Anne fumbles for the front door keys, juggling Matthew to the left and struggling to keep the gaping baby bag from dropping its contents all over the front porch. His head rests on her shoulder, heavy as a bowling ball, his blond hair, slightly damp, smelling faintly of shampoo. He must have gained five pounds and grown three inches today.
Katherine shifts from one foot to the other, and Anne can hear the impatience in her movements. She finally gets the door unlocked and pushes it open. She tells Katherine to go ahead and watches her daughter march through the door. Her long, brown hair, pulled up in an overlarge yellow hair bow, bounces with each step; her neat blue school bag is clasped at her side. Katherine walks with precision, every move economical. She places her sweater neatly on its wall peg and takes her bag into the kitchen where she’ll reveal her work from the day and begin her homework after she’s retrieved her snack. Katherine is like a clock, a smaller version of her father.
Matthew is a mischievous ball of clutter. Anne lays him on the family room sofa and straightens her back, hands on hips. She feels like an old woman in the worn stretch pants and oversized tunic. The tunic is a relic from her pregnant days, but she hasn’t gotten around to buying new clothes. She mostly fits into her pre-child things except for her jeans. Her stomach will never lie flat again. Covered with a web of stretch marks, it has a small C-Section kangaroo pouch that won’t go away without surgery. It’s a gift from her two children, whose heads wouldn’t fit through her pelvic canal. Anne can’t bring herself to buy jeans in the next size up. Jeff winces at her stretch pants and leggings.
“Jesus, Anne,” he says, “Nobody is going to check what size you wear.”
“I’ll know,” she says, but she knows he’s right. Sometime on the weekend, maybe, she’ll try to sneak out, if Jeff feels up to watching the kids for a few hours.
The family room is a mess. Matt’s trains lie scattered throughout the room, along with his many puzzles and picture books. Anne tries not to rely on the television for entertainment, and it’s easy enough. Matt knows his letters and tries to sound out words, and he will play with puzzles and trains for hours. He likes to build and destroy what he’s built. The trouble is she can’t take her eyes off him. She never knows when a lamp will crash down or a train will smash into the television. It’s already happened. Sometimes he’ll hide out in the cabinets in the kitchen and bang pot lids together or take wooden spoons and bang pots as if they were drums. It’s noisy, but at least she knows where he is. He hasn’t tried to scale the kitchen counters yet.
Still, she knows Jeff hates the clutter, so she needs to get it tidied up and dinner on the stove before he gets home. Next year, when Matt starts preschool, maybe she’ll go back to work, but for now, she’s a full-time mom. Anne’s afraid she’s beginning to forget how to have adult conversation, but Jeff thinks its cheaper for her to stay home than try to find a full time nanny.
“You taught elementary school, honey,” he says. “You’re great for the kids. Besides, it wasn’t like you were raking in the big bucks. That’s why you have me.”
Anne sometimes wishes she had gotten a law degree, but she doesn’t know if she’d be any better off than she is now. Lawyers are getting laid off too.
She goes to the kitchen where Katherine is busy preparing her snack. Katherine is seven going on twenty.
“Can you manage the milk?” Anne asks. “It’s a fresh gallon, so it’s heavy.”
“Yes, Meme. It’s not that heavy.” Katherine never calls her “Mom”. Since she was a baby, she’s called her “Meme”. It sounds like the name Mimi. Anne isn’t sure whether Katherine saw her as an extension of herself and was saying, “me me,” or perhaps thought of her as a large plaything and meant, “mine mine.” Katherine calls her father, “Dad”, but she’s always been “Meme”. Anne gets tired of explaining it to people.
Katherine has placed three Oreos on a plate and carries them to the table; she goes back to pour her milk.
“Did you have a good day?”
“I made this.” Katherine pulls out a drawing. It’s not perfect, but it is striking: a black dragon spewing its yellow and orange fire against a purple sky. “Mrs. Blackstone, the art teacher, says I have amazing talent. What do you think?”
“I think it’s very fierce looking.”
Satisfied, Katherine lays the dragon on the counter. “I love dragons. I’m writing a story about one, but I didn’t finish because we’re doing co-operative writing, and I had to work with Virginia today. She wanted to write a dumb story about Victorian girls. Like Little Women.” Katherine wrinkles her nose. “I didn’t like Little Women. And Virginia’s a pain.”
“What’s wrong with Virginia?”
“Nothing really, except she thinks she’s smarter than every one, which she isn’t. Lydia is better at math, and I’m better at history and English and writing. She’s just a year older than the rest of the class. I saw on the Science Channel that you might start out smarter when you’re little because of something about your brain, but that by middle school other kids catch up to you so you really aren’t so smart unless you’re really a genius or prodigy. I think they called it neuronplastic.”
“Neuroplasticity,” Anne says. Katherine has scored in the genius range on the IQ chart. The psychologist said to have her retested in two years. Katherine can read at the high school level though she’s only in second grade. It amazes Anne how the brain is formed. What genetic strands wove together to form this child who on the surface seems so much like her father with her need to collect data and facts, yet who has such a love for drawing and stories. “And don’t be mean. Maybe in a few years, they’ll catch up to you.”
“Mrs. Miller says I’m unique. I’m going to be important, and I’m never going to have children. No offense, but I’m not going to be like you. I’m going to be a professional. Maybe I’ll be a doctor like Dad.”
Anne says nothing. She simply holds her arms around her chest, as if that would protect her heart. “I’m not going to be like you” is something she’s heard many times before.
Katherine takes her milk and walks to the table where her empty plate awaits.
“Wait, Meme. Didn’t I put out my cookies?”
Katherine looks around. The bag of Oreos sags open on the counter behind her.
“I thought so.”
“Well, they aren’t here, and I didn’t eat them.”
Katherine stalks over to the bag and pulls out three more then places them on her plate. She stands with her hands on hips staring at the table in annoyance. “Now my milk isn’t cold enough. She turns to face Anne who wishes Katherine would just eat the damn snack and get down to the business of doing whatever homework assignment she has to do.
“I’m putting ice in my milk,” Katherine says. “I hate warm milk.”
Anne wonders if all children are this picky. She watches Katherine carefully place a few ice cubes into the milk cup and return to the table where once again the plate is empty.
“Oh, for goodness sakes,” Anne says, exasperated. She walks into the family room to look for Matt but he’s gone. “Matthew? Where are you?”
Katherine marches up behind her. “Come out this minute.”
Anne hears a sound behind the couch, “We hear you Matt.” Nothing. At last she starts to push the sofa aside, but before she can move it more than an inch Matt scrambles out. His big blue eyes stare up at her innocently; his mouth, rimmed in chocolate crumbs opens in an O.
“You little thief!” Katherine’s voice rises, and Matt shakes his head. His cheeks are stuffed with cookies.
“Oh, Matt, how many cookies did you take?” Anne says. She kneels down in front of him, trying to look stern. It’s hard to do. Matt looks exactly like a cherub. It drives his sister crazy.
Matt holds up one finger then thinks better of it and adds a second finger.
“You’re such a little liar. You took all my cookies,” Katherine says, outraged. “You shouldn’t get any more cookies for at least a week. I’m telling Dad.”
Matt’s eyes fill with tears. He gulps a little, and Anne watches him swallow. “I sorry, Katty. Here.” He offers her two damp, half squashed cookies.
Katherine just snorts in annoyance. “Just keep them. I don’t want them now. Don’t steal my cookies. You aren’t supposed to steal. Don’t you know that? And you aren’t supposed to eat so many sweets. You’ll get diabetes.”
“Katherine,” Anne says, “don’t tell him that. I’ll deal with him.”
He comes over and hugs his sister. “I love you, Katty.”
Katherine doesn’t hug him back, but she does give him an awkward pat on the head. “All right. Go away now. I’ve got to do my homework.”
She stalks out to the kitchen, and Anne sits down on the floor with Matt. He gives her a chocolate kiss and holds out the cookies to her. “I love you, Mommy.” He plops down in her lap, and when she shakes her head at his offering, starts to eat.
“Katherine’s right. You shouldn’t steal cookies, Matt,” Anne says. “Too many will make you sick.”
“I know, Mommy.” He gives her a weary sigh that implies he’s learned his lesson. Or maybe it implies that he just wants her to stop talking. “Will you tell me a story?” He wiggles closer, and Anne wonders at his ability to get himself out of trouble. If Katherine is all sharp edges and precision, Matt is soft and sweet and cunning. People tell her all the time he’ll grow up to be a heartbreaker, but for now she is content to sit and bask in the glow of her son’s love.
She hears an ominous rumble then smells something akin to rotting garbage. Matt looks up at her and frames her face with his grubby hands. “I made a dodo.”
“Yes, you did,” Anne says. The steps look awfully long this afternoon. She stands and reaches out her hand. “Shall we walk upstairs together? You’re getting to be a big boy.”
“I am a big boy,” Matt says. “Okay, Mommy.”
They walk up the stairs, and he lies still while she gets him cleaned. Anne has a horrible vision of Matt lying on the changing table as a teenager while she cleans him up and sends him on his way. He’s almost three and isn’t the least bit interested in using the toilet. Anne is about to slap on a fresh pair of disposable underwear when he lets go with a stream of urine that hits the wall. He laughs while she takes a breath, wipes him down again and puts on fresh underwear. She pulls up his overalls and snaps them shut.
“You’ve got to start using the potty,” she says, and he hugs her.
“I love you, Mommy.”
“I love you too.”
“Can we have pancakes for dinner?”
“No, Matt. Daddy doesn’t like pancakes.”
Matt sighs and hugs her again. “I like pancakes.”
“Maybe tomorrow for breakfast. Okay?”
“Okay. You smell like dodo.” He kisses her and wanders off. She doesn’t have to worry about Matt on the stairs. He’s as dexterous as a monkey.
She cleans up and drops the dirty underwear into the old diaper pail. She stands in the middle of the bathroom. Her hair is in need of washing; she has circles under her eyes; and she looks like a bag lady. She smells like dodo.
Anne wonders if she has time for a shower before she tidies up the family room and makes dinner. She figures she has just about six minutes to shower and dress before Matt annoys Katherine, and they begin to fight. She turns on the shower then reaches into the medicine cabinet for two Valium before she begins the second part of her day.