I follow him to his car, still smiling to myself, and say, “Tell me about being present.”
As we buckle in, he tells me about how he and I—well, Wendy—were discussing how she uses a special series of reminders to get her into mom mode after a long day at work. I listen, impressed. She’s very systematic about everything she does, but it’s clear that it’s important that her kids know she’s all in when she’s with them. I think about this in my own life all the time. When you are home with your kids constantly, you forget to be all there sometimes. There’s no urgency about the quality of the time you spend together, because there’s so much quantity. But sometimes, when you can get grounded and present with them, they pick up on it right away, and they respond differently. Despite all our differences, it’s clear that Wendy has figured this out too. I think of Bridget’s and Linus’s eyes when they stop to look at their mom. They’re lazy little stinkers, but they love her. There’s trust that goes down to their bone marrow.
“So when you told me about how you always turn off the radio and drive in silence on the way to pick them up and just focus on breathing and letting your workday slide away, I was inspired. I know it’s not the same without kids, but I don’t want to just . . . I guess, daydream”—his voice rises, checking the word—“right, daydream away my own life. When I was a kid, daydreaming was the best sort of pastime. But now, instead of thinking about how I would design my own footie cleats or animate cartoons, I think about emails I didn’t send or when I need to change my furnace filter or what will happen three months from now if I forget to renew my plates and I get pulled over. It doesn’t result in any useful actions. It just pulls me away from the life I really am having.”
“If you ever get pulled over . . . ,” I say slowly. Our city cops are constantly in the news for being certified in this or that implicit-bias training, but they still have guns and adrenaline and lifetimes of faulty programming like in any other city. I don’t even know Strapping Man’s name, and I feel afraid for him.
“I know, I know. You’ve told me a hundred times. I’ve heard it from my mother, my aunts, my cousins . . .”
“I’m going to renew your plates right now,” I say. “For the next ten years, if I can.”
“As if following the law makes it safer to be brown behind a wheel.”
Without thinking, I move my hand on top of his. He startles, and I do too. But I don’t—can’t seem to—move my hand.
“I assume we’re going to the softball field,” he says after a moment.
“Actually, to Birchboro Hills Elementary first,” I say, pulling my hand away. “I want to get Linus early.”
“Oh. Ok, ok. This is brilliant. I’ve always wanted to meet the fellow.”
Uh-oh. He’s never met her kids. I imagine telling Wendy I introduced her son to her extramarital crush. Assuming she has a crush and it’s not just one way. Which is a pretty big assumption, but then . . . look at him. If she doesn’t have a crush, she’s dead inside.
On the other hand. Wendy’s husband is . . . let’s just say in the twenty-four hours I’ve been his wife, I haven’t been dazzled. Maybe he could use the feeling of a little competition to get him to try a little harder.
“Great! You’ll love Linus. He’s very . . . sweet.”
“I know I’ll like him. I just hope he likes me,” he says, a comment so telling that my heart tugs a little.
“It’s hot,” I say, knowing exactly how to start a successful new friendship for any young boy of eight years old. “If you’re not in a hurry, should we grab some ice cream and four spoons?”
The weird thing about pretending to be someone else’s mother, even for two days, is that you quickly find you don’t have to pretend that hard.
When I get to watch practice, I am usually laser focused on my own kid. She works harder than her peers, and she gives more of herself to her team. I never have to pressure her or lean on her to get her head in the game. I know she has visions of landing an athletic scholarship someday, and that would be wonderful, but I don’t care if she plays 4A or some coed keg league at community college, as long as she’s able to get through school without the mountain of debt I faced down. Each month I set aside cash for each kid in a college savings plan, and there are months that feel like that’s money we don’t have. It’s money that would pay for a bathroom remodel, a drywaller, or maybe a dry basement year round. But I believe a college education for a kid who works hard goes much, much further.
Today I enjoy the chance to watch Bridget practice, but my eyes are drawn to Zoey too. The girls are lined up, doing the very first lessons of pitching: the toe rockers, the low snaps, the work that is, for most of the utility players, largely about team unity. But Zoey doesn’t know up from down, and she studies Bridge’s heels, her arms, looking lost and uncertain, always a beat behind.
She needs Seth, I think. He played baseball as a boy, and when Bridge was starting out, he taught her everything he knew—which meant she was always pitching and batting just a little bit wrong for softball. Then, when she was around seven, he went to a couple of her games, saw how hard she worked, and let her start to teach him. Now he knows the mechanics of a good slow pitch and can teach Zoey too. Or he could, if he were home.
My heart sags a bit. Seth has been not home for two years now. I don’t mean to say that he moved out or anything. He’s present. But he’s just not there.
He does bedtime once a week so I can catch up on nonurgent emails during the off-hours, when no one can possibly write me back. I do love a good Inbox Zero.
And he gets Linus from after-school and then does dinner on Wednesday nights, so I can catch up with my sister and have happy hour.
He always does movie nights with the kids on a weekend night. Some Saturdays he takes Bridge to the batting cages or takes Linus to laser tag.
But that I can list the things he does for our family on one hand worries me so much that sometimes I find myself imagining a life without him. Just imagining—I am not really going anywhere—but I think he knows this. Is that why he’s at his workshop so much? Or is his art really on the cusp of a huge breakthrough? I really can’t tell. I used to obsess about it, ask to go to the studio, hoping, I suppose, that something big was coming and that something would allow us all some breathing room. But the last time I was there, I saw scrap metal and unfinished works, vape pens and a new couch long enough to nap on. I didn’t see a breakthrough. And when I asked him about that, he told me his work was one step forward, two steps back, and no, he wasn’t really smoking again, but also, “Wendy, you’ve always loved me for being an artist, and artists have bad habits. You know that.” Do they? Is that true?
When I spoke to my sister about him, she always seemed to imply that he was hurting me on purpose. This is a fundamental misunderstanding that a lot of people seem to have about Seth. If I mention resenting him, that he doesn’t earn money for the family or pull his weight around the house, it is because I need to vent. Just vent. This is who I married; this is what I signed up for. If I want to complain about Seth, what I really am saying is, Marrying a tortured artist is a bad gig. He loves me and his kids, but his work is everything to him. Work isn’t something he does. It’s something he is.
My baby sister married a lawyer. His biggest client is a major civil rights organization. He works long hours and some weekends and travels as an expert witness. They’re working on conceiving now, and I try to tell her what’s coming, parenting with a passionate careerist, and she tells me she’ll stay home if she has to. She can, I guess. She’s an ESL teacher, and I know she loves the kids she teaches, but she seems confident that she can drop in and out of her workforce as her family requires. She’s probably right.
And yes, today was fun. Anna Joy is good company, and she napped easily at the exact time Celeste said she would, and for almost two hours. Besides shopping and lunch out, we did basically nothing all day. At 3:00 p.m. I loaded up the van with an assortment of children and drove them here, and that also required zero brain cells. The kids all were pleasant and said thank you and behaved themselves. I gave them all Fritos. Now I’m sitting in the warm sunshine, one of three parents who stayed for practice, daydreaming while Samuel entertains himself with the monkey bars and Anna Joy watches PBS Kids on my phone.
Celeste’s life is good.
If it weren’t for missing my own kids, I’m not sure I would want my old life back just yet. But I do miss them. More than I could have predicted.