Excerpt from A Totally Normal Family
June was pulling books off the shelves in her family room to dust them. She cleaned when she was upset, and her house was spotless.
Her daughter, Shanti, had just left. She’d been home for the weekend from her big advertising job in New York. Shanti was born during June’s hippie-ish phase. She had never turned on, tuned in, and dropped out, but she did stick a peace sign on her VW, swapped chocolate for carob, and named her daughter after the angel of peace. That’s a laugh. Shanti did not and had never exuded peace — quite the opposite, a sort of seething judgment, which was to be expected from a teenager but not a woman in her 30s. According to Shanti, June chewed too loudly and smelled wrong. She told June there were products to remove the frizz from June’s hair, and when she said June’s shoes looked comfortable, she said it as if comfort was disgusting, as if June’s shoes were responsible for the deaths of baby seals.
June had unwisely pulled Shanti into a discussion about religion. She was trying to convince her daughter to accept Jesus into her heart. As a new-ish Catholic, she worried about Shanti’s eternal soul, although when she thought about it, maybe June didn’t want to spend eternity with her. Still, Shanti shouldn’t have put down June’s Savior.
June pushed some books aside and got on her knees to pray.
“Dear Lord, forgive my daughter for calling you a mere prophet. She doesn’t know. I said, ‘He’s the Son of God!’ You know what she said? ‘As I understand it, we are all God’s children, which means he’s no better or worse than the rest of us,’ in that sassy tone of hers. You know that tone. ‘So, you deny the miracles?’ I asked. ‘And the Resurrection?’ You won’t believe how she responded. ‘People will write anything to sell a book.’”
June wasn’t talking to Jesus anymore. How was she ever going to be a good Catholic if she couldn’t pray right? Granted, she was a better Catholic than she’d been a Unitarian. As far as June could tell, they had no beliefs. Why would she need Church if she still had to figure things out on her own? She might as well have stayed in her pajamas and met herself in her own kitchen every Sunday. She’d also been a lousy Buddhist. She got the impermanence thing, but meditating was absolute torture, and she couldn’t give up her ego if she didn’t have one.
She pushed herself back to a standing position (How did every Catholic not need new knees?) and scanned the rows of books, pulling a chair over to get at the neglected top shelf, where her gaze landed on the slim, violet-covered collection of Anais Nin’s stories. Her face reddened, remembering the first time she had read Little Birds as a teenager. It was a gift from a friend, and June kept it hidden under her mattress. Until that book, June had no idea it was okay for girls to enjoy sex or to seek it out. Stacked next to Nin’s work were The Story of O, Tropic of Cancer, The Human Body, and The Joy of Sex. June had seen women on Pinterest (See Shanti? She knew how to use Pinterest!) organize their books by color, which made no sense. June organized her books by topic and this was her smut section, tucked away from prying eyes and little fingers. June spotted a loose space where Nin’s other volume, Delta of Venus, had been. June had purchased that one at her college bookstore years ago. Shanti had probably taken it. Things always went missing after her daughter visited: a scented candle, a new tube of mascara, or June’s springform cake pan. She didn’t need another reason to resent her daughter and told herself that Shanti must need those things more than she did. She certainly needed Nin’s book more than June. Shanti probably still liked sex. She was more confident than June had been at her age. Heck, she was more confident than June was now. June swelled with pride, then her heart fluttered, and an image of her daughter’s plane crashing in a wheat field in Iowa flashed in her brain. Seconds later, she felt her internal furnace kick into high with a flash of heat from chest to back to cheeks to shins. June had Googled menopause symptoms and was surprised and relieved to see an impending sense of doom was on the list. Knowing her anxiety was based on hormones and not reality did not make it any less pleasant. She was alone in the house, so she lifted up her shirt and began fanning herself with The G Spot.
Her priest spoke of intelligent design, but how could menopause be anything but a cruel oversight? Hadn’t her life—any woman’s life—been enough of a struggle? Childbirth? Menstruation? Marriage? She can’t imagine what God was thinking with menopause, but she couldn’t fault him for making a mistake at the end of such a long project. June would have. She’d sewn her best friend Sheila’s daughter-in-law’s wedding dress. It began as an act of love but toward the end she was tired and skimped on the hem with a thread that wasn’t the same shade of ivory as the dress. A wedding dress didn’t hold a candle to creating the world.
June looked at her watch. The books would have to wait. She wanted to get to Whole Foods before lunch. She hopped off the chair and walked across the hall, stopping in the dining room to enjoy the sun streaming in the large picture window. The magnolia tree on the lawn was covered in flowers that bordered on obscene — huge, fleshy petals the color of cream and smelling hedonistically of vanilla and citrus. It made her want to eat them. What was she doing? Right. Grocery store. She’d been doing this more frequently, forgetting where she was going and why. Losing one’s mind was another symptom that was on the Google list of what Sheila called “mentalpause.”
She stretched, and her reflection in the hall mirror startled her. The image she carried in her head never matched the one in the mirror, even more so now that the changes were coming fast and furious. The skin on her neck had taken on the loose, powdery texture of a stretched-out cashmere sweater. She could still see her collarbones, but she no longer ventured below them. She’d always been critical of her squishy belly and doughy bottom, but in her sixth decade, she felt things were different down there: rounder, bigger, softer, and drier. She dressed in elastic-waist pants and long, flowy linen tunics that hid a multitude of sins—not that anybody was looking.
In her car, she stroked on the lipstick she had bought while Shanti shopped, a blush color called “Deception.” The Chanel saleslady said it was from the new nude collection that was extremely popular for women of all ages. If June hadn’t been worried about embarrassing Shanti, she would have asked the lady what the point was of nude lipstick. She looked in her rearview mirror and decided it was called “Deception” because somebody had conned her into spending $30 on a tube of Chapstick.
June waved to the young mom who’d recently moved into her neighborhood. The neighborhood was beginning to turn over as the people whom June had lived next to for years retired to Sonoma or died, and new, young families bought their homes, tearing down the old ranch houses and building enormous chateaus or homages to Frank Llloyd Wright. If the existing home had a charming exterior like June’s, they roto-rooted the insides to make way for great rooms and home theatres. June felt embarrassed that she hadn’t delivered a loaf of pumpkin bread to welcome this family. She didn’t want them to think that they had moved into a neighborhood of snobs. She would buy a can of pumpkin and leave it out on the counter so she wouldn’t forget.
This lady had a baby in a backpack and was pushing her toddler in a green plastic car. June’s children were far apart in age. They never played together or seemed even to like each other very much. Rather than getting better, the situation only seemed to get worse with time. June did her best to keep her children’s relationship limping along, reminding them of birthdays and anniversaries and to call or text each other. Someday they would realize that blood was thicker than water. When that day arrived, June had a list with all the important dates to give them.
Her son, Kyle, worked as a venture capitalist, something that didn’t exist until recently. It used to be so simple. People were doctors, engineers, lawyers, teachers, or nurses. June felt old when Kyle talked about early-stage startups and market caps and series B funding, as if she should know what these things meant. Whatever it was he did, he made a lot of money.
Her daughter had been promoted to a Senior Account Executive last year. “But what does that mean?” June pressed.
“I’m the liaison between the client and the creatives and the media department.”
When she pressed for more details, Shanti looked at her like she was too stupid to live. June stopped asking.
Whatever her daughter did, it paid well because Shanti carried Louis Vuitton handbags and never looked at the price tags when they shopped together. She had insisted on stopping at the Stanford Shopping Center on the way to the airport to look for a particular Chanel nail polish called Peridot, a muddy green.
“Why would you want to paint your nails the color of mold?” June asked her.
Shanti bought the polish, plus a $200 serum that promised to make her skin brighter, more radiant, and younger looking. And she accused me of believing in miracles! As least prayer is free! June heard the shrill judgement in her thoughts. Should she try praying again? It was so hard to be righteous. Did Jesus know that?
June parked and headed into Whole Foods. She loved shopping for food the way her daughter loved shopping for clothes. She got a thrill heading down an aisle stacked with mounds of shiny meats, the tidy rows of chickens and steaks and kebabs arranged under a glass counter like expensive jewelry. And the cheese section! She could spend an hour walking around Whole Foods’s cheese section. She hadn’t always loved Whole Foods. She boycotted them when they took over the building that originally housed Foodville, the locally owned grocery store where June had shopped for twenty-five years. June assumed Whole Foods had driven them out, but it turned out that the owners had simply retired and their children had no interest in taking over the family business. They were probably venture capitalists.
June was heading for the produce when a woman called her name. Her face was familiar but everything else, the woman’s name and their connection, was a void. June panicked, another hot flash smoldering in her solar plexus. She could feel her cheeks and neck mottling with red, a mist of perspiration forming on her forehead and upper lip.
“What a coincidence seeing you here.” The woman pushed her cart closer to June. “You’ll never guess what I’m making tonight.” She pointed to her groceries: carrots, a bottle of red wine, mushrooms, and a wrapped package of meat. What was this? A pop quiz in the cereal aisle? June’s head was reeling. She didn’t know this woman’s name, let alone her menu. She felt like she was on Jeopardy. The answer was right in the cart, that little jingle looping through June’s head.
“Your beef bourguignon recipe!” the woman said.
That was it. The answers came to her like dominoes toppling. June had been in the Junior League with her, and they had worked on the annual recipe book together. “Lisa!” June said, practically shouting her name in triumph.
“Emily’s craving it. It’s her first — baby not craving.” Lisa laughed at her joke.
“What about you? No grandkids? Is Shanti still in New York? She works in advertising, doesn’t she?” In June’s circle, memory was the new currency, and Lisa was doubling down with first rate, rapid-fire information shaming.
“She’s a vice president at an agency in Manhattan.” June had no idea if that was Shanti’s title, but she needed to save face. “She was just here for a visit. Homesick, I guess.”
“Married?” The woman lobbed back.
“She has a boyfriend, and I’m sure when the time is right...”
“I hope he’s not from New York,” Lisa interrupted her. “My oldest, Natalie, married a boy from Nashville last summer. They bought a huge house.” She emphasized the word “huge.” “There’s no way they could afford anything like that in this area. It would be millions.” June started to respond but Lisa talked over her. “Thank goodness Emily lives in Los Gatos!”
“I have a grandchild,” June interjected. “Kyle has a son.”
“That’s right. Kyle lives locally.”
“On the Atherton border, three houses from where Sergei and Larry started Google.” June’s friends might not know what a venture capitalist was, but everybody knew Google.
“I recall hearing that Kyle did very well.” Lisa said this as if it were a state secret. June was thrilled that people were talking about her son’s success, but she knew better than to ask for details about what Lisa had heard and where for fear it would make her look as if she cared.
“He’s been fortunate,” June said, humbly.
“You must get to see his son all the time.”
“I can just pop over.” June emphasized the ‘pop.’ In reality, she needed to make an appointment to see him. It was ridiculous. She’d been preparing to be a grandmother for years. What else did she have to do?
“How are you?” Lisa asked. “And that handsome husband of yours?”
June studied Lisa’s face and the tone of her voice, looking for any hint that she knew what Miles was doing these days. June was particularly skilled at reading people and relaxed when it seemed that Lisa’s smile was not looking to embarrass June but was genuinely prying.
“You know how it is. We’re both so busy.” June shook her head sympathetically, her curls bouncing.
“But isn’t Miles retired? He should be relaxing,” Lisa said.
These were the moments that June resented her husband the most. Against June’s wishes, Miles left his engineering career ten years ago, but instead of improving his tennis game or building model trains in the basement, he’d thrown himself fulltime into a job that June would prefer nobody knew about. Her husband was a therapist of sorts, which would have been bad enough for June. (Unless a real tragedy struck, such as a premature death in the family, people who lived in Hillsborough like June and her friends didn’t admit to going to see therapists. Silicon Valley was not Woody Allen’s Manhattan. It was unseemly.) But Miles’s job went two mortifying steps further. He wasn’t just a talk therapist, he was a sex therapist, and he wasn’t just a sex therapist, he was a sexual partner therapist. She could just imagine the look on people’s faces if she told them what her husband did, because she could imagine the look on her own face if somebody said her husband was paid to help get in touch with their sexual feelings by actually touching them. June had balked when he said he wanted to train in this field all those years ago. Balked was too light a description. She may have thrown a coffee cup at him, but she had a well-earned skepticism regarding his ability to attract clients. After all, she had had sex with him herself.
It would be nice if June didn’t have the threat of people finding out about Miles all the time if her only concern about him was listening to the dribble of his urine hit the toilet and wondering if he needed to have his prostate checked. However, for all the missteps Miles had taken in his software career — staying when he should have left, selling options when he should have held them — he could not afford to retire at 57. Many of their friends had done just that, slathering Facebook with photos of children and grandchildren in a variety of exotic locales, rubbing trips to India and Africa in June’s face, “Here we are in an Eco-Lodge in Zambezi!” June had amazing recall when it came to comparing herself to others. Lisa had recently posted a photo of her family on a boat in the middle of Lake Tahoe.
June wanted to go boating and eco-touring and refinish the floors in her house, and so the fact that Miles was surprisingly successful, and women were travelling great distances and paying good money to see him made the disturbing aspects of his job slightly easier to ignore. It also helped when she realized that meeting a woman who was seeing her husband professionally would be as awkward as running into somebody at an AA meeting because now you both knew the other’s secret. The capper was when Miles was given a substantial advance to write a textbook about his techniques! An advance! Like he was J.K Rowling or somebody. June spent part of the money taking the family to Hawaii for a week which wasn’t as much fun as she’d hoped but did make for good social media posts. She only wished Grayson had been a little older so he would have shown up better in the photos. When Miles turned the book in, she was going to get new living room furniture.
Lisa was waiting for June to answer here. “Don’t tell me Miles is one of those men who doesn’t know how to relax. You remember Gwenn?”
June lied and said she did.
“Her husband retired and started building sheds all over their yard, just one after the other. They don’t have any lawn left.” Gossips like Lisa were the reason that June had to be vigilant about keeping Miles’s job under wraps. It would be like tossing slimy chum into shark-filled water.
“Miles is too busy working through my “honey-do” list to relax. That house really is too much for us with the kids gone.” This was a lie on top of what Shanti called a humble brag, fodder for her weekly confession with the Priest. The big, old house where June and Miles had lived for thirty years had been too much for them the day they bought it. It had been a stretch financially and was more upkeep than they could handle. Miles was not handy, and they’d been deferring maintenance for the last 28 years. Every year, there were new cracks in the plaster that June filled with putty and painted over. The kitchen floor sloped toward the back door, and some of the windows that were opened in the summer wouldn’t shut until winter.
“You’re lucky. Jim follows me around like a Labrador. Speak of the devil.” Lisa pointed at a man lumbering around an end cap of decorative soaps and candles. Jim had been swimming pool contractor. Years ago, June and Miles had asked Jim over for an estimate, and June had been attracted to the way he strode around their yard, grabbing a fistful of dirt in his big hand and letting it run through his long fingers. He recommended putting the pool in a section of the yard opposite from where Miles had wanted it so that June could save her Dogwood trees. “Wouldn’t want to lose those beauties,” he’d said. Exactly. He tossed off an estimate that was three times what Miles had expected. Much to June’s embarrassment, they never called him back.
“Found the pickles!” Jim said, holding up a jar and smiling like a triumphant toddler.
“Look at the time.” Lisa made a point of glancing at her wrist, which was bare. No one wore a watch anymore, relying on their phones instead. “Wonderful to see you.”
She wheeled off, grabbing Jim, who followed behind her willingly. June wondered if there was something about Jim that Lisa didn’t want her to know, maybe Alzheimer’s or dementia? She watched him unload Lisa’s cart. He could palm a half-gallon of milk, but his jeans hung where his bottom used to be.
June pulled her cardigan around her middle. It was a travesty that men shrunk as they aged while the women spread. She needed caffeine. She ordered a non-fat latte at the coffee bar and sampled a cube of lemon bread while she waited for the barrista to pull a coffee out of that big shiny contraption behind the counter. She had momentarily forgotten that she was supposed to be watching her carbs, but by God, that bread was good. She popped another cube in her mouth.
“They’re yummy, aren’t they? Grocery store bakeries are not what they used to be.”
A young woman standing next to her reached across June and took a cube. June noticed that her fingernails were the mold green color Shanti had just purchased. The woman couldn’t have any memories of the dry rectangles topped with whipped lard that June used to bring home from Lucky’s.
“Too good,” June said, pushing the plate away.
“It’s practically a serving of fruit,” the woman smiled. A crumb was stuck to her lip gloss.
“A serving of fruit plus a lot of other things I should avoid.” June patted her stomach.
“Free cake has no calories, like birthday cake!” She pushed the plate back toward June.
“Latte for June!” The barista barked.
“That’s you.” The woman scooted away from the counter so June could lean across her to grab her drink. “What’s that you’re wearing?” she asked.
“Excuse me?” June said defensively, assuming she was insulting her clothes or shoes the way that Shanti did.
“Your perfume,” she said. “I like it.”
The flattery took June by surprise. “It’s in a clear, square bottle about this high.” She held her hand above the counter. “Jo somebody, orange something.”
“Jo Malone! I love her.”
“My daughter gave it to me. Actually, you remind me of her.” June noticed that for a brief, nearly imperceptible second, the woman’s smile faded before returning to her sparkly enthusiasm.
“It’s really lovely.”
June never knew how to respond to a compliment for something she had not picked out—“thank you” wasn’t right—so she raised her cardboard cup. “Have a nice day.”
“You, too!” The woman waved.
June pushed her cart to the meat counter where she asked for the blackened tri-tip that she loved. Her husband had stopped eating meat — again — but allowed her to indulge her love of flesh. Why else would God have given us cattle? It’s not as if they make lovely pets.
She saw another familiar face with a forgotten name in the dairy section and ducked down the snack aisle. She didn’t have it in her to go through the remember-the-names game shows again. She hustled through the produce section, grabbing a sack of tiny potatoes and a bouquet of chard, then maneuvered her cart to the checkout line. The only downside to Whole Foods were the lousy magazines at the checkout: Yoga Journal and Cooking Light when June would prefer InStyle or People. She looked out the front window and saw the young woman from the coffee bar folding herself into a miniscule red Smart car. Only a person who did a lot of yoga would buy a car like that.
June turned back to the magazine rack. Yoga Journal offered “6 Practices for Happiness.” June guessed that they all involved yoga and not consuming lemon bread. June’s personal magazine cover would be, “How to sail gracefully into your golden years with a handsome husband after raising two successful children,” with tips that included eating carbs and wearing elastic-waist pants. She’d recently taken a quiz in O, the Oprah Magazine while she was waiting to have her teeth cleaned. The quiz was called “Are You Happy?” and asked her if she felt fulfilled, had too much to do, and if she’d grown emotionally and spiritually through difficult and painful life events. Her score put her in the happy-person category, but she hadn’t been truthful on most of her answers. Yes, she frequently felt best when she gave unconditionally to others, (well, not exactly unconditionally, but almost) and she flat-out lied when she said that the people she focused on in her life were the ones she loved, not the ones who hurt or disappointed her because, in fact, she remembered every horrible thing her mother and her daughter had ever said or done to her. If her son’s wife let her spend more time with her grandson, if Shanti weren’t the last unmarried woman in June’s circle of friends, if her husband occasionally followed her around the grocery store looking for pickles, and if she could relax into her golden years knowing her fat stock portfolio continued to swell, she would be the woman the quiz said she was. If lying on a quiz in her dentist’s office made her a happy person, so be it. She was a few tiny adjustments away from being that woman anyway. She was currently suffering many public indignities — instant, red-faced sweating, turkey waddle, brown spots, and little barnacles of skin erupting on her arms, shoulders, and the other places she couldn’t see. She didn’t need the additional humiliation of Oprah pointing out that she wasn’t happy. Besides, it wasn’t too late to make her version of the story come true.