Names. It always comes down to names.
The mother clutched her shy twin toddlers, white-haired and icy-eyed like their parents, but confusingly clad in just towels -- or were they blankets? -- and eying us suspiciously. Meanwhile, the young black-haired, slant-eyed foreigner sat in their father's lap, and I found myself curious of their story, and what it must be like to be so very much othered in your own family.
We'd already gone through some pleasantries: size and weight of children at birth, pregnancy stories however mild, the basics I find that come up with strangers who also perchance to have children. She'd asked me if I was a stay-at-home mom. Slightly shocked and wondering what it was about me that made it so obvious that I didn't work outside of the home, I smiled and nodded.
"Oh, it's such a blessing to be able to stay home, isn't it?" she beamed. I smiled more brightly and agreed, wondering how she really got through her days and choosing not to talk about my fairly active online-mommy-life. I tried not to let my discomfort show as she changed the subject for the eighth time.
Now she wanted to know if there was significance to my name being spelled with an "A" in the middle.
I tell the story as I often do, short and sweet with a healthy does of humor and matter-of-factness, straight faced for the most part, with maybe a slightly brighter twinkle in my eye and an ever-so-subtle upturn of one corner of my mouth.
She bust into laughter, startling her identicals.
"You're so funny, oh my goodness," she chuckled. I blinked slow and bowed my head minutely in appreciation, while not surprised by the response. I'm witty, I know that. It's taken years to form this outlook on life, to be able to take the painful and embarrassing and the shameful and alienating and make light of it all, because everyone loves a clown, or at least a funnyperson.
And then she punched me straight in the gut.
"You should act," she stated happily, yet quietly. "You'd be so good at it."
I blinked rapidly, feigning surprise at the notion, while chanting No tears, not here over and again in my mind. I smiled nervously, searching my peripheral vision for my husband, who was discussing his vocation with the father. I shrugged, mumbled something about never thinking about it or too little time or one of the million excuses one gives to disguise their failure. I excuse myself as I ask my husband to keep an eye on my son, who had succeeded in his campaign to play on the strange floor of the strange house in my hometown, just down the street from a high school friend's mom's house. He was petting the face of a smiling blonde woman, while looking at me grinning.
Why does he have to love blondes so much?
I call my mom as I walk a few feet towards their garage. She was supposed to meet us at this house, to help us transport a new-in-packaging Craigslist crib bought for a child not even at fetus status yet. It was a good deal, I had said, and we already have the matching changing table. It just doesn't fit with the carseat in the car.
She picks up; she's already outside in the driveway, has already moved the carseat into her car -- no, my car that she's driving because I'm driving hers because that's how it goes with us, back and forth and trying to make the life of the other just a wee bit easier however we can with whatever we can -- and she's ready to go. She didn't think about calling to tell me she was there.
We exchange cash for package and arrange children and furniture in corresponding vehicles so that we may get out of this family's hair on a partly-sunny Sunday afternoon. We'll figure out the details later, we decide, and head towards my mom's.
I keep it to myself, her sucker punch. She had no way of knowing, and him hearing it would have only made the mistake more obvious, more glaringly painful.
And somewhere, a part of me knew this was coming. The vaguely-familiar random from back then who's been religiously posting pictures from all those parties on Facebook -- I know all the faces in them, some even fondly, but the scenes are from after my forcible removal; a sharp reminder that life always does charge on without you. The photos of my former classmates as they pursue their dreams in New York and California and abroad and on cruise lines -- and I think They're the same age as me yet they lead a completely different life. The few who didn't care about my leper status that have remained friendly acquaintances suddenly wanting to catch up, for me (and just me) to come to their holiday or new year's parties. The reconnections with dear friends from high school and that fateful year of college who have let time and my beyond-adorable baby heal the wounds. RENT and Glee rekindling passions and reminding me that I lived that dream too, once.
That I had been good enough to get in. Talented (to a degree -- see that? even now I talk it down because the hurt is still so deep).
Just not ... mature and sane enough to stay. To learn. To be something else. Something more.
The last song in vocal lessons I sang was "Just A Housewife" from the Sondheim musical Working. I remember complaining to my asshat vocal coach that I hated the song because that wasn't how I envisioned being a mother and a wife, and I struggled to connect to it because couldn't I sing something else? There were a million songs out there -- why did it have to be that one?
Now, I read the lyrics and can still sing it, albeit not very well. And I watch a performance and it resonates oh so well, too well, to a point that makes me wonder if that asshat vocal coach knew something I didn't.
The spouse of a fellow teacher leans in a little too close after a beer or three too many. We were making nice, being the youngest couple at the holiday party, Kyle enjoying the wine I swore off this go round.
"So, where do you work?" he asked blithely.
"Oh." I fidgeted in my seat enough for Kyle to take notice and the spouse to give me three more inches breathing room. "Oh, I'm a stay-at-home-mom. Just a housewife." I forced a bright smile, willing him to believe that there was conviction and joy behind that statement. Perhaps all that time spent on my "craft" weren't all for naught.
"Oh, wow, that's nice," he said as he refused eye contact, then nervously looked at his wife, the mother of his three children ages 7, 4, and 18 months I'd learned -- and I could see the surprise and calculations and pity on their faces. How could we possibly survive on that? And we're bringing another one into the world? Surely they know roughly what Kyle brings home because she too, was a first year teacher -- and in this economy I don't work?
I looked out at the party and took another sip of my water. Kyle patted my knee under the table, knowing my vulnerability and social anxiety were mounting. He changes the subject to something else that I could contribute on, something that showed my intelligence and wit.
Soon the table was laughing at my stories, just as they always do. Because everyone loves a self-depreciating coping mechanism, right?