Leslie arrived at the Pealeys’ North Berkeley Victorian with dry cupcakes and a sense of dread. The massive oak door swung open before she could grasp the antique knocker. In the doorway trembled her hostess, Sarah Pealey, a vision in floating muslin straight out of O Pioneers.
“Leslie! It’s so wonderful to see you,” Sarah cried. Mutely, Leslie held out her container of baked goods. “These look fabulous,” said Sarah. “We needed desserts, everyone’s brought vegetables as usual.” A tiny line creased the skin under Sarah’s loop of thick white hair. “Gluten-free?” she asked. Leslie nodded.
Leslie’s friend Charlotte met her in the parlor, a chintz nightmare of a room with fringed lamps and brooding period furniture. Charlotte took a slug from a wine goblet before passing it over to Leslie. “Hey, check out Calamity Jane’s outfit,” Charlotte whispered. She cut her eyes to the fireplace, where a blocky woman held court in a tightly laced purple leather vest. “Do you suppose we’re doing a revival of Hair and no one told us?”
Leslie punched her friend lightly. “Char. What harm is she doing?”
“It’s bad enough that we have to listen to her. I didn’t sign up to look at her dressed as a toxic eggplant,” said Charlotte.
Calamity Jane was an adjunct professor of English at a fourth tier private college. She had earned her nickname by commandeering every Book Club meeting and running it as if she were lecturing to particularly slow freshmen. Everyone wanted her to stop, but asking her to do so would be considered confrontational, and therefore, non-collaborative. Jane had become just one more irritant in her life that Leslie could no longer ignore.
Leslie had come to the University from her father’s farm in Watsonville and stayed for Barry Banford, a moody young physics professor. His selection of her as his mate had given her a free pass to the highest levels of the city’s intellectual elite. Berkeley was a Wonderland of progressive thought and culture – what a gift to stay there, and under such circumstances! Leslie was only too happy to take care of the day to day business of living to free Barry to pursue his calling. Her life had been a thrilling whirlwind of dinners with visiting scientists, spaghetti fests for Barry’s grad students, and, with the birth of their son Jasper, passionate involvement in the city’s schools.
Over time, though, that world had shrunk, and now that Jasper would start college in the fall, she was eager to look beyond its confines. But they didn’t travel. Barry hated to so much as cross the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. The last time she had been abroad was her junior semester in Florence.
“Ladies,” whispered Sarah Pealey. She clapped her hands with the force of butterfly wings. “Let’s begin.” As they settled into the overstuffed chairs Leslie took Pranayama breaths and tried to focus on that month’s book selection, Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety.
As usual, Calamity Jane lost no time in asserting her authority. “I suggest we start by contrasting the balance of power in the book’s two marriages,” she said.
A real estate agent cleared her throat. This was a tough crowd; they not only read the book, they marked it up with dissertation-level comments. “Well, it’s clear with the Langs,” the woman ventured, looking around for affirmation. “Charity dominates Sidney. But with the narrator’s marriage it’s not so clear. You think the power all lies with him, because he makes the money and, well, she’s got the polio. But then somewhere he says that his wife really has the upper hand.” The poor woman flipped frantically through her dog-eared paperback for a text reference.
“Oh, come on!” Calamity Jane snorted. “It’s paternalistic crap to say Sally Morgan holds any power in that relationship. She’s entirely dependent on Larry for everything, including having her butt wiped.”
An instructor in the Women’s Studies department chimed in. “And while we’re talking about Stegner’s sexism, how about the fact that he punishes Charity for her assertiveness by killing her off in horrible pain?”
“Didn’t take long for them to turn it into a feminist manifesto, did it?” Charlotte whispered to Leslie, crossing her eyes.
Calamity Jane grabbed the floor back. “What’s bizarre is that Stegner is known in critical circles for sympathetic portrayals of women. Horseshit.”
Leslie gulped wine. The book had been hard for her to read. As a lonely young girl she had loved John Steinbeck’s vivid, lusty portrayals of the people of the Salinas Valley. Those images had now been replaced by Stegner’s repressed, over-educated WASPs, a much more accurate representation of her own cerebral father, distant grandmother, and jocular brothers.
“Aren’t we getting distracted by the author’s attitude toward women?” Leslie blurted. A dozen avid faces watched Calamity Jane draw herself up, further straining the laces of the purple vest.
“Leslie, are you saying that our entire analysis is off-base?” Jane said.
Leslie carefully put her wine down on a coaster on the squat mahogany end table. “It’s just that all of the characters are limited,” she said. “They’re terrified of expressing emotion. Both the men and the women internalize, but the people who are making them angry sense that something is wrong and get upset anyway. And nothing ever changes.”
“I don’t think an author’s anti-woman bias is ever irrelevant,” called someone. Heads bobbed in agreement.
“Wait,” said Calamity Jane with faux solicitude. “I understand Leslie’s difficulty. This is a very progressive group, and so many of our members have credentials in the field. Some people do find it challenging to keep up with the discussion.”
The room was still. They could all hear Reg Pealey arguing with one of the kids upstairs. When the woman behind her whispered something that sounded like “Faculty wife”, Leslie turned. “I have a degree in economics,” she said with tipsy dignity. Then she sank back into the lumpy couch and counted the minutes until she could escape.
She had just received the Berkeley version of a tar and feathering.
Leslie’s phone rang as she steered the Prius carefully up the narrow roads to the hills. “What got into you, pussycat?” Charlotte said gleefully.
“I don’t know,” Leslie said.
“Well,” said Charlotte, “you broke Book Club Rule Number One: Never Disagree With Jane. It was fabulous. Still waters run deep.”
“I’m just embarrassed. I basically told everyone that they’re irrelevant and superficial.”
“Well, they are irrelevant and superficial. Why do you always have to be a good girl?”
“I don’t know,” Leslie said again. “I wish I’d just kept my mouth shut.”
“Chickadee, you’ve been sleepwalking for years. It probably feels good to wake up.”
“What? What are you trying to say, Charlotte?”
“I’ve gotta go.”
Their cozy Craftsman bungalow perched low and dark in shadowed mist like a vision out of the Brothers Grimm. The solar lights flickered in and out and the sharp scent of eucalyptus lay over the neighborhood like a shroud. Inside, all was silent. Leslie pushed open the door of Barry’s study and waited a moment, but he didn’t turn or greet her.
“Hey you,” she said softly. “Did Jasper finish his Poli Sci paper?”
“I have no idea. I haven’t seen him all night,” Barry said.
That was no surprise. Barry had barely spoken a word to their son since Jasper had announced that he was going east the following year to attend Columbia. She took a step into the Inner Sanctum. Piles of books and papers took up every inch of the shelves, floor, and the single leather armchair. “I think I’m done with Book Club,” she said. “Or they’re done with me.”
“That’s too bad. You always seem to enjoy it,” Barry said absently. He picked up a sheaf of notes and began paging through them. “I’m sure you’ll find something else to do with your time. We have everything we need right here.”
Leslie pulled off her earrings and stuck them in her pocket. She cleared her throat and picked her way deeper into the room. “What are you working on?”
Barry looked at her over the tops of his reading glasses. He was a good-looking man, with a rangy build and thick brown hair shot through with gray: a brainiac Gregory Peck. The University trotted him out whenever something physics-related caught brief popular attention, like black holes or the discovery of the “God Particle”. His appearances on national TV were beamed, of course, from local studios.
“I’m looking over some equations for one of my post-docs,” he said. She waited, but he didn’t elaborate.
“Oh, that Russian girl, what’s-her-name. You met her at Reg Pealey’s barbeque.”
You have four handpicked post-docs. You know her name. “Ulyana?”
“Right. Listen, kiddo, I’d like to chat but I’ve got miles to go before I rest.” He looked back down at his laptop. “Oh, and I’ll be home late tomorrow night.”
Leslie thought of Ulyana: a mousy gal in a shapeless sweater. Hair in a painfully tight bun anchored by a pencil. Ulyana had stood in the Pealeys’ back yard clutching her paper plate as if the KGB were about to burst in and take it away. Leslie had tried to make conversation. “Barry tells me your parents are here with you. That must be nice.”
The young woman had glared at her. “Yes, my parents clean office buildings in Oakland so I can have this opportunity to work with Dr. Banford.”
And they were both neurosurgeons in Mother Russia, no doubt. Leslie had nodded and smiled and moved away. Barry always had a cadre of nerdy groupies, but none of them had ever been quite as proprietary as Ulyana. Throughout the party she’d stood close to him and worshipped every word he spoke.
Leslie started to leave the study. Then she turned back. “Hey.” Barry sighed theatrically and looked up.
“I was thinking.” She clasped her hands to keep them still. “Won’t you reconsider about coming along when I take Jasper to school in August? You’ll have time before classes start. We could take a few days, go somewhere. How about Boston? You liked Boston when you went for that string theory thing, didn’t you?”
“Do you know what tourists do in Boston?” Barry said. “They walk the Freedom Trail, eat baked beans, and ride on giant amphibious ducks. It would be a colossal waste of time when I have so much work to do. Which you know perfectly well.”
“Also,” Leslie said, “I can’t remember the last time we had sex. Are you cheating on me?” She clapped her hand over her mouth.
Barry shook his head. “Do you hear yourself? What the hell has gotten into you?”
Why did people keep asking her that?
The pings and squawks of a video game issued softly from their son’s room as she knocked.
Jasper lay on his bed, the fingers of one hand playing over his laptop while the other ferried Pirate Booty to his mouth. The puffy blobs dotted the bed like a miniature hailstorm.
“How are you doing, honey?” Leslie asked.
“Peachy keen, Mother dearest.” Jasper spoke without stilling his hands or looking up, an unsettling echo of the exchange she’d just had with his father.
“What did you have for dinner?”
He pointed to the bag. “Dad said he’d already eaten.”
“And your paper?”
“It’s done, Mom. I know they might check my grades. I’m not gonna piss away my get-out-of-jail-free card.”
When the acceptance letters had come in, Barry had fumed that it was ridiculous to pay for an overpriced, overrated Ivy League school when Jasper could get a better education, and a nearly free ride, at Berkeley. But they both knew why Barry was really upset. From the minute Jasper had showed an affinity for math and science his father had been dreaming of a Banford physics dynasty at the University. They never talked about it again; Leslie would be paying for Columbia with money her father had left her.
“OK. Good night.” As Leslie pulled Jasper’s door shut she felt a fresh jolt of loss. Most likely he would return home only for brief visits. He would find things to do with his summers out East, get a girlfriend, marry and have children three thousand miles away.
In the kitchen she poured herself a glass of the no-name Chardonnay they bought by the case at Costco. Then she poked around in a drawer until she found her long-expired passport. The little idiot who had made so many thoughtless decisions grinned out at her, clueless, from the grainy photo. But the young were allowed to be careless, she thought. The crime had been to allow that girl’s foolishness to spool out over the years unchecked.
Leslie opened her laptop at her little kitchen desk. Navigating the passport renewal site would require at least marginal sobriety. For now she made do with ordering a very expensive suitcase. The cheap wine went down the sink, and Barry’s prized single malt Scotch shone like burnished wood as it splashed into her glass. She raised it high in celebration and in grief.
Beth McCabe is often geographically confused as she is based in New Hampshire with roots in New York City and ties to the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a graduate of the Barnard College Creative Writing Program where she placed second in the Elizabeth Janeway Fiction Prize. She is grateful to have had stories published in Brilliant Flash Fiction, Highlights for Children, Latchkey Tales and other journals. Additional stories are slated to appear in Black Denim Lit and Blue Monday Review.
© 2015, Beth McCabe