A Homestead Mom Runs Away from Home

An excerpt from the novel THE SHAME by Makenna Goodman, recommended by Chloe Caldwell


I know a book is special when I read it in a day, post it to social media to recommend to my writer friends, mail it to my friend in Portland, and when she mails it back to me I leave it on my mom’s coffee table and then my mom lends it to her friend Eve down the street until ultimately I receive this assignment and text my mom to get the damn book back from Eve. That is the effect Makenna Goodman’s The Shame had on me. 

I took a webinar last month with T Kira Madden through Hedgebrook. She told us about the Jo Ann Beard sentence challenge: Does it have new information? Is it emotionally true? Does it have an element of surprise in it? Is it grammatical? This sentence challenge was unlike anything I’d heard before and I printed it out and taped it to my wall. 

Makenna Goodman’s first sentence in The Shame passes the Jo Ann Beard challenge with flying colors: “Imagine you’re in the middle of the state of Vermont on a tiny island, the size of a shoebox.” Not only does it have one element of surprise in it, but four. First, I’m surprised to be imagining. Next I’m surprised I’m in Vermont. But wait, a tiny island? The size of a shoebox? By page five we have heard about poodles, cough drop wrappers, Paris, pipes, and bird skeletons. Not in that order. 

The Shame is about Alma, a woman living off the land with her professor-husband and their children in Vermont, until she decides to leave it all behind. Goodman writes about technology and obsession and feminism and domesticity through the lens of deer poop and pools with pee and hot cocoa and roosters and yellow spatulas. Goodman’s narrator asks, What would you do? 

The Shame allowed me to forget my life, forget my name, and when I looked up, and was in my life again, I looked at it through a refreshed, deeper, and more creative, more imaginative lens. 

Chloe Caldwell
Author of Women and I’ll Tell You in Person

A Homestead Mom Runs Away from Home

An excerpt from The Shame
by Makenna Goodman

There are few moments in our lives when we are truly nowhere. I had experienced this feeling only a couple of times: Once, on top of a mountain that I had scaled just after dawn. Again, at an indexing conference; the hotel I stayed at was filled with all shades of corporate people convening, and I spent what turned out to be a great night watching pay-per-view and ordering lasagna to my room. And now, as I drove through darkness on the interstate.

I messed with the dial until I got to public radio jazz, which, aside from my thoughts, was my only company. As I drove, I began to notice a sensation in my body that was unmistakably good, even euphoric. I was free. Behind me in the back seat were two empty car seats. No one was asking me for a snack, no one’s nose needed to be wiped, no one demanded the same song be played at top volume over and over. I turned my music up and drank some water. I never went anywhere without my water bottle, and there was always a full one in my car. I never got my hair cut either. The hairstylist always does shit you don’t ask for, and you leave looking like a senator’s wife. I do the two-hack snip after the shower, and I always look fine.

I put my water bottle down onto cough drop wrappers in the cup holder and saw a half-sucked one stuck to the console. Next to it was a crust of stale bread and some broken baby sunglasses, like bird skeletons. My engine light was on. What was I doing? This was too extreme. At the next exit, I told myself, I would turn back. I could get home while the kids were still asleep. Asa would be amazed I had gone as far as I did. Maybe that distance was enough. But the portion of interstate I was on had very few exits, and I was low on gas. I kept driving until I reached the next rest area and pulled in to fill up the tank. It was cold. Mine was the only car at the pumps. I went in to use the bathroom and met no one. By the time I got back into my car, I had made my decision.

How did I get here? Who registered my car? Who scrambled my eggs, took me to the dentist, made corn on the cob, refrigerated the butter? I dive into the pond but emerge the same person. I push around the shopping cart, and another woman’s hands grab the granola. I am Asa’s wife. I want to go to a party, he doesn’t. So I stay home. I want to go to a town meeting, he doesn’t; I go but then come up with an excuse to leave early and drive home fast on icy roads. He turns over in bed snoring the second the light goes out, I lie there staring at the dark air above my head. He went on a fishing trip with Phin and came back, was all over me, oh how he missed me. I wanted to stay up and watch Netflix and eat popcorn in bed. Maybe if I lived in Paris. Maybe if I were fifty-two, had a miniature poodle, were a famous painter with a yellow sports car and a rubber plant in a giant pot and a coffee table covered with elaborate silver teaware. Not in this life, Asa says. You married the wrong person. Oh, but what the fuck does he know, with his elbow patches? I can reupholster the couch, I can adopt a puppy, I can wear whatever I want, do whatever I want to do with whomever I want to do it with. Maybe if I wrote a successful novel, I would go to Paris to celebrate, dance on tables and smoke a pipe. Maybe if I hadn’t skipped history class in high school to smoke cigarettes in the alley, I would have a doctorate in international relations and would live in Paris for my job. Maybe if I had stuck with my singing in middle school, I’d be in a conservatory and would go to Paris each month to perform. I would stay in a rented flat, I would know the landlord. I would buy groceries and carry them in a woven bag.

I was stalked by an ex-boyfriend in college. He would show up at my window at four in the morning and throw pebbles, demanding that I see him. I told him calmly, and then more forcefully, to go away, and a week later a shoebox arrived on my front doorstep. Inside was a dead squirrel. This seemed like the last straw, like I would be the next to go. Wasn’t that the message he was trying to send? I took the shoebox to the college counselor to file a complaint, along with my best friend, who was also my housemate. The administration building was low, made of cement like a storage unit. The counselor asked me if perhaps this was his attempt at romance. Maybe it was misguided, she conceded, fine. She recalled her childhood in Kansas, where boys used to climb up a tree and knock on her bedroom window, where kids would beat each other with sticks on the playground and then go home for cookies and milk. I told her another story, about a time when the same guy came into my living room with a gun, pointing it at his head and then mine, alternating. (My friend shifted in her chair; the story wasn’t true.) The counselor paused, then, tucking a tissue she was holding into her shirtsleeve, told me they’d park a public safety vehicle outside my house for two days. In the meantime, I should think seriously about taking a leave of absence: go home as soon as possible, she said, pack my bags today, wait until the guy graduated, then come back and finish up my classes, take my finals, write my thesis. This was the plan she had for me, and she started closing her folder as if to say, “Time’s up.” I walked out of there and decided just to leave it all up to fate. Life went on as usual; the 4:00 a.m. visits subsided and he shacked up with a field hockey player. Latest news is he’s representing women in domestic abuse cases. I guess I got lucky. But the way she tucked that wet tissue into her sleeve really stuck with me. I kept wondering if it was just a thing people did, old people, to save paper. Or maybe she didn’t have pockets.

Oh, but what the fuck does he know, with his elbow patches?

A few years later I was living in Madrid, interning at a film company for the summer and renting a room in a colorfully painted apartment in Chueca with other foreigners. The landlord came up to talk once a week, shirtless, jiggling, and we’d share slices of the peaches I bought compulsively at the fruit stand downstairs. I slept in the pink room. It had a high ceiling. I could hear the discotecas bumping, but I went to bed early. That year was the hottest summer on record, and you could walk only on the shady side of the street. No one went outside from noon to two. I slept with the fan on high five inches from my face, and one morning I woke up and couldn’t move my neck. My employer recommended a massage parlor down the street from our office, and the next day, after doing a piss-poor job of translating the film company’s website copy, I went in for an appointment. The massage therapist was a man with long hair. There was Muzak and lavender. After the back massage I flipped over, and he ventured down to my groin. He inserted his fingers in me, pressed them against my pubic bone from inside, explained to me in broken English something about pressure points. He proceeded cautiously, waiting to see if I approved. I told him I was getting a migraine and went back to the office, where I said nothing. We had bocadillos for lunch, gazpacho. I spent the rest of the summer in solitude, walking instead of taking the metro because there had been a bombing. I sometimes visited the vintage store across the street from my apartment; the manager was fun-loving and we would laugh about bullshit. I read English gossip magazines. I was lonely. I didn’t want to get blown up, it was so hot, and I had the ache in my neck that wouldn’t go away. Why didn’t I tell anyone? Oh, please.

It wasn’t just the bombing. Ever since I was little, I’ve been terrified by the idea of untimely death. Having children only made it worse. Waves of fear will wash over me while I’m scrubbing the dishes or driving my children around for a nap, or when they have fevers and I’m next to them in bed with a cool cloth, counting their inhalations. I imagine my kids bent over, shoulders shaking while they weep, calling for their mother, “Mama,” and their father unable to find the right words to soothe them. I imagine them cold and alone in their beds, crying out in the night for me, and me not being able to wrap them in my arms, to tell them it will be okay, to comfort them. I will be dead. Forever. I have written “put together a will” on my to-do list every week, but I never actually do it. I worry that once I have my affairs in order, I will drop dead right then and there.

Ever since I was little, I’ve been terrified by the idea of untimely death. Having children only made it worse.

The thing that frightens me most, maybe, is the idea that Asa (or, if he dies first, my kids) won’t know what to do with my body. I imagine what they will say: “Bury her in the local cemetery, so we have somewhere to visit.” But then I think of the work involved: the beating back of the weeds with pesticides so the grass looks like a golf course; the interminable mowing; and then the space the dead take up when there are living people who need room for shelter; and the chemicals pumped into hollowed-out bodies that lie like mummies in tombs; the deterioration, slowly fleshing off to bone while the toxic death makeup leaches into the groundwater; and the skeletons that are there for all eternity, gaping, with their clothes still on, their braids still growing!

“Cremate her,” they might suggest, and that option is also no good—how would they know the ashes were mine? “Compost her,” Asa’s more radical peers could say. “Inoculate her with spores.” But wearing a mushroom suit in a hole in the ground? Perhaps I’m too vain.

As I drove, I imagined the scene of my memorial, and what began as terror morphed into a state of enjoyment and relaxation, so that I began tapping my hands on the steering wheel to the future rhythm of beating drums and kids playing tambourines. My shoulders dropped a little. I let myself release into it. I turned up the music, letting it swell along with my reverie as I drove.

Here’s how it will go: Asa will invite my community to a weekend camping trip in the mountains. Everyone will drive there, having time to think in the car, passing small towns and meadows full of wildflowers, listening to songs from the past on the radio. They will arrive at a suitable site, near a stream, and set up camp, and they will bring me over to the creek and wash my body with cold water. They will try not to slip, but they’ll inevitably get wet. Then they’ll dab my skin with rosewater and organic oils and place a bundle of lavender in my hands, tied with simple twine. They will wrap me, naked, in a white linen sheet, and carry me back to the campsite on a cliff with a view of mountains. There will be a pile of wood prepared for a bonfire. They will place me on top of the pile—I guess using a ladder—and the music will begin. Everyone who wants to will play an instrument, in a circle surrounding me, and there will be singing. My friends are talented; this will be a memorable display of their artistry. There will be maracas, shakers, fiddles, whatever they feel like playing. There will be children dancing. Maybe my children, maybe my grandchildren. There will be songs I loved, old folk songs, old blues songs. The fire will be lit. Asa—or, if he’s dead, too, whoever is in charge—will make sure it burns bright, even if it means adding some sort of gas. (Me being partially burned is not an option.) And then, as the flames rage, the music will die down, and there will be a picnic where people can share memories or stories as they please. There will be good wine and beer, a potluck. Someone will remember to bring the chips and that store-bought onion dip I always hovered around apologetically at children’s birthday parties. People will have the option of weeping into their salad, but grief won’t be a requirement. The idea is, celebrate. Then, after I’m all up in smoke, the campers will pack their things and leave me there, hovering like a low cloud cover, as they depart to a bed-and-breakfast or a distant campsite with clean air. If the memorial starts in the morning, I want them gone by dusk. No sleeping out there in the dark. I’ll be dead, but they’ll be alive.

I found myself looking forward to this moment, some small part of me, even though I fear death utterly. Just knowing I can control it, through planning the details, calms me. I want my kids, for years to come, to remember the celebration, the burning, the feast, the music, the washing of my body in the cold water. I want them to be able to go back to the site year after year if they feel like it, to collide with nature, not a fixed and frigid tombstone, and to come to terms with the fact that I am dead, that they will lose others, that they, too, will die and so will their kids. If their response is to resent me, then so be it. But eventually, they’ll thank me.

If the day of my death is soon, there is a letter that I want someone—maybe Asa—to give to my kids. I have left this in a file marked “Important,” and it goes like this:

You two,

I’m writing you this letter in the event of my untimely death. I want you, when faced with sorrow and the inevitable yearning to hear my voice, to be able to read my words, meant for you and only you. Can you remember my voice? I want you to know how hard it was, to leave this world, to know—whether on a conscious level or not—that I would never get to hold you again, smell your breath, cut your eggs up, pour you milky tea, caress your softness.

My great fear, which has kept me up nights for years, is that you will have to live without a mother when you need one the most. And now, perhaps, that fear has been realized. But your lives have to go on. There are still peanut butter sandwiches to eat, even if I’m not making them; they’re just sandwiches. You can still feed the crusts to the dog. Someone will fill your water bottles, brush your teeth with you. There will be someone to make sure you are taken care of. But what will you do when the grief becomes impossible to bear?

I worked hard to love you, to make you feel loved, to have the world love you. I became old instantly.

Your father: he knew me best. He took the broom and dustpan to my corners. Just ask him—anything—about me. He’ll tell you the story of the day we spent at North Beach, shrieking in the water, chasing your kickboards, eating twist soft serve at a picnic table, watching the bodies of Canadian tourists. He’ll tell you he couldn’t even look at them, how no one could compare; he’ll give a grandfatherly wink. He’ll tell you how we biked as the mountains cut out of the water, how Phin went five miles without stopping at age four, no training wheels. Or he’ll tell you about the drive to the birthing center, me on hands and knees in the back of the Subaru with one seat folded down and rain falling in sheets as he drove seventy-five miles an hour on winding country lanes, how the pimply nighttime guard at the emergency room entrance couldn’t find the right key, how I held my legs together until he did, how we somehow made it around the corner to the hospital bed. He’ll tell you how we ordered breakfast sandwiches and seltzer from the birthing center café and watched professional soccer on the world’s smallest television, while I waddled to and from the bathroom peeing blood, calling for more ice diapers. Cuddling Eden in my arms like a seal pup.

I worked hard to love you, to make you feel loved, to have the world love you. I became old instantly. I became imprisoned by love, by impatience, by impetuousness. It wasn’t easy; I hope you will find the shadows comforting, in the end. I wish I could be there to defend myself.

Your mother

I change it about once a week.

Just over a year ago Asa was offered tenure, and there was a dinner in his honor. The president of the college and his wife had reserved the entirety of a restaurant twenty minutes from our house, run by a couple who had recently moved to Vermont from Boston and had teamed up with a renowned chef. The chairs of other departments were invited, as well as some deans and upper administrative staff. At the time I peppered my husband with questions: Who were their wives, what did they do, how many children did they have, did they send their kids to private school, had he seen the women before, were they intelligent?

I hadn’t worked, officially, since the summer before Phin was born. About two years before that, I had written a short novel about an eccentric French stepmother, but it never found a publisher. My mother had always wanted me to be a successful writer, as she herself wanted to be, and I tried to publish it, I think, as an obligatory gesture to her memory, or at least I told this to myself. But no one liked it, and no one offered me a deal, and so I shifted my focus to getting pregnant, having babies, and performing relatively insignificant and infrequent freelance indexing jobs (which I wasn’t that good at, truth be told), a useful skill left over from my college days when I badly needed cash. These indexes, mostly for medical textbooks, offered no creative satisfaction; I didn’t even really like seeing words pile up, or their corresponding numbers. (I hated doing my taxes.) I would get lost in thought and have to redo my work often. But the indexes brought in a modicum of money, and that was enough. On the door to my studio was a bumper sticker that read: “If you don’t talk to your kids about indexing, who will?”

I began painting on the side, something I had watched my father doing while I was growing up, and I used it as a meditation since I never really had much time to make sincere work with all the other chores required on a homestead. I did a series of my grandmother’s teacups that I hung on a wall of the kitchen, and a portrait of the painter Vanessa Bell lying faceup in water, which I hung in the mudroom. They were a little bit Bloomsbury Group, a little bit paint-by-number. I was okay with that. It was affirming to have created something material I could walk by and actually look at or take down, dust off, hold in my hands.

When I was on deadline, I worked while the kids were at school; otherwise, I cleaned the house, even though it was never clean enough. On the weekends I took both kids for walks in the double stroller up the steep dirt road, turning around at the top and bracing backward, my weight the only thing keeping them from barreling down the road or off into a drainage ditch. The money I made on the rare index didn’t add much to our family’s bottom line, but it allowed me to feel that I was contributing in the most minor sense. The household items I purchased online, for example, felt paid for by the sweat of my brow, and somehow this made my increasingly conventional marriage feel more balanced.

Although I tidied, our home was always messy, but as a whole it retained an energy that was aesthetically intoxicating. Besides cleaning, cooking, rearranging the art and furniture, and doing the laundry, I trolled eBay on our spotty wireless for bargains to make everything beautiful. Vintage velvet pillowcases for the couch, a universal slipcover for a shabby antique wingback chair we had inherited from a neighbor (which took me nearly half a day to find online and probably wasn’t worth it, in the end, as it was too loose in places and impossible to iron), discounted duvet covers for our bed, and a yellow spatula that could actually reach around the blade at the bottom of the blender. We were also lucky enough to be the recipients of quality hand-me-downs, and the objects around me comforted me; they had a legacy. I considered myself frugal for researching pre-owned items carefully and finding the cheapest deal for the best quality, though ideologically all the online purchasing made me wonder if I was a chief contributor to the over-consumptive economy we had traveled so far to escape in the first place. But, as rural people living on the edges of a Vermont village that didn’t even have a gas station, would we do better to get in the car and drive forty-five minutes to a drugstore chain only to risk not finding the thing we were looking for? Sure, there was a local feedstore for things like chicken grain and what we called “government cheese,” a thirteen-dollar shrink-wrapped hunk of sharp cheddar, but that was about it. Asa and I accepted the paradoxes of small-town life in the modern world while still considering ourselves renegades and anti-capitalist at the core.

Asa and I accepted the paradoxes of small-town life in the modern world while still considering ourselves renegades and anti-capitalist at the core.

My attempts at frugality didn’t prevent the occasional argument with Asa, who, despite his salary as a college professor (not that big, considering), wore old socks and T-shirts he would discover after digging through duffel bags in the attic, handed down to him nearly a decade earlier by his older brother. I braced myself for his commentary on purchases he deemed superfluous or, worse, frivolous: blueberries in winter, almond instead of peanut butter, a bigger terra-cotta pot for the aloe plant. Fine, I had a bit of a fetish for brightly colored water bottles, kids’ Tupperware, and handwoven African baskets, but otherwise I was pretty conservative with my spending. I knew I should resist the impulse to buy these excessive containers destined to take up valuable space in our lives, but it still got old, always having to explain the receipt, item by item, after returning home from the grocery store.

This is what really bothered me, when I was honest with myself—I was a failure in the world of art. I was afraid I had become the very thing I feared: my mother, who had struggled to make it as a writer and ultimately didn’t, and who died imagining two little men were always following her, living under her eaves, stealing things from her, leaving the seat up, hiding cheese rinds under the daybed, making creases in the sheets, and hoarding newspapers. She tried her whole life, hired a nanny to raise me, even got a few minor book deals, but in the end still had nothing in her bank account except the dwindling reserves of investments she had made from selling my father’s paintings after he died.

I was also worried about being left. I imagined the day would finally arrive when Asa would sit me down to explain why he had fallen out of love with me, and how he was moving into a yurt with his new (younger) girlfriend and would take the kids to live with them, and she would wear see-through nightgowns all the time, and it wasn’t my fault, but blah blah blah. I woke up in night sweats each time I had this dream, in different variations, over and over again: him leaving me, my devastation, raging, then breaking down. Sometimes in the dreams I would receive emails from people telling me that my marriage was a waste. I would shake Asa awake, asking him to promise never to cheat, begging him to admit he was. He would roll over and tell me to stop wasting my energy on obsessive fantasy. But I needed his affirmation. Without it, I was sure I would disappear. Yes, I felt invisible. I didn’t have anything to show for myself except my kids, and the older they got, the more themselves they became, while I grew more and more servile, adhering always to their changing needs. As a result, I was anxious about the dinner with the president of the college. I was worried I’d have nothing to say.

For three weeks before the dinner, I did my best to bring my intellect back to life and furiously researched the news from the last several months. If I didn’t have something personal to discuss over dinner—for who would want to hear about all the things I really did; a good Yankee didn’t divulge such private and insignificant matters—I would be able to discuss current events if it killed me trying. I imagined revealing my daily rituals; I imagined all the other wives raising their eyebrows and asking why I didn’t just get a babysitter. What was I going to say, that I was totally attached to my children, and didn’t trust anyone to care for them better than I could, perhaps pathologically so? That I didn’t want to become my mother, who claimed to have breastfed me but ultimately did little else to contribute to my rearing? That I wasn’t even in touch with my nanny, who actually raised me, while someone else raised her daughter, though surely her comforting voice would have gotten me through a time or two? That I wanted my children to have a mother who was at least there, making snacks, carting them to the science museum and the pizza place, who had chosen them over her own ego, her own ambition? Who rubbed their backs when they asked instead of forcing them to put themselves to bed? That cleaning my own house was a question of honor, and also of occupying an otherwise idle mind? No, better to be able to talk about the wider world to show that I could cook, clean, care for my children, support my husband’s career, and contribute to the intellectualizing he was being celebrated for. I would look good doing it too.

I thought about this last part a great deal. In those weeks leading up to the dinner, I lay awake each night next to my kids as they fell asleep and went over my outfit in my mind, perfecting it: brown velvet slim-leg pants, a handwoven linen shirt, earrings that were rose petals cast in silver, and gray socks under ankle boots. I finished reading the novel that had been gathering dust on my bedside table. I scrolled through magazine back issues that had been piling up on the shelf in the bathroom. I listened carefully to public radio while driving to and from the co-op so as not to miss the news. It surprised me that I got any joy from what felt like studying for my college finals, especially since I was still trying to please the same type of higher-ups. But I liked the preparation. It felt purposeful. I pushed myself.

Hopefully Asa hadn’t mentioned my secret and shameful artistic aspirations to his colleagues; I was grateful he was a man of few words when it came to the personal, although in arguments that was the first thing I raged about. If anyone brought it up, I would deny that I had ever been a writer—and, anyway, I was sure that I had never really been one to begin with. Instead I would say, impressively, “I’ve taken up painting.”

I would say, impressively, “I’ve taken up painting.”

The night arrived. We showered. We dressed. I fastened my earrings, applied some tinted lip balm, took a last look in the mirror, and kissed the kids goodbye. They were already in their pajamas and climbing all over the babysitter, the daughter of a neighbor, whom I didn’t trust. This was the first time in over a year that Asa and I had been out together, and I hoped it would be worth it. We sat in silence to begin with, and it occurred to me that he was nervous too. At a certain point I had Asa quiz me on the names of his colleagues as we drove on dirt roads through the hills.

There were name tags at the table. I was seated directly to the right of the president of the college. Now I knew I had been rehearsing for a real reason, likely cosmic. And thanks to my research, I could impress. I could use what I had learned. I could even flirt a little, as I had noticed the president was quite attractive, despite his age. I knew that if I bungled this, Asa would look like a man who had married beneath him, and even though it wouldn’t affect his tenure, it would absolutely cement in the president’s mind an opinion of me for the rest of Asa’s career at the college, which—we hoped—was for a long time if not forever. Ivy League wasn’t easy to find in the backwoods; once you got it, you made sure to keep it.

The other wives were put together in just the right way, and in particular the wife of the dean of English. She was tan from a recent trip to some island she and her husband visited every winter, which sounded like a heaven I could never hope to see (five-star hotel, lunch delivered poolside), and had impeccable taste in clothing (loose, relaxed, chic, black). Thankfully, after a glass of wine, I relaxed enough to release her hold on me, to let my childish insecurities fade into the background and allow my adult self to predominate. I was smart, damn it. I was sexy!

Partway through the dinner, right after the fried oyster mushrooms and ramp aioli and just before the salad, I looked around the table to find that many eyes were on me, as I held the room with my opinions about the war on drugs, gun control, and the recent death of a musician I had revered since I was little, who challenged gender norms and changed the course of music forever. Asa looked happy. He was smiling and seemed at ease. He fit right in with the deans but was perhaps more professorial, more rumpled. We were the bohemians amid the preppies. We didn’t use the dryer; maybe that was it. Whatever it was, I was hitting all the high notes and barely even trying. I had an internal script prepared I hadn’t even touched on yet. My husband squeezed my thigh under the table, and I could see from the corner of my eye how proud he was of me, how well the night was going, how beautiful I looked. He was lucky to be able to be both a present father while also propelling himself in his career, to have his work in academia buttressed by his life close to the land and for the establishment to recognize that. He was surrounded by smart, talented, powerful thinkers and yet could disappear daily into his hand-built farmhouse to make homemade soup on the Bauhaus-inspired two-burner stove, tend the garden, build a stone wall, design and construct a movable outdoor pizza oven, putter in the woodshop, cross-country ski out the doorstep into the woods, and forage for wild edibles. He had it all. And a captivating wife! What a team we were.

Yes, I was winning them all over. Our discussion was the perfect combination of agreeability and combativeness. The salad came and went. I challenged conservative assertions in just the right tone and could see I made some of the wives stop and think, when discussing the merits of public versus private education. What was a better choice, “blessing” the under-resourced public school with your presence and thinking that was enough to address the problems of segregation, or creating a radical, inexpensive, nondogmatic private school to show the public sector their model wasn’t working and give them an example of one that might? We spoke of hunting and the politics of ecological agriculture, and I went on for some time about nutrient density and the difference between merely “organic” food and that which is deeply nourishing on a micronutrient level. There is a big difference; a carrot is not just a carrot. At my suggestion we even played the “Which dessert are you?” personality game, my favorite—a gamble, to be sure, but it went over really well. Everyone was so relaxed; I was a breath of fresh air to them, you could tell.

Everyone was so relaxed; I was a breath of fresh air to them, you could tell.

I wasn’t faking this, mind you. Yes, I’d had to read some back issues, but they had always been around. I was the one who had subscribed to them in the first place. A lot of this was, in fact, my area of interest. And while I might not have had success in the world of the written word, I wasn’t a pudding (though in the dessert game, of course, I was). This was an important exercise for me, knowing that I still had a brain; I still had something to give. I began to feel as if I, too, had been offered the promotion. Asa’s boss, the president (chocolate person; very picky!), laughed with me about something, elbowing me in the arm as if we had known each other since the good old days, and the wife of the chair of the medieval studies department invited me to a private meditation group at her guesthouse on Sunday mornings. She was a classic pie person, and we found out all about her top-secret recipe for the flakiest crust (something pie people always do, try to convert you). I had another glass of wine. The conversation kept flowing. I could have stayed all night. Everyone was focused on me, amazed at how much I knew, considering I wasn’t a “professional” woman, how I was the only stay-at-home mom at the table who didn’t hire someone to clean her house, who gardened, who raised sheep, who dabbled in freelance work, who was an artist, who knew that painting is not just drawing with paint but the placement of color next to color, who had time to read long-form journalism while taking care of two kids and making dinner every night, sewing patches on pants instead of buying new pairs. I could see a glimmer of envy in the other wives’ faces when I discussed the projects and nature hikes I organized for my kids, the forts we’d built, that they used real knives to cut real vegetables. Yes, eyes were on me. And my audience was speechless, it seemed, as I digressed and divulged exactly how to make sauerkraut; it’s all about process, but it’s actually quite simple!

After a while I discovered that, yes, while all eyes were on me, the interest and admiration in the other wives’ eyes didn’t seem right, exactly. Could it be that it was closer to horror? What had I said, oh shit, had I said something wrong, had I joked about homeschoolers in a pejorative way, not knowing that someone’s cousins were unschooling their kids on a nearby farm? I hadn’t brought up vaccinations or astrology, oh god, had I? And then the head of admissions, who was sitting directly across from me, stifled a laugh, and as he covered his mouth, his wife (cake person, sugar fiend) slapped him on the shoulder. I took a breath and reached for my water glass to buy some time, to slow down and regroup. But my hands, I found, were occupied. Distracted by my own pontificating, I had been—for who knows how long, but clearly long enough—cutting the president’s filet mignon, and when I looked down at his plate, I could see that I had done a very good job indeed; the pieces were spaced evenly apart and in neatly arranged cubes, just large enough to spear with a fork, but not too big to choke on.

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