Rachel Zients Schinderman
You are 48.
You do not know that within 6 months or so you will be unexpectedly pregnant. And that a month or so after that you will not be. You will struggle to make a decision about this surprise pregnancy, but you will not have a choice in this matter. Your body will just expel it one day.
Remember, you are old now, especially by LA standards.
You will hurt — physically and emotionally.
At this point, you do not know this is the easy time. You will think it is hard. You will think you may break. You will think you were promised more. You do not know that within less than a year one son will take a medical leave from school. You will not know that your other son will attend school one day celebrating Holi and laughing and covered in colored chalk with all his friends experiencing so much outward joy that you wish you could bottle it and then he won’t step back into his school for over a year because of a global pandemic.
At this point you are still planning a Hawaii five-0 birthday trip with your husband whose birthday is two weeks before your own. You have plans. You’re going somewhere. You do not know that your next birthday will be celebrated on Zoom and possibly the one after that as well. The one that was to be in Hawaii.
But now your plans are to get away, to be alone. To escape.
You are in your car heading East on the 10, to the desert, alone. That part is important. You’re alone. You are not running away, technically. There is no bandana tied to a stick thrown over your shoulder carrying your most beloved possessions. There’s no train to hop. No hobos to mingle with. This trip is planned and your husband knows exactly where you are. There’s a new sundress from Target in your trunk purchased just for the occasion. You are headed to a girls’ weekend away but you are the only girl, the only participant. You have a role to play.
You are the mom who needs a break.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine plays in your car and you realize as you listen to the audio book that you don’t actually know if you are completely fine or not.
A friend used to tell you that fine was the worst thing you could be. Steady, middle of the road, managing — holding on. Boring she meant. She told you fine is a four letter word. But you think what’s so wrong with being steady, that’s me to a tee.
Perhaps there’s more to life than being fine?
You used to be fine in the sense of the word of being attractive and hot. You used to wear child’s size t-shirts with your midriff showing when you slung drinks. You used to know they looked twice.
Now you say you’re fine with the interrupted career and the children who need you but don’t actually see you. You tell yourself you are fine that each year the clothes bought at Target go up in sizes. You are more than a once upon a time size 2 or a flat stomach you reason. You tell yourself this is fine, it’s fine. It’s fine to feel guilty for taking two whole days away that does not involve another member of your family.
You arrive at the old motel, now converted into a hipster hotel, and find your room. You have been here before, when you were boyfriend and girlfriend, before husband and wife, before mom and dad. This place is built on top of hot springs and that is the draw. You try not to stare at the Nun covered head to toe in black enjoying the hot spring on your way to your room. You watch as she immerses herself in the pool water, looking and searching for the symbolic meaning of such an image. Or maybe it just means she is simply going for a swim.
You hang up your newly purchased Target items and slip on the white linen sundress you will never wear again and go looking for snacks.
You drive down a dirt road strewn with abandoned car seats and you literally say out loud, “This is where I die.” For Desert Hot Springs is known for its magical water as well as its rumored meth labs. You half expect Jesse Pinkman to walk by. It feels as if you have have forgotten how to drive, something you do every day. You find a Rite Aid and though you go into Rite Aids all the time, this one, two hours or so from your home, seems foreign and weirdly exotic. The aisles are an adventure, a new layout to discover. You buy generic Lucky Charms, who knew such a thing existed – Marshmallow Mateys and even though this will not help with that extra 20-30 pounds you are carrying around, you prance your way to the register delighted by the purchase and the freedom to do so.
You will not write those thank you notes you trotted all the way out to the desert with you but instead you will stay up all night and binge season 3 of Stranger Things. You will fall asleep at 7am, like a jackass.
When you wake for the day, your arm will hurt. You won’t reassure yourself that it is most likely from the allergy shot you just got, that you’ve been getting for about 8 years weekly, but you will instantly think heart attack. You must be having a heart attack out here in the desert alone. Figures.
You remember driving out to the desert years earlier, newly married with your husband and his mother and step father. That night you and his mother would take him to some hospital out here in the desert, fearing a heart attack. It would just be a panic attack. Just. Anyone who has actually had a panic attack would never use the word just to describe it. It was that night you felt the weight of marriage. His mom waited in the lobby. She allowed you to be by his side as they poked and prodded him. You were the one to hold his hand and talk to the doctors, to watch over him. You felt the responsibility of it all then.
You have your Marshmallow Mateys and begin the new day despite barely sleeping.
You know that your 13 year old son was also probably up bingeing Stranger Things and you like that connection — being lost in a screen is a connector even if is not the same screen, but is the same images. He was watching it when you left town. You refer to your home as in town as if you live in 1940s Los Angeles and the desert is just the outskirts of your busy social circle.
You were mistaken for Winona Ryder once back in the day. “Are you her?” the boys who came up to you on the street said in awe. You weren’t her, but you assumed that’s who they meant because of your short hair and you’ve been told you look like her before. The fleeting adoration felt nice. And you wonder why her boyfriend of today who you worked with at a restaurant 30 or so years ago never hit on you since you obviously are his type.
You drink your kombucha as if it will cancel out all the chips and pizza and generic lucky charms.
The flowers here are quite vibrant and you make yourself pay attention to them as they sway in the wind. Paying attention, being mindful (one practically needs a degree in mindfulness to live in Southern California) is a requirement when surrounded by such beauty without distractions. The trees and plants are beautiful especially with the browns and of the mountains and blue of the sky behind them. You wouldn’t think browns could be so beautiful but they rival the sky’s blue in how alive they seem. But even with all this vibrancy you are aware of how you need to make yourself pay attention to it all.
You miss just being. You miss where every moment didn’t have to mean more. Just being — that didn’t require energy or a running start. Now to be present is an action. It feels like when things are clicking that you didn’t always need to rev up for such things. That life took you on a ride, now it feels like you have to crank it up to keep going.
You post minimalist, declarative, and very curated posts on facebook peppered ever so slightly with self deprecating posts about not sleeping and poor choices.
Do not post that you came to the desert alone and still your sleep suffered. No one wants to hear that. They want ‘atta girls’ and ‘you deserve this.’
Maybe the point is not to have a-perfect-where-everything-is-the-best-weekend, but to continue to form who you are and question how you live.
You take your place on a lounge chair next to the three pools fed by the hot spring from the earth below your feet and then it is the montage version of the movie…
You sit with your red pen and yellow legal pad scribbling furiously while sitting outside and you take stock in this feeling and moment while also horrified at your own penmanship. You think I may have all of these undone to do lists and piles of to be written work, but what actually constitutes accomplished? Why do you always wave the unaccomplished flag wherever you go? You realize you are not doing your ever growing list but you are doing this. Here. You are here. You are watching. You are observing. You are taking it all in as flies land on you and the wind blows and the nun swims.
You splurge and book a massage.
The massage lady comments about how much inflammation you have and she tells you how to help your hair follicles to prevent more hair loss and you briefly hate her for seeing the help you need. The massage lady tells you she doesn’t have children and at 45 that ship has sailed. You try to hide your intense jealousy at her only three years younger than you skin and body and you debate with yourself if you tell her she is better off not having children. Do you tell her there are times you regret it, that if someone showed you a movie of your life you may have chosen differently or at least you would fast forward through certain years, or better yet edit them out. But you say nothing as she lathers her hands in oil and rubs your feet because you do not know her circumstances and don’t know if she would be comforted and soothed by this information or would she find your comment dripping with condescension — because you have children. They are waiting for you at home when you return. You can complain and talk about how hard it is from a place of privilege and luxury because they are at home waiting for you. Their mother. You. Their special person. The person they love so much they exhaust you, but the key is they love you and you love them. They are bingeing Netflix and playing with slime at a birthday party. They are waiting on your return.
So you say nothing other than complimenting her by not believing that she is 45 and then she lingers too long on instructions about how to protect your hair follicles again and you think she’s only three years behind you in this peri-menopausal mess with her cute eyebrows and comfy wrap around masseuse pants. You sing Just You Wait in Eliza Doolittle’s cockney accent in your head in a constant refrain.
Then you feel badly you wished this upon her and you wonder about beauty and the promises it seemed to present that perhaps it never did. You can’t actually be sure but you think you were beautiful once — like the brown mountains and blue sky and red flowers. You were vibrant once too, but you were living then so you didn’t notice at the time — maybe you will have the same realization when you look back at yourself now. Maybe you are not as bright and lively as you once were, granted you are slowing down, but maybe the act of paying attention to others and not just your own light is not a failure but rather a needed boost to see your own current vibrancy. It is not over there, or in that small town, or in a cute flat in London, or even back home near your mom. It is not searching the classifieds for something else, something better. It is revving up each and every day and making the effort. It is realizing you could drive home right now and nothing would be easier or more peaceful there – no magic movie glances full of knowledge and gratitude, but rather just an acknowledgement that life can be hard and great in the same moment and the balance of those two things is the fucking key.
That night when asked, you will accept the dinner invitation from the woman who runs the hotel and her friends — Linda, Cindy, and Nancy — names of your mother’s generation. There are no Jennifers, Jessicas, or Heathers in sight. You are the youngest at the table, but you are not young. They have saved you a seat. You will sit with being uncomfortable and not knowing them. You will have dinner with strangers who are not strangers to each other and not try to rectify that by offering up too much about yourself. You will like this feeling. You will recognize comfort in being uncomfortable. It will soothe you. You will not feel compelled to unburden your troubles and woes on to them, but to keep it for yourself. You will listen to their stories and enjoy their food they prepared for you. And your differences will not matter to them or to you as you sit and watch the stars above. And you will know you do not always have to find meaning in everything even when it is staring you in the face. There, you just are and you are fine.
BIO: Rachel Zients Schinderman is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in Shondaland, The LA Times, and Modern Loss to name a few. Originally from New York City, she currently lives in Culver City with her two sons, two dogs, and one husband. Read more at rachelzschinderman.com
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