The Imperfect Self
“Have a good day, sweetie,” she says, meaning it sincerely. She hands him his coffee and a bag with lunch. Her hair is combed and her face is clean. She gives the appearance of a magazine spread; the kitchen is spotless and there are no toys on the floor. The toddler is still asleep.
She stands at the door and waits until she hears his car pull out of the driveway. She walks to the front window, a steaming mug in her hand. She smiles and waves.
She waits a few minutes, just to be sure he doesn’t turn around, before walking to the blue wheelie bag. She squats and unzips it.
That is when I tumble out. Unkempt. My hair is tangled, mascara smeared beneath my puffy eyes. She crawls in, the perfect me, the one I save to show the world. My wheelie bag is never far out of reach, for when I need my public face. She zips herself up, her perfect makeup, her blow-dried hair.
I have congealed food on my shirt from last night’s dinner.
I go and gently lift our 3-year-old from her big girl bed and she snuggles into my arms. I take her to our room and lay her in our bed, crawling in next to her. Her warmth, the sound of her breathing, listening to the beat of her heart; all of this is what makes me feel safe in the world. I go back to sleep, a doze, where I can just be the person I want to be; this child’s mother. Where I can be in her presence and nothing more. I want to live in this moment.
The ding of my phone wakes me and Essa snuggles deeper into my side. I quickly turn off the switch, making it silent.
Can you talk? It’s important.
I don’t want to talk. I just want my quiet morning with my girl.
How important? I text back.
It’s Andi. She’s a mom in our group. Her son is only a few weeks older than Essa.
There are eight of us; eight first-time moms with our little ones. We met in a community resource center before our babies could even walk. As our children grew, we all became closer; the bond of motherhood and insecurity. We began to meet away from the center; at the park, at the zoo, at each other’s homes. Three new babies had been born in the passing years. Eleven children now between us.
The little dots on my phone show she is responding. I am about to set my phone aside and allow my overactive brain back into my bliss when it vibrates.
It’s Jo. She’s really pissed.
I feel the familiar panic; the sensation of warmth in my throat, the nauseous ache deep in the pit of my stomach, the tingle behind my eyes as the tears threaten to fall. I consider crawling back into the wheelie bag and letting the perfect me, the calm me, the centered me, come out of the suitcase and take care of it.
But the perfect me doesn’t cuddle in bed with Essa. That version of me is a problem solver, and I don’t want to solve this problem. I want to wander through the fields behind the house with my Essa and look for bluebells. I want to pull out the chalk pastels and draw on the sidewalk, smearing the dust on our cheeks. I want to lay here and listen to my child breathe.
At me? I ask.
Again, the dots, waiting for her answer.
Can you call me? she asks.
I sigh. This was not the way I expected the morning to go.
I slide out of bed, untangling myself from her perfect pudgy arms, and quietly shut the bedroom door. I’m hoping to crawl back into my cocoon as soon as the imperfect me understands what is happening.
The phone vibrates in my hand, a repeating alarm of panic. It’s not Andi.
My heart sinks deeper.
I quickly type: Jo is calling, call you back after.
I press the answer button and do my best impression of the woman in the bag, light and airy as if nothing is wrong and my heart isn’t pounding in my chest.
“Hey! Good morning, Jo. What’s up?”
There is silence.
I hear her breathing on the other end. Finally, a deep breath and Jo speaks.
“How could you?”
It sounds like she’s been crying and again I consider going and climbing into the bag, letting the other me out; hiding in the darkness, behind the fabric wall and the binding zipper.
“How could I what?” I ask. I’m sincere, but I also know. Deep in my gut, I know.
“How could you talk about me when I wasn’t there? How could you talk about my marriage?”
It’s my turn to be silent now. She was right. I had talked about her. I had talked about her husband. I had talked about her in front of the other six women and their children.
“I tried to talk to you,” I said. My voice is a whisper.
“Bullshit! You didn’t try.”
The tears are starting to fall.
“But every time I tried, you didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Because it was none of your business!”
The problem was, it was my business. My business that while her husband was exceptionally kind; my daughter seemed afraid of him. My business that I didn’t know how to stand up for my daughter. My business that I felt, to keep my pretty social face, to keep my friendship with Jo, I had to swallow my instinct. My business that I had dreamt of my baby’s death at her husband’s hands. My business that I felt afraid.
How it tore at my heart, to battle against something unknown and unseen; to battle my own past trauma, to question whether my intuition was real or imagined. Was it the overprotective mommy brain or was there something there? Was I imagining things? Did it matter, true or false, if my subconscious was screaming at me so loudly?
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I talked to everyone because I wanted to know if I was somehow making things up. I wasn’t sure how to talk to you.”
“You should have talked to me.”
I had been trying to talk to her for months, but how do you tell that to a woman who has refused to hear you? How do you tell that to a woman fighting for her own family? How do you tell that woman who probably has her own suitcase she’s climbing in and out of?
We were both quiet.
Finally, she said, “I don’t want to see you anymore. Ever.”
It was really all I could say because I did understand.
But what did that mean for my daughter and her best friends? What did that mean for the circle I had created over the last three years? Did that mean she was done or was I?
And then she hung up.
I sank to the floor, shaking.
I texted Andi.
Just got off the phone with Jo. I don’t know what to do.
I could see the response dots and waited.
Maybe you should just stay away for a bit, see if it blows over, she finally messaged.
Have you talked to the others? I asked.
The pause was even longer this time.
Yes. Everyone thinks you should stay away. Everyone is worried about Jo.
I wanted to say, but you all agreed with me yesterday! You all supported that I should talk to her. You all said that something didn’t seem right and that it wasn’t just me. You all agreed we could talk to her together!
I also wanted to say, What about me? What about my Essa? What about us?
Mostly though, I felt hurt. I thought you all would wait for me to try and talk to her again. I thought we were a family. Who told on me?
That last thought, who told on me? I felt ashamed. Ashamed that I had done something perceived as “wrong” or “bad.” Ashamed that I had hurt Jo. Ashamed that she no longer wanted to be my friend. Ashamed that we were ostracized for something I had done.
Instead, I imagined the perfect me in the wheelie bag and how she would respond. She would wear a perfect smile. She would acknowledge the conflict and offer to stay away until everything calmed down.
Then, I wrote, You didn’t stand up for me, did you.
It was a statement, and I knew it was true. I understood that none of the rest of them had either. They all had their public faces, and standing next to me felt like a risk.
Andi didn’t respond.
I turned off my phone.
I cried on the floor.
Somehow, they had chosen her over me, when I didn’t even know there was a “her” or “me” scenario. They didn’t like me anymore. Didn’t want me or my child in their group. It’s like being fired, but worse, because this is my soul. This is my child. These are the people we spend our time with, the people I trusted.
And they don’t trust me anymore. Even though I didn’t mean to cause harm.
I glance at the framed photo on the wall; all of our children, dressed up for a toddler ball. The boys in mini cummerbunds, the girls in princess dresses. I imagine my child, my most important gift, being erased from that picture as if she never existed. As if we never mattered.
But it’s not her. It’s me. I’m the one that never mattered. Not to them.
I thought, if I could be perfect enough, then they would like me. Perfect pictures, perfect family, perfect life. The perfect model I pull around with me in my wheelie bag. The only version of me I let my husband see. The only version I let my parents and my sister see.
There is only one person in this whole world who gets to see me; the real me. The one with the congealed food on my shirt. The one with the tangled hair and the stretch marks and the extra fat on my tummy. I have grown physically soft; the better to cuddle her with.
The door creaks open and she is standing there, rubbing her eyes, her tangled crown of hair curling around her face.
She sees me and her face lights up, despite the tears running down mine. She throws herself into my arms.
And I understand, it’s not about perfection. It’s not even about being liked. I’m here for her. She’s my reason for being at this moment in time. She doesn’t need the perfection in the suitcase. She just needs her mom.
My time with her is borrowed. It is finite. At least within the scope of this human life.
“Do you want to go for a ride?”
She nods her sleepy head.
I get her settled in her car seat and then run back inside for the wheelie bag. Only I don’t unzip the perfect me and let her drive, the way I normally would. I don’t climb inside behind the zipper.
I wheel the bag out to the car and maneuver it into the trunk.
I don’t change out of my pajamas. I don’t brush my hair. I don’t wash my face.
We drive into the middle of nowhere, where the dirt road goes on forever and the Joshua Trees stand.
I pull the bag from the trunk.
There is a roadrunner, stopped to watch in curiosity; his clicks and trills are the soundtrack to my evolution.
Perhaps someday, someone will find the perfect me, hidden in that suitcase. Perhaps they will take her home as a trinket of what our world has become, the expectation of what we are supposed to be. Perhaps they will try the perfect me on, and realize how stifling and uncomfortable that person is.
I’m tired of presenting a perfect face. I’m tired of being my own science experiment.
I drive away, the suitcase left in a cloud of dust on the lonely desert floor.
We pick up donuts and go to the park. I push my Essa on the swing. We laugh and she slides down the twisty slide, flying into my arms.
That afternoon, I call my husband.
“I’m not making dinner tonight. Can you pick up cheeseburgers?”
He’s quiet for a moment and then says, “Is everything okay? You don’t eat cheeseburgers.”
“I do now,” I say.
He laughs. “Okay, cheeseburger, fries, and milkshakes? What are we celebrating?”
“I’m not perfect,” I respond.
“I never wanted you to be.”
I always start with these prompts feeling the linear weight of the straightforward interpretation–a drug rep with all her samples in the wheelie bag, bringing cheeseburgers to the office, prepared to discuss the science behind her samples. As I’ve said before; I don’t want a linear story. I want a story that is about something more, a way of viewing the prompt I didn’t expect.
I always share the prompt with my daughter, the Essa of the above story, and she is never connected to the linear idea. Her brain sees around the outside, into the corners, from angles I missed in those first moments. I envy her capacity to see the depth of possibility before my brain is ready.
But magic happens in the moment. She tells me what she would write and suddenly it’s like a shadow lifts and I can see the other ideas. I can see the story I want to write. Something about my daughter and her viewpoint of the world opens my senses to the possibility of where this story could go.
Her idea was around LGBTQIA, specifically transgender and non-binary identity, and the parts of themselves society makes difficult to leave behind. She talked about the wheelie bag carrying around things like dead names and birth pronouns.
I was absolutely blown away by this idea for a story, but it is not my story to write. I have not lived this and am not a representative of the LGBTQIA community. I am an ally, but that does not put me in the position to write that story. (I have included a link to the LGBTQIA Resource Center Glossary from UC Davis. These terms need to be more widely used and accepted.)
Her idea got me thinking about the parts of ourselves we drag around; what type of ball and chain do we each carry because it is a part of us? My list began: expectations, mental illness, depression and anxiety, a temper bomb and different lengths of fuses. What if you were fired from your job for not fitting a social standard? What if the job isn’t the paycheck type, but the role we play in society? What if being fired is equated to being “canceled”?
It’s happened to me, I’m sure it’s happened to you. You have good intentions but it comes across as wrong, you say the wrong thing in the wrong situation, you don’t say the thing you should have said–suddenly someone is angry and you find yourself trying to fix the situation. Fixing it doesn’t always work. There is loss and sadness and ongoing questioning of how you could have handled it differently. As the proverb states, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
We live in a society of social media where everyone else’s lives look somehow perfect. We share too much of edited pictures and none of the reality.
Moms feel that pressure too, beyond the scope of social media. Everyone has an opinion, and you are certainly doing something wrong in someone’s mind. I remember my anger at a family member judging my choice to homeschool my daughter when traditional stopped working; how dare she judge my choice for my daughter when she spends no time with us and has no idea who my child even is.
We get judged for birthing in a hospital as well as for home birth. We are judged for breastfeeding (for too much time or not enough) and bottle feeding. We are judged if we decided to co-sleep, judged if the baby is in a crib, judged if we let our baby cry it out, judged if we wear our baby and calm their whimpers. Judged on the schooling we choose (or don’t choose.). They get to college and suddenly there is judgment on if they go, if they wait, if they go to junior college, and the prestige of the final decision. But it doesn’t end there–it never ends.
Childhood and motherhood is not a race. We are all in different places with different reasons for doing what we do.
And then we pile on pressures from how we look to who we are at our fundamental core. That’s the wheelie bag, that’s the ball and chain, that’s the basis of this story.
If you liked this story or connected with it in any way, it would mean so much to me that you share it. I send out an email every Friday with new writing, you can sign up for it here.
Week 11 Prompt – The main character thinks he or she is about to get fired
Include: magazine, blow-dryer, congeal, bluebell, cummerbund, wheelie bag, pastels, cheeseburger, binding, science
Read my writing partner Bridgette’s Tale here
LGBTQIA Resource Center Glossary from UC Davis
Mother Culture Photo Exhibit by Rachel Valley (Flickr Set)
My personal journey to motherhood
Another story in this 52-week collection, on Motherhood – The Community
An important bit about me and who I am
My 52-Week Journey So Far
What is the 52-week short story challenge?
Next Week’s Prompt
12. A hike through the woods
Include: leprechaun, covert, fireball, snoop, wart, pity, backpack, practice, nausea, collar