Back in the 70s, whenever I saw a youngish woman dressed for business, a parcel of groceries in her arms after a day’s work, I wanted to be her. I wanted her pantsuit life, a life of accomplishment and purpose, something that I, with my husband and three children, all with their squabbles, laundry, and never-ending needs—plus a house to keep tidy—sorely lacked. I wanted to swing my briefcase in high heels, “bringhome the bacon and fry it up in a pan” (in a silk blouse, no less), as the TV ad said I could.
Years later, the diapered one now in rosebud panties (who’s a big girl?) and day camp, her siblings at sleepaway, I bought myself a snazzy tote and climbed into those heels. I had the heady notion that I might one day make a career out of all the sprucing up I’d done in my own home (friends joked that my husband went to sleep in pjs and woke up in a suit and tie), and signed up for a six-week crash course in interior design in the Big A.
Soon as my daughter was settled on the Happy Time bus, happy-time mom would back down our drive and point my Pontiac toward the Queensborough Bridge, my mind aflutter with fabrics and trims, with layouts and window treatments, carpets and the like. I loved design school, the colors the textures, the silks and the woolens, the feel of the fabrics, the look of them. This goes with this, that with that, or live on the edge and switch them up. I loved the woods and the finishes, the slick and the dull—pickled, if I pleased. Art deco (my fav); boxy modern; period pieces, Louie 15 and 16 (no Louis for me, the kings and I were like this). I loved it all; a world of beauty and order I threw myself into and did not easily detach from.
When conversation lagged at dinner parties, I redid my host’s dining room. Switch out the buffet. Toss the color-by-number and put up some real art! Verticals (so gauche, out!) Area rug in! I made a mash-up of styles into an eclectic look. I pondered the color scheme. “Blue, definitely blue,” I said when I heard my name.
“Blue, Joyce?” replied a tablemate. “I asked if you were carpooling Monday!”
After classes one day, I arrived home and found my husband there. He’d gotten off work early so would I like to go out for dinner? Duh! Ask me if I’d like a flat stomach!
We went to a local place. When my wine came, I took a sip and jumped up off my seat.
“What?” my husband said. “What’s wrong?”
“Susie,” I said. “I forgot Susie!” I checked my watch. “She’s on the bus! No one is home for her!” I pictured her round sweet face, her tousled dark curls after a day of play. Her dimpled smile so eager to tell me about the swimmy pool she loved.
“How could you forget your own daughter?”
“Don’t put it all on me! She’s your daughter too. Why didn’t you say… didn’t you realize … oh forget it!” I whacked the air with the back of my hand. He was father, not mother. It was my job to keep track of our children.
By this time, all the campers had been dropped off and my little Susie was riding around on the bus, worried where Mommy was. What a mother you are! I pushed out of my chair, asked to use the house phone (no cells then), pulled out some numbers from my purse and called around till I found the neighbor she’d been taken to. Whew! Relieved, I asked if they could keep her for another hour or so.
Next morning I did not point the Pontiac toward the Queensborough Bridge after putting Susie on the bus. Next morning Susie would not be put on the bus.Susie sat on the edge of her big girl bed in her rosebud panties, all 34.4 pounds of dimples, curls and chipped candy pink toes, determined as a snorting bull.
“I thought you liked day camp, the swimming pool….” I tried to keep the whine out of my voice, sick at the thought of missing school and the chance to present to my class; I’d worked on the project into the night. No macramé madness and terra cotta tiles for my hallway. I glammed it up with an oversized geometric silver foil wallpaper, cum mirrored ceiling.
I ran to my room to fetch a bathing suit I’d bought her.
“Look, sweetie. Two-piece, like Mommy wears!” I held up the strings that served as straps, danced the confection in the air. Her eyes lit. Silent, she held out her little palm, the princess accepting her tribute.
“Want me to put it on you?” said the spider to the fly. “You can wear it on the bus.”
Her tongue snagged between her front teeth the way it did when she was thinking. She reached out her arms so I could take her down off the bed. I got her into the suit, walked her to the mirror. Hand to waist, she turned this way and that. Four years old, baby fat and all, and she knows the moves. “Who looks so pretty? We better hurry or we’ll miss the bus.”
“Not today,” she said.
Yes today! I’m the boss here! “Why not today, sweetie?” I was starting to sound desperate. The older ones knew what to do when that happened. Had the new kid on the block been primed by her elders? I imagined her brother and sister sitting her down and telling her… Listen; when she gets all friendly and starts pulling out the presents she stashed away, your worries are over. Another Yodel after dinner? It’s yours.
“I don’t want the swimmy pool.” She threw herself at me and flung her arms around my legs. “Don’t go to dee-zine school anymore!” She ground her head into my thighs.
Design school! So that’s it! “Oh, sweetie…. You’re afraid I won’t be there when the bus comes.” I got to my knees, held her close. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you yesterday,” I murmured into her neck. “It won’t happen again. I promise.” She doesn’t trust you. That will teach you to be on time! I sat her on my lap. “You want to stay home and have a special day with Mommy?”
“Uh-huh,” she said, shook her curly mop.
“We’ll do our nails….” I kissed her chubby fingers. “And our toes….” I kissed her feet.
“Can I have a Yodel?” she said.
“Have two,” I said, and waved bye-bye to happy-time.
I bundled up her play stove and dishware and carried it out back. We’d have our breakfast on the patio.
“Would you like more tea, Mommy?”
“Yes, please.” I held out my cup and she poured from the pint-sized pot, returned it to her tin stove.
“Thank you, sweetie.”
Tenderly, Susie plucked her Froot Loops (gloriously pumped with sugar, preservatives and trans-fatty acids) from the little tin bowls I’d set out in front of her, separating the tiny red, orange and yellow circles into colorful bands on the table—my designer-in-the-making.
“That’s very nice,” I said. “Why don’t you eat some?”
“Later. I’m busy for my climent,” she said, bent to her task.
I sometimes mentioned clients I’d have, or hoped to have, once I finished my course; daughter mine did not miss a trick.
“Where did you get your client?” I asked—maybe she could teach me a thing or two. Out peeped her tongue, then, “They saw my work!” as if how could I not know that. Good Lord! I’d been cloned into the body of a four-year-old!
“C’mere you,” I grabbed her onto my lap, put my nose in her neck and inhaled her warm morning smell. “How did you get to be so cute?”
“I was borned that way,” she said, wriggled out of my arms. “I have work to do, Mommy.” How many times had she heard me say that, when she’d wanted my attention?
Mrs. B had a coptail,” Susie said, completing her band of yellow. “Like Daddy.”
“A cocktail?” I said. “Yesterday? When you stayed with her?”
“Two,” Susie, said, put up dimpled fingers. “Because she liked it so much.”
“She wanted to give me a taste.” Pinky poised for tea, Susie dipped into a bowl and added to her red band.
Hot blood shot to my face. A taste! Is the woman a moron?
I took her hand from the table. “Look at me, sweetie. Stop with the Froot Loops! Did you? Did you taste her cocktail?”
“I didn’t, Mommy!” she almost wailed. I’d frightened her. “Daddy told me it tasted poo-ey for childrens.”
“Good. Good,” I pulled her back onto my lap. I couldn’t think.
“You’re squooshing me, Mommy.”
“I’m sorry.” I eased my grip. Calm down! You’re scaring her! “Daddy is right, sweetie. Cocktails aren’t for children. You did the right thing. I’m proud of you.”
She slipped her hands inside my robe, patted the sides of my breasts, loose in my nightgown. “How come your boobies are big?”
“Because I’m a grown-up, sweetie. One day you’ll have big boobies,” I said above the roaring in my ears. A taste!
She made a face. “I’m too little. It wouldn’t look good on me.” Her voice was bright with innocent wisdom.
“But you’ll be big then, and it will look just fine.”
I couldn’t get my head around it. Nice Mrs. B. offering Susie liquor. And me, so pleased with myself: dinner out with my husband, chatting it up in a restaurant, scarfing down veal parmesan, and my trusted neighbor (we took in each other’s garbage cans, for God’s sake!) is trying to get my baby drunk. I ran in to call Joe, dragged the cord of the wall phone to the kitchen window and kept an eye on Susie out back.
“Don’t get hysterical,” he said. “Susie said a taste.”
“What’s the difference? She offered the child liquor! She was drinking! Is that a responsible thing for an adult to do? And she wanted to give her a bath!”
“Now who’s hysterical?”
“What did Susie say?”
“‘The swimmy pool is enough baff.’”
“That kid is sharp.”
“That’s no lie. But what are we going to do about Mrs. B? Go talk to her? Call the police? We can’t just let this go! My God! What might have happened!”
And maybe it did happen, I thought darkly. What if Mrs. B did worse than what Susie said she’d done! You read about it all the time. Well, maybe not all the time, but it’s there in the papers. Children molested by those they know. My poor sweet baby scarred for life and all because I couldn’t remember to be there for the bus.
Not me! I had to go to design school. I had to develop my talent! I had to be a person. A family, house and husband weren’t enough. Actually, they were too much. Too much them and not enough me.
I didn’t wait for Joe. Why should I? Didn’t I just tell Susie I was a grown-up (with big boobies)? I’d handle this on my own. Give that pervert a piece of my mind. I didn’t bother calling; if she knew I was coming she’d make some excuse not to see me. Might not even answer the door now! I got myself dressed in a flash and marched us down the block.
“Joyce! Little Susie!” Mrs. B said. “Come in. Come in.” Hands to chest, “What a nice surprise!”
I bet it is. “Uh, sorry to barge in on you like this, but I …”
“Not at all,” Mrs. B. said, all sweetness and light. (Don’t try to trick me!) She extended her arm toward the kitchen. A 50s cuckoo-clock wallpaper on a yellowed background bedecked the walls. I must have stared.
“I know,” she said, shooting out an arm. “I’d love to change the paper for something more current.” (And the metal-rimmed countertop and knotty pine cabinets.) “But all the choices out there. It’s just too confusing,” she said.
“My Mommy’s a dee-ziner. She can do it!” Susie piped, eyes bright, smile big. My cheering squad of one.
“I heard you were in design school,” said Mrs. B. “Will you be taking on clients?”
“I… I… I think so.” I sounded bland and unenthusiastic, but I could never work with this woman.
She said, “I was just about to have my morning club soda and cranberry juice cocktail.” (What!) “It’s the only thing that quenches my thirst in the summer. I offered Susie a taste yesterday. She said it would taste poo-ey. Children can be picky. Can I fix you a glass?” Mrs. B inquired.
“No, thank you.” I leaned up against the counter for support.
“I do apologize for not giving her dinner last night,” Mrs. B. said.
“Oh, no! It’s me who should be apologizing. “To take her in at the last minute like that?”
“Any time,” Mrs. B. said. “I had some nice fresh bass I wanted to broil up for her dinner. But she thought I wanted to give her a bath. Said something about a swimming pool?”
“You know little ones,” I said, feeling I belonged on the wall with the other cuckoos. “Sometimes they hear in their own special way.” I thanked her again and we said our goodbyes.
Walking back to our house, Susie said, “Is Mrs. B going to be your new climent?”
“Could be, sweetie. Could be.”
“I’ll help you, Mommy,” she beamed up at me. “Because I’m good at that. Right?”
“You’re the best,” I said. And right then, cars going by, mailman coming up the street, a neighbor clipping hedges, I dropped to my knees and held her to me.
“Don’t cry, Mommy!” She brought her arms around and patted my back with her little hands.
“I’m crying because I’m happy,” I sniffed.
“From our special day?” Her eyes sparkled with delight.
“Yes, sweetie. From our special day.”