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Caroline Jacobs rose, pointed her finger at the woman seated at the center of the table reserved for the PTO president and her officers, and said it. Shouted it, in fact. In the cafeteria of Benjamin Banneker High School, surrounded by crowded bulletin boards, scuffed linoleum, and the lingering smell of chicken nuggets, Caroline Jacobs had shouted a four-letter word. The four-letter word.
The room fell silent.
This was the first time that Caroline had spoken up at a PTO meeting. It was the first time she had spoken publicly in any forum since high school, and the first time in her entire life that she had fired off an expletive in public. These were the thoughts racing through her mind as she looked across her trembling finger at the target of her scorn.
With that one word, Caroline Jacobs had been transformed, if only for an instant, into someone she was not. Someone entirely new. Someone she both wanted to be and never could be.
The silence that followed her outburst was filled with a palpable sense of discomfort. Several people turned their attention to the proposed budget, flipping through the stapled pages in an effort to avoid eye contact with either combatant. Eric Feeney, the father of twin girls and one of the few men in the room, bent over to tie his already tied sneakers. The women sitting beneath the "Race to the Top" bulletin board stopped knitting, their long needles frozen between stitches. Even the refrigerator silenced its thin rattle.
No one moved.
The woman to whom Caroline's four-letter word was directed, Mary Kate Dinali, recovered quickly, converting her initial reaction of shock into a prefabricated facade of disgust and condescension.
Caroline wasn't surprised. Mary Kate Dinali was well equipped for this sort of verbal combat. She had spent her entire life conquering sidewalk fiefdoms, forging parental alliances, and coalescing suburban power. This was her life's work. She was a master in the art of indignation and passive-aggressive backstabbing. She was a Navy SEAL of PTO politics. And Caroline, without weapon or training of any kind, had just stepped onto the field of battle. She had opened fire on a hardened veteran of many skirmishes, and while her accusation had been leveled with uncommon force and precision, it had bounced off her opponent's armor like paperclips shot from an elastic band.
Mary Kate-now fully recovered and back in control-rose slowly from her seat, her thin waistline and cashmere twinset on full display.
Standing up was good, Caroline thought. She wished she had thought of it first.
Instead, she was unable to move, frozen in place by the eyes of more than three dozen people who were shifting glances from Caroline to Mary Kate and back, awaiting their next move.
But Caroline had no next move. Her actions had been as much a surprise to her as they had been to everyone else. She had nothing left in her repertoire.
In truth, Caroline Jacobs had no repertoire.
Tom Jacobs rose from his seat and placed his arm around his wife's shoulders. "Maybe we'll just head home a little early," he said, giving her a gentle nudge.
Caroline still didn't move. Not immediately, anyway. Part of her appreciated Tom's attempt to extricate her from this disaster, but she didn't like the tone of his voice. Rather than sounding earnest or concerned, his statement had come across as ... relaxed. Yes, that was it. There was a nonchalant quality to his statement, a Whoa, where did that come from, little lady? tenor that she didn't like one bit. It was the voice of a man with a foot in each camp, a man who was straddling the fence separating opponents.
At this moment, Caroline didn't require the delicacies of fence-straddling. She needed her husband fully on her side. She was already regretting her outburst. And that's exactly what it had been. An outburst. An unexpected verbal explosion. A sudden loss of control brought on by a brief but unquestionable moment of insanity.
She didn't need Tom coming down on the side of crazy as well. Not even halfway.
Nevertheless, she was grateful to him for conquering her inertia. She took his hand and a few tentative steps, but not before flashing him a glare, perfected during years of marriage, that conveyed a clear and pointed message. She dipped her head and stared at the tiled floor as they walked past Mary Kate and her PTO storm troopers. She cursed her inability to find a second sentence to follow the first. She hated herself for even saying the first.
Once they were clear of the school's double doors, Tom released her hand. "What was that?" he asked in a low voice.
For once, Caroline wished her husband would have used his own four-letter word-if not that very same f-word, something with equal force. Something other than his standard, modulated caution. But four-letter words were not in Tom's repertoire either.
"What was that?" Caroline shot back. "You heard Mary Kate. You heard what she said."
"I didn't hear anything that deserved a response like that."
"Then you weren't listening." She opened the passenger door to the minivan and climbed in.
Tom entered on the driver's side and started the ignition. Just as he was about to resume the conversation, press his initial point, perhaps approach it from another angle-all the things that he did so well-Caroline interjected.
"I don't want to talk about it right now. Okay? Let's just go home."
The gag order would frustrate Tom, and she was glad.
* * *
Mary Kate Dinali had it coming. Of this Caroline was certain. She only wondered why someone hadn't let her have it years before. The fact that it was Caroline who had said it-quiet, obedient, always ready to help, never rocking the boat Caroline Jacobs-had probably come close to knocking several of the PTO old-timers off their cafeteria stools and onto the floor.
To an outsider who wasn't paying close attention to the proceedings, Caroline's outburst might have seemed unwarranted. But context was essential. Mary Kate had just moved the discussion from next month's school fair to an item on the agenda that she had titled "The Spirit of Volunteerism."
"This is going to be a quick item," she'd said. "No biggie."
Like most bullies, Mary Kate Dinali liked to sneak up on her victims. Surprise them with false kindness, or in this case, misdirection. Before launching into the agenda item, she had smiled at Eric Feeney, who smiled back. He was wearing a New York Giants jersey, an intentional reminder to everyone present that the NFL now played games on Thursday nights. "I know the game starts in twenty minutes," Mary Kate said. "And people need to get home in time for kickoff."
Eric Feeney laughed. She had him, and with him, she had the rest. Just like that.
"As you know," Mary Kate continued, "our Election Day bake sale was a huge success, and our Feed the Teachers campaign was probably our best ever. How many schools offer their teachers sushi rolls and cappuccinos during parent-teacher conferences? In fact, I can't remember the last time we had a bad event. But here's the thing, friends: At both of these events, and at most of our events last year and the year before that, I see the same faces. The same people are giving their all, while so many others are sitting on the sidelines, relying on the good work of just a few of us to carry the day."
Caroline was already seething by the time Mary Kate had come to the end of what sounded like a well-rehearsed speech, but Mary Kate had been equally condescending on any number of occasions in the past. This was nothing new. Par for the course.
Then Jessica Trent spoke.
"It's not easy for some of us," Jessica said, her voice wavering. Jessica Trent was a thin, freckled redhead who had more fire in her hair than her demeanor. Caroline had spoken to the mother of two on several occasions, but being that she and Jessica were both fairly shy, they hadn't managed to connect. Shy people, in Caroline's experience, rarely forge successful friendships because they need an extrovert to make things happen. Someone to take the first step, make the first phone call, and assume the initial risk. Shy people like Caroline and Jessica require a facilitator of sorts to get things started, and there had been no one to bring the women together.
It was a shame. Caroline suspected that she and Jessica Trent had a lot in common. She was a smart woman who possessed a dry humor that Caroline appreciated. Her children were well behaved. She might speak as infrequently as Caroline at the PTO meetings, but in the few times that Caroline had heard Jessica talk to her kids, she had been direct and assertive. Funny, even.
But as she spoke now, Jessica's voice had an unusual bite, an edge that seemed to come more from anger than nerves. Jessica Trent didn't like Mary Kate's condescending tone, either, but unlike Caroline, she was willing to speak up about it. "I have to pay a babysitter just to come to these meetings," Jessica said. "And it's not like I can just leave work in the middle of the day to come to the school to help out."
"I had to hire a babysitter, too," Mary Kate said. "So did Pauline," she added, gesturing to the blond, bangled woman to her right. "I'm guessing that a lot of people here tonight had to do the same. We're all making sacrifices, and we certainly appreciate yours, Jess. I just worry that some are sacrificing more than their fair share."
What Mary Kate didn't say-what she didn't need to say since everyone in the room already knew perfectly well-was that she and Pauline needed babysitters tonight because their husbands were in Myrtle Beach on their biannual golf outing.
Jessica Trent's husband was a security guard in a downtown parking garage.
"I'm not saying that some aren't helping more than others," Jessica said. "Just that people might already be helping as much as they can, given their circumstances."
"I'm sure that's the case for some," Mary Kate said. "And I don't want this to go on too long or sound combative. I'm just saying that in the spirit of volunteerism, perhaps you should all ask yourselves if you could be doing more. And if you can't, at least offer a word or two of thanks to the people in the room who are bearing the heaviest loads. A little appreciation can go a long way. That's all. But thank you for the feedback, Jessica. Appreciated as always."
Mary Kate looked down at the agenda, ready to move on, when Jessica spoke again. "You're looking for a thank-you?"
"Excuse me?" Mary Kate asked.
"You want us to thank you?"
"No," Mary Kate said, dismissing the notion with a wave of her hand. "I was just saying that some people might be doing a lot, and I worry that they may feel a little underappreciated."
At this, Pauline cleared her throat. "If you're the first to arrive and the last to leave at every event, you start to wonder where everyone else is."
"But I also understand that it's beyond some people's means to do more," Mary Kate said. "I get that. We all have our own personal struggles. But giving a little more might not be beyond the reach for everyone. And we could at least make sure that those who are able to help out the most feel appreciated for the time that they give. It's not easy for any of us. I know. This is hard work."
"Yes, it is," Pauline said.
The five women flanking Mary Kate nodded.
Caroline's gaze shifted to Jessica, who looked small and alone. "Sure," she said, her head hanging a little bit lower than before. "I just don't want anyone feeling bad about not being able to do more. Some people might not seem to be giving a lot, but they might be giving more than you could imagine. I'd hate for them to feel bad for not doing more-"
"Well, you know what Eleanor Roosevelt said," Mary Kate cut in. "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
Jessica appeared to shrink on her stool. Her hands came together on her lap, like a scolded schoolgirl.
"Wouldn't you agree, Jessica?" Mary Kate asked.
That's when Caroline rose from her seat. That was when she lost her composure. That was when Caroline Jacobs said fuck.
* * *
By the time she and Tom were pulling into the driveway, Caroline was weighing her options. She knew she needed a strategy. Damage control, Tom would call it. It would require a formal letter of apology to the PTO for her "unfortunate, regrettable, and inappropriate language." Probably a personal apology as well. Caroline could do that. She could muster a face-to-face I'm sorry without much trouble. She'd been doing passive, disingenuous things all her life. What was one more?
It was true. Passive was the word that described Caroline best. It was almost her way of life. Avoid conflict at all costs. Be aggressively agreeable whenever possible. Fly under the radar. Don't stir the pot. Acquiesce and move on from difficult situations as quickly as possible, preferably with a smile. These were her mantras. Even her job as a photographer placed Caroline in a passive position, behind the lens, out of the shot, far away from the scene. Lift the camera, peer through the viewfinder, and be instantly transported from any uncomfortable moment to a tiny, encapsulated world. Caroline had been doing this her entire life. Dodging and weaving. Ducking and disengaging. Anything to go unnoticed. Unseen.
But now something else was happening that she didn't quite understand. There was something in the pit of her stomach that she had never felt before. Smoldering embers that had been waiting to be lit for years.
Caroline knew that she should apologize. She knew that she would apologize. But a part of her was rebelling against this notion. Part of her-a new part-was almost refusing to even consider an apology. Part of her was still reveling in that PTO moment.
Tonight's events, and the confluence of circumstances that had led up to them, had ignited a fire within her that she didn't think possible. Yes, it was only a flicker, not quite a flame, nevertheless Caroline suspected that it wouldn't take much for it to burst into a roaring bonfire. She could feel it right there, just waiting to ignite.
She wasn't sure if she should be excited or terrified by the prospect.
Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Dicks