Lola by Margaret Özemet
Nadirah Zakariya, Woman in the Clouds
“I’m going to change my name to Lola.”
“Lola is a hooker name. How about something WASPy, like Hillary or Audrey?”
“I don’t look like an Audrey.”
“Well you don’t look like a Lola either.”
“I always thought I’d name my daughter Lola.” Jen took a sip of wine followed by a drag from her contraband cigarette.
“Good thing you only had boys then,” Hannah scoffed.
Mona returned to the deck with a fresh bottle of wine, “Why are we still discussing this? I don’t understand what’s wrong with the name Jen? I mean, it seems to have worked fine for the past thirty-eight years.”
“Come on Mona, you watch movies. It’s all gotta be new. Everything has to be new. New place. New career. New life. New name. If I’m going to run away, I have to start fresh. Completely fresh.” Jen stubbed out her cigarette and glanced at her watch. “Damn. I have to go.”
Mona grabbed Jen’s oversized wine glass and began to pour. “One more. What’s it matter if you leave now or five minutes from now?” Jen nodded, sat down and lit one last cigarette.
Hannah pushed her glass over towards Mona, “Fill me up too; the only thing waiting for me is a giant stack paperwork. A buzz might add a little excitement to reading about one more little bastard with a mother that’s pushing for an Asperser’s diagnosis.” Hannah lit the cigarette she’d pulled from the community pack in the middle of the table and inhaled. Jen and Mona regularly took advantage of Hannah as a pro-bono therapist, but Hannah often had a tough time determining when to hang up her professional opinion and offer friendship. “I can tell you what the problem is Jen. Your standards are too high. You’ve got this crazy idealized view of what your marriage should be, hell what your life should be. You want perfection and Peter just can’t deliver that so you end up doing everything yourself. If you force him to step up and take care of things, he will. Right now, you do it all then get pissed that he doesn’t pull his weight. Ultimately Jen, you are enabling his ineffectiveness.” Hannah’s psychobabble grated on Jen’s nerves. Of course it was easy for a single, childless woman to stand back and judge but there was no way she could really understand life in a crappy marriage with two small kids.
Unlike Hannah, Mona did understand. “Well, I don’t know about enabling his ineffectiveness, but I do know you are not the first mommy that has ever dreamed of running away.” Mona had been married twice and though she was a miserable wife, she had successfully gotten her children through their teens without major incident or a visit from Child Protective Services. “Jen, you’re exhausted, and you’re in a shitty spot. The best thing you can do is what every other mother has done at least once in her life; dig your fingernails in, hold on for dear life and pray for it all to pass before you lose your mind.”
Mona’s rooftop deck had long provided sanctuary for the three women. Amid the teak furniture, potted tomato plants and scents of urban decay, the three shared their raunchy tales, darkest moments and biggest fears. The weathered boards of this deck, perched high above the questionable neighborhood, held more secrets than a confessional. This was where Mona shared the news of her first divorce and second abortion. This was where Hannah turned forty-five and allowed her dreams of a family to finally float away like one of the black balloons that marked the celebration. This was where Jen and Peter, amid a handful of family and friends, vowed to travel their journey together through thick and thin, before they knew there would be far more thin than they could handle.
Jen sipped from her third glass of wine and smoked a final cigarette. She was beginning to look as beaten as she felt. Her hair hadn’t seen a professional in over a year. Highlights were one of the first things to go. This combined with the stress and weight-loss caused her to age ten years older in the past one. “Who am I kidding? The only people who actually have the guts to run away from miserable lives are already certifiably nuts.”
It was 8:30. By the time she made it to the tiny apartment on the other side of the city, it would be close to 9:00, an hour past bedtime. Yet the odds were strong that the boys would still be up, baths not taken, teeth not brushed and bedtime stories still on the shelf. Peter claimed he couldn’t handle bedtime alone. In the realm of fathers, he wasn’t a bad one. He didn’t yell and he never hit. He just didn’t do anything. Peter was very much like Jen’s father; responsible enough but incapable of providing the kind of love and care kids need. Peter was easily overwhelmed with the mundane tasks of childrearing, while it was second nature to Jen. She’d been a teacher and worked with children most of her life. Parenting came easily to her and because of this she had no tolerance for her husband’s inability. Then again, Jen had no tolerance for many aspects of her husband lately.
Peter and Jen had gotten snared in the net of a nose-diving economy. It was close to eighteen months since Peter brought home his pink slip. Jen had been busy all day making Elmo cupcakes and party favors for Steven’s birthday party. The two boys crafted an elaborate scene with a wooden train track on the living room floor while Peter delivered the news and Jen fought the instinct to panic. Since Jen quit working to care for the boys, things were already stretched thin. But Peter was a professional, with a Masters’ degree. It would be easy for him to find a new firm, he said. That wasn’t the case.
Jen did her best to stretch his severance package but it didn’t last long. For a few months, Peter took on some freelance work but now her work as a tutor and substitute teacher was their only income. Things were getting tighter by the day. They sold the second car, moved into a tiny apartment, pulled the kids out of preschool and ate beans and rice for more meals then they cared to count. Pinching pennies and living within modest means was a challenge she was up for initially. It was temporary. Peter assured her, they would be back on their feet in no time. When she filed for Public Assistance, it no longer seemed so temporary. They were intelligent, well-educated professionals. How did they go from a struggling middle class family to Welfare recipients in just months? Humiliation engulfed her as she sat amid the other Medicade users at the community clinic. She scanned the grocery line for anyone who might recognize her, then struggled to hide her face when using her Food Stamps. She spent hour after hour trying to find low-income dental services and in the end resorted to taking some leftover penicillin, a few painkillers and hoping for the best.
The tough times were lasting longer than either she or Peter had anticipated. Jen took every opportunity she could find to bring in money, but Peter wouldn’t do the same. He was a professional and any other work was beneath him. Over the past months he’d gone from sending out resumes in the hopes of landing a job better than his last, to networking with former colleagues in search of any job in his field, to finally giving up altogether. Jen hadn’t seen him send a resume, browse the Classifieds or even return calls to his headhunter in the past six months. His days consisted of staring into the computer at sites he claimed to be ‘professional development’ and flipping between Sponge Bob and Bob The Builder to keep the boys occupied while Jen was at work. Her patience was exhausted.
They’d had a few rough times before, like the death of Jen’s mother and her sister’s cancer diagnosis. Peter had always provided a solid foundation for Jen and she believed their marriage was unshakable. Now when she needed that foundation most, it had crumbled. Hannah, in a wine drenched state, once confessed that she was jealous of Jen and Peter’s marriage. Jen was flattered. The sheer speed of their courtship caused Mona to doubt Jen’s choice, but she cast all judgments aside by the time she hosted their wedding on her deck. They’d met at Starbucks. By the end of the second date they’d decided to move in together. By the end of week three they were engaged. A few weeks later, in a stunning red dress, Jen promised herself through good times and bad. When Jen found out she was pregnant with Simon three months into the marriage they were elated. Peter painted the nursery and made plans for baseball games and pee-wee soccer. A second pregnancy on the heels of the first wasn’t met with the same joy, but by the time Steven was born, he too was adored. Peter was promoted. They decided it best if Jen stayed home for a few years. Three years from that moment at Starbucks, there were a family of four.
Jen pulled into parking spot 276; the one allotted to their apartment, took a deep breath and readied herself for the mayhem awaiting her inside – two kids running circles, toys strewn everywhere and Peter, watching yet another reality show on the History Channel.
“How did I know they would still be up? Can’t you see what time it is Peter? I knew this is what would happen. I knew it. Do you know what they are going to be like tomorrow? To the tub boys!” She hated fighting in front of them. She resented her own parents for doing it but now understood.
“Don’t get pissed at me. It’s not like you were out working. You could’ve put the wine down sooner and come home to take care of your family.”
“Right. I forgot. I AM the only one who can do anything for this family.” Jen slammed the flimsy standard-issue-apartment-complex door behind her. As the boys splashed themselves clean, Jen buried her face in a Sponge-Bob towel hoping to wipe clear the thought that had kept returning for the past several weeks.
I’ll change my name to Lola.
Jen wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed beside Simon and Steven. The one place she’d always found peace was in the family bed. But like every other day, there was too much work still to be done. Peter was once again staring blankly at the glaring computer screen. Professional development. Jen began by clearing up the toys, then unloading the dishwasher, then preparing breakfast and lunch for tomorrow. She trudged down to the building laundry room and finished the two loads she’d started before heading to Mona’s. The bathroom needed a quick cleaning and Stephen’s potty seat was in need of a scrub down. She organized lessons for the next day’s students and planned dinner in the hopes of making her life even that tiny bit easier when she arrived home after a long day. She poured herself a bit of wine and sat down at the kitchen table to take on the last necessary task – bills. Each week she sorted them into those that could wait one more week, and those that were emblazoned with the glaring red, Final Notice stamp.
Like almost every other night, by the time Jen had completed everything, Peter had given up on his ‘professional development’ and gone to bed. He was asleep with Simon’s head against his own and Steven’s head was leaning on Simon. It was the kind of picture perfect family moment that had always made her heart warm. Peaceful sleep. Every night, she gently shifted the tiny legs to the center of the bed, next to the other set of tiny legs, and slid her exhausted body onto the sliver of bed left for Mom. Within minutes, Steven would be curled around her limbs, his hot breath on her chest.
But not tonight. Tonight she didn’t shift the tiny legs over. She didn’t slide onto her sliver of bed. She pulled the covers up over all three of them and rubbed a hand along Peter’s scraggly beard giving him a gentle kiss. She leaned over, gently kissed each of the boys on the forehead and inhaled the sweet scent of freshly bathed little boys in clean pajamas. She carefull and quietly turned the deadbolt behind her, then rolled the suitcase down the sidewalk to space 276. The rain was soft but cold. She let the car idle while she flipped the wipers to high.
The water blurring her vision was not on the windshield. Jen wiped her nose, put the car into reverse and backed out onto the street.
About the Author
Margaret Özemet recently returned to the United States after living and working in Turkey. Her work has appeared in various online and print publication including Anderbo.com,Drunken Boat, Ducts.org, Gargoyle Magazine, Stone’s Throw Magazine, Red Fez, Istanbul Literary Review and New Letters where her essay, Divine Bovine Dreams received a Pushcart nomination. She currently lives in Iowa with her husband Gökhan and son Teoman.