You are late to the A&P this afternoon. You have never been here at this liminal hour, when gray women cram the aisles, caught between their work and home selves at 5:40pm. They grab something easy to heat and clean up for dinner, last-minute school project posterboard, emergency tampons, a gallon of milk. You’re usually here in the convent quiet of 10 a.m., serene and showered, your cool blond bob under control, after dropping the twins at high school in your workout clothes, and then doing two strenuous hours in the gym. You pretend to hate the discipline, but you love the permission to be sweaty, red, ugly, powerful. On tennis days, you glory in aggression and competition, in the name of maintaining order in the chaotic female body. You are trim, as required, youthful, as expected. If your husband is, in fact, sleeping with the intern he has referred to exactly twice too often, no one will whisper that it’s because you let yourself go.
You move to a place like Alwyn Park for the schools. Everyone says to buy the worst house in the best district you can afford, but your husband is senior vice-president at a boutique investment bank, and you don’t need to skimp. You bought a new house, chandeliered, granited, and water-featured. You know who has a walk-in humidor and wine cellar and poolhouse, and who mows their own grass and scrubs their own toilets. You all moved to Alwyn Park for the schools.
Normally, you would be home at 5:40pm, rattling off reminders about school and extracurricular activities to Connor and Morgan as they eat dinner at the peninsula, absorbed in their phones. They are eighteen and still don’t like their peas touching their potatoes.
Fish is quick. Brain food, your mother calls it. When you’re not in a hurry, you plan the day’s errands around a stop at the fish market, where an old man in a Steelers cap can relate the biology and biography of everything he sells. He knows a hundred recipes for each fish—how to fry, bake, or grill them. What temperature, which herbs. He probably knows the wine pairings. He loves his job, you think. He dreams in fish.
A&P fish are cheaper, arranged in gleaming silver and pink battalions. Even the lobsters, barely alive, march dutifully in the bubbling tank. The young man in the white food service hat is indifferent to their orderly beauty. You wave for his attention and point to some prepared fillets—Coconut-Encrusted Tilapia. How long do you bake those, you want to know.
“Are they pre-cooked?”
“I don’t know anything about ‘em. I just sell ‘em.”
You try to mask your irritation. “Really? You work at the fish counter, but you don’t know anything about fish?”
“The morning guy knows.”
You can’t tell if his contempt is for you or the morning guy. If you had time, you would argue, might even complain to the manager. Scenes are inefficient.
“I’ll take four.”
The guidance counselor was probably right. Morgan shouldn’t go more than two hours away to college. Boston, Chicago, and Virginia schools are out of the question. Mrs. Meyers, gray-haired and sharp-eyed, spoke with none of the deference you were accustomed to from Alwyn Park school personnel. You knew your kid, she implied, but she knew forty years of them. When she told you your daughter’s psyche was too fragile to be trusted among strangers more than an easy car ride away, you believed her as much as you resented her.
You raised your children to be independent, you told her, or had meant to, at least. You were a helicopter parent by necessity, not choice, because how else could yours compete with children whose mothers carved and chipped every experience to maximize their children’s advantage and minimize their risk? You believe in 89 averages and third place and not making the cut. But how could you let your child be the only one unprotected?
Your mother had played bridge and mixed highballs and lunched, trusting you and your brother to conduct your childhoods as you saw fit, provided you were presentable in company. Now, facilitating two children’s upbringings was a full-time job for an educated woman.
Mrs. Meyers is no fool. She helped you keep Morgan’s suicide attempt a secret.
The fish man who knows nothing about fish wraps them with obsessive precision, one at a time, folding the white paper in double layers of origami. You check your phone for the time. Connor’s AP Physics tutor will arrive in forty-five minutes. Morgan’s county youth orchestra rehearsal begins in an hour and a half. He sees you check, and corners and tapes the paper even more tenderly.
Fish mothers lay a galaxy of eggs in the open water or in a sticky indentation they make in the mud. Fish fathers release of cloud of milt nearby. Of hundreds, or even millions of eggs, only a few baby fish will survive, an accident of currents, a chance meeting of DNA.
Every fish is a miracle. It seems a crime to eat one.
Human eggs, released one at a time, process alone or in pairs into the soft palace of the uterus where maternal servants provide food and water, whisper instructions, soothe with symphonies of rhythm. You must never stress them. One early incident could cause an invisible fracture that will crack years later under heat or pressure.
You are not much of a singer, but you sang to yours every day of your pregnancy. You had read about a correlation between prenatal singing and auditory processing. You hoped it would help them pay attention in school.
A baby is crying. Not an infant, though. The crying contains words. A toddler wants something it can’t have. You remember the twins at that age. The final stretch of the day, right before dinner, was a daily ordeal your mother-in-law called the witching hour. Why would anyone bring a child to the store at 5:45?
After the appointment with Mrs. Meyers and a quick stop home for lunch, the car died in the parking lot of the dry cleaner, where you were picking up three of Brent’s suits. You pressed the button again and again, then called the mobile service provided by the dealership.
How is this possible, you demanded of the tattooed, head-shaven man—only a few years older than Connor, you noted—who answered the call within the hour. You had bought an expensive European SUV whose ads praised the intelligence of its engineers. The car was less than two years old, and you had followed the maintenance schedule as strictly as your exercise routine. You wanted someone to be at fault, even if it was you.
The guy said, “dead battery,” and retrieved a new one from his truck.
“How does a $70,000 car get a dead battery?”
He shrugged, then buried himself in the hood. “Hyundai, Chevy, BMW, Mercedes — a battery’s a battery. Sooner or later, they die. You can’t predict when. This one’s on the early side, but it happens. Like, everyone dies, rich or poor. Can’t buy your way out.”
Your outrage deflated to embarrassment. You were being ridiculous. Of course, he was right.
You stopped yourself from asking the young man why he wasn’t in college.
You wanted to encourage him to major in something practical and minor in philosophy. Instead, you pressed on him, over his objections, a forbidden twenty-dollar tip.
Thanksgiving is a week from Thursday. You’re catering everything but the turkey, and you’ve hired the same waitresses you used last year. You’re expecting twenty-five people, including your parents, up from Hilton Head, but probably not your brother, who shouldn’t spend the money to fly in from Phoenix. You could send him a ticket. The kids like Uncle Ray, especially Connor, who sees in Ray’s prickly, self-conscious inability to subsume his personality into business an older version of himself. Ray is taking prerequisites for grad school in physical therapy, and all Dad can say is, “Whatever makes you happy, son.”
Dad has become quite an advocate of happiness since retiring to fish the summers in Maine and golf the winters in South Carolina. “I should have retired years ago!” he proclaims to anyone who will listen, “Can’t imagine why I didn’t do it sooner.” He advises your husband, “You ought to do the same,” as if he’s already forgotten the fifty-year career that paid for the golf and the fishing and your mother’s passion for redecorating.
Your mother will want each of the guests assembled around the long dining room table to express gratitude for something. You find this excruciating and presume everyone else does, too, but Mother is all sparkly blue eyes and charm and silver hair, so they will say they are thankful for their family, their health, and the bounty which they are about to receive. You don’t recall this ritual from childhood.
You had very nearly complained about the message on the electronic sign outside Alwyn Park High School that read “Gratitude is the Best Attitude!,” part of the new superintendent’s Positive Thinking Initiative. It was not enough for the children to excel, to be A+ students and varsity athletes and enthusiastic volunteers, good-looking, well-dressed, and popular. Striving for perfection until they couldn’t sleep, like Connor, or until they feared growing up more than dying, like Morgan, wasn’t enough. They had to look happy doing it. A positive attitude was mandatory. They had to be grateful for it. It was emotional totalitarianism. But everyone said how progressive the young superintendent was, how visionary.
You will shop, clean, decorate, hire, and supervise. Your presentation will be seamless. You will gather friends and family together to offer, to a God who has granted embarrassing plenty, your anxious thanks that nothing has crashed yet.
Someone at the bakery counter is crying. You can’t make out everything she’s saying over the toddler and the annoying music, but she seems to be talking about genocide. That can’t be right. You make out “family,” “love,” “bread.” It makes no sense. You take a step back from the fish counter to see. The woman is older than you, wearing a smart suit and sensible heels, carrying a basket far too heavy for her, complaining through tears to a large man in a white uniform. You snap your gaze back to the sign boasting, “Sustainable Fish!” It’s rude to stare. It’s worse to witness someone’s failure to hold it together. You wouldn’t want anyone to do it to you.
Morgan never broke down at school. Extended deadlines, unseasonable long sleeves, and the deft interventions of Mrs. Meyers kept the secret from getting out. Not even Morgan’s orchestra teacher knew. You checked the parent grade portal twice a day, prepared to email an excuse for anything she’d missed, to do the homework yourself, if necessary. Your hands gripped her future with white knuckles. Morgan’s early-decision application was almost done. She was so close to claiming the medal for the marathon she’d run almost flawlessly since preschool.
You attended PTA meetings during the crisis, as always. If your child had cancer, these women would bring you casseroles and apple crisp. They would hold fundraisers and send cards and balloons in their kids’ names.
You fought the urge to stand up during Open Comment Time and say, “The pressure is killing my daughter. Is she the only one?” Would anyone stand with you? The woman who might raise her hand would have to be even braver and crazier, and what would you do, anyway? Even if everyone confessed that their children were half mad with the terror of failure, what change would you demand when you marched together into the Superintendent’s office? “Make everyone else stop wanting what we want!”? “Make it easier!”?
Of course, you stayed seated.
You fooled with your iPhone all throughout Open Comment Time, liking everyone’s photographs of their smiling kids. Everyone here had moved to Alwyn Park for the schools.
The tantrum draws closer, and now you can hear the baby’s furious complaint. “DOAN WAHN HELFY CERIO! WAHN TIGER CERIO!”
You turn. The mother is trying to wheel the cart away from temptation, but the little one has pulled herself halfway up in the child seat, her arms reaching so far toward Tony the Tiger that you worry she’ll fall headfirst onto the linoleum.
“Addison, sit down!” the mother hisses. She grips the baby’s shoulder to keep her from falling. The child’s eyes and nose are streaming. The mother rummages for a tissue in her purse with her free hand. Addison has cried herself into gasping, ripping sobs that remind you of Morgan’s when she could no longer be distracted by a favorite meal, a shopping trip, or a new phone, when she wanted nothing but death.
The mother is stuck. She can’t move the cart without risk that the child will fall, but Addison won’t let herself be picked up. People circumnavigating the cart throw the nasty looks of those whose impeccable children exist in memory or the future. Their kids would never do that. She looks ready to cry herself.
The fish man begins wrapping your fourth fillet like a gift on which he’s spent his last dollar for a woman he knows is too smart to stay with him. When the fluorescent lights flicker on the iced raw fish display, you see how little they have in common with the jumbled, flopping pile on the wharf in Maine. You and Ray would watch the silver, green, pink, and red ones flailing with their final breath to find the water again before men in rubber overalls flung them into bins, separating them by size and color. Your mother fried them only an hour after they’d been alive.
These dull, dead-eyed things are farmed, their pale flesh artificially colored to mimic a wild diet, conceived and grown to be identical. They were harvested the moment they reached an ideal, predetermined size. That was the secret behind the martial precision of their arrangement on the ice.
You abandon your cart at the fish counter. You don’t want the Coconut-Encrusted Tilapia anymore.
Addison’s chubby cheeks are flushed dark with rage.
You walk past mother and child until you find what you think she’s crying for and pluck it from the shelf. You hand the box of Frosted Flakes to Addison, who takes a full five seconds to connect the cardboard box in her hands to the thing she has been screaming about for as long as she can remember. She cradles it to the top button of her pink parka, her nose draining onto the blue box top. She melts quietly back into the child seat.
The mother wipes Addison’s nose and takes the breath she’s about to use to tell you off, but you’re quicker. “I know. It’s none of my business, and she’s not allowed to have sugar or GMOs, or anything she’s seen in a commercial, or anything she throws a tantrum for. I know.”
The woman begins to sputter a response, but you’re not done. “Just let her have it now and throw it out after she falls asleep tonight. She’ll forget all about it by the morning.”
“Who the hell do you think you are?”
Addison is sucking her thumb, resting her ear against Tony the Tiger. You take in her mother’s jewelry, her cell phone, her shoes, her handbag. You are speaking to a young member of your own tribe.
“Listen, I have two high school seniors. You’re going to spend the next eighteen years shoving things down her throat. Much worse than healthy cereal. You’ll wish it was this easy to figure out what she wants and give it to her.”
The angry woman looks too tired to argue. You remember the exhaustion of toddlerhood, the constant vigilance to keep the twins from running into traffic and drowning in pools. The 3 a.m. fevers and earaches, the inexplicable vomiting. You remember, too, the quiet midnight mothering, skin on skin, milky breath against your cheek. How easy it was to understand a need and fulfill it, simply, unreservedly. They had just a few years, no more than four, when you didn’t have to strategize about their future with every decision, forbidding any behavior that might result eventually in mediocrity, overcompensating with electronics and designer labels and media and vacations and permission, penitential offerings in lieu of all they had to be denied, if they were to thrive while the world went to hell. You couldn’t do anything about the world, but you could march them through the algorithm of success. You could, if you did it exactly right, make sure that yours, at least, would be okay.
“It’s just a box of cereal! What is she, two years old?”
“She isn’t allowed to have junk food. I’m not making that mistake. This kid is not going to be addicted to sugar!
You see that it’s already too late.
“And she was totally fine with it until some crazy–” She drops her voice below a whisper and mouths the word–“bitch” then raises it again, “who can’t mind her own business has to come along and ruin it!”
The gentle bell on your phone signals an incoming text. You don’t bother looking. It’s from the kids, frantic that you’re not home yet. You wonder why they don’t just throw together their own dinner from the abundance in the cupboards and the fridge, when you recall that the only thing either one knows how to make is microwave popcorn. They’ve both been too busy with school, sports, community service hours, and extra-curricular activities to learn to drive yet, and Morgan hates being late to rehearsal. Connor will be shy about answering the door when the tutor comes. You need to get home.
Addison’s eyelids flutter. The tantrum cost her.
“You’re right. It’s none of my business. I don’t know what came over me. I”m sorry.”
She looks surprised. She’d expected you to defend your crazy, impulsive meddling. She sniffs and rolls her cart away. If she’s grateful that you’ve solved her dilemma, enabling her to finish her shopping in peace while her baby nods off with the grinning tiger in her arms, she does not say so. She pulls out her phone. In a minute, her encounter with the nosy nutjob in the A&P will be all over Facebook. You’re not worried. No one would ever suspect it could be you.
You’re shocked at yourself, but not sorry. The mother will knock her head against the myth of the tabula rasa for the next eighteen years. All organisms, no matter how perfectly mothered, crave sugar. Sooner or later, Addison will bite into a snack loaded with artificial everything. She will hear words worse than bitch, and try them out on the person they will hurt most. Tony the Tiger is the first of many impure things she will adore over her mother’s heartbroken objection.
You remember the time Connor dragged a chair to the stove and climbed up on it to see what you were cooking. “Hot!” you warned him, and gripped him securely against your left hip while stirring stew with your right hand. But he had grabbed at the wooden spoon and plunged it excitedly into the pot before you could stop him. The splash tattooed a third degree burn on his pink porcelain arm. You had cried in the pediatrician’s office over the flawless skin you had scarred, your ruined baby.
Nothing is more fragile than perfection.
Sooner or later, there’s a Dorito, a sext, a C minus. Every success raises the stakes.
You hadn’t allowed them to fail when they were young enough for the consequences not to matter, so now they had no choice but to fail where it might. The major export of Alwyn Park, NJ was terrified, perfect, grateful kids who would, sooner or later, drop the damned ball.
You pull out your phone to cancel the tutor, make excuses to the orchestra conductor. You want to tell the kids that lessons are called off for tonight and forever, that they could do their homework or not. That you would love them no matter where they went to college, or if. That they could take, if they wanted to, a gap year, an idea you’d found asinine when you first read about it in the Education Life section.
You want to tell them to spend the evening watching movies, playing video games, talking to their friends, or taking their sleeping bags outside to consider the stars, or going to sleep grade-school early. That they were acceptable—their quirks, sensitivities, and hurt, rejected places—all perfect and whole.
But the fish man is wheeling your abandoned cart toward you, the painstakingly wrapped tilapia stacked neatly in the child seat. He apologizes for taking so long. Perhaps he’s worried you’ll complain.
Connor’s text appears. He’s hungry, but Morgan says she’s not. The physics tutor has already arrived. Are you coming home soon?
Of course, you are. You’ll bake the tilapia and microwave the broccoli and the rosemary potatoes you picked up at the prepared foods counter. Connor can eat while he works with the tutor. You will cajole Morgan into eating a few bites before rehearsal. You hurry to the bakery to pick up something tempting for dessert and croissants for the morning.
It’s too late to change the contract now.