Excerpt from A Totally Normal Family
June was aware that her husband was awake. After 39 years of marriage, she knew things about Miles: when he was awake, when his back was sore, if he was hungry or thirsty or tired. She knew these things about her adult children and her best friend, Sheila. She studied what would make people happy and then she provided it. It was her way.
Miles scooted closer to her and put his hand on her hip. He wanted sex. Usually, she would be up and making coffee, which was the easiest way of saying no.
The proximity of his warm body brought on a hot flash, which made the cocoon of sheets suffocating. Would he feel her eyeballs move if she snuck a peek at the clock? She would pretend to be asleep, but she had made a commitment to her priest not to lie, even the necessary white lies that slipped out of her like breathing, and she didn’t want to lie to him about not lying.
“You don’t usually sleep this late.” She felt Miles’s breath on her neck and his erection pressing against her bottom.
She tried to remember the last time they’d had sex. She thought it was two weeks ago, after her friend Sheila’s birthday dinner. She should just roll over and give him pity sex. It wasn’t her fault she didn’t want it anymore, but it wasn’t Miles’s fault either. She would like to ask her priest why God, in all his divine wisdom, gave men and women such different libidos. For the last twenty-five of their marriage, she’d been waiting for Miles’s sex drive to shift into neutral. The idea of gay people made complete sense to her. Two men could have all the sex they wanted, and two women could avoid the subject and eat cake, which June had heard was called lesbian bed death and which sounded like heaven.
“How late is it?”
“Seven o’clock,” he said.
“I’m late for Mass.” She threw off the sheets and stood up too quickly, steadying herself on the nightstand. “What is wrong with me?” She still might be able to make it to church if she skipped showering. She pulled her pajama top open and smelled herself. She could wash her face and spritz on some perfume, but then she reached for her head. Since she’d stopped coloring her gray, her hair had turned into a puffy halo, which June thought was cute until her daughter, Shanti, had said with disgust that there were products that could deal with “all that.” This was all it took for June to buy everything recommended on the Sephora website. Now she never left the house without her hair smoothed down and smelling like fruit salad.
“There’s nothing wrong with you, June, other than being tired,” Miles said, rolling onto his back. “It happens.”
She was tired. Last night she couldn’t remember where she’d put the bottle of Ambien that her doctor had prescribed for her insomnia, another of her “mentalpause” symptoms. But her daughter had been home for a visit the past weekend and little things went missing whenever Shanti was here: scented candles, sheets, June’s springform cake pan. June didn’t mind, really. Shanti needed them more than June did. Shanti’s name meant angel of peace—she was born during June’s hippie phase. June 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 Shanti. June should have named her Conflict.
June looked back at the clock, then sat on the bed. “I’m not going to make it.”
“Jesus will forgive you. You went yesterday.” Miles gave her arm a squeeze.
But she hadn’t gone yesterday. She had meant to go, but Father Timothy, or FT as June called him, was still on his silent retreat. Morning Mass, or any Mass for that matter, wasn’t the same without him. Instead of church, June decided to try the new French patisserie that recently opened in the neighborhood. Even though the French girl behind the counter corrected June’s pronunciation and reminded June of Shanti, the kouign amann was worth it. How was June ever going to be appointed to the Legion of Mary if she chose French pastries she couldn’t pronounce over Mass? 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 would recommit herself tomorrow. She was going to be the most devout, faith-filled Catholic since Mother Theresa. And FT would be back.
“I’ll make coffee.” Miles started to get up.
“You can’t. We’re out of coffee.”
“I’ll run to 7-Eleven then.”
“Don’t you have any clients today?”
“Not until eight-thirty. Nancy.”
“The crazy one?”
“That’s Sarah. And none of my clients are crazy.”
“And 7-Eleven isn’t coffee,” June pouted.
“Then come back to bed.” Miles patted the space next to him.
Last week, June and FT had covered The Goods and Requirements of Conjugal Love. The way FT translated it, sex in marriage was noble and honorable, established by God so that spouses should experience pleasure and enjoyment of body and spirit. She recalled the way the word pleasure had rolled off his tongue, the timbre of his deep voice, and got back into bed.
Miles slipped a hand into her pajama bottoms, easing them over her hips. June caught a whiff of Irish Spring soap on Miles’s skin, the same brand of soap that FT used. June had walked the aisles of Target smelling bars until she found the spicy scent that wafted from FT’s warm skin. She closed her eyes. Miles began kissing her neck and fluttering his hands over her torso. It tickled and she didn’t like his hands on her doughy belly. He kissed her. My breath must be awful. She should have brushed her teeth. They were nearly out of toothpaste. Coffee and toothpaste.
“Would you like me to use my mouth?” Miles asked.
“God, no.” June was horrified at the idea of Miles smelling her unwashed body after a long night of sweating. She tried to disappear in the moment and found herself thinking about FT’s warm office and his vibrating voice.
Miles shifted, moving down on the bed. But instead of moving between her legs, he approached her from the side, touching her in a way he had never done before. Where did he learn to do it like that? The moment was gone.
“Just finish,” she said.
“Really?” he asked.
“It’s fine,” she said.
“I’ll make it up to you tonight,” Miles said, and June hoped he would forget.
After Miles had left for work, June disrobed in the bathroom. Her reflection in the full-length mirror on the back of the door startled her. The image she carried in her head never matched the reality in the mirror. In her sixth decade everything had taken a turn for the worse. She touched the skin on her neck, soft like the powdery texture of stretched-out cashmere. It was her mother’s neck. She showered and dressed in elastic-waist pants and a long, flowy tunic.
On her way to the grocery store, June passed the old Hessler place. The cottage was sold two years ago, immediately torn down, and replaced with this office building from the ’70s. There was a young woman standing on the lawn with a baby strapped to her body in a fabric-wrapped sling. She looked like something from the pages of National Geographic. A toddler was pedaling a wooden car down the front walkway. June slowed and rolled down the passenger window. “Welcome to the neighborhood!” The woman looked startled. June wasn’t surprised. Young people these days—her own children included—didn’t know how to socialize, so used to expressing themselves with emojis and LOLs. Any spur-of-the-moment, unscripted interaction took them by surprise. “I’m June. I live up the street in that old ranch.” The last old ranch on a street filled with office buildings and farmhouses.
“Hi,” the woman said. No name given.
“I’m just popping to Whole Foods. Can I pick you up anything?” June recalled how difficult it was to do anything with kids. She would have loved if someone had stopped by and offered to grab a carton of milk for her. The woman (June wished she’d give her name) didn’t look grateful. She looked suspicious.
“I get my groceries delivered. But thanks.”
June waggled her fingers and winked at the little boy in the car, who sucked harder on his pacifier and scooted across the lawn toward his mother. All that talk about stranger danger made people very unfriendly. “See you around,” June said, driving off.
It was early enough that there were still a few parking spots available in the tiny lot at Whole Foods.
She wiped a cart down with a lavender-scented towelette the store provided and entered. There was bouncy alternative rock playing on the sound system and the young bread man looked genuinely happy to see her. She forgave the parking lot. She was admiring the scone selection when a woman called her name. June turned and saw a familiar face: tortoise-shell glasses, gray bob, hazel eyes, narrow face, but everything else—the woman’s name and their connection—was a void. June panicked, a hot flash smoldering in her solar plexus. She could feel her cheeks and neck mottling, a mist of perspiration forming on her forehead and upper lip.
The woman came closer. “What a coincidence. You’ll never guess what I’m making tonight.” She pointed to the groceries in her cart: carrots, a bottle of red wine, mushrooms, and a wrapped package of meat. June’s head was reeling. She didn’t know this woman’s name, let alone her menu. She felt like a contestant on Jeopardy. The answer was right in the cart, that little jingle looping through June’s head.
“Your beef bourguignon recipe!” the woman announced.
That was it. Her connection to June came in a rush. They had been in the Junior League together and edited the annual recipe book. “Lisa!” June cried.
“My daughter has a craving for it. She’s pregnant. Her first. Baby, not craving.” Lisa laughed at her joke.
“Congratulations,” June said.
“What about you? No grandkids? Is Shanti still in the city? 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.
“Oh, yes. Working hard and moving up. She’s a vice president or something.” June had no idea if that was Shanti’s title, but she needed to save face. “She was just here for a visit.”
“Married?” The woman lobbed back.
“She has a boyfriend and I’m sure when the time is right…”
“My oldest, Natalie, married a boy from Nashville last summer. They bought a huge house. 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’s son, Grayson.”
“That’s right. Kyle lives locally.”
“He and Eva bought a place in Menlo Park, practically Atherton, three doors down from the house where those boys started Google.” Boasting was a sin but surely even Jesus would do it when confronted with the likes of Lisa.
“I recall hearing that Kyle did very well.” Lisa said this as if it was a state secret. June was thrilled that people were talking about her son’s success. “Is he into all that tech stuff?” Lisa asked.
“Peripherally. He’s a venture capitalist.”
“Whatever that is,” Lisa laughed, and June laughed with her because she, too, couldn’t explain Kyle’s job. “You must get to see Grayson all the time.” *****
“I can just pop over.” In reality she needed to make an appointment to see Grayson.
“And how about you? You’re retired, right?” Lisa asked.
June had no idea how Lisa would know that she’d taken early retirement four years ago, skipping—no, running away from her teaching job. She loved children but twenty-nine years of herding thirty eight-year-olds had eroded her patience.
“And what about that good-looking husband of yours?” Lisa asked.
June studied Lisa’s face and the tone of her voice, looking for any hint that she knew what Miles did for a living. June was particularly skilled at reading people and relaxed when it seemed that Lisa’s smile wasn’t meant to embarrass June; she was genuinely prying. June’s husband was a therapist, which would be bad enough because unless a real tragedy struck, such as a premature death in the family, people who lived in Redwood City like June, which was practically old-moneyed Hillsborough, did not see therapists. It was not Woody Allen’s Manhattan. June did not like to talk about her husband’s work, which was a pity because in Silicon Valley, what people did for a living was all anybody talked about. But Miles also specialized in hands-on sexual dysfunction, which June absolutely did not want to talk about in the aisles of Whole Foods. And she certainly didn’t want her priest to find out. She couldn’t imagine the repercussions. Excommunication? Divorce? How many Hail Marys would it take to clear that up? Most of the time, if asked, she told people that Miles was a doctor, which was the truth. Miles had a PhD. If people made the assumption that he was an MD, it wasn’t her fault.
“Did Miles retire?”
June shook her head. Besides her friend Sheila, it felt like all her friends had retired, slathering Facebook with photos of children and grandchildren in exotic locales—“Here we are in an Eco-Lodge in Zambezi!” June remembered now that Lisa had posted a photo of her family on a boat in the middle of Lake Tahoe. She had amazing recall when it came to comparing herself to others.
June wanted to go boating and eco-touring. It helped that Miles had been given an advance to write a textbook about his techniques in sexual partner therapy. An advance! Like he was J.K. Rowling. June didn’t think there were that many therapists who specialized in sexual dysfunction who would read it, but she gladly spent the money and took the family to Hawaii for a week last year, which wasn’t as much fun as she’d hoped, but it did make for good social media posts.
“You’re lucky Miles is still working. You remember Gwen?” Lisa asked.
June lied and said she did.
“Her husband retired and started building sheds all over their yard.” Gossips like Lisa were the reason that June had to be vigilant about not discussing Miles’s job. If Lisa knew, the whole city would know.
“And my husband 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.
“Found the pickles!” her husband, 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. “Wonderful to see you.”
June wished she could say the same. Trips to the grocery store were filled with landmines like Lisa, and heaven forbid she run into any of Miles’s clients. It wasn’t that she would recognize them or they would recognize her, but it was possible. A quick Google search turned up all kinds of info. June knew because she’d Googled herself. She exhaled and felt her stomach push against the elastic waistband of her pants.
June watched Lisa’s husband unload their cart. He could palm a half-gallon of milk, but his jeans hung where his bottom used to be. June pushed her cart to the bakery and ordered a non-fat latte. While she waited for the dreadlocked barista, she forgot that she was supposed to be watching her carbs and popped a sample of lemon bread into her mouth.
“It’s yummy, isn’t it? Grocery store bakeries are not what they used to be.” A woman standing next to her reached across June and took a cube. She was young enough that she couldn’t possibly 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 a serving of fruit,” the woman smiled. A crumb was stuck to her lip gloss.
“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, and June wondered how she knew her name, then realized there were only three people waiting. Knowing her name could have been a simple process of deduction.
“What’s that you’re wearing?” the woman 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. “I can’t remember. It’s in a clear, square bottle about this high.” She held her hand above the counter. “My daughter gave it to me. Jo somebody.”
“Jo Malone! I love her. It’s really lovely.”
June never knew how to respond to a compliment for something she had not made or even picked out. “Thank you” didn’t seem right.
“Have a nice day!”
“You too,” June said, wondering who had taught this young woman her social skills and why couldn’t June’s new neighbor be friendly like her.
At the meat counter, June ordered the blackened tri-tip that she loved. Her husband had stopped eating meat but didn’t mind if she indulged her love of flesh. Why else would God have given us cattle? It’s not as if they made lovely pets. FT agreed with her on that one.
On her way to produce, she saw her best friend’s ex-husband, Tim, in the frozen food section. It was so cliché. A divorced man buying frozen pizza. She didn’t want to have to make small talk with a man she was still angry at, but she strained to see if Tim had any alcohol in his cart. Sheila divorced him ten years ago for his drinking—which was an acceptable reason to divorce someone, even the Church might agree—but if Tim got sober, he and Sheila could remarry, and everything could go back to the way it was. June was chagrined to see numerous bottles of wine in Tim’s cart.
She hustled through produce section, grabbing a sack of tiny potatoes and a bouquet of chard, then maneuvered her cart to the checkout line. Besides the tiny parking lot, the other downside to Whole Foods was the lousy magazine selection at the checkout: Yoga Journal and Cooking Light when June would prefer InStyle or People. She looked out the front window and saw the lemon-bread girl from the coffee bar folding herself into a minuscule, 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 doing yoga and not consuming lemon bread. 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 it asked her questions like did she feel fulfilled, did she have too much to do, and had she 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 any of her answers.
Yes, she frequently felt best when she gave unconditionally to others. (Well, not exactly unconditionally, but almost.) She flat-out lied when she said 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 daughter had ever said or done to her. It shouldn’t be this hard to feel happy, which was all she ever wanted and had been waiting for her entire life. It seemed she’d always been one baby, one house, one grandchild, one vacation, or one spiritual awakening away from her own personal bliss. Miles said after his book was published, he would retire. Maybe then. And FT would realize what an asset to the church June was and make her a lay minister, Kyle and Eva would beg her to babysit Grayson, and Shanti would call just to see how June was.
Maybe then June would, finally, be happy.