May 3, 2012
A quick aside before we get to Chapter Two. Recently, I’ve had a number of people ask me what the hell this Road to Hana business is all about.
“Is this your new book?”
No. That comes out June 12th and is called Spy Mom and is published by a “real” publisher. It’s the sequel to last summer’s Original Sin. I think I’ve mentioned this. Probably so many times you are right now fighting the urge to throw a squishy tomato at my head. Good thing social media has made it possible for me to never actually have to interact with another living person except for the other moms in the parking lot at preschool pick up.
But I’m getting off topic here. My experience in the publishing world over the last couple of years has been a roller coaster ride and occasionally I wonder why I bother. But when everything is quiet and the kids are in bed and I’m sitting here in my living room, the answer to that question is obvious. I do it because I love it. I have never felt I had a choice. The writing is as much a part of who I am as my height or my eye color or the fact that I can no longer catch my seven year old in a game of Zombie Tag. It just is.
The Road to Hana is something I thought would be fun to write so I sat down and wrote it. I’m serializing it here on my blog because I like the idea of sharing a little bit of it with you each week. Everyone is busy. Sometimes making a single chapter commitment is all we have left to offer.
So that’s it. I’ll be sure to remind you again next week about Spy Mom coming out June 12th. Did I mention that already?
Anyway, here is The Road to Hana – Chapter Two
There are no school buses in my town. We have a series of neighborhood elementary schools and because the weather is mostly lovely here with the exception of the occasional life disrupting seismic event, kids are expected to hop on their bikes and ride in safe little packs to school. It’s a nice idea and like most nice ideas, it rarely works out as anticipated.
So finding a parking space outside the cute neighborhood school on some mornings can feel like a round of Carmageddon, which, I should point out, I have never actually played because we all know television, or even the mere proximity to it, can warp the young minds of tomorrow beyond repair, leading directly to the Home for Juvenile Delinquents. Plus I grew up with a twelve inch black and white TV that got two channels, one that only broadcast fishing shows and we had to turn the channel with a pair of pliers and look how well I turned out? When I was a kid, we played PacMan. Seems innocuous enough unless you consider gluttony an actual sin.
I wedge my people mover into a tiny spot, recognizing I may never get out of it, and do a quick check to make sure the remainder of my breakfast is not wedged between my front teeth. Which leads to the obvious questions, did I have breakfast? Did I brush my teeth? Sometimes sacrifices are required if you are going to be on time to your volunteer stint in the second grade classroom.
This is important so pay attention. You do NOT want to show up late to any of your myriad volunteer duties. Not once. Not ever. Because if you do you will forever be known as ‘unreliable’. Being unreliable is not necessarily the social suicide I was talking about earlier but it can lead to whispering behind your back which will make you sad and probably force you to consume more than a healthy amount of red wine come dinner time.
Mrs. Saunders has been teaching second grade for twenty years. That makes her an expert and we, the lowly parent volunteers, never ever question anything she does or says. If she demands forty extra gallons of glue, tin foil and a bag of organic pretzels for an art project, you had better just nod your head and get to it because the project will no doubt turn all twenty three students in Mrs. Saunders’s second grade class into future Nobel Laureates. Do you want to stand in the way of excellence? No, you do not.
Mrs. Saunders is nothing like the warm and fuzzy teachers you always see in children’s books, the kind that ooze nurturance and make you feel bad about your parenting. When I first asked Lucas how he liked her, he looked at me blankly.
“Who?” he asked.
“Your teacher, honey,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. He’s fine.”
“He’s a she, honey.”
“Mom, can you get me a snack?”
Something I’ve known about Lucas from the beginning is that he does not much care who is standing at the front of the class as long as he can run around pretending to be Obi Wan Kenobi and stab his good buddies with imaginary light sabers at recess. Life is remarkably uncomplicated for the seven year old boy.
I’m making pretty good time when my beeline into the arms of Mrs. Saunders is suddenly interrupted.
Oh no. Gillian Swan. I curse myself for not parking one street over and using the convenient row of tall hedges to shield my very existence until I was safely on school grounds. But it’s too late. I cannot pretend I don’t hear Gillian and I cannot pretend I don’t see Gillian as she is now standing right in front of me.
“Hi Gillian,” I say.
“Laurie, I was just thinking about you.”
My name is not Laurie. It’s Lauren. It has never been nor will it ever be Laurie but Gillian does not care. I’m Laurie and Laurie I shall stay until I fail to show up for one of my assigned volunteer ‘opportunities’. Then I will be ‘unreliable’.
“We desperately need help with the Fun Run on Sunday,” Gillian says, taking a swig of her extra hot latte and licking her lips, preparing to eat me alive. Our cute elementary school has an actual principal but everyone knows Gillian runs the show. I’ve heard rumors that she used to be in PR before she had kids, but I have a hard time believing she was ever anything but Super Mom.
I should be grateful for Gillian really. Without her tireless efforts, our kids wouldn’t have half of the opportunities they do and we all know potential Nobel Laureates will only blossom in rich soil.
That being said, however, it is still important to have an arsenal of excuses at the ready because you never know when you’re going to be the victim of a guerilla attack. Birthdays, anniversaries, road trips, soccer practices, dentist appointments, out of town visitors, block parties, furniture shopping – these are all believable excuses. Something like buying milk is not and you will be called out for being unsupportive of the rich soil.
Because I have not had my second cup of coffee yet today and cannot even remember if I brushed my teeth, I am caught flatfooted, utterly unprepared for Gillian’s assault. I cannot very well tell her that my Sunday plans include doing nothing followed by maybe reading a magazine, one that will hopefully tell me what products I should use on my face to defy time and gravity. It does not include picking up empty Gatorade bottles tossed to the curb with abandon by our genius kids.
This reminds me that we can’t have an informed conversation about the trials of volunteering in the modern age without discussing the subject of assigning certain particularly despicable jobs to the unaware spouse. Guilt will be your friend in these attempts. In my head I’m already formulating my exchange with Harry.
“Lucas would love to have you there,” I’ll say. “It’s a school wide event.”
Harry will mumble, non-committal.
“Great, honey,” I’ll say. “I’ll sign you up to run with the kids.” After which I will put it in our shared calendar, the brain center of our lives together, and pretend it was there all along and we actually had a rather in depth discussion about it at some point in the past and Harry, you should really pay more attention to what is going on at home and stop hanging out in your mental universe all the time with your peace loving Arabs and Israelis.
“Lucas is registered, right?” Gillian asks.
“Of course,” I say, making a mental note to go directly to the office after my time in the classroom and sign him up.
“Well, yes.” A fake unattractive laugh escapes my lips. “She wants to do everything that Lucas does. You know, little sisters.”
“Not really,” Gillian says dismissively.
Rule number one when dealing with Gillian. Do not mention girls. Pretend the world is populated only by seven billion charming little boys and you might be safe. Story has it Gillian wanted a girl but after the fourth boy her husband put his foot down, or better yet, pulled his pants up and that was that. No girls.
I think I would like Gillian better if occasionally she showed up at school in dirty sweat pants, with her hair thrown back in a messy ponytail. But Gillian runs marathons and dresses as if we all have something important to do other than pick up the kids and take them to swim class. Her long blond hair behaves in just the way it ought to, never a strand out of place, even when it’s windy.
I have examined my feelings on the subject of Gillian at some length and have concluded that I am, in fact, jealous of the hair. Does it make me a better person having owned up to my feelings? No. It makes me a grown woman who is jealous of another grown woman’s hair and that, in turn, makes me totally pathetic.
Acknowledgment of my patheticness is, ultimately, my undoing.
“I’d love to help with the Fun Run,” I say, with no joy in my voice. The gravity and age defying skin care regiment will have to wait.
“Great, Laurie,” Gillian says. “You can help pick up the trash after the race. I’m so glad we can count on you.”
Yup. You can count on me…to fold every single time.
Gillian glances at her diamond encrusted watch. “You’d better hurry. You don’t want to be late for Mrs. Saunders.”
I thank her for her concern and shuffle dejectedly toward the second grade classrooms.
As I enter, Lucas does not even acknowledge my existence. Mrs. Saunders studies the big round clock with the smiley face over the door.
“Mrs. Hemingway,” she says. “I’m relieved you made it.”
By my estimation, I’m exactly two minutes late and that is only because I was attacked outside by the volunteer zombies and held hostage until I gave into their demands. Because of my weak spine, I will be picking up garbage all day Sunday like a convict. Perhaps Gillian will be so kind as to provide us fashion forward orange jumpsuits and plastic bags that say ‘chain gang’ on them?
I realize I’m being bitter so I plaster a smile on my face and murmur a handful of apologies to Mrs. Saunders who punishes my tardiness by giving me a math group to run.
When I was in grade school, I was a math whiz. Numbers were concrete, absolute. They did not argue or change or act peculiar until they took their Xanax or had a few cups of coffee. I liked their exactness and utter lack of emotion. Perhaps I was reading too much into the numbers. It wasn’t as if we were dating or anything, we were just doing arithmetic together on Mondays, Wednesday’s and Friday’s.
But then came algebra and geometry and the sudden intrusion of letters posing as numbers. And as we all know, letters can cause pain when put together in certain ways. Just think about it. Hate. War. Anger. Diet. What do they have in common? Without letters, we can’t even discuss them. Yes. I know I’m taking this to an extreme but I felt like my precious numbers were betraying me by consorting with the fickle letters. Suddenly, none of it made sense. Were we doing math or were we reading a story about how fast letter A drove as compared to how fast letter B drove if neither were doing the speed limit and both were legally drunk? By the time I reached calculus I was seriously contemplating having sex with my teacher. Instead, I just went ahead and failed, my virtue intact, my pride and confidence completely shot to shit.
The kids at the math table look at me with big excited second grade eyes. They can’t wait to get started. They still love the numbers. They are just beginning to understand what numbers can do for them. I silently pray they do not get their little hearts broken any time soon.
“What a great morning,” I say, smiling and plopping myself in one of the tiny blue chairs. I look like a dork in the chair because I’m tall and, as I live here in the United States, slightly overweight, although that is something I’d never admit to anyone else. If you say it out loud, that makes it true and the idea of an actual diet that does not include lattes reduces me to tears.
I look at the instructions in front of me. The table is covered in bowls of beads and sets of dice and sharp pencils. Any one of these items in the hands of a second grader holds potential for disaster. And wait a minute? Why is my table all boys? Aren’t there any girls in the second grade? Do they keep them in a closet? I listen carefully for their screams but hear nothing.
Mrs. Saunders swoops in and drops a bucket of scissors on my table.
“You’ll need these for the cutting part of the assignment,” she says.
“Thank you,” I say. No really. This is great. Now we can get right to stabbing each other. I can’t recall a single math lesson when I was a kid that involved scissors and beads. We sat at uncomfortable wooden desks and worked with a pencil nub in little blue notebooks. It was terrible and I don’t know why they aren’t still doing it.
I scan the directions quickly before I lose control of my kids, who are salivating over the idea of scissors and beads.
“Do you have any rubber bands?” a kid named Jonas asks me.
“No. Why?” Does he know something I don’t know? I read the directions again.
“I want to make a sling shot and fire the beads through the windows!”
“That would be so cool,” another little boy named Fred says.
“They would smash to bits,” adds Ethan.
“And then we could use the glass to kill the vampires!” Thomas adds.
Vampires? Mrs. Saunders glares at me.
“Ok, boys,” I say in my best teacher voice which, on a good, day might command the attention of a band of fleas. “Let’s focus.” Let’s focus before Mrs. Saunders takes off Mrs. Hemingway’s head.
I hand out the dice and the paper and pencils and we make like we’re in Vegas and roll the dice and count out beads into neat little piles that last for all of three seconds before being used like hockey pucks with the scissors. Within moments, I’m crawling around under the tiny table collecting the brightly colored beads, which have scattered all over hell and creation.
From the reading table, I can feel Lucas’s eyes on me, wide with horror. I climb back into my little blue chair and look around for where I might have left my dignity.
“You didn’t cut out the squares,” Mrs. Saunders says, standing over me. I shrink further down into my chair, which I would not have thought possible. “You’ll have to start again.”
The boys lunge for the scissors and begin madly cutting everything in sight.
“Wait!” I shout. “Squares!” Within moments, the table is littered with math assignments that look a lot like cut out snowflakes. The beads are once again all over the floor and Fred and Jonas are dueling with pointy pencils made in China and out God knows what sort of toxic chemicals.
I make a silent pact with myself that if I survive the next forty-five minutes I will proceed immediately to the Nordstrom shoe department and max out my credit card.
Mrs. Saunders scolds my table of wild animals and they calm right down. Then she turns to me.
“Mrs. Swan didn’t have any trouble with this assignment last week,” she says, one bushy eyebrow raised in question.
In that eyebrow, I see my arrest, trial and conviction on the grounds of utter failure. If you are a mom, you are naturally supposed to have a way with kids of every flavor. You are supposed to intuitively understand them and love them all. That is a flawed theory, in my opinion.
Ultimately, as the United States marches determinedly toward third world status, I understand I will be called upon to help fill the holes left behind by educational budget cuts. I will be asked to do things that, in previous generations, required a master’s degree and years of training at the heels of a professional.
And in response to this brave new world I will keep my eyes on a single goal. And that is simply not to let little Jonas and Fred and Ethan and Thomas see me cry like a baby at the math table.