“So many people are shut up tight inside themselves like boxes, yet they would open up, unfolding quite wonderfully, if only you were interested in them.”– Sylvia Plath, Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams: Short Stories
Oh it’s been so long since I went horse-back riding. The wind feels amazing on my face. I catch my reflection in the clear stream next to me as I pass it. I look good! My dark hair flowing, my red cape billowing, my bracelets of submission glinting in the sun. I don’t even care if the saddle on this horse will end up chafing my thighs in this Wonder-Woman costume, I’ve not felt this free and powerful in a very long time.
The trees, mountains and fields, all are fading into a blur around me as we gain speed. Its just me and this beautiful black horse. The only sound I can hear are the whistling of the wind and the clippity-clop sound of the galloping hooves. Actually, no. That’s not exactly what it sounds like. It’s not as rhythmic as it should be. It’s more like a faint “tap-tap-tap”. Did I leave the faucet open in the kitchen last night? Impossible! I don’t do such mistakes. “tap-tap-tap”. There it is again. Maybe I did. I will take care of it when I get back home.
Where did that sound come from?
There it is again.
“Mommy? Is Friday a holiday?”
Hah! No. It is not. But you would think that wouldn’t you Teddy boy? Now go get washed up while mommy makes us something to eat.
Wait a second! SHIT! I pull at the reins of the horse suddenly as I try to slow it down and stop. But it gets startled instead and throws me in the air. As I am airborne for a terrifying second, I realize that I had been dreaming. And as I hit the floor of my bedroom in my pajamas, I know for sure that that’s what I was doing. As I lay there contemplating my life choices, there are three things I notice.
a.) I must run the vacuum cleaner under the bed more often.
b.) Wonder-woman costumes are completely impractical
And c.) I was horribly late.
I scramble up from the floor. Unbelievable! My shiny new alarm clock did not go off at all. And I am half an hour late! This is sacrilege in my universe.
“Mommy will be with you in a second darling. Go pee and brush your teeth!”, I call out to my son.
“No! I am gonna sit outside your door until you come out. Why did you lock your door again?”, he responds with his typical whiny morning voice which usually sounds adorable, but today was grating on my nerves.
Because you were making it a habit of coming into mommy’s room every night and you are almost 9 years old and everyone already judges me for babying you too much and I don’t want to add one more thing to their ever growing list of why-I-suck! – I think to myself.
“I am sorry honey! I am coming out now. Step away from the door.”
I open the door as gingerly as possible, as I know he must still be sitting propped up against it. Which meant as I opened it he fell into my room. With a toothy grin. What will I do with you my boy?
“Very funny! Let’s go get washed up now. We are horribly late today!”
He doesn’t move. Just lies there defiantly, on the carpeted floor, looking up at me.
“Ted, please do not test my patience today. We are already late, let’s go NOW!”
Nope. Such a cocky little devil. Fine. I lift up his arm and he suddenly decides to go all dead-weight on me. Oh God! This is so not what I need today. With a mighty effort, I pull him up and put him on his feet and push him out my room. It’s impossible to carry him now, which I am sure is what he wants. He still thinks he is a baby. “And whose fault is that?”, I could literally hear the disapproving voice of my ex-husband in my head. Another thing that I didn’t need at that moment or today or ever.
Once he was in his bathroom and I’d made sure that he is indeed following the whole peeing – brushing – pooping morning ritual, I run back into the kitchen. The clock on the microwave shows 6.30 a.m. Only half-hour to go before we absolutely have to leave.
“It’s okay! I’m fine. Everything’s fine. This is nothing I can’t handle. I am Wonder-Woman.” I quickly say my mantra to myself to calm my nerves.
Okay so no time for coffee. Let’s focus on the break fast and lunch part. I can have the slightly burnt brew from the coffee shop around the corner. I need to first tackle the Lego pieces strewn about in the living room before we leave though. But as I am hurriedly cleaning them up, I step on one of the stray Lego pieces and Oh my God! It hurt so bad! I curse the fathers and forefathers of the makers of the wretched toy!!!
Once all the evil little pieces are safely put away, I limp my way to the kitchen. The clock now reads 6.40 a.m. So, for breakfast we will have the heated up leftover pasta from yesterday’s dinner (don’t judge!), but the lunch needs to be something healthy. I’d had enough brush ins with some of the other mommies lately at the school and they’d not been so subtle about their disdain for my lunch choices. Cucumber pieces and grapes do not constitute for a healthy meal anymore apparently!
So, the night before, while casually scrolling through “creative lunch ideas for kids” on Pinterest I had come across a salami sandwich artfully cut out at strategic places to make for eyes and a smiley face. It looked simple enough and it won’t take that long, or so I thought. The thing is, when it came to art I am surprisingly inept. Especially when I am in a rush! So, the eyes came out slightly squinty and the smile ended up being borderline creepy. Great! My son’s lunch looks like Pennywise the clown! So, I stick a post-it note on the little minion themed lunchbox declaring my love for my little prince and call it a day. I am really into overcompensating these days.
We rush through the rest of our routine and barely make it out of home on time. (Score 1 for mama bear!)
If I drop him off at the school on time I promise to treat myself with the pricey coffee at Starbucks. So, once my little boy was safely deposited at his school I drive to Starbucks, stand in the line for no less than 20 minutes, while tapping my foot impatiently, rolling my eyes at the patrons before me ordering ostentatiously complicated drinks, and mentally screaming at the barista to “HURRY THE FUCK UP!”. I finally make it to the front and order my simple mocha latte with caramel sauce and promptly bleed through my ears when I hear the price. With a locked jaw and forced smile I pay for the coffee and leave for my store. With such an overpriced coffee in my system, today better be a good day! If only I knew what awaited me.
Because, by 9 a.m. my “good day” was veering dangerously into the “bad day” territory when my store manager took an impromptu day off leaving me to handle the delivery of all the new garments that were supposed to be arriving at the store. “It’s okay!” I tell myself “It’s okay! I’m fine. Everything’s fine. This is nothing I can’t handle. I am Wonder-Woman.”
So, I start taking deliveries at the back while my very inexperienced newbie “sales consultant” took over manning the counter and accepted customers. What was the girl thinking wearing her hair in braids today? They made her look even younger. It wasn’t helping anyone. The customers, me or her. I check in with the doe eyed sales girl in between deliveries and my other chores, and each time she manages to look even more terrified than before.
By 11 a.m., as it was turning out to be an uncharacteristically busy day, I decide I would call for reinforcements and dial my best friend’s number. My best friend, who worked from home running an Etsy website for ceramic jewelry, agrees to help me out after lunch. At 11.30 I put my little helper out of her misery and tell her to go get something to eat. I close the store for 10 minutes to take a little breather, quickly scarf down an energy bar and tasteless coffee from my old coffee maker . “Note to self: replace this piece of crap ASAP”, I make a mental note.
After my laughable lunch, I open the store up and wait for my sales girl to arrive. By 12.00 I start getting a little antsy. But by 12.30 I am pretty confident that the girl was not coming back. And sure enough when I check my phone, I see her message. “I QUIT!” In all caps. Okay. I get it. This is not the ideal job, but you don’t have to yell.
“Its all right. Everything’s fine. I am going to be okay. I only have couple of hundered invoices to book into the system and check with at least 10 customers at the same time. Nothing I can’t handle. I am Wonder-Woman”, I tell myself weakly.
It’s my fault after all. During the pandemic I had to reduce the overhead costs of paying my employees their salaries. So, I ended up firing everyone with an incredibly heavy heart. But it was either keep them employed or keep the store afloat. I’ve been working with a threadbare staff ever since. Which meant longer work hours and offering discounts which I couldn’t afford. Living on store brand corn flakes and ramen noodles at times. And now that things were opening up I am hopeful again. This was more than a livelihood for me. It was something my mother and I had dreamt of together. And I’d made a lot of sacrifices to be where I am today. That meant I couldn’t quit, not now, not ever.
At 1 my best friend arrives with her signature wide smile and warm hug and a much needed cup of coffee from the overpriced coffee shop down the street. “It’s on me! Unclench your jaw Ms. Stingy and drink the damn thing.”, she declares.
We work in tandem like a well-oiled machine for 3 more hours until I have to leave to pick up my son from his school and drop him off at the baby sitter’s. I get back to the store after fetching some thank-you-for-saving-my-ass donuts for my friend, which we then gobble up shamelessly in between customers. At 6 p.m., when the footfall has decreased considerably, we call it a day. I have been up on my feet for 12 hours straight. Such is a day in a single mum’s life. But the day isn’t over yet. I still have to go meet with a potential customer. And the meeting is downtown in a pub.
“Who even has meetings in pubs these days?” I mutter angrily as I start the lengthy process of closing up.
But I cannot lose this contract. It is for some ethically produced organic clothing brand which is a big deal these days among the “young millennial” crowd. I check up on my son and his baby sitter. Make sure everything was under control: no nose bleeds, no flesh wounds and fortunately no burning houses anywhere. I close up shop, say a little prayer of thanks to my mum and leave for this happening new pub.
As soon as I enter there, I feel massively out of place. Like a colorless 35-something sore thumb sticking out in the crowd of vibrant 20-somethings. Except for my smudged ruby red lipstick I am dressed from head to toe in black and suddenly very aware of that fact. I also felt as if everyone had stopped in their tracks and were now looking my way. I touch my hair self-consciously, glance-down at my shoes (Did I accidentally drop chocolate syrup from one of the donuts I ate on my leather pumps? No. Thank god!), pull at the skirt of my sensible black dress and beat it to the restroom.
When I catch a look of myself in the mirror, I do a double-take. Gosh! I look so frazzled. No wonder they were all staring at me. My hair, that I had wrangled into a bun in the morning, is now out of it and sticking up in all directions and to my forehead. My lipstick: non-existent. The mascara: long gone. The visible dark circles around my tired eyes made me look older than I actually was.
“It’s okay! I am fine. Everything’s fine! This is nothing I can’t handle. I am Wonder-woman”, I chant to myself as I run a brush through my hair, dab a little concealer under my eyes, decide to forego the mascara and line my eyes with my trusty kohl which made the chocolate brown in them pop and refresh my ruby red lipstick. My mother would always put hers on whenever she had to go out and conquer her fears or the world. She would say, “A good red lipstick is like a secret weapon that every woman should own. Not only does it do wonderful things to your face, it also helps your self-confidence.” I was 9 at that time. – I think to myself as I put mine back on. Taking off my crumpled blazer, I stuff it in my over-sized bag. “Okay! I think I am ready”, I smile and say to my reflection.
I sit myself at the bar. It’s 10 past 7. We were supposed to meet at 7. No worries. In this traffic, it’s absolutely normal to be a little late. I decide to order myself a vodka and tonic and wait. It’s 7.40 now and I think I have a head ache and a shoulder ache and a body ache. The bar stool was becoming increasingly uncomfortable, poking me in the backside. Why would they have such unwelcoming bar stools in a bar? To distract myself, I scroll through my phone, read random Wikipedia articles. I leave my drink mostly untouched as I have to drive back home.
By 7.50 I am sure that the meeting is not going to happen. Disheartened, I am about to leave, when I receive a text from the customer that his infant daughter had to be taken to the hospital as she had not pooped for 7 days straight. I can’t even be angry at the guy! “Perfect! Just perfect!” I huff out a laugh, empty my first drink and order another. “To hell with it! I’ll Uber it. Tomorrow’s the weekend. I’ve got nowhere to be. With the day that I am having I deserve it.”
I check with my baby sitter again. My son was sound asleep by now. She assures me that he had had his dinner and instructs me that I should stay out for a little bit longer and relax a bit. I thank her profusely and hang up with a smile on my face. I am just sufficiently buzzed from my second drink when I decide to look up from my phone and join the land of the living. The crowd around me is getting wilder by the second. “So, this is what happens after dark on a Friday night! Fascinating.”
Just as I am going back to my drink while doing my best to blend into the background, my eyes are caught by another pair on the other end of the bar. My heart involuntarily skips a beat. My smile drops as I realize those eyes belonged to a guy. Sharp features. A regal nose. Dark eyebrows. 5 o-clock shadow around a solemn mouth, which curve into a small friendly smile as soon as our eyes get connected.
I look away immediately. “Was that for me? It couldn’t be. Gosh, I am too old for this shit!” I glance back at him, as indifferently as possible, and yep! He is definitely looking at me. He was not bad-looking, maybe even handsome by some people’s standards. “I don’t know of these people or their standards and don’t want to know about them either!” I quickly remind myself.
“Why is he looking at me?”, I think, looking away again. “How long has he been looking at me? And why is it bothering me so much?” It’s been over 4 years since my divorce. 4 years in which I have never been on a date because I’m always so focused on my son and my business. “4 years of being in a state of perpetual tiredness”, I think stifling a yawn.
“There is no harm in looking right? I am not going to approach him for sure. I hope he doesn’t approach me either. And if he does, I can unleash my patented resting bitch face to deter him. So what’s the big deal in just perusing?” I give myself a mental pep talk, straighten my back, take a fortifying sip from my drink and a deep breath and slowly look his way. Oh! But he is looking somewhere else now. Bummer! Disappointed, I am just about to look away when he glances towards me. And our eyes connect once again. Then he smiles. Close-lipped. Eyes twinkling. Subtly crinkling in the corners. Knowing.
“He smiles as though he knows all my secrets”, is my first thought. It is difficult to make out the color of his eyes from here. The mood-lighting in this place was not helping. But from how his eyes were glimmering in the dim light I guess they must be jewel toned. “Maybe his eyes are green. With flecks of gold around the irises. Like a field of golden wheat surrounded by a deep green forest”. Look at me going all poetic – I mentally roll my eyes at myself. They certainly seem to be mischievous. That I could see in this limited lighting from across the room. His eyes say that his mind was up to no good. And that thought makes me smile. In reciprocation his own grows wider and warmer. As if it genuinely pleased him that he’d somehow made me smile. It was the most bizarre thing. “Why would a complete stranger care about my happiness?” I honestly am befuddled.
“It’s okay! I’m fine. Everything’s fine. This is nothing I can’t handle. I am Wonder-Woman”, I repeat my mantra in my mind as I engage in a war of wits with the good-looking stranger on the other end of the bar. My heart is humming, my mind is brimming with questions and my body is buzzing with anticipation. It’s been such a long time since I had gone out. So, I have rightfully forgotten what it feels like to be aware. Aware of what I looked like, what I was wearing, where I was sitting, what I was doing.
What would I say to him if he comes by? I am so out of touch! But for the longest time we are content just staring at each other. Eventually, I decide that it doesn’t matter what I would say, as long as I get an invigorating conversation out of it. As the evening reaches its crescendo, the veneer of disinterest between us drops. We are now openly competing to either see who would look away first or who would make the first move. Certainly not me. Then suddenly, he moves as if to stand up, but right then my phone rings.
“Hello. Hi Catherine. Is everything all right?”, I ask.
“Yes everything is fine. I don’t want you to worry but Teddy just had a little episode. I gave him his inhaler and he is doing better. But he’s asking for you.”, she replies with a calm and steady voice.
“Okay. Tell him mommy’s on her way. And thank you so much for being there. I really appreciate it. I am leaving now. I will see you in a bit.”
I am already gathering my stuff, paying the bill and sliding off the offending bar stool as I am speaking to her. But as soon as I stand up I stumble. In my hurry, I hadn’t realized exactly how tipsy I was. Just as I fall, he is there out of the blue. He grasps me by my elbow as he steadies me and puts me back on my feet.
Rattled, I put my hand to my racing heart, and look his way… straight into his eyes.
“Are you all right?”, he asks.
“Green. I was right”, I say with a sigh.
“Sorry?”, he replies with a puzzled look on his face.
“Oh! Nothing! Thank you for your help. But I’ve got it from here”, I tell him with a kind smile. And just like that his smile comes back. We spend the next few moments simply smiling and looking at each other. Just as he opens his mouth to say something, I cut him off and say, “Goodbye. Goodnight and thank you again.”
He looks confused for a second and replies, “It’s not a problem.”
Then, I walk away from him. Order an Uber and go back home to my son.
Later, as I settle down next to my son for the night, my mind wanders and I think of the kind stranger again. He, for an instant, made me feel attractive, wanted. More than a mum and a store owner, who always had things to do, places to be. I was just a woman out on a Friday night for those few minutes. And I was unashamed to say that it did give me some validation, which I didn’t even know I needed. I did feel something akin to disappointment when I left without even asking for his name. But that feeling was fleeting. It certainly did transform my mostly “bad day” into an almost “good” one. It filled my head with possibilities, new beginnings. And as I stroked my son’s hair, I remind myself, “It’s okay! I’m fine. Everything’s fine. There’s nothing I can’t handle. I am wonder-woman.”
And all was well in my world!