“Are you aware that your shoes don’t match?” Nora’s boss, Howard, greets her with an amused regard after she enters his office. She laughs along with him, even though he is the fourth or fifth person to comment on the fact that she’s worn one black and one navy shoe to work today. Such is the teasing hand of sleep deprivation.
Howard invites her to sit down across the mahogany desk from him, in one of two straight-backed chairs. Once pleasantries are over, a businesslike frown replaces his smile as he shuffles through papers arrayed on his desk. “Now, about your numbers the past few months.” Howard taps a report with his index finger. “I’m just not seeing the kind of results I know you’re capable of producing. And falling asleep during today’s meeting — what kind of impression do you suppose that’s making on the newer reps?”
Behind Howard, the view out the window reveals a cluster of adjacent buildings, oddly reminiscent of her son Patrick’s Lego towers. A pigeon on the ledge watches Nora attempt to explain. Yes, she’s aware, and concerned, that her client base seems to be shrinking. What an excellent opportunity to brainstorm with Howard over what she can do to bring new life to her sales territory. It’s all about thinking outside the box, isn’t it? Secondly, the nap during the sales meeting. Ah, yes. Regretfully, two-year-old Patrick still isn’t sleeping through the night, and last night was rather challenging. In truth, Nora decides, it was nothing short of a nightmare. Patrick was feverish from an ear infection. He wanted Nora, not Glenn. She cuddled him and sang lullabies, patting his back as she swayed back and forth with him for what felt like hours. He’d fall asleep, she’d lay him back in his crib with the stealth of a ninja and creep out of the room, only to be greeted ten minutes later by his siren wail starting up again.
Howard waves away her apologies. “I understand, you’ve got a lot on your plate right now. Kids . . .” Here he smiles indulgently and gazes at a framed photograph of his own teenaged children. “They’re the greatest, aren’t they? And when they’re small, those are the best years of all.” He wags a finger at Nora as if offering her a warning or a reprimand. Enjoy them, or else . . .
Something inside Nora seizes up, growing hostile and intractable. But after ten years in sales, she knows how to play the game. When she manages to chuckle and nod, Howard beams back. “Just push yourself a little harder,” he says, “that’s all. You’ll do fine.” He proposes a report that summarizes lost business, current client status, and approaches the market with a fresh perspective. “It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate,” he assures her. “You’ve got the day off work tomorrow. Why not just toss a couple numbers and facts together, and we’ll have a look at it.”
The next day, Nora is home with Patrick. It’s a day “off work.” Someone, however, failed to inform her son that she wasn’t supposed to be working. By eight a.m., she’s ready for a nap. Earlier, Patrick insisted on eating his Cheerios like a cat, crouched on hands and knees, head in the bowl on the floor. Nora capitulated, but drew the line at his French toast. Back in his booster seat now, he fiddles with the chunks as she prepares herself a bowl of cereal. When the pouring milk hits an errant corn flake, it sends a trajectory of white onto the tablecloth and her sweatshirt, little sprays of white as picturesque as a Versailles fountain. Patrick squeals with laughter. Nora sighs and rubs her forehead.
“Mommy, you are funny today,” Patrick informs her. He’s growing more interested in complex words and adult phrases. He tests them out on Nora occasionally, his little face crinkled in intensity, chubby arms waving like an Italian. “Look out,” he’ll tell her. “My cat is dangerous.” As she balances the checkbook over breakfast, he inquires about the process and then tells her she should buy a Ferrari. Two years old, going on five.
The memory of her meeting with Howard pounds in her head like stereo bass in a junked-up Pontiac as she picks up toys, loads the washing machine and vacuums. Try harder. Work smarter. She recites the words to herself like a mantra. For five years running, she was Howard’s top producer. That was back in the old days — the BP, or Before Patrick days. She knew that working only three days a week would cut productivity, but Howard had agreed to let her modify her goals and try. “You’re too hard on yourself, sweetie,” her husband Glenn has told her since then. “Set your goals lower. Give yourself a break occasionally.” She’s not sure she knows how. Try harder. Work smarter.
Her day with Patrick has been carefully orchestrated: playgroup, lunch and “Teletubbies,” followed by naptime. The last used to be Nora’s oasis of silence. Unfortunately, Patrick has recently decided that napping is an inefficient use of time, aided by the discovery that he can climb in and out of his crib. From the office where she’s fighting sleepiness, trying to work, Nora can hear him crash around in his room. Matchbox car races. Lego Olympics. The crib-bouncing competition. It’s an adventure to go into the room afterwards and find out what he’s done. One day, he decorated the walls with the contents of his diaper. Another day, he lay slumped on the floor as if felled by a shotgun mid-stride, sound asleep amid a nest of toys. Whatever he does, he throws his whole body and heart into it. Even his tantrums have a yogic purity of single-mindedness. It doesn’t matter how absurd or impossible the issue is — he’ll fight and test to the bitter end.
She hadn’t visualized such relentless willfulness back when she and Glenn talked about having children. Discussions on the subject were pragmatic but detached, as if Nora and Glenn were debating the merits of a summer home in Tajikistan. They held little bearing on the chaotic reality that blew in with Patrick’s arrival. With a swipe of a single cosmic arm, all of Nora’s illusions and skills were brushed away like toy soldiers, tumbling to the ground, lying in an olive green pile of confusion. Two years after the fact, Nora still finds herself reeling from the shock of parenting. If these years were indeed “the best,” she was in deep trouble.
After naptime comes errand time. Patrick is going through an “I hate the car seat” phase and fights like a market-bound pig through the garage. Forced inside the car, he still won’t cooperate. He’s perfected the art of making his body into a plank, a toddler two-by-four: rigid, unyielding, resistant to her pleas and threats. Nora sucks in her breath until she’s dizzy.
Once she’s hit on the right combination of physical strength, emotional fortitude, and guile, he complies, and they head to the shopping center. But 40 minutes later, when it’s time to go home, the game repeats itself. “No,” Patrick tests out. “You can’t make me sit.” To him, they are just words strung together, not power-laden threats. But they hit their mark. Looking at Patrick’s defiant face, something in Nora, nagged and picked at for hours, for days, for two years, finally rears back its head and lets loose. A roar seems to fill her ears.
“You friggin’ brat.” She hears the words pour out, high and shrill, listening to them as if she were simply an impartial observer. “I’m so sick of this — I hate you!” The words hang between them like comic book dialogue, fat and expectant, surrounded by an impenetrable barrier that keeps Nora from taking back the fact that she just told her child she hated him.
He sits down easily then, his eyes wide with surprise, not necessarily at her words, but at her rage, her rough movements. His mouth tips open, and he begins to sob, huge gulping squalls laced with fear. Nora is beyond caring. She buckles him in, slams the door shut and stomps around to the driver’s side. A minute later, she peels out of the parking lot, almost drunk from the adrenaline still coursing through her. When Patrick’s wails grow louder, she cranks up the music. Mahler thunders from the speakers, upstaged only by the soprano howls of her son. Beauty and the beast.
She grips the steering wheel with trembling hands and coaches herself to drive carefully and not hit anything. This isn’t working, this isn’t working. The words spin through her head. Fuck this mommy business. Is it the work conflict, she wonders, that’s making parenting seem so awful, or was she simply not cut out for the job? She’s always assumed it was just a matter of getting her arms around the problem and then solving it. It’s finally dawning on her, in tiny, soul-crushing increments, that this is one problem she’s not going to be able to solve or fix. The implications of this make her want to find a cave and curl up into a ball in the cool, soothing darkness, blanketing out the chaos, conflict, the incessant calls for her time and her body. Never come out. Live in this space, sleep for days and days, and when she’s finally gotten over the sleep deprivation, she’ll simply lie there, passive, listening to the drip-drip of spring water into a nearby pond. Cool, refreshing water that she’ll cup into her palms and let trickle down her throat, her face, reclaiming some of the sensuality the past two years has stolen from her.
When she makes it to the house without incident, she draws a deep, shuddering breath. The rest is done by rote through a numb haze: empty car, put away groceries, fold Patrick’s clothes. Patrick, who by now has forgotten all about the earlier drama, sings to himself as Nora fixes dinner, one that she’ll force herself to choke down so she can work when Glenn gets home. One hour to go until Glenn returns. Thirty minutes, ten, and then she hears his car in the garage.
“It’s your turn.” His hand is still on the doorknob when she speaks. Glenn shuts the door and looks around the sloppy kitchen in bewilderment. Peeking out from the clutter at the end of the table, Patrick smiles, both innocent and triumphant.
“Daddy, daddy, daddy,” he shouts, waving his macaroni spoon in the air. Two cheese-encrusted macaroni elbows break free and fly through the air, landing on the floor with a soft plop.
Glenn looks at Nora’s battle-ravaged face. “Oh, sweetie,” is all he says. It’s enough. He is a carbon copy of Patrick, with his unruly blonde curls and round hazel eyes — albeit a calm, soothing one. He gives her shoulder a sympathetic squeeze. Nora tries to smile. “Off you go,” he tells her.
But in the study, her work efforts fall flat. She tosses out scribbled page after page of ideas for how to increase market share. Offer volume discounts and giveaways to existing customers and Strive to be perceived as a value-added supplier degenerates into Bring bags of Cheerios to sales presentations for clients who to fidget and Give Nora time-outs when she falls short of goals.
In the living room, Patrick’s battle of wills resumes. Nora hears him fight when it’s time to get in pajamas, when it’s settle-down time. He screams like a tortured prisoner when Glenn tries to brush his teeth. Long past bedtime, Patrick stalls with noisy sobs. As Nora listen to the rising panic in his cries, a different emotion begins to creep over her, one that’s strong enough to overcome her darker feelings. When she’s the one locked in the battle with Patrick, his wails suffocate and enrage her. But sitting here removed, his pain hurts her in a place she hasn’t learned to defend. My baby is crying. I need to go to him. No other message can compete with this one.
She hears Glenn stomp to Patrick’s room. A moment later, the cries are muffled, but no less frantic. Apparently Glen has given up on gentler techniques and left Patrick to cry it out in his room. “Mommy, mommy,” Patrick screams. Listening from her protected space, Nora feels almost sick.
She tries to ignore it. She can’t. Abandoning her work, she sidles into the living room where Glenn — a man with the patience and wisdom of a Zen master — sits on the couch in a stony silence. He looks up at her. For a moment, neither of them speak. “He just needs to cry it out,” Glenn finally bites out.
Tears dribble down Nora’s face as she stands frozen. “I know that.” Her voice breaks. “But something in me won’t listen to logic.”
Another long moment of silence and then Glenn shakes his head. “Go ahead, then.”
Don’t do it, a voice inside Nora screams. Now’s your chance to escape.
“I want my mommy,” Patrick cries through hiccupy sobs from behind the closed door.
That settles it. “I have to,” Nora says as she turns and slips into Patrick’s room.
“Mommy, mommy,” he cries, scrambling up from his crib, holding his arms out. Nora scoops him up and holds him in the dark as Patrick’s body shudders from weeping.
“It’s bedtime, Patty-cake,” Nora whispers. “Please don’t cry. It makes Mommy so sad.” Patrick seems to understand the risk Nora just took, and suddenly they are complicit allies in this endeavor. His tears subside until he is resting quietly in Nora’s arms. After a few minutes of rocking him, Nora bends and sets him in the crib.
In the darkness, Patrick’s beautiful eyes blink up at her, sedated by his tantrum and the subsequent soothing. “Stay with me,” he whispers to Nora.
Stay with me. The words sound so innocent and worldly at the same time. It’s what you hear a lover say in that same seductive whisper. Nora remains crouched over him. Patrick’s arms encircle her neck and draw her even closer. “Stay with me.” He’s never whispered before tonight. It startles Nora to hear, as if he’s just spoken French or recited a quantum math theorem. His beautiful baby voice, those soft, plump cheeks, melt Nora. As she leans her head on Patrick’s tiny shoulder, the dam breaks and she cries. And cries. She told her baby she hated him today. He has forgiven her unconditionally. He loves her without reserve. A wave of unworthiness, maternal love, absolute power and crushing responsibility, all twisted together, engulfs her as she stands there, bawling.
Patrick tightens his grip around Nora’s neck. “Shhh,” he says in a drowsy voice, “It’ll be okay.”
Composing herself eventually, Nora raises her head and kisses Patrick. The warmth and texture of his skin against her lips feels primal, holy, endlessly nourishing. “Stay with me, Mommy,” Patrick whispers again.
Nora decides there’s nothing she’d rather do. Since getting into the crib with him is not an option, much as the idea appeals to her, she gathers him up in her arms. In the darkness, offset by the glow of the night light, she makes her way over to the daybed, festooned with stuffed animals. Stretching out, she holds him, breathing in his soft, milky, puppy smell.
He snuggles closer and smiles up at her, an expression so full of comfort and bliss that it makes Nora’s heart contract. If she messes up the rest of her mommy job, she’ll still be able to give him this. A memory flashes past — her own mother, long deceased, and the absolute security of Nora’s own childhood hugs. Something locked up deep inside her eases. As long as she and Patrick stay locked in this enchanted circle of memory and mommy, she will be every bit as safe as he is.