The Picnic, by M. V. Lerner
The Picnic, by M. V. Lerner
The sharp crack as shards of glass shattered across the Mexican tile floor was immediately followed by two sounds: a muttered “shit” and a wailed “Mommy.” Stephanie sighed, put down her margarita and gathered the little girl to her.
“Are you okay baby-cakes? What happened?”
Behind her head, an irritated waiter and a busboy rolled their eyes at each other as they mopped up smashed glass and a wasted strawberry daiquiri that had toppled from the tray just as the little girl whisked past the waiter in pursuit of her brother.
As her parents comforted Annie, her brother Connor continued his game of twirling around and dipping under nearby tables while humming the SpongeBob theme song.
“Jesus, this place has become a fucking daycare center,” said one patron to his friend.
Annie’s mother whipped her head around, pushed her sunglasses into her carefully blown dry auburn hair and hissed, “Please control your language around my kids.”
Diners at the adjacent tables snickered as the man apologized with a curt “sorry.”
“Well, that’s the last time I go to that place without Emily,” said Annie’s mother.
“What does Emily have to do with it Steph? Can’t we have a family outing without the nanny sometimes?” asked Annie’s father.
“Sorry Dan. I’d just like to be able to relax when we go out, that’s all.”
Stephanie slurped the rest of her margarita in one gulp.
“Let’s just go,” she said.
As she heard the minivan pull into the driveway, Emily carefully pinched the end of her joint and tucked it into the pocket of her jean shorts, then sprayed herself with the lemon-scented air freshener from under the sink. She ran her fingers through her pixie cut, spiking the tips of her hair with her fingers. As she opened the bathroom door, Annie flung herself into Emily’s arms, babbling, “Emmy smells yummy. I miss you. We had a turrible dinner.”
“What happened, munchkin?”
“A bad man said a bad word and Mommy got mad. Oh, and I almost got smacked with a big glass of cherry juice.”
“Wow, that does sound like a bad night out. Stephanie, do you want me to put the kids to bed tonight so you and Dan can get a break?”
Stephanie, eyes focused on her Blackberry, said, “Sure.”
Dan jerked his plaid shirt from his khaki shorts, grabbed his laptop from his briefcase by the door and headed to his favorite chair, stepping nimbly around the red plastic truck but stumbling a bit over the discarded pink tutu in the middle of the family room floor.
“Want anything?” called Stephanie across the breakfast bar. ”I’m having a beer. That was rough.”
“Rough? Why? Because you didn’t have the nanny? Or because you don’t know how to get our kids to behave in public?”
Stephanie slammed her Stella Artois on the granite counter and glared at her husband, unmoved by his pretty green eyes and tousled brown hair.
“Umm, Dan? What about you? Did it ever occur to you that maybe you could help out with the kids? I’m not their only parent, and you’re not the only one around here who works. We’re both parents, you know.”
Dan said, “You’re right. It’s just, well; I don’t remember my mother needing so much goddamn help all the time.”
“Your mother wasn’t trying to make partner at the same time she was raising you and Sam. Her biggest challenge was figuring out which cookies to make when you got home from school.”
“You know that’s not fair. It was a different world then. She raised us, supported my Dad in his career, and did a ton of volunteer work in our community. I think you need to respect that.”
Stephanie shrugged, grabbed her beer and stalked up the curved wood staircase. Their bedroom door slammed a moment later.
As Dan tapped the power button impatiently on his laptop, he glanced around the cluttered family room. Plastic bins were stacked against every wall, bursting with toys in blinding shades of lime green, fire engine red and bubblegum pink. Dan thought about how his mother made sure he and his brother put away every one of their army guys and Hot Wheels before bed. He looked out the window and noticed that the landscape guy had mowed the lawn and trimmed the hedges around Annie’s plastic playhouse.
God, he thought, these kids have every toy that’s ever been made. My mother would be disgusted. She always used to say, “When you have kids, just remember that all they need is a giant cardboard box, some crayons and a whole lotta love.”
Dan remembered the summer he and his brother had built a fort out of some broken tree limbs, an old sheet and, yes, the tall cardboard box the new neighbors had left outside when they moved in. Wonder if Sam ever thinks about that time Mom surprised us at school. He grabbed his cell phone and dialed.
“Sam? ‘Member that day Mom picked us up after school and we went to the lake instead of going home?
“I thought I was in trouble, but she said ‘it’s a nice day and I just want to have fun with you guys’. Remember Sam?”
Dan’s brother laughed softly. “Of course. She even played Frisbee with us.”
“’Member how scared she was that the ducks were gonna bite us?”
“How pissed was Dad when we got home!? He was filthy and sweaty from cutting the grass and he said he’d have gone swimming in the lake if he’d known we were there. God, he used to work hard on our house, didn’t he? But hey, what brought on all this nostalgia?”
Dan stopped smiling.
“Nothing special. Gotta go.”
As he put down his phone, Dan looked at the perfect lawn, the trimmed shrubs and the plastic playhouse and shook his head. Steph may not be the model mom, but then again I’m not the model dad, he thought.
He grabbed a couple of beers from the kitchen and climbed the stairs, wondering if an apology and a Stella would warm things up in his home.
Stephanie gulped a cup of coffee while sliding her feet into flats and smoothing her black sweater over the top of her skinny jeans.
“Emily, I’m heading to the store,” she shouted over the noise of Sesame Street. “Do you need anything? Or do we need anything for Annie or Connor?”
Dan slipped behind Stephanie and slid his arm around her waist.
“Hey honey, you want me to come with you?”
Stephanie sloshed coffee over the edge of her “World’s Best Mom” mug and shrugged.
Twenty minutes later, as Dan loaded the cart with gallons of fat-free milk; Stephanie stood gaping at a young woman in a hot pink mini-dress who was tottering on four-inch heels while trying to maneuver a dozen eggs into her basket while holding onto a toddler with her other hand.
“Steph, do you think we should get the kids some chocolate milk for a treat?”
Not getting an answer, Dan turned to see Stephanie watching the young woman.
Dan tapped Stephanie on the shoulder.
“Uh, Steph? A little attention here?”
“Oh, sorry. Did you see that girl? I was just thinking how stupid she is to try to handle a kid and shoes like that.”
Dan and Stephanie smiled at each other, forgetting the wounding words of the previous night in a moment of solidarity.
As Stephanie stuffed the milk into the extra fridge in the garage, she thought about how her mom had tried to be a “milk-and-cookies” mom like Dan’s, but it hadn’t worked out for her. Stephanie clenched her teeth as she thought about how her father had walked out on her mom and her sisters. And me, she thought grimly. Stephanie admitted to herself that she was driven to succeed professionally in reaction to her dismal high school years with a depressed, penny-pinching mom and an absent dad. But when I started down this road, she thought, I never realized it would be this hard to be a wife, a mother and a lawyer. The problem is, I can’t imagine giving any of it up. I may be tired, but I think I can handle anything as long as my kids are OK.
On Monday, Dan sat through a long production meeting as he alternately tapped his pen in irritation, checked his Blackberry and gazed out the window at the flawless blue sky and buttery sun. As the meeting ended, Dan’s friend Joe asked, “Everything OK? You seem a little distracted.”
“Sorry. It’s just a gorgeous day. I hope the nanny has my kids in the backyard playing and not sacked out on the couch in front of the TV.”
“I think about that sometimes, too. You never really know what the nanny is doing, do you?”
“Ever thought of getting a spy cam? Seems kinda creepy, but at least I could see what everyone’s up to.”
“Tell you what; we’re not getting a helluva lot done anyway. I’ll cover for you with the boss. Go home. Just promise me you’ll do the same for me next week.”
Dan grinned and was out of the office in under a minute. He stopped at the deli next door to his office for some ham-and-cheese sandwiches, red apples and three brownies with icing and M&Ms on top. On a whim, he grabbed an overpriced picnic basket from the gourmet section, enticed by a glimpse of the red-and-white checked lining inside.
As Dan pulled into the driveway he noticed his backyard stood perfectly manicured and perfectly empty. He grunted and flung open the front door. Annie and Connor leapt to their feet from the family room floor.
“Daddy! Daddy! Did you come home to watch SpongeBob with us?”
He gathered both kids into a big bear hug, then said, “Nope. Something better. Go get your shoes and jackets while I talk to Emily. Annie, help Connor, OK?”
Dan found Emily curled in the corner of the family room on a child-size bean bag chair, deep in conversation on her cell phone. She gave Dan a languid wave.
“Emily, can you put down your phone a sec? Listen, I’m taking the kids out, so you have the afternoon off. Tell Stephanie if she gets home before we do, OK?”
Dan scooped up the kids and buckled them into their car seats.
“Where we going Daddy?” asked Annie.
“Well, let’s see. Where’s the nearest lake? Let’s go to Lake Anna, shall we?”
“Lake Annie? My lake?”
Dan laughed, “No honey, it’s Anna. But we can call it Annie if you like. The important thing is to save some of our food to feed the ducks.”
“Will there be ducks, Daddy?”
Hours later, Dan tucked an exhilarated Annie and exhausted Connor back into their car seats, hoping his car would forever smell of damp sneakers, mud and brownies.
Dan drove slowly home, savoring the soft snoring emanating from his two filthy children.
God, I never once checked my Blackberry, he thought. He patted his pockets and then looked at the car seat next to him. Damn, I must have left it at the office. Oh well, at least I know the kids are safe with me, he thought with satisfaction.
As Dan pulled into the driveway, the front door was flung open. Stephanie ran toward the car, cheeks streaked with mascara. Dan frantically pushed the button to roll down his window.
“What happened? What’s wrong?”
As Stephanie neared the car and noticed the sleeping blondes in the back seat, she stopped cold.
“Oh my God. They’re with you. Thank God.”
She flung herself into Dan’s arms as he stepped out of the car, weeping with relief.
“I didn’t know where anyone was. Why didn’t you answer your phone? Why are the kids with you?”
Dan held on tightly to Stephanie as her shoulders slowly stopped trembling.
“Honey? God, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry you were so scared. I told Emily to tell you. I accidently left my phone at the office. Oh, God. I am so sorry. I just wanted to spend some time with the kids. I never meant to scare you.”
“Emily? Where is she? She’s not with you?”
“Nope. Look, you stay here by the car and watch the kids until we’re ready to wake them up. She’s not in the house? I gave her the afternoon off but I told her to tell you what we were doing in case you got home first.”
“I’ve been home about 20 minutes and didn’t see her. I called out to all of you and …” Stephanie started weeping again.
“It’s OK. I’ll find her. Just calm down and watch the kids.”
Dan headed straight to Emily’s suite in the basement, knocked softly on her door and then harder. No response. He pushed the door open. Emily lay passed out on her bed next to a damp stain created by the dregs of the vodka bottle still tucked under her hand. Dan shook her shoulder gently.
“Hey, Danny,” she slurred. “Wassup?”
Then she rolled over again, snoring.
Dan turned away to find Stephanie in the doorway with Annie’s hand snuggled inside her own and Connor’s head tucked next to Stephanie’s cheek.
“It’s OK. We’ll be OK,” Dan said.
“I know,” said Stephanie softly, cuddling Annie closer. “I guess we’re going to need to make some changes around here. Looks like Emily needs our help more than we need hers.”
Dan gently stretched his arms around his family and said, “We’ll figure it out together, OK? I’ve got some vacation time I can use for the next couple of weeks.”
“I can start coming home earlier if I share some more of my workload.”
“And can you come to my ballet class on Saturday morning?” asked Annie.
Stephanie squeezed Annie’s shoulder and said, “You bet.”