An excerpt from
There was a season in Santa Monica, and within it a time of day, when the air was so silken, the light so honeyed and ethereal that it almost, almost made up for the lack of street parking. It was under this blue bowl of ocean air that Justine circled the block for a third time in search of a spot where she could legally abandon her car. She could not be late to new-family orientation. Margaret Askew, owner and headmistress of Garden of Happiness, would take a dim view of a parent tardy to the first event of his or her preschool career. After all the mom reconnaissance Justine had conducted to secure a place for her daughter behind the school’s exclusive picket fence, she was not about to christen the experience with a hairy eyeball from the woman she’d heard referred to as “the Leona Helmsley of the preschool world.”
But where was Greg? He said he’d call when he was close so they could walk in together. She dialed him from her cellphone. “Dude. Orientation starts at six o’clock.”
“Get off my back, woman. I was stuck on a conference call.” Justine heard the smile in his voice and the NPR background chatter on his car radio. “Who’s with Emma?”
“She’s checking all the expiration dates in our fridge, isn’t she?”
“As we speak. Hey, are you here yet? I don’t want to walk into this thing alone. It’s bad for my street cred.”
“Your what? I hope you haven’t already fallen in with some rough mommy-gang.”
“I’m just saying. You’ve only got fifteen minutes to make it here from Century City.”
“Challenge accepted. Bye.”
As she continued the hunt for parking, she thought back on the school tours, applications, interviews, and intelligence-gathering that had led them to Garden of Happiness. She couldn’t say exactly when the quest for admission to the ideal preschool had taken on the urgency of, say, finding a government safe house after turning state’s evidence, but she knew where it had started:
Tumblepants Toddler Music Jamboree.
Justine made a point of staying on the fringes of the mommy clusters she observed every Tuesday morning at Emma’s music activity class. She had heard enough talk of residual C-section fat pouches, episiotomies gone awry, and recalcitrant lactation glands to reinforce her belief that it took more than some shared war stories from the birthing trenches to turn a stranger into a real friend. After leaving her job to become a full-time mom, she had filled her days with errands and projects, working within the baby’s nap schedule, determined to continue as a productive member of society even though she no longer drew a paycheck. With Emma a few months shy of two years now, Justine felt she had a pretty good handle on the transition from the methodical world of law firm marketing to the lawless frontier of motherhood. That all changed one Tuesday morning during a frenzied rendition of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” when one of the other moms casually asked how her preschool interviews were going.
“You’re already interviewing?” Justine shielded herself from the maracas her daughter was wielding like nunchuks on the mat next to her. “Come on, I knew we were getting close, but I thought I had a little more time before those hijinks started.”
The mom, who happened to be the wife of one of Greg’s law partners and a former lawyer herself, adjusted her glasses, which were made of clear plastic with the exception of the nosepiece and gave the unsettling impression that a random piece of metal had been clamped onto her face. “I know I’ve said this before, but there’s a payoff to being in a top-tier baby group: you are in the loop. We calendared the admissions deadlines while we were still learning to use breast pumps.” She held up a finger. “Yes, that sounds like overkill, but the fact is we live on the Westside, where preschool isn’t something you just walk in and sign up for.” She gave Emma a once-over. “The unfortunate news for you is that, according to our group facilitator, there are more boy spots available this year than girl spots, at least in the schools that matter. You’ll have to work around that while you’re playing catch-up.”
Another mom—whose diminutive Guatemalan nanny stood sentry behind her strapped to a $400 diaper bag that appeared to be twice her weight—chimed in to the conversation. “Listen, do yourself a favor and go straight to the school whisperer. Starting this late, you’re going to need her.”
“‘The school whisperer?’” Justine said. “Are you serious?”
“A school application consultant?” she uptalked. “The LA Times did a big piece on her last year—she helps with your written answers and preps you and your kid for interviews?” She looked at the partner’s wife, then back at Justine. “Oh my God—it’s so lucky you talked to us!”
Justine stewed as she drove away from the mall. She had heard of those high-powered baby groups, of course, but hadn’t been interested in joining one. She didn’t feel the need to discuss Emma with strangers or disturb their private routine of outings, naps, songs, meals, and tickles. Those women are preschool extremists, she told herself when she and Emma arrived at home. Still, she couldn’t resist calling one school on the moms’ “hot” list. When the administrator informed her that “families in the know” placed their children on the enrollment waiting list one to two years prior to preschool eligibility (or, as she would later tell Greg, “before they had crowned at Cedars-Sinai”), Justine felt the resurgence of her old competitive drive, which had been mothballed along with her briefcase since leaving her job. She wasn’t about to let a little mom-on-mom hazing and front-office attitude bully her daughter out of the running before she’d even started. No, she and Greg would decide which schools interested them enough to apply and, after that, may the best toddler win. The admissions quest was on—and Justine would be undertaking it without a consultant, whispering or otherwise.
Months later, just when it seemed Emma would spend her preschool years languishing on various Westside waiting lists, Justine received a call from her first-choice school: Garden of Happiness. They had a spot for Emma…if Justine could deliver the tuition check by the end of the day.
“The school with all the rules?” Greg said when she called to give him the news. “Didn’t you think that place was annoying?”
“I think all the schools are a little annoying—for the parents. But Emma seemed most comfortable at Garden of Happiness, and that’s going to matter a lot when the time comes for me to drive away and leave her there. Besides, everyone I’ve talked to says that no one helps parents cope with preschooler behavior better than Margaret, even if she’s not what you’d call warm and fuzzy.”
“There’s an understatement,” Greg said with a laugh. “But I see what you’re saying. The whiff of totalitarianism aside, they do seem to know what they’re doing at that school.”
Justine delivered the tuition check within the hour.
After waiting for a cigarette-smoking woman in workout wear to coax her sheepdog into her Volvo and drive away, Justine pulled into a curbside parking spot and hurried toward the school. When she reached the gate, she lingered on the sidewalk, hugging her purse to her chest as she looked over the fence into the front play area. Created from the yard of the converted house that comprised the school’s main building, the play yard held a water table, a fleet of sturdy riding toys, and a large, plastic log cabin complete with shutters and a chimney. Justine pictured Emma setting up her imaginary life in the cabin, flipping the whole-wheat pancakes that were part of her well-adjusted family’s balanced breakfast before settling in for the day’s work at her successful home-based business, all while responding to the dozens of daily comments on her wildly popular blog.
“You must be new.”
Justine turned to see a woman leaning against the fence on the far side of the gate. She wore boxy jeans, clogs, and a linen blouse with a leather messenger bag slung across her chest. Her expression was matter-of-fact.
“You’re a parent at Garden of Happiness?” Justine said.
“Oh, yeah. Getting ready to start lap number two with son number two.” She stepped forward and offered her hand. “I’m Bette.”
“I’m Justine, admissions survivor.”
“Good one,” Bette said without smiling. “I’d be careful with jokes like that. Margaret has ears like homeland security.” She twirled a finger in the air as though the surrounding trees were laced with concealed listening devices.
Justine glanced over her shoulder, but all she saw were other parents arriving for orientation. “So this is your second child at the school. I’m surprised you need to go through orientation again.”
Bette frowned and lowered her voice. “Oh, I don’t need to. I’m being forced to. Don’t get me started.”
“Ah. Got it.” Justine was beginning to understand why this mom hadn’t been among the parent volunteers she had encountered during the admissions process. It was easier to picture Bette piloting a getaway car than a welcome wagon.
“Something wrong?” Bette said. “You seem even more stressed out than the other rookies.”
“I’m just worried about being late.”
“So, you’re here by yourself? Single mom?”
“What? Oh, no. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. I’m waiting for my husband so we can walk in together.”
“Join the club.” She looked over Justine’s shoulder. “And here he is now.” Bette crossed her arms. “Took you long enough,” she yelled past Justine, making her wince.
“Actually, I’m right on time,” the man said.
Justine couldn’t say whether her body or her mind reacted first to the familiar voice behind her. She was pretty sure, however, that it would be bad form to sock a dad in the stomach at new-family orientation, even if she had been harboring the desire to do so for the last eight years.
She turned, and there was Harry. Or, as he had become known to Justine and her best friend Ruthie, The Crapwizard. It had been Ruthie who had coined the term “lovestupid” to describe Justine’s state of mind when her relationship with Harry ended, arguing that “lovesick” bestowed a noble, Jane Austenish tone on its collateral effects that was undeserved. “The Crapwizard” on the other hand, had been a collaborative effort.
He wore jeans with a slim, open-necked pullover and his brown hair fell across his forehead with a casual roguishness Justine knew was anything but accidental. As much as she hated to admit it, the years looked good on him. Then again, everything looked good on him—a fact of which he was obnoxiously aware. Justine started to smooth her hair and adjust the strap of her orange silk top, then brought the traitorous hand back down to her thigh with an audible slap.
“Let me introduce you guys.” Bette stepped forward and gestured at Justine. “What was your name again?”
“We’ve already—” Justine began.
“Harry Rivers,” he cut in, giving her a meaningful look. “Excellent meeting you.” They shook hands and for a moment she thought she might get swept up in some gaggy soft-focus montage of their time together in Berkeley—late nights studying in coffee shops, early mornings in his apartment, feeling his abs through his T-shirt as they roared across the Golden Gate on his motorcycle. Screw that, she thought, this isn’t some Lifetime television movie. She seized his hand and squeezed it as hard as she could. She knew she couldn’t hurt him—he was a sculptor, after all, with the strength that came from working with metal and stone—but she wanted to.
“Justine Underwood,” she said. “Such a pleasure.” The look in his eyes shifted and she knew he was gauging her thoughts.
Turning back to Bette, she took in the aviators nestled into the dirty-blond pixie cut, the absence of makeup, and gruff manner. Within a nanosecond, her mind had processed this data and classified Bette as “sporty.” This fell at the opposite end of the spectrum from “vixen,” which, knowing Harry, is what she would have expected. She knew she shouldn’t categorize people, but the fact was, she could not have come up with a more unexpected candidate for marriage to Harry if she’d had a year to think about it. (As for her own classification, her aversion to tight clothing alone ruled out potential vixendom. She preferred to classify herself as “feminine,” with a sufficient arsenal of Cinemax skills to repel any attempted application of the deadly-bland “wholesome.”) From the corner of her eye she saw Harry flip his hair with a toss of his head—a habit that had grated on her when they were together and which was even less appealing on a man in his early thirties.
More parents flowed through the school gate. Justine checked her watch—three minutes after six o’clock and still no sign of Greg.
“We should get in there before the flying monkeys take attendance,” Bette said. “Do you want to walk in with us or what?”
“You can always save the hubs a seat,” Harry added with the smile she had struggled to wipe from her mind in the months after he left Berkeley for Chicago—a period Ruthie had dubbed the “Five Flavors of Grief:” Thin Mints (denial), Do-Si-Dos (anger), Tagalongs (bargaining), Trefoils (depression) and, finally, Samoas (acceptance). It had taken three metric tons of bath salts, a one-night-only Bill Murray film festival, and some good, old-fashioned ladyballs to propel Justine off the sofa and back into the world after his departure.
Thank God she was over him.
“You guys go on in,” she said. “I’m sure he’s just parking.”
“Suit yourself,” Bette said, then turned to Harry, who seemed to be waiting for a further response from Justine. “Move it,” she said, shooing him through the gate and looking back at Justine to roll her eyes.
Justine watched them disappear around the corner of the building—the last parents to go in for orientation. The sidewalks were empty now. She started digging through the used tissues, sparkly barrettes, and baggies of crumbling fish crackers that had overtaken her purse since becoming a mom. She found her phone under a bottle of hand sanitizer. Its screen lit up with a text from Greg.
“Are you frickin’ kidding me?” Slinging her purse back on her shoulder, Justine dashed through the wooden gate and across the empty play area toward the yellow door. Behind it she heard a round of soft applause. They had started without her.
* * *
Orientation began with an informal “mixer,” which translated into roughly twenty well-heeled couples milling around in the sand among the play structures while trying to look like the kind of people who begat geniuses—or at least exceptional offspring who would someday exhibit a genetically superior ability to accessorize. On the wooden deck at the edge of the sand was a table loaded with fruit trays, cookies, cheeses, and other snacks, along with iced juices, sodas, and waters. The sandy play area was surrounded on three sides by the school—the former house in front, three classrooms on the side, and one more in the rear, the top floor of which was Margaret’s private office. On the fourth side was a five-story office building. The school’s neighbor on the other adjacent lot was a 1950s apartment house whose tenants had attempted to restore their privacy by shrouding their balconies with a rain forest’s worth of climbing vines and hanging plants.
Many of the parents seemed to know one another already and gathered in lively groups among the slides and push toys, pulling in a teacher to answer questions or chatting among themselves. Justine worked her way through the crowd, gathering bits of information and making conversation. After thirty minutes of forced socialization, she was not only on the verge of dehydration, but had foolishly outed herself to two helicopter parents as a follower of the Ferber sleep training method.
“I don’t understand,” said the mom. She exchanged a disapproving glance with her husband then turned back to Justine with what Justine imagined was the same expression Jeffrey Dahmer had received during group “share time” in prison. “You just ignore her? And let her cry herself to sleep?”
“No, see, there’s an actual scientific process and—”
“We could never do that to Denim,” the dad said with a firm shake of his head. “His therapist has explained to us that he’s an extraordinarily sensitive child—”
“And gifted,” the mother interjected.
“Yes, exactly,” the dad continued, “which is both a blessing and a curse. Denim’s exceptional nature causes him to experience the world around him on a much deeper level then an ordinary child. As his parents, we bear the responsibility of shielding him from negative stimuli of all kinds.”
“Geez, I wouldn’t call learning how to doze off ‘negative stimuli,’” Justine said. “I mean, we all have to figure out how to do it, right?”
The husband and wife exchanged another look. “We need to go talk to Margaret about Denim’s dietary restrictions now,” the dad said, touching his wife’s elbow as he turned to go.
“Good luck,” the mom said. The couple distanced themselves from Justine as though they had seen her name on some internet parenting watch list.
“She only cried for fifteen minutes,” she called after them. “She’s a fast learner.” The knot of tension behind her eyes began to throb. She walked across the play area, the heels of her new sandals sinking into the sand, and stepped up onto the deck. Grabbing a bottle of water from the refreshment table, she took several deep swallows and wished once again that Greg were there with her, not because his networking skills were any better than hers, but because she knew he would be as amused and/or appalled by the night’s encounters as she was. Later, they would find ways to work snippets from the night into their evening routine, such as, “Due to my extraordinary level of giftedness, I find this mint toothpaste to be an assault on my senses.”
Right now, though, she didn’t feel like laughing. If phones weren’t verboten on school grounds, she would pull hers out then and there and text Greg, “I am bombing preschool orientation.”
Okay, maybe “bombing” was too strong a word, but the sense of quiet triumph that had buoyed her for the past few days evaporated the moment she heard Harry’s voice. Before his appearance, she had been primed to accomplish her goals for the evening, which included asking questions that showed she was an informed/caring mom but not a smothering/soul-scouring/nightmare mom, sorting the potential mom friends from the emotional remoras and mean girls, and, most importantly, making a stellar impression on Margaret, thus reinforcing that her decision to accept Emma into the school had been a shrewd—albeit last-minute—one. Trying to do all this while avoiding a heinous former boyfriend in the play yard, however, had put her off her game.
She took another drink. As she lowered the bottle, she saw Harry starting across the play area toward her, alone. Before she could pretend to be otherwise occupado, he was standing next to her.
“Hey,” he said. He plucked a cluster of grapes from a bowl on the food table and ate one, munching with obvious contentment.
Her mind scrambled for some Cosmo-approved response that would simultaneously make it clear that she had not given him a second thought in the last eight years and drive home the fact that leaving her had been the worst decision he’d ever made (including the time he let that Macy’s salesman talk him into buying a pair of “man capris”), while also hinting that she had probably received a Nobel Prize—or at least a Grammy—since he last saw her and was now way too B&I (busy and important) to give the time of day to a femme-pants-wearing ex.
“Hello,” she said. Nailed it, she thought and looked away.
“Same school. What are the chances?” He ate another grape and took stock of the crowd.
“Insert obligatory ‘it’s a small world’ observation here,” she said and reached for a tortilla chip.
“A lot of people would get uptight in this situation, but I say let’s not be uncomfortable. We can just be normal, right?”
Had he always talked like this? And where the hell was the dip? “How very…European of you,” Justine said as she foraged across the food table, her chip poised in the event of guacamole.
“What does that mean?”
“Oh, you know, disregarding the messier parts of past relationships to preserve some facade of friendship. Highly evolved and all that.”
“But haven’t we always been friends?”
A blue pottery bowl of guacamole appeared behind a tower of mini burritos like a mirage in the desert. “The best,” she said and jabbed her chip into the green mound. “Feel better now?”
Harry gave her a wary glance. “Better in what way?”
“You know, you get to be the good guy who took the high road. You came over here to smooth things and now you can check me off as ‘handled’ and go on about your business. That’s got to be satisfying.”
Harry chuckled, but not before the irritation showed in his face. “Wow. Well, I guess you’ve got me all wired, then.”
“Just keepin’ it real.”
Harry scowled. “I hate that expression.”
She popped the last bite of chip in her mouth, shrugged, and then checked the time on the red rooster clock hanging under the eaves outside the classroom.
“Oh my God,” Harry said. “I’d forgotten about your eyes.” He stepped toward her. “I never could find the right word for that color. Somewhere between blue, gray, and green.” He brought his face close to hers, studying one eye, then the other. “Why do they make me think of the desert?”
“I don’t know,” Justine said, wiping the salt from the corner of her mouth. “Maybe you spent your honeymoon there.”
Harry opened his mouth as if to say something, then looked past her toward the main building. “There’s Bette waving us in. Mixer’s over—time for the lecture.”
She saw Bette gesture at him to hurry up and he took the few steps down into the sand. “So great seeing you,” he said and headed toward the back of the little house without waiting for a reply.
“I guess we’re done talking about my eyes,” she mumbled and hitched her purse up on her shoulder.
When Harry reached the kitchen steps, Bette’s voice cracked across the play yard. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
“Ah, the little woman,” Justine said, then trudged through the sand and into the school to find a seat.
Forty-five minutes later, she doubted she would ever walk upright again.
The parents were perched on rows of miniature plastic chairs in the school’s main space—the former living room of the original house. Justine had been trying to find an arrangement of her limbs that would compensate for her current fourteen-inch ground clearance. Nothing she did, however, had any effect on the pains rocketing up the backs of her thighs to her rump, which, thankfully, had lost all sensation twenty minutes earlier. Around her, there was a constant rustle in the audience as the other parents contorted their bodies in the toddler-sized seats. Many fanned themselves with the meeting handouts to circulate the air, which was saturated with the cumulative scents of the adults’ Euro-posh grooming products and the school’s signature blend of hand sanitizer, library bindings, and modeling clay.
At the front of the room stood Margaret in plaid slacks, a crisp, pink blouse, and loafers. Next to her on a projection screen was the image of a small girl eating lunch at one of the school’s tables.
“This adorable child is doing something wrong. Who can tell me what it is?” She looked out at the audience, whose heads just reached the level of her braided leather belt. “Uh-oh, parents, we already covered this rule.”
The parents murmured and Justine studied the picture of the little girl. Velcro shoes, check. Elastic-waist shorts for quick potty access, check. Hair pulled back for ease of play, check. What rule had been broken?
“It’s the juice box, parents.” Margaret pointed at the screen. “That’s a no-no.” Behind her, the school’s four teachers shook their heads in synchronized condemnation. In the third row, a woman with a side-swept ponytail struggled to keep her waifish arm aloft under the weight of a massive men’s Rolex. Margaret gestured to her. “Yes?”
The mom dropped her arm into her lap with visible relief. “It’s because it’s not organic juice, right? That’s why it’s not allowed?”
Margaret studied the woman with an expression that suggested she might be reconsidering her admission status. Then, with a pinched smile, she addressed the room at large. “Who would like to help this new mom?”
“Oooh, juice box infraction,” Justine said under her voice to the woman next to her, whose bangles and prayer beads rattled as she took furtive notes on her iPhone. “Tough call.” The woman gave Justine a leery frown, then went back to tapping on her phone’s screen.
“Correct.” Margaret bestowed a quick nod on another mom in the audience who had apparently cracked this portion of the preschool code. “It’s too tempting for little fingers to squeeze a juice box. And when you squeeze a juice box, what does it become? A squirt gun.” She waited, motionless except for her eyes, as she searched for other wayward parents. “Moving on,” she said at last.
Justine studied the back of Harry’s premeditated bedhead two rows in front of her and wondered what brought him back to his hometown, which he’d always disparagingly referred to as “La-La Land.” When it came to surprises, she preferred the kind that arrived in pretty, recyclable paper to the kind that came wrapped in radioactive memories with half-lives of a thousand years. She also preferred that her exes got uglier as time passed. Was that too much to ask? Almost a decade later, Harry had not developed even the suggestion of thickness around his waist and, if anything, his shoulders were broader than the last time she’d sized them up.
He turned suddenly, motioning toward Margaret with his eyes and giving Justine a conspiratorial smile—one that she alarmed herself by returning without thinking. Stop that, she thought. Being in the same school with this guy didn’t mean she had to participate in some cute, watered-down version of their old connection. Besides, she already had a reliable flirtationship with her barista. Nor could she picture herself in one of those groovy California arrangements where exes and their spouses bobbed around together in a hot tub on the weekend, talking about how busy they all were while pretending to be above it all. No, if she were going to manage this unwanted intrusion of her past into her present, old-fashioned avoidance was the best approach—and one she could throw herself into with gusto. Chances were their children would not be in the same group, and, in any case, it would most likely be Bette she interacted with, not Harry. She felt her shoulders release a bit. Now that their strained re-introduction was behind them, they would likely cross paths only occasionally, almost as if he weren’t at the school at all. She could handle that.
“Last thing, new parents.” Margaret waved a stack of white envelopes. “We have a little program here that we call ‘Garden Gnomes.’ Each new family is paired with a senior family at the school, similar to a Big Brothers Big Sisters program.” She began handing out the envelopes. “Your Garden Gnomes will be your go-to school contacts, starting with a family playdate where everyone can make friends before school starts.” Margaret read the front of another envelope and handed it to Justine.
As the parents around her began coaxing their bodies back into post-evolutionary stature, Justine opened the envelope and read the letter inside. It was a brief note, stating simply that her family’s official Garden Gnomes were Bette and Harry Rivers. The response this news caused Justine to deliver under her breath would not have been Dr. Seuss-approved.