when you just can’t get it right (or, purple plastic bucket)
On the phone last night, Maggie told me that she’d gone on a hike (a true hike, up a legit mountain — you know, the one in her backyard), hung out in their tree house, had dinner, then played sharks and minnows with Ben, J, Caroline, and her stepsisters, and then “this game where you spin around a bunch of times and try to touch a frisbee.” She had something shiny on her face, by her hairline, and when I asked her what it was, she laughed. “Oh, it’s paint!” Then she flipped the camera around and showed me her legs, covered in other colors. “I’m not allowed to take another shower today, though.”
Each night I get the run-down of all the ways that my paint-covered, bug-bitten, sunburned children are living their best summer camp life, which I suppose on a good day makes me happy for them but still — still — makes me feel a) angry at the adults who cheated their way into a sprawling utopian homestead and a kickball team full of children, and b) like I — alone in suburbia, drinking wine and watching Netflix — took a wrong turn somewhere that I can’t seem to right. Like I don’t even know how. It’s not like “oh I should do x,” but I’m too afraid/lazy/whatever; it’s that I literally just don’t know how to navigate my way out of this bizarre half-existence.
Shortly before the kids left for the summer, C mentioned casually to me that when Ben and J got married (on the top of aforementioned mountain), it was just the two of them and an officiant, and they — ready? — ran up two separate trails and met at the top. Despite the fact that this chokingly schmaltzy metaphor was not, intentionally, a reference to their exes or their former lives and families, I couldn’t help feeling that I had been relegated in this scenario to a rock or a tree stump along the path that Ben had taken to his true destination. Or, if I want to be even crueler to both of us, the very dirt he’d stepped on.
Yeah, I know none of that was really about me.
But as I mark the days to the girls’ return on my bathroom mirror every morning, I can’t help but feel like something isn’t working quite right. Honestly — honestly, truly? Sometimes I really do feel like that rock. As the summer rolls on, I’ll hang out with neighbors and some of my divorced mom friends, and I’ll do projects around the house, run, play the piano and read and have a chance to work a little harder than usual at my job. But even taken all together, none of this feels like a life, but instead like a handful of crumbs. I love my time by myself, but I see other families out on boats and having barbecues and going hiking and rafting and camping, and I have major family FOMO. And I’m not sure that the extremes of all-in parenting during the school year and pin-drop silence all summer are really serving me, or them. Yet the idea of going back to Vermont makes me want to throw up. I miss my friends, but that’s about it.
On good days, I feel like the world is wide open to me, and I can run in any direction I’d like. On bad days, I feel like I’ve been handed an untenable situation, in which no choice can possibly be the right choice for everyone, and so I just freeze.
During the first divorce summer (are we counting, because this is THE FOURTH, holy crap), I was driving to work and saw a purple plastic beach bucket in the median. I started wondering how it had gotten there, whether someone left it on top of a car after packing up at the lake, yada yada yada, and then I was seized — not unusually for that time — by a deep sadness that Ben and I would never take the girls to the lake again, and that the life I was embarking on now was going to be devoid of rituals and traditions that had for years provided the emotional scaffolding of our family. That that intangible, sun-going-down, sandy-feet-on-the-dashboard, wrung-out-kid feeling was lost to me, at least for several years to come. I got to work, texted one of my best friends, and cried in the bathroom on and off for the rest of the day. For months after that, when I was having a hard time, she would say, “Is it a purple plastic bucket kind of day?”
Last spring, I was putting boxes in the attic. The insulation up there is studded with the detritus of the prior homeowners’ lives: pieces of broken old Christmas decorations, wire hangers, and most egregiously a faded but intact diaper genie box that someone was too lazy or afraid to tiptoe across the ceiling joists to retrieve. As I slid one of the last boxes across a narrow section of plywood and turned around to back down the ladder, I saw it in the shadows, poking up out of the pink fluff: a purple plastic bucket.
I wanted to believe that it was some kind of sign. But of what, exactly?