It is possible that I took that whole “write what you know” thing a little too seriously in my creative writing courses. My fiction always seems to begin in real life. And the lines between what actually happens to me, here in the world, and what happens to my characters ... well, they get a little blurry. Today, I wrote a new scene for the manuscript I’m working on and it came directly from my real-life morning. Except not. Because my morning involved my husband and my three boys and my protagonist’s involved her husband and their one daughter. And I adore my family, probably to a fault (or at least at the expense of other things in my life), while she’s, um, a bit less enamored of her domestic life. Still, the house she lives in is almost exactly like mine. As is the car she drives and the school her child attends.
So, if you’ve ever been at all curious about the difference between my real life and my fiction, here’s a look.
I woke up to the sound of my alarm clock at 6:15. Z was just on his way upstairs for his morning cuddle. Roy was still asleep, as were the other brothers.
I put on my clothes (workout gear) and slippers, went to the bathroom, brushed my teeth and headed downstairs to start breakfast. Z’s mood seemed fine, if slightly mischievous. He pouted a bit about it being a school day and not being allowed to play on the iPad, but it seemed to pass. He hid from me and peeked out at me a couple of times and, once we were downstairs, he headed straight into D’s room to wake him up.
The boys all ate breakfast – French toast sticks with maple syrup and fresh cut mango slices and orange juice – and Roy came downstairs to make sure D and S got ready for school and made it to the bus on time.
Z finished his breakfast (requiring extra syrup, of course) and asked me to help him get dressed. He was happy and playful as we took off his pajamas. He noticed, after taking off the shirt, that one of his fingernails had chipped, leaving a sharp snaggly corner. I got the clippers from the bathroom and trimmed all his nails. As I did, he said I pinched one finger too hard.
And that was it. That was the moment the morning went south.
He was angry and yelling at me and so, as I typically do, I left the room. Sometimes, he just fusses for a while and then it’s over.
Maybe this would have been one of those mornings or maybe not. But because my husband was home and listening to the angry shouting, he intervened. He went into Z’s room and told him, firmly, to stop yelling at me and get himself dressed. The yelling that had started because of the hurt finger then evolved into yelling because I wasn’t helping him get dressed.
Then, he did finally manage to get himself dressed and it was time to take him to school so we started a new round of yelling because he wanted to curl up on the couch with me, as we sometimes do, to watch an episode of “The Clone Wars.”
I followed my usual custom of going about my business and ignoring the tantrum. I got my bags from upstairs, put on my boots and coat, went out to the garage, loaded my stuff into the car and started the engine.
Z was not crying or screaming at this point, but he was raising his voice and was adamant that he wanted to watch Clone Wars and that he did not want to go to school. Roy spoke to him again – firmly, but not yelling – and said that there was no time for Clone Wars because he’d wasted the time fussing in his room.
I said nothing, but demonstrated that I was about to leave the house, with or without Z. At that point, he consented to getting his coat on (with my help in zipping it) and his boots and hat and headed out to the car.
I buckled him in and turned on the DVD player in the car. (Which is a terrible habit, I think, but seems unbreakable at this point.)
He watched in silence as we drove to school. When we turned into the parking lot, he unbuckled his seat belt, as he is supposed to, and turned off the video. I thought, for a moment, that he’d actually just get out via the “car line” the way he’s supposed to. He seemed almost ready to.
But when we got to the sidewalk where he was supposed to get out, he scooted across the back seat to the far side and said he’s not going to school today and he would never change his mind.
I pulled out of the car line and parked. I turned off the car and told him I was willing to wait until he changed his mind but that nothing else would happen today until he went to school. We watched his friends all going in. I took out my iphone and started practicing my French to pass the time. It was getting colder in the car and snow was accumulating on the windows. He mostly stayed silent, but would occasionally blurt out that he was not going to school and he would never change his mind.
After about 20 minutes, I said, “Well, Z, some things at home are going to need to change. If you’re not going to school, then I can’t go to work and we won’t have money for food or clothes.”
At that point, he sighed an exasperated sigh and said, “Ok, I’ll go.”
We got out of the car and we trudged to the door. As we walked, I told him that I was going to have to have the nanny take him to school from now on because I can’t waste this much time on it every day. (The truth is that the nanny will be taking him tomorrow regardless because I have to leave early for work.)
We went into school and he gave me hug when we arrived at his classroom door. I turned and left without seeing him go in.
Day one, Moira tells herself, as the chime on her phone sounds, waking her from a muddled dream. This is the first day of doing things better. Doing them right. She has virtually nothing scheduled in the office today and there is no need to rush in before dawn. She is here, with her family, where she belongs. She’ll take Willa to school and head in from there, arriving before lunchtime.
David hasn’t stirred. She knows he was up late last night, remembers falling asleep to the sound of his voice on the computer’s speaker phone, Skyping an online war game with one of his graduate school buddies. She feels an instant tinge of resentment at his copious leisure time, but it’s just a reflex, she reminds herself, like the ache of an old injury that just needs a moment of stretching before it will be all right. David is doing his best. They are all doing their best.
She quickly pulls on the clothes she laid out last night - black pants and a long, red silk tunic under a black cashmere duster - and her warmest slippers to head downstairs. In the space of her less-than-48-hour long visit, Sonya had managed to leave them with at least a week’s worth of food, so Moira needs only to turn on the oven and let it heat up. There’s a French toast casserole topped with brown sugar and pecans in the fridge and batches of homemade pancakes and waffles in the freezer: an embarrassment of riches for a family that still hasn’t fully adjusted to an extreme scarcity of good take out and delivery.
Moira flips on some lights - the front hallway, the living room, the hallway back to Moira’s room - and clicks on the gas fireplace and the radio. She cleans out the coffee maker, and, first checking the clock to be sure it’s not too early, grinds the beans for today’s pot.
She has a few moments to herself to head back upstairs, brush her hair and put on some makeup, but she is tempted to just sit for a moment in front of the fire, listening to the morning’s news. She laughs at herself, almost out loud, as she’ll probably hear the same news at least twice on the commute in to Chicago. She wants to follow David’s advice, taking more time to be alone, to take care of herself, but the notion seems so ridiculous. Isn’t the problem really that she has too much time to herself and not enough to do? She regrets deeply this decision to leave her partnership and work only part-time.
The breakfast casserole goes in the oven and she takes the carpeted stairs back up to the master bathroom, looking at herself for the first time this morning. Her sharp features haven’t aged—she supposes she has the extra fat to thank for that—and her hair, thanks to the insanely expensive ministrations of her Chicago stylist, is still easily tamed into a chic wedge of dark curls. She is more attractive at 44 than she was in her 20s, but that might not be saying much.
“Hey, beautiful,” David says casually, to her back or her reflection, as he finds his way to the toilet behind her.
In the mirror, in the half-light, wearing only the boxers he slept in, he cuts the same trim figure as always, his lean runner’s body rippled with wiry muscles. She smiles, though without his glasses on, he probably won’t see it. That’s the joke, of course, him calling her beautiful like that.
She has finished with mascara and he’s pulled on sweats for his morning workout and they are drinking coffee—his black, hers with the fat free half and half that is almost as good as the real stuff—when Willa stumbles out from her room to the breakfast bar.
“Smells good,” she says, confused.
“Sonya left it,” Moira says instantly, keeping expectations low.
They eat together, such as it is. Willa sits in her customary stool, the one closest to the fireplace. David stands near her, but never quite manages to make himself sit still. Moira has a plate sitting in the kitchen, which she picks from as she assembles Willa’s lunch, filling each compartment of the pink plastic bento box.
“Ugh, not the pepperoni,” Willa protests, peering over her plate to watch. “That kind you got this time is too spicy. I only like the other kind.”
Moira does not remove it. She can leave it if she doesn’t like it. Or throw it away. Not that kids are allowed to do that anymore.
David ruffles Willa’s hair and tells her she needs to start getting ready for school. She’s inhaled her breakfast, this kid who usually barely touches whatever is put in front of her. As Willa climbs down from the stool and heads to the bathroom and her room, Moira turns away from the water bottle she’s filling and tries to catch David’s eye. They’d talked, at one point, about having Willa pack her own lunches. But no one is enforcing it. And Moira knows her daughter will only even consider it if asked by David.
David has already turned to go back upstairs, to sit at his desk in the loft office and talk on the phone and watch the market on the computer screens or play online bridge or some other game or learn a new language on his iPad or any of the thousand other things that seem to fill his days so completely.
Willa emerges from her room just as Moira is zipping the lunch box into its insulated carrying bag.
“My hair,” she says, pouting.
“Oh, sweetie, I’ll help you,” Moira says, knowing this is the one thing her daughter will actually accept from her. The unruly curls are her fault, of course. But she is also the only one who knows how to gently get the knots out. And so her daughter lets her.
Except this morning it goes badly. There is one too-hard tug of the comb and Willa is back in her room, door slammed, Moira left standing in the kitchen in her slippers, feeling stupid and angry and hurt and tired of all of it. David is on the phone.
She does what she thinks she is supposed to do in these situations, though the genesis of this wisdom she can’t actually remember, and keeps going about her business. She collects the breakfast plates and piles them in the sink. She slips her phone from her pocket and looks at messages. She drinks a bit more coffee and then pours another cup into a stainless steel travel mug. She takes the spiral staircase—the one that will not take her past David’s desk—upstairs to collect her purse and briefcase. She gets her coat and slips on her shoes.
David, still holding the phone to one ear, comes down and walks to Willa’s room.
He opens the door and speaks to her in a low voice. Moira can’t make out what they’re saying but it is something measured, something reasonable, something utterly opposite all the things racing around her own mind.
Willa emerges, still pouting, but not completely hateful. She puts on her own coat and wordlessly, walks out to the garage.
“Have a good day,” David says, in their general direction.
Moira starts the car and Willa, in the back, turns on the DVD player to pick up watching the Planet Earth documentary. The 15 minute drive passes in silence, save for the voice of David Attenborough.
It is not entirely unpleasant, though, and, when they arrive at school, Willa clicks open her seatbelt and turns off the video without being asked. Moira exhales in relief as they approach the car line.
“I don’t want to go today,” Willa says suddenly, as they are next in line. “My head hurts. I don’t feel well. I want to go home.”
Moira feels herself almost choking, almost crying. Wordlessly, she maneuvers the car out of the line and into a parking space in the lot. She takes a deep breath, as she has practiced, and says, “Willa, you’re not sick. You ate a good breakfast and you’re fine. It’s time to get out of the car and go to school.”
Another deep breath. The urge to string together innumerable profanities. This was supposed to be day one. This was supposed to be them doing it right. She has given up hours of time at the office for this. To sit here and deal with this.
“Willa, I don’t care if we have to sit here all damn day. You’re going to school. Nothing else happens today until you walk into school. We are not going back home.”
Moira turns off the car’s engine for emphasis. It’s a bluff that she can’t even begin to explain the meaning of. This is not supposed to be a negotiation. Around them, dozens of kids, including the tiny ones in the preschool program, are all walking more or less happily into school. But not hers. Her second grader, newly 8 years old, is sitting here, refusing.
They sit for 10 minutes. The October chill is creeping in.
Moira, despite the fact that she has little work to do, is feeling frantic. Her weekly trips to Chicago are about planting the flag there at least, insisting upon her own relevance. And now she is failing even at this. At motherhood, too, of course.
“Okay,” Moira says, “I get it. You don’t want to go. But here’s the thing. If you’re not going to school, I’m not going to work. So you’re stuck with me all day, right here.”
She is just winding up, thinking about adding that if she doesn’t work, the family won’t have money for food or clothes. This is patently absurd, of course, and Willa might well know that. But she is about to declare it anyway, when Willa lets out an enormous, disgusted sigh and says, “Fine.”
She gets out of the car. Fifteen minutes late to school.
Moira will have missed the train, but can make up the time if she drives the whole way in. Which she does, listening to the radio and the same news she has already heard. Her alone time.