Second House from the Corner
By Sadeqa Johnson
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2016 Sadeqa Johnson
All rights reserved.
The Witching Hour
That four-hour window between after-school pickup and bedtime? It's like walking a tightrope with groceries in both hands. The slightest hiccup will land any mother in a quagmire with her legs in the air. For me the whole afternoon was a fail. I locked myself out when I went to pick the kids up from school, but didn't notice the missing house keys until I pulled in to the driveway. The snacks had been demolished at the playground, so the hunger meltdown began on the drive to my husband's office for the spare key (a drive that usually takes seven minutes, but ended up being twenty round-trip because of traffic). Things got even shoddier once I discovered we were out of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. My children will not eat baked chicken unless I dip the pieces in buttermilk, roll them in corn flakes, and bake until crispy. The oven was preheated, the potatoes were boiling for the mash, and I was thirty-three minutes off schedule without the magic cereal that makes my chicken finger -licking good. No time to change the dinner plan. So I swap in seasoned bread crumbs and cross my toes that they won't notice.
"Mama, this doesn't taste right." My son, Rory, frowns.
"Just eat it. There are children right down the street who are starving."
"But it's disgusting," whines Twyla.
How does a four-year-old know what disgusting is?
"I have to go pee pee and poo poo."
"Stop smiling at me. Mommy, she's smiling."
"Can we just have dessert?"
Like a song on repeat. Like it's the last word in the English dictionary. They call "Mommy" until my lips pucker, eyebrows knit. And it takes all my strength not to respond with that inside voice that nobody hears, that you wish would stay quiet, that tells the truth you don't want anyone to know. That damn voice is hollering.
Shut the fuck up!
At what point do I get to shout What the fuck do you want from me? I wouldn't drop an F-bomb in front of the mommy crew at the park, and I hate to see parents on the street cursing out their kids. But here in my kitchen with everything working against me, I would like to liberate myself just once and let the profanity rip.
It's the nipping at my nerves that gets me. The feasting on my flesh like starved sea urchins. Them, fighting like thieves for their individual piece of me. Me feeling like I have nothing left to give. Any mother who says that she has never felt like her whole life was being sucked out through her nostrils is a damn liar. I feel it every day.
Especially when I don't get at least five hours of shut-eye, like last night. Twyla (whom I call Two) walked her four-year-old self into my room every hour complaining about being scared. Scared of what? The curtain, the bed, the wall — she had an excuse for each visit. Never mind that she had to walk past her father to get to me. They never bother him. It's always Mommy. So I upped and downed all night while he slept like a hibernating black bear.
I hate when I feel like this. My chest rising and falling. Momentum of failure piled. Anxiety has swept through my belly and is curled against my organs like a balled fist. Just one happy pill would make it all better. But I've been on the happiness-comes-from-within kick for a few months, so no more pills. Instead I've started tapping.
Tapping out my emotions so I can get back to feeling right. It's that new technique where I say what my issue is and use my fingertips and hit my meridian points until I'm back to even. It usually takes about five minutes and several rounds before I feel centered and strong. My husband, Preston, calls it woo-woo, but he's not at home with three children all day. I am, and I have to use what I've got to carry me through. I turn my back to the kids at the kitchen table, take two fingers, and tap the side of my hand while whispering my setup statement.
"Even though I feel stressed out, anxious, and tired of being alone and responsible for my kids I love and accept myself."
"Mommy, what are you doing?"
"Calming down." I try whispering the statement again but Tywla is out of her seat.
"My stomach hurts."
Rory puts his fork down. "I'm full."
My fingers stop. I haven't made it through one minute, much less the five I need. I take a deep breath and usher everyone upstairs. Maybe Preston will surprise me and come home early.
The damn voice laughs. When was the last time he did that? He never makes it home before their bedtime and I bet that's on purpose.
Rory moans. "That's my boat."
"Dad gave it to me."
"No, he didn't."
Breathe. "Cut it out and get undressed."
I run their bath and sneak in a quick tap. Repeating my setup statement, I move from my hand to my forehead, to the side of my eye, under my eye, under my lip, under my chin, full hand on chest, bra strap and top of the head. Fill my lungs with air and exhale.
Twyla and Rory are back. I read my body. Better.
"Can I bring this in the tub, pretty please?" Twyla clutches the mesh bag with their toys.
They climb into the bathtub and play.
This should give me a few minutes alone with the baby.
"Guys, I'm going to change Liv into her pajamas. No water on the floor."
"Can we have more bubbles?"
"Awwww, man," Rory replies, imitating Swiper the Fox. "You only gave us a little bit."
I cut my eyes in the direction of my six-year-old and hold his gaze for a beat longer so that he knows I mean business.
The upstairs of our house is small, and it only takes three long strides to the girls' bedroom. Liv, the baby, squirms in my arms and I find solace burying my head in her neck. I could sit and smell this child all day. At ten months old, she still has that fresh-to-the-earth smell that forces me to slow my pace. It's hard to look at her without feeling deep sighs of relief. She is our miracle child.
When I was twenty weeks pregnant with Liv, a routine sonogram found something suspicious. I was sent to the Robert Woods Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick to see a pediatric cardiologist. There was a pinch in her heart that could hemorrhage. Her chances of being stillborn were high. When the doctor suggested that we terminate the pregnancy, I was bilious. By then I had already heard her heartbeat, felt her flutter and kick, loved her. Preston didn't even look my way when he simply told the batch of white coats that we would take our chances.
On our way home, the traffic on the Garden State Parkway held us hostage. I slobbered and blubbered against the passenger seat window, trudging through my past, knowing which karmic act brought this down on our family. My husband kept patting my hand, but when that didn't work, he pulled our ice-cream-truck-size SUV over to the side of the road and pressed the hazard lights.
"Foxy, look at me." He is the only person who calls me Foxy, and even with hearing my personal pet name, I couldn't bring my eyes to his. Tilting my damp chin, he forced eye contact. "This is not your fault."
But it is.
"You trust me?"
I shake my head, of course, because there really is no other response when your husband asks you that question.
"So the baby is healed. It's done, no more worries." Preston clapped his hands, as if he had just entered a contract with God. "Now stop blaming yourself, you didn't do anything."
As our vehicle crawled up the Parkway, he informed me that we'd name her Liv.
"Not short for anything. Just Liv."
I knew what I had done to deserve this even though my husband did not. I wanted it to be all right. Needed something to cling to, so I agreed to everything that Preston offered because the only hope I had for a favorable outcome was him. I had burned my bridge with God a long time ago.
* * *
"Ooooh! I'm telling!" Rory shouts.
Liv is snapped up in her sleeper and on my hip.
"What's the matter?" I round the wall to the bathroom tub, and what I see makes my stomach sail over a steep cliff and capsize at my feet.
"What the ..." I can't even finish my sentence because my mouth is filled with saliva. Twyla has my forty-five-dollar hair-nourishing cream clumped in her curls and pasted all over her body. When I move in closer, conditioner is floating in the water and smeared onto the sides of the tub. I pick up the bottle. It's empty.
"I told her to stop," pipes Rory with globs in his hair and oozing down his back.
"Why didn't you call me?" My voice slams into Rory and he shrinks and shivers. "Two, how could you do this?"
Twyla just looks at me and then on cue she opens her mouth. Out comes that nerve-pinching wail that makes me want to drag my fingernails into her veins and make it stop.
I walk away. Damn the tapping. I need to get out of here. I recognize the rage coursing through my body, and it's all I can do. I deposit Liv into her crib and she starts crying immediately. I keep walking, knowing that everyone is safer with me heading in the opposite direction. I get as far as the kitchen, where I grab my cell phone off the countertop. I text Sam, my teenage sitter.
Can you come over now for a few hours?
As I lean against the countertop waiting for her text back, the evidence of my unsuccessful dinner is on the table, chairs, and floor.
I'm in no mood to tackle the cleanup. Not right now. I need to get out of this house before I morph into screaming, raging, mean Mommy. The one who presses against my eyeballs begging to be set free.
The racket upstairs has escalated in the three minutes I've been gone. Rory is yelling at Two, Liv is still crying, and I hear something crash to the floor. I tuck my phone in my shirt pocket and head toward the litany of tears. My daily mantra, "All is well. The Universe supports me," is on replay in my head.
I hand Liv a stuffed bear and a teething toy to pacify her. That will buy me a few minutes of quiet as I face what's happening in the bathroom. When Two sees me at the doorway she looks like she is ready for another round of the sobs, but I cut her at the neck.
"Don't even start."
I reach for her arm and stand her up in the tub.
"I'm the one who should be crying. Look at this mess," I say.
The water has gone down the drain, but balls of conditioner still wiggle around the bottom of the tub. I stand them both up for a quick shower, hoping that the conditioner doesn't clog the drain. Then I'll have to hear it from Preston for adding another chore to his honey-please-do-it-over-the-weekend list.
"Rory, go check on Liv," I say, rubbing a little lotion on his face and kissing his cheek. He tosses me his Mommy-don't-be-mad-at-us smile and then scampers out of the bathroom. I hear him open his drawer for his pajamas and then Liv's giggles when he climbs into her crib. Two children settled, one to go.
Twyla looks as guilty as a bank robber with a bag of money and a smoking gun. "Two, why would you do this?"
"I, I, I don't know," and she drags out know in that whiny way that only a four-year-old can muster.
As I dry her off, my phone dings. I slide it from my pocket. It's Sam.
Be there in ten minutes.
I sigh. Smile. Feel like throwing my hands up in the air and doing a liturgical dance.
"Why are you smiling?"
"Because I love you." I swat her bottom and send her on her way.
It's still a bit early for bedtime, so I bring them downstairs to clean up the tornado that is my living and dining room.
"Who's coming over?" Two cocks her head at me.
"Where're you going?" Alarm rises in her voice.
"I have to run an errand." I untangle her grubby hands from my leg and point. "Go clean up."
"But I don't want you to go," Rory comes over, now wrapping his arms around my waist.
"Please, Pudding Pops, clean up before Sam thinks we live in a pigsty."
Our dining room is the official playroom, and I leave the kids with the task of tidying while I open the door for Sam.
"Thanks for coming." I give her a light hug.
She removes her headphones and smiles her no problem, mouth full of adolescent braces grin. She's been coming over for more than a year and knows our routine well — a book each, brushing of teeth, prayers, and then bed — so without worry I move through the kitchen snatching up my escape weapons: keys, wallet, lip gloss, and ear buds for my cell.
"Be good." I kiss each kid on the forehead and push them in the direction of Sam. Rory is happy on the floor, crashing two of his dump trucks into the coffee table, but Twyla follows me to the door. I can't shake this girl with a backwoods switch.
"Mommy, I want to come with you."
"Next time, honey." I try to pull the door closed but she won't budge. "Twyla, sweetie, please go find Sam." This is how I speak to my children, soft and sweet. The angrier I am the lower my voice gets. Right now I am damn near whispering.
"You didn't give me a kiss."
I kiss her lips.
"The other kiss, Mommy. The marry kiss."
I kiss her long, holding her lips to mine. She calls it a marry kiss, because it's how Preston and I do it.
"You didn't give me a hug."
My temperature is rising. Girl, please go on. I squeeze her shoulders while shoving her enough to close the door. I lock up and run, yes, run down my front steps to my SUV parked in the driveway. The humid air drapes my skin. I've been inside with the air conditioner on and forgot we were in the middle of a July heat wave.
Inside my SUV, sweat gathers under my arms, and my back burns against the leather seats. My car is in reverse when the familiar lump clogs the back of my throat. I'm not sure what to call the feeling or the vision, but I'm having it, again.
Me, riding away into the sinking sunset with only the clothes on my back. Driving for hours until the car runs out of gas. Then walking for miles until my feet give out. Then dropping down to my hands and knees and crawling until my skin is ripped from the bones and bloody. And then sitting, right where I am, tired, hot, thirsty, but with the taste of freedom.
I glance at the house before turning the corner and spy three little faces pushed against the front window, watching me.
You are a terrible mother for even thinking about leaving them, especially since you know what that's like.
* * *
I wave, blink away the picture of my other self, and curse the damn voice for always being up in my business and holding me awful and tight.
The State of New Jersey has been smoldering for five straight days, with temperatures averaging in the high nineties and the heat index off the charts. As much as I love summer, I've had enough. The air conditioner is taking too long to cool me off. I floor the gas pedal hard on Liberty Avenue, cut through the supermarket parking lot, and merge onto Route 22. I don't know where I am going until the sight of the Wine and Spirits shop ahead on the left catches my eye and cools my skin like a pool of water. I haven't snuck a drink into a movie theater since I was in college, and that's when I decide that's exactly what I'm going to do.
The four-pack of merlot nips fit into my barrel-size purse beneath a pack of baby wipes and a forgotten tangerine. I'm bubbling with excitement until I catch a glimpse of myself in the reflection of the silver-blue paint of my car. In my haste to get away, I've walked out of the house wearing ratty yoga pants and a two-pocket pullover, my hair snatched up in an untidy bun. My one pledge to myself was to never be one of those housewives who run around town looking like they are too busy to put on decent clothing. I've mumbled under my breath about these women, but tonight I am one of them. I laugh out loud at my own irony and fasten my seat belt.
* * *
I have no idea what's showing when I enter the theater, but just the smell of being close to my acting cohorts unbuttons me out of my mommy suit and connects me to my higher self. The me who tripped, and then fell head over heels in love with acting while watching the very first episode of A Different World. That late '80s sitcom was my rock, my sword, and my shield through my teenage years. If Hillman College had really existed, I would have gone there for my undergraduate degree. Every Thursday, I would tape the latest episode, then watch the show until I mastered every character's part and memorized the entire show. I was obsessed with imitating Whitley Gilbert, the southern belle with all of her daddy's money at her disposal. I drove Gran crazy because I made her sit and be my audience. This is what convinced her to come up with the money to send me to the acting camp at The New Freedom Theater on Broad Street the summer before my senior year.
I remember how I ran around asking my acting teacher, Ms. Diane, how to get an agent. I was ready to throw my wings in the sky and fly toward Hollywood, but she just looked me over and said, "Learn your craft first. Study acting. Don't just imitate what you see, feel it."
* * *
It's not until I'm in line that I decide on a film about a woman, played by Nicole Kidman, who has an affair. It starts in eight minutes. Perfect timing. I shove my ticket into one of my breast pockets and head for the almighty concession stand. Nachos smothered in cheese and jujubes will make everything all better. With my goodies in hand and my mind two-stepping over what's stashed in my purse, I make a beeline to the theater. And then I hear my name called. It's Monday night. No one I know should be cracking at the seams but me. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Second House from the Corner by Sadeqa Johnson. Copyright © 2016 Sadeqa Johnson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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