This is part 2 of a story shared by Lisa DeMasi. Click here to read part one.
“Children are not a zoo of entertainingly exotic creatures, but an array of mirrors in which the human predicament leaps out at us. ” ―John Updike, Pulitzer Prize Winner for novels Rabbit Is Rich and Rabbit at Rest
The book slides off my lap and crashes to the floor, and then Zoe’s mother scoops her up and lays her across her knees.
The little girl lies there flat as an ironing board.
Three deft pats on her back and Cape Cods chips in a variety of shapes project from Zoe’s mouth. Saliva slips over her lips. Oxygen returns to her lungs. She cries.
The maternal patrons lean in, ask if Zoe is okay. Her mother waves them off. “Yes, thank you,” she says.
My dream child is back on her feet; the waterworks have subsided. Her father strokes her cheeks dry. Her mood changes back to the state of pre-choking as if by a flick of a switch. She’s perfect again.
She asks for another chip.
This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.
I listen, curious to learn if good ole mom is going to give her toddler just off Gerber Stage Four another chip.
“You can have some Goldfish,” she says.
In a Mickey Mouse sort of voice, I say onto the open pages, “How ‘bout some yogurt?”
Dennis elbows me subtly, a prompt to behave.
Over the P.A., a flight attendant announces the initial stages of boarding.
We gather our things. I impart a secret smile to Zoe, which she catches. Means nothing to her.
When we’re settling into our seats, an emaciated gray-haired woman with a Tom Petty overbite slides in. Her thighs are the same width as my forearms, and Zoe appears in the aisle. She’s screaming like a banshee. Ear piercing stuff. I barely get a glimpse of her because she passes by so swiftly—her father carries her like a surfboard. This must be a common position for her—flat and rigid.
Zoe’s mother follows behind, toting a handbag crammed with baby survival equipment and the crate containing Kit-Tee. She wears an expression indicative of the relief she’s feeling that her husband has finally stepped up to the plate, but also of deep embarrassment about her imperfect daughter.
Emaciated Woman and I snap together our respective seatbelts. By the sounds of it, Zoe has been strapped into a seat four or so rows behind us. Amid the chaos of the 737’s boarding, she has stopped crying and is sweetly introducing Kit-Tee to neighbors.
And now again, I wish she were mine, mine, mine.
The cabin is packed. There’s tight clearance, cramming of luggage in overhead bins. Last minute phone calls are made. The air is stale. Actually there is no air. Tim is giving emergency landing instruction, his props old and yellowed. The teenager across the way is licking the remnants of a BK cheeseburger from his thumbs. Zoe’s voice pierces through all this clear as a bell. She has dismissed her affections for Kit-Tee and is dead set against keeping her seatbelt fastened.
“No, no, no, Mama!”
My dazzling opinion of this little girl, wanting to drown in the pools of her aquamarine eyes, having envisioned birthing her through my own womb and canal, flickers like a film noir played on an old projector. I don’t want it to, of course. I want her to remain fresh, magical, novel, her presence filling me with regret about what I could have had.
The flight gets underway. The minutes slip into hours, it’s horrendous. Not because of turbulence, the crew, Emaciated Woman, or lack of turkey, sprouts and avocado sandwiches. It’s because Zoe’s steady stream of “no!” is now followed by parental correction with an edge and curmudgeon-type shushing. My iPod is packed away in cargo below; I have no way of tuning out the racket, which would have kept Zoe magical to me. Instead, I watch the display that shows the plane’s elevation, speed, and the long ass Midwest state we’re hovering over. We’re practically standing still at 500 MPH.
Dennis types away on his laptop, the time flies by for him. I listen to little Zoe carry on; tearing apart her magicalness. She was so perfect before.
When descent at last begins from 40,000 feet, cabin air pressure intensifies. Zoe begins wailing with a set of lungs worthy of crossing the English Channel.
I know this: if I stayed married, I couldn’t have had all the daring affairs with executives my father’s age. I wouldn’t have experienced the freedom of telling off Gloria Steinem and discovering the rugged beauty of the West, proving myself and doing “boys’ chores” where my leg “got broke.”
So what’s the seduction of remorse, regret? Even if we are self-actualized, accomplished people who have had good lives, why do we actually sort of like that deep longing for what we could have had? And that’s when I discover something really genius about not doing things. It makes us heroes in our own minds. It buoys us up. We can’t do everything, there will always be paths we could have taken. And the brilliance of that is we get to imagine doing it all and being perfect at it. I know I know we’re supposed to stay in the moment, but most of us don’t because the moment can be as boring as a…well, a long plane ride. So, thinking of all those unlived lives can be a way to boost self-confidence for one happy soaring moment.
If we’d written the novel, we would have written a bestseller. Not going to Hollywood to audition for all those bit parts and staying back east, we get to imagine our lives as movies stars. Not going to law school means we can tell ourselves we would have been kick-ass prosecutors, killing it in the courtroom. People tell us not to regret what could have been, but actually it’s sort of fun. Not becoming a mother is so much better than actually becoming a mother because I can imagine I would have had the perfect child. Never mind the choking, the quick-switch moods, the screaming like a banshee. I would have nourished my daughter perfectly, and she would have been absolutely flawless.
Zoe snaps me out of my reverie. She’s back to her ear-piercing scream. Somewhere around 15,000 feet the display shows the aircraft has overshot SFO. The plane’s nose is sticking into the Pacific.
I see around me that people are glimpsing in Zoe’s direction—even Emaciated Woman—and shrugging their shoulders in a way that suggests they wish they could envelope their ears with them.
Land is drawing ever closer out Emaciated Woman’s window, but we’re back on track, the pilot tells us the 737’s nose is destined for the runway. We drop elevation in big chunks until at last the wheels skid. Only minutes remain before we get off this tin bus and little Zoe will disappear from my life forever.
When she and her parents file out before us, I catch those beautiful aquamarines, her body is horizontal and at waist-height again. In my mind I make peace with her, thank her for giving me the chance to be a perfect mother to a perfect child.
She has returned to lightheartedness and answering the saint-of-a-lady behind her about what color Kit-Tee is.
“He’s pink and purple,” she says.
Monday 10th of August 2015
What a good point. So fun to imagine the magic and perfection of a daughter, a successful career,fame and fortune. And so poignant to know ... it is all magical and perfect for about a second and a half. I can see it now ... regret is overrated.