They’re coming for me, gaining ground with every stride. If they catch me, they’ll tear me apart just to see what’s inside. The path—if you can call it that—is uneven and dark. I strain my eyes against it out of habit, but there is no light here. I run faster, propelling myself deeper into the darkness until I hit a wall and fall to the ground. My hands stinging from the impact, I stand up and begin to feel around. Slowly, while listening for my pursuers, I move right and then left until finally my fingers find two cracks. Both are wide enough to fit my small frame. I know that one will lead me out of here away from danger; the other will trap me in its depths just long enough to be found and killed for everything I have done and everything I have yet to do.
I hear a thudding separate from my own heartbeat. They’re close now. Time to choose a path, but which one? How would you choose? Eeny, meeny, miny, mo? Takes too long. Coin flip? Can’t call what you can’t see. Guess? Maybe you, but not me, and that’s why they want me. Thanks to a hiccup in advanced psychopharmacology, I know which crack will open into a tunnel wide enough for a Cadillac, let alone a 5’ 2” middle-aged mom playing superhero, and end in an open field on the other side of the border. I’m not worried. I know how this ends. I know how everything ends. I see the future.
It started with little things. After a few doses, rare moments of serendipity became almost imperceptibly less rare. The boulder I’d spent years pushing up a mountain while Lululemon-clad members of the PTA threw rocks at me, felt a little lighter or like I’d stumbled onto a smoother path, one with more cover. Either way, my boulder became less of an imposition.
At first, I chalked it up to rising serotonin levels, relieved that finally something was working, and working the way it should, without the fine print: In six weeks, your suicidal thoughts should lessen in intensity. You’ll be able to stay awake for most of the day and maybe sleep through the night, perhaps with fewer, slightly less macabre nightmares. You should be able to hear and respond to your children when they speak and have the wherewithal to perform simple tasks like buying stamps at the post office, shopping for groceries, and maybe even eat a meal without an intravenous drip of encouragement and reminders from your long-suffering partner… BUT—here comes the fine part—you’ll be intensely itchy, perpetually constipated, at least 15 pounds overweight, and totally uninterested in sex with your husband, yourself or anyone else… ever. To be clear, Henry Cavill and Michael B. Jordan, or whoever your fantasy equivalent happens to be, could show up together at your front door with detailed engineering plans to achieve and sustain your personal ecstasy for as long as you can stand it, and your first response will be to ask if you can bum some ex-lax and cortisone or if they know where you can score a stash on the down low. Fan-fucking-tastic!
I thought I’d finally gotten lucky, won the MAOI-Anxiolytic lottery. Morning, noon, and night, I faced east, swallowed hard, and thanked Pfizer. I was finally feeling better. I thought I had found an answer until a crisp fall morning when I started hearing a different question.
It was 9ish, or more precisely right after drop-off. I remember my son Cole was still deep in his Star Wars phase. I was wearing the Luke Skywalker t-shirt he’d given me for my birthday that year and sitting in my car staring at the symbol in the center of the steering wheel trying to will the airbag behind it to explode. I was even wearing glasses to maximize bruising and scarring if on the off chance my attempts at telekinesis were successful. No one could fault me for not showing up if I was hurt, if I’d been in an accident. When nothing happened, I switched gears and wished for illness. Not just your run-of-the-mill cold and flu stuff, but real honest-to-goodness, hope-for-the-best-but-prepare-for-the-worst illness, like advanced bone cancer or radiation poisoning. No one would bother me if I was sick, really sick, not this bullshit.
A separate part of my brain noted that these supplications demonstrated a marked improvement in my condition. My relationship with death had changed. We were now embroiled in a cold war of sorts. We sniped at each other from a safe distance but hadn’t had any direct engagement for quite some time. And really if you consider it, I wasn’t even seeking out actual death anymore, just permanent disfigurement and catastrophic illness—a definite uptick.
Spurred on by my rush of positive thinking, I opened the car door. As my sneakers hit the ground, I heard a windshield-shattering squeal from further down the line of absolutely identical black SUVs.
I looked up and for a moment worried I’d accidentally driven to a car dealership. I didn’t remember much of the drive over here. And it wouldn’t be the first time I’d gotten lost in my own backyard. But when my name was followed by a rush of passive-aggressive platitudes—Oh My God! You actually made it! I can’t believe it! I thought I was going to have to fire you altogether! —I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be, the parking lot of The Sterling Preschool centered in Laney Bryant’s crosshairs.
This particular section of New Jersey is less Jersey than people expect. The towns here resemble more the quaint farm and forest-encircled villages of New England and Virginia than the Soprano-esque aesthetic of a turnpike exit or a dock in Port Elizabeth. Escalades and Mercedes do prevail in the carpool line, but the hair on the drivers is more Gwyneth than Giudice. Those shows may have stitched Bergen County across the chest of everyone with a New Jersey driver’s license, but we don’t all wear it on our sleeves. Regardless of the location of our Jersey Strong badges, a mafia does wield tremendous influence over life and business, even out here. We just don’t call it the mafia. Out here, we call it the Parent Teacher Association, and Laney Bryant was Dom—or as we say in the posh part of the Garden State, Chairwoman. Let me be clear: you’d have a better chance of surviving a run-in with Michael Corleone on his way out of the men’s room than Laney if you fail to meet your volunteer responsibilities.
Before I could even consider a response, another less shrill voice interrupted, “Laney, you can’t fire her. It’s the parent association. Claire’s a parent.” It was Meg.
“Good morning, Margaret,” Laney replied, “Of course, I can’t fire her as a parent. Only Michael and a marginally sober lawyer can accomplish that. Kidding, kidding.” She sauntered off toward the school’s front door waving and nodding in acknowledgment as the other mothers stepped out of their cars to kiss her ring and pay their respects.
“She fucking sucks,” said Meg tossing her unfinished cigarette at Laney’s car.
“She has a point though,” I said. “I’ve blown off a lot of meetings. It’s been months.”
“The only point she has is on top of her fucking head. Laney Bryant is a psychotic piece of shit who gets her Tory Burch panties in a bunch if you don’t offer an organic vegan alternative to cupcakes at a birthday party.”
“I’m pretty sure Tory Burch panties come pre-bunched. Besides her daughter has food allergies.”
Meg rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Let’s go heckle her. Maybe if we twist those panties tight enough, they’ll snap, and the recoil will send her flying back to her home planet.”
I let Meg lead the way into the building, manage the requisite smooth talking of the sharks in the secretarial pool, and find us seats in the back of the very crowded all-purpose room. Laney had scheduled a brainstorming meeting there to discuss gala themes. The term all-purpose room might conjure up images of a basketball court with a stage, walls with gym mats screwed to them and topped with filthy clerestory windows. Perhaps you might even envision a beaten, semi-functional accordion wall to divide the space. This was not the case at Stirling Preschool. This room had pumpkin pine wide-plank flooring, soft blue-green walls with enormous Palladian windows that stretched all the way to the ceiling framing the pastoral campus into a series of vignettes for its occupants. Instead of basketball hoops and a scoreboard, this room housed a marble coffee bar with a state-of-the-art espresso machine and a full-time barista to operate it. The room’s multi-faceted purpose was to impress, intimidate, and stratify.
Attendance at a brainstorming meeting is inversely proportionate to attendance at the work assignment session later in the month, so the crowded room was no surprise. Galas are elaborate fundraisers that provide the under-occupied, over-educated stay-at-home mom crowd with a plot arc that carries enough drama throughout the year to keep them from despising their otherwise banal existence. It also raises money, but that’s not the point. The point of the gala is the treacherous journey endured to get to the money, so that in a very public ceremony you can graciously present it to the school and then thank them for accepting it on top of the exorbitant tuition and fees you already pay. Money raised in a single evening: $100,000. Annual tuition and fees: $40,000. Being the biggest martyr on the block for an entire year: Priceless.
Meg chuckled. “Hey. Remember the year you chaired? Handed out t-shirts to all the volunteers that said, ‘I helped out at the gala and all I got was this lousy t-shirt?’ That was fucking brilliant.”
I nodded but kept my focus on remaining calm. Crowds were no longer my strong suit. I’d spent a lot of time over the past few days psyching myself up for this. As the tennis-toned bodies piled in, the noise level rose, but I felt strangely confident my prep work would pay off. I wasn’t going to be the one to bolt screaming from the room fifteen minutes into the meeting and spend the day hiding in the ladies’ room.
Neatly typed, color-coded agendas had been placed on every chair in the room for those who were on a technology detox and could not open the PDF that had been sent out the previous evening. I glanced over the paper agenda, only slightly disturbed by the decorative border and Maria Montessori quote in the footer, and knew that the mob scene might have more to do with the agenda items listed at the top, than the brainstorming session slated for the latter half of the three-hour meeting.
Meg bumped me with her elbow. “I’m surprised she didn’t mount them all on lace doilies too.”
I shrugged. “She’s crafty.”
“You said it, Sister.”
Laney called the meeting to order and announced that the agenda was simply too darn packed to allow for one of her signature icebreakers. The murmurs of disappointment were loud enough to be polite, but not so loud as to be sincere.
“Thank God for small miracles,” Meg whispered.
I wasn’t sure I agreed. Laney’s ridiculous get-to-know-you games were enough to push anyone over the edge, not just those of us who were barely hanging on to begin with. But ridiculous or not, a rousing game of Guess If My Twins Were Natural or IVF would have granted me a temporary stay of execution. I tugged my sleeves down over my wrists and took a steadying breath.
“Relax,” Meg said. “We’re not going down without a fight.”
We? The only name in red on the agenda next to the words yay or nay was mine. Nowhere did it say Margaret Dunn except in the thank you list at the bottom of page two. For all Meg’s smack talk, she was a stellar member of the PTA, better than Laney, which was probably why Laney was so tolerant of her assorted quirks, vices, and scandals. Their existence was the reason Laney was chairwoman instead of Meg.
“I’m so glad you turned up today,” she continued. “This makes it so much more fun.” Then she shushed me before I had even opened my mouth.
“Claire Kilpatrick?” Laney called again scanning the room for me.
My red hair was like a bullseye among all the balayage-ed blondes and ombre-ed brunettes.
“Oh! There you are. Stand up, Honey.”
I clenched my fists and felt my nails slice through my sleeves and into my palms as I rose from my chair.
“We’re so glad you made it today. We’ve all missed you so much.” She started clapping. Soon everyone in the room joined her.
My palms burned and became sticky and wet as blood seeped through my sleeves. I began to sweat. My hair stuck to the back of my neck. I focused on my breathing and forced myself to sink deep down into my own body. I had to calm down. I couldn’t panic. Not here. Not now.
Calm, I thought with each exhalation. Calm. Remember the steps. On a scale of 1 to 100, how panicked are you?
Ok. That’s pretty high. What’s the worst thing that could happen right now?
SHE COULD PULL OUT A KNIFE AND KILL ME. DEAD. EVERYONE WOULD TAKE TURNS STABBING ME. AND MICHAEL WOULD BE RELIEVED TO BE RID OF ME AND GRATEFUL TO LANEY FOR MAKING IT HAPPEN. MY CHILDREN WOULD GROW UP WITHOUT ME. RAISED BY SOMEONE ELSE. LOVED BY SOMEONE ELSE. AND BE BETTER FOR IT. I’LL HAVE ACCOMPLISHED NOTHING IN MY LIFE. I’LL HAVE CREATED NOTHING. I’ll BE REMEMBERED FOR NOTHING. I’LL HAVE AFFECTED NOTHING AND NO ONE. I’LL BE NOTHING. I AM NOTHING.
Ok. And the best that could happen? Tell me about that.
LANEY WILL APOLOGIZE. PROFUSELY. Resign and nominate me to take over the PTA to everyone’s rousing support just as Michael calls with news from my old agent that MoMa wants to do an exhibit of my pictures before I take it on tour around the world. They want me to give lectures in Paris and London and Hong Kong. I’ll decline the PTA Chairwoman role. We’ll pull the kids of out of school and take them with us. I’ll get to keep them close and give them a real education, but not before donating an obscene amount of money to Sterling, so they’re forever grateful and think well of us always, but I never, ever have to fucking come here ever again. My life will have meaning.
Ok. That was detailed. So, what do you think?
Probably won’t happen.
What about the knife scenario?
Good. Take another breath. Now, what’s really going to happen?
That wasn’t the right question. The question was supposed to be: how do you score the panic now? The answer would have been zero because as soon as I heard the new question, the panic stopped. In its place was an image of a van, a small orange van parked in front of a yellow, cape cod-style house with dark green shutters and a collection of purple mums in clay pots on the front porch. There were jack-be-little pumpkins on each of the posts along the white fence surrounding the house. A man in his mid-forties with Michael’s build and light thinning hair was loading a stack of boxes, a set of golf clubs, and some mismatched luggage into the van. They’re moving, I thought, but couldn’t stop seeing the van. It was so small, way too small to move a whole family. Then I thought about how few boxes there were and the golf clubs. Oh my God. It’s only his stuff. He’s going alone. He’s leaving. I wasn’t sure when—precision would come later as the drugs reached full efficacy—but it would happen and soon, by next year.
I opened my eyes. Meg was now standing up beside me with her finger pointed at Laney who was brandishing her own back at Meg. No one was staring at me even though I had checked out for God knows how long right in front of everyone. They were too absorbed in the Jedi mom battle.
“I don’t understand,” Meg countered. “Why does she have to take photos every single week?”
“It’s the weekly craft,” Laney replied but it sounded like Duh! The force was strong with this one.
“Exactly. It’s weekly. It happens every freaking week. The same kids use the same glue, egg cartons, paint, and pipe cleaners to create more or less the same unintelligible mess every damn week.”
There were gasps and murmurs now, but Meg pressed on. “They’re three years old for Christ’s sake. They’re going to make a million crafts during their school careers. Does it really matter if Claire documents and publishes every single one of them? Who is ever going to look at this stuff?”
The murmurs grew louder. I could make out little asides now like:
She agreed to do the job.
You can’t put a price on memories.
Cherish every second because they grow up so fast.
If she’s not capable, she should resign.
Despite my background as a photographer, I have never been a huge photo-monger when it comes to my kids. They’re cute and funny on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. It would be impossible to capture every great moment with them and then post and cleverly caption it on the Internet. I always felt that if I started posting photos and videos of my kids online and letting people applaud us, I’d start to derive my self-esteem from standing on my kids’ backs. Validation is a like drug. The more you get, the more you need. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—they’re just pushers. So, Meg had a point.
But I signed up to be the school’s photographer, to use my skills and talents to do exactly that. I had known the terms and agreed to them. Then I failed to fulfill them which had very little to do with my philosophical issues and a lot to do with my psychological ones. So, Laney also had a point.
“We already have bookshelves filled with the actual crafts. Now we need to have photos of the crafts too?” Meg was beginning to sweat. A thin sheen glistened under her curly blonde bangs.
“Margaret, that isn’t the point. The craft is the destination. The point, for our children, is the journey, the process by which they make the craft. That’s why we photograph it and post it, so everyone can see and enjoy the process. We’re validating the work, not the product.” Laney looked smug now. “And as for who looks at it, why the children do or would if Claire had actually done her job.”
Meg scoffed, “I’m sorry. Which of our four-year-olds has navigated their way to the website, logged into the password-protected page for their individual class, and then sorted through the 90 million photo montages, found the current week’s craft and complained, ‘hey that’s not this week’s green mushy craft! That was last week’s!’” The force was strong with her too, and her vehement defense of me was touching. “The only thing you’re validating, Laney, is yourself and your tuition payment. Nothing more.”
A few chairs scraped lightly across the polished wooden floor as some of the ladies began to choose sides. This was about to get ugly, personal. I wanted to interject, say something that would send both sides to their corners, make a joke to break the tension. “Laney, Meg is your father,” crossed my mind, but was quickly displaced by an image of that orange van almost fully loaded and ready to pull away forever.
Laney’s chest heaved. Her steely gaze fell on Meg’s jugular. “You know what, Margaret? We all understand why some people might have an aversion to posting photos and videos to the web, but I think you’re letting your personal issues cloud your judgment here.”
There were hisses and gasps as the rest of the chairs shifted to one side or the other. Bringing up last summer’s sexting incident was below the belt, pun intended.
Meg started for the podium.
I grabbed her arm. “Meg please.”
She turned to stare at me, my betrayal written all over her face. “What?”
“Don’t. Let it go,” I whispered. “It’s not worth it.”
“What is wrong with you?” She tried to pull free.
“Let her win.”
“Claire, after everything you’ve done for the school over the years. To try to take this away and shame you, not to mention me–”
“It doesn’t matter–,” I said.
“It certainly does matter–.”
“—Sam is going to leave her. The marriage is already banging on the rocks. She’s going to end up alone and miserable. This, here, now, is all she’s ever going to have, so let her have it for God’s sake.”
“How do you know that?” Meg asked.
“I can’t say. I-I just know.”
I let go of Meg’s arm and noticed a bloodstain on the sleeve of her blazer. I was going to pay for that. She turned back to Laney. “You know, maybe if you showed this kind of passion at home…”
Laney bolted from the room in tears. A few of her lieutenants followed her out, but most of the women remained. Chairs scraped against the floor again as they moved back together. The room began to hum as whispers and text messages zipped back and forth. This would be all over town in fifteen minutes. It would only take that long because yoga at the tennis club didn’t end until 10.
I wanted Meg to let up, to see how meaningless all this was. Laney would lose everything one day. It was like a memory only I was remembering forward instead of backward. I could see the fact of it just as clearly as I could see that this beautiful room we were standing in, wouldn’t be here five years from now. A scandal involving the embezzlement of school funds would collide with a tanking world economy that would lead to a shift in the culture where paying $40,000 in preschool tuition would go from a status symbol to an unconscionable sin. In a few short years, this building would be empty, and I would be on another continent escaping through that crack in the wall after stopping a very different kind of fight, one with far greater consequences for humanity than the weekly craft. As I stood in the all-purpose room, I flexed this new ability and felt all my fear and guilt, my shame and self-loathing vanish. Michael was not going to leave me. Our marriage would change, but it would last, and our children would be raised by me, by us. My life, though different than I had planned, would have meaning.
As the mob turned to where Meg and I were standing, the pitch of their murmuring began to change. Pretty soon they’d be baying for blood and details.
“Shit,” Meg said. “Time to go.” She dragged me to my car, unlocked it, and loaded me into the driver’s seat like a child. Then she reached across me to fasten my seatbelt and dropped my keys into the cupholder. “Claire. Coffee. Ten minutes.”
I knew this would be the last petty, inane conversation I would ever have as plain Jane, recently depressed Claire Kilpatrick, stay-at-home mom, and PTA flop. I intended to enjoy it. Before her instructions even registered, I had pressed the start button, eased out of the parking space, and made a left out of the lot. There were three coffee shops within a five-mile radius of the school. Meg had given no indication which one she meant, and I hadn’t seen her pull out, but still, ten minutes later I was seated at a small table staring across two steaming lattes into her expectant pale blue eyes as she said, “Oh my God! I owe you big time. Now tell the truth. Are you fucking Laney Bryant’s husband?”