Emergency Contacts

We leave St Cloud via 9th Avenue, past our old house. The kids crane their necks, as if looking harder at it will enable them to see more, see through the walls, see the past. I slow the car down enough to note plastic shopping bags, several, snagged amongst the Dogwood hedge in the front. How can I help but sigh? It was a beautiful house. It was another life.

I moved to St Cloud six months pregnant, after I quit my job at the bookstore and threw my lot in with a stand-up guy named Dave. He bought us a neat little rambler on a cul de sac and I spent the remainder of my pregnancy painting the house, sewing curtains and swimming. I burned up minutes on a long distance card with my old friends in the cities. I knew no one, and with no job, had no means of meeting anyone new.

Veronica was born in spring, and I walked her in the stroller all over our deserted neighborhood. Every other house I passed had a swing-set in back, and every one was eerily empty. As were the parks. As were the streets. I returned to our empty house and fretted over baby. We made daily errands of dubious necessity. My house was very clean. I baked bread for goddsakes. When Dave came home I lunged at him and talked without stopping until he invented some yardwork or errand to escape my cloying presence.

I am not a joiner, but I arrived at the Le Leche League meeting early and sat, sweating, with Veronica in my lap. I checked out every new mom and baby couple with the wide-eyed wonder of a tourist. I participated enthusiastically and quite possibly cried more than once. In gratitude. I sensed a slight evangelical undertone in the attitudes towards breastfeeding, but didn’t really care. I had found women, and at least a few seemed like they might be friendly. They told me about a play group at a local park next week. I couldn’t wait.

The play group was utter chaos. Toddlers and infants all knocking around while seven mothers with too much to say fought for the conversation. I sat at the picnic table across from Peggy while she nursed Wren. She too had moved from the cities, when her son Tennessee was born, three years ago. I didn’t track many details, but I knew two things: she knew who Lifter Puller was, and she had hung out on the West Bank. She was literally probably the only person in Saint Cloud who could claim this. Over the course of the next months, we lingered late after play-group, and talked until we were hoarse and our kids were screaming.

I picked up Artemis a bit later. She would bring over Wyatt, who was four months younger than Veronica. He began chasing her at birth and will, I predict, until she either marries him or someone else. Artemis confided she wasn’t married to Wyatt’s father, and I confessed that Dave and I weren’t married. We admitted we smoked. We admitted to many things. We met in the afternoons at parks, or in our living rooms, or walking around the mall where people mistook the babies for twins, and we assumed that meant they took us for lesbian partners.

Dave and I moved out of the cul de sac and across the street from Artemis and Jeff. Peggy bought a house near the hospital. I got a job. We met other moms. We formed and broke circles of friends. I had another baby, my father died. We fought with our husbands. Artemis and Peggy finished school. We drank too much. Our kids went to the same Montessorri School together, where we volunteered cleaning the classroom and gossiping about the teachers and fellow students. They were my emergency contacts on all my paperwork. We watched each other’s kids. We watched them grow. We grew.

The night I told David I was leaving him, I left the kids with Peggy. After that dread talk, I walked across the street to Artemis’ house. Peggy left the kids with Steve and drove over. We sat on the back patio, mostly quiet, with me uncharacteristically dry-eyed and shell shocked. I had a duffel-bag of toiletries inside, and I would be staying up-stairs in the extra apartment for the time being. From there I would move three more times before leaving town for good. Artemis was in Brooklyn Park within the year. Peggy was teaching full-time and pregnant when I left.

We keep in touch. Peggy’s voice is like a balm to me, she validates my feelings and behavior with such skill I will believe anything she tells me about myself. Once I called her, hung over and groaning, “Ohhh, I had too much to drink last night… ” She interrupted me before I could go any further to say, “You didn’t do anything wrong. You were fine. you were fun. You were just drunk.” A friend that can sense and dispel self-loathing that fast is truly indispensable.

Artemis and I talk often. She has a way of distracting me away from my narcissism, where in I will talk on and on about some imaginary crisis at length and after a long pause she says, “I need a good cheese cake recipe. What have you got?” It’s really quite effective.

As for why they keep in touch with me, I can only assume they like to feel needed.

Now, our St Cloud visits make me melancholy. As soon as we get there, the kids evaporate. They fall in with the gaggle of kids they know like cousins. The adults take their place around the familiar kitchen at Peg and Steve’s. There will be soup, Peg will do the dishes every fifteen minutes or so. We circulate, we catch up, we pass the baby Cedar around. We used to drink wine, but now it’s coffee. We fall into conversation easily, we are still friends, but it all makes me homesick for the time when we were inseparable.

Later, alone at the glass patio table in back, I will remember a summer of Friday nights spent in that very chair. The kids ran wild until twilight while we drank wine. Neighbors and husbands would come and go, but we moms held court until long after the kids went down. We spilled our guts those nights. We ranted about politics, we confessed our regrets, we compared our marriages. Shit went down. It was the summer before everything changed. Like the summer between high-school and college, we were in limbo. Setting the stage for the next chapter, only we didn’t know it then. We just let it pass in the manner of teenagers, high on the ease of friendship and smell of the garden at night.


Inappropriate and Notorious

Wednesday night, two weeks ago, Ivan was hell-bent on finding the album “Green” by REM. It had been a long night, punctuated by bouts of hysteria from all corners, and we really wanted, needed, to find the CD. I dragged out every CD file I have and we began to flip through them.”Here it is!” he cried. And indeed, my 1988 original compact disc of REM’s commercial breakthrough still exists.

I put it in and Ivan skibbled around the living room. “Orange Crush!” he yelled. He air guitared and bounced around while I did the dishes. I cannot complain about my son’s musical taste or habits. I have heard children’s music.

Suddenly he was at my side, tugging at my sleeve, “Mom! I know! I can bring this for show and tell! “Orange Crush”! It starts with ‘C!'” Hmmm. Are children allowed to bring music for show-and-tell? Why not? And further, I reasoned, it is a compact disc, which also starts with ‘C’. Very clever, mom.

On the way to school the next morning, Ivan wondered aloud in the back seat, “Mom, I don’t think my classmates know very much about music.” Oh, sweet Ivan, if I had a nickel for every time I have thought that very thing! With conviction he added, “I think I have to help them.” I agreed, it was a noble pursuit.

Last Thursday, I picked up Ivan from school. “How was your day?” He held up an empty jewel case and pouted, “I forgot to bring my Duran Duran CD for ‘D’ show-and-tell day.” Sigh. “But, Ms Mary says I can bring it tomorrow.” Okay kiddo. Ruffle the hair, get in the car.

I had to call my ex-husband to procure the CD. It may surprise you to know that he owns a copy of their greatest hits and I do not. Ahem: we are unconstrained by gender stereotypes. “Oh brother.” he said, “is he going on about that again? I was going to send it along, but I thought it was kind of inappropriate.” I tell this to Ivan and he says earnestly, “I know almost every song on that and they are ALL appropriate!” Okay kiddo. Ruffle hair. We’ll see in the morning.

Inappropriate. The word has become positively insidious since my children have been old enough to, well, be inappropriate. For those of you who do not have children under the age of ten, I will explain. Inappropriate is a morally bland term to describe everything which our parents told us was wrong, naughty, or a sin. So instead of, “We don’t hit our brother, it’s wrong!” It’s “Please stop hitting your brother, it’s inappropriate”. Peeing in front of strangers at the park? Completely inappropriate! Peeing on another person? That is so inappropriate my head is going to explode!!

I have problems with the word’s vagueness, but I do employ it constantly, because it is code for “Don’t do that.” It also smooths over specifics that frankly, I am in no hurry to explain. Like when Veronica asked me the meaning of the word sexy. “Well, it’s like ‘pretty’ but more grown-up-like.” Blank stare. “You know how you feel embarrassed when people kiss in movies?” “Uh-huh. Gross” “Well, that’s kind of sexy.” More staring. “It’s inappropriate?” she offers. I nod furiously, “For an eight year old yes, absolutely. Sexy is inappropriate.”

And this is is how I find myself driving to school this morning reviewing the “greatest” of Duran Duran hits to determine which are appropriate to play for pre-schoolers. (Taste notwithstanding.)

“The first song has a naughty word,” says Ivan ominously, “nuclear war.” I’m trying to place it in the lyrics and start sussing out the melody aloud, “Yeah, it’s like “your something something something as a nuclear waaarrr…”

Ivan pipes up, “He says you’re about AS EASY as a nuclear war.” Gulp. Yep, inappropriate!

“Why can’t we do ‘Hungry Like the Wolf?‘” he asks.

“I think the panting sounds the woman makes in that song might scare your friends.” Also an immediate no: “Girls on Film“. “The Reflex” he doesn’t like, and I don’t blame him.

“What about Rio?'” I enthuse, “Everyone loves Rio’. It’s a classic. You can’t go wrong with ‘Rio’.” We listen together for a minute: ‘Cherry ice-cream smile, I suppose it’s very nice!‘ I start to protest.

“But mom! Every single one is going to be inappropriate! Why?”

“Well, Ivan. These songs are fine for you, because you don’t understand the meanings of most of the words, or the reason they are saying them. But if one of your classmates goes home, and sings something inappropriate, even if they don’t understand it, your school would be in trouble.”

“But I DO know what they mean!”

“Oh yeah, well, what does Notorious mean?”

Without missing a beat he says, “It’s just a woman’s name.”

“Ha!” I say, “Ha ha!! It means being famous for being bad! Like the Joker or Lex Luther!” I sure showed him, that precocious kindergardner! Whose the boss now?

Through his silence, my son concedes there may be hidden inappropriate messages in Duran Duran’s music – which, I assure you, there are legion. We agreed on “New Moon on Monday”, “Union of the Snake” and “Wild Boys”.

I picked him up from school and asked him how it went. He twisted his mouth up in consideration, “We just listened to half of two songs.”

“What do you do while you are listening? Dance?”

“Yeah. Until then Ms. Mary asked us to sit down.” He hung his head, slightly dejected. Okay kiddo, get in the car. I put in “Hungry Like the Wolf” for the ride home. I am not bothered by the woman panting, as I have explained to my son, she just has a stomach ache. And Robert Plant always has to sneeze.

Yes, my boy, ’tis a hard road – delivering the gospel of 1980’s rock and pop music. Next week it will be “E” show-and-tell week. I’ll be looking for my copy of Elvis Costello’s “My Aim Is True” this weekend. Do you think “Watching the Detectives” is inappropriate? Borderline, I think.