By Caroline Bruckner
Wanda plunged through the wet sheets dangling on the clothesline, bare feet slipping and sliding on the bathroom floor. I held my breath. Cracked skull. Blood sipping through her small, pink mouth. Blood dropping out of her pointy nose. Eyes staring coldly at the flickering neon lights above.
Damn these hard tiles. They can kill a person. Wanda skidded to a halt, turned, and peered through the polka-dotted pillowcases. Thank God. No waiting in line at the overcrowded emergency room today. For a moment I thought I had her. Her little lips were twitching, deciding on whether to let out a high-pitched wail or start laughing. “Wanda, for the last time. Here.” I tried sounding cheerful, holding out her dirty red rubber boots. Living with a two-and-a-half-year-old is like living with a mad, abusive drunk. With their giddy laughter, they make your life paradise one moment, only to turn it into hell the next with their aggressive Kim Jong-style outbursts. Wanda ducked away behind the dots. “Do you want to get into your boots yourself, or do you want me to do it?” I asked, putting all my hopes on the good, old “two-choices” method. Wanda shook her head, those brown tangled curls bobbing up and down, lips pressed together in a thin, straight line. She crossed her chubby arms over her chest and frowned.
“No,” she stated simply.
“Wanda. We need to go. Mommy is in a hurry.” If I were to walk toward her decidedly, she would bolt again; I knew that much. So I remained where I was, the clothesline between us like a net in some game. “Wanda will stay home today,” she said then, matter-of-factly, bending over, starting to peel off her pink pantaloons. The very same pantaloons it had taken me half an hour to put on. The very same pantaloons that had kicked me in my face while that insane eel wiggled out of my grasp, wailing No! Noooooooo! so loud, I thought my eardrums would burst.
“Don’t take off your pants! Honey! Please!”
Like she cared. She threw them over her head and grinned like a gangster after a killing shot. An EWR-smile. Entirely Without Regret.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to hide in a cupboard, nursing my wounded feelings. I gave up my whole life for you and you kick me in the face? I hated this whiny voice in my head, but it had become a constant companion lately. God, I wished I were one of those mothers who could make their kids do anything with a friendly command and a joke. Instead I had to bite my tongue not to say what I was really thinking.
If you don’t put on your boots, I will not cook for you or change your stinky diaper ever again.
If you don’t put on your boots, I won’t ever play with you again, because playing with you is boring and I only do it because I have to.
If you don’t put on your boots, I will smack your little behind until you learn how to behave the way I had to, you spoiled little shit.
Wanda took off her cardigan too, while she was at it. I sighed, squatting down. Some leader, not being able to grab a toddler and be on my way. Doctor Lin would have to wait another three months. Mommy would have to pay 140 pounds for nothing. The stupid test that would decide if I could have another baby could go where the sun doesn’t shine.
Wanda was not the only one who could put up a fight. I pulled off my T-shirt. A musky, unpleasant odor rose from my armpits. I didn’t even recognize my own smell anymore.
I sat down and pulled off my socks and jeans. Wanda stared at me suspiciously. I grabbed a sock and dressed my ear with it. And there was sock number two. I pulled it over the other ear. “OK. I am off,” I said calmly, scrambling up without as much as a blink in her direction, ears flopping. I hummed a tune while dropping my keys into my bag and drinking the last slosh of cold coffee. I heard Wanda sneaking out of the bathroom then. I could feel her standing behind me, holding on to the doorframe. “I want an ice cream,” she tried uncertainly. “Why don’t you go buy one?” I sailed past the stunned little girl and opened the front door. “I have an appointment.” Instantly, a gush of cold rain hit my naked legs. “Bye, sweetie,” I sang, taking a step outside. The wet stone was slippery under my bare feet. Spitting drops plastered my hair to my head. Mr. Neds hurried past then, red-faced and sweaty, glancing up from under his umbrella.
“Good morning, Gabriella!” The man stopped. He blinked a few times, stared at my breasts, at the socks dangling from my ears, then turned to look at the neat row of semi-detached houses, as if wondering if he was in quite the right place. He pushed his spectacles up his sweaty nose, shifted his huge body, and hurried away without another word. I realized I was grinning, wide. It was a long time since I had enjoyed myself this much.
“Not go without shoes, Mommy!” Wanda demanded loudly. She came toward me, carrying a pair of old boots and that Kim Jong-frown of hers.
“Oh,” I said, “I am just gonna go like this.”
“Mommy put on your boots!” she demanded strictly.
I crossed my arms over my chest.
“Do as I say!” Wanda threatened.
Deep down beneath, something grumbled and lurched. There was no stopping it. It was charging like a wild animal. Do as I say. As I say. Do as I. Say. The words echoed infinitely in my mind, bouncing back and forth like in a house of mirrors of sound. Do as I say. The voice was my mother’s, raw and dry. I felt sick. Her cold, blue eyes burrowed into mine. It was like looking into an abyss of hate.
That’s when I slipped. Soaking wet, I fell flat on my back. A shrill spasm shot through my ribcage, up and down the spine, foot to skull. Tears streamed down my cheeks. A cold wind tugged at my hair. Shame flooded my head as the prim houses came back into focus.
A small, warm hand on my forehead, full of tenderness and compassion. Wanda bent down on all fours and angled her sweet face so she could look at me, take me all in. In silence she stroked my head. The love of this two-and-a-half-year-old entered me slowly, like a cruise ship coming toward a harbor. How I wanted it. How I wanted the softness and the kindness. And how it scared me. At once I wanted to sit up and shield myself. Shield myself by talking, by complaining about the pain, by running away to who knows where. Anything but feeling this thing, this choice that now stood before me. At this moment, laying almost naked on a wet staircase in a London suburb, looking into the warm gaze of my child, I realized I had never felt really loved before. I realized I had never dared to. I had never dared to let love in, had never let the ship of love take anchor inside me. I could either close up now or force myself to have the courage to feel all this vulnerability and longing. But I was not really in a position to run. So I opened up. Just a little. Just for that moment.
All shame disappeared and instead I was overwhelmed with shyness. “I am stupid,” I tried meekly. Wanda shook her head, her hand still on my face. “You are not stupid, Mum, sometimes one just doesn’t want to wear boots.”
I had to smile. It felt so good lying there, simply not wanting to wear boots, letting the rain soak both of us. I was tired, so tired of having to be perfect, of having to do everything perfectly. “I want cookies,” I declared.
“Me too!” came the enthusiastic response next to me.
Wanda held my hand as we limped down the corridor at the emergency room. “Look, mommy!” she cried, poking at my hand. “We are not the only ones who don’t want to wear boots today.”
Copyright 2014 Bruckner