A little over a year ago, our family did a rather difficult thing.
Having spent our whole lives (42 years, in my case) in the state of New
Hampshire -- and ready to broaden our horizons -- we packed up our
essential belongings, sold the rest at a yard sale (along with our six-bedroom
Victorian house) and moved to a town in Northern California we'd
picked for no other reason than because a lot of people told me this
would be a great place to live.
I don't think I fully acknowledged at the time what a traumatic event
this was for all of us. The fact that I'd wanted this move didn't change
the deep sense of loss I felt, and continue to feel, at having left
behind virtually my whole history and nearly everything I held dear,
excepting my family and our dog. But in those first weeks and months
after the move, I was just so busy unpacking boxes and applying for
earthquake insurance and a California driver's license -- so busy making
sure my children were OK, above all -- I didn't even let myself feel any
I was numb, actually. For me, as a rule, no day is complete without a
little crying over something. But for two months, during the period
when we were dismantling our life in New Hampshire and the period that
we were setting up our new life in California, I never shed a tear.
In the months that have followed, my sons have made lots of friends. So
have I. But back when we first got here, I found myself spending a lot more
time with my sons than a parent of teenage boys generally would, and going
to places not usually frequented by 43-year-old mothers. One such place --
which my boys consider one of the best places on
earth -- is a spot near Fisherman's Wharf known as Q-Zar.
The idea at Q-Zar is that you pay $7 and they bring you into a
room with a bunch of other people, mostly boys around my sons'
ages (early teens), where you're put on one of two teams and equipped
with Day-glo plastic shields and a gun that looks roughly like an Uzi.
After an orientation lecture, you enter into a dark maze of a room with
all these other players. You activate your gun by setting it onto a
machine that sends some kind of charge through it. Then you set off into
the maze, with the purpose of shooting laser rays at players on the
opposing team, racking up points and trying to avoid getting shot
yourself. You know every time you're shot because the front panel on your
shield starts to vibrate and glow.
I knew the instant I set foot in the place that I was going to hate it.
The room was very dark, number one, and smelled of french fries. Loud
music playing and flashing lights -- I could feel the beginnings of a
headache. I was placed on a team with a bunch of boys who had
all come together -- a birthday party, most likely, of roughly 7- or
8-year-olds. Not only was I older than anybody else in the room by
about a quarter century, I was the only woman.
Something happens when you place a gun in the hands of a boy. Even a
toy gun at a Q-Zar arcade. So rather than try to energize my gun ahead
of my young and bloodthirsty teammates, I let them race past me when it
was time to commence the game, figuring I'd go at my own slower pace.
But when the time came to set my gun down on the energizer, a disturbing
event occurred: The gun wouldn't energize. I tried repeatedly to get
it to light up, but without success. I stood there for several
minutes, feeling increasing frustration as other players now
swarmed around, zapping wildly. My shield wouldn't stop vibrating.
The music throbbed, or maybe it was my head. Now my teammates were
returning to the energizer themselves to re-energize their guns, and
there I was, still standing over the machine trying to get my gun to
Precious minutes passed. My teammates were getting upset with me. One
of them actually slammed his gun on my wrist. Another pushed me aside.
"Hey Mom," a voice called out to me. I turned around, only to see the
just-barely familiar face of my younger son, with a gun barrel pointed
squarely at my shield. Bang.
Now here is the part that's difficult to tell. I fell apart. I stood
there, my heart pounding under my vibrating shield. I felt panic and
self-pity and a desperate need to get out of this place, fast. And for
some reason, at that moment, I thought about a certain waterfall in New
Hampshire, just down the road from a house we used to live in, where I'd
take walks with my children, and a stream flowing into it, where we used
to sail paper boats.
In the hallway -- still holding onto my gun -- I was met by the young
manager of the Q-Zar establishment. "There must be something wrong with
your gun," she told me. "We'll get you another one."
"I want my money back," I wept. And then I am ashamed to say I let
loose with an explosion of rage.
"We'll let you play another game," the manager said, but that was the
last thing I wanted now. "I want my money back," I said again. Not
that this was really about money, of course.
"OK," the manager said. She handed me my money.
Once I started crying, I couldn't stop. Once I started crying, in
fact, the tears came harder, to the point where my whole body was
shaking, as if I'd I'd been facing a firing squad, not a bunch of 7-year-olds
with laser zappers. I wept so hard I couldn't speak. It
wasn't just the gunfire anymore that I was crying about. Suddenly my whole
life swirled around me: the unfamiliar California freeways; the iris bulbs
I'd had to dig up and give to friends; the goldfish in my goldfish pond;
my sons' trampoline, back at our old house, that was always filled with
jumping kids; my neighbor, Nancy, coming across the street on
summer evenings for pie.
I didn't talk about any of this to the manager of Q-Zar, of course. I
just yelled about my malfunctioning gun and demanded a refund. Amazingly
enough, though I'd just finished berating her for the incompetence of her
whole operation, the young manager of the Q-Zar arcade put an arm around my
shoulder. "Come into my office," she said. "I'll get you some water."
For the next 20 minutes -- the duration of a Q-Zar game -- I sat
there with the muffled sound of gunfire and rap music coming through the
walls, drinking my water and talking to Melissa Lim, age 23. We talked
about California and single parenthood, love, friends, fog on the Golden
Gate Bridge, love affairs, breakups, houses, gardens, moving. "I've
actually been happy here," I told Melissa Lim. "It's just that
everything's so different."
After a while, when I was calm again, Melissa mentioned that today was
a two-for-one day at Q-Zar, which meant my sons would be getting a
second game. "I want you to go back in there and play this time," she
said. "I know you can do it. I'll help you."
She led me into the gun room in advance and picked out what she said
was the best gun. She helped me on with my shield. We energized the
gun together. No problem. Round 2 began.
I won't say I got hooked on Q-Zar, but this time I had a perfectly fine
time playing. Charlie and Willy, who were totally into the game, had
noticed my absence during the first round, but chalked the whole thing
up to what they consider the occasional mystery and incomprehensibility
of all mothers' behavior. Although it had been a couple of months
since I'd cried -- a mysterious occurrence in itself -- they had seen me
cry often enough that the sight doesn't alarm them any more than the
sight of clouds passing over the sun and momentarily darkening the sky.
"I bet I'm the only kid whose mother ever had a nervous breakdown at
Q-Zar," Willy said as we were leaving. Perhaps he's right. But only,
as I told him, because most of the other mothers know enough not to go
there in the first place.
"I know, I know," he said, anticipating the speech that would come next.
"How many other mothers do we see driving around California with New
Hampshire license plates ..."
One less than there used to be. I replaced my "Live Free or Die"
plates the next morning.