Some days - today - I come home from work feeling run down like an old lady. Maybe it's the encroaching darkness of winter; maybe it's the cumulative effect of being back at work for two and a half months now; maybe it's just the natural consequence of having an increasingly active, communicative, heavy baby; maybe it's because my husband has had a two-week flu; maybe (probably) it's all of these things put together and more. Whatever the reason, the past few weeks have seen me growing more and more run down with each passing day, more and more rubbed out, like an old blotty oil stain.
It seems as though there is no end to the demands I must meet, emotionally, psychologically, and - perhaps hardest of all - physically. Even though I still love nursing the baby and still treasure his time at my breast, sometimes, late in the evening of a long day, I feel as though he is slowly draining every last pocket of nutrition in my body, every last ounce of flesh and bone. "I think he's taking my bone marrow now!" I call out to my husband, slumping back on the couch as the baby takes long, uncompromising draughts, his cheeks flushed hot and red as though he is drinking straight blood. I am empty, too, of money. There is nothing left, nothing at all, and this nothingness is as draining as the baby's constant nutritional demands. Considering the shambles that once were our finances, I alternate between ghastly, nihilistic cheer and sick bouts of weeping. "I'll go back to work full-time," I sob to my husband, "I will!" "Honey," he sighs, knowing I am not serious, "you don't have to do that. You'd be miserable anyway."
Apart from these occasional torrents, though, I am surprisingly not-sad. Tiredness is, of course, an inevitably sad, grey state, but on the whole, this spell of exhaustion finds me free of any deep, lasting sadness. I am no stranger to depression, and I know that this is not really depression that I am feeling. I am not so much depressed as reduced, strangely negated, un-present. Every moment is devoted to something that is not entirely mine; I am barely able to slip in time for basic self-care and hygiene. My skin is grey, my hair is lank and overgrown, my fingernails are dirty, I need some depilatory, I left my makeup at a friend's house a couple of weeks ago and have made no effort to get it back, and all of my clothing is wrinkled or stained or linty or stretched-out.
Eighth period today, I covered a class for a teacher who was out sick. I have already won the loyalty of my own classes; I could show up in a nightgown with a toothbrush in my mouth, and they would still be willing to listen to me and even tell me I look pretty. This class, though, this new group of kids...I stood in front of them with my oily unmade-up face, greasy bangs, unplucked eyebrows, and baggy-assed work trousers, and I felt tired and afraid. I am an eighth-year teacher now, so no classroom where I am standing is ever entirely out of control, but eighth period today was dangerously close. I walked sternly up and down the rows of desks, and the students stayed in their seats, but only just. "Flat-butt," I heard one kid say under her breath as I walked by. Another asked me, "Who did you vote for?" I looked in his face and realized that he thought I voted for McCain. Wherever your political sympathies lie, I am sure that you see how in this particular situation - a white (sic) teacher with a group of African-American teenagers in the middle of Harlem - the implication that one voted for McCain is a seriously negative character judgement. "Hey," said another student, "are you from Wisconsin?" Veteran that I am, I was able without even thinking to deflect these comments lightly, sweetly, with an airy wink, easing the tension and making everyone laugh. But I was shaken - as fleeting as the moment was, it was the only time I can remember in all of my years of teaching that the students actually challenged me for my race alone, putting me squarely among the "them" in the us-them war.
This morning, when I got to school, I found twenty bucks in an envelope in my mailbox. There was a note accompanying it, from a kind biology teacher at the school, explaining that he hadn't contributed to the whole-staff baby shower present because he thought it was too impersonal, and had meant to buy something special for the baby, but had never gotten around to it. He suggested that I use the money to go to the Kiku show at the New York Botanical Garden - he is in charge of the garden in the school courtyard, and I spent one hot afternoon in June 2007 helping him weed. I had had plans to help him plant a Japanese garden with hydrangea and shiso, but then I got pregnant, and all non-baby plans fell by the wayside. On the way home from work today, dead-broke, I used his twenty to buy myself rice and beans and cafe con leche at the Dominican place. The baby is still at daycare, and I'm at home alone now, eating my rice and beans. I feel warm and tenuously, temporarily protected from the demands of the world. I do not want to move, I do not want to leave the apartment. Right now, I don't even want to go pick up the baby.