A couple of nights before I left for NYC, I was taking out the trash. Standing in the dark in my backyard, I felt inspired and started singing. “On my own, pretending he's beside me, All alone, I walk with him 'til morning...” inspired by a previous trip to NYC, I suppose, when I saw Les Mis on Broadway. So I was in the moment, you know, until I heard clapping and hollering from a few houses over. I gave a curtsy and went inside, hoping my neighbors would think it was someone else. I don’t mind performing, especially such a guilty pleasure, dramatic song. I would just prefer to do it when I know I have an audience.
So, I’m on my own, and my first stop is for a bagel and cream cheese with fresh squeezed OJ at Murray’s. Then, it’s up to Times Square for some ultimate people watching. Exiting the subway at 42nd Street, I walk up Broadway, taking in the sights. During previous trips, I’ve always encountered the Naked Cowboy, who has made quite the name for himself strumming his six-string in his tighty-whities. But today, we have a real treat. It’s the Naked Cowgirl. Oddly enough, my first thought is, “I wonder if the Naked Cowboy could sue her?” As I walk closer, I realize there’s a good chance that this is the Naked Cowboy’s mother. She’s got to be sixty at the very least, and she’s in an American flag bikini. She has her guitar slung around her back, posing for pictures with passing tourists. Her wig is dirty blonde, with tight curls, and her face looks like Rupaul and Ronald McDonald collaborated. And it didn’t go well. Her face is etched with smile lines, frown lines, and smoker’s lines. Her breasts look like flat bananas. But there she is, in all her glory, hanging out (literally) in front of TKTS, collecting tips.
I stop on the steps outside of TKTS and have a seat behind the imposing statue of Father Duffy. After my first trip to NY, I was struck by the nature of this sculpture of a man’s man standing in front of a 17-foot Celtic cross, so I looked him up. An Army chaplain, a teacher, and a priest, Father Duffy served in the theatre district in the 1920s. Like everything else in Times Square, his placement is odd, but somehow normal.
I stay for about half an hour, watching Japanese tourists take pictures and school groups in matching neon shirts walk up and down the street. Pigeons peck at dropped food around me, and the traffic sounds make it impossible to hear myself think. An unusually long honk makes me think of Will. The summer before he turned three (while I was pregnant with Ben), we brought him to NYC. He was, as any toddler would be, overwhelmed yet fascinated with Times Square. When we got home, Nick Jr. was playing this Moose and Zee commercial with Isaiah Washington reading Sarah Feldman’s “City Symphony.” Part of the poem reads, “There’s salsa music blasting from the window of that car/ While that man on the corner strum, strum, strums a guitar/ Babies scream, trucks selling ice cream: they go doot-diddley-doot/ And when traffic jams you’re sure to hear an awfully loud toot, toot, toot...” Lounging on the couch with a bowl of goldfish, Will said, “Hey, mom, it’s New York City!”
So, I know every mother thinks her child is a genius. I know that. But, in that moment, I stopped washing dishes, sat down beside him, and pulled him into my lap because I loved him more than ever. To try to put into words the adoration I feel for this little man-child is impossible. My heart swells with pride but also hurts every time he shares these tiny observations with me because I know that someday he’s going to observe something not so wonderful as the city symphony of NYC, something that will make him sad, something that will make his heart hurt. And as much as I know that I can’t guard him from all the ugliness that’s out there, I still want to lock him up in a box that’s labelled “For My Heart Only.”
As an only child, the decision to have a second child was a difficult one for me. I felt I had satisfied my need to be a mother through Will and didn’t see the point of another one. Scott, like most people, I think, referred to his experience as one of two and really wanted another one. His desire to have one more was greater than my desire to just have one, so we tried again. And, like the other Fertile Myrtles in my family, I was pregnant basically the first time it was possible.
The night I took the test, we were visiting OK and going out for drinks with friends. I was only a day late, so I wasn’t completely convinced I was pregnant. Scott and I decided it would be best to settle the issue--and here’s the best part--so we would know who had to be the sober driver. We stopped by a Homeland on the way to Louie’s on Lake Hefner, and I excused myself to the restroom when we walked in. I sat in the stall by myself, while our friends ordered beers, waiting for that little pink line. And there it was. We didn’t necessarily want to make the announcement immediately, so we’d created a code word system for when I got to the table. As I approached, I saw the glimmer in Scott’s eye that no one else noticed and told him, “Sorry it took me so long. My mom called.”
He put his arm around me, squeezed my side, and said, “I’m going to go grab a beer. You want anything?” <Insert amused smirk.>
“I’ll just have a water, thanks.”
I’ve heard other moms say that they worried they wouldn’t love another child the way they do the firstborn, and I think that’s complete nonsense. Would I have enough one-on-one time with #2? How would I deal with sibling rivalry? Yes, these things, I did worry about. But, would I have enough love? Is there such a thing as enough love?
I decide it’s time to find something for the boys, some kind of keepsake from NYC, something to buy their love to make up for leaving them for four days. I head up Broadway, home to many things kid-friendly.
At eighteen months, Ben has not yet fully discovered the world of candy (although, he’s had a lot more than Will had at that age), but one thing he does enjoy on occasion is M&Ms. M&M World is the closest thing to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory on earth (especially paired with the Hershey’s store next door). They have t-shirts and key chains and picture frames and collectible dispensers and pens and coffee mugs and walls of every color of M&M imaginable. At exorbitant prices, but who cares? I decide to get them water bottles, red for Will and blue for Ben, along with a special mix of candies for both of them.
Will has a Spiderman figure that says “I look good in red and blue--you black and blue!” when you push a button on his chest, so naturally I mix red, blue, and black. Ben doesn’t really have his “thing” that he’s obsessed with (although I’m noticing some tendencies toward Elmo and Thomas), so I mix blue, white, and gray in honor of the greatest baseball team of all time. Whether he knows it or likes it, he’s a Yankees fan, and what better way to brainwash him than by offering him chocolate?
Armed with my purchases, I head back outside. It’s still early afternoon and between the full-on sun and acres of concrete, it’s gotten hot. Suddenly, encouraged by the giant flashing lights, I realize (why hadn’t I thought of this before?) that I could catch a matinee. I head to the AMC in Times Square to check the movie times. The only movie showing any time soon is “The Joneses” with David Duchovny and Demi Moore. Even going in, I don’t have high expectations, but I don’t really care. There are no cartoon characters or talking animals, and I’m pretty sure a parent figure is not going to die. (Why do all cartoons involve one or more dead parents?)
I make a pit stop in the bathroom to wash my hands and wipe down my face. A toilet flushes and out walks the worst drag queen I’ve ever been this close to. I mean, he’s not even trying. His wig is all wonky, and you can see his pubic hair bursting out of his low-rise jeans. He has a 5-o’clock shadow at freaking 2:00. He smiles, washes his hands and daintily dries them before turning to leave the bathroom ahead of me. As he walks ahead, I shit you not, he adjusts his package, made very evident by his ass-tight bedazzled black capri jeans, lifting his right leg and shaking a little bit.
Inside, the theatre is cold, and I’m literally the only person. I’m early, so I stand at the rail, counting the rows first and then finding the center seat in the center row. Soft music is playing while still shots advertising Coca-Cola and real estate agencies flash across the screen. I start to doze off when my cell phone dings. The rule follower inside of me thinks “Oops!” before the snarky side thinks, “Dork! No one else is here!” It’s my friend, Patricia, texting to see if we can meet up tonight.
Patricia went to high school with Scott, and I worked with her at a restaurant in college. She’s about the size of a postage stamp but much cuter and less sticky. She lives in Brooklyn and has been sick this week wants to come in to the city to party it up with Katie and me later. As I finish up our textersation, the lights dim and the previews begin. Movie after movie that I probably won’t see until they’re out on DVD flash across the screen.
The movie is not awful, decent acting with some dark satire. Someone does die, but not the parents, so overall not a complete waste of time. More importantly, I sat through the whole thing without having to take someone to the bathroom. Walking out, I miss Scott. The best part of seeing a movie is the conversation we have afterward. What was your favorite part? What did you think of the soundtrack? What about that ending? Since having children, our priorities have obviously shifted. You suddenly become extremely choosy about which movies you are going to see in the theatre when you have to not only pay $20 for the tickets but an extra $40 for a babysitter. If the movie sucks, you’ve just wasted a decent pair of shoes. I miss theatre movies--sneaking in candy and drinks, lifting the armrest and resting my legs across Scott’s lap, Scott’s teasing me for bringing a blanket. He’ll be home in a few days from his deployment, and I promise myself that we will go out for an expensive movie soon.
I check my phone as I go down the escalator, and I’ve got a text from Kaydee, one of Scott’s high school friends. We had communicated through Facebook earlier, and she tells me to meet her at 5:00 at a bar near where she works.
OH! Happy Hour! I’d almost completely forgotten about you, Happy Hour! I move uptown at a quick pace, looking forward to a nice wheat beer, and if Kaydee has time maybe two. She arrives a few minutes after me, dressed impeccably, as someone who works for a bank would be. Kaydee attended Georgetown before getting her MBA at the University of Chicago and now works for JPMorgan Chase. Scott (affectionately) describes her as one of the biggest strivers he knows. After the first time I met her, Scott told me that her name was actually Katie, but she changed the spelling in kindergarten because the preferred spelling made more sense to her. I can completely appreciate a woman who knows what she wants.
Kaydee is all hugs and smiles as she joins me at the bar and orders a beer. (I decided on vodka tonics instead of beer because why not?) She fills me in on her new position with the company, her relationship status (long-term boyfriend whom I met last time I saw her is still around), and her weekend plans to have people over for a dinner party at their apartment. I fill her in on...Ready-to-Read books and shit diapers? She is gracious and even laughs, seemingly entertained by my stories about Will and Ben. I tell her that I’ve been tossing around the idea of going to seminary, but between the Presbyterian Church “process” and the Air Force, the probability is shrinking by the minute. She asks how Scott is, how long he’s been gone, and although I don’t want to talk about this (again!), I answer.
It’s not that I mind talking about Scott. It’s just that this conversation always ends in the same place. People get this look of pity--oh, I’m so sorry for you that your husband is deployed. They don’t mean anything bad by it, but I hate being an object of pity. Don’t get me wrong--the Air Force life has some serious perks. There’s potential for traveling and living in interesting places (which makes for meeting some pretty stellar people). The tax-free months don’t hurt. However, our life in the Air Force SUCKS a lot of the time, but I can’t really say that to people when they ask (sometimes with cartoonish frowns and furrowed brows), “HOW DO YOU DO IT?”
Frankly, I don’t do it very well sometimes. It helps to know that I’m surrounded by other spouses who are going through the exact same thing. And it helps to know that he’s in a career field with very little danger (relatively speaking). It also helps that I’m a classic introvert who needs a lot of alone time to recharge. All of those things help.
But there are days, sometimes weeks, that I want to completely lose it. There are days of binge-eating chocolate, followed by complete loss of appetite. Other days, I’m motivated to take on projects--cleaning out a closet or organizing bookshelves--to pass the time. Occasionally, I don’t answer my cell phone because I don’t want to answer the question, “What are you doing?” because my most impressive answer would be “Lying on the floor.” I cry at night because I can’t sleep, and I curse myself all day long because I’m so exhausted. I curse the Air Force. I curse Scott. I spend all day in pajamas and let the dishes pile up in the sink. And then I take a shower, fix breakfast for the kids, and start the next day. Because when one parent is gone completely, the other one MUST be present. It’s a lot of fucking pressure.
But there are other days, especially Sunday mornings when I see the names scroll across the screen listing men and women who have died in combat, that I put aside my self-pity and suck it up. Because it could be worse. It could be a lot worse.
I glance at my watch and see it’s after 6:00, and I have to meet Katie (the one who didn’t change the spelling of her name) back at the apartment, so we can get ready for dinner. Kaydee and I exchange a last hug before realizing we’ll be walking the same direction. As I get up from my seat, I’m slightly tipsy from my two drinks and am grateful for the walk to the train stop.
Katie and I arrive back at her apartment at the same time and sit on the couch and chat for awhile before we get dressed to go out. She’s beat from a long week at work, and I’ve never felt so rested. I’m looking forward to some Korean food followed by some drinks at a hipster bar. We’ve never had time like this, just the two of us. Most of our interaction these days involves holidays at our house or back in Oklahoma surrounded by friends and family, so this is a new era for our relationship.
We’re sisters-in-law, but this is the first time I’ve considered her a friend as she fills me in on the boyfriend scoop. Our conversation sends me back to the time in my life when I was dating guys--really dating. Scott and I have always had an unconventional relationship in that it started through emails and phone calls from Colorado to Oklahoma. One of the first times we spent a considerable amount of time together was on a mission trip to build houses in Honduras. We didn’t date, traditionally at least, because of the distance, and eight months in to our three-year courtship, we had the in-it-to-win-it conversation, which changed everything.
The last guy I dated in the true sense of the word (restaurants, movies, meeting the parents, etc.) was a guy named Tim from Arkansas. We met through friends, went out a few times, and I cut it off abruptly when I realized my dad liked him more than I did. He was cute, but listening to conversations between them about the Audubon Society was pretty dreadful. I was also 20, a sophomore in college, while he was already moving his way up in the business world at 26. Looking back, I realize he probably thought I was incredibly immature.
Listening to Katie talk about the boyfriend, sharing her feelings and asking for advice, is refreshing to say the least. She has that infatuated lilt to her voice, which I think makes her slightly uncomfortable as someone who lives most of her life without letting emotion rule. She reminds me of me ten years ago--in a good way.
I’ve packed a pair of jeans, heels, and a pink, strappy shirt for our night out. At the last minute, I grab my tiny black cardigan--my go to wardrobe piece when I’m feeling insecure about my outfit. I am physically in limbo--that post-baby in between size that doesn’t exist, and as silly as I know it is, covering up my milk-filled breasts and thick biceps makes me feel better. I know, silly.
We catch the train to K-town and find a restaurant suggested by Katie’s boss who emigrated with her parents as a child from South Korea. I am a fan of nearly all Asian food but have had very little experience with Korean. I leave the ordering to Katie, as I would have no idea where to start. As we wait for our meat, sizzling on a tiny skillet at our table, I sample bits from all the tiny dishes. The flavors are magnificent. I am as red-blooded an American girl as the next, and I’ll take a steak or hamburger any day, but American cuisine relies so heavily on salt and pepper. I taste ginger and vinegar and lots of green onion, all things that probably aren’t on my list of favorite flavors, but it all comes together so beautifully.
Two Korean couples sit at the table next to us, and one of the girls leans over and asks the strangest question. “How did you learn to use chopsticks?” I’d never really thought about it before. Katie says, “sushi” as I say “Chinese food.” I’m humored by their finding amusement over two white girls successfully using chopsticks. I stuff my face with extra lettuce wraps even though my jeans are screaming “STOP!” And we still can’t finish the food before us.
We split the check and head out the door into the cool night air. The city seems quiet for a Friday night. We’re meeting Patricia (my postage stamp friend) at a bar in the West Village. I’m already regretting the heels--why do I do this to myself? When we meet up, I quickly survey the bar and am easily the oldest person here. Frat boys in wrinkled collared shirts hover over teeny girls in teeny dresses. The three of us move toward a table in the back of the bar and scream over the noise to hear each other. Several TVs hang from the walls, showing the progress or results of spring baseball. I glance up occasionally to see that the Yankees are winning, wishing they’d been in town while I was here.
Our conversation is easy, the talk of old friends and memories, in spite of our near inability to hear, but within half an hour the Korean food is sending me into a coma. Katie’s eyes are sleepy from lack of sleep, and Patricia is almost nodding off in her beer. We. Are. Old. And although I like the IDEA of doing this, I am really, really okay with the fact that my normal life no longer intersects with the bar scene on a regular basis. Bring on the backyard cookouts, drinking beer by the fire pit wrapped in blankets while the kids sleep upstairs. I can hear what people are saying, don’t have to worry about getting groped by strangers, and love the commute to my upstairs bedroom.
Katie and I swap shoes on the way home, proof that she is the best friend I’ve ever had. We walk the few blocks to her apartment and snuggle into our pajamas on the couch. We are both anxious to stay up girl-talking, but our bodies are starting to shut down. I say good night and head to the bedroom while she beds down on the couch. We still have all day tomorrow to be besties.
I run to get a Jamba and a few things at the drugstore while Katie showers. We have a relaxing day planned, a trip to Central Park and a show if we can find one at TKTS that starts at the right time. We’ll be stopping at Carnegie Deli to share a sandwich and some cheesecake if the timing is right.
Central Park is the most surreal part of NYC. Smack dab in the bustle of Manhattan sits this massive expanse of trees and hills and trails. As we weave, we are passed by bikers and runners, and we pass a few horse-drawn carriages. We stop to sit on a bench next to some little league ball fields. The boys playing are probably 9-12 years old, a few years ahead of Will. The parents line the stands with team-specific t-shirts and visors. The boys don’t quite fill out their white pants, and they range in size from fifty pounds soaking wet to taller than me. I notice one even has the start of a mustache. This is frightening to me as a mother of two boys.
When I was growing up, I always said I wanted three boys, no girls. When I was pregnant with Will, I changed my mind. I talked myself into a girl and by the time we had our 20-week ultrasound, I was convinced (and excited) that he was a girl. With Ben, I just KNEW he was a girl. Knew it. But they both came out with extra parts, and I was slightly relieved. No mother-daughter fights about wardrobe. No extra estrogen. No weddings to pay for. And as a wise man quipped, “With a boy, you only have one penis to worry about. With a girl, you have to worry about all of them.” (Disclaimer: I am secretly disappointed that I will never get to braid someone’s hair.)
Around 11:00, we head to TKTS to buy tickets for DRUM ROLL PLEASE...Phantom of the Opera! What a perfect way to end my time in NYC. We grab our half-price tickets and still have time for lunch. The line for Carnegie Deli wraps around the block, so we head across the street to a less famous but nonetheless indulgent deli. The club sandwich is enough for five people, and I still order a piece of Snickers cheesecake. Tucking the leftovers into my bag for waiting-at-the-airport consumption, we hurry to the Majestic Theatre on 44th between 7th and 8th Avenues for a 4:00 show. (When I return home tonight, I will turn on the news to hear that police found a bomb smoking in the back of a Nissan Pathfinder at 45th between 7th and 8th Avenues, right around the time we were exiting the show.)
The theatre is full, and Katie and I find our seats a few minutes before it starts. I have seen movie adaptations and local plays of Phantom of the Opera, but there is nothing like seeing it live on Broadway--the sets, the costumes, the voices of the actors unaided by studio magic. Pure, raw talent from people who are being rewarded for years of persistence. In an alternate world, I would have been one of those people--a performer, someone who takes chances based on my talent instead of staying grounded in the kind of reality that pays the bills. The closest I can come to envy is when I meet people who actually live out cliches like “Follow your dreams!” or "Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars." I sometimes wish my impulsive side had a little more confidence.
Katie and I are brought to tears near the end of the show--even though the phantom is quite possibly the creepiest character of all space and time. Really? How is locking a girl up in a secret lair romantic? The crowd reacts with a standing ovation, and I have found another reason to be infatuated with NYC.
To get home, I have to catch a train from Penn Station by NJ Transit to the Newark Airport. (I find out later that a military ID lets you ride for free on the Metro AND on NJ Transit. Sweetness.) Katie and I part at the stop by her apartment. I’m headed back to Charleston, and she’s headed home to get ready for a date with the boyfriend. We hug, and I pass her my Metrocard over the turnstile, so she can use the remaining three days worth of rides.
I ride the full train to Newark, chatting with the two ladies in my row. For the first time all weekend (really!), I miss home. The missing home suddenly weighs so heavily on my chest that I catch my breath to stop from crying. I hadn’t had to try that hard the whole trip to focus on the fun I was having, but now it’s like my brain is screaming, “I just want to walk through the doors and see tiny flip-flops on the shoe rack!”
My traveling is again uneventful, and as I pull into my driveway, I do start to cry a little bit, just seeing the living room lights through the front window. My mom will be waiting inside asleep on the couch, no different than when I would come home from a party in high school. Except this time, I’m the mom, too, and I can’t wait to wrestle with my two beautiful boys when they wake up in the morning. The day after that? My husband and his entire squadron will be home from their deployment. And all will be right, and all will be good.