Single Mother


This morning, I stand out in the yard, the lingering green of the grass peeking through leaves heavy with yesterday’s rain. I toss a slobbery ball, again and again, for Blue, our heeler/Boxer mix, as she chases it down in the liminal moment of pre-sunrise, the light slicing the slats in the back fence. When I turn to throw the ball in the other direction, I find the moon, sheer white in the darkness of the west. I revel in the betweenness of it all: night and day, sunrise and moonset, the way Blue never drops the ball at my feet, the way she nearly returns but never comes back all the way. It makes me wonder where the line is between preference and stubbornness. Kenny’s like that. I don’t know where he is, but every day, he comes back in Indie’s dimples or the shape of her legs, the curve of her upper teeth, or the way she holds her mouth the exact same way he did during sleep or the look she gives me when she’s not quite sure I know exactly what she has done that she’s not supposed to do. In those moments, Kenny comes back, but not all the way.

It is 3:12 a.m. on a Saturday in February, a snowstorm drapes the windows, and the Rolling Stones are playing a song, though I can’t remember which one. I had asked for Sinatra, but they said they didn’t have any in the OR, so I settled for a Classic Rock station. I wish I could remember the song, and I wish I could ask Kenny if he remembers, but even before she was born, he began making small departures: a suspicious errand during my thirty-three hours of labor that emptied our bank account of all but four dollars;SingleM_P1 the days after in the hospital room when he went back to work even after his boss told him to stay with me and Indie. In those long, empty afternoons, I checked out film after film from the volunteer who came by with a cart of DVDs. I saw Sunset Boulevard for the first time there, though I remember little of it.

Back home with Indie, we sit far apart on the futon, Kenny’s attention toward Junk Yard Wars. I ask him to take a turn to change her or to check on the noises we could hear her making from her yellow room—the one he painted, the one he bordered with pastel giraffes and elephants and dancing hippos, the border he took a piece from and affixed to the light switch as a final touch—but he refuses to even turn from the television as he mutters, “I don’t want to get too attached in case I leave.” And then comes the morning when he finally allows himself to do just that.

When I wined my way into rehab a year or so after Kenny left us, my counselor asked me during one of our weekly sessions for an example of the ways in which my relationship with wine had taken over my life, or as they always put it in rehab: “How has your drug of choice caused you to leave your own life?”

I tell him this story: It is the season of fallen leaves, and Indie is four. It is a Sunday, early afternoon, the rake too large for her, though she drags its wide mouth of tines across an entire half of the yard, creating an impressive mound of brown, yellow, and orange from the tree, which, according to neighbors, is the largest one in the city, so our yard, by October, is weighed down with leaves. Stepping through them is like wading through knee-deep water. I am standing inside the living room, watching her, seeing the distance between us as far, though she is only a porch, a few steps, and half a yard away. The world outside seems separate, merely a projection I cannot connect with, like a painting in a museum that you know has nothing to do with what moves you. SingleM_P2I put down what I’m sure is my second or third glass of Chardonnay, force myself to be present, go out and acknowledge her, and when I do, she asks me to jump in the pile. I tell her, “Not now,” and I turn to resume my Chardonnay. “I’ll be inside,” I mumble to myself, “drinking.”

When I’m done telling this story, Gary, my counselor, asks what I want to change when I go back home. I tell him, “I want to play in the leaves with Indie.” He makes me write it down in the notebook I carry. “On the first page,” he says, “so every time you open that notebook, you know why you are here.” Gary, an alcoholic himself, has a degree in English, so he knows how important it is for me to write words down.

Today, I go to the hall closet to look at that page in the notebook, where I keep it in a box with all my other rehab writings, and I read the words, discovered the addition I had forgotten: “without hesitation.”

Without hesitation. Elizabeth Bishop’s command to herself in “One Art,” “Write It!” comes to mind, so here goes: I am gripping the counter at the kitchen sink on the third floor of our family housing apartment at the University of Colorado, staring out a window I have been looking through for months of nights when Kenny has not come home. I am holding on as hard as I can, because inside, everything is falling. It is as if I have stumbled on a precipice of a canyon on the moment of its collapse, my toes on the edge, my gut being pulled down by the gravity of a sudden, new reality. I turn and pace through the rooms of the apartment, stop briefly to throw myself across the new bed—the one we named the George W. because we bought it with our election money the year he thanked everyone with a three-hundred dollar check—or I’d stumble against the walls into the bathroom, look at myself in the mirror to verify the fact that yes, this is me, and this is real—unable to stay still for fear if I stop moving then the reality of the moment will settle into the reality of my life. I go back to the sink, throw up, my feet even come up off of the floor, my weight thrust into my shoulders, hunched over the truth of this schism between the life I chose and the life I would now live. Wailing, I think, is the word for the sounds emanating from a place so deep I did not know it was a part of me, and now, as I write the moment, I realize since that morning, it has never gone away.

Kenny is behind me, in that brown thrift-store chair, where he has been sitting for two hours, he says, which means he came home at 5:30 this morning. He keeps telling me to calm down, to stop screaming, that I am scaring the neighbors. Where was Indie that morning? I have blocked that out. Was she sleeping? No, she’d wake at six a.m. and never nap, never has, even now. She must have been somewhere else, because I would have never allowed myself such abandon with her in the apartment. He does not move from that chair, even as I rush through rooms, grip my stomach, white-knuckle the counter at the sink. Why did I keep going back to that sink? Sturdy, maybe. After all, the third floor structure beneath me had encountered a ground swell, and I did not trust it. Kenny just sat there in that chair, the way the man in the Carver poem does, waiting for the woman to stop weeping. It is the chair where he cried after finishing Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and when I asked him that day why he was crying tears that seemed beyond the maudlin ending of a guy walking back to the hotel in the rain, he said he shouldn’t have read it, that now he knew what it would be like if he ever lost me.

My tears that morning began at 7:30 and kept on, off and on, for years had little to do with the failure of us, or what I assumed then was the failure of me. I braced myself against the steepness pulling me down, because I knew it was not mine, but Indie’s. You see, I knew his leaving me meant that he was gone for good. He would not share custody, he would not call on Christmas or send cards on birthdays, he would vanish, poof, disappear, and I would stay behind and stand every day on the edge of that gaping hole beside her, hoping to make some sense of the landscape of absence she carries in the west of her heart. It was the moment I first realized I was Indie’s mother, a single mother.

I am not a single mother who is divorced, because we never married. I am not a single mother who lives on welfare. I am not a single mother whose husband is in prison. I am not the single mother you pity. I am not a victim. I am not the single mother who has the kids all nights except Wednesdays and a week in the summer. I am not weak; in fact, no single parent has the cabinet space for weakness, or much cabinet space at all, for that matter. But I am not a cliché. I am a strong woman with four college degrees, including a doctorate, who loved a man with an intensity that distracted me from the truth, that he is the kind of man who leaves, and who, wherever he is now, will leave again. I am a woman who is raising our child by myself.

I am a single mother, one of many, many other mothers who hopes beyond hope that her child will never feel pain, but for Indie and me, as we have discussed during extended bouts of her questions, my answers, our shared tears, we live with an absence, or as she describes it, “a hole in her heart,” one that is brought to attention every time a kid at school or a friend continues to ask, “You don’t have a dad?” No. She has a father, a vanishing act, a magician who, with one tug of the gear shift on his truck in the parking lot, pulled an irreversible sleight of hearts.

Not long before Kenny drove away on that September Sunday, Indie was in the middle of the living room floor on her alphabet blanket playing with her toys, the monkey he named Spencer, the portable mobile she liked to play under, and she turned her head and looked at him. Holding her stare, Kenny said, “She’s stronger than I am.” I could feel it then; he was right. No matter how many times I write him, I find more words in the recesses of my memory, and those have just came back to me in the past few months. “She’s stronger than I am”: And now that she has grown into her own sense of self, I know he was right.

SingleM_P3Indie’s at the front door, beckoning me with her bright face to leave the words I am sifting through and come outside. She has been playing in the leaves every afternoon this week, raking them into a large pile until the sky darkens and threatens the end of her revelry, or I convince her to come inside with the words: “hot chocolate on the table.”

These are some things I would like to tell Kenny: Indie wears her yellow rain boots every day, even when the sun is out. She is now eight (Does he know that? Does he ever add it up in his head?), she has his build, his height, so that she and I are almost the same size now. She never wears an outfit without a peace sign on it. She designs her own haircuts. She can swim a mile without stopping and she goes to a rock climbing class every Saturday with her buddy, Jackson. She loves to read and draw and watch Brothers and Sisters with me on Sunday nights. That she and I live all of these moments together.

She is urging me to come out and see something before it disappears, blows away. I hurry out, see that she has created a circle of leaves, a circumference of brown and yellow and hints of deep red that almost cover our yard. She tells me it is a fort of leaves, and when I ask to come inside, she holds the rake like a guard, explaining that no one is allowed inside except for her and Blue, who at that moment, runs out and intuitively leaps over the fort’s imbricate walls.

Indie dances inside her fort, defies loss. She is dancing a ceremony of leaves, and I stand in the yard, clapping and singing a made-up song about the fort, without hesitation.


Rumpus original art by Kara Y. Frame.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir (Soft Skull, 2015) and Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007). She’s also the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa, 2012). Her writing has been named Notable in Best American Essays four times and has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, Gulf Coast, Hotel Amerika, Longreads, LitMag, and the Paris Review Daily. She is Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of North Texas. More from this author →