Gwen was in the library with her two-year-old, Max. She’d succumbed to the neighborhood hype and was there to pick up a copy of The Happiest Toddler on the Block, though she wasn’t a parenting-book kind of person. She tended to skim them, feel insulted by the overuse of bullet points and supplemental cartoons, then abandon them for a good thriller or mystery. In fact, she’d sworn off parenting books, tired of hauling them to and from the library, but then Max discovered tantrums and the word “No!”
She’d just pulled The Happiest Toddler from the shelf when she saw something surreal: a midget in a red and yellow clown suit diving through the air. He appeared and then disappeared at the end of the stacks, his arms outstretched and head tucked, as if a pool of water awaited him just beyond the parenting section.
Max was occupied with pulling books off a low shelf. Gwen went to the end of the aisle to see if there really was a flying midget and saw a child around six or so, an Asian boy, practicing gymnastics. He had on an unfortunate outfit, a red sweat suit with yellow polka dots appliquÃ©d to it, which accounted for Gwen’s mistaking him for a small clown. Also, she happened that week to be reading a novel about a group of international circus children with supernatural abilities, and whenever she was into a good book, fact and fiction tended to blur.
Nearby stood a woman Gwen remembered from prenatal yoga class. She held a girl about Max’s age in her arms. “Pick up your responsibility!” she said in a firm but cheery voice to the boy, and he popped up from a summersault and went to retrieve a book he’d abandoned on the floor.
“Hi,” Gwen said to the woman. “Sherrie, right? We were in yoga class together. Prenatal.” She wondered if that sounded strange, like they’d practiced yoga in some giant womb, way back when, before inflexibility set in. She added, “When we were pregnant.”
“Ah, right.” Sherrie flashed a tight smile that revealed clear braces on what appeared to be a mouthful of perfectly straight teeth. The tightness of her grin made Gwen suspect Sherrie was bluffing; she didn’t remember meeting in yoga. Still, she said it was good to see Gwen again and introduced her to the little girl, Suzie, who sat peacefully in her arms, and to her adopted son, who had a name of two quick syllables that Gwen didn’t catch.
Swayed by the novel she was reading, Gwen had a quick, silly thought about the boy: He was misplaced. He belonged in the circus but instead had been routed to a non-descript suburb in the middle of the United States, to a mommy who said things like, Pick up your responsibility!
“You’re quite a little acrobat,” she said to the boy.
“Isn’t he?” Sherrie rolled her eyes, though she seemed proud. “I have him in Tiny Tumblers over at the Y.”
Gwen glanced at Max, who was making a stack out of the books he’d pulled down. She felt proud too, despite knowing she’d have to re-shelve all those books.
“I’ve heard good things about that one,” Sherrie said.
At first Gwen thought she was talking about Max then realized she was referring to the book in Gwen’s hand. Gwen smiled and fought the urge to claim that it was for one of her neighbors, that Max already was the happiest toddler on her block. It would sound false, like the time she asked a clerk at the health food store for a flyer about a seminar on curing gastrointestinal discomfort and said it was for a neighbor. In that case it really had been for a neighbor, an older gentleman who complained about his ailing intestines whenever he ran into Gwen, but the young clerk gave her a look that said, “Whatever! Aren’t you too old to be denying your own farts?”
The urge to deny might have won out now if Max hadn’t begun to scale his stack of books.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Sherrie asked just as Max lost his footing and tumbled toward the metal shelves.
“Oh shit!” Gwen said, rushing forward.
Then, because she couldn’t help herself and because she knew Max would understand her urge to misbehave — to say the wrong thing in this world of happy, healthy parenting – and also because she hadn’t yet noticed that he was bleeding and he’d yet to release the howl building inside him, she paused long enough to turn and say, “I have to pick up my responsibility!”
“Do we have to go to that party tomorrow?” Dan asked later that evening, calling out from the master bathroom. He’d always hated the idea of neighborhood get-togethers.
Gwen was in bed already, browsing through The Happiest Toddler. The part she’d paused on compared toddlers to cavemen and explained how to relate to them in cavemen terms.
“We’ve never gone before,” Dan called out, only it sounded like We’b neba gone be-foa, caveman-speak, since his mouth was full of toothpaste.
“That’s because we didn’t have Max before, and now that we do, we need to socialize with the neighbors so he isn’t treated like an outcast thanks to his reclusive parents. Also, there’ll be appetizers and if we eat enough I won’t have to cook dinner.”
Dan came out of the bathroom and slipped into bed. “We could order pizza. And we’re not reclusive, just because we don’t want to hang out with the neighbors.”
“No more pizza. We have to cut back on takeout.”
The amount of money they were spending lately on crappy food, all because Gwen had yet to master prepping a meal with a toddler swinging from her legs, was astounding.
“Sometimes I miss our loft in the city,” Dan said. “None of the neighbors ever tried to get to know us there. What are you reading?”
Gwen showed him the cover.
“Why are you reading that? Don’t you think Max is happy? Does he have to be the happiest?”
“I don’t know.” Gwen tossed the book onto the floor. This book was working for lots of people. Millions of people. Why did she have to be so critical?
She curled against Dan. “Do you ever feel wrong for the job? Before Max was born, I thought I was going to be a kick-ass mom. Raising Max was going to be the thing I was great at, since I’d made it to 40 without being truly great at anything else. But I’m finding I’m mediocre at it. At best.”
She picked up from her night table the novel about the circus kids. They’d arrived in a town where a murder had taken place and were helping to solve the case with their supernatural abilities. At a point in Gwen’s life, years ago, she’d hoped to be really great at writing novels. But she had no head for plot. Clowns, international intrigue, supernatural abilities. Who thought of these things? Who had experiences that led to such ideas? Her story ideas — which she still jotted down from time to time when Max managed to find a safe, quite occupation — were peopled with characters who were merely thinly disguised versions of herself. Moms in the suburbs dealing with tantruming toddlers — that kind of thing.
“Honey,” Dan said, wrapping an arm around her. “You’re not mediocre.”
“Do you think I’m a good mom?” Gwen asked.
“Ask me after the stitches have been removed from Max’s forehead.”
“I feel awful about that. You know I do. The books just slipped . . .”
“I know. I’m kidding,” Dan said, though he still didn’t answer the question.
At the get-together the following afternoon, Gwen pushed Dan toward the food table. “Eat,” she instructed. “And feed Max whatever doesn’t seem like a choking hazard.”
“Something’s wrong with you,” Dan said, but he went. Max followed, toddling along in the baseball cap Gwen had put on him to hide his bandaged forehead.
Gwen went looking for the hostess to say hello and found her in the kitchen, talking to Sherrie. Apparently, Sherrie lived in the Shady Grove Estates too, though Gwen had never run into her so close to home before.
“Well, hi again,” Gwen said.
Sherrie looked at her blankly, with that tight smile, braces aglow with saliva. Gwen thought: What if I slapped her? Then: Dan’s right. Something’s wrong with me. “Prenatal yoga class,” Gwen reminded her. “Then yesterday, at the library. My son banged his head . . .”
“Oh right!” Sherrie turned to the hostess. “I told you about that, didn’t I?”
Gwen turned away and went to look for Dan, to say, “Screw it, let’s order pizza,” but on her way through the living room she ran into a posse of children who blocked her passage. They were clustered in a U shape around a boy who was working his way into a handstand. Sherrie’s son, it turned out. Once his legs were straight in the air, he began hand-walking around the room. Then his legs swayed and he nearly knocked a vase off a table, and Sherrie swooped in and said in her firm but cheery voice, “No! No thank you!”
“No thank you?” a man beside Gwen asked.
He had come up beside her without her noticing. She’d never met or seen him before, and he didn’t seem to belong in the neighborhood. He had a meaty build, salt-and-pepper hair, and tan skin reminiscent of the days when tanning beds were the rage. He wore a button-down shirt open enough to reveal a graying tuft of hair. Beach-state retiree, Gwen guessed.
She explained: “No thank you is what parents say these days when they don’t want their kids to do something. ‘No thank you, don’t eat that clump of dirt,’ ‘No thank you, don’t climb on the table.’ It’s an incorrect use of that combination of words. It drives me nuts.”
“It would drive me nuts too if I were parenting now,” the man said. “My kids are older. It didn’t occur to me to wait, like people do these days. But now I’m a free man.”
Something about the way he said “free man,” or maybe just that he used those words when Gwen didn’t know any free people at this juncture in life, made her uncomfortable. She looked away, toward the dining area, to see how her cavemen were faring. They’d been cornered by the neighbor who suffered from gastrointestinal distress. She could see Dan nodding in sympathy. Max leaned down from Dan’s arms and grabbed at the food, as if he knew this was his best bet for culinary variety for a long time to come.
Gwen felt the man studying her. “Listen,” he said. “I know this is going to sound like a come-on, and I don’t meant it like that, I swear, but something about you caught my eye right away. You have a great smile. Great cheekbones too. I’ll bet you photograph well. I’m in town — in the neighborhood, actually — working with an old buddy on an entrepreneurial idea. We’re developing a new product. I can’t talk about it in detail because our patent hasn’t come through yet, but I can tell you it’s going to be big, and something you and others like you will have to have . . .”
“Me and others like me?” Gwen interrupted. “What does that mean?”
The man laughed evasively. “Come sit for a photo shoot on Monday. My partner and I are looking for a face for our product, and I’ve just got this feeling about you, like maybe you’re our face. The one on all the packaging.”
“Of the product you can’t talk about?”
“Of course, not everyone who looks like they’re going to photograph well ends up photographing well, but if it works out, it could be really lucrative.”
“Who’s your target market? What type of face are you looking for?”
Gwen couldn’t think of a product for which she might be the right face. Anti-puffy eye cream, maybe. The “before” face.
“We’re targeting parents. Moms, mostly. It’s an educational toy for toddlers. I can tell you that much. And we need a typical mom to stand behind it. We’re looking for a pleasant face. Ordinary. A face that says, ‘I’m just like you, and I love this product.'”
Gwen might have asked more about his educational toy — what had he possibly thought up that hadn’t been thought of already? — but she’d gotten stuck on “ordinary.” She wondered if she would have been less offended had he sought her out for puffy eyes.
“Don’t be offended,” the man added, perhaps sensing he’d tapped into one of Gwen’s deepest fears: that she was nothing more, would never be anything more, than ordinary.
He reached into his shirt pocket and extracted a card, which he held out to Gwen, saying, again, that he hoped she’d agree to a photo shoot. “Our product’s going to be big,” he said. “Think Baby Einstein big.”
Gwen debated, leaving the man in limbo, the card between them. On the one hand, she was enticed by the paradoxical fact that if she became the face of ordinariness, it would raise her to the status of extraordinarily ordinary. On the other hand, who was this guy?
She noticed Sherrie standing a few feet away, glaring at her. Gwen wasn’t sure what she’d done to deserve the look. Maybe it was their meeting in the library, and Gwen’s snide comment about picking up her responsibility before realizing Max had sliced his head open. Or maybe Sherrie had sensed Gwen’s earlier urge to strike her. Or, more likely, Gwen had slipped from Sherrie’s memory again and Sherrie was mistaking her for someone else, someone she wished she could slap.
Suzie appeared at her mother’s feet, un-bruised and stitch-free, wanting up. Sherrie lifted her daughter onto her hip. When she caught Gwen’s eye again, her look had turned smug.
The man still held his card, waiting. Waiting patiently, Gwen thought, but then she saw he was looking beyond her, as if just now remembering where he was and taking note of all the pleasant, ordinary faces around him. Gwen felt an irrational rush of panic, of falling back toward some place she’d never left, and took the card. Then she set off for the buffet.
“Is he for real?” Dan asked that night as he and Gwen were getting ready for bed.
“He used the term ‘photo shoot,'” Gwen said. “That sounds for real, don’t you think?”
“It’s a con. He sensed your gullibility.”
“A con? Who would come here to pull off a con?”
Dan followed Gwen into the bedroom, holding his toothbrush with a fresh glob of toothpaste on it.
“Are you kidding? Middleclass suburbs are ideal for conmen. They’re full of people ready to be duped. I know what con it is too. He talks you into believing you’re the perfect subject then gets you in front of the camera and asks you to take your shirt off.”
“That happened in the movie Fame,” Gwen said, getting into bed. “Like three decades ago. Are you thinking of Fame?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I just think this guy sounds suspicious, and I don’t want you going to see him.”
“Is it so hard to believe I might be the right face for his new product?”
“What product?” Dan said, exasperated. He flung his arms for effect. “What could he possibly have thought up that hasn’t been thought of already?”
“I wonder that too,” Gwen conceded. “But supposing he does have an original idea and it takes off, this could be a good thing. I could put whatever I earn into Max’s college account.”
Dan sat on the edge of the bed, near Gwen’s feet. “What type of face is he looking for, exactly?”
Gwen took his question to mean: why had the man sought her out when there were so many others he might have picked? She thought about lying but then told the truth — pleasant, ordinary — because she didn’t want to lie to the one person who put up with her no matter what, and because she couldn’t think of an answer for what someone might have seen in her, other than what the man had seen.
Dan sighed and rested a hand on one of Gwen’s ankles. The glob of toothpaste had disappeared from his toothbrush. Gwen would find it eventually, most likely by stepping on it. This was life in the carpeted suburbs.
“Don’t go,” Dan said. “The guy’s a sleazebag.”
She knew she shouldn’t, but she couldn’t stop thinking, What if it’s not a con? She could make her family rich. She could be famous, even if it was in a why-does-her-face-look-familiar way. A glimpse of Sherrie power-walking past the house on Monday morning pushed Gwen over the edge. She caught sight of Sherrie out the kitchen window during a breakfast that involved running around after flying Cheerios: Gwen’s exercise for the day. A few days earlier, Gwen hadn’t realized Sherrie lived in the neighborhood, now she was everywhere. She walked with Suzie strapped to her chest. Her son followed behind, mimicking — mocking? — the aerobic punching thing Sherrie was doing with her arms. Begrudgingly, Gwen felt awe. How had Sherrie already made it through breakfast and gotten herself and two kids dressed and out the door? Did cereal stay in the bowl at her house?
Gwen called the babysitter and arranged for her to come over. Then she walked the few blocks to the address the man had given her, arriving at a house much like her own. She rang the bell. While waiting, she heard rustling from above. She looked toward the leaves of an old tree — one that had overseen the building of this new development — and thought she saw Sherrie’s son looking down from a height that was impossible to have climbed to. Then more rustling drew her eye elsewhere, and when she looked back again she saw only green.
The man from the party opened the door and led Gwen through the house into his “studio,” which had been set up in the eating area of the kitchen. In place of a table was a single hard-backed chair with a dark sheet for a backdrop. Several lights and a camera sat on tripods. The equipment looked professional, if misplaced.
“Where’s your partner?” Gwen asked.
“Running errands,” the man said. “He should be back soon.”
He wore a button-down shirt again, this time un-tucked and with the sleeves rolled up. To go with the casual look, he wore jeans and no shoes. His toenails were yellowed and ancient-looking. His exposed toes and the fact that he and Gwen seemed to be alone in the house made Gwen nervous. She was about to bow out when the man placed his hands on her shoulders. “Relax,” he said. “People get nervous around cameras, but the key is to forget about them.”
He guided her over to the chair and she sat. While he fiddled with some dials on his equipment, Gwen stared out a glass-paned door that led to a patio and the yard. She searched the tops of the trees for the boy. In all likelihood he was somewhere else, somewhere logical, involved in a structured activity with his mother and sister. But Gwen found it comforting to imagine him hidden up in the foliage, where most people, as they went about their days, forgot to look.
“There,” the man said, looking through the lens. “I saw it in your shoulders, the way you let go. Now you’re ready.”
He snapped pictures, talking all the while in vague terms about the product he couldn’t talk about. He talked until he almost had Gwen believing it would be big, whatever it was, and then, just as she was taking pleasure in imagining Sherrie coming upon her face on a box in Toys-R-Us, he arrived at this: “We’re almost there with the startup money. Everyone involved with the project is chipping in. You could invest as little as a grand, which is nothing compared to what you’ll see in return.”
“Oh.” Gwen sucked in her breath. “My husband was right. This is a con.”
“A con?” The man stepped away from his camera and put a hand to his chest, as if his heart hurt. “Honey, you’ve seen too many movies. I’m asking you to invest. This is how it works with startup companies. It’s called being part of a team. I’m sorry if you thought you could reap the benefits without putting anything into this. Seriously, though, whatever you put in will come back tenfold. Scout’s honor.”
“Scout’s honor? You want a thousand bucks on scout’s honor?”
Gwen stood and headed for the door.
“Five hundred,” the man said. “How’s that sound?”
He followed behind Gwen as she made her way out, lowering his price, offering to let her in for a song. Finally, she was outside, walking away. She picked up speed, passing her own house and giving in to that air-punching thing. It felt cathartic.
She walked past a woman who was squinting at a business card. Only after Gwen passed did it occur to her that maybe the woman was looking for the “studio.” How many of them had been talked into a photo shoot? Into thinking they were better than all the others who believed they’d landed in the suburbs but didn’t truly belong? As Gwen walked past house after similarly designed house, she began to see that each of them might contain a woman who felt this way. And yet, she thought, here we are.
That should have been the end of it with the man. Gwen had left the photo shoot, indignant. She’d confessed to Dan and suffered his I told you so! She’d become wise to the ways of conmen in the suburbs. But she couldn’t stop wondering about the pictures the man had taken. Were they still on his camera? Would he look at them again? Bring them back with him to wherever he was from? Laugh? Show his buddies? She’d allowed those images to be taken, she’d given them freely with the hope that the man would make her more visible, somehow make her presence matter more. But now she wanted them back.
“Come on,” Gwen said to Max, a few days after the photo shoot. “Let’s walk.”
Max had been playing around Gwen’s garden, plunking stones into an empty watering can. Now he dragged the can by its spout so it scraped along the sidewalk in an irritating way. Gwen talked over the noise, talked to him in the way she sometimes did when the two of them were alone, explaining things too complicated for his little brain to grasp with the hope that some of it would sink in and he’d get how much she loved him even though she was turning out to be only a mediocre mom.
“Are you getting any of this?” she asked after a couple blocks.
“Want to go to PARK!” he said.
“We need to make a quick stop first. Then we’ll go to the park.”
“PARRRRK!” Max yelled, his face going from red to purple in a span of seconds. His screech went to the tips of Gwen’s nerves.
Max flung the watering can and it landed at Gwen’s feet. She yelled, “MAD! I know you’re MAD, MAD, MAD!”
She was following step one of The Happiest Toddler, acknowledging Max’s emotion. Max quieted, confused. Unfortunately, Gwen hadn’t read step two. She looked down at the watering can. “Pick up your responsibility!” she tried.
Something struck Max as funny — probably the word responsibility, the quick tumble of syllables — and he started to laugh. Gwen picked him and the watering can up and walked the rest of the way.
No one answered the front door at the house where the man was staying, so Gwen went around back. She peeked through the patio door. No one. But the equipment was still in place, the camera on its tripod. She knocked. When no one answered, she tried the knob and the door opened. It’ll just take a minute, she told herself. No one will know we were here. She planned delete the pictures of herself then be on her way. Maybe she’d delete them all, do the others who’d been duped a favor. She lowered Max to the floor and he stood holding onto her pant leg. He seemed to know to keep quiet. It took Gwen a minute to figure out how to use the camera, how to scroll and delete. Her hands shook. There was the woman who’d hosted the get-together, smiling awkwardly. Delete. Gwen’s own frozen, hopeful grin. Delete, delete. Then Gwen was staring at a picture of Sherrie. Sherrie sitting upright with her bare breasts — nice, perky breasts — jutting forward.
“Just what do you think you’re doing?”
Gwen jumped. The camera crashed to the floor. Max began to cry and Gwen scooped him up then spun around. Sherrie stood in the center of the kitchen. She wore exercise clothes, her breasts swathed in spandex, though Gwen couldn’t help seeing them as she’d just seen them on the camera — naked.
“You have five seconds to explain what you’re doing in my house,” Sherrie said, her voice firm and decidedly not cheery.
“This is your house?”
“Yes, it’s my house. And you’re breaking and entering.” She pointed a water bottle at Gwen. “With a two-year-old in tow. Incredible.”
Gwen flinched. “Not my proudest parenting moment. But please, can you forget I was here? I just wanted to erase the pictures.”
Sherrie stiffened. This reminded Gwen that even though she was standing, uninvited, in this woman’s kitchen, she had something on her. Maybe they were even.
“He convinced you you were the face?” she ventured.
Sherrie let out a deep sigh then slumped her shoulders, as if suddenly tired of good posture. “He went to school with my husband way back when. Now the two of them have some harebrained idea that they think will make them rich . . .”
“What is it?” Gwen couldn’t help asking.
“I don’t know. They wouldn’t tell me. They’re probably reinventing the hula hoop.”
Gwen laughed. She wanted to ask why Sherrie had been topless in her series of photos, why she’d submitted to that particular humiliation, but she couldn’t think of how.
Max wriggled in her arms.
“Set him down,” Sherrie said. “I don’t care.”
Once released, Max went to inspect the turned-over tripod. Gwen picked up the camera and handed it to Sherrie. “I’m really sorry I let myself into your house. I lost my head. You must think I’m the worst mother in the universe. You seem to have the whole parenting thing down.”
“Oh.” Sherrie blushed. “Thanks.”
Then, as if she wanted to give something back but couldn’t reciprocate the parenting compliment, she said, “I was sleeping with him. My husband’s friend. Out of boredom.” She started dismantling the lights, plunking them hard on the counter top. “My husband saw the pictures. I never should have let him take them. I should have said ‘no.'”
“You should have said No thank you!” Gwen said, attempting a joke.
Sherrie began to cry. “I have no idea what’s going to happen now.”
Gwen didn’t know what to say. She was overcome with an urge to call Dan at work and tell him about the afternoon. She felt grateful for their ordinary lives.
“Maybe it’ll blow over,” she offered.
Sherrie moved to the window and tugged at the sheet that had been pinned up for a backdrop. Gwen wanted to say something to let her know she wasn’t alone, and that even though Gwen hadn’t taken her shirt off for a man with a camera or had an affair, she understood the urge to shake things up, to do something that would make the world feel less like life and more like a good novel, if only for a short while. She was on the verge of speaking when the sheet fell and a flash of movement out the window caught her eye. Sherrie’s son. Gwen watched him perform a perfectly executed aerial flip. He was there and then gone, and though Gwen knew he was just beyond her sight line, she imagined him spiraling out of the backyard, out of the suburbs where only now and again something of interest happened, and into whatever strange and wonderful world he wanted.