In honor of everyone’s favorite dress up and get candy holiday, here’s an excerpt from my latest women’s fiction novel, THE SEESAW EFFECT. With an election coming up, how does professional Democrat Erin balance work, home and politics?
Jessica popped her head in. “God, what’s the spoiled little brat screaming about this time?”
My jaw dropped. Jessica was wearing her Halloween costume. She’d borrowed a friend’s old Catholic school uniform that was three years’ too tight. With an exposed midriff and more make-up on her face than an entire Sephora store, she looked like a brunette, pre-baby Britney Spears.
Michael didn’t blink. “Mom’s not coming to my soccer game.”
“Oh, your poor little baby, is that all? I thought maybe she said you couldn’t go trick-or-treating or something.”
“That’s what I’m about to tell you,” I said.
“Mom.” Jessica rolled her eyes and gave the word ten syllables. “You know I’m not going out begging for candy. This is for Emily Andrews’ Halloween party.”
“Emily Andrews’ mother isn’t going to let you in the house wearing that.”
Jessica snorted. “You want to see what Emily’s wearing?” She handed me her cell phone. The screen was filled with a picture of blonde, busty Emily in the smallest bikini I’d ever seen. She had a halo pinned to her hair and a sun drawn around her belly button.
“I hate to ask, but what’s she supposed to be?”
“A sun goddess. Duh.”
Michael grabbed the phone out of my hand. He stared at the picture for a few seconds. “Can I go to the party instead of trick-or-treating?”
“No!” Jessica and I said together.
“And stop giving Mom a hard time,” Jessica continued. “She’s going to your stupid Halloween parade. She can’t do both. She has an important job. She’s not like some of your friends’ moms that go to the gym all day and drive their kids around all afternoon. She actually counts.”
My daughter was proud of me. I felt a glow all over my body, like I had just drunk a brandy on a cold day.
“Thank you, sweetie. That really means a lot to me.”
“No problem.” She grinned. “So I can wear this costume, right?”
She had me. She had won. “I guess I should be glad it’s not a bikini.”
“Maybe next year. When I have boobs.”
When she was gone, I glanced down at my own chest. Had Jessica done better in biology, she might have realized there was a good chance she’d never get them.
On Friday, naturally, all hell broke loose. Maybe because it was Halloween, or maybe because the universe likes to laugh at you when you decide you’re leaving early. My plan was to get out at noon so I could stop by my house, change clothes, grab something to eat and be at the school early. Instead, right at 11:45, Twitter exploded with the news that New Jersey House Republican Todd Porter had been accused of hoarding child pornography. A staff member found it on a laptop. Porter was screaming that the aide was a Democrat plant who had downloaded the pictures herself.
It was one of our races, and it took a while to craft a release that had just the right tone. Innocent before being proven guilty, of course. Want to make sure the citizens of New Jersey have the best possible representation, not someone who’ll be distracted with personal and possibly criminal issues. And of course, Democrat Paula Devane would be an outstanding representative for the people of New Jersey, and the planet as a whole.
By the time I got the release okayed and transmitted, it was already 1:30. I ran – as much as I could run in high heels – to the parking garage, then peeled out.
Wisconsin Avenue was a mess, of course. Everyone was getting home to help their kids get ready. I was stuck at light after light after light. Finally, I hit River Road and traffic eased up a bit. It’s a 45 mph limit, but I was going sixty.
It was only 2:10 when I got to Michael’s school, Keynes Elementary, but there was no parking nearby. I ended up in front of someone’s house about half a mile away. I took off my heels and ran, in my pantyhosed feet, to the school.
I was just in time to see the last of the fifth graders march back inside.
I knew I hadn’t missed much – about 600 kids in costume marching in a circle around the school – but I was disappointed just the same. And I couldn’t get the image out of my mind of Michael anxiously scanning the crowd, wondering where I was.
Since the kids marched in chronological order, the third graders were all back in their classrooms by now, and the parties should have gotten started. Their classrooms were all the way at the back of the building, near the stairs. The last time I had been there was Back-to-School night in early September. I put my shoes back on and hoped that Michael wouldn’t notice me casually slipping in through the door.
But instead of Mrs. Beckenstein’s third graders, the room was filled with construction workers and big, noisy power tools. I stood gaping for several seconds until one of them noticed me.
“Big leak in the ceiling last month,” he said. “Had to move the kids into a portable.”
Why doesn’t anyone tell me these things?
Of course, there was always the possibility that I had been told; I just hadn’t been paying attention.
I hurried out the back door and surveyed the dozen portables that dotted the grass between the school and the blacktop. Portables are what happens when test scores get published and every upper middle class parent moves to the best district they can afford. Keynes was built in 1965 and it showed. It’s supposed to get completely renovated the year Michael graduates from high school.
Stephen Kaplan emerged from one of the portables. He was dressed as a zombie, covered in fake blood and carrying a decapitated head. It was an elaborate costume that Christine must have spent weeks making.
“You look great, Stephen,” I told him.
He grinned. Half his teeth had been painted black. The front ones, anyway.
“My mom wanted me to be Spiderman, but I said if I got an A in math she had to make me this zombie costume, and I did.”
“Don’t you always get As in math?”
“Yeah, but now I’m in sixth grade math, and it’s a little harder.”
Sixth grade math. I couldn’t even do third grade math.
“Do you watch the Walking Dead?” he asked. “It’s my favorite show.”
“I’m surprised your mom lets you watch that.”
“She said if I got an A in English…”
I didn’t need to hear the rest. I waved Stephen off to the bathroom and went inside.
The party was in full swing. There were about ten parents there – six moms, four dads – and they’d divided the kids up into small groups. Some of them were bobbing for apples. A few wore blindfolds and had their hands in bowls of peeled grapes and cooked spaghetti. Other kids were eating candy and cupcakes, while the remaining kids were working on arts projects. The arts project kids did not look happy. Christine Kaplan was leading that group. I wondered if she had them drawing zombies.
Michael was in the blindfolded group. I watched as he slimed his way through the disgusting food, tossing a few grapes in his mouth for good measure. “That wasn’t scary at all,” he scoffed.
He tossed off the blindfold, saw me in the doorway, and rushed over. “Did you see me?” he demanded. “Did you see what I did?”
“You… ate an eyeball?” I guessed.
“During the parade. Did you see what I did during the parade?”
What the hell could he have done? All they do is march in a circle!
“You marched really well,” I said. “Really nice… high knees.”
He scowled. “You didn’t see. You weren’t there.”
“Michael, I was standing in one spot. I couldn’t very well follow you all the way around the building.”
“So where were you?”
“In the back. Near… near the basketball net.”
“Okay.” He seemed satisfied. “Can we get a cupcake now?”
Michael led me to his desk, and I sat next to him in one of those impossibly tiny chairs. We drank orange flavored punch and munched on black and orange cupcakes.
“These are really good,” I said. “I didn’t know Giant went so gourmet.”
“They aren’t Giant,” Michael told me. “Stephen’s mom went to Georgetown Cupcake.”
Of course she did.
“So what did you do?” I asked. “What did I miss, standing underneath the basketball net?”
“I used my cape to lasso Julia Greenburg. It was so funny!”
“Did Julia think it was funny?”
“She fell down and started crying, but after that, she laughed.”
It was a good thing I hadn’t seen that.
Libby Snyder, dressed in the same Snow White costume she’d worn for the past three years, slid into the seat next to us. Since she’s female, she and Michael don’t have play dates anymore, but she lives two streets away from us, and her mother was a good friend.
“Did you see my mom?” Libby asked me wistfully. “My mom was supposed to come.”
“I’m sure she’ll be here soon,” I said, patting her on the hand. “The traffic coming from downtown was awful.”
Libby’s mother, Shelby Williamson, was a lawyer for a big firm that did a lot more lobbying than legal work. She was “part time,” which, in lawyer-speak, meant she only worked 45 hours a week. She must have worked late every night this week to get the time off to come to the party. All for nothing. Why did schools have to do this to us? Why did they make it so important for parents to attend every party, every Thanksgiving play, every holiday concert? Didn’t they know how hard it was just to get through a regular day? Why give us a ticking time bomb almost every week?
Shelby showed up just as clean-up started. She burst into the room and threw her arms around Libby.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “My boss scheduled a meeting and I just couldn’t get out of it.”
“Who schedules meetings on Halloween?” I asked.
“The bitter divorced woman with no kids,” Shelby answered.
But Libby was in full blown punishment mode. “It’s okay. I didn’t really think you’d show up anyway.” She walked over to Christine and picked up some of the art supplies.
Shelby’s face fell. I patted her on the arm.
“She’s right,” Shelby said. “I never show up to these things.”
“Neither does Mark,” I argued. Mark was her husband.
“No one expects him to.”
“Hey,” I assured her. “I was late, too. I missed the parade, and then I lied to Michael about it.”
That got a small smile. “Alright. You’re worse than me.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that…”
Christine, arms filled with art supplies, came over, trailed by Michael and Stephen.
“Erin, you didn’t need to leave work early. I could have taken Michael back to your place to pick up his stuff.”
“His pajamas and soccer uniform.”
“He didn’t tell you? The boys decided last night they want to trick-or-treat in my neighborhood. Then Michael’s spending the night at our place. Since you’re working, I’ll just take him to the soccer game. You don’t have to thank me. Really, it’s no problem.”
I forced a smile. “I’ll take him home with me now, and I’ll drop him off at your house after dinner.”
“But the boys –“
“I would like to have some time with my son, thank you. Oh, and Christine … no zombies tonight, please. We do have rules about what Michael is allowed to watch.”
That shut her up. Christine shrugged and walked out, dragging Stephen behind her.
“Christine is so helpful,” Shelby remarked sarcastically. “What would you do without her?”
“Don’t remind me,” I said. Then I realized, “I don’t have any kids tonight. It’s Halloween and both my children are going to be at other people’s houses.”
“You can come over to mine and hand out candy with me,” Shelby suggested.
“What are you giving out?”
“I’ll be there after dinner.”
After dinner turned out to be way after dinner. Jack “offered” to hand out candy while I dropped off Stephen and Jessica at their respective homes. Jessica had also been invited to spend the night after the party, but I’d still have to pick her up early to take her to her horseback riding lesson before I went to Virginia. Not to mention take care of the baby bird who was recovering in her room until we could take him to Second Chance on Monday.
When I was a kid, weekends were a two-day relaxing respite. I’d sleep late, do some chores around the house, and then go to the mall or the movies with a friend. But that was two or three generations ago. Kids today were expected to have at least two sporting events a day, along with birthday parties, tutoring and music lessons. All this and we were still falling behind the kids in China. What’s worse was that every kid in Montgomery County was competing with each other for spots in expensive, selective colleges. We’d all moved here for the great public schools and now those public schools were killing us. I’d heard rumors that some families were moving into the city in order to send their kids to crappy D.C. public schools. That way their child, who was solidly in the middle of his class in Walt Whitman High, would be valedictorian at Woodrow Wilson.
This Saturday was no different. Jessica had horseback riding at 9; then volunteering at the wildlife rescue at 10:30. Michael just had the 10:00am soccer game, but that was only because baseball had just ended and his basketball season didn’t start for another two weeks. Jack would have to do everything but the riding lesson drop-off because I had to canvass, but he never complained. He’d put me in the same boat several times. Our schedule was light compared to some of our friends. Their children also took music lessons, or competed in “select” sports, which had twice as many games and practices, plus travel to out-of-state tournaments.
As I waited at the bottom of the stairs for my kids, I was grateful that neither of them had ever shown any real talent in anything.
“You look weird,” Michael told Jessica, who had rolled her shirt up even higher than she originally had it. “No one goes to school looking like that.”
“That’s the point, bug,” she snapped.
“Enough,” I said. “Everyone has pajamas? Soccer uniforms? Riding clothes? Basketball?”
“Let’s just go,” Jessica whined. “We’re already late.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of being fashionably late?”
There was already a small band of children making their way around our cul-de-sac. I backed up carefully, fearful of hitting them.
Michael jumped out of the car and dashed into the Kaplans’ house as soon as we pulled into the driveway. But when we pulled up to the Andrews’ house, Jessica just sat there.
“You’re not going to believe this…. Emily just texted me that her mom wants every parent to walk her kid up to the door and search their bag.”
“I know, right?”
“No, I mean, good for Emily’s mother. She sounds like a DEA agent. Though I can’t believe a DEA agent would let her daughter wear a bikini for Halloween.”
I turned off the car, and we trudged up the driveway to the front door. Emily and her mother were waiting for us. And she wasn’t wearing that bikini. Instead, she was dressed like Princess Leia from Star Wars – not the gold bikini version, but all long white flowing gown and bun heads.
“Wow,” I said. “That hairstyle must have taken forever.”
Emily shrugged. “Hey, Jessica. Glad you could come.”
“Let’s open up,” Emily’s mother said in a clipped tone.
Jessica looked at me.
“Hey, it’s okay,” I told her. “I have to do this every time I have a meeting on the Hill.”
“You work on the Hill?” Emily’s mom asked while she pulled out all my daughter’s personal things.
“Yes. Do you work for TSA?”
She didn’t answer, although I thought it was pretty clever. She took out Jessica’s helmet and breeches, then pulled out her riding crop. “What the hell is this? What is this for?”
That thing was genuine leather and cost nearly a hundred bucks. I snatched it out of the woman’s hands.
“Jessica has a riding lesson tomorrow.”
“Then why don’t you take it home and bring it back then. I shudder to think what the kids would do with that.”
“They wouldn’t know she had it if you hadn’t pulled it out of her bag.”
By now, there was a small line of kids and parents behind us. I heard someone ask if they should take off their shoes and belts.
Finally, Mrs. Andrews was satisfied. And poor Emily looked absolutely mortified.
“I apologize for the inconvenience,” Mrs. Andrews said stiffly. “But we were not be held legally liable if a child smuggles in drugs or alcohol and there were an accident.”
“Actually, you’d only be held legally liable if you’d supplied the drugs or alcohol yourself. But, thanks for hosting the party, and happy Halloween. I’ll be by at 8:30 to pick up Jessica.”
Jessica grabbed her bag, but Mrs. Andrews stopped her at the door. “I’ll need you to unroll your shirt first, of course. And I believe that skirt could be brought down a few inches.”
Jessica turned bright red, but she did what she was told.
“Try to have a good time,” I whispered.
She made a face. “Take care of my bird,” she whispered back before she slipped inside.
When I regaled this story to Shelby later over wine and chocolate, Shelby thought there had to be something behind it. “Does she have a kid who died of an overdose or something?”
I shrugged. “When Jessica first started hanging out with Emily, I asked her about her new friend, not the mother.”
“Well, look at it this way. You’re looking better by comparison.”
“Yeah, I’m the one who let my daughter dress like a slut and carry a riding crop. I’ll probably be banned from the next PTA meeting.”
“You don’t go to PTA meetings,” Shelby pointed out.
I unraveled a Twix bar. “I would if I had the time.”
“Only the stay-at-home moms go,” she said. “It makes them feel like there’s something more important in their lives than just driving carpools.”
I nodded, even though I was thinking about the crushed look on Libby’s face when her mother wasn’t at the party.
The front door opened. Mark, Shelby’s husband, pushed Libby inside.
“But I’m not done yet,” Libby protested. “We didn’t go down Ashley’s street, or Colby’s, or Vanessa’s…”
“There’s an emergency at work,” Mark said. “I’m sorry, but you know how important my job is. If you still want more candy, your mom can take you out.”
“I was going to go trick-or-treating with Colby, but you said no. You said you wanted to take me yourself. And now you’re going back to work. That’s not fair!”
“Life isn’t fair. And if I don’t do my job, I’ll get fired, and we won’t have any money.”
“Mommy makes money,” Libby pointed out.
Mark didn’t answer. He walked upstairs; we heard the door shut.
“I’ll take you, sweetie,” Shelby said.
“But then who’ll pass out the candy?”
“I’ll leave it on the front stoop.”
“People will steal it!” Libby protested.
“Do you want to go, or not?” Shelby asked.
“I have to go to the bathroom first.”
Libby dashed off. Shelby sighed.
“I should have known it was too good to be true. Mark taking her out tonight.”
“I don’t remember his job being this bad,” I said.
“It wasn’t. But he got passed over for partner. So now he’s working twice as hard, and I got the short end of the seesaw effect.”
“When you’re in a balanced marriage, it’s like being on a seesaw,” Shelby explained. “You each take turns going up and down. The seesaw effect is when one partner stops taking turns. He just gets off the seesaw all together, and bam. You go flying to the ground, and boy does it hurt when you hit.”
From upstairs, Mark’s angry voice echoed through the house. I squeezed Shelby’s hand goodbye and thanked God for Jack.