You wake up to the thump and burn. Your body seizes on the impulse to panic but your mind disengages. You let the Rolodex of must-dos spin to the boom, boom, boom of your heartbeat. You start organizing, checking boxes, strategizing the most efficient ways to get it done — the one, two, three, repeat.
Your eyes still aren’t open when your children rush down the hall and bound onto your bed. You smile and hold and kiss and giggle, all the while the burn in your gut keeps churning, higher and higher until even the undersides of your earlobes are buzzing.
You get up and start calling out orders. Get dressed, brush teeth, pack bags, make beds. You sling two bowls of cereal onto the table, throw a piece of bread into the toaster. You get the milk, the spoons; start brewing coffee even though you know each swallow will only intensify the pain. You’ve come to rely on the provocation. You can’t help yourself.
While they eat, you double-check their bags; homework, snack, water, lunch. You braid hair, tie shoes, and at some point, collect the piles of dirty laundry from around the house and start separating the darks from the lights. Every time you bend over, the acid makes its way into unchartered territory: your armpits, your shoulder blades, even your eye sockets.
The phone buzzes with a change to your schedule. The 8:30 PTA meeting is now at 8:15. You breathe, blow your nose, clear your throat. There’s also a news alert, three infants and two women stabbed to death at local daycare. You shake off an urge to read the story. What good could come from knowing?
In the car, you take every red light as an opportunity to pick up your phone and scroll through more headlines. The morning’s politics are catastrophic like always, but in the entertainment section you see a photo that catches your eye. It’s a black and white portrait of an old friend from college — 5000 words on his outsized success with casual quotes proclaiming his genius from people so famous your mouth goes slack.
In the back seat, your children pinch and pull at each other, occasionally disentangling long enough for the oldest to yell, “Eyes on the road, not on your phone!”
The burn in your ears has trickled back down and pooled up under your tongue; a bitter little pool of acid; poison waiting to be spit at whatever or whoever dares to cross you.
You say goodbye in the parking lot. You tell them you will miss them and even though it’s a reality that infuriates you, it’s true. When they are away, you fill the void by looking at pictures of them. You bemoan each difficult phase of their childhood and then mourn those moments once they’ve past. You are consumed by your love for them. Consumed and also terrified. Terrifed and also exhausted.
You go to your meeting where women with gaudy jewelry and highlights go on and on about nothing. You agree to contribute. You sign up for more. You offer to donate.
On the way home you fill up and get a quick car wash. You drop off the dry cleaning, pick up some groceries, and then sit — dangerously still — for ten entire minutes in the parking lot just looking at the sky and listening to the thump, thump, thump — wondering if it will ever go away, wishing for and fearing silence with such intensity that you start the car back up and rev the engine, comforted temporarily by the promise of acceleration.
At home you start the laundry, load the morning’s dishes, remake the beds, and sort through two weeks of mail you’ve been ignoring.
By now it is lunchtime but the thought of eating is just another must do, an obligation to be checked or avoided. You stand in the kitchen and look at all the things you must not consume; no bread, no pasta, no fruit, no grains, no dairy. Five minutes later you take half an avocado back to your bedroom and eat it slowly from under the covers. This diet does not make you skinny. It does not relieve the burn or quiet the thump, but you keep hoping it will change you, that if you see it through, you will, once again — transform.
You open your computer and stare at a story that you know, implicitly, will never be finished. Or if it is then never published. Or if it is then never read. But still you call yourself a writer. If not that then what? A mother? A housewife? You think about your friend, the one from college, of the preposterous dreams you shared when you were classmates twenty years ago and you wonder why him? Why not me? Because he is a man and you are a woman? Is it because you wanted children? Surely not. Plenty of women do both. But not you.
The washing machine chirps out a charming bar to let you know it’s finished, that it needs you, that there is a job to be done — and you go to it because being needed is a thing you rely on. Staying busy is how you push through everything else that threatens to surface should you ever have a moment to truly observe all that weighs on you; shame over what you have not achieved, guilt over being unhappy, a lingering sense that the best parts of your life are probably over. Better, you think, to fold your husband’s underwear and start planning tomorrow’s dinner.
In the tiny room off your kitchen, you talk to the dryer as if it were your girlfriend, you empty and refill and then you fold and put away, all the while your phone keeps buzzing in your back pocket, sharing alerts about things that are happening in the world beyond this. Beyond you.
You go back to your story, start to reread, laugh twice at your own premise but right as you are about to start typing, you realize that it is already 2:15 and by the time you get back to school it will be 3:00 and then you will be late.
In the car you stare at a pile of garbage on the passenger seat that includes crumpled tissues, a rotting banana peel, and one sock with a hole in it. You think about things that are meant to go together but inevitably come apart. So many single socks in your house, so many crumpled tissues.
Behind you, a driver honks and then speeds past, slowing just enough to scream, “Get off the phone you fucking twat!”
At school your children complain that you are late, that you have not brought them the right snack; that they do not want to go to baseball or piano. You drop one at baseball and the other at piano, then you go back and sit in the parking lot paying bills on your phone until one is finished so you can leave to pick up the other.
When you get out to help your son with his bat bag, a man walks by in a suit and flashes a patronizing grin. “Don’t blink!” he says, “It goes fast.”
You’re forty-four years old. You are all too aware of how fast it goes.
On the radio, the president is blathering on about something that makes your stomach turn, some woman he has denied assaulting. On your computer, your inbox is full of advertisements promising cures for ailments you have yet to suffer. You delete the emails. You turn off the radio. Still, there is so much nothing coming at you, so much emptiness.
Back home you start pulling things out for dinner, calling out orders; finish your homework, practice your spelling, put your clothes in the hamper. The hamper is already full again, full like a bucket left beneath a leaky pipe. Those first few drops are nothing, but soon it will become too heavy to carry. It must be emptied with care lest the water slosh up over the sides, drenching things that are meant to stay dry. Drip, drip, drip. Thump, thump, thump.
When you are finished cooking dinner, you call in your children and immediately give in to the thump with hopes that it will drown out their complaining. You go deep. You shelter in place; hopeful the attack will not last long.
When you re-emerge you see that one of them is crying, gagging dramatically at the mere thought of asparagus. You throw away the asparagus. You scrape the rest of the meat into the sink, turn on the disposal, watch as it grinds and severs, mincing the bigger pieces until they are small enough to pass unhindered into the abyss. The sink belches when you flip off the switch. Your children are fighting again. A glass is knocked over. The sigh is inaudible when you bend over and begin to pick up the pieces, careful not to let the edges cut you.
Later, when they are bathed and their bags packed — clothes laid out for another day — you check your phone again, this time taking care to like the pictures posted by people you barely know and upload a smiling shot of you with your kids basked in the glow of a parking lot sunset. You sit beside your daughter and wait in silence for her to fall asleep. She looks up at you with glassy eyes and says, “I’m tired, Mommy.” And you kiss her nose and think, me too.
In graduate school your professor told you he saw so much potential in your work. There was, it seemed, so much time. But first, a family. You were thirty then and for children, you were told, it was almost already too late.
When your husband gets home, the children are asleep and the dryer is whirring pleasantly in the darkness. He slips off his shoes, goes the bathroom, picks around in the fridge and then lays beside you with his computer already open. You sit side by side on your own devices scrolling through Amazon, buying things you do not need. Then to Twitter and finally to YouTube where he will watch woodworking videos, and you will listen to women whispering about their Dollar Store hauls and make up tutorials. There is intimacy in the act. You are apart but also together. You are glad at least that he is still here beside you.
The burn does not go away — not ever — but at night, the thump slows down. It is enough for you to close you eyes and try to forget what things you have or have not accomplished. The must dos you have not done, the books you have not written.
In the morning it will reenter you in a flood, saturating your body in the moments before you wake. It will churn in your gut and erupt into your sinuses. And you will egg it on in the ways you always do, because there is comfort in its sharpness.
You will use it as best you can, pluck from its darkness, a few more words each day. It seems an impossible task, but you know it is not. You know because of the laundry, because of the emails, because of the women with their gaudy jewels, that even emptiness collects and that every bucket must be tipped if ever again it wants to be full.