She puts on her custom-made, pinstriped Italian suit and leaves her sleeping baby for her dream job. On the southbound Metro North train, she checks messages on her Blackberry, reads three newspapers and edits a proposal. In the City with briefcase in one hand, Starbucks in the other, she makes her way carefully down 51st Avenue in high heels because New York women do not wear sneakers, not ever. Outside the office overlooking Rockefeller Plaza, Toby Maguire chases Kirsten Dunst down the street shooting a scene from Spiderman. In the twelfth floor conference room, she holds a meeting with her team. Their work has been less than acceptable; the client is not pleased, but it’s nothing to them. They’re not the ones the client calls at home after ten p.m. They resent the “smack-down,” her expensive grown-up clothes, her window office, her rapid departure most days at the stroke of five.
None of them will ever know that the suit is from a consignment store or that she spends her lunch hour on a park bench across the street crying. They imagine her day is done when she bolts out the door, barely making it home in time to give the baby her bedtime bottle. She folds laundry, finishes a report and falls asleep by nine. In the morning, when they totter into the office in their mortgaged Jimmy Choos two hours after she does, she imagines them the night before heads and hips bobbing in some trendy Manhattan nightclub. It doesn’t occur to her that they went there straight from the office about the time she was going to bed.
“Shut up,” the stay-at-home moms in her neighborhood tell her when she laments that she has to attend another client event, a Caribbean cruise. They imagine her in one of the cocktail dresses they’ve lent her – spit-up free – clinking wine goblets and chatting –uninterrupted – with Whoopi Goldberg who happens to be the ship’s godmother. She imagines them reading Goodnight Moon to their babies.
Eventually she leaves it all – the impersonal five-star hotels, the second-hand designer clothes, the red-eye flights across the Atlantic, the sixty-hour weeks (not counting grocery shopping, laundry and dirty dishes) – to stay home with her second baby, already two-years-old. Before long though, she thinks she can’t take another day of building block towers and knocking them down again. She puts her toddler in full-time pre-school, takes on a few free-lance projects, scores a trip back to Manhattan from Florida where she lives now.
Getting off the plane at LaGuardia, she is swept along by the current of people, all of them wearing black. The airport corridors are gray. Outside, the streets are lined with dirty piles of snow. When did all the color drain from the City? In the cab, she is choked by a hazy film of smoke.
Back home, she reluctantly agrees to be first grade room mom, but “only if no one else volunteers” (in the future, she will know better). After that, she concedes to Brownie troop leader, but only as an “assistant" (she's still not that smart.) She buys a Saturn crossover. At least it’s not a mini van, but when she starts chauffeuring school carpool, she regrets her vanity. Not enough to prevent her from getting super-long hair extensions, losing fifteen pounds, buying skinny jeans and spending every single second that her girls are at school trying to write a novel. She finishes it, starts a second, gets a few minor recognitions, but still, she is a long way from being published. She knows it will just take time, hours and hours at the keyboard for the next two or three years, maybe four or five now that she’s teaching Sunday school, frosting cupcakes, sewing Halloween costumes, chaperoning field trips, planning parties brought to you by the letter “P”, hosting spa-themed sleepovers, French-braiding hair, embellishing flip-flops for charity, making McDonald’s deliveries during the kids’ lunch hour, setting up book fairs, and supervising projects on animals, artists, astronauts, continents, discoverers, explorers, monarchs, pilgrims, pioneers, pirates and planets.
“Just exploring,” she says when she goes to the home-school convention. The girls have already met their next year’s teachers at the high-ranked elementary school where they’ve been lucky enough to win seats by lottery. When she leaves the convention with a crate full of books, a card-carrying member of the home educator’s association, she calculates she'll be nearing sixty by the time she publishes anything.
“No thank you,” she says when she is asked if she would teach a group of homeschoolers one morning a week. Teaching her own children has already whittled away most of writing time. She doesn’t even say, “I’ll pray about it” the way people do when they want to get out of something gracefully. A month later, prompted by nothing but an overwhelming feeling of obligation, she volunteers for the teaching role after all. Then, for the entire summer, she worries and wonders if it were the devil that made her do it. She can sense that her mother, who is always telling her she needs to make more time for herself, that she has to write, is concerned, too. Her worries only increase as the school year nears, all the planning and prep work pushing her novel farther and farther out of sight.
The first day of class comes and goes in a blur. She leads the kids in Charlemagne charades, chanting the seven biomes, performing mathematical calisthenics, running around a tree with a string as though they were satellites, doing a conga line to the parts of speech. At the end of the morning, when someone asks if she is tired, no one is more surprised than she when she answers sincerely, “I’m energized!” The next week, she can’t wait to see her students Bubba, Norman, Nebuchadnezzar, Jethro, Jeremiah, Sallie Mae, Lillie Mae and Henrietta, and they seem pretty happy to see Mrs. what’s-her-name, too. They all – teacher and students both – hopscotch, leapfrog and jumping-jack their way through Latin, math, geography, science and English grammar facts, they draw "–ish" pictures (clown-ish, cat-ish, flower-ish, fish-ish) and are fascinated by the infiniteness of the universe and its Creator.
She may be seventy by the time she finishes the first novel, and she has at least a half-dozen novels in her now waiting to be birthed. God willing, that’s just the beginning. She plans to live to the age of one hundred, but still, she sometimes worries she's running out of time. Then one day her daughter tells her that when she gets to heaven, she’s excited to read all the books her favorite authors wrote after they got there. In that moment, she realizes she will never, ever run out of time.