By Lisa Mae DeMasi
“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
Until a little princess, right out of a storybook, toddles into the seating area of our gate. She is unhurried, functions in her own dimension, immune to the chaos, the germfest, the push to get to point A to B.
Her presence casts a tiny spell on me. My book collapses into my lap. I’m drinking her sweetness in: a beautiful, clean-faced, bright-eyed little girl—a gene pool homerun.
What would my path have looked like with children in it?
Rarely do I question my decision to forgo becoming a vessel of reproduction. My goal in life was to become CEO of a wildly growing company, not wiping little beasties’ noses. I even left my husband when he wanted them. But as sometimes happens, this delightful girl seems to be showcasing my poor decision. She looks like what I imagine my little girl would have looked like had I not married my dark-haired husband of 5’7” with a 27-inch waistline, but Bob Redford.
Not to mention that I never did become the CEO of wildly growing company, and the jobs I have had have been sort of wildly unsatisfying.
I watch her, feeling that regret wash over me. She stands on sea legs between her mother’s thighs, crunching Cape Cod potato chips with less than perfect execution, savoring what makes it into her mouth. She babbles, a form of self-engagement, and randomly feeds “Kit-Tee,” a wide-eyed cat peering out from a crate on the floor.
Women of all ages watch her, heads cocked, wearing expressions of maternal yearning, remembrances, maybe regret, like my own.
I bet she still has that baby smell thing going on. You know, like puppies.
I surmise, too, that Zoe’s recently graduated from applesauce and whipped franks to adult food. And now, I think, and a disgruntled flatline my mother used to wear when I was in high school settles on my lips, her parents are giving her junk food, creating an unhealthy palate and a rhythmic type of oral indulgence.
I elbow Dennis. “If that sweetness were mine, I’d give her a hard cooked egg and fruit to eat, not crap food.”
He eyeballs Zoe for a nanosecond, nods and returns his gaze to his handheld.
I think of the other things I’d feed Zoe: Greek yogurt, kale crisps (much softer than potato chips), hummus, non-GMO whole grain crackers, organically grown vegetarian stuff.
And then, Zoe begins to choke.
When adults get something caught in their throat, we place a napkin to our mouth, cough, grumble it away. If that doesn’t work? We set into panic. We choke like hell to obtain clear passage. We don’t care how much attention we draw doing it. We want to live and we fight like hell to continue doing so.
Zoe, on the other hand, doesn’t understand the threat of death. Maternal instincts, ingrained in women’s DNA, alert three to their feet. Those not wearing headphones or enthralled with an electronic device, register a disturbance.
Zoe has one hand on her mother’s knee, stabilizing her squat before Kit-Tee’s crate. She brings herself upright and faces me. Her blue eyes have teared up, no sound comes from her windpipe. The fragments of crap food are lodged in her throat. She is the little girl I never had and wish was mine and she can’t breathe.
Someone, do something.
The book slides off my lap and crashes to the floor as 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 spills 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. I pick up my book from the floor.
She’s perfect again.
She asks for another chip.
This makes a number of bystanders chuckle.
I listen with the book covering my face, 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 voice, I say onto the open pages, “How ‘bout some yogurt?”
Dennis elbows me, 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 brown-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 little 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. 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 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-ass 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 screaming. 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.
Lisa has been publishing essays for five years on the writing life, sex and relationships, and her love for horses, dogs and cowboy country. One of her essays appeared in the IPPY-award-winning anthology Unmasked: Women Write About Sex and Intimacy After Fifty, published in 2017. She lives near Boston, where she rides horses and commutes by bike to her job writing and editing technology blogs for Dell Technologies. She is currently pitching her memoir Calamity Becomes Her to literary agents and is at work on two sequels. You can contact her at lisa dot demasi at gmail dot com.
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