Susan’s daughter Macy has two weeks left of third grade. The classroom mom has emailed several reminders about the end-of-school party, inviting parents to serve ice cream and snap photos. At least, Susan thinks, she has contributed to Mrs. Richardson’s class gift: a forty-dollar check, which she tucked into Macy’s backpack.
The party, however, is a different story. It falls on a Wednesday afternoon, smack dab during an executive review, and she can’t simply leave the meeting with what her boss will perceive as a flimsy excuse. As it is, she’s sure that in evaluating her performance, Adam is totaling up her recent absences, and ranking her down compared to her co-workers Kamil and Mike.
The party, she reasons, is a small thing, and Macy won’t miss her. In fact, Macy doesn’t seem to care whether Susan attends class events. At the field day celebration, her sociable daughter chatted with friends, gobbled down pizza, and cracked jokes, while Susan watched from a chair in the corner of the classroom.
Now as Susan, running fifteen minutes late, picks Macy up from the school’s after-care program, her daughter lugs her backpack into the car and demands, “Mommy, are you coming to the year-end party? We’re having cake and ice cream, and we’re going to give Mrs. Richardson her present.”
Susan’s knuckles tighten around the steering wheel as she searches for the right words.
“I don’t think so, honey. Not this time. It would take me almost half an hour just to get to the school. It’s in the middle of the day, and I’ve got a meeting I can’t get out of.”
Macy says nothing.
“How was school?” Susan asks, her voice spilling into the silence.
Susan prods, “What did you do?”
“Ate with Madelyn and Annie at lunch and played soccer at recess.”
“And what did you learn?”
“How to make fractions. And we did an experiment in science about the weather.”
Macy hums a tune, and Susan relaxes. For now, the party is forgotten. From the rearview mirror, she spies the honey-gold crown of her daughter’s head. It wasn’t so long ago that Macy asked Susan to bind her hair into twin pigtails. Now she insists on doing it herself: parting it down the middle and sweeping it into a ponytail or brushing it down her shoulders like a mini teen’s.
After their dinner of re-heated pasta and meatballs, Max shepherds Macy upstairs to finish homework and prepare for bed. Susan knows that she should feel grateful that Max shares childcare and household duties. On alternating days, one of them tends to Macy while the other cleans up.
From the floor above, Max and Macy cackle as a zany tune blares. Undoubtedly they are watching cat videos or soccer bloopers. Susan considers bounding up the stairs to demand that they read, but thinks better of it. Besides, she doesn’t have time for distractions if she’s going to answer the new emails from the China team before turning in for the night.
When Susan joined Adam’s product management department a year ago, he had explained, “This position has risks, but you know how that goes: high risk, high reward. We’re a small group, and we’ve got a lot to prove with the new products we’re launching, so there’s no shortage of work. But put in your dues now and show great results, you could be looking at a promotion a year from now.”
Susan had nodded. “I’m not afraid of hard work, and I love challenges. I want to help this team succeed.”
On advice she read from a job website, she hadn’t mentioned her nine-year-old daughter, and she seldom mentions Macy now. Adam’s children are grown, and she suspects that he never played a big role in child rearing. He seems the type with a stay-at-home spouse, whom he would expect to handle domestic details.
It’s after eleven when Susan shuts down her machine and crawls into bed beside Max. He is already snoring softly, an arm flung behind his head.
At work the next morning, she is deep in concentration on the executive slides when her co-worker Kamil, a lanky Pakistani-American, swings by her desk.
“What’s that?” he squints at her screen.
When she reminds him of the review, he chortles. “Oh shit. I haven’t even started my slides. I’ve got to get some input from Finance first.” He laughs again and saunters away.
Despite Kamil’s flippant attitude, Susan knows that in meetings he comes across as decisive and smooth, glowing with confidence.
By noon, Susan’s cheeks are flushed, and her chest sputters as she races to finish the slides in time for a prep meeting with Adam. Lunch is an afterthought: half a turkey sandwich stuffed into her mouth in four bites, crumbs spraying onto her desk, as she creates the concluding slide.
Adam enters the conference room late. As always, he is dressed immaculately: ironed trousers, buttoned-down Oxford shirt, leather shoes.
Susan fumbles to connect her laptop to the projector and finally flips through the presentation.
“Slow down,” Adam interrupts, peering at the monitor. He tosses out a few suggestions, which Susan jots down.
“And another thing,” Adam says, “I’d like you to coordinate the agenda and take notes during the executive review. You can help the team follow up on the action items.”
Susan nods. “Of course.”
“I’m asking you,” Adam adds, “Cause I can count on you to get things done.”
He doesn’t wait for her response, apparently satisfied that they have a mutual understanding.
The Saturday before both the executive review and Macy’s last week of school, Susan can barely drag herself out of bed. She is certain she has come down with a virus; her head is stuffed up and her limbs ache. She has stayed up until the wee hours every night for the last week, editing her presentation, organizing the agenda, assembling the finishing touches.
Macy has begged for a playdate on Saturday with Madelyn, which Susan has agreed to host, reasoning that the girls will occupy themselves while she naps or does a little work from home. Max has announced that he will mow the lawn, and Susan’s main task is to prepare lunch and check in on the girls every hour.
When Madelyn’s mother drops off her daughter, Susan answers the door in a tee shirt and shorts, a Kleenex crunched in her hand.
For a few minutes, they chat about the new supermarket that just opened. As Susan suppresses a yawn, Madelyn’s mother asks if she plans to attend the party.
With a backward glance at the girls, who have disappeared up the stairs, Susan shakes her head, explains about the meeting she can’t miss.
“I get it,” Madelyn’s mother says, but her brow furrows, and it’s clear that she does not in fact understand.
“I don’t work outside the home,” she offers, “but I remember that rat race all too well. I figure they’re only in elementary school for a few years, and then it’s middle school and the teen years and all those headaches. No more sweet little girl wanting to spend time with Mommy and Daddy. So it’s now or never for me.” She throws her hands up in a “what can you do” gesture.
Susan coughs, presses the tissue against her mouth. She wishes that Madelyn’s mother would leave. Instead the woman launches into a tale about her oldest child, a twelve-year-old soccer player.
Susan manages to nod politely and laugh at the right cues. Balling the tissue into her fist, she shreds it with her nails.
When Madelyn’s mother finally excuses herself with a promise to retrieve her daughter later that afternoon, Susan shuts the door in relief.
She has hoped to finish a few other things that she hadn’t gotten to on Friday, but decides she is too tired to focus. She’ll just lie down for thirty minutes, give the girls time to catch up before lunch.
A rap on the bedroom door jars her awake, and she struggles upright, glances at the clock. Half past twelve. She’s slept for nearly two hours.
“Mom,” calls Macy from the other side of the door, “we’re hungry. You’ve been in there forever. It’s time for lunch.” A chirrup of giggles.
Remorse washes over her, followed by a rising anger. What kind of mother sleeps in the middle of a playdate, fails to minimally supervise her daughter and her friend? With sudden clarity, she realizes that although she finishes almost everything she says she will, she doesn’t do any one thing right all the way. Instead, crunched for time, she makes it via a series of compromises.
Even as she recognizes it for what it is – another compromise – she gives the girls extra helpings of chocolate milk, plus Oreos to accompany the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fruit, and cheese that she sets before them. While they eat, she asks Madelyn questions about her summer plans, but stops short when she sees that the pair have stopped listening, are whispering, heads bent close together.
“We’re going outside for a while, Mommy,” Macy announces, and they leave the table without bothering to clear their plates, abandoning half-eaten sandwiches and Oreo crumbs, picked-over fruit. The back door slams.
Susan slumps into Macy’s chair and plucks a forgotten cookie from the plate, savoring it the way she did as a child: first licking the icing, then quickly consuming the dry chocolate. Outside, the mower roars.
When the bell chimes at half past four, Madelyn’s mother stands at the front stoop, clutching a pocketbook. She has changed into a blue sundress and matching heels.
With a laugh, she explains, “Don and I are going out to eat in an hour. It’s our date night. Madelyn and Jared will have a sitter.”
As Susan summons the girls, she’s uncomfortably aware that she’s wearing no make-up, has not brushed her hair since she napped, and has an orange stain on her shirt.
After Madelyn leaves, Macy bursts into tears, as if she were a cranky five-year-old. Susan’s first instinct is to feel her forehead—is she hot? Coming down with the cold virus? But between tearful gulps for air, Macy explains that after Friday, she won’t see Madelyn, Annie, or her other friends for three or more months, and she will be bored, bored, bored in summer camps.
Cradling Macy on the couch, Susan assures her that they will take a vacation to the coast and have fun together, just the three of them.
“Would you like that?” she asks.
Macy doesn’t reply, buries her face into Susan’s shoulder.
On the morning of the review, Susan rises early. It’s also the day of Macy’s party, the Wednesday of her last week of school.
As Susan kisses her goodbye, Macy says, “Remember, Mommy, today’s the party.”
Susan’s chest clenches, and for a moment, she feels faint. “Honey, I told you that I’m not able to go. I can’t get out of my review. But I’ll be thinking about you. I know you’ll have fun.”
Macy says nothing, but her eyes flash an accusation.
When Susan leans down to hug her, Macy twists away.
Susan looks imploringly at Max, who drives Macy to school in the mornings.
“Let’s go, bug,” he says, twirling Macy until she squeals. Susan uses the opportunity to hurry into the car.
Half an hour before the review, she drinks another cup of coffee. Between the virus and staying up late for days, she is operating on a serious sleep deficit. All the same, she can’t afford to be anything short of alert for the next two hours. In the women’s restroom, she dabs concealer under her eyes.
Five minutes early, she takes a seat in one of the chairs at the perimeter of the conference room, reasoning that the executives will occupy the main table.
Kamil and Mike arrive a couple of minutes later, and to her surprise, both of them head to the main table without hesitation. Susan considers changing her seat, but it’s too late: The executives have begun to file into the room.
Adam enters with one of the vice presidents. He has already told Susan and her co-workers his plan for conducting the meeting. Each of them will present the slides on their respective products. Susan will take notes and follow up with actions.
True to form, Kamil presents without a hitch, giving no sign that he worked on his pitch at the last minute and retrieved the financial data just a couple of days ago. At over six feet tall, he stands with his feet firmly splayed out and spreads his hands in commanding gestures.
The VP of Operations stops him halfway. “Did the Geos commit to that forecast? The volumes spike after year one and then go haywire.”
“Yep. It’s the hockey puck effect,” Kamil says, looking his interrogator in the eye. “We expect market adoption to take off after the first year when this thing gets traction. It’s going to grow on a nice linear curve.” He grins, gives a thumbs-up.
The VP nods.
Mike also bulldozes through his presentation, paces back and forth before the monitor, hands clasped behind his back. His slides are less polished than either Susan’s or Kamil’s, but Adam had not seemed worried during the prep reviews.
As Mike describes what he deems an important feature, the Engineering VP clears his throat. “No, it doesn’t work that way. My team had to remove the automation to make the schedule. It’ll have to be done on-site by customer service.”
“All right,” Mike says with a shrug. “We’ll pick it up in the next release.”
Susan feels a twinge of envy at his nonchalance.
When it’s her turn, she takes a deep breath and walks to the front of the room. She isn’t nervous, she tells herself; she has presented many times before. Her slides flow in a logical order; they tell a story. She doesn’t stumble or trip on the words or mix up facts. She gets through it, and at the end she lifts her head and smiles at the attendees.
The executives’ questions catch her off guard.
“That’s the same value prop we’ve had for years with all the other products,” the Marketing VP complains. “Can’t we try something more original?”
“The volumes are puny,” claims the Operations VP. “How do we expect to make a splash with this if we can’t get Sales to commit to more conversions?”
“How can we know that this won’t cannibalize sales of the Phase 1 product?” the VP of Finance demands.
She tries to focus on each question, answer as directly as possible. However, her voice falters when she notices that at least two of the executives are not paying attention. One texts into his smartphone and the other types an e-mail. When the Marketing VP, who has not listened to her responses, asks another question, she watches him exchange a sly smile with his counterpart opposite him. Adam frowns, scrolling through his laptop.
An hour after the meeting, when she stops by Adam’s desk, he turns reluctantly from his computer screen and swivels the mouthpiece of his headset to the side.
“Hey, was everything okay back there? You seemed a little defensive during the presentation. Or maybe you were just tired. Gotta let the VPs dish it out, if you know what I mean.”
Susan flushes. “But I wasn’t. I didn’t think—”
“We’ll talk later.” Adam points to his headset, signaling that he has to participate in a call, and she backs away.
She drives over the speed limit to make it to school on time. It’s ten till six when she picks up Macy.
“How was it? How was the party?”
Macy shrugs. “Fine, I guess. The cake was good. Mrs. Richardson loved her gift.”
“Did you have fun?”
“Yeah. It’s not often I get to eat like a pig.”
Susan laughs. Before she can stop herself, she asks, “Which other parents came?”
“Almost all of them except for Will’s and Jordan’s. And you. They took pictures and had ice cream. You would have liked it, Mommy.”
“I know…” She starts to say something conciliatory, but a sudden sharp pain seizes her stomach. It’s so insistent that she blinks back tears as she drives home. Heartburn? Caffeine terrorizing her digestive system? She wants to stop the car and get out, hold Macy, apologize to her, even. But instead she continues driving, discomfort be damned. The point, she knows, is to get through it. Isn’t this the lesson her parents impressed upon her, the same lesson she has tried to teach Macy?
On Friday morning, two days after the summit, Adam calls a meeting with his reports. Susan suspects that Kamil and Mike already know the purpose of this conference; they stroll into Adam’s office without the slightest sign of curiosity.
Adam explains that he is promoting Kamil as the team’s principal product manager, effective immediately. Susan and Mike will report to Kamil, and meanwhile, Kamil will hire a couple of other people to back-fill his position and assist with marketing. Moreover, Mike will acquire a second product to manage.
Susan is dimly aware that Adam has finished speaking, because the others have risen and are leaving the room. In his ranking of the three, she understands, Adam has placed her third. She stumbles down the corridor, feeling as chilled as if she has stepped into a blast of winter air.
The thought occurs: Today is Macy’s last day of third grade.
Slumped over her desk, face pressed against her hands, she struggles to think of warm days, lemonade, swimming pools, snow cones, little comforts of summers past that will transport her away from here.
Then, unbidden, she recalls a long-ago teacher’s comment on one of her report cards, just before summer break. It must have been when she was around Macy’s age.
Susan always gets things done. I never have to remind her.
Bile rises in her throat, threatening to escape from her lips. From somewhere in the bowels of the office, the AC whirs to life and hums its rhythmic white noise. Behind her, a keyboard chatters.