“She is definitely a robot,” Carly leans in and whispers in my ear.
I stifle the involuntary laughter rising up my chest by covering my mouth with one hand, swatting her playfully with another. “Oh my god, Carly, shhh!” I press an index finger over my parting lips.
She snickers. “Seriously! There’s no way this chick is real. Look at her,” she’s extending her arm out, palm facing up, gesturing to the woman speaking on stage. “Who looks like that? She seriously hasn’t stopped smiling since she started talking. It doesn’t even look real! That’s definitely part of her programming. And she hasn’t even blinked, like, the whole time she’s been up there! Someone definitely made her. And I don't mean..." Carly is wiggling her eyebrows seductively at me, and circling her hips around in her chair. "I mean, someone straight-up manufactured this woman, then sent her out into the real world to torture us."
I know Carly is joking, despite her attempt to provide validating evidence for her suspicions, but for a small fraction of a second, I entertain the idea. With all the new technology these days, technically, she could be a robot, and it would be pretty hard to tell. Almost as hard as identifying the cake among the decoys in that show, “Is It Cake?” I’m about to take out my phone to text Mark and remind him not to watch the new episode without me, no matter how much Macy begs, but then Carly distracts me.
“Look! She’s not even sweating! It’s like 90 degrees out here!” Carly’s whispering a little louder, pointing a little more obviously.
“Stop!” I manage to say through an escaped laugh. Instead of pushing her arm down, I pull it against my face, using it to muffle what is now uncontrollable laughter. “You’re horrible,” I say when I finally recover.
“Horrible does not make me wrong,” she says, and I can’t argue with that. I can’t even argue with her ridiculous claim. There is definitely something unusual about this woman. It’s been five whole minutes since the principal, Mrs. Averson, has introduced the new PTA board member, who apparently is also the new leader of Henderson Elementary’s parent site council, Sandi Mitchell. Ever since she was given the microphone, she has been talking to, or rather at, us, an apathetic, and frankly exhausted, group of elementary school parents forced to be at our children’s school after hours. Most of us are just relieved to have an hour away from our kids, and, unfortunately, enduring recruital presentations about parent organizations that none of us have the time or energy to join is the price we pay.
But, I have to admit, the more I watch Sandi, the more surreal she seems to be. Everything about her looks like she’s stepped out of a 2000s drama sitcom about a rich, Southern California beach town. It’s as if she modeled her entire wardrobe after Julie Cooper from The OC. She’s wearing all black, in the most elegant fashion, not in my usual “don’t talk to me" kind of way, and over her blouse is a high-end, full-body-length blue and white kimono. Her large brim sunhat sits slanted on her head, creating a halo around her face. Her sunglasses are equally large, daring anyone to question the perfection of her eyebrows. Her lips are a matte red wine color, and gold shimmers from each earlobe. Even from our back row seats (which are only five rows from the stage), I can see her nails are bright, shiney crimson and manicured at a modest length. There's no way she's doing any real house chores with those.
“I mean, where did this woman come from? I heard she’s a lawyer, and she has two kids who go here. How can she possibly have time to run the school, too?” Carly whispers. I scoff so she knows I’m listening, that I agree with her, but now that Carly has joked about her perfection, I'm fixated on her. A lawyer, a mother of two, and she’s leader of every parent organization possible. I can’t help but feel a little guilty, a little insecure, a little envious, even.
“I heard her complaining to another parent about her power being out because they’re getting a car charging station installed,” Carly continues. When I look at her confused, she adds, “Her and her husband are getting matching Rivians delivered next week.”
My jaw drops. Carly’s eyes roll, and she sticks her finger just outside her mouth, pretending to vomit.
“What, did whoever make her forget to install a jetpack?” I say, finally disgusted enough to join Carly’s insults. I instantly feel bad, but Carly loves it; she’s laughing.
“For real,” she says. She crosses her arms tight across her chest. I see her smile fade, shifting into something more serious, something more humane. Something like sadness. “But, seriously, the way she said it, too, like she doesn’t realize who she’s talking to. This is public school. Does she not realize some families are struggling just to get food on their table. She thinks she can complain about a little electricity not working while she’s spending all her millions on some space cars? Ugh, give me a break. Why doesn’t she go find a private school, where she belongs.”
I don’t like putting anyone down, but this I do agree with. The audacity of wealthy people – no, the ignorance of wealthy people – really frustrates me. I think of Mark working overtime last week, and a weight sinks in my chest. More guilt. “Speaking of,” I say, “need anything from Costco this week?”
Carly’s face moves through embarrassment, shame, guilt, gratitude, and relief all in a matter of one second. She lets out a sigh before she says, “Not this week. Kyle’s parents sent us some money. It’ll get us to next week, if we’re careful. Thank goodness the school gives the kids free lunch.”
“Yeah,” I say, then think of the awful hot lunch my daughter Macy described to me on her first day of school. “That’s what Sandi should really spend her money on. Getting these kids some decent lunches.”
Carly is nodding, but her head is cast a little too far down, like she’s thinking about something. I feel another tinge of guilt for saying that, like I’ve just contributed to even more of her own guilt. I know she wishes she had the luxury of telling her kids they got to choose if they wanted homemade lunch or hot lunch from school. I know she would pack lunches for her kids if money weren’t so tight. I know I’m lucky to be able to give Macy a choice, even if I do cringe at the thought of her eating the cafeteria meals.
“Are you sure you guys are doing alright?”
That brings Carly out of her reverie. “Yeah, we’re fine,” she says. She offers me a small smile, just enough to assure me of that fact, and even though I can already see it clearly in her eyes, she says, “Thanks, Mags.”
I squeeze her arm softly. “Anytime.”
The sun had already moved past the roof of the cafeteria when Sandi finally concludes her speech. “So, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. I know Mrs. Averson will include my contact information in next week’s newsletter, and like I said, all are welcome at our next PTA meeting on the 18th, so I hope to see you there. I look forward to connecting with each and every one of you. Let’s have a great year, OK? Go Wildcats!”
I’m actually thankful she ends on such a spirited note, or else I would not have known her talk was ending. A weak and unenthusiastic applaud barely rises before it starts to trickle out, and parents all around start standing up and collecting their things.
Carly exhales. “Guess she has to go charge her battery, huh?”
I chuckle. “Your unfailing ability to prolong a joke is my favorite thing about you, Carly.”
“It’s why you love me,” she gleams.
“It is.” I say as I check my chair to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind.
“Is Mark working late again tonight?”
“Uh, no, he made it home in time so I could come here. How about you? Is Kyle home?”
“I wish,” she pouts. “His niece is watching the kids for us.”
“Aw, that’s nice. Hey, I gotta stop by the office and ask Mrs. Greer about my volunteer forms. She hasn’t gotten back to me, and Macy’s teacher asked me to help out next week.”
“OK,” Carly looks at her watch. “I’d go with you, but if I don’t get home soon, Kyle’s niece is going to give the kids way too much ice cream.”
I laugh, and wave her off. “Go, go, go! Save yourself from the sugar crash!”
She’s giggling and walking backwards. “Bye! Good luck, I love you!” She waves before turning and jogging off to her car.
When I get to the office, Mrs. Greer is not there, but there is a sign on her desk that reads “Be Back Soon.” A distant shuffling of papers in the backroom tells me the sign is telling the truth. I lean into the countertop and start twiddling my thumbs, looking around at all the office decorations: Crayola-drawn pictures that say things like, “We love you, Mrs. Greer,” bulletin board calendars, thank-you note cards, and a flyer, reminding parents that picture day is coming up. I gaze over the school’s trophies and the large stuffed leopard displayed in between the center of all the awards, in honor of Henderson’s mascot. For a moment, I feel a sense of genuine pride in my daughter’s school, and nostalgia washes over me. It’s funny how becoming a parent can offer an entirely new perspective on all your childhood memories.
Just then, I hear the jingle of the bell on the office door, and in walks Sandi Mitchell. I startle, reflexively, and then release an embarrassed chuckle. When I face Sandi, I have to actively restrain myself from startling again. She looks even more perfect up close. It is hard to believe any mom of two children looks like this. Maybe Carly was right… Or is there something wrong with me?
“Oh! Oops, didn’t mean to scare you,” Sandi is pressing a hand to her chest, as if she were the one startled, wearing the same full smile she had on during her presentation.
All of a sudden, I feel nervous, like I’m unworthy of being alone in her presence. I laugh nervously, but I feel awkward when I say, “No worries, I mean, I’m sorry.”
If she thinks I’m being strange, she doesn’t show it. Instead, she steps closer and leans against the counter next to me. “Are you Macy’s mom?” she asks.
“Uh, yeah, I am,” I say. An image of Terminator-style analytical vision flashes in my head.
Without missing a beat, Sandi extends a hand. “Sandi Mitchell. Gavin and Marcus’s mom. Nice to meet you.”
I can’t help but stare at the massive diamond protruding off her finger before finally shaking her hand. “Maggie Bolkum. Nice to meet you.”
Sandi nods her head distinctly, like a confident business woman. I guess that’s to be expected of a lawyer.
A lawyer, I repeat in my head, again feeling that tiny sting of insecurity in the pit of my stomach.
“Well, I sure hope to see you at the PTA meeting next month. We could use more parents’ voices. And we could certainly use more mom power,” Sandi winks at me when she says that last bit. Normally, that would make me cringe, like she is patronizing the idea of a being a strong, nonworking mom, but the way she says it felt so genuine, I actually feel a sense of comradery. A connection between two mothers.
I’m nodding my head yes, but I’m speechless, still holding her hand. I see her look down at our clutched hands, and smile before pulling hers back. “Well, it was great to officially meet you, Maggie. I gotta get home and start dinner. You know how it is.” She places a form on the counter, and taps it with her hand. “I’ll just leave that there for Mrs. Greer. If you see her, will you let her know it’s from me?”
“OK,” is all I manage.
Sandi waves and pushes the door behind her, holding her hands on her hat to keep it in place. “Have a lovely evening!”
I’m about to inspect the form she left behind when Mrs. Greer walks back into the office. “Oh, hi,” she says, looking a little surprised. “I thought I heard Sandi.”
I glance towards the door. “Oh, yeah, she just left. She dropped this off.” I hand her the paper, and she takes it.
“Oh, great, thank you.” Mrs. Greer looks it over and sighs, shaking her head. “That poor woman. I just wonder how someone like that can be so generous.”
Instantly, I’m confused. It doesn’t even occur to me to do the polite thing and rein in my curiosity. “I’m sorry, what do you mean?”
Pity fills Mrs. Greer’s eyes, and I’m thankful, for once, for her loose lips. I know she can’t help herself. “She lost a daughter, a few years back. Ivy. She was just a couple years shy of attending here.” The start of tears forming is audible in Mrs. Greer's voice. I’m staring at her, completely stunned, when she mouths the word “cancer.”
Instantly, I feel like I’ve been punched in the chest. Just hearing about a tragedy like that makes any parent temporarily catatonic. A parent’s worse nightmare. I never would have guessed. Never would have been able to tell.
As if Mrs. Greer reads my mind, she whispers, “I think that’s why she keeps herself so busy." Then at normal volume, she tries to relevel the conversation, adding, “Lord knows I don’t know how else she could do all she does.” She huffs, a mixture of laughter and disbelief. “Now, what can I help you with, Mrs. Bolkum?”
I have to physically shake my head to remember what I am here for after that kind of news. Everything else in comparison now feels frivolous. “Oh, uh, yeah. I just wanted to check about my volunteer forms. Am I cleared? Mrs. Jenkins asked me to come in next week.”
“Oh, sure, let me check on that,” Mrs. Greer wanders to her desk and starts tapping away at her computer. “Looks like you’re all good. Fingerprints went through yesterday, so you’re cleared to volunteer next week.”
I hear her, but my mind is miles away, swirling in a dark place. Imagining a little girl who might look like Sandi. Considering what kind of sci-fi-like surgeries it would take to put me back together if anything ever happened to Macy. What bits and pieces of metal and hardware would ever even come close to mending a heartbreak like that. Mrs. Greer has no idea how deep she’s sent me, but I manage to look up, and say, “OK, great, thank you.”
Mrs. Greer nods politely and settles into her desk. I take a few steps to the door. I’m about to push it open, but I pause. “Actually,” I say. Mrs. Greer looks up. “Can I have a PTA form?”
“Sure. You thinking of joining?” She stands up and grabs a sheet of paper from a stack on her desk.
I take the form and pretend to start reading it. “Uh, yeah. Maybe. I don’t know. Thanks. Goodnight, Mrs. Greer.”
As I’m walking to my car, I call Mark. It only rings twice before Macy answers. “Mom! You have to get home right now or Dad and I are watching 'Is It Cake?' without you!”
I laugh. “Don’t you dare! I’m leaving your school right now. I’ll be home soon.”
“Hurrrrrrryyy!” She groans.
“I love you,” I say before she can hang up.
I hear a shouted “Love you!” before the phone disconnects.
When I get to the car, I place the PTA form on the empty passenger’s seat. I don’t know if I’ll actually join. Maybe if I can convince Carly to join. The thought of her makes me take my phone out again. I type “AI robots” into the search bar.
The amount of information about new AI technology that pops up is immense. It also looks complicated and insanely terrifying. I remind myself to revisit this rabbit hole with Mark later. He’ll be more willing to read all the articles about it and summarize them for me.
I put my seatbelt on, and start the car. I watch Macy’s school get smaller in the rearview mirror and remind myself I’ll be back here in less than twelve hours. My brain instinctively starts packing Macy's lunch for tomorrow. On any other night, I'd probably prolong the space between now and tomorrow morning's school drop-off by taking the back roads home, giving myself a few extra minutes of solitude and the freedom to choose whatever music I want to hear. But as I sit at the stop sign, looking left to the long way home, and right to the quickest route, a thought crosses my mind that gives me both an aching pain and a surge of warm gratitude.
I think of Carly, first, and then Sandi. I think of the missing space she must feel between her arms every time she hugs her boys.
I’m one of the lucky ones, I think.
And then I turn right.