Start reading the first chapter of Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles
“Don’t use clean water to wash your hands!”
Intended as a gentle reminder, the admonishment came out shrill. Florence didn’t want to seem like what her son would call a boomerpoop, but still—the rules of the household were simple. Esteban consistently flouted them. There were ways of establishing that you weren’t under any (somewhat) older woman’s thumb without wasting water. He was such a cripplingly handsome man that she’d let him get away with almost anything else.
“Forgive me Father for I have sinned,” Esteban muttered, dipping his hands into the plastic tub in the sink that caught runoff. Shreds of cabbage floated around the rim.
“That doesn’t make sense, does it?” Florence said. “When you’ve already used the clean, to use the grey?”
“Only doing what I’m told,” her partner said.
“That’s a first.”
“What’s put you in such a good mood?” Esteban wiped his now-greasy hands on an even greasier dishtowel (another rule: a roll of paper towels lasts six weeks). “Something go wrong at Adelphi?”
“Things go nothing but wrong at Adelphi,” she grumbled. “Drugs, fights, theft. Screaming babies with eczema. That’s what homeless shelters are like. Honestly, I’m bewildered why it’s so hard to get the residents to flush the toilet. Which is the height of luxury, in this house.”
“I wish you’d find something else.”
“I do, too. But don’t tell anybody. It would ruin my sainted reputation.” Florence returned to slicing cabbage—an economical option even at twenty bucks. She wasn’t sure how much more of the vegetable her son could stand.
Others were always agog at the virtuousness of her having taken on such a demanding, thankless job for four long years. But assumptions about her angelic nature were off base. After she’d scraped from one poorly paid, often part-time position to another, whatever wide-eyed altruism had motivated her moronic double major in American Studies and Environmental Policy at Barnard had been beaten out of her almost entirely. Half her jobs had been eliminated because an innovation became abruptly obsolete; she’d worked for a company that sold electric long underwear to save on heating bills, and then suddenly consumers only wanted heated underwear backed by electrified graphene. Other positions were eliminated by what in her twenties were called bots, but which displaced American workers now called robs, for obvious reasons. Her most promising position was at a start-up that made tasty protein bars out of cricket powder. Yet once Hershey’s mass-produced a similar but notoriously oily product, the market for insect-based snacks tanked. So when she came across a post in a city shelter in Fort Greene, she’d applied from a combination of desperation and canniness: the one thing New York City was bound never to run out of was homeless people.
“Mom?” Willing asked quietly in the doorway. “Isn’t it my turn for a shower?”
Her thirteen-year-old last bathed only five days ago, and knew full well they were all allotted one shower per week (they went through cases of comb-in dry shampoo). Willing complained, too, that standing under their ultra-conservation showerhead was like “going for a walk in the fog.” True, the fine spray made it tricky to get conditioner out, but then the answer wasn’t to use more water; it was to stop using conditioner.
“Maybe not quite yet … but go ahead,” she relented. “Don’t forget to turn off the water while you’re soaping up.”
“I get cold.” His delivery was flat. It wasn’t a complaint. It was a fact.
“I’ve read that shivering is good for your metabolism,” Florence said.
“Then my metabolism must be awesome,” Willing said dryly, turning heel. The mockery of her dated vernacular wasn’t fair. She’d learned ages ago to say malicious.
“If you’re right, and this water thing will only get worse?” Esteban said, taking down plates for dinner. “Might as well open the taps full-on while we can.”
“I do sometimes fantasize about long, hot showers,” Florence confessed.
“Oh, yeah?” He encircled her waist from behind as she cored another cabbage wedge. “Deep inside this tight, bossy choir girl is a hedonist trying to get out.”
“God, I used to bask under a torrent, with the water hot as I could bear. When I was a teenager, the condensation got so bad once that I ruined the bathroom’s paint job.”
“That’s the sexiest thing you’ve ever told me,” he whispered in her ear.
“Well, that’s depressing.”
He laughed. His work entailed lifting often-stout elderly bodies in and out of mobility scooters—mobes, if you were remotely hip—and it kept him in shape. She could feel his pecs and abdominal muscles tense against her back. Tired, certainly, and she might be all of forty-four, but that made her a spring chicken these days, and the sensation was stirring. They had good sex. Either it was a Mexican thing or he was simply a man apart, but unlike all the other guys she’d known Esteban hadn’t been raised on a steady diet of porn since he was five. He had a taste for real women.
Not that Florence thought of herself as a great catch. Her younger sister had cornered the looks. Avery was dark and delicately curved, with that trace of fragility men found so fetching. Sinewy and strong simply from keeping busy, narrow-hipped and twitchy, with a long face and mane of scraggled auburn hair eternally escaping the bandana she wore pirate-style to keep the unruly tendrils out of the way, Florence had often been characterized as “horsey.” She’d interpreted the adjective as pejorative, until Esteban latched onto the descriptor with affection, slapping the haunches of his high-strung filly. Maybe you could do worse than to look like a horse.
“See, I got a whole different philosophy,” Esteban mumbled into her neck. “Ain’t gonna be no more fish? Stuff your face with Chilean sea bass like there’s no tomorrow.”
“The danger of there being no tomorrow is the point.” The school-marmish tut-tut was tempered with self-parody; she knew her stern, upright facade got on his nerves. “And if everyone’s reaction to water scarcity is to take half-hour showers ‘while they can,’ we’ll run out of water even sooner. But if that’s not good enough for you? Water is expensive. Immense expensive, as the kids say.”
He let go of her waist. “Mi querida, you’re such a drear. If the Stonage taught us anything, it’s that the world can go to hell in a snap. In the little gaps between disasters, might as well try to have fun.”
He had a point. She’d intended to eke this pound of ground pork through two meals; it was their first red meat for a month. After Esteban’s urging to seize the day, she decided rashly on one-time portions of five ounces apiece, dizzy with profligacy and abandon until she caught herself: we are supposed to be middle class.
At Barnard, having written her honors thesis on “Class, 1945-present” had seemed daring, because Americans flattered themselves as beyond class. But that was before the fabled economic downturn that fatally coincided with her college graduation. After which, Americans talked about nothing but class.
Florence embraced a brusque, practical persona, and self-pity didn’t become her. Thanks to her grandfather’s college fund, her debts from a pointless education were less onerous than many of her friends’. She may have envied her sister’s looks, but not Avery’s vocation; privately, she considered that fringy therapeutic practice, “PhysHead,” parasitical humbug. Florence’s purchase of a house in East Flatbush had been savvy, for the once-scruffy neighborhood had gone upscale. Indians were rioting in Mumbai because they couldn’t afford vegetables; at least she could still spring for onions. Technically Florence may have been a “single mother,” but single mothers in this country outnumbered married ones, and the very expression had fallen out of use.
Yet her parents never seemed to get it. Although they fell all over themselves proclaiming how “proud” they were, the implication that into her forties their eldest required you-go-girl cheerleading was an insult. Now their fawning over this shelter position was unendurable. She hadn’t taken the job because it was laudable; she’d taken it because it was a job. The shelter provided a vital public service, but in a perfect world that service would have been provided by someone else.
True, her parents had suffered their own travails. Her father Carter had long felt like an underachiever in print journalism, being stuck for ages at Long Island’s Newsday, and never snagging the influential, better remunerated positions for which he felt he’d paid his dues. (Besides, Dad always seemed to have an edge on him in relation to his sister Nollie, who hadn’t, in his view, paid any dues, and whose books, he’d insinuated more than once, were overrated.) Yet toward the end of his career he did get a job at his beloved New York Times (God rest its soul). The post was only in the Automobiles section, and later in Real Estate, but having made it into the paper he most revered was a lifelong tribute. Her mother Jayne lurched from one apocalyptic project to the next, but she ran that much-adored bookstore Shelf Life before it went bust; she ran that artisanal deli on Smith Street before it was looted during the Stone Age and she was too traumatized to set foot in it again. And they owned their house, didn’t they—free and clear! They’d always owned a car. They’d had the usual trouble juggling family and career, but they did have careers, not plain old jobs. When Jayne got pregnant late in the day with Jarred, they worried about the age gap between a new baby and their two girls, but neither of them anguished, as Florence had when pregnant with Willing, over whether they could afford to keep the kid at all.
So how could they grasp the plight of their elder daughter? For six long years after graduation Florence had to live with her parents in Carroll Gardens, and that big blot of nothingness still blighted her resume. At least her little brother Jarred was in high school and could keep her company, but it was humiliating, having toiled on that dopey BA only to trial novel recipes for peanut-butter brownies with mint-flavored chocolate chips. During the so-called “recovery” she moved out at last, sharing cramped, grungy digs with contemporaries who also had Ivy League degrees, in history, or political science, and who also brewed coffee, bussed tables, and sold those old smart phones that shattered and you had to charge all the time at Apple Stores. Not one lame-ass position she’d copped since bore the faintest relation to her formal qualifications.
True, the US bounced back from the Stone Age more quickly than predicted. New York restaurants were jammed again, and the stock market was booming. But she hadn’t followed whether the Dow had reached 30,000 or 40,000, because none of this frenzied uptick brought Willing, Esteban, and Florence along with. So maybe she wasn’t middle-class. Maybe the label was merely the residue of hailing from a learned, literary family, what you clung to in order to separate yourself from people who weren’t much worse off than you. There was only so much you could cook from onions.