There is no greater punishment for a life lived poorly than having to move to the suburbs. I believe Socrates said that. Or maybe it was one of the Kardashians. I don’t quite remember. What I do know is that we have been living in this neighborhood for 336 hours, and I am convinced that I must have done terrible, unspeakable things in a past life to deserve this torture; this Saab-driving, dinner party-hosting, PTA-fundraising torture. The Suburbs (capital S, all italics, said in a nasally whine) is where corporate careers and former homecoming queens with no discernible job skills go to die. And death comes slowly; preceded by a seemingly endless loop of pumpkin spice lattes and idle gossip.
I am a city girl. I have always been a city girl. I thrive in chaos and noise. I love to be surrounded by culture and art. I love the freedom that comes with ordering Chinese takeout at 2am. I am at my best when I am in a city. Adam was aware of this when we married, and he remained on board when we had the twins. He was absolutely content to live in a cramped two bedroom above the Broad Street Bakery with our little girls and continue our chaotic lives. And it worked for us for a very long time.
Until it didn’t.
Eight months ago I was passed over for a promotion at my design firm. It was something that I had been working towards for years, and when my director gave it to her less qualified sorority sister instead, it was a crushing blow to both my ego and my career. The very next day Adam was named senior partner at his law firm. Adam took this as a sign that the universe had granted my long forgotten childhood dream of becoming an illustrator. And thus began his Suburbia campaign.
Remember when the girls were born, and you used to cry yourself to sleep because you wanted to stay home with them forever?
Look at this listing, Hon! Four beds, three baths. A pool! It has a pool!
It sure would be great to be able to fall asleep without hearing the Millers scream at each other up there, huh?
Wow, the girls sure are fighting a lot lately. Pretty soon they’re going to refuse to share a room.
Man, the school district’s funding just got cut again. At this rate, there will be no money at all for anything by the time the girls start high school.
This went on for a few weeks, and I held out as long as I could. But even though his execution was annoyingly misguided, Adam had some very good points that I couldn’t deny. We agreed on a house in a newer development called “Windmere Glen.” It is a large house and probably more than we can actually afford, but I told Adam at the very beginning that if we’re doing this, we were going all in.
And now we live in the eighth circle of Hell.
Adam has adapted scarily well to the change. Within the first week he had installed a “beer fridge” in the garage and an entire barbecue grill set-up on the back deck. I am fully expecting him to begin wearing black knee socks and white sneakers any day now. The girls are still too young to fully appreciate the change, but they now have a lovely, large backyard complete with a wooden swing set that came with the house. I, however, am having a hard time adapting to the solitude.
Two weeks ago I took the girls for a walk through the neighborhood when we passed three women who looked about my age. All three were dressed in nearly identical Lululemon workout attire and pushing Nuna strollers. Their shiny highlighted ponytails stayed perfectly in place. As I said hello, each turned her head towards me but kept walking. It was quite the warm welcome.
It’s a very odd feeling to go from 60 hour work weeks to a completely clear calendar. Occasionally I find myself implementing my own project deadlines to keep things interesting; Two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches minus crusts due in 15 minutes. Play room Crayon pick-up by 1pm. Walk around the block by 3pm sharp, do not be late. The first week we moved in I turned the spare bedroom into a studio space, but I have yet to be inspired to create. And, oh god, I miss adult conversation. What I wouldn’t give for an asinine meeting that could have been an email, or a pointless hallway conversation about font size. I would probably weep tears of joy if someone dropped the words “synergy” or “best practice” at me.
It is just about lunch time (11:45 am please be prepared with at least two ideas for customer-centric key performance indicators to improve the twins’ pain points before dinner). The girls are plugged into a reality show about cupcakes, and I am willing the overloaded dishwasher to unload itself when a knock on the sliding glass door causes my heart to leap into my throat. I look up to see Edith Johnson-Covey waving at me with one hand and carrying a basket in her other. Luke and Edith Johnson-Covey are our neighbors to the left. Luke introduced himself to Adam the very first night we were here. He owns a gym in the city and is about to open a second location, and he hosts a weekly poker game at which Adam now has a standing invite to. We haven’t met Edith; not formally at least. She waved to me once when we both happened to be leaving our houses at the same time, but that has been the extent of it. And now she’s at my patio door.
I wave back and motion for her to come in. Edith is tall, slender and stylish; the exact three things that I am not. She is wearing a crisp white button down shirt and Dolce & Gabbana jeans. Until this moment I wasn’t aware Dolce & Gabbana made jeans. She’s wearing diamonds everywhere; wrists, ears, three out of 10 fingers. She moves through space as if she’s floating, and as she sort of wafts into my kitchen she inexplicably comes in for a hug.
“You must be Mrs. King!” she exclaims in an odd, overly gleeful voice, almost as if she was a celebrity meeting a fan. “It is just so great to meet you at last!”
I am not a hugger. I have never been a hugger. At best, I can tolerate a handshake. As I pull away from her, the scent of Edith’s perfume hangs between us. It smells like rich people.
“Please, call me Holly,” I say. “Would you like to sit?”
Edith drifts into the chair at the head of the obnoxiously large kitchen table that looked so much better on the Pottery Barn website. She gently places the basket on her lap.
“Thank you so much, Holly. I can only stay but a minute.”
“Would you like some coffee?” I am very bad at small talk with other women. I learned from a very young age that I am missing the Inane Chit-Chat gene.
“I would love some coffee, Holly, but only if it’s a dark roast.”
I scan the coffee pods next to the Keurig. “I have that,” I say.
“But, ooooh, is it organic, Holly?” Edith says in a mild but distinctly condescending tone.
Edith waves her hand. “You know what? It’s fine, Holly It probably won’t kill me.”
An awkward silence befalls us as I prepare a non-organic, generic dark roast cup of coffee that probably won’t kill her, and I join her at the table when it’s done.
Edith takes a teeny sip from the mug that I only now realize has a chip on the side of it.
“I am so very sorry if I scared you, Holly, knocking on your patio door. It’s a force of habit. The Jermyns-they lived here before you-only ever used the patio door.”
“Oh. Well, you did startle me, but I understand.”
And then, as if we were starring in a terrible stage play, there is another knock at the patio door. A taller, slimmer and more stylish woman stands there. She is waving with one hand, but her other hand holds a bottle of what I can only imagine is unnecessarily expensive wine.
Edith laughs and waves this new stranger into my home.
“Rebecca! We must have had the same idea!” These two Town and Country print models now standing in my kitchen kiss each other on the cheek.
“Holly, this is Rebecca Miller-Myers.”
Rebecca Miller-Myers is wearing what I suspect is a vintage Valentino sundress, and her hair, like all suburban lady hair, is big and shiny and perfect. She attempts to hug me, but I quickly extend my hand. Like an agoraphobic ninja.
“It’s nice to meet you. I’m Holly King,” I say, because I can’t think of anything else.
Rebecca nods. “Oh, yes. I know, Holly. I am so very sorry to simply drop by unannounced. I simply dropped by to welcome you to the neighborhood.” She is still grasping my hand, and it has gone from awkward to extremely uncomfortable. Finally she looks down and drops my hand, thrusts the wine bottle at me and takes a seat next to Edith.
“So, Holly,” says Rebecca. “Where are you from?”
“Um, New Hampshire. But we moved here from Boston.”
Both ladies clasp their hands together at once. “Oooh, Boston,” they both squeal in unsettling unison.
“Uh. Yes. I miss it.”
“Well, I imagine,” says Edith. “And Holly, do you work?”
“I’m in graphic design. I mean, I was. Now I freelance,” I sputter. What is wrong with me? I suddenly feel as though I’m tanking a very important interview. For a job that I am not qualified for. With the head cheerleader from my high school. “And, you know, I really enjoy being able to stay at home with my girls.”
Edith looks knowingly at Rebecca. “Holly has twin girls.”
“Oh my! Twins! How lucky for you, Holly!” Rebecca says.
“Yeah. Yes. They’re 5.”
“And are they with a nanny currently?”
“Um, right now? No. They’re watching TV in the other room. Netflix is a great babysitter.”
I don’t think they get the joke.
Rebecca and Edith share a raised-eyebrow glance that I assume I’m not supposed to notice. I guess I have solidified my spot on their Bad Mother list.
“Oh, just wait,” says Rebecca. “Wait until they’re teenagers, Holly.” For a brief second I think I see a look of genuine amusement and camaraderie on her flawless face, but then it’s gone.
“Do you have teenagers?”
Rebecca nods but doesn’t elaborate.
“And I have my Kimberly,” says Edith. “She’s in seventh grade.”
It suddenly occurs to me how much and how unnecessarily often they use my name. “Wow,” I say because I have no idea what else to say.
“Well,” Edith says after a moment. She places the mug on the table and regards it as if she may or may not have just ingested poison. “ We should get going, Rebecca. I must be going about my errands.” She puts the basket next to the mug on the table and taps it lightly.
“Some goodies for you, Holly. To welcome you to the neighborhood.”
“Thank you very much. Please come again soon.” The invitation leaves my brain and exits my mouth before I can stop it.
Edith flashes me a toothy and unsettlingly wide smile. “Thank you, Holly. We surely will. And soon.”
When they are gone, I open the basket. Honestly, I am a little concerned about what may be in there, but to my sheer chubby delight I find a dozen elegantly decorated homemade cupcakes and assorted cheeses. There is a delicate pink envelope nestled beside the treats. I pull it out and lick the icing that has smeared on it because I am a woman of no shame who licks icing off of envelopes. The words FOR HOLLY are written in careful, silver calligraphy. Edith must have an unlimited amount of free time to be able to master more than one hobby. The note inside reads:
9:32 pm. Take the path through the woods. Tell no one.
What the hell is this?
I read the note over and over again trying to puzzle out what I am missing. It must be a joke. Right? It’s a prank. Or some sort of hazing thing. I didn’t peg this neighborhood to be so...elitist... but I’ve seen enough Real Housewives seasons to know how wealthy women with too much time on their hands behave.
Well, I am not one of those women.
On the other hand, I am desperately bored.
After three stories about fairies and a few dozen trips to the potty, the girls are finally asleep. I slip out of the house with the excuse that the neighborhood wives invited me over for drinks, and Adam is relieved. He won’t be subjected to Million Dollar Listing again tonight.
I’m familiar with the footpath. The girls and I explored it a few days after we moved in. It is lovely during the day but absolutely terrifying right now in the darkness. The flashlight from my phone is doing little to assuage my imagination. I have watched enough Investigation Discovery documentaries to know that boogeymen are real, and smart women just don’t go wandering in the woods at night while their husbands are blissfully unaware and watching Game of Thrones without them. Just when I have convinced myself that there was undoubtedly a serial killer with a machete following me, I notice light reflecting off the trees just ahead.
All at once I find myself in front of a campfire in a small clearing. It seems comically out of place, considering that there is an affluent neighborhood full of wine-drunk WASPs just a few hundred yards away. The chuckle that rises in my throat quickly dies when I realize that this campfire is surrounded by five robed, hooded figures. None of them look at me.
“Welcome, Holly,” one of the figures says; back turned to me, further adding to my fear that I am five minutes away from being the subject of someone’s true crime podcast.
“Welcome, Holly,” chants the group in unison.
I recognize Edith’s and Rebecca’s voices. I don’t know who the other three weirdos are.
“Um. Hello?” It comes out as more of a question than a greeting.
Finally, one of the figures approaches me. It is Edith; her face is covered by a blank white mask but I can tell her from the cloud of expensive perfume. Robed Edith takes my hand and leads me to a chair in front of the fire. It’s a country blue Adirondack chair that sells for about 300 bucks on the LL Bean website.
“Welcome to the Order of the Glen, Sister,” they say in monotone voices muffled by the silly plastic masks.
My only hope is that whoever is holding the hidden camera doesn’t make too embarrassing of a hashtag when they post this to their Instagram stories. I also notice that Edith’s robe is from Neiman Marcus; I bought my mother the same one last Christmas.
“I’m sorry. What is all this?” I manage to choke out without erupting into giggles.
Rebecca takes off her mask and tosses it aside. The others do the same. I recognize one of them; Megan...something. She's the doctor’s wife who lives three houses down. I don’t know the other two, but they are just as sleek and polished as the rest. However, I am suddenly and acutely aware that they are all drinking Natural Ice beers out of cans. The shortest one-the one wearing emerald earrings so large that they gleam in the fire light- plops down onto a nearby log and belches. Loudly.
“Amy. Gross.” Edith laughs and hands me a beer.
I am thoroughly, utterly confused. “I’m sorry. What is happening here?”
“Well, it’s like this, Holly. The suburbs suck,” Rebecca says. “But we have to be...this. All the time. On point. Perfect.”
She takes a long swig from her can.
“But...why?” I ask.
“Because it’s what’s expected,” Edith continues the thought. “It’s what’s supposed to happen in the suburbs.”
“So we formed this little club,” says Amy the Belcher. “We come out here once a week and just...chill. Be ourselves for a minute”
“So,” I begin slowly. “You have to be the Stepford wives in public just because you live here?”
Rebecca nods. “That’s correct.”
“Because society says so?”
The doctor’s wife speaks up. “Yes. Society and some of the bitches who live around here.”
“And you put on this little show with the masks because…?”
“It’s theatrical!” Rebecca says.
“And you’re letting me join your club?” My voice sounds five octaves higher. I’m entirely too eager. I hope I don’t sound like a loser.
Edith nods. “We were pretty sure you were one of us when you said that your kids were watching Netflix.”
“So, are we right? Are you one of us, Holly?”
I crack open the terrible beer, take a long chug and belch.