Thursday, May 3, 2012

Excerpts

After twenty years as a stay-at-home mother, Amanda Marchetti has arrived for her first day of work at a Washington, D.C., law firm. A few days before, she attended a disastrous planning meeting for the Mother Daughter Show, a musical revue staged annually by mothers of senior girls at her daughter’s school, Barton Friends. The meeting was held at the home of another Barton mother, Barb Atkins. As a result of an altercation at the meeting, Amanda’s friendship with a third Barton mother, Susan Logan, appears to be over.

Amanda scrutinized the reception area at Prentiss & Cotton, with its cushy carpeting and expensive-looking oil paintings. It actually felt good to sit there with the prospect of some purposeful activity ahead—not to mention a paycheck at the end. She had finally managed to crawl out of her little stagnant pool of despond and rejoin the swiftly flowing stream of humanity. And no more wasting her time and energy on that stupid show, where all she got for her pains was a heap of abuse.

She closed her eyes, trying to banish the vision that kept rising unbidden into her mind: Barb’s family room trashed, that lamp toppling over, pillows flying, a large puddle of red wine on the rug. She rested her head in her hands, trying to steady herself. How could she have been so utterly stupid? Well, the wine hadn’t helped, that was for sure—she should have known better than to drink more than two glasses. And of course she’d been provoked, practically beyond human endurance, by that . . . that . . . She could barely think the name “Susan,” it was too upsetting.

Still, she felt terrible about what had happened. After trying several times to muster the courage to call Barb and apologize, she’d finally settled on an email, the last refuge of the coward. And she’d taken the opportunity to explain that she’d recently gotten a job and therefore would no longer have time for any involvement with the show. Aside from everything else, she couldn’t imagine facing the other Barton mothers who had seen her completely lose it. She’d have to put in an appearance at Kate’s graduation, of course, but other than that she had no intention of ever setting foot on campus again.

So in addition to not working on the show, she wouldn’t even participate in the performance itself. And that might draw some comment: from what she’d heard, almost all the mothers of senior girls got up on stage, apparently for fear of disappointing their daughters if they didn’t. Would Kate be disappointed if Amanda wasn’t there? Or would she not even notice? When Amanda had brought up the question with Larry—who’d been appalled at what had happened at the meeting and fully supportive of Amanda’s decision to quit—he’d said, “Well, why not just talk to her about it?”

Why not indeed? It was ridiculous: she was almost afraid of approaching her own daughter for fear of being rebuffed or dismissed. It seemed that Kate was always on her way in or out of the house, humming along to something on her iPod, texting one of her friends.

With a twinge, Amanda remembered behaving that way herself, even without all the technological defenses available to Kate. Now she suddenly understood how much it must have hurt her mother when she’d always found some excuse to wriggle away from those bumbling, tentative efforts to engage in heart-to-heart conversation. An image had entered Amanda’s mind, a multi-generational procession of mothers reaching desperately for daughters, the daughters eternally eluding their grasp.

Well, someone had to try to break this cycle, Amanda told herself yesterday afternoon. And maybe if she unburdened herself to Kate about what was weighing on her mind, Kate would even be moved to reciprocate and reveal something of whatever was going on inside her own head. Amanda had actually read something like that years ago, in one of those parenting books she used to devour: if you want your child to open up to you, try opening up to them first—in some age-appropriate way, of course.

“Um . . . okay,” Kate had responded unenthusiastically when Amanda knocked on her bedroom door and asked if she could come in. Kate was at her desk, staring at her laptop, whose screen she now quickly and reflexively minimized. “But I’m kinda busy.”

“I don’t want to keep you from your . . . homework,” Amanda had said, although she thought she’d seen a flash of what looked a lot like a Facebook page. “But there was something I wanted to talk to you about.” Kate was peering up at her now, inquiringly. Maybe this would be easier without direct eye contact, Amanda thought as she picked her way around the piles of Kate’s clothes and books to the window on the opposite wall. There, looking out at the Japanese maple waving gently in the breeze—as though coaxing her to speak—she began to unburden herself.

“So, you know about this show.” Amanda paused: where to begin? “It’s silly, really. I mean, I didn’t intend to get involved, but, well, Susan told them I was a songwriter.” She emitted a quick laugh, telegraphing the absurdity of it. “And anyway, they decided to put me in charge of the writing. And you know, I discovered it was really fun! I hadn’t written a song in, oh, I don’t know how long. This was different, of course, but I just got back that feeling.”

She sighed and gazed at the jagged triangles of blue sky visible through the tree branches. “I just felt alive again, you know? But then, well, things got kind of crazy. With Susan, actually. And some of the other moms. Let’s just say there’s been a little tension. I did some stupid things, frankly, and I guess I’m a little embarrassed to go back.” No need to go into the details—certainly not that brawl at Barb’s, with the shoving and the hair-pulling. “And now I’m starting this job tomorrow, so I’m really not going to have any time to work on the show anymore anyway.”

Wow, Amanda had thought, it feels so good to spill it all out—or at least spill out most of it. And Kate hadn’t interrupted, hadn’t harangued Amanda with questions. She’d just stayed quiet, letting Amanda ramble on.

“So you see, I’m wondering, sweetie,” Amanda had concluded, “whether it matters to you that I get up on stage for the show. Because, despite all this, if it’s really important to you, I’ll do it.”
Amanda had now turned to face Kate, expecting perhaps to exchange rueful smiles. But Kate was staring intently at her laptop. Realizing her mother had stopped talking and was now gazing at her, Kate suddenly looked up. “Sorry,” she had said. “I wasn’t really listening. What were you saying?”

***

At the first planning meeting for the Mother Daughter Show at Barton Friends School, a group of mothers of senior girls are brainstorming ideas for skits and songs about their daughters and begin to get carried away.

“Oh, and we have to do something about clothes!” said Trish. “The way they dress? You know, with all the layers of tank tops? And the push-up bras?”

“The flip-flops,” Susan said, writing furiously.

“And the thongs!” said Savi. “You know how they wear their jeans low, so that the top of the thong shows?”

Again Amanda felt out of it: yes, Kate wore tank tops and flip flops. She might have one push-up bra. But in her role as the family laundress Amanda had never seen a thong in Kate’s dirty clothes—let alone one peeking over the top of her jeans.

“We could have, like, a fashion show,” said Trish. “You know, with the moms dressed like their daughters?”

“Yes!” screeched Savi, suddenly losing her elegant cool in favor of a fist pump. “I’ll wear a thong!”

***

Barb Atkins, perennial Parents Association volunteer at Barton Friends School, is struggling to cope with her troubled daughter, who frequently suffers a “Reduction in Privileges” (otherwise known as “getting RIP-ed”) for breaking school rules.

Barb suspected Grace had actually broken new ground in the annals of RIP-ing at Barton. It wasn’t unusual for kids to violate the rule against showing up drunk at a school dance. But Grace was probably the first and only student who had shown up drunk and then vomited all over the dean of students, who was acting as a chaperone. The incident would have been embarrassing for any parent, but it was excruciating for Barb, given her position as founder and co-chair of the Parents Association’s Health Improvement Program, an effort to address the issues of drinking and drugs. Sadly, the parent workshops organized by HIP, which had so far failed to draw many attendees, weren’t helped by the dance incident, but Barb could at least be proud of inventing a terrific acronym.

***

Amanda Marchetti, compulsively writing song lyrics for the show she and other mothers are creating for their graduating teenage daughters, phones her husband Larry from a Florida beach to tell him about her latest composition—a song about the daughter of the newly elected President, Franklin Miyama, who’s just joined the school’s student body.

Amanda looked around. There were two old ladies in beach chairs within earshot, but what the hell. “Remember how I told you people thought we should do something about Marina Miyama coming to Barton? I mean, we have to, right? You know, something about how Principal Tucker told everyone not to talk to the press, and that basketball cheer at Mitchell, when they used the name Miyama? Okay, so here goes: Ma-ri-na,” Amanda sang to the tune of “Maria” from West Side Story, “we just saw a girl named Marina.”

She could hear Larry letting out a guffaw. The two old ladies in beach chairs each opened a wrinkled, reptilian eyelid and stared at her.

Emboldened, Amanda sang: “And now we have a hunch, the Secret Service is at lunch . . . Miyama! We know we should try to stay calmer.”

The beach chair ladies were smiling now, one of them elbowing the other. Amanda smiled back; it had taken her a while to find the right word to rhyme with “Miyama.”

***

Susan Logan prides herself on her close relationship with her teenage daughter Allie. But an overheard conversation at a lacrosse game prompts Susan to question whether she knows Allie as well as she thinks she does.

Two mothers were standing a few feet away, chatting. Susan couldn’t recall their names, but one had huge sunglasses and the other was wearing a bright green jacket. “Jeez,” she heard Green Jacket say to Sunglasses, “look at the legs on that girl. Like sticks!”

Susan couldn’t tell which girl she was talking about.

“Yeah,” said Sunglasses. “Well, you know, Taylor says they have a few Anna’s and Mia’s on the team.”

“Anna’s and Mia’s?” asked Green Jacket.

“You know—anorexia and bulimia?”

Green Jacket started to laugh, but then—Susan could have sworn she wasn’t imagining this—caught a glimpse of Susan and immediately stopped and put a hand to her mouth. Sunglasses looked over at Susan as well, and the two women seemed to exchange a glance.

What was that all about? Could they possibly think that Allie . . . ? Ridiculous. If Allie was going through something like that, some weird eating thing, Susan would know about it.

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