I’m Fine and Neither Are You by Camille Pagán
Mistakes were made. The first wasn’t even something I did; it was only a germ of an idea, fleeting but infectious. I had just sat on the toilet and was mulling over the day’s to-dos and why-didn’t-Is when a single thought shot past all the rest:
I want out.
Maybe it was the photo I had seen on my phone moments earlier. One of my college friends was on vacation yet again, and had posted a shot of the vast Caribbean horizon beyond her sandy, pedicured toes. A novel was on her lap, closed to highlight the cover (and, presumably, her sculpted thighs). The caption noted that a cabana boy had fetched the cocktail she was holding in her free hand.
I glanced down at my own legs, which were not so much toned as two-toned. I had recently read that making it through mothering alive required putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. Alas—I had failed to make the connection between survival and sunscreen.
But my sudden desire to be somewhere else was probably less envy and more the result of my second child screaming through the half-inch gap where the bathroom door failed to meet the frame. “Mommy! Mom! Maaahhhmaaay!
“Miles, can I not have one whole minute of peace?” The answer to this wasted breath of a question would remain no for another twelve years and two months—not that I was counting. “Go attempt to wake your father up.”
The knob twisted. Then the door flung open and there stood my son, tight fists resting on his narrow hips. His face was contorted with a mix of lingering rage and the fresh pleasure of ratting out his older sister. “Stevie called me Rumpleforeskin!” he announced.
Still perched on the toilet, I turned and tucked my chin to my shoulder to stifle a laugh. When I had composed myself, I looked over at him. “Well, that’s a silly thing to say. What do I always tell you about how to respond to someone who’s mean to you?”
He smiled angelically. “Punch them in the tenders?”
“Sweetheart, if you do that and tell people I told you to, you’re going to end up living with Cookie.”
His face immediately crumpled and he began to cry. It was true that my mother-in-law, Riya, who preferred to be identified as a baked good rather than a grandmother, smothered my children to the point of terror when she bothered to see them. Still—Miles’ tears were a reminder of the microscopic line between being six and having borderline personality disorder.
“Oh, sweetie, come on. Just ignore Stevie,” I said, as though the four hundredth time I uttered this advice would be the one that finally stuck. “Go pour yourself a bowl of cereal.”
“I want waffles,” he said, sniffling. His cheeks, which bore the high color of indignation, were streaked with glossy tear trails. I would have pulled him to me and hugged him, but I hadn’t wiped yet.
Instead, Miles stalked off, leaving the door wide open. It was just far enough away that I couldn’t close it myself, so I quickly reached beside me. My fingers landed on a cardboard roll where paper should have been. The basket beside the toilet was empty
I needed someone to trek to the dungeon, as my children referred to our basement, and retrieve toilet paper.
“Miles!” I called. “Come back!”
I decided to try my daughter instead. “Stevie! . . . Stevie?”
Still no response. I was ready to revert to yodeling empty threats into the hallway when Sanjay appeared. He wrinkled his nose. “What died?”
Romance, I thought. But instead of saying this, I reached behind me and flushed, which sent toilet water spraying everywhere. Who needed a bidet when you had decades-old plumbing? “Good morning to you, too. Can you please get me some toilet paper?”
Sanjay shook his head, which had yet to produce a single gray hair. At thirty-nine, his stomach was still as flat as the day we met sixteen years earlier. His bronze skin was nearly as unlined as it had been then, too. Only the dark half-moons beneath his eyes hinted at a string of midlife disappointments. “We ran out yesterday.”
I stared at him. “And you just decided to tell me that now?”
“I told you we were low last week, Penelope,” he said, and since he was using my full name, I knew he was officially annoyed. “Remember?”
I did not.
“I didn’t have a chance to remind you again last night, because you were passed out by nine,” he added.
Yes, yes, I was, because I had been up at two the night before to change Miles’ pee-soaked sheets. And the night before that, I had stared at the ceiling for nearly an hour, wondering if whatever material had been used to make it look as though we were sleeping a few feet beneath the moon would give us mesothelioma. A popcorn ceiling, our Realtor had called it when we bought the house. Sanjay had purchased a mask and spraying solution and a special scraping tool, and stood on a ladder with his neck bent backward for eight minutes before giving up. I had found the number of a guy—a wall guy, as opposed to the roof guy or the lawn guy or, for the sake of parity, the painter gal. Four years later, Sanjay still swore he was going to call him; on principle, I refused to do so myself. Every once in a while, I awoke to find a chunk of plaster at the end of the bed.
Sanjay disappeared. I was about to unleash a string of expletives (under my breath, lest the children hear) when he reappeared and tossed a package of baby wipes at me. “Use these,” he said as the wipes whizzed past me and hit the shower curtain.
I reached over to grab them, flashing Sanjay in the process. I recognized that my doing so was at odds with our having marital relations anytime soon. But he had seen me in the middle of giving birth, and we had still managed to conceive a second child. So.
“Not flushable,” I pointed out.
“But more sanitary than toilet paper,” he said. “That’s research proven.”
Sanjay Laghari Kar, patron saint of useless trivia. “Thanks,” I said.
He shrugged. Then he dropped his clothes in a pile and stepped into the shower.
I glowered at the shower curtain before looking down at my phone, which was at my feet. I had seventeen minutes to make lunches for the kids to take to camp, get dressed and ready, and run out the door . . . Forever, I thought for a brief, shameful second before banishing the idea from my mind.
I had planned to rinse off quickly, but now I would either have to accept that Sanjay would be in there until I left, or deal with the attitude he copped when I suggested he leave a bit of water in Lake Michigan.
I ran back to the bedroom and yanked a dress over my head. I had just pulled a muscle in my shoulder trying to zip it up when Sanjay, humming and wrapped in a towel, walked into the bedroom.
“How do I look?” I asked. I had a meeting with my supervisor, Yolanda, at nine, and it was either this dress or my bank-teller pantsuit
He sat on the bed and glanced up at me. “You look great,” he said, but I was pretty sure his eyes hadn’t risen higher than my knees.
I sighed. My closest friend, Jenny, called Sanjay Thing 3. If it had been anyone other than her, I would have been offended. Of course, anyone else wouldn’t have known that I sometimes felt my husband was, in fact, my third and arguably least affectionate child. Now I called him Thing 3, too—though only to Jenny.
Anyway, her husband, Matt, wasn’t perfect. Since I had mostly grown up without a mother and had been raised by a father who spent more time at work than at home, I would never have been able to handle Matt’s being on the road all the time. But Jenny said she loved him so much she was willing to put up with it, even if she did occasionally feel neglected. That was one of the best things about having a friend you shared everything with: It gave you a bird’s-eye view of another person’s life. Which in turn reminded you that the bad you had was your choice, and better than the alternative.
In truth, I sometimes wondered about the better part. There was plenty about Jenny’s marriage that was covetable, including but not limited to the fact that she did not have to rush to work every morning, because Matt made oodles of cash. Jenny did, too—her “little website” had become a juggernaut—but she didn’t have to. And though she had never said as much, I was pretty sure she didn’t feel like the walls of her large and tastefully decorated home were closing in on her, or that Cecily, her one ridiculously well-behaved child, was trying to strangle all whimsy from her life. Jenny did not look across the table at Matt (who never masticated chicken nuggets with an open mouth as he scrolled his phone) and wonder what had happened to the clever, cultured man she had married.
Because she did not serve chicken nuggets for dinner.
(They had sex all the time.)
I didn’t really want out, I reassured myself as I dashed to the kitchen to finish the lunches. My childhood had been such that I knew how fortunate I was to be a part of a nuclear family and own a home in a good school district in one of the least generic parts of the Midwest—even if I did sometimes long for the bucolic, childless existence Sanjay and I had once enjoyed in Brooklyn. I recognized the windfall of two healthy, mostly manageable offspring. Our neighbor Lorrie, who let herself into our house more often than I cared to acknowledge (“Just saying hi!” she would announce as I wet myself from the shock of discovering I was not alone and in fact someone who I had once mistaken for a friend was lounging on my sofa), was a single parent. I understood how hard this was—my father had become one himself after my mother decided she wasn’t cut out for family life.
But my father knew I could be trusted to hold down the fort when he was working and my little brother, Nick, needed to be fed, bandaged, or otherwise tended to. Whereas Lorrie only had young Olive, who seemed perfectly average until you realized her supertight hug was the first step of an orchestrated plan to disembowel you with her teeth. As such, I made a conscious effort not to complain to Lorrie about Miles and Stevie cage-fighting in the netted trampoline in our backyard, nor to mutter to her about Sanjay’s fervent belief that plucking wrinkled clothes from the dryer to wear was the same thing as “doing the laundry.”
Still. I was well aware that the semicharmed life I led was one part luck to three parts effort. I had left Brooklyn and traded a beloved but barely paying editing job for a more lucrative position in development at a major Midwestern university—the same institution where Sanjay had spent nearly a year in medical school before admitting that he really didn’t want to be a doctor (never mind that I had pointed this out back when he began an expensive premed preparatory program years earlier).
When it became evident that we could not move back to New York with two children without selling an organ on the black market, I had researched the best neighborhoods and schools in our college town. I had located the only house we could afford in our desired district, and now spent 29 percent of my post-tax paycheck covering the mortgage. (Sanjay had finally started getting paid for a few of the music reviews and articles he wrote, though I had pushed him to bolster our anemic savings account with that cash instead of putting it toward the house.)
Those decisions had paid off. Stevie was getting the reading intervention she needed. She and Miles had a yard that was not made of concrete. Our life was not so expensive that Sanjay’s being mostly unemployed had left us destitute. And I had met Jenny, which had made my suburban, child-centered existence infinitely more tolerable.
I loved my husband. I loved my kids. I mostly liked my life.
But I was so damn tired.
And maybe that was why on that June morning—as Sanjay lounged in his towel and checked his phone while I ran around like I was on uppers, curling my eyelashes while shoving vegetable straws into lunch boxes and zipping backpacks for two sloths in human clothing—I allowed myself a tiny, terrible indulgence.
Which was to admit that in that moment, I actually did want out.