One True Thing
Sara Lippmann


Forget the father. The worst, I say, because once I start I can’t stop, the absolute worst, are the mothers who try to reason with children beyond reason. The mothers in crowded shops negotiating with flailing terrors, who gently propose the toilet to diapered preschoolers, mothers who will endure, no, delight in, hours (hours!) of exploratory food play before inquiring if perhaps their precious tots might stop dumping the $12 mash on the restaurant floor. Have they no awareness? No clue?

The man beside me looks up from his book, a glossy white flap with a jagged neon graph rising on the up and up. Maybe I’m disturbing but he keeps a hand in the fold so he can leave me and return to his page at any time, as if anyone could concentrate with this mother – Can you believe her? – trying to bargain with her baby in a 260-ft airbus en route from Chicago to NYC at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. My seatmate’s mouth opens and closes like a tiny pump. It’s not much but it’s something.

Coddle, coddle, coddle, I chant, emboldened. The word dredges my throat. Par for the course, of course; nowadays, it’s SOP. When I was an army brat, there were rules and consequences. I bring my drink to my lips. Now we’re a nation of soft-boiled eggs.

My neighbor chuckles, his chin a glistening round to crack, dust with salt and pepper. He wears chinos and a button down, and his skin is pink and smooth, unwrinkled on account of a surfeit of flesh or money or youth, his hairline taking a backseat to his forehead. He leans into the aisle for a better look. I lean toward the hump of his haunch. I whisper, too loudly.

Kids today

The mother offers a carousel of choices. The baby is having none of it. How can a baby possibly know what it needs? That’s what mothers are for. This baby is what – 9 months? 12? 2 years? I’ve lost the ability to measure age, let alone from this vantage point, a few rows back. I can’t count teeth. The baby has a full shock of hair, thick, black and spiky, hair like the father standing at the impotent sideline with his baggy pants and slightly bashful mostly proud little grin, the grin of a remote control driver whose pint-sized car has crashed spectacularly into the wall, splattered to smithereens, the baby I swear has an angry scrawl of a moustache, poor ugly thing – can you blame him? The baby howls. What the baby wants is to be heard, pounding chubby fists into the mother’s swan neck as she sings over him, undeterred, as she parades him up and down the aisle like a designer bag on her slender hip, waltzing him, chanting, “What’ll it be now, my blue-eyed son?”

As if a pacifier, nap, snack or diaper; as if a round of patty cake might do the trick.

Shove a boob in it, I say. He’s a stranger, next to me, but who isn’t? When Leo was small and I was flying back and forth from Duluth for my mother’s transfusions, this was our answer to everything: takeoff, landing, the hours between. Afterward, passengers would assist with the overhead compartments and say, “What a great baby. What a well-behaved boy.” When our bimonthly excursions increased to every two weeks, I stopped bothering with modesty. Leo’s little hand came around like a paw to stroke, the flat of his nose against me, his gummy fangs sealing the deal. I’d close my eyes to the beat of his suck and welcome the release of pressure – from his ears, my chest – the rush in my thighs, a thrumming satisfaction that accompanies the simple, uncomplicated truth of symbiosis, that one true thing. Love is a shut system of supply and demand. My child thrived. My mother’s transplant failed. I should have known. There are rates of rejection – and then, there is truth. I barely can stand three seconds of a man shrinking inside me before I expunge his leaky toy. How can anyone be expected to accept someone else eternally as their own, even if the body part is vital, marrow, tissue and blood, a do-or-die gift?

Beats me, the man says. He is taking up too much room, what else is new. Give an inch, take a mile. Entitlement is everywhere. I clink my cup to his regardless, because no one should be left hanging. Now he is really grinning. Now he is looking at my blouse stretched taut at the buttons because all these years later, my keepsakes have calcified, dome-shaped and heavy and full.

Tell her, he says. I pull on my skinny red straw, twirl the pool cues of ice. His thigh grazes my knee with intention. The whole plane would thank you.

He’s right. What I lack is gratitude. Leo still doesn’t know what’s good for him. Last time we spoke, he believed he could snap his fingers and turn life around, embrace the Buddha of authenticity and the windfall to follow. He’s the rube for whom sweepstakes were made, fake check and balloons at the door to lift him up and carry him to a happier future.

My drink’s run out, so I stretch to press the call button. I smell salty and stale, like powdered soup. The man beside me doesn’t seem to mind. If anything he smiles wider, as if to say, pheromones.

I check on the woman seated to my left but she is oblivious. She stares out the window. Her headphones are big as diaphragms. Her hair is blonde, her tan sprayed, she is just the kind of thing Leo would bring home, spilling out of her jeans. A butterfly spreads its wings in a stretch of putty along the base of her back. Leo had a girl once with her own name and address inked on the inside of her wrist in case she forgot where she lived or got lost like a package in the mail, to be returned to sender.

The flight attendant is attentive but must navigate the aisle, which this mother effectively has hijacked with her show. Romance novels, touch screens, celebrity weeklies be damned – nothing can compete with her bop and glide and purple-faced baby. You OK? the flight attendant says. But I can feel her last nerve. It’s about doing a job. We exchange an eye roll and I love her, her cream rouge and silk scarf, and I think briefly of possibilities. What I might have been.

I raise my empty.
Another Bloody? she chirps without judgment.
Make that two, my neighbor says.
He half-coughs and here it comes: Business or pleasure?

The predictability of people – Leo has done it again. Left a wife, driven West, landed in rehab, camped in the desert, fled up North with another grand plan. In his thirty-seven years he’s sold teeth whiteners and vitamin water, fifty new pills to make you smarter healthier wealthier more virile, he’s sold knife sets door to door, wall-to-wall carpet in a ragged flip book, every one a scheme for which he keeps falling.

It’s amazing we’re related. That he sprang from me dripping with Mod Podge, an 8-pound decoupage of trust, gullibility. Hope.

Neither, I say. Both. I say, family.

The man takes the folded blanket he’s been using as lumbar support and spreads it over his lap onto mine. I picture Leo in a cold dark room alone, dirty mattress. He did not ask for me but I am his mother. This is reason enough. To show up. To shush and rock and bathe and feed and when all that fails, to never again let go.

Me too, he says, reclining his seat. Either I’m used to it by now or the crying miraculously has stilled. He takes my hand. The engine takes over the cabin. We drift into the hum until our wheels touch down.


Sara Lippmann‘s debut collection, DOLL PALACE (Dock Street Press) was long-listed for the 2015 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She has received an artist’s fellowship in fiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts, and her stories have appeared in Wigleaf, Slice Magazine, Tupelo Quarterly, Joyland, Fiction Southeast and elsewhere. Find her here.