Coming home

A long travel day, a long conference day, a long travel day. Moments of embarrassingly loud laughter, long stretches of insect-splatting boredom, sparks of intellectual fireworks, flawless time with friends, and a breathtaking moment of euphoria.

art institute of chicago Chagall exhibit

Back home, half of the plates are gone. The wedding china, which we’ve always used as everyday dishes. Their absence makes space for the boys’ two favorite dishes to rest together on the same shelf. Finally. I don’t like these little upsides. They feel like laughing at a funeral.

Half of the drinking cups are gone. Makes the collection a little coffee-focused. Kid glasses and coffee mugs and a set of happy-making mathematical highballs. With a lot of what I expect just…gone. Maybe I’ve expected too much. And by “maybe,” I mean “of course.”

The dresser he’s had for decades is sitting by the front door. It’s ready. I don’t know if he’s ready. I’m not ready. That’s too bad. We have to be ready. We don’t, of course, but he’s moving and “ready” isn’t the point.

We’re in for a lot of change. There is no “my side” of the bed anymore. Or the fun we had every year on New Year’s Eve of switching sides of the bed. Just for a year. Just to see if it settles anything. Or unsettles anything. Or everything.

What will I do now to shake things up? Have a conversation with myself?

I emptied the mission-style letter-writing desk I picked out, so he can take it to his new apartment that I hate and is too far and is all wrong and is none of my business. And I had him move my work desk from the dining room to the bedroom. My bedroom. Two closets just for me and more space than I’ll ever need. Maybe I’ll move the kids into the master with me, and we’ll move all the furniture in that too-big room and we’ll be happy forever without any problems or fights or unmet needs. The end.

The expectant hope of a new home, where unpacking the books and kitchen tools is so important because they set the stage for everything…I’m doing that in my own house. Not my own, really. A rental I can’t afford by myself. I’ll figure that out later. After I reorganize everything in the manic hope that rearranging until 3am will make the next day okay.

I want to move because there’s too much house for three. I don’t want to move because the last thing the kids need right now is more change. I pause for a deep breath of gratitude that we have that choice. I’m glad for that choice.

I offered some of the framed photos and he accepted. Will it upset the kids to see blank spots on the walls where their photos hung for three years? Will they be happy to know he wants their photos decorating his life or will they notice only the absence? Of photos, of couch, of father visiting four days a week but clearly just a guest.

Did I make him feel like just a guest in the marriage? An employee, an afterthought? Probably. A few plates and cups and a couch isn’t making as large a dent as I thought it would. Did he not have enough of him here, or do I just not notice how much is really leaving?

The little one, my sweet, irrational, King-Kongesque little butterbean wants to know why Daddy has to move his furniture. Why is he bringing things to his new place? They haven’t really understood yet, because it’s been just talk. I think he believed the new apartment he saw was somehow just a daytime space, like for work. Dad sleeping somewhere else because he doesn’t live here? He has literally no friends with divorced parents. Nobody else in our family is separated. I’m sure there will be a trophy or a plaque issued for that particular honor soon enough, but Butter has no frame of reference. Until now. So I’ve taught him about rainbows and mammals and glitter glue and divorce. Gee, that feels exactly the opposite of terrific. “We’re still a family, and we’re living in different houses. We still love you and we both want to be with you all the time. We just don’t do a good job of being with each other.” But that’s not true anymore. We do a very good job of being with each other. So then…why?

There will be questions. I know this will come. “But you are nice together now. Why can’t you be in the same house now that you know how to be kind together?”

I don’t know.

I really don’t know. I’ve asked that, too. For now, or for good, “he doesn’t want to” is the truth the boys won’t hear. We carefully unify in our answers in a way we never did when we were together. And I can’t tell them their dad said that he only has enough kindness for temporary, transitional interactions. I’m in the bargaining phase, though. “If we can keep being this way and we can both work hard on maintaining this civility and mutual respect and…can’t we just please…” It’s been so much work for years just to stay together, so much constant stress to keep from either sinking into depression or running screaming for a distant land that there’s an ease between us now. And I want to keep that ease. Can’t we be like this and stay a whole family? In one place? Can’t we please? I want someone to answer that for me. Because everything would be different, right? We’d be different people with different interests and different approaches and different priorities? We would heal all our issues and be to each other what we should be. To stay together we could do that, right? Maybe. Let’s just try…I know, but maybe try for four more years? It’s only been 15 years total. Why would we assume we know anything yet?

He’s happy and acts like the man I met, animated and clever and fun. The man I married. I try not to focus on the fact that he’s happy because he’s leaving. Because he doesn’t have to anymore. I was a have to.

The wine and the cookbooks are staying. We split the mixing bowls and he got new cutting boards. I want new cutting boards. The beer’s all gone. I rearranged the fridge at midnight, so the veggies are finally in the crisper and the shelves organized by meal. He doesn’t pack school lunches, so why does he get to put the peanut butter in the door? I don’t want it in the door. I don’t want tortillas in the cheese drawer. I don’t want soda crowding the shelves. One for when he visits, and one for my mom. One. They only get a tiny piece of my space because I need to control the space, hold up the house’s walls as they start pressing in. I want all the lunch options together, dammit. Can’t I have that?

Yes, now I can. Oh, and how’s that feel? Everything better now that you can control the peanut butter?

Didn’t think so.

His books are gone. My Modernism shelf has a lot of detritus cluttering it; bits and pieces he found as he packed are sitting by Gertrude Stein and Djuna Barnes and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t want old CDs and cat toys and a battery recharger blocking James Joyce. I reject that arrangement. I want to just sell all the books because there’s not much about language experimentation from the 1920s I want in my face right now. Thank goodness I don’t own any Hemingway or I would have burned it last night. He’s just exactly the guy on whom I’d like to take out my anger. My Faulkner shelf is too high to put things on it, thank goodness. Alphabetical, same publisher and cover system, not too carefully lined up, but solid and supportive in its panic-inducing insanity. Am I going to have to change these shelves? I grouped the books as intentionally as I could: by literary movement when possible, geography when appropriate, and read vs. unread vs. half-read status as necessary. But there are other methods that could make sense, could inspire more reading, could excite my boys into a world of incredible literature. I’ll do that tonight. Because at 4 and 8 it’s crucial that they see a wall of books arranged flawlessly? I worry myself at times, except that I’m consistent, so I know nothing’s too wrong.

What is going to become of my books? What if we move? What if I can’t bring them all? Should I sell them now and just say goodbye? What if, what if, what if? A good reason to get even less sleep. What if? Thinking myself in worried circles like a child rubbing a lovey against her almost sleeping cheek. Or a woman tracing the yellow wallpaper of her room.

My feminist theory shelf is still half-empty—listing and slumped with the freedom of not being packed like literary sardines—from my two-month effort to write the paper that begged me to write it for four years. It was well received. I need to edit it and get it to a journal soon. It’s just too awesome and I want it available to anyone who might care.

I don’t feel awesome, though. There is guilt for swelling with freedom and pride. Now that I’m supporting the kids on my income, there is a constant fear in my freelancing way of life, working this week on too many projects, that the projects will dry up next month. I’ll look for something permanent once these clients slow down.

There is frustration with the same conversations, the same petty bickering, the same nasty under-breath comments said in retreat from a dialogue. Get back here. Talk to me.

You’re not coming back, are you.

I want the ease, the kindness, the joy. I want a relationship, not a roommate. I want surety but not at the cost of how I believe a family should treat each other, at a minimum. I want to know what it will be if we fight for us, though he said he’s not going to try anymore. I want to know what it will be if we give up, so I can decide based on what it’ll be like in a year, two years, ten years. I want to know what is best for everyone, I want to know in advance, and I want to know precisely. With numbers and measurements and guarantees.

Because so much of life is measurable and knowable. Ha. If you want guarantees, get married. I’m pretty sure a promise to someone you love is good enough to carry you through 80 years or so.

I want to know what to want. And while I’m figuring that out, I’ll move the dining room table and change where we keep the art supplies just in case that helps. Anyone have a feng shui book for where to put glitter glue and markers to ensure good decision-making and emotional well-being?

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You say, russet? I say, leave the kid alone.

What is wrong with people?

My son loves painting. The day he saw me paint my toenails (he was in the bath, Spouse was watching him carefully, I was bored, the polish was nontoxic-ish) he fell in love with a new artform. He paints his own toenails about once a week now. He paints his father’s toenails. He tries to paint the cats’ toenails. He loves using a different polish for each toenail, then covers most with “russ-sit,” his favorite.

He paints a lot of toe with toenail. We pretend we don’t care. At first we quickly wiped off the excess, horrified at all the chemicals seeping into his otherwise Dr. Bronner’ed body. Then we stopped caring. ‘Cuz wiping tiny skin next to itty bitty toenails leads to smudges, and the boy hates having his art mucked up. Plus, since we’re trying to be all green and organic and nontoxic, we figure he has a few healthy liver cells to spare. It’s like we’ve been all hyper-organic just to save up purity credits so he can formaldehyde himself once a week. Sigg bottles all the time, with nailpolish on a third of his body. Like drinking organic Coke.

So yesterday we’re walking the ‘hood and a neighbor points at his toenails. “What are you doing with this girlie stuff?”

Um, he’s two and a half. He doesn’t know there are things society reserves for girls and for boys. He doesn’t know because we don’t feel the need to tell him. He doesn’t know that small-minded people will close off half of his joys in life soon enough. He doesn’t know why the shoe lady resisted, for a moment, bringing him the pink butterfly boots he asked for, or why when he asks for purple clothes, there aren’t any in his section. (Yes, most of his jammies are pink and purple…HOLD THE PHONE. What East Coast freaks are in charge of Word’s spellchecker? Because since when is jimmies a better guess than jammies? There’s no such word as jimmies. They’re sprinkles. It’s a shopping cart, not a carriage. It’s a freaking purse, not a pocketbook. At least give me the West Coast version of Word, not the Boston edition. If I type milkshake is it going to correct to frappe? Or better yet, cabinet? Geez. Come on. They look like sprinkles. They act like sprinkles. Why in the hell would they be jimmies? And why, you stupid little paperclip freak, would I have my kid wear jimmies? Jammies. Now I have to go teach autocorrect a lesson or two in California vernacular. Damned thing probably says PEAbuddy instead of Pea-Body.)

(Wait, do they mean jimmies as a verb or a noun? I guess jimmy as a verb occurs more than jammies…no it doesn’t. Nighttime is every day, and jimmying things open is rather rare. If not, get yourself in good with a locksmith or a carpenter. Because life’s too short to jimmy things open all the time. Or to have to recorrect jimmies to jammies, when you typed what you wanted in the first place. Meddling coder geeks.)

Anyway, why do strangers feel the need to put their ubermasculine malarkey on my kid? So he polishes his toenails. So? So he likes butterflies and ladybugs. So? He likes pink. A lot. Used to be, parents were told to dress their boys in pink because red was too strong a color for girls, who were conventionally dressed in blue. (Note that it all changed to blue/boy, pink/girl when the Baby Boomers showed up. Dagnabit, could more of the world revolve around that generation?! When will they go away and let someone else have a chance at determining the nation’s priorities?)

My parents gave me a dump truck when I was in the hospital at age 2, and the nurses thought we were from some cult. I liked freaking trucks, y’all. And I didn’t turn out anything except open minded. All toddlers like trucks and trains and bugs and dolls, so why do we have to be wiping half of that off the map-o’-funness for them based on their plumbing? Spin mama’s son erupted from the bathroom five years ago and pronounced, with his hair wrapped in a towel and nothing else on, that he was a beautiful princess. “Yes, you are!” we all fawned, and went back to our conversation.

I love that Spouse goes to the playground with his son, both of them in sandals and toenail polish. Spouse doesn’t think twice about saying “yes, please” to our little painter. And when friends give him hell, he just looks at them without flinching and says, “My son did them for me.”

Gives me a tangible reminder of why Spouse is the best spouse for me and the best dad for Peanut.

So all y’all who have a problem with the two men in my life painting their toenails, you can just shove off. ‘Cuz I like them more than I like you, anyway.