When Allie poked her head through the window at pickup, Sara knew something was amiss. “Can you wait,” Allie said, patting the car before heading back to the curb. She looked stranded among the other teachers, who swayed like hula dancers, waving vehicles forward under a line of oaks hazy with new, green leaves. Perched high as monarchs, parents, nannies obliged, gliding along with children securely fastened, to tennis, karate, or some other improving activity while Sara, in bafflement, watched dust sparkle on her dashboard.
Given that Allie was Pierre’s teacher in preschool four years ago, it was unclear what she’d say. The annual-fund signs festooning the gazebo might be a clue, but a teacher with Allie’s accolades would be unlikely to mention those. Sara glanced at Pierre and his friend Jack, in the backseat cobbling together a Lego car, anticipating their playdate. Any second they might erupt. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before the traffic thinned, orange vests were pulled off, and Allie popped her head inside again.
“Pierre and Bob were spotted in the woods yesterday—near the school playground—relieving themselves. With you standing by,” she added, her quetzal earrings dangling. Possibly souvenirs from her trip years ago to Central America, they triggered an image of Pierre and his friends at age four, delighted by Allie’s Costa Rica slide show.
“It was after school,” Sara said meekly, softened by the memory. “My parents let me! When we hiked the Appalachian Trail.”
“You peed in the woods?” the boys asked.
“We live in a more conscious era now,” Allie said, ignoring them as two SUVs squeezed around Sara’s Prius. There was nothing to do but move on, past another sign that said “CURRICULUM NIGHT TONIGHT!” If Sara felt like Maria Montessori herself had impugned her parenting skills, she nevertheless waved delightedly, so Pierre would witness civility rather than sniping.
“Was it a happy day?”
More than parenting expertise, Curriculum Night fascinated Sara, who treasured philosophy, history, paintings, poetry, some twentieth-century novelists such as Forster and Achebe, and most science, if it was dressed up in a pretty costume for English majors to gawk at. Did she still? If a man outside hadn’t been pointing, she would’ve fretted that Pierre’s school hadn’t sprinkled these subjects over him like gold dust. But the man looked alarmed. Muffled giggles wafted from the backseat, then an unwrapping sound.
“Mom, I think you better—” Pierre said.
Sara pivoted and found the unthinkable: Jack wiggling on the windowsill, waving like a homecoming queen at horrified pedestrians. Heralding drivers too, he clutched a Hershey Bar with his extra hand. Instantly braking, she heard a screech, yanked his dangling legs downward, and the rest of him, his head and essential limbs, followed. He landed with a thud.
Aghast, she inhaled and exhaled. The candy slid from the seat to the floor, leaving a chocolate streak in its path. Tentatively, she moved forward again while the boys, suddenly innocent, rummaged tranquilly through Lego pieces. Not until they were home, disembarking under a pearly sky, did Jack ask, “Mrs. Sara, I’ve been meaning to ask you, can I stay for dinner tonight?”
She hadn’t planned dinner yet. Only knew it wouldn’t be pizza again, nor the Chilean place where the convivial owner occupied the empty chair when Pierre didn’t have a friend in tow. But dinner was forgotten as the boys piled on top of each other, wrestling until grass stains crisscrossed their shirts with hieroglyphics and a stray ball shifted the grappling into soccer. Lugging towels and T-shirts around like a lady in a detergent commercial inside, Sara was easily able to monitor the boys in frame shots, except through the side windows, where the neighbors’ grand piano prevailed.
The deposit for next school year was due in six days; she wasn’t sure what to do. Years ago, hadn’t Allie snapped at her another time? Everyone was hovering near the sandbox, where the kids were digging circuitous roads, when another mom skirmished with Allie about teaching methods. Out of the blue, Allie turned to Sara and said she’d potty trained Pierre all wrong. Or did she say too late? In any case, Sara hadn’t responded.
She hurried out to the porch. “Hmm.”
“Can we wash the car?”
“Sure, use these rags,” she said, scooting Lego pieces aside. Watching the boys fill buckets, she pressed her “messages” button vaguely, but was roused from vagueness quickly as a single message unspooled.
“Sara, Jody Fox. We need to discuss last Friday night. While he was our guest, Pierre led Jack to a pornography website on our computer. They typed in,” she took a disdainful breath, then said, “‘buttcrack.com.’ I don’t think they saw much, but wanted to alert you because Pierre probably has been doing this at home for a while. You and I should talk about how to proceed, but tonight after the school meeting, we’ll be launching into baths and bedtime, so better to call my office tomorrow. Thanks!” Click.
How to proceed, how to proceed—no need to press “replay”: the cruise-liner voice reverberated in Sara’s ears as she opened her computer, beseeching a radio journalist, who prattled on about capital reserves and global economics, “Aren’t eight-year-olds both perverts and doctors?” It was the sort of remark her husband Aiden, who had “got dead,” in Pierre’s words, in a train crash in India four years ago, would’ve made. Intermittently, his rejoinders still surfaced, not unlike his body parts the divers found in a nearby river. Ever since his death, her main passion, if an organized drill constituted a passion, was filling Pierre’s life with kids he adored, especially because he went outside when kids were around.
Which meant she must proceed carefully. Touching the history icon, she was assured that all searches from the preceding thirty days appeared: “Webkinz,” “roly-poly bugs,” and “robotical arms,” as well as her own non sequiturs, like “Asclepias” and “Crimean War.” But no “butt crack”! She daydreamed about possible responses to Jody’s message.
“Hello, Jody? This is Sara. So you invite Pierre over and then make an accusation that’s false as well as absurd—how can eight-year-olds be characterized as pornographers? How do you know what Pierre does, since you’ve barely been around him? And you’re on the school’s Board of Trustees! I mean, I realize that, as you said to me once, I ‘only have one child’ to your three, and you have your somewhat high-powered job you reference so often, but…” Ranting, gesturing, with only her refrigerator as witness, she reminded herself not to risk sundering the boys’ friendship.
Pasting on her company smile, she threw on a shirt that was lying around and stuck her head outside. “Yo, Jack, I need to carry you home soon.”
“No-o-o-o. WO-O-O-O-O-O!” Twirling with a rag, he tottered near the street while Sara spotted a BMW approaching and blasted through the screen door barefoot.
Careening away from the curb and thus saving his own life, Jack screamed, “Your mom’s wearing your shirt!”
“That’s okay,” Pierre said as he polished a tire.
“Jack! There’s a street out there! I need to carry you home soon.”
“Your new nanny will be there— What’s her name?”
Jack poked his hip out mockingly. “Wanda,” he said, then gamboled over the water buckets, overturning them and sending water down the driveway.
“Awesome!” said the boys, shimmying downstream as water sluiced into the gutter, eddied into a puddle, and inspired them to crouch down and push toy cars through the sludge.
“Let’s go!” Sara called. “We need to drive— We’re late.”
“AW-W-W! Can’t we walk?” they asked, slumping into the car.
“And no funny business back there, okay?”
“Please, Mrs. Sara, can I please stay for dinner?”
“Not this time. But it was nice having you!”
“Fine! I wanna be as far away from you as possible!” Pushing the car door open, Jack stomped backward in his front yard, then bore on toward his mother’s trestles, ignoring Wanda, who appeared like a goddess under the archway. Before the ordeal of fetching and depositing him inside began, Sara waved and escaped quickly.
“I gotta take a whaz,” said Pierre, rushing past his babysitter, who was sitting on the porch when they returned.
“Well, hey, brother,” said Nadine.
“How’re you?” Sara asked.
“Broke. Price of gas is up, up, up.”
Nadine trilled the last three words as they shuffled inside. What else could one do with a voice that tossed arias into the air like popcorn, making bystanders levitate and archangels cavort, but carry the diva’s belongings inside?
“Fine, well. On my way to Curriculum Night.” Sara stopped, willing herself not to explain that she dreaded running into Jody, since Nadine had once worked for Jody and quit. Gossip traveled, after all, and could easily turn the neighborhood into eighth grade all over again.
Instead, she sat next to Pierre, who already had his computer open. Pressing her cheek against his, she inhaled his grassy scent as his cartoon figures darted and scattered around a half-built igloo. Ever since his friend Bob imparted that love was stupid, he reciprocated only in private now. Nadine, however, chatted indiscreetly about a lady she worked for in the neighborhood.
“Taylor called from Paris at 6 a.m. this morning and says, ‘Can you FedEx my makeup bag!’ Can you imagine, Sara? She’s visiting Paris, I’m getting James up to see his counselor, and she wants her makeup bag. In Paris. Tomorrow.”
Lifting books, several issues of the London Review of Books, a bag of hamster food, Sara tiptoed around searching for her wallet, and voilà, there it was. Even if she was sympathetic, her laughter was tepid; she wondered what Nadine said about her around the neighborhood.
“Where you going?” Pierre asked.
“Well, that’s boring.”
“It’s exciting—all the disciplines—”
“About discipline? Piffle.”
“’Piffle? In this context, disciplines are subjects; they string together like a necklace.”
“You might change schools?” hissed Nadine from the couch.
“Don’t know. Holcomb’s experimental—Aiden actually chose it. Supposedly, the kids choose their work—”
“Basically, we party all day,” Pierre bellowed from the other room.
“Is ‘party’ a verb? Did the OED declare?”
“SEE? My mom didn’t get educated. She doesn’t know that ‘party’ is a verb!”
“Ever heard of the trivium and quadrivium?” Sara asked.
“Einstein said imagination is more important than knowledge: I read that in Captain Underpants,” Pierre said.
“Ever since my sister got her master’s degree, all she says is ‘he’s bipolar’ or ‘he’s ADD’ at family reunions,” said Nadine.
“Hate to leave this dialogue,” Sara said, shutting the door, catching a glimpse of Pierre bent over his computer. As she scraped her car on the driveway, as his favorite office towers twinkled like celestial toys above her, she missed his banter.
Or perhaps driving alone in a cursive “J” shape around the connector seemingly toward the indigo sky heightened her sense of impending conflict—until she almost crashed into a Toyota whose license plate said “ETERNITY,” and swerved. Instantly, her headlights illuminated another world, shadows roaming so spookily over an abandoned Home Mart, its parking lot, and a tiny wedge of adjacent forest, she was relieved to spot a lady in a red bathing suit presiding above on a billboard, if only to advertise a casino.
She was even more relieved to bask in the overhead lighting of a hushed classroom, where most parents already were squeezed into kids’ seats, still in office clothes. An acquaintance whispered, “I’m dyeing my hair tomorrow,” and Sara, sitting down, mouthed Why? as she admired the woman’s gray hair. Meanwhile, a teacher predicted the twenty-first century, including acreage the school would purchase if a donor appeared. At the allegedly dreadful public school where she taught previously, the teacher added, there were no suitable donors. A couple in pima-cotton shirts and impeccable slacks nodded vigorously while Sara fretted that Pierre might suffer without parents who wore matching outfits.
“Now I shall discuss neuroscientists’ insights about the developing brain and how our pedagogical method is designed to assist that development,” another teacher began and plunged into statistics, control groups, and comparative cognitive achievement. While some parents shifted to blank, rush-hour stares, a dad who taught political science beamed when credited for the research.
“Experiencing math through the golden beads lays a foundation for the abstract equations that are introduced later,” the teacher said, cradling several beads in her palm. But the entertainment wasn’t over, as the children had illustrated a timeline, which featured active volcanoes and tectonic plates shaping planet Earth, followed by Precambrian life-forms swirling fantastically, like Pierre’s favorite Japanese cartoons. Riveted, Sara leaned closer to inspect a eukaryotic cell.
But the scroll was unwieldy; it crashed to the floor with a rustling noise, and a dad sprang up to the rescue. “Did the Cambrian explosion approximately 530 million years ago occur because of increased oxygen in the atmosphere?” the teacher asked, and Sara breathed deeply. Maybe she should’ve majored in paleontology?
Multicellular life-forms appeared in the Cambrian era, then trilobites with the first eyes, looking not unlike those in a mascara commercial. Spanning four billion years and countless vicissitudes, the process didn’t find its zenith until two parents appeared triumphantly at the end, clutching briefcases and iPhones.
Toting those very objects, Jody awaited her turn as the final speaker. Gone was the woman who collected Jack late, and in her place arose a debonair persona, transformed by having an audience. “I attended first-tier schools,” she said, clipping her voice like a radio announcer, “then worked at Pole-Thatcher in New York after law school. We felt like we were on top of the world.”
Dazzled, Sara contrasted this with her own experience at a D.C. firm, where she and her colleagues felt like cockroaches. “Then I was speechwriter for Governor Ladd,” Jody continued. “And I want my children to have similar opportunities. At Holcomb the teachers are top-notch, the administration inspired, and the children possess excellent social skills, thanks to our prizewinning dispute-resolution program.”
Raptly nodding her head, a woman next to Sara leaned forward, her long hair shivering, as Jody concluded, “I always tell law students, to be a success, ‘find people who help you.’”
Aha! Jody was referring to her. But there was no time to consider this before the rapt woman said, “You live near Jody, don’t you? Of course, I’ve done well here, unlike my brother, but she’s a success! Maybe I could invite her son for a playdate? Of course, she must be very busy with the children, and her work.”
Anointing Jody’s pantsuit with a worshipful glance, she approached Allie, who was closer, while Sara confronted a plethora of voices, the loudest hissing about an administrator’s pink, ruffly suits.
Perhaps she’d misinterpreted Jody’s message? Beyond two child-sized bookcases and a row of math beads, she spotted three pyramids on a table—brownies, carrots, and miniature quiches—in Jody’s vicinity. Intermittently nodding hello, she ambled toward that table, almost colliding into a mom in a red sweater. Was her name Aarti?
“Did you just relocate here? I’ve been meaning to invite you and Bruce over with the kids,” Aarti was saying to another mom. Sara nodded perfunctorily while collecting her brownie, understanding that the invitation wasn’t for her.
“We just moved here last fall—Todd is teaching international law,” the other mom, Julia, answered. “Met at Stanford. Later moved to Paris—so the kids could master French.”
“Well.” Aarti swallowed her carrot. “Welcome to Holcomb!”
“Your husband’s a cardiologist?”
“Yes, and I’m an ob-gyn,” Aarti said eagerly as Sara scrutinized the bulletin board, wondering how to approach Jody. But Aarti pivoted to ask Sara, as if the question were a virus whose spread was inevitable, “What do you do? I mean, aren’t you always on the playground with the kids? I’d go crazy,” she added, brushing powdered sugar from her sweater.
“Mmm,” Sara nodded, chewing, wondering how to package her incongruous activities, her dwindling part-time legal work, her epistemological crisis concerning humanities versus the sciences. She sensed that a buzzer might buzz. “I read a lot,” she chuckled awkwardly, “and host playdates.”
“Maybe you could go back and get another degree,” Aarti replied, looking beyond her at something else.
Usually, one of Aarti’s parents collected their grandchildren after school, wearing CALTECH sweatshirts, bestowing hellos everywhere, and Sara wondered what they’d studied. But Aarti was slicing a brownie, listening to Julia speculate about another mom’s impending divorce. Despite the allure of Julia’s creamy voice and her philosophy—the universe’s chaos as messy sock drawer, in which the socks were organized easily and guaranteed a match—Sara sided with the mom being pilloried and turned away.
Besides, a dad who said, “It’s hard to find a more awesome human being than Mick Jagger,” was the only person remaining between her and Jody, who was conversing with a fellow board member, something about learning disabilities. But rather than chase Jody out the door, Sara heard the word “urine” and halted. Hadn’t the afternoon commenced with that word?
“I test urine samples for toxins and pollutants,” a dad was explaining to another. “We work with people testing the rivers: it’s all there, circulating. Mercury, pharmaceutical waste, weed killer, phthalates. What do you do?”
“Marketing—Worldwide Paper. We just laid off twenty-five percent of our workforce. Always have to be ready to do something else,” the other dad, Hwan, said, possibly translating from Korean, as his sentences were dispatched, kept afloat, and punctuated with an enchanting rhythm. He shrugged and waved at Sara. His son Bob, whose real name was Bae, was Pierre’s good friend, and had changed his name against his parents’ wishes.
“You teach medical school?” Hwan asked the researcher.
“What school did you attend?”
“It’s in Beijing.”
They both laughed, and Hwan said to Sara, “Isabella refuses to attend these things.”
“Tell her I missed her,” said Sara, making her way out to the parking lot. Usually, it didn’t matter that she experienced things in passing, but urine samples, water samples, weren’t the usual trivia. Anxiously, she flipped through a museum catalog she kept in the car. But the painting she sought, that of a nineteenth-century drawing room, all in blue, seemed ineffectual once she found it, compared with the universe’s secrets extracted from urine.
It was a quandary she could present to Pierre, but he’d most likely be a lump under the sheets at home. Indeed he was, until after Nadine left, when the lump trembled, said, “Hi-i-i-i-i, Mom,” and before she could forbid it, bounced onto the porch, for their nightly ritual, where a gauzy, violet-blue sky awaited them.
“Am I changing schools next year?”
“Not sure. What do you think?”
“I’d miss my friends,” he said, tentatively.
Partly to relax him, she rambled on, describing the medical researcher, then trying to be whimsical, attempting a connection to the arts, sciences, and a few stanzas regarding the inherent paradoxes therein. “‘And new philosophy calls all in doubt, / The element of fire is quite put out, / The sun is lost, and th’earth, and no man’s wit / Can well direct him where to look for it.’”
“That’s John Donne,” she beamed into the dark.
“That’s girlie,” Pierre said, his computer flickering open.
“You can’t do gadgets all the time.”
“I don’t! What about your paintings?”
“You mean computers are like flickering paintings? They’re both simulacra?”
“Uh, yeah! Duh!”
Even if no pristine specimen was before them, the idea of pristine nature hovered, if one took his remark seriously. It was an ordinary night, but a dreamy van Gogh one, full of stars and suspense, as if a diaphanous curtain, splayed mysteriously across the sky, might part in the center and reveal actors on a stage, an answer to an ancient question, or at least a riddle. But the riddle wasn’t answerable; only a train whistled long and low, even enigmatically, in the distance.
“Sometimes,” Pierre said, “I just want more noise.” He glanced at the empty rooms inside. “Can we go to Hallmark tomorrow and get a stuffed-animal tie-in to my igloo?”
Instead, their heads fluttered with a mockingbird’s song in the morning, or was it drowsiness? Wincing at Pierre’s workaday expression, Sara zoomed, braked, and slurped behind the other coffee-addled drivers. After he threw off the bedspread he called his cape, disembarked dutifully, and wandered inside, she winced again and dialed Jody’s number. All day, each time she jumped when her phone rang, it ended up being in vain.
By the time Pierre awaited her at pickup, a teacher shielding him from the curb, she wondered what to say if he asked to invite Jack over. But instead, he tossed his drawing of a Lay’s Potato Chips truck her way and said, “Did you know Bob can roll his eyes so that only the whites appear? Today he was smelling kids’ armpits.”
“So you enjoy anatomy?”
“We enjoy armpits,” he said. “Can we go to Hallmark and then invite Bob over?”
She gazed at his brave shoulders and his eyes, which beheld the merry-go-round traffic, the city’s indifference, with such equanimity, and they headed toward the store where Jag, the handsome owner, dashed by, saying graciously in his Punjabi accent, “How are you, Pierre?”
Divided into the usual categories—“Mom,” “Dad,” “Nephew,” etc.—the familiar bank of cards didn’t interest Pierre, nor did a shelf of coffee mugs that said, talismanically, “Georgia,” “Clemson,” or “Georgia Tech.” Eagerly, he headed straight for the stuffed earthworms, picked one called Darwin, and they chatted with the cashier who enthusiastically rang up their purchase. Plenty of time remained for asking outside in the parking lot, while Sara texted Bob’s mom, “What did you learn at school today?”
Giving Darwin a passionate hug, Pierre said, “In the Decoration of Independence, people stood up for freedom.”
“Dec-la-ration. You learned that at school?”
“No! Bob heard it on Pokémon.”
Late afternoon sunshine blasted the city. As soon as they collected Bob and headed for a creek, the boys slipped and clambered over rocks, then tunneled underneath several squat trees.
“Do you believe the bat legend is real?” Pierre queried Bob.
“What about phoenixes?”
“Yeah, I think they’re in Australia.”
“I sort of believe it—that bats can change their eyes to one red and one green.”
Compelled by this dialogue, which echoed in her direction, Sara was startled when her cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“Hello, Sara; Jody’s traveling and asked me to call—to discuss things.” It was Jody’s husband, Rob, with whom Sara occasionally discussed books when collecting Jack for playdates. Last time it was Einstein’s biography, gravity, God playing dice, etcetera, until he melted into another room as she took the kids.
“Did she tell you what she said—and on voice mail, where I couldn’t respond?”
“Well, I’m the one who found the search—the next day.”
“Then why assume that Pierre was the one who ‘led’ Jack? She’s on the Board of Trustees! Accusations matter!”
“She’s quitting the board; we’re changing schools.”
“Wait—what about all the praise for Holcomb on Curriculum Night?”
“We have a better offer now,” he said, reminding Sara of a medieval painting, The Hunt in the Forest, in which men on horseback forged into a stygian forest, ready to attack whatever lurked there. Originally, the docent had explained, golden specks dappled the entire painting, whereas now only a few clung to the trunks. When Pierre was born, struggling for oxygen momentarily, Sara had comprehended those golden specks in a sudden, irreversible jolt. And when Aiden died, so unexpectedly, she’d insisted—too much—on seeing them everywhere.
She thought of the times she and Pierre had spent with Jack at the aquarium, the zoo, and Bob’s Bouncin’ Bonanza. And one of those times, when she’d dropped Jack off, Rob saying, “Half the people around here went to the state university—what kind of school is that.”
Now she said, “You know, you might look around sometime. Lots of glorious people wake up every day and do amazing things—not just you and Jody. If you’re oblivious to all that beauty and ugliness, if you twist education into a fetish, what’s the point?”
“Well, if you’d just shut up for a minute—”
She hung up. Undoubtedly, she’d severed something, but she no longer cared. Really, there was nothing to sever: she’d been naive. While urging Pierre to confront life’s paradoxes with a supple mind, she’d forgotten to do so herself. Her fingers traced the comforting bark of a hickory tree, which offered no guidance whatsoever—nor, she realized, were the boys still lounging nearby.
Up a path she bolted, toward a riot of branches whose fanciful light and lacy patterns yielded nothing more than an empty hole, then farther, fueled by news reports and movie goblins. Not until she spotted them, two tiny figures strolling with large sticks under an amplitude of tulip trees, did she slow down.
“Did you hear my shouting?”
“Not till just now,” answered Pierre blithely.
“We found a cave painting!” exclaimed Bob.
“A picture of a buffalo!” added Pierre.
“We saw termites!” Bob added. “They were blue and so-o-o-o cute.”
“‘Termitey’ is one of my imaginary friends now,” Pierre said.
“Is that number seventeen?” Bob asked. “Let’s add it to your wall list!”
“I wish we could do more science experiments at school,” Pierre said.
Sara was bewildered, recalling her last conference when his teacher questioned Pierre’s “interest” in his subjects. “Have you asked?”
“I put the request in Sonya’s basket. She checks it every month.”
“Every month?” Sara considered the medical researcher; the urine and rivers; the math Pierre’s previous, sublime teacher said he excelled at; and the chaos around her house: Legos, twinkling buildings, and car-washing rags. It was bountiful indeed, the supposed problems were imaginary, and next year he would attend another school.
“We’ll get to see an egg explode,” said Bob.
“It’s something to do with oxygen,” Pierre said.
As the light shifted, they drove in thick traffic down Ponce de Leon Avenue. Sara’s middle-aged brain dallied with nonsensical things, like zany calculus problems that posited trains traveling in multiple directions. This sensation was literal—there were train tracks nearby—and figurative, that is, existence seemed less rigid than it once had. For example, if the urine researcher was authentic, she wasn’t sure that Jag, peddling stuffed animals to children with imaginary friends, was altogether less so, if only as a dealer in metaphors. And from there, the entire, fantastic universe ensued, yes?
“Look!” the boys exclaimed.
She braked and looked. An apple tree, its dark, slender branches twisting elegantly, gnarling, and almost disappearing into the air, its white blossoms exquisite, delivered oxygen to them all. Innumerable drivers passed by, clutching minivan steering wheels, wearing sunglasses to deflect the glare. For a moment, almost everything but the children’s backseat voices seemed to disappear.