At thirty-five, Mary Beth looked younger than she was by about seven years, the same number of years as the age of her son, Ben, now in second grade at Lincoln Elementary School. When Ben was younger, when Mary Beth used to stay home with him all day, she secretly thought that being around him had caused a kind of magic spell to fall over her so that she looked as young as he did as she built towers with him in his room or splashed water at him at the neighborhood pool or read stories to him for a whole hour in her bed each afternoon.
The spell was broken on Ben’s first day of kindergarten, when her best friend, Naomi, who was not married and did not have children and never expected to, took Mary Beth out to lunch to celebrate.
Naomi insisted on ordering a bottle of white wine, and it had been so long since Mary Beth had had anything to drink during the day that the giddiness of it allowed her to admit her secret to Naomi.
Naomi stared at her, expressionless, just for a moment, perhaps considering the truth of what Mary Beth had proposed, and then laughed.
“No, silly,” Naomi said. “It’s the eyebrows.”
“Eyebrows?” Mary Beth had no idea what she was talking about.
“Don’t you remember? Before you had Ben, you used to get your eyebrows waxed every two weeks, and then you stopped.”
Mary Beth took another sip of her wine. She realized that Naomi had no idea how cruel she was being.
“Women look years younger when their eyebrows are not plucked,” Naomi continued. “Like teenagers. That’s why you suddenly looked so much younger!”
And the spell had been broken. On that day, Mary Beth began to age again as if according to a strange algebraic formulation, gaining three years’ appearance with each year of her son’s life spent in school.
And so, on a rainy Friday afternoon in May, as she inspected her face in the rearview mirror of the car, she looked exactly nine years older than she had on that first day of kindergarten three years before.
This brought her, she realized, as she caressed her right cheek, made damp from the humidity, to twenty-seven: the year she had given birth to Ben.
What would she be without him? She could not imagine.
The first five years had been easy as pie. This was exactly how she had described it to her husband, as he walked in from work each night and asked how her day was: “Easy as pie.” It had surprised her. She used to listen closely when women admitted how hard it was, mothering, and she had even, before getting pregnant, been able to nod in agreement when Naomi would rail on about how it would ruin your body, your mind, your spirit, make you into a lifeless ragdoll with all your energy poured into a small demonlike being.
But instead it was easy as pie. Sweet, like blueberries, when he cuddled next to her in bed at dawn. Tart, like new cherries, when he got sick. Comforting, like apples, when he learned to talk, say “Mama” and “I love you” and “Don’t leave.”
It got harder when he started school, she admitted to herself as the buses left the pickup area and the long line of mothers’ cars started inching forward.
What was it that made it harder? She wasn’t sure. He still ran to her every day when he saw the car after school. It was a kind of leaping. The babylove was still there.
But he was more boy than baby now.
More like his dad.
Was that it? she wondered.
The elementary school principal, who also looked younger than he was, was waving at her in the rain, his head and body completely covered in a bright yellow slicker, only the skin of his face and right hand exposed.
When was the last time her husband ran to her? Or leapt? Had he ever? She tried to remember.
Mary Beth waved back to the principal, so insistent he was, and then she felt stupid because she realized it was not a friendly greeting, but he was giving her a signal.
She turned down the volume of the top 40 radio station before rolling down her window.
“You’re Ben’s mom?”
“Can you come with me, please?”
“Right now, please? My assistant will park your car.” He motioned to a young woman, a really young woman who did not just look young, in a gray trench coat behind him.
Mary Beth got out of the car and followed the principal before she realized she was still holding the car keys and ran back to the car and handed them through the window to the young woman who, she noticed, was listening to the same radio station, but up loud. Louder.
By the time she met the principal under the awning on the school’s brick steps, she was soaked through. She hadn’t worn a jacket, had only planned to pick up Ben and go straight home again, entering and exiting her car through the garage attached to their house.
“Right this way, please,” the principal said, opening the door for Mary Beth and leading her to his office. “Principal Murphy” was printed on his door, and Mary Beth remembered that his first name was Tom.
He sat her down in a light green chair in his office and sat closely next to her on a matching one.
He took a deep breath in, preparing to speak, but changed his mind.
“You’re soaked!” he exclaimed. “My goodness! I should have brought you a jacket! I’m so sorry!”
He jumped up and opened a metal cabinet behind his desk.
“Will this work?” It was a Lincoln Elementary sweatshirt, size large. Children’s size large.
“I…” Mary Beth stammered. He was so incredibly attractive, now that he was out of the yellow slicker and dressed in khaki corduroys and a tight fitting light blue cotton shirt. He looked like someone she would have liked to date in high school.
“Go ahead,” he smiled. “I won’t look.” And he turned toward the door of his office to pull the square shade over its window down.
She did not know if he was looking, but she imagined that he was, as she pulled her sopping pink sweater over her head and shivered, even her bra damp, and then put on the sweatshirt, which was certainly too small. She pushed the sleeves, which did not even reach her wrists, up to her elbows and said, “Ready.”
“Perfect,” he said smoothly, appraising her, and then they sat down as they had been before.
“Now, Mrs. Birch,” he started.
“Mary Beth, of course. And please call me Tom.”
“Mary Beth, your husband came to pick up Ben today.”
She cocked her head slightly to the left.
“But they did not come home,” she answered.
“No,” Tom said gently, “Your husband did not take Ben home.”
Her head bobbed to the right.
“Mr. Birch told me to tell you that they were leaving.”
Her head straightened itself and she looked directly into Tom’s eyes, the exact same light blue as his shirt. She let her eyes wander to the fine brown hairs on his chest, peeking out near the second button, safely in its hole.
“As principal these last seven years, I have to say I’ve seen a lot of things I never expected to see, but….”
He was nervous, she could tell.
“Mary Beth, I’m so sorry.”
She kept looking at him. It was disconcerting.
“If there is anything I can do…”
“Hold me,” she whispered.
And so he did. He reached out and put his arms around the shoulders of her tight sweatshirt, and since the blind was shut on the door window, he brought her close to him, but it was awkward in the separate chairs and so he pulled her up to standing and she put her soft cheek against the skin of his chest and felt him grow hard against her hip and then she raised her face to him and he kissed her, long, pressing one hand against the small of her back so that she could feel the whole length of him, firm against her body, and with his other hand he went under the wet hair behind her head and touched the skin of her neck with his long, warm fingers.
It had been seven years that he had been a principal here, seven years since she had become a mother, and all the feelings, the discoveries and worries and pride and fear of those seven years were washed away in the rain of that kiss, as if he had never had to wear a yellow slicker in front of all those women and she had never had to listen to her husband’s silence, as if they were young again, seven years younger and ready to begin again. The thought of it filled them both with hope and they heard the other’s heart beating with the steady drum that sounded like his name as his hands moved to the front of her jeans and her head rolled back and her gaze went toward the rain on the window and she began to say out loud, “Tom, Tom, Tom.”
The sounds were coming from within her and without her, both, and suddenly her son was there, outside the window of the car, yelling, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” and it was still raining and she was still in the car and her whole body was shaking as she leaned over to unlock the passenger door for her son and he climbed in and she revved the engine and got a final friendly wave from the principal while driving away from the parking lot.
Cassie Promo Steele