The secret to perfect crust is to touch it as little as possible. Jill washes her hands and then gathers the dough into a ball, rolling it out on the countertop. The dough presses into cracks in the old laminate, and she hopes it’s not picking up too much grime. She bought the marble rolling pin special for today, along with eight little aluminum pie tins and child-sized aprons, printed with strawberries and trimmed with eyelet, like something from the 1950s.
“How very Martha,” Liz joked, when Liam tried one on over his dinosaur underpants. “Why I need a skirt to cook?” he asked. He has never seen either of his mothers in an apron. Jill doesn’t wear one to cook, and Liz doesn’t cook.
For Liam’s fourth birthday, he wants a baking party. He loves to help Jill in the kitchen, flinging oily salad greens onto the table, lunging for onions as she’s slicing them, punching at the blender before she has secured the lid. The kitchen wall is splattered with dried pesto and smoothie. He is gaining independence, she reminds herself, borrowing a technique from a parenting book that advised reframing criticism in a positive way. Stubborn becomes determined; whiny is insistent; annoying is spirited. According to this book, children model what they see, echo what they hear, and perform to expectations. Jill and Liz have high expectations for Liam, although of course he can be whatever he wants. At the moment, he wants to be a bus driver or Batman, insisting he does too know who Batman is, although they don’t have a TV and he’s never been exposed to violent cartoons—not like the ones Jill used to watch as a kid, a relentless chase of predator and prey.
She surveys the kitchen, checking to make sure everything is ready for the preschool onslaught. She has rolled out the crust and cut it into circles, so the kids can press it into the little pie tins. The cinnamon, sugar, and butter have been pulsed to a crumb. All that’s left is to peel and slice the apples, which she’ll do at the last minute so that they don’t brown.
It’s hard work, giving little kids the illusion of being in charge, having to do everything for them while allowing them to think they’re doing it all by themselves. For a moment, Jill regrets having insisted that she didn’t need help with this party, sending Liz off to the med school library to study for finals. “It’s just eight kids,” she said, “Hardly brain surgery.” This is their new joke, now that Liz is a resident in neurology. “It’s the least I can do,” she said, meaning, at least I can do this. The truth is, Jill prefers being alone with small children. Only when she is by herself with them can she be herself with them.
“Is it time for my baking party?” Liam says, seizing her by the legs and peering up at her, flushed with anticipation. For the past two weeks, ever since he placed invitations in each of the cubbies at preschool, he has climbed into their bed every morning, asking, “Is it my party today? Why it’s not now yet? When’s it going to be now?” With expectations that high, Jill feared that he was bound to be disappointed, but Liz pointed out that so far, even when things don’t live up to his fantasies, he doesn’t seem to realize it. He’s still innocent like that, still their sweet baby. She leans down to lift the hem of his T-shirt, which says, “Boys Can Too Wear Pink,” planting her lips on his sticky belly. Before they had Liam, she found kids a little repellent, in a way she remembers like a fact but can no longer feel. Nothing about him disgusts her, not really, not yet. She wonders if it ever could.
The buzzer sounds and Liam bounds to the front door. All of the kids seem to spill in at once—Beckett and Kai, Oscar P., Oscar M., Jasper and Penelope—dutifully greeting her, hiliamsmama, before relinquishing wrapped presents on the hall table and chasing after him down the hall to his bedroom, or rather the room that is half his bedroom, half her office. One-quarter her office, if she’s going to be honest. Ten percent and shrinking.
Penelope’s mommy—her name is Nicole, Jill reminds herself—asks to use the bathroom, and Jill wonders if she should invite her to stay for coffee. She runs through the list of what she knows about this woman. Nicole is an endodontist (how is that different from being a dentist?), and a rabid Giants fan; she boasted that she didn’t take off the team shirt for the two weeks they played the World Series, although mysteriously it never seemed to get dirty. Her daughter, Penelope, is Jill’s favorite kid in the class, almost freakishly good at everything she tries, a butch three-year-old with the face of a middle-aged woman and a will of steel. She and Liam are best friends, when they’re not at each other’s throats. A toddler power couple.
Nicole trails after her daughter into Liam’s bedroom/Jill’s office. This morning, Jill got out a Mexican oil cloth, patterned with baskets of fruit, and laid it over her desk, covering it with finger paint and construction paper and Play-Doh, before changing her mind and putting everything away again, instead setting up a stack of the books she’s researching for her dissertation—some by her former grad school classmates—their intriguing titles facing out. She was aware of herself creating a still life: Woman as Scholar. Sometimes, at the preschool drop off, she sees the other mothers eyeing her in her yoga pants, and worries that they think she’s some kind of lady of leisure, some desperate housewife. Liz thinks it’s hilarious that she cares at all what “the other mommies” think, but Liz is going to be a brain surgeon. She never has to drop Liam off at school.
“That’s so cute,” Nicole says, smoothing Liam’s quilt, each square made from a vintage flour sack. “Where did you get it?”
“Actually I made it,” Jill says, not sure whether to be proud or embarrassed of her little craft project. She remembers piecing this quilt while Liz lay on her side in the last trimester of her pregnancy, on bed rest due to high blood pressure. Jill wanted to finish the quilt by the due date, but Liam came three weeks early.
“You’re such a good mom,” Nicole says.
“Thanks,” Jill says.
“I wish I had more time to make cute stuff.”
It’s hardly a criticism, but Jill feels prickly nonetheless. She wants to set the record straight, establish that she doesn’t spend her days doing needlepoint. For the past five years, she has been working on a dissertation on captivity narratives in early American literature, an irony that’s not lost on her. There is no expiration date on when she can file, but neither is anyone waiting with baited breath. Every few weeks, she opens the document entitled “work in prog,” and skims a few pages, marveling at how fluid and unfamiliar the language seems. She can’t remember having had those thoughts, shaped those sentences. They talk about “Mommy brain,” but Liz is the one who gave birth to Liam, the one who was flooded with hormones, who could have used this as a justification for slacking off, not that she ever did. Liz may be the biological mother, but somehow Jill became the wife.