We call our favourite café the “robot coffee shop,” because it used to have a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em game on a low shelf, where kids could reach it, and play with it. It’s a bit of a walk, and a bit of an expense, so I only go there when I feel like I’ve done something to deserve it, like get two kids out the door fully dressed, on time, without swearing out loud.
On our way there, we pass a man half-comforting, half-chastising a child. Not yelling, just down on his knees, small face in his hands, trying unsuccessfully to stop the tantrum, which oscillates between growling and silence: “Mom just gets a little upset this time of year. She has a lot on her plate. She’s not mad at you.” The whole time, the child didn’t move. But for the growling, I’d have thought she was a tiny mannequin, dressed for the threatening snow.
At the café, order placed, Juno and I sit down in one of the worn leather sofas. On the other side of long, low table is a small woman, small in all ways: her hands look like a doll’s hands, fumbling with her phone. She’s shaking. Eyes rimmed in red. She’s been crying. I distract Juno – who inherited nothing of my looks but all of my ability to sense peripheral distress – by asking her to count the glowing plastic logs in the fake fireplace. She obliges: “11, 12 … 18, 19 … 18, 19 …” until the chanting is replaced by a curt “Mocha on the bar.” I exhale, as grateful for the excuse as the caffeine.
I know what it’s like to cry in public. How many months has she been trying, I wonder, projecting. Maybe she has a family already. Armfuls of presents under the tree, when the FedEx delivery arrives. This would be the third pre-ordered gift she’s forgotten about. Inside the box, the gift is already wrapped with a tag that reads: “For Molly, love Dad.” Molly had been Mark’s mother’s name. She wanted to name their daughter Molly and he refused. Never gave an explanation that made any sense.
The next day, after Mark left to take Emma to daycare, she retrieved it from under the bed and threw the whole thing on the fire, which they’d made specially that morning. A treat for the last day of school. Toasted marshmallows for breakfast. Pity the teacher. The fire leapt and sparked and she made a mental note to pack Christmas wrap as fire starter, next time she went camping. The plastic melted; the smoke was thick, dark and acrid, burning her throat, stinging her eyes.
What’s done cannot be undone.
A departure from my usual “my kid said something hilarious!” and “hey lookee mah talkin’ box makes picture stories!” content, the post above was written in response to this week’s writing challenge: collecting detail.