Cloverfield Friends

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Why had Elsa lied?  Even as the words tumbled out of her mouth, she registered on the face of the young woman seated before her a flicker of disbelief, maybe even embarrassment, embarrassment for Elsa.  Elsa forced herself to swallow the bite of a spinach croissant she’d helped herself to from a cloth-lined basket at the homemade baked goods table.  She’d found the pastry dry.  Probably gluten-free.  Certainly no dairy.

Elsa felt a familiar shiver of rage and shame.  How, she wondered, would this placid, amiable parent, knitting at a table in the community hall of Cloverfield Friends School, a baby asleep in a covered car seat on the floor beside her, have reacted if Elsa had been a man?  Elsa knew for a fact that there were many fathers in their late 60s and 70s with young children in the upper and even lower schools at Cloverfield, aging hippies with young wives and hobby farms, wealthy financiers on their second or third families.  Members of a nearby commune.  Well, she thought, fighting the temptation to finger the flush that rose to her wrinkle-laced neck, she wouldn’t back down now.

“Yes,” Elsa forged on.  Some residual croissant was stuck to her tongue, forcing her to lisp slightly.  “He’s a rising eighth-grader.”

“Oh!” said the young woman brightly.  “Well, that’s lovely.  Who has your son got for Geography this year?  My Simon has Mr. Harberger.  Adores him.  Right now they’re studying Russia and Ukraine.  The Balkans.  I swear he knows more about that part of the world than I do, and we used to summer there.”

Elsa resisted rolling her eyes.  She dislodged the flake of pastry from her tongue with a pinky finger.  “Oh?” said, she said, wiping her hand in a paper napkin.  “Where?”

“It was at Stračinskain, you know, in Croatia.  When my father was in the diplomatic service.”   The woman smiled again and bent down to check on the infant sleeping in the car seat at her feet.  “Surprisingly lovely beaches there,” she said, turning her face back toward Elsa’s.  “We’d stay most of July and August.”

This woman!   Elsa lifted her chin and squinted into the distance.  What to do?  The young woman looked at her expectantly while the hands in her lap resumed knitting.

Elsa waved vigorously across the room at no one.  “Sorry,” she said, picking a piece of spinach out of her front teeth with a fingernail, brushing crumbs off her lips.  “Sorry, I’ve got to run.”  She dropped her partly eaten pastry, clenched inside the paper napkin, onto the nearest tabletop and began to make her way across the room to what she hoped was a door to the outside.

Why had she thought to step into the community room after fetching Jos’s twelfth-grade artwork from the secretary in the main office?  It had taken the earnest woman behind the counter a while to locate the file, and Elsa fidgeted, waiting, wandering around the cheery, yellow seating area looking at framed photos of all of the graduating classes since the school’s founding—Cloverfield was not a Friends school back then, that had been someone’s later idea, but rather an experimental school started by some teachers who’d gotten their start at one of the northern prep schools.  And there it was, of course, the black-and-white photograph of her ex-husband’s cohort, the class of 1974, mostly the sons and daughters of local shrinks, the girls and boys all with long hair or afros and flared jeans.  No more than ten of them.  Les wasn’t in the photo, though; family legend had it that he’d been off in a stretch of nearby woods, smoking pot.

Finally, with a pink face and some visible relief, the sweating office assistant handed a thick red, accordian style file folder over the counter.  It was sealed shut with a strip of silver duct tape.  Elsa took the file and thanked the woman, relieved not to know her nor to have run into anyone who might recognize Elsa in the now nearly fifteen years that had elapsed since Jos had taken that art class in the spring of his senior year.

Jos had more or less survived his, well, their—Elsa had trouble remembering to use the correct pronouns for Jos, especially now that Jos was dead—year at Cloverfield by hanging out in the basement art room, developing and printing rolls of film, making wood and linoleum block cuts.  He, they’d, been close with a young art teacher, a mister somebody, Elsa had sometimes wondered how close, and last spring, a year ago, the man had retired.  From a Cloverfield parent she vaguely recognized at the Farmer’s Market, Elsa had heard that the art instructor had been asked to leave the school.  Apparently there had been some funny business, something inappropriate.  Elsa didn’t know the woman she’d run into well enough to press for details.  She was reluctant to know, anyway, and hurried away with her net bag of zucchini.

Tidying up the basement art studio for the new teacher, a Cloverfield staff member had found a sealed folder marked with Jos’s name, had thoughtfully tracked down his year and contact information, and had called Elsa to see if she would like to come and fetch the folder, which the school had politely not opened.  Probably it contained some assignments and other art materials Mr. Romano had saved on Jos’s behalf? said the voice on the phone.  Maybe, thought Elsa, remembering the polaroid she’d found beneath Jos’s mattress while changing his bedsheets one day that spring term of his senior year.  She’d left the photo where she’d found it.

That call about the file had come in at the start of last summer.  It had taken Elsa nearly a year to get up the nerve to drop by the school and fetch it.  That’s what she was doing this morning.

The community hall of Cloverfield was a spacious, airy room adjacent to the school’s main lobby and office, and it was where parents traditionally gathered on Friday mornings to chat and nosh on handmade baked goods while drinking from earthenware mugs the contents of pots of herbal tea and urns of fair-trade coffee.  Blinking in the bright late May sunlight that streamed through the tall windows, Elsa was struck by how very little had changed since the last time she’d looked into this space, well over a decade ago.  Obviously more and smarter cell phones were visible, lit up in hands and laps, on tabletops or chair arms, or charging in wall outlets.  But the groups were familiar:  granola crunchers sporting Bible beards, floaty skirts, and Birkenstocks, a clutch of women in riding pants and mucky boots, their sleek hair uniformly tied back in a knot at tanned napes, a few men standing restlessly in blazers or suits, a cluster of lithe women in leggings, yoga pants, and neon running shoes, stretching and chatting in a corner.

Elsa appreciated that there were other Cloverfield parents, other sorts of parents, parents like herself, who didn’t fit into these stereotypes she’d defensively mapped onto the school’s parental population.  What had Les called it once, in marriage therapy?  Elsa’s “staggering pettiness”?   He’d pressed on, leaning back that afternoon into Dr. Choate’s kelim-strewn couch.  “These people you make fun of at the Club?” he’d said, “They’re the people you do things with.  They’re our friends.”   It was true that Les’s wealth had given her some purchase with folks like those gathered this morning in the community hall.  Elsa winced now, thinking of her gossipy lunches with the wife of a local plastic surgeon.  The Swedish heiress with the sculptor husband, whose daughter’s vast playroom contained an exact pink miniature replica of the mansion’s kitchen.  Jos would have loved it.  She was relieved when, after Les left, the pity calls from those acquaintances from her former life tapered off and then stopped coming in altogether, and she hunkered down, with a martyr’s self-righteousness, to balancing the exigencies of raising a child alone and holding down a job.

There was a rotation, a schedule, for these Friday gatherings; parents took turns providing the food and drink.  A couple of women kept busy re-filling the gleaming coffee urn from smaller pots.  A man with tongs was replenishing a tray of muffins.  Cloverfield was proud of its communal spirit.

The main building at Cloverfield had once been someone’s plantation house, and the community room had likely been either a grand drawing room or a library, with windows that almost reached from floor to ceiling and gleaming dark wood floors.  This morning the room was suffused with benign sunlight and the dapple of green shade from the many mature trees outside.   Tibetan prayer flags fluttered on lines strung across the high ceiling.  A large rainbow Pride banner hung on the wall behind the table of refreshments.  Elsa recalled how, years ago, after dropping Jos off for Silent Meeting at one of the campus’s two large yurts—one amethyst and one an emerald green, the Cloverfield colors—middle schoolers in one, upper in the other, it was usual for many parents on Friday mornings to park their SUVs, funky pick-up trucks, fashionably battered Saabs and sports cars wherever they could find a spot and mingle for an hour before heading to work, if they worked, or to yoga, Zumba, or Pilates, the golf course, tennis, Whole Foods, whatever their days might hold before it was time to come back and retrieve their students from classes or lacrosse practice or drama club.  After drop-off, though, Elsa had gunned off in her used VW Golf, always rushing to get across town and over to her lot by the stadium in time to catch her bus into the University, where she worked as a library assistant, not an academic job, but a staff position in cataloging that she’d been forced to get after the divorce.  She’d had no time for Friday loitering.

Jos’s father, the alum—an unlikely one, since, like Jos, he’d only attended Cloverfield for his senior year, having lived before that with his parents in various places in Europe and the Far East—had chosen the place after Jos had been expelled from the local public high school for selling weed by a back dumpster on school property.  No one reported the incident to the police, but Jos had not been invited to return for his last year of public high school. Les was footing the Cloverfield tuition bill.  Footing it from afar.  Elsa never really knew where he was.  Possibly still in Germany, which was where they had met, long ago, on a student exchange program.  She was there on a scholarship, her first trip anywhere.  Les had already lived in Europe; he had taken her  under his wing.

A person had to try hard not to fit in at Cloverfield.  Everyone was so accepting and open-minded.  So friendly.  Since its inception, a scholarship program set up by one of the school’s wealthy founders meant that many minority and underserved children could attend.  There were students of all races and income brackets, not just a token or two of this or that.  So it wasn’t that she and Jos weren’t welcome.  Quite the opposite.  It was Elsa who had balked, resisting invitations to meet-and-greets, avoiding activities.  Jos didn’t care that she kept her distance.   He was holed up in the art room, doing his time until graduation.   And Elsa had to admit that it was in the students themselves that Elsa could see the diversity of which the school was so proud.  By the time Jos was attending, some students had shaved heads and arms full of ink.  Others wore next to nothing under faded bib overalls and fuzzy bedroom slippers.  So what if some sported the popped polo shirt collars and khakis of their preppy parents?  There was the boy in the kilt—“there’s always a kilt boy,” Jos had said, “always a girl with dreds.”  Some children did Model UN and interned during the summer for state legislators; others raised chickens, built flat-bottomed boats, kept bees, and grew vegetables.  A friend of Jos’s worked for a local Indie newspaper, stopping people randomly around town and photographing the contents of their purse or backpack—tampons, Klonopin prescription bottles, paperback copies of Ayn Rand or of one of the many local famous writers, one of whom had children at Cloverfield and had provided funds for a new gymnasium.  Elsa had spotted it, a gleaming structure of cedar planks and steel and glass across the soccer field as she’d made her way up the long drive.

Elsa had read somewhere recently, maybe Vanity Fair, at the salon where she was guiltily having her hair dyed, her one attempt at youthfulness—how fervently she hoped no one would recognize her, holding the magazine up to her face—that this young woman who took the photographs, Tasha, Tash, was now making a name for herself as a fashion photographer.  Of course, it probably didn’t hurt that her father composed soundtracks for Hollywood films from his recently purchased plantation house on the James River, not far from Cloverfield, and knew a lot of people.  On the afternoon of their Cloverfield graduation, Tash and Jos had sat beside one other, wearing each other’s shoes and holding hands, bored expressions on their faces giving way occasionally to private smirks.   It had given Elsa a moment of hope, to think that Jos had such a creative friend.  Someone with whom he seemed close.

Elsa thought of the dark, shabby garage apartment outside of Nashville to which the police had summoned her two summers back.  Until that phone call, Elsa had never even heard of Fentanyl.

Elsa had a gauntlet to run—the door by which she had recently entered now felt too far behind her for an exit, made more so by the lie she’d just told and by the fact that she would have to re-encounter the knitter.  She had to reach the French doors across the room that opened onto the slate patio, the lawn, her car, escape.

Elsa blinked across the room’s hamlet of parents, tables, chairs.   She took a deep breath.  She forced herself not to hurry.  She would proceed gracefully, slowly, nodding this way and that, touching a shoulder here, gazing at a bit of student artwork pinned up there, merely someone’s gracious grandmother in town for a long weekend, dropping in to see the place, or perhaps an older tutor or social worker fetching some student materials.

She shifted her bag to the other shoulder.  Clutching Jos’s red folder to her chest, a kind of fortification (she threw the suddenly erupting word “fornication” to the back of her mind, remembering the polaroid),  she tried not to feel conspicuous, old, oddly stolid beneath her drab tunic as she inched her way.  Once she had been effortlessly slim, chiseled calves, a flat belly.  Now this pouch of, of something, swelled between her navel and her pubis.  As though she were four or five months pregnant again.  Diminishing estrogen scurried there, post-menopause, she’d read somewhere.  Gone, gone, her toned upper arms, her unlined face.  Someday, these women, if not the men, would experience this for themselves.  But would they, she thought, with everyone starting Botox and fillers and sunscreen in their twenties and thirties?   Again, sourness flooded Elsa’s mouth.  Unfair of her, she knew, not to wish them all well, an extended youth and middle age.  And yet.

She knew the constriction in her chest had everything to do with her own insecurities and not with these well-meaning people, who squeezed her hand in return as she threaded her way among them, who smiled, who offered a word or two when she nodded or said hello.  Even if they’d known her distantly, which she doubted, or had known Jos, or heard about the overdose, there would have been no overt ostracism.  Not here.  The school had always had its troubled students and the parents and teachers understood and accepted this.  Who knew what private travail any one of these pleasant parents might be enduring at this very moment?  Why couldn’t she overcome her dreadful judgment of what she allowed herself to see as their smugness?  “I do the very thing I hate.”  The phrase came back to her from church, where she’d dragged Jos for a few years as a child.  I am, she thought.  I am the very thing I hate.  Saint Paul, she remembered.  She’d loathed him too.

How much she had wanted a baby.  Back in the decade that elapsed between marrying Les—those roller coaster years of trying and not trying—and then the thrill of the secret of Jos growing inside her and the proud announcement of conception that her swelling belly made public, and, finally, Jos’s birth with a midwife’s help in a child’s wading pool in the spacious apartment that, until just a month before Jos’s birth, she’d shared with Les before he’d stunned her, one evening, by announcing that he was just not ready to be a parent and would be filing for divorce and leaving the country to work for an architecture firm in Konstanz.

A double French door to the outside distinguished itself from the file of windows and grew closer, brighter.  Elsa had one panicked moment when out of the corner of her eye she saw the head of school, Shawna Nichols, looking a bit grayer at the temples but otherwise untouched by age, talking animatedly with some parents off to her left.  Elsa ploughed ahead, already imagining the key in the slot, the slammed-shut car door, the familiar silent interior smelling of mold and cat and newspapers.

Elsa had forgotten about the farmer’s share table.  But there, assembled on two wide tables flanking the door, was a cornucopia of May vegetables and flowers that some parents who had grown extra produce made available to Cloverfield families for free.  A small portion of the produce came from the student garden as well.  The only stipulation was that you had to sign up for your share ahead of time, to make sure there was enough to go around.  First come, first served each week.  You signed up via an email roster set up by one of the class parents (each grade was assigned its own “father” and “mother”).  The bounty was always abundant and seasonal—honey, apples and apple butter, bosk pears, gourds, pecans, and winter greens in fall; spring scallions and sugarsnaps in earliest spring.  Today, a week before the end of classes, the tables offered up a verdant display of lettuces, ramps, crenellated fronds of young arugula, swiss chard with its gleaming purple spines.  The glossy, furrowed piles of emerald spinach leaves, bundles of purple alium, pale tender loppings of broccoli stalks.

No volunteers were tending the tables yet; that would happen soon, though, when the coffee hour ended.  As usual, a stack of paper grocery sacks lay on a chair beside the spread.

Elsa couldn’t stop herself.  With one hand, she briskly snapped open a bag and began to stuff it with fistfuls of cress, early dill, curly and bib lettuces, bulging Italian long  beans, garlic scapes so fragrant her eyes watered.

She sensed a small commotion behind her.  Concerned voices.  She was almost to the door, its gleaming handles, when a bespectacled man in a t-shirt that said “Cloverfield Dreamer” stepped up beside her and tapped her on the shoulder.  He was holding a clipboard, wielding a pen.

“Hello, hello,” he said.  “Hello, Miss?  Mrs?  Miss?”   Elsa wouldn’t look at him. She enjoyed his struggle to be calm.  “Would you mind,” he said, “just locating your name on this list and signing out your produce share?”

In the glaring reflection of the door glass, Elsa could see that he was not smiling.  Behind him, a cluster of murmuring, agitated parents was gathering.  She could see Headmistress Nichols making her way toward the produce tables from across the room.

Elsa reached out and grabbed two bundles of mint from a bowl of ice water.  Then she was out the door, sprung into the humid May sunlight.

Folder clutched in one hand, bag of greens in the other, her purse flapping at her hip, Elsa power-walked.   Behind her, Elsa heard the clipboard man, now also outside the community room, shouting something.  Elsa broke into a run.  Would they actually chase her down for a bag of glorified grass and weeds?

At her car, she fumbled.  The keys, the keys, where were they?  She checked her bag, no.  Her left pocket, no.  Her right, yes.  There.   Holding Jos’s folder under her chin, she got the car door opened, wedged in, slammed the door, and locked it behind her.  She threw Jos’s artwork to the passenger-side floor. She already knew what she’d find.  Naked photos, prints.  Never mind.  She started the Golf and tore away down the Cloverfield driveway, a small phalanx of parents in the rearview on the lawn behind her.  Smaller and smaller they grew as, from the paper sack, set sturdy as a toddler in the passenger seat, she began pulling out the raw flags and leafy banners of lettuces, chard, and onions, stuffing the greenery into her mouth with a voracious hunger she hadn’t felt since the years before Jos was born.

Lisa Russ Spaar has published thirteen books of poetry, fiction, and criticism, most recently Madrigalia:  New & Selected Poems (Persea, 2021) and a novel, Paradise Close (Persea, 2022).   Her honors include a Rona Jaffe Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Library of Virginia Prize for Poetry, a Pushcart Prize, and a Horace W. Goldsmith National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professorship appointment.  Her essays and reviews have appeared in The New York TimesThe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Review of BooksVirginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere, and she was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.  She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, where she founded and directed the Area Program in Poetry Writing for twenty years and for many years directed the Creative Writing Program.