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Where the Survivors are Buried
by Nava Renek  

Chapter 1

 

 

Marriage: Two cups desire mixed with one cup constancy, a tablespoon of indifference, half a cup of melted dreams, a pinch of humor, add friends and children to taste.  Blend well and let sit.  Still married?  Mix ingredients and repeat again.

 

 

 

When Meem thought about sex with him, she remembered the cream colored Acura--a rental car, and the Sunset Arms, the cheap hotel where she imagined a succession of B-movie stars had taken their own lives, and on occasion, she remembered doing it in her own Honda Accord, the one she and her husband had taken out a loan to pay for, all the while hissing like angry snakes at each other over her indiscretions. 

It was in these noncommittal spaces, seemingly so transitory and brief, that she and Jeff had feasted on each other’s bodies (always a quick meal), while whispering painful admonishments, wishing to wipe away any thoughts of the future before they even occurred. After all, they’d come together under another pretense–certainly not to end up in each other’s arms--and as always in everything they did, the clock was ticking, and didn’t Meem know it!

When Meem thought back to the moment she first met him, almost two years before, when her marriage was still intact, her family humming along in a strangely reassuring manner, she pictured Jeff sitting on the edge of his desk, left leg swinging back and forth like a pendulum already ticking off the seconds, him eyeing her in a curious yet distant sort of way, arms folded across his chest as if protecting himself from some unwanted intrusion.

Months later, he confided to her that after she’d left his office that day, he had a hard on.

She never told him this, but as his hard on must have been edging towards the inseam of his jeans, she was thinking: thank-God, for once, I am so totally un-attracted to a man—this man who could sit so casually in his office, drinking from a pint of Jack Daniels and not even offer me some.

Perhaps it was his five o’clock shadow that hung like a veil between his sharp cheek bones to his jutting chin, or the way his jeans fit loosely off his hips like the pants worn by men who stand outside subway stations begging quarters from blurry-eyed passengers? Or it could’ve been the white athletic socks that covered his otherwise shoeless feet and the fact that white athletic socks were (at least to her) a turn-off. But most of all, she suspected it was the way he didn’t actually speak to her, but to some larger audience (the whole world perhaps?) as she listened to him rant on about music, politics, and obscure artistic movements, all the while throwing back shot after shot of whiskey, until she felt so exhausted she could barely stand and wanted desperately to sit on the chair nearby, but for some neurotic reason was politely waiting for him to offer her a seat and a shot from that goddamn bottle of booze. 

When her husband asked her how she could ever have fucked up  their family so badly, she thought of Jeff’s eyes and the deep layers of sadness she imagined hidden behind them, the personal sorrow she knew she could never make right, but a pain that seemed so familiar she wanted to squelch it with the first thing on hand--her body, of course. But she kept those feelings to herself as Jeff had explained the responsibilities of the job. Afterwards, she thanked him and walked out the door, carrying with her a sense of undefined yearning that would stay with her long after she felt comfortable taking liberties with him lying naked on a hotel bed or sipping from a bottle of Vinho Verde.

  How was she to know that soon his office would become their arena for painfully slow foreplay: discussions of bands and music, rehashing personal traumas that they folded lightly into the batter of their pasts?  And, as she thought of him sitting there so casually against the back drop of Fourteenth Street with its crumbling pre-war buildings, water towers, and soot-streaked skies, she wondered when her change of heart had occurred? Was it just after her initial proclamation while descending in the freight elevator that she found him so utterly unappealing, so obviously self-centered, maybe even egomaniacal, never once offering her a seat across from his desk or a hit from that bottle of Jack that stood sentry over the articles and advertisements he’d been marking up for typos and grammatical errors?

Yet, they’d had a congenial conversation about his business and hers as she glanced around  room lined with posters of 1970's punk bands: The Ramones, Dead Kennedys, MC5, album covers for The Stooges, Blondie, and Television, stacks of CDs, magazines, and other music paraphernalia, long enough to spot a copy of The Village Voice opened to the “Classifieds,” specifically: “Apts/Manhattan” with cloudlike circles traced around various listings in his multipurpose red pen. He and his wife were moving, he’d explained. His wife needed more space to expand her catering business.

Meem had nodded sympathetically. It’d been a long time since she’d referred to that paper for apartments or jobs, although she couldn’t deny never having done so. It’d just been a while, like say a decade or two, since she’d been forced to pack up her belongings and seek refuge wherever she could afford it.  In other words, his lifestyle seemed vaguely familiar, one she might have led some time ago, but somehow seemed to have wormed her way out of by clutching onto the first safety device available--her husband; then loving and caring for him in return for what she considered his dramatic rescue.

When Meem thought about sex with Jeff, she believed it was his brain she wanted to fuck: penetrate his gray matter for past history, stories, lives. On the way, she’d allow him to cup her belly (which was softer than it should be, or softer than it was when she was nineteen or twenty) and ask: “what’s this?” as if none of his other lovers had ever had the pleasure of a good meal, skipped a decade of going to the gym, or given birth.  At 42, there was so much history to be found in a stomach, and hers was no exception. If he’d ever taken the time to look any closer, he might’ve seen the scar of her emergency caesarian, the mark that would always be there, just under her panty line–a constant reminder that she was in no way perfect.

 

  “For why?” The question kept coming to her; the same question her seven year old son, Oscar, asked whenever he didn’t understand something.  For why did everything that had once meant so much, mean nothing anymore?

On the way home, she couldn’t help peering into the different parlor floors of the brownstones along the way. With their cut glass chandeliers, walls line with bookshelves and abstract paintings, the stone and mortar structures seemed like little oases. She knew Oscar would be in their apartment, probably watching TV, or chatting with his dad about rodents or different modes of transportation while Grant prepared dinner. There’d been a time before she’d been married when she hardly ate at all, or didn’t eat regularly, and certainly didn’t eat at the same time every day. Now, they were so punctual. Almost regimental. Oscar anticipated his meals on schedule. In exchange, they expected Oscar to go to bed on time, and usually he obliged. 

“What weighs more, a pound of chicken or a pound of meat?” Grant asked, as she opened the door and found them exactly where she expected, seated at the kitchen table, Oscar stabbing a fork into a piece of barbequed chicken and sucking the sauce off with his lips.       

“That’s easy,” Oscar answered. “They both weigh the same.”

“How about this one. What was the color of Napoleon’s white horse?”

  “White!”

  “And if an airplane crashed on the border of Canada and the United States, where would the survivors be buried?”

  “Duh! You’ve asked me that a thousand times. Survivors don’t get buried.” Oscar laughed, and then went back to licking the barbecue sauce off another piece of chicken.

“I’m going to run his bath,” Meem announced, pleased that both father and son were engaged in conversation, even if they seemed to be talking nonsense.           

“What do you like more: a rat or a pigeon?” Oscar asked as he followed her down the hall and began to undress for his bath.

“Neither.” Meem answered, taking a seat on the side of the tub.

“Pigeons are good because they can fly wherever they want, but rats are soooo cute.” 

“I’ve never heard anyone call a rat ‘cute.’”

“But they are.  I love rats, and squirrels, and chipmunks, and hamsters.”

“So, you’re an animal lover.”

“No. I’m a rodent lover. Phyllum Rodentia.”

“It’s a good thing you live in the city. Most kids in the country don’t get to see too many rats.”

“What happened to all the animals that lived near the World Trade Center, mom?  On the news they said there was a dog in Battery Park City. Everyone knew him because he begged food from all the restaurants and the construction workers fed him scraps. After September 11th, they forgot about him, but then one day a few weeks later someone saw him running around a mall on Staten Island. How do you think he got there.”

“It’s almost time for bed.” Meem reached for a towel and held it open for him.

  “No, mom. How do you think he got there? Maybe he took the Belt Parkway and crossed over the Verrazano?  He could have swum, but…”

“Do you want me to read you a story?”

“Maybe he took the ferry or was transported by one of the garbage trucks loaded up with all that World Trade Center junk.”

“Oscar, it’s almost time for bed.”

“If there was a disaster, what would be the fastest way to get out of the city: car or ferry?  I think ferry because you wouldn’t have to worry about the bridges being blown up.”

“Stop talking so you can get into your pajamas.”

“What do you think the name of the dog was?”

“I don’t know.” Meem sighed.

“Homer.”

“You mean like the Greek poet?”

“No. Like Homer Simpson.”

  Being born wasn’t the hard part.

“It didn’t hurt a bit,” Meem’s mother told her, which  made some sense, since to her mother who died when Meem was 16, pain had become both ever-present and totally unrecognizable. Now, in middle age, Meem felt those sharp contractions beginning to push her out of the birth canal into the world of sensation, noise, and light, followed by the bloody afterbirth, and the adult Meem dangling loosely by her own umbilical cord, still tethered to her former self, but flailing to exist anew.

Seven years earlier, Oscar had been born under duress beneath operating room lamps. No one had really warned Meem about the hours of labor, the doctors and nurses in their surgical masks poking and prodding as if she were a sputtering roast they needed to determine was done.  With the laboring woman in the next room hollering: “motherfucker, get this damn thing outta me,” it was no wonder Meem’s body had closed up, her cervix refusing to fully dilate, then finally shutting down completely like the lowering of an F-stop.

When she’d first started experiencing contractions, she received little help from the midwife who complained about the slow progress of her labor and how late it was going to make the midwife for her own daughter’s Girl Scout meeting. Then Meem, ever wanting to please even when shot up with Pitocin, blamed herself for keeping the woman from her coven of Scotch clad girls, planning territory and routes, hawking their boxes of Thin Mints and Do Si Do’s. 

Why couldn’t she have had her baby on time, in the most classic of ways, pushing him out  while angels played on high and golden rays kissed the newborn’s dewy hair?  Instead, she never knew she had him until four hours later when a bundle of cloth blankets and flesh was placed in her arms. By then, the infant’s face had been wiped clean of sinew, his head covered in the tiniest of cotton caps, little hands and toes swaddled in straight jacket rigging, button nose poking out, becoming familiar with air. 

Note to new mom: Take that infant into your arms. Wrap him in swathes of fabric. Kiss his silky cheeks. Press him to your swelling breasts.

For two weeks Oscar stayed asleep, except to nurse. Then, when he finally woke up, he opened his mouth, filled his lungs with air and released a long drawn out yawl, letting the world have it. These days, Meem thought she knew what that scream felt like. It sat deep inside her like the sharp edges of a four cornered box, pressing tightly against her rib cage and malleable organs.

 

 

 

Inside Calcutta II, strings of fairy lights dripped like hanging vines against crimson wallpaper. Calcutta I was just around the corner, and the real Calcutta was six thousand miles away. Several years earlier, Grant had worked on a dam project in India and had never stopped talking about the vivid contrasts he’d found there: the teeming city streets vs. the tranquil country roads; the colorful intensity of Old Delhi’s Main Bazaar vs. the human waste and squalor down the back alleys nearby, the poverty vs. opulence, spicy curry vs. cool mango lassi, air-con vs. non air con, veg vs. non-veg.  After a month of being in that strange land, he’d seemed relieved when he finally returned home. 

“Did Oscar ask how hurricanes get their names?” Meem asked while taking in the refracting colors of the kaleidoscopic lights dangling from the walls. “He thinks the names are based on some kind of anthropomorphic logic, like hurricanes have distinct personalities.”

“Just tell him the truth. Meteorologists assign hurricanes their names.” Grant glanced around for the waiter to come open their bottle of beer.

“But the names. Where do they come from?  Is there some standard list, or does someone’s mother have to die or girlfriend leave him? And why are the names always so exotic, like Hurricane Ingrid, Carmen, Isobel?  I’ve never heard of Hurricane Lisa or Sue.”

“There was Hurricane Bob.”

“Maybe it’s the opposite for men’s names: only ordinary white men’s names. No Hurricane Jermaine or Leroy.”

“What about Hurricane Aretha or Tanesha or Daquan?”

“Listen to this: Hurricane Ravi. Hurricane Sanjay. They should give those names to hurricanes in India,” Meem giggled, enjoying being out of the house, laughing with her husband, but then Grant’s persistent logic brought her back to Earth.

“India doesn’t have hurricanes. They have monsoons and tsunamis. Naming hurricanes is ridiculous anyway. Why would anyone give a storm a name?” 

“To connect us to more powerful events. Deep down, we don’t want to know that we can’t control nature.  Living in the city, we never have to experience actual weather. All we really see is what’s on a map on TV. Sometimes it’s raining or sunny, hot or cold, but what difference does that make if we’re walking from the subway to the office and home again?”

“Are you singing the praises of nature?” Grant teased.

“I’m just saying that most people are out of touch with the weather. It’s either: ‘going to be a great day, Willard’ or ‘Willard, when will the rain ever end?’  Do you think animals complain each time the temperature changes?” Then she stopped and wound her fingers between the water glasses and plates of mixed appetizers, wanting to hold his hand. “I love you,” she murmured, but watched disappointedly as he withdrew and turned his gaze down to the threadbare carpet.

“I just don’t know what’s happening to us.” He finally confessed.

Life is what’s happening,” she replied, thinking that until that moment, she’d always considered him youthful, handsome, but recently she’d begun to notice a few lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes. “I need to go home and lie down,” she sighed, feeling all the chicken korma and alou shag sloshing around inside her.          

“It’s not even nine o’clock.” He reminded her. “I remember when we would drink all night and didn’t go home until four in the morning.”

“That must’ve been someone else,” she laughed. “Now we’ve got that subway ride, and I don’t want to be sick on the train. Besides, I can’t stay out like I used to. I should be able to tell you I’m tired without feeling like I’m disappointing you. Now I’m tired, and like a fucking pig, I’ve eaten too much, and I just want to go home. Isn’t that okay?” 

She looked up at the ceiling lights and let the colors linger behind her eye lids for a while. “I think I found someone for you.” Grant offered. “He’s a therapist.”

“Nothing’s wrong. I don’t need a doctor.” 

“Honestly, I don’t know how much longer I...”  But he stopped himself before he said anything more.

“If you can’t take it,” Meem challenged, half wanting him to finish the sentence for her. How many times had she wished he’d just tell her their relationship was over, but she

knew he wasn’t going to give up so easily.

“I love you. We have a family. I want us to be together, but I have to know that’s what you want  too.”  

She knew exactly what he was talking about. Those empty hours she spent in bed listening to the sounds of the different vehicles passing below their window. While under the covers, she’d gotten to know her block’s daytime routine: the shuffling footsteps as the neighbor’s kids got ready for school, the low decibel rumble of the UPS truck idling across the way, the clanking of empty bottles as collectors bumped their shopping carts down the cracked sidewalks, halting every few yards to rummage through someone else’s trash. Sometimes while she was lying there, she’d feel Grant sidle up to her and wrap his arms around her as if he believed that if he just kept holding her tight, she wouldn’t want to get away, but even in all her confusion, she knew she was AWOL: her body present; her mind far away.

 

Out on the street, she took his arm, hoping to feel something--anything that would bring them back to the place they were when they’d first met and there was no question that they loved each other completely and would do anything just to be near each other.

“Please don’t hold a grudge because I ate too much, and now like a fat pig, I want to go home.” She begged.  “That should be the beauty of our relationship. I should be able to tell you that I’m tired, or sick, or ecstatically happy, without worrying about how you’ll respond.”

“When was the last time you were ecstatically happy?”

“It’s been hard. I admit, I’ve been incredibly sad lately, but we can tell each other that too, can’t we?”        

Suddenly, Grant pulled her into a doorway and pressed himself against her. “When was the last time you made love standing up?”

“Jesus,” Meem groaned. “We’re in the middle of New York City.”

“That never stopped us before.”

“How about we wait until we get home?”

“You’ll be too tired.”

She let him kiss her for a while, trying to find the passion in the warmth of his tongue as it rummaged in her mouth, but easily became distracted by the sounds of taxis barreling down the avenue.

Soon enough, he realized she wasn’t into it and stopped; then wordlessly, they continued towards the subway on their way home.

In Brooklyn, their fifteen-year-old babysitter was asleep on the sofa, headphones covering her ears, a reality show muted on TV, and a fat chemistry text book lying across her chest. “Talk about sensory overload,” Meem whispered, remembering her own babysitting days: the endless hours waiting for the parents to return, sampling everything in the cupboards from Cherry flavored Jell-O to Cointreau and stale cigarettes. Then, when the couple finally arrived with their crooked smiles and staggering gaits, she was no longer able to see them as ordinary moms and dads, because between the time they walked out the door and when they returned four hours later, something secret, transformative seemed to have happened. Until she had a family of her own, she never knew what troubles could lurk in everyone’s closet like water damage or dry rot behind the pressed suits and silk dresses.

“Gina,” Meem whispered, tapping lightly on the girl’s shoulder. 

Gina was wearing a tight V-neck T-shirt and fitted jeans–not baggy Levis like Meem’s generation had worn–but jeans that left the girl’s midriff exposed, allowing Meem to peek at her washboard abs and budding breasts. Did the babysitter even realize how coveted her physique would be? Boys would surround her. Grown men would ogle her. Boyfriends would be entranced by her, but eventually her slender hips would widen, her thighs thicken, her breasts conform to the laws of gravity, and she’d long to be back in her beautiful body that she’d taken for granted way back then. 

“Oh hi.” Gina jumped up, seeming to want to appear as if she hadn’t been asleep. 

Meem pushed some bills into the girl’s hand and told her that Grant was waiting to walk her home. Thirty dollars for four hours of adult time with her husband was an investment all couples needed, a sort of topping off of the tank in anticipation of more chaotic times to come, and if Meem had been in a better frame of mind, she might’ve been able to enjoy the evening, but even after their night out, she still felt completely unable to muster the kind of excitement Grant was asking for. By the time he returned home, she knew she’d be asleep, their futile discussion having come to another inconclusive end. She didn’t know how many more talks like that they could have. She didn’t want to go to any doctor or therapist because a doctor meant explaining, and explaining meant exploring, and exploring would only lead somewhere she didn’t want to go. 

“How was he?” Meem asked, suddenly aware that Gina was still standing in front of her expecting her to want a status report on her son.

“He named all the herbivore dinosaurs from the Mesozoic era. I don’t know where he gets all that information. I sure didn’t know that stuff when I was his age.”

Meem smiled proudly. The mere thought of Oscar never failed to bring her out of her funk. Then Grant appeared, ready to take Gina home, and for a brief moment, Meem imagined the two of them as lovers. What was to stop a man of Grant’s age from coveting such a precious creature? Talk about May-December romances. Statistics practically guaranteed that by the time a woman reached fifty, her husband would have had at least one affair with a woman half his age. But not Grant. Not him. Grant was still fiercely hanging on, determined to make their family work. Had knowing he was so committed allowed her to stray?

  Maybe she’d gotten Gina all wrong?  Perhaps she was already screwing one of the other dads on the block? The trick would be simple: to appear innocent and naïve but carry on like a lap dancer, working these poor middle aged shlubs in their susceptible states of decline into a sexual frenzy. But no, Gina seemed to be in full possession of her innocence, genuinely still a child, at least for a little while longer.

 

“Name two mammals that also lay eggs,” Oscar quizzed at 6:00 the next morning, while standing in the middle of their bedroom dressed in red and blue Spider Man pajamas. Over the last few weeks, they’d been trying to discourage him from jumping onto their bed the moment he woke up, and although he tried to contain himself, it was hard for him to change a habit they’d let him hold onto for so long.

The sky beyond their windows was dark, and Meem pulled the covers over her head, having already assessed that this was a scientific question–definitely not her domain–and waited for Grant to rouse himself and respond.

“Name two mammals that also lay eggs,” Oscar repeated, his tone becoming more insistent.

“Not now, Oscar.” Grant groaned. “What time is it?  Go back to sleep.”

“But I want to talk about mammals that lay eggs!”

“Stop it.” Grant pulled himself up to a sitting position. “You need to go into your room and take care of yourself. We haven’t finished sleeping yet.”

“Platypus and Echidna. But they live in Australia. Do you think there were other mammals like them in prehistoric times?”

“Grant, do something.” Meem whimpered.

“Oscar, go to your room. We’ll talk about it when we wake up.”

Meem heard a long exhale, then the soft padding of Oscar’s footsteps as he moved down the hall.

“He gets enough attention, don’t you think?” She asked.

“Fuck. I’m awake now.”

“Don’t you want to sleep some more?” Meem wrapped her arm around his waist, thinking she might be able to make up for her lack of enthusiasm the night before.

“Jesus, Meem. Someone has to work. Doesn’t Oscar have school today, or is it another one of those goddamn holidays?”

Oscar’s footsteps got closer as he entered their room again. “See, you’re awake. I didn’t wake you, but now that you’re up, we can talk, right?”

“I’m not talking about egg laying mammals at 6:15 in the morning.” Meem snapped.

Oscar was already nestled between them, his thin legs intertwined through hers.

“How about making us some coffee?” She nudged Grant who was already putting on a T-shirt as he got out of bed. 


 

Futility: Watch a fledgling fly into glass. Take two tablets and cry in the morning. Fall in love with someone who can’t love you.

 

Dr. Lauder nestled his oval body into a worn armchair while fingering one of the little soap stone statues of Shiva or Vishnu or another one of the Hindu gods. Meem didn’t tell him that similar statues sat all over her own apartment–distant deities Grant collected, but that they only really had an aesthetic connection to. As far as religion went, she and Grant didn’t pray to any higher beings or covet too many bourgeois totems.  In fact, she told the doctor, they’d been getting along fairly well…until recently.   

At her initial visit two weeks before, she’d taken a seat on a sofa–a folded up futon, really--which faced a large canvas filled with what looked like giant space age nodules. The painting seemed interesting an abstract kind of way. Perhaps, she thought, each bubble was meant to be a Rorschach that revealed a tiny microcosmic world filled with symbols pointing to specific neurosis and psychopathology? But as the weeks went by, the work slowly lost its intrigue until it became merely wallpaper, rather than something that possessed any deeper meaning. 

When she arrived that first day, there’d been no sign that read: “Mentally Disturbed Patients: Do Not Sit Here!” so she didn’t see any reason why she should have chosen the other sofa, which she was soon to learn was the sofa that the doctor considered the more preferable place to sit. In fact, the futon looked so familiar, just like the one she and Grant had set up in their living room. So, from her point of view, there was no reason for the shrink, therapist, mentor, guru, quack—whoever he was, and who didn’t know a thing about her--to call her out for her poor choice of seating just to prove his psychoanalytic chops. And maybe now he’d say that her resentment and counter analysis of his initial interpretation was some sort of defense mechanism preventing her from thoroughly examining her own life, but when he chastised her for choosing that piece of furniture that he’d deemed so uncomfortable, then proceeded to diagnose her as being mildly depressed, she wasn’t really in any position to refute him. But, at the very next session, she smiled to herself as she sunk her derriere into the supposedly more luxurious sofa just to avoid any further therapeutic condemnation, while patient and doctor rooted around for reasons that explained her recent unhappiness.  

Lauder had alternating opinions. As far as he was concerned…in the grand scheme of things… people were constantly falling in and out of love, being unfaithful, and making bad decisions. But from a humanistic standpoint, as in how one treats another living person, he suspected she could be a “monster.” Only a “monster” could directly disregard her partner’s feelings to carry out actions that would solely benefit herself. Only a monster would lie and cheat and concoct stories to achieve her own ends, jeopardize the well-being of the family and disregard social norms to create a seismic shift that could shatter all aspects of life as she knew it. 

At the conclusion of their forty-five minutes, there were tears, and then Meem’s subsequent humiliation for having used up the cache of tissues that had been placed on the tchotchke table in between the saucer of shiny stones and the crop of miniature brass Buddhas. It was at this point that she’d actually thank the doctor for making her feel so bad and reminding her how pitiful she was for first allowing herself to fall in love with another man–not her husband–then have to seek help from a stranger to straighten herself out.

 

“How are you?” Lauder intoned, his usual question, as he scanned her face for possible clues.

“I’m fine,” came her natural response, until she remembered why she was there: her inability to get out of bed in the morning, the shortness of breath, irritability, the feeling that she was being persecuted by everyone she knew, the wide open chasm between what she wanted and what she had.  “Well, not really,” she amended, then launched into the story that she came prepared to tell him.

“A few days ago, I took Oscar to see his friend Davy play soccer. We’ve never really encouraged him at sports, and I guess I feel bad about it because on weekends, while all the other kids are busy with football or Little League, he can’t even get a playdate, so once in a while, I take him to the park to watch his friends on their teams.

“Grant’s much better at it than I am. He never gets impatient with the other parents’ small talk. You’d think two adults would want to have a more sophisticated level of conversation than discussing their kid’s latest digestive disorders. I can’t even fake my interest.”

“And that upsets you?” Lauder probed as Meem reached for a tissue just in case.

“Maybe everyone’s right. Maybe there is something wrong with me. Like this day I’m telling you about at the soccer field. Oscar ran up and asked if he and Davy could have a playdate. I looked around for Davy’s mom, hoping she’d take them to her house, not the other way around, because her little Davy was as grumpy as an old man, and I didn’t think I could stand even a few minutes with him, but it was too late. His mom was already coming towards me, eager to hand her son over to me.

“Oscar shrugged when I asked the boys what they wanted to do. Having gotten through the first stages of initiating a playdate, he seemed incapable of finessing the rest.

“‘I have a gazillion things to take care of,’ the mom went on. “There’s shopping, laundry, Napoleon needs a walk. I can’t do anything with the kid around, but if you want to take him, bless your heart. I mean, how do you do it? I get everything done, but it seems like there’s always something more to do.’

“‘I try not to do too much,’ I told her. ‘Maybe I don’t wash the dishes or buy groceries as often as I should, but no one’s complaining.’ Then I laughed because no one was complaining…about that anyway.

“‘What I wouldn’t give for two or three days off,” the mom continued. “I mean completely off.  No husband, no kid. No dog. You know what I’d do?  Just sit on my ass eating bon-bons and watch Judge Judy. Some women go to spas, but why waste good money? You strike me as the type that when given the choice would go off somewhere romantic with your husband. Well, not me. I...”

“‘Pick up Davy around 4:00. We should be home by then.’ I told her.

“‘Can we go to the Elephant Playground?’ Oscar started jumping up and down while Davy stared at me as if I’d just come from Mars and landed on Earth. I guess I must look pretty strange.”

“What’d you mean?”  Lauder wondered.

“Oh, I don’t know. I’m just not like everyone else.”

Lauder seemed to take note, then asked what happened next.

“I like that playground. The swings and monkey bars are just the right size, and I knew Grant wouldn’t mind if we came home a little late. He was probably on the computer reading National Geographic, or tinkering with something to take his mind off of what’s been happening with us.

“But then, as we were walking, I watched Davy run up and pull Oscar’s arms behind his back. ‘You’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. You have a right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford one, one will be provided for you.’ Davy announced.

“‘Rights?’ Oscar balked. ‘What’re rights?’ 

“Davy stopped for a moment and pointed a finger into the air as if he was some kind of attorney. ‘The government gives you these rights that are yours and they’re called inalienable rights. Haven’t you ever heard that shit on TV?’

“‘Davy,’ I cut him off. ‘We don’t use that word.’

“‘What word.’ Davy looked baffled. 

“‘That word you just said.’

“‘Rights?’

“‘You know what I mean.’

“‘Come on, mom,’ Oscar pleaded. ‘I’ve heard it before.’

“‘Which word?’ Davy’s eyes grew wider.

“‘Shit!’ I said, stomping my foot on the ground. ‘That’s the word we never use. At least Oscar doesn’t.’ Then I breathed deeply because my chest was tightening like it’s been doing lately, and I felt like I was going to suffocate. ‘Now, can we have a good time, please?’ I begged. 

“You know,” Meem looked up at Lauder, stepping outside her story. “I’ve stopped being shocked at how often Oscar’s friends use bad language. I have no idea what really happens behind closed doors but judging from their behavior, I can only guess at all the fighting, cursing, pornography, violence. Don’t parents know that their kids are these fledglings looking to us for guidance? Instead, we give them talk show explanations and sitcom dialogue. Soon, not only my son, but the whole country will be acting like Bart Simpson.”

Lauder’s cell phone went off and he looked down to see the number of the caller, then excused himself to take the call. Obviously, someone with more pressing issues, Meem reasoned, disappointed that she hadn’t even gotten to what she really wanted to tell him.

When he stepped back into the room, he nodded for her to continue, but it took her several seconds to recover her momentum. “This is really what I want to say: At the playground, I found a quiet bench far away from everyone else where I could sit in the sun and read while keeping an eye on the boys. Nearby, infants with their round bodies stuffed into saddles on the swings, rocked back and forth, their mothers or babysitters pushing them, while staring blankly into space talking on their cell phones.

“I still remember Oscar at that age. Everything was so exhausting. Grant and I were too sleep deprived to have had any new thoughts or to really carry on a conversation even with each other. We’d walk around that playground like zombies, happy to put Oscar in the swing and give ourselves a break for a moment or two. Maybe our marriage was unraveling even back then and we didn’t know it? The effort to understand a needy creature drained us of our energy and prevented us from paying attention to each other.”

“Isn’t that what child rearing is all about: giving yourself over to your baby’s needs? You were only doing what came naturally.”

“But I was losing myself.”

That was who you were, who you needed to be. If you want, you’ll find that self again.”

“Anyway,” Meem continued, thinking that Lauder hadn’t really grasped what she was saying. “At the playground, I watched the older kids dangling from the jungle gym and racing across the wooden bridges, and for a moment, I thought I’d lost sight of Oscar, but then I spotted him in the middle of a group of boys gathered around the water fountain. I checked for Davy too, fully aware that he was my responsibility and no matter what I really thought of him, I was bound by play-date etiquette to give him the same vigilant care I’d give my own son.

“A strong wind swept through the park, and I remember wishing I’d brought a scarf or sweatshirt, but the breeze passed, and I was left in the sunshine again. I think I was reading an article about Courtney Love, a different kind of mother. Courtney did what Courtney wanted, and the public hated her for it. 

“Suddenly, some commotion brought my attention back. At first, I couldn’t tell what direction the shouts were coming from, but then I looked over to the water fountain and saw that a group of older boys had pushed the younger ones aside. Although the newcomers were probably only a couple of years older, they were unaccompanied by any watchful adults.

“I searched to see if another grown-up was close enough to intervene if the new boys caused trouble, but the other mothers and care givers had all moved away, making it seem as if the dynamics in the playground had shifted, but the boys didn’t scare me. If there was a problem, I knew Oscar wasn’t the one who was going to get hurt.”

“Why do you say that?”

Meem smiled proudly. “Oscar knows how to take care of himself and has a good sense of danger. I never worry that he’ll walk off with any stranger, stick his finger into an electric socket, or chase a ball into the street. It was Davy I was more concerned about. Something in that kid’s brain just didn’t seem wired right. Then I heard it. A high pitched squeal. ‘You’re under arrest! You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to an attorney. If you’re not able to afford one, one will…’

“It was too late. One of the older boys socked Davy right under his eye. For a moment, Davy stood there stunned as I rushed towards them yelling for the older boys to get away; then I grabbed and pulled him and Oscar close, glancing around to the other adults to confirm that an injustice had just taken place.

“‘Are you all right?’ I asked Davy who was whimpering at my side.

“‘Are you okay?” Oscar repeated and turned to me. ‘Why were those boys so mean? That kid just punched him.’

“‘He’s under arrest!’ Davy shouted impotently.

“‘Do you need some wipes?” Another mom handed me a packet of tissues. ‘Those boys shouldn’t be allowed in the playground. Someone should have stopped them.’

“I brushed the tears from Davy’s face, thinking about what the mother had just said. I don’t know where my feelings were coming from, but instead of wanting to comfort Davy, I felt angry and just wished he’d shut up and stop crying. A round welt was coming up below his eye, and suddenly, I knew it was all my fault.

“‘It’s over now. It’s not so bad.’ I tried to comfort him.

“‘It’s over now. Those were very bad boys. They shouldn’t be allowed in the playground.  Someone should keep them out,’ Oscar echoed.

“‘I want my mommy.’ Davy whelped.

“How was I ever going to explain it to her? It’d  just prove everything she probably already suspected: I was an unfit mother. I didn’t know how to care for a child. But then there was Oscar, as safe and as well cared for as any other kid in the park.

“‘Let’s go on with the playdate,’ I suggested. ‘Do you think you can still have a good time?’

“‘It hurts,’ Davy whimpered, holding his hand to his face.

“‘I know, but it’s going to be okay. That boy did a very bad thing. Nobody should hit another person like that.’

“‘My mom hits me, but that’s okay because she’s my mom.’ Davy sniffled.

  “‘Well, nobody hits me.’ Oscar offered.

“‘People have different ways of letting their children know they’ve done something wrong.’ I tried to explain. ‘Not everyone is brought up the same way. You two are lucky. You have moms and dads who love you. Some kids don’t even have that.’

“‘Yeah,’ Oscar agreed.

“‘I’m gonna tell my mommy.’

“‘I’ll tell her too,’ I assured him. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t get to you in time to stop him.’

“I could feel the other mothers’ eyes on me as I walked back to the bench. They were probably judging me just like I’d asked the boys not to judge others. For a moment, I wished I could explain how I was feeling, maybe sit down with them and talk about nannies, diaper rash, rectal thermometers, Pre-K, jogging strollers, nursing bras--whatever was on their minds. But then I looked at my magazine and knew I’d rather read about Courtney Love.

“By 3:30, Oscar and Davy were back in the apartment drinking chocolate milk and eating Oreo cookies. At 4:00, Davy’s mother rang the buzzer, and before I could stop him, Davy charged downstairs. From where I stood on the landing, I heard the woman gasp, then her footfalls coming up the steps. 

“‘What’s this?  What’s happened to my boy?’

She’d twisted Davy’s arm above his head and  pushed him forward as if she were presenting me with Exhibit A.’

“‘It’s really not as bad as it looks.’ I tried to reassure her.

“‘He’s been hit. Somebody’s hit my baby. You should’ve called me the minute it happened.’

“‘They’ve been playing nicely all afternoon.’

“‘What if the same thing happened to your kid?’

“‘I guess I would’ve handled it the same way. I don’t want them to be scared of other people. The more frightened they think we are, the more scared they’ll become.’

“‘If bad boys are after my child, I want to know about it.’

“‘He told me he was okay, and I knew you’d come get him soon enough.’

“‘Well, he’s not okay. He’s got a shiner the size of Shea Stadium.’

“‘We put ice on it.’

“‘At least you got the names of the kids who did it?  Did someone call the police?’

“‘They were just kids. They ran away. And I doubt they would’ve given me their names anyway.’

“The mother shook her head. ‘You bleeding hearts amaze me. Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt, but somebody has to take the blame. Come on Davy. Let’s get out of here.’

“I looked after them as she grabbed her son and hurried down the stairs, rounding the landing until they were out of sight. Then I sat down on the top step and lowered my head so Oscar wouldn’t see me cry.  

“‘Mommy,’ Oscar tried to soothe me, but even that didn’t help. With my eyes closed, I imagined a gust of wind flinging out a deck of playing cards: the Jack of Hearts, the Three of Spades, the Queen of Diamonds--cards flying everywhere, each one hitting a brick wall in front of me then landing face up on the ground. That’s when I realized that my life is like those playing cards: random, incomprehensible, and impossible for me to put back together again.

“‘Come here, baby.’ I said, reaching out for Oscy.

  “‘What’s wrong, mom?’

  “I didn’t mean to hurt Davy.’

“‘I know.  A bad boy hit him.’

“‘My sweetheart.  I’m so glad the bad boy didn’t hit you.’

“‘It’s still our playground, right? We can go there whenever we want.’

  “‘Whenever we want.’ 

  “‘And daddy too?’

“‘And daddy too.’

Meem stopped telling her story and took a deep breath, glancing quickly at Lauder’s travel clock to see how many minutes were left.

“So you blame yourself?”  Lauder asked.

“Not exactly. I mean, it could’ve happened to anyone, and there were all these other factors. It seems as if I’m always walking this tightrope, trying to do an impossible balancing act.”

‘You can’t expect to cure an incurable illness or stop the way other people think.”

Then the knot in Meem’s chest loosened and it happened again as it happened each time she was about to leave his office: she began to cry. “Maybe I could’ve done things differently? I didn’t want to hurt anyone.”

“Next week?” Lauder intoned.

Meem nodded, put on her sunglasses, and walked out the door.

 
 
 
 

 

 
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