The Other Mother

The Other Mother

On the other side walk, heading the other way toward the park, was the Other Mother. Sara pushed her own stroller straight ahead into its own shadow. She fixed her gaze straight ahead and downward. Secret Sara was lost in longing for the old Pepe who used to blurt out, "My love," while they made love, who once whispered right before he came, "I want to merge with you." If Sara had no peripheral vision she wouldn't have seen the Other Mother at all. Even as she looked away Sara noticed in great detail what the Other Mother was doing. Dana was in a dialogue of smiles and eye twinkles with her baby who sat in a pink sunbonnet in one of those strollers where the baby faces the mother and not the world.

Dana had lost all her pregnancy weight and her blondish hair was cut in flattering layers. She pictured Dana wearing a purple mohawk and a safety pin for an earring. The Other Mother used a diaper service and real diaper pins. Secret Sara whispered, 'As for myself, I aspire to becoming a woman unhinged. I long for the day when my child will be but one more accident of my existence and I run into him as another free human being. O God, don't let the other mother see me.'

"Sara, Sara." Dana called, and waved as she pushed the stroller across the street. Sara stood inside a tree's patchy shade. Dana leaned into the shade to kiss Sara on the cheek. Sara gazed at the moving patches of shade on the cracked sidewalk and squirmed.

"You look great." Dana patted Sara's inch long black hair. Sara nodded. She could see Little Joey's green teething shit leaking from his paper diaper onto his blue stretchy. "Really terrific. You're losing weight! Is Joey sleeping through the night?" Dana looked at Joey, smiled and twinkled her eyes. "Funny, Lotty never gets diarrhea when she teethes. I never know she's teething until the tooth is out." She bent down to adjust the pink bonnet. "I've been meaning to call you. I'm organizing a child care co-op. Bringing Lotty to the office isn't working now that she's crawling."
Sara nodded. "I've got to run. I want to get home before Joey wakes up. He'll want to nurse the minute he opens his eyes. Call me."

She pushed the baby away fast. The green fold up umbrella stroller clattered as it bounced over the tree roots that had broken up the side walk. Secret Sara took a deep, long breath. O gorgeous Spring. Behold the blooming green tips. This is the life! She had survived an encounter with the Other Mother! She lifted the stroller onto her hip and climbed the stoop steps two at a time.

The darkness of the house engulfed her. She took in a deep breath of the musty, sweet, old paper scent of the living room. Joey opened his eyes. He screamed. She unstrapped him from the stroller with her left hand, undid the front snap on her nursing bra with the right. "Quick, quick." She whispered into his ear. "Before you wake up your Father."

She plunged into the cane seat rocking chair. Joey found the nipple. He relaxed only slightly his muscular, wiry body against his Mother's bony arm. Mother and son locked in a sinewy embrace. She pictured Dana and Lotty in a puddle of symbiotic nursing bliss. Lotty, Dana had often pointed out, was very good at molding. High achievement at an early age!

Sara pictured a sunny rock in a stream, and fecund. She took comfort in the muddy, moist life of the salamanders underneath the rock, was filled with the yellow light that filled the turtle sunning on the rock.

Joey tugged on the other breast. Sara moved the now superbly molded baby onto her other arm and eased his milk rimmed lips onto the full breast.

Sara ran her fingers through her short, nearly black hair. She missed the Princess Leah coils she used to make over each of her ears. Pepe was angry when she cut her hair but taking care of it was one more thing she didn't have time for. She hung huge filigree earrings from her ear lobes, considered lipstick, forgot about it when Joey cried. Up from sleep. Again. She held Joey clamped onto her nipple, with one arm. She glanced at the bed. Pepe was still asleep. Lucky he could sleep through almost anything because it wasn't pleasant when he woke up before he was ready. Life would be much easier if he didn't work nights.

With her free hand she dumped pampers, a change of clothes, some small bright plastic toys (small manipulables Dana called them), into the canvass bag with the stenciled signs for DIAPER and BOTTLE, Dana's small gift for Joey at the baby shower (along with the very same yellow booties Sara had given her for her oldest boy two years ago! Surprisingly Dana was organized enough to recycle a gift but not to keep track of where she first got it!). Dana had also chipped in with three others mothers from the Women's Center she ran, for a complete set of those expensive baby toys, the ones with red plastic frames, colorful interchangeable hanging gadgets and enormous screws and bolts Sara managed to lose early in Joey's infancy.

She fought Secret Sara's urge to crawl into bed next to Pepe and tuck Little Joey in between them. "My little husband," Secret Sara whispered to Little Joey. "Joey, my Little Husband, Pepe my Big Baby."

She hoped Pepe would be able to manage his dinner on his own. She put the banana shaped magnet on the note spelling out the whereabouts of the tofu, rice and red beans Pepe was not home in time to eat for dinner last night. In the old days when she still taught literacy four mornings a week at the Women's Center, before she'd become a full time Mother to everyone in the house, Pepe used to cook half the days of the week. That was before role correction surgery, Sara thought. She propped the back pack on the armchair, slid Joey feet first into it, sat on the floor to ease her arms into each strap and shift the pack onto her back.

Other mothers and a few enlightened fathers crowded Dana's living room. Most of them Sara knew by sight from the park, or knew better from the old days because they dropped in at the Women's Center before Sara had fallen into the time warp of motherhood. She reached behind her, found one of Joey's hands inside the back pack and fondled it. "It's fine, Secret Sara told him.You're perfect. It's not your fault."

One of the fathers rushed from his seat to help pull Joey from Sara's shoulders. As he pulled off the backpack he knocked off one of Sara's earrings. Everyone laughed, even Joey, who was crawling to the tangle of babies gathered on a rug in the center of the floor around a wealth of small manipulables.

"Now where did I read that children under two don't socialize?" Sara said and everyone laughed. Secret Sara was amazed by her witticism.

"Their mothers certainly can," said another mother who introduced herself as Meg and moved over on the couch to make room for Sara. The other mothers all laughed.

Dana pressed a cup of mint tea into Sara's hand and pointed to the honey pot on top of the book case. Books on every row were so tightly wedged no infant could dislodge one.

"I think just about everyone is here," Dana looked at each person as she spoke and everyone fell silent and gave her full attention. Sara studied Dana. "Let's start with self-introductions. Say your name and your baby's name." She was as self-assured here as she was running support groups for women at the Center. More than likely Dana didn't require fantasies of salamanders to get through her day, Secret Sara thought. Sara watched Joey crawling with the other babies. "A life of his own already!" Meg had volunteered to go first and now it was her turn. "Sara and Joey." Secret Sara shuddered at the sound of her own voice.

Dana asked whoever had ideas of how a child care co-op should run to speak. Soon enough Dana would get on to the business of telling them all what to do.

"Maddy and I concluded if we were going to have quality child care for Max we were going to have to do it ourselves. We're ready to go on this project." Brian, the one who knocked off Sara's earring, squeezed Maddy who was nestled alongside him, moldably plump in a green jumper with snap-on shoulder straps for quick access to the nursing breast.

"I'm interested in parental presence in the classroom. " Maddy added.
Meg leaned forward in her chair. "My baby-sitter watches the soaps all day and I'm afraid Katie's getting stupid."
"When I checked out infant centers one was arranged like a hospital ward and there was only one toy in sight," said Kathy.
Her husband Murray broke in. "One of those hexagonal things with a string you pull to get animal sounds. No way we're putting Laura in a place like that."
"It's a nightmare." Patty stood to speak. "I'm tired of telling Clark if we don't get some decent child care there's no way I'm going back to work. I'll stay with Pedro."
"Ellen and I are doing OK with role reversal," Roy said. "I've been home with Tania for six months. Ellen's a lawyer and she can make better money anyway." He grinned and Ellen stared straight at the floor.
Dana was looking straight at her so Sara said. "I'm an observer. I came because Dana asked me seven times." The others laughed. "I don't know what I want."
Dana nodded. "I see we have a lot of common concerns." She looked at each person in the room. "I've done a lot of thinking already so if it looks like I'm being pushy I want everyone to tell me so."

She produced a pad of graph paper with several budgets worked out: paying scale wages, hiring elderly people and high school kids, hiring illegal aliens, and then several combination.

"The hieroglyphs of my obsession." She flipped page after page of graph paper covered in tiny print.

'Clearly she's got a vision and will lead all of us to the promised land of a day care co-op,' Secret Sara thought.

Sara and Meg walked into the spring night together.

"You don't mind walking home alone?" Sara said. "It never used to bother me until I had Joey. I never thought much about my safety. I never used to care if I went home alone at two in the morning. I had my systems. I'd walk down the middle of the street. I had a special posture, very straight and shoulders squared, I thought would make muggers think I wasn't scared."

Meg looked down at the red haired top of Katie's head in the stroller and shook her head. "You mean all the burglaries? Criminals have their M.O.s you know. That's what my husband Tony says. A burglar's M.O. is not a mugger's is not a rapist's."

I didn't mean anything specific. I just meant fear of free-floating unidentified danger." Sara stopped. "Well. Here's my corner. Nice to meet you Meg."

As Sara walked down her block secret Sara thought of Hansel and Gretel. She pictured white, chunky bread crumbs. The sparrows and gulls would surely see to it that no child would ever find the way back home. she walked quickly in the dim gray light that passed for night's darkness. Am I witch, stepmother, Hansel, Gretel or the Wood cutter? Secret Sara thought.

Pepe sat on the couch watching cops and robbers on TV. Sara pecked him on the cheek. He wore black pants and a black t-shirts and black basketball shoes. He'd even painted the soles black.

"You look hungry." Sara kneeled in front of him and he lifted Joey in the carrier off her back. Joey's joy at seeing his daddy squirmed through his whole body. Pepe lifted Joey up in the air and then sat his laughing baby on his lap. Big and Little gazed for a few seconds into each other's eyes.

"I made myself an omelet and left some on the stove for you."

Sara stood nearby until Pepe handed Little back. What bliss to have him in her own arms! She scooted to the bedroom, lay him on the dresser top that served as his changing table, changed his diaper, bundled him into a faded blue sleeper from the Center's Baby Exchange. He looked endearing, edible. Was there anything as beautiful as the human baby? She made him a throne of pillows in the middle of the conjugal bed. she dressed in one of the granny nightgowns she'd slit down the front. Secret Sara curled up with her Little Husband. Enmeshed in their nursing bond Sara and Joey drifted to sleep. Later when he came home from work Big might return Little to his crib.

The Other Mother had a fortress gate face with bars for teeth; an iron mouth. Red lips! Pepe walked stealthily on her roof; his black sneakers stuck on roof tar.

The pang of Sara's terror caught on the edge of Joey's wail. He groped for the nipple in the dark. The bed was moist with their sweat, a marsupial sack. In the night silence Sara heard the absence of Pepe's breath. Not home yet. She did not open her eyes.

Inside the kangaroo sack Secret Sara recalled with alarm the look on Dana's face when she'd said at the meeting that she didn't know what she wanted to do about child care. How did the Other Mother always know the script, what came next in the story, what to do? In her half sleep Secret Sara saw the Other Mother's face slam her away like an iron-barred door. The Other Mother's self peered out through the eye holes in her face.

But not Meg. Meg felt like her best friend in grade school. She shrugged. Who cared? Let them all switch me on or off, Secret Sara thought. My life is their soap and I am the heroine. She laughed.

Secret Sara lives square framed scenes.

The camera zooms on her asleep, wallowing between the puddly sheets, inhaling the pissy smell of her Little Husband.

Now a quick cut to the muddy stream: the mother salamander's infant curls against the wet maternal belly.

A sound.

A burglar enters the heroine's home?

What a lovely home! A lovely life! Suspense. But no. It is only the heroine's husband who works night reentering the grainy image on the screen with its dark French film shadows to confer weight, significance, reality.

The camera pans onto the ancient Chinese vase, the antique brass figurines of dancers, the electronic artifacts: six inch TV; so many toasters! The soundtrack, inexplicably, is jungle sounds. There is a wild beast screech.

The husband pushes in the door, removes his black gloves and black watch cap, surveys in the mirror the matte dark skin of his face. Off camera is the sound of a bathub filling. Mother and infant stir.

The husband emerges from the bathroom in well worn white sweat pants and t-shirt. Close up of the tired, gaunt face. A grimace of pain. The audience, those peering perfect selves, intuit he's pulled a muscle or pinched a nerve. They watch the catlike motions of the gorgeous male who walks to the window, opens it, breathes deeply and fills his lungs with the night air.

Still facing the window he walks onto the straw mat by the conjugal bed. The nursing couple stirs.

The man salutes the sun (It can be seen rising through the slanted shutters of the East window.) He raises his arms, bends forward, steps his left foot back, arches, grazes his chest against the floor, rises again. His moves are smooth and slowly the jungle sounds fade into a cricket symphony.

The man lies in savasana for endless moments and then turns onto his belly. He arches his chest back into the cobra, raises his legs into the locust and turns for forward bends. He moves slowly. His breathing is smooth and continuous like the breath of tides and cells. He winds his legs and twists his long supple spine. He wedges elbows into thorax and balances into a perfect peacock. He places his head in the triangle of his arms, raises his legs and holds steady a perfect head stand. He stays there. For the viewers this is an endless wait.

Cut to the dining room downstairs. The camera pans the objects on the shelves: toasters, walkmans, tape decks, a jade Buddha.

Cut to our hero, still in the headstand. Upside down his matte brown face is serene. Slowly, slowly, he descends. He winds his legs around his neck. He sits in a full lotus. He breathes. Day has broken. Stripes of light filter through the shutters and glaze with tiger stripes and prison bars our hero, our heroine, the infant and their lair.

Pepe lifted little Joey from between pink satin sheets. The diamond in his pink ring flashed. Sara squeezed shut her eyes and turned away from him. He smelled of patchouli oil. Sara heard the crib springs creak as Big placed Little in the crib. She felt the heat of Pepe's just bathed naked skin.

"Is this the mother who likes to fuck?" His whisper made Joey stir. "Shhh. You'll wake him." Pepe caressed the nipples of the milk heavy breasts. "This is the Mother who used to like to fuck." Sara caught his wrist. "My breasts hurt when you do that." He laughed. "Well, then, is this the Mother who likes to wrestle?" He pushed Sara on her back and pinned her arms flat." How I hate that throaty laugh, Secret Sara thought. Pepe felt between her legs and found her moist. How snug he was inside me before Little Joey. Now I barely feel him. Secret Sara crawled under the salamander rock. "You glow." Pepe spoke into her ear. "You flow." Hot sweat on satin. An ocean between her legs. He suckled mouthfuls of milk. The salamander burrowed into the soft mud and went to sleep.

Little Joey fed himself a mouthful of sand, caught Sara's eye and laughed.

"Just ignore him," Dana said. Secret Sara told her to fuck herself. You wouldn't ignore it if it was Lotty, she thought. Sara jumped up from the railroad tie bordering the sand lot, ran to Joey, rushed him to the water fountain. The shadows of tree leaves quivered on the sandy pavement.

"A bit of sand won't hurt him. He wants attention." Dana handed him a shovel. "We're making progress on the co-op. The space at the church may be certified and now I think Brian's brought the report from the hiring committee." Brian sat on the railroad tie just beyond Dana. "Look. Little Joey's eating sand." He reached down and took hold of Joey's hand. The baby raised his face up to him and laughed. "I didn't bring the report from the hiring committee." Dana fixed him with her supervisor glance. "Well then who's giving the report from the hiring committee?"

"I'm spacing out." Sara leaned closer to Meg who was watching Katie pour sand with a paper coffee cup.

"Maddy's got the report." Brian looked away from Dana and at the other mothers. "She's got it in her computer at work."

"Sara gave Katie a second paper cup. "I can barely stay awake." She pointed to the circles under her eyes. Meg gave her a worried smile. "Joey keeping you up?" Sara looked away. "Joey and his Dad. He works nights. That's why he never makes it to the meetings." Katie climbed up onto Meg's lap and patted her chest. "My husband works nights too." She raised her blouse and eased Katie onto the breast.

Maddy had arrived and sat perched on Brian's knee with her bare feet in the sand. She read the names of three teachers who'd responded to the notices on the Women's Center bulletin board. "Anybody who wants to can read the resumes." She waved papers in the air. "I need volunteers who can interview them next Monday afternoon." Roy, free because of his role reversal, said he was available and so was Patty because Clark volunteered to watch babies for anyone who was willing to interview.

And now Dana had to leave. She had another meeting at the Center. A few parents swarmed her as she left. Others collected babies and sneakers, shook sand off little feet, strapped infants into strollers, hung them in slings and carriers and propped them into backpacks.

"It's Sara's turn to host the meeting next." Dana marched off with Lotty in her mother facing stroller and two mothers on each side.

Sara nodded while Secret Sara shook her head. She pulled Joey's sandy fist from his mouth and eased him into the umbrella stroller. She walked quickly away before Meg was done wiping Katie's feet and strapping her into the stroller; before Meg could volunteer what her husband did at night and ask about Pepe.

Sara watched closely as the squared of chocolate melted into the butter in the cast iron frying pan. Behind her at the kitchen table Pepe ate an enormous mound of alfalfa sprouts and red lettuce with carrot dressing and another huge mound of rice and gandules.

She poured flour into a bowl, cracked an egg and stirred it into the flour, poured sugar into the melted brown mess. She licked the spoon. "Brownies for the meeting."

Pepe looked up from his bowl and stopped chewing.

"We're having the baby co-op meeting here today. Maybe you can stay."

He rose and walked quickly and soundlessly into the dining room. He began putting toasters, tape decks and video recorders inside the drawers and behind the doors of the breakfront.

"I never thought you minded the mess." She poured the batter into the tin and set it in the middle of the oven rack.

Sara passed brownies around. It was simple, really. Was there any reason she and Pepe never had people over? We stew in our own juice. Secret Sara let out sigh. It's as if we were hiding out, had some secret.

"Look, Joey's got those jacks in his mouth." Dana bent down and pried a jack from his hands. Joey looked up and laughed. Pepe walked on the silent balls of his stocking feet to his son, lifted him from the antique Persian rug, stuck his finger into Joey's mouth and took out the tape deck jack. He lifted Joey into the air.

Sara offered Dana a brownie and watched her checking everything out. Dana shook her head. "What the hell. I feel rebellious." She took a brownie anyway.

"We're lucky to have the two fathers who haven't made it to our meetings here today. Dana pointed to Pepe and Tony. "Here they are at last, the guys who work nights." She beamed at the two men who sat at opposite ends of the dining table stretched to the fullness of its two extra panels. Tony nodded. Pepe rolled his eyes. Lithe, brown Pepe sat hump shouldered, his head swallowed by his huge blue t shirt. Tony stared at him and at the empty shelves littered with jacks and bits of wire, at the Chinese vase in the center of the table.

Dana spread sheets of graph paper on the table. "Here are the figures. One certified teacher, two grandmas, two high school girls. And the Parents will do volunteer shifts."

Everyone nodded.

"The space in the church fell through but Sara's offered the co-op the use of the ground floor here for the first six months just so we can get started.

Pepe glared at his wife. She smiled and offered him a brownie.

The babies slept on foam mats on the floor. In sleep, they crawled together and nested spoon like into each other: Lotty and Joey, Katie and Max, Laura, Tania and tiny Pedro. Sara and Meg hung Sara's laundry in the yard and watched the napping babies through the window.

The bright red cardinal swooped into the feeder. His brownish spouse swooped after him. Pigeons scratched their claws and wings on their metal feeding tray atop the fire escape of the high-rise beyond the back fence. The wind flapped the queen sized red satin sheets Sara had hung. The clothesline squeaked. Sara watched the shadows of the bird wings among the shadows of the sheets. Meg's face was half hidden by the shadows. She folded Sara's dry laundry on the picnic table.

"There's always some sign of a man's true character." Meg folded a huge black satin sheet. "You've got to be willing to see it and most of the time you'd rather not. You'd rather see what you want to see." Sara nodded and pinned one corner of a flapping crib sheet. "So you ended up marrying a cop." Meg stacked folded the pillow cases. "And that's after I said I'd never marry a guy who'd never be home." Meg folded T-shirts. "Tony never ate egg-yolks intact, only stirred up. If I gave him an egg that wasn't scrambled he broke into a cold sweat. Shouldn't that have told me something?" Still, I didn't see." She peered through the bars at the sleeping tangle of infants."

"Well, I picked Pepe because he ate health food and did yoga and took baths with drops of olive oil in the water for his skin and he seemed much better than my boyfriend just before him who couldn't stop drinking beers once he'd had one. He was sweet but crazy. Not just a recluse like Pepe. I mean crazy crazy. One night he told me he was late because he'd been secretly advising Fidel Castro on global strategy. Pepe seemed down to earth. He took me for a hike in the woods. He turned over stones and showed me salamanders." Sara handed Meg another sheet to fold. "But would you believe that crazy as that boyfriend was he could make love? He was the ultimate master of the missionary. I'd always thought that was one sure fire way to tell about a man. I thought they just couldn't fake it. I mean think of the thousands of cues and messages and negotiations involved in good sex."

Meg shook her head. "Sometimes I get so tired of being somebody else's good luck."

One baby screamed. One of the grandmas, Sofia, rushed in from her lunch break. The other baby voices joined the chorus.

"That's why you tried the old way with Tony, marriage and all?" Sara wiped her hands and began walking toward the house. Meg nodded and sighed. "All that and then I discovered I was mostly alone anyway." She lifted the basket stacked with laundry, hefted it to the back screen door and walked inside.

Alone for a moment in the yard Sara stared at the flapping sheets. Pepe insisted sun dried laundry was healthier. One more sheet to hang and then she'd be off to the health food store to get Pepe the calcium magnesium he needed for his nerves. Why was he so on edge these days?

Secret Sara and Little Joey nestled in the marsupial bed. Joey suckled. She dreamed Pepe was a Mormon and she and Meg were his wives. While he was gone all night and slept by day she and Meg hung laundry together and cooked dinner. They talked in another language Sara the dreamer didn't understand. "That is the language of the perfect words," the dream voice said.

The absence of Pepe's sounds of return roused Sara at three in the morning. Joey slept flat on his back. Milk had dried and made a pattern of fine white webs around his lips. The shutters cast shadow stripes on him. "Tiny smiling jungle beast." She smiled and watched him breathe.

She remembered her dream and held her breath. Pepe walked stealthily on the Other Mother's roof. His feet stuck in tar. Another man came up behind him. Pepe let out a shrill rabbit scream. The other man was Tony.

Sara pulled Joey closer. She pulled up the satin sheet to her chin. She wrapped the down pillow around her ears. Secret Sara peered under the cool rock at the salamanders who'd fashioned pillows from wet mud and mosses. Their tiny hearts pounded.

In the moonless night Pepe's figure, dressed in black, vanished among shadows of water tanks, pigeon coops and roof sheds. He stumbled on a row of basil plants in cans. He went on, sure-footed, several feet forward, over the wall to the adjoining roof. The thud of Tony's huge body on the roof tar, the clank of the basil cans, echoed in the darkness. Pepe's eyes flashed like orange marbles. The two men locked gazes. Pepe's teeth flashed white. Tony leapt the low wall between the roofs. He lunged for a shadow. Pepe laughed behind him, close to the air shaft. Tony ran toward the laughter. He lunged again. Pepe ducked. Tony plunged over him into the air shaft. Pepe's hand missed the roof's edge. His own momentum swept him over into the free air. Their cries merged with each other's and with everyone's bad dreams.

Tell them I've given orders for another script, Secret Sara said inside Sara's head. Dana stared at Sara silent on the bed. She began to pull open the shutters but Sara shook her head. "Where's Meg?" Joey wailed. Sara lay motionless. Dana hesitated by the window. Sara stared at the wall straight ahead. Dana picked up Joey from the crib and held him against her chest. His cry grew louder. She lay him beside Sara on the bed.

"Did you forget the funerals are today?" Dana sat on the foot of the bed. She'd brought over her good black dress for Sara to wear.

Secret Sara ran over the foolish scene again in her head: The two men chasing around on a roof in the night; Tony's lunge; Pepe's duck; Tony's plunge; Pepe's fall. Her sobs frightened Joey into greater wails. Mother and son keened together unaware that Dana was watching them from the foot of the bed, waiting, letting Sara have a bit more time to cry before she dressed her and got her to the funeral on time.

"It's always so nice when the children have gone to bed." Meg spooned honey into her tea and pushed the jar sticky with peanut butter smears across their kitchen table to Sara. Sara dipped the spoon and drizzled honey into her cup. She stared through the kitchen door at the trees lit by the full moon. Sara's satin sheets and Meg's flannel sheets flapped in the wind.

"Sometimes I miss Pepe so much it hurts my bones." Sara sipped her chamomile tea. Meg nodded. "I know what you mean. I can't bear to scramble eggs."

Sara rose to put away the honey jar in the cupboard above the sink. "And then other times it seems almost nothing has changed at all." Meg put her arm around Sara's shoulders. "Just another kind of absence."