Later The Day I Left
My fingers tingle 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, and lower my head. In fact, 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 behind me, and I look up to see that the light has turned green.
Home is to the right. I turn left.
My mind is a jumble of emotions. Frustration, anger, panic, guilt. But I also feel numb. I don’t know what came over me back there in the store. I’ve never abandoned a cart full of groceries, but here I am driving away from the supermarket with nary a box of cereal, headed nowhere in particular.
“Where exactly are you going?” I say out loud as if I am talking to a rebellious child and not myself. My heart is racing 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.
It’s only a matter of time before I come to my senses and return to my chores, my responsibilities, and my life. I know this because it’s what I’m expected to do. But until then, I want to do anything BUT what is responsible. So I just drive.
Today started out to be a decent day actually. I got my kids out the door on time, which is easier now that there are only a few days of school left. On my way into work, Angela texted me that she already picked up coffee, so I didn’t have to stop. And just after my third period British Lit final, one of my students told me that her family is going to London this summer and she insisted that they visit the Charles Dickens Museum and the British Library while they were there! Proud teacher moment!
I keep driving, out of Leyland and away from my obligations. I should make my way back to the FoodMart where I fully expect to find my overloaded cart still sitting in aisle 7, the milk getting warmer by the second, the frozen peas defrosted.
Or maybe I should just skip the supermarket and go straight to pick up Rissa from school for her 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.
I shake my head and try to clear my brain, but the weight of all my obligations stays put. Before I know it, I see signs for the expressway.
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 have come to love Michael’s hometown, especially 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.
A few minutes later, I am cruising along the highway, heading east toward the shore. With no kids in the car, I tune the radio to my favorite station and crank up the volume. The music fills the car, and I sing along, relishing this little bit of freedom. All moms need a break every now and then.
I recall a day last summer when I had a vicious headache and 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, but I locked myself in my bedroom and refused to come out. Hearing their little voices calling for me from the other side of the door wasn’t fun, but I needed some time to myself, or I was going to lose my mind. At least that’s how I saw it at the time. Besides, they were safe and sound in their own home. The front door was locked. Plenty of toys to keep them occupied. When Michael arrived home, he took over, ordering pizza for dinner and getting the kids ready for bed. I didn’t come out for the rest of the night.
So today, instead of locking myself behind a closed door, I am driving away. When I don’t show up to Rissa’s school to pick her up, they will just put her on the bus. Both girls know that if they don’t see my car in the driveway, they are supposed to 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 for a few hours.
* * * * *
Before I know it, I am taking the exit toward my favorite beach town. Ocean City, New Jersey, has been our favorite shore spot ever since we started coming here just after we got married. The beaches are clean, and the boardwalk is packed with shops, rides, and food. It’s a relaxed, family-friendly place. My kids love the rollercoaster at Wonderland and Skee-Ball at Jilly’s. Me? I love the people-watching on the boardwalk.
Parking downtown is easy since the streets are not yet teeming with summer tourists. Still seated in the car, I pull out my phone to check the time. It’s just past three so the girls should be getting off the bus soon. Mrs. Neri will likely 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, without a doubt, will torture the poor thing all afternoon.
I start typing out a text to Michael, telling him I need a few hours to escape. I’ll be home later tonight. Of course, he’s going to ask why, or worse…he will call me. I just want some time to myself. With no explanations for the time being.
Before I touch the blue arrow to send the message, I notice a mom pushing a double stroller along the sidewalk past my passenger side window. She stops at the SUV parked in front of me and begins the long process of extracting the two whining toddlers from the stroller and then loading them into their car seats. Seeing her haggard-looking face as she moves from stroller to car, stroller to car, I feel compelled to lean out the window, get her attention, and assure her that it gets better. But in my present state of mind, I don’t think I will be too reassuring. Instead, I watch her wrangle all the gear into her car, yanking down the lift gate, slamming multiple doors. Then she drives away.
My phone, along with its incendiary message to Michael, weighs heavily in my hand. Rather than send the text, I stuff my phone in my purse and get out of the car. The text can wait.
The afternoon is sunny and warm with a few puffy clouds punctuating the perfectly blue sky. This is just the thing I need to soothe my soul, I think to myself as I walk up the ramp onto the boardwalk. There are quite a few people milling around for a weekday in early June. I head north, passing restaurants offering 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 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 some ceramic vases, glass trinkets, pewter jewelry, and a swarm of crystal figurines shaped like every sea creature imaginable.
It feels refreshing to just pop into a store that is not geared toward small children. No plastic toys, no electronic nonsense, no sugary distractions. Not only that, there are no 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 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 beach backdrop. For some reason, it reminds me of Aruba, where Michael and I honeymooned over a decade ago.
The sales associate, a rotund middle-aged woman with long brown hair, steps up to me. “May I help you find something?”
“Oh, no thank you,” I say, smiling. “I’m just looking.”
And indeed, it feels good to have 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’s current obsession is 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, my purchase wrapped and nestled in a small white bag, I continue walking, stopping in stores that interest me and passing on those that don’t. When I reach the north end, I turn around and head back, scanning 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 has to be freezing this early in the season.
I take a seat on an empty bench and check my phone. It’s 4:15. The text I wrote to Michael still sits there unsent. I really should let him know where I am. But he will be home soon and can handle the kids and dinner. So I put the phone on silent mode and slip it back into my purse. Leaning back, I watch people of all shapes and sizes stroll by on the boardwalk. A middle-aged couple holding hands. A pack of rowdy teenagers. Several families with doting parents of over-excited children. Seeing the kids, I feel a twinge of guilt for having run off from mine, even if it’s only for an afternoon. And then an image of the abandoned cart pops into my head, so I guess I’ll have to that all over again. Maybe tomorrow? I have one more exam tomorrow, but that’s it. Summer break is nearly upon me!
Of course, this sounds wonderful except for the fact that my three kids are also off all summer. So 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, watching strangers drift past while the ocean waves crash against the shore behind me.