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Child Abandonment

The shoe saleswoman at the outlet mall hovered, arms crossed. She did not offer assistance, only stood and stared. My friend and I were trying on sandals: red-leather slides with square toes, impossibly tall cork-heeled platforms, shiny brown thongs. We were taking our time, pulling box after box off the shelves, considering our reflections, luxuriating in the moment.

The saleswoman, we were sure, had pegged us as shoplifters. Actually, we were loitering simply because we could. It had taken months of talk and postponements to finally slip away from our husbands and our babies, and nothing was going to sour our fun. We were sick of the routine, the relentless responsibility that kept us always alert, even during sleep, and of the endless arguments over who was doing more. We wanted to be free, or at least pretend we were, for a little while.

We picked Ojai. Another world, but you could get home in a hurry. We reserved one night at a newish motel, packed books and bubble bath, and made no plans. Under a burning July sun, we kissed our families goodbye.

We drove north on the 101, out past the Valley, up over the Conejo Grade. We stared at the hard, brown hills, and the open fields rimmed with new housing tracts. In each of those homes was a woman who had surrendered herself to the needs of her husband, her children and her job. Trying to do too much and not doing any of it well.

And so we stopped at the mall. Giddy with the ease of shopping without children, we went a little crazy, buying dresses, underwear and sheets. We were even secretly thrilled about the hovering shoe saleswoman and her suspicions. We bought our sandals and headed for the hills.

Our motel room had no tub, and you could hear the highway traffic shushing by. But it had a Mexican-tile floor and a refrigerator full of beer. I took a nap and woke up surprised. It had been a free-to-sleep-deeply, pre-baby slumber. That alone was worth the trip.

We walked through town along streets that had a just-deserted feeling, like a grand ballroom after a big party. At the bandshell in the park, a boy dressed in a chicken suit bounced a basketball onstage for a small audience of parents and young children. An amplified trio of musician-dads provided the soundtrack. I could live here, in this quiet, uncomplicated place. I could have horses and send my kids out for milk and not worry. I could knit sweaters and sell Tupperware and have a big, wild garden.

Of course, I’d be miserable. I‘d lived in Ventura for nearly three years and had been bored out of my mind. I’d come to Ojai then and thought it hot and uninteresting. It still was, as a long-term proposition, though plenty good for a day.

That night we ate quail and lobster on the patio of the most expensive restaurant in town, overlooking roses and herbs and a koi pond with an arched bridge. A couple with an 8-month-old son sat at the table next to ours. His constant, jerky movements reminded me of my girl, just a month older than he. When I‘d visited Ojai before, I’d never seen a single child. Now I saw them everywhere, and at this moment I couldn‘t help but resent it. This boy was like a mirror, reflecting back at me who I was -- a mother -- as opposed to the self I was pretending to be: a glamorous woman of mystery sipping cocktails in the garden.

Back at the motel, slurry with red wine, we considered a swim in the kidney-shaped pool, but it was too cold, so we lolled in the hot tub. Suddenly it was dark and late, and the vacation was half over. We felt the tug, phoned home and fell into restless sleep.

The next morning’s sun brought with it that familiar pressure that comes with knowing we had not done as much as we should. Our books had gone unread, our bubble bath unused. But we were grateful for a moment of lightness and not unhappy to go back. After a quick hike, we searched in vain for a place to get a pedicure and left early. First to get our toes painted and then to see our beautiful babies.