Getting accepted into Barbara’s class was the first day of the rest of my writing life. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I didn’t know what I was doing before meeting her. She has deepened my characters, plot and overall craft. Her critiques always yield better results. Plus, she’s a hoot to be around. I feel lucky to consider her a mentor and a friend.
I would not be a children’s book author and illustrator if not for Barbara Bottner. She is an inspiration as both a teacher and an author in her own right. She has an innate sensitivity and an ability to write about life through the eyes of children. Barbara’s stories are poignant and at the same time, sprinkled with a dash of humor. In short, Barbara Bottner is a delight!
“It’s magic, you know. Impossible feats of metaphor.
Six of us around her rosewood table – savoring tea,
the tinkling of her full moon necklace, spilling over our pages
foreshadowing, fortune telling,
drawing stories, out of the shadows
of her drapes, the illusion of
A prophecy, of sorcery.
She’s a shaman, jingling the bracelets
on her sleight of hand. It’s wizardry, you know.
She’s clairvoyant, soothsayer
our sorceress, our source.”
Barbara Bottner is a fabulous teacher who is able to see the big picture of a manuscript. She points out and guides me through story problems with caring and humor and support. I always look forward to our meetings.
BB’s proposition that there is a stage and an age of childhood that each writer feels particularly connected was a really helpful construct. She encouraged me to write about what I cared most about as a child. that each writer Barbara got me in touch with writing about things that mattered to me—pointed me to look where the juice is, and go there. She definitely got me switched on as a writer.
New York Journal of Books
The Barecelona Review
THE CARTOON WIFE
It’s Sunday brunch time and I’m wearing my forgiving Plan B jeans. My husband, Dan is galloping ahead of me with the zealousness of a convict leading a jail break. I’ve only agreed to accompany him to Ventura Boulevard to meet a Paul somebody, because I can’t let him talk to a horse breeder un-chaperoned.
When unnerved, some people buy expensive chocolate. Dan buys a nine hundred pound mammal.
It’s the kind of overcast day that screams for the New York Times, classical music and yoga pants. One thing Dan and I’ve always been good at is Sundays. It’s like our heart rates and pulses finally synchronize.
But, there may be another heart rate joining us soon.
I’m not sure how I feel about this.
“I like a balanced top line,” he says, free-associating already. “I don’t like a heavy-fronted horse. But ultimately there’s always the question of concentration.”
“Paul wants us to consider a foal he has but from what I’ve heardshe’s a royal pain in the ass. I don’t think she has the makings of a broodmare.”
“I’ve read about the reality of raising horses. It’s a big bet. They can poke their eye out in a pasture accident, or be beat by a trainer, be born with limb deformities, etc.”
He ignores me, moves on to the cost of hay, hooves, vets, things I have zero interest in. Plus, there’s no time for me to offer my astonishingly insightful political analysis of Fareed Zacharia’s monologue on the Middle East.
Then he mentions gestation periods. For a horse it’s only a couple of months more than a human.
My period is late but I’ve resisted opening my home pregnancy kit. I want to explore how I feel about this before I know for sure if there’s truly a soul who’s chosen to come through me.
I’ve kept Dan in the dark. It’s where he lives, anyway. I need to keep my own counsel first. I’m heading to the far reaches of my thirties. Which is how I tend to think of being forty-one.
Okay, okay, I turned forty-three last week.
I’ve never been sure I could be someone’s mother. Or if I wanted to be. But lately, I’ve found myself obsessively following babies around in the supermarket, often to the confusion of their mothers because my intense googling is apparently getting to be over the top.
So, that’s a clue.
As far as Dan is concerned, his horses are his kids. At least this past year, I’ve managed to persuade him to sell off ten of his eleven trotters. His stable became all consuming, not to mention expensive. I accomplished this by begging, manipulating, threatening and weeping. Ultimately what worked was wearing high-heel red suede shoes and gallivanting around the bedroom naked.
Ironically, it was probably because of one of the strenuous activities of one of those nights that my life might be in for a massive change.
To be fair, his star steed, King, had won several purses. In his last race at Los Al, he ran with a lot of heart, but pulled a suspensory ligament and finished up the track. We had to retire him. Now, Dan believes he can make money by breeding him.
Breeding. There’s a word.
Sometimes, when I read of the crises in Africa I think, why replicate my complicated gene pool—generations of dour, repressed Europeans harboring ancient resentments? Why not adopt one of those adorable kids and give them a chance?
That’s probably another clue right there.
“Hurry!” He’s rushing across Sepulveda against the light, yanking my arm to keep up. Then he turns towards me, his broad, strong face a little sweaty and glowing. Horses are sacred to him, like cows are to people in India.
But I’m a woman. There are more sacred things than cows or horses. Like XY chromosomes.
On the other hand, I’m probably too selfish to be anyone’s mother.
“I do love the horses. But from a distance. The way I love Johnny Depp,” I explain. “Anyway, you told me the Gamblers Anonymous handbook says you’re supposed to find new, healthy sources of pleasure,” I say, using my therapy-approved modulated voice.
“Just keep an open mind!” Dan’s voltage tells me he’s got the mind-altering gambler’s buzz on. And now I am getting perturbed. I remember the GA literature also explains how the partner of the addictive personality is prone to dizziness, palpitations, hysteria, sudden, inappropriate outbursts of anger, headaches, loss of appetite, excessive overeating and withdrawal from friends and family. Eventually, to absolute self-destruction.
“Calm down,” I say, mostly to myself.
“Willie swears this guy Paul can make us a mint,” he continues, citing his trainer.
“It’s Willie’s crazy schemes that got us into debt,” I counter.
“He’s done good by us too,” says Dan, ever blinded to Willie’s conscientious attempts to get us to purchase yet another equine.
“Willie, who drinks booze with the sort of allegiance one devotes to the Green Berets, that Willie? Willie who’s always manure-adjacent, is miraculously going to solve our money problems?”
We’re almost at Ventura Boulevard now. Dan’s flushed face helps me realize I live with a man who strategizes with all of the discipline of a convenient store lottery player, but unlike them, his bank account is loaded with fresh cash that glows neon in his mind.
I debate whether or not to bring up his ex-wife, Maxi. She told me they had trotters instead of a marriage. Maxi didn’t care much for the four-legged creatures.
Nor him, for that matter.
She laid down the law: no kids. Then, no husband.
Dan got the stable and I got Dan.
Originally I didn’t have any real opinions in this arena until the night he took me to the backstretch. There I discovered the dank smell of the hay, the Olympian animals, the Runyonesque ambiance. I felt transported into a truly exotic land. Old black men, faces carved with untold tales, were sitting under a single light bulb playing gin, just like in the movies. I wanted to know more about these living legends but was afraid to hear their stories. I imagined them as young black men, leaving small towns that held no futures, riding on railroad cars, sleeping in abandoned barns, with paperback novels stuffed into their pockets that sold them on the glamorous life of grooming horses in the beautiful rolling hills of Kentucky. Maybe they believed the color of their skin would finally not count against them. And maybe they fell in love with the muscular animals when their own bodies were already beginning to fade.
But as arthritic and badly dressed as they were, sucking cigarette butts and snorting snuff late into the night, they played hand after hand. The scene had the iconic feel of a Norman Rockwell painting.
To my own surprise, I felt drawn to this exotic world. At least for a while.
Since then, I’ve nursed a belief that if he didn’t own pacers and trotters, our life together, would work. My reasoning was that without horses, we wouldn’t have this tension, this background argument that covers us like smog. And Dan wouldn’t be fielding phone calls from Willie at 2AM to talk about a pulled tendon. Maybe he’d bring me flowers or give me a neck rub once in awhile. Maybe his concerns would center on us. On me.
But perhaps this deep, elemental need for his undivided attention is unreasonable. It’s primitive, desperate even, though I’ve never hidden it. But let’s not get into that whole bi-polar, terrifying mother story and how I grew up with so much fear I developed unfortunate coping habits, then had to learn to replace them, which cost a bloody fortune. No. Been, been, been there.
So, on paper, I’d be nobody’s ideal version of a parent either.
But if there really is a cute egg merging with a good-looking sperm, maybe I could become a better version of myself. I’m up for evolving.
But is Dan?
“I bet it’s not that much money to get into the game,” he says, talking to himself.
Money! Money is certainly a problem. This mild disagreement could easily turn into something worse. Our fights are often defined by geography. At home, it’s as if we’re on opposite teams, while in grocery stores, we hug. Decisions in the meat department—which kind of beef, bottom round or brisket, maybe pork chops for a change—get us holding hands. Once we arrive at the leafy vegetables, romaine or arugula, we become so overwhelmed, we cling to each other. By the time we reach the imported cheese section, there’s often necking.
Marlene, my budding therapist pal, says this isn’t love, it’s anxiety.
She’s so wrong. Frankly, I worry for her future patients. I believe that love includes anxiety. Anxiety is one of the building blocks of existence.
“This will be fun,” Dan insists, stopping at the crosswalk like a normal human being for once. I don’t want this next thought, but here it comes: he’s happy. Excited. And right this very minute, he’s beautiful.
I hear myself saying ‘drats,’ like a cartoon wife who aspires to be a force of nature, but is only two-dimensional, has silly hair and no real core. I am Marge Simpson with a better profile.
I know why Dan needs his games while I need him. He is the tree trunk and branches to my flitting bird who never had a nest.
We’ve arrived at the chic Wine Bistro now. The ceilings have old-fashioned fans, presumably from Cuba, setting off the genuine New York factory tin ceilings. The lighting is halogen and arty. Thin bread sticks and dark rolls smell exquisite. Dan points me towards a tall blond fellow dressed in sleek, casual clothing who waves, and grins broadly. His eyes are a different story.
We often come here on Monday nights to listen to jazz. Dan loves jazz but not as much as he loves horses. I’ve encouraged him to play his saxophone even though it’s loud. I tell Marlene it’s like living with John Coltrane, the early years. I’ve bought him fake books and CD’s and played him the classic albums I accumulated since college. But making music is difficult. And for Dan, being alive is already difficult.
What would happen to our jazz nights if little XY or XXY comes along?
Okay, I admit it, I’ve googled how the fetus develops. If there’s a pregnancy of a few weeks, it’s the size of a poppy seed. In other words, a sesame seed is larger. It’s only a cluster of cells. So, I have time to decide.
But not that much time.
“I’ve heard all about you,” Paul’s long, clammy fingers grip my hand like a vise. During his prolonged smile, I realize that he’s missing a tooth.
He must be self-conscious because he says, “Dan, I can see your wife’s wondering about my dental status.”
I’ve always adored being referred to in the third person.
He turns to me. “Wrestling. I held the championship for lightweights when I was in college and I still fool around. Probably not that smart.” His pungent patchouli aftershave wipes out the lovely rosemary breadstick aroma and makes me feel irrationally aggressive.
“What college?” I ask with dazzling sweetness.
He hesitates, comes out with, “Oberlin. I majored in economics. Wrote a paper with my professor that was ultimately accepted into the Economist.”
“Really? As an undergrad?” I almost squeak.
Dan’s impressed, but I’m incredulous. A professor might give an undergrad a second title on an academic journal, but by the time the work hits major national magazines, grad students become invisible.
“That’s formidable! What was it about?” I lean forward, wait for him to continue the excellent grave digging.
“It must have been, what, 1980? Dealt with the global economy. We were about twenty years ahead of our time.”
Dan wants to believe. What I want is to smack him back to reality. I manage to step on his toes with my heel. He shoots me a threatening look.
“Nice shirt,” says Dan, trying to change the conversation.
“Should be for almost two hundred bucks,” says Paul. “Sometimes you splurge, right, dude?”
Dude? Since when is a surgeon who looks like Beethoven, a dude?
I’d like to splurge all over him. And I don’t buy the tooth story. If you’re requiring hefty checks to be written, you don’t go around looking like a hoodlum—unless you are a hoodlum.
We sit down. I grab a bread stick and suck on it as if it were a pacifier. I’m trying to figure out why the hell I have goose bumps. A warning! Dull, but persistent.
Dan, meanwhile, looks like an adolescent about to be awarded Little League Pitcher of the Year.
I wonder if he’d be able to focus on a short person with a bat in his hands. Or her hands. I was a great pitcher.
Paul fills the silence by taking out his phone and showing us photos of three towheaded kids who look like him. He’s growing more Paul’s! This frightens me; I have a powerful desire to scream. He’s surely planning to rob us. I feel as certain of it as if his hand was groping the inside of my handbag.
“I love that period, the early eighties. When you have a chance, can you send me the article?”
Paul’s ball bearing neck swivels towards me.
“Anyway,” he slides to another photo, “here are a few of the seventy-odd acres of green rolling hills.”
The land he shows us is breathtaking. “So, this is where you breed?”
“This actual property is just across the way from us. We’ve been building the barn so we haven’t had time to take proper photographs.”
Seriously—a photo of a farm across the road? I glance at Dan, raise my eyebrows, but his face is ever shinier with eau du enthusiasm. He’s already discussing the stables, the track, the cost of boarding, and the various mares he wants to mate with King.
I hear an internal alarm go off. This Paul character might be the test for our marriage. Any ideas I have of expanding our family could rest on this very moment, with this stranger.
I restate: “Mr. Kindred, the doc and I are selling our last horse. We’re getting out of the business.”
Instead of a baby horse there might be a baby—I don’t say.
The tall, sleek waitress comes over before I can elbow Dan again.
“I’ll have quiche,” I tell her. “No salad.”
“No salad?” This is fantastically puzzling to her.
“Quiche, a la carte!” I repeat too adamantly, giving her the energy I’m feeling about Paul.
She takes down the orders and trots off insulted.
“Good choice,” says Paul.
Why am I having such a violent reaction to this dude, I wonder? There’s an iciness in him that I imagine he shares with mobsters and assassins. I’m pretty sure that people who murder for money would feel right at home with Paul Kindred.
Stop! I command myself. He is a human being! I put the brakes on my cynicism, but I skid.
I’m not by nature a violent person, not even generally vindictive, although I have spurts of strong annoyance and the occasional episode of road rage. But I feel threatened. Dan’s poor judgment and deranged hopes for sudden wealth, for appearing in the winner’s circle, being interviewed on some cable sports TV station can lead us down the road to destruction, bankruptcy, humiliation.
Why can’t my husband be a little more tuned in? Or simply remember our last roll in the hay and how we joked that if two people ever conceived a baby, it would have been that wild night?
I use my psychic powers to send him a word. Baby.
But no, Dan’s choosing his dark side.
I can’t chance taking a chance. I have to leave before I can’t contain myself. I’ve been known to blow opportunities, cause embarrassment. I’ve exited a room, a job, acountry with my tail between my legs—or tail-less.
Now, the waitress is pushing a House Special desert—a flaming chocolate brandy number. Writers are prevaricators. It’s our craft. We get paid to lie convincingly. So, in my brightest voice, I inform Paul that I can’t be around sweets. “I’m diabetic!” I announce. “I’ll wait for you boys outside,” I chirp.
“Diabetes?” says Dan incredulously.
“Yep!” I’m on my feet mumbling about glucose levels.
It’s a little brisk on Ventura Boulevard, but I don’t care; it’s warm compared to sitting next to the psychopath.
I’m thinking of the 99% accurate Clear Blue digital pregnancy kit stashed under the stuffed animals that crowd my side of the bed. It’s time to open it up. It’s time to know.
Three minutes later, Dan bursts into the street. “What happened to your famous open mind?”
“This guy makes me feel as if I’m standing near sulfur springs. Why are we here?”
Dan gives me a shattering look, or a look that might shatter someone less determined than I am. Then he marches back inside.
Twenty minutes later, Paul and Dan emerge. We all shake hands in the restaurant parking lot, oh, so extremely happy to have met each other. Chums, we are. “Wonderful beef in Kentucky. Love your sweater, my wife would be thrilled to meet you, you can get in the game for about fifteen grand,” says the snake before he slithers off.
“You were awful!” scolds Dan as we march home through the carefully tended suburban streets.
“I was unpleasant. You haven’t seen my awful.”
He must be doing what the therapist has suggested. Mindfulness. “But you can have the last word,” he promises, doing his best to appear mature.
“My last words are: serial killer. His eyes were bullet holes!”
“There’s nothing wrong with his eyes.”
“Death row eyes!”
“Jesus!” Dan sprints ahead of me and he’s no sprinter. Then, winded, he waits up and turns around. “It used to be the odds that interested me. Favorites, long shots, Exactas. There are rules, but they’re always being broken. There’s order, but there’s chaos, too. You never stop learning: heart-rending races with big-hearted horses.”
“Poetic, dear. We really should walk more.”
He ignores my wisecracks. “I’m realizing, though, it’s more than that to me. It’s a foreign country, a new language; it’s painting and music. You know how you always say I should explore my creative potential? Well breeding, making a winner, now that’s creative.”
Breeding again. Bingo! Word of the day.
We shuffle inside our house. His eyes are steady on me. “Well, I suppose he is a bit slick,” he admits, sotto voce.
“The man is a walking Chernobyl!”
“Sweetie, you’re way overstating the case,” he slips his arm around me amorously.
“I’m overstating because I feel threatened.”
“You have nothing to worry about.” He slips his hand down my ass.
“I can’t do this now, Dan.”
He gives me the full on sex voltage, heat coming out of him as if he’s a wood burning stove. I don’t respond: I’m all business, so he tackles the situation differently. “If I do sell King, I think I can get thirty-five grand for him.”
I suck in air as if I’ve been underwater too long. “Are you making a true commitment, Dan? Even with all of that racetrack poetry inside you?”
His mantra is “whatever you want.” The man just wants to get laid but his words still make me hopeful. His arms are so strong, his body so thick and reassuring.
“No breeding at all?”
“You are what matters,” says Dan. “I only wanted your opinion.”
He strokes my hair. “C’mon,” he says, and leads me into the bedroom.
“Hold on, there, sailor.”
“You have something better to do?” he says, a twinkle in his eye. He has the special effects ability to transform into a human super nova when he wants to.
He pulls me into his chest.
He kisses my neck. I hate it that I’m this easy to get. He’s the one place I’m safe after a life of unsafe.
I won’t allow any of that kind of trauma for this maybe child inside of me.
We’re under the sheets, now.It’s hard for him to talk while making love, like his emotions are in some sort of crawl space that we both have to get into. But at least we do get there sometimes. All of this love pours out now. His skin is medicine to me.
Then, what is that—a tentative sound—tapping? Drumming on the door? Then, more forcefully, insistent knocking. Whoever it is, knows we’re here. We go limp; whoever is selling roof tiling, paint jobs, religion, college-bound kids hawking cookies—will eventually leave. But they don’t. We freeze, suppressing giggles like guilty children.
“Hey! You guys!” That voice is so damn familiar. “It’s me, Paul! I forgot to leave you the papers!” He’s about six feet from our naked bodies. “Hey, your screen is broken!”
“Tell him to get the hell out of here,” I growl.
But Dan’s flipped open the blanket.
“I can fix this screen for you,” Paul offers.
I holler, “Get lost!”
“And the papers—it would take all of four minutes to go through them!”
Dan says, “Really?”
“Less than four minutes,” repeats Paul in a higher octave.
I lunge at Dan, grasping his giant leg. He extricates himself, mutters “I’ll be right back,” grabs his shorts and heads towards the door like a frantic mosquito. I follow him and listen to oily Paul, trying to sound like the big brother Dan never had. I suddenly hate my husband. Why didn’t I heed my aunt who, after meeting Dan told me to keep looking around “and if you’re lonely, get a cat!”
I never liked cats.
In the living room, Paul’s managed to get Dan to sit down and read the papers. Then something happens to me; a force, fierce, focused, unafraid, opens my mouth which shouts: “I’m coming out there, Dan. Naked.”
Dan and Paul roar. I’m not being funny. I mean to be Kali, passionate, strong, destructive. As in, “Kali has had enough!”
When I was young, I was bold. True, everyone was; we were changing the world. We made love in public, got arrested in foreign countries. We did obnoxious theater, yelling at the audience that they were Capitalist pigs. We did those things. I did those things, I remind myself.
“Despite appearances,” I tell myself, “you are not just a woman stuck in suburbia. You’re not a cartoon. You’re not Betty Boop. Not Jane Jetson. Nor Marge Simpson. You may not be Kali yet, but at least you can be Lucy from Peanuts.”
I trot into the living room thinking if I am to bring someone into this world, I need to be fearless. I open my robe.
For an instant, Paul’s speechless. Then he utters an almost sacred “wow!” Then he realizes that that reaction is 180% the wrong one. He jumps up streaming nonsense words, grabs his papers and races out the front door.
My turn to laugh.
“What was that supposed to be?” asks Dan.
“That was me saying enough!”
“I never committed to anything!!” he exclaims.
“You were on the cusp.”
After awhile, I notice that Dan’s eyes have gone soft and cloudy.
“I don’t know if I can do life without the horses,” he mumbles.
“I guess that ís the thing, isn’t it?”
He nods, head in hands now. His body folds down.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “There has to be something else!”
I wonder if this clue will register.
Meanwhile, outside there’s vehement chirping, another bird dispute that happens all the time in the San Fernando Valley.
“We’re the destination for all the birds with issues,” he says, then tears start streaming down his face. “I feel like I’ve lost everything that matters. I mean everything that isn’t us,” he amends.
If only he could read my mind. If only he just looked at me, studied my face for a moment.
“I’m doomed,” he mutters.
“We’re all doomed, we just manage to forget about it.”
We both fall back onto the bed. Dan rolls over onto my stuffed animals, picks up my maroon elephant. “I can’t believe how many creatures you have to keep you company when you can’t sleep.”
“They love me,” I say, meaning they never disappoint.
I don’t tell him that my bears and rabbits and I lie awake, and together, we stare at the ceiling, asking questions without answers.
© Barbara Bottner 2018