I’m anxious to see them. With that goldfish memory of mine, I have only a faded fresco of how much they will drain me. I distract myself by cleaning like I’m preparing for guests, even though they are my children, the opposite of guests.
When they arrive, every thought is replaced by the heart rushing love reserved especially for parents. To feel that connection alleviates, momentarily, any fear that divorce has fractured us. This is selfish. I want to feel something pure and uncomplicated. I want proof that I’ve done the right thing in becoming a mom and subsequently leaving their dad.
They arrive three hours before bedtime and head straight for the TV. Moments after reunion, I’m back in the kitchen, feeling a sly relief at our separation, like a marathon runner slowing their pace less than a mile in. I have just enough time to make spaghetti pomodoro and the first of 200 watered down cups of apple juice before the bedtime ritual begins.
Somehow we are still allowed to go to a giant indoor trampoline park called My Jump. The website features complicated rules about testing and safety but the teen staff asks for nothing. We glide right in. The atmosphere of My Jump is like a public pool with no water. There’s even a faux high-dive where you can plunge into a neon blue “pool” of plastic covered foam. I am wearing my absorbent underwear because, post pregnancy, jumping never fails to make me piss myself.
The kids are deeply immersed in the magic of My Jump for twenty minutes and then they sour. Gigi elbows a kid on purpose. When I scold her she runs off and locks herself in the bathroom where I hear constant flushing and the squeal of the Dyson hand dryer. When she finally emerges, the floors are soaked and I face the conundrum of telling the staff or pretending it didn’t happen. I choose the latter because I am a terrible person.
We take a water break upstairs and I remark on how sweaty my armpits are. Nona seems grossed out by this and I stop feeling like the third kid and transition to feeling like the sallow-skinned, middleaged mom I am. The “My” of My Jump confuses Gigi and we launch into an impromptu Who’s on First bit about it. She keeps asking me, “Is it your jump?”
“No, it’s My Jump.”
“Oh, Is it my jump?”
“No, it’s just called My Jump.”
Even though we haven’t used up our allotted 90 minutes, neither kid has the energy to continue jumping. In my fantasy of today, I imagined reading in the bleachers while the kids played with each other. When will I give up on this fantasy? Never! I shuffle them out with the promise of lollipops, perfect pink and blue cotton-candy spheres. Gigi takes her first lick and, like a kid in a commercial, exclaims, “Fantastisch!”
At home, I cook creamy chicken noodles, a midwestern casserole with powdered mushroom soup, heavy cream, chicken and mushrooms. It is delicious and probably 5000 calories per serving. I momentarily imagine a world where I serve the kids this calorie bomb and make myself a salad with tuna, but today this seems like a self-care step too far. I tamp down the nagging anxiety that my health is an unpaid bill that will have to be settled eventually. I jumped today. At least I jumped.
At around 12:30, I scrape together veggies and make a crudite plate with a vinaigrette that Gigi calls brown soup, and consumes as such. After lunch, I break the news that we are out of food and need to go to the grocery store. The kids never want to leave the house, so I drag them out with promises of popsicles. They glide two blocks to Kaufland on their scooters. The fresh air gives us all an endorphin rush. There’s nowhere to store their scooters at Kaufland, so I let them ride inside, assuming someone will yell at us, but no one does. It’s bliss and the kids are high on the subversion. In the dead of our second pandemic winter, I live for moments like these.
At home, the kids choose popsicles and Nona tells me that daddy is dating someone named Anna Sophie. I’m dumbstruck. “He’s dating? Really?”
“Yes,” she says. “He met her through his friend Kai and they like each other because they both love junk food and not exercising.”
It all tracks, so I press her for more details. Has she met Anna Sophie?
“No, not yet”, but she will soon.
“I’m happy for him,” I say, though I’m wary of what Anna Sophie could mean for my life and for the girls. “I didn’t think he’d ever meet someone else,” I say to her. “I thought he’d be alone forever.”
She cracks a smile and then starts laughing so hard that popsicle juice runs all over her chin. “I’m just kidding, she says, he didn’t meet anyone.”
I feed us salmon, broccoli and rice in front of the TV. I scroll through Croatian real estate the way I used to scroll through Tinder.
The plan is to go to the Jewish museum, but this is my plan and no one is on board but me. We wake up fighting about who wants to go, what to watch, when to bathe, whether there is any point to going out at all. This is the way the world darkens now. I wonder if Nona, who is the one most vocally against the plan, is exhibiting the normal lazy attitude of a kid on Christmas break, or whether this particular flavor of agoraphobia is a result of the pandemic. Does she think the outside world is unsafe?
Gigi defends me like a club bouncer. She lifts a plastic microphone stand and, when I’m not looking, slams it against Nona’s shoulder to punish her for dissent. I yell at Gigi and try to comfort Nona but the day is done for. Sometimes you just know it in your bones. Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve. We’re halfway through the week. I bare down and force my agenda.
To visit the Noah’s Ark exhibit at the Jewish Museum, I have booked tickets in advance. All guests need a negative COVID test. Home tests are not acceptable so we have to go to a local barber-shop-cum-testing-center to get our negative certification. Both kids hate the tests. Nona does submit, nervously, but Gigi needs rounds and rounds of chasing and coaxing before she’ll do it. I head west to the museum in the cargo bike in order to make it there in time. The Google Maps directions are confusing and lead us into the center of the city, where dozens of bridges intertwine between Hauptbahnhof and the Reichstag. I realize I’ve been 16 minutes away from this museum for the last 45 minutes and finally give up. “We have to go back,” I blurt out in a voice that is shaky with stress and exhaustion. The kids seem alarmed. I tell them I’m sorry in the same sobby voice they use when they’ve done something really bad. Nona comforts me like she’s been doing it her whole life. “It’s ok, Mom,” she says. “What’s important is we’re ok.”
On the way back, Gigi has to pee and there’s nowhere good for her to do it, so I hoist her by the armpits and let her pee in front of the Reichstag, her winter coat bunched up around her belly, her pee steaming the frigid air.
At home, I drink half a bottle of red wine and make the girls fish sticks and french fries. I sit by the TV and try to block out the noise of Lego Friends while reading, but can’t find a book good enough to draw me in. Gigi spreads herself on top of me, making it impossible to read. I stroke her hair instead. Nona sees that Gigi has me and gets jealous and comes over to claim her piece. Now both of them are on top of me, all of us crammed on the thin side of the L-shaped couch. They jostle each other to gain a better position and, from my squished position, I try to comfort and separate them at the same time.
I realize with a jolt that the grocery stores will be closed for the next three days and we need basic stuff again, like milk and eggs and catfood. All of us re-apply winter clothes and head to Lidl with scooters. This time the girls get yelled at for riding in the store and I feign ignorance like a good foreigner. “What? You’re not allowed to roll down the aisles of this cheerless food coffin? Ok, I’ll be sure to leave the scooter’s home next time.” Out of spite, I shoplift a 10 euro bottle of Calvados on top of what we buy.
What do you do with a four and a seven-year old on New year’s Eve aka “Sylvester” in the year 2021? I decide to splurge on sushi. I have been circulating this idea since Monday, a marketing campaign I’ve named ‘Sushi Sylvester’ because alliteration sells! The kids are on board. I wake up before them and drink a cup of coffee while scrolling through delivery options. The good sushi place is closed today. Fuck.
The day is considerably warmer than earlier in the week, so we go to a large playground nearby. I’m hoping to run into someone we know. I’m at the point where having an audience for my parenting will make me a better parent. I need to perform for someone. No one is around. The kids get bored quickly but I have just started pacing around the perimeter of the playground for “exercise” and I don’t want to stop. I give them 5 euros and tell them to go to the corner store alone to buy candy. “You can have whatever you want, but you have to go by yourselves.” I promise to watch while they walk to the store and back. It’s only a half block but the separation seems to terrify Nona. Eventually, she works up the courage to go and I am frantic with the joy of watching them walk away from me.
With my five minutes of freedom, I call Seth and request his company. Our relationship started last summer and happens mostly when the kids aren’t with me. Seth likes my kids and my kids like Seth but I worry about him burning out and I worry about them getting too attached. I realize that I need to see Seth to make it through the rest of the week. I need him because he knows a different version of me and will remind me that I exist. He agrees to come early and leave early. It’s dangerous to roam the streets of Berlin at midnight on NYE. People aim fireworks at you from their balconies.
High from their solo purchase of blue licorice, the girls are in a fine mood. We stop by Lei’s Kitchen, our favorite place for dumplings, and they’re open so we go in for a New Year’s lunch. True to my word, we splurge. We spend so much that I have to leave my phone as collateral and go to an ATM to get enough cash to pay for lunch. Nona is offended I had to leave my phone. “We go there all the time,” she says. “I know,” I say, “but we’re not family. They don’t have to trust me.”
After lunch we stop at a cake shop and each pick a piece of cake (plus one for Seth). I carry the cake and leftover chinese, which drips out of the bag and all over my jacket and backpack. I walk the rest of the way home with arms spread crucifixion style, trying not to spill more sauce on myself.
Seth arrives around sunset and everyone’s mood lifts. We eat our cake and watch the first trickle of fireworks from the kitchen window. We play She’s a maniac, maniac on the floor, and do the maniac dance. Nona sequesters Seth on the couch and plays video games with him on her tablet. I focus on Gigi, who wants to wash a stuffed animal that’s turned sticky for some disgusting reason. Both kids have the sole attention of an adult for the first time all week and it dawns on me that this is why the nuclear family is such a popular model. It’s luxurious to have help that loves me.
Happy New Year feels overly exclamatory. It’s more of a “congrats on staying alive” vibe and, to celebrate, I decide to give myself a break and watch Queer Eye all day. This means the kids can watch their devices all day as well. Slovenly, unbrushed joy for all! The salve of Queer Eye is that it lets you watch, over and over, a person with low self esteem gain confidence amidst world class cheerleaders. I think of them sorting out my problems, as I’m sure everyone does. I’m most excited about the clothes and hair aspects of the journey. It’s been two years since I had a haircut. My hair is straight and shoulder length. It’s simultaneously hard to make excellent or to fuck up, like scrambled eggs. Speaking of which, we’re out of eggs and the kids are hungry, so I pause my marathon to make fried potatoes and sausage. It’s all we have left in the fridge and it turns out crispy and delicious. There’s a pioneer satisfaction in eating what’s on hand. We’ve had so much ketchup this week, the bottle is almost empty.
It feels scary and liberating to avoid parenting. It’s like I’ve been wearing a full face of makeup for seven years, and then, one day, I decide to go bare faced and no one notices. On the one hand, it’s a relief to know that I don’t have to keep up the standards I’ve self imposed but, on the other hand, it’s disappointing that they make no difference. I go to the bathroom to poop and contemplate radical non-parenting. Nona walks in, exclaims, “It smells disgusting in here!” And walks out.
Something compels me to invite my ex, their dad, to join us at the park tomorrow. I know what it is, actually. I’m desperate for another adult who cares about my children to be responsible for them, even if it’s only for an hour or two. As an added bonus, the impulse has a “fresh start 2022” ring about it. He accepts and we wind down the day by ordering sushi from the bad place. When the kids are asleep, I take the soggy leftover cake and eat it in bed.
The finish line of Sunday brings out something irascible in me. I crave time to myself like it’s a plate of chocolate chip cookies, just out of reach. This hunger is consciously displaced almost as it arrives. For there is no good to come of it.
The kids want to play Shopping for Shabbos, a hand–me-down game from New York cousins. The game requires you to hunt for the wildly Jewish foods on your grocery list: halvah, tzimmes, knishes, gefilte fish – all things I cannot cook for my own children but remember from childhood. I think Gigi would like gefilte fish. She’s not afraid of the salty and fishy. She eats sardines with sliced dill pickles, – mashes them on toast, like she’s mashing her German and Jewish DNA. We play enough rounds so that everyone wins the game and then we are hungry and ready to meet their dad.
There’s a playground with a lighthouse motif and we head there with warm gozleme from the Turkish deli. We hurry out of the bike and into the sheltered lighthouse which, despite being dry, has huge open gaps that give me vertigo every time I move. I imagine my children’s bodies dropping two stories onto hard winter ground. To calm myself, I suggest playing relaxing music and choose a soothing classical playlist. Debussy’s magic accompanies us as we eat gozleme and pass around a thermo of hot chocolate. Debussy jarringly transitions to the Schindler’s List theme and I change it quickly, cursing Spotify.
Nona guards the gozleme. “Save some for Daddy,” she instructs. When Daddy arrives, he climbs into the cramped tower with us and we’re a family, momentarily intact. It all seems wholesome until it’s time to part. At which point they both want to go with him. This is not what we discussed and not up for debate but, of course, it’s more than either kid can take. The cleaving is violent and causes the two of them to fight, hitting and kicking each other in the tight space of the bike. Nona sobs all the way home, cursing me. I try to comfort her. I talk her into a bath. When she comes out, she’s calmer. She sits in her towel in front of the TV. I feed them fish sticks and french fries again. The ketchup bottle makes farting noises and splatters on their plates.
At 8 a.m. Berlin is still dark and freezing as I ride the girls to school and kita. This route is so automatic for me that, in my hazy sleepdeprived state, I have to jolt myself into the present to avoid falling into a stupor. Every second Monday I complete this final ride before returning home to an empty house for a week. My body recognizes the ritual and slowly deflates with exhaustion. At the first turn onto Togostrasse, I’m so impatient at the double crosswalk that I run a red, which the girls don’t notice. The rhythm of this road is second nature. I know the turn onto Tegelerstrasse, where I have to avoid a pothole, the light at Mullerstrasse, where I once asked a man next to us for a tissue and, when he obliged, almost wept at the kindness. The road gets bumpier after that as we head down Gartnerstrasse, past the good pizza place. Nona’s school is in sight and I stop at the curb to help her and her purple ergonomic backpack out of the bike. Like clockwork, this is the point where I feel my body break down. I push myself the rest of the way back to Gigi’s kita, feeling nauseous, sore, bone-tired. I wonder, as I do most days, if it’s Covid.