We’re on our way to Annie’s in Providence, and I’ve missed the exit off 95. I’ve never been there before, and I’m nervous driving.
Trucks are lumbering by me, their racket infiltrating the minivan through the open windows, the hot wind catching in my throat. I’m going too slow for the highway, even though my old van is rattling at this speed, and I’m frantically trying to figure out how to compensate for the missed turn. Worse, I have to pretend this is not a panic situation. With my right hand I fish in the milk crate beside me for the directions again and try to read them out of the corner of one eye without losing my focus on the road.
“Do you want me to read that for you?” asks Saifan, my eight-year-old daughter, from behind me, wiggling her fingers between the seats. The passenger seat is empty. The rule is no one under twelve can sit in the front seat, especially on the highway. I hand her the piece of paper with my scrawled directions. “Oh, forget it,” she says disdainfully. “Your handwriting is too messy.
“Try,” I say.
“Past where it says ‘merge onto 95’.” I can hear the paper rattling in the wind, and I glance at her narrow face, concentrating, in the rearview mirror. I see the other two, also; Yannai asleep in his car-seat, gingery curls plastered to his forehead, and Kahlia all the way in back, lips moving as if she’s singing to herself. They look far away. “Objects are closer than they appear,” the shadow print on the glass reminds me. Cars are whizzing past, and the humid air looks wrinkled in their wake.
“Take the exit for route ten,” Saifan shouts over the noise of the traffic. I would love to shut the windows, but it’s almost 90 degrees out and the van has no air conditioning.
“Exit ten or route ten?”
“Route ten. Exit FOR route ten, that’s what it says!” she yells with some irritation.
I relax my grip on the wheel just a bit. I have not missed the exit after all. I am both unnerved and pleased that my eight-year-old has more self-confidence than I do. Saifan’s hand reaches between the seats again and drops the paper back in the milk crate, then gives my elbow a delicate pat. I am hiding nothing.
All the way up the driveway and into the house are guests in shorts and t-shirts, drinks in hand, voices clucking. As we corral ourselves into Annie’s kitchen I am carrying a blue and white platter laden with bundt cake and a shopping bag with a gift in it looped over my wrist. My left hand is holding Yannai’s, and the girls are following, holding hands with each other, one of them gripping the back of my loose linen dress. I feel like Mrs. Mallard in Make Way for Ducklings; Mrs. Mallard goes visiting. Annie is there, amidst a clutter of strangers, plates of food, buckets of beer bottles and pots simmering on a crowded stove. Bubbly cooking sounds blend with high-pitched greetings and the steady twang of zydeco music playing somewhere in the house. The air is steamy and smells of curry and ginger and sweat. I feel the children move in even closer.
“Great, you found the place!” Annie exclaims.
“No problem,” I smile, hoping Saifan won’t make a comment about the panicky drive.
Tall and angular, Annie bends toward me and kisses my cheek, relieving me of the plate and gift at the same time. I wipe my hand on my dress but before I can raise my arm again, Kahlia’s small, damp palm slides into mine.
More people spill into the kitchen and introductions, dishes, and gifts pass between them and Annie. It’s her fortieth birthday, the occasion for this gathering. More cheeks are kissed, congratulations are offered, wine is being poured. Someone takes Annie by the elbow and pulls her toward the other room. She looks back at me apologetically, but is clearly enjoying herself.
“Grab some food, there’s plenty! And come on out to the porch where it’s cool,” she calls behind her, waving her wineglass as she is eased out of sight.
Left in the kitchen full of strangers, I wend my way amongst them with my girdle of children, finding paper plates and cutlery and gathering food. Most of the other guests are a little older than me, and mine are the only children here. I try to think of conversation starters, but I’m focused on four plates and eight hands, so all I manage is a string of “excuse mes” as we make our way around the buffet table in the dining room. One unencumbered woman looks at me sympathetically as I fish a cracker out of the salad bowl where one of the kids has dropped it. We are an ungainly, four-rooted plant among a forest of slender, independent trees, their branches free to arch and intertwine.
~ ~ ~
Earlier that year, Annie had invited me to a zydeco dance on a Sunday afternoon. She made it clear that it was really not a “family” event, but encouraged me to find a sitter. “You need to get out,” she urged. “It will be good for you.” It was an extravagance for me to pay for child care for anything except work, but I felt almost obligated. I had been complaining about feeling shut up at home, and here she was offering me a perfect opportunity to try something new.
The event was at a farm in Exeter, a grassy spread with a big barn that was cleared for dancing. It had a high deck built out behind it, canopied by ancient trees—the flooring was carefully cut out around the enormous trunks so that it felt like a giant tree house. About ten feet below, a brook ran under the deck and around the back of the barn. Inside the barn there were several bands playing at different times, and instruments and equipment lined the walls next to the make-shift stage. On the dance floor, dozens of couples moved in tight unison in time with the music; they were clearly veteran dancers, used to dancing with each other, including Annie who was with a fellow in a yellow t-shirt that said “Bayou Brethren” on it. His armpits were stained with sweat, even though it was a mild spring day. They appeared to be enjoying themselves, but in a serious way. They all danced exactly the same steps, no improvising, except for a few couples who were really expert, and even their extra moves were carefully choreographed.
I stood for a long time at the back of the barn, watching. An old man who seemed to know everyone came up and offered, more than asked, to dance with me. I demurred at first, saying I didn’t know how, but he took my hand and led me out to the deck, which was empty at the time. We could still hear the music there and he attempted to teach me the steps, his gnarled fingers interlaced with mine. He kept telling me to feel the rhythm of the music and let it move me. I tried to do what he was doing but I couldn’t match his movement, a stiff kind of shuffle and bounce at the same time. Another woman, his regular dancing partner, I think, finally came to fetch him back. They both seemed a little irritated with me.
I wandered out to the sunny side of the barn. There the brook ran wider and a few people were sitting on the bank with their feet resting in the cool water, chatting. It was one of the first really fine days of the year, when the weather actually merits conversation. I sat down on a stone wall and thought about leaving. A friend of Annie’s, a man to whom she had introduced me when we arrived, came out of the barn and sat down next to me. His face was pink from exertion.
“Are you having a good time?” he asked.
I smiled, not knowing how to answer. I was pretty sure I didn’t look like I was having a good time.
“I’d like to dance with you,” he said, and paused.
I felt hopeful for a moment. He was younger, and maybe he would be less particular about the steps than the old gentleman on the deck.
“It’s too bad you don’t know how, though,” he finished. “Maybe you could take some lessons sometime.”
I nodded resignedly.
He shrugged, and after a few moments of silence he got up and went back to the barn.
~ ~ ~
We find the porch, still marching mallard-like. The girls each carry a plate carefully in two hands like offerings to a deity, and I carry mine and Yannai’s, while he hangs onto the pocket of my dress. No matter the situation, I never have enough hands for all of them. The porch is crowded, too. Annie is sitting on a wicker couch surrounded by people, a little like a queen at court. We pick our way through to almost the bottom of the wide staircase where there is space for all four of us. A bald man in khaki shorts and a bright Hawaiian shirt slides much farther away than necessary to accommodate us, a gesture somehow both generous and unkind.
Instinctively, we don’t want to take up more room than we have to. Balancing our plates on our knees, we sit close enough to all be touching one another; Yannai and Kahlia on either side of me, Saifan on the step below, her shoulder leaning against Kahlia’s legs. Other conversations continue uninterrupted around us. We talk about what’s in the salad and whether curry should be runny or thick. Yannai still has a red mark on his cheek from where he slept with it pressed against the plastic edge of his car-seat.
“Why don’t these people have any kids?” Kahlia whispers in my ear.
“Maybe they just didn’t bring them,” I propose.
“Then why did you bring us?”
I take her chin in one hand and pull her face toward mine. “Because I love you,” I say, and kiss her cheek. My answer is true, but incomplete.
~ ~ ~
A year or so after this party, Annie fixed me up with a friend of hers, a blind date. Michael was not a one-woman kind of guy, she cautioned, not a serious prospect. She had dated him herself at some point and they had stayed friends, but he had never had a steady girlfriend in all the time she had known him. But he was a lot of fun, she insisted. “You can just practice on him,” she said, and we both laughed. I needed practice.
As I came to the door, Michael bounded up my front porch steps, sweeping a Panama hat off his bald head in a flamboyant gesture—a “fun” guy. The kids were inside the house, watching from the corner of the living room window. I saw no recognition in his gaze, but I knew immediately who he was—the man in the Hawaiian shirt from Annie’s party.
I was acutely conscious of his hand on my back as we walked down the steps and out to the street.
“So, Annie tells me you’re ‘hot to trot’!” he said jocularly, opening the car door for me.
I felt my face redden. This didn’t sound like a way that Annie would describe me, and I quickly decided we must not have the same understanding of the phrase. Not wanting to appear prudish or offended—I was sure he didn’t mean to offend—I just laughed and put a hand to my cheek, hoping to still the blush.
We drove to the Coastguard House in Narragansett, a restaurant on the beach with an obvious nautical theme, a giant anchor set in stone above the roof. It was shabby in a way that you are not supposed to notice. The patterned carpeting buckled where it met the walls and emitted an odor of stale seafood. The waitress’s ruffled apron was stained with grease, like the navy blue tablecloth, from too many platters of lobster and baked stuffed shrimp. We sat kitty-corner at a square table facing an empty fireplace.
Michael’s knee brushed against mine under the table as if unintentionally. But not.
A young man delivered a rubbery-looking basket of rolls and gold-wrapped pats of butter, swaddled in a pinkish napkin.
“So, you have three kids, eh?” Michael began, vigorously buttering a roll.
“Mm-hmm, three,” I nodded. I was surprised by this turn in the conversation. Given Annie’s buildup of Michael, it seemed unlikely that he was really interested in my children.
“I almost had a kid once,” he went on. “Knocked a girl up in high school. I gave her the money for an abortion—best parenting decision I ever made!” he said, laughing loudly. He reached over to gently push at my shoulder with his palm, as if to add emphasis to his joke.
After dinner, Michael suggested a walk along the sea wall that borders the beach. We strolled several blocks past the restaurant, following the curve of the wall, toward the beach parking area. It was a beautiful summer night, but a busy weekend, also, and the sound of the waves lapping at the shore below was almost lost in the rumble of traffic from the nearby road. Other couples, holding hands, passed by us in the dusk; young families with strollers, the occasional headphoned jogger. Clusters of animated teens perched on the wall here and there, talking loudly and jostling each other.
“Do you want to smoke some pot?” Michael asked suddenly. “It’ll loosen you up.” He tilted his head and winked, causing the “hot to trot” line to resurface in my mind. It was the first time in several years anyone had suggested this particular “fun” activity to me. The suggestion was not enticing, and yet, I didn’t want to seem naïve or judgmental, so I hesitated before answering. Michael slid an arm behind my back and turned me to face him, pulling me in close. “I’d like to get looser with you,” he whispered in my ear. He smelled of fish and melted butter mixed with aftershave.
“I don’t think I’m ready for that,” I said. Instinctively I put a hand against his chest to distance him, but at the same time I felt guilty for possibly having invited this amorous move. I should not have agreed to the walk. I was only being polite.
~ ~ ~
On the way home from Annie’s party, we stop at a playground. It’s past dinnertime, gathering dark on a Sunday night, and no one else is there. The girls swing next to each other, tanned legs pumping, their upper bodies arcing forward and back. One of Kahlia’s sandals flies off, hitting the sand with a poof. They laugh and laugh, and three more sandals sail to ground, one after another.
“Mom!” Saifan calls out, still pumping. “Who’s higher?”
“You’re exactly the same! Like twins!” I call back. I am sitting at the bottom of the curvy slide while Yannai slides down again and again, trying to gather enough speed to knock me off. Once I move at the last minute so he whooshes off the edge and lands on his bottom in the sand.
He giggles wildly and lunges against my knees. His red curls bounce around his head like a ragdoll.
The light is fading fast and soon the girls are just silhouettes, winging through the air in unison. Their voices sound to me like the chatter of birds.
Now it’s after eleven o’clock. All three kids are asleep, breathing evenly in their still hot rooms, wet hair and clean faces shiny in the streaks of moonlight from the window.
The air outside has finally cooled. A salt-scented breeze moves across the porch where I’m sitting, elbows on knees, on the top step, watching pockets of shadow open and close on the lawn as the branches of the cherry tree sway overhead. My big orange cat Mustapha emerges from a dark corner of the yard and walks slowly up the stairs toward me, as if each movement requires a supreme effort. When he reaches the top, he collapses sideways onto the porch floor, tilting his head back and stretching his legs out in front of him like a stick figure cat. I slowly lie all the way down, too, flat on my back with my limbs out. Turning my head, I watch Mustapha’s furry belly rise and fall, rise and fall. I reach my left hand out to where it’s almost touching him, just above his head; he arches and stretches one paw until it makes contact, barely, with my wrist.
Above me, in the ring of light from the ceiling lamp, I can see spots of moth wing dust, and spider webs full of tiny, well-wrapped carcasses. I feel something balled up in my pocket where my dress has fallen back against my thigh. It’s a paper napkin from Annie’s house. I pull it out, careful not to move my other hand, and press it to my damp upper lip. It still smells faintly of vinegar and curry.
Theo Greenblatt’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, has appeared in Aesthetica Magazine, South Loop Creative Nonfiction+Art, Vermont Literary Review, Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers, Ocean State Review, and forthcoming in Clarion, Pembroke Magazine, and Shifts, a fiction anthology. She is currently working on her second book-length memoir, about life on an Israeli kibbutz after the Lebanon War. Greenblatt holds a PhD in English from the University of Rhode Island and teaches writing at a military prep school in Newport, Rhode Island, a situation she finds both rewarding and a little surreal. She has long since given up zydeco dancing but still enjoys the company of cats and kids.