Fiction from Jessica Hollander
The Young Mother Sings Loudly
In the Kindermusik class the teacher is always smiling. The young mother feels guilty seeing anyone with more energy around her kid than she has. Even her husband when he first comes home, sweeping Clint up and crowing falsetto – can’t everyone just calm down? She didn’t know having a kid meant feeling bad about not being happy all the time.
The room is blue with drawings of animals on swings and a wobbly earth and the top eighth of a sun rising from the door with absurdly long rays, yellow, gold, and orange. It’s the kids the sun represents. Parents rush in. She likes the frazzled ones, the moms complaining about birthday party expenses and boxes of outgrown diapers, the dads struggling to hold their two-year-olds still then releasing them like cannons. She doesn’t like the curly-haired mom who smiles wider than the teacher, with head bobs and loud cheers when her curly-haired daughter claps her hands or rattles a stick with beads inside. The young mother imagines this woman all the time glowing, walking everywhere fast, sweeping dishes and toys into wide arms, though probably dishes and toys don’t get put away very neatly. The young mother watches this woman from her side of the room, conserving energy.
“Okay, friends,” the instructor says, cross-legged on the purple-tape circle. Some parents wrangle their kids; some don’t bother. Clint sits sweetly on the young mother’s lap, curling his index finger around the end of hers, watching the wild ones. They sing a Hello song. Kids squirm. Parents sing, pat kids’ arms and legs, teaching their limbs rhythm, though the young mother doubts much is retained. When Clint dances at home some mornings it’s this head-jerk thing with belly-dancer arms. “I like that move,” she tells Clint and imitates him. They buzz around the room. She admits to herself these are happy times, though of course tells no one about them. What could she say? While you were an adult all day I pretended I was a bee?
The woman with twins comes in late and sits by the young mother. “My third and fourth boys,” she told the young mother her first day, shaking her head assuming the young mother – everyone – felt sorry for her. Doesn’t everyone really, secretly, want girls? “It’s the cars that kill me. I ask them, what about these nice cows over here? They want to play. So the cows get rides in cars. Or run over.” Every time she holds a squirming boy on each leg with her arms across their chests until they start howling. When she releases her arms they tumble toward the room’s center, bounding into kids and wooden instruments.
Other than the curly-haired woman, the parents look slightly pained to be here. Some set smart phones beside them and peck while they sing. Others stare tiredly into corners or survey the children, smiling if an unruly child treats another child kindly by passing a triangle or xylophone instead of clinging to it and screaming. The young mother isn’t sure why these people come to Kindermusik, isn’t sure why she comes exactly, except that though she dreads it she is satisfied when it’s over. It’s good to expose Clint to other children, to show him people aren’t as scary as they seem to be.
The woman with twins is soldier-like holding a boy’s hand on either side of her as the class marches around the circle. It’s hard to read her tight smile, ironic but proud in the corners. The young mother envies her extra load. Why should the young mother sometimes feel so burdened with just one, a calm, sweet one? Burdened is not the right word. Before Clint, she remembers going to the grocery and deciding over apples as long as she wanted. Now she worries about Clint’s naptime, which she needs herself to rest. Lately she lies in bed and pictures dead people come to life. What a wonderful thing to imagine! The young mother watches the curly-haired woman bouncing down the line and whispers to the woman with twins, “Impressive, huh?” The woman with twins shakes her head. “You mean that robot, short-circuiting?”
The young mother’s husband asks sometimes if she wants to go back to work, not that he wants her to, but would it make her happier. Working has not yet appealed to her. She waits for the pull in her gut, but the urgency fled when her husband received a promotion double what she’d made; and she does not wish to abandon Clint to daycare rooms stuffed with plastic toys and apple juice when kids can’t tell safe from poison. She does not envy the tired-eyed mothers who sit twist-legged on the Kindermusik carpet in wool skirts and strappy shoes. The woman with twins sometimes comes in a suit. The young mother wears sweatpants like the curly-haired mother. She is more like this mother than the others.
During a free-dance around the small carpeted room, Clint stays near the young mother, jerking his hips. They watch other children run wall to wall smacking cinderblock or whipping themselves around like tornadoes trying to jumpstart themselves. The curly-haired girl swoops low like a bird, gathers speed around the purple circle, and crashes into a twin. The twin swings a floppy fist into her chest hard enough the girl wobbles and stares quaveringly at the boy who then barrels across the room to high-five the wall. “None of that, friends,” the instructor says nervously. The girl suddenly wails like a siren causing all children to freeze mid-dance. The curly-haired mother gathers her daughter, smiles through gritted teeth. “She’ll be okay.” Her curls bob forward, shielding the girl’s head. “He has older brothers,” the twin’s mother says, grabbing the boy’s arm and demanding he apologize. He looks at the girl buried in curls, some hers and some her mother’s. But these kids don’t have language yet. A dozen slurred words maybe, and most of those accompanied by pointing.
Why had the young mother expected a girl? Viewing the lump on the ultrasound which the nurse marked with an arrow and the words it’s a boy! the young mother had smiled then come home and cried in the shower. Perhaps because she was a girl and it seemed impossible for a boy to grow inside her. She felt ridiculous watching water fall on her ballooned belly; who else would grow boys? But now she is relieved. She sees little girls acting like girls and knows what it will do to them later, in society. But a sweet boy wins extra smiles from the Kindermusik teacher. She whispered once to the young mother as they left, “He’s one of my favorites.” The teacher closed the half-door behind them, grinning and waving like a puppet at Clint, who nuzzled the young mother’s shoulder and smiled shyly.
The young mother watches different parents manage. Some pull out snacks though a sign says no food. Some bring plastic cars or torn blanket bits. Some pull arms, smack bottoms, threaten to leave. The young mother feels sorry for the parents, believes this time can’t be trusted – people must, like her, survive it almost blindly. They are like children, too, responding to a cry, a thrown toy, a sudden dash across a parking lot – they catch their children and scream or sob or shake their fists – they are not on the ground. If children are the sun rising, parents are the sky falling, trying to quell the heat.
What would Clint have done if struck? In this world, boys can’t cry, even sweet ones. When Clint hurts himself at home, the young mother gathers him in her lap for a minute then tells him, “Come on. It’s not the end of the world.” Her husband on the couch with his slung tie beside him once said, “This is the end of his world. You, me, the living room.” She asked her husband, “You think we sit here all day? We know about the world. We’ve discovered it.” She must teach Clint to strike back. Or else say firmly, “Excuse me, please. I was dancing here.”
The instructor says she hopes the curly-haired girl is okay then gets down a basket of red egg shakers. “Two for you and two for mommy or daddy,” she tells the kids. This they’ve been trained for. The kids run to the basket, gather eggs in chubby arms. Clint returns to the young mother quickly, lets four eggs tumble to her lap. Across the room, cries continue, shielded by a curtain of curls. The instructor starts her next song loudly, repeats “shake, shake, shake your eggs” endlessly. Snacks and smart phones have been put away; everyone is eager to leave. The young woman imagines these people young and childless and old and childless and dead and childless – these are times real life takes place, when people are aware of themselves and a world with the others. Parents sing loudly, glance at the crying girl, unsure how to judge this tragedy. The young mother thinks, Drag her away! Lock her in a room! Give her some peace! “Great job,” the young mother whispers to her son. She puts her arm across his chest and squeezes.
Jessica Hollander’s story collection In These Times the Home is a Tired Place won the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize. Her stories have also appeared in many journals and in the anthology The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Writers. She received her MFA from the University of Alabama and teaches at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Visit her at jessicahollanderwriter.com.