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THE DAY I LEFT MY SON IN THE CAR
It happened in the parking lot of a strip mall during the first week of March 2011, my last morning in Virginia, at the end of a visit with my parents. The day it happened was no different from any other: I was nervous, and I was running late.
I was thirty-three at the time—a young mother, a frazzled woman, an underemployed writer, a mostly stay-at-home mom, secretly wishing I was something more, something else. I had a husband, a son, a daughter, and a dog. We lived together in a town house in Chicago. But all of this happened in Virginia, in the rural-suburban community south of Richmond where I’d spent most of the first eighteen years of my life. I’d taken my children there to visit my parents for the week, and now the week was over. Back to Chicago. Back to life.
The morning it happened, I was packing and planning. Packing is utterly transformed by becoming a parent. There had been a time when packing had been fun and easy. For an entire summer in Israel, I’d once packed nothing but sundresses, a pair of Birkenstocks, a few Edith Wharton novels, and a package of oral contraceptives. For a semester in France, I’d packed a few pairs of jeans, black shirts, an English-French dictionary, and an asthma inhaler in case I decided to take up smoking. When my husband and I traveled in the days before having children, we mostly packed books. Travel was for reading, walking, eating, seeing. It was for sex and sleeping in. I remember once being out at dinner with a friend who said, “I have to go home early to pack.” I’d wondered what she meant. “Don’t you just open up your suitcase and throw some shit in?” I’d asked. That was how I thought about packing until the age of twenty-nine. Then something changed: The something was parenthood. When you have small children, there are no vacations; there are now only trips. When you have small children, packing is a challenge, a project, an ordeal—or if you’re me, and you spend hours thinking about every worst-case scenario and how you might prevent it and what you might need if it comes to pass, a destination as exotic as Massachusetts seems impossibly inhospitable simply by virtue of not being the place where you have all of your shit.
* * *
“Mom!” I yelled across my parents’ house. “Mom! Have you seen Felix’s headphones?”
She was in the backyard, pulling up weeds, watching him jump on the trampoline. “Your phone?” she called back. “Have you looked in your pocket?”
“Not my phone. His headphones … for the plane.”
“Look in your purse,” she said. “Look on the kitchen counter.”
They were not in my purse. They were not on the kitchen counter. They were not in the diaper bag. They were not in my backpack. “Fuck,” I said, though not loudly, because the baby was sleeping and the doors in my parents’ house are cardboard-thin. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I whispered, then looked at the clock.
I’d divided the items to be packed into two categories. First were things I might possibly need during a flight with my four-year-old and two-year old—the category of contingency items. This category was infinite. It had no beginning and no end and grew larger with every trip I took with them. I tried not to think too much about this category. Then there was the category of things I would almost definitely need. Felix’s special headphones—the padded kind that were the only kind he’d tolerate wearing as he watched a movie on my iPad, leaving me free to do things like feed the baby or change the baby or bounce the baby up and down, trying to keep her from annoying the other passengers—were on the column of essential items. They were nonnegotiable, on par with diapers, wet wipes, bottles, a packet of unmixed formula, snack food, storybooks, water, a sippy cup, a stroller, a change of clothes, a changing mat, crayons, paper, stickers, suckers for popping ears at takeoff and landing, and my bottle of lorazepam—a lovely controlled substance also known by the brand name Ativan, a member of the lovely class of drugs called benzodiazepines, whose main indication is the treatment of anxiety disorders—to keep me from having a panic attack during turbulence or any of the other in-flight moments when the irrational portion of my brain sent a message to my body that, by the way, you and your children are currently hurtling miles above the earth at five hundred miles per hour in a manmade cylinder resembling a large, aluminum coffin. Yes, a low dose of lorazepam was as essential for flying as my four-year-old’s special headphones.
I had the lorazepam. I didn’t have the headphones. This was what I was thinking as I slid open the screen door and told my mother I was running to the store.
Felix had hopped down from the trampoline and was pushing a toy lawn mower around the yard when I made the announcement. “Can I come?” he asked.
“You hate going to the store,” I reminded him. “Why don’t you stay here with Grandma?” It wasn’t really a question and yet I phrased it as a question. This was a habit I’d later learn to identify, of mistakenly turning a command into a choice. What I meant to say was, You stay at home with Grandma, Felix. Mommy will be right back. A very clear order. And yet, without ever consciously deciding to do so, I’d become a parent who associated empathy for my kids’ feelings and discussion and consensus-building with enlightened parenting. Are you ready for dinner? Should we clean up your toys? Can you apologize to your sister for drawing on her feet? Parents such as myself didn’t give orders; we made suggestions, negotiated, took things under consideration.
I had ample love, endless good intentions, and absolutely no confidence in my own authority. And often I’d wonder why, in the time I passed with my children, did I feel so anxious and overpowered and out of control?
“No Grandma. I want to come with Mommy. I go too,” Felix said.
I should have seen what was going on—my parents had been letting him play with the iPad in the car, and he was trying to score the extra screen time. My parents let him do all kinds of things I didn’t let him do at home. I let them let him. My children saw their grandparents three or four times a year. Felix knew the system. I was too busy rushing and worrying to think about his motives.
I was busy thinking—thinking about the security line, the boarding process, how there were few things I enjoyed less than flying, and how flying with my children was one of them. I was thinking about the quiet rage I would feel as I struggled barefoot with my thrashing children through the metal detectors or body scanners while other passengers sighed behind me at our slowness, the impatience I’d feel at their impatience, at my own clumsiness, and at the security procedures themselves, procedures that would surely not prevent a determined person from blowing our plane out of the sky but that we’d all submit to in a choreographed act of security theater.
“Pleeeeeaaase?” Felix said.
It seemed heartless not to let him come along. Also, and maybe more important, I was weak. I equivocated and wavered. As a mother who was also trying to work and write, stealing time away from one pursuit to feed the other, I was uncertain, second-guessing, skeptical of my own instincts. These were useful qualities to have as a writer. They sharpened the critical eye, staved off complacency, urged redoing and redoing again. They were not great qualities for a parent. Whatever that quality is that gives people the confidence to say to a child or an electorate or an army, “I know the answer; do as I say!” I didn’t have it.
“Kim,” my mom called to me from the laundry room. “Just let him stay here. It’ll be faster. Stay with Grandma,” she said to my son.
“Noooo!!!!! Want Mommy. I want to go with Mommy. Mommy, don’t leave me.”
For about two seconds, I tried to think of a good reason why he shouldn’t be allowed to come along, why my convenience running this errand should be prioritized over his desire to spend time with me, his mother. Children needed time with their mothers. So much time. Endless time. When I couldn’t think of such a reason, I folded.
“All right,” I said. “But hurry up. We have a plane to catch. Quick, quick. Let’s go.”
* * *
I remember other details about that morning. I remember it was overcast and cool enough that we both put on our jackets before we left—Felix’s neon orange, mine pink—and that I was thinking how in Chicago, though it was already March, it would probably be snowing.
I took Felix’s hand and led him into my mother’s minivan. The garage door was open, which was how she left it if she was inside or around the neighborhood. “What do I have that anyone around here wants to steal?” she’d ask. She was probably right. There were more squirrels per square acre than humans; it just wasn’t the sort of place where someone was going to walk into a garage and steal a bike. There would be nowhere to go with it, no place for people to hide from each other.
We got in the car and drove two miles along the winding two-lane parkway, past the side streets where kids rode bikes in cul-de-sacs and plenty of people didn’t bother to lock their doors, and then we parked in the recently erected, nearly empty strip mall. I had two hours to get the headphones, to get home, to get my two-year-old daughter up from her nap, to get her fed and changed, to get everyone to the airport, through security, and onto a plane. Halfway to the store, Felix noticed Grandma’s iPad, which was sitting on the seat beside him. Like an air pressure gauge, the owners’ manual, a box of Kleenex, an iPad was just something you found in a minivan. Felix started to play with it. I said nothing.
He was still playing when we pulled up in front of the parking lot.
“Ready?” I said.
“I don’t want to go in,” he said.
I turned around to look at him. “Felix,” I said. “Come on. You said you wanted to come with Mommy.”
He was tapping animals on a screen, dragging them from one side to the other. “I don’t want to go in. I changed my mind.”
I tried to make my voice both calm and firm.
“Felix,” I repeated. “If we don’t get your headphones, you won’t be able to watch a movie on the flight. It’s a long flight. If you can’t watch a movie on the plane, you’re going to be a very, very, very unhappy boy. It will just take a minute. Now come on. We’re running late.”
He glanced up at me, his eyes alight with what I’d come to recognize as pre-tantrum agitation. “No, no, no! I wait here,” he said.
I took a deep breath. I knew what I was supposed to do. Set a limit. Be firm and consistent. Communicate my expectation calmly but with authority. But I was tired. I was late. I was nervous about flying. I didn’t want, at that moment, to deal with the full-scale meltdown of my spirited, forty-pound four-year-old. Also, just beneath these reasons was something else, something more serious. It was a voice, this small, quiet voice I’d been hearing more and more lately. “Why?” the voice asked. “Why?” Why did I have to do it? Why did I have to have this discussion, this confrontation, this battle? It wasn’t as though he were asking to smoke a joint or to rollerblade in traffic. He just wanted to sit in the car and play his little game for a few minutes. Why did I have to drag him inside? It was cool outside, hardly fifty degrees. The parking lot was safe. There were four or five cars around, a couple of middle-aged women in festive sweaters unloading their carts. It was the middle of the day. Cloudy and mild. Felix hadn’t yet figured out how to undo his car seat buckle. Nothing was going to happen to him in the four or five minutes it would take for me to run into the store. I could lock the doors, crack the windows. If anyone tried the handle, the alarm would sound, but no one was going to try the handle. Hadn’t I grown up waiting in the car while my own parents ran errands? What could possibly happen, here of all places, in just five minutes? Why couldn’t I leave him, just this once?
I looked at the clock. I looked back at my son. Then, for the next four or five seconds, I did what it sometimes seemed I’d been doing every minute of every day since having children, a never-ending, risk-benefit analysis. I noted the mild weather. I noted how close the parking spot was to the front door, and that there were a few other cars nearby. Mostly, though, I visualized how quick, unencumbered by a fussing four-year-old, I would be, running into the store, grabbing a pair of headphones, checking out, and coming back to the car. So I let him wait there. I told him I’d be right back. I opened the windows halfway to ventilate the car. I child-locked the doors and double-clicked my keys so that the car alarm was set.
I went into the store to get the headphones.
* * *
The store I visited that day might have been newly constructed, along with all the other mega-chain big-box stores spurred by an influx of families and professionals to central Virginia, but the space itself, the place where I left him that day, was familiar. I’d grown up about two miles from where I stood. I knew the sky, the flat, hazy horizon, the local people, their accent, more twang than drawl. My parents still lived in the same subdivision down the road where we’d moved when I was one. They lived on the same street and in the same house where I grew up. How I hated Brandermill, that subdivision, when I left it at eighteen, that street, that house, its planned-development stupor, its inaccessibility to all things meaningful and cultural, its lack of sidewalks, its sprawling golf course, its painful faux pastoralness that had obliterated a genuine pastoralness for the purposes of God knows what, making nature seem less threatening, less necessary to explore (which was extra work), less unknowable.
“Why did you move here?” I asked them at least once a month throughout my teen years. “Why would anyone choose to live here?”
“Oh, come on, Kimmy,” my dad answered. “If you think this is the worst place, you haven’t seen much of the world.”
Of course, in many ways, he was right. In this rural-suburban, 1980s, American subdivision, my childhood was largely free from the hardships children have faced throughout much of human history, and continue to face today in much of the world. There was no starvation, no lack of sanitation, no outbreaks of deadly, communicable diseases, no war or mass violence. Crime was low. Neighbors knew or at least recognized one another. My mother seldom locked our door.
Occasionally, of course, even in such an idyllic setting, bad things happened to children. When I was twelve, a girl named Charity Powers, who lived in an adjacent county, disappeared outside a fast-food restaurant near a roller-skating rink late at night while waiting for her mother’s friend to pick her up. There was a massive search effort, her grainy, photographed face appearing on the six o’clock news. People in supermarket aisles wondered what a little girl was doing alone in a parking lot so late at night. Where was the mother? It was the mother’s boyfriend, some said. He never showed up. But these grumblings faded four months later when her body was found in a shallow grave on the property of a man who was later found guilty of capital murder. It really happened. She really died. But I remember it now, almost thirty years later, because it was so unusual, so exceptional in its horror.
Still, there were other, awful things from time to time. A carful of teenagers crashed into a tree in our neighbor’s yard, killing three and maiming the fourth. A high school sophomore’s truck was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Another teen dove from a rocky ledge into a swimming hole and snapped his neck. But I remember these incidents precisely because they were anomalous. Bad things happened to children, even in Brandermill, but only on the rarest of occasions. And so when they happened, you remembered them. Surely similar tragedies struck other communities around the country, but when they did, with the exception of the rare, high-profile case, we didn’t hear about them. This was pre–internet age, pre–Amber Alert; we knew when terrible things happened within arm’s reach, but not beyond.
Usually, life was peaceful. The days came and went with the easy stupor they were supposed to have. Safety, security, health, and prosperity were what we expected; we were white and middle-class. “I think it’s a fine place to live,” my father declared. As a teenager, and then a young adult, I would roll my eyes. I was too young to conceive of choosing a home for what it lacked. I hated it.
“You’re out of your mind,” my mother would tell me. “I love it here. I loved it the moment I saw it—the trees, the quiet, the people—and I never want to live anyplace else. When I die, scatter my ashes on the back porch so I can stay here forever.”
“You’re a Jew, Mom. Jews don’t do cremation.”
“Then bury me beneath the trampoline out back. Or find a nice spot near the magnolia tree. Whatever’s easiest.”
I gazed at her with that particular mixture of love, repulsion, amazement, and horror so many daughters reserve for their mothers. How was it possible that I was made from this person? “Who are you?” I would ask her. She would listen, smile, answer automatically.
“You know who I am.”
* * *
That spring, when I visited my parents in Virginia, I knew them as well as I’d ever know them. I knew my children to an equal degree, having incorporated their every need into my muscle memory, my intuition. And yet somehow, as a thirty-three-year-old wife, writer, and mother of two, I didn’t really know myself. I didn’t know who I had been before children, much less who I had become, how I had changed. Worse still, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know. Only one thing was clear: My days of reflection and self-discovery were indefinitely on hold. That March, the spring that I returned to Virginia to visit my family, I was deep into the phase of life my therapist would later call the All-Hands-on-Deck, Every-Man-for-Himself, Just-Trying-to-Survive phase of parenting, the phase Judith Warner writes of in Perfect Madness, the phase when, if you are a college- or graduate-school-educated working woman in her late twenties to early forties, you realize that every skill you have learned and perfected over the previous one to two decades of your life is of little to no use to you now.
To put it another way, before I had kids, my dream had been to become a mother and to write my first novel while the little ones napped. At the height of this All-Hands-on-Deck phase, my dream was to take a nap. I had a draft of a novel, but I wasn’t writing or revising much. Most days, I was barely reading. Felix had been sick on and off for the first three years of his life, moving from one respiratory infection to another, each one bringing with it a flare-up of asthma or an icky secondary infection. The ensuing marathon of antibiotics, nebulizer treatments, and oral steroids of those early years left me shell-shocked. And now, even as his health seemed to be improving, I found it hard to relax whenever he or his younger sister, Violet, had so much as a sniffle. With all the crud circulating in their preschools and playgroups, it sometimes seemed as though I was living out my life in the waiting rooms of doctors’ offices.
When I wasn’t worrying about fevers and mucus, there were plenty of other uncertainties to keep the cortisol flowing. For every one of my children’s needs—food, sleep, affection, discipline, socialization, and education—there’d be at least a hundred different ways of responding, countless methods and approaches for nurturing these little people I loved so deeply. And for every choice that needed making, for every path not taken, I’d feel a tiny tinge of fear, a ripple of anxiety passing through me about the infinite ways it seemed possible to mess up. There were so many moments when I felt inept, when I felt like I should be fired, when I felt, though I loved my children, that motherhood, at least as it was practiced by those around me, was, as the career counselor or later employers would say when they wanted to communicate that you sucked at something, “not a good fit.” It required so many skills I never would have associated with parenthood, not just love and empathy and patience, but organization, discipline, foresight. The things that needed doing to be a good mother—there were too many of them, or too few of me, to do them. There were playdates to be scheduled. Birthday parties to be planned. Preschool applications to be submitted. Appointments and enrichment programs to be prioritized. Being a mother, it seemed, was a lot like being a manager or a CEO of a small company, and there I was, a former English major who’d never learned to make a spreadsheet. So I did the only thing I could do. I winged my way through it. And even as I improvised this frantic state of being that has become synonymous with modern, middle-class parenthood, I puzzled over it. How could something as common as parenthood feel so complicated and so unnatural? Was I going about it the wrong way, trying to squeeze too much out of every hour, every minute, barreling through days and nights of child-rearing as though I were being chased?
When I think back to that March, to my decision to take the two kids and spend a week with my parents in Virginia, I can see this uncertainty beneath the impulse. I wanted a break, a pause, a week or two out of time, free from the unsustainable pace I’d established at home and my chronic, gnawing anxiety about … I could hardly say what it was. It had started the morning Felix was born in the sunny hospital room, faded when they brought me my baby, rosy-cheeked and cleanly suctioned of all the meconium in his lungs. Over the next four years it resurfaced, again and again, a virus that went dormant but never died. I felt it every time I read an article about the significance of a particular developmental milestone my kids hadn’t yet achieved. I felt it when I’d stand at a birthday party with thirty other parents, watching for two hours as our children played, chiming in with encouragement and managing their every social interaction. I felt it at the beach one afternoon when a lifeguard told me I couldn’t let Violet (not yet two at the time) play topless in the sand because “any creep might snap a photo.” I’d felt it at the park the week before. Felix was playing, and just at the moment I took out a book to read, he stumbled, bumped his chin, and a woman began shouting across the play lot, “Where is this child’s mother? Is this child being supervised?” I’d felt it when my husband, Pete, and I spent every second of our time together debating preschools, or sleep-training, or airing resentments about who was slacking in which domestic duty.
I wanted to get away from them, these voices, this chaos, all the incessant worry. I wanted to sleep and read and have conversations and let my kids play unsupervised in a big backyard or around the neighborhood the way my own parents had. I wanted a short break from watching and worrying and caring so intensely and being in charge of every detail of my children’s lives. It seemed to me that there was no better place for this than Virginia, the place I’d grown up.
* * *
Four days before I left Felix in the car in front of that Target, my children and I arrived at the Richmond airport, frayed and disheveled after the flight. “My babies, my babies,” my mother called when she spotted us making our weary way toward her. She’d parked the car in the hourly lot and came right up to the edge of airport security to meet us. She walked a little past the edge, actually, and a guard kept nudging her back. “Come to Grandma. Come here and let me kiss you a million times. Grandma is here, Grandma is here.”
The children hesitated, then inched forward enough for her to scoop them up. Noisy smooches. Hugs and kisses and squeezes. Only after she’d gotten her fill did she glance up at me, her daughter, now more of a grandchild delivery device than a discrete individual. “You look exhausted,” she said.
“I am exhausted,” I said.
In reality, I was still a little high on lorazepam. I’d tried reading the reassuring statistics on air-travel safety. I’d tried knitting and meditation and counting my breaths, watching movies and listening to music. In the end, only a low-dose benzo was really able to convince me that the jet I was trapped inside was not, at any moment, going to plunge to the earth. This had been a short flight, so I was still swaying a little as I watched my mother squeeze my children as though she were wringing them dry. I was left lugging the kids’ jackets, the diaper bag, the in-flight electronics, the snacks and half-empty bottles. The security guard seemed relieved when we started walking. At the baggage claim belt, the suitcase came quickly, the car seats last. We loaded it all onto a cart and dragged it to the parking garage, and then my mother turned on some terrible kids’ music and began dispensing cellophane bags of graham crackers, freeze-dried apple snacks, and peanut butter cookies while I went about the business of installing both car seats into the back seat of her minivan. Fifteen minutes later, we were ready to leave.
“Why are those things so hard to put in now?” my mother wondered as I dabbed the sweat off my brow with the bottom of my shirt. “When you were a baby, it was just a buckle and a snap. Now you might as well be launching the kid to the moon.”
“Cars are dangerous,” I told her. “Kids are more likely to be killed in a moving vehicle than anyplace else.”
“Are we going to be killed?” Felix asked.
“No,” my mother said. “We’re going to Grandma’s house. I’ve set up a tent for you in the living room. I’ve bought a thousand new toys. You’re going to have the time of your lives. You done with your graham crackers already? Thirsty? Want a sip of Grandma’s Diet Coke?”
He smiled as she handed him the can.
I thought about protesting, then sighed instead.
She started the car and pulled onto the highway, unwrapped a piece of gum, and put on a visor to keep the sun out of her face. I sank into the leather seat and closed my eyes. March in Virginia. Everything outside newly thawed. Winter there was just for fun. My mom smiled at me as she drove, patted my hand. “I’m so glad you came,” she said. “Every day I wish you and Pete would move to Virginia to be close to us. I don’t understand the draw of Chicago. I guess you like to freeze and to have no space.”
“Maybe we will move here,” I said. “We could move back in with you and Dad. I could try to get a job at that Subway where I worked in high school.”
“There are plenty of good jobs in Richmond. Capital One just came here. Couldn’t you get a job writing for Capital One?”
“Maybe,” I said.
“It’s hard to live far away from family when your kids are little. I remember.”
And yet that’s what we’re doing, I thought. My parents had tried, for eighteen years, to give me everything I needed in order to make me a successful human, and the mark of their achievement toward my success would be my not needing them anymore, not even now, with small children of my own to raise.
Margaret Mead wrote, “A society that cuts off older people from meaningful contact with children, a society that segregates any group of men and women in such a way that they are prevented from having or caring for children, is greatly endangered.” Bullshit, I’d thought when I read this in college. If I ever have kids of my own, I’d sooner let a stranger on the street help me care for them than the lunatics who raised me. But the stranger on the street, it turns out, doesn’t want to help you. Only the lunatics want to help. And parenting without a full brigade of boots on the ground is lonely, grueling business.
“We manage okay,” I replied.
The highway opened up as the van gained speed. Four lanes and hardly that many cars in sight. I’d ridden down this road so many times in my life. I had a feel for every curve and turn, yet now it was new because I was new, no longer a kid, no longer a teenager or a student. I was a mother now. How could this place, which had made me, be exactly the same when I was so different? The landscape of wet trees, open sky, exit ramps, and nothingness slipped by, all of it both familiar and foreign.
“Well,” my mother said, “this week will be a nice break for you. You look so tired. You don’t still take those drugs when you fly, do you?”
“No,” I lied. “Not anymore.”
“Why don’t you close your eyes now? Take a little rest.”
* * *
The kids loved being in Virginia. Felix loved the fact that he could play in the backyard without an adult hovering over him, that he could ride his scooter around the cul-de-sac without my yelling, “Car!” every ten seconds. Violet liked that my mother spoiled her with dolls and stuffed animals, let her eat Froot Loops for breakfast and binge-watch whatever pseudo-educational abomination they were into at the moment. And though I quietly disapproved of all this, there was a part of me that loved it too; that felt relieved by this temporary retreat to the mind-set of my upbringing, a mind-set where everything you did with your kids or let them do didn’t matter so much. It was a mind-set Pete and I had consciously rejected as parents. Think of all the things we could have accomplished with the hours we each spent sitting around watching reruns of Full House and Diff’rent Strokes, or playing Nintendo, or walking around the mall, we’d mused in the early years of our marriage. We could have learned Mandarin or mastered the cello. We’d have done things differently from our parents. We’d be better. And yet, watching my own kids on my parents’ home turf was a little bit like watching myself back then, the kid I had been. It was a peculiar, but not an entirely unpleasant, déjà vu.
The week passed quickly. By the last day, as I thought about going back home, I grew anxious and restless. My mother, trying to raise my spirits, invited some of her friends over for their social gathering of choice: an evening of bridge, gossip, heavy hors d’oeuvres, and goblets of Chablis. I’d never learned to play bridge myself, but I sat among them on a pleather barstool, sipping pink wine and listening to them discuss me as though I weren’t in the room.
“Is it good to have Kimmy home?” one friend asked. “And the babies?”
“Heaven,” my mother said. “Especially the babies. I can’t get enough of them. I wish I could keep them all to myself for a couple of weeks. She needs a rest. She’s so anxious,” my mother announced to the group as she dealt the first hand. “She worries constantly.”
“Prozac,” suggested her friend Dana. “I couldn’t get out of bed without it. It’s a miracle drug.”
My mother glanced at me, then back at her cards. “Are you kidding? She’s already on it. Aren’t you already on Prozac, Kimmy?”
“Zoloft,” I said. “Should I go get my full medical file, Mom?”
“It is what it is. She gets it from me. The women in our family, our brains are short on serotonin.”
“They’re short on something,” I said.
“What are you worried about, Kimmy?” asked Priya, another friend. “And what’s the opening suit? Hearts?”
“She worries about the kids,” my mother answered for me. “She obsesses over them. Speech therapy, occupational therapy, social therapy. If they had any more therapy, they’d be in an institution. And that’s just the beginning. After that there’s the baby sign language, the breastfeeding on demand, the co-sleeping, the mommy-and-me classes. Baby monitors all over the house. I’m afraid to fart. Then she’s schlepping them to calculus for two-year-olds, baby language immersion, yoga. Yoga! Because it’s good for them. Why does a three-year-old need to take a yoga class?”
“This is what they’re all doing,” said Priya. “The same with my grandchildren. Enrichment. Lots of enrichment.”
“Why does a two-year-old need to be enriched? Can’t they be enriched by digging in a sandbox the way we were?”
“It’s good I’m old,” said Dana. “Just hearing about this makes me anxious. I wouldn’t have made it. I think I was an A mother in the eighties. Now I’d be like a C. It’s different than when we were doing it. We were involved. We were invested. But there were limits. It’s changed now.”
“Changed from when we were children too,” said Priya.
My mother laughed. “I don’t think I saw my parents that much. When I was ten, they bought me a moped and I used to ride around Albany with my little brother on the back. That was that.”
“In India, we had servants,” said Priya. “It was a special treat to see my parents. Holidays. Birthdays. Jack of spades.”
I watched my mother as she stuck a cracker into a bowl of whitefish salad, nibbled, shuffled, dealt. She’d gotten her nails done. Her hair too. I had to admit it: She looked good. Having her two daughters all grown up and living in distant states had done wonders for her mood and health. She’d lost weight, started exercising, gotten her blood pressure down and her spirits up. It struck me for the ten millionth time in my life how strange it was, how wildly unlikely, that this particular woman, this distinctive human sitting before me of all the humans on earth, should be my mother, the woman from whose body and soul I sprang. She ate more whitefish, brushed a crumb from her mouth. The round of bridge was over, so she got up from the table, carried a tray of veggies to the counter to be replenished. “You like the kitchen’s new backsplash, Kimmy?” she asked as she passed.
She pointed to the silver polymer behind the stove. It was plastic, but it sparkled like quartz.
“Sure,” I said.
“You could have such a big kitchen if you lived in the suburbs. Why don’t you and Pete get out of the city?”
“We like the city.”
“You could have more space. A big yard. A garage. Good public schools.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“An easier life,” she added.
“I like things hard,” I said.
I dipped a carrot into the bowl of briny mayo, wondering momentarily where my mother managed to find whitefish salad in central Virginia. In a land of smoked ham, we always had smoked salmon. While others ate biscuits and gravy and cobblers and collard greens, our house was stocked with rye bread and chopped liver and borscht. This was not because my mother kept kosher but rather because she was … my mother. She’d lived in Virginia thirty years but was still a Jewish girl from Albany who saw no need to change. No wonder I strove to be her inverse, a chameleon who blended into any background.
“It’s true,” my mother said. “You always have liked to do things the difficult way. You’ve never trusted anything easy.”
“Oh, leave her alone,” Dana said. “She’s a writer. Writers are supposed to be tortured.”
“Tortured! What does she have to be tortured about? She worries too much. That’s all.”
“Is that true, Kimmy?” Dana asked.
“I enjoy worrying. It’s my main hobby.”
My mother gave me a look, but offered no further comment. “Are you still doing Weight Watchers?” she asked instead. “You look good.”
I thought, not for the first time in my life, that every time I came home to visit, no matter how long I stayed, it was always one day too long. “I’m enormous,” I answered. “I’ve never been bigger.”
She sighed, patted my shoulder as she walked past me in the kitchen. “It’s hard to take care of yourself when you’re taking care of everyone else.”
* * *
The next day, I drove Felix to Target. It was a few miles from my parents’ house, but it was nearly identical to the one in Chicago where I’d been shopping on a biweekly basis since Felix was born. All through our long winter, I found myself lured there by its covered parking garage, its cart-lifting escalator, its enormous family restroom, and the SUV-sized kid-carrying carts. Here was a corporation making life easy on a mom—a mom who wanted to buy its products. Navigating so many of the city’s public places and crowded spaces with children and their accompanying equipment felt like walking on the moon. Strollers didn’t fit. The babies’ cries echoed. Changing tables were broken or fetid or nonexistent. It was only when I got pregnant that I noticed that my favorite neighborhood café had a passive-aggressive sign on its front door: BABIES AND CHILDREN MUST BEHAVE AND USE INSIDE VOICES. When I pushed the stroller up a ramp outside the Art Institute, a woman in a wheelchair waved her fist at me and told me I should be ashamed of myself. I felt awful, but also exasperated. So many places I went with my babies, the message seemed the same: You’re not really wanted here, but if you come anyway, don’t expect any help. But not at Target. At Target, everything was easy. Target loved new mothers, even with our screaming charges and unwieldy gear, even with (especially with) our anxiety and boredom and expendable cash. I’d once shunned chain stores, shopped local, and supported small businesses. By the time my daughter was born, Target was my second home. I’ll be a good person again when I have more time, I said to myself.
And so, though I was hundreds of miles away from home, nothing about that Target felt foreign. “Be a good boy,” I told my son, promising I’d be gone only a minute. I jogged across the parking lot and moved quickly through the store, on automatic pilot, easily orienting myself to the slightly altered layout from the store in Chicago—kids’ merchandise to the left, electronics in the back. Headphones, headphones, headphones. I glanced toward the wide, glass-paneled entrance. I could see the car. In my mind, I could see Felix playing. I hurried past groceries and handbags, found electronics.
“Can I help you?” a salesperson asked.
She pointed to the next aisle. There were at least forty brands: black headphones and pink headphones, earbuds and noise-canceling devices, top-of-the-line and ten-buck cheapies. But where were the kind I needed? I scanned top to bottom, left to right. I don’t wear a watch, but there was a clock on the wall. Or did I look at my phone? Two or three minutes had passed. I tried to find the salesperson who had approached me a moment before, but she wasn’t around now. There was a woman behind the display case, talking to another customer. I looked for someone else, considered giving up, then I saw them: the padded kind my son preferred. One pair left on the far bottom corner. I grabbed them, didn’t bother to look at the price. On the way to the register, I passed the grocery aisle and picked up two cereal bars to toss into my purse for the plane ride. There was only one customer ahead of me in line. The cashier scanned her items with impossible slowness while I looked at the packages of gum and breath mints and batteries and toys. If Felix was with me, he’d be begging for candy. Through the sliding doors of the store’s entrance, I could see the car, could see the blurred outline of my son.
“Sorry, was there a price on this?” the cashier asked the woman ahead of me.
“I’m not sure. Five dollars?”
“You don’t remember?”
“I think it was five. I can’t be sure.”
She picked up the phone beside the register. “I’m going to need a price check.”
I took a deep breath, exhaled, craned my neck. I could still see the car.
“You know what,” the woman said. “I’m gonna skip it. I’ll pick it up next time.” I wanted to kiss her.
“Are you sure? It’ll only take a minute,” the clerk asked. I wanted to hit her.
At last I was up. I swiped my Visa, declined the offer to save 5 percent. No need for a bag. Thanks, thanks. Then I was jogging. The doors slid open. The wind blew my hair. A cool March day. My mother’s minivan right where I left it. In it, the boy.
“Hi, you little boy,” I said as I settled into my seat.
“Hi,” he said, still playing his game. I tossed the headphones onto the passenger seat and put the keys in the ignition, took a deep breath, glanced in the rearview, over my shoulder, then backed out slowly, the windows still open.
* * *
I’ve replayed this moment in my mind again and again, approaching the car, getting in, looking, pulling out. I replay it, trying to uncover something in the recollection I hadn’t noticed at the time. A voice. A face. Sometimes I feel like I can hear something. A woman? A man? “Bye now.” Something. But I can’t be sure.
We drove back to my parents’ house. My mother was cooking and talking on the phone. My daughter was awake in her crib with a diaper full of poop. I changed her, gave her a bottle, gave her to my mother while I loaded up the car, shoved the headphones and enough snacks for a caravan across the Mojave into my diaper bag.
“All set?” my mom asked.
“Have I ever told you how much I hate flying?” I said to her while I hoisted my suitcase into the trunk.
“You didn’t used to,” she said. “As a kid, you weren’t afraid of anything.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I remember.”
Then we were on our way.
* * *
We landed. We deplaned. We schlepped through O’Hare, a place where the only form of movement permitted is schlepping, and eventually, eventually, found ourselves in the baggage claim.
Pete usually picked us up in the carpool lane outside, so I was surprised when we stepped off the elevator between baggage carousels and I saw him waiting. The kids both ran to him. I straggled up behind them, dragging the equipment. Then I came forward and hugged him, pressed my face against his beard and felt pure and genuine relief at the sensation. It was funny, these moments, these flickers of uncompromised feeling. For more than four years, there’d been no more him and no more me. There was only us. And mostly them. But occasionally, coming back from a few days away, I’d notice the kinds of things I used to notice all the time in our childless years—the particularities of his face, his skin, his gestures—small qualities that made me love him.
Felix tugged on our arms, smiling, but Pete hardly looked at him. Something was different. Something was wrong.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Call your mom,” he said.
“Why? What happened?”
“Just call her. The kids and I will wait for the bags.”
I stood next to the wall and dialed. When she answered, she was crying.
“What is it?” I asked her. “Calm down. I can’t understand you.”
After a few seconds, my father took the phone. He told me that about ten minutes after my mother arrived home from dropping us at the airport, a police officer pulled into the driveway and came up the porch. When she opened the door, he held up a picture on his phone. “Is this you?” he asked. “The person in this picture … it’s you, isn’t it?”
“It’s not me,” she said.
“Who is it then? It’s your car. Can you identify this person?”
“It’s my daughter,” she said, and started to panic. She thought something must have happened. An accident at the airport. A bomb.
“Is she here?” the officer asked.
“I need you to tell me where to find her.”
“My husband will be home in an hour. Can you come back then?”
At that point, the officer told her she had two choices. She could tell him where to find me or he could put her in the back of his car and arrest her for obstructing justice. She began to cry. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I have no idea what this is about, but if you don’t have a warrant, I’m waiting here for my husband.” Then she closed the door in his face.
* * *
I followed Pete and the kids to the car. We loaded the suitcases, collapsed the stroller, reinstalled the car seats. We didn’t talk. I felt like I couldn’t move. It was early evening, close to the kids’ bedtime. We’d thought the kids would fall asleep, but sensing the tension, they sat wide awake. I don’t remember how far we’d driven when I realized there was a voice message on my phone. The message was from a police officer calling from Virginia. “I’m trying to get ahold of Mrs. Kimberly A. Brooks. I need to speak with Mrs. Brooks about an incident this afternoon in a parking lot. Please contact me as soon as you receive this message.” By the time we were nearing our exit on the Kennedy, the kids had finally dozed off. Pete was driving and I was shaking, trying not to panic, trying to figure out what to do. I started to dial the number the officer had left on the voice message, then stopped.
I dropped the phone back onto my lap and stared out the window. Car rides were more dangerous than flying, yet I’d always found them calming. When I was a baby, my parents used to drive in circles around our subdivision to get me to sleep. Even now, it was soothing, the soft darkness around the highway, the streaks of headlights and taillights, white on red, the familiar, almost transparent motion.
The phone hummed on my lap. It was the Virginia number again. Pete just looked at me, a look that said … I don’t know what it said, but it wasn’t good.
“I think I fucked up,” I said to Pete, without turning away from the window.
He reached out and silenced the phone. Then he asked what he’d probably wanted to ask since the moment he saw me come out of the airport elevator. “What happened?”
* * *
Once we were home, Pete carried the kids up to their bedroom, walked the dog, emptied the dishwasher, made tomorrow’s lunches—saw to all the domestic minutiae that make up our days—while I tried to piece together what had happened.
Eventually a picture emerged of someone—a man, a woman—who had seen me run into the store, leaving Felix in the car. That person had recorded him there, alone, and called the police. But before the police arrived, I had returned to the car. The person had watched me—us—leave. The person had waited there, explained to the police what had transpired, handed over the recording and the license plate number.
Late in the evening, I reached an attorney. My father-in-law had recommended I call a friend of his, a criminal lawyer. When I reached him, I thanked him for talking to me so late, and explained as best I could the unfolding of events. He told me that if the prosecutor decided to press charges, I’d need to find a lawyer in Virginia, someone who really knew the local system, but in the meantime, he was happy to return the call to the police officer to explain the situation.
“That would be wonderful,” I said. “What is the situation, exactly?”
“The situation is that you’re a regular, responsible, attentive suburban mother who let her kid wait in the car while she ran into a store to get one item, which you shouldn’t have done. But you weren’t thinking, and you did it, and your kid is fine. No pattern of neglect. No history of abuse. No criminal record. No problem with drugs. It was a lapse in judgment. A momentary lapse in judgment. Is that about right?”
“Right!” I said. “A lapse in judgment.”
“There’s nothing you’ve forgotten to tell me, is there?”
“Nothing,” I promised. “I mean, I don’t live in the suburbs, but…”
“Never mind that.”
He told me he’d call me back in twenty minutes. It was well past working hours, but as a friend of the family’s, he wanted to help. Two hours later, I was still sitting at the dining room table, staring at a glass of wine, waiting for the phone to ring. Pete had fallen asleep. The washer and dryer were grumbling downstairs. I sat at the table, folding and unfolding a paper napkin. The living room was messy. It was always messy. I surveyed the objects scattered across the floor without getting up to put them away. There was a purple barrette, a lint roller, a handful of Duplo LEGOs, a tube of diaper cream, a baby nail clipper, a baby blanket, a pillowcase, a National Geographic Little Kids magazine, a battery-operated talking globe, and seventeen stuffed animals. I could pick them up, but the next morning, they’d be back on the floor. What was the difference? Why bother? I couldn’t come up with an answer, so I just sat there sipping my wine and thinking about every mistake, every oversight, every miscalculation I’d made during my four years as a parent.
At twenty-five, I’d opted to have a breast reduction, though I knew it might one day compromise my milk supply. Three years later, before I knew I was pregnant, I drank two glasses of champagne at a New Year’s Eve party, with Felix’s little tadpole fetus tipsy inside me. As soon as I knew he was there, I stopped drinking alcohol and coffee, forswore sushi and cold cuts and all things unpasteurized; but after long deliberation, I chose to stay on my antidepressant, prioritizing my own mental health over the risk to his development. And still, there was more. I wanted to have a natural childbirth, to have his entry into the world take place in a candlelit tub of warm water and rose petals, to give him the gentlest, calmest, quietest arrival. Instead, I ended up with my legs half numb and hoisted in the air, feeling him crown as my first epidural wore off and I screamed for someone, anyone, to kill me. I wanted to co-sleep, to bond with this little precious creature all through the night, but he had colic and wailed the first eight weeks of his life, and I, teetering on the edge of sleep-deprivation-induced psychosis, sleep-trained him before the fourth month. I had hoped that the first year of his life would be filled with love and music and long walks in nature and interesting nonplastic toys and baby-mommy swim classes, but he was sickly, so instead the days passed in a haze of nebulizer treatments, antibiotics, oral steroids, and ear tubes. I wanted to be a devoted stay-at-home mother until he started kindergarten, but after only six months, I realized that if I went one more week without working or using my brain, I’d stick my head in the oven, so I put him in day care three afternoons a week to begin work on a novel.
As I sat there at the table that night, it seemed that every hope and good intention I’d had since becoming a mother had crumbled under the slightest pressure. The baby book I wasn’t keeping would be a long log of failure, an exhaustive inventory of good intentions gone wrong.
“I’m a terrible mother,” I said to my empty wineglass. I wanted to hear how it sounded. “I left my son in the car.” Our rat terrier, Liza, trotted down the stairs and looked up at me with clear eyes, as though she understood. The phone rang. It was the lawyer.
“Sorry about the wait. I got caught up in something.”
“What did you find out?” I asked.
“This is the funniest thing,” he said. “I talked to the officer who called you. It turns out that we went to the same high school in Brooklyn.”
“That’s so funny,” I said.
“So I explained the situation. He seems like a reasonable guy. You know they have to be cautious in situations like these where kids are involved. There are so many terrible parents out there. But I don’t think you’re the person they’re after. You’re not the kind of mom they’ll throw the book at.”
“You think it’s fine? They’ll drop it?”
“I think that’s a definite possibility. I do.”
He gave me the name of a Virginia lawyer, someone who would be able to better help me if it went any further. He told me to call the guy in the morning.
I thanked him at least ten times.
“Glad to do it. Glad to help,” he said.
He was about to hang up when I said, “Just one more question. After I call the lawyer tomorrow, what happens next?”
I could hear he was distracted, covering the phone while he said something to his wife. I pictured his perfect family, his perfect children, his perfect, happy home. “Next,” he told me, “you’ll wait.”
* * *
“Well, I don’t understand it,” my father said over the phone the next morning. “I just don’t understand what in the hell all the fuss is about.”
This was him at his angriest, a state I’d seen him in only a few times in my life, usually when he’d gotten off the phone with a case manager at a health insurance company or had submitted himself to his masochistic ritual of watching Fox News. He’d called me from work, hoping for an update, more information, some explanation or assurance that it was all a misunderstanding, the same thing I’d been hoping to get from the lawyer the evening before.
“What is he saying the problem is? What are they accusing you of?”
I had taken Felix to school, put Violet down for her morning nap, and was now sitting on the living room floor, trying to keep my voice steady as I told him the little I knew. “They’re saying that I left him in the car. That someone saw me leave him while I ran into the store.”
“And that’s against the law? That’s a crime?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. It varies by state. I’m waiting to hear back from the lawyer. I don’t think there’s a specific law in Virginia. But they could argue it’s child neglect. Abuse. I don’t know.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Neglect. I’ve never heard of anything so asinine. Do you know how many times your mother and I left you and Sari in the car for a minute? I’d be serving consecutive life sentences if that were a crime.”
“I know. I’m trying not to panic,” I said, secretly relieved that he was panicking for me, that he was as taken aback by the whole thing as I was. If he said what was happening was asinine, then it was asinine. I trusted and believed him. Still, my voice was shaking as we spoke. “I guess what they’re saying is that someone could have hurt Felix, broken into the car, kidnapped him.”
A week earlier, it would have seemed preposterous. Of all the dangers I feared might befall my children, this wasn’t one of them.
I hadn’t yet memorized the facts that illuminate the paranoia behind our obsession with the occasionally horrific but largely fictional, inanely named phenomenon of stranger danger: the FBI data that show that the number of missing person reports involving minors has been at record low levels in recent years, that the number of these reports has fallen by more than 40 percent since 1997, and that out of all missing person cases (adults and children) in 2014, roughly 96 percent were runaways, that only 0.1 percent of missing person cases were what we’d think of as a “stereotypical kidnapping.” I didn’t know any of this then, but I must have sensed it, because abduction was simply not on the list of nightmare scenarios I worried about, and the list was long. But I was rational in my hierarchy of fear. Speeding cars, distracted drivers, unfenced swimming pools, asthma irritants, third-floor windows left open too wide: These were the demons that haunted my imagination. Not creepy-looking strangers. I lived in a city and rode public transportation and spent a decent portion of my time hanging out with people who wrote for a living. I felt right at home among creepy-looking strangers. Only now, when I pictured this person in the parking lot, this faceless concerned citizen peering through the window of my car, recording my son as he played, watching him, talking to him, excited (maybe) to have found this defenseless, neglected child, I wondered if I’d been naive.
My father sighed into the phone. “Kidnapped?” he repeated flatly. “Last I checked, kidnapping is a crime. Someone could break into my house and shoot me in the head, but the police aren’t showing up to arrest me if I forget to lock my door.”
“I don’t think they see it the same way when kids are involved.”
“The same way,” he said. “You mean rationally?”
I waited a moment, then asked what I didn’t want to ask, the thing I’d been avoiding. “How’s Mom?” I knew the answer by the amount of time it took him to respond.
“She’s been better. She’s upset by all this, obviously.”
“It’s hard for her. It’s been hard.”
There’s an episode of Fresh Air, one of Terry Gross’s approximately seven million interviews with Philip Roth. They talk about his mother’s reaction to Portnoy’s Complaint, an extended and hilarious rant about the Jewish mother. Gross asked Roth if his own mother had seen herself in the characterization, and if so, whether the likeness had upset her. He responded that another journalist had asked his mother the same question years before and that she replied with Cartesian eloquence, “Every mother is a Jewish mother.”
“Your mother worries,” my father said. “She can’t help it. She feels like it’s somehow her fault.”
“I understand that,” I said. “But you know, not every bad thing that happens to me is about her.”
“I understand that.”
Softening, I asked if I should call her.
“Maybe hold off a few days. Wait until we have a sense of what’s happening so you can put her mind at ease. It will make my life easier. You know how your mother gets. She makes your problems her own.”
“Yes,” I told him. “I know.”
* * *
In the years since, whenever I tell people the facts of my case, that I left my four-year-old son in the car for five minutes, that someone recorded me doing so and called the police, that this single decision I made and its ramifications played out in my family’s life over the course of two years—when I recount these facts to some new friend or family member, to a reporter or colleague or radio-show host, they all want to know the same thing. “How did you feel?” they ask me. “How did you feel when you realized what was happening?”
It’s a simple enough question, yet it took me almost two years to answer it honestly. “I was scared,” I used to tell them. Or “I was shocked.” I would tell them I was angry or embarrassed or bewildered. And there was truth to all this. But the deeper truth was much worse. The deeper truth was that I felt as though I’d been caught doing something very bad, even if I didn’t understand what the bad thing was, exactly, or what the rationale was for its badness. I felt, I think, what just about every woman feels whenever someone attacks or criticizes her mothering. I felt angry. I felt embarrassed. But beneath all that, I felt ashamed.
Copyright © 2018 by Kim Brooks