danny's mom

She's a little thing, one of those moms who doesn't look like she should be able to lift her studded leather satchel, much less a thirty-pound child. Her son Danny (not his name) is the same size as Buster, and when she lifts him, easily, onto her hip, she looks less like his mother and more like his Cirque du Soleil partner, posed in a precise cantilever, their masses roughly equal.

When she wears leggings, I can see that the round swell of her knee is the broadest part of her leg. When she wears jeans, they hang away from her hips, the denim legs visibly empty.

She drives a silver Lexus SUV.

Her hair is brittle and red, chopped into a blunt chin-length style that she always tries to pull back into a ponytail, and always falls out to surround her face in thick, dry hanks. She is always touching her hair - tucking it, swiping it out of her eyes, clawing back the mane into a thick, stubby, already falling-out tail.

This is the third time I have smelled alcohol, sweet and antiseptic, when she settles next to me at library story time. It's 10:30 am.

Both our boys give zero fucks about story time. They scramble out of our laps and take off for the laundry basket of toys stashed in the corner. Buster finds an airplane; Danny finds a truck. With toys in hand and toddler blinders securely fastened, they lose all awareness of other life on this planet.

She leans in and murmurs, "some days, huh?" Her breath smells like someone with freshly-removed nail polish just browned a creme brulee.

Rum? Vanilla vodka?

Could it be her perfume? A breath mint?

Danny runs back to her and crash-lands on her chest, nearly toppling her. She rocks back and catches herself on one sinewy, goose-bumpy arm. She laughs and wraps her arms around Danny. She rocks him. She bends over to put her face right next to his as he runs his finger along the bumpy bottom of the toy truck.

Oh, wow. Yes, it does look like there's something written there. I think it's the name of the toy company. 

It must be her perfume.

He rolls out of her lap and runs back to the toy basket.

She rolls her eyes and says, "honestly, he was a nightmare this morning."

I nod, "us too. I can't even talk about the shoe drama."

Our eyes follow our boys as they wander the room. "For us, it's the car seat."

"Well, car seat is public enemy #1."

She pulls her hair back. "My friend is pregnant with her third and I think I would kill myself if I were in her shoes."

"Yeah, I can't imagine having a third right now."

"It's freezing in here. Are you cold? I'm freezing." She crosses her arms and tucks her hands between her biceps and chest. The fine blonde hairs on her arms stand straight and glow electric in the morning sunlight.

"I'm not, but I run warm." I don't run warm but it seems like a nice thing to say.

"Can you watch Danny for a second? I'm gonna run to the bathroom." I nod, no problem.

I watch the boys careening across the room and not for the first time I wish they had paint on their shoes, so we could go back and follow their steps and laugh at the switchbacks, the spinning in circles, the random shifts of speed and direction and length of stride. I think, I should tell her that when she comes back. That'll be a funny thing to talk about, our drunken sailor boys.

She's gone awhile. Danny runs to her spot and is surprised to discover her gone. This despite the fact that the child can clearly see the length of the room, could see that spot of thin blue carpet lay bare for every step he took to get there.  It's like he thought, if I simply return, she will be there, the way you can go around a corner in a video game and find a sack of gold coins, collect it, then go back to round the same corner to collect the same sack of coins again. It's amazing to watch children believe in magic without necessarily connecting it to wonder - to them, magic is the way the world works - a car starting with the turn of a key, food coloring, the sight of dirt running from the creases in their palms, falling into the sink and vanishing into the graying water - it's all magic.

Danny turns his big blue eyes on me. "She went to the potty," I say. "She'll be back in just a minute." He sits down in her spot. He's left his truck under a table on the other side of the room and I can see him staring at it. "Do you want to go get your truck?" He looks at me again. "I won't go anywhere. If you want to go get your truck, I'll be here the whole time, and I'll be here when you get back."

He stands up and walks to the truck, checking over his shoulder every few steps to make sure I'm still there. Because he's looking at me, he walks into the table and falls on his butt. He flips onto his belly and stares at me again. Did you do that? I smile, and call out, "you okay?" He grabs the truck and dashes back to me. Just as he arrives, his mom returns.

She smiles. "Hey champ! Still working on that truck?"

When she opens her mouth, I smell it.

If she were a friend I could say, "are you okay," or, "hey, let me take Danny. I have Chicken's car seat in the car. You take the afternoon off, my treat. I'll bring him home at 4," or even, "are you drinking right now? Let's go to my house. I'll drive."

But we aren't friends. Our sons run at the same speed, is all. I have dozens of these women - I smile at Emma's Mom at dropoff. Keller's Mom and I find ourselves standing side-by-side, barefoot at gymnastics class, talking about kitchen remodels. I fetch Ellis's lost shoe and tap the sand out of it, then work his doughy foot back in, press down the velcro strap, flash a thumbs-up to his mom from across the playground. Maya's Mom gives Buster one of Maya's fig newtons.

I call them my co-workers.

Like a hive of blue-shirted analysts in cubicles, they exist in their most distinctive details - was she the one with the long nose? The one with the eyes like a cartoon cow's? The one who hates the word "binky"?

I was taken aback when I saw a Starbucks cup on the shoe cubby at the community center, the boxes checked and scribbled in black marker. Holy shit. Maya's Mom drinks decaf one-pump hazelnut lattes? I wonder how that goes with fig newtons. 

For that drink to have arrived on the white particleboard cubby, Maya's Mom had to order it, which means she got into a car (that she bought? That her husband bought? That her parents gave her? For her birthday?) drove to a Starbucks, ordered a coffee (that she tasted once a year ago when a friend ordered it, and she really liked it and it became her drink? That she's trying for the first time today?) opened her handbag (that she bought from Nordstrom? A market in Nepal? That she found in a box labeled Christmas after the move and couldn't believe it, she thought she'd lost this bag?) pulled out her wallet (does she have a new AmEx? A scratched and bent debit card about to expire? A $20? A $5?) and put her coffee in the cup holder (did she wait for it to cool? Did she order extra hot? Is this a treat? A necessity? A splurge? A routine?)

That drink is the manifestation of Maya's Mom's Full Life Beyond These Walls.

It's not that I thought Maya's Mom was nothing more than a bottomless source of fruit and cake; it's just that we are all so relentlessly the same.

I say, "this is such a tricky age," and across the play gym I see another woman nodding at someone who has just said, "this is such a tricky age."

We gasp in unison when we hear the hollow thunk of a head against the floor.

I say, "I know he's old enough to understand why hitting is not okay..." and she finishes my thought, "... but at least he's only hitting his brother." We laugh. We think it's funny.

In our sameness, our namelessness, the smallest things become our signifiers - A woman named Rachel had a baby and named her Maya (we don't know why, or who after). To a hundred women, she is Maya's Mom (what's her name? Rebecca? Hannah?) To the forty of us at the community center, she is Fig Newton Mom (Do you mean Maya's Mom?) To me, now, she is Hazelnut Latte Mom (You know, Fig Newton Mom? She drinks Hazelnut Lattes.)

Last week I wore a gray tee-shirt that had been washed too many times and you could clearly see the lace edging of my black bra when I stood in the sunshine at the park, watching Chicken and Buster digging holes in the sandbox with my arms crossed over my chest. Am I Black Bra Mom? See Thru Shirt Mom? Hoochie Mama?

If I am, it doesn't hurt my feelings. These names are dispassionate, born of efficiency, not malice.

Still.

I can't call Danny's Mom a name like Drunk Mom. Even if in my mind the words are already there, silent, but present, like a neon sign that hasn't been plugged in yet. Drunk Mom.

If the sight of a coffee cup sends me down a rabbit hole of personal questions that I'm not willing to ask a near-stranger, then the idea of a flask in a handbag on a weekday morning is beyond impossible to pursue out loud.

Not just because toddler story time is not the place to have that kind of talk, not just because alcoholism is a disease that lives in silence and shame, and not just because if I was wrong I would have profoundly offended a person that I genuinely like.

I can't ask her if she's drunk because we are all so relentlessly the same.

I want to scream when I can't get out the goddamned door, too.
I laugh and cuddle my thick, bouncing son, too.
I do what it takes to get through my day, too.
Sometimes I'm ashamed of those things, too.
I am different in public, too.

In the hot silence of my car, I eat a doughnut in two big bites, not even tasting it.
I flip down my mirror to make sure I'm clean. I'm clean.
I walk into toddler gym and wave at Sara's Mom.

After class, it does not occur to me in any practical way to intervene, to save Danny, to stop her from getting behind the wheel.

It's not like she's slurring her speech or dropping her handbag.
It's not like she's hitting him.
It's not like...

She clips her son in and tightens the straps.

I'm relieved when I see her signal appropriately at the light, wait for the retired couple to cross, and then turn right smoothly, soberly.

It's probably breath mints.


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