Thursday, February 14, 2013

Love, Actually (FSF)

It's False Start Friday: The Thursday Edition! The Thursday-Valentine's-Day edition. The assignment is: sift through your abandoned bits of fiction (as usual) and (new twist) pick one with a romantic angle. (Click here see the other Valentine's False Starts participating.) This one is not exactly romantic, but it is about a marriage. I wrote it in 2004. Unlike the previous FSF, I actually do remember writing this one (which is untitled), and there's a bit more beyond this passage.

I am baking a cake for Michael’s birthday. It is Thursday; not a good night for cake-making. The kids are home with me. Michael is still at work. We have a sitter lined up for Saturday night, but still ... it is his actual birthday today, and I feel compelled to bake him a cake.

But first there are snacks to attend to: at least a half-hour spent at the kitchen counter, chopping things up into tiny bite-sized chunks; then Kieran’s diaper needs changing, then the dog gets her paws up on the counter and eats the mango bits that have been left too close to the edge while the baby’s bottom was being wiped. The dog is yelled at and put outside. Sophie runs from the hallway onto the tile floor, and when her socks hit the tile floor her feet slip out from under her and she smacks down on her bottom. Tears. By the time I turn on the oven and crack the recipe book, it is 5:30 p.m. I have an hour to bake the cake.

Of course, Sophie wants to help, so I have to let her do something. I measure the flour—there is no way a 3-year-old can do that—and allow Sophie to pour it in.

“Don’t spill it,” I say. Sophie carefully turns the measuring cup over, and spills about a third of the flour on the counter.

“Oops. I’m sorry, mommy,” she says. She quickly tries to pick the flour up with her hands, which of course doesn’t work. She looks up at me, worry etched in her small face.

“Never mind,” I say patiently, even kindly. I know what the script is for these situations. When you bake with children, they spill stuff. I am supposed to rejoice in the mess, love the chaos, revel in the element of randomness children always bring to such projects. I use one hand to scoop the flour into my other hand, which I hold slightly under the edge of the counter so no flour will hit the floor; then I dump it in the bowl. It is slightly sprinkled with whatever dried crumbs and muck had been on the counter. I pick out a dog hair. Whatever. It won’t show in the finished cake, which is chocolate.

“Let me measure out the next one, sweetie. You can put the baking soda in,” I say. I quickly get the rest of the flour in the bowl before Sophie can argue. The baking soda is dumped in with a spoon: much harder to spill.

Kieran, who had been ripping up magazines in the living room, decides it’s time to be in on the fun. He starts grunting and screeching in a way that I (and only I) know means, “I want to help, too!”

I think fast. I put him in a high chair and stuck a plastic bowl of flour in front of him with a wooden spoon. “Stir this.” I am so clever.

“But Mommy! I didn’t get my own bowl!” Sophie wails. So much for cleverness.

“Fine,” I say, and maybe my teeth are clenched just a little bit. “Here’s one, just sit over there and stir and be quiet.” I bang yet another bowl of flour down on the counter and usher my daughter to a barstool. I am losing the script. I am also losing time. There is no way I’ll finish the cake by 6:30. That might have happened if life had been perfect; but somehow I am still, at the age of 27, with a one-year-old and a 3-year-old, learning that with children, life is never perfect.

Sophie sits quietly and sweeps her spoon over her flour, sighing dramatically, while I ignore her and throw the rest of the ingredients together. I stir frantically and slop the batter into two pans. I am also ignoring Kieran, who had long ago grown bored with stirring flour and is now spreading it around his high chair and trying to eat it. He holds the bowl over the edge of his chair and waits for me to notice.

“Don’t drop that, Kieran!” I say, as he drops it. It clangs to the floor, clouds of flour billowing.

“Shit,” says Kieran with great satisfaction. His one clear word.

“Don’t say that! That’s a no-no!” I scold absently, shoving the pans into the oven.

By 6:15, the cakes are done and the children are now installed in front of the TV, where they probably should have been the entire time. I have given up on homemade frosting and have found a year-old tub of chocolate frosting I found in the back of the pantry; thankfully (and frighteningly) it didn’t seem to have suffered the passage of time. It pains me to use store-bought frosting on a homemade cake; it would have saved me time and tasted better if I’d done the reverse. I try not to care.

By the time Michael walks in the door at 6:40, the children have lost interest in any TV programs or video, and are entertaining themselves by pulling each others’ hair and screaming.

“Why are you late?” I ask Michael irritably.

“Hello to you, too, Emma," he says, kissing my cheek. "Been one of those days again?” 

“It was a fine day, it just might have been better if it had ended ten minutes ago, that’s all,” I say. “Happy birthday,” I add lamely as I see his eyes light on the cake.

He sighs. “Thanks,” he says.

An hour later, both kids are in bed and asleep. Their faces and hands have been vigorously scrubbed in lieu of a bath; tonight was the last of three baby-making nights for me and Michael, and we both want it done and out of the way earlier rather than later, so we can move on to the other parts of the evening: making Sophie’s lunch for preschool, picking up the house, and maybe watching an X-Files rerun.

Afterwards, I have to lie on my back for about twenty minutes so no precious sperm can escape. I lie with my head toward the end of the bed, my legs propped up against the wall. Michael lies the opposite way, propped up on his arm, looking at me. His body is long and lean, the kind of body that at 35 retains an almost adolescent lankiness.

“You think it worked this time?” he asks. He always asks that. I shrug.

“This is so romantic, isn’t it?” he says after a pause, then flops back down and starts humming, “Happy birthday to you.”

After a minute, he perches back on his elbow, looks at me and says, “You OK?”

I turn my head to look at him. It is an unusual question, coming from him.

“I don’t know,” I say, honestly, thoughtfully. “I guess sometimes I feel something from my life is missing, you know? You have a work side of you, somewhere to go when other parts of your life maybe aren’t up to par. Me, all I have right now is motherhood, so when I suck at it—like tonight, trying to bake that cake for you right in the middle of the witching hour—it’s like all of me has failed. Not just a corner of it.”

He doesn’t say anything. He’s thinking it over.

“Does that make sense?” I ask.

“I just meant that you looked uncomfortable, like you needed a pillow or something,” he says.


He coughs gently. “Should I be worried about you? About what you just said?” He looks like he really, really doesn’t want to be.

“No, everything’s fine. Did you like the cake?”

“It was great.”

I sit up. If any sperm haven’t reached their target by now, they are probably too weak to make useful progeny anyway. 

“Did you know,” I say, “That Kieran’s one word is ‘shit?’ Do you think you might be able to stop saying that around him?”


And now for something a little more romantic:


  1. Well, Steph. I feel a little overwhelmed by this post because there's all this stuff inside my head and I'm here thinking, how do I get it in to a little comment box? How much do I put in the comment box and how much do I save for next Tuesday?

    I like that Kieran's only word is shit. That drew a half-smile with a laugh tucked into it.

    This line: ' If any sperm haven’t reached their target by now, they are probably too weak to make useful progeny anyway. '

    pulled a big cringe and an audible, 'Ouch.'

    I tend to pull stuff apart when I read, making note of what drew this or that response from me. I like reading and reacting like that. I may be wrong but I imagine other writers like knowing when their words stir a particular emotion. But this very organic scene arouses a dozen other curiosities, much like Cyg's offering made me think of things more appropriate for an exchange between friends.

    I liked it, Steph. More soon.

  2. "I imagine other writers like knowing when their words stir a particular emotion." Oh, definitely! At least, I do.

    I thought about saving this for next Tuesday, too, but then the other FSFers may be curious so I'll share it here. This is where the story came from: A friend fell in love with someone who was not her husband. (And "a friend" is not code for "me," this really was a friend, ha.) She had a close male friend, they fell in love, and she told me (and her husband) that they did not act on their feelings. Coincidentally, this was around the time "emotional infidelity" became a catchphrase. Anyway, her friend-she'd-fallen-for was willing to leave his own marriage, but she was not. It was a very, very anguished time for her, which I wanted to capture in this story. So often frail marriages and infidelities are handled in a sort of blasé way in fiction, where people just ... split up. Or patch it up. Tra-la, done. I saw in her, in them, such a wrenching, tearing, miserable conundrum. There seemed no way out.

    Obviously this is just the setup.

  3. Neatly observed levels of comedy and pathos:
    “I just meant that you looked uncomfortable, like you needed a pillow or something,” he says.
    Perfect misunderstanding :-)
    Happy Valentine!

    1. Thank you! That is the balance I was trying to strike.

  4. Love, it's messy!

    Nice post. This is how most of us actually live, isn't it?

    1. My favorite thing in the world is to write something that makes people go, "I know that feeling! I have been there, felt that." To find the universal in the particular. My next favorite thing is to read something that evokes that same feeling from me.

  5. I suspect any woman who has ever spent time as a stay-at-home mom could relate to parts of your snippet, but you do an outstanding job adding an additional well-crafted level of quiet desperation. Great job!

  6. Wow, every part of this was completely too close to home. Both our kids are adopted though so by the time they came around we weren't trying to do it ourselves anymore. Sorry I was so late getting around to everyone.

    1. The specifics of the story came from many, many conversations with mom-friends who were going through all the same stuff I was. Those baby years are not only hard on a marriage, they are hard on LIFE. And my mom-friends with adopted kids most definitely had the same struggles, but often with an additional twist. Or twists. Child-rearing and marriage-maintenance are curiously absent from much fiction. Usually it's only the outright tragedies (death, divorce) that seem to find their way into a plot. Anyway, I'm glad it struck a chord with you! (I think? Maybe I should be sad. :))

  7. Wonderful personal essay! Our children range in age from 28 to 42. I can't recall if they were ever the ages of the ones you mention but they probably were. I remember a lot of noise and never walking backwards in the kitchen. They grow up fine.

    1. Hey Geo, thanks for coming by. :) Thankfully, this is a work of fiction, though I did have moments like that with my little ones. I'm glad it read like something real.

      "...never walking backwards in the kitchen." I love this. Parents of wee ones do need a rearview camera that beeps when a childlike object is in imminent danger of being stepped upon.


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