Before I met John, I acted like a woman who was out of her mind. One day after work, I picked up my sons from daycare and stopped to buy gasoline. Gas shortages were common in the late 1970s and the line of cars waiting to fill up ran two blocks. I parked in the lineup and got out. A man in front of me stood leaning against his vehicle.
“Have you been here long?” I asked.
“Not long,” he said. “Maybe ten minutes, but we haven’t moved an inch.”
Finally, a man who worked at the station walked along the line of cars telling everyone that the supply had run out, but a tanker truck was due again at 5 a.m.
“Leave your cars parked here, and come back in the morning,” he said. However, he warned if you weren’t in your car when the line began to move, you would lose your spot and be forced to go to the end of the line.
I gathered our things and as we stood on the sidewalk, I felt unnerved. This had never happened before. With no family nearby, home a good three miles away, and uphill, there was nothing to do but walk.
“Gee, Mommy,” George said. “This is great. We’ve never walked home before.”
I nodded. Dressed in high heels and a business suit, it didn’t seem fun to me, but children have a way of viewing life differently. I tried to put on a happy face, but my mind raced. I mentally calculated how much time I needed to get from my home back to the car by 5 a.m. Worse yet, how would I get my kids there with me?
The San Fernando Valley area where I left my car was relatively new, decidedly middle-class with small businesses housed in strip malls on every block of the busy boulevard—cleaners, accountants, TV repair, a supermarket, beauty salons, and the new rage—frozen yogurt shops quickly taking the place of ice cream parlors. New subdivisions laced the streets adjacent to the boulevard with homes where trees and grass had barely taken a foothold.
About three blocks down the road from the gas station, a car pulled over to the curb where my sons and I were walking. A woman leaned over and rolled down her window on the passenger side. “Are you walking home?” she asked.
“Yes,” I answered, wondering how she knew my predicament—but it wasn’t hard to figure. She must have seen my clenched jaw jutting out from my face as I marched two small kids dragging their jackets and lunch boxes.
“Jump in. I’ll give you a lift,” she said as she unlocked the door.
She drove us home amid my profuse thanks.
That night while cooking dinner, my stomach knotted up like an old dish towel. Exhausted and stressed to the point of screaming, I knew I had but one viable answer about getting the car.
When the alarm rang at 4 a.m., I jumped up, threw on warm clothes and checked the boys. They were fine, but I was shaking. I locked the front door, suddenly envisioning a fire and I wouldn’t be there to save them.
I headed down the street, stopping to dry heave in the gutter. Then I began to run, fast; down the dark, worrisome street with its fitful shadows, the reverberating sounds of my feet hitting the pavement along with my raw breathing. When I reached the boulevard, I ran faster, much faster.
I probably looked like a maniac—hair streaming, a face filled with panic focused to the point of madness, a death-like clutch on my handbag, wearing old sweats and shoes not made for running. Nothing and no one would stop me, by God—I simply had to get to the car, get gas, and get home before my children woke up.
And I did. But I never forgot that incapacitating fear: I had left them unattended and the guilt that went along with it never disappeared. Each day after work as I pulled up to their after-school day care center—that place of eternal anxiety where the smell of pee and play dough mixed inexorably together, I could see my sons’ beautiful faces as they stood waiting behind the fence, both clutching limp jackets and banged-up Scooby Do lunch boxes. They’re all right, I sighed. Once again, the end of this day brought them safely to me, so how could I ask for anything more?
But I did ask for more. I had a built-in vision of the kind of life I wanted, probably from too many years of watching Father Knows Best when I was growing up, where the wife wore pearls even when cooking, a fireplace always burned brightly, and the man of the house tamped tobacco in his pipe while speaking thoughtfully to his children. I wanted a husband who would be good to my sons, who would love me, of course, but more than that: he would be kind and respectful of me. He would be a man who loved his community and would bring me into that community. He would have a kind of stature among his peers and that stature would flow also to me. Since I was ambitious, he, too, would have to be ambitious. Together, I imagined we would be a team, harnessed through the rest of our lives in a growing, expanding relationship where our children would be secure and loved and we would be secure and loved in return.
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