We went to the beach with Papa, and probably shouldn’t have; it’s awfully hot outside. M and Little H’s cheeks turned a near-pulsating red within minutes of setting up our spot there. But I had promised M, and Papa, and couldn’t bear to reneg. They’d have forgotten about it eventually, but I couldn’t have tolerated the guilt, or the boredom of another long, long, sweltering afternoon.
They three sleep most of the way back and wake up in foul moods on Queens Boulevard. We drop off Papa and begin to search purgatory for a parking space; we circle, and circle, and I start to get jittery for caffeine and a snack; it had been too hot to eat lunch.
M and Little H are hungry, too, and need a drink. “Bwown dwink,” M announces, meaning chocolate milk. “Bwown dwink. Bwown dwink.” Little H just whimpers for a nurse.
“We will definitely get a drink at home, guy, we just have to park our car. Try to be patient,” I say, deliberately leaving no room to negotiate.
“Bwown dwink,” M insists. “Bwown dwink! Bwown DWINK!” He wants it right now, but he’s playing, too, his tone teasing.
“We’ll have it upstairs,” I say, seemingly unable to control my compulsion to answer every utterance he makes. It’s not a discussion, he has to wait, so why can’t I shut up?
“Bwown DWINK! Bwown DWINK! Bwown DWINK!” he yells, grinning in panicky sadism; he doesn’t believe me. Why? “Bwown DWINK! BWOWN DWINK! BWOWN DWINK!”
I hit the brake and turn to the 5:30 position, steadying myself by grabbing M’s car seat, and not M’s arm. “Please stop saying it, sweetheart, mommy’s trying to park the car and then we will go up and have the drink. Can you please wait quietly?”
“Thank you,” I say, and hit the gas a little, continue to search for a space, my fingers tapping the wheel because I know it’s coming-
“BWOWN DWINK! AAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!” M screams in mania, mouth open and smiling with cruel glee. “AAAAAAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!” he screams again, this time so loud that Little H bursts into terrified tears, and I yell out in shock from the actual pain of noise slicing through my skull.
I pull over with a screetch and turn abruptly again to grab the car seat, all in slow motion; my rage at his screaming shoots down through my arm and the impulse to finally, just this once, slap him, is powerful; I don’t do it. I know I won’t. But I feel like I could.
Nevertheless I let out a bellow of anger so loud and alien I’m not sure it’s come from me at first; I sound like a man. I stop us all cold. M is momentarily stunned, and looks at my reflection in his backward-facing car seat mirror.
“STOP THAT SCREAMING! KNOCK IT OFF OR YOU GO RIGHT IN THE CRIB ALL ALONE FOR THE REST OF THE DAY. I MEAN IT!”
I don’t mean it, but the standoff is quiet, and I seem to have gained leverage. None of us move. After a moment, M’s frightened face relaxes, he smiles, laughs at me, and screams again. I put the car in park and bang my head on the steering wheel 17 times. Little H cries and cries.
“I quit,” I mutter, and pretend that it’s so, just for this moment. I am totally at sea. I’ve lost my way. I have no idea what to do with us now. But a parking space opens up, and I take it. I don’t say another word. M screams a few more times, looking for my hilariously angry expression in his reverse-view mirror, but I don’t engage him. I start to unpack the car, yanking out the double stroller and smacking it against the curb, it springs open with a flourish, hanging toys and cup holders flopping brightly out like flowers from a top hat. Diaper bag over the right handle, my mini knapsack purse over the left, M’s sandals in the bottom basket, smash the towels in there, too; the plastic bag of wet bathing suits and the beach toys can cook in the damn car for the rest of the hot afternoon for all I care right now. Fuck it.
I go around and extract weeping Little H from her deep car seat, and immediately she begins to calm down. I love her so. She is so sweet, so good natured, so passive; I wish I could protect her from this, whatever it is that goes on between me and M. “I’m sorry,” I whisper into her peachy ear, and I bounce her gently around for a moment before laying her back in the rear of the double stroller.
M watches all this closely and on his face I see a new confusion. “Boobee,” he says sweetly, trying a different tack. “Mommy,” he goes on, smiling at me. “Mommy mommy, boobee. A bink a bink, see mommy, go upstas, pway, mommy pway? Wead books!”
As I pull him from his car seat he gives me kisses on my chin and neck. I kiss him back one time, and sit him in the stroller’s driver seat, and I crouch, and look him in the eye. “You know that the rules are no hitting, no pushing, and no screaming. When we go upstairs, you’ll have a time-out in the crib, because you screamed. Got it?”
He nods, and looks away.
In the elevator, Little H falls asleep again. And inside the apartment, I leave them both in the stroller for a moment so I can pee in peace. I splash cold water on my face, take a deep breath. I undo M’s stroller straps and let him out for a moment. As I turn to take my beach shoes off, he runs around the open back of the stroller and slaps Little H on the head. She screams, and cries, and I shout, “That’s it! That’s it. TIME OUT!” He was getting it anyway, how do I make it mean more? I yank his binky out of his mouth and throw it on the floor.
I stick him in the crib and go back to the stroller, scoop out Little H, rock her on the sofa till she’s calm, meanwhile M cries like hell.
I nurse Little H, while M cries. I change her diaper. I set her up sitting in her Boppy with a baby video to watch and a heap of little toys. I wash M’s binky, and go back to him.
“Bink!” he demands on sight of it, still crying.
“You can have your binky when you say sorry to me for hitting and screaming.”
“No! Bink!” he says, and cries again. We go around and around with this for a while, I leave once or twice, he cries more, I come back, and eventually we get it together.
“Okay,” I say, and we make it up with hugs and kisses and a bit of boob. We talk it over. “I’m sorry that I yelled at you,” I tell him. “We both have to work on keeping our voices down. Let’s both try to be quiet like butterflies, for the rest of the day, okay? And gentle.”
“Buddafwy,” he says, leaning exhausted against my chest.
“I love you,” I tell him, and he nods. “Pway,” he says, and climbs off my lap, runs out to the living room, and I’m after him like a shot, because I just feel in my bones what’s about to happen, but I don’t make it in time, and as I careen around the corner into the room, he smacks Little H on top of her head, she lets out a shriek of insult and pain, I lunge for him, and we start the whole goddamn thing all over again.