in our company pleases him, alone with me, or his dad, or both of us together, thought Dara. And even though it hadn’t happened yet, he was bound to stop requiring her presence here each morning at the bus stop. He already came home in the afternoon alone, and she was sure she was the only mother waiting there every morning with a seventh grader. It was fine if you chauffeured them everywhere in your SUV, but other parents and especially the childless women she knew were surprised to the point of horrified to hear that she still stood there with him in all weathers. She had just begun a funny story at book club about what Ned had said on the coldest day so far, and the looks on these aging feminists’ faces–incredulity heavily cut with indignation–made her zip up for the rest of the meeting.
Women her own age or younger seemed to think she was sacrificing too much of herself on his altar, but her mother-in-law and increasingly, her own mother, seemed to think she wasn’t sacrificing enough. How could she THINK of letting him go anywhere alone, even to Starbucks one block away to buy a green tea frappucino, let alone ride the bus to his grandparents’ house? This last from the mother who’d let her ride her bicycle across town to summer school from the age of nine. Was everything so different now, so much more dangerous? Or was it that older women knew with gut-clenching certainty that sooner or later something would go horribly wrong and it was impossible to be too vigilant? Despite your best efforts something would happen and then you’d be sorry. And they wouldn’t be able to say ‘I told you so!’ no matter how loudly it screamed in their minds.
Ned still waved to her from the bus. She knew her presence there gave him the courage to face the noisy hallways, the chaotic classrooms, the hazards of forgetting your locker combination. So what if ninety per cent of humanity thought he was too old to be babied that way? She could see the sleepy faces of the other kids on the bus looking at her as she waved to him, and they were not kind or understanding. They were dismissive–what a loser! (her son, not her)–and poignant–what if someone took me to the bus? Waved at me? It was sad either way.
“I remember when I was in seventh grade,” she’d said one morning as the bus before his, the 69, pulled up to the corner. “One of the longer years of my life. Time went by so slowly and I could feel every grain fall in the sand clock, I was that touchy and self-involved. It sped up again for a while in my twenties, but it’s slowed down again now.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it’s to do with how many new things you’re learning. More new things, slower time. Or how much of your time is spent waiting. I’m not sure. I’ll think about it and get back to you.”
Waiting, she thought. She’d spent junior high and high school waiting. Waiting to get home to read, a more important part of her education she now considered than any of her classes. Waiting for her adult life to begin. Waiting for the right person to live her life with. Waiting for him to come home. Waiting to tell him something, anything, everything. Waiting for inspiration to strike her, like lightning.
Most people in their neighborhood appeared to work forty or more hours a week so they could afford the car they felt they deserved to drive to that job. In theory, they worked to feed and clothe their families, but work began to dominate greater and greater swaths of time and energy. They had to dress a certain way, they had no time to cook the food they bought, they were so stressed out by the frantic commuting, microwaving and weekend shopping that they treated themselves to extras and extravagances that little by little made it impossible for them to quit the jobs they increasingly hated, that kept them away from the very people they were supposedly working to feed and clothe and educate.
But this was the way “everyone” lived. You “had to,” didn’t you? They rushed away from their families every morning, only to watch the clock all day, endlessly, and then rush back to families who only experienced them as snarling taskmasters. Dara hadn’t been able to face that. She had never enjoyed any job enough to sacrifice her life to it. And she’d been lucky. She’d never had to out of economic necessity.
Sometimes Ned chattered on to her, whether she was listening carefully or not, telling her about all the powers of various superbeings, the attributes of different weapon systems in great detail, and sometimes he listened to her every word, waited for each one like a precious jewel. She had to endure long half-hours of the minutiae to earn the other moments. But he really thought about what she said and had intriguing responses. He was becoming a more interesting conversationalist than ninety-five per cent of the adults she knew.
Dara had told him one morning that she was considering raising his allowance this year, but that it would involve taking greater responsibility. Doing more chores, but which ones could be negotiated.
“I’m already doing something very important to help the family.”
“I’m keeping you and Nick out of jail by going to school every day even when I don’t feel like it.”
She had to stop him in his tracks and look him in the face to see if he was serious. He was.
“You’re joking, right?” Just checking.
“I didn’t think I was, but I guess now I am.”
She laughed; he looked startled, but then he joined her.
There was no one she could share this with, cackle with delight and have them understand. When she’d tried, their mask-like faces told her that it was “mean” of her to boast about her child to the childless, mean to mention his intelligence to those whose children struggled in school, mean to laugh at the shenanigans of your own child–as if that meant you didn’t love him. But it was just that they didn’t find his, or her, humor funny. So what else was new? The story of her life. Finally she just kept it all to herself, not having enough leisure with her husband to tell him all the little treasures Ned offered her.
The morning was the best time. She was tired, but he was lively and not able to sink himself into computer or books while they waited on the corner of Pascal and Lincoln. Later in the day, after school, he had to practice the violin, do homework, recover from the noise and aggressive jostling of junior high hallways; he needed to be silent and focus on his own interests. But in the mornings, they had this enforced togetherness. The trick was to let it happen at its own pace. Leave space for it.
She could do like everyone else. She could drive him like most of the other parents. Even if they wanted their children to ride the bus, they often drove them to the bus stop, waited with them in the car until the bus arrived, then drove off to work. So why didn’t she? No car. This was considered both brave and foolish at the same time, especially with gas prices as high as they were now. Brave in that it must take quite a bit of organizing or doing without to manage it. Foolish in that so many places and events were effectively improbable, if not impossible, and who could even imagine living without a car? A car was freedom.
For everything she couldn’t do without a car, she could counter with the headaches and anxieties that not having a car spared her. Would it start on cold mornings, where to park, how much parking cost, that funny tic-tic sound as it accelerated past forty miles per hour . . . Once you were used to the “convenience” of the car, how other modes of life faded and seemed impossible. She knew many people who absolutely refused to pay for parking and this limited them to outer ring suburban shopping centers and multiplex theaters in a more effective way than not having a car kept her from going to plays, concerts, and exhibitions. Having a car and a mind so limited by that car kept them imprisoned in their garages, in front of their TV sets.
Her husband used to do the morning bus and she did the afternoon when Ned was in grade school, but now with Nick’s new work schedule, it all fell to her. He thought though that Ned was of an age when he could be left alone, was eagerly awaiting the moment when total childcare coverage would not be necessary. But Dara knew that it didn’t take much for teenagers to feel neglected, abandoned. She’d tried briefly to take an after lunch yoga class which finished at the same time he arrived home from the bus. She got back ten or fifteen minutes later. But within that brief interval, he had time to feel that no one cared what he did, or where he was, and he began to slack off his homework, “forget” his books at school. Three afternoons in two weeks and she’d seen the pattern, changed her yoga class, watched as he resumed his work like nothing had happened. In theory, twelve was old enough to spend a few minutes–maybe half an hour–on his own, but it seemed to matter very deeply which few minutes.
Back in high school and college, she’d been so sure that her mother’s fate would not be hers. But one child later, here she was enmired in the old conundrums; years of splitting the housework fifty-fifty blown out the window by the requirement of breast feeding. The modern bohemian couple thrust years in the past to a Cheeverish suburban standard–minus the Scotch. There was no way to share a baby equally–he had to work, she had to feed the baby. Then his work began to take precedence over hers and her time to be enthralled to Ned’s schooling. But it wasn’t that she missed working, or getting dressed up everyday, or the sham of being taken seriously by other adults at work. She watched as the older single and divorced women–with or without kids–increasingly looked to work to fulfill basic human needs for belonging and acceptance and work ultimately letting them down, failing them.
She’d done it all now–she’d worked, gone to graduate school, traveled and even lived abroad. She’d worked part-time when Ned was small, mainly because they’d needed the money while Nick went back to school to get his teaching license. She’d listened to her co-workers factor the cost of daycare against their own puny salaries and wonder if it made sense for them to work. Dara remembered being outraged that daycare wasn’t the same kind of cost to the whole family’s budget–like the car or house payments. No surprise if they divorced then, that he got to keep the money and she got the kids. That’s the way they had behaved before, it was just masked by their intact marriage.
Ned was going to be tall. Already he was eye-to-eye with her and he wasn’t done growing. She’d watched his pant legs seem to creep slowly up his ankles all spring. When Ned sat beside her he still liked to wiggle her soft hanging flaps of flesh between elbow and shoulder–“bingo wings” she’d heard the British slang was. He flapped it back and forth, sunk his nose into it and made rude noises into it. Sometimes she let him, sometimes she didn’t.
She’d listened as her peers, her agemates, lamented the changes that time wrought upon their bodies. Fit, taut thighs becoming lumpy bags of cottage cheese, arms like pencils and butts like two cantaloupes in a burlap bag seemingly overnight transformed into saggy swags of dimpled flesh. These same women often decried their own children’s growth, saying they wished they could keep them aged eight forever; it was such a good age. They were angry, too, that department stores bought each other out; Dayton’s became Marshall Field’s became Macy’s. She had to wonder if it was all change they hated, or just the part that happened after they had reached a certain age, the age they’d been aiming for all their lives and now they wanted the universe to pause for them while they savored the moment.
It wasn’t that she didn’t feel any pity for their lament. She did, to some extent. But like in high school when only the thin girls could risk complaining of being fat, only those who’d looked girlish into their forties could bemoan the matronly bodies they were ending up with. She, who’d been saddled with childbearing hips at age fourteen, could hardly feel as sorry for them as they did for themselves. Now their bodies were catching up to where she’d been living for twenty-five years or so. And she’d felt it was incumbent upon her to carry her genetic load, no matter how heavy, with as much grace as she could muster. Why complain about it? How self-centered to believe that it was unfair to be stuck in a body you didn’t like, felt you didn’t deserve. Who deserved any of it?
They stood on the corner for only fifteen or twenty minutes, but five days a week, over the whole school year, it added up. Time was stretched, too, by the strange sensation their neighborhood gave at that time of day of being deserted. The big three-story houses were dark; you never saw people come out their front doors. Many days, not a car would pass along the street as they stood there waiting. Sidewalks that later would have a few dogwalkers and joggers were empty this early. The big wrap-around porches that people bought these houses for, some bare, some with expensive outdoor furniture, gaped wide like toothless mouths. An abandoned movie set of a neighborhood. On cold winter mornings, they had bounced around like demented clowns, trying to keep warm. She had formed an impromptu windbreak for him with her voluminous parka, let him stuff his freezing face into her enveloping arms. On warmer days, they’d had imaginary swordfights, which turned into hug fests. He was still quite unconcerned about other kids seeing his affectionate gestures toward her or hers toward him. Everyone kept warning her it was bound to happen, the moment when he wouldn’t allow her to touch him like a little kid anymore. When he would be embarrassed by her.
As soon as he got on the bus, waved to her and the bus turned the corner, she was off. From seven am to two pm was the only time she wasn’t on call in the long, long day from five am to ten pm. And within that short-feeling period, she had to walk or exercise somehow, run errands, call doctors, plumbers, insurance agents, and try to have her life, try to feed her soul, because later she’d be feeding theirs. Her writing, her movie habit, her library haunting, all had to be fit into that slice of time, with no overruns. So she designed each day to have all the gallivanting done by noon, so she could be home for lunch, not be in a panic to get home by the time his bus arrived. Her mother, who at times seemed to understand this stricture, at other times seemed highly annoyed that this kind of arbitrary limitation had to be placed on their shopping excursions, lunch dates, etc. “Who, if not me?” she wanted to say, but didn’t. “Who, then? You? You don’t want to do it. You won’t do it and you don’t like it that I have to. But you’ve forgotten, haven’t you?” Autonomy and responsibility: how to balance those into a satisfactory life? Who could tell you how to do that? Who had any idea how it was done? The more you committed to one side of the equation, the more people around you insisted you tip back the other way.
So Dara shot off to the coffee shop immediately after Ned got on the bus. She preferred her own company at that time of the morning, at all times of the day, really. She did not relish the conversation of the mothers’ groups, which tended to be hand-wringing sessions about how hard it was to help, or to watch, their children do anything, make any decision, like which junior high to attend. Or gossip about which teachers shouted, who was teasing whom, what the teachers ought to be doing about it, how glad they were that that teacher was let go, indignation mixed with backstabbing glee. The expectation of other parents that you shared exactly their ideas: that any homework was an imposition on the parents’ time, that any attempt to quiet the class was most likely a denial of their “creativity”, that uniforms would improve the atmosphere of the school, magically make the children behave better. No thought for the teacher’s point of view, facing thirty-five little semi-socialized ids who’ve never been asked to sit quietly and listen for even five minutes, ever.
At school programs, these same parents couldn’t be quiet themselves long enough to watch their own children perform. Even if the teachers did succeed in quieting the kids, class by class, still the parents whispered among themselves and soon the whole room would be ahum, then aroar once again. At the gamelan concert last year, Laura’s mother had sat next to her and shouted in her ear above the cacophony.
“Did you have an opportunity to talk to the visiting artist?”
No, Dara hadn’t. She’d left him to it, teaching kids gamelan and Indonesian dance was a big enough job without having to forge a personal relationship with every over-involved parent.
“He explained that in Indonesia, all government officials are expected to, and do, play an instrument, sing, or paint. Some artistic endeavor. I wonder what American culture would be like if we had that expectation here?”
We might have a military dictatorship like Indonesia, Dara thought. Then she couldn’t help herself. She said, “What about Condoleeza Rice? She’s an excellent pianist, I hear.” Laura’s mother opened her mouth, left it open for a long moment, then shut it again. Thankfully, the gamelans started up right then.
Ned was not a gregarious kid. When she visited his school for programs or they walked down the street together, she saw the girls watching him: tall, good hair, oblivious. They were both attracted and dismayed by his lack of interest in them. She wondered how many of them misinterpreted this abstraction of his for a commitment to “cool” when he just didn’t register their presence. He hadn’t yet clicked over into an awareness of the opposite sex. What he knew about all that was basically academic, read in books and dismissed as disturbing and unreal. What a mess all those emotions were and at this point in his life, all cost and no benefit. She remembered all too clearly her own desire to talk to boys, boys just like him, when she was twelve and thirteen, and they having no truck with it. What was it for, anyway? They could see no utility to it and she herself could find no words to explain or defend her desire for some kind of conversation, intellectual give and take, any kind of engagement.
Maybe she preferred his conversation because small talk had yet to make any inroads into his thought processes. She wondered how and why it got so entrenched in everyone else’s brain. Maybe they switched off their thinking and just received urban folklore by tuning into the Zeitgeist channel? When she urged him to just get his homework done, just figure out what his teachers wanted regurgitated back to them, write it down and be done with it, he protested. “I can’t and I won’t just turn off my brain that way. I don’t think it’s a good idea.” So he wouldn’t go along to get along, wouldn’t ride the wave with little effort on his part, hoping to wash up later in an area of more interest to him. She saw it would make this part of his life more arduous; this she knew from her own experience–the tendency to overthink the subtlety of seventh grade homework assignments had been a difficulty of hers as well, but it would serve him well in the future. No sheep, he. He had to find and decide his own reasons to do what was required of him. No way would he wake up at age forty-two wondering whose script he was following.
Which was better, she wondered, as Ned mimed ninja moves in a swirling circle around her, making her feel slightly seasick, wishing your children would stay little, tractable, endearing, or pushing them to mature faster because it would suit your schedule if they didn’t need so much, or any, supervision? Being present for them, hovering at just the right distance from them, stepping back to be wallpaper in their world, or moving forward to express an opinion on the polite way to take turns. It could be exhausting. There were some things you could do at the same time: cook, clean, file bank statements, answer email; some things you couldn’t: write, watch movies, have a real conversation with an adult. Maybe that was why most parents missed the time when the kids didn’t understand what they were talking about? But who would consign their own offspring to partial understanding? Had they themselves been happier at age eight and now regretted knowing more? She hoped she never woke up one day thinking: “Okay, that’s enough. Stop right there. I know as much as I’d like to know. More will just confuse me, so stop the flow. Now. Please.”
Watching Ned grow a mind of his own fascinated her. So far it was lots of space travel, superheroes, ninjas–not things that interested her on their own, but no more boring than Barbies or kewpie doll pop stars. She had hopes that if she didn’t rush him through the weapon and power fantasy period of male ego development, he might just finish with it before the age of forty. Perhaps adult Star Wars and Harry Potter fans could have used more time at age twelve to . . . oh, who knew? Certainly Dara didn’t. Everything she had ever learned about being a mother related only to being Ned’s mother, not being anyone else’s mother.
The bus with its orange lights appeared a block away.
“Get your backpack on. Here comes the bus.”
“Awww. I wasn’t done with the rasengan move.”
“Come on. It’s here.”
He shouldered the heavy knapsack and shrugged into his school shell. His usually goofy and open countenance stiffened slightly. Possibly only she could tell the difference. He marched up the steps of the bus and sat in the front seat. She waved and grinned. His face softened again seeing her, but then went back behind its mask. He gave an abbreviated salute, the brave soldier stoically accepting his fate. She shortened her wave arc, changed her grin to a more straitened bemused smile. Ah, she thought, here it comes. The tiny and gradual lengthening of that rope that tied them together. She’d have to learn to let go in a way that wouldn’t throw him into a free fall, nor insist on a closeness that suffocates. Time for a change.
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