The chocolate chip cookie mix was a last-minute purchase at the market as I grabbed what I needed for dinner. I hadn’t baked with Ethan since he was too young to remember, but he occasionally mentioned making cookies with his dad. They used to buy the tubes of dough you cut into slabs like salami, but recently, since Richard’s girlfriend, Jill, likes to bake, they made cookies from scratch.
“We did it as a family activity,” Ethan said.
I admit I felt a twinge. Of course I’m grateful that Ethan’s second home is a loving one, and that Richard is in a good relationship with someone Ethan feels comfortable with. Still, when I saw the Duncan Hines box on the shelf I felt nudged by a feeling of being. . . out-baked.
When I got home, Ethan was in his room, defending the world from Nazi aliens on his Xbox. I put on an Indigo Girls CD to drown out the sounds of warfare as I sauteed two pieces of salmon in garlicky butter.
“Smells good,” Ethan said when I called him in to eat. Helping me carry plates to the table, he noticed the boxed mix on the counter. “Cool! For tonight?”
“Sure. If you’d like.”
During dinner, Ethan mentioned that, for him, the best part of baking cookies is eating the dough.
“You can’t do that,” I told him. “There’s raw egg in it.”
Ethan looked at me, incredulous. “You’re not going to let me eat any dough?”
I shook my head. “You could get salmonella.”
“But Dad and Jill let me have it. I’ve never gotten sick!”
In my better moments, I’m careful not to comment on things that happen under Richard’s watch. This was not one of my better moments. “Dad also smokes when you’re in the car.”
Ethan glared at me. “I forgot. Dad’s the fun parent. You’re the strict one.”
It got worse from there. “I hate it here,” Ethan yelled. “I hate that it’s just us! Two is not a family.”
I took a breath and tried not to show how much that stung. It wouldn’t help to point out that there are often three of us. Dan might be with us most weekends, but this was the middle of the week. He wasn’t there now.
Dan and I do talk about living together, but we’ve agreed that it’s best to wait. He’s rooted in a town outside of Philadelphia that, unfortunately, has a poor school district and little else to offer families with kids. And we’re rooted here, within walking distance from Ethan’s wonderful charter school and his dad’s apartment. The plan is that I’ll come live with Dan in his house when Ethan graduates high school and he might possibly take advantage of one of Pennsylvania’s many good colleges.
Meanwhile, when I sit on the front porch that overlooks Dan’s quiet, tree-lined street, I feel lucky to have a peaceful weekend getaway that will eventually be my home. But eventually is four and a half years away, which, at the moment, seemed too distant to imagine. As the fight dragged on, I had to agree with Ethan. Two didn’t feel much like a family.
Ethan lobbied some more to be allowed to eat a spoonful of cookie dough, going online for statistics proving it would be safe.
“There’s like one in a hundred thousand chances that I’d catch salmonella.”
It was a reasonable argument, but I knew myself. If I let him have it, I’d be on anxious watch for the next twelve hours, the phone nearby in case I needed to call 911.
“You’re right about me,” I told Ethan, feeling tired and defeated. “I’m no fun at all.”
Ethan went back to his Xbox and I retreated to my room. I tried to read, but mostly just lay there feeling bad about myself. Richard took him snowboarding, let him ride on the back of his motorcycle, then brought him home to Jill who baked homemade cookies and had relaxed rules. Here, all Ethan had was a neurotic, non-driving, non-baking crippled mom and a part-time semi-stepfather. Of course he preferred being at his dad’s.
I glanced out the window. It was starting to snow. Watching the fat flakes come down, I remembered the snow-people Ethan and I made the winter he was three, the first year he and I were on our own. I’d forgotten all about them until recently when Dan took some old rolls of film I’d kept stuffed in a drawer and had them developed. When we brought the pictures home, Dan lay next to me on the bed while I described each image. The first was of a tall snowman in front of my friend Julia’s house. I thought someone else had made it, but the next shot showed Ethan and me patting it into shape. There were also pictures of a squat little snow person with wooden spoons for arms we’d made right on our terrace.
Another roll contained photos from Ethan’s fourth birthday. He was born in October and I had the kids decorate pumpkin shaped cookies with orange icing.
“What a nice mom,” Dan commented.
“I was,” I agreed, flipping through the pictures. “I mean, I am.”
“Mom?” Ethan said, startling me back to the present. He was standing in the doorway. “I’d still like to make the cookies.”
I smiled. Someone raised that boy right. He’s often the first to find a way to reconnect after a fight.
“I was thinking maybe we’ll wait for the weekend, when Dan’s with us,” I told him. “Meanwhile, how about I go out and buy us each a treat?”
The snow had created a hush over our usually bustling street. I felt calmer too. I walked to a nearby bakery that sells big, oversweet cupcakes. Ethan’s favorite is lemon meringue but they were out of it, so I had to pick a different flavor. I chose cookie dough.
Ethan laughed when I presented it to him. I did too. We do have fun, he and I.