Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
The Ballet Recital

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His new girlfriend brings Paige to the rehearsal. When they arrive, Paige is already wearing her costume, a hot pink leotard with a matching pink skirt. The skirt and the wing-like sleeves of the leotard are a frothy mixture of netting and silver sequins.

Paige is skipping, but she breaks into a run when she sees me, squealing, "Mommy!"

I have been standing at the back of the makeshift dressing room, chatting with a couple of the other mothers. I kneel, and Paige barrels into my arms. Her long blond hair is damp and carries the scent of shampoo.

She breaks away from me and I stand, brushing off the knees of my slacks. Her father's girlfriend, Maxine, is hanging back, looking ill at ease. Paige runs back to her and says, "Come on," pulling her toward an empty seat. "I need to put on my ballet slippers."
Maxine sits obligingly, and Paige digs through the plastic grocery bag in Maxine's hand. We are in the theatre wing of the local high school, in a practice room behind the stage of the auditorium. Five rows of chairs, one for each age group of Paige's ballet school, are lined up like an expectant audience, facing the door.

I have only met Maxine once, when I went to Mark's house to collect Paige for the weekend. I walk closer to them and lean forward. "How are you, Maxine?" I ask. This morning I woke late, a luxury, and I am feeling magnanimous, larger than life.

She blinks. "I'm fine, Dana. How are you?"

"I thought Mark said that he was bringing Paige."

"He had to work," she says. "So I offered to bring her."

~

Maxine came to the Unites States from Mexico several years ago, and though her English is perfect, she speaks stiffly, self-consciously. She was working as a housekeeper when Mark met her. He went to a party and met her when he went to the kitchen to help himself to some ice. She was pulling a tray of hors d'oeuvres out of the refrigerator at the time.

My reaction, when I heard about this, was snide. I wondered aloud if he was sleeping with her to save himself the cost of hiring someone to clean the house. My friend, who had been at the party and seen the whole thing, who had driven to my apartment that morning and told me the news sounding truly apologetic, gave me a look.

He was paying me a good deal of alimony, I pointed out, and some child support for Paige, and I knew that he didn't have money to spare. Besides, she was using him, too: a place to live, food to eat, everything she needed. All she had to do was be his personal slave.

"Come on, Dana," my friend said. "He's your ex-husband. You're allowed to be upset when he finds someone else."

I shrugged. "I'm not upset. I just feel sorry for them. This is so tacky. It's embarrassing."

My friend squinted at the ceiling. "I think I need to go."

"Don't leave," I told her.

"You don't seem like you're dealing with this in the healthiest way possible," she said. She had recently gone through a divorce herself and was seeing a counselor.

I made a face. "The healthiest way possible?" I said. "Listen to you. Like you didn't drive your ex's car into the river."

She grabbed her purse and made a beeline for the door. "Let me know when you're feeling better," she called over her shoulder. "Maybe we can get together for lunch."

"Sure," I muttered from the couch. "I'd love to have a healthy lunch."

The front door closed.

I looked around.

Paige was at Mark's. The dog had died. Finally, I thought, my life has come to this. Alone, on a couch, thinking about Mark getting it on with a cleaning lady.

I drank two glasses of wine and went to bed early.

~

In the morning, my head felt clear again. I pictured myself as a balloon, rising above everyone. I would be the perfect ex-wife. I would not bad-mouth Mark or his new girlfriend to Paige. I would not bad-mouth Mark or his new girlfriend to anyone. I would be unfailingly polite and kind.

I could do this because I alone knew the truth: it wouldn't last. They had nothing in common. And she wasn't a young, buxom beauty. By all accounts, she was heavy, and plain, and older than I was.

Every night, I sat in my kitchen eating Lean Cuisine and feeling self-righteous because at least I was being honest. If you were walking by outside and looked in the window at me, you saw the bare truth. Me, alone. If you saw them together, they might look happy, but it was all a lie, a façade.

I imagined them lying in bed together, him smiling at her the way he used to smile at me, as though the layer in front of his eyes had been removed. There was only a little sting. I shook it off. It didn't matter, because it wasn't real. Nothing about them was real.

~

But I was only human, after all. I pumped Paige for information at every opportunity. She was four, a smart girl, old enough to notice details and too young to know to keep them to herself. She lay next to me on the couch and I stroked her soft, kitteny head.

"What does she cook?"

"Who, Maxine?" she asked.

I swallowed a bubble of impatience. "Yes, Maxine," I said slowly. I was editing my words, my tone of voice. As in, "Yes, Maxine, the bimbo who is sleeping with your father and making a laughingstock out of me," cut down to a polite, "Yes, Maxine."

"Lots of stuff. Guacamole, enchiladas, green beans, apples. Cookies. Sometimes she makes me macaroni and cheese or something like you do."

I bit my lip. "Did you tell her I make that?"

"Yeah. Sure. She knows I like it."

"Oh."

"She makes it with real cheese and everything. She let me pour the milk, but she used that cutter thingy because she said it was sharp."

"The grater."

"Yeah."

I couldn't help myself. Trying to sound nonchalant, I said, "Does Daddy really like her?"

"Yeah. She's nice."

"Good," I said.

"Can I go now?" Paige asked. "I want to color."

"Of course." I kissed her, and she got up from the couch.

~

The next weekend, when I went to pick Paige up, Maxine opened the door. She was every bit as wide and plain as I'd been told. It had crossed my mind that my friends might have been trying to protect me, spinning a lovely young woman into a hag for my benefit. But no. She was no hag, but she was not lovely, either.

"Hello," I said, true to my vow of goodness. I stuck out my hand. "I'm Dana, Mark's ex-wife. Paige's mom."

She smiled -- a shy, friendly smile -- and shook my hand. One of her back teeth was missing. She was wearing a peasant dress, and her feet were bare. So this was Maxine. I'd been right; there hadn't been anything to worry about after all. Any day now, Mark would be on my doorstep, on his knees, begging me to take him back. Never mind that I was living in an apartment building, with no doorstep to speak of, and that Mark hadn't knelt since high school, when he'd injured one of his knees playing football. I knew that he'd come crawling back, figuratively if not literally.

I walked past Maxine into Mark's house, my former house, with a smooth smile. I knew where every dish and knickknack was in this house. I had decorated it, right down to the plug covers color-coordinated to match the paint. There was nothing here that I could not control.

"Paige," I called. "I'm here to pick you up."

She would be in her bedroom right now, white with pink trim, stuffing some last-minute addition into her overnight bag. She was zipping the bag and picking up her dog, a soft blond stuffed animal that she'd slept with every night since she was two. I knew it as surely as if I were in the room with her.

And sure enough, as she rounded the corner from her bedroom, her overnight bag was in one hand -- hastily zipped, a plush green tail caught between the metal teeth -- and the dog was under her other arm.

"Hey, Mom," she said cheerfully, and we walked out past Maxine. I gave Maxine a smug smile and called airily, "See you, Mark," toward the back room, where he would be hunched in front of the computer screen. I didn't wait for him to come out and kiss her goodbye. I enjoyed imagining him running outside, hoping for just one glimpse of me as we drove off, leaving him in a cloud of dust. Too late, Mark. You had your chance.

He could have stopped me the first time I left him, the time I spent the night on a friend's couch. Or the second time, when I took Paige to my parents' house and didn't come back for two months. All he did was phone me and say, in that quiet voice of his, "How's Paige? Is she there?" as though I didn't matter at all. I was waiting for him to cry and say, "I need you; I can't live without you. Don't you see? You have to come back."

But he never did. All he'd say was, "How's Paige? Is she there?" in that quiet voice.

It wasn't like he never said anything else -- he asked how I was getting along, if I needed money, when I thought we'd be back -- but it was as though he didn't understand why I was there, what I was expecting from him. I could barely understand it myself, yet this seemed like a flimsy excuse. He wasn't even making an effort.

The third time, I left for good. I rented an apartment a few blocks away from the house, so I'd still be near Paige, and I took a suitcase with my clothes. I should have taken a saucepan, at least, but I didn't want to ruin the house I'd put together so carefully. I even left some shoes and dresses on my side of the closet, so that it would look the way a closet was meant to look.

Mark works from home, so it seemed perfectly logical to leave Paige with him. He was accustomed to taking care of her. Later, we worked out the system: I take her on alternating weekends, unless we've made other arrangements. When I pick her up, Mark hovers in the background, reminding her to brush her teeth and behave herself -- as though I'm not her mother, but some well-meaning stranger -- and looking at me blankly until I feel fairly driven insane, and I remember why I left him in the first place, because he never did know the right thing to say.

"Remember how you felt about him when you met," my mother suggested one night when I was staying with them, my two-day stay inexplicably elongated, my parents exchanging a glance when Paige and I continued to come downstairs every morning. Finally my mother took me aside and asked politely, warily, if there was some sort of trouble at home.

"I can't go back there," I said, feeling a bit desperate. If they asked me to leave, I didn't know where I'd go. "I don't want to be with him anymore."

Two nights later, she had come to me suggesting the walk down memory lane. "What made you fall in love?" she asked.

"Oh, Mother," I sighed.

"Just think about it."

"But there's nothing! I can't think of anything."

"Surely there's something."

"I don't think I ever loved him," I said. "I think I only wanted to."

She gave me a long, appraising look. "Dana," she said. "Does he hit you?"

"No, of course not."

"Does he cheat?"

"No."

"Did you have a fight? Did he hurt your feelings?"

I sighed. "No."

"You don't leave someone because you're tired of him," she said. "No one would stay married if we all did that."

"That isn't the problem," I said.

"Then what is it?"

"I don't know." I shrugged my shoulders helplessly. "I just can't stand it anymore."

She bit her lip. "Dana, sweetie, your dad and I are happy to have you. You know we are. And you're welcome to stay until you're feeling up to snuff. But sooner or later, you need to face up to your responsibilities and take Paige home. You're going to start to miss Mark, you know."

"Right," I said. She left, and I lay back on my bed. It was the same bed I had slept on when I was sixteen. The sheets were still pale pink, the comforter a deep rose.

I had been lying, of course. I knew exactly what had made me fall in love with Mark: the first time I took my shirt off in front of him, he slid my bra strap down and kissed my shoulder gently. He was so serious, so methodical. His glasses were on the dashboard of the car.

We were nineteen. We didn't make love until several weeks later, but right then I knew we would, at some point, go all the way. He was my first lover. And I was his, because for all his calm and seriousness, he was fumbling around the fact that he had no idea how to open a bra. He had had several girlfriends in high school, but for one reason or another, he had never taken that final step. The man is thirty-four years old, and as far as I know, he has had two lovers in his life: Maxine, and me.

But that was when I fell for him, that moment in the car, when he kissed my shoulder as if there were nothing more beautiful and desirable than that, as though he had everything in the world that he could ever want right there under his fingertips.

We married after graduation, and eight years later, Paige was born. We were tired of each other by then. The magic, the mystery, all that hoopla that we felt when we first met, all of that had disappeared after the first year or so. We had spent the second year fighting, the third in quiet resignation. Marriage was boring. It hadn't taken long to figure that out, to realize that the jokes people told about marriage on television were funny because they were true, because married people were not the same as newlyweds; they were millions of miles apart.

Mark and I finally settled into a routine. We became comfortable with each other. Then I got pregnant with Paige, and everything changed again.

I quit work and opened myself up to the enchantment of raising my child. Two weeks in, I began to feel as though I were going mad with loneliness and boredom and fatigue. I loved having a baby, I loved Paige, but I would have killed for a full night's sleep, and for someone to talk with.

Paige didn't exactly fill that role: I could talk to her, of course, but I was used to working, to being in an office, to being someone who could get things done. I had gone from that to being someone who walked around covered in spit-up because she was sick of changing her clothes every five minutes. Someone who said, "Where's Mommy's little darling?" in a syrupy, high-pitched voice, though I had always sworn that I wouldn't; someone whose conversation consisted of comparisons of poop color and whiny complaints about exhaustion.

And after my long days, Mark would come home and make a face: the house smelled like a diaper pail, I was walking around in my pajamas, and the baby was crying.

It was that moment when he first walked in the door, the feelings that crossed his face like a dark cloud, that made me begin to hate him. I couldn't help it if I had nothing more interesting to talk about than strained apricots. When he came home at six and I told him that I hadn't had time to take a shower, his brow furrowed disbelievingly.

My life consisted of bodily fluids, and he was out getting a promotion, being invited to fancy lunches, winning an award. I suppose part of it was jealousy. I was being held back, and instead of waiting for me, or even understanding what was happening, he just went on ahead.

One night, over a dinner of cold tuna fish sandwiches, he described the lunch he had had, down to the garnish on the chocolate mousse, and I threw a glass of water in his face. That was the first time I left him.

The second time, the time I went to my parents' house, was when Paige was two. And my mother was wrong; I never did start to miss Mark. I missed home, I missed my bedroom, I missed my privacy, but that was all. I went back, finally, because I'd overstayed my welcome with my parents, and Paige missed her daddy.

By the time Paige turned three, Mark had started working from home, and I'd gone back to the office. When Paige woke in the night and wanted a drink of water, Mark's name began to be the one she called. He took her to the park with mismatched clothes and sagging pigtails, and other mothers smiled at him and talked about how sweet it was to see a little girl with her dad. If I had done the same thing, they would have been whispering something far less flattering. It only made me feel more resentful; I couldn't help it.

He became more and more adept at taking care of her, and I tried to phase myself out gradually, so that by the time I left, they would hardly even notice that I was gone.

~

"Mom?" Paige is bumping against my knee, leaning against my lap. "How long 'til it starts?"

I look at my watch. "Miss Lindsay said the rehearsal will start at 10:30. You have fifteen minutes."

"How long is that?"

"Half of a Mr. Rogers."

"Yikes," Paige says. "That's not long."

Inadvertently, I smile at Maxine, the isn't-she-cute smile. Paige yanks open the plastic bag which Maxine has left on the seat next to her and lifts out a pink satin ribbon. "Maxine, can you fix my hair?"

"Sure." Maxine pulls out a brush and expertly smoothes Paige's shiny blond hair. She makes a ponytail and binds it with an elastic. Paige leans back against her knees, twisting the ribbon around her small fingers.

"When's Daddy coming?" she asks.

"Later," Maxine says. "When he's finished with work."

"Okay," Paige says agreeably. She is lacing the ribbon through her fingers, over and under, over and under.

I look around the room at all of the mothers with their children, all the women and girls. There are no fathers or little boys.

It takes me a moment to realize that I am the only adult without a child; some of the other women even have two.

Maxine is frowning, concentrating on braiding Paige's ponytail before she twists it into a bun. She pulls a bobby pin apart with her teeth and tucks it into Paige's hair.

A woman from one of the other ballet classes walks past us with her daughter in tow and says, "Your little girl is adorable."

I say, "Thank you."

She stops and looks at me uncertainly. "Oh, you're her mother?" She turns from me to Maxine. "I'm sorry. I just assumed... Sorry about that."

Maxine nods, unflustered. I'm not sure whether she understands what has happened.

"That's okay," I say. "Don't worry about it." I swallow the rest of my sentence: It's not your fault that you're too stupid to see that I'm the one she looks like, that I'm the one with the blond hair and the good bone structure. I'm the one.

"Okay, baby, time to put on the bow," Maxine says.

Paige unthreads the ribbon from her fingers and hands it to Maxine.

Maxine loops it around the blond bun and ties it into a bow. She turns Paige around to face us and says, "You look pretty as a picture." Only she says pitcher instead of picture.

"Can I go play with the other kids?" Paige asks her.

"Okay," Maxine says. She gives Paige a kiss, and Paige bounces toward another girl from her class.

"You shouldn't let her get too attached to you," I say meanly, when Paige is out of earshot. "It will upset her when you don't live with them anymore."

"Don't worry," she says. "Mark and I will get married."

She says it so innocently, she is so naïve, that I have to fight the urge to laugh in her face. In America, I want to say, things don't work that way. You'd be a fool to think otherwise.

"July," she says.

"Pardon?"

"We're getting married in July."

I say, "Is that what you're hoping will happen?" It is the end of May, and Paige's last day of preschool is in a week. Every year there is a ceremony, and the children sing.

"No. We agreed. Mark bought me a dress."

"A wedding dress?"

"Yes. It's not so fancy, though."

"Mark bought you a dress?"

"We went shopping."

"The groom can't see the bride's dress before a wedding. That's bad luck."

"It's okay."

I shake my head.

"Don't worry, Dana. It will be fine."

I do start to laugh, then. I can't believe what she is saying to me. "Why are you doing this?" I ask her. "Do you need a green card or something?"

She frowns. "I'm an American citizen," she says. "Just like you."

"No," I tell her. "Not like me. Not like me at all."

I stand and walk away.

Paige is nearby, playing with two other girls whose mothers have finished touching up their costumes and hair.

Miss Lindsay walks into the room, wearing a leotard and ballet slippers and carrying a clipboard. Behind her, I almost don't see Mark. She stops just inside the doorway to write something on one of the neat, clipped pages, and he eases past to avoid jostling her arm.

He is more dressed up than usual -- courtesy of a meeting, I imagine -- but he has loosened his tie and unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. His khakis are pressed, and he has on glasses.

His face lights up when he catches sight of Maxine, and he walks over and kisses her, then kneels to squeeze Paige, who has run across the room and flung herself against his legs.

"How's my little ballerina?" he is asking, and Paige giggles.

They don't notice me.


Leah Browning is the author of Babysitting Basics and Babysitting Rules, both forthcoming from Capstone Press. Her stories, poems, essays, and articles have appeared in a variety of publications including The Saint Ann’s Review, Arable: A Literary Journal, MotherVerse, Mothering Magazine, and the anthology Proposing on the Brooklyn Bridge: Poems About Marriage. In addition to writing, she serves as editor of the Apple Valley Review, an online literary journal, and spends time with her husband and children.


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