Deferring a Dream

by Tanya Miller

The heat is oppressive in the dark, windowless staff lunch room. An oscillating fan ruffles the paper napkins that read “Citizens National Bank of Park Rapids” stacked on one table. A public high school takes donations wherever they are offered. As we enter the room, we pass the sign on the door which reads “Staff Workroom,” which some of us are able to say with a straight face when answering the phone. In the 10 years that I’ve worked here, no work has ever been accomplished in that room. It is our stuffy, cramped haven in which we have 25 minutes of food consumption and adult conversation.

After waiting in line for the one food-bespattered microwave to heat up leftovers from last night’s supper, we settle down to our accustomed places. Although I have never heard it explained to any newcomer, there is a rule about this, and anyone coming into our “workroom” seems to know instinctively where to sit. Maybe the men have peed around their circular table, maybe we women have left an imperceptible odor that causes us all to menstruate collectively on the same days of the month. This is not something I have studied. However, it is an unbreakable rule. Even when there is only one man at the men’s table and an empty chair at the women’s table, he will not venture over, and we will not invite him. There have been times when there have been 12 chairs crowded around the eight-seated women’s table, with four empty chairs at the men’s table. None of us questions this practice or seems interested in breaking it.

It’s not as if we don’t like each other. We just wouldn’t have anything to say. We wouldn’t be able to participate in their talk about fish, deer, touchdowns and homeruns any more than they would be able to enter into our conversations about husbands, mothers-in-law, children and female-specific bodily functions.

On this day, as any other, I find my seat among the women with whom I share lunch 185 days of the year. Here, we share our experiences, advice and some wisdom, and the small tragedies of our lives.

Krista, our comedian, starts out the conversation: “Man, was I glad to come to work today!” We look at her with confused, expectant looks. After all, it’s Monday.

“Jay was gone all weekend doing a ski race in Wisconsin and I was stuck in the house with the kids. We couldn’t go outside because Bjorn had another ear infection, and screamed every waking moment. When he wasn’t screaming, he was asleep on my lap. If I tried to move off the couch, he would wake up and start screaming again. Which meant that I was trapped to the life-sucking couch all weekend while Per basically destroyed the house. I couldn’t yell at him, or I’d wake up Bjorn, and he knew it. He tried on every pair of my shoes, took out every single piece of Tupperware, spilled the dogfood all over the floor, and don’t get me started on the toys. I screamed inside my head to God or whoever was listening, ‘Take them back! Take them back! I don’t want to be a mother anymore!’ Trust me, after dealing with a sick infant and a terrorist toddler all weekend, teenagers are a piece of cake!”

Every woman at the table smiles and nods, thinking of her own moments of frustration as a mother, moments when they didn’t want to be mothers anymore—every woman but me. The shared stories begin, as I knew they would. This is what we do. Kerry talking about the time she locked herself in the bathroom, screaming at her kids, “Leave me alone! I need a timeout!” Linda talking about the time she made her problem child, Kolter, walk the last mile home in the ditch, while she drove slowly on the road. And so on, and so on.

Nobody notices that Krista’s words hit me like a kick in the stomach, and I can barely swallow my reheated scalloped potatoes.

Vicky is about to launch into the tale about her daughter throwing up on the way home from daycare, when Krista interrupts her, “Wait, Tanya’s here!” They all laugh, good-naturedly, knowing my low tolerance for graphic puke stories over lunch.

“That’s OK, I’m done.”

“You’ll understand when you have kids,” Cami says. They all laugh, and Vicky launches into her story.

Although I don’t intend it to, my chair scrapes the floor as I get up, throw away the rest of my lunch, and leave five minutes early, breaking yet another of the “Staff Workroom” unwritten rules: No one leaves before the bell.

Tomorrow, I vow to sit at the men’s table.

I march back to my room, tears stinging my eyes, trying to get ahold of myself before having to face 30 ninth-graders, all high on the Mountain Dew and Snickers® they had for lunch.

Of course my coworkers have no intention of hurting me with their words. Although we share the small tragedies of our lives, we do not share the large ones. We are confidantes, but only during the school year, and only at school. They do not know that I would gladly trade anything in the world for just one of their worst days of motherhood. They do not know that I hear the words spoken by a woman who is younger than I, “You’ll understand when you have kids,” as if I were a child being remonstrated with, “You’ll understand when you grow up.” They do not know that they are an exclusive club that I am not allowed to join.

The bell rings, I lift my head from my hands, and I paint on my best “greeting students” smile.  Focusing on them makes it easy to avoid focusing on myself, and I ask various students about things in their lives—basketball, brothers, sisters—laughing and joking with them and answering questions about missed homework assignments as they enter the room. I tell them to turn to page 280, and we read aloud Langston Hughes’s “Dream Deferred.”

Tanya Miller has been teaching high school English for the last 15 years in Park Rapids, Minnesota. She received her M.A. in English from Bemidji State University in 2004 and her M.F.A . in creative writing from Minnesota State University, Moorhead in 2005. She and her husband Richard live on a 40-acre farm near Park Rapids, Minnesota, where they raise organic food. They have twin daughters, Emma and Anna. “Deferring a Dream” is a chapter from a book-length memoir about infertility.

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