It was January of 2010. Over our Christmas vacation in Madison, my parents lent us a thousand dollars to float us through the New Year. With that, we managed to pay our rent and some bills. Then, we returned to Los Angeles and waited for a large check that was due to me for work I had completed a couple of months before.
As soon as the door to our apartment swings open, the boys race past us into their bedroom. Pat and I yank our suitcases into the hallway, making adjustments around each other on the slippery area rug. My suitcase falls over and I pick it up again, leaning it against a broken chair that is still waiting to be hauled down to its final resting place next to the trash bins in the basement. The chair is only one of the mocking markers of unaccomplished domestic tasks that litter our abode like vandalized tombstones. There is the vacuum cleaner without a handle, another chair with stuffing hanging out of its seat, the broken laptop under the desk, and the large rug (dotted with worn beige patches) that never lived up to its indoor/outdoor promise.
Before we left for Madison, we hired a kid downstairs to watch the cat for twenty-five dollars. At the time it seemed like a steal for two-weeks worth of feeding and litter-cleaning. Now that I survey the soft white hair that floats over everything like a spun sugar confection, I think that I should have gotten more bang for my buck. Would it have hurt the kid to have brushed the dining table a few times? Didn’t he notice that the living room was beginning to look like a scene from a gothic novel? I wouldn’t be surprised to find a skeleton lying in our bedroom next to a withered rose.
My scan of the room stops at the tree next to our entertainment center. It has been in critical condition for years, dropping big brown leaves to the floor at regular intervals. But every time I have given up hope, a green shoot has peeked out from the dry soil in its pot or a leaf will raise itself up when I toss it a dram of water from my glass. This time, however, its mortality is not in question. I cannot discern a speck of green, fallen brown leaves surround the pot, and it lists to one side at a forty-five degree angle.
I hear the kids pulling toys from their places of temporary retirement in their bedroom.
“Whatever you take out, you will have to put back,” I yell to them, my voice betraying more irritation than I intended.
Pat grabs our stack of mail from the dresser, swipes dust and fluff off the top envelope, and plops down on the couch. I watch the debris swirl in the sunlight that streams through a gap in our closed blinds.
“You’re going to have cat hair on your ass,” I say to Pat.
“I’ll live,” he says, tossing a couple of envelopes on the coffee table.
My stomach is tight, but I shrug like I don’t care. I am struggling to resist the urge to start cleaning and then scream at the children and Pat that they aren’t doing enough. This is my pattern and Pat knows it. The impulse is born from my need to control the uncontrollable. Cleaning the house won’t make my check from the studio come any faster. Vacuuming the fur off the rugs won’t pay my parents back their loan any more efficiently. But creating the illusion of domestic order will calm my spirit. At least that’s what I think. Pat disagrees. He claims that the impulse is born from a need to make everyone else to feel my discomfort and resentment as keenly as I do.
Pat throws the rest of the stack of mail on the coffee table.
“Let’s go out to dinner,” He says.
A slight gasp escapes me. We have barely a hundred dollars left in the bank. Dinner would clean us out. Usually Pat is the one to point out the fiscal impossibility of any proposed venture outside the home, not me. I glance at him. He smiles back at me innocently. I feel a flutter in my chest. I like the way Pat’s hair is flopped over one eye.
“We don’t have the money,” I say because it should be said. But I want to go out to dinner. I really, really do.
“Your check will come in a couple of days,” Pat says.
“I guess…” I say, playacting now. This is my opportunity to abdicate responsibility for a foolish choice.
“Dinner?” Spencer’s head pokes out of his bedroom doorway.
“We’re talking about it,” I say.
“We’re going out to dinner,” Pat says and stands up. He looks tall to me -- standing there, making decisions. I feel an unbidden smile steal across my face. I’m sure that my eyes are sparkling.
“Kids,” Pat yells over his shoulder, “grab your sweatshirts, we’re going to Fiddler’s.”
I can hear the kids whoop like they’ve won something. Drawers are being opened and slammed shut in their room. Fiddler’s is a family friendly restaurant down the street and they know that they will be given free gumi bears after our meal. The boys run into the living room, pulling sweatshirts over their heads. I grab my jacket. Pat strides to the door with a white fluff of hair on his ass. We tumble into the hallway, giggling like kids ditching school.
Outside the air is crisp but nothing like the cold in Madison. I breathe it in, fill up my lungs, and skip to keep up with Pat. The boys jog ahead of us. I no longer feel like the penniless mother with a cat haired living room to clean and a skeleton in my bed. I am free from domestic constraints, free from the judgment of my family in Madison, and free from self-punishing thoughts about how we got into this mess in the first place.
I grab Pat’s hand at the crosswalk and glance at him sideways. His hand is alive in mine, tightening and relaxing. He feels it too, I think. This is rebellion plain and simple. We’ll regret having spent the money tomorrow. But today? Today we’re living fast and dying young. Spencer reaches the door of the restaurant first and flings it open. Murphy slips in behind him. I squeeze Pat’s hand. We have shared moments like this before, watching our children filled with such confidence and complete surety that the world cares about them.
Inside Fiddler’s there is nothing to indicate that the boys’ confidence is misplaced. The staff clucks over them, asking about their Christmas vacation and Pat and I slide into our favorite spot on a banquette.
“I’m going to eat all the green ones first,” Murphy says about the gumi bears.
“The red ones are sweeter,” Spencer says, pulling out his chair opposite Pat and me.
“That’s why I like the green ones. I like some sour in mine,” says Murphy.
The waitress comes over to our table. She’s been working at Fiddler’s since I started coming here six years ago. Her accent sounds Eastern European and she always seems to be in a good mood. I wonder if this is because she’s continually grateful that she’s not back where she came from.
“We’re talking about our gumi bears,” Murphy tells her.
“What gumi bears?” the waitress asks in a teasing tone, her eyes mock wide with innocence.
“The ones you always give us,” says Spencer.
“Oh those,” she says. “We don’t give those any more. Now we give out green beans.”
Murphy’s face drops, but Spencer says, “OK. Then show us the green beans.”
“They’re in the kitchen,” she says. “I only bring them out after you’ve eaten your dinner.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” says Spencer. “It’s not like green beans are a reward.”
“Right,” says Murphy. I’m not sure if he’s following Spencer’s logic, but he has infinite faith in Spencer’s brain. Spencer speaks with such a tone of academic authority that younger and impressionable kids simply assume that he’s right. I wish I had this gift. My voice betrays my every emotion and I rarely run on empty. I worry that the quaver of passion in my lower register is sometimes scary. I’ve sensed hesitance from even casual listeners.
“Well, we’ll see,” says the waitress, rolling her l’s and her eyes.
“That’s right,” says Spencer. “We’ll see.”
He and the waitress smile at each other, the game played out.
“Two chocolate milks, a diet coke, and wine, right?” she says, turning to Pat and me, anticipating our order.
I nod, “Red wine, please. It’s chilly out.”
“This?!” she says. “It’s California. Please. It’s never cold.”
I feel my face flush, imagining her frozen tundra of a homeland. She is, of course, right. California is always warm compared to any spot that experiences an actual winter. What is more, I tell myself, any family who can skip down the street for dinner is living large in comparison to the vast majority of the global population. I know this to be true. I’ve always known it. But I know it in abstraction. I know that I know it in abstraction. How, I wonder, do I make that abstraction, concrete? How do I tunnel through my fear to find gratitude? Not the kind of gratitude you find expressed on greeting cards but the kind that is transformative and indelible.