the smell of my desperation has become a stench

“I just want four walls and adobe slats for my girls”

“If a black hole can absorb light then it is stronger than light and I thought nothing traveled faster than light so please tell me how this makes any sense because I have been thinking about it all morning.”

This is just one of the millions and millions of very out loud musings of my 10-yr-old fifth grader who takes a bath in my bathroom every time I put on makeup. Which is pretty much, oh, every single day. We’ll get to that part in a moment because it’s important, very important. But there are a few other things about the previous few sentences we must first address:

Marlo is taking baths and not showers for so many reasons. She doesn’t have to leave the house other than to play with the dog in the backyard. This means she can linger in a bath as long as she wants — as aside or TANGENT IF YOU WILL: I have been taking a bath almost every night. Lingering hot baths. I recently wrote that I hate taking baths or even long showers because hot water makes me claustrophobic. Not anymore. We’ll get to that part in a moment because it’s important, extremely important.

Our bathtub is huge. It has jets and a neon light directly above it that changes color as you soak leisurely in comforting bubbles or bath balms. See? I never took baths until Quarantine 2020 and told Leta not to make fun of me when I asked her what they are called. I never paid attention because I don’t use them. I was born in the 70s and so I use whatever will make bubbles. A bubble bath is far superior — those of a certain age have acquired this wisdom — and when she told me it was bath BOMB and not a bath BALM she let loose a silent smirk on her face that said, “I will use this against you forever.”

Marlo uses bath BOMBS and has determined that the worst two colors are yellow and red because, and this is one of her millions of musings, “The yellow one makes it look like you drank an entire pool of water and couldn’t make it out of the bath in time to go pee. And the red? It makes it look like you got murdered with an axe.” She is not wrong.

This bath overlooks all of the valley to the south and a huge canopy of trees to the north. There are windows surrounding it wherein I have placed various plants and shower gels and small souvenirs I have brought back from countries like Tanzania and Haiti and Peru. It’s one of the loveliest spots in our home and now we can get back to that earlier tangent: I crave taking baths now. I crave that time alone (or sometimes not so alone, if you know what I mean) while listening to music that soars through my body. As bubbles and hot water soothe my aching muscles, where the arthritis that has exploded in my joints gets momentary relief. Quarantine has inflamed every old injury in my body, maybe even some I never even knew I had, and it has shown me what a luxury this bathtub is and how lucky I am to have it.

Marlo’s musings are a delight. At least, they are a delight in normal circumstances.

We are not living in normal circumstances, however.

Sometimes they become a sea of noise and distraction that transform into a car alarm in my head. Often, she will not stop talking even when I have asked her to stop many, many, too many times. Quarantine has been hard for her, as well, and I believe it has emphasized this part of her personality. I can’t work or think or concentrate when she and the dog follow me around or sit directly beside me and demand all of my attention. I should set clearer boundaries, I know. I’m sure this is easy for many of you to do, and oh, I admire those of you who can. I do. I just hope you’d allow me the inescapable and swarming confusion in my head that threatens to kick in at any time. It’s not constant, but it comes and goes, here and there. And when it comes the emptiness I feel is uncomfortable and confusing. Sometimes it seizes my body and I physically hurt.

This new normal happened as fast as Coco’s death. And I am grieving it.

I don’t think I’m alone when I say that.

To prepare myself for the possibility that the emptiness will kick in, I shower (or bathe luxuriously) every day, dress in something that does not resemble yoga pants in any way, and put on makeup. The only exception is when I know I’m going to be cleaning, and then the yoga pants come out. This is not normal behavior for me. As someone who normally works at home alone I used to enjoy lounging around in long and comfy cotton robes or yoga pants and tank tops. Showering every day dries out my skin.

But I don’t give one iota of fuck about that anymore.

Quarantine has turned me into The Avon World Sales Leader on crack cocaine.

Case in point: I cook all the time. All the time. And I think it might be driving Pete crazy even though, turns out? I’m really damn good at it.

I research recipes and combine them and make up my own by recalling how certain bitter things and salty things and sweet things combine. I dive deep into a recipe to the point of distraction, especially when we’re low on food and I have to make something, anything out of whatever we have on hand. “What’s a good substitute for [insert random ingredient here]?” PRO TIP: There is a YouTube video for everything. Including, “What do you do if you have added too much lemon to a tahini-miso-based dressing?”

Goddamn that ratio of lemon juice. Just one drop too many and POOF.

Distraction.

Yes, I will admit it. I am distracting myself by doing these things. And it helps. Makeup and baths and cooking and waking up to a pristine kitchen, they are helping subvert the emptiness.

Dressing up in ball gowns and crazy outfits with my dog and posing for pictures with her on my porch is a project I started not only to document her and her growth, but also to feel a sense of purpose. And to have fun. Yes, my kids are my purpose, but I should not have to explain what I mean to anyone who has kids.

What these things also do is give me time to visualize the positive things that quarantine has shown me, and I know you never thought you’d read that sentence from me. Errands that used to irritate me? Now I see how small of a blip they were in the sequence of my life. Thanking people with my eyes at people who check me out at the grocery store because they can’t see the gratitude in my smile has made me miss the kindness two strangers can share in a blip of a moment.

I don’t ever want to have to see my inbox ever again and I will figure out a way to make that happen. It brings me so much pain and I don’t want to feel that pain anymore.

That one project I thought I wanted to do? I really, really, really understand now just how much I do not want to do that project. So many of these realizations.

And then there’s Paris.

I let myself mourn it for about an hour one morning.I let myself cry and daydream and remember the light. But suddenly at the end of that hour I had The Most Important Realization. Jon called to tell me that my mother had reached out to him.

And so.

Leta has been hired as a counselor at the camp she attends every summer for six weeks on the East Coast. She was so worried about the hiring process and wanted this job more than anything in the world, and it has been A THING every single minute of every single day since quarantine started. It has sent her into fits of rage, the possibility that camp could be canceled and I totally understand why. I mean, what if I can’t see the light in Paris for years? Yes, that is a very privileged lament, but that light is one of the things that saved my life. I will lament in privilege. Thank you, Paris, for my life.

She got hired (OF COURSE SHE DID) but only if it happens. There are many possible ways things could play out, but one thing that would have to happen IF it took place in person is quarantine in New York beforehand. Marlo attends the same camp, and after a dire conversation with my mother one afternoon when she heard in my voice the disorienting and tangled mess of… where does this all lead? How do I… Maybe it was, “I can’t breathe in that mask and it makes me panic, and I feel terrible about myself that I can’t grab anything more than a jug of milk.” She suggested the girls finish the one or two weeks of school they have left in… New York.

Over there. Away and gone

Even though Marlo will not be talking incessantly, I will not be able to cuddle her or smell her hair or watch Birgie attack her when she comes downstairs in the morning. And honestly, if I were to include Birgie in this post it would be to say: It wasn’t quarantine that taught me to forgive a puppy for being an absolute shit of a puppy.

It was Coco.

Birgie lights up my world in ways I did not know possible. I have no complaints. I seriously have none. I get frustrated at times, anyone who lives with a puppy does. She is pure joy in fur form. I could not love her more. She gets her own post soon because OH MY GOD. She not only opens her crate now for meals, she climbs in and WAITS for the signal that it’s time eat. We did not teach her this. Soon, she’ll be teaching Marlo math.

Jon jumped into action and made arrangements and could not have been more cooperative and supportive and understanding. MIND YOU — and I don’t think he will be upset that I am bringing this up and am doing so only to emphasize how far we’ve come in our roles as coparents to these girls — he and I fought hard about this camp during a mediation in 2014. He had his reasoning and I had mine and they did not align in any way. And we were just a tad bit itty little bitty titty mad at each other about it. Not even a single pixel of his reasoning fit inside a pixel of mine.

And here we are about a week after that call from my mother. Here we are splitting the cost of everything and working together to figure out the best strategy to get them to New York safely, communicating about how they will live in tight quarters together. When either he or I suggest something, the other almost always considers the reasoning behind it and agrees. How did this happen? We met each other halfway and more. Time. Letting go. Seeing and experiencing our children happy that we joke around like we used to do.

That disagreement about camp? Long gone. In fact, some of his reasoning now resembles my reasoning then, and the reasoning I had then? I no longer believe it. But we make it work because the girls love it so much. We moved on to live our lives.

And so.

The Most Important Realization.

I go to Paris every summer because it’s my favorite place in the world, yes, but now I know that three-fourths of the reason I go is to get away from the spaces my children normally occupy when they go to New York. Seeing their empty rooms guts me. Whenever my children are away from me I start missing them about a day after they have left. Which makes no sense whatsoever, right? I know many of you think a very long break from your kids would be better than a heaven made with chocolate walls covered with posters of huge, naked boobs or of Tom Hardy. Everywhere.

But for those of us who face this absence from them frequently… well, I do not think we can explain what it does to us. It is far easier now to deal with being deprived of their physical and emotional essence than it was in 2014. HOOOOO-BOY, the difference. It’s like going without food for a month vs. going without ketchup on my fries.

Well, not really. I was trying to make a point: It gets so much better.

But… months? We bought them one-way tickets. And they leave on Friday.

We don’t know if camp will happen, which means we don’t know when they will be coming back. It’s definitely more like going without food for a month vs. going without food for 29 days. But I know it will get better from here.

[clearing throat]

That could mean months and, oh, the terror that strikes right inside the main vessel that carries blood to my heart. And it is time for me to buckle up.

They need this time with their father. If camp actually happens, they need camp. I need the space to expand myself inside the projects I do want to do. I need to work. I want the time to work. It will be difficult and at times grueling being away from them and I will cry like a baby. Straight up. They will come back and Birgie might be twice? Three times as big as when they left? Probably six times as big. And she’ll be walking on two legs and baking bread with me while quoting Kierkegaard and humming Chopin.

Someone will note that all I said about Leta is her rage about the possibility that camp might close, and they will want to rail against me even though they want to rail against me whenever I write about my children. Frog Baby took an AP Exam last weekend. She took the AP US History Exam. I took AP US History in high school, but my teacher didn’t exercise one letter of instruction, so I didn’t even take the exam because I didn’t know shit. Leta is brilliant and funny and knows how to flash a smirk filled with so much of both me and her father.

Frog Baby took an AP Exam, Y’ALL.

I will miss talking with her about the deeper parts of life that start to become interesting when you enter your teens. Like, you know, tampons and the detestable comeback of mom jeans.

But being away from them for a week and seeing their empty rooms is so very different than being away from them for months. Without Sacré-Cœur or Jardin du Luxembourg or Place des Vosges to ogle, to lure my mind into getting lost inside their beauty. My girls’ empty bedrooms are not in Paris.

And so, this year I will concentrate on the yard in my free time. I will make it the garden I’ve always wanted, or at least draw up a plan to make it happen. We have plenty of space and structures already in place, but we need to prune and weed and plant beautiful flowers and grasses and maybe find some furniture that sits underneath the pergola — oh, I can’t wait for the commentary about that because HOOOOO-BOY, when I bought the fabric for the cushions on the chairs outside this window, people lost their minds. How dare I spend money on fabric when people around the world are starving.

You know how? Because those people blathering on about my lack of humanity could better use that time solving poverty. End scene.

I know I will be okay. This ain’t nuthin’ in the whole scheme of life, I know this. But it’s a stunning panorama, how their father and I got here. We got here, and who would ever believe this could happen even 18 months ago. Here is so much better than where we started.

Thank you, Jon.

The prospect of their absence has made the swift deterioration of my physical body even more stubborn and determined, and sometimes in the early afternoon I have to think about breathing, otherwise my body doesn’t know how to breathe. This will be a newer normal than the new normal, and I will grieve. I know that writing out the words THE BEWILDERMENT WILL KNOCK ME SIDEWAYS is manifesting that I will be knocked sideways by the bewilderment and I should instead occupy my thoughts with Birgie’s farts that smell of the mountain of poop she’s eaten that day. Which one to choose, which one to choose.

The quandary.

But that looming emptiness… I am trying to stay positive and hopeful that it will subside as I gain the momentum I so desperately want to pursue in work.

Most of all, I will miss my little helper. Marlo loves to help me clean and cook and, you know. She muses in the bathtub while I apply mascara. Every day. She still wants to cuddle. My baldheaded baby who used to wake up laughing every morning. My butternut.

Forgive me that I am now crying. I am a mother and when we mourn it reveals itself in streaks down our face. They will have fun and I will become whole and we will all be better having made the choice to do this.

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Heather B. Armstrong

Hi. I’m Heather B. Armstrong, and this used to be called mommy blogging. But then they started calling it Influencer Marketing: hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored, hashtag you know you want me to slap your product on my kid and exploit her for millions and millions of dollars. That’s how this shit works. Now? Well… sit back, buckle up, and enjoy the ride.

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