It’s usually the moms. They herd together, identical with spidery eyelash extensions and rails for waists—except for one, there’s always the runt, fatter or poorer or uglier than the rest—like grazing cows or hungry pack-wolves. I tighten my grip on the steering wheel, watching one of them yank their kid from the backseat of an SUV two cars in front of me. This one’s name is Tiffany Hastings. Her jaundice-colored hair is pulled back into a ponytail with heat-pressured curls that jiggle when she moves, and a plastic Starbucks cup suffocates between her fingers embellished with acrylic nail talons. The sun’s heat smacks her cheeks so her face is a flushed tomato color, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She takes her sweet time, greeting the other moms who’ve sensed her presence as she brushes the kid’s hair away from her eyes. I forget the kid’s name. It is probably Paisleigh, Raylee, or Kynlee or something else that sounds ridiculously white. She is jumping in her pink sequined boots and tugging on Tiffany’s pant leg, pinching the flesh beneath her skin-tight workout leggings. And I hate that Tiffany doesn’t seem bothered. There is no finger-pointing or yelling or bitch-face. She just continues talking, bearing the hissy fit like she was made for them, like it’s her job, like she’s winning an award for it. And the
others ignore it too, smiling at her with lurid white teeth while their wedding rings glitter in the sun. It’s like the Discovery channel—moms in their natural habitat, chatting about so-and-so’s barbeque and who wore what to the Easter church service—all while holding up the elementary school drop-off line like nobody else exists. This is their terrain.
“Fuckers think they own the place,” I say to nobody, reaching behind my head to tug all my hair over one shoulder from where the seatbelt restrained it.
“You say that a lot, Mom,” he says from the back seat. This one’s name is John. He is eight and has my flat brown hair but also the freckles of my spouse who, surrounded by gold- framed degrees and awards and glossed photos from his yearly study abroad to Bangkok, is lounging in his office right now.
“I know. Mom says many things a lot,” I say. I have found that this—repeating and speaking about yourself in third person—is the key to getting them to shut up. They always want things to be explained.
John goes back to clicking his sneakers together, watching the lights in them flash, and the runt pulls up to the rest of the group, but this time they are less the runt and more a stain. This one is Trent Stanley. He is one of those people that goes by his first and last name. He has sculpted blonde hair and a plastic grin. And I don’t know how he ended up here, but he’s the only thing that makes any of this bearable. Trent Stanley used to be going somewhere. He was royalty. The whole football star,straight-A, how-can-I-make-girls-the-most-
uncomfortable-without-it-being-sexual-harassment shtick was really working for him. But now Trent Stanley is here, among the other peons, roaming aisles of miniature name brand tennis shoes—that are still the same price as regular sizes—and stuffing dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets down tiny throats.
The car in front of me creeps an inch further. I release and choke the brake once more, making John huff like a dying train longing to leave the station. And my irritation itches. It is a rash, eating my skin and scalp. I realize I have been tapping my fingers along the console in a pattern—like a musician grazing their instrument, knowing all of its dips and edges—so I sink my fingernails into my palm.
“You know you can just get out here if you’re that impatient,” I say.
John shrugs, not really listening, not really concerned. He clicks his shoes together again, and they look like sirens. Trent Stanley tells a joke that sends the others into hysterics. One of them hides her crooked teeth with her fingers. Another places a hand on his mammoth arm. The itch spreads.
I can’t imagine these people were anything other than this. Did they pop out of the womb ready for a kid? Or were they knocked up at sixteen? Seventeen? Or maybe the Fairy God-
Mother just showed up, waving T-shirts into maternity gowns and college acceptance letters to bottles and pacifiers.
One of them in the crowd must have noticed my stare because she—Stella Anderson—smiles at me. She is the ring-leader, as the one with the calmest child always is.
Her hair is honey, and it falls to her lower back, caressing her silky green tank top. With crimson lips and pointed eyeliner, she looks like a Disney princess or a shark. She probably partakes in things like “family night” and kisses her husband sweetly after they fuck. Her kid—Kyle Anderson—stands by her, obedient and responsive. He belongs more to the species of mom than kid. She waves, beckoning me over. The others take notice and then they are all looking at me and waving. It feels as though I am about to get initiated into a cult. And it’s hard to decide whether this is good or bad. I swallow the saliva that has pooled under my tongue. Maybe it’s the way they’re all so bright and shiny with neon attire and eyeshadow and jewelry, or maybe it’s how the trees embrace them like something out of a storybook. Either way, it pulls me forward.
I undo my seatbelt and open my car door. It creaks in protest, and I forget that John is my ticket to this party until I hear him follow suit, slamming the door behind him. When he is within reach, I grab his hand. The wind is just heavy enough to be annoying and a piece of my hair sticks to my lip. I rip it away.
We step onto the curb, and a stream of hey’s and how are you’s greet us in varying pitches, from the porno voice—overtly high and nasally—to the Mother Teresa, controlled and low. They all face me, and our cars hum together in harmony from the lane. Trent’s hair looks slick and oily up close, and I can see the wrinkles carved into Tiffany’s forehead.
“Hello,” I say in my own mom voice. And John speaks at the same time, attempting to wrench his hand from mine.
“Sup’ Kyle?” It takes every ounce of determination not to roll my eyes at him, and I squeeze his hand harder; it’s fevered against my cold fingers. Kyle nods his head in response and Tiffany coughs.
“Hi,” she says. Her voice is shrill and there is a pause at the end because I know she doesn’t remember my name. “You must be Johnny’s mom. I think I’ve seen you at some of the PTA meetings.”
I look to Stella. She is smiling but it’s subtle like a crescent moon. She doesn’t speak; she is a queen watching her subjects. And I find, I want to be a part of her kingdom. Just to be a part of one. But, it feels like treachery.
“I’ve been to a couple,” I say. And because it seems like it would be funny, like a joke that Trent Stanley would make, I continue.
“Someone has to bring reasonable snacks—don’t want the vegans taking over.”
They all laugh like I’ve said the most hilarious thing. I only come to the PTA meetings because it is written on my calendar, and every other Tuesday my husband leaves a tray of grocery store brownies on the table for them. They have believed this lie and I’ve fooled them. I’m victorious, inflated like a lost balloon reaching higher until it’s amongst the clouds. A car honks from somewhere in the line, but I choose to ignore it.
“We were talking about our weekend,” Tiffany says, shoulder jerking a little as her kid tugs on her arm. “I went to Zen yoga. I love learning about practices from other religions. It’s actually what I miss most about my college years. ”
The air feels still for a moment. I want to laugh, to become drunk on it, to drown in it, but I can’t because she is smiling, and it is genuine. The kind of smile that is just for yourself, because everything is happy. Fucking sunshine and rainbows. There is a gust of wind and the sweat gathered at my armpits turns cold. I realize I can’t remember the last thing I did with John. She is expecting a reaction.
“Oh,” I say. “We went to Zen yoga last week.”
John tilts his head towards me but doesn’t mention my falsehood. In the sunlight, I can see the dark circles under his eyes. Tiffany is talking about meditation and Buddhism, but I am too focused on clinging to John’s hand as he tries to yank it away and thinking about what I did with my college years. I offer a soft “mm-hmm” every time she ends a sentence. And then it’s time for Trent Stanley’s monologue. I am alleviated and I grin because I know it’s going to be stupid and drenched in testosterone—probably something about motorcycles or WWE.
“There was a crochet display over in Flagstaff. This one artist had the longest chain. It was lovely to watch,” he says. “My wife came too, but those events really aren’t her thing.”
All of the members of the court nod in approval except me because I can feel vomit boiling in my stomach. Did they not have to give themselves up? Did motherhood not swallow them? When he came, wailing and slimy, I had been reborn, constructed with deflated skin and a wrinkled stomach. I pace the tile floors everyday waiting for the next command. My hair is made of loose threads torn off blankets and my bones are gnawed from teething. They are laughing again but now it’s taunting. And John has stopped struggling, his hand motionless and clammy like a dead fish.
Stella takes a step closer into our semi-circle of birth givers, joining her followers. I suck in air that tastes of molded bread and listen because she is going to reassure me. She rubs Kyle’s shoulder in that weird, maternally psychic way, and he leaves toward the school. I hear John sigh but I still strangle his hand. It’s the last thing keeping me afloat. Stella speaks.
“How was Zen yoga? I went last week too.” My arms are tense, like I need to stretch or punch someone. She is still smiling and I notice my mistake. Stella Anderson could never be fooled. She’d been able to see beyond the facade this entire time and now she’s outing me. Her smile falters in the simmering silence. And the sun feels bloated but buzzing. She continues.
“I had a work event on Friday—”
It is a confirmation. She has made her point, that I am not meant to be here. And I can’t take anymore. Everything is slipping. It leaks out of me like blood or milk. But, I have to grip something, anything.
“Wait,” I say, scoffing at the end. Their eyes are on me, piercing me. I am not sure what I had planned to say.
“Shouldn’t you all be spending more time with your kids,” I say, sputtering like a clogged vacuum. And they don’t respond. They only stare at me. I am a caged animal. I don’t make the decision consciously but my voice is louder.
“You should all be ashamed of yourselves. Didn’t anyone tell you that motherhood is a full-time job?”
A car from the line honks again. Moisture gathers under my eyes, and I back up to retreat to the car, dragging John with me. He plants his feet.
“I can’t, Mom. School’s about to start,” he says.
It’s the worst betrayal. The horse is bucking off his knight. I want to say that I gave up school for him, that I gave up travel and experience and life. Why should he get to have whatever he wants? Why should any of these people? I find Stella; she just looks sad, concerned.
“Fine,” I say. I throw his hand down. A part of me hopes that it breaks his arm or sends him flying to the ground.
I stumble the few steps back to my car and I can’t wait for anything or anyone. I pull out of the drop-off lane with howling tires. The air conditioner exhales coolly, soothing me. I drive until I don’t recognize the road signs. Until the stars are out. Until I forget about the glowing light-up shoes that would normally illuminate the space behind me.
Miranda Williams is a writer and student from New Mexico who now resides in Phoenix, Arizona. Her work appears in Sixfold, Alluvian Magazine, Passages, and West Trade Review. Additionally, her awards include the Paulette Schlosser Writing Award, the Arizona State University Homecoming Writing Award, and the Glendon Swarthout Award in fiction. She is currently working on her first novel and a short story collection tentatively titled Decay. Find her on Instagram @mirandaiswriting.