87 Different Ways

The tears that build but never crest. The unbearable sweetness of a child’s bedtime prayer, repeated some 55 years after the fact. The sensation of being entirely without skin, crumpled, spat upon — and its accompanying sense that one is making too much of things. Such drama, you know. The kitchen counters needing to be wiped, the floor swept, the laundry folded and put away. The car is out of gas. Don’t go outside with wet hair. The calloused feet, the cracks in the heels that develop when “oh, just a minute” turns into “never” and suddenly you’re just not taking care of yourself. You’re one of those women now, or you think you secretly always have been and it’s just now all the more obvious to the world, your age and your worry conspiring with this thing you’ve always been and now it’s not that you’re an intellectual or rebelling or artistic; now you’ve given up.

And so: the layered-face bedtime ritual, the viewing of tutorials, the studying of all the girls you used to be, and all the women you wanted to be, and the person who greets you in the mirror, sometimes welcome and other times despised, and all of them far too you to be entirely acceptable. Somehow you thought you’d age into an approximation of yourself sculpted by someone with a lighter touch.

It all comes by you so quickly now that you’ve given to relying on broad strokes. Is the main thing taken care of? The main thing at work, the main thing at home, the visible finger prints, the obvious spills, the lipstick bold, the ends of your hair the neatest part. An email gets out now and again with a typo, or (horror) addressed to the wrong person, but that’s easily explained with a giggle and the confession that a person with that name had lingered in your office door to ask a question as you typed.

You’re still five, and wanting a grown-up to help; you’re still twelve, and laughing at sophomoric boy jokes; you’re still sixteen and furious; you’re still nineteen and jaded. You’re thirty-nine, you’re forty, you’re forty-one, and every day your heart walks around on the outside of your body–this sweet, tender, hilarious kid you absolutely do not deserve and do everything in your power not to screw up too badly. You edit out the things that don’t matter, for him. You ignore the things that won’t keep building your nest, because that kid and his father have changed your life irrevocably for the better and you have no idea where this luck came from but you are finally old enough to understand how rare and how precious it is, and you will not fuck this thing up.

How to be a woman? You’ve done that longer than you were a girl, and you never knew how to be a girl the way it was expected of you. Now you know which costumes elicit which responses and what lines serve you best in what situations.

How to be a mother? How to walk that tightrope daily? Thank the stars this kid likes dialogue and came equipped with strong ideas. Thank the stars this kid speaks the same weird language you do, and the words you’re thinking of appear on his lips seconds later, and the feelings that overpowered him, you’ve taught him, the way no one taught you, how to wrestle to the ground, or at the very least how to sit in the room with them until they stop threatening to take over the sky. Thank the heavens you can tell, with the vision you can never quite explain, what he needs and how.

How to be a wife? Stick around. And keep your heart open. And choose it over and over again. And don’t leave.

What to do about the tears that won’t crest? Look at the world for what it is. Weep for an evening, until you need gallons of water, until you can’t see from the swelling and there are tiny burst blood vessels in your face. Don’t cover them up in the morning before work. Let people know by the way you look into their eyes that you understand how much things hurt. This is how you must live. This is the only way you can do it. And it’s taken so long to learn this, to know that you can be broken eighty-seven different ways in the span of two weeks and still come back to feed whoever needs to be fed, and be whole again in a few days, and to let it happen all over again, in eighty-seven different new ways.