All you need is a can of hairspray.
“We’ll only be a minute,” you tell them. “In and out. Mommy just needs one thing.”
In aisle two, your four children run around you in circles, bouncing and jumping between leaning towers of grape-extract-infused conditioner and columns of hair serum that promise to make your frizzy hair miraculously smooth. They are eight, five, four, and two, and you are a moron for thinking you could run into Rite Aid like a regular person.
Eighteen dollars for a can of hairspray. You’re wondering who pays eighteen dollars for a can of hairspray when you see your four-year-old vomiting at your feet. Does it work better than five-dollar hairspray?
Wait. “Why are you throwing up?”you shout, like it’s his fault, like he’s made a poor choice. You do this because you’re the sort of person who cares a great deal about being humiliated in a drug store.
You forget what the first two stages of grief are and decide to land squarely in stage three: bargaining. You’ll buy him a new toothbrush. A candy bar. A pony. Whatever he wants, if for the love of God he stops throwing up now. This instant. Immediately.
You can hear them in your head, the know-it-alls, the lunatics who say these are the best years of your life. You wish you could kick them in the shins, because you swear on your grandmother’s life that if these are the best years, you’re quitting now. Then you consider Thich Nhat Hanh, and you try to be mindful of the moment, to breathe, to count to ten, to pray, to smile it out. And while you’re doing this, your four-year-old will have collected himself enough to, in fact, answer your absurd question.
He points to his older brother. “He punched me in the stomach,” he says. You turn and stare open-mouthed at the five-year-old, mindful-less fire daggers shooting from your eyes.
“I’m a ninja,” the five-year-old says. “A power ranger. A samurai. I didn’t do it hard on purpose.”
You collect them all by the scruffs of their necks and herd them to the front. You attempt to smile at the cashier, "Gladys" her nametag says in blue block letters, next to Rite Aid: With Us It’s Personal, and you place your purchase on the counter. We have a literal cleanup in aisle two, you hear yourself say. You explain that your son just threw up in the middle of the floor by the eighteen-dollar cans of hairspray, omitting the fact that it’s because his older brother has slugged him. She’ll just assume he’s sick, and that’s definitely better.
You can’t even say sorry, because really, how do you apologize for vomit on the floor? Or for the gruesome cleanup that some oblivious sap in the back has ahead of him? And besides, she looks at you like she knows exactly what kind of mother you are. The kind who brings her children into Rite Aid, even though they have swine flu. And she stares at them, notices how close in age they all are (another strike) and she plays that game, “One of These Things Is Not Quite Like The Others.” You disregard the look and realize there’s no way for her to know that the vomit soaked child was born in Ethiopia and that you not only chose him, you toiled and labored and paid for him. Flew seven thousand four hundred and fourteen miles for him. No point in telling her you’re married. A college graduate. That they all have the same father. None of that matters, because she looks at you like she knows the whole story.
You whisper to your son to remove his winter coat, which you’ve just realized is covered in filth, and pretend to not hear Gladys when she asks the same question everyone asks you. You swipe your credit card and avert your eyes, pull back your shoulders and try to appear taller. You wish you’d worn your nice coat or your hipster glasses (the ones that make you look smart).
“Thanks,” you say when she pushes your purchase across the laminate counter. You grab your bag and make your way out, your ragtag crew behind, a dripping coat in your right hand and your dignity somewhere back in aisle two.
You’re piling them into your 1997 minivan when your daughter asks, “Why do people always say that?”
“Are they all yours or do you babysit?” She’s genuinely curious, not annoyed and impatient like you. You collapse into your seat.
“You know what,” you tell her. “I have no idea.”