Our columnist on lost jobs, forgotten tutus, the croissant not eaten...and what she got instead.
It took a little time, but my daughter and I have finally got our Sunday mornings down to a system. Just as the light starts inching through our blinds and the pigeons start making those peculiar pigeony noises and the hungover 22-year-olds start cursing whoever invented the Jell-O shot, Julia wakes me with words that come in a rush from her heart: "Did you buy me anything?" And "Are you going to buy me anything?" And my personal favorite: "Would you like a list of things you could buy me?"
We wash our hands and preheat the oven. I get the mixing bowl down from its shelf while she heads for the box of Duncan Hines muffin mix in the cupboard. We hear a dull thwumph sound from someplace beyond the dining table, where we've set up our workstation. "What was that?" she asks, and I tell her it was either The New York Times being plopped at our doorstep or her great-grandmothers (both accomplished bakers) turning in their graves. I snip the bag of dry ingredients open and she pours it in the bowl. She tells me that her pal Fiona would like to be a pastry chef when she grows up: "She's going to make squillions and squillions of cookies and cover them in rainbow frosting." I ask Jules if she'd like to do that, but she remains committed to a career in the ballerina industry. "I wanted to be a ballerina when I was 5," I say, pirouetting to the refrigerator for a couple of eggs. "So what stopped you?" Leave it to a kindergartner to ask the $64,000 question. There's the short answer: my distinct lack of athleticism and grace coupled with an abiding love of all things potato. And then there's the longer answer, the one about having the confidence and guts and perseverance to go after what you want. The one about the need for approval and the fear of failure and (in my case) the even greater fear of success. I measure three-quarters of a cup of whole milk and reply, "I turned 6."
I like being a writer—you get to wear a lot of black sweaters and claim to be on a hideous deadline when your mother calls—but I do catch myself wondering from time to time about the road not taken. Julia and I hunt for the vegetable oil and I talk to her about what might have been. "Your grandfather was a stockbroker with Merrill Lynch for 37 years. He worked very, very hard cold-calling strangers and turning them into loyal clients, creating a career out of thin air and intense ambition. He never came right out and said it, but I know it would have made him really happy if he could have taught me how to be a broker. The thing is..." Julia's interest trails off somewhere around the Merrill Lynch reference, which I suppose is to be expected from a person in oven mitts and a tutu. Fair enough. How can I expect my daughter to make sense of this allergic reaction I have to corporate life? Do I explain that Mommy doesn't take kindly to management seminars and fluorescent lighting? Perhaps I should simply present her with my SAT scores and leave it at that. We open the can of blueberries that Mr. Hines so thoughtfully includes in every box, drain and rinse them in the sink, then begin folding the berries into the batter.
Julia positions pleated paper muffin cups in the tins. "One for Domingo, one for Jai, one for Loic, and two for Luan," she says, rattling off the names of all the doormen on her breakfast distribution list. I ask how come Luan gets an extra, and she tells me that Luan lets her try on his doorman hat. "I think he's got a big crunch on me," she confides. "How can you tell?" Julia tastes the batter, pronounces it ready, and returns to my question. "Mommy, when a boy likes you, there are signs," says my tiny dancer/relationship expert: "Like if he punches you in the arm and says he doesn't like you, that means he likes you." Now she tells me! As good advice goes, this is right up there with "Stay in school," "Pack a sweater," and "Get plenty of roughage."
One rainy afternoon, not so long ago, I ran into a long-lost buddy from my days in advertising. It had been almost 25 years since we'd spoken. I'd gained some weight and he'd lost some hair. We ducked into a little coffee shop to dry off and catch up. He showed me a picture of his wife and kid and told me that the three of them spend summers in Paris. "We just get completely immersed in the culture." I showed him a picture of Julia and Johannes (that would be my boyfriend for those of you who've managed to miss my last 735,000 columns) and told him that the three of us summer in my bedroom. "We just get completely immersed in the air-conditioning." And then it happened: "I always had a little thing for you," he said. And, my friends, I'm not proud of what I'm about to tell you, but here it is: I actually looked behind me to see who he was talking to. "Wait, you mean me? Me? The woman who helped pick out everything from long-stem tulips to La Perla lingerie for your many, many girlfriends? You had a thing for me?" I asked him why he neglected to speak up all those years ago. If this were a movie, here's the part where he'd reveal some incredibly dramatic secret—"The truth is, I was a CIA operative only posing as an account executive. In my heart I knew that you were the one girl I'd be tempted to blow my cover for, and if I did that, my angel, well, we'd all be speaking Chinese right now." But this is not a movie—he thought for a minute, shrugged, and answered, "You know, I honestly can't remember."
Julia plants four or five fresh blueberries in each paper cup of batter—our secret trick to make these muffins taste like the real deal—while I wipe sticky splotches off the table and imagine what might've been. I could've spent August boating on the Seine. I could've been bullish on America. Hell, I could've danced Swan Lake. Anyway, that's the fantasy. The reality is I tend to get seasick; I would've pleased my father but lost my mind; and as for becoming the next Dame Margot Fonteyn, there's an excellent chance I'd have jetéed straight into the orchestra pit and crushed a cellist six seconds into the first act.
We put our muffins in the oven and set the timer for 16 minutes. Julia announces that she will be using this period "to have three babies and take them swimming." I will use my 16 minutes to shake off all dreams of a road less traveled. You make the choices you make based on what you know about yourself and what you think you know about the world. And sometimes the world will turn around and break your heart, but other times, a 5-year-old will saunter in with three dolls wet from their swim lesson. The five of you will sit down to blueberry muffins, and the reality of what you wound up with will suddenly seem like the only possible choice—it just couldn't have turned out any other way.