Three mornings a week, I drop my son off at school and then drive to the nearest Starbucks with adequate parking; it’s only about three minutes away. My almost two-year-old daughter and I go inside, where she consumes a small milk and a quarter of a blueberry muffin. Within a few minutes, her babysitter arrives to whisk her away to the park for a few hours. And then, swallowing a tiny bit of remorse about not being there to witness her squeals of laughter each and every time she encounters a pigeon, I turn into one of those people you see tapping away on a laptop when you’re standing in line for coffee.
I’ve made friends with the other writers who use Starbucks as an office, most of them men. We trade pleasantries. We watch each other’s computers during bathroom breaks or coffee refills. We’re co-workers of sorts, but I sometimes feel resentment as they speak of working through the evening when I know I’ll be swishing dirty children in lukewarm bathwater. Or when they tell me they cranked out ten pages before eight a.m., when I was packing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a Spiderman lunch box.
A couple of weeks ago, I got a babysitter for the evening and went to a poetry reading given by one of my Starbucks co-workers. I sat in the small darkened auditorium wearing a pair of new black pants and holding my tiny non-mom purse that can barely fit my keys and certainly has no room for a diaper or a plastic bag filled with Cheerios. I watched my friend step up to the microphone to read from his latest book of poetry. His frizzy grey hair stuck out every which way. He enunciated his welcome to the audience with care given to each sound in each word. He wore a black beret. I sat in my seat, warmed by the energy his words projected to the audience, until the realization washed over me.
I could never wear a beret.
And suddenly, I felt anxious and insecure because he is my ideal of a Real Writer. I crossed my legs and watched his handmade wooden crucifix clink against the microphone stand. He closed his eyes as he recited his own words.
He spoke of all-night bus trips to Berkeley to watch Bukowski perform. He spoke of reading Tolstoy in 12-hour sittings. He spoke of poems littering the floor of his apartment until he accidentally used part of his manuscript to wipe up the Thai food he ordered the day before. That’s a beret-worthy life.
My life is decidedly un-beret-worthy. I have park sand inside most of my shoes. On the weekends, I chaperone birthday parties or buy Halloween costumes. I exclaim over the cuteness of the new pink Mary Janes at Gap Kids. During the week, I make trips to the grocery store and the dry cleaners. I hang art projects on the refrigerator and scrape cold macaroni and cheese off of the kitchen table. The last time I had 12 consecutive hours to concentrate on something was when I was in labor with my daughter.
The Real Writer continued speaking, his beret tilting to the left of his face. He is who I want to be — some of the time, anyway. I want to be someone who, when asked the title of the last book I read, on most days would not have to answer, “Goodnight Moon.” I want to be the kind of writer who can become so enmeshed in work that I lose track of time for an entire day. Not someone who always has one eye on the clock at the bottom right hand corner of the computer screen. I want to be able to go to literary events like this one without having to depend on the grace and goodwill of my ultimate authority, The Babysitter.
For a few hours a day, I feel like a version of a Real Writer. I click the keys on my computer, and find myself engrossed in the world of words, but I change from Real Writer to Mom the minute the preschool teacher opens the car door and my little boy slides into his seat. He doesn’t know I’ve just spent four hours tapping on keys, creating sentences, stringing together words. He doesn’t know about my co-workers who are still writing. He doesn’t know that I sometimes long to get in my car and not stop driving until I reach the Grand Canyon, or read a whole novel in a single day, or stand before an audience late at night reading poems while wearing a black beret.
“Me and Jack got to be in the same club today, and he wanted to call it the Giraffe Club, but I want it to be the Lion Club because lions eat giraffes.”
All of my work fades to a hum at the back of my head. I won’t get back to writing until after the kids are asleep, and more often than I’d like to admit, I fall asleep before I can muster the energy to push the power button on my computer.
I thought this was the end of the story — a straightforward confession of my inner turmoil, frustrations, and insecurities of late. I wrote down all of these thoughts and they were going to be my column for last month, but something wasn’t sitting quite right. I knew I was being honest about how I felt in these pages, but something was missing.
After stewing about it for awhile, I decided to hand the pages to my Real Writer friend one morning at our shared office. I sat across the cherry wood table from him, sipping coffee and trying to look calm as he bent his head forward to read. His fingers lightly stroked the side of his face. He wasn’t wearing a beret today; instead he sported a purple and black knit stocking cap with a purple pom-pom. I looked down at the long jagged scratches in the table, tracing them with my fingers. Finally, he leaned back in his chair and stretched one brown boot clad foot out to the side.
“Rachel, Rachel, Rachel.”
He said it slowly, stretching out the syllables of my name with each repetition.
“A Real Writer?”
He shook his graying head of frizzy hair back and forth, and a made a clucking sound with his tongue that reminded me of the reproach I often received from my third grade teacher when I couldn’t get cursive letters straight on a page. He paused and looked at me with his head tilted to the left. He put his chin in his hand again and continued speaking in his slow, deliberate cadence.
“And, do you fail to see how I squirm every time, yes that is correct, every time your daughter runs in here wearing that smile of hers?”
He raised his eyebrows and then lifted his Starbucks cup to his lips. He pushed the papers back at me with his index finger, swallowed, set his cup on the table, and leaned forward in his seat.
“And you can quote me on that.”