By Debbie Weingarten
The afternoon brings long rays of sun through the window, and specks of dust float around us like stars. We live in a home the size of a postage-stamp, and it is full of a baby and a toddler, a broken mama, one dog, one cat— all growing, healing, mucking through the days together.
I have begun to think in motivational phrases:
Orient towards the light. Take a step. Repeat.
If you’re going through hell, keep going.
We are never given anything more than we can handle.
This is a brand new year, I say to myself, through the lull of the afternoon. The baby stretches in his sleep, as if he knows that new years are for waking up.
With the second child, time does not seem quite so cavernous. It’s like walking a familiar path, recognizing this crooked tree, or that patch of wildflowers, or the wooden bridge just beyond the rhododendron. The baby will cut teeth, learn to walk, say bird and dog, sprout little blonde hairs on his legs, ride a tricycle, finally sleep through the night. And I— tired rings below my eyes, yoga pants for days— will marvel at how time has somehow robbed us and kept us prisoner at the very same time.
I could feel the divorce before it came. It circled us for two long years, disguised as stress from sleep deprivation, an infant, a demanding business. It has been a year since I woke up to the abuse and control, since my son and I fled in our pajamas, the baby still the size of a fist in my belly.
I have been ushering us through the weeks, each one its own journey and wall of grief, each one bringing new layers of deconstruction, clarity, documents from the lawyer. For a time, I am set adrift on my own solitary raft, letting the warm ocean wash over me. I am tired of crying, and I cannot eat. Instead, I spend time sorting through all of the lies told to me so casually. I turn them over like seashells, put them in a bucket, scream. It is all one big mindfuck.
I have embraced things I was never allowed: a frivolous coffee routine, afternoon naps, frozen foods, shitty milkshakes. I find comfort from things I never thought I would: signs of synchronicity, self-help books, kind sister strangers, internet support groups, old songs with new meanings.
Today we are on the other side— the side of golden afternoons and dust specks. Sometimes I want to cry simply because I am so proud to have made it through. The kids play together on the floor. They dump out Legos with such joy, line up toy cars, empty the folded laundry from the basket so the toddler can make a fort. Toys and clothes are flying everywhere, and I am letting it all happen, because how do you stop a hurricane? The toddler growls like a lion and sends the basket careening across the floor. The baby squeals.
My memories fold into one another. They present as an accordion of images, sensory details colliding and sometimes remaining just beyond my grasp— I am like a child on a stool reaching for the lightswitch. But certain things I remember so vividly that they seem to catch in some miswired part of my brain, like a track on repeat:
the smell of onions sauteing in coconut oil, the stink of a cast iron left to soak too long, the souring of goat milk, the blue of a bedroom, the white bellies of dogs, dried pigweed in my boots, the blur of headlights on the highway, winter seeping in through cracks in the wall, the smell of dead chickens, Regina Spektor singing your hair was long when we first met, my ex-husband holding me down and saying you’re crazy, you’re a bitch, you’re a stupid white cunt.
The baby wants to be held, so I put him on my back in the Ergo. The weight of a baby has become so familiar. We dance together in the kitchen, gathering red lentils, celery, garlic, one lonely onion. We chop. We sway. I set a pan on the stove and then step on a plastic dinosaur with one bare foot. I am brought to laughing, cursing tears. The Pandora station plays John Prine, and his voice finds a wound inside my chest. For a moment, I want to crawl back under the covers, but I let the music crack me open instead.
Blow up your TV, throw away your paper,
Go to the country, build you a home,
Plant a little garden, eat a lot of peaches,
Try and find Jesus on your own.
It does not hurt like touching a stove or skinning a knee. It hurts in a raw kind of chest way. Like sitting at the top of Gates Pass and staring down at the saguaros, all lined up like thousands of soldiers. It hurts like finding a baby bird dried up on the sidewalk. It hurts like how beautiful it is to watch my toddler belly-laugh. It hurts like knowing someone is dying safe and in their sleep.
A year is a long string of tiny moments:
One day we are leaving in our pajamas, getting the fuck out, drawing a line.
Five months later, I am rooted to the bathroom floor. The faces coo. Hands smooth my hair in the yellow light. I am a white belly, round as a planet, a screaming head. When finally the baby slips out from between my legs, so too slips the pain, the sadness, all of the fear.
A year later, we are swaying to John Prine in a doll-sized kitchen. The toddler is melting down because a piece of rice is stuck in his hair, and the baby is crying and pulling on my shirt, and my milk is letting down all over the place. We are so overdue for sleep that everyone is irrational and my chin keeps dropping to my chest.
We pile into the rocking chair. The toddler reaches out to hold his brother’s hand. We sing You Are My Sunshine, except we say when skies are blue instead of gray, because that’s the way we like it best. I think, maybe I’m doing this whole single mom thing okay.
Each night when I fall asleep, I envision the home we will have someday. Worn wooden floors for my wood-starved barefeet, built-in cabinets, morning light. A kitchen with enough space for a table and chairs, a long counter for chopping and all necessary coffee supplies. Tinctures, oils, spices spilling out of their hiding places. Crayon art on the walls. Orchids and wooden trains tucked in the windowsill. Cactus bones and bicycles in the yard. And two beautiful sons who grow up knowing that a mother is fireproof, a strongbox, a shelter. That a woman is a wild wonderful thing— never to be owned, kept, or silenced.
Debbie Weingarten is a fiction and nonfiction writer based in Tucson, Arizona. She is a single mom, a feminist, an introvert, a food and farm activist, and a lover of long flat rocks and swimming holes. She finally signed up for Twitter. Follow her @cactuswrenwrite.
Featured image: Jeff Smith.