The mama waterskunk

“Why do the dumpsters have locks on it?” Big A asked, as I threw our sandwich wrappers and wet wipes away.

It was our last full day in Colorado. Only a few months before, on the eve of my 32nd birthday, Mr. D and I were misty-eyed in an Austin Imax, following a documentary on the 100-year anniversary of the natural parks.  “The greatest natural wonders belong to no one,” Robert Redford’s voice narrated. “They belong to all.” As we left the theater, I admitted how choked with emotion I felt at the sight of our purple mountain majesties. “I teared up, too,” my husband admitted. “We should do more stuff outdoors.”

Then we came home. Work piled on. Swim lessons and gymnastics and drop-offs and pick-ups and life in general resumed its unrelenting, unapologetic pace. I fantasized daily about quitting my job, wondering if my boss would continue to take credit for my work, or if she would, instead, give me the one thing I had asked for and unquestionably earned. But she didn’t acknowledge my question, let alone provide an answer, and I found myself averaging three hours of sleep on a good night. About a month after my suicide joke fell flat in a staff meeting and probably a week before my inevitable mental break down, Mr. D bought impromptu tickets to Denver. “It will be good for us,” he said. “It will be good for you.”

It was perfect. It was exactly what the doctor ordered, right down to the weed. The girls, Mr. D and I hiked mountains and stepped off the beaten path to climb rocks and explore nature on our own. By the time we polished the last of our PB&Js at a picnic table in Rocky Mountain National Park, I decided I could very happily relocate to the West. We’d just need to get used to the whole snakes and bears thing.

“That’s why you’re supposed to lock the dumpsters,” I explained to Big A. “So the bears can’t get in.”

“Bears?” Little A asked in her sweet whisky voice. “Will they hurt us?”

“Um… well… hopefully we won’t see any. But sometimes bears can hurt people. Especially if it’s a mama bear who wants to protect her babies.”

Little A lost interest in the bears, and we proceeded to circle around a spectacular lake, its crystal clear water reflecting the towering mountain ranges from beyond. We climbed more rocks, walked across logs and even hopped over stones to explore the other side of a babbling brook. As we headed back to the car, Little A began to tell us a story about “a waterskunk family,” prattling on in her usual long-winded way, with mundane details and indecipherable ones all piling together as my interest and attention drifted elsewhere–to the trash collected in our car, to the bathroom stops we all needed to make before we left, to the flight we had to catch tomorrow. Her sweet whisky voice droned on… and on… until finally, in that same casual tone, Little A said, “And then a man came, and he tried to hurt the babies, so the the mama waterskunk killed the man.” Mr. D and I both stared at each other blankly. “Kill the man?” I mouthed to him, as he laughed and said, “Well, that took an unexpected turn.”

We drove to another lake  and admired a herd of moose crossing the road. That night, we all went to bed early, and I slept sound and deep and long.

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The Lotus Eaters

I loved him before the drugs.

Sitting in the corner of Mr. Pierogie’s 9th grade, Honors English, we’d pass each other notes, handfuls of which I still have saved in a frayed, decades-old Victoria’s Secret box. There are the snarky one-liners about the class know-it-all; the fear we harbored for the wobbly barstool upon which our sweet, fat teacher would sit; the exchanges that said nothing and everything about life at 13.

When I try to pinpoint the exact moment I fell in love with D, I return to that classroom. We had finished the first half of The Odyssey, and from his precarious perch, Mr. Pierogie asked us which of Odysseus’ challenges had been the most dangerous. “The Lotus Eaters,” D whispered to me. It seemed an odd choice, only a few small pages about a flower that forever trapped its willful victims, certainly less exotic or action-packed than some of the other stories in the epic, and my face must have reflected my bemusement. He smirked and added, “It’s the only one I actually read.”

When the know-it-all raised his hand to make the same argument—something about hopelessness, loss of willpower, how those who ate from the flower abandoned desire for all else—I fell madly in love with D’s smile, the free-of-arrogance, I-told-you-so expression that said, “So what if I got lucky? I’m right.”

Shortly after our initial drunken kiss some 11 years later, after we went from being friends to being more, I asked Mr. D if he, too, knew the moment he loved me. “We were in the cafeteria,” he said, going into explicit detail of watching me, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as I devoured what must have been a very delicious popsicle. “That’s the girl I’m going to marry,” he joked, and we both cracked up.

We didn’t share another class until senior English, and our casual connection continued through college. We’d hit the bowl in his dorm, exhaling pot smoke into an empty water bottle filled with dryer sheets to mask the smell. Once, I accompanied him and his girlfriend on a blunt ride behind campus, grabbing the closest available beverage to soothe my throat, only to gag as the gin-laced juice seared its way to my stomach.

We went to parties in the seedier parts of the city. He taught me how to hock loogies and download songs off illegal websites. We took statistics sophomore year, our first shared class since high school, though he’d eventually fail the course and drop out altogether. After that, it was years before we saw each other again.

When we did, it was at my wedding. Newly single, D came alone and caught the bouquet. At 22, I had married a former pothead who smoked with me on our first date but never touched marijuana again. The sex was mediocre. When a friend once asked what it was that I saw in him, I apparently replied, “He has D’s sense of humor.” She’d remind me of that after the divorce, after D and I became “more,” after my corny remark of always loving him and after the chorus of duhs from our mutual friends.

We were potheads that first year, but D was more, and I didn’t realize just how debilitating more could be. D knew. He had called it eleven years before, in freshman English.

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Is this marriage?

Mr. D says I have a tendency to project my stress onto our relationship, and he may be right. Sometimes when we smoke at night, I find myself unable to get comfortable in his arms, or on the couch, or in the bed. I just sit there, on edge, anxious and tense, wondering why I can’t relax, and it compounds the already growing feelings of inadequacy and insecurity that mar my Groundhog’s Day existence, where every day is the same, and I never feel good enough at home or at work, and I wonder if I’m arrogant for wanting more for our life, or ambitious for dreaming big.

I told Mr. D that I was sorry if I take my woes out on him, and he said it’s okay, that at least I don’t express it on the kids, or at my job, or with my parents. And then I wondered, is that marriage? Is that what we do for the ones we love? Absorb some of their stress while they get their shit together?

If so, I’m grateful for it. If not, I’m tipsy (I hate alcohol), and these are all thoughts for an essay on another day.

Dogma

Angelina Jolie once said it was her son Maddox who adopted her, and not the other way around. That his three-month-old smile gave her a confidence she had never known.

“I held him for the longest time, and finally he woke up and stared at me, and we stared at each other, and I was crying and he smiled and I felt… my discomfort with children is because I assume I can’t make them happy, because I’ve been accused of being dark I wasn’t sure I’d be a great, loving, perfect mom even though I wanted to be so bad. Could I make someone comfortable and happy? But he smiled and we hung out for a few hours, and I could make him happy, and we felt like a family.”

That was from a 2005 Vanity Fair interview to promote Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I thought of it a year later, at the Humane Association, when a scruffy mutt nuzzled its way onto my lap with such boundless affection I felt confident in my ability to be his mom. “I want him,” I told my husband.

I was 22 and married to a man who I disliked far more than I loved. We bought a house the week before our wedding and adopted Grizzly the month after.

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