A whistling nebula of Optrex and espresso, of barely contained hysteria, you arrive late, smoothing your wool skirt, plucking bobbles from your cardigan. You hair swishes in a high ponytail, a slack whip, grazing your neck and shoulders, your horn-rimmed glasses kick queasy angles above your cheeks. You remove a wasabi pea from a crackling packet within your coat pocket. You slip it into your mouth, chewing with a precision that makes you feel capable and wise. You’re concerned no one here really gets your outfit. You’re concerned maybe they don’t read Cosmo.
“Your husband couldn’t make it?” asks his geography teacher. You are prepared for this. You have built armor for this. It props you up like scaffolding. “I don’t have a husband,” you say. “It’s just me.” You look him in the eye. You look him hard in the eye. A thin whisper of grey splinters his forehead, a crease of skin, like a loose sock, sags at the curve of his nose. Your move, you think. Your move, asshole.
You look at the other mothers; you see how they regard you, a sinister rogue agent, with small, sharp teeth and a face full of makeup. They grip their husbands. You wish you were wearing something lower cut.
His English teacher clears her throat, shuffling papers across the table. “He doesn’t talk much,” she says. “He’s a very quiet boy.” You look at your son and think: Quiet? This gangly, leaping thing. This giant bratty creature, preponderating your house, bounding across the living room, as playful as a kitten. Quiet? You rub your lips together. “Wasabi pea?” you ask.
You wander through to the art studios. You nod to a student in a cravat and beret. “Got ourselves a real David Hockney,” you nudge your son. “I said, we’ve got ourselves a real David Hockney, if you know what I mean.” He wrinkles his face. “What are you talking about?” he says. “Also, you have lipstick on your teeth. You have lipstick literally all over your teeth.”
You recognize a boy with a strained, scattered beard. You study its lazy cartography. He used to visit your house. You smile at him. “Isn’t that Christian?” you ask, nodding in his direction. “Aren’t you going to say hello?” He mumbles something, staring at his feet, scratching his chin. “Speak up,” you say. “Speak up. I can’t hear a word you’re saying.”
You are hot—too hot—in the science labs. You remove your coat, ripping it from your arms; he holds your purse and scarf as you fan yourself wildly. A group of young men walk by, giggling and chatting, as involved as Christmas elves. They see him holding your bag, your quilted bag, with its glossy oversized clasp and your printed silk scarf. “Oh Matilda!” they laugh. “Look at what Matilda’s holding!” He forces them back into your hands. “Come on,” he says. “Come on, we’re going.”
“He is a bright kid,” his biology teacher tells you. “He is just as bright as a button.” You look at him, you look at his face, his big dopey face, the light of it, the captured, amber light. Light that needs splitting and refracting to burn even brighter. You want to hold his hand. You think if you were to hold his hand, at this moment in time, you would break every bone in it, crushing them down to sawdust.
You cross the playground, looping an arm through his. “What are you doing this weekend, pal? Why don’t you go to the cinema?” You slip him a twenty pound note. “My treat.” He yawns, removing his arm from yours. “I thought I’d just hang out with you this weekend,” he says. “Plus the dishwasher isn’t going to fix itself.” Last night, he made you a lasagna, looming in the arched entrance of your kitchen, in your rose print apron and oven gloves. “You are so handsome,” you say, squeezing his cheek with your thumb and forefinger. “You are such a handsome boy.”
You meet his final teacher of the evening, his media studies teacher. She is about your age. “I work in corporate marketing,” you tell her, “but I studied film and media in college.”
“Well, it must run in the family,” she replies. “Because he is doing fantastic.” You give his wrist a little squeeze. His tiny, baby wrist. “His project on Jean Seberg,” she says, smiling, “is really excellent work.”
“He did a project on Jean Seberg?” you reply, turning to him. “Did you really? My dissertation was on Jean Seberg.”
“I know,” he says. “You told me. When we went to Paris.”
“Well,” his teacher says, “you must read his project. The stuff about her poetry is particularly interesting.”
“She wrote poetry? No kidding,” you say. “I didn’t know.”
You drum your fingers on the table and look at your watch. How did I not know that? you think. How on earth did I not know that? You thought you knew everything about Jean Seberg. You thought you knew all there was to know about Jean Seberg. You thought you could write the goddamn book on Jean Seberg.
You look at your boy. Well, perhaps it is new information, you think, freshly acquired knowledge that you are not privy to, something you simply do not have time to keep on top of. Or perhaps you once knew, and now you’ve forgotten, stowing it away, treading water between the bleeding multitude of things you have to think about. Or perhaps you knew all along, and you have overlooked it. Or is it possible, is it just possible, that you never knew.
Not even at all.