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, having just watched 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 recreational marijuana that felt hella medicinal. 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, wide eyed, 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.

A few weeks later, my boss gave me the news I had been hoping to hear. She also acknowledged wider problems within our office culture–many of which she had perpetuated herself–and apologized to our entire group. It was authentic goodness, and good management, and I thought, “Damn, if she would only just treat me nice, I could really like her.”

Today, seven months later, she does and I do. Truly. I like her in a way that is neither forced nor contrived. I like her because her honest criticisms helped me grow professionally, and I like her because she’s incredibly sharp and funny. When she emails me and asks me to do things these days, I never tell my computer screen to go fuck itself; instead, I say, “Right on top of that, Rose,” and send her an LOL/smiley face after she sends me some Sue Ellen meme she generated in response.

We’re women of a certain age, she and I. And as women in this 28-40-year-old age group, we share a love for the 1991 classic, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. Christina Applegate as Sue Ellen Crandell was everything girls with eventual careers in middle-management aspired to be; so much so that my boss, the Duck, even has her own Sue Ellen-inspired, black-and-white blazer.

I couldn’t help but think of the Duck this afternoon, as I played hookie from work. I had debated playing hookie since 2:22 a.m. last night. It was the first time in a long time that I had suffered from insomnia, and this time, I knew, it was alcohol-induced. In fact, I had bragged to a friend a few nights before about how I never get wine hangovers, so of course three glasses of wine on a Monday night did me in. I passed out haphazardly in Big A’s bed, then stumbled into my own somewhere around 9pm, before waking up five-and-a-half hours later.

I was still drunk, and my first reaction was to scold myself for having driven home from the bar. You’re thirty-fucking-two, I thought. You’re too old for reckless, stupid shit like this. You have a family. What’s wrong with you? Then, in a still-drunkish daze, I thought about the drunk interview I had conducted the night before, with my girlfriend’s fiance. In two months, I’ll be standing beside them as they commit their lives together, and as part of my wedding present, I wanted to write them a personalized love story. I bet personalized love stories could make a fucking killing with brides, I thought. What if I could launch my own business doing that? It would be so cool to do it with Enrique and the Magician.

Then I began thinking of Enrique and the Magician. Enrique, who did ALL the work for the next project, even though now I’m the one publicly taking credit for his ideas. I don’t even want the title for this next project, and it’s probably the best one we’ve ever done. But the credit isn’t mine. The lion’s share goes to the two of them. To the Magician, who truly makes magic, who does in days what would take anyone else weeks, who approaches everything with a sharp eye and a kind heart and never seems to get adequately recognized for her talent and efficiency, and above all, integrity. I thought about our project, and my mind started racing with all the things I needed to do by tomorrow. Or today. By now, it was around 4am.

I debated waking up and making sandwiches for lunch to avoid having to do it in three hours. I thought about our lunch meat, and if the turkey was about to go bad. I wondered if I could take a day off, if I could just relax in unencumbered “fuck it-ness,” even though I knew I couldn’t, that there was too much work to do, but that if I could get the big tasks out of the way by noon, then maybe I could run home, squeeze in a mid-day nap and respond to any important emails that night.

Then, this morning, I pushed out a really hard stool, so hard that I actually had to grab my asshole and try and assist the process, and in so doing, felt my anal fissure burst open, gushing bright-red blood into endless toilet-paper blot upon toilet-paper blot. I almost called out of work right then and there, but it didn’t hurt to walk, or sit, or fart, and so I went to the office with every intention of leaving, and I planted the seed early in the day, telling the Duck I hadn’t been feeling too well–technically true. Enrique and I met with the Magician to go over last-minute changes to our big project, and again, I marveled at their brilliance and talent and questioned my own contributions to the team.

When I left, I told everyone I’d be on email throughout the day, but I got home and eased my lingering stomach cramps and hangover nausea with a little medicinal marijuana. And then some more marijuana. And somewhere into the third episode of Silicon Valley, I realized this was a vacation day, or a mental health day, which is basically a sick day, right?

I know it came at a bad time, but I didn’t shirk on a single work-related duty when our entire home was down with last month’s norovirus/stomach bug/plague, and my stomach did kinda hurt, and I’ve worked plenty of nights and weekends over the past two months, so maybe I actually have pulled some weight on this next project, even if my title feels undeserved. Am I so wrong for calling out for half the day?

I debated watching more Silicon Valley, dreaming of how cool it would be to adapt High Mom for an HBO series about working stoner moms, perhaps in my professional industry, which is as fascinating as the tech mecca and surprisingly absent from most media (save for a Tom Wolfe novel). But no, instead I noticed the list of movies I had saved to my HBO watchlist, with Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead right at the top. I turned it on and began taking mental notes.

I realized I need to start telling the kids, “TV rots your brain,” the next time they ask for an extra show. I realized Sue Ellen was the OG Boss Bitch of my generation (and that Christina Applegate will forever remind me of the Lioness, my work idol and G.O.A.T Boss Bitch). I thought about the Duck, that when it comes to her job, she’s a Boss Bitch who knows more than most. I thought about myself, that I really don’t want to lose my job over this blog because the only time I ever truly feel like a Boss Bitch is at work.

I thought about the struggle for work-life balance, which the movie seemed to nail, perhaps most perfectly in the scene where Sue Ellen asks for some household help as one of her siblings steals petty cash from her purse and another guilts her for having to work during a Little League game. “I just want to go to the beach, and take a towel and a walkman, and  lie in the sand, and rub oil on myself, and not have to interface with anybody, and get tanned,” Sue Ellen fantasizes aloud. Isn’t that kinda what I’m doing today, I wondered? I needed a day. Sometimes working mamas need a day. Or a half day. We take what we can get.

After the movie, I went to Big A’s after-school practice for Odyssey of the Mind, where I may have still been just a smidge high. I realized my Pretentious Mom Friend (whom I also truly love) might be the most rigid enforcer of creative exercise, and I thought that rather than asking a bunch of six year olds to memorize a three-page script, maybe it would be better to break their play into five scenes and let them improvise as needed, so that even if they forget the words, at least they wouldn’t forget their place in the story.

It was a good idea, in theory, but in my slightly stoned condition, I wondered if I had been off-putting in my approach. Or maybe that was my slightly stoned, overly introspective, anxious, insecure brain. I stopped talking to the adults and began chatting with the kids instead. Big A told me she didn’t want to do Odyssey of the Mind next year. I asked why. “I just don’t really like it,” she said. Later in the afternoon, I asked another boy if he liked the club. He took a long pause before finally saying, “Yeah.” What do you like best? “Painting our costumes.”

I continued the conversation when Big A and I got in the car. She exudes such ingenuity and creativity in the millions of projects she works on at home, I figured she’d probably enjoy building and painting her costume, too. The one she made last week had fallen apart, so I suggested maybe we scoop up Little A and all go to Kmart for colorful poster board. But Big A wanted to go to the skateboard park instead. “Please,” she begged, and basking in the unseasonably warm February air, I said sure. We had been there just days before, on a 70-degree weekend, where, for almost four hours, she scooted beside the big kids whizzing by.

I don’t particularly like that skateboard park because the bigger kids can be dicks. Not overtly, but with enough imposing authority to keep the little ones at bay. When we went there on Sunday, about a half-dozen older skater kids were enjoying the summer-like day. Fortunately, we only had one helmet, which Big A wore while Little A made new friends in the playground. I split my attention between the two, but watched with enormous pride as my six year old walked up to a bunch of teenagers (maybe even a few dudes in their early 20s) and asked if she could scoot with them. They said yes. She scooted. Then she came over to play with her sister before heading back to scoot some more. Except this time she didn’t scoot. She walked to the bench overlooking the tennis courts and cried. “I heard the big kid complain that I was back,'” she told me.

My heart broke as I hugged her. I told her I was sorry. I said the other kid was just being bratty, and that we can all be a little bratty when we don’t want to share. But it’s still a park, I said, and she has every right to be there, as long as she continues to stay out of the bigger kids’ way. She nodded. Just then, a group of young black girls came to the park. They must have been slightly older than Big A, and certainly less experienced than the white skater teens, and they began riding their bikes in the middle of the arena. It was a bit intrusive and unsafe, and one of the older kids asked that they try and watch out for the skateboarders. “We just don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” he said. It was a reasonable argument, and yet I felt that same unease I feel whenever we go to that park. That some people are just not welcome there.

Big A kept playing, and about a half hour later, the black kids returned and claimed their territory at the top of on one of the steepest slopes. When the white kids would skate or scoot on that hill, they’d yell at them and spit sunflower seeds on the ground, further incensing the white skaters. “I wish we had chewed up gum to spit in their faces,” one white boy said. “My tits are nicer than yours,” a fat, white kid taunted. I don’t think a single one of the girls could have been older than 13.

“Try and ignore them,” I heard one of the older white kids tell the others, but it became hard. By this point, the As had seemed to befriend their exiled sisters, sitting beside them on the hill. I watched the bubbling brewhaha unfurl and wondered if or when I’d need to step in. I finally did, after the tits remark. “This is getting really out of control,” I said. “Can we maybe skate in shifts? I realize you’re way more advanced, but is it possible for everyone to have a turn?” The older kid repeated his initial line. “Look,” he said, “I’m not trying to be disrespectful. I just don’t want anyone to get hurt. Everyone can play here if we can just stay out of each others’ way.”

I walked over to the other group. “Does that sound okay to you?” I asked, ignoring the larger tensions that remained unsaid. “That one kid called me a whore,” a girl replied. She had to have been only a few years older than Big A. My jaw fell as my heart broke. “I’m so sorry,” I replied. “He must be a really angry, unhappy person to say such a thing. How old are you?” The girl didn’t respond. The well-endowed teen looked sad and disappointed and weary of the ways of the world. She remained on the hill a bit longer before finally joining the rest of her group, and they left shortly after.

Big A kept scooting. She scooted so much she finally figured out how much momentum she needed to make it all the way to the top of the ramp, where she squealed with pride. As we drove home that evening, a song I had never heard before came on the radio. “Ooh, I love this one,” Big A said, as a pop-rock musician sang about the best day of his li-i-i-i-ife. It was catchy, cheerful and lovely. “And you know,” my daughter added, “this was, like, the best day of my life, too.”

I thought of that tonight, as we headed back to the skateboard park. There were only two kids there: a skater, probably in his early 20s, and a seven-year-old boy who seemed far more comfortable on a scooter than either of my girls. “Stay out of the big kid’s way,” I told my daughters, before adding, “It’s his job to stay out of yours, too.”

We were there maybe two minutes before Little A must have meandered into his path. I honestly don’t know. I was checking an email as I heard him loudly proclaim that “kids should NOT be at the skateboard park.”

My internal monologue went something like, It’s like that, motherfucker? My actual comment was more or less the same. “Excuse me?” I asked, with moderate stank in my voice. “Are you speaking about my children?”

“This is not a park for kids,” he said.

“It’s a public park,” I replied. “It’s for everybody.”

“It’s not, and I’ve just worked an eight-hour day,” the kid told me.

“That’s not impressive. Everyone works eight-hour days. I work eight-hour days.”

“You wake up at 4am and spend it outside doing construction?” he asked.

“No, but I work just as hard as you and pay my taxes so I can bring my daughters here.”

As I was telling my girls to scoot carefully, my new friend flew up the ramp and then shot down with such threatening speed that his body was about a half-inch away from my face. And that’s when I called the police.

“You’re calling the police?! When I’m asking nicely for you to not have your kids in my way?? That’s unbelievable! I wish I had a camera to record this whole thing. I can’t believe you. But that’s fine,” he screamed. “I’ll call the police back.”

The mother of the seven-year-old began chatting with my new nemesis. As I was on the phone with the dispatch agent, I could only hear snippets of their conversation, but the gist came through. “Little kids shouldn’t be at the park,” the fellow mom told him, and all I could think was, “Wow. Did you not just see how he flew his fucking skateboard right next to me and my kids?” Her comment brought out my own ugliness and arrogance, and I began to view this fellow mother as a low-wage, uneducated asshole, who probably voted for Trump because protecting the institutions that keep entitled white men in power are the same ones she was protecting with this piece-of-shit prick. Perhaps she even saw her son in him, or in the man he might one day be. Is that acceptable behavior, I wanted to ask her. Would you condone these actions in your own child?

I was eavesdropping on their conversation while simultaneously attempting to explain the situation to the dispatch agent, while keeping an eye on my kids, and somewhere in between, I began second-guessing myself, wondering if perhaps I had been a bit rash in calling the police. After I hung up, I spoke to the woman beside me, who was now speaking to another lady, who witnessed the exchange while walking her dog. The dog walker had said, “If only there was a second, smaller skateboard park for the little ones…” and I told her I agreed, that yes, that would be an ideal solution, but since this is a public space, it’s really a matter of figuring out how we can make it a community for everyone. The greatest wonders belong to no one. They belong to all.

The other mother spoke to me respectfully. But the sides had already been drawn, and she was not on mine. “I’ll stay until the cops come,” she told Bryan, whose name was written beneath his skateboard. I felt like I was witnessing an alternate universe, but perhaps it was just a metaphor for the growing division of the Skateboard Park that is America, where some people are free to roam as they please and others need to know their place.

I was anxious and wishing we had bought art supplies from Kmart instead of coming here. But then I reminded myself that I’m a Boss Bitch who can handle anal fissures and mean girls at work, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to talk to people. I helped diffuse a tense situation at this same park just two days before, and one of the skater kids even thanked me later. Surely I got this?

“Hey,” I said, approaching Bryan. “I think we got off on the wrong foot. My name is A… Is your name Bryan? Can I call you that?”

“I’m not saying a word to you,” he said.

And so the girls and I headed back to my Camry, as Bryan and his new mom friend chatted and waited.

When the cops came, Bryan went over and told his side of the story. “I had a long day at work, and my voice was hoarse, so I may have come off a little rude,” he admitted, though he conveniently left out his signature skateboard move that put his body about an inch away from my skull. When he finished, I introduced myself to the officer and said I may have jumped the gun in calling, but that just like this young gentleman here, my daughters and I wanted to enjoy a warm day at the park, and I felt concerned for our safety when his physical presence threatened my own. The officer sort of mocked the fact that he had even been called to the park for something this trivial, and then politely dismissed the “eye witness” mom (bye, Felicia!), and finally said, “I think we’d have so many less problems if people would only be a little nicer to each other. This is a great park, and I hope you both continue to come here, and next time, I hope you’ll get along.” I agreed and extended my hand to shake Bryan’s. The cop smiled, and Bryan offered his begrudgingly limp palm before driving off.

Once he was gone, the cop spoke to my daughters and kindly explained how sometimes police officers come to help people follow the rules. “It’s a lot like sports,” he said.  “Do you like sports?”

“Not really, but I play soccer,” Big A said.

“Well, my job is kind of like what the referees do in soccer. When the balls go beyond the places they’re allowed to go, we come in and help get them back to where they need to be.”

Then he gave my girls some baseball cards with his name and bio, wished them a good night, and told me I did the right thing. “I was downplaying it for the other guy, but it was good that you called.” He may have been appeasing me in the same way he had appeased Bryan, but it didn’t matter. I was glad I had called, and I was glad he was there, and I prayed for him and his fellow brethren in blue when I came home.

And now I’m writing. My first post in a while, 4,000 words in just a couple hours. It feels good to put prose to the page, but it’s also 12:51 in the morning, and I’m not even sure what my point is anymore. Something about work and life and how exhausting it can all be, how muddled it can feel when you try and reconcile the endless ways in which race and age and experience and gender all combine to make something so intrinsically unique to our individual human existence, and how boring the world would be if everyone agreed on everything, and how wonderful it would be if we could just be kind and respectful and grateful for the beauty within our differences, and how being a Boss Bitch means standing up to bullies, and standing up for yourself, and if anyone ever tries to hurt my babies, I’ll go full fucking waterskunk.

5 Thoughts.

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