I wake up on my back and adjusted my shoulders slightly to get the feel of the bed. It isn’t a bed I am familiar with. However, I consider it best to just familiarize myself slowly with my surroundings, instead of doing what I would prefer: sit up screaming. The mattress is very comfortable and, I would guess, pretty expensive. My left shoulder is exposed and the blankets and sheets ripple like frozen tsunamis to the other side of the bed. I turn my head and see the back of the head of a woman. I run my left thumb against my left ring finger. She is my wife. Or she is sleeping with me and I am a married man. This is a lot to consider before getting out of bed.
I ease out of the bed and my feet find a pair of leather slippers almost by instinct. I step into them and stand, looking around the bedroom. I have done quite well for myself, I think, noting the paintings and vast array of furniture which still leaves plenty of room to navigate the room. I walk on the plush carpet and into a long hallway. A door opens in front of me. A small girl, maybe 6, enters the hallway and calls me dad. I examine her face closely, instantly recognizing my physical traits but many more that I’m not familiar with. I look for the face of the woman in the bed within the face of the child. I rub my eyes and scratch my face and let out a tired, “morning”, when inside, I am in a slight panic. It always takes too long to realize where I am.
Trying not to think, I let my body carry itself downstairs and into the kitchen. The little girl tags behind me closely, pulling at my silk pajama shirt. I instinctively reach for a cabinet which has it in cereal. I grab my favorite. “Not that one, daddy,” the girl says. I return the sweetened cereal to the cabinet and instead pull out a healthy box of what appears to be rice and raisins and flakes.
I watch the girl eat from the other end of a large dining area. She chews like me – fast, determined – so I know she is definitely mine. She puts her bowl in the sink and runs upstairs. In a few minutes, she comes back down, wearing a sweater with puppies on it and pants with puppies on it and a backpack with puppies on it. I experience a moment of disdain, and in that moment realize that I am still a cat person in this life. That relieves me somewhat.
Again not trying to think, I drive the girl to school. I kiss her forehead and tell her I love her, and I do not doubt that, if I belonged here, I would. I buy some cigarettes and return home to find the house empty. A small note on the counter reads, ‘be home at 7 – big meeting – xoxo.’ I light a cigarette and cough uncontrollably. There are no ashtrays. I don’t smoke here.
I finally build up the courage to look into the mirror. I am the same age but look older. My hair is more grey and there are more lines in my face. The lines that only a stay-at-home spouse has. This is always the moment I dread and the one I look forward to.
I stumble into an office that does not look like mine. There is a picture of my wife and I on our honeymoon. The year 1997 is etched into the frame. There’s various family photographs on the walls and I notice only one of our daughter. I recall now urging her to have a child with me and why I did it. On the surface, I wanted a family. But deep below, I had nothing compared to my wife. She is an attorney and wildly successful and she bought our house in Palo Alto with cash. I had no friends left. Just blocks and blocks of identical and imposing homes. My wife Marta’s friends were all amused with my stories about theater and art, but my wish that someone would want to produce a work of mine never came true. So I pushed for a baby. Being a househusband is like being a 24/7 performance artist.
Now my thoughts continue to go back to Melinda. What is she learning now? Is she being bullied? Did the Mozart albums work? Is she scared? Is there a boy she is glancing at now, feeling something but not knowing what? Will that boy be around in ten years’ time? Will I be strong enough to take him in a fight if she wants to take my little girl away for a weekend? If Marta wants a divorce, what can I get in the settlement and how can I keep Melinda with me? How can I change her name from Melinda to something I like?
I get a call from the school. Melinda has soiled herself. So I get back in the car and find her, red-faced and shamed, in the principal’s office. I ask which bathroom I should use. She’s too old for the men’s room and I’m too male for the women’s room. I’m guided to the men’s room. I go on what I seem to call Red Alert in my mind. Nothing can stop me when I’m like this. As Melinda cries and tells me she’s sorry, so sorry, I remove her clothes, clean her up with amazing efficiency, and have her ready to return to class in fifteen minutes. “You take me to your class,” I say, “you lead the way.” I know, just by saying that, I am putting something in her head that will serve her well someday. She won’t be pushed around. She’ll be as strong as Marta someday, and I love and hate that thought.