Great Expectations

An oil painting by mary cassatt called woman with a sunflower. A small girl sits on her mother's lap holding a mirror and both are looking at the young girl's reflection.
Mary Cassatt. Woman with a Sunflower c. 1905

At the dry cleaners the elderly shop owner smiled at Artie, who was crouched at the window peering at lucky cat figurine.

“All the little ones like that cat,” the owner said. “It’s from Singapore.”

The owner looked like a storybook gnome who found himself running a dry cleaners in the city. He had cartoonishly gnarled hands, droopy jowls and big ears. He didn’t look friendly but he was, and I found him memorable, if not for his physiology then for the knowledge he had about clothes. I’d only come in twice before the previous winter when nonstop rain caused some of our coats to mold. This time it was just two skirts with the smallest flecks of mold, but I was about to store them and didn’t want flecks to turn into the masses of fuzzy horrors we saw last year. Weird weather things we didn’t expect when moving to Sydney.

“Now what you want to do…” he began to refresh my memory, how when I got home, I needed to take everything out of the closet and, using a mold killer called Glen 2.0, “spray the hell out of the wardrobe and – OY! COME BACK INSIDE!”

His gaze suddenly snapped towards the street.

I spun around and saw Artie on the curb near the road, a stunned expression on his face. I hadn’t noticed that he’d gone out. I wasn’t too worried because he knew not to go into the road, but sometimes parenting, at this age, is about showing other people you have control over your child.

“Artie,” I said, “come back into the shop. You can’t run out by yourself. It’s dangerous.”

Eyeing the stern expression on the shopkeeper’s face, he came back inside after a moment’s deliberation and went to peer into the window of the giant washing machine, which was frothing and sloshing with unidentified garments.

“Sorry,” I said to the man. “He’s…a handful.”

He laughed a barking laugh. “You just wait. My daughter gives me more grief at thirty-two than yours will ever give you at two.”

He seemed suddenly frustrated. He lifted up his arms and looked at each one up and down, searching for the right words.

“What would you do,” he said, nodding at Artie, “if he came to see you after a few months covered, from here to here – he drew a line from his wrist to his shoulder – in tattoos?”

“Oof,” I said.

“And not just her arms, her entire legs and probably all over everywhere else too. What would you do? You’d go mental! Perfectly beautiful girl, perfectly fine skin, and she goes and does this to herself. What would you do?”

I didn’t know, but I would probably go mental.

And,” he continued, “guess how much all of that cost her.”

I tried to recall a conversation I had with old coworkers about the costs of their tattoos – all expensive, all in the thousands, but he didn’t let me finish my mental math.

“Thirty-five thousand dollars.”

Thousand?” I was aghast.

Thousand!” he was practically shouting now.

Artie looked up at both of us. If it had been Tom and me, he would have covered his ears and said, “Stop fighting!”

I sucked in my breath and winced. The man made a living cleaning clothes, charging by the piece. Maybe he had multiple shops, other investments and money wasn’t an issue, but still. The skirts cost $15 a piece to dry clean. He would have to clean 2,300 skirts and a dozen duvets to pay for his daughter’s tattoos.

I had so many questions. Did she have a job? How did she pay for it? Was she in a relationship? What were the tattoos of? Did he and she have a good relationship before? Was it an act of rebellion? If so, why did she need to rebel at the age of thirty-two? Did he have other children? Would Artie want tattoos? Should I start to indoctrinate him now on how dumb I thought they were? And because I thought they were dumb, did it increase the likelihood that he would come home with one or three or, god forbid, a girlfriend with sleeve tattoos? But my most pressing question is probably the one the man is still asking himself: where did he go wrong?

My questions remained unanswered as the man was now in full rant mode.

“Who in their right mind would spend that much money on tattoos? My daughter. That’s who. I asked her, why? Why not put the money towards a property? Why not do almost anything else with it? Why pay someone all this money to – he made small stabbing motions on his arms – to torture yourself? But you know what, she thinks it looks good. She thinks it sets her apart. But I’ve got eyes and I see these young idiots on the street with their tattoos, thinking they’re each of them different. But you know what? They all look the bloody same to me.”

He quieted down and shook his head. “One day it won’t be the thing to do anymore and she’ll have to spend about as much getting them all removed.”

The giant machine made a gurgling noise and we all looked over at it. It was as though the machine snapped the man back to the present, or at least a state I think many parents need to reside in to maintain a certain level of peace within themselves: the “just don’t think about it” state.

Artie was mesmerized by the liquid inside.

“That is one giant washing machine,” I said.

“That’s the dry cleaning machine.”

I frowned at the liquid inside. “Doesn’t seem that… dry.”

“Everyone thinks that’s water, but it’s not. It’s solvent.”

I marveled at this miracle of chemistry. Looks like water, sounds like water, but not water.

“Everyone’s clothes go in here,” he said. “And the solvent dissolves all the dirt, stains, whatever isn’t the clothes. It’ll take the mold right out of your skirts.”

It was too bad he couldn’t put his tattooed daughter in there and have her come out a toddler with pristine skin. A toddler whose opinions, even if different, would likely cost no more than either a few tears or an ice cream before dinner.

He went back behind the counter to finish writing my ticket and handed it to me with a sad smile.

“You know, that machine cost me thirty-five thousand dollars.”

We left, and I let Artie run ahead, but not too far. Call me old fashioned, but I felt for the guy. There’s nothing wrong with tattoos per se, but if it’s not tattoos, it’s probably something else. At the moment, my day-to-day with Artie is filled with tiny, mostly inconsequential, mostly food-related tug-of-wars: he wants candy for breakfast, ice cream for lunch, pretzels for dinner. He wants to watch horrible unboxing videos on YouTube.

I want him to wear pants and not chew on his toenails. In a few years he’ll probably want the same things, but also more expensive toys and video games. A few years after that, he might not like tattoos but he might really love drugs. He might spend all his allowance on Air Jordans or NFTs. We will definitely argue but I just don’t know about what. You want your kid to be themselves, but also, a little bit like you.

Tom thinks it’s ridiculous* I give this much headspace to a version of Artie that doesn’t exist, but doesn’t he already? The differences are little but they swell, and become entangled with each person’s respective values. I hope that the hundred no’s I say now about little things are buffers for the bigger no’s I hopefully won’t have to say, but even I know that’s wishful thinking. I can only hope that the gap between what he wants and what I want for him doesn’t get so wide that we can’t even bring ourselves to discuss it. I want Artie, Tom and I to always be able to talk, even if we disagree. I’m terrified of estrangement.

I watched Artie stop at the curb ahead, turn around and wait for me to catch up. He was probably thinking about the “stupid videos” I promised him after our errands.

“Hurry up, mommy! Hurry up!”

I smiled at him but kept my pace. There was no need to hurry.

*When I asked him to read this post his only feedback was, “You could compliment Artie a little more. he’s very cute.”

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