We Need to Figure Out How to Use the Fire Extinguisher
I’ve just quieted my thoughts after nursing Evelyn for the third time since 2 AM when Rocky’s alarm goes off. The sound is death by a thousand cuts. He puts it on snooze. This gives me enough time to almost fall asleep before the second onslaught. By the third snooze, I have given up hope that anything good can happen in this world.
I’m drinking coffee when Rocky sends me this text:
“Happy international women’s day. Thank you for making me a better man. You have taught me how much more powerful women are than I could ever imagine.”
The hard parts of me soften. I have forgotten the thing with the alarm.
I luxuriate in this feeling until it is interrupted by the sound of Elijah jumping on his sister.
It’s 12:27 PM. Which means it’s
“CHICKEN? BREAD? CRACKER? MOOOOOOMMMMMMYYYYY!”
“Yup, I’m working on it — ”
Unintelligible shrieking, unintelligible shrieking.
“Can you please stop screaming — ”
Unintelligible shriek —
Unintelligible shrieking, unin —
Elijah runs into the playroom and continues to aggressively clean up his toys. It’s like watching a hurricane apologize. Evelyn realizes that peace has been restored and promptly responds by crying.
“What’s wrong baby girl? Hang on, hang on.”
I quickstep to where she is now wailing, her arms horizontally outstretched like she is about to levitate to the ceiling. I pick her up and she immediately relaxes into my shoulder. She switches between rubbing her snot on my shirt and bouncing up and down in my arms. Elijah sees his jubilant sister and immediately loses it. He’s on the floor screaming conflagrations into the carpet. It starts smoking.
Then my phone rings. It’s Rocky. I pick up because it’s the right thing to do.
“Hello?” The kids are both screaming now. The carpet has caught fire.
“Hey. How are you?” he asks.
“I’m good,” I lie like a champ. “How are you?”
Then he answers my question. He tells me about how his coworkers didn’t thank him for the nice thing he did, and how that hurt his feelings. He tells me about how tired he is. He tells me about how stressed he feels about his never-ending to-do list. He starts telling me about the last chapter of a manga he read. At some point, he’s talking about a particularly successful ranked game of League of Legends he played last night, and how much he is looking forward to playing again toni —
“Babe, I can’t talk right now. I have to go,” I say abruptly as my entire house burns to the ground. He is saying something as I hang up.
The kids have been asleep for about thirty minutes. I check my phone. No new notifications. I go into my messages and read the last text Rocky sent me. I replay our phone conversation and realize that I have done a bad thing.
I call him hoping that he is on his lunch break. He answers.
“Hey,” he says in hushed tones.
“Hey! Can you talk?” I ask, interpreting his abruptness as fuming rage.
“Yeah, but I have to be quiet,” he hisses.
I hear a toilet flush.
“Are you pooping?”
“Yes,” he dramatically whispers.
The warmth of relief and humor melt my face into a grin.
“I’m mean,” I say stupidly.
“What are you talking about?”
“I asked you how you were doing, and then I got mad at you for answering my question.”
“Yeah, I noticed.” Another toilet flushes. I’ve yet to hear a sink.
“I forgive you,” he says at full volume.
“Everyone else is done pooping?”
“Yeah, but no one washed their hands. These people,” he mutters.
I’m engaged in combat with Elijah while Evelyn shrieks in laughter a couple of feet away from us. He’s sitting on my chest bellowing, and I’m assaulting his side with a one-fingered tickle.
I hear my phone ring. Before looking, I know it’s my mom. So, somehow, does my son who is now happily repeating, “Grandma, grandma.”
I walk over to my phone and stare at it until it stops ringing.
My mom has been trying to deliver some important news for the past three days, and I’ve done an exceptional job of staring at all of her phone calls and texts. Talking to her might make me feel uncomfortable. As usual in these conditions, I interpret this as a crisis that will disappear if I ignore it. The phone scorches my fingers, but I don’t put it down.
My son asks for a hug. Absent-mindedly, I say not right now and continue to stare.
The darkened screen animates as I get a text from my husband. It’s a link to a video about the myth of the strong black woman. He is so woke today.
By the time I finish giving them baths, both of my children are weeping, mourning the loss of their energy to exhaustion’s insatiable hunger. Silently, I grieve with them as I lotion, diaper, and pajama their writhing bodies.
The moment I lay my sleeping daughter in her crib, I hear the garage door open. I continue to grieve, now for the loss of alone time. I barely knew you. I check my phone. Another missed call from my mom. I see smoke from the corner of my eye.
When I get downstairs, I plaster on a smile and aggressively clean whatever crosses my path. Curls of flame climb up from beneath the couch and kitchen table.
“You okay?” my husband asks as he stands beside me to give me a kiss.
“Yeah!” I lie exuberantly, practically shouting. “How are you?”
My own question slows me down. Marriage first. Do better this time. I turn off the sink, put down the fork, and look at him. The fire ebbs. The smoke clears.
“I’m okay. I’ve got a lot on my mind,” he says.
“Tell me about it.”
He tells me about a graduate school assignment he needs to complete in the next four hours. About a bill he has to pay. About a meeting he has to lead. About a conversation he had with his sister. About the passports we need to get for our kids. About the tithe he needs to make. About a chain of emails he’s sent that have gone unanswered for weeks. Interspersed in these descriptions are half-hearted jokes about the role his black-maleness may or may not have played in his daily interactions. Doubts about the execution of his faith. Admissions about his inadequacies as a human being. I see smoke in his eyes.
I gather him into my arms and tell him that everything is going to be okay.
“How are you doing?” he asks again, knowing that in order for me to answer that question honestly, it needs to be asked at least twice.
I tell him about the tantrums and triumphs. Elijah cleaned up the entire playroom all by himself. Evelyn did an entire fifteen minutes of tummy-time without crying once. I didn’t scream at the kids. I wrote an article for my client. Then I tell him about my mom. I tell him about the shame and guilt and selfishness I’d surrendered to. He listens.
“What do you think about it?” I ask him.
“Do you want me to talk?”
“About the last thing you just said?”
He gives me a hug. Then he tells me that it will probably be easier to talk to my mom than I think. That he’s seen me overcome this before. That right now, while my feelings are human and natural, my attention needs to shift to my mom. That I need to think about what I would want from my kids if I were in her position. That he knows I can love my mom, but he is sure the devil is trying to stop me.
“Should I call her now?” I ask.
He pauses briefly to consider the question.
There is no smoke. Just light.