As soon as I step out of the JFK airport terminal into the muggy dawn, I feel disoriented. It's not that the air is thick with the smells of mildew and rats, although it is. It's not that I am immediately accosted by half a dozen cab drivers, though I am. It's not even that I'm tired and hungover and nauseous after a cheap red-eye flight across the country. No, my confusion this morning has more to do with the new identity zone I am stepping into than with my particular geographical location. I'm on a week-long furlough -- I left my 7-year-old daughter back in California -- and with only my own feelings to consider, I can't even remember how to make a decision as simple as this: subway or car service?
In Oakland, Maia and I live mostly a quiet life. My hot pink hair and the fact that, at 27, I am at least a decade younger than most of the other moms at Maia's school hint at a more exciting life than we actually lead. We hang out at Safeway. We feed the cat. I write while Maia is at school. I help her with her homework. She visits her dad. And when I planned to come to New York alone it had more to do with her not wanting to join me than any conscious desire to break away from being "mama."
Tillie Olsen wrote that "more than in any other human relationship, overwhelmingly more, motherhood means being instantly interruptible, responsive, responsible." Much has been said about the identity crisis we experience as new mothers. But what happens after we have grown accustomed to our Mamaness? Even comfortable with it? What happens after years of always being interruptible? After we've designed our lives and trained our senses to be always responsive and responsible, what happens when we suddenly land, alone, at JFK and realize that no one really cares how we get to Manhattan?
I end up in a taxi, and I am still a little queasy when I finally get to my friend's apartment on the Lower East Side. I ring his doorbell once and then curl up in his doorway, using the Hello Kitty duffel bag I borrowed from my daughter as a pillow. I probably should have tried harder to wake him, but it's been ages since I rested like this in a doorway, and for the first time in seven years, I can.
It is still early morning, and few people are out on the street. A woman approaches me cautiously and leans down to ask if I need a fix. "You OK?" she wants to know. "'Cause we can go see my man Raul." When I wake up I feel youth-sick, and oddly exhilarated. I ring my friend's doorbell and when he hears I've been outside since sunrise he looks at me with a mixture of pity and concern. "Have you lost your mind?" I just laugh. I can't say that I haven't.
On this first day, I am cautious. My first book is being published in the spring and I have several business meetings and expense-account lunches to focus on. And although (according to my friend, Dave) I look like a cross between a rock star and a housewife, by my standards, I am dressed up. I amuse myself uttering simple sentences: "Sure, I'll have another beer"; "If I don't come back tonight, I'll just see ya tomorrow"; and, my favorite, "No, I have no interest in going to see the Statue of Liberty." (When I was here with Maia last year, we were poster children for New York tourism -- $20 T-shirts and all.)
On the second day, I am giddy. I stop by an old boyfriend's apartment at random hours to have sex -- mostly for the thrill of not having to listen for the pitter-patter of little footsteps coming down the hall. He's a guy I lived with in wilder days -- when he was in high school and I was the mod party-girl dropout. Now when I scream in his bed I all but forget that he's a Narcotics Anonymous convert and I'm on the PTA. I call Maia to check in, half-hoping that she will offer me something to feel guilty about, or at least some grounding thoughts. But she doesn't. She hates the city. She is glad she didn't have to come. It's dark in New York, she says, and stinky. She is having a blast with her father, the tooth fairy brought her five bucks and she doesn't need a thing from me.
This isn't the first time in seven years that we've been apart, but I've always stayed in Oakland when Maia went off with her dad for weekend visits. And when I'm on home turf, the circle I travel in is, admittedly, a maternal ghetto. Most of my friends in Oakland have children, so even when I do not have my own baby sitter to relieve, I find myself rushing home from concerts as if my Honda is on the verge of turning into a pumpkin. I spend the days when she is gone catching up on work, and even when I go out to Club Red, I leave before last call. I only stop for one drink after a k.d. lang show. At home I remain in mama-mode: always prepared to respond to an urgent telephone call, checking my messages at least twice a day and rarely allowing my blood alcohol level to creep above the legal limit.
By Thursday, I begin to lose track of days and nights all together. I am often tipsy, but mostly I'm high on the uninterruptedness of it all. I am mesmerized by the flow of time and events -- one thing leads to another and another and another -- and even when I stop long enough to eat a piece of pizza, no paper airplane noses onto my plate to bring me back to reality. Skidding into adolescent oblivion, I get a CD-sized tattoo on my shoulder at a shop where they blare Violent Femmes like it's 1985. I fall head-over-heels in love with a woman I barely know. A woman with henna in her hair. At a dinner party, someone asks if my daughter knows I will be coming home with the tattoo, and I remember that when I got my first one at 16, someone asked if my mother knew.
At 1 a.m. in New Jersey, after an Ani DiFranco show I hear that the trains have stopped running and it doesn't even occur to me to worry about how I'm going to get back to Manhattan. Without a little kid whining about our predicament, without any baby sitter to relieve, I have time to wait for luck to kick in. I get back. Of course I get back. I hitch a ride with a busload of crazy Brits who came all the way to the East Coast to see Bob Dylan scratch out a few tunes after Ani left the stage. I stay up until 6 a.m. blaring music and smoking with a friend in her elegant apartment on the Upper West Side. I sleep until noon. I forget to eat.
One morning -- I don't know which one -- as I am parting from a new friend after spending all night in her tiny East Village apartment talking about hair dye, Beth Lisick prose poems and bisexuality, I am filled with a strange feeling of deceitfulness when I realize that this new friend knows I was born under the sign of Cancer, knows that the subway signs in this town always make me think of Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems and knows that I prefer black licorice to red, but knows nothing of my daughter and the left front tooth she lost last week.
That afternoon, I confide my identity crisis to a woman at a bar on the Lower East Side who bears an uncanny resemblance to Nina Hagen. "You're not regressing," the woman assures me. "This is just life without kids." "You mean, when people don't have kids, they act like this all of the time?" I ask, certain that I've misunderstood. "And you don't get tired?" I ask, incredulous. She smiles. "Well," she begins slowly as she orders another drink, "you do get tired, but then you just sleep. And, of course, at some point there are health concerns. And if you've got a job or a career or something ..." I just stare at her, trying to imagine what my life would be like without anyone to interrupt me, without having to be responsive, responsible. When I was 19 and pregnant, I used to joke that I was having a baby to keep myself out of trouble. And now I realize that it was true. Here I thought I'd grown up in seven years, and all I'd done was to find another use for my ability to function without sleep. I wonder what my life would be like without my daughter's all-encompassing presence, and I am somewhat comforted to realize that without the grounding effect she has on me, I'd probably just go get myself knocked up.