“His hair’s getting really red,” Joanne Shanahan told Rebecca at Dyer Pond, leaning over in her beach chair to inspect the boy’s pate.
“It’s just the light,” Rebecca answered quickly, adjusting Benny’s sun hat. He was napping on a Marimekko blanket next to her.
“No, it really looks red,” Joanne said. “I never noticed it before.” A former ballerina, Joanne was tall and athletic and had an irritating tendency to stand in fifth position.
“It’ll probably wind up brown,” Rebecca said. “I was blond at his age. I had the most gorgeous hair of my life when I was too young to capitalize on it. I had Bergdorf hair.”
Joanne nodded, but Rebecca worried that she would go on. It was a bad sign that Joanne had noticed Benny’s hair, because of all the mothers in the Crowd she had the least interest in other people’s children. Appearance change in kids—along with such topics as parental resemblance and character differences between siblings—was the conversational province of Other moms, not the Crowd mothers, who prided themselves on their lack of interest in motherhood. The Crowd—the group of Park Slope parents whom Rebecca and Theo socialized with in Wellfleet—came to Dyer Pond every morning because it was hidden and only those in the know were aware of it. You had to park your car in the woods at a possibly illegal spot and walk down a long path until you arrived at a tiny embankment. Dyer Pond’s visitors tended to be locals, older kids, and even the occasional (anomalous in Wellfleet) childless couple. Locals were preferable to the Park Slopers the Crowd bumped into daily at the more popular Long Pond, the ocean beaches, and Hatch’s Produce in town.
Though all members of the Crowd lived in Park Slope, they didn’t like running into other Slopers on vacation and didn’t like other Slopers in general. They had moved to Park Slope from the Upper West Side and the East Village with resignation, for the children’s benefit, and mocked their parent neighbors as if they were cut from different cloth. The Crowd vacationed in Wellfleet to get out of Park Slope but also to be with one another, and they didn’t like anyone else to get in the way of that.
Andy Shanahan and Danny Gottlieb—called Gottlieb by everyone, including his own wife—were the founding members of the Crowd. Friends for twenty years, they had been roommates at Princeton and had a series of elaborate private jokes dating back half their lives. Though Joanne Shanahan and CC Gottlieb were not as overtly funny as their husbands, through osmosis and a desire to link themselves the way their husbands were linked, over the decade they had known each other they had cultivated their own bantering style, one that included jibes about neurotic mothers, an avowed if partially faked hostility toward their children, and much talk of their heavy wine drinking.
Rebecca had met CC a year and a half before, when Rebecca was pregnant with Benny. CC was on the bench in front of Connecticut Muffin at the post–P.S. 321 drop-off. This was where the mothers went to gossip, gorge on bagels under the guise of feeding them to their babies, and once in a while read the newspaper. CC’s then-infant, Harry, was in her lap, and Rebecca overheard her tell a friend, “Now that the other one’s in kindergarten and I only have Harry, it’s like being on medication.” Rebecca had smiled and caught CC’s eye.
Another day when CC was without her friends, Rebecca noticed a man who disgustingly let his dog sit on one of the shop’s outdoor benches. After the man left, Rebecca said to CC, “Some people have no consideration,” and they started to chat.
The friendship came quickly and easily, and soon they began to socialize with the children. The Korean-American CC had taken Gottlieb as her last name because her maiden name was Ho, and she had been ridiculed for it in high school. Only a last name like Ho could make Gottlieb seem an improvement. CC was a stay-at-home mom but more sarcastic than most, which was why Rebecca liked her. CC joked about the junk food she fed her sons, called herself a housewife, and said things like “You know you need to go back to work when you get introduced at parties as ‘a witty Facebooker.’ ” After CC told Rebecca that the Gottliebs went to Wellfleet every summer, Rebecca decided they would go, too, and the two families had bonded. This was their second summer vacationing together, and though Theo and Rebecca were not quite full Crowd members, she felt they were definitely on the advisory board.
On this particular Tuesday in late August, CC was taking a tennis lesson at Olivers’ Red Clay courts on Route 6. Twenty feet away from Rebecca, in the water, Theo was helping their daughter, Abbie, three and a half, float on her back. She had water wings on, but he was trying to get her confident in the water. Gottlieb’s younger son, Harry, two, was digging in the sand in front of Rebecca. Gottlieb was standing about forty feet out, with his older son, Sam, six, who was circling in a SpongeBob floatie, and Joanne’s daughter, Francine, also six.
When did “float” become “floatie”? Sippies, floaties, onesies—the parents spoke as though they were babies themselves. Rebecca, who was thirty-six, frequently made the observations of what she felt would be an older mother, a baby boomer who had borne children in the early seventies, even though she had no idea what it had really been like. Because she found most mothers at best inane and at worst insane, she frequently felt alienated. In seven years in Park Slope, she had only one close friend—CC. There had been another when Abbie was a baby, but she moved to Tribeca after her musician husband got a job playing in the house band on a TV show.
Rebecca had a higher-than-average daily level of irritation but was having a particularly hard time on this vacation. Her family kept losing things: so far a pair of goggles, a trucker cap, and a beach towel. Theo shrugged and moved on, but she obsessed for days, turning over pillows in a fruitless attempt to find them, calculating the monetary loss, reprimanding Abbie for her carelessness. She felt ornery and didn’t know why.
One problem was the rental. The prior summer, she and Theo had their own rental, with three bedrooms, laundry (a luxury in Wellfleet), and a stunning view of the Wellfleet harbor. This time they were renting with the Gottliebs. She had read an article in The New York Times on modernist houses on the Cape and tracked down a five-thousand-dollar-a-week cottage on Long Pond Road designed by Robert Pander, a lesser-known Modernist architect. It had been built in 1970 in a Frank Lloyd Wright style, with horizontal planes, narrow staircases, and ample natural light. Theo, an architect, had expressed doubts about it based on the online photos, claiming it was likely to be cold due to the cinder blocks, but Rebecca and CC went crazy for it, and the men caved.
It turned out Theo had been right. It was impersonal, damp, and depressing. Sound carried easily, and Rebecca worried that the Gottliebs could hear them making love. Nor was it a child-friendly cottage; both Benny and Harry had already been injured by sharp corners, and at night the place felt haunted.
She was also regretting the cost. They had opted to come for three weeks instead of two this summer, and she was worried it had been financially imprudent. Theo was an associate at his firm, but their expenses over the past year had been astronomical. Their Tibetan nanny, Sonam, had raised her rate by two dollars an hour when Benny was born, and they were now paying her almost forty thousand dollars a year. The tuition at Beansprouts, where Abbie went three days a week, was another nine thousand. And that spring Rebecca had opened her own vintage clothing store on Fourth Avenue in Gowanus. With its retro sixties jumpers and unworn Garanimals, Seed had gotten a lot of press but wasn’t yet in the black.
Because she was owner and clerk, she had shut down for the entire vacation. She had not anticipated being so agitated to be away from the store and was kicking herself for not hiring someone, even temporary, to manage it while she was gone. Her failure to delegate, she worried, would make her lose more business than she could afford to.
And now Benny’s hair was turning red, and Joanne was asking questions. Just the other day at the Wellfleet market, a woman had referred to it as auburn, and Rebecca had winced, relieved that Theo was off in the wine aisle.
Rebecca was wearing a purple French bikini that she had bought at a boutique on Seventh Avenue. Looking down, she decided it wasn’t cut quite right and made her breasts look saggier than they were. She tightened the neck strap to create a higher profile and glanced down at the book she had checked out of the Wellfleet Public Library, Midnights by Alec Wilkinson, about a year in the Wellfleet police department during the eighties. “How is that?” Joanne said.
“Did you know a boat once came into the Wellfleet harbor with two hundred and fifty pounds of marijuana on it?” Rebecca asked. “It was called The Mischief.”
“How come stuff like that never happens in Wellfleet anymore?”
“Because people from Park Slope started coming here.” She looked out at Joanne’s husband, Andy, who was in the middle of Dyer Pond on a striped rectangular float that had a built-in beverage holder. He was sipping from a bottle of microbrew. Heavyset and pale, he was a former English teacher who had become a national celebrity after getting cast in a popular series of cell phone commercials for a company called Speed. On the ads, he played a man trying to break up with his girlfriend over the phone by repeating the phrase “I’m dumping you” in various environments, though the girlfriend was never able to hear him because of a bad connection. Within months he had become one of the most recognizable faces in Park Slope, more famous than John Turturro or Morgan Spurlock.
“How come you let him drink beer and make Gottlieb watch Francine?” Rebecca asked.
“Andy’s easier to be around when he’s happy.”
Rebecca often wondered if Andy cheated on Joanne when he went off to shoot movies and commercials in L.A. It was hard to tell. They had been together since right after Princeton, almost fifteen years. Just because someone was successful didn’t mean he cheated. CC said Andy was too whipped to cheat, but Rebecca wasn’t sure she believed it. Maybe he did, and Joanne knew and didn’t care.
Benny stirred and began to cry. Rebecca lowered the fabric of her bikini and put him to her breast in hopes that he would return to sleep. Though he had been walking since ten months and was showing some interest in the potty, she was still nursing him on demand. Her enjoyment of it had surprised her—with Abbie, she’d been in a rush to stop, but she was conscious that Benny would be her last baby. That made the nursing precious.
A little boy next to Harry Gottlieb was fighting with him over a shovel. “Let him use it, Harry,” Rebecca said, grabbing the shovel and passing it to the boy. Harry screamed in protest. Joanne passed him a fish mold and showed him how to pack it with sand. This placated him temporarily.
A young woman had waded into the pond with her daughter, a little blond girl. The woman looked like a porn star, with long dirty-blond hair, glasses, a slim waist, and enormous breasts. The daughter was talking to Francine.
Porn Star Mom wore a black triangle-cut bikini, and Rebecca noticed a braided rope tattoo running down the center of her spine. The combination of the tattoo, the knockout body, and glasses made Rebecca curious. She reasoned that the woman worked as a bartender or stripper; she had the kind of body that indicated she made a living from it.
Though Gottlieb was clearly addressing the mother, he was facing the shore. Instead of looking directly at her, he would glance at her sideways, as though in denial that he was flirting. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his fingers were tucked under his biceps so that they seemed larger than they were.
Gottlieb was Rebecca’s least favorite member of the Crowd. He had a fake laugh that he employed when she said something funny, and it was different from the raucous one he used with Andy and Theo. When she or any other woman in the Crowd told a story longer than a minute, he would interject “Uh-huh” so often that it seemed he wasn’t listening at all. She felt he was sexist, one of those guys who didn’t take women seriously. Worse, he frequently up-talked. This conversational habit had become a plague—even toddlers up-talked nowadays—but in Gottlieb, it seemed to reflect snobbery. “Where did you go to school?” she had asked during one of her first dinners at their apartment.
“Princeton?” he had answered, as though there were several.
“Look at that,” Rebecca said now, tapping Joanne’s arm.
“Gottlieb’s puffing out his biceps. His guns. To impress that woman.”
“Oh my God.”
“I wonder what CC would say if she were here.”
“What would she care? She knows he likes to look.”
Rebecca saw some motion in front of her in the water and turned to see what it was. Theo was racing away from Abbie, his face racked with urgency. He pulled something up in the shallow area in front of Rebecca. It was little Harry, pond water pouring out of his mouth. He had wandered in when she and Joanne were gossiping, and neither of them had noticed.
He must have gone under. His eyes were rolling, and Rebecca felt fearful for him and guilty that she hadn’t watched him more closely. Theo whacked him on the back, and Harry coughed up a large amount of pond water and then cried. It was a healthy, live cry. Gottlieb was running over in long, awkward leaps, splashing Porn Star Mom’s dry bikini as he moved.
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It’s just before Labor Day and five mothers and fathers in Cape Cod, Park Slope, and Greenwich Village find themselves adrift professionally and personally. Rebecca Rose, whose husband has been acting aloof, is tempted by the attentions of a former celebrity flame; Marco Goldstein, saddled with two kids as his husband Todd goes on a business trip, turns to sex with strangers for comfort; Danny Gottlieb, a screenwriter on the cusp of a big break, leaves his wife and children to pitch a film (and meet young women) in Los Angeles; fallen sanctimommy Karen Bryan Shapiro, devastated by her husband’s infidelity and abandonment, attempts a fresh start with a hot single dad; and former A-List movie star Melora Leigh plots a star turn on Broadway to revive her Hollywood career. As their stories intersect in surprising ways and their deceptions spiral out of control, they begin to question their beliefs about family, happiness, and themselves. Equal parts moving and richly entertaining, Motherland confirms Amy Sohn as one of see more