I’d been preparing all day for my kid’s third birthday party, leaving me precisely zero time to write or worry about my debut manuscript in my literary agent’s possession. The nonstop activity did, however, help to distract me from the dread of wrangling a house full of toddlers. A couple glasses of wine didn’t hurt.
I dabbed at my sweaty forehead and surveyed my crêpe paper and balloon handiwork. I grinned with satisfaction at the wonderland I’d created in the living room for Jackson and his friends. Friends, I mused while I changed clothes. The little ones who were coming could become lifelong friends; how priceless that would be. Before I could congratulate myself with another glass of wine, parents started arriving with their little ones. The last mom to arrive—Lola, my new neighbor strolling in from across the street—left a rum-scented wake behind her. I grinned at the possibility of making a lifelong friend as well, but I didn’t dare strike a match behind her. She and her daughter both wore Calvin Klein in navy and ivory.
Toddlers scampered, touched, explored, screamed, smacked, and tumbled. Jackson times six. I sighed. It would be over soon enough. Surely tomorrow with the keen sting of hindsight, it would seem over too soon. My baby would never turn three again. Best to smile and enjoy what was possible to savor.
After the kids wore me out from playing Dance Break, nontoxic arts and crafts, pull-string piñata, and duck, duck, goose, the parents loaded kiddie plates with fruit salad and snacks—gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, of course.
When my husband came through the garage entrance into the kitchen, I jumped up to rush to him. “Thank God you’re home!”
“What’s going on?” he asked.
I could have strangled him. “Jackson’s birthday party. Where is the cake?” A swell of fury and panic swirled together into a whirlpool in the pit my stomach.
He stared blankly. “I-I-I…” He smacked his forehead. “In the car.”
“Please get your son’s birthday cake out of the car,” I said, restraining myself from punching him in the throat. “Please. Now.”
“Mommy, my birthday.” Jackson ran to me, squealing and clutching at my pink party skirt. This skirt marked my first splurge on myself in over a year.
“Yes, you’re a big boy now.” I scooped him up, kissing his forehead. He pressed his little hands to my cheeks. “Oh honey, how did you get sticky hands?” I cleaned my face and his hands with a wet wipe. My ‘lucky’ pink skirt was hopelessly marked up like a finger painting project. I guessed with grape jelly. I set Jackson loose to scream back to his friends.
Once I rejoined the party, Lola stopped me. I didn’t know my new neighbor very well besides the fact that auburn was not her natural hair color.
“Hey Justina,” she said, her matte red lipstick painted just outside the borders of her lips. “What a cute, little party you’ve put together. Tell me again what it is you do.”
Sip of wine and a cautious smile. “I’m a full-time mom to Jackson, but I wrote a novel.”
“How long did it take you?” she asked, turning up her pointy nose.
“About five years,” I said, reminded of all those hours I had skulked away to my laptop. Time dedicated to writing had to be demanded and fought for or carried like a stowaway. Otherwise the hungry bellies of competing demands would devour my time and energy. I thought of the rarity of achieving that state of being in flow and the ecstasy of words dripping from my fingertips. The incomparable moments when I’d received gifts from the Muse versus the deprivation of bouts of writer’s block. There were times when my draft begged me to stamp it ‘finished’, but early readers pointed out typos or passages with off-kilter pacing or characters whose motivations didn’t make sense to them or dialogue that felt contrived. A friend told me that when a writer nails down the right words, readers think a book couldn’t have been written any other way, when the truth is, it was written a thousand other ways first.
“Five years?” said Lola, her upper lip angling into a sneer.
“Yes,” I said, standing straighter. I’d met writers who slogged away for many more years than that to hammer out their novel manuscripts. I’d met writers who withered from the stone cold rejections from literary agents during the querying process. “I’m a writer.” I still couldn’t say this with absolute confidence, but hubby encouraged me to practice until it felt natural.
Her mouth puckered. “Writing? That’s just a silly hobby.” Lola’s voice had little weight to it, but her meaning pierced through me like a poison-tipped arrow.
The nerve! Who did she think she was? “My agent is sending my manuscript out to various publishers.” Gulp of wine. Please stop shaking, I said inside my head.
Her silly mouth stretched into a dismissive smile and she walked away. Infuriated, I kicked the air behind her. A miniature mob of toddlers screamed, begging for birthday cake.
My husband flew back into the kitchen and I hustled to him. While he took the Simba Lion King cake from the box, I got three candles from the junk drawer. “The little heathens are chanting for cake,” I mumbled, my hand shaking with the lighter. “I think they have pitchforks and torches.”
“They’re just kids, sweetheart,” said my husband, unflappable but annoyingly clueless.
I nudged him out of my way and lit the candles. All perfect now, I beamed, carrying marble cake Simba to my guests. The kids launched into a discordant rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Jackson, who was inexplicably naked from the waist down. My peripheral vision picked out something misplaced on the floor. Poop! Oh my God, my son pooped on the floor. Abort, abort! It was too late; I lost my balance and tripped over my feet, falling in slow-motion. I landed on the walnut floor, face first in the cake. A chorus of loud gasps filled the room, punctuated with Lola’s snort-laughing and Jackson’s cries.
Just then, my cell phone rang. Lola found it, brought it to me, and backed away as though my clumsiness might be contagious or smelly. Gathering myself to a seated position on the floor, I wiped away enough icing and tears to see it was my agent calling. I’d forgotten that it was time for a weekly update on how submitting to publishers was going. “Hello?” I said, a hollowing out feeling permeating my gut.
“Justina, hi it’s Harriet. Are you sitting down?”
“I happen to be sitting down, yes,” I said, noting the irony.
“Listen, two major publishers made very generous offers for your manuscript,” said Harriet. “We might get a bidding war going for you. How exciting is that?”
The words weren’t quite registering, but it felt like good news was clearing a path through the muck of my worries. “What? Please say that again.”
“You’re an author. Congratulations!”
With a deep breath to help re-center, my dream came into view, taking on contour, color, form, scent and sound. I saw myself banging out fascinating stories at my computer in a brand new office space designed by Candice Olsen from HGTV. I imagined racking up frequent flyer miles from going on book tours and signing piles of my books until my hand cramped. Lines of readers wrapped around a city block. The scent of coffee and brand new books—my books—whisked me away.
Children’s laughter snapped me out of my reverie. Jackson’s wails reached a crescendo and his friends were laughing and pointing at me, as I was still sprawled on the floor. I took one look at the cake with my face-shaped crater in it and got up. “Hey, Lola,” I called. As she got closer, I shot her a gloating look, standing with my hands on my hips, victorious. “That was my literary agent on the phone.” I smirked until it hurt. “A publisher is paying for my ‘silly hobby’.”
“Well good for you,” she said, in the same singsong voice I use when Jackson correctly identifies primary colors. I looked to my husband and we shared a wink. As soon as Lola turned away, I stooped to wipe up Jackson’s poop, never more proud of myself. If I could pull off motherhood, I could pull off a writing career.