ARIELLA PAPA: writer, mother, friend

an excerpt from


by Ariella Papa

From Claudia:

I was strangling myself on the rules.

So on Friday, I got a haircut. I didn’t go to the guy who had been cutting my hair into a bob for all the years I lived in New York. I found solace in a stranger. It was unplanned. I left the building for my usual cup of cappuccino and I looked across the street at one of the chain haircutters. I had this feeling that if I didn’t do something major, I was going to do something impulsive and maybe this could be an innocent little bit of both.

“Cut it,” I said, to the large Russian woman who wrapped a towel around my neck. I had never said anything like this before. I had had virtually the same cut since junior year of high school. “Just cut it all.”

“How you wan?” She asked, narrowing her eyes.

“I want it short. I want to do very little to my hair in the morning. I don’t even want to know it’s there.”

“You gon cry when I finish?”

“No,” I said trying to sound at once emphatic and confident. “No matter what, I will not cry.”

“Ok,” she said. She picked up a bunch of my hair and started cutting away.

It was the best twenty dollars I ever spent. I didn’t know it was even possible to get a haircut for twenty dollars in Manhattan.

“Wow,” my assistant, Jennifer said when I walked back in. I couldn’t tell if it was a good or bad wow at first, her face went through so many stages of shock. “It’s like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens meets early Halle Barry via Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby.”

I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but this confirmed my suspicions that Jennifer really wanted to get into the creative side of production.

“I love it,” she said.

“You do?” No one had ever said that to me about my hair.

“It makes you look at least seven years younger.”

“It does?”

“It’s quite a departure for you.” I had never really had girl talk with a woman before.

“It is.” I nodded and then did what I can only consider a giggle. It was a foreign sound.

“I love it, love it.”

“Thank you,” I said and went into my office to battle my way through a bunch of emails that were stacking up. . . .

But I couldn’t concentrate. I desperately wanted to go down to Keith’s floor and walk back and forth in front of his cube until he told me how good my hair looked or better yet, invited me in to lie across his desk.

So I did the next best thing. I had Jennifer set up a meeting for me on his floor in a conference room that was only accessible by taking the road in front of his cube bank. I am a problem solver.

But he wasn’t there on my way up to the meeting. I walked by again later when I pretended I had forgotten something, so I could look for him. I went to the bathroom, hid in the stall for a minute, came out, assessed my hair and walked back. Still no Keith. This was ridiculous. It was totally high school. I bet high schoolers could have given me tips on how to be cooler. Molly Ringwald could have shown me a thing or two.

I had called this meeting, but I had little to contribute. I kept looking up at the door, expecting him to walk by, but he didn’t.

And then he did.

He looked in to the conference room I was in and did what I can only describe as a double take. I caught his eye and smiled. He slowed down a little and kept looking in through the window. I sat up straighter in my seat. That contact gave me a high. I somehow stumbled my way through the rest of the meeting.

When it was done, I strode by his desk. I was trembling a little. The idea of seeing him, maybe another conversation, was almost too much to hope for.

I didn’t know how to play these games. I almost didn’t look at him when I walked by. I almost couldn’t, but he stopped me.

“Nice hair cut,” he said. I was sure I turned red.

“Thank you,” I said. “I did it on a whim.”

He looked at me. Everything that was happening was an invitation. It was hard to remember that we were in the middle of an office and not get swept up in it.

“Well, I should get back to my desk,” I said.

“Do you have any big plans for the weekend?” he asked. I felt, no I knew, in that moment I knew that he didn’t want to me to leave. Whatever was going on between us was real, almost tangible.

“No not much,” I said. I wished I had something exciting going on this weekend. I had the playdate we were encouraged to attend for Brookese. I couldn’t tell him about that.

“Well, enjoy,” he said.

I think I nodded, but I couldn’t manage to say anything else. I took the elevator up two flights, even though I tried to always to take the stairs. After that encounter, I wasn’t sure I could trust my legs.

And for the rest of the day, I felt completely ungrounded. None of it seemed real. I replayed it in my head, but it felt like a dream. I kept reaching up to my hair, and it wasn’t where I expected it to be. Plus, everywhere I went, I was getting all this attention, from people who were surprised by my new ‘do. The day care teachers complemented me. I saw Giovanni’s mom and she told me I looked fantastic. Jacob didn’t recognize me right away, and Emily said, “Mommy look retty,” which made me feel better than when she told me she loved me.

It was a beautiful night and still bright out when I walked the kids back. I felt the weather on my neck and imagined it was Keith’s fingers. I liked his hands. I wanted his hands. I hoped that Peter would be working late so I could spend a little time pretending my hands were Keith’s. It was as close as I could get to him. For now.

I felt peaceful even though the weekend was stretched out before me. The only plan we had was the playdate on Saturday. And usually this would fill me with anxiety. I preferred knowing what was going to happen, having plans for the family, having a schedule. I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. But I was ok this evening in spite of all the attention. Something in me was confident. It wasn’t only the hair. I was confident that Keith was going to touch me again. It was a funny feeling I had. I guess it might have been an instinct.

But I didn’t believe in instincts. I believed in facts and research and numbers. I believed in rules. Except for tonight. Except with this.

Peter was home when I got back. He was at the kitchen island, bent over his computer. There was a time I would have been right beside him, but tonight I wanted to ask him why he hadn’t stayed at work.

But of course the kids were so excited to see him and they rushed over. He picked them both up at once and turned them around. In a lot of ways, he was way more natural with them than I was. It came easier for him.

He glanced up at me and said hello. No double take, no nothing. He barely saw me. I was just there to ferry the children to appointments.

I started getting dinner together while he played with the children. It was frozen pizza tonight. And somewhere over the kids eating dinner, Peter looked up at me and noticed my hair.

“Oh,” he said. “That’s different. When did you do that?”

“Today,” I said, wondering if there was a possibility it might have taken days for him to notice. But he liked it. He crept up next to me and put his hand on my shoulder.

“You look nice.”

“Thanks.” I said. He wanted to have sex with me tonight. Usually Saturday night was our standing date, if we weren’t too tired. I found the routine of it comforting; now he was throwing me a curve ball.

I made sure to turn in early. I went straight to bed after cleaning up the kitchen while he finished up some emails. He looked disappointed, but there was no way I could be touched by him. I knew that his familiar attentions would be so different from the way I imagined Keith would touch me. I knew I couldn’t stand it. It would feel like a betrayal.

The next morning I woke up next to Peter to the sounds of the kids screaming. Everything was back to normal. Even the woman with the new hairdo in the mirror was nothing special.

I hustled the kids through breakfast and into the car and over to Brookese and found a parking spot and got them into the school for the playdate. We were five minutes late. I was never able to get to anything on time with them

But of course it didn’t matter, because nothing ever started on time. Why did I bother? Just once it would be nice if something started on time so I could be justified for all this rushing around.

There were about ten of us standing around for the playdate. A woman named Anya was in charge. But “In charge” was a loose term. She let the kids run wild. Within minutes, Emily had taken finger paint and glopped it all over her shirt. I had dressed them up in what I considered their coolest clothes. They were both decked out in T-shirts I had bought especially for this occasion and dark jeans. I wondered if it looked as if they were the children who were trying too hard. This fashion already seemed so effortless for some of the other kids. How did it start so early? Were my kids destined not to be the cool kids?

I went over to clean up Emily’s purple T-shirt, but Anya stopped me, by addressing Emily.

“We got some finger paint on our shirt, didn’t we, Emily? And making a mess is key in learning to express our creativity. There are no limits are there,” she said to Emily, whose eyes widened. I could see that Emily was as smitten as she had been with our photographer, Kirsten. I was being reproached for merely trying to clean my daughter up. It didn’t really matter as Anya flitted off to belittle another parent for trying to assist their kid in building a block tower.

Since when were we supposed to let our kids go free without rules? I was suddenly not so sure I wanted them to go to Brookese. Next thing I knew, Anya had pulled out a guitar and was strolling around the classroom singing a song in a language that sounded like Gaelic although occasionally she would make high pitched noises that I don’t think were an actual language unless you were a duck living in the south of France.

She strode over to Jacob with her guitar and clucked in a way that she apparently wanted him to mimic. He stared at her as she did it again and again. I went over to him to try to help him. I was going to try and make sure that he didn’t have a tantrum caused by sensory overload.

“Excuse me,” she said to me, breaking away momentarily from her crazy gibberish language, but not losing her wide welcoming smile. Again, I was reproached. There was no way these kids were getting in. I looked at Jacob. He was stomping his feet and then all of the sudden he was swaying his hips and doing some weird tribal dance I had never seen him do before. Anya loved it; she started ululating. I wondered if I would fit beneath one of the tiny chairs. But remarkably the other kids who were off on the side of the classroom doing their various messy projects started dancing too. Some of them started clapping and other ones sang along their own weird lyrics in their own weird language. The rest of the parents and I watched, hypnotized by this display. The kids were going nuts.

Then Anya abruptly put the guitar down. She changed the tempo of her voice and started humming and picking up some of the things around the room, cleaning up. She dropped some of the toys into various bins around the room. Amazingly, the children followed suit. Jacob was the first one to put a wooden vehicle back in a bin. I knew that it was not the bin it had come out of and I started to say something, but a sharp smiling look from Anya stopped me.

When it was all over and the room was completely clean, Anya plopped down on the floor and held her arms out for the children to join her. They did. She said good-bye to them all by name. It was pretty impressive, because they weren’t wearing name tags. I wondered if she used a mnemonic device. In meetings, I always needed name tags and tried to repeat everyone’s name as much as possible.

“I want to thank you all for being here with me today,” she said, looking around and making eye contact with all of them, ignoring us. “I am so grateful to all of you for making this day so special for me. I will always remember it and I hope we can play together again soon.”

The children all spontaneously started clapping. I looked around at the other parents. They were beaming. Didn’t anyone find this all a little weird? Emily and Jacob came running over to me. They were both breathless. Emily now had paint all over her face and hair. What a complete mess.

“Let’s go, guys. We are going to go home,” I said. I expected a fight but got none. Even though our getaway was going to be easier than expected, I was suspicious of what Anya had done to them.

I wasn’t getting off easy. I noticed Anya coming around to talk to each of the parents. Uh-oh.

“And what a wonderful time I had with Emily and Jacob,” she said it that smiling almost singsong way. I wasn’t fooled. I knew I was about to be reprimanded. And I was. Without losing her smile, she locked me into her eyes. “Now one of the things we try to do at Brookese is give our children wings to fly out into their own creative universe.”

I nodded and noticed that she was actually flapping her arms beside her, like she was in some weird ballet. Emily started doing it too. My daughter had no loyalty whatsoever.

“I see,” I said.

“Sometimes our natural instinct is to come to their aid when we think they are having trouble with something, but–” and here her face finally lost it’s wide smile and her arms stopped flapping–“often we need to let them work it out on their own.”

“Right,” I said. “I got it.”

“Hope to see you soon, Emily and Jacob,” she said, crouching to their level and giving them a both a hug. They embraced her and embraced each other, and I wondered again if I shouldn’t have been more affectionate with them.

I started to say good-bye to Anya, but she was already on to the next parent. Part of me wanted to eavesdrop and see if she was reprimanding the other parents, but more of me wanted out. I took them by the hand, and we left the classroom.

And then there was Kirsten in front of the school, staring at her cell phone, frowning. She looked up at me and once again, I knew that she didn’t recognize me. But maybe this time it was the haircut.

“Hello there,” I said, going up to her. I was no longer so sure I wanted to go to Brookese, but if I did I still needed an in. “It’s Claudia. Remember?”

“Oh, right, Claudia, hi,” she said.

“I got a haircut.” I didn’t know why I was giving her an out. She wasn’t a good businesswoman if she couldn’t remember her clients.

“You did. It looks great,” she said. She crouched down to Emily and Jacob. “You guys, I totally remember playing with you. I’ve been looking at all your great pictures and thinking of the fun day we had.”

Everyone was having more fun with my kids than me.

“You remember Kirsten, don’t you?” Strangely, Emily hid behind my leg and Jacob waved. “Emily, you can say hello to Kirsten.”

“That’s ok, I’ll settle for a high five,” Kirsten said, extending her hand. Emily slapped it.

“I didn’t see you at the playdate,” I said.

“Oh, that’s why there are all these kids here today. It makes sense now. I took the subway over to drop off some photos for the newsletter. I was supposed to . . .” She looked down at her cell phone again and sighed. She paused for a long time, looking at the phone.

“Are you waiting for a call?” I asked at last.

“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I was supposed to go to my, um, in-laws for a barbeque today and I am pretty sure that I told my boyfriend to pick me up. But he’s not here. And he probably went without me thinking I would take the subway, but the Q is out today and honestly the whole process is daunting since I have all my camera gear, which I should have had him take.”

“Do you want me to give you a ride? Where do they live?”

“They live over by the Gowanus Canal.”

It was definitely out of the way, but maybe good for getting the scoop on the school.

“No problem,” I said. “If you don’t mind screaming children.”

“There not screaming,” she said. She was right, they weren’t.

“I would really be grateful for the ride,” she said. She looked me in the eye and smiled. The past few times I saw her, she was mellow and I didn’t understand how she made all this mothering seem so innate, but now there was something that was quite recognizable to me. She looked anxious.

“Don’t mind the mess,” I said as I let her in the car as I was buckling the twins into the car seats.

“You call this a mess? She asked.

“So how should I get there?” I asked when I finally had myself in the driver’s seat but before I started the engine.

“You can follow Ocean, up and over toward Flatbush and then I will direct you.”

“We go past Grand Army Plaza?”


“Do I get onto Union or stay on Flatbush?”

“You want to get onto Union,” she said. She looked at the keys in my hand and then at the ignition. “But I can direct you from there.”

I really preferred to know where I am going ahead of time. I want to have written directions. I always have a map in the glove compartment. I find when you wait for other people to tell you when to turn, they usually forget. Just because they know where they are going doesn’t mean you do. I didn’t like leaving it up Kirsten to tell me when I needed to be in the right lane on time. I was going to ask her to be a bit more explicit, but she was already in the midst of cross-examining my kids about what they did at the playdate.

“What did you think of it?” she asked me, when there was a break in the conversation and I had reluctantly started driving, trying to follow from memory the directions she gave me.

“It was good. I mean they really enjoyed it. But is Anya always so . . . you know . . . ”

“Yeah,” Kirsten said, laughing. “I guess she can be a little intense.”

I nodded. “A little.”

“And she’s only the assistant. You should see the head teacher. But really the school is awesome.”

Kirsten started to give me directions. She was giving me plenty of time to make the turns I had to, even telling me the next step ahead of time. Her tone was really easy, like a yoga teacher. Now we were driving through Park Slope. It was so rare for me to be somewhere I hadn’t planned on being. I was looking around at the streets. I tried to let my shoulders relax. Small talk, that’s what you do, I had to make small talk. Then I could move in for the real deal on that school.

“So you aren’t married?” Maybe that was too personal. I wondered if it sounded judgmental. I wasn’t being judgmental, though I couldn’t really see how you could have kids with someone without a permanent commitment. I glanced at her to see if she knew I was judging her. She did that thing, she always did where she cocked her head to one side and smiled.

“No, we never got around to it. It didn’t seem that important in the whole scheme of things. We were never big on living by other people’s rules. “

I didn’t know what to say to that, so I waited for the next direction.

“It’s right up here,” she said. I shouldn’t have gotten into the personal stuff with her. I should have cut right to the chase. “It’s down this street, but you can let me off at the corner. It’s a tight street for cars. “

“Wow, I never even would have known about this street.” Under the elevated train tracks was a narrow street with older houses.

“They’ve lived here for years.” Kirsten looked out the window and sighed. She moved her hand over to buckle of her seat belt, but didn’t unbuckle it.

“Is everything ok?” I expected her to say fine, as most people would, but she launched into something I wasn’t expecting.

“They’re all going to be there. All four of David’s siblings and his parents. All the nieces and nephews. Sometime they get a little rough with my son, Sage. He can be a bit sensitive. It makes me tense. I think it’s the way David reacts. It’s like we get there and we’re playing a role, you know. I mean, there is so much noise, so many people. The house isn’t big enough for all those personalities. And all I really want to do is be alone with David. When he first started bringing me over there during college we always snuck away to go for a walk to the Gowanus Canal and he would say it was the Venice of Brooklyn and make jokes in the funny Italian accent. Now we don’t do that anymore. I can’t even remember the last time we had some time alone. You know, I miss him. I want to be alone with him. Inevitably, someone small-minded–probably one of his sisters–is going to bring up that we aren’t married and I am going to have smile and play dumb when I really want to ask her how the”–she dropped her voice here for the sake of the kids–“fuck she could let her tyrant son put my baby boy in the toy box?”

She shook her head. I didn’t know what to say. Did she consider me small-minded because I asked her if she was married? I was a bit taken aback that someone I barely knew had told me so much about herself.

“Well, you don’t want to hear about any of this, do you? You want to get on with your day.”

“No, it’s–“

“Thank you so much for the ride. I really appreciate it,” she said and then she did something I wasn’t expecting–she hugged me. She turned and extended her hand into the back seat to get high fives from Jacob and Emily, who happily complied. She got out of the car and walked down the little street, turning to give me a big wave.

I awkwardly beeped the horn. It was all so bizarre to me. I had been let in on her secret. It was almost hypnotizing to have someone confide in you. No one ever confided in me. I thought of Keith. I had things to confide too. I needed a confidante. Should it be someone like Kirsten? She was completely unguarded. She was a giant mess.

It was really wonderful.