Chapter 1: Weinberger’s Back-to-School Night
Weinberger couldn’t take it anymore. Pretending to appreciate the finger paintings thumbtacked to the walls was simply not doing the trick. For that matter, neither was creating animals with the pipe cleaner taken from the nearby arts and crafts table.
Nothing but nothing was working to kill precious time. And his inability to use mental telepathy to make the second hand on the clock over Ms. Swimmer’s head move faster only heightened his splitting headache held over from a long day of work.
Only ten minutes left, he rationalized. 600… 599… 598…
Maybe I’ll do that, Weinberger thought. Sit here and count down the seconds until 9 p.m. 597… 596… 595… 594…
His hands could feel the powerful gravitational pull of the cellphone in his Brioni suit’s breast pocket. Lord he wanted to check his messages so freaking badly.
Still, he fought the urge to remove it, loosening his tie instead. He knew full well the hell he would face if his ex-wife discovered her ex-husband was singled out for scrolling during Jacob’s back-to-school night. It would be an even worse hell than listening to Ms. Swimmer go on and on about the cognitive benefits of sensory bins. The calls, the texts, the e-mails … the shame! The entire Upper East Side would soon learn the chilling tale of Mitch Weinberger, lousy father who cares more about his cellphone than he does his son’s education.
Oh, and it would get back to her. He had no doubt about that.
Word would travel and travel fast, all the way from Fifth Avenue to York and back in the blink of an eye, he rested assured.
But who would it be? Which of these propriety policing pigeons would stool on him?
He surveyed the room, searching for the potential snitch.
Would it be the overly attentive mother in the Lily Pulitzer top at the table next to him? Why on earth is she taking notes about the importance of block building? It’s block building for Pete’s sake, not calculus! Yeah, she definitely seems like the tattling type. Or, what about the Deadhead dad in the front row sporting socks and Birkenstocks? Would he be the rat? He’s acting all laid-back and chill, but you know those guys are all full of…
AAAGH! CRAP! Weinberger bit his lip to conceal a sudden burst of searing pain in his lower lumbar region. Six-foot-tall men are not meant for sixteen-inch chairs, dammit!
He quickly, yet subtly, shifted positions to allow the blood to flow once again through to his lower extremities. Better, but still far from comfortable, like rising to a higher level in Dante’s Inferno. Nerve-pinched or not, Weinberger remained trapped in this fist-clenching, teeth-grinding hell.
He checked the clock again… 540… 539… Ms. Swimmer had moved on to “the significance of sharing.” His agony grew with each passing second.
The grown man grabbed a red Crayola from the pack and began scribbling on a piece of yellow craft paper. If God was testing him, he thought, then let’s make it multiple choice…
(A) North Vietnamese prison
(B) Soviet Gulag
(C) Colonoscopy Table
(D) Colonoscopy Table in a Soviet Gulag
(E) All of the above
Weinberger stared down at his work and chuckled to himself. He thought back to his own kindergarten class four decades or so ago. He remembered his own teacher, Ms. Palermo, and wondered what she looked like now. Probably pretty old he thought. Or, more likely, pretty dead.
“E,” whispered a woman seated on a nearby stool, startling Weinberger out of his flashback. “The answer is ‘E’.”
“How do you know the question?” he asked her.
“Easy,” she replied in a hushed voice. “It’s ‘Where would I rather be right now?'”
Weinberger giggled again, this time, however, a tad too loudly.
“EXCUSE ME!” boomed a voice from the front of the class. “In the back of the room? Mister…?”
Weinberger looked forward. Ms. Swimmer and the rest of the room’s occupants, however, were already staring back at him.
“Weinberger,” answered Weinberger, filling in her blank. “Mitchell Weinberger, Ms. Palerm… Ms. Swimmer,” he added, quickly catching himself before mistaking the young educator for his deceased, or at least 95 years old, former kindergarten teacher.
“Yes, Jacob’s father,” replied Ms. Swimmer. “Would you mind? Other people are trying to listen. We will be done shortly, as long as there are no more interruptions. Okay? Thank you.”
“Sorry about that folks. My bad,” atoned the work-obsessed advertising executive. Weinberger waved half-heartedly, half-guiltily to the rest of the parents and shrank back in his diminutive seat.
Alas, by then the assemblage had already returned their attentions back to the front of room. That is, all except for the Deadhead dad who took an extra moment to extend his disapproving glare.
Yep, there’s the squealer, thought Weinberger as they momentarily locked eyeballs.
“I am so sorry,” whispered his co-conspirator. “Didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
“No problem,” coolly responded Weinberger. “Seems like we’re about done here. Only three hundred seconds left till freedom.” “Three hundred thirty-five,” she replied.
“You’re counting too?”
“Of course,” she shrugged. “What else is there to do other than space-out at the artwork and make pipe cleaner giraffes?”
She held up her giraffe. Weinberger smiled as he held up his own creation. They shared a schoolyard smirk.
Hmmm, he thought. Sense of humor. Not bad looking. Pretty good looking in fact. Blonde. Blue-eyed. High heels at school? Definite points for that. Single mother perhaps?
“But we’re not done yet,” she added with casual certitude. “Not even close.”
“What do you mean?” wondered Weinberger. “There’s only two minutes left. Look at the clock.”
“Oh, this must be your first back-to-school night,” she said.
“Yes. Yes, it is. But how did you know? Oh, I’m sorry. My name is Mitchell. Mitchell Weinberger,” said Mitchell, Mitchell Weinberger, extending his hand for a shake. “My wife, my ex-wife I should say, normally attends these things. Not me.”
He checked her fingers … Bingo! No wedding ring-o! Weinberger felt his headache suddenly abate. Maybe the night wouldn’t be a total disaster. The pair continued to whisper in the back of the class.
“Nice to meet you Mitchell. I’m Natalie. Natalie Smith. Charlotte’s mom.”
Helloooo Charlotte’s mom! Jacob, you are having a playdate with Charlotte. Sorry kid, I don’t care if she’s a girl.
“But how did you know it’s my first back-to-school night?” puzzled Weinberger. “More importantly, why is this brutal evening not even close to being over?”
Natalie shook her head in mock sympathy for this neophyte’s plight. She smiled knowingly then pointed to the ceiling, practically cueing Ms. Swimmer.
“Now, does anybody have any questions?” asked Ms. Swimmer to the congregated parents.
Suddenly, a sea of hands sprang up across the “classroom. Hands, hands, hands. Rows and more rows of hands were raised. Some waved their hands side-to-side like Mickey Mouse at Disney World. Others wiggled their digits like they were playing imaginary pianos. Some outstretched their arms like a Third Reich salute. One schmuck in the front row even did the Mr. Spock Star Trek greeting, splitting his ring and index fingers to form a “V”.
Charlotte’s mom had obviously been to this rodeo before. Weinberger, however, had not. The man was astonished. Absolutely stunned.
Are they out of their minds? We were almost done. We were halfway over the wall to sweet, sweet freedom and now we’re back in prison. Don’t these people have work in the morning?
Natalie saw the bewilderment in his eyes. The pure panic that this evening might never, ever end. She took pity on the rookie and leaned over to explain what was happening.
“You forgot to take into account the ‘me’ questions.”
Charlotte’s mom once again confidently pointed in the air as if she was Babe Ruth calling a home run shot…
“Ms. Swimmer, Kyle’s tennis lesson starts immediately after he gets home from school. Is there any way you can push nap time back an hour, so he’s better rested for it?” asked the notetaker in the Lily Pulitzer top.
Weinberger studied Kyle’s mother. Was she serious with that question?
“Yes, she’s serious,” said Natalie, reading his mind. “And it doesn’t matter if you care. So, settle in.”
And listen he did, steaming in his suit as Ms. Swimmer answered Kyle’s mother’s question, expounding on the advantages and disadvantages of nap times both late and early with the same level of seriousness in which it was asked. Studies were cited.
Department of Education guidelines were specified. No details were spared.
By the end of the five-minute explanation as to why nap time would remain exactly where it was originally situated in the schedule, followed by Lily Pulitzer’s follow-up question about the comfort and cleanliness of Kyle’s nap mat, Weinberger himself was ready for bed.
But sleep was not in the cards. Not by a long shot. Sophie’s dad made sure of that…
“Sophie is hyper-sensitive to fluorescent lighting. Is there a way the bulbs in the classroom can be changed to incandescent ones?”
And then Victor’s mother…
“Victor is allergic to tomato sauce, well, he’s not really allergic to it, but he doesn’t like looking at it. It makes him nauseous. Would it be possible to remove it from the school lunches?”
…who was challenged by Hayden’s father…
“Does that mean pizza too? Because that’s all that Hayden eats. Pepperoni pizza. That’s it.”
…who was rebuffed by Deadhead dad, otherwise known as Oliver’s father…
“I’m sorry, but in my honest opinion the cafeteria should not offer pepperoni pizza at all. Plain is fine, but not pepperoni. Pepperoni teaches the kids to eat animals which is cruel. You all may eat meat, and that’s fine with me, but I choose to teach Oliver to be kind to animals. And along those lines Ms. Swimmer, is it possible to ban leather from the classroom? I’m talking about shoes, jackets, knapsacks. I think it’s a valuable lesson for kids at this age to…”
Weinberger felt woozy, punch drunk on the ropes. His headache was back in full vengeance, throbbing away. If only Mrs. Swimmer would step in and stop the fight, let him out of the ring. All he wanted to do was ask Natalie for her phone number and get out. Without thinking, Weinberger pulled out his cellphone from his breast pocket to check the time as Deadhead dad droned on about the evils of leather and other tanned hides. It was close to 10 p.m. He returned the cellphone back to its holster and turned back to Charlotte’s mom for guidance.
“I don’t understand these people,” whined Weinberger. “Why can’t they ask the teacher “privately after everybody leaves? Or e-mail her later? These questions only apply to their kids.”
Natalie shrugged. “Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Or should I say little leagues?”
Nice baseball reference thought Weinberger. Clearly the rapport was there. When should he go for the number? He pondered his plan of attack as more me-questions exploded in the air like bombs over Britain during the Blitz.
“My Sebastian is a voracious reader. What should I do if he wants to read more than what you assign?
“Would it be possible to move music class to Mondays and Wednesdays? Elizabeth has violin lessons on Tuesdays and Thursdays and I don’t want her doubling up.”
“Would it be possible for the janitor to let you know after he’s cleaned the bathroom? Theodore said he saw one toilet that wasn’t flushed and now he’s scared to use it.”
Weinberger’s life began to flash before his eyes. He thought of Jacob sitting attentively in the seat he was currently occupying. He thought of his ex-wife and their wedding day and the vengeance she would inflict if he feigned a phone call and left the room. He thought of his own father, sitting in Mrs. Palermo’s class at Weinberger’s own back-to-school night. Is that what killed him? The me-questions and spine-bending chairs? Or did that just soften him up for the heart attack some years later?
Either way, he could take no more. The visions of his father made him realize how short life really was. It was time to act. He turned once more to Natalie.
“Hey, why don’t we get the kids together some time? They can play and we can bring in lunch or something.”
“That’s a great idea. Charlotte would love that,” replied Charlotte’s mother. “I’ll text you, you’ll have my information and we’ll go from there. Let me get my phone.”
Weinberger watched as Natalie leaned over to pick up her oversized purse and fish out her cellphone. If he could get up and walk, he would strut. Maybe back-to-school night won’t be such a dumpster fire, despite all these fucking “me” questions, like the one Joshua’s mother was in the middle of asking…
“Joshua will not be attending school on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Will there be homework on that day?” she asked. “Maybe one of the other, non-Jewish, students could bring it home for him,” she added, looking squarely at Rajesh’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi, who politely smiled back.
Natalie continued searching. “I’m sorry. I have so much stuff in here.”
“Not a problem, I understand,” understood Weinberger. “Do you want me to text you? That might make things easier.”
“No, no, no. That’s okay. I need to find it anyway. Just give me one more second.”
Natalie once again descended into her purse to dig out her cellphone, while a self-satisfied Weinberger patiently waited.”
“Ooh, I’m glad I found these,” she smiled.
And with that Natalie reached down to the bottom of her bag, picked up a honker of a diamond engagement ring, as well as her wedding band, and put them on her left index finger. She then wiggled her fingers and clenched her fists just to make sure they were on correctly.
“I was in my son’s pre-school class before this one. They made us play with clay, so I took off my jewelry,” she said. “It feels so strange not to have my rings on, you know?”
“Oh, I know, I definitely know,” said Weinberger, his heart suddenly sinking and sinking fast. He stared down at his own ringless fingers as he contemplated what he did in an earlier life to “deserve such an evening.
“Now I need to find that phone! Maybe it’s in one of these compartments,” said Natalie, zipping and unzipping. “Charlotte will be so happy to have a little boyfriend!” she tittered.
Beaten. Bloodied. Bowed. Weinberger had had enough. He could withstand no more humiliation. You win back-to-school night, you win!
He pulled out his cellphone.
“You know what, I’ve got my phone right here. I’ll text you. What’s your…?”
He looked down at his phone and read the text on the screen. It was from his ex-wife, somebody tipped her off about his phone check. It was also the last straw…
“You know what, Natalie? Forget it. Jacob hates girls.”
Weinberger then jumped up from his seat, banging his knees against the table in front of him, knocking over the cotton balls, tongue depressors, magic markers and scissors onto the floor in the process. All the adults in the room swung their heads around to see who or what was making the ruckus. Natalie, meanwhile, sat confused as to why this seemingly normal parent would make and break a playdate in a mere minute.
“Ms. Swimmer! I have a question!” he shouted.
The room fell silent. Parents of all races, creeds, colors and blood types swiveled in their miniature seats to look at Jacob’s father and learn the essence and the urgency of his question. And, more importantly, how it would affect them and the education of their own offspring.
Ms. Swimmer tried to remain composed yet was clearly unnerved at the disruption from the back of her class. One thing you could say about Ms. Swimmer is that she ran a tight ship and didn’t like anybody—child or parent—commandeering it.
“And what is your question Mr. Weinberger?” she asked politely.
“Ms. Swimmer, I would just like to say that I think all the kids should wear leather jackets and fur coats to school even during the summer.”
He then directed his steely gaze at Deadhead dad aka Oliver’s father. Goddamn narc.
And I also believe that not only should pepperoni pizza be served at every meal, but the cafeteria should also offer the pepperoni slices without the pizza, along with other animal-based options, including rack of lamb, porterhouse steak, chicken gizzards and, out of respect for the Korean kids in the class, various dog parts,” proclaimed Weinberger.
The elementary school teacher was taken aback. She’d seen a lot in her five years on the job, but never an outburst like this. Still, she tried to remain composed. This was a classroom, so there was a lesson here somewhere.
“Is that a question?” asked Ms. Swimmer.
“Nope,” replied Weinberger. “It’s just me.”