House, Man, Child
I began to fantasize about being in a house with a man and a child when I was twenty-three. It was an ambivalent fantasy, in terms of motherhood; I wasn't sure if I was the child's mother. I was the man's lover, that much was clear, and the child looked like him. Maybe I was the live-in mother, or maybe I was a frequent guest and sex partner who went home to her own bachelorette pad in the city.
The fantasy opens with me in the foreground, working at a computer beside a large glass window. It's dusk and a purplish blue tinges the sky. I can see the ocean just outside the window and over a cliff--wild, angry, gorgeous. To my right at an open kitchen area, an attractive blond man is deveining shrimp for the paella he's preparing while listening to Miles Davis. The music is low (out of respect for me), and as the man has anticipated, it doesn't bother me. I like the sad and lovely trumpet drifting my way. At once, I feel relaxed and incredibly focused on work I love doing.
Between the man and me on a clean and bare floor, a blond four-year-old plays with wooden trucks. He loads tiny logs into the truck beds, then takes them out and splays them on the floor like a fan. He's happy without ever being loud, and he doesn't get up. He simply sits and plays.
Meanwhile, I keep working. There's no reason for me to stop. My work is going well, and paella takes a long time to cook. Eventually, when the sky is dark, I do stop, and we--meaning the man and I--eat at a table beside huge windows that face the sea. We drink red wine, and there are candles on the table, the kind that bob in oil inside clear glass cylinders.
I never see the child when I imagine our meal. Maybe he continues to play quietly into the night, or maybe he has already put himself to bed. I never see it in my vision, but surely the man must have placed a bowl of apples, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a piece of shrimp from the paella beside the child at some point. I might even have given him a mug of milk. Pouring luscious whole milk into a cool blue mug, bending down once to place it on the floor--I could do that. I could do it and still be myself.
In my real life at twenty-three, I lived alone, with chin-length brown hair, in a New Orleans apartment recently inhabited by two heroin addicts. A dozen needles lay in the weeds beside a banana tree in the backyard. My downstairs neighbor was a woman who seemed to be suffering from posttraumatic stress syndrome caused by WWII. Often I would wake around 4 a.m. to her yelling or loud moaning. Sometimes Irene spoke in German; other times she would scream, in clear, crisp English: "Goddamn Jesus! Goddamn Jesus!" Irene didn't have a car, and I drove her to Steak and Egg on occasion, the only place I ever knew her to go. We sat in the grimy, maroon plastic booths drinking iced tea and smoking cigarettes. Irene was very lonely. So was I.
It was 1987, and I'd moved to New Orleans to study voodoo and witchcraft. I did this by interviewing and apprenticing myself to a variety of practitioners. I wasn't sure how much of my interest was academic and how much was personal. When I told one rootworker that I was doing research for a book I might write on women and magic, she said, "God sent you here, and you've come for a love potion." She was right, I remember thinking.
I felt myself to be living provisionally in New Orleans. Interviewing people, typically older ones whose lives I viewed as "real," contributed to this sense. I was an apprentice, an interviewer, someone who watched others to see how life could be done rather than someone who actually lived herself. I had a student's view of the world: Nothing counted yet, I was just gathering information.
"It never occurred to me that I was living a real life there," Joan Didion wrote of herself in New York City at twenty. "It was difficult in the extreme for me to understand those young women for whom New York was not simply an ephemeral Estoril but a real place, girls who bought toasters and installed new cabinets in their apartments."* I felt similarly in New Orleans. I never would have bought a toaster. I had no small appliances, and almost no furniture--a mattress, a card table, two attached seats from an out-of-business movie theatre. New Orleans seemed the obvious place for me to live since I wanted to write and study voodoo, but I didn't know how long I'd stay, how long the romance of New Orleans would last. When I left, I didn't want to be weighed down.
At the same time, I was curious about the girls with toasters. Were they happier than I was? It was unnerving to have such a tenuous, if romantic, attachment to my life. True, I met someone fascinating at least once a week and because I wore my interviewer's cloak, I got to skip the chitchat and move right to the questions that interested me most: What happens when we die? Is revenge ever okay? When people say "It was like magic," what was it really, and how did it work? These people weren't friends, though; I typically saw them just once. Intimacy was largely missing in my life, as was stability. Would I always sleep on the floor, support myself through a variety of low-paying and ever-shifting jobs, and fraternize primarily with a disturbed neighbor? I hoped not.
I knew I wasn't ready yet, but eventually, motherhood might provide me with a richer, more grounded connection to the world. How could it not? It would bring me to the hub of life; I would create life. How extraordinary, how transformative! And yet when I thought about the mothers I'd had the opportunity to observe in action, they didn't strike me as more rooted or wise about creation than anyone else. If anything, those with young children seemed less so. They had to wipe up too much.
I started taking long walks every afternoon through the tony uptown neighborhood adjacent to my own. Sometimes I hardly noticed my surroundings, so fully inhabiting my seaside fantasy of man and child that everything else went blank. But then I'd pass a particularly charming house, one elaborately decorated for whatever holiday was in the air--paper skeletons dancing from the porch rafters, glittery turkeys pasted on the windows with "Lulu" and "Charles" scrawled at the bottom--and I'd be wrested back to New Orleans, or rather, my imaginings of it. What was the mother of the charming house doing now? How did she feel? Did a man ever cook paella for her while she worked? I doubted it.
If you weren't in fantasy land, it seemed that some rather heavy trade-offs might be involved to live in a house with a man and a child. While I began to think I might eventually want the full life I envisioned inside a carefully festooned house, I didn't want to be the one to create it. All the trips to the drugstore to buy glue sticks and tissue paper, which struck me as likely to be exhausting, would be the least of it. I wanted to have plenty of time alone, and I didn't want to be lonely. Who could I be and accomplish this? A spinster aunt who lived in the attic and came down occasionally to help with homework and sing old camp songs? A single woman who visited a man and a child by the sea, then got the hell out before morning?
In truth, I knew nothing about the women in the houses I passed. I couldn't even see them. Uptown New Orleans is an oddly enclosed world. No one was ever on the porch, and the heavy green shutters were always closed. Perhaps people got used to shutting out the oppressive heat, or possibly some fear of crime kept them locked inside. I didn't know anything about these people; I could only imagine, based on what I saw on the porch--kid bikes, abandoned tea parties for dolls, expensive jogging strollers.
When my boss at the tutoring agency where I worked, Caroline DuChamp, invited me to her shotgun house on Prytania Street, I was thrilled. Caroline was thirty, and she had a two-year-old daughter. Finally, I'd get an inside look at young motherhood.
While Caroline was home with her child quite a bit, she was no full-fledged stay-at-homer. She ran a successful business, charging $25 an hour for my tutoring services, and paying me $11. If I had baby-sat her daughter, she wouldn't have paid me anything near the $14 an hour she paid herself for every hour I worked. Perhaps I should view Caroline as a role model, a mother who had a flexible and lucrative career. But I didn't want to run a tutoring agency. On the other hand, the three part-time jobs I currently had--teaching French at a Catholic boys' school, conducting weekend tours at the Voodoo Museum, and tutoring for Caroline--netted me less than $8,000 per year. Did Caroline know something I didn't?
If I did have a child, I could hardly drag her to the cemetery where I took Parisian tourists each Saturday to pay tribute at Marie Laveau's grave. My own spiritual beliefs were in flux, but I wouldn't want to take the chance that an unsettled ghost, hovering around the tombs, could curse my baby. If my child fell ill in a more traditional manner, I had no health insurance. Clearly, my life would have to change if I became a mother. I was eager to check in on Caroline's life and see if I could gather any tips for possible future use.
The occasion at Caroline's was a thank-you luncheon for the tutors, all single young women like me. Caroline served chicken salad, globbed with mayonnaise, and lukewarm potato soup. Cold or hot, I remember thinking of the soup--either way would be fine--but the in-between was so unsettling. Had she not had time to chill the soup because of her daughter? Her daughter was nowhere to be seen. The luncheon was a "special event," Caroline announced; we were special enough to warrant a baby-sitter's expense. But her child's existence seemed to dominate the house anyway. Toys were pushed into corners, but there were so many. A Disney sing-along machine fell off one precarious stack during lunch and began to squeak, in fake mouse tones, "Three blind mice, three blind mice . . ." We all laughed warmly, but I was thinking, I'd go mad in a house like this.
Caroline had invited a few of her friends, mothers with young children, to join us tutors. They seemed overjoyed to be at a grown-up luncheon. An intense-looking woman from New Jersey said she'd never left her sixteen-month-old before. "I feel giddy! I can't believe I'm here. And I'm drinking wine--think of that!" She closed her eyes and took a long, luxurious sip.
An hour later, after considerably more wine, she seemed less content. "I'm going to New Jersey next week," she told the table. "Joe says we can't afford it. Well, I need to see my family. I didn't ask to come here, to leave my job and my life. I'm going all right, on a Greyhound bus. It'll take forty-two hours. Can you imagine? Me on the bus with the baby? Joe thinks I'm crazy, but he won't pay for the airplane ticket."
I was horrified by her account. Did she love this man? How could he hold money over her like this? In 1987! It was late by the time she finished her story, nearly three, and still the mothers made no gesture toward leaving. How long could they stay away from their lives, lingering in the specialness of adult women's conversation, however depressing the content?
I didn't hang around to find out. I thanked Caroline for lunch and practically ran out her door, away from the drunk mothers, the plastic toys, the bad soup. I was pissed at Caroline for making money off my labor--a fact that chicken salad could hardly amend--but I sure didn't want to change places with her or her friends. My shitty little apartment had never seemed so welcoming. I lay on my mattress on the floor and counted my blessings.
Meanwhile, I kept having my paella-by-the-sea fantasy. My child, if I had one, wouldn't play with unsightly plastic things, and my man, when I found him, wouldn't put me on a bus. I'd drive my own damn car, or fly my own damn plane. Where were the good men, the ones who respected a woman's autonomy? A friend of my sister's told her they were in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
I flew up to visit my sister, who lived in nearby Northampton, and we drove to Shelburne Falls one winter afternoon. Oddly, we saw no males at all except one man burning leaves in his yard and another sliding pizzas into an oven in an Italian restaurant. They were both well over fifty. Too old, we thought. So it was back to our daydreams for both of us, and single life in the tiny, ill-furnished New Orleans apartment for me. For my sister, Celia, three years my junior, bachelorette life took place in a ramshackle one-room cabin between a junkyard and the Connecticut River.
Celia lived in that cabin for eight years, and I visited her often. In 1991, we celebrated Anita Hill Day there instead of Christmas with our friend Melinda. The three of us decorated Celia's ficus tree with pictures of Anita that we'd clipped from Newsweek and Time, then burned the images we'd collected of Clarence Thomas in the woodstove. We gave each other Thelma and Louise T-shirts. We were all looking for a good man, and at the same time we felt compelled to celebrate women who stood up against bad men, however high the cost.
Anita Hill Day at Celia's cabin was home, as deeply as I'd ever felt it, yet I was sad and lonely that Christmas, not to mention angry. Were the only cultural options--for holidays, as well as life in general--feminist boycott or acquiescence to some package of horrors? It appeared so when I was twenty-six.
The beauty of my paella fantasy, as I saw it in my mid-twenties, was that it held out an alternative vision of life with a man and a child, one I'd never seen in practice. Until I could figure out how to attain it, I'd go on with my single life, critiquing whatever I saw as oppressive. The critiquing was part of how I figured I'd get what I wanted: If you can't pinpoint what's wrong--with typical male-female relationships, in this case--how can you construct something different? But the relentless critiquing was exhausting and often demoralizing. By contrast, my fantasy gave me hope; it was the lighthouse I saw in the distance when reality, through my twenty-something lens, looked like women getting screwed at every turn.
Excerpted from Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life by Faulkner Fox. Copyright © 2003 by Faulkner Fox. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.