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10/13/2006

The natural enemy of a mother: herself

Hey, did I forget to tell you I lost Charlie yesterday?  Okay, so I forgot.  But don't take it personally.  I forgot to tell Paul, too.

Yeah...forgot.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

We were at our usual Thursday playgroup, which takes place at our local family center.  There's a large room in the basement set up for baby play with a full-size piano in the corner; a big table with lots of elf-sized chairs for snacks; a bungalow festooned with netting for quiet time; a sandbox filled with clean white sand and a whole litter of plastic dinosaurs; and any number of toys that have been thoroughly chewed by area toddlers. 

We like playgroup a great deal.  Charlie enjoys the change of scene and the novelty of different toys; most especially he enjoys the sandbox, where he will sit for a full 45 minutes, dreamily scooping sand into a plastic funnel, not noticing that it never fills up because, duh, it's a funnel.  I enjoy seeing the other kids and being in company with some of the other mothers.

I say only some — and this is a digression that has nothing to do with my wanton neglect of Charlie, which happens a little later — because there is one mother in particular who I quickly came to think of as my very own sworn foe.  You know how the natural enemy of the impala is the cheetah, and the natural enemy of the monarch butterfly is genetically engineered corn, and the natural enemy of marriage is the American homosexual?  Well, I am here to tell you that the natural enemy of the infertile woman is not, as some have suggested, time, nor is it age, nor is it even the sadistic bastards who came up with those special parking spots for pregnant women.

No, the natural enemy of the infertile woman is the mother of two or three children who announces that she is expecting once again, "but I don't even remember how far along I am.  Fifteen or sixteen weeks — who can keep track?  I just want this one over with."  And who then insists that she's sure this one is a girl, confiding with all the tonal modulation of a foghorn that she'd really hoped her second — present at the snack table — would be a girl.  "I was just devastated."

I wanted to tear across the room like a cheetah and swipe an angry paw down her ungrateful flank.  Or maybe work up a nice toxic clump of pollen and then take special pains to look all tasty and stuff.  Or maybe!  Maybe even recruit myself a girlfriend, don my most sensible, least dangerous shoes, storm the Supreme Court, and force Justice Scalia to watch an unending loop of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert — "or Midnight Cowboy, Tony, take your pick" — because, hey, good old American marriage isn't going to destroy itself, you know.

But again I digress.  I do dislike this woman most ardently.  She was droning on and on about how much more cuddly boys are than girls, and I drily told her she was wrong, offering ample proof as Charlie wriggled away once more from my attempts to tie his shoelaces.  "Oh, he's cuddly," she said, with a tone of malice I might have only imagined.  "He never lets you put him down when you're here."  Which is patently untrue.  Now, I may have to detach each finger independently as he frantically tries to climb up my body and through the acoustical tiles of the ceiling, hoping to make good his escape via some conveniently placed ducting, but eventually he makes it to the floor.  (Of course, he immediately heads over to the sandbox, where he spells out H-E-L-P with the bodies of plastic dinosaurs just in case any low-flying aircraft might be inclined to rescue him, but that's another story.)

Anyway, I was feeling a little self-conscious about how close Charlie likes to stay when we're at playgroup, so I was pleased that that day I could mostly leave him to his own devices while he played.  He snacked happily, cooked in the miniature kitchen — "Mike-aweff beep!  Bocconi ready" — and had a fine time going all John Cage on the piano in the corner.

When it was time to clean up, I did my part, and had him help me put some toys away.  Then I turned to throw the cloth cover over the sandbox, turned back no more than ten seconds later — I swear to God, in the time it took to shake out a bedsheet and let it float down — and he was gone.

Just gone.

I did a quick scan of the room, then hollered, in a mama bear voice I didn't know I had, "Has anyone seen my son?"

"He's not right next to you?" asked my arch-nemesis.

No.  No, he was not.  The mother closest to the exit, a heavy, self-closing fire door, opened the door and looked out into the hall.  And there was Charlie, banging ineffectually on the pressure-activated latch of the door near the stairs, cheerfully demanding, "Mama pusha button.  Goin home!"

All I can figure is that he followed another mother and child into the hall, taking advantage of the very brief interval before the heavy door swung closed, and waited in the corridor — thankfully child-safe — for the nine seconds before I noticed he was missing.  I can't imagine why the other mother didn't notice him; with his inexpert shamble, stealthy he ain't.

What scares me even now is how easy it would have been for him to get caught by the swing of the self-closing fire door, a door heavy enough that I work to open it myself.  It happened fast.  And no one — not the mothers nearest the door, not the mother who'd just gone through it, and not me, the one person who really should have — noticed.

Huh.  Well.  When I put it like that, it's no wonder I forgot to tell you.

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