On the Beach with Fireworks Above Us

By Mike Barthel

The Widow Jenkins was the first to dress sexy at our elementary school's morning drop-off, but she was not the last. It didn't catch on at first; the other parents, of course, gossiped amongst themselves about the too-tight bandage dress she'd pulled from the back of her closet, about the way a dry branch of boxelder had snagged on its hem and revealed a surprisingly lush thigh. But no official condemnation came—the P.T.A. said nothing, the principal was silent—and it became clear that we had been waiting for this, had been expecting it; were ruled by the dictates of the school's authority just as surely as our children were. We took notice of their lacunae and filled in a thousand blooms, each reading: Yes

And why not? In those bleak times, there was no shortage of widows and widowers, but little way to connect us. Babysitters were in short supply, and we were all so tired at the end of the day. We feigned sleep to trick our children into nodding off and found ourselves quite asleep, sprawled out on the floor of the nursery, a fresh new crick in our back. Nothing sexy about that.

And so we all joined in, looking in the back of our closets for the alluring garments we'd mothballed sometime after the fourth spit-up stained a favorite shirt. The kids joined in, too, helping us get ready, watching makeup tutorials, and offering tips on blending, matching our shoes to our belts with their sharp little eyes. The drop-off became a meat market, kids holding their noses against the mingling clouds of our perfumes and colognes.

The school not only failed to condemn this behavior—the portable bar set up on a card table, the baskets of poppers swaying on swing sets—they bumped drop-off a couple of hours later. This way, we could hire professional hair and makeup, get in the chair at 6 a.m. like we were morning show hosts. Really put a look together.

But of course, it could not last. It was a victim of its own success. No child wanted their parent to be locked in a cycle of romantic recriminations with their playmate's mom, so we paired up, settled down. Were no longer widows or widowers, but simply parents again. Brady Bunch parents, to be sure; blended families. Smoothies, we would joke to one another. (Though: who is the fruit and who is the yogurt, we might wonder.) And, slowly, the meat markets began to feel…untoward. We all had more children under our roofs now, had doubled or tripled up. Even less time to get waxes and tans. The sexy stragglers were making us look bad.

And so the gossip began again, about the few poor souls who'd not paired up, who huddled together at the edge of the playground in their short skirts and tight tops, the exposed bulges of their flesh torn at by the cold winter wind. We mocked them, at first amongst ourselves, in between talk of art classes and European travels; then in parents' group meetings and on mailing lists. A suggestion of dress codes. An appointment of a monitor. We became the authority we had feared. 

And slowly, it all stopped. Drop-off returned to a respectable time. But there would be echoes, some mornings: a condom wrapper caught up in the bricks at the building's far corner, feathers from a boa drifting off the roof. Damn teenagers, we told ourselves, not remembering what it had been like in the spring. Why should they get to have all the fun?

About the author

Mike Barthel is a writer, researcher, and recovering blogger living in Washington, DC. His work has been published in The Offing.

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