Later The Day I Left
My fingers feel tingly as I grip the steering wheel and navigate my way out of the parking lot. Reaching the road, I stop at the red light and take a deep breath. I don’t want to go home, I think, lowering my head. I shouldn’t go home. What I should do is turn the car around and go back into the store to finish the shopping. A horn beeps loudly from the car behind me, and I look up to see a green light.
Home is to the right. I turn left.
Driving down the road in my sensible family car—a minivan stocked with booster seats and all kinds of distractions for antsy children—I feel a mixture of indignation, disbelief, and numbness. Mostly numbness. I don’t know what I was thinking back there in the store. And I don’t know what I am supposed to be feeling at this moment. I don’t typically abandon a cart full of groceries, but here I am leaving the supermarket with nary a box of cereal.
I don’t know where I’m headed, but I know it isn’t home. It will only be a matter of time until I come to my senses and return to my chores, my responsibilities, my life. I know this because it’s what I’m expected to do. My stomach actually clenches at the thought. But until that happens, I just want to do anything BUT what is responsible. So I just drive.
“Where exactly are you going?” I say out loud as if I am talking to a rebellious child and not myself. My thoughts are swirling so fast that they seem to be banging against each other in my brain. My heart races as I drive by all the familiar landmarks of my life: Leyland Public Library where we go every Thursday evening for story time, the Chinese restaurant where I went into labor with Rissa, the cleaners who lost Michael’s favorite sports jacket.
Today started out to be a really good day actually. I was able to get my kids out the door fairly quickly, which is easier now that there are only a few days of school left. On my way to work, Angela texted and asked me if I wanted her to pick me up a coffee, so I didn’t even have to stop. And just after my third period British History final, one of my juniors came up and told me that her family is going to London this summer and that she has insisted that they visit the Charles Dickens Museum and the British Library while they were there! Proud teacher moment!
I keep driving straight, out of Leyland and away from my responsibilities. I should make my way back to the FoodMart where I fully expect to find my cart still sitting in aisle 7, the milk getting warmer by the second, the frozen peas nearly defrosted. I wonder how long it would sit there before someone at the store would realize the customer isn’t returning and put all the stuff back on the shelves? I’m guessing it would be a while.
Or maybe I should just skip the supermarket and go straight to school to pick up Rissa for the dentist appointment. At least check one thing off my list for the day. We can have the cookout tomorrow night. Oh shit! That won’t work because Odie has his swim lesson after school tomorrow, and then I signed up for a yoga class at 6. Dinner was going to be leftovers from tonight. I guess I’ll have to skip my class again. What a waste of money for my gym membership. I’m never there.
What’s nice about Leyland is that it’s smack dab in the middle of South Jersey. Even though I grew up in Virginia, I love Michael’s hometown mostly because of how close it is to everything. In an hour, I can be in Philadelphia or head the other way and hit the beach.
Before I know it, I see signs for the expressway. Without consciously choosing, I find that I am cruising along at 75mph on a beautiful June afternoon, heading east toward the shore. With no kids in the car, I tune the radio to my favorite pop music station and crank up the volume. The music fills the car, and I sing along to the chirpy tune. It feels good, so I belt out the bland lyrics even louder. I know I should be concerned about my kids and my “mom schedule,” but I just block it out of my mind for the moment.
I recall one day last summer when I had a vicious headache and just couldn’t handle one more little person asking for a playdate or a popsicle or just one more “Mommy, watch me!” I know it was irresponsible of me, but I locked myself in my bedroom and refused to come out. Hearing their little voices calling for me all afternoon from the other side of the door was painful, but I needed some time for me more than they needed my time. At least that’s how I saw it at that moment. Besides, they were safe and sound in their own home. No emergencies required me to emerge from my bedroom cocoon. When Michael arrived home, he took over, ordering pizza for dinner and getting the kids ready for bed. I didn’t come out the rest of the night.
So today, instead of staying in bed, I am simply driving away. I suppose I should be worried about not being there when my kids get home from school, but I’m not. The school will just put Rissa on the bus home. Both girls know that if my car isn’t in the driveway, they should go next door to Mrs. Neri’s house. Maggie Dawson’s mom has Odie covered. And Michael won’t be that late. They’ll be fine without me.
I’m running low on gas so I get off at the next exit and pull into a station. While I wait for the attendant to fill the tank (a New Jersey perk!), I pull out my cell phone and bring up Michael’s number. He deserves to know that I’ve dropped the proverbial parenting ball. I type a short message saying that I need a few hours to myself, that I’m fine, that I’ll be home later tonight. Before I can hit the button to send the text, the attendant comes to the window to give me back my credit card and receipt. “Thank you,” I say, clicking off my phone. The text can wait.
As I return to the expressway, I wonder what I could possibly say to Michael in a text that would explain why I am not coming home right now.
Most moms don’t lose their shit while food shopping and then just walk out. Most moms don’t leave their children stranded with the neighbor after school. Most moms don’t drive out of town on a whim and leave everyone behind without an explanation. But then again, most moms aren’t me.
* * * * *
At this point, it only makes sense to head for the beach. A relaxing stroll by the water sounds divine right about now, and the weather couldn’t be more perfect. Sunny and warm in the low 80s, although it will probably be breezy by the ocean. But it may be just the thing I need to soothe my soul right now. My minivan practically steers itself to the Garden State Parkway and then to Exit 30.
Ever since we came to Ocean City the first summer after we were married, this has been our favorite shore spot. The beaches are clean, and the boardwalk is packed with shops, rides, and food. It’s a very relaxed, family-friendly place. The kids love the rollercoaster at Wonderland and skee-ball at Jilly’s. Personally, I love the people-watching.
Soon I am driving over the causeway bridge onto 9th Street, descending right into downtown Ocean City. Parking is easy since the streets are not yet teeming with tourists as they will be in a few weeks when schools are out for summer break. It is just past three o’clock so the kids should be getting home from school soon. I hope the girls remember our deal about going next door. Mrs. Neri will probably give them cookies and let them watch Disney Channel until Michael comes to get them. Callie and Rissa adore Mrs. Neri’s schnauzer, Ruby, and will probably torture the poor thing all afternoon.
The sun is warm as it hangs over my shoulder, and I walk up the ramp onto the boardwalk. There are quite a few people milling around for a weekday in early June. Everyone loves a beautiful day at the beach! I stroll north along the boardwalk, passing shops selling all kinds of beach-friendly food. There are shops selling personalized bracelets, crappy t-shirts adorned with stupid sayings, hermit crabs, and enough beach toys to give one to every child in the country.
I stroll by a little gallery with some local artists’ work on display and wander inside. Tables line each side of the store with rows and rows of acrylic paintings leaning up against the walls. Several large, framed oil paintings hang above them. Toward the back of the gallery, mirrored cases house a few ceramic vases, glass trinkets, pewter jewelry, and a swarm of crystal figurines shaped like every sea creature imaginable.
It feels really good to just pop into a store that is not geared toward small children. No plastic toys, no electronic nonsense, no sugary offerings. Not only that, there aren’t any little people pulling at my arm, whining about wanting to leave, or needing to be herded away from the breakables. Flipping through a stack of beach landscapes at one of the tables, I notice that one artist used a young couple as a focal point in several versions of the same landscape. In one, they are holding hands along the edge of the surf while walking away from the viewer. Although their features are blurred, the smiles on their faces are unmistakable. It reminds me of Aruba, where Michael and I honeymooned over a decade ago.
The sales associate, a rather rotund middle-aged woman with long brown hair, steps up next to me. “May I help you find something?”
“Oh, no thank you,” I smile at her. “I’m just looking.”
And indeed, it feels good to take the time to just look. After browsing through the paintings, I go over to one of the mirrored cases and peer inside. There is a tiny pink crystal seahorse on a shelf amongst crabs, dolphins, and mermaids. Rissa is fascinated with seahorses. And since we missed her dentist appointment and the promised ice cream cone after, I think it will make a nice peace offering.
Back out on the boardwalk with my purchase in hand, I move along, stopping in stores that interest me and passing on those that don’t. When I reach the north end of the boardwalk, I turn around and head back, this time turning my attention to the dunes and ocean to my left. The unrelenting waves crash onto the sand, hiss, and retreat. Seagulls scurry along the edge of the water foraging for stray crabs. A few brave souls are splashing around in the surf, even though the water temperature couldn’t possibly be above 65 degrees this early in the season.
I find an unoccupied bench facing the beach and sit down. I check my phone and see that it is 4:15. The girls should be home by now. The text I wrote to Michael still sits there unsent. I really should let him know where I am. But telling him where I am will require too much explanation. He will be home fairly soon and can handle the kids and dinner. So all is fine.
Putting my phone on silent, I slip it back into my purse. Still, I feel a twinge of guilt for having run off like this. And the food shopping obviously needs to be done all over again. Maybe tomorrow? I have one more exam tomorrow, but that’ it. One of the best perks about being a teacher is called SUMMER BREAK.
Of course, this sounds really wonderful except for the fact that my three kids are also off all summer. Which means that my summer won’t exactly be a break. It will consist of camps and crafts and backyard baseball and playdates at the pool and endless snacks and the inevitable boredom that strikes the hearts of every single American child during the summer months.
But for now, I am happy to be sitting here—alone—on this bench on a lovely warm afternoon, overlooking the ocean and watching the seagulls run up and down the water’s edge.