Abbi Waxman shares an excerpt from her new book, Other People’s Houses.
Frances pulled into the elementary school lot and Ava got out, sighing as if she were a fourteen-year-old Victorian child disembarking for her day down the mine. She pulled open the door and swung her arm wide.
“Medium-size children may now escape. Mind the gap, and watch out for speeding moms on cell phones.”
The children had already unbuckled and piled out, high-fiving Ava as they passed her. Kate stopped, and Frances turned to see what was up. The little girl’s face was a study in conflict.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
Kate looked at Frances, and her chin wobbled.
“I left my toilet roll tubes at home.”
“Oh.” Frances looked at her eldest child. Ava shrugged, looking back inside the open minivan.
“They aren’t in the car.”
“Oh, OK.” Frances smiled at Kate. “I’m sure the teacher will have lots of extras.” She herself had, over time, sent in three thousand toilet roll tubes. For all she knew they were building a particle collider out of them, or an accurate re-creation of the New York subway system. Let’s hope they didn’t use the obvious choice for subway trains.
“No, I have to have my own ones.” Kate’s eyes were filling with tears, her shit-fit indicator was dropping to DEFCON 3. “It’s for the class project. Everyone else will have them.”
Frances weighed her options. On the one hand Kate was only six, and would not only survive but would forget the trauma of not having had toilet roll tubes. But on the other hand, she was a member of the Yakuza-esque organization known as Miss Lollio’s First Grade Class, whose members fell on the weakest like wolves on a lamb. Forgetting to bring toilet roll tubes and having to borrow some was a Noticeable Event to be avoided at all costs. It wasn’t on the level of peeing oneself, of course, it wasn’t going to give rise to a nickname you couldn’t shake until college, but it wasn’t great.
“My mommy put them in a bag, but she forgot to give them to me.” A note of accusatory steel had entered her voice. Frances gazed at the little angel, whose mother had been heard calling her Butterblossom. Kate’s eyes had gone flat like a shark’s. She knew she would get what she wanted, the only question was when. I am younger than you, old lady, her eyes said, and I will stand here until age makes you infirm, at which time I will push you down, crunch over your brittle bones, and get the toilet roll tubes I need.
“Alright, Kate. I’ll go back and get them after I drop Ava, OK, and bring them back to school for you.” Frances knew she was being played, but it was OK. She was softhearted, and she could live with that.
“Suckah . . .” Ava headed back to her seat, shaking her head over her mother’s weakness, a weakness she loved to take advantage of herself.
“Thanks, Frances!” Kate beamed an enormous smile, turned, and ran off—the transformation from tremulous waif to bouncy cherub instantaneous. Behind her in the line of cars, someone tapped their horn. OK, the brief honk said, we waited while you dealt with whatever mini crisis was caused by your piss-poor parenting, because we’re nice like that, but now you can get a move on because we, like everyone else in this line, have Shit to Do. Amazing how much a second of blaring horn can communicate.
Frances waved an apologetic hand out of the car window, and pulled out of the gate.
She dropped the other kids and was back at Anne’s house in a half hour. Having carpool duty wasn’t the onerous task the other parents thought it was: All three schools were close to home, and all four families lived on the same block. As Frances ran up to Anne’s door she looked over and saw her own cat, Carlton, watching her. She waved. He blinked and looked away, embarrassed for both of them.
She knocked softly on the door, but no one answered. Maybe Anne had gone back to sleep. She turned the handle and pushed open the door, peering around. Yup, there was the bag of toilet roll tubes. She grabbed it and was about to shut the door again when she saw Anne lying on the floor, her face turned away, her long hair spilling across the rug.
“Anne! Holy crap, are you OK?” But as she said it her brain started processing what she was really seeing. Anne, on the floor, check. But now she’d turned her head and Frances realized she was fine. In fact, she was better than fine. Frances had instinctively stepped over the sill and now she saw that Anne was naked, her face flushed, a man between her legs, his head below her waist.
“Shit . . .” Frances dropped her eyes, began to back out, “Sorry, Anne, Kate forgot her toilet roll tubes . . .. . .” Stupidly she raised her hand with the Whole Foods bag in it because, of course, that would make it better, that she’d interrupted Anne and Charlie having a quickie on the living room floor. It was OK, because she was just here for the toilet roll tubes. Nothing to see here, move along.
The man realized something was wrong, finally, and raised his head, looking first at Anne and then turning to see what she was looking at, why her face was so pale when seconds before it had been so warmly flushed.
Frances was nearly through the door, it was closing fast, but not before she saw that it wasn’t Charlie at all. It was someone else entirely.
Frances closed the door and heard it click shut.
For Frances Bloom, driver-in-residence of her local carpool crew, school dropoff is a chaotic if not predictable affair. Until one of Frances’s steely-eyed kindergarten charges sends her to retrieve forgotten school supplies. That’s when Frances stumbles on her friend Anne Porter — perfect, impeccable Anne — having a 9:00 am quickie with a younger man who is definitely not her husband.
The affair exposes, to comedic effect, dormant insecurities, neuroses, and strife in the neighborhood. As the carpool line-up unravels one gossip session at a time, the novel alternates between the perspectives of the four families involved: the down-to-earth, level-headed Blooms; the seemingly perfect Porters; the eccentric lesbian couple Sara and Iris; and the mysterious Hortons, hiding a sad secret.
Waxman, a former ad copywriter, wields pitch-perfect dialogue, capturing how the chaotic aftermath of the affair plays out across the block behind closed doors, in scenarios alternately tender and preposterous. It will all lead up to the portentous return of Anne’s boyfriend, in a final plot turn that tests the carpool crew indelibly and forces their reliance on each other into alarming perspective.
Life in the carpool lane will never be the same.
Abbi Waxman is a chocolate-loving, dog-loving woman who lives in Los Angeles and lies down as much as possible. She worked in advertising for many years, which is how she learned to write fiction. She has three daughters, three dogs, three cats, and one very patient husband.