We are sitting in a small, private room of the D.C. restaurant on Sunday evening. It is my birthday of a non-significant number and wood paneled walls make the room, small and dark despite the giant window facing out street level near The Washington Post.
My oldest friend from our former life in Texas has ordered up the room on a trip to the capital flexing her lawyering muscles on behalf of Alaskan oil. I watch the strawberry bob up and down in my drink and feel ashamed. She’s a bachelorette with impeccable Southern manners and the stature of Liz Taylor.
She’s as familiar as anyone to me, but I cower. I should be drinking scotch and wearing charcoal gray. I know this is the room of doing deals but the deal is–I’m winding down a tour of duty as a single mother in the Midwest. Law school would not have been a possibility. Steak dinners are as rare as the beef. I am certain for my twenties I didn’t own a piece of clothing without a macaroni and cheese stain.
If there was a high school superlative for least likely to be a mother, it would have been me. Not for lack of deep, deep love for these tiny beings known as children (although my daughter is one inch taller than me) but rather for an absolute lack of skill in the domain of parenting.
I can’t answer basic, fundamental questions from children like– do I think there’s a heaven or hell? Well yes. And hell is probably a condo association meeting that never finds a reasonable resolution on cinder block paint and deck heights, and heaven is always having rent money. The child will then look at me with her robin egg eyes and say something like, “Mom, you’re so weird. Did you eat today?”
My friend’s mother is with us for dinner. In elementary school she read to us with puppets as the library volunteer and was readily available at Girl Scout functions. I ask her if she was a past PTA president, making earnest but sloshy small talk. She shifts her drink in almost a toast, and I watch the strawberry garnish almost reach out to mine. We lean in.
“PTA? I didn’t have time for that.”
I find out that her time was spent battling a notorious Evangelical book banner in our town, Betty. Betty wore the biggest bun on her head, her hair always perfect for a Civil War reenactment. Wife of a pastor and chair of various Christian value organizations, Betty penned editorials on things like sex education, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret and probably R.L. Stine novels.
My friend’s mom tosses her perfect Texas hair to one side;
“Everytime she wrote an editorial, I wrote one too. Our children need to choose for themselves without being censored.”
Maybe I am quoting her wrong, but in my birthday tipsiness she becomes a silent hero I didn’t know I have. I wonder if I should be volunteering at my daughter’s book fairs more. I’m making strange connections as the evening gets sloshy I think about her with the puppet on her hand, I think about DC politics–I admire this mother and daughter combo in front of me. I wonder if I should use more hairspray.
The chefs approach the private table with sharp knives. There’s a long strand of grass fed beef being unfurled at our table and sliced into four portions. The restaurant is Argentinian fare, but the steak is from Iowa. My partner is from Iowa. Fiancée. I feel strange referring to him as this– it’s legitimizing. They ask him what he does for a living. He’s a genuine rocket scientist, I joke about getting a sweatsuit that says “Future Wife of a Rocket Scientist”.
I excuse myself to the restroom when the wine and animated strawberry cocktails absorb. After washing up, I notice my eyeliner has run under my eyes and I wonder why I always look like I just woke up. I lick a pinky and press it under my right eye removing the smudges thinking about the concrete flower pots and barriers still around D.C.
Twelve years ago I worked as an editor for a small journalism startup on Pennsylvania Avenue. I arrived in D.C. around my 22nd birthday, three months pregnant. The transition from undergraduate Midwesterner to clandestine mother in the capital felt phony. The flower pots came after 9/11 and the sniper ahead of my arrival. My favorite structure was near the FBI building where a cheap hotdog cart provided lunch.
There’s me, unplanned mom, low grade beef, swollen feet, Mid Atlantic Spring. I find it funny we are talking about Betty and Evangelicals tonight. Betty may be part of the reason I am a mother. I am still not sure where babies come from. But hell, if they’re going to show up, you should train them to be attorneys and use a library.
It’s Spring again. I take my left pinky and lick it fixing the other eye and rejoining my birthday dinner. The server promised no birthday productions, but she sheepishly sings in a rushed tone and lets me blow out one candle.
The single candle is pulled from the cake, smokey tendrils rising up the window side of the room. I sit up in my chair more and notice a young collegiate slouching cooly on a concrete flowerpot outside the of the restaurant. My friends toast me. I think I want a hot dog; but tonight the steak is good I exhale and let year thirty-four take me, without a title. I raise my glass to the Mrs. the J.D. and the Ph.D at the table.
C.E. Snow is a seminary dropout writing about religion, sex and bicycling. Her first memoir Friction & Momentum is forthcoming from Microcosm Publishing. She tweets @Books_and_Velo