A girl walks into a diner but she wishes it was a bar. A girl walks into a diner for breakfast. A blinking red light in the window says “Eat Good Food.” She wishes it was a Budweiser sign, that it was night time, time for a drink. That it was time to wear cowboy boots to show off long legs, time to wear a too-short skirt, a cropped leather jacket, earrings that swing against shiny long hair.
Instead she wears jeans she cannot snap at the waist, a man’s flannel shirt she has misbuttoned. Her hair is short, shiny with grease, mostly concealed under a gray woolen toque. From her arm dangles a baby carrier.
“I’m thinking of running away,” the girl announces. But she’s not really a girl, is she? She’s at least in her late twenties, maybe even in her thirties. She is a mom, and moms are not girls, pretty much by definition. And certainly, running away is not an option, not with that which dangles from her arm.
She sets the plastic carrier with sleeping baby unceremoniously onto the Formica table top and slides over the duct tape–patched vinyl bench to take a seat across from someone who is waiting.
“Well, hello to you, too.” The voice that returns the unceremonious greeting is cool, the look appraising. This person is not a girl either. She has just the faintest etching of lines around lips glossed in an almost neutral shade of pink. Her brown hair is cropped smartly; a hair style, not a chopped cut. Her hand strays to the buttons on her ironed blouse as she takes in the apparition in front of her: bed hair, stained shirt, blotches on the skin, purpled hollows under the eyes.
“You’re late, Lauren. I’ve been waiting here for thirty minutes.”
“Of course, I’m late.” Lauren shrugs her arms out of her puffy down jacket and grabs a napkin from the dispenser to wipe her cold-tipped nose. “This kid always poops as soon as I wrestle him into a snowsuit. He does it on purpose.”
“I’m pretty sure he doesn’t do it on purpose.”
“You don’t know. He was laughing.” Her voice is petulant, girlish.
The response returned is measured. “He was laughing because he felt good. Baby gets cramp, baby poops, and the world is good again. Life is simple at that age.”
The mother sighs. “If you say so….Think I should try to get him out of this snowsuit or just let him sleep?”
A feeble sun barely pierces the condensed water droplets on the window, landing on baby’s rosy cheeks. Blue eyelids flutter and lips in a Cupid’s bow purse, ready to latch onto a breast. Dark hair curls slightly, escaping from the hood of a navy snowsuit.
“It is warm in here. He’ll sweat ’til he’s soaking wet in that snowsuit. If he wakes up, I’ll hold him.”
“If he lets you. If he doesn’t scream ‘cuz he wants to suck me dry.” The mother stands and draws the carrier over to the edge of the table and starts unzipping and untucking and tugging, all the time whispering shush, shush to the baby and gently patting his little round chest. Her hands are surprisingly gentle considering her words.
The waitress—young, tattooed, blue hair, wooden clogs clacking on scuffed hardwood boards—chooses just this moment to come by with menus and a bright, piercing voice. “Another coffee? And a warm up for you? Ohh! What a supercute baby! Boy or girl?”
The baby jerks awake and wailing. “Oops,” giggles the waitress.
Two, no, four evil eyes scurry the waitress away. The mother hauls the baby out of the carrier. “Well, so much for your nap this morning, huh, Mr. Maxie? No nap? Go visit with your Aunt Ellie for a change. She misses her babies. Needs a little spit-up in her hair to feel like a woman.”
The aunt reaches out for Max, telling her sister, “Don’t be such a damn drama queen, Lauren. And fix your shirt, it’s buttoned wrong.” She settles Max in her arms. “Give me a diaper or something. I actually don’t want spit-up on this sweater.”
Lauren rummages in her backpack and pulls out a clean cloth. “God! I am so bored with my life. I’m not a drama queen, I’m…I’m a chattel, a wet nurse, a servant to his lordship here. It’s endless: the laundry, the mess. I’m a mess. It’s been four months and I haven’t lost a pound…I look like shit. I feel like shit. So don’t sit there in your dry clean–only sweater and judge me, okay? And where’s the fucking waitress with the coffee?”
“I’m not judging. Believe me. We’ve all been there.”
The coffee arrives, orders are given, the baby starts fussing, and Ella returns Max to his mother. Ella is seven years older than her sister and seems to have emerged from the endless demands of motherhood on the other side. Her two girls are in middle school and high school and she is back at work, teaching history at the high school. Does she enjoy the work? Well, she enjoys the summers off, the regular breaks she takes with her girls. Her husband—Ted, a math professor at Middlebury College—or Little Bury as he calls it—is a good father. He won’t win any prizes or publish any important work like he once thought he might. But he does take an interest in the girls, and that’s something, isn’t it?
Is settled the same as tied down? That’s what Lauren wants to know, what she thinks about as Max latches on to her nipple and tugs, tugs, tugs. Lauren’s life has none of the stability of Ella’s. Lauren is a freelance graphic artist, always needing to hustle work, always needing to meet impossible deadlines, always struggling to pay bills. Her husband is a musician, a much-in-demand bass player who can always find gigs. “Let’s face it, Babe,” Josh said to her early on. “Being a musician—it’s a life, not a living.” Still, she thought they could handle having a kid. She thought he’d be able to take care of the baby by day while she worked. But the reality is that he is either on the road or sleeping late to recover from coming home at dawn.
“Yeah? Tell me about it. When you had the girls, everything was fine with you. And you had Ted around to help.”
“That’s what it looked like to you maybe. Everybody has a hard time the first couple of months. Where’s Josh? Is he on the road again?” Ella deflects. She doesn’t like to talk about herself and wonders if her sister ever notices. The seven year gap should have lessened when they both reached adulthood, but Ella still feels much, much older than Lauren.
“Yeah, he’s in Boston tonight, then Providence and some other place. I forget. Tell your girls not to marry a musician.”
“My girls! My girls aren’t thinking of marriage yet!”
“Well, you can’t start teaching them too early.” The waitress comes by with their breakfast, and Lauren switches Max to the other breast.
Ella sighs and picks up her mug. “I loved nursing my girls. It made me feel all warm and happy. And loved. It made me feel loved.”
“I don’t feel loved. I feel needed. I feel invisible. I feel like a damn cow.” Lauren looks down at Max and strokes his curls. “That’s why I want to run away.”
“But you’d take Max with you, so why bother?”
“I don’t know if I would. That’s the thing. I can’t decide.”
“What! You wouldn’t! You couldn’t!”
“Oh, I could. And I would. I could just walk out that door—” she points with her chin—”and keep walking, only…only…” She dips her head as she struggles to finish her thought.
“Only you can’t bear to think of the irreparable harm you’d do?”
“He’d get over it. It’s not like he knows me. Any tit in a storm.”
“You’re his mother!”
“I’m his milk cow.”
“How can you even say that?”
“Because it’s true. At this stage, all he does his suck and shit.”
The waitress clumps over. “How’s everyone doing? Oh, look, even the baby gets breakfast! Warm up on that coffee? I didn’t even know you could drink coffee when you’re nursing! But what do I know?” Lauren’s glare penetrates the cheerful chatter so the waitress fills up the mugs and leaves quickly.
“What about Josh?”
“What about him? Josh has girls all over him. He’d find someone and Max would never really miss me. Not really. Not me.”
“Don’t you love him? Josh? Can’t you talk to him? Can’t you tell him how you feel?”
“Yeah, I tell him. I tell him I’m disappearing and he looks at me and I know he’s thinking if only some of this—” she grabs ahold of some flesh around her belly and shakes it—”would disappear for real.”
“No, he does not.”
“Who could blame him? Look at me! I haven’t had a shower since Josh left on Thursday. I can’t bear to look in the mirror.”
“Tell you what, after breakfast we’ll walk over to salon and see if Helen has time to give you a shampoo and a cut. You’ll feel like a new woman. And, if Max here fusses, I’ll take him for a walk.”
“Nice thought, but I can’t afford it.”
“My treat, Lauren. Come on, you used to babysit for the girls all the time.”
“Yeah, but Mom paid me.”
“And why do you think Mom wanted you to sit for us?”
“I don’t know. I thought maybe she was trying to teach me responsibility or some shit like that.”
“And you never gave it a second thought…Perfect—”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“You’re going to have to clean up your language, you know. Because you don’t want to wait until Max is saying, ‘Mom, I want to fucking nurse’.”
“He’s not going to be nursing when he can talk.”
“Whatever…” Ella takes a sip of coffee. Confrontation isn’t really her style, but she and her sister fall into old patterns, try though she might to avoid it. “You always see only what you want to see, think the world revolves around what you want. You don’t always get what you want.”
“Well, right now I want some jam on my damn toast. Can you help me out here?” Shoveling in scrambled eggs with one hand as she nurses is easy; spreading jam, a two-handed maneuver, is out of the question. As Ella’s knife scrapes over Lauren’s toast, Lauren studies her sister.
She sees her sister regularly, but for some reason she hasn’t registered the details of how Ella is changing, and aging. That Ella’s mouth has begun to thin and there are wrinkle around her eyes, her mouth. She notes the deep blue wells under Ella’s eyes that speak of sleepless nights. A scattering of freckles stands out in stark relief against her winter white skin. “Wait. What didja mean? What don’t I see? What was it I wasn’t seeing then?”
“Did you ever wonder why you babysat every Thursday night for eight weeks straight? Always the same time? And we always came home exactly an hour and a half later?”
“Date night? So you could have a dinner out once a week—”
“We were getting marriage counseling, you idiot! Ted had an affair! I wanted to leave, Mom wanted me to work things out, so we—”
“No fucking way! And I didn’t know? Mom didn’t spill it? And you let me think you had this perfect thing going? How could I be so…so—?”
“So oblivious? Lifetime of practice…”
“How could you not tell me?”
“I’m telling you now.” Ella’s mouth is stretched in a grim line as she sets her mug down with a little more force than needed. Max startles and begins to suck furiously again. He had almost fallen asleep.
“So you don’t have a perfect marriage?”
“Oh, grow up. No one has a perfect marriage. But the girls, the girls, well, they are worth everything.”
“Fuck! I’m…I just don’t know what to say…So was it a student? Please tell me it wasn’t a student…”
“It wasn’t a student. It was a junior professor he was mentoring.” Ella puts air quotes around the word. “I don’t want to talk about.” She looks out the window, thinking back on the drama, the carrying on, the hard-fought forgiveness. The constant wonder: Did he reform or just learn discretion?
“You really don’t want to talk about it? You drop this bombshell on me and then you don’t want to talk about it?”
“That’s in the past, now. There’s no point.”
The two are silent for a few minutes, avoiding each other’s eyes and cleaning their plates. Lauren eases Max off her breast and puts him on her shoulder, patting his back until he burps. Max obliges with a stream of barely soured milk.
“Greedy, baby! Next time don’t suck up more than you can handle.” Lauren wipes the baby’s mouth and chin and hands him back to Ella so she can dab up the mess on her shirt. She looks up at her sister accusingly. “You didn’t tell me it would be so hard…so hard to have another being be so utterly dependent, so constantly needy. When I was carrying him, when I was pregnant, I remember thinking I’d never be lonely again…But the opposite is true. I’ve never felt so lonely…so absolutely alone.” She packs up the dirtied diaper and hands her sister a clean one. “You must have been devastated.”
“I was.” Again, a long pause. “But you know, you aren’t alone. You have Josh—he’s a good man. You have me. You have friends. You just need to catch up on your sleep. That will come…”
Lauren dismisses her sister’s words with a wave of her hand. “I used to be able to stay out and dance all night. I used to be Josh’s number one groupie. I used to take showers, shave my legs, go shopping, read books. Give me one good reason not to run away.”
“You can’t be walking out on your life just because you miss shaving your legs.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“You’re being a baby. God, were you always this selfish?”
“That’s what I mean. I, Lauren, used to be a person, even a good person. But now I’m disappearing into one load of shitty diapers after another.”
“But what you’re describing—shopping, reading books. That’s not a rich, fulfilling life. That’s not—”
“I mean it. Give me one good reason to stay.”
“Because life happens to all of us and it isn’t always pretty…”
“What does that even mean?”
Ella nuzzles her nose into the baby’s neck. She switches him from her shoulder to the crook of her arm so she can look into his face. She stares into Max’s face, taking in his rosebud mouth, his long dark lashes, his rounded cheeks, so like her girls when they were babies. Then she raises her eyes to Lauren’s. “It means this time it is the wife of a colleague. This time I kicked him out. So stay. I need you. I really, really need you.”
Two women stand up in a diner. Anyone watching them slip into their coats, wrap scarves around their necks, draw on gloves, can see that they are sisters. Is it the way they walk? The way they both gaze fondly at the sleeping baby in the carry seat?
They will both be divorced by the year’s end. No one will run away. No one will have the energy—or even the hope—that carries the runaway to a better place. They will simply carry on.
Photo by Nick Bramhall