“Zoë, honey, please put those down. You’re only six years old.”
“I’m six and three-quarters.”
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Six and three-quarters. Yes, you’re a big girl, now. Still, you can’t wear high heels to second grade.”
“I want to look like MiMi.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to look like your aunt MiMi,” I cajole. “Believe me, you don’t want to rush growing up.”
“Yes, I do.”
We’ve been hunting for the perfect pair of school shoes for upwards of half an hour. My linen dress is clinging to my body like a limp dishrag. This has to be the hottest Labor Day on record. You could fry an egg in the middle of Broadway. It’s so muggy outside that we could have waded up to Harry’s Shoes, which must be the craziest place in the city to have to visit on the last shopping day before school starts. It’s mayhem in here. The decibel level is even worse than a Saturday afternoon at PlaySpace. Honestly, I don’t know how the salespeople cope. The management must give them a free hit of Prozac when they punch their time card.
I think the mothers and merchants of New York City will breathe a collective sigh of relief tomorrow. I sure know I could use a break. I’ve spent every day this summer with Zoë. It’s the first time I’ve ever had to care for her 24/7. I lost both husband andhousekeeper in the divorce. Hilda had been Scott’s mother’s housekeeper at one point, so her loyalty was to the Franklins. I’ve had no one to pick up the slack, so I could catch a catnap, find twenty minutes for a manicure, or—God forbid—go to lunch with a girlfriend.
Zoë, looking like a wilted daisy, comes over to me complaining of the heat and humidity. “I’m sticky,” she gripes, pushing limp bangs off her forehead with a grubby hand. I open my bag, whip out a Wash’n Dri, mop her brow, wipe her hands, and pin up her hair with an elastic and a clip.
“Blow,” Zoë says, and I purse my lips and generate a gentle Mommy breeze, cooling the nape of her neck and her face.
Brimming with purpose and bustle, a tall woman with one of those year-round tans, forty-something and looks it, practically tramples a knot of preschoolers to get to me. She’s nearly out of breath. “Who do you work for?” she asks abruptly.
“I don’t understand,” I reply, caught completely by surprise.
“I’ve been watching you from across the room,” she says. I’m sorry. I thought you spoke English. I wanted to know who you work for.”
“Who do I work for?” I’m still not getting it. Maybe the intense heat of the day has baked my brain.
The woman slips into the cadences one uses when they think they’re speaking to someone either dreadfully hard of hearing or from a country whose gross national income wouldn’t cover the cost of an August sublet in the Hamptons. “It’s so hard to find someone who—you know—well, speaks English. And is well-groomed—and-you’re so good with the little girl.” She unsnaps her Fendi “baguette” and withdraws a slim leather card case. “If you’re ever unhappy with your present situation, please do consider giving me a call. Xander isn’t much of a handful.” She points out a small boy about Zoë’s age with an unruly mop of brown curls, banging together two Yao Ming-size Timberlands as if they’re a pair of orchestra cymbals.
Oh, good Lord. I get it now. “You think I’m an au pair, don’t you?” I ask the older woman. She looks so smug, I decide that the most delicious way to set her straight is through indirect communication. Besides, a smartass remark just isn’t me. My sister Mia is the one who excels at the witty rejoinder. “Zoë, sweetie, please let’s settle on something. Mommy’s going to pass out in a few minutes if we don’t get away from this crowd.” The child has a way of totally zoning out for some reason whenever we go to a shoe store. I guess it’s why I postponed the school-shoe shopping expedition until the last possible moment.
I’m trying not to let her see how exasperated I am that what should have been a half-hour excursion is turning into a day trip. And in this heat it’s not easy. Ever since her father left, I feel guilty when I get angry or lose patience with her. The divorce was rough on both of us and I’m unused to being the disciplinarian. More than that, I’m uncomfortable with it. My own parents are uncharacteristically non-neurotic. Actually, I suppose their loopy progressiveness is their own form of dysfunction, and not having grown up in a strict household, I haven’t a clue how to run one, even when discipline is clearly called for.
My now-ex-husband Scott was able to handle his dot-com CFO responsibilities from home much of the time, so while I took a full course load at Columbia and got my bachelor’s degree in art history during Zoë’s first four years, it was Scott who heard our daughter say her first word (“Da”) and whose hands she let go of when she took her first cautious, halting, baby steps. Zoë worships her father and has been blaming me for the divorce, even though it was Scott who decided to walk away from the marriage several months ago.
My cell phone vibrates. It’s my friend Sue. “Where are you?” she demands accusingly.
Well, no reason for her to cop an attitude, just because we haven’t been in touch for a while! What have I done to her? “I’m at Harry’s trying to find Zoë some school shoes she can live with. What’s the matter?”
“Oh…nothing. Just that I’ve been sitting here at Farfalle since one thirty. I’m on my third glass of Pinot Grigio and the waitstaff is making me feel particularly pathetic for having been stood up. At first I thought you must have been held up in transit, but—”
“Hold on, Sue.” I cover the phone and turn to Zoë. “You can have the lace-up or the ones with the buckle.” Shit. I was supposed to meet Sue for lunch today. We’ve had this planned for ages, but the dry-erase board got Bolognese sauce on it, so we had to wipe it clean and I guess I didn’t remember the date with Sue when I went to write down all our activities again. The collateral damage was that the appointment also got wiped clean out of my mind, so of course I didn’t arrange for baby-sitting.
“I am so sorry,” I apologize. “I completely forgot. Please don’t hate me. It’s been a bit insane lately.” It’s hard to continue the conversation while keeping an eye on Zoë, and the cell phone connection is dreadful. I’m becoming one of those people who yells inanities into her phone. Tales that can wait to be told at another time. One of those people for whom boiling oil and melted lead is an insufficient torture. “Sue, let me call you when we get home, and maybe we can set something up for ….”Sssssssshhhhhhh. The connection goes dead. Next year. Maybe.
So, here I am, trying to keep things light to disguise my frustration. “How can you hate shoe-shopping and be my daughter?” I tease.
“Daddy hates shoe-shopping and I’m his daughter, too. They’re divorced,” Zoë volunteers, for the benefit of anyone within earshot of the girls’ shoe department. “Daddy left her for an older woman.”
Where did hell did she get that phrase? Oh, right, she hears me use it all the time on the phone when I’m venting to Mia or to my female friends-like Sue-whom I hardly find the time to see anymore, even though they live across town.
“Well, dear, it’s usually the other way around,” Xander’s mother mutters, loud enough for me to hear. She has an edge to her that I find instantaneously unpleasant. Maybe it’s just me and I’m having a bad day. I’m sure this woman with the cancer cabana tan and the meticulously highlighted blown-straight-to-within-an-inch-of-its-overprocessed-life hair is a very lovely human being, despite the fact that she is quick to assume that a young woman in charge of a child must be its grad-student nanny. Evidently, she must have read too many celebrity tell-alls.
By this time, Xander has wandered over to his mother. She covers his ears with her jeweled hands. “Men are pigs,” she hisses sororally. She sizes me up some more and then extends her hand. “I’m Nina Osborne. So, you’re her mother. Fascinating. You don’t see too many your age these days. It’s …so retro.”
I shake Nina’s hand. “Claire Marsh.” My own name tastes unfamiliar on my tongue. “Sorry, it takes a little bit of adjustment. I was Claire Marsh and then I became Claire Franklin, and it’s so recently back to Marsh again that I”—I’m babbling here—”the judge only signed the decree a few weeks ago allowing me to go back to legally using my maiden name.”
“How long have you been—?” Nina looks at Zoë and stops herself, deciding that the “D” word is a dirty one to say in front of my child, who has, herself just used it in a voice loud enough to carry in Yankee Stadium.
“Memorial Day. Fitting, huh?”
Nina points at herself with a manicured talon. “Last Valentine’s Day. Can you believe it? How’s yours coping?”
I watch Zoë’s little fingertip caressing a pair of size 6½B Steve Madden platforms despite my previous attempt at admonishment. “Wishing she were an adult. I think she feels really out of control of things. I try to keep her busy so she doesn’t have too much time to mope. I’m hoping all the distractions will help her get past the divorce so she can begin to move on.”
“You’re so brave,” Nina says, eyeing Zoë.
“I don’t know about that,” I say, trying to laugh off the pain I still feel at having been abandoned. “It’s not like I had a choice in the matter.”
“I mean you’re so brave not to care about children’s fashion,” she clarifies.
So that’s why she was sizing up my little girl dawdling by the funky ladies’ shoes in her Children’s Place sportswear. Her son is wearing Ralph Lauren chinos and polo shirt. Zoë and I are clearly N.I.O.L.D. (Not In Our League, Dear).
“Xander is acting out,” Nina confides, no longer feeling pressured to sugarcoat her son’s behavior. “He really misses having his dad around. The jerk. Robert, not Xander. In fact I’d be the happiest woman in New York if I was able to find an au pairwho could handle him. Xander, not Robert. Robert did that himself quite nicely.”
I do the math and surmise why Nina is now on the prowl for a new nanny. I corral Zoë and bring her back into the children’s department, steering her to a table with various navy and black oxfords and Mary Janes. “Okay. Pick something,” I sigh. “Please. I’m not kidding.” I turn to Nina. “If an au pair works for a married couple, what would you call a nanny working for a single parent? An au seul?” She doesn’t appear to appreciate my efforts at levity. At least I’m amusing myself. Anything to try to retain a sense of humor this afternoon.
Zoë tugs on my skirt. “They’re boring,” she complains. With a desultory motion she pushes the sample shoes around on the table as if they were an unwanted plate of peas. “They don’t have a style.”
They do have a style, actually. Boring. The kid happens to be right. Still …”They’re not supposed to be stylish, Zoë. They’re school shoes.”
“Why can’t this year be like first grade? We didn’t have to wear uniforms last year.”
“Well, The Thackeray Academy, in its infinite wisdom, thinks that by the time you get to second grade you should concentrate on your schoolwork instead of showing off.”
“Oh, is Zoë at Thackeray?” Nina asks. “Xander, blue or black. Not brown!” She looks at me, her face at once grim and woeful. “Xander’s colorblind. Like his father.” She leans over and whispers, “I just hope he never inherits Robert’s male-pattern baldness.” Notwithstanding her previous confession about Xander’s “acting out,” Nina seems displeased that in such a public place her son has demonstrated something short of sheer perfection. “Xander is transferring to Thackeray this year. He was at Ethical Culture for his first two years, but after Robert took up with Gretl or Britta or Caressa, or whatever the heck her name was—”
Xander pokes his mom. “Ula. Her name is Ula,” he says angrily. I get the feeling the kid kind of liked Ula, too.
“Ula,” Nina repeats acidly, elongating the first syllable of the nanny’s name as though she is in extremis. “Ula—and left us high and dry, Xander began acting like Dennis the Menace on speed. So, I wanted to find a private school that wasn’t quite as permissive. Xander needs structure. Thackeray’s insistence on uniforms from the second grade on somewhat eased my mind.”
I vividly remember the academy’s much-vaunted “discipline.” The notorious Marsh sisters were the scourge of many a Thackeray educator from preschool through twelfth grade. There was nothing that Mia and I thought we could get away with that we didn’t try. And for the most part, our parents found our teachers’ exasperation to be a source of mild amusement. This was in the pre-uniform days and long before marriage and motherhood would round off most of my edges. About five years ago, when parents of scholarship kids made a huge fuss about the undue focus on brands and labels (people like Nina Osborne being Exhibit A), the Thackeray administration decided to take drastic steps to remedy the situation. Zoë has been enrolled since kindergarten, and she’s right—they don’t make the preschoolers through first graders wear uniforms. Actually, it’s more of a uniform suggestion, though it conjures up images of cold war fashion. Nikita Khrushchev for Kids R Us. There are a number of prescribed outfits, all in shades of blue and gray, and the kids are permitted to exercise their creativity by making their daily sartorial selections from this rather limited pool. Like Zoë said about the shoes: boring! But now I’m finding myself somehow grateful for the regulation. Now I’m a single parent. Now I’m watching every penny.
I admit that for her first couple of years, Zoë owned more French fashions than I did. Her wardrobe tells the story of the financial state of affairs during my marriage. She wore Oilily and the Dior Baby imports. When our savings started to dwindle, we moved on to Shoofly and Space Kiddets for toddler togs, then to Gap Kids and Gymboree, and now it’s Daffys, Old Navy, and Children’s Place. There is no Wal-Mart in Manhattan.
And now I’m going to have to find a real job for the first time in my life. It probably seems weird for a twenty-five-year-old New York woman to be saying this, in this day and age, but straight out of high school I went from my parents’ home into marriage and pregnancy, not actually in that order. Then I attended Columbia while Scott worked from home and minded Zoë. During the dot-com boom, I didn’t need to work. Since I graduated, I’ve been in the—some believe—enviable position of being a full-time mommy for the past couple of years.
But what else am I good at, which, while I bring up baby, will bring in the bucks? I studied art history because it interested me, not giving much thought at the time to needing to use the knowledge as anything more than playing amateur museum docent to friends and family. Without a master’s degree, I can’t get a teaching job, and going to graduate school at this point is about as likely to happen as getting blasted by a comet while standing in the middle of Times Square or finding a man who won’t leave me. As Hilda the housekeeper is no longer in the picture, flexibility is key. I’ll still need to be able to collect Zoë from Thackeray every day and escort her to and from the myriad after-school activities to which she is committed, most of which, like the lion’s share of her stratospheric tuition, are now funded by her doting grandparents. Sometimes I wish they lived in the city. Their physical assistance would be as valuable to me as their generous financial aid.
I can’t help noticing that Nina is staring at me. In fact she’s been sizing me up during our entire conversation. I feel like a microbe.
“You’re so … so perky.” Funny, I’ve never felt less so in my life. “You remind me of someone,” she adds. “That actress from Legally Blonde.”
“Is that good?” I ask her. Her expression looks like she’s got a hair stuck on her tongue. I guess Nina’s got image issues with perky blondes. I take an educated guess at Ula’s hair color.
“I’m still trying to get used to seeing someone so … well, such a young mother. I had Xander when I was thirty-eight. I’d done everything I’d planned: college, grad school, total immersion in the corporate culture, golden parachute, married well—the works—and the only thing I had left to fulfill was my biological destiny.”
Her biological destiny? I’ve never heard that one before!
“Who does she see?” Nina asks.
“What do you mean?”
“Her therapist. Xander’s isn’t working out. And I thought, since Zoë was going through divorce issues, too, that you might have found someone you’re happy with. Xander’s been seeing a Freudian, and the last thing he needs to hear right now is that he’s got issues with his mother.”
How did I end up living in a world where six-year-old children routinely see psychotherapists? “We … we’re managing on our own,” I tell Nina. “And, to be honest, I don’t know of anyone. I’m sorry I can’t be of any help.”
She looks amazed, but elegantly covers her discomfort at having so boldly exposed her son’s emotional shortcomings to a mother with—how could it be possible—a kid who is relatively sane, or at the very least, not in need of professional counseling. She switches her focus to a stunning pair of pumps, excuses herself, and saunters over to admire them. I note the designer name emblazoned in raised gold letters over the warmly lit display case. Illuminated with its own pin spot, the sample pair resembles a priceless treasure-like something from the tomb of King Tut—in a climate-controlled, vigilantly guarded room at the Metropolitan Museum.
My mouth begins to water. If only …
But not anymore. Those are trophy-wife shoes, and that’s no longer my life. Making sure Zoë’s got everything she needs is my priority. A new pair of Stuart Weitzmans can wait. Besides, when am I going to wear them? When I take Zoë to that horridly overheated bikram yoga studio on Saturdays? Or ballet class on Wednesday afternoons? Or the kinder karate program she begged to try this year?
I convince Zoë to settle for a pair of navy T-straps, promising her that maybe next year I’ll allow her to wear the grown-up-looking slip-ons that she clearly prefers. I do admire the fact that she’s already developing her own sense of style. Even if it usually means that she wants to dress like a grown-up. Or like her aunt Mia, who, for a woman about to turn thirty, still dresses like a rebellious teen, in precipitously high platforms, low-riders, and belly tees.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow Zoë will start school again and I can begin the job hunt. I’ve been unable to focus on it, what with her being home all summer, and the divorce so new, the hurt so raw for all of us. This would have been the first year she’d have gone to camp, but given the upheaval of our lives, it didn’t seem like the right thing to do. My parents offered to foot the bill if Zoë really wanted to go. But I chafed at the idea of accepting any more charity from them and thought it would ease the transition into single parenthood if Zoë and I spent the summer together.
My mom and dad sent a check anyway. I insisted on it being only a loan. They didn’t want me to have to job hunt during the summer. There were too many drastic changes already. They convinced me that there’d be more time to look, and, hopefully, a better market, after Zoë went back to school.
I did take her to a couple of the municipal swimming pools—both of which she pronounced “icky”—and I thought she might like it if we went out to Coney Island. But the long subway ride made her cranky, the amusement park overwhelmed her-too noisy-and she was scared to set foot in the ocean. We spent a few weekends at my parents’ house in Sag Harbor, where she got to play with their Irish Setter and visit a quieter beach on the Long Island Sound. I think that was the last time I’ve had the chance to exhale since early August.
We’re having to learn to cope as a twosome, Zoë and I, and it hasn’t always been easy. Maybe I should log onto Amazon and see if they sell something along the lines of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Single Parenting.