I wake to the sound of my raspy-voiced neighbor flirting with the post-op nurse, “Make mine a double, darlin’.”
“A double what?” the nurse says and giggles and flips her stiff blond bangs out of her eyes and dust particles rise and fall, rippling though my groggy drift . . . her bangs bouncing off her forehead rhythmically . . . flip, flip, flip . . . she’s still flipping towards him, when she pokes her head into my cubicle and says, “You plan on joining us?”
I should say something . . . something witty, something wise, something memorable, something that will cement me here in this life forever . . . and now I’ve lost that train of thought . . . and another thing, I’m weak, awake from the anesthesia, but barely, in and out and out and out. Come back, I tell myself. Come back. This world is good, sprinkled with teeny tiny dust particles that flounce and float and waltz through the air, landing on my knuckle . . .
. . . the warm sticky tug of four-year old Anna and three-year-old Maddy dragging me down the basement stairs, saying “Baby Doll. Mommy play Baby Doll.” And me following in their determined footsteps. Down, down, down the creaky stairs to the cinder block playroom that I’d set up with magic wands and pixie dust, a pretend corner that morphed from diner to castle to emergency room to pirate ship. Where I was an astronaut and Anna was She-Ra and Maddy a king and all of us were chased by a near-sighted rhinoceros. A playroom where I could mother them and myself. Where I could be the kind of mother who not only played with her children but who wanted to play with her children. But Baby Doll snuck up on me. Baby Doll threw me. I hated Baby Doll. Cringed at the mere mention of Baby Doll because Baby Doll meant that I had to be Mary Poppins, while the girls marched for Women’s Rights, went to graduate school, out to lunch, to very important meetings, and while I encouraged and admired their choices, I was left holding the baby, burping and feeding and changing diapers and cleaning and singing the baby to sleep while they did all the things I wasn’t doing even though I was only in my early thirties and all of my friends were still single and traveling and building careers, amassing lovers and experiences while Mike worked 120 hours a week and we had no money for babysitters, no family nearby to help, and day after day, hour after hour, the boundaries between the girls’ needs and mine blurring in that airless basement playroom, playing Baby Doll because I didn’t know how to say no, felt as if saying no to them was like saying no to me. But I was only going through the motions, thinking about other things in my head: how I’d ended up being a full-time mother when I’d meant to work; how powerless I felt not working; how lonely marriage could be; how terrified I was of shouldering the monumental responsibility of not irrevocably screwing them up. I’d imagine them on a therapist’s couch at forty saying, “My mother was BORED with Baby Doll.” And when Anna returned from her “very important meeting,” I was still holding the baby, but so absentmindedly that she was flipped upside down, her eyes lolling back in her head, and Anna would climb on my lap and I wanted her to see how bad I was at Baby Doll and give me a break, but, no, instead she would cup my face in her sturdy hands and say, “More, Mommy, more.” And that was the other thing about Baby Doll. There was always more and I was never enough. There wasn’t enough of me, wasn’t enough for me. Baby Doll and too many hours in the playroom and my mind turning to mush and me yearning to flirt and eat exotic mushrooms and go to Bora Bora and finish my graduate degree, finish one complete thought, write something, anything other than another grocery list, and go to the bathroom without someone trailing behind me saying, “Play Baby Doll, Mommy.”
And now I wonder…
Did I play enough Baby Doll? Too much Baby Doll? Should I have spent more time on my career? Gone to China with that grad school professor when I had a chance? Been more of a force in my own life? How do you know when you’re immersed in endless days melding into one another that time isn’t endless? In fact it’s so fleeting that everything you did or didn’t do takes on monstrously exaggerated rhinocerific proportions when you’re in a hospital recovery bed making tabulations. 45 and a half years times 365 minus 347 non-stop days of Baby Doll and countless hours of nursing and weaning and tantrums and cuddling and whining and Eskimo kisses and boo-boos and shoelace-tying lessons and middle school traumas and orthodontia and soccer and Little League and basketball and first love heartaches and college applications and two unsold novels and a couple of handfuls of publications and an abandoned graduate degree and 19 and a half years of a great big messy work-in-progress marriage on which the jury is still out and an oversized laundry basket crammed with mismatched socks. Where is Mary Poppins with her magic measuring tape telling me that I am Practically Perfect in Every Way?
“Decided to join us, huh?” I hear the nurse say.
“Sex on the beach!” Raspy Voice shouts. “That’s the name of the drink I was thinking of. I’ll take a double one of those.”
Giggling . . . giggling . . .
Join them? Do I? Want to? I do . . . but . . . the peace between the breaths lures me . . . her rubber shoes clutch and unclutch linoleum, stiff cart wheels whine, and I feel a thrumming so deep inside it feels as if someone is playing my nerve endings like a classical guitar. It aches but it feels. I. Want. To. Feel . . . I want to come back . . . I rub my eyes . . . see blurry pods of artificial light, a sea foam blanket shrouding me, the tip of my nose. I run my tongue on the roof of my mouth. It’s dry. I’m thirsty . . . I part my lips . . . say, “I’ve made Sex on the Beach.”
Laughter. Loud and raucous and real.
“The drink . . . I mean. I was a bartender once.”
“That’s what they all say,” my neighbor snorts.
And the nurse bats her eyes, flips her bangs, flip, flip, flip, and I realize I’m back. I’ve made it through the surgery. Made my nurse and my neighbor laugh. But I also realize I can’t change Baby Doll. The girls are older and I have to make peace with what I did, what I didn’t do. And I need more time, to launch my children and myself, to sort through and repair my shortcomings as a mother and a woman and a wife. I’m not ready to make the final tabulation, not ready to leave the party. I want to know what happens next: how my children turn out; whether I make something more of myself and whether that matters; whether Mike and I figure out how to be married. I want to know if my nurse and my neighbor hook up. I want to feel my breath tickle the tiny hairs that line my nose, to witness one spectacularly graceful dust oracle soaring through the air on the power of my exhalation.