In a strange city, a new mother’s routine errand becomes absolutely everything.
I had a baby, a crumbling relationship and not one friend in the city we had moved to three weeks earlier, other than the partner I was losing. So naturally I fixated on an errand.
My objective: to get my 8-month-old to a pediatrician on the other side of Washington, D.C., a town that was a puzzle to me.
The stakes: for reasons I could not explain, absolutely everything.
It made no sense, but nothing in my life did.
And so I believed it fully — that if I could navigate my way across a baffling city on zero sleep and deliver my child promptly and intact to the pediatrician’s office for a routine checkup, it would prove I was a good mother.
Or at least competent enough to steer us through whatever miseries the coming months were sure to bring. Lawyers. Arguments over custody. It wasn’t going to be pretty.
But right then we were on track.
The stroller cruised, smooth as diaper cream, over brick-lined sidewalks. My son was happily trying to catch an empty Doritos bag swirling and glinting in the crisp November breeze. The row of brownstones that lined our block looked almost friendly, each with a set of stairs that seemed to promise neighborly visits in warmer weather. I could squint and see how people might not hate it here. And we were making good time.
Even though I had cried for 10 minutes when I was supposed to be finding my son’s vaccination card in one of dozens of partly unpacked boxes. Even though it had taken 20 more to wrestle him into his winter coat. Even though he had lost his patience and started to scream when I couldn’t find a way to work his left hand all the way through the puffy sleeve.
Still, here we were, rolling toward the car with a full 40 minutes to spare for a drive that Google Maps promised would take 25. I was like a mother in a fable, the kind who could turn a potato into 30 wishes.
Except the car was not where I remembered having parked it.
I felt a burst of rage. As though the city itself had played this trick on me. As though the feeling was mutual.
I hated Washington through no fault of its own. I hated it for being unfamiliar and disorienting at a time when I needed anchoring. For being the place where the man I loved had fallen out of love with me. For not being Berkeley, Calif., where the streets made perfect sense and cars stayed put. Where I had friends and some connection to the version of myself I had been before I became a mother.
My son was chewing his puffy coat in the place where his left hand would have been if I had managed to dress him properly.
“Weird day, huh?” I said.
The sound of my own voice steadied me a little.
I looked around. The car. It was a half block away. I began to run. At this pace, the stroller jostled and my son went bouncing. He laughed. He thought we were playing. I laughed, too. We were playing, until I reached for the door handle and found it didn’t beep open.
I tried again. No beep.
“Right,” I said. And then, to him: “What a funny door. The funny door won’t open!”
His smile in response was knowing. He looked benevolent and wise, although he was now trying to eat one of his own feet.
I rooted around in the diaper bag for the key fob, even though I knew exactly where it was and why the door wasn’t opening. I could see it resting atop a stack of partly unpacked boxes in the living room. I had put it down to rescue the yellow vaccination card that I had finally spied peeking out of a tangle of white extension cords. In my triumph about the card, I had forgotten to grab the fob.
“Mommy forgot the car key,” I said. “Silly Mommy!”
Even I had to admit my voice sounded deranged.
I wheeled us right, then left, then left again. We were moving at a wild speed because despair was following close behind. I raced it back to our street with the row of brownstones, their gracious stairs.
I had forgotten about the stairs.
In front of our building, I stood paralyzed.
I wasn’t strong enough to maneuver a baby in a stroller up 10 steps. And if I took him out of the stroller, the risk was high that he would lose his mind. He would turn into a writhing, wriggling, shrieking force of nature, and we would have no chance of making it to the doctor’s office on time. Without the car key, on the other hand, we were obviously going nowhere.
I could feel the competence and goodness leaking out of me. In its place was the conviction, cold and rattling, that I was not up to this.
Unless — unless I went inside without him. Left him on the street, just for a minute. Less than a minute, even. I’d be back in 30 seconds, 45 tops. What were the odds that someone would nab a child in the time I’d be gone?
As these thoughts passed through my mind, a nightmare vision came to me, complete and instantaneous. How I would head up the stairs, think better of it and turn back — only to find him gone. My child, no longer here, but back in California, where I was desperate for us to be. I saw him transported by my homesickness through space and time. Me here, him there — and how would I reach him?
This grotesque product of my imagination was so clear that it brought bile up my throat. But when my body settled, something deep inside me settled, too.
Even in that nightmare vision, I had known what now seemed obvious. If he had somehow teleported 3,000 miles away, I would have figured out a way to handle it. Even if the laws of nature gave out, stopped making sense, so that my child disappeared from one city and ended up in another, I would be up to it.
My life was going very differently from how I’d expected. It hurt and it would probably get worse. But I knew I was up to it. He needed me to be.
I lifted him from the stroller and carried him inside. He screamed and thrashed as we retrieved the fob and for a long while after that.
We were 45 minutes late to the appointment.
And we were fine.
Yael Goldstein-Love is the author of the novels “The Passion of Tasha Darsky” and “The Possibilities.”