Identify Your Triggers: Whole Foods Parking Lot | Cassie Burkhardt
I’m with my two-year-old at the grocery store today, truly the most demoralizing place for stay-at-home mothers when you haven’t showered, your stomach is grinding coffee beans in your sleep and you feel the exact same color as the uncured ham slices lying flat and helpless. My cart is piled high with chicken breasts, boxed broth, tomato sauce, jumbo cartons of berries, organic bananas—of which the two-year-old’s eaten two— the ripped-open peels an upside-down, stringy version of what used to be whole. It’s a food pantry in my cart and it will probably only last us half the week. My two-year-old is climbing out of the cart, trying to help me by lobbing pears onto the conveyor belt at checkout, dangling an egg carton as I sweep in to save it. I’m sweating and my winter coat stinks in the armpits, I’m the boring age of thirty-seven, dressed in some sort of stained, Luleisure combo, frantically searching for the Amazon Whole Foods app that will save me $2.41 on my $280.00 purchase. My daughter is shrieking that she wants to do everything herself, pressing buttons and licking the handlebar on the cart, screaming, “Cookies!” and then taking her shoes and socks off, her little mullet flipping back off her forehead as she thrusts off the flamingo print Gap sock.
The elderly couple behind me smiles, waving and cooing, just beaming because they remember the time and it goes so fast and, “You can have her!” I yell. Chuckle chuckle. Luckily, the cashier is unphased by my existence, lets me struggle alone, his nails are blue, he doesn’t even look up, I am pineapple two-for-one and what is this green stick? Lemongrass? A manager in a bossy green apron struts by to coach one of the drones who collect groceries for the rest of society when we catch his eye. He is terrified that my daughter, now standing in the part of the cart where she is supposed to be sitting, will fall mullet-first to chalky, lavender death in a bucket of bath bombs or worse, sue him. “She’s my third, she’s got this,” I tell him. He winces and motions to me to restrain her, accompanied by gasps from several other customers who are on their way to the fifteen items or fewer aisle. I stare longingly in the direction of that line, the breezy way the man in chinos walks by with his salad and a single tangerine to pay. What I wouldn’t give to have a lunch break, to be the mandarin in his palm… Hello little satsuma. It floats by, so cool, bursting with flavor underneath that skin, already undressing…
Beep beep beep, my daughter has taken over control of the credit card machine and is en route to planet Please Stop. I remove my daughter from the cart and place her before a wall of novelty magnets she can knock over or bite. One says: “I should’ve partied harder in 1999” and “Just another day of pretending I’m fine!’” and “You’re awesome” (It’s Bill Murray pointing at me) and thank you Bill, these are actually making me laugh for a second in the midst of this sweaty bagging nightmare, so I slip one in my coat pocket and don’t tell anyone, just because. Oh whatever, it’s fine. I deserve this, right? Are we done yet? The cashier is mixing everything up after I told him not to, when I quickly had to save my daughter from imminent grocery cart death. Perishables and pantry items are being tossed together into a beef-juice-animal-cracker-soup and somehow he didn’t use half of the tentlike, soft cooler bags I brought and he’s taking two decades to do it, but I’m too bored and flustered to care. I just want to be home. I want to rip off my clothes and burn them in the backyard or maybe move to Australia with my three kids, live in a thatched-roof hut where “beach” is written in chalk on a piece of driftwood or maybe just sit on the toilet and stare into my phone at home. Clothes on Shopbop. Clothes. Pretty clothes. Pretty clothes to wear one day to make-believe party. Art. Pretty abstract art in frames, swirly pastel mess contained on a canvas. Bench. Pretty velveteen entry bench, pretty bench where I will never sit but looks nice. Friend. Pretty friend on pretty cliff-laced lagoon in Europe I want to choke for jealousy. Like. Like. Like. Sweet little dopamine feedback loop. It’s already happening before it’s happening, like some Black Mirror episode I can’t get out of. I heave a bag into the cart and the handles pop right off.
“Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommeeeeeee!” Here, Coco, shake these and do this! (mints and magazine rack to dismantle while I pay) and what? My receipt. Hell no! Keep it! My gift to you! We’re done! Hallelujah, let’s get the F outta here babe! Let’s push this bitch! I practically need a mule to get me to the elevator, but no, I’m fine, please leave me alone everyone. Oh wait, no one gives a shit. No one even asks me if I need help. No one says hello anymore. No one says goodbye. Only the disabled man by the disinfectant wipes in the dark garage says, “Thank you for coming!” but he is talking to someone behind me. It’s fine. I can muscle my way through this experience, move the scooters and helmets, heave cases of sparkling water and paper towels into the trunk the way I pushed three kids out of my poon. I got this. (Ok, two out of three came out the poon, the first one was an emergency C-section.) Anyways, snap out of it, unlock the car you idiot. Garage. Darkness. The carseat, click, phew. Child is restrained. Collapse into my seat, Exhale. I practically weep in the driver’s seat. Life is so impossible and mundane.
And this is it, right? This is motherhood. Stinky armpits and “put cookie monster song on!” and clementine peels everywhere and a dented minivan, some vacations in between, some odd jobs teaching yoga on Zoom or helping a friend write something clever for something important, but mostly this grind. Oh geez, it’s all coming out of my head now. Anyone can do it for a day, a week, but: Every. Single. Day. I know, you are telling me, “Order your groceries online! Get a nanny! Go on a yoga retreat!” But that would be missing the point. That would be to misunderstand the feeling, the universal ache of the mother entirely. That ache that has nothing to do with how much help you get or manicures you treat yourself to and everything to do with feeling trapped, invisible, robotic, burdened by responsibility, and fueled by love, yet ambivalent about every decision you make trying to keep the web together. Yearning for freedom yet clinging to routines. Feeling like life is over yet hasn’t begun, starving, but I just ate, fuck me but don’t touch me, unreliable with basic tasks and pediatrician’s appointments, but completely in tune with the children’s every need, food, sleep, poop, and whose tiny underwear is whose, and constantly obsessing that we should be eating more vegetables. Exhausted, but I can’t stop, a ghost in a suburb getting gas, cleaning up Magnet Tiles, buying balloons, stirring broth, then staring into my phone at 11:48pm standing up in my bathroom saying I should really get some sleep. I am not alone, but I am so alone.
How can something so universal feel so singular, so isolating? I’m life-threateningly useful to four people and useless to the rest of the world, invisible even. I haven’t watched the news in a hundred years, but I’m wiser than a goddamn-baby-whispering-sage. Why do I push friends away yet crave connection? How can I be the person I was meant to become? What is a writer and am I one? Who will be my huckleberry friend waiting round the bend with a ukulele and a wink? Unfortunately, it’s not my husband. He’s on call! And my mom is on a cleanse with my dad in Puerto Rico, so I guess it has to be my own goddamn aging self. And look at her! She’s pale and hollowed out like an avocado shell, her hair looks like it’s been licked by a camel. This is the person I have to confront?! This person in the rearview mirror?! Is she the writer? The question and the answer? What can I whisper to myself in the dark of this parking garage to validate this soul-crushing experience of life? The oddity of this mothering experience, this complete crapshoot I’ve launched myself headlong into. And will I die before I figure this out? Or worse, give up?
No. No, for me there is pressure. I’m ambitious, I went to NYU, I ran a marathon, I survived an eating disorder as a child. I can do this! I must keep putting mascara on and doing push-ups and going up to the attic to write. I will not rest until I create art out of this despair. I cannot stop trying, stop noticing, collecting, recording the details, ideas, images like food for winter. Some images and scenes I’m collecting lately: My heart is a carbon monoxide detector that keeps chirping long after the batteries have been taken out, my children’s hummingbird heartbeats keep fluttering even in sleep and I swear I can hear them from my room, their Micros scooters in blue, purple and pink keep working even after I’ve accidentally run them over a couple of times. Resilience! A dinner of apple skins and toast fragments, ham rinds and dry pasta pairs well with an expensive Sancerre, I am a diamond that can bust out of the prongs at the stroke of twelve, but still be home to make their lunches for tomorrow.
The ambivalence stuff: the weird joy I feel that when I run after my kids at the playground, pretending to be a wolf, that horrified look of delight in their eyes when they ask me to do it again, again, again, then after the fifth time screaming “no more!” and sulking on a bench with my phone wishing I were at a dark party on the lower east side, so low it’s underground and only Chloe Sevigny and I know about it. Another one: Lying in the sand with all of my children on top of me late into the evening, sticky with ocean and sweat and wind and we should really be getting home, my husband is worried about us, but lingering longer because we can, I’m the mother bear back off, and we love squeezing the last drop out of a beach day, dancing in the dunes. Two seconds later, my daughter chucking sand in my mouth and the baby pooped in her bare bathing suit and no one helps me carry anything to the car, but oh well. I’m happy/miserable. Reading stories cozy in bed, relishing the purr of my own voice, the smell of the kids’ shampoo, then two seconds later my daughter sneezes and snots all over the book and everyone is yelling and I just can’t anymore and I tell everyone to get out. Moments like this stacked up every day. Do you know what I mean?
I start the car.
Blazing through yellow lights and careening through the familiar, winding forest roads, we are on our way home. I look and feel exactly like Cruella DeVille— when she didn’t catch the dalmatians and had to get herself out of a lump of snow— and that’s ok. I’ll come out on the other side of this. I have food for my family, my daughter is click-clocking her tongue and I have my images in my head like friends that flicker off the dashboard into my brain. She is just a child. I am her mother. A woman, a flawed human headed home. I am reminded that creativity can only exist in times of uncertainty, that art is born when opposing feelings collide, rub up against each other, start a dialogue. Loneliness can be celebrated, or at least renamed “solitude” which sounds more romantic. Anger is really fear and my worst fear is losing myself.
I pull into the driveway and my daughter is madly sucking her finger and sniffing her little blankie. In two hours I have to pick up the other two kids, but now it’s naptime. The story about Curious George making pancakes will calm us both down. I’ll sing her my made-up, weird songs she loves and hold her hand, smell her head, her pure, sweet scalp that gives me hope. It’s going to be ok. Is it going to be ok? Write it down. For god’s sake, run up to the attic once she’s asleep and write this all down before you forget.
About the Author:
Cassie Burkhardt is a poet from NY, currently based in Philadelphia. She has three children and is working on a collection. Her poem “Study Abroad” recently won Rattle’s Ekphrastic Poetry Challenge, Nov 2021.