The Close-Nit Family: My son was a magnet for lice the way I was a magnet for lousy men

Paula McClain is the author of two poetry collections, a memoir and the novel "A Ticket to Ride" (in paperback in January).
Paula McClain is the author of two poetry collections, a memoir and the novel "A Ticket to Ride" (in paperback in January). (Courtesy Author)
By Paula McLain
Sunday, October 12, 2008

When my son, Connor, was 4 and I was a divorced mom in her early 30s, I took a job teaching at a boarding school in a tiny rural town, pretending it was a good career move. In truth, I'd fallen for a man who taught there. He was at least 15 years older, a whip-smart and charming serial dater. Somehow the fact that he was wholly emotionally unavailable escaped me.

After that disaster, the first thing I did was have an affair with the of-age-but-not-by-much son of a colleague who showed up at my door one night with a six-pack. The second thing I did was have an extended nervous breakdown.

For nearly as long as my son had been alive, I'd been a single parent. Single parenting, as way too many know and others can easily guess, is damned hard work. One of the things that got me through the toughest times -- graduate school, for instance, which I spent pouring buckets of student loan money into day care and sometimes crying in the bathroom until my toddler knocked on the door -- was imagining my reward in the form of a magnificent second husband who'd swoop in to share my burden. He'd whip up Gruyere-and-caramelized onion frittatas while I slept in on Sunday mornings; he'd teach Connor the names of the trees in the woods behind our house; he'd pay off my student loans as a wedding gift. But in reality, I was alone and lonely, and had been for years.

That I was in a holding pattern, simply waiting for the next good thing, never worried me much until after both of my disastrous affairs at the boarding school had fizzled. It would be just me, my boy and 200 teenagers, stranded on an utterly beautiful and utterly isolated hilltop. Unless I wanted to get myself arrested or fired, there was no one left to date or even fling myself at unwisely. I had committed romantic suicide.

And that's when the lice struck. I picked up Connor from preschool one afternoon and was handed an informational pamphlet illustrated with a drawing of a single vampiric louse, its mouthparts enlarged like something on a horror movie poster. We went to the hamlet's one general store for our first box of Rid -- and a big, fat cookie.

Over the next several months, Connor's formerly sweet head became a revolving door of nits become lice become entire genealogies. He was a magnet for lice the way I was a magnet for lousy men. Every time I'd get the call from the school nurse, I'd have to pick him up and spend the next few days laundering all of our clothes, vacuuming every surface of our apartment, plus the car and his car seat -- and all of it to no avail. His infestation became my infestation.

At one point it occurred to me that it was a good thing I wasn't dating -- else I'd have to ask my new beaus to check me for nits. At another, it struck me that the lice were the perfect physical manifestation for my anxieties, self-doubts, moral swervings and loneliness. Here were the lice. I couldn't beat them and couldn't ignore them. Here they were again, tiny and legion and insatiable. While my students passed their free hours surfing the Net for magic mushroom recipes or instructions on piercing cartilage, I spent mine Googling home remedies: how to apply mayonnaise and a shower cap to our lousy heads, how much olive oil I'd need to drown the invaders.

The demands on me were unrelentingly specific, as suddenly explicit, say, as the directions on the bottle of RID: apply, rinse, repeat as necessary. It worked not only against lice, but against my tendency to escape into fantasy. I began to settle into my actual life instead of waiting for a new, better one to arrive on cue. The possibility of romantic love was more remote than ever, but Connor and I were surviving anyway. We spent most Friday nights in the bathroom, fingering through each other's hair like a small family of orangutans. Afterward, we made popcorn and watched "Charlotte's Web" with our shower caps on. I might be alone forever. I might never be at peace. But out our long front window was a meadow and, above, a hundred billion stars. Though we couldn't see them in the dark, there were cows out there, dozing or eating the long, sweet grasses. There were trees without number. In the morning, we could take a walk, learn a few of their names.


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