i. The Hotel Modern

My driving teacher was a short German woman. I recall very little about her beside the thick accent and her dark wavy hair. She was very particular about shoes, that I remember, and would make students change from sandals as they were not appropriate footwear for the car despite the lazy heat of May in Virginia. I often wondered if she kept a pair of driving shoes like I’d read characters would do with gloves. My sessions were with unremarkable kids my age who had failed the course at school or who, like me, were avoiding taking it in summer. I practiced on Saturdays with my father as my mother was too skittish a passenger. Once while living in Mexico with her first husband, after a day of sunning and swimming, they drove back home over a steep mountain. She fell asleep in the passenger seat, and he fell asleep at the wheel. She awoke to them falling off the edge, and they were only caught by a tree, its branches like arms spread wide to cradle their fall. Needless to say, the memory stuck with her, and she struggled to trust the driving capabilities of others. Now, arriving at the hotel in slippers and my work clothes, tote bags haphazardly packed, I thought of that small woman, and it occurred to me that these hadn’t been appropriate driving shoes.

The valet opened my door with formality, and if he was surprised by my appearance, he didn’t let on. New Orleans is humid every day of the year, and on this winter night the wet, cold air shocked my bones and froze the tears pooling under my chin. The silly luggage cart with one wobbly wheel inched ever closer to the curb as he loaded my belongings. I hadn’t packed much but clothes for the next day and a few loved toys, but I had been sure to grab her favorite blanket and a two-pocket folder containing our important documents which I had tucked in a drawer after her birth. Nearly everything had been in the car, piling up in the backseat over months of runs to Target for odds and ends. I gently pulled the handle, easing open the backseat door, and watched as the neon lights cut a streak of red across her pouty lips. I had been slowly preparing for this moment since I first learned of the life growing beneath my heart, storing dish towels and new bedding in the trunk and stocking up on courage. And now the time had come. Holding tight to my daughter, I allowed a boy named Ricky to push my life through tremendous glass door and up a ramp.

I was sure the bellhops and concierge were embarrassed for me. In an effort to excuse my appearance and flustered state, I made jokes about Angela Bassett in that scene from “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” As the words feel from my lips like a nose dive, my heart sank with them as the kinship of our circumstances washed over my shattered soul. I steadied my breath, and contorted my face into a smile. The concierge handed me a small card. Please enjoy a complimentary breakfast. He knew.

Unable to stop myself, profuse ‘thank you’s’ quickly became an incoherent explanation. I’m moving out of my house, I said feebly, shaking my head, shuffling the pieces in my brain, assembling new strings of thought. My lease starts in two days, I continued. Nothing seemed to fit anymore but the truth.

I’m a single mom. Words I had practiced a thousand times. Words that had tickled my breath. Words until now, unspoken. Opening a cabinet from beneath his stand, he flipped the tab on a cold can of beer and passed it my way. He definitely knew. It just happened.

It was rather natural, really. Unnoticeable to the untrained eye. A thousand infinitesimal steps placed me outside the door in my work clothes and slippers watching my breath in the streetlamp of a frigid January night as the weight of a sleeping baby buckled tight into her car seat pulled me.

I had seen him a thousand times. First in my dreams, then in my imagination, and finally one late night. He looked exactly like himself – long dark hair, a cloud of thick smoke lingering in his beard, and kind eyes that wrinkled in their corners like he knew a secret. His drawl was low and steady, and I knew he would whisper sweet secrets in my ear, curling my toes. He stood to the side, allowing me to pass by, and I could feel his eyes on me for a just a moment longer than was polite and I loved the ache of wanting him. In a small town with a big name, it isn’t long before paths cross again, and so one afternoon between shifts, we shook hands across a wobbly table top just blocks from that first glance. He was the first man who ever returned my love. I wanted desperately to keep him.

Our dance was like twirling in my kitchen as a girl. The room spinning fast, chairs blurring with wall, until I crashed into something hard. Dizzy and cross-eyed, I gave the fall no mind as I waited for the fog to pass from my eyes. When the world was straight and calm again, I’d examine my bumped elbow or shin before starting back twirling. Our love was like that. I let him lead me through moves I’d never known, his sturdy body pressed against mine, hands firm on my back guiding me. He knew the music and I followed, gazing into his eyes only as the world blurred and settled over and over and over.

Years passed, and though the music changed its tune, we spun together. Entranced, I whirled about, shedding pieces of myself, until one late night when my bones gave out. I had been dancing on a turned ankle. Tired of revolving, I winced with every step, though I couldn’t find the words. Slow down, I wanted to say, sick from spinning round with him, my ears ringing from the loudness of our life. I spun and twirled and fell to my knees. I sat on the dance floor awhile, catching my breath, searching for my pulse, and it was there that I found my discarded bits. It was there that I found her.

He was what I longed for, he was what I craved. I desired him deeply, from the moment I wrote him into a story or dreamed of his warmth next to me, but he was never mine. See, he belongs to the night. He belongs to loud music and dark corners. He is a lone wolf, mysterious and sharp-toothed. I envied this about him. I envied his confidence and charm and certainty of self. His energy was like lightning, and I longed to bottle it, but I cannot hold it in my hands for it shocks and burns me.

The entire world is perfect. The entire world is a delightful masterpiece of synchronicity. The entire world is a choreographed dance until the moment an ankle turns, or a clock falters. Everything is divine until the instant it is not. This ordinary thought passes in and out each time the world stops. Like the pause between a baby’s breath – the held instant when before they pull in deeply and you find your own breath filling dry lungs, unaware it had left you. The world goes forward like this, catching breath and finding it again. I sat in the small purple room on a fluffy bed gazing out the window into the night. Bright city lights glowed white and blue and green along the horizon, and I caught my breath for the first time in a year. It seemed like a dream – neither bad nor beautiful, simply blurred around the edges and filmy on top.

My German driving teacher was a single mother, too. It works for us, she would say casually, shrugging her shoulders and as if it had been the difference between cable packages. Something about the ease in her voice told me parenting alone was neither tragedy or heroism. I tried to wrap my mind around what was in between, but stumbled over the gospel of it. I only knew she spoke my truth. A man is for me, to love, to have. A mother is for the child.

I wrote tales of her father before I laid my eyes upon him, and I claimed motherhood before it found me. Oh, I loved him. I loved him as a woman loves a man. I loved him as a riverbed loves the water which flows through her. I loved him as the trees love a spring who brings the sun back to warm its aching branches. But I loved her more. And I loved myself more, too. I danced a dance with him for many years, and he didn’t notice when I left the dance floor. He didn’t come running, or play our song. He was the man for me, but I am the mother of her. I am her beginning and end, and she is my blood pumping in a new vessel. She is my heartbeat. Our rhythms follow a unified beat. Honoring this is her birthright. And so, I cracked open that cold beer and drank it fast, allowing the bubbles to settle my dizzy brain. I curled my body around my child’s, and I listened for our song.

It works for us, I said aloud, and I knew it would be true. In that moment, a choice was made. A house was built. An origin story was written.

My child will inherit her father’s charm and sovereignty. She will inherit his records and his bravado. She wears his long lashes and mischievous smile each day, and she will inherit his tenacity. But underneath, she will inherit the poise of a tiny German woman she’s never met. A woman who planted a seed that whispered, Majestic, imperial motherhood is its own ballad, and needs no chorus.

I dance to my own beat, with a round faced girl tied at my heart, because it works for us.