Same potential people. Totally different outcomes.
Stomach-knotting relationship #1: The mother is running around, yelling at the kids to get their things ready, taking her anger at the stepmother out on her kids. She’s stressed because the house is a wreck after homework and school projects, too much to do at work and a few crappy nights of sleep for everyone this week. She normally makes sure at least the living room looks presentable, quickly shoving items without homes into the laundry room and her bathroom if need be.
The kids are stressed because Mom is freaking out. They know she doesn’t like their stepmom, even though they mostly do (sometimes they feel bad about this, like they’re cheating on their mom), and they wish their dad was picking them up instead, so they’re dragging their feet. Plus, why does their mother always run around, picking up, before their stepmom comes over anyway? The stepmom doesn’t care what the house looks like. Sometimes it’s messy at dad’s house too.
The stepmom is in her car, cursing at the traffic where she might normally not. She curses satisfactorily at a driver who cuts her off. She flips the stations, trying to find a song to bump her into a better mood (unsuccessfully). All she knows is, the kids better be ready. The last thing she wants to do is stand in their doorway, or god forbid, the living room and wait in her house. She pulls up in front of the house and her heart sinks. How she hates coming here.
New and Improved relationship #1: The kids are dragging their feet again, like they always do whenever they need to get anywhere on time, but the mother tries to stay on them, so they won’t be late and not make their stepmom wait. The house is a wreck after a particularly rough week, but she’s not going to feel bad about it. Even though their house is usually cleaner, she’s not going to engage in “contest-thinking”. So they live in a pig-sty sometimes, so be it. It hasn’t killed anyone... yet. She stands in the doorway of her youngest child’s room, making sure they pack their clothes. She gives everyone a general reminder of the time and tries to help the kids remember what to take, especially things she knows are important to them, like a favorite toy, stuffed animal to sleep with, or new clothes for her fashion-conscious teen. She’s looking forward to a few moments of peace after everyone leaves.
Stomach-knotting relationship #1: The doorbell rings and all hell breaks loose, as the dogs rush to defend their fortress from a known threat at the door (judging from their master’s behavior). The mother struggles to drag Fang and Fido to the laundry room, cursing the stepmother again under her breath (and perhaps her ex- too) for making her life miserable. She looks around at all the papers, art supplies, dirty socks and shoes and various toys scattered on the floor and her chest tightens. She yells for the kids to come in an angry voice before she opens the door. Shame at her own feelings of hatred and helpless anger flood her body.
One the other side of the door, the stepmother is longing for a trapdoor (for herself? for the mother?) and technological advances that would make the teleportation of children instantly possible.
New and Improved relationship #1: The doorbell rings and the dogs go insane, as usual. She drags them outside while announcing what the kids already know, it’s time to go. While the children’s things aren’t near the door like they’re supposed to be, she knows that they’re packed up and ready, for the most part. Now it’s just a matter of rounding up the savages, which can sometimes feel like sand slipping through your fingers. She takes a deep breath before she opens the door and makes a conscious effort to calm herself, wanting to be able to connect with the other woman from a warmer, more peaceful place. The stepmother looks around at the plants outside the door and wishes she had more time to learn about gardening. What was that she needed to pick up at the store? And there's a school conference coming up that they need to follow up on....
Stomach-knotting relationship #1: The mother opens the door and looks in the general direction of the stepmother’s face, but does not make eye contact with her. “Hang on, I’ll get them,” she mumbles in a tight voice. She is aware of the fact that the stepmother looks well-put together, whereas she is not wearing any make-up. A quick glance at her harried appearance in the mirror makes her heart sink and then grow instantly hard. Meanwhile, outside the door, the stepmother’s heart rate has practically doubled and her blood pressure has climbed to an unhealthy level. It will take a good thirty minutes for it to go back down to normal after they leave. She listens to the chaos unfolding inside the house. She has not been asked inside, nor would she want to go in. But she did catch a glimpse of the living room. Doesn’t this woman ever clean? No wonder they’re divorced….
New and Improved relationship #1: The mother opens the door and greets the stepmom with a somewhat frazzled smile. “Hey, how’s it going? Come on in…. They’re ready, but I need to round them up. How was traffic?” They make a moment’s small-talk until the mom interrupts and asks the stepmom to hang on before she belts out a summons that could possibly be heard across the world. They make a bit more small talk, catching up on a few details about the kids or politics or whatever, until the mother interrupts again. She asks the stepmom to have a seat while she goes off to grab the children by the extra skin of their necks and carry them back, one by one, like a mother cat. The stepmom chuckles and shakes her head at the madness of it all, but with affection.
Stomach-knotting relationship #1: The children are standing by the open door, somewhat sullen, aware of the stress between the two women. They feel awkward and caught in the middle – like they’re supposed to show their mother that they prefer her, but guilty over loving their mother so much despite all the efforts the stepmother does make. The stepmother notices with some alarm that she is not breathing! If she could just get outside... now. She calculates the seconds until her freedom. The mother gives each child a hug and kiss and pinches up her face as she imagines the neglect that awaits them in the immediate future (such as bedtime or mealtime… or anything in between). She only says goodbye to the children and not the stepmother. The stepmom mentally grumbles an insult as the door is closed.
New and improved relationship #1: The children are standing close to the door with their mother and stepmother. “So Timmy seems like he might be coming down with something. He was pretty sluggish yesterday. You might want to keep an eye on him – extra vitamin C or something…” says the mother. “Oh, I know just the ticket,” says the stepmother as she musses Timmy’s hair. Some of that fizzy vitamin drink you like mixed with orange juice should do the trick.” Timmy’s eyes light up and Courtney whines, “Hey, I want some fizzy vitamin drink too! I don’t feel good either!” The women roll their eyes and exchange a knowing smile. “Right…” says their mom. She hugs and kisses the kids, says bye to all and closes the door with a bit of relief.
The stepmom feels a happy sense of chaos as they all pile into the car. She never would have thought things could have worked out this well, but as she checks her charges in the back seat through her rear view mirror, she smiles to herself. There's love here, and support from many different directions, and an enduring steadiness that makes her feel like everything will be okay.
This was so well written and empathetic, I can't wait for the book.
October 14, 2007 8:10 PM