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Alicia Fandine, thirty-five, walked as quickly as her sensible pumps would carry her from the subway toward the home of Bess Steeple, a blonde of the sparkle-eyed variety, for tonight’s meeting of the Diversity Committee, a group of Brownstone Institute parents (mothers) from different backgrounds who shared a common goal: to ensure their kids grew up free of religious, racial, and sexual prejudices. Like organizer Bess Steeple, Alicia was as Caucasian as glue, and as “diverse,” she thought, as a potato. It was an odd invitation, although Alicia had her suspicions about why she’d been recruited.
While she knew it was ridiculous, totally unfair, Alicia had an aversion to gorgeous blondes. When introduced to one, she instinctively recoiled. Over the course of her life, Alicia had known plenty of kind, caring, yellow-haired individuals, both male and female. And yet, when she met a new one, in particular, a vibrant, winsome, outgoing type like Bess Steeple, Alicia felt a kind of xenophobia, as if blondes were alien or cyborg. Run-of-the-mill brunettes, as Alicia saw herself, were all too human.
The irony was only too tart for Alicia. She’d been asked to fight prejudice by a member of the one group she had a bias against—namely, women more attractive, wealthy, and sunny than herself. Nearly every mother at Brooklyn Height’s Brownstone Institute seemed to fall into this category. Alicia made snap decisions about them. The school year was just a week old, and she’d been able to observe her peers for only the few minutes at drop-off in the morning before rushing to Manhattan to work. Her general impression of the fourth-grade moms: they gleamed. In Dansko clogs, they glided. They carried an effortless, casual contentedness in their bones. Of course, the glistening patina could be a façade. Alicia prayed nightly that some of them—two or three, please—felt just as overwhelmed and inadequate as she did. Otherwise, she’d never make friends. Although Alicia could strike up an easy conversation with nearly anyone who had something to complain about, she didn’t see how she could possibly break the ice with women who were so perfect and pretty and happy all the freaking time.
But if making friends would help Joe, her son, Alicia would try. He was the new kid: shy, small and awkward, clinging to her side at drop-off. After she left him in the commons and spied him through the door’s peephole window, her heart broke to see her nine-year-old son standing by himself while other kids laughed and played in groups around him.
Like Joe, Alicia had been shy and small for her age. As a five-foot-two adult, she still felt built to hide. Joe’s social dismay brought back all of her old anguish, redoubled. She had empathetic pain for her son—thinking about his loneliness could make her gasp for breath—plus, she had her own anxiety about fitting in with the moms.
Tonight, she’d be okay, she hoped. Alicia always did better in small groups. The smaller the better. One-on-one, Alicia was capable of genuine charm. Her mantra for the evening: Be nice.
The air had cooled considerably. Mid-September, and it was already coat weather. Alicia pulled her brown Banana Republic suit jacket tight and walked faster, low heels clicking on the sidewalk, trouser hem shushing against her ankles. On Joralemon Street, she passed glorious Victorian townhouses, meticulously maintained. Brooklyn Heights’s pre–(Civil) war architecture, clean streets, and flowerboxes were certainly a switch from the deserted hinterland of Red Hook where Alicia lived now, or the shopping mecca of the Upper West Side, her neighborhood as of two months ago. In its antiseptic perfection, Brooklyn Heights was a Disney version of “city.” Like a poodle was a “dog.” Technically true, but lacking in gritty verisimilitude.
Alicia reached the address on Clinton Street. First clue that Bess Steeple was queenly rich: the buzzer panel had just one button. The family occupied the entire building. Having spent much of last year poring over Brooklyn real estate, Alicia estimated that the four stories, pointed façade, painted cornice, prime-Heights, prime-block townhouse would be in the $4,000,000 range—post-bubble. If the inside looked as good as the outside, that number would jump. Alicia suddenly felt (even more) inadequate in her economical suit, as well as intimidated and jealous—a potent insecurity cocktail. From a protective crouch, bracing for New Blonde contact, Alicia pushed the buzzer.
Beautiful Bess appeared in the vestibule. Like a beacon, Bess’s luminosity was hard to miss at drop-off. Alicia had noticed her, but the two women had never spoken. Framed by the door’s beveled-glass window, the host shimmered in the chandelier light, her smile white and welcoming. Alicia smiled back, she couldn’t help it. Some people had that power to put you at ease in an instant. Along with her obvious other gifts, Bess had that ability. If she was smart, too, Alicia might have to spill something.
“Hello!” sang the host, welcoming Alicia through the doors and into the foyer. “I’m so glad you could make it.”
“Alicia Fandine,” she said, holding out her hand, which Bess clasped in a two-fister. Her host wore jeans and a cute red silk chiffon top. She could have worn a garbage bag and looked crisp and classy.
“Joe’s mom, I know,” said Bess. “What a sweet boy.”
Alicia mentally groped for Bess’s kid’s name, and came up empty. Sensing her discomfort, Bess said, “I’m sure Joe and Charlie will be great friends.”
Charlie? Which one of the boys was Charlie? A slideshow of kids’ faces snapped through her mind, but Alicia couldn’t put names on the faces. “Charlie is a sweet kid, too,” she said.
Bess laughed at that. “R-iiiight,” said she. “Come on in. Everyone else is upstairs in the living room.”
Alicia followed Bess through the shell-pink-painted foyer, up a carpeted stairway lined with art that looked real to Alicia’s untrained eye, to the next floor, an open space of some 1,000 square feet with two period chandeliers of colored-glass globes, a detailed parquet floor, Persian rugs, modern Swedish furniture, built-in custom bookcases that housed, among other electronic doozies, a 50-inch flat screen TV. Alicia gasped when she saw the space. Couldn’t help it. This was Architectural Digest. Alicia wondered what Bess’s husband did for a living.
Two other women were seated on plush comfortable couches. An enamel pot sat over a blue flame on the coffee table in front of them, with a basket of bread chunks beside it.
“I hope you like fondue,” said Bess. “I impulsively bought the set at the cookware shop around the corner. Thought I’d use it all the time. Naturally, it’s been sitting in a box for six months.”
“Hot cheese, yum,” said Alicia. Was fondue a diverse food, she wondered? To the other women, she gave a self-conscious little wave and said, “Hey.”
The black woman in a creamy caftan nodded curtly. The caftan might count as ethnic, although it appeared to be straight off the rack of Ann Taylor. Alicia recognized this woman from drop-off, too. Hard not to. She was among the handful of black moms, a dahlia in the field of lilies. Alicia introduced herself and held out her hand. The woman took it firmly.
“Carla Morgan,” she said. “Zeke’s mom.”
The fourth in the group, a skeletally thin woman with a huge head of curly red hair, in a peasant skirt and gauzy top, smiled at Alicia and said, “Robin Stern. Stephanie’s mom.” Alicia hadn’t noticed her at drop-off. She was relieved that, of the three other women, only Bess sent off waves of pure joy. Carla and Robin seemed as confused about their presence at Bess’s house as she was.
“It’s funny how we introduce ourselves by our kids’ names,” said Alicia. “Like we don’t have identities of our own.”
The three women blinked at her. Clearly, they didn’t think this was funny—ha-ha or weird. Alicia tried to smile (passing for friendly) and she sat down next to Robin the redhead.
Bess took a seat next to Carla, who readjusted her caftan as if she was cold in the warm room. No one spoke. Four fondue forks and four little plates neatly arranged on the table lay untouched. The pot of molten cheese bubbled away. Finally, Bess leaned forward, took a chunk of bread from the basket, impaled it on a fork, and plunged it into the pot. When she lifted the fork again, the bread had disappeared.