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Long Haul

“If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.”  – Anton Chekhov

The streaks of pink and dark blue in the evening sky were in such striking contrast, one could not help but think two worlds collided in battle, leaving us to helplessly observe in awe from down below.   The celestial argument was settled quickly and darkness reigned until dawn.

Marina slept on her side, with the covers tucked closely around her.  Ever since she was a little girl darkness left her feeling uneasy.  She was vigilant about covering each body part.  This irrationality followed her into adulthood – for as long as neither toe nor elbow peeked from underneath the blanket, she would be safe from all startling mysteries of the dark.

In unintentionally defiant contrast to their mother’s fears, her girls slept on top of jumbled up covers.  Limbs stretched out across the bed in simultaneous celebration of childhood, unabashed freedom and joy; the latter being temporarily on pause, but ready to sprout at the first sign of dawn.

The youngest one, Abby, was just a baby when Marina decided to leave her husband, Abby and Sam’s father, and pursue what started as a mindless love affair at the office.  Her new husband was fifteen years her senior and little remained from the passion that caused the centripetal force of events leading Marina to leave the safe harbor of her previous marriage.

Sam was a girlie replica of her father, down to the unruly hair that, these days, Marina had to struggle with every morning.

“Leave me alone, Mom.  You are hurting me.  Nobody cares what my hair looks like except you, ” Sam would scream as she pulled away from Marina and the brush, leaving the former with a persistent desire to smack her and the latter with a chunk of long, coarse, tangled, but nevertheless shiny strands. Sometimes, while cleaning out the brush after Sam’s morning escapades, Marina thought of her ex-husband and how, long ago, she sat next to him in the passenger seat of his old Pontiac and continuously brushed coarse brown waves away from his perfect forehead.

Marina frequently argued with her eldest daughter, hated herself for it and secretly wished she were more like her.  Ever since she was a baby, Sam’s balletic grace was a jarring source of Marina’s pride and, even a trace of envy.  ‘How could have I created someone so perfect,’ she thought, as she watched then three-year-old Sam, move to some cheapened version of classical music, in one of a million ‘parent and child’ classes she took her to, back in the day.  Anytime she would catch a glimpse of Sam dancing or simply walking down a long corridor at home – Marina stared at her daughter’s straight back, long limbs and wondered where a child this small learned this confidence, this almost monarchial presence.

Marina, herself, could not walk five steps without tripping.  She battled every sharp corner of furniture, as though purposefully in the way of her middle-of-the-night walk to check on her children or get a glass of water. She hated her daughters’ toys scattered around the floor specifically in her hurried path.  She despised innocently flat hardwood because it rarely failed to trip her in an awkward and painful way, particularly when there were visitors.

Sam had a loud laugh and found her mom’s clumsiness hilarious.  The child’s throaty unrestrained laughter had no trace of ill-wishing (unbeknownst to Marina, Sam adored her mother and preferred her company to that of any friend) nevertheless Marina interpreted it as insensitive mocking, proceeded to lose her temper, occasionally slapped her kid, and immediately hated herself for it.

***

When the youngest, Abby, cried, which she did often, the blue with scattered patches of grey in her irises became almost translucent, creating a misleading appearance of an opportunity to look in.  When she was a toddler, Marina frequently consoled her; picked her up, held, hugged, explained –simultaneously amazed at the immediate transformation of her eyes, at their transparency and, paradoxically, how impenetrable they seemed.  But as Abby got older, Marina realized that the more she consoled her daughter the more she cried, so she learned to tune out her daughter’s wailing and frequently told her to toughen up.

She saw a lot of herself in her younger daughter, and worried that she would repeat her mistakes…

The first thing she noticed was that his wrists were very thin, too thin for a grown man of his height.  She watched his arm move along the paper and tried very hard to focus on what he was saying, writing and drawing in a notepad, after all, it was detailed explanation of what had to be done before the first review.  Marina’s numerous jobs after college convinced her that work was not something that required emotional or mental commitment, it was merely something that had to be gotten through with minimal effort.

As a young girl, she dreamt of becoming an actress, but the images this career choice evoked in her mind were drastically different from those of her father, who frequently told her that life as an actress comes with a single guaranteed role – that of a beggar with a large coffee cup, as well as a single line -“Change, please?”  Following her father’s advice she ended up with a degree in accounting and hopped from job to job in search of something that did not exist in the field of assets and liabilities.  At her first husband’s advice she solidified her resume with a few computer courses and was armed with knowledge and experience to sustain a job in any market – her father’s dream come true.

Marina’s superior continued talking and she continually followed his skinny wrist with her half-absent gaze and thought that she could not imagine being in this office eight hours a day.  Her mind frantically searched for something that would help her make peace with reality of nine-to-five existence between grey walls, with Kafkaesque characters, and this grown man with wrists that could easily be that of a dainty woman if they were not abundantly covered in black hairs.

At times she became very angry with herself for this perpetual inability to focus and made countless promises to herself that she will change. This was not new.  Years before two husbands, daughters – when Marina was a child; she stood next to her desk, tuning out embarrassing lecture by her teacher for being tardy as well as for forgetting her notebook on the very first day of third grade.  At that precise moment, unexplainably –  as most memories that haunt for a lifetime,  she made her first solemn promise to herself –  to be permanently done with lack of focus, tardiness and being lectured by teachers.

The desk, notepad and hairy forearm monotonously moving before her eyes were very different from the scenario surrounding her school desk and ninety-page-lined notebook, with the squirrel on the front cover, that her mom bought for her at some back-to-school sale about a quarter of a century ago.

Her superior continued inundating her with simultaneous writing and talking, taking a pause from writing only to emphasize, twice, that what he was about to sketch was very important… Marina made an effort to follow but got distracted by an overweight older woman on the other end of the office, who was making an attempt to extricate herself from the entrapment of her chair and desk and walk towards the door.

The metamorphosis that Marina’s body underwent following three pregnancies, only two of which were viable, made her extremely empathetic to women who carried extra weight.  She was unwavering in her conviction that inside every woman of any weight there was a memory of a previously lanky skinny supermodel version of her present self.  The idea that some people were happily voluptuous seemed to her as an excuse that people made because they did not have the stamina to stop eating after six o’clock in the evening.  This arbitrary six o’clock rule became a staple of healthy way of life,  as weeks of promising herself to not overeat after the girls went to bed, became years.

The heavy set finally made it to the door.   Marina wondered why a lot of women who carry extra weight end up in a proverbial pear shape.  It was certainly silly, she thought, to assume that extra weight around the shoulders would appear more attractive.  She mentally shifted the extra fifty pounds around the body of the woman that just left the office, but could not find peace with any redistribution of weight. She sighed in order to vocalize her empathy for her newfound, unfortunate, co-worker; superior looked up from the notepad and turned his head to look at Marina.  She coughed and stared at the desk, making an effort to appear extra focused, even though by that point she had absolutely no idea what the diagrams were referring to.   She thought she misheard when he said: “You are clearly bored, why don’t we take a walk.”

***

Marina woke up because she heard Sam yelling for Abby to get away from the former’s toys and the latter’s whaling response that she had no intention of touching Sam’s stuff and, that, she, in fact, hates Sam and the last thing she wants to do is touch anything that belongs to her sister.  Marina tried to block the ever-rising pitch of her offspring’s voices, she hid her head under the pillow and tried to remember what day it was.

Sunday! That means Seb is playing volleyball and she is the only one who can settle life-and-death argument in the room next to hers.  She sat up on the bed, her foot found Seb’s shorts with belt pulled through halfway tangled up with the pair of his dirty socks.  Marina cursed, picked up her husband’s clothes and got up from the bed.  As she shuffled her feet to the door she contemplated making chocolate chip pancakes with silly faces for the girls, hoping to momentarily relieve their eternal frustrations with each other, and, perhaps, mitigate her own, by now overgrown, resentment of her husbands oh-so-cliché midlife crisis.

Seemingly eternal subject of mockery for her friends, Seb ran seven miles every morning, lifted weights four times weekly and played volleyball with his, much younger, friends   When it came to this schedule, Seb was unwavering; neither anger not tears helped Marina in getting her husband to accompany her to an event or, simply, to stay home with her and the girls on Sunday mornings.  She knew, that approaching Fifty terrified him, and that he spent more time looking in the mirror than she did.  His own two sons were now in college, and he did not feel any responsibility for Marina’s daughters, other than, on occasion, when their incessant arguing interfered with his deadline, he would snap and, that, usually, resulted in half-an-hour of quiet.

Marina’s thoughts performed their quotidian dance and twirled back to the early days in her second marriage, after the black-and-blue marks of divorce were starting to heal, and finally she and Seb were free to be together and free of looking at watches, phones, and, at last, free from their conscience.   During those first weeks in their first joint apartment – lazy Sunday mornings when breakfast was the last thing on their minds; they stayed in bed and talked of baby names (he desperately wanted another to add a fifth child to their own sets of two), traveling, moving to Europe… And then they would not talk for a while..and talk again… Marina remembered that sneaky sunlight would leak into the room through the tiny spaces that curtains seemed to miss and betray their denial that there was a world outside, that they were living a rare, momentary privilege.  Not everyone was in bed during Sunday afternoons entangled in warmth and connection; arms, legs and thoughts intertwined – that Marina knew very well these days!  If she were to share this memory with Seb at present, he would tell her that she has an overly active imagination.  But one does not long for what one has imagined, human mind (and heart!) longs for things that have passed and could have still been if life did not get in the way.

Marina showered and tried to avoid the mirror on the way out of the bathroom.  Extra thirty pounds were ever-present, uninvited company and any reminder ruined, already rather unstable, mood.  By now, the girls settled their argument and were waiting for her in the kitchen.

“Mom, you do realize its eleven o’clock and we are hungry,” Sam interrupted Marina’s scattered thoughts.  Somehow, her daughter’s tone made Marina abandon the earlier idea of pancakes.  She put a box of Cheerios on the table and told Sam to get the milk.  Hopping on one leg in front of the fridge, Sam was wearing a tank top, her perfect profile and shoulders sent a twinge of piercing warmth through Marina’s heart, but her child’s lack of focus, as well as the shaking of the floor, injected a dose of annoyance, which quickly the previous emotion.

“Stop jumping like an idiot,” Marina barked at her daughter, “I asked you to get milk ten minutes ago.”  She knew very well that she asked merely a second ago and that she was acting as someone she, herself, would have judged very harshly –  a parent taking out her own frustrations on a child… But she could not control herself.

Sam’s mood was not affected by her mom’s unexpected discourtesy; she hopped over to the table with the carton of milk, and proceeded to hop back to the dishwasher to retrieve some clean plates.

“Mom, can we turn the music on ? Its so dull, dull, dull?” she hummed as she scanned through one of Seb’s devices that seemed to be perpetually connected to the speakers ready for the selection du jour.  Before Marina could respond, Kylie Minogue screamed from the speakers – “I just can’t get you out of my head.” Marina laughed at her eleven-year-olds slightly outdated selection and got up to dance.  Abby jumped up and grabbed her hands and they twirled and yelled out “la, la, la!” along with Kylie, whose pictures in gossip magazines suggested that she was just as preoccupied with retaining her youth as Marina’s husband.

Sam wasn’t dancing. She sat down at the table and picked cheerios one by one out of the box.  “I thought you were the one who wanted music?” Marina laughed as she continued twirling in circles with giggling Abby.  Something about the way Sam looked at her made her feel self conscious, she turned the volume down and sat back at the table.

“How many times did I tell you to not stick your hands inside a cereal box.  Are you a girl or a pig?” Marina inquired with such firmness in her voice, one could have thought that she wanted a definitive answer. “What did I do now?” retorted Sam.  Overall, Marina was not sure how to answer that question.  She did not have much time to ponder it too, because the dog gave up on looking at Sam and her cereal, with eyes that conveyed that Cheerios were the only thing that stood between it and death, and ran towards the front door, wagging his tail.  Seb was back from volleyball.

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