Sunday, April 27, 2014

Cheek to Cheek

Standing in the shower, I tilt my head under the coursing water in a vain attempt to drown out the squeaking voices just inches away from me on the other side of the vinyl curtain. In spite of having the faucet turned on full-blast and my ears full of shampoo suds, I still catch snippets of their giggles and squeals. “So much for my spa-like experience,” I mumble. “Girls? I need to you to scoot out for a minute so I can get dressed, please.”
“Okay, Mom. We’re just finishing brushing our hair.” More giggles.
I turn off the water and wait. In the amount of time it takes my two little girls to finish, I’m chilled and shivering.
“You have to put your hair brush away.”
“You’re not the boss of me!” Their giggles have transformed into grumping and growling.
“Stop pushing.”
“You stop pushing. I was here first.”
“Move over! I can’t see in the mirror.”
“Ow! You stepped on my foot!”
“Girls, come on now. That’s enough. Get a move on, please.”
I listen to them tussle out of the bathroom and at the blissful sound the door clicking shut behind them, I reach for my towel and wrap it around myself. Before they have a chance to beat a hasty retreat back into the steamy bathroom, I dress quickly, towel drying my hair and dreaming of a chance to actually dry it and style it. “Maybe I can sneak back upstairs later and finish putting myself together. In just a few weeks, I’ll have a bathroom all to myself in the morning.” My bathroom, I smile. And Brett’s, of course, he’ll have his sink and a drawer or two. But, I won’t be sharing this space with the four kids and that acts as a light at the end of a long tunnel, a beacon to focus on as day after day we perform the bathroom-shuffle.
Stepping into the hall, I hear my two oldest kids arguing. The discussion is getting heated and I take a quick detour toward the door of the room they share. My daughter is obviously exasperated, her face is flushed and she’s gesturing to the spray of Lego’s that shoot across the floor.
“You can’t just leave this mess. You’re supposed to clean it all up. Mom said so.”
My son shrugs. “It’s not that big a deal. Just walk around it. That’s what I do.”
Her eyes bug out of her freckled face. “I don’t want to walk around it! I cleaned up my side of the room and you have to take care of your stuff.” She huffs over to her pristine bookshelf and straightens a pile of magazines, making her point crystal clear.
“Fine.” Kneeling on the floor, my son haphazardly shoves the multi-colored building pieces off in the general direction of the organizing bins from which these plastic pieces have spilled. “Happy now?”
In an attempt to avoid the inevitable brawl that is brewing, I knock on the door jam. “Time to come down for breakfast, please. Hey, Buddy? Do you have a minute?”
As his sister slips out of the room, still fuming, he rolls his eyes. “She’s so bossy sometimes.”
“I know, but you have to admit that she does have a point.” My eyes survey the small room and it’s obvious where the boy-territory ends and where the girl-territory begins, a definitive line of toys and socks divide the room in half. “Can you please take some time today to tidy up a bit? Just a few more weeks until we’re in the new house and you will each have your own space. But until then, you both need to survive living in the same room. Please?”
“Okay, Mom,” he sighs as he kicks a couple of action figures under this desk. At the sight of my own exasperated eyes bugging out of my head, he laughs and scoops them up. “Sorry.” I shake my head and walk downstairs to start breakfast, only to be greeted by the sight of bags, shoes, backpacks and coats covering the living room floor. It would appear the closet threw up. Again.
“What happened here, girls?” Three sets of eyes turn toward me, all innocence and surprise. Sweeping my arm toward the sea of abandoned articles, I ask again. “Why is all this stuff all over the floor?”
“I couldn’t find my notebook...”
“I couldn’t hang my coat up ‘cause I’m too short...”
“I was packing my backpack and I got distracted...”
I squeeze my eyes shut and rub my temples, fighting to contain the words that threaten to splurch out and color our morning with ugliness. Taking a deep breath, I let it out slowly and open my eyes. “Okee-dokey. Let’s clean it up, please.” My sweet girls scurry to help me to clean up the mess, hanging bags and sweatshirts and stuffing homework back into zippered pockets. Closing the door to our “Harry Potter closet” tucked under the stairs, we contain the chaos for another day. 
“Mom? Doesn’t our new house have hooks in the laundry room for all this stuff?”
“Yes it does, Honey. In the new house, all these bags and coats will have a home. Just a few more weeks to go, kids.”
The morning clicks along and soon the kids are out the door and a quietness spills over the house. But it doesn’t last long. In a handful of hours, there is a bustle of activity filling up all 1,000 square feet of our rental:  homework to complete, requiring at least half the kitchen table; empty lunch boxes littering the mere two feet of counter space in the kitchen; and twelve feet squeezing under the dinner table as we eat and share snippets of our day. 
Simply put, this little rental house is small and we are many. We bump elbows reaching for the bowl of bread. We step on toes trying to squeeze past one another in the narrow, galley kitchen. We brush our teeth shoulder to shoulder in the bathroom. I love my large family, but I think we’d all agree that we’re finished with our faux-camping experience of the past ten months and we’re ready to have our own elbow, knee and shoulder room. We’re counting down our crowded moments (and showers) until we finally have room to breathe.
Here in our transitional house, we have learned that there are limits to our ability to live, quite literally, on top of one another. We have discovered that you need space to be alone, truly alone, not just in your own corner of the room. With your baby sister perched on the couch, staring at you. You need actual privacy which is different than shower-curtain-privacy or my-side-of-the-futon-privacy. You need real boundaries that carve out a place that is your very own, not imaginary lines separating your space from your brother’s.
As challenging as these past months have been, however, I wouldn’t trade them for anything. We are closer now (literally and emotionally) than we’ve ever been and this intense season of bonding as a family will last long after we sign the contract on the new house and head to our own corners. These close encounters have given us ample opportunities to fine-tune our character traits, learn the importance of being responsible for our own stuff and extend and receive grace. We’ve learned the importance of apologizing when we cross the lines of privacy and personal space, lessons we wouldn’t have learned in our old house, spread out with each of us inhabiting our own square footage.
As our weeks wrap up here in our little home, I can imagine the sweet bliss as we set up house and claim our own spaces. I dream of my own bathroom sink without anyone’s minty-bubblegum toothpaste dried to the edge. My daughter smiles as she imagines a room tidy and organized by color and size, while my boy is giddy for the chance to leave his toys, socks and books wherever they land and not have to endure one more nagging request to pick up his stuff. My baby girls will still share a room, but they’ll sleep in separate beds, ending the nightly battle for covers, pillow pets and who gets to sleep on the side of the full-sized bed that faces the clock. As for my husband, I’m certain he’s looking forward to the first ballgame he can watch in peace.
Another day comes to a close. My galloping herd thunders upstairs to brush teeth, jockeying for position around the bathroom sink and almost all of them aim moderately well as they swish and spit. The kids head to their rooms, closets and nooks to change into pajamas before thumping back down to the living room. They collapse in a haphazard pile over and around my husband as we kick back on the couch, settling in for a quick show before bed. This dog pile of family, arms and legs sticking out here and there and blankets pulled up to chins, is my favorite invasion of my personal space.
We may be moving into a house with twice the square footage and there might be the possibility that we won’t live elbow-to-elbow and cheek-to-cheek, but this wonderful tangle of closeness, nestled on the couch, is something we will happily continue.
As long as I get my own bathroom, of course.


This is a piece I wrote for submission to an anthology. I would appreciate your feedback and any constructive criticism you might have. Thanks!

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A Day at the Zoo

The early birds have arrived. A few minivans park in the lot, filled with strollers and wagons, coolers and bags. Mothers stuff every pocket of every backpack with water bottles, snacks and sunscreen. The guests cue up, waiting for the gates to open as a low murmur of excitement builds. It's another day at the zoo.

A zookeeper, pushing a squeaky cart filled with bins and boxes, whistles as he makes his rounds. The key ring at his hip jingles, adding to the music of this one-man band. Doodle-de-doo, Ring-a-Ding, Thumpty-thump, squeak! A baby orangutang, named Hesty, lifts her sleepy head from the crook of her mother's shoulder. Her crazy, orange, bed-head hair sticks up all around her ears as she follows the trek of the "food-giver" until he rounds the bend and walks out of sight. She sighs and burrows deeper into her mother's embrace. She's not quite ready to start her day.

The first group of visitors have passed through the ticket turnstiles. Moms pause for a moment, slathering sunscreen on noses and tugging hats down over heads. "Where to first, kiddos?"

"The Monkey House!"

Pi and Rhu, the newborn Cloud Leopards, lick their lips and roll onto their backs, bellies full of warm milk. The zookeeper strokes Pi's head and offers an old stuffed sock to Rhu, who lazily bats at it with fuzzy, spotted paws. With a yawn, Pi stretches, eyes squeezed shut.

A class of second graders files down the steps of their yellow school bus, all with matching green bandanas tied around their necks. They each carry a clipboard and eagerly scan the map of the park looking for the exhibits they need to visit as part of their scavenger hunt at the zoo.

"Let's go see the big cats! Lions and tigers and...uh, leopards! Oh, my!"

Summit, head to the ground, shuffles toward the rest of his herd. Fresh hay spills from the metal grate in the center of his pen and he takes a mouthful, chewing slowly. He feels the warm summer sun on his back and involuntarily his withers twitch, causing his brownish stripes to quiver. The young zebra nuzzles his mother's side, content and well fed.

An older gentleman pushes his wife in a wheelchair, handing her a zoo map as he shuffles along. "What would you like to see first, Dear?"

"Let's go visit the giraffes and zebras. There is some nice shade along the walkway there where we can find a place to sit."

Hesty, now fully awake and happily fed, hangs upside down from the hammock in which her mother lays sprawled, one long and hairy arm slung over her tired eyes. A little girl presses her fists, caked in graham cracker crumbs, against the glass barrier.

"Look at that one, Mommy. It has crazy hair! And food all over, too, in its hair and all over its face. Do you see it, Mommy?"

Hesty shimmies up the nearest tree, using both her hands and feet on the branches and vines. She makes it look effortless.

"Uh-oh. That little one is sneaking away from her momma. She's really fast. Look, Mommy!"

"I see her. She's okay. Her mom is watching her, see? That's what moms do."

Rhu tumbles over onto his side, clutching his worn sock with all four fuzzy paws, and thumps into the glass wall. Pi licks her paws and cleans her spotted face, paying close attention to her whiskers. The kids on the class trip peer into the cats' den. One little boy presses against the glass, scribbling on his clipboard as he studies the leopards.

"That one has a lot of spots all over its face, little and big spots. I wonder if it has a nickname. I would call it Polka Dot or Speckle Snout."

"Ha, ha! Speckle Snout! That's a good one. Or maybe Splotch. Hello, Splotch!"

"Hello, Splotchy Speckle Snout!"

Lifting his head from the trough, water runs down Summit's neck, dripping big drops of water on the dry ground. As he trots toward the shady tree under which his mother stands, his hooves kick up more dust, making him sneeze. The old lady in the wheelchair laughs and raises her hand, signaling her husband to stop. They pause under the shade of a large tree to watch the zebras.

"What a sweet creature. It looks so happy doesn't it, Dear?"

"Mmmhmm...very happy, even in this heat. I guess it has enough sense to stay in the shade."

"Sweet and smart. Just like us."

The sun continues its course across the sky and all too soon, the air is filled with an announcement.

"Attention, zoo guests. The zoo will be closing in 15 minutes. Please make your way toward the main entrance. Thank you for visiting and come back soon."

Families pack up bags and strollers, loading tired kids and tired parents back into the minivans. School groups line up near their designated buses and teachers count their students. The older couple strolls slowly toward the parking lot, chuckling about the noisy howler monkeys and mischievous lemurs.

Hesty snuggles against her mother and giggles, "So many funny creatures today, Mama. I'm glad you keep me cleaner than some of those babies. They're filthy."

Pi curls up against her brother, Rhu, and purrs, "What was your favorite animal today?"

"Definitely all those little ones with the matching green collars. That one with the freckled face was certainly curious."

Summit's mother rubs her nose against her son's snout, nickering, "You were such a good boy today."

"It was fun to people-watch, Mom. So many strange creatures, both young and old. I can't wait to see more tomorrow!"

A little piece inspired by our trip to the zoo yesterday. And a memorial sign on the bench over by the camels..."Who is watching who?"