Heather Cunningham is an MFA student of Creative Nonfiction at Northwestern University. She is currently writing her thesis from the San Francisco Bay Area where she lives with her husband, children, and two enormous cats.
EXCELLENCE IN creative WRITING AWARD – 2019
Heather Cunningham, Northwestern University
My husband has a new job. Three weeks a month he is on the road now, back most weekends, flying out again Sunday afternoon. It is not so much his absence that is disconcerting, as the constant coming and going. The never quite here or there of it all. When he is away, we are incomplete; when he is home, we are in a state of anticipation. Waiting for his next departure.
In the mornings the children, three and five years old, rush into our bedroom, expecting him to have arrived in the night like Santa Claus. When he is not there, they are crestfallen. When he is, they bicker over him until he surrenders the bed and heads for the shower, grumpy.
He is growing accustomed to the trappings of hotel life. The bathrobe on a hanger, sleeves folded and bound, the immaculate bedsheets pulled to a state of wrinkleless-ness, corporate mandated predictability. Peeing in solitude. Quiet.
Meals are eaten in restaurants, coffee is unlimited, food is portioned and presented. When the children ask him for oatmeal now, he serves it with a tidy row of condiment bowls: nuts, brown sugar, raisins. The sugar bowl has a tiny spoon I haven’t used in six years. No one ever eats the nuts.
He tries to Facetime with the kids, but my daughter, morose, refuses to come in the room. My son sticks the phone down his pants and laughs hysterically. I worry about the pornography police.
My friends do not understand what we are doing. They are the front line in a parenting revolution, co-sleeping, co-parenting, and riding to school together on electric assisted bicycles. When I try to explain our situation, they look at me as though I have lost a dear pet, or maybe broke my collarbone.
On the first day at his new job he called me, excited, “everyone here is wearing JEANS!”. The small firm he just left required suits, long hours, and had recently begun hiring their receptionists from a modeling agency. His new boss is smart and supportive. My husband wears sneakers to work and, when he’s in town, can be home in time for dinner.
I sleep terribly. I wake in the night and debate checking the locks. I listen for noises. Each time I am about to drift off; a rattle, a click, a creak. The cats are unmoved. I debate getting a dog.
My son joins me at 3 a.m. He is having nightmares but won’t talk about them.
My daughter joins us at 5.
Without my husband there to turn off the lights, I stay up until 1 a.m. I am busy, watching trailers for movies I will never see. I could be reading an important novel, becoming financially literate, clearing the paperwork from the kitchen counter. Instead I shop for the perfect dress for an imaginary party I have not been invited to. Cocktails on a roof deck this summer? Dinner at a French bistro in winter? I’ll have just the thing! Credit cards should be locked after midnight. No one should be buying anything at that hour.
I recheck the locks.
He brings gifts when he returns, extravagantly presented airline gift bags of tiny toothpastes, disposable socks, commemorative trading cards for the retirement of the 747. The children covet and horde them. They put on the sleep masks and slippers and chase each other around the house banging into doorways and laughing their heads off. They pump the perfumed face mist until the bottles are empty and the air is unbreathable. Our home is littered with tiny bottles and synthetic socks, as if we are running an unlicensed spa out of our garage. “Please make yourself comfortable, the doctor will be in shortly with your black market lip injections.”
He begins flying internationally and the airline gift bags change. The tiny labels have French names on them now. I barter Starburst candies for my son’s La Prairie sample set.
He sends photos of his meals. The airplane dinner from first class. The hotel buffet in Israel. Video of a chef in Japan preparing dinner on a flat top grill. The fish move suspiciously on the hot metal. Is it a trick of the eye, or are they still alive? In Beijing they eat balls of chocolate whipped cream frozen in liquid nitrogen. They blow steam from their noses like dragons.
Without warning, my vibrator has stopped working. It’s not the batteries. I am marooned. I briefly consider bringing along the children to purchase a replacement, but decide against it. I must use precious childcare time. I have a pleasant and very thorough conversation with the sales girl at Good Vibrations. It is the closest to foreplay I have had in months. She is probably twenty years younger than me.
When he is home he seems louder, his gestures exaggerated, as if proving his existence to us skeptics. I trip over his body, positioned in the middle of the kitchen during the morning rush. I squeeze around him in the bathroom while we brush our teeth. I wait, impatiently, as he fusses with the locks on our way out the door. Where is the…? How do I…? When does it…? His body, his voice, his needs, taking up so much space.
The family economy becomes skewed when he is here. A simple issue of supply and demand. Everyone wants daddy snuggles, daddy stories, daddy to play, to cook, to have special time.
He is stone fruit in late summer. How long will he be here? We must hold him, smell him, gorge ourselves while we can. Can we cut him into slices and freeze him for a winter pie? Or cook him down into jam? It will not be the same. I am the spotty banana, left in the bowl.
Tonight I tell myself I will go to bed on time. I shut the computer at 10:30 and turn off the lights. I stare at the ceiling, listening for the sound of the front door lock being picked, the window off the deck being jimmied open. I reach for my computer.
The value of YouTube instructional videos cannot be overstated. A free and endless stream of random skill development posted by successful and charismatic professionals. How to assemble a timpano, carve a turkey, ferment sauerkraut, tier a wedding cake, turn a can of crescent rolls and a pound of ground meat into party food. Night school for anxious housewives. In an instant, it is 1:00 a.m. At Thanksgiving I impress my in-laws with a perfectly carved turkey. I never make a timpano.
The mornings are torture. I try to get us out the door early so the kids can play in the yard before class, but they don’t like their oatmeal with the raisins and sugar already mixed in.
We warn the children’s teachers of the new schedule. Two trips a month we manage fine, it’s that third absence that does us in. Tempers flare, tears are cried, the neighbors wonder at the noise coming through the walls.
I take stock of my temper.
I take stock of my drinking.
I take stock of my marriage.
I watch the children sleep.
I check the locks.
I hold my breath when I switch the laundry in the garage.
A package arrives in the mail. It is a beautiful silk dress with long sleeves and a slit up the thigh. Not what my lifestyle these days demands. What was I thinking? I check the receipt, it was purchased at 12:04 a.m.
On the plane, every movie makes him weep, so he watches blockbusters only. No protracted goodbyes to terminally ill loved ones, or child killers tracked down by passionate detectives, just mindless violence, stadium rock, and laughs. We try to synchronize what shows we watch in the evenings, to develop habits of closeness across so many miles. But it is hopeless. Instead I watch the comedies he doesn’t like, and he finishes the series that lost my attention long ago. He calls to say goodnight, but I have one kid in the bath and another wandering the house wet and naked, ignoring my shouted instructions. By the time the kids are asleep, so is he.
We are all together on a Saturday night and he suggests we go out to eat. I want something fresh and green, but he advocates for Indian food. I am livid. This would be the first meal in a month that I have not eaten at home. How many meals has he eaten at a restaurant this week? He relents, defensive.
My son has a nightmare about an atom bomb strapped to his back. He can’t get it off and it’s going to blow up in ten years. Why ten years, I wonder; what happens in ten years?
My husband is home for a week and he fixes the curtain rod that has been threatening to fall, replaces the light bulbs downstairs. I marvel at his knowledge of dry wall anchors. It is an unexpected gift to have another adult in the house, solving problems. He can drive carpool today? He can drive carpool today! And then he is gone.
My son: “If heat rises, why are mountain tops covered in ice and valleys are hot?”
“Why does it hurt when my penis points up?”
“What is the square root of one?”
So many questions I cannot answer.
The evenings are simple. I make mac and cheese and we eat at five o’clock. Why bother with vegetables for one? We are all on a strict cheese and carb diet. I add a glass of wine to differentiate my meal from the children’s. Five and a half hours pass between dinner and my bedtime. Once the kids are asleep I fold laundry, refill my glass of wine, watch an unending stream of half-hour comedies. There is no negotiation. No one else’s schedule or taste to accommodate. I watch shows I could not defend in public. It is easy to lose track of how much I’ve had to drink.
I sleep in my contacts.
The kids sleep in my bed.
No one brushes their teeth.
The children give him small toys to take on his trips: an action figure, a small fuzzy cat in overalls, a plastic unicorn, a Lego construction worker. He is conscientious, sends pictures from the plane of the tiny cat standing on Spiderman’s shoulders to drink from a glass of water. Now they are admiring the view out the hotel window. Now they are tucked into bed.
He was going to fly home tonight, but there is a major snow storm in Boston. The airport is shut down, the roads are unpassable, the office is closed. He is stuck in his hotel with a few other unlucky guests and the employees who could not get home. The employees sleep in empty rooms. There is no hot water.
Conducting bedtime after a week away, he is a panicked captain on a sinking ship. He shouts orders, the sailors run in different directions, the fear is visible on his face. The children range from furious to raucous laughter in a moment and then back again. They hide behind furniture and streak naked across the living room. It is hard to tell if they have dismissed his authority, or if they are simply enjoying the time with him too much to see it end. I watch from the sofa, resolute not to intervene.
The cats revel in his absence. They stretch luxuriously across the bed, inching toward his pillow. They are testing me. Curious what I will allow. The bigger one climbs under the covers and stretches out against the length of my body. He is enormous and entitled. He will not budge.
The mornings are simple if I don’t shower or eat. I move around the kitchen like a sleepwalker, packing lunches while the children play silently with Legos. The list is astonishingly short: dress, collect backpacks, go. They eat peanut butter toast in the car. We are all so very quiet.
I wake in the morning and find him, unexpected, in bed beside me. It is a small burst of joy in my chest, like finding a gift on your doorstep. I missed him, but oh his body; the smell of his skin and the sound of his breath, the weight of him laying beside me is such a comfort. He is exhausted, oblivious to my revelation. I let him sleep.
His brother is getting married in New Orleans. There is only one airline that flies direct and it is not one he ever flies. This means no status, no upgrades, no early boarding, no complimentary snacks, no agent calling him by name at the gate. He grumbles and sulks.
I am thrilled to have a weekend away. I pack thoughtfully, as much for the travel as the event. Specially made snacks, a water bottle, reading material, comfortable pants. The opportunity to sit still, unbothered, for four consecutive hours will not be wasted on me. I read magazines, watch an R-rated movie and then another. Eat my homemade snacks, drink ginger ale. When was the last time I had a soda? No one interrupts my movie, no one pulls on my arm or yells in my ear. It is the vacation before the vacation.
I refuse to think of the children. I tell myself they are well cared for by their grandparents and then close that door in my mind for the remainder of the trip. I do not consider gaps in their packing lists, extended bedtime routines, or the overindulgent menus grandparents reliably provide. I do no call. I do not facetime. The trip is 48 hours long. I am determined to be present for every minute of it.
The hotel where we are staying is damp, the ceiling is stained, and the walls perspire. There is one tall but narrow window facing the street and terrible fluorescent light in the bathroom. There are no robes. The air conditioning is a rattling box on the windowsill. I look forward to the flight home.
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