When Natalie was five she started violin lessons. It would be nice to say that this was due to her own innate desire to be a musical prodigy. In reality Jimmy and I had something to do with it. Having played the piano growing up, I knew that the only way to be passably good at an instrument eventually–short of the whole prodigy thing– was to start early and not be allowed to quit anytime during the first 3-4 years. During those first few years the entire process is largely painful for all involved. So, I wanted her to start early to have a chance to eventually be decent. Jimmy just insisted because of the whole Asian thing.
It’s a mostly spot-on stereotype that Korean American kids all play a string, and Jimmy was no exception. Both of his older sisters were assigned to violin and, eventually, piano. For some reason, at age 5 Jimmy began slogging away at a tiny cello and stuck with it and youth orchestra through high school. His mom must have seen the cello as a more masculine instrument. I think he liked playing the cello. I know that his high school girlfriend was someone he picked up in youth orchestra, so I supposed that was an attraction, but I think that he genuinely enjoyed it on some level. He never achieved prominence as a soloist due to his crippling fear of individual attention. This manifests as a racing heartbeat and drenching sweat, neither of which are particularly helpful when playing a bowed instrument.
When we were dating Jimmy would occasionally pull his cello out, seducing me with duets on my electronic keyboard and his cello, “The Swan” played for an audience of houseplants in my upper flat. These duets all stopped abruptly almost 12 years ago; he literally did not touch the instrument after we were married. When we pulled it out on Natalie’s entree into the world of the string section, all of the bow hairs were snapped and matted after several moves back and forth between the disparate climates of Wisconsin and the Tucson desert. If you were to ask him, he’d claim that he absolutely did NOT alter his behavior to secure my affections, but that jacked up cello would argue otherwise.
Natalie’s violin lessons occurred at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, a refurbished mansion in downtown Milwaukee, inconveniently located a good half hour drive from our house. The journey was stressful enough in itself–load a toddler and a preschooler into the car in the waning afternoon hours, drive through the spaghetti-like confusion of the Marquette interchange that heralds downtown Milwaukee, spend another 15 minutes trying to find street parking, before schlepping both children up three flights of stairs in the restored mansion for 30 minutes of lessons.
I generally enter the Marquette fairly white knuckled. This isn’t due to any confusion on my part. No, I blame all traffic challenges on the Illinois FIB’s (f–in Illinois bastards) just passing through on their way north to exploit Wisconsin’s wilderness as a respite from the soul-killing reality of living in Illinois. They weave and dart through the interchange trying to hasten their escape and causing no small degree of chaos for the rest of us. It was at one such crossroads that Natalie, from the back seat of the Accord, announced that she didn’t feel well.
The girl has never been particularly good at gauging when she’s about to hurl. She’s 10 and Jimmy still hasn’t agreed to replace her bedroom carpeting. There’s still an odds-on chance that sometime in the next three months she’ll again forget to run to the bathroom and instead lean out of bed juuuuuust far enough to miss the trash can and splatter the carpeting instead. Now, when I was growing up in the ramshackle farm house, mom employed a different system. There were no bathrooms upstairs, for many years the sole one being downstairs adjacent to the kitchen. The distance coupled with the treacherously steep stairs made nighttime bathroom trips a dangerous luxury in which we seldom indulged. Unfortunately she passed three of her five pregnancies in that house, which probably has something to do with her still-shapely legs.
Mom prepped us as well as she could to avoid needing to go downstairs EVER at night. On our bedside tables she’d place plastic cups that she’d lifted from the hospital at one of her stays with one of us. Then, when she put us to bed she’d dump last night’s water into an empty plastic pitcher (also sourced from the hospital) and refilled them on her own trip up to bed.
The mineral content of the well water left these plastic cups scaled with whitish deposits after enough years of use. If any toddlers had to use the bathroom during the night, they were afforded the luxury of a potty chair parked at the top of this stairs; this was emptied on a morning trip downstairs. Kind of like a chamber pot. Once we were over about 3, we were on our own. We girls developed bladders of steel over the years, holding it fearfully overnight so as not to have to brave the pitch darkness of the rickety-windowed farmhouse, bathed only in the ambient light through a few east-facing windows from the dusk-to-dawn light. The boys, at least during the warmer months, peed through the screen into the night air and the backyard. To handle the occasional puking episode, we each had an empty Schoep’s gallon ice cream bucket under our bed and were expected to employ it should the need arise. Mom would generally deign to get out of bed to handle a full puke bucket during the night. She may not have been the most fastidious housekeeper, but even she had her standards.
My girls were not raised in such a hardened environment, and Natalie’s cushy upbringing left her without any good vomit-management techniques of note. So there we were on that fateful occasion, in stop and go traffic, on a cold winter evening in the multi-leveled Marquette interchange on the way to downtown Milwaukee. After the warning shot across the bow, “mom I don’t feel good,” she let loose with a magnificent spray of vomit that arced gracefully from her mouth and traveled easily ACROSS THE ENTIRE LENGTH OF THE CAR, SPLATTERING THE CEILING, HER SISTER, AND THE INTERIOR OF THE WINDSHIELD. What an awesome sight it must have been for the neighboring traffic–a veritable fountain of emesis within the warm confines of the Honda.
The beauty lasted for a few brief seconds before both children began howling. I attempted to remain calm, steer the car, and clean off the interior of the windshield with my sleeve all the while running through my mental address book to determine who I knew well enough in the downtown corridor to drop in on, Pulp Fiction-like, with a decimated car. Having no such saint-like figures in my life, I decided that a U turn with a 30 minute ride back home was the only answer. It quickly became clear that being cold was far superior to the stench that proper climate control yielded, for she’d manage to aim vomit directly into the front console heating vents as well. We made our chilly journey back home. The girls wept that they wanted to get out of the car, that they had puke in their hair, that it was pooling on the violin case. I never felt so maternal as I did at that moment. I dearly wanted to pull over and join them in their tantrum, but instead I drove on, clearing a few chunks off the steering wheel as best I could and calling Jimmy.
He had been on his way to the gym when he answered. “Meet me in the garage with a trash bag and two bath towels,” I said. ‘Why? I was just going to–” “Just–meet me.” Words could not do justice to the scene that awaited him when three tearful, vomit encrusted females pulled into the garage. He opened the back door, a wall of stench and lamentation greeting him. “You have two options,” I said, “the girls or the car.” For obvious reasons, he chose the girls, who we stripped naked, discarding their clothes in the trash bag and wrapping them in bath towels. Mr. Sensitive went back inside for some rubber gloves before extracting Evelyn from her carseat. I suggested that any further dilly dallying on his part would not end well. He carried them to their bath and lather-rinsed-repeated several times.
The details of cleaning the car do not bear repeating, save only to mention that a startling volume of school-aged vomit actually exists in a semi-solid, difficult to remove state. I threw away anything removable, save the violin, whose fabric case I managed to remove and throw in the washing machine, the incident never to be mentioned to either teacher or violin rental store. The next day we drove to a car detailing place, me driving the steaming heap of emesis and the Jimmy and the girls following behind, silently acknowledging that this would most assuredly be an all-day job, one that I wouldn’t be waiting around for. I’m not sure what I expected from the guy at the shop. As he stood there checking boxes on a form, shifting his toothpick between corners of his mouth and never truly even looking up, I realized that the trail of horror that rolls through a car wash must reveal a side of humanity to which I was thankfully not privy. He looked up only once, glancing at me from under his cap as he announced that “You’ll have to pay an extra $35 for The Biologic.” Hand to God, I still don’t know exactly what The Biologic fully entails, but if $35 more is all it takes to clean my daughter’s detritus from the legion interior cracks and crevices of a late-model Honda, I consider that the best $35 I’ve ever spent.