A week ago Sunday I took my 9-year-old, Franny, to the bus drop-off for sleepaway camp, a camp I will refer to as Mountain Lake. A high-octane, uber-friendly counselor loaded Franny’s duffel bag, filled with bedding, t-shirts, shorts, sneakers, and a bewigged get-up for the 80s dance, into the luggage compartment of one of the buses.
After registering her asthma medication with another relentlessly cheery counselor, Franny, Atticus and I deposited ourselves on the grass and waited for the bus to leave. Hundreds of parents milled around the enormous parking lot, stepping out of Escalades and Hummers with their Starbucks cups in hand.
Although we live in a large, socioeconomically diverse city, there was not one whit of difference strolling through that parking lot. I knew by the cookie-cutter appearance of the parents–the women: full-cheeked, duck-lipped cosmetic surgery, Brazilian blown-out tresses, major ring-finger bling; the men: bermuda shorts, golf-course tans, and Master-of-the-Universe struts–which part of the city they lived in. I knew they were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and a few notable Reality TV stars, that they resided in McMansions with buzzers at the front gate, in rolling-hilled enclaves hermetically sealed from the country’s 9.2% unemployment rate.
Atticus, who grew up with a self-made, wealthy father who turned more misanthropic and paranoid the more successful he became–and who, unfortunately for his children, left all his money to the stepmother–checked sports news on his iPhone while grumbling about “conspicuous consumption.”
My own feelings about Big Money are complicated. I grew up around it, but not of it. When I was married to Prince, who stands to inherit a gazillion dollars when his parents kick their gold-plated bucket, I felt soothed by the cocoon of comfort that mega-wealth brings, yet also anaesthetized and dumbed-down by it. After awhile, I wasn’t sure what I thought about anything–except that I didn’t truly belong with the Machiavellis.
On a yacht trip we took with Prince’s family, on a 150-foot vessel that Mrs. Machiavelli hunted down so that all the Machiavellis and their spouses could sleep in king beds and not, God forbid, in queen beds, I spent most of my time hanging out with the staff in the galley. A few years later, when I told my divorce attorney that I had always felt more comfortable with the Machiavelli’s Help, she cackled and replied, “That’s because you’re one of ’em!”
Back when I used to receive child support, Prince would inform me that I had to shift my schedule to accomodate his, or pack the kids’ suitcases and schlep them to an airport for a trip he was taking them on, because “that’s what I pay you for!” Because Luca mimicked his father’s attitude towards me, and because I couldn’t afford to pay half of sleepaway camp or golf lessons or new computers, I often had to struggle against the feeling that I was my children’s au pair and not their mother.
While I am immensely grateful that my kids are recipients of the privileges the Machiavellis bestow on them, I sometimes struggle with believing that the intangible things I have to offer–empathy, loving my kids for who they are and not who I thought they might be, a conviction that everyone, regardless of their bank account, deserves respect–are of value.
When I saw Prince the morning of the camp drop-off, I was struck by the aura of abundance that emanated from him. His limbs, lean from hours of tennis and spin classes, his $150 shirts fresh from the fluff ‘n fold and laundered with “light starch,” his skuffless Keen sandals, his face blemish-free from facials, his swagger, all said: “Look at me, I’m the biggest rooster in the barn!”
Prince and his new wife Sarah were there to drop off her younger son Jake. The three of them sat next to Franny, who sat next to Atticus and me. I thought it might be nice, at this point, to have a splash of Merlot in my Starbucks cup.
“Hi, Guys,” Sarah said, just as nice as you please. If you met her and didn’t know anything about her, you would not expect her to be married to Attila the Hun. But, then, that’s what people thought about me.
Atticus kept his eyes fixed on the iPhone sports reports. He’s not anywhere near over Prince’s shenanigans. I smiled back, for Franny’s sake.
“Pauline, did you go to (fancy east coast university?)” Sarah asked.
“No, I went to (other fancy east coast university).”
“Oh. I thought you might have gone to (first fancy east coat university). Jeremy’s there for journalism camp.”
Jeremy is Sarah’s older son, an all-around smart, athletic, handsome, nice 16-year-old whom Luca reveres.
My eyes teared up as I thought of Luca, now at Namoro (not its real name), a wilderness camp a few states away. I learned the day before that, not only did Prince send him to this camp, but that he chose to have him transported via escort.
I imagined Luca, just shy of 5′ tall, seated on the plane next to some burly Alpha dude, choking back tears. I thought about what it must feel like to realize that you are not going to the bells-and-whistles camp you adore, the one that your father told you you were attending, the one where your sister and stepbrother are headed…but that you are going to a very different kind of camp. A camp for kids who can’t control their behavior, a camp for kids who have spent years torpedoing their way out of playdates, schools, homes, therapy. You don’t know what you will be doing at this other camp, exactly, but you are beginning to realize it won’t involve paintball, jet-skiing, or girls. When you ask the Escort where you’re going, and when you’re coming back, he gives you the steely Alpha-eye and tells you all will be revealed–later. And then it sinks in, harder now, how different your summer will be from your siblings’…and how different you are from them.
Franny boarded her bus and sat in a seat towards the front. Prince and I did our best to ignore each other, standing outside the bus, below the window, waving at Franny who was ensconced with her busmate and who was doing her best to ignore us.
I heard Prince’s I’m-so-rich-that-nothing-fazes-me guffaw, and turned to see him chatting up someone else’s father. I watched the ease in which he struck up the conversation. I imagined him encased in a Teflon shell that protected him from regret, longing, grief. The shell that keeps him from empathizing, from thinking I should fly my kid to wilderness camp so he doesn’t think I’m abandoning him. After 21 years of knowing Prince, I am still amazed that he seems completely and utterly unaffected by reality.
In the days since both kids left, I’ve checked their respective camp web sites for photos. Franny’s camp posts hundreds of photos a day, which requires scouring pages and pages of frolicking children. One photo of Franny showed her upon arrival, beaming, sprinting from the bus towards two weeks of non-stop fun.
Days went by before photos of Luca appeared on the Namoro web site. In the picture taken at his arrival, his eyes are red, and he’s smiling a brave, uncertain smile. Another picture shows him at base camp, cocking his head, still smiling gamely. And in the third picture, he’s on bended knee, crafting a bow drill he will use to start a fire for cooking.
I was at work looking at these pictures so I went into my bathroom to cry. I slid down the wall and sobbed into my knees. The day that the photos were taken was Luca’s actual birthday. I thought of the morning he was born fourteen years ago, the morning that changed my life forever.
And I thought, maybe, this day would change his.