Home > I'm Fine and Neither Are You(4)

I'm Fine and Neither Are You(4)
Author: Camille Pagán

“I know, but this is really important. I have to pick my kids up from camp, and I don’t have time to wait for an Uber. If I don’t pick them up before six, I’ll have to deal with a whole mess of paperwork and fees, and I’ll be even further behind on the Blatner proposal. There’s even a chance I won’t finish it before he arrives tomorrow.”

Now Russ was regarding me like I was leaning over the wall, threatening to splatter myself on the sidewalk in front of a bunch of people dining on dollar hot wings. I suppose I did sound a little frantic. “Okay,” he said, making no effort to hide his reluctance. “Tell me where you need to be.”

Asking Russ for a favor struck me as the epitome of stupidity. It was also the best decision I’d made all day. “It’s about twenty minutes away,” I said. I pulled my phone from my bag and sent up a last-ditch prayer that Jenny had called me back.

She had not.

“We’ll be there in ten,” said Russ, pointing a key fob at his recently waxed black sedan. The car beeped. “What’s the address?”

I gave it to him and, with equal parts reluctance and relief, sank into the buttery leather passenger seat. A glance behind me confirmed that his backseat was so small, it had not been intended to accommodate any living thing, let alone two small children. It didn’t matter. When I got to camp I would call Sanjay again, or maybe Jenny would be there. In that moment, all I needed to do was get to my kids.

“No GPS?” I said as Russ zipped down one side street only to turn abruptly onto another. I wanted to tell him to be careful—of my myriad worries, a child darting out in front of the car was one of the most pervasive and potent—but I bit my tongue and pushed my foot into an imaginary brake on the floor mat.

“I’m a townie, remember?” said Russ. He had been raised in town and had purposefully never left. “You practically are, too, at this point. You should know your shortcuts.”

Was I practically a townie? Stevie would be eight in the fall, which meant we had lived here for . . . seven years. Through the car window, one Craftsman bungalow blurred into the next, and the next. Had it really been so long? In theory, I saw no problem with our having resided in the Midwest for nearly the same amount of time we had lived in New York. But in reality, it was not just that every year here felt like an erosion of the person I had been prior to having children—though there was certainly that. It was that I was not sure what all of those years represented. Was this it? Was this the goal, the reason, the sum total of two decades of adult decisions?

“Here we are,” said Russ as he pulled up in front of the brick community center where the kids were attending the summer camp Sanjay’s mother had subsidized so he could spend less time on what she deemed the womanly art of tending to one’s children. “Nine and a half minutes. You’re welcome.”

“Thanks. I owe you,” I said, hoisting myself out of the deep seat.

“You’ll make it up to me,” called Russ, but I was already running through a double door. The clock hanging in the lobby revealed that I had arrived with one minute to spare, which almost excused Russ from saddling me with the Blatner proposal.

The victory was short-lived. “You’re late !” said Miles as he barreled toward me. I gasped as his forehead slammed into my stomach.

“Where were you?” said Stevie in a whiny baby voice from beneath the table where she was . . . hiding? Foraging for leftover lunch crumbs? It was anyone’s guess.

“I’m not late,” I said to my ungrateful spawn once I had regained the wind Miles had just knocked out of me. “I’m on time. And I was at work.” The same as every other day, except today I left early to get you because your father is busy living his best life.

I was about to direct them to the hurricane of clothes and food storage containers they had scattered under their cubbies when I realized that there was a little girl sniffling on a beanbag in the corner—and this girl happened to be Cecily.

“Cess?” I called. “Where’s your mom, sweetie?”

Her big blue eyes were brimming with tears. She sniffed. “I don’t know.”

“Aww, honey, it’s okay,” I said, kneeling beside her. I put my hand on her back.

“No touching, please,” called the camp counselor, whose name started with a B —Brittany, maybe, or Becca—from across the room.

“She’s my best friend’s daughter,” I said.

“I’m sorry, but it’s against Knowledge Arena’s policy. Only parents and counselors are allowed to have direct contact with the campers.”

I was pretty sure I was first on Cecily’s emergency forms, which made me the next closest thing to her parents, but arguing with the counselor wasn’t going to help. Besides, Jenny would swoop in any second and save Cecily as well as me and my children, who still needed a ride home.

“No touching,” I said, holding my hands palms up like a crime suspect. I winked at Cecily, who managed a small smile. “How about Stevie, Miles, and I hang out here with you until your mama shows up?” I asked, and she nodded.

We sat on the rug and read one book, and then another, and even after a third there still was no sign of Jenny. I called her again, but she didn’t answer. Then I texted Sanjay to say that we needed a ride and to call me immediately.

Twenty dollars in late fees later, neither the camp nor I had been able to reach Jenny or Matt. He was home this week, so he was probably in the middle of a meeting or a conference call.

But where was she ? Had she forgotten? That had happened once a few months earlier, but unlike me, she generally did not need to be reminded about things like picking up her children. Had she been felled by E. coli, or gotten in a car accident, or stopped to rescue a random person from something terrible? Only the last scenario was actually feasible—I could already imagine a self-deprecating post about how she had been walking through her neighborhood and happened upon an elderly woman who had fallen and couldn’t get up.

I had just stood to look outside when the door opened. “See?!” I said triumphantly to the kids, who were rooting through my bag for snacks; even Cecily was peering into it with the wild eyes of a woman in the middle of a weeklong juice fast.

But it was just Russ. His tie was missing and the top of his shirt was unbuttoned, and for a second I wondered if he had returned from the golf course. “Everything okay?” he asked. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

I stared at him, as incredulous as I was grateful. “You’ve been waiting? For me?”

“And your kids,” he said. He did a double take. “There are three of them?”

“No, Russell. That’s my best friend’s daughter.” I glanced back at the counselor, who was sighing heavily and repeatedly looking at the clock. “I should be listed on Cecily’s emergency forms. Can I sign her out?”

“Let me confirm,” she said.

She returned with her approval, and I refrained from making a remark about whether I was allowed to make contact with Cecily while taking her home. Then I texted Jenny to update her and hustled the children out of the building.

“Now what?” said Russ, looking in bewilderment as Stevie, Miles, and Cecily ran around the parking lot.

“Now I call my husband for the seventeenth time,” I said.

Sanjay, who was probably blowing out his eardrums beside an amplifier in his friend Christina’s garage, did not pick up. Nor did Jenny respond to my text. I was starting to feel shaky, and while I wanted to believe this was the result of my having three cups of coffee for lunch and the fact that the past hour had been a complete catastrophe, the truth was that a different sort of dread had come over me.

Motherhood had primed me to anticipate unlikely worst-case scenarios, and I tried to reassure myself that my internal disaster sensor was on overdrive, as per usual. But this feeling wasn’t like when you realized your house had been quiet for thirty seconds too long only to find your beloved son practicing his penmanship in permanent marker on your beige sofa cushions.

It was something else entirely—something dark and unnamable.

Russ stared at me, and I was too rattled to look away. “Okay, Penny,” he said, his pale-green eyes still locked with my own. “I know you’re going to say no because we don’t have five-point safety bubbles, or whatever it is you’re supposed to trap the rug rats in, but how about we pile them into my backseat and I take you to wherever you need to be?”

I did not allow myself to think twice. “Yes. Thank you.”

We got the kids into Russ’ car and explained that, yes, they really did need car seats, but every so often rules had to be broken for a good cause. Miles began to cry, as he was known to do after missing an hourly feeding. “I don’t want to die,” he wailed. “I don’t want to—”

“No one’s going to die,” interjected Russ. “I’m the best driver in this whole damn town.”

“Really?” said Miles, instantly calmed.

“Mommy, that man said damn ,” said Stevie, who had once detonated an f-bomb in the middle of her school’s pan-denominational holiday play. (The boy beside her had stomped on her foot, and her mommy and daddy used that word when they were in pain, she explained when Sanjay and I were called in for a family meeting with her principal.) Now she pretended to be the morality police whenever adults were present.

“That man’s name is Russ,” I said over my shoulder, “and he’s nice enough to drive us to Auntie Jenny’s, so zip it.”

“Russell,” corrected Russ, who had begun going by his full name around the same time he had decided we should share a title.

“Sorry,” I said, checking my phone again. “Russell.”

When we arrived at the Sweets’, Jenny’s white SUV was in the driveway. She must have just gotten home, I told myself, because I had been swimming in desperation long enough that any shape in the distance was now a lifeboat.

   
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