This story is by Willow Sen and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Beep, went the text message notification. Maria ignored it at first, but it was followed by two more beeps. Thinking it might be urgent, Maria reluctantly took out her phone.
“Call me tonight!” read the first message.
“Mark said you need some girl-talk,” read the other.
“He’ll put the kids to bed,” read the next.
Then, “can’t wait to catch up lady!”
Maria frowned. She looked at the top of the screen – it was Tania, her oldest friend since grade school. Maria sucked in her breath as a small wave of guilt passed through her chest. She hadn’t spoken to Tania in years even though they had “kept up” through Facebook. Tania was a globe-trotting, successful entrepreneur; she, a full-time mother of three and part-time graduate student. What would they have in common these days?
As she approached her car, Maria saw it. An unopened box of American Spirit cigarettes on the ground, right by the driver’s side front tire. Curious, she reached down for it – it was so similar to the box of cigarettes Tania used to carry. Maria instinctively put it into her jacket pocket, even as a voice within said, I should leave it. Something, however, told her to keep it.
As Maria loaded her cart full of groceries into her Subaru station wagon – two gallons of milk for her boys, a 40 pound bag of cat litter, a 20 pound bag of dried cat food, a jumbo pack of toilet rolls the size of a small human – she pondered upon that abandoned pack of cigarettes, now in her jacket pocket. She had not smoked in years. Yet something about finding these at this time felt, somehow, energizing. She had smoked occasionally in her youth, in the company of friends, when she had a social life. Well, she thought sardonically, I haven’t had much of a social life in almost a decade.
Naturally introverted but married with kids in a city far from family and friends had made her isolated. Parenting her energetic kids often left her drained and craving for solitude instead of a social life.
She frowned at her reflection in the car window – shoulder length hair pulled back in a hurried ponytail because she only allowed herself a haircut once a year, gray hoodie over lycra leggings printed with a pink geometric design, chosen because its “pop” of color had the ability to draw attention away from her middle-aged, ever post-partum, middle.
Yes, there is such a thing as that.
She sighed at her dumpy fashion choices to hide her middle-aged dumpy figure. What was she thinking, picking up that pack of cigarettes? Was she fantasizing that she could somehow reimagine the vitality of her youth with this vice?
Maria quickly shoved these self-interrogations aside and willed herself to focus on the lonely tasks before her. Finish loading the car, drive home, and start preparing dinner to feed her rather ungrateful brood of brats. Oh, and yes, her husband too, who had been working from home for weeks since everyone started sheltering-in-place, but somehow felt more absent due to the added stresses of keeping business afloat.
She sighed. Maria suddenly felt the dread of returning to the frantic lair of kids and chores that awaited her return. A nagging restlessness and irritability plagued her very core. She was always busy but ever lonely, trapped by her duties as mother, wife, student. A heaviness on her shoulders took hold as she buckled her seat belt and started the engine.
First world problems, she thought to herself as she tried to shake off her personal grievances with the times, stop with your self-pity.
As Maria shifted the car out of “park,” her hand lightly brushed the bulge of her jacket that betrayed the location of her newly acquired vice. She caught herself inadvertently chuckling, in spite of herself. With a car loaded with ample food and supplies, Maria drove off the parking lot with uncertain measures of guilt and gratitude.
* * * * *
To her surprise, when Maria got home it wasn’t the ‘end of the world’ as she had anticipated. Mark, her husband, had finished work a little earlier and ordered take-out. Then her kids were settled in front of the television watching a family-friendly movie instead of screaming over each other with zombie-killing video games.
“Thank you for getting dinner,” Maria said as she kissed Mark on the cheek while they crammed in their kitchen cleaning up after dinner.
“I got a text from Tania earlier too. She said you messaged her to have me call her while you put the kids to bed.”
Mark smiled with an understanding nod. “We have been stuck at home in quarantine for the last two months and you haven’t called a single friend once.”
“You know me … I’m just that socially awkward introvert who doesn’t know how to call people,” Maria said with a self-deprecating cynicism. “I haven’t called anyone in years.”
Mark rolled his eyes knowingly. “I hope you will call her, not just text!”
* * * * *
After the kids were showered, Mark eagerly coaxed Maria out of the house so he could put the kids to bed without her presence, which he often complained about.
“The kids are easier to put to bed without you around,” he would say, which was objectively true but often felt like a ding on her competency as a mother.
Motherhood … it was a role she cared deeply about, but felt a lot of ambivalence for. She breathed in the cool spring air, covered her head with her scarf and took the downhill street so she could face the hills that shadowed their home and allow the magenta-indigo hued skies that followed sunset to soothe her nerves.
At the traffic light, she paused for a moment to look at her text messages, back to the message thread started by Tania that afternoon. Maria realized then that she hadn’t replied since the afternoon and felt guilty. She just, well, didn’t know how to start conversations anymore.
As she walked in the silence of the deepening dark of nightfall, she sighed again, perhaps for the 100th time that day. What did she want? Did she really need the company of old friends to remember who she was, or did she just need the solitude of being free from her everyday responsibilities to get in touch with herself? These two questions vacillated within her without clear answers. She felt her phone in one pocket – the guilt beckoning her to call her childhood best friend, while the pack of cigarettes bulged in the other, beckoning her to light them up and just, well, say, “fuck it all.” Perhaps, she realized, she just didn’t know anymore. All she knew was that she felt like a shell of who she thought she once was, an invisible woman, another “mother.” A lump formed in her throat and she suddenly felt tears well in her eyes. Her chest and gut felt tight.
A frosty gust of wind suddenly picked up around her, almost gale-like, forcing her teary eyes closed. Then wop. Something hit her face and fell to the floor. It felt like it had weight to it, but perhaps that was just the wind. She immediately tucked her chin and drew her scarf closer over her face, then opened her eyes and saw something long and glowing faintly by her feet. She picked it up curiously and brought it to the street corner where the wind was less forceful and so she could examine it under the street lights. It looked like … dried molted snake skin! Snake skin?! She blinked. It seemed to glow.
She caressed the smooth, hardened texture of this organic remnant in her hands. She found herself wondering about the snake that had once been protected by this now leathery dermis, until it outgrew it. The snake outgrew its skin. The skin outgrew its purpose and got replaced. Much like … herself. Who she thought she was no longer fit. She needed to create a new Self that was not mired in self-pity, guilt, and self-imposed isolation. But how would she start? Old habits die hard. How does one teach an old dog new tricks?
Bewildered, the wind suddenly picked up again, and as quickly as it had appeared, the molted skin was whisked from her hands. Her eyes peered into the darkening sky to see where it had blown off to, but all she saw was a flash of a twinkle.
Then, her phone rang.
It was Tania.
“Hey Tania!” Maria managed, brightly.
“Maria!!!” came an enthusiastic sing-song voice on the other end. “It’s been too looooooong!”
Maria surprised herself as she smiled with an ease she had not felt in a long time. Her shoulders relaxed and her words flowed. She walked and they talked, and on the way home she threw the cigarettes into some bush.