- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
I'm not sure whose fault it was, Ruby's or mine, that we didn't get in. Let's just say neither of us aced the admissions interview. I knew we were in trouble as soon as Ruby woke me up, at 6:00 A.M., with a scowl as black as the cowboy boots she had insisted on wearing to bed the night before. She refused to let me comb the left half of her hair, so I ended up walking out of the house holding the hand of a tiny little carny sideshow attraction: a half adorable, beribboned angel, half street urchin from hell. The effect was dramatized further by her chosen attire: Superman T-shirt, magenta miniskirt, and bright yellow clogs. She was impervious to my pleas, and seemed uninterested in my explanation of how not going to the right preschool would preclude Harvard, Swarthmore, or any other decent college. She'd end up at Slippery Rock State, like her dad. Even if she hadn't been two and a half years old, this would likely have made little impression on her. Her un-Ivied father made about ten times as much money as her thickly Ivied mother, and had an infinitely more satisfying career as a screenwriter than mine had been as a public defender.
By the time we got into the car, we were all three, Mama, Daddy, and Baby, in matching moods. Bad. Really, really bad. Peter was irritated because he'd had to get up before eleven. Ruby was irritated because I had turned off The Big Comfy Couch and forced her to eat some Cheerios and get out of the house. I was irritated at Ruby for being such a stubborn little brat, at Peter for failing to help me get her ready for the interview, and at myselffor having gained fifty-five pounds in the first thirty-two weeks of my second pregnancy. I'd already outgrown most of my maternity clothes, and the only thing I could fit into was an old, dusty-black smock that I had worn to shreds when I was pregnant with the tiny Hell's Angel herself.
As we drove up Santa Monica Boulevard I desperately tried to give Ruby some last-minute admissions hints.
"Listen, Peach Fuzz, it's really important that you try to be sweet today, okay?"
"Yes. Yes. It is. You have to try to share with other kids. Don't grab toys or fight. Okay?"
"Yes. Hey, I have an idea! You can tell some of your funny stories. How about that story about the crazy kitty? Want to practice that now? That's such a great story."
I sighed. Peter looked over at me and raised his eyebrows.
"She'll be fine," I said. "As soon as she's around the other kids, she'll be her sweet, agreeable self."
I glanced into the backseat. Ruby was grimly picking her nose and wiping it on the armrest of her car seat. When she saw me looking at her, she covered her eyes with her hands.
The Heart's Song School was widely considered the best preschool in the city of Los Angeles. The competition for the seventeen spots that opened each fall in the Billy Goat room was cutthroat. It was probably easier to qualify for the Olympic gymnastics team. It was certainly easier to get into medical school. Everyone who was anyone in Hollywood had a little Billy Goat. The school's spring fund-raiser, a talent show, had boasted original songs by Alan Menken, dance numbers by Bette Midler, and one legendary reenactment of Romeo and Juliet's balcony scene starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Whoopi Goldberg.
Our interview at the preschool took place with two other families. We perched on miniature chairs, covertly sizing each other up while waiting for the school principal. One family seemed pleasant enough. The parents were exhibiting the same slightly manic, good cheer as Peter and I. The father had a kind of artistic look, with longish, tousled hair. I decided he was probably a cinematographer or a moderately successful film director. He wore the same dress-up uniform as Peter, chinos and a slightly wrinkled oxford shirt. The mother was an attractive, dark-haired woman about my age, thirty-two or -three, wearing a long sweater over leggings and pretty brown boots. When she caught me looking at her, I smiled ruefully and rolled my eyes. She smiled back. Their son sat quietly in his father's lap and buried his head in his father's shirt whenever anyone looked at him.
The other couple was a whole different kettle of fish. First of all, he was wearing a suit, a double-breasted sharkskin. Definitely Italian. He was substantially older than the rest of us, at least forty-five or fifty, but trying real hard to look thirty-five. He sported an expression that managed to look tense and bored at the same time. Skinny wasn't the word to describe his trophy wife. Emaciated more like. Her very young, twiglike body was wrapped in an elaborate slinky skirt with a Lycra top that revealed a strip of bare midriff. She sported a diamond the size of a small puppy on one ringer. She had a gash of bloodred lipstick in an otherwise alabaster-white face, and her petulant pout precisely matched that of her daughter. I discreetly snuck a tongue out over my lips to see if I had remembered to put makeup on. Of course not. I rummaged in my purse for a lipstick, but had to satisfy myself with a tube of Little Mermaid Junior Lip Gloss.
The hyperelegant couple's daughter wore black velvet leggings and a red tunic with shiny black cuffs and pockets. Ruby was transfixed by her red patent-leather boots. She pointed at them and said, "Mama, buy me that"—dat—"I want that!"
Normally that kind of demand would be greeted with a minilecture on why we can't have everything we see. It is a mark of how desperately I wanted Ruby to get into that school that I leaned over and whispered in her ear, "I'll tell you what, kiddo. If you are really, really good I'll try to find you a pair of those boots."
The principal walked in just in time to hear Ruby say to the proud owner of the boots, "I'm getting those boots if I'm weawy good!"
I blushed to the brown roots of my red hair, and Peter snorted with laughter. The nice couple smiled and the not-so-nice couple looked superior. Trophy wife hissed "Morgan, come here," and hustled her daughter away from Ruby as if she imagined that my baby would try to wrench the boots clean off her little treasure's feet. As if Ruby would ever have tried that. At least not with me right there.
Abigail Hathaway, the founder and principal of the Heart's Song School, was a woman in her mid- to late fifties, tall, thin, and striking. She had black hair, shot lightly with gray, that she wore rolled in a chignon at the nape of her neck. Her clothes were gorgeous, conservatively elegant, and obviously expensive. She wore a faun-colored wool jacket buttoned loosely over a thick, creamy, silk blouse. Her skirt was in a matching herringbone. It occurred to me to wonder how she kept herself looking so splendid when she was surrounded every day by forty or so frenetic and filthy preschoolers. Ruby and I had already managed to acquire matching milk stains on our shirts, and my shoulder was festooned with a pink splash of toothpaste where she had wiped her mouth after brushing her teeth. I looked like the "before" picture in a Calgon bubble bath ad. Abigail Hathaway looked like she was heading out to lunch at the hunt club.
She perched herself on the edge of a minichair, introduced herself, and told us how she had come to start this most elite and special preschool fifteen years before. I put on my alert and interested expression, the one I had perfected in law school to impress professors with my zeal and engagement with the material. Actually, I was listening with only about fifteen percent of my brain. The other eighty-five was concentrating on Ruby as she wandered around the room, picking up toys and books.
"Heart's Song is designed to be a place where children learn the most important of lessons, how to cooperate and communicate," Ms. Hathaway said. "To that end we try to inculcate values such as empathy and concern for others."
At that moment Ruby plucked a toy from the nice couple's son's hand. He began to cry.
"Look, Mama, I'm gwabbing!" she announced proudly.
"Ruby!" I snapped. "Don't grab."
"But Mama, I love to gwab." She smiled hugely. I shot a quick glance at Ms. Hathaway to see if she'd heard. She had and was looking at me expectantly.
"Ruby, these toys belong to all the children and we have to share." I was using my best Miss Sally, Romper Room voice.
"It's virtually impossible for children of this age to share, Ms. Wyeth," the principal said.
"Actually, it's Applebaum, Ruby and Peter are Wyeth, I'm Applebaum" I said automatically, then winced. Like I really had to make that particular point at that particular moment. I looked over at my daughter. "Never mind, Ruby."
At that point Peter decided to take over for me, since I was obviously not wowing the room with my parenting skills.
"Hey, Rubes, come over to Daddy." She ran over and jumped up into his lap.
The school principal continued on for a while, describing how at the end of the afternoon those of us who had been selected to move on to the next stage of the application process would be given forms to fill out and send in, along with the $125-dollar, nonrefundable application fee. After about five minutes of sitting quietly, Ruby had had it. She wriggled out of Peter's arms and leaped off his lap. She was making a beeline for the sand table and had mischief on her mind. As she blew by me, I reached out an arm, stopping her in midrun. I hauled her onto my lap.
"If we're all ready to settle down," said Ms. Hathaway with a disapproving glance in my direction, "I'd like to tell you about the pedagogical goals of the Billy Goat program."
Ruby, it turned out, was on her best behavior after all. She played nicely and managed not to break anything. But none of that mattered. My parenting skills had not impressed Ms. Hathaway. As we gathered our belongings at the end of the morning, I watched as she handed a thick manila envelope to the pleasant couple, who, laughing delightedly, scooped up their shy little boy and rushed out the door. No packet came our way. I had a moment of sadness thinking that we probably would never get to know that nice family, who had seemed like people we could be friends with. Those thoughts were interrupted by a scene unfolding at the other end of the room.
"Excuse me. We haven't received our application packet." Morgan's father had reached his arm out to stop Ms. Hathaway as she walked toward the door.
"I'm sorry, Mr. LeCrone" she said.
"Sorry? What do you mean, you're sorry? Where is my application packet?" He leaned over her, threateningly.
"We are only able to extend an invitation to apply to a small number of those who visit. I am sorry."
"Look, what the hell are you talking about? Do you realize that I employ the parents of half your students? I suggest that you get me an application."
His wife put her hand on his arm. "C'mon, Bruce. Let's just go. Who gives a shit."
Ruby, who had been staring at the drama unfolding in the doorway, gasped. "She said `shit,' Mama!"
I leaned down and picked her up. "Shh, honey-pie," I murmured. I wanted out of that room right away, but they were blocking the only exit. Peter and I looked at each other. Neither of us could figure out what to do.
"I give a shit, goddamn it. Who the hell do you think you are, lady?" LeCrone's grip tightened on Ms. Hathaway's arm. Two spots of color appeared high on her cheeks. She looked genuinely frightened.
"Bruce, I'm leaving right now," LeCrone's wife said, grabbing their daughter by the hand. She pushed by him, out the door. He opened his mouth to speak, but before he could say anything more, Peter walked over.
"Hey, let's just chill out here a minute. We're all a little tense. Nobody means any harm," my husband said as he put an arm around LeCrone's shoulder. "I don't know about you, man, but my back's killing me from those little chairs, and I'm seriously coffee-deprived."
LeCrone looked, for a moment, like he was going to snarl. But suddenly he seemed to change his mind. Angrily shrugging off Peter's arm, he spun on his heel and marched out the door. Ms. Hathaway sighed with relief. She hugged her waist with her arms and shivered.
"Mr. Wyeth, if you'll wait a moment, I'll go get you an application."
"That's okay. You don't have to reward me. We understand you have your selection process. It's no big deal," Peter said, motioning to me. I scooped Ruby up in my arms and accompanied him out the door.
"Thanks for everything and have a nice day," I said, smiling over my shoulder at the principal. I'm not sure what prompted that, maybe I just wanted to show her that we were fine and unscathed by her rejection. At any rate, it turned out to be a singularly inappropriate comment, given what happened later that evening.