#3 The Children
The children are three: Polly, Adelaide, and Lawrence, called Laurie. They are getting older now: Adelaide has gone away into her adult life. Laurie and Polly are still at home—Laurie going to the college, Polly a senior at the high school. They come home to claim their mail and their meals and to sleep, most nights, in their same narrow, childhood beds though Polly’s gang have countless study nights and slumber parties, and Laurie has his fraternity and sometimes, too, a mystery girl. Susa has stepped back from this situation; she has, more or less, laid down her weapons in her battle to keep her children. When they were small, they would gather around her on the bed in the master bedroom, clamoring for the next chapter in the chosen book, begging Susa to read the parts in funny, high-pitched or stuttering voices. They wore soft pajamas and clean socks; their cheeks were rosy from the bath. This is how Susa recalls it. She fails to remember their exhausting energy, their fighting words, her own weariness and fantasy of escape.
Now they come and go as they please, leaving beds unmade, dishes unwashed, their pajamas (no longer soft, rarely cleaned, faintly sexual) strewn on bedroom floors. They read beauty magazines or thin volumes of poetry and fashionable philosophy; they assume Susa has no understanding. Only Laurie will still sometimes read with his mother—now he is the reader, she the listener. He reads to her from his perch on the kitchen stool; she listens while stirring pepper into sauce, while grating cheese onto the casserole for their dinner. She half listens to her son, half marvels at his presence; he seems too large to have emerged from her. Here he is before her: Laurie, in his worn Dockers and plaid shirt, his skin finally clear, his face a handsome, slightly sorrowful face. He reads to her from his history and political science books; Susa half listens, half struggles with every single moment from her life as a mother, each memory crowding in, interrupting until she is here, until the memories combine to create this: her twenty-two year old son with unshaven face and baritone voice explaining the complexities of the Bolshevik Revolution to his mother. This is Laurie.
This is Polly: seventeen, uncaring, a few pounds overweight, loving in random snatches and rushes of affection. Polly is her father’s champion. Once, in the aftermath of the worst fight, Polly found Susa on the back porch, cigarette in hand, attempting to talk herself back into function. Polly sat beside her mother. “Daddy doesn’t like you smoking,” she reminded in her little girl voice.
Susa watched the cigarette in her fingers. “I know,” she said, bringing it to her lips. Polly sidled closer and tucked her hand in the crook of Susa’s elbow.
“I won’t tell,” she said. She laid her cheek, still cushioned with baby fat, against Susa’s shoulder. “You said you were going to leave,” she said.
“I was fighting,” Susa said. “I was angry at Daddy.”
“I love Daddy.”
“But if you leave,” Polly said, “I won’t love you anymore.”
Susa studied the top of her child’s head.
She studies it still, when Polly isn’t looking, when she’s fallen asleep in front of the television, or when she’s bent over her school books at the dining room table. She thinks, no matter how long she tries, that she won’t be able to get to what’s inside this head. She will always feel a slight alienation from her youngest child. She will always watch her a bit more closely than she watches the others, prepared for what, she cannot know, but prepared nevertheless, cautious.
And Adelaide. Adelaide was the first born, and the first to leave home. She went 100 miles away when she went, to live in a city, in a downtown studio apartment with her lover. This was Adelaide’s word, not Susa’s. Lover. It was the modern word; no one dated or went steady anymore. So they lived, Adelaide and the lover, in a fifth floor walk up on a cobblestone street, walking distance from the university they both attended with other children and their lovers. At least, Susa comforted herself, there was that—there was learning along with the loving (or the sex, which was what the situation was mostly defined by. And later of course, the lover would change his mind and one day walk away for good, and this would be part of Adelaide’s learning, along with the lessons about grocery shopping, housekeeping, modern art and medieval females writers).
To her oldest daughter, Susa could offer nothing but checks sent through the mail and a sympathetic ear, pressed against the phone, when a crisis occurred. They happened often; the lover would leave in a fury only to reappear again with a paper bag of rose petals or Indian takeout. Their love was always in doubt, yet it seemed to always reappear, given enough time apart. There were grand plans made with the lover: a year in London, a jaunt to Mexico, a plan to cut all wheat and dairy from their diets. Money or ease of execution was rarely considered, and the plans rarely came to fruition.
They lived in a one room flat, Susa’s daughter and this man; they slept together on a mattress on the floor. How often did Adelaide change the sheets? Susa wondered. Did the man wear pajamas when he slept? Or did they fall to sleep naked, the both of them, after bouts of love making? Susa imagined the man to be dark-skinned, with long, slender limbs and a full mouth. She could imagine his body amongst the clean or unclean sheets, but she could not imagine Adelaide’s body there beside his. This child she had birthed and bathed and comforted—she could not place her in bed beside a man.
Adelaide was tall; she had knobby knees and a strong jaw line. When she was at home she hummed show tunes while she did chores around the house. She was a gentle soul, and the lover, Susa feared, would slowly wear away this tenderness.
One day in a springtime Adelaide called Susa up around the cocktail hour. Susa was in the middle of fixing supper. “I’m done with this city,” Adelaide declared. “I’m done with him and all his moods.”
Susa imagined a long-limbed, dark man combing the streets, a bag of Indian takeout in hand, inexplicably moody. “Well,” she said, grating cheese, “your father and I would love to have you home.”
“Oh mother,” said Adelaide, sighing, “the world is wide.”
Susa nodded and listened, though she was unsure as to what this statement might mean. For Susa, the world then was a three-bedroom house and dinner to be served at seven; it was a husband watching golf in the den; it was a sullen daughter studying Algebra in the dining room; it was a stolen cigarette on the back porch, after the kitchen had been put away for the night. Susa was stirring cheese into sauce for scalloped potatoes. This was her world. But while she stirred, she listened, and she let her daughter teach her this lesson.
Thanks for reading.