A LIFE IN A DAY
by Brighid Moret
The screen door swung shut, slamming its frame as it did every day. Eventually they are going to shatter the glass, Margaret thought as she assumed her daily position at the door. Cold air seeped in at the seams and through the thin pane of glass temporarily in place to offer meager insulation from winter’s chill.
She shivered under the summer silk of the old kimono she wore – her feet much warmer in the thick slippers. Margaret watched with an impassive face as the children piled into the carpool station wagon, the characters on their backpacks the only things watching her.
The wagon door closed. She unwrapped her best have-a-good-day smile and raised one hand high in an enthusiastic salute to a new day while she clutched the tattered top of the kimono around her neck in an effort to fight off shivering.
The station wagon, the same color as the frosted winter sky, backed out of the driveway and zipped down the street. The happiness sloughed from her face before the vehicle was even out of sight, and she closed the door on the children in preference of comfort.
Margaret walked back to the kitchen and the remnants of the kids’ hastily prepared, barely eaten, and partially spilled breakfast. She let the last bits of hope for a good day slip out as she sighed under the weight of stress and the kind of depression that festers in the minds of those who believe they are wasting their lives on things less important than their own.
She picked up an oatmeal-coated spoon that left a pasty residue on the table. Emptying the uneaten cereal down the drain, she realizing they were out again and she would have to buy more so that there would be an easy breakfast for tomorrow’s mad dash out the door.
“What a waste,” she said under her breath as she ran the garbage disposal and thought of the store. The kimono hung open, the tie having long since vanished, lost to the gremlins that lived in closets and at dry cleaners. It was probably keeping company with all the children’s odd socks and the characters that peopled their footwear world.
Water splashed out of the full sink and splattered the front of her nightshirt. The tips of the long wide silk sleeves dipped into the water as she rinsed the morning’s mess away before loading the prewashed dishes into the machine that was a failure in its job.
Creates twice as much work, Margaret thought as she closed the washer door. Prewash, load, hand wash any pieces with soap residue, dry, unload. I should just do them by hand. Some modern convenience. But despite the extra steps, she felt compelled to use it.
“Worthless,” she said out loud.
All that extra time…
“What a waste.”
She wiped the spots of milk off the kitchen table with the once-yellow sponge that had taken on a gray-brown hue and smelled slightly of wet leaves. Turning on the hot water, she squeezed it under the flow and watched tiny yellow bits run down the drain after the discarded breakfast, then absently dropped the sponge into the basin.
Margaret left the kitchen and headed upstairs to the shower. Nothing could wake
her up like coffee, and nothing could relax her like showering. The water was cleansing, it carried away a poor night’s sleep, stress of upcoming parent-teacher conferences, and somehow made all the housework look distant, and from that distance it didn’t seem so overwhelming.
She took each stair in stride. The first trip up of the day, with many more to follow – nothing spectacular and nothing remarkable. Stopping at the top step, she gazed at herself in the full-length mirror, which reflected both her and the deep stairwell from which she had just risen.
Margaret took her hand off the banister. She used to see Venus staring back at her in this mirror, now…. She drew herself up and held the kimono closed with a hand strikingly posed on her hip then did a slow turn in place. Her eyes instantly picked out the flaws: the little stains and discolorations on the silk from years of wear, the bottom hem hanging in places from where the stitches had surrendered, and the fractured design on the back. She couldn’t see all of it in the mirror, which suited her just fine. She knew that the embroidered dragon and bird, a phoenix maybe, were unraveling like the dream they were pulled out of, now just a mass of loose threads dangling haphazardly from her back.
The image might otherwise have been ruined by the slippers.
She left the reflection for the peace of her shower; it could wash away anything, even denial. Hang the tattered silk robe on the brass hooks on the bathroom door, Margaret wondered if it counted if you realized you were in denial.
She gingerly touched the border on the sleeve and thought of what it had looked like when it was new. Crisp ivory silk that had a sheen in any light, brilliant colors that popped out of the designs that wrapped from sleeve to sleeve and told a story across her body. The bird had seemed to be taking flight as she walked. Jack, her husband, had said that the dragon looked like he was in a Chinese New Year parade the way it jumped when she moved. His statement made sense at the time, they did buy it at the China Pavilion at Epcot. Was that trip to Disney World, so many years ago, the last trip together without the kids? They had been barely more than kids.
The water would help.
The knob was turned and the water released. Margaret let it run, time to warm, the pipes were cold. She took her time getting undressed, waiting for the steam to rise. Standing under the warm droplets, she felt the morning chill fade and her mind start to loosen, then expand. Margaret moved past the memory and into the present.
Time to plan the day. She shampooed and scheduled, conditioned and coordinated: groceries first, cereal in particular, laundry second, carpool, then homework, dinner, indoor soccer practice for one, piano lessons for the other, baths and bed for the kids, dinner dishes, then maybe a minute to read.
I need a chauffeur, she thought, and a maid. But she had heard that people spent more time cleaning for the maid to come clean then they would have normally. Margaret chuckled to herself as she pulled back the shower curtain, just like the dishwasher.
She pulled one of the many faded pairs of jeans out of her dresser and found a black turtleneck to go with it. On her way back downstairs she stopped in front of the mirror again. She didn’t know if black really made you look slimmer, she couldn’t tell. Then again, maybe it was the jeans – they were blue. She needed narrower shoes too. The elusive “they” of magazines and television fashion shows were saying pointy toes make your feet look longer, and her normal foot ware, tennis shoes, made her feet look stubby. Not that Margaret would ever have the time, or money, to spend on herself. Both were precious commodities in a house where every penny that wasn’t budgeted for necessities was invested.
She backed the minivan out of the driveway and headed for the perpetually crowded grocery store. After circling the lot several times she opted for the time saving tactic of parking at the back of the lot and walking. The alarm beep-set, and the doors clicked as the electronic locks activated, then she started the hike across the ice patched asphalt using SUVs and minivans as urban windbreaks.
Her eyes watered as the cold wind stung them. Margaret asked herself if oatmeal was really worth this trial of endurance. By the time she had convinced herself the consequences would be worse otherwise, she was inside the door, reaching for the plastic push handle of a metal cart; all had the mandatory wobbly wheel that made steering a challenge.
You ought to be licensed to drive one of these things she thought, sidestepping a carton of broken eggs and dodging a young mother who cut across the aisle to pick up a forgotten item while her toddler put back the things he didn’t think they would need.
Margaret passed the meat case as she made her way to the cereal aisle. Rows of beautiful fish and meat. Deep red, nicely marbled tenderloins that she imagined dissolving on her tongue and bright pink salmon that she imagined flaky under her fork tempted her from under their plastic wrap. She stopped and picked up a salmon filet, then thought better of it and put it back. If it wasn’t breaded and in stick form the kids would never eat it.
When was the last time she had a steak? Most of her meals have been one-pot wonders and casseroles whose recipes were probably devised in the 1950’s and originally baked in lime green cookware. She stared at the prime rib and filet mignon. Again, something wasted on the tastes of children. Margaret briefly considered a romantic dinner for two, but the thought had barely entered her mind before it was banished as some fanciful dream. Jack never got home before ten, and if they were going to have a romantic dinner it would have to be shoehorned into his schedule. Even then, he would suggest the last restaurant he had taken business associates. It was not really what she had in mind.
She had plenty of meat in the freezer at home, but she had forgotten to take any out to thaw. Ground beef it was. Hamburgers and fish sticks, what a selection. This can’t be good for me, she thought eyeing the salmon once more before moving to the next aisle.
Locating the cereal, Margaret picked up two boxes of assorted flavor oatmeal and two boxes of the latest kid favorite, sugarcoated, attention-deficit forming cereal on the shelf. Realizing they would probably need milk soon, she doubled back to the dairy aisle and picked up two gallons. The one healthy habit the children had formed was a love for milk. They went through a gallon a day. This would save a trip later.
Her last stop before the self-scan check out was the produce section where a large bunch of grapes, a cluster of bananas, and a dozen red delicious apples made their way into the cart. She didn’t look at the vegetables; the children didn’t eat anything that hadn’t come from a box or a can. Except for fruit, she added to herself, thank God for natural sugars.
Margaret looked at her cart, did a quick calculation of cost, then decided she could afford a splurge today. Something for herself. She picked up one of the yellow star fruit sitting in a small basket with the other tropical treats. At almost two dollars apiece, she felt rather decadent eating one, and eating one for breakfast while still wearing the silk kimono made her feel exotic. She hadn’t a clue where star fruit came from, but she didn’t care, it transported her to dreams of luxury and simplicity – somehow the two went together rather nicely in her mind. None of the hectic running around she did now, just time to enjoy the good things in life.
Margaret weighed the fruit in her hand, replaced it and reached for another. She was searching for the perfect indulgence and wanted the fruit to be as ripe and juicy as she imagined it to be. The skin felt slightly waxy under her fingertips, and the points of the star was starting to become brown lines that outlined the shape. There was a lingering sweetness when handling the fruit, and it brought to mind sunny days and warm breezes.
Zipped through the self-scan line, she smiled to herself, glad she wasn’t as terrified of technology as the old biddies who would spend the next half hour or so leaning on their carts, waiting for a cashier to process their items for them. Margaret placed the star fruit in its own bag so it wouldn’t be bruised.
The cart was left behind at the door, and Margaret made her way across the parking lot with the thin plastic bag handles, pulled taught from the weight of their contents, biting painfully into her hands. She was relieved when she was able to load the bags into the back of her minivan. In the driver’s seat, she rubbed her hands together gently. They were sore from the bags and stung from the raw cold that had gnawed at her fingers the entire way across the parking lot. By the time she got home, the heat vents were starting to put out tepid air.
Margaret was inside unpacking the groceries before the car heater could have made a difference to her comfort.
The cereal went in the pantry. After she solved the puzzle of kitchen condiments to make space, the fruit went into the fridge with the milk. The apples went into the crisper, the grapes and the star fruit went on a shelf together, both having delicate skins.
Margaret closed the refrigerator, then looked out the window over the sink at the seamless gray-white ceiling of the frozen sky. The cold seemed to wrap around her in the warmth of the kitchen, causing her to remain fixed at the window for an indeterminate amount of time.
Suddenly, a crack in the clouds brought a momentary ray of sunlight, interrupting the lost wonderings of Margaret’s mind.
She made her second trip up the stairs and started the dance, the choreography she knew so well. Waltz into the room of child one, pick up laundry basket, pirouette around the nightstand while picking up the dirty socks that hung from the lampshade and the bedpost. Repeat in room of child number two.
Once all the clothes were collected, she began the task of sorting. A child’s task.
This had been one of the ways she had taught them their colors, now she was doing the
work of toddlers. Light, dark, light, white, white, dark.
The piles grew until there was a hamper’s worth of each grouping. Margaret loaded shirts, pants, underwear, and socks into the wicker baskets and took the first load down two flights of stairs to the basement. She liked having the laundry room out of sight, but she didn’t like the stairs. At least I don’t have to invest in a Stairmaster, she thought as she let the lid to the washer shut and cranked the knob to start the cycle.
Back upstairs she looked at the clock and realized that her day was already half gone. She didn’t get the full nine-to-five workday to complete her menial tasks like the rest of the world did. Her day was amputated at two o’clock when she had to leave the house to pick up the neighborhood kids from school.
For lunch, Margaret fixed herself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – the same school lunch she had packed in brown paper bags the night before – and sat down at the table wondering if the children had traded portions of their meal for more exciting foods or treats. Soup might be a nice accompaniment on such a bitter day, but the only thing in the pantry was chicken and stars when she was craving a nice minestrone. The coffee left in the pot was cold and overly bitter. She poured herself a glass of milk to wash down the dry sandwich, grateful she wasn’t drinking hers out of a cardboard container.
The washer buzzed its completion, and she set about switching loads from washer to dryer and starting the cycle all over again. An hour later she would be folding mini-tee-shirts and balling tiny socks, then setting up the ironing board to make sure all the angles were perfectly pressed on her husband’s shirts so that he had something appropriate to wear in the morning when he left her.
Her deadline came sooner than Margaret thought it should have, and she found herself driving to the school on autopilot, her mind chasing after dreams of warmer, sunnier days, and tropical beaches where she didn’t have to be responsible for anyone else. Hadn’t Jack promised a trip to Hawaii last year? She blinked back to herself when the bell announcing the end of the school day leaked from the building out to the parking lot where she and a horde of other mothers waited impatiently for the oncoming swarm of personified excitement in uniforms.
A second bell sounded. It would only be a matter of minutes before she was expected to step out of the less-than-warm mini-van and wave her hand high as a landmark for her charges. Margaret stared at the impassive building, then saw the doors cast open. The children at the head of the line ran past the teachers into the relative freedom the parking lot offered. She took a deep breath to fortify herself. Stretching the skin of her face tight into a smile very similar to the one she had modeled that morning, Margaret started to raise her hand, but found no need as the first of half a dozen children ran up to her.
“Hi Miss Margaret,” he said with the ties to his stocking cap hanging loosely and swinging as he ran. “It’s really cold, can I get inside, please?” It was then that she realized she hadn’t unlocked or opened the doors like normal. Margaret clicked the button on her key chain and pulled the door open. By that time, three more were turning the last corner in the minivan labyrinth, and they eagerly piled into the vehicle chattering about the day and what Miss Science Teacher had said about frogs. One of the girls squealed. Margaret could feel the pulsing dull pain forming behind her eyes that would be blinding by the time she had completed her route.
Child after child, the noise in the back of the vehicle lessened, until it was just her two bickering with each other. She did her best to ignore them. The doors were being opened before she had even gotten the van into park, and the children were in the house before she pulled her door handle for escape. Margaret shoved the front door open, effectively dislodging the backpacks that had been dropped just inside, but she tripped over a pair of shoes shed in the hallway.
“I’m hungry,” said the son as he stared into the cupboard, mouth hanging open like a black hole ready to swallow anything that got too close.
“There’s fruit in the fridge,” Margaret said, moving the shoes out of the walkway,
“I’m going to lie down for a while. I have a headache.”
Margaret left the children with the television for company, confident that they would get their homework done before dinner, just in time for her to cart them around town some more.
She stopped and peered at the reflection at the top of the stairs. Were those dark circles there this morning? Margaret leaned closer to examine her face. She hadn’t realized she was so tired, so worn out. Pushing herself to her room, she collapsed upon her bed, then shut her eyes and let the darkness fill her mind.
The noise of a plate breaking was enough to make her open her eyes again. She supposed she should see what had broken, make sure everything was all right. She stared at the ceiling. She just didn’t have the energy. The arguing downstairs made her move. They should know better, she couldn’t rest with them fighting like that.
“What’s all the fuss about?” Margaret asked as she rounded the corner into the kitchen catching the last bits of pushing and slapping before the kids froze. Her eyes found the broken plate. Next to it, on the floor, lay the half-eaten star fruit, her exotic escape, covered in broken glass.
“Take your backpacks, and go to your rooms, both of you.”
“But, I didn’t…” protested the daughter.
“Now.” She turned her back on the sulking children and set to work cleaning up the mess they had made.
After the floor was clean, she clicked on the TV and set herself in front of the images of lab created gems that were being offered on a home shopping channel. Margaret let the images flash on the screen, while others danced through her head. She imagined herself wearing a sparkling necklace and matching earrings to one of Jack’s business functions, being introduced as a trophy wife – something to be proud of. After awhile she grew tired of trying to fool herself that anything grand could ever happen to her, and blinking back from her fantasy, she scrutinized the piece being shown. Fake.
Dinner was calling, and she had to cook. Margaret opened the refrigerator and found herself staring inside much the same way the son had. The new pack of ground beef sat on the shelf ready to be cooked in its own grease, which would sizzle and spit malignantly the entire time. The door shut behind her, and she peeled the clingy plastic off the meat, then set to work making patties.
The molded meat was dropped into a fry pan. The hot metal hissed. Margaret donned her husband’s “Kiss the Cook” apron as if it would protect her from the scorching spray leaping from the stove top, but her hand and face were still singed and her hair slick with grease.
A bag of heat and serve French fries was offered as the only side dish. Lifting the breadbox door, she realized she had forgotten hamburger buns. They could always use regular bread, but she knew the kids would turn their nose up at the idea. Margaret slapped the slightly burnt meat rounds on plates heaped with French fries, then sounded the dinner call up the stairs. The son thundered down the stairs.
“What’s for dinner?”
“Salisbury steak,” Margaret answered suavely. He looked at the casual meal on the table just as his sister entered the room.
“Forget the buns again?”
They saw right through her. Dinner was a failure.
“Why do we have to have the same thing all the time?” the son asked, examining a soggy French fry that flopped over between his fingers.
“Just eat your dinner, then go back to your rooms.”
“But ma!” said the daughter, “what about piano?”
“And practice? I’m supposed to be goalie tonight.”
“Just forget it,” Margaret said, trying to savor an undercooked French fry.
“I don’t see why….”
“I said no.”
The meal did not so much finish, as trudge on wordlessly until both children decided they could swallow no more and it was safe to leave the table. Their plates were left barely touched. At least the garbage disposal does its job right, thought Margaret washing away the last bits of evidence of a meal gone awry.
Leaving the dishes in the sink, she rescued a small cardboard container from the back of the freezer. Margaret sank a spoon into the ice cream as she sank into the sofa. Vanilla, not quite an exotic escape, more like the freezing days there.
She should do the dishes, or finish the ironing; there had to be something on the television. But Margaret just sat there holding the ice cream.
She stared at the ceiling in the darkened room.
Her hand went numb from the frost on the little container.
Finally she lifted the spoon, full of vanilla flavored liquid. Maybe she had fallen asleep and not realized it. Margaret pushed herself from the couch, and dropping the melted ice cream in the trash, headed for the stairs.
There was a flurry of movement from the bathroom; water running, toilet flushing, doors closing, and opening, and closing. The kids were getting ready for bed, 9:30 already! Where did the evening go? She made it half way up the stairs before she was greeted by the boy.
“Just coming to say goodnight.”
“Yeah.” There was an uneasy pause, “Mom? Are you okay?”
“I just have a headache,” she convinced herself. “I’m going to bed too.”
“But dad’s still not home.”
“No. He’s not.”
Margaret finished her ascent and stopped before the mirror. The hallway was too dark to see anything more than a shadow.
She changed into her nightshirt, and wrapped herself in the silk sheath of the kimono. Climbing into bed, she lifted her book off the nightstand – Margaret would escape into someone else’s problems for a while and forget her own. The bedroom door opened as she turned the page.
“Hey Maggie, how was your day, sweetie?” Jack asked, coming over to kiss her on the forehead.
“Same old, same old,” she said, marking her spot and closing the book. “The kids broke a plate.”
“Well, if that was the worst thing that happen, it had to have been a good day,” he said, placing the suit jacket on a hanger and loosening his tie. He turned and looked at her sitting propped against the headboard, then cocked his head with a look of confusion.
“I don’t understand why you are still wearing that ratty old robe.” He sat down on the edge of his bed to pull off his shoes.
“I like it.”
“We can get you a new one. That one’s falling apart. I was noticing Sunday morning how the dragon looks like he has holes in his armor and the phoenix is losing her feathers.”
“I know, but we bought this one on our honeymoon.” Margaret found herself tracing the hem with her hand, noting another loose thread. “We’ve replaced everything else, this is all I have left to remember.”
“You can keep that one then, but let’s buy you a new one to wear.” Margaret felt defeated. She couldn’t see any logical point to argue, and he wouldn’t understand her need to go on wearing the old. She nodded stiffly.
“There now, it’s all settled.” Jack climbed into bed. “Why don’t we take a trip, maybe
Japan? Buy you an authentic one? That would be an adventure. Tomorrow I’ll check my schedule, I think I have a conference in Kyoto coming up, you can fly over with me and go shopping during the day while I’m in meetings. I’ll be out of your hair during the day, and we can join the others for dinner at night.”
Margaret’s lips pressed into a thin smile, fighting back the tears coming to her eyes. Japan, exotic, miles away from ordinary, but still the same old loneliness. She walked to the closet and placed the tattered silk on a hook on the back of the door, then spread the back so she could see the brilliant colors of the unraveling design. Jack was right, it did look like the phoenix had lost her feathers. What if the phoenix didn’t rise from its ashes this time? What if she was too tired of the routine? Did she live a life in a day, or would it take longer before she faded? Margaret wasn’t sure.
Another day gone by, another portion of her life gone with nothing to show for it except unraveling threads and a broken piece of paradise.
About the Author:
Brighid Moret has a M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her short story “Monsoon Season” appears in the fiction anthology Defying Gravity, published by Paycock Press. She writes children’s book reviews for Communities Digital News, and her non-fiction has appeared in national and international print publications such as SageWoman, Renaissance Magazine, The International Examiner, and The International Indian among others.