The alarm clock buzzed, and Alicia rolled over in bed with a groan. 7:30; the start of a brand-new day. Perhaps today would go better than yesterday. She’d been late for work and had sent off one of her children to school with a slight fever. She hadn’t wanted to…but one more missed day of work due to a family illness, and her boss might just start looking for her replacement. She’d really had no choice, though she’d felt guilty about it all day.
It didn’t help matters that she was sick, herself. She felt like shit. But that didn’t change the fact that this was a weekday. So she dragged herself out of bed, yelling past two bedrooms, “Jake, Jack, get up! You guys are going to be late again!”
She rushed downstairs, pulling on her stockings with one hand as she grabbed for the cereal box with the other. She had SWORN she’d get up earlier today, to make the kids a hot breakfast for once. But once again…she had failed. She brushed the thought from her mind. It’s this damned cold, she told herself. Once I feel better, I’ll start cooking for the kids in the morning. I swear.
As she headed for the kitchen, she stumbled over a book bag, tossed directly in the middle of the doorway. She ran to the staircase, hopping on one foot to rub her stubbed toe and noting that her fall had caused a huge seam to begin running up her stocking. Wincing in pain, she screamed up the stairs, “Damn it, Jack! How many times do I have to tell you to take your book bag to your room at night? HOW MANY TIMES?” She counted to ten and limped up the stairs to get a replacement pair of stockings.
She was greeted by Jake, ramming right into her on his way to attack Jack, who was younger and had yet again tried to “borrow” one of Jake’s toys. Jake was having none of it. “Give it back, you little brat! You suck!” he yelled at Jack.
Alicia was torn. Should she yell at Jack for stealing Jake’s toy? Should she yell at Jake for swearing? The clock glowed from her open doorway just down the hall: 7:45. My god. The bus would be here in fifteen minutes! “Both of you! Oh…forget it. We’ll deal with this when we all get home tonight,” she muttered in frustration.
“We won’t be home tonight,” Jake said. “Mary’s picking us up from school, remember?”
Alicia remembered. Mary, Bill’s second wife, did not have to work outside the home. The lucky bitch had inherited Bill after the man had finally gotten a promotion, and she was able to stay at home now that Mary was pregnant. Mary, unlike Alicia, was able to pick up Alicia’s two children from school, not in a rushed and hectic way, not right at dinner time, but at 3:15, looking and smelling nice, her hair done, and, Alicia thought with bitterness, NO runs in her stockings.
Oh hell. The kids knew Alicia loved them…didn’t they? As Alicia found semi-matching socks for Jack and threw Jake’s still-stained jacket over his body (she hadn’t had time last night to throw it in the washer), she made a concerted effort. After all, she loved these kids. They were her life. What was she thinking, yelling at them first thing in the morning? So what if the book bags had been left, for the 365th day in a row, directly in her path? So what if the kids were fighting yet again? She got the kids in the car (her second husband, Alex, left for work at his first-shift before the children even woke up in the morning) and smiled at both of them. They pulled up to the bus stop. “I love you both. Have a good day,” Alicia said.
Jake’s eyes narrowed. “I’m eleven years old. I HATE it when you tell me gushy stuff like that. I’ve told you that before,” he reminded Alicia. He liked to know Alicia loved him–but he didn’t actually like to be told. At this uncomfortable, pre-teen age, he’d rather just be shown.
Alicia covered her hurt as little Jack leaned forward. “I love you, Mommy,” he said, kissing her on the cheek.
“Oh, vomit,” Jake said, still putting on his tough-guy act.
“STOP it!” Alicia had had it with this latest stunt of Jake’s: picking on his little brother.
“Fine,” Jake said, hurt now himself. He stomped off to stand with the other children waiting at the bus stop.
Alicia pulled away and rammed the gas pedal. She couldn’t be late for work again. She just couldn’t.
All day long she thought back with regret to her and the kids’ terrible morning. That night she got home and of course, the kids were not there. It was just Alex and her. She should have enjoyed it; she should have loved the temporary peace. But her guilty conscience wouldn’t let her. Alex snuggled closer to her and brushed his hand against her leg. She couldn’t get into the mood. “I’m sorry,” she said. Alex looked at her with hurt. “It’s okay. I understand,” he said. She could tell he didn’t.
The next day was Saturday, and Alicia went to pick up the kids. She hated this part. So much. She watched as Mary, looking lovely as usual — and much MUCH younger than Alicia herself, ARGHHH — received a loving kiss from little Jack. Jake allowed Mary to tussle his hair. Alicia counted to ten, swallowing back her hurt.
“How did it go?” she asked as they drove home. She tried to make her voice sound casual.
“Great!” Jake enthused. “Mary took us to the zoo and we saw baby monkeys. It was so cool! Then she got us ice cream. I wanted seconds and she let me.”
“And she asked us to call her ‘mom’,” little Jack added.
“Shut up!” Jake hissed at him. “You know we’re not supposed to tell her about that.”
Alicia felt numb as they drove the rest of the way home in silence.
The kids greeted Alex at home. “We missed you, Daddy!” they both said.
By now, it was all Alicia could do to hold back the tears. The kids loved Mary. They freaked with joy to see Alex. What about her?
The phone rang, and Alicia picked it up.
“Oh, good, Alicia, I’m glad it’s you,” Mary’s voice said on the other line. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”
“What about?” Alicia kept her voice cool and pleasant.
“Well…I know I’m not the birth mother, but I just had to say something. Alicia…is something going on over there? The kids told me about how you swear and yell at them all the time, and I know I’m not actually a mom myself yet, but, well…let’s be rational, shall we, Alicia? Is it really necessary to swear at small children? Listen, the real reason I called was to give you the Child Abuse Hotline number.”
Alicia’s blood ran cold as Mary laughed dismissively. “I mean I’m SURE you’re not actually abusing them, although Jake said, and these are his words, ‘my mom would KILL US if we called you Mommy’, but I mean, well, Alicia…it sounds like things are pretty stressful…and I think of Jack and Jake as MY OWN KIDS…I would hate to see anything happen to them. Don’t be ashamed to make that call if you need to Alicia. We’ll all understand.”
“How…how dare you?” Alicia sputtered. Who did this woman think she was?
Muffled, from the opposite end of the phone, Alicia heard her ex-husband saying, “Is she getting angry again? She does have that anger problem. Damn it, I really fear for my kids sometimes.”
Alicia hung up the phone. She stormed over to the children. “I’m going to say this once,” she said, controlling her voice. “Mary is NOT your mother. You DO NOT call her Mommy. Do you boys get me?”
Alex turned on the kids. He hated it when Alicia was upset, and frankly, this bizarre little push-and-pull game between Alicia and Mary was really getting to him. “Why on earth would you do that?” he demanded of Jack and Jake. “You don’t know who your real mother is?”
“YOU’RE not our real father!” Jake snapped back at him.
“Stop it!” Alicia said to Alex, confused now.
“Great. Take their side. After all, they’re YOUR kids…not mine…as you and they so often remind me!” Alex stormed off.
Alicia looked at the children, who were mute and white now, shocked.
“Go play, boys,” she said quietly, her voice shaking. “We…we’ll make cookies later. Okay? Your favorites. Just the three of us.”
Jake watched his Mom go off to her room. “She’s crying,” he told Jack.
“I wish we were back at Mary’s house,” Jack said in his little-boy way. “She always gives us ice cream.”
Alicia did not come downstairs for the rest of the day.
She had failed again. She had been eclipsed by Mary.
The “other” mom. The one she always had to compete with. The one who heard, in glowing Technicolor and inevitable embellishments, all her many failings. The one who was so snotty to her about HER kids.
THEY WERE HER KIDS!
Mary stared at the ceiling that night, unable to fall asleep, though Bill was snoring contentedly next to her.
That Alicia. How could she be so cruel to those children? Swearing at them and throwing their book bags around, and just today Jake had told her his “MOMMY” (why oh why was she denied that title when she cared so damned much about these kids?) had stopped giving them sweets entirely. She’d rushed right out to give them ice cream. I mean somebody had to be nice to those kids. God knew Alicia sure wasn’t.
Alicia, Mary thought, didn’t know how lucky she was.
The next morning, Mary would get on the phone. She just had to commiserate with her mom, her sister and her best friend. She knew what they would tell her: “You’re such a better mom, those kids should have been yours.” Somewhat comforted by this meager thought — though it didn’t negate the fact that Jack and Jake would never call her, who tried so hard, Mom — Mary brushed away her tears and at last fell asleep.