“You’ve never known it.”
And there was the look that delighted her—the one that said he was barely tolerating the conversation. Breaking eye contact, he finally glanced down at his watch. “You said something about running late?”
Jess pushed past him, jogging ten feet down the hall to Suite 303, the offices of Jennings Grocery.
THIRTY-ONE PERCENT OF California households are run by single parents, but Jess would never have guessed that from the people streaming into the Alice Birney Elementary Science-Art Fair meeting. Being a solo parent at a school event was like being a single person at a couples’ party. Minus the wine. If Nana or Pops wasn’t with her, Jess was made intensely aware that the other parents had no idea how to interact with a single mom. The longest conversation she’d had with someone there had been at the first-grade holiday recital when a mom had asked if Jess’s husband was going to be sitting in the empty seat next to her. When she’d said, “No husband, free chair,” the other woman smiled awkwardly for a few beats before rolling on breathlessly for five minutes about how sorry she was that she didn’t know any nice single men.
But for the first time at one of these events, she realized as she walked into the hall, Jess was relieved to be alone; she wouldn’t have to small-talk. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to do that tonight; every meeting she’d had today had been a dead end. Well, except the Jennings Grocery meeting. That was a complete disaster.
One of the biggest sins in statistics is cherry-picking—choosing which data sets to include in analysis after the study is finished. There are plenty of legitimate reasons to drop outliers: the data isn’t collected correctly, etc. But if a data point affects both results and assumptions, it must be included. And just as Jess suspected, Jennings Grocery didn’t just want to exclude a few data points in the set they sent her; they wanted to eliminate enormous territories entirely in their report to shareholders, because the numbers didn’t fit their projected sales targets.
She refused—even though she’d spent four months meticulously designing the analysis, writing the code, building the program. During the meeting, the executives had exchanged extended periods of silent eye contact, and eventually shooed Jess out of the room, saying they’d be in touch.
Was it stupid to be so inflexible with her biggest account? She couldn’t shake a sense of panic. If she lost Jennings, she would lose a third of her income for the year. Juno might need braces, and she’d be driving in eight years. What if she wanted to start doing dance competitions? What if she got sick? Nana and Pops weren’t getting any younger, either.
Movement in her peripheral vision pulled her attention, and Jess watched Juno’s second-grade teacher, Mrs. Klein, and the principal, Mr. Walker, come to the front of the room. Mrs. Klein was dressed as some hybrid of a scientist and artist: lab coat, goggles, beret, paint palette. Mr. Walker was dressed as, Jess supposed, a kid: baggy shorts, knee-high socks, and a Padres baseball cap. They sat in chairs facing the assembled parents.
The principal-child crossed his arms and pouted dramatically, and the room fell to a hush. “I don’t even get what a science-art fair is. Do I have to do it?”
“You don’t have to do the science-art fair,” Mrs. Klein said, hamming it up for the crowd, “you GET to do the science-art fair!”
The room rippled with polite laughter, and the rest of the second-grade team passed out handouts with information as the little play went on. Jess scanned the stapled pages, skimming instructions for helping the children find an art project that was based in some area of science: plant life, animal life, engineering, chemistry. A papier-mâché plant with various structures labeled. A painting of a dog skeleton. A house made out of Popsicle sticks. It was one of the things that Jess loved about this little school—the creative curriculum, the emphasis on integrated learning—but with the murmuring voices rising from the crowd, she was pulled out of her little bubble. In the seats all around her, heads came together in excited conversation. Husband-and-wife teams brainstormed fun projects for their kids, and the dread in Jess’s stomach curdled with loneliness. She was flanked by an empty seat on each side, a little buffer zone to protect the other parents from the infection of singlehood.
Mood still low despite—she had to admit—some pretty solid jokes from Mr. Walker and Mrs. Klein, Jess practically crawled across the parking lot. Her car was parked next to a pearl-white Porsche that made her red 2008 Corolla look like an old roller skate missing its mate. Jess couldn’t feel ashamed of the clunker, though; this car had driven her home from the maternity ward and then to her college graduation only a month later. It took them on various outings for Try Something New Sundays and road trips to Disneyland and—
She jerked around at the sound of a trilling voice and turned to find a tall, thin blond woman waving her down. Dawn Porter: PTA President, Mother of the Year, Zero Gag Reflex, probably. Jess braced herself to feel like a shitty mom for at least five minutes.
“Dawn! Hey.” Jess winced in preemptive apology. “It’s been a long day and—”
“Oh God, totally. I know you’re—like, frazzled all the time. Poor thing. If I can just get one second? I wanted to check on the auction site you were going to build? The fundraiser for the new playground equipment?”
The site Jess had been working on when Juno threw up at school and needed to be picked up, then when a client had a last-minute shareholders meeting and needed her to spend twelve hours in LA, then when she’d been interrupted by a phone call from her mom asking for some help making rent.
The site Jess had then forgotten about until this second. Good job, Jess.
“I’m totally on it, Dawn,” she said. “Just been a little slammed lately.”
“Ugh, I know, we are all so busy.” Dawn pressed a button on the key fob in her hand. The lights on the gleaming Porsche winked and the tailgate drifted open with a delicate chime. Hanging from Dawn’s back seat were neat little organized totes, each monogrammed with her children’s names—Hunter, Parker, Taylor—and words like Snacks and Books and Car Fun!
In the trunk of Jess’s car was a pair of badly tangled bedazzled cat leashes, a dozen mismatched grocery bags, a chain of tampons Juno had constructed while they waited with a flat tire, and at least thirty-two other items she fully intended to take inside … someday.
Dawn placed the packet of school papers in one pouch, moving some dry cleaning on a hook out of the way, then pressed the key fob again to close the hatch with a whisper.
She turned back to Jess. “I only ask because Kyle—you’ve met my husband, Kyle?” She gestured to a man chatting with two other dads across the parking lot. “Anyway, he said he could have one of the paralegals down at Porter, Aaron, and Kim whip something up. It wouldn’t be a problem—they love helping out, and every time I look at you, I think, ‘Poor Jessica is just running herself ragged!’”
Her defensiveness rocketed out: “I’ve got it.”
Dawn tilted her head, surprised by the force of this reaction, and Jess wanted to reel the words back in. It had required some pretty intense blending with her drugstore foundation stick to get the dark circles under her eyes to disappear this morning, and she was sure the parking lot’s sodium lights weren’t her best lighting. Today had been hellacious, and the last thing Jess wanted was to become the subject of Mom Gossip. She thought of the dozens of things she could do with that time because, really, what did she care who built the stupid site?