I was working backstage at a production of “The Nutcracker” that was being performed at the Tacoma, Wash., school where my daughter attends kindergarten. Since the company was using the school’s theater, they extended an invitation to the kindergarten ballet class to play Mother Ginger’s children.
What an opportunity; I was stoked. But now that it was happening, it was chaos: 5-year-old girls up way past their bedtime, having meltdowns backstage, raiding my daughter’s fruit snacks. Thankfully, someone thought to put on “Frozen.”
The tiny ballerinas gathered around the TV, some sneezing and coughing through their masks. My daughter, Cassie, was glued to the screen. You could tell she was the only child who hadn’t seen it. We had held off because she’s sensitive to movies and sometimes get nightmares.
But desperate times called for desperate measures. Ross, her father, came too. He couldn’t get into the auditorium because he didn’t have his vaccine card, so there we were in the gym like perfect strangers; the man I met in Nashville, full of sarcasm. The man who cried with me when, a month into dating, we found ourselves unexpectedly pregnant. The man who stroked my hair in the delivery room. The man who showed our daughter her first sunset. The man who lost his job when his company sold. The man who tried his best but just couldn’t love me, I guess.
Now, we share this daughter. She is a little leader. She stays calm and strong and positive. But she’s also hilarious. And kind. And flexible. She does like to be the boss. And good for her.
Ross sat with some of the other fathers discussing football. And I sat with Cassie watching “Frozen.” Sometimes I wish Ross and I could have made it work, but we were both too stubborn. We both wanted to be the boss. I am hot (temper-wise) and he is cold. I thought I could melt him. I think I did, for a while. But he’s steady and responsible. Somehow the combination of us made her. And I wouldn’t change a thing about that. When she asks why we’re not married, I say that I think her father and I met because she was meant to be born.
After what felt like an eternity, the crew told the girls to line up for their grand entrance. Ross walked backstage with Cassie so I could watch from the audience. It was so thrilling and adorable seeing them pop from the giant peppermint and do their little dance. Cass was so tall and delicate and graceful.
Of course, they all forgot the moves and one little boy just stood in the middle of the stage, dumbstruck, as a girl tried to walk offstage to her mother.
The audience ate it up. Afterward, Cassie would go home with Ross. I was planning on driving home too, but I felt restless, full of adrenaline, knowing that Jay, my music agent, was still nearby, his hotel room a mere six minutes away. I couldn’t pass up the chance to be held one more time. I told him I’d meet him at the hotel bar.
We’ve been doing this for two years, ever since Ross and I separated. Somewhere in all the togetherness of our work, we had fallen in love. It has been high highs and low lows, between the pandemic (because who needs agents when there are no concerts?) and his temper and mine. We’ve been sort of a hot mess. But the highs have been magic.
He had booked me to open for Pat Benatar and Andrew McMahon at some of the first drive-in shows this country ever had. He had believed in me, a single mother, and in my music. Or maybe he just wanted to have sex with me. And, well, I didn’t mind that either.
But I can’t help but wonder: If Jay hadn’t come along when I was so lonely, would Ross and I have been able to make it work? The thought tortures me. But maybe we were broken long before that.
The weekends with Jay, stowed away in hotels and dining in nice restaurants, were bliss. When you’re a broke single mother, that’s not nothing. And there was more. We would talk. Every day. Pretty much all day. I would tell him everything. He knows Cassie. He makes her laugh because he’s like a big child himself. But then, inevitably, he flakes out and disappears. Sometimes for a weekend. Sometimes a month. And all the magic turns into warfare. I don’t even talk to my friends about him anymore. They don’t want to hear it.
But the weekend before “The Nutcracker” performance we were in a good spell. I’m cobbling together an income from three jobs and only have Fridays off, so he came Thursday night, when Cass went to her father’s. And Jay and I spent every hour in bed making love and watching Christmas movies. He wanted to come to “The Nutcracker,” but I was worried about Ross.
We had already said our goodbyes, but I couldn’t pass up the chance for one more round, knowing it might be a long time before I saw him again (our pattern is to break up after every weekend we spend together).
“May I have a French 75?” I asked the bartender.
I wrapped my arms around Jay’s neck and practically sat in his lap.
“Good drink,” said a sloshed stranger nearby. “My mother’s favorite. Named after a cannon in the war.”
Jay and I looked over. It was nice, talking to strangers in a bar. With the way the world is now, it seemed like something from another time.
“Oh wow. Which war?”
“I don’t remember,” he said.
We talked to a mother nearby who was judging a volleyball tournament that weekend. Then another man approached with these weird bubble things sticking out of his bag.
“What are those?” I asked, the alcohol making me unabashedly social.
“Those are butt mats, for hiking.”
“Oh, smart,” I said.
Jay was quiet. He gets shyer in public. But he’s never shy with me.
“My girlfriend and I are hiking tomorrow. Mount Rainier. You two ever been?”
“No, but it looks beautiful,” I said.
“Your sweater is just fabulous,” he said.
I was wearing my ugly Christmas sweater from the year before. A giant sloth with a Santa hat graced the front. I had forgotten I was wearing it.
“Where did you get it?” he asked.
“Target in Puyallup.”
“Ooh, maybe we’ll go there tomorrow,” he said. “We have an ugly Christmas party. And that is just perfect!”
“You know what?” I said, pulling it off. “It’s yours. I’ve already overworn it.”
“What? Are you serious? Oh, I couldn’t.”
“Take it. It’s my Christmas good deed. I’m an elf.”
“Wow. What can I give you back? A drink? I have to give you something.”
“No, we’re good,” I said. “Really. Paying it forward. Don’t make it awkward.”
“Do you like chocolate?”
“Of course, but we actually have to go have sex now,” I said, motioning to Jay.
The bartender looked stunned.
The guy with the butt mats leaned in and whispered, “Oh, wait. Are you two — kinky?”
“Um.” We laughed. Were we?
“My girlfriend and I are super in love — ” he said.
Was he going to propose a group sex thing?
“I went to Castle today to surprise her,” he said, referring to the sex shop chain. “I think I may have just the perfect thing for you.”
He dug around in his bag, pulled out a gigantic roll of what appeared to be purple duct tape, and said, “Here.”
“What’s this?” Jay asked.
“Sex tape,” the man said, grinning.
I blushed. “Sex tape?” The bartender rolled her eyes and walked away.
“Yeah, it’s popular in Sweden. You can tie each other up. Tape each other’s mouths closed. Blindfold each other.”
“Wow, OK,” I said. “Thanks. We’ll give it a try.”
He gave us his number. I doubted we would ever text.
Back in the room, we pulled off each other’s clothes, and then Jay attempted to tape me. But I had an itch and broke right out of it.
“Sorry, sorry!” I said, drunk and laughing.
I taped his arms together and then connected them to his feet because we didn’t have scissors; he looked like a balled-up baby. We were cracking up. Soon he was mummifying me, rolling me over like a burrito. And then we gave up and fell onto the mess of tape. He lowered his head and kissed me.
“I don’t want you to go,” I said.
“Can we please have another trip like this soon?”
“Yeah,” he said.
Two weeks later, he was gone, and we weren’t talking. He says he wants a shot at having children. And I can’t seem to move beyond a hotel bed. Sex tape may be fun, but it’s not what we need. What we really need, Santa (if you’re reading this), is some relationship glue.