The booth in the back right corner at Emilio’s is mine. The hostess knows just to nod at me as I walk in – no, I won’t be eating. The bright colored fairy lights that trim the bar really do it for me. It reminds me of how I used to do the living room for Christmas with the boys, except Emilio’s keeps them up all year. Dominic works Mondays and Wednesdays, Brady works Tuesdays and Thursdays, and Lacy gets the weekend shifts. They all know my order, although Brady does it the best. Dominic keeps giving me lemons instead of limes, no matter how many times I remind him. He’s like my oldest, Jackson – kindhearted, but things don’t really stick with him. Sometimes I swear, I’ll need to tell Jackson to put his laundry away thirteen, fourteen times before he does it. He gets that from his father. His mind is just somewhere else.
That could never be me. My mind is here, always. Obnoxiously, oppressively here. The stupid thing wakes me up at 5:00 am, like clockwork. No matter how many sleeping pills I pop, nothing seems to stave off my chronic early-onset consciousness. It’s sometime between 5:25 and 5:30 by the time I strap on my ankle weights and head out the door. If I can’t get out the door by 5:30, I won’t have time for my full loop. If I don’t complete my full loop, the whole rest of my day is off.
In total, the loop takes me an hour and a half on a good day. That used to drive Rob up a wall – said the neighbors would think I was a weirdo, lurking around in the dark. I’m pretty sure he thought someone might pull me into the bushes and assault me. He always used to underestimate me like that. Never realized how bloodthirsty I could be in a fight. One Valentine’s Day he even signed me up for mixed martial arts as a gift, but I never went. To be honest, it was a good cover. The real gift to me was having Rob think I was at the dojo two nights a week.
In theory, learning to fight correctly was attractive to me. What more carnal experience could there be than skilfully bringing down your nemesis with a swift and practiced sequence of moves? What better feeling than walking down the street, knowing you had a secret – a shrouded ability to defend yourself against anyone who might cross you or your children? Despite the initial appeal though, I could never bring myself to sign up for classes, even when Rob begged. It felt like one of those things in life where fantasy was better than reality – retreating permanently to a remote cabin in the woods, leaving your job in a flurry of accusatory emails, threesomes with your husband. In reality, I knew I’d be out of that martial arts gym and in my lawyer’s office the second my face hit the mat. I’d seen the cauliflower ears, heard rumors about the MRSA lurking in those mats. Not for me. I got three free classes a week at the spin studio where I worked as a receptionist. That was more than enough.
Early on, it was easy throwing Rob off my trail. Book club, hot yoga, babysitting my sister’s kids. If he ever noticed anything was off, he probably thought I was cheating on him. Some salacious affair with one of the boy’s coaches or the pediatrician or something like that. If he really knew me, he would’ve known I never would’ve dreamed of it. I was wifey – or so I thought. Loyal at least. Nobody could claim I wasn’t loyal. The truth of the matter was I wasn’t getting railed after hours on the examining table, not at all. The truth was much bleaker. I would’ve said just about anything to get out from Rob’s judgment and have a night to myself. That’s one thing I loved about Emilio’s. Nobody judged. Or if they did, they certainly didn’t say anything, and that was just fine with me. For that reason more than anything, Emilio’s became my second home.
When the boys were little, I only dressed them in little girls’ clothes. It drove Rob crazy. I just couldn’t help myself. There was nothing more blissful to me than when the little ones were asleep at night and the house was finally quiet. A warm heaping pile of little girly clothes beckoned to me, begging to be folded. I bought a giant hamper, big enough to fit inside. I’d bury myself up to my shoulders in soft, dryer-sheet scented cotton, the clean laundry like my jacuzzi. If I ever heard footsteps from the upstairs bedroom or the late-night turn of the bathroom door handle, I’d jump out immediately of course, racking my brain for how I would ever explain this bizarre impulse to Rob should he ever find me there, cocooned in a basket of onesies. It was only ever for a couple minutes, but still, I lived in fear.
Then I’d fold for what felt like hours, until every last pair of pajamas and embroidered sweater was creased and categorized in perfect stacks. My ovaries hurt sifting through the piles – ballerinas in tutus twirling across a tiny long-sleeve, matching pastel tie-dye shirts and leggings, a cutesy shell-pink sweatshirt whose hood sprouted a unicorn horn. In truth, it’s how I would’ve wanted to dress myself if that wasn’t an absolutely batshit look for a thirty-nine year old woman. Instead, I settled for monochrome skin-tight athleisure sets that lifted and squeezed my steadily wilting body in a battle against gravity. These sets promised the world. They promised to smooth over the cellulity parts, sporting built-in bras that returned my gradually descending boobs to their rightful place in the universe. They did their absolute best to hide any evidence that over the course of just four and a half years, my body had brought three little lives into the world.
Before my first was born, I’d pass long third-trimester afternoons perusing the racks of the too-precious baby boutique that had cropped up around the corner from our then-apartment, as if the owner sensed that a potential loyal customer was pregnant. The store felt blissful, pure somehow – always smelling like fresh bread from the bakery next door. Pulling mini Lisa Frank glitter T’s and doll-sized scalloped socks off the shelf, I’d never felt more clear-eyed, more motivated. Ready for my new life – my rebirth. Finally, I was doing what I was meant to do and becoming a mother to a squirming, helpless, doe-eyed baby girl.
When the baby was born and turned out to be not a Jacqueline at all, but a Jackson, I tried hard to hide my disappointment. Thrilled still of course to finally have my baby – my healthy, happy, still untainted baby – I buried the desire for him to be anything he wasn’t. A girl would come next, and she would inherit all the pink psychedelic clothes I’d stockpiled over the last nine months for my firstborn. In the meantime though, I would dress Jackson in butterflies and sequins and swirls of lilac tie-dye.
By the time Jackson was three and starting going to preschool, Rob was desperate for me to stop dressing him in little girls’ clothes. Thought he might get bullied – develop some kind of complex – some deleterious early childhood trauma. I cried as I put his pink 3T clothes on a shelf labeled “home clothes” – not to be worn out in the world, lest he be misunderstood. Time for him to be a man now. When his baby brother Tal was big enough, he inherited the rose-gold puffer jacket, the embroidered violet sweater, the napping kitties shirt with the little silky bow at the neck. Rob said I was crazy. I said I was progressive – ahead of my time – and crossed my fingers that the next would be a girl.
By the time I had my third, Max, it felt like I’d never not been pregnant. Max was another boy of course, but even then, I knew he would be my last baby. No amount of postpartum oxytocin was worth putting my body through another nine swollen months just to find out a baby girl had once again eluded me. I was ready for my body to be mine again.
Once Jackson went off to preschool, it felt like the three of them left me in rapid succession – Jackson, then Tal, then baby Max, just like that. The funny thing is, looking back now, I have almost no memory of what went on those few years at home with the boys. Those years with my babies were what I’d been waiting for my entire life, and they seemed to pass me by without my even noticing. For the life of me, I can’t remember what I did all day with the babies at home, but a few specific tableaus feel clearer than anything. The stacks of freshly laundered baby clothes, the wide eyes of the boys’ stuffed animals staring up at me needily as I lined them up in perfect rows around the edges of their beds. The swampy warmth emanating from their small sleeping bodies when I would sit by their beds in the dark, awake late at night, watching their rounded chests rise and fall – their cheeks so soft and full, their unconscious whimpers occasionally piercing the quiet.
And then, just like that, it was over. Not over exactly. My boys were still with me, but I didn’t really have them anymore – not in the same way I once did, anyway. The one thing I was good at in life – the one and only thing I felt I was truly put on this earth to do, was slipping out of my grasp before I even had time to look around and enjoy it. If the years with my babies at home had flown by in an indistinguishable blur, their early school years dragged, each day meticulously marked on the whiteboard calendar. Each hour painstakingly tracked by the fitness tracker permanently affixed to my wrist. “Time to stand!” it would ping me, obnoxiously chirpy. “Stand up and move a little for one minute.” The damn watch drove me crazy, but most days it was my only company. If I’d taken it off, who else would count the hours between drop-off and pick-up? When the blank expanse of the day lay dauntingly before me, at least I knew I only had seven more pings from that stupid thing before I got my babies back – the house once again warm and buoyant, abuzz with activity.
The whole child-rearing endeavor felt lonely and futile those long hours alone in the empty house. I tried everything I could think of to soothe the loneliness, to quiet the voice telling me that this was really it for me. Some mornings, watching the boys clamber out of the backseat and into the schoolyard, it felt like the last time I was ever going to see them – my eyes glued to their three bobbing backpacks, idling in park until they disappeared into the school building. The worst part of all wasn’t that my days at home felt long and pointless. The worst part was knowing they’d only get longer, emptier. It was worse than the looming depression of the summer solstice each year, sick to my stomach with the knowledge that the sun would only ever set earlier for the next six months. Looming darkness threatening to close in around our fleeting summer break days together. In the near future, my boys wouldn’t need me anymore. My value had been spent – my life’s dream not accomplished so much as depleted. This intrusive thought was so well-worn, it felt easier to ruminate on it than it did to think about just about anything else.
Alone in the quiet house, I tried desperately to quash it. My morning walks grew longer, more frequent – bumped up gradually from three miles to four, to six, eventually seven. Anything to not go home and sit in the silence, punctuated only by the passive-aggressive “Time to stand! Time to stand! Time to stand!” alerts issued constantly from my wrist. I watched morning shows, read through fat replenishing stacks of monthly women’s magazines, called in to radio shows and asked DJs fake questions about my love life. Always sure to use an accent or otherwise obscure the natural cadence of my voice – sure some moms from school might be listening, judging. I did pilates videos, made carrot cake muffins that I would never eat for when the boys got home. I moisturized every square inch of my body, vacuumed every square inch of the house. I painted and repainted my nails steadily darkening shades of pink. I stood inches from the mirror and tweezed each stray hair around my eyebrows, tempted always to overdo it.
I don’t remember when exactly I made the decision that a glass of afternoon cab sauv would be harmless while the kids were away at afterschool. What I do remember is that as soon as I drained that first 4:00 pm glass, it was game over. 4:00 became 3:30, which became lunchtime and then even a tall thermos of chardonnay, sitting patiently in the fridge waiting for me to come home after drop-off in the mornings. There was no point in waiting – nobody needed me. Besides, I could function perfectly, drinking or not.
Once I started drinking, I quickly discovered that the only thing that came more easily to me than being a stay-at-home mom was being a stay-at-home mom with no kids at home. It was too easy, in fact. The best thing about it was realizing how pointless it was to do any of the things I thought I needed to be doing when I was sober. My to-do list fell away, one by one. First it was the pedicures, the face masks, the little things I did for me that got scratched. Then it was the carrot cake muffins, the meal planning, the occasional PTA meeting. As it turned out, the boys liked this version of me better. I liked this version of me better. More McDonald’s drive-through after soccer practice, less worrying they might run into me in the halls at their school. The one thing I never stopped was the laundry, no matter how old the boys got. Unending piles of clothes to fold was the one constant connecting one unending day to the next, reminding me that this life was real and not just a decades-long simulation. It was painful, at first, realizing how much of my stupid little life was a farse. A means to no end. But once I embraced the new me and really started living that way, it was liberating.
The first time Rob approached me about my drinking I was defensive, offended at his bold interjection into my personal business. He’d forgotten about a mid-afternoon meeting and came home over lunch to change into business casual. By that point, my morning chardonnays had slid without me even noticing into vodka cranberries, light on the cranberry. Cranberry juice had the vague air of breakfast, I justified to myself. When my eyes cracked open, conscious thought returning groggily, Rob’s face was hovering just inches above me, shaking my shoulders. My brain rattled, completely disoriented to where I was. “Why are you home?” I asked, slowly realizing it was the middle of a Tuesday and I was supposed to have the next three hours alone to sleep it off before I had to show my face at school.
“I’ve gotta change for a client meeting. Jesus, you smell like a dive bar. Are you drunk?” Ugh, I rolled over in bed, burying my reddened face in the pillow. So unfair.
“A warning would’ve been nice,” I grumbled, the pillow doing its best to muffle my rage.
“You’re drunk in the middle of the day in my house that I own, and you’ll probably be drunk at the end of the day driving to pick up my kids from elementary school. I don’t owe you or anyone a warning if I feel like coming home during the fucking workday.” I don’t want to be dramatic and say that was the beginning of the end, but that was certainly the beginning of the end of Rob trusting me. From that day forward, he viewed my every text, every move, every interaction, with suspicion. He begged me to get sober, but I refused. He had his life – his office, his coworkers, his drinking buddies. He had his career that he’d been working toward his whole entire life. I had these kids, these three precious boys, and they were steadily leaving me with each passing day. Why should I have to give up the only other thing that made me happy? So he could brag about his PTA mom wife, his orange slicing soccer mom, another notch in his belt, another credential to add to his self-actualization resume. Fuck that. I was a person too.
Rob filed for divorce two years later. Said I wasn’t who he thought I was when he’d married me. He’d married me. I hated that a lot. Not when we got married, but when he’d retrieved me solely of his own volition and had made me his. It was partly a relief, not to have to pretend anymore to be his perfect wife, his property. What I’d never forgive him for though was taking 50% custody. He had everything in the world already, and yet, he had to twist the knife and take the one thing I had going for me and only me. God only knows what he did with the kids when they were with him. Probably left them with some college girl while he went out to live his life. It was important to him though, taking the kids from me. If Rob hadn’t been so damn “principled” (as he would describe it), he could’ve had an affair with a young co-worker and left me to raise the kids. It wouldn’t have bothered me, not too much anyway. As long as it meant more time with my boys, that was fine with me.
After Rob discovered my drinking, before the marriage dissolved, he pushed me to get a job. Something to take up my days. Some compulsion to show my semi-sober face in public from time to time. That was when I started working at the spin studio. It didn’t pay much, but it appeased him for a while – it was enough for him that I wasn’t doing nothing. When he eventually filed for divorce and the alimony money kicked in, I was making enough to quit the studio, but I never did. He wasn’t totally wrong – it was good for me to show my face out in the world. Prove to myself if nobody else, that I was still real. This life wasn’t all just a pointless simulation.
Even though I don’t live in the neighborhood anymore, I still go to Emilio’s to get some work done on the business when I’m done with my morning shifts at the spin studio. The business is my real work, now that my kids have been taken from me for half the time. I’m working on starting my own business now, helping women find their purpose in life. It’s sort of like life coaching, but not so lame. There’s going to be a website, with real writers – contributors, I’ll call them. I’m adding videos and lists of inspiring books to read, talks to listen to. Women just like me can schedule sessions – phone calls, video conferences, whatever they like – and I’ll help them figure out their purpose. What they were put here on this earth to do. It helps the ideas flow when I’m drinking, but I can’t tell them that of course. Normally, I’ll just sit there in my booth at Emilio’s and work on the website. Excited to finally be fulfilling a purpose beyond the four walls of my own little home.
When I moved into my own apartment after the divorce, I briefly scrolled through adoption sites online, pondering whether it was time to build my family life back up again now that I’d burned the first one down. The recurring dream of a sweet, fuzzy-headed baby heavy in my arms woke me up most mornings, but my rational brain stopped me from ever making a move. The kids were only half mine now. There was less space in the new place. Less for me, less for them. Even so, I couldn’t help but turn one room into a nursery, the walls freshly lacquered in light rose-petal pink. I brought all the baby clothes over from the old house in big plastic bins, anointing the room as if I were still expecting my sweet baby girl.
No baby girl is coming though. It’s too late for me. Instead, I just have this room. Sometimes I’ll bring a drink with me and dump out all the bins, scattering the little kitten-covered leggings all over the floor. It takes me all afternoon to fold them back up again, but it’s worth the effort every time. I’m happiest creasing tiny shirts and sweaters, organizing them in perfect compact piles. When all the clothes are folded, I’ll look around the nursery and admire the stacks, satisfied. It’s all I’ve ever really wanted and now I can do it whenever it strikes my fancy.
Emma Burger is a writer and young professional working in oncology research. She splits her time between Ann Arbor, Michigan and New York City. Her debut novel, Spaghetti for Starving Girls, was released in September 2021.
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