ihad an enemy for a long time, the parent of one of the children in
Sam's class. She seemed so driven and so unconscious that it might have
astounded her to learn that we were enemies. But I, the self-appointed
ethical consultant for the school, can tell you that it's true. I knew she
was divorced and maybe lonely, but she also had mean eyes. In the first
weeks of first grade she looked at me like I was a Rastafarian draft-dodger
type, and then, over time, as if I was a dazed and confused space traveler,
the school's own Admiral Stockdale.
It's true that I have had a certain amount of trouble adjusting since
Sam started public school two years ago. I can't seem to get the hang of
things. There's too much to remember, too much to do. But Sam's first
grade teacher was so warm and forgiving that I just didn't trouble my pretty
head about schedules, homework, spelling lists and other sundry
unpleasantries. Nor was I able to help out in the classroom much. But
there were all these mothers who were always cooking little holiday
theme park treats for the class. They always drove the kids including
mine on their field trips, and they also seemed to read all the papers the
school sent home, which I think is actually a little show-offy. Also, it
gives them an unfair advantage. They knew, for instance, from the first day
of school last year, that Wednesdays were minimum days; and they flaunted it,
picking up their kids at just the right time, week after week. I somehow
managed to make it into October without figuring out this one scheduling
Finally, though, one Wednesday, I stopped by Sam's classroom and found
him once again drawing with his teacher. The teacher said, gently, "School
gets out an hour early on Wednesdays."
"Ah," I said, and smote my own princess forehead.
"Didn't you get the papers the school mailed to you this summer?"
I racked my brain, and finally I did remember some papers coming in the
mail from school. And I remember really meaning to read them.
Sam sat there drawing with a grim autistic stare.
My enemy found out.
She showed up two days later all bundled up in a down jacket, because it
was cold and she was one of the parents who was driving the kids on their
first field trip. Now, that is not a crime against Nature or me, in and of
itself. The crime is that below the down jacket, she was wearing latex
bicycle shorts. She wears latex bicycle shorts nearly every day, and I will
tell you why: because she can. She weighs 1 pound. She has gone to the gym
almost every day since her divorce, and she does not have an ounce of fat on
her lithe, aggressive body. I completely hate that in a person. I consider
it an act of aggression against the rest of us mothers who forgot to start
working out after we had our kids.
Also, she is a Republican. I was not going to tell you that to me it's
like finding out that someone is a racist, or hurts dogs. But it
is true. She had a George Bush bumper sticker on her car.
The day of the field trip, she said, sweet as some flight attendant, "I
just want you to know that if you have any other questions about how the
classroom works, I'd really love to be there for you."
I smiled back at her. I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even
say them out loud because they make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of
the cat dish.
It drove me to my knees. I prayed about it. I prayed because my son
loves her son, and my son is so kind that it makes me want to be a better
person, a person who does not hate someone just because she is a Republican
who wears latex bicycle shorts. I prayed for a miracle; I wrote her name
down on a slip of paper, and I put it in my God box, and I said to God,
On the last day of first grade, I was asked to bake something for the
farewell party. I couldn't do it. I was on a deadline. But I at least WENT
to the party, and I ate the delicious cookies my enemy made, and we mingled a
little, and I thought that this was progress. Then she had to go and wreck
everything, by asking, "Did YOU bake anything?"
I don't bake. The last time I baked was when Sam was in kindergarten at
the little Christian school he attended. I baked a dozen cupcakes for his
class's Christmas party, and set them out to cool. Sam and I went outside to
sweep the Astroturf. (I also don't garden.) Suddenly our dog Sadie came
tearing outside, our dog who is so obedient and loving that it's like having
Jesus around in a black dog suit. But there was icing in the fur of her
muzzle, and a profoundly concerned look on her face. Oh my god, she seemed
to be saying, with her eyes: Terrible news from the kitchen!
And Sam looked at me with total disgust, like, You ignorant slut you
left the cupcakes out where the dog could get them.
The next morning I bought cupcakes at Safeway. I don't bake.
I also don't push Sam to read. There wasn't much pressure for anyone
to read in first grade, but by second grade, it was important that your kid
be reading. My kid was not reading. I mean, per se.
My enemy's child was reading proficiently, like a little John Kenneth
Galbraith in a Spiderman T-shirt. He is what is referred to as an "early
reader." Sam is a "late reader." (Albert Einstein was a "late reader."
Theodore Kaczinski was an "early reader." Not that I am at all defensive on
the subject. Pas du tout.)
Sam and this woman's child were in the same class, and the next thing I
knew, she had taken a special interest in Sam's reading.
She began the year by slipping me early first grade books that she
thought maybe Sam could read. And Sam could certainly read a number of the
words in these books. But I resented her slipping them to us as if she was
passing them along simply because her son was done with them. Maybe he was
reading the new Joan Didion. I read contempt.
I went to the God box. I got the piece of paper out with her name on
it. I added an exclamation mark. I put it back.
One day not long after, she sidled up to me and asked me if I had an
extra copy of the book I wrote about me and Sam. It is black-humored, and
quite slanted: George Bush was president when Sam was born, and I was a
little angry. I had these tiny opinions. I wrote an anti-Reagan,
anti-George Bush baby book.
So when she asked for a copy, I tried to stall; I tried to interest her
in my anti-Reagan, anti-Bush writing book I don't think it's quite as
disgusting as the baby book. But she insisted.
I gave her a copy, and tried to let go of the results.
She smiled so obliquely whenever I saw her at school that I felt
increasingly anxious. Then one day she came up to me in the market.
"I read your book," she said, and then she winked. "Maybe," she
whispered, because my son was only a few feet away, "maybe it's a good thing
he DOESN'T read."
I wish I could report that I had the perfect comeback, something so
polite and brilliantly cutting that P.G. Wodehouse, overhearing it in Heaven,
raised his fist in the Black Power salute. But I was mute. I just gaped at
her, sort of stunned. She smiled, very nicely, and walked away.
I called a half a dozen people when I got home, and told them about how
she had trashed me. And I trashed her; and it was good.
The next time I saw her, she just smiled. I sneered, just a little. I
felt disgust; but I also felt disgusting. I got out my note to God. I said,
Look: turns out we need a miracle here.
Nothing happened. No burning bush, no cereal flakes dropping from
heaven, no face of Jesus in the corn tortilla. But several days later her
boy came to play at our house, and she came to pick him up just before
dinner. Then she stayed a moment. I almost offered her a cup of tea,
because she seemed sad or maybe tired, and I felt a stab of kindness inside,
but I mostly just wanted her to leave. She did. I felt quiet, though. I
thought about the beauty of loss, the exhaustion of hanging on.
Sam went to play at her house the following week, and when I went over
to pick him up, she offered me a cup of tea. I said no, I couldn't stay.
She was wearing latex shorts. But Sam couldn't find his shoes, and so I
got up to look around the house. The surface was nearly perfect, filled
with fine things all in their place: all these dubious comforts. "Please
let me make you a cup of tea," she said again, and I started to say no, but
this thing inside of me, the gremlinly holy spirit, perhaps, used my voice
to say, "Well ... okay." And it was awful. We had very little to talk about,
and I sat there in judgment of her perfect surfaces. Everywhere you looked
was more facade, more stuff, stuff that was about clutching, holding,
tightness. But I drank her tea, the hot cup of mint tea, and I don't know,
I think it must have washed something away. It washed something away, or
washed something into me. All I know is that I stopped feeling like I was
holding up the universe, and then the next thing I knew, a thin straw opened
inside of me, and this thing was washing in and out like plankton while we
Something in me softened that day, something in my cold stone heart, and
I swear to God, ever since, I've felt pretty friendly towards her. I kind of
think of her as my little training Republican.
I finally took the note out of the God box this morning: I said to Him,
Well, Bucko; You must be pretty pleased with Yourself. But as usual there
was only silence. Then an hour later, the phone rang and it was her. She
was baking Danish for Octoberfest at our kids school this Saturday, and she
called to say she had made an extra plate for me and Sam. I think she may
have a little baking disorder. But she really did bake us a plate of food,
and that is God's own truth.