I pull up to the house five minutes early. I don’t know what I was thinking when I volunteered to come. One kid? I can handle that. Two kids? Two makes me sweat. For a brief moment, I think about turning back around, but I know it’s too late. They might have already seen me.
Stacy walks around the house, explaining everything I’ll need to know. The boys and I follow behind her in descending order by age. Thirty-three-year-old me, three-year-old Charlie, and one-year-old Laz. The whole time, I feel the same way I did last summer when my parents left their dog with me for three months: afraid. Afraid I might forget something really important. Afraid I might accidentally kill a living being. The stakes are even higher now. I decide it’s best not to mention these things to her right before she has to leave for work.
After we wave goodbye to Stacy, Charlie asks me to sing for him. This requires some deliberation on my part because the list of people I will sing for is very small—it includes Alan and select members of an acapella group I auditioned for in college (I had to turn my back towards them and face the wall to finish; I was not invited back). In the end, I decide it’s safe to add small children to the list: They don’t have the vocabulary yet to be mean.
Charlie and I get into a disagreement about the plastic cars we’re rolling across the coffee table. According to him, they can only race forwards and sideways. He screams at me when I roll them backwards. In a fine demonstration of maturity, I resist telling him that driving in reverse actually makes more sense. It’s important, I think, to set a good example. Instead, I silently judge the impossibility of each sideways roll.
I catch sight of something purplish on Laz’s face. Is that a bruise above his left eye? Was that there before? I lean in closer for a better look. He smiles at me. Huh. Must have been a shadow. He crawls away and sits up dangerously close to a sharp table corner. I remember the soft spot on his head that Stacy showed me months ago. I wonder if it’s still there. I decide better not to risk anything and hover over him, cupping my hand over table corners while he crawls beneath. He laughs. I pick him up and move him across the room, standing him up next to his baby-walker.
I go back and forth between racing cars with Charlie on the coffee table and re-directing Laz who is tottering precariously across the room. His walker keeps getting caught on the leg of a chair or on the corner of a rug. When he can’t make it more than a few feet before getting stuck again, I pick him up for nap time.
Following Stacy’s nap-time directions, I dim the lights in the boys’ room, put Laz on my lap, and read him three cardboard books. After the third one, I get up slowly to turn the lights off. Charlie, who’d been playing quietly on his bed, beats me to the light switch and turns them all the way up. Laz shrieks. We need to turn the lights off now, I tell him. He turns the lights halfway down, then all the way back up again, and then finally all the way off. I try to think of a more diplomatic way to say Not cool, bro, but before I can say anything, he opens the door and slips outside.
Laz shows no signs of sleepiness. His cries remind me of an adult coming to terms with the fact that the weekend’s over and he has work the next day. I put him tummy-down in his crib while making soft shhh, shhh noises meant to mimic the ocean setting on a white-noise machine. He doesn’t buy it, sitting up and looking at me, crying even louder than before with his mouth in a perfect “o.” It takes singing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Stars” a maniacal number of times and drumming a consistent beat on his back before Laz finally falls asleep.
Outside, I find Charlie digging happily in his sandbox. I seize the opportunity to go to the bathroom. As I sit on the toilet, I let out a deep breath. Finally, a moment of peace an— The doorknob jiggles wildly. In here? comes a voice from outside. I freeze. The jiggling is getting more erratic, more desperate. I’m reminded of a scene from a horror movie. The one where the girl chooses poorly, picking a room without two exits to hide in. Just a second! I call out, pawing at the toilet paper. Just as soon as I’ve pulled my pants up, the jiggling stops. I wait to hear the sound of small receding steps, but there is nothing but dead air. I flush the toilet, wash my hands and open the door to find nothing and nobody on the other side.
Want to play blocks with me? Charlie asks when I come back to the living room. I keep my eyes on him and nod slowly. I can’t decide what’s creepier: him pretending to be a ghost at the bathroom door or him pretending like it never happened.
I catch Charlie walking around the kitchen, one hand holding a granola bar, the other pulling Zoey’s tail. It’s not nice to pull Zoey’s tail, I tell him. He looks at me in complete seriousness. She turns around and is silly. That’s the truth, he says. Before I can tell him it’s still not nice, he looks back over his shoulder and repeats solemnly, That’s the truth.
Charlie jumps on the mini trampoline in the backyard. I blow bubbles so he can pop them mid-air. He laughs the most when they pop right in front of him so I just start blowing them in his face. He frowns suddenly, stopping mid-jump and pointing a finger at the brown bits on the edge. What’s that on the trampoline? he asks. His voice is so filled with disgust, he might as well have been pointing at human feces smeared across the surface. It leads me to feel equivocally disgusted. I use a stick to wipe the debris off.
To make playing cars more interesting, I give Grave Digger (that’s the actual name printed across the door; pretty macabre for a kid’s toy, if you ask me) more of a backstory and pump up his personality. Before crashing into Charlie’s Ice Cream Truck (for the fifth time), I have to finish doing donuts in the desert. (I stop here to explain to Charlie what donuts are, and then I demonstrate by spinning Grave Digger around in fast, tight loops. I’m a wild car! I shout.) Eventually, Grave Digger leaves the sun-bleached desert and heads to Disneyland because he wants a churro.
Charlie and I walk around the house. Grave Digger and Ice Cream Truck are in search of fires to put out. (That we’ve moved on from simply crashing into each other brings me indescribable joy). I open a cabinet and gasp. There’s a fire! Charlie says. I’ll use my hose! I tell him. No, use the powder, he suggests. Okay, I’ll use the— Wait, what does the powder do? I ask. It puts out the fire! he says, emphatically. I change the sound effect I’m making from a spraying hose to a dusting of powder. Note to self: Look up fire extinguishing powder later.
I collapse on the couch. Go back to Disneyland, Charlie says. He wants to do the whole spiel all over again. Instead, I tell him, on Grave Digger’s behalf, that I’m tired and need to eat some dinner. We talk about the color of ice cream we want. I want a pink and red ice cream, Charlie says for Ice Cream Truck. I decide on a blue one for Grave Digger. The cars feast before a heavy sleepiness overcomes them. It’s nap time now, Grave Digger says, laying on his side. Charlie nods and lays his car next to mine. For a few glorious moments, we both rest. I’ve successfully turned Charlie’s cars into the dolls from my childhood.
I hear what sounds like a small dinosaur coming from the other room. Laz is awake.
I fix lunch: reheated leftovers for Charlie and me; mashed black beans and quinoa for Laz. The house is quiet. Too quiet. The dread from earlier punches me in the stomach. Charlie, do you see Laz? I shout out. He’s right here, Charlie says. They both look up at me as I burst into the room. I let out a relieved sigh. Why? he asks. I tell him that I just need Laz to play in the kitchen so I can see him. As soon as I say it, though, I change my mind after both boys return quietly to their toys. I go back to making lunch and am wondering if I’ve mashed the black beans well enough, when Laz starts screaming. Did he eat that chalk he was holding earlier? I knew I should have moved it up higher. But it’s not the chalk or anything else I’d feared. Charlie has an arm wrapped around Laz’s angry red face, another one around his chest. I’m bringing him to the kitchen so you can see him, Charlie says mid-drag. My heart swells: he really does listen!
Charlie runs in a tight circle next to the kitchen table. I’m doing donuts in the desert! he yells.
I leave for a dentist appointment. Rob, the boys’ dad who works from home, takes over for me.
When I get back, the house is quiet. Charlie is asleep, and I put Laz down a short while later. I think about reading or doing something else productive, but I don’t have the energy to move off the couch.
Charlie yells from the bedroom when he wakes up. He is calmly sitting among rumpled blankets with his jeans neatly folded at the foot of the bed. Putting them back on him requires a surprising level of effort. I think these are Lazzy’s, Charlie says when the pants get stuck. Could be, I think. They do seem really small. I look down and see both of his legs stuffed into one pant leg.
We watch “Fire Monster Truck and Police Monster Truck.” I think there is no way anything exists with that actual name, but Rob easily finds it among their recently watched YouTube videos and puts it on the TV for us. Charlie does not blink the entire eleven minutes.
Mama, will you make a road with me? Charlie asks me in the sandbox. For a second, I think about correcting him. But then, selfishly, I think about the number of times I raced cars with him that day and let myself bask in his compliment.
Charlie refuses to be it after I tag him. I calmly explain to him that that’s how tag works: I was it, I tagged him, and now he’s it. I know he’s stubborn, but I can be stubb— Charlie throws his head back so that it hangs at an unnatural angle, like it’s broken and separated from his body, his entire face twists, and his mouth opens into an angry black hole. I sense a major tantrum coming on. Okay, I’m it, I quickly concede. Charlie’s head snaps back into place, and the storm clouds immediately pass from his face. You’re it! Charlie gloats. Our heart-warming moment from earlier is over.
I rest quietly on the couch. Laz chews on the corner of a Lego block. My unsanctioned break lasts for two minutes before Charlie wraps his arms around my neck and swings off my back until I play with him again.
Just when I start thinking about how I’m going to be the parent who sticks her kids in front of the TV all day, the front door opens and Stacy walks in. Mama! we all scream. Three beaming faces welcome her home. Charlie and Laz run to her, forgetting about me, their toys, or anything else. I flop onto the couch and watch the boys crawl all over her. She is greater than even Charlie’s favorite cars.