Excerpt from A Totally Normal Family
MONDAY, 7 a.m.
June was aware that her husband was awake. She could practically hear his eyes open. She cursed herself. Usually, before Miles stirred, she was making coffee, which was the easiest way of avoiding sex.
He scooted closer to her and put his hand on her hip. The proximity of his warm body brought on a hot flash, which made the cocoon of sheets suffocating. What time was it anyway? Would he feel her eyeballs move if she snuck a peek at the clock? She would pretend to be asleep, but she’d made a commitment to her priest not to lie, even the necessary white lies that slipped out of her like breathing.
“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’ fault either. She would like to ask her priest why God, in all his divine wisdom, gave men and women such different libidos. She and Miles had been married for 39 years. For the last 25 of them, she’d been waiting for his 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?” she mumbled, feigning sleep, while scooting away from him.
“7:00? I’m late for mass.” She threw off the sheets. “It’s that dingbat daylight savings. It’s so dark out.” She stood up too quickly and had to steady 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 grey, 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 “that.” This was all it took for June to buy everything recommended on the Sephora website. Now June never left the house without her hair smoothed down and smelling like fruit salad.
“There’s nothing wrong 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, along with hot flashes, weight gain, and her eyebrows falling out. On the other hand, her daughter had been home for a visit the past weekend. Little things went missing whenever Shanti was here: scented candles, sheets, June’s springform cake pan. It’s possible she nipped June’s Ambien, but unlikely since Shanti was in recovery.
Shanti’s name meant angel of peace — she was born during June’s hippie phase — but Shanti had never exuded peace. 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 -- bony wrists, sleek hair, and quick judgment — 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 go to Mass tomorrow because FT was due back this afternoon.
“I’ll make coffee.” Miles started to get up.
“You can’t. We’re out of coffee. I’m an idiot. I went to Starbucks yesterday and forgot to buy it.”
“Don’t talk about yourself like that. It’s coffee. Being kind to yourself is just as important as being kind to your friends. I’ll run to 7-11.”
“Don’t you have any clients today?”
“Not until 8:30. Nancy.”
“The crazy one?”
“That’s Sarah. And none of my clients are crazy.”
“7-11 isn’t coffee,” June pouted. “It’s brown water.”
“Then come back to bed.” Miles laid back and patted the space next to him.
June was trying to be a good Catholic and had been meeting weekly with FT to read the Catechism. Last week, they 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. She nudged his hand back toward her breast, and 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 her Miles smelling her unwashed body after a long night of sweating. She kissed him, trying to disappear in the moment by running her tapes: the scene of the girl model on the horse in an Anais Nin story, Matt Damon getting his haircut in that Bourne movie, 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, using both hands to manipulate her in a way he had never done before. Where did he learn to do it like that? She turned away from him.
“Actually, I’m not going to make it. Just finish,” she said.
“I thought you didn’t like this position?”
“It’s fine,” she said.
“I’ll make it up to you tonight,” Miles said.
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, already low, never matched the one in the mirror now that the changes were coming fast and furious. In her sixth decade, everything had taken a turn for the worse: rounder, bigger, softer, and drier. She touched the skin on her neck, soft like the powdery texture of stretched-out cashmere. 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 and immediately torn down to be replaced by this home, which looked like an office building from the 70s. There was a young woman standing on the lawn with a baby strapped to her body in one of those fabric-wrapped slings that looked like something from the pages of National Geographic. A toddler was peddling 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 now filled with office buildings and oversized 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 at Whole Foods. Why were their lots so small? Did they expect shoppers to ride their bikes to the grocery store? They probably did.
She wiped a cart down with the lavender-scented wipes they provided and entered the store, instantly calmed by the gleaming floors, the bunches of obscenely colored flowers, the alternative rock playing on the sound system, and the young man stacking bread who greeted her. She was pushing her cart toward the produce when a woman called her name. June turned toward the familiar voice and saw a familiar face: tortoise-shell glasses, grey 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 seeing you here. 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, shouting her name in triumph.
“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 do 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 were 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 29 years of herding 30 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. Therapy was unseemly and 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.
“Didn’t Miles retire?”
June shook her head. Besides her friend Sheila, it felt like all her friends and former co-workers 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. She and Miles weren’t poor, but they weren’t rich. She didn’t need to live like her son or collect designer bags like her daughter but still. 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 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.
“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 might run into any of Miles’s clients. It wasn’t that she would recognize his clients, or they would recognize her, but it was possible. A quick Google search turned up all kinds of info. June knows because she’d Googled herself. She exhaled and felt her stomach relax, pushing against the elastic waistband of her pants. She hadn’t realized that she was holding herself in.
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 barrista to pull a coffee out of a big shiny contraption behind the counter, she forgot that she was supposed to be watching her carbs and popped a sample of lemon bread into her mouth.
“They’re yummy, aren’t they? 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. “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.
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 as long as there was some pasta to keep him happy, he 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.
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, then maybe Sheila would remarry him and the four of them could start having dinner together again. And then Sheila could retire from her job as a paralegal at the law firm and have lunch with June whenever she wanted. June was chagrined to see numerous bottles of wine in Tim’s cart.
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. Besides the high prices, the only 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 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 doing yoga and not consuming lemon bread. June’s personal magazine cover would be, How to spread out gracefully in your golden years, 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 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 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 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 once that happened, 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 say hi.
Maybe then, June would, finally, be happy.