Temporary god

Even a mother's love can be replaced.

Published September 16, 1997 4:04PM (EDT)

From the tiny balcony of my dreary hotel in Marina Del Rey, Calif., I can see a sprawling shopping center, a busy freeway and a small kidney pool glittering in the dirty light. A half-dozen people drowse or read in the plastic chaises by the water.

I'm alone, out of town on business, and I have two hours free -- two hours to pretend I'm alone in the world, with no place to go and no one to please. I go out to the pool with a soda and a book and find an empty lounge, its vinyl strips still sagging in the shape of a departed bottom.

Three chubby girls with identical black hair and ill-fitting swimsuits are playing Double Dare in the shallow end.

"Dare, or Double Dare?" the biggest girl says to the smallest.

The smaller girl flips her heavy, wet hair. "Double dare," she says, without hesitation.

"I dare you to stand on your head under water."

"Eeeaaasssy," drawls the girl, jumping in and flipping over.

A heavy, self-conscious woman bobs in the deep end, watching the dark-haired girls.

Nearby, a pair of prepubescent sisters compete for the attention of an older boy. Their swimsuits bag on their attenuated bodies as they shriek and call; the boy, his bony chest puffed out like a mating frog's, takes turns flinging them away from him so they can splash and scream.

A slim Japanese woman in a black tank suit silently leads her timid little boy down the steps.

And weaving through, as fluid and oblivious as the water, slide two teens.

The girl is blooming, about 15 years old, unblemished. Her shoulder-length brown hair is pulled back and clings to her small head like a cap. The boy is a bit older, perhaps, gawky and thin, and his shoulder-length brown hair is disheveled and loose around his long neck. In the tiny pool, in the noisy L.A. haze, they fold themselves together like gliding swans. He holds her for a moment like a man carrying a child, or a bride; then she turns slowly and wraps her arms around his neck. He comes in close to her ear and whispers, she turns her back to his chest and leans her glistening head on his shoulder. He pushes off the bottom and they float backward to the pool's edge and pause against the deck, beside each other. He turns and she lays herself on his back and he slides forward; she ducks out of his reach for a second and he stretches after her, she laughs and rolls back to him, they bounce gently face to face, murmuring.

This goes on for a long time.

I read my book, drink my soda. And all the time, I watch. People slowly, sleepily come and go. The dark-haired girls are called away. The boy demonstrates his skateboard to the sisters. A young man arrives with fresh towels. Trucks rumble by. The boy and girl slither through the water together without a thought, seamlessly drifting between the changing swimmers. I watch from behind my sunglasses, and suddenly she catches me watching and returns my stare, stony, self-contained. The difference between us is simple. I am just another voyeur, dismayed by the distant object of desire. She is not dismayed. She is a universe of Two.

I've left behind my 13-year-old daughter, my youngest child. She is young at 13, younger than her own body, interested in books and soccer and her pet turtle. She is still very interested in me, in my position of safety and control between her and the world. She likes to sit behind me when we watch television and mess up my hair and tell me stories that invariably begin, "Guess what?" and eat big, messy bowls of cereal right before going to bed. She misses me terribly when I'm gone, and this time I wrote a note for the kitchen bulletin board to remind her when I'd be back: "Mom, Sunday, 12:30." If she was here, she'd be winning Double Dare; she'd lie beside me, drinking soda and dripping on her mystery novel in the sun.

But that will end like everything else.

I remember how it feels, their dizzy height of obsession, the centering of the universe around Two. I remember how all else fades like a weakening signal, to a blur, how when you are together, all the world is the world made by Two, and when you are apart, there is only waiting to be together. I remember when love and sex were one thing, as unbroken as this moist ease in the sunlit water. I remember how one falls in love and longs for the body of the other and, longing, believes in love.

And I remember, oh I do remember, that the ghostly adults around you have no idea, because they have never felt like this, and so there is no reason to try to explain.

Many years ago, when my daughter was still toddling around with a ragged bear in her arms, I tried to explain to an old friend how it felt to be her mother. She was my third child and I was still trying to find the words.

My friend had no children, had no interest in children, tolerated mine with poorly disguised impatience. I wanted her to know why they mattered to me.

I pointed to my daughter on the floor beside us, and said, "I'm the giver and taker of the world to her." I was trying to explain this enormous responsibility, the weight that sometimes feels intolerably large. "I bring good and evil whether I mean to or not. I might as well be God."

My friend sneered at me. "Well," she said, "aren't you special?"

The boy and girl slide through the water. I watch, furtively, and think: Her mother. Somewhere her mother watches them make their smooth way through the water. He pulls her close to him, a large hand claiming her smooth belly. She strokes his cheek. I actually lean forward off my lounge, almost speaking, wanting only to beckon her to the poolside for a moment and whisper, "Be nice to your mother." But I say nothing at all, and pretend to read.

I see the accelerating future approach. I've done this already, after all, with two boys -- grieved for the silly 3-year-olds, the gap-toothed 6-year-olds, the willowy 9-year-olds. They've died and will never return, and I grieve. She ruffles my hair when we watch television and my back actually arches, like a cat, pushing into her hand, asking for more. She brings goodness to me and makes me fear evil; she gives and takes away the world. There are so many mysteries ahead.

I remember the world fading into the universe made by Two, and I remember how it shatters when that ends -- and then, how it begins again, brand new. So much to do, so many mistakes to make for the first time. And what is there to regret? This is how the world goes, this is how it must be. I don't grieve for her -- I grieve for me, sitting by some poolside in a few years, pretending to read so my sunglasses hide my hungry, tearful eyes as she glides by, oblivious.

I haven't seen my childless friend in many years, but I've replayed that conversation again and again in my mind. I hadn't thought I needed to say to her that it's terrifying to be God. I thought such a thing goes without saying. The risks are so enormous -- the losses so sharp. For years, I've wanted to tell her how powerless that power feels. How it is to be a voyeur, subject to the most pleading of desires. I wish my friend were here, and I could say: I dare you to try this. I double dare you.

By Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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