In my other life right now, I am in bed. Snowflake flannel sheets rumpled around my shoulders, pillows piled high on all sides, I am sleeping dead hard. I sleep through the lunchtime preschool pickup and am not awake for the 3 oclock first-grade bell. Teachers, principals, and staff call, wondering who is supposed to pick up my kids. When I finally show up, I’m in my pajamas. No one says anything, but I sense their lifted eyebrows as I shuffle past the row of lockers in my slippers. Back home, I climb into bed again. I tell the boys how to fix themselves hot dogs. Piles of candy wrappers collect around me, bottles of wine, celebrity gossip magazines. I’ve stopped washing my hair.
The next day it’s more of the same, only instead of spending all day in bed I’m on the couch so I can watch TV. And read. I tear through book after book. I can’t put the books down. In the car, I hold them open against the steering wheel while I drive so I don’t miss anything. So I don’t miss any time. Back home, eyes on the open page, I point to the take-out menu drawer and tell the boys how to put Perry’s Pizza on speed dial.
Then in my other life I am crying. On the Christmas radio station in the car, the DJ with the warm voice has someone on the phone telling her Christmas wish story about how she’s been taking care of her mother, who is so, so sick, and she doesn’t know how to make ends meet because her husband is in the marines and he’s overseas, MIA, and her son has contracted a debilitating disease, and she just lost her job, the night shift at the mini-mart and
The radio lady with the warm voice cuts her off and says, “Debbie? Deeebbbiiee.” Debbie has set down the phone to blow her nose so now the DJ has to shout. “Debbie! Guess what! Your Christmas wish just came true!” After a stunned pause, the DJ continues, “We’re going to send money to the nursing home for your mom, and we got your boy a new leg brace, and we found your husband, Debbie! He’s coming home!” By now Debbie is screaming and crying, and so am I. They turn up the phone volume on the radio so we can hear her gasping noises as she tries to suck in air between sobs and then, finally, Debbie manages to whisper, “Thank you.” The DJ in her warm voice says, “No, Debbie, thank you for sharing your story with us. Merry Christmas from FMLite and all of our commercial sponsors.”
I’m sobbing along with Debbie and for once I don’t try to stop. I don’t choke it back or shut it down. I go ahead and I cry right out loud there in the car. The kids are stunned—too shocked to ask me what’s wrong or why I’m crying and when I ask if one of them can find me a tissue or something to blow my nose with, I hear them each trying to dig through the piles of crap on his side of the backset. “There, do you see that?” one says to the other. “Right there by your hand. I think that’s part of a napkin from Subway. Can you reach it?” I can hear them straining against their car seats, each helping the other, because each other is all they have now, until finally I hear, “Here, Mommy.” By then I’ve wiped the snot all over my sleeve but there’s always more so I use the napkin. I blow my nose and smell Italian cold cuts, and then I throw the napkin on the floor and keep right on crying, just like Debbie.
At the store now we pile out and I sniffle and sob my way up and down the aisles. People clear out of my way. Over the intercom I hear, “Lady in pajamas with greasy hair crying in aisle 5.” I tear open and eat some kettle chips, and no one charges me for the bag. Occasionally there is a pause in my sobbing, but it doesn’t matter because of how red and blotchy my face is. I still look like I’m crying, even when I’m not, as if the swelling and splotches have been tattooed on my face. Someone asks if she can help me and I say no. No one can help me. I’ve got wine on my breath and jeans over my pjs and snot all over my coat and I say hi to people like nothing’s going on, like I don’t even know. My eyes keep darting back and forth in my head, and if people look at me at all, they look over my shoulder toward the blinking festive lights hanging everywhere.
On the way out I empty my wallet into the Salvation Army bucket. Change, bills, credit cards, receipts, photos, driver’s license. I start to shove the wallet itself into the slot in the top of the bucket but it won’t go and I start crying again. About all the suffering. There’s just so much of it, everywhere, all the time, and it doesn’t go away, ever.
Then I’m back in bed and maybe I’m crying or not but clearly I’m not OK and now everyone can see how not OK I am. Strangers and neighbors and the mailman and family. Everyone knows because no one can not know. It’s all right there, in my hair and on my face and all over my pajamas. Counselors at the kids’ school ask them if there’s anything they would like to talk about, and other children at their lunch tables offer my boys their cookies. Sometimes, they bring the cookies home for me. My favorites sparkle with green and red sprinkles.
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