Saturday morning: J.V. heaved himself onto Shara and they both sunk a little deeper into the mattress.
Mmm, Sex Machine, Shara intoned as she accepted the full weight of his body and, squashed though she was, tried to wrap her arms around his broad, hairy shoulders.
Don’t give me any ideas, he growled, burrowing his head into her neck, causing Shara to flail helplessly from the “sandpaper nuzzlings,” as she called them, hysterically, gasping
Oh, I have to go. We’re going today to the -
I know, he groaned, the MALL of AMERICA.
Yes, they were going. Shara couldn’t possibly guess what else might arouse her daughter from that tome with the bright red, bodice-ripping jacket: Gone with the Wind.
Napoleona’s sudden interest in historical fiction disturbed Shara. It was a far cry from her daughter’s usual diet of “true stories” - non-fiction picture books prettily rendered for children. And yet, as she considered the proximity of Rhett Butler & Scarlett O’Hara’s mouths on the cover, she couldn’t fault her pre-teen daughter’s curiosity.
Still, Shara had hoped Napoleona would have better taste in erotica. She assumed that when the time came the girl would approach the subject matter with her typical shrewd practicality, but never had she imagined her daughter’s first fantasy would involve so many corset stays and heaving bosoms. Intent on distracting Napoleona from a subpar sexual awakening, Shara put on her brightest Mom Voice and proposed they visit the Mall of America! She even hazarded, in dizzy desperation, that Napoleona should invite a friend. To her surprise, Napoleona offered up a name: Jennifer.
So it was arranged: today they would pick Jennifer up at her dad’s place and make the 3-hour journey to Bloomington, Minnesota, where the largest mall in America squatted amidst suburban sprawl.
Shara, lung-crushed, whispered to J.V., I think I’m going to let Napoleona get her ears pierced
still speaking into her neck, J.V. inquired, Does she want to get her ears pierced?
I don’t know. Shara responded, She hasn’t said anything. But I’m sure she does!
I like earrings, J.V replied, nipping at her earlobe.
Owh! J.V., we’ve got to go
OK, fine, he bit her neck and reluctantly rolled off of her, coming wearily upright, The MALL of AMERICA!
That’s the one.
What are the odds you don’t need me there?
Shara rolled her eyes, High.
Yes - you don’t have to come. It can be a girl’s trip.
In his best cowboy, J.V. yelped: Praise Jesus!
Not sure what he had to do with it, Shara sang, I’m the one driving your daughter 3 hours away to go to the mall.
You’re a brilliant mother, does anyone ever tell you that?
He tackled her back down to the bed and buried his face between her legs
No, J.V.! We’ve got to get going
Mom? Napoleona, from the other side of the door.
J.V. released Shara, but not without admonishing her with a slap and dose of false pity, oh, it’s so hard for you to be adored.
Shara struggled to her feet Coming, honey! Did you have breakfast yet? I’ll be right down.
Jennifer turned out to be the girl who played Mouse in Napoleona’s school production of Alice in Wonderland. She climbed into Shara’s flashy white gold minivan and greeted her with well-practiced manners.
The girls chatted for a little bit, then lapsed into silence, entranced by the ravaged midwestern fields struggling to prop themselves up through layers of melting snow and ice. Shara turned up the radio.
Feels like I’m standing in a timeless dream
Soon, the girls started singing, Napoleona’s grave and guttural baritone gave way to the Mouse’s quavering soprano, so in concert, they were almost able to cobble together the wistful, adult ache Shara felt every time she heard the song
You’ve got the most unbelievable blue eyes I’ve ever seen
She has a lisp, Napoleona reproved, why doesn’t she enunciate? She attempted Donna Lewis’ baby doll whisper:
I love you always forever
Shara glanced in the rear view mirror, surprised to hear her daughter’s precise and angular way with words softened into something that sounded ripe with feminity - the kind of voice she used with J.V.
But Napoloena mouthed out the window, brow furrowed with distaste; she clearly disapproved of proper pronunciation giving way to pop star affectation.
J.V’s daughter, Shara observed, slender and miniaturized, but him through and through: Linear, practical, and relentless.
Shara’s mind moved in figure eights and she figured that if she hadn’t met J.V. she might still be stuck in infinity. But here she was, with a child she never wanted - at least not in the way she felt other women wanted children.
She presumed it just came to them, that desire, just like the angel came to Mary, but when it arrives it’s less like a miracle and more like a given. So she never bothered about it really, because it always seemed that one day it would come unto her too, out of nowhere, and then she too would be filled with promised futures.
But it never came. She just got older and everyone started to expect her to start while she waited around expecting to be struck with desire.
Then J.V. came along and before Shara could even think of the reasons why, he stilled her mind. She found she couldn’t move unless he beckoned her, couldn’t leave unless he released her. Her body did as he bade it before she could begin to conceive another possible future.
It’s not that she never had to fret again, she did, privately, and grudged him the uncomfortable pregnancy, but any reason she could think of not to have a baby was trumped by the very fact that her body wanted to have his baby very, very badly.
So Napoleona came and now, almost 13 years later, Shara was still trying to catch up to the afterthought, still trying to figure out the why of the whole thing - of her and J.V., of the mysteriousness of her own body, and the odd and familiar child they produced.
She realized pretty early on that the parenting books and, in particular, Messrs Cline and Fey could say nothing about the proper raising of such a child. At the age of 3, during a game of pretend, Napoleona informed her playmates that she would be neither a princess nor a queen. The other little girls looked askance and, as their minds fluttered for explanation, Napoleona lifted her chin and crowned herself Empress of the Universe.
Shara decided then and there to put the parenting books away and to ignore all of her mother’s advice and pay no mind to anyone at the PTA. Even her own girlhood, for all its dreamy adventures, seemed unfit for the raising of her daughter. All she could do, she realized, was just try to arm her mighty girl as best she could before she marched on the universe.
"Somewhere, on the long road that wound through those four years, the girl with her sachet and dancing slippers had slipped away and there was left a woman with sharp green eyes, who counted pennies and turned her hands to many menial tasks, a woman to whom nothing was left from the wreckage except the indestructible red earth on which she stood."
- Gone with the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell
After a moment of frozen horror, Shara rushed to her baby’s side. Her eyes, still heavily inked and fringed with false lashes, now startled wide as she blinked at the child.
Napoleona recovered her senses, then lunged again for the spoon. But, just before it met her lips, she stopped short and thrust out her chin, opened her mouth, then slowly, deliberately stuck out her tongue to catch a drop of ice cream just before it plumetted to the tablecloth. Napoleona reared up in a shiver of ecstatic surprise and glared at the spoon suspiciously.
"She’s a baby," Shara’s mother croaked, "she can’t glare suspiciously.” Roberta waggled the spoon beneath Napoleona’s nose.
But Napoleona, spine straightened, peered down at the treat as she turned its sweetness over on her tongue. Shara and Roberta watched as suspicion turned to wonderment which became a shade of benign contempt never seen on a child below the age of 4 before. The women gasped and Napoleona smiled up at her grandmother.
Shara hefted a sigh of relief as she lifted Napoleona from her high chair and remarked, “Parenting with Love & Logic!” with an air of self-congratulation.
"I don’t know why you think everything is about that book," Roberta rustled dryly as she replaced the cover on the ice cream and made way for the kitchen.
She encountered J.V. on the threshold, looking relaxed and handsome in his casual blacks. She cast about for a catty remark, but before anything came to mind, he gallantly scooped the ice cream carton from her arms, held it aloft and read the label, and let loose an intrepid guffaw, “But Roberta, doll, you did only just give her vanilla.”
Roberta blushed and gasped helplessly before she fled. “You should really come with us next year, babe” J.V. called after her.
"You know that’s not very nice," Shara admonished between babbling and bouncing. Napoleona smiled, nodding patiently along.
"She could use a good stretch of the legs," J.V. retorted -
"Yes but, you know that she won’t and it only embarrasses her. She hasn’t left this land besides to go to the corner store and the post office in a lifetime."
"How’s my girl?" J.V. planted a hairy kiss on Napoleona’s cheek and offered her his index finger, which she accepted and crushed into her fist as she bobbed on Shara’s rocking waist. Pulled into the rhythm by the baby’s iron grip, J.V swayed with them, and gathered his wife into his arms. Shara nuzzled the baby and started to sing,
Now summertime’s here babe, need somethin’ to keep you cool
The Empress of Ice Cream
After digesting the imminence of the move and the upheaval of life as she knew it, it occurred to Napoleona that she didn’t know exactly what it was that had caused this change of fortune.
So, one day, she relinquished her heretofore uncontested domination of the jump rope squad at recess and spent the afternoon in the cool of the library, surreptitiously searching the creaking internet for J.V. and Shara’s talk show. Surprisingly, it wasn’t difficult to find.
She covered her ears in large, padded headphones and listened to the brief, 5 minute spot, only to surface on uncertainty: what was it all about? What did ice cream have to do with any of this stuff?
Napoleona’s first taste of ice cream was a family tale frequently retold by Shara’s mother, an amphibious Nevadan. Just before Napoleona turned 2, Shara and J.V entrusted her into the care of Shara’s sly, old hermit-of-a-mother before they set off for Leatherfest in San Diego.
At the time, Shara’s strategy for motherhood was deeply informed by a particularly popular book entitled: Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility.
When Shara first became pregnant, she bought a number of books, but this was the one she opened first. Right away, she set to learning the first two paragraphs by heart and whenever the baby cried for too long and J.V. lost his patience, she would begin to recite:
All loving parents face essentially the same challenge: raising children who have their heads on straight and will have a good chance to make it in the big world. Every sincere mom and dad strives to attain this goal. We must equip our darling offspring to make the move from total dependence on us to independence, from being controlled by us to controlling themselves.
At this point, she looked meaningfully at J.V. and then continued, dutifully:
Let’s face it: In this incredibly complex, fast-changing age, responsible kids are the only ones who will be able to handle the real world that awaits them. Life-and-death decisions confront teenagers – and even younger children - at every turn. Many of the temptations of adult life – drugs, internet pornography, premarital sex, alcohol – are thrown at kids every day. The statistics on teen depression and suicide bear out the seriousness of the parental task.
Here, J.V. invariably interrupted: “For god’s sake, Shara, she’s barely 2 years old!”
But Shara, who was as meek as a kitten the day J.V. met her, only gathered volume and seemed to rise in height and bearing with mysterious and newfound glamour:
HOW will our children handle such intense pressure? WHAT choices will they make when faced with these life-and-death decisions? WHAT will they do when WE are no longer pouring wise words into their ears? Will merely telling them to be responsible GET THE JOB DONE? THESE are the QUESTIONS that should GUIDE the DEVELOPMENT of OUR Parenting Philosophy!
It was a performance at which J.V. could do nothing but sigh and relent while Napoleona, bleary eyed, blinked up at the both of them, smiled and reached for her mother’s coarse, bleach blonde hair.
Naturally, Foster Cline and Jim Fay, the renowned authors of Parenting with Love and Logic, never said anything explicitly about ice cream.
“It’s a work of philosophy,” Shara explained as she set out jars of baby food and neatly labeled baby snacks at her mother’s house, “They don’t actually tell you what’s right or wrong for your family. You construct your own moral values and lead based on a framework of Love and Logic.”
“I still don’t see what that has to do with a little vanilla ice cream,” Shara’s mother replied crisply.
“Ice cream is a temptation and Napoleona isn’t equipped to handle it yet.” Shara retorted.
While J.V. and Shara lectured and performed demonstrations on safe, sane and consensual BDSM activities, Shara’s mother dutifully fed Napoleona the temptation-free diet her mother had prepared. But, the moment she heard the Shara’s old Toyota rattle up the long, dusty driveway, she fetched a tub of Bryers Classic Vanilla Bean ice cream and by the time J.V. and Shara were kicking dust onto the welcome mat, she was lifting a little silver sugar spoon from the container. And when Shara, peaked and breezy, bounced into the dining room, the spoon met Napoleona’s tiny pink lips and her baby’s eyes lit up with a knowledge that could be defined as none other than divine.
“And she turned out just fine,” Napoleona’s grandmother gloated.