In last month's column, Cassie Premo Steele asked readers to submit short stories about mothers and children in the setting of a school. Perfect for this time of the year, this story by Aileen DePeter captures the anxiety that many mothers feel as their children get "dropped off."
The Drop Off
by Aileen DePeter
The drop-off line inched forward and Marney found herself wedged between two giant black SUVs. She could see Nina in the rearview mirror in the new knit tights she had chosen to wear, even though it was still summer and the school year was just a week old. When they finally pulled up to the right spot, Nina opened the door, letting a bit of summer into the car; the sounds of the cicadas, like a drumbeat, a soundtrack to their mornings, sang so loudly it almost blocked out their goodbyes.
Marney's hands gripped the steering wheel as she watched her daughter walk toward the double doors. She watched the swing of her dark ponytail as it swished from side to side, her easy gait, her long legs peeking out from beneath the backpack, until the double door opened and the shape of Nina disappeared from view. Only then did she release her hands from the wheel, her palms marred by how deep her nails had been buried in them. When she looked back into the empty seat behind her, she saw the lunchbox.
And then there was something like rage, like that lunchbox was filled with all the nourishment her daughter would need, the only thing she could provide from afar and there it was sitting in the backseat. As the week had gone on, each day Marney felt she knew a little less about Nina. That each time Nina opened the car door, a little piece of Marney fragmented and fell to the driveway below.
She pulled the car into an assigned parking space and left it crooked in its place. She pushed open the double doors into the school, and the air hung hard and humid. She started to itch because she knew those knit tights would be too much, too hot, suffocating her daughter as she sat at her desk.
For a moment she thought she saw Nina, merging ahead into the large crowd of children, burdened by backpacks, jostling their way through the hallway, but it was just another pink backpack, another shock of dark hair.
She and Nina had walked those halls together, months earlier, for the orientation. Their hands clasped together as they followed the parent volunteer down the unfamiliar corridors, hanging back from the large group in front of them, pausing ever so slightly to peek their heads into classrooms, to watch the other children at their desks.
"Which one will be mine?"
"I don't know. We'll have to wait and see."
"Maybe the one with the red door?"
"Or maybe the one with the blue. You will have your very own cubby, a place to put your new backpack."
Marney had pointed out classrooms and the playground where it peeked through the windows. She showed her where the cafeteria was and the gym; her hand never left Nina's, guided her along the whole way. When they turned the corner they realized the ceiling had been pulled away, exposed; the duct-work had hung above them.
"It's like a spaceship, mommy."
Marney tightened her grip and they continued beneath that space-age corridor that hovered above crayon-stained walls.
Now, she realized she had no idea where the classroom was or if the door to Nina's room was red or blue. It had all been a blur that first day, the rustle of children entering the room, the flash of cameras, the wide, broad smile of the teacher. And Nina was out there somewhere in that mix of the crowd. Marney wondered if should could just climb up into that still-exposed duct-work, lay her cheek against the cool metal, her breasts pressed flat beneath her, so she could look down on the wave of children below, attentive, waiting for the silhouette of her daughter to make its way out of the crowd. She wondered if she could nestle there like a mother bird, her watchful eyes raptor-like, her heartbeat echoing against the metal like a low, slow drum.
But the push of the crowd moved her along, and there was a glimpse of long dark hair and she reached her arm out, but it just hung before her, her hand unable to grasp anything but the air around her. Then the hallways began to clear and she realized she was alone, except for the last scurrying student and a voice.
"Can I help you?"
She squeaked out something that sounded like "office" and blinked back tears and followed the long reach of the teacher's finger until her feet moved beneath her. With each step, Marney felt like she was fracturing more and more, parts of her body falling out of place. When she opened the door to the office, she was hit with the blast of the AC. The sweat on her back froze, and she tried to compose her face into something that could be construed as normal. She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the posters that hung along the wall behind the desk, posters of sweeping landscapes, snow-capped mountains, imprinted with words like success and dreams, and what she saw looked like some cubist nightmare. She remembered the Picasso print that hung in the coffee house by her home and Nina asking why the eyes were where the ears should be, and Marney tried to focus, to will her eyes to their proper place, to make her mouth, now sideways off to the side of her cheek, find its way back to the middle of her face so she could open her mouth and speak.
And when she did speak, it started like a whisper and then rose too high, too quick, so sharp she cut that cold air and she imagined what it would be like to live in that poster with her daughter, the wave of mountains behind her, her daughter barefoot, the small tendrils of her hair picked up by the wind framing her face.
How could she just freeze the time that had sped up exponentially? Those long, long, early days where there was no sleep and the hours seemed to creep by, where she watched the clock waiting for her husband to come home, willing away the hours. Those early weeks where days turned into nights into days, and then how quickly that all changed. One year became two then three then four then five -- half a decade -- how long that used to seem. Now if she could just slow it down, stop the way things have started to so quickly fast-forward, freeze them like the sweat on her back, the poster on the wall.
"My daughter forgot her lunch." Marney pushed the monogrammed lunchbox across the counter to the tired-looking admin who stood there blinking loudly, totally unaware. She cleared her throat and the admin turned towards her, her mouth curled up into a smile, the fluorescent lights harsh on her sun-spotted skin.
"Mrs. Kane, room 5, my daughter, her tights . . . " Her voice trailed off as Marney turned and felt the murky air hot on her skin as she made her way back down the hallway, opened the double doors and stepped outside where the cicadas screamed, and the sun hit her face bright and hard. She could feel the pieces of her face shift and slide. She wondered if the other mothers had begun to change, if they too pulled into the drop-off line with faces and bodies that were their own, then drove away with limbs that turned to jelly, boneless, hanging limply at their sides; she wondered if other mothers felt they were melting, running like chalk on the sidewalk after the afternoon rain, the colors merging, melding, and slowly disappearing. She wondered if later, they, too, would rummage through backpacks, dig their hands down low until they found the shape of the glue stick, round and hard in the bottom corner of the bag, twist it open and try to make themselves whole.
Aileen DePeter is an editor and proofreader. She resides in Connecticut with her husband and three children. Come visit her online at thethreebeansalad.blogspot.com, where she blogs with humor about navigating the deep, dark crazy of parenting.
Notes from Cassie Premo Steele:
Although the "Birthing the Mother Writer" column promises to shed light on the behind-the-scenes revision and editing processes in publishing, we haven't said much about editing yet. Since Aileen DePeter is an editor and proofreader and her story is so adept at using punctuation skillfully, I thought I would take the opportunity this month -- when so many are returning to school -- to put the spotlight on common mistakes many writers make with commas and show some quick and simple ways to fix them.
1. Commas link two sentences with different subjects in motion.
The easiest way to remember what a comma does most commonly is to look for a different subject and verb on either side of it.
Example: The mother yelled, but the boy climbed the tree anyway.
If the subject is the same, no comma:
Example: The baby peed all over the mama and then cooed joyfully.
2. Commas link a dependent clause (that starts with when, if, because, however, etc.) at the beginning of a sentence and an action.
Example: If it stops raining, we can walk to the library.
The trick to this is if the dependent clause comes after the main action, no comma is needed.
Example: We can walk to the library if it stops raining.
3. Commas form links between lists or series. These can be subjects, verbs, adverbs, or descriptive phrases.
Example of a list of subjects: The mother, the baby, and the toddler ate ice cream.
Example of a list of verbs: Timmy screamed, pushed the Lego tower, and stormed out of the play room.
Example of a list of descriptive phrases: She noticed that these mood bursts often came after Timmy had eaten sugar, skipped a nap, or wore himself out at the playground.
Aileen DePeter does this list-building so beautifully in her story, and it allows for the quick pace and dramatic tension that rises, especially near the end.
Notice, for example, the two lists connected with commas in this second-to-last sentence of the story:
She wondered if the other mothers had begun to change, if they too pulled into the drop-off line with faces and bodies that were their own, then drove away with limbs that turned to jelly, boneless, hanging limply at their sides; she wondered if other mothers felt they were melting, running like chalk on the sidewalk after the afternoon rain, the colors merging, melding, and slowly disappearing.
In the first half of the sentence, the verbs (begun, pulled, drove) are connected with commas, and in the second half of the sentence, the list of gerunds (or -ing endings) are connected with commas.
Also, as a special punctuation bonus, we see a great example of a well-placed semi-colon here, which connects two complete sentences, each with a subject and verb.
4. Commas set off a descriptive clause.
Again, Aileen DePeter does this so well. Here are a couple of examples, with the descriptive clauses in bold:
. . . the sounds of the cicadas, like a drumbeat, a soundtrack to their mornings, sang so loudly it almost blocked out their goodbyes.
She wondered if later, they, too, would rummage through backpacks, dig their hands down low until they found the shape of the glue stick, round and hard in the bottom corner of the bag, twist it open and try to make themselves whole.
Call me crazy, but I love commas and hope this little lesson has helped you see how much they can, when used correctly, allow your writing to move from funky to flowing. When I use commas in my writing, I rewrite the Boy George song in my head to be "Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon." The next time you write, try letting commas bring color to your craft!