It’s not a crime to be boring, Stephanie reminds herself. Underneath the van, the house, the job, the three kids, the two dogs, the cat, the hamster, the goldfish, the golf, and the penchant for buying rare Star Wars Lego kits off of eBay, Joe must be a vibrant and interesting man. She wouldn’t have married him otherwise.
But Stephanie is so bored and irritated she’s considering opening the door of the van and just leaping onto the highway. Shoving Joe out would work, too.
The anniversary trip out east is supposed to be a pilgrimage back to where they met. Stephanie had wanted to spend a night or two in a hotel, just the two of them. “But the kids!” Joe had protested. They can’t afford plane tickets for all five of them, so they are driving and camping and miserable.
It’s supposed to rain for the whole ten days of the trip. Stephanie follows a fat drop of water down the van window with her fingertip. “I need to pee,” she says.
The kids are asking for snacks and candy before they’ve pulled off the highway.
“We have a cooler full of food,” Stephanie tells them, but of course they respond with “We want good food.”
Stephanie runs towards the rest stop so she won’t end up stuffing the snacks she’d carefully prepared at 4am down the throats of her ungrateful children.
In the bathroom, she remembers (as she often does in the moments when she resents her children most) how it felt to want a baby. Once, her eyes had snagged on a tiny pair of socks in the infant section at Walmart, and she’d stood with them in her hand, tears streaming down her face. When she got home, she found them in her pocket, with no memory of how they got there.
Stephanie washes her hands. She’d straightened her hair that morning, but it is frizzing from the rain.
Why does she bother straightening her hair? Why had she gotten up so early to pack snacks no one wanted to eat? Why had she insisted the kids would not have tablets in the car, so she is now forced to entertain them constantly or listen to them bicker and moan? Why is she on a vacation that is not going to be a vacation at all, it is just going to be her regular life without her Vitamix or Posturepedic mattress or the internet? Why had she had a third baby she wasn’t even sure she wanted?
The worst part of aching to be a mother is missing someone you haven’t even met yet. It’s knowing that you’re going to have to suck them from the marrow of your bones. She’d been so sick her first pregnancy, had hated every second of it, but forgot how awful it had been the instant she held her baby in her arms. Each subsequent pregnancy had been easier, but she’d wanted each baby less. Questioning why she does the things she does feels like fiddling with a loose thread. Pull too hard and her whole life will unravel. Best just to leave things alone.
In the store she finds her children with arms full of chips, Joe arguing with the youngest over a package of black licorice she’s insisting she wants but they both know she won’t eat.
He looks up at her. “Are you ok?”
She can see her wavy, distorted reflection in the mirrored wall of the shop behind him. Her hair is huge and puffy. Her mascara has run.
“This is my real hair, Joe. This is my actual face.”
She asks him for the keys, but he’s taken off across the store, repelled by her sudden outburst.
“No gum in the car,” he calls to the children.
Stephanie’s family doesn’t notice when she leaves. Outside, she puts her hand in her pocket and pulls out the key fob she’d slid from Joe’s cargo shorts while he put packages of gum back on the shelf. It felt good to wrap her hands around the keys and take what she wanted.
She climbs behind the wheel of the van and turns the heat on.
She slides the seat forward. Puts her feet on the pedals.
She intends to pull up and wait for her family at the rest stop exit so they don’t have to get wet in the rain, but instead she drives out of the parking lot and onto the highway.
In the hotel room she books with the credit card she and Joe have for emergencies, she takes a long, hot shower. She uses all of the tiny, fancy toiletries. When she gets out, she stares at herself in the mirror. The lines beside her mouth. The crow’s feet. The chin starting to double. Her eye lashes are almost invisible without mascara. Her hair is enormous. She smiles, but it makes her look unhinged so she stops.
Stephanie orders room service. Steak. A salad. A molten chocolate cake. A half liter of wine. It gets wheeled into the room on a trolley covered with a white table cloth, a red rose in a bud vase on top. She stands in the white hotel robe, barefoot and big haired, and tips the bellhop too much money for not flinching at the sight of her.
Her steak is rare, just how she likes it and can never have it, because it makes her middle child gag to see the blood on the plate.
She knows she should miss them. Soon, she’ll feel the same horror about this that she did when she first found those tiny socks, that same feeling of being uncertain about the lengths she’ll go to get what she wants. At some point, Stephanie will pull this memory out of her pocket and will barely recognize herself at all.
Meg Max is a writer and mother living in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She is the founder of Writers in Bloom. Her work has been published in The Feathertale. You can read more of her first draft work at www.megmaxwriter.com.