Julia Fierro’s debut novel, Cutting Teeth, was recently included in Library Journal’s “Spring Best Debuts” and on “Most Anticipated Books of 2014” lists by HuffPost Books, The Millions and Flavorwire, Brooklyn Magazine and Marie Claire. Julia’s work has been published, or is forthcoming, in Poets & Writers, Glamour and other publications, and she has been profiled in the L Magazine, The Observer and The Economist. In 2002, she founded The Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, and what started as eight writers meeting in her Brooklyn kitchen has grown into a creative home for over 2000 writers. A graduate of The Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was a Teaching-Writing Fellow, Julia currently teaches the Post-MFA workshops at Sackett Street. She can be found on her website and on Twitter.
Excerpt from Cutting Teeth
St. Martin’s Press
© Julia Fierro 2014
Written from alternating points of view, this excerpt is from Part 2: Saturday “Golden Handcuffs,” Leigh
She sat in a deck chair, her feet on the seawall, the concrete biting into the back of her ankles. Still the same smooth muscles and delicate ankles that had made her proud to wear tennis whites to the Locust Valley Country Club as a girl. She rearranged the swaddle blanket over Charlotte, asleep except for the occasional suckle at Leigh’s nipple. Leigh chewed her nails, her mother’s voice in her head. Leigh, dear, no boy will want to hold your hand with those ragged fingernails.
She watched Tiffany run across the sand with the children down on the beach. Though it was only a little after nine and the morning sun weak, Tiffany wore a red-and-white, polka-dotted bikini. With her yoga-toned curves and her hair pulled into a ponytail, she reminded Leigh of one of those long-dead Vargas girls.
“Somebody decided to turn up the sun today, monkeys!” Tiffany’s voice rang with cheerleader-quality glee.
It was an energetic frolicking that had been foreign to Leigh for longer than she could remember. Surely, she must have moved like that before Chase had been born. Some of the other mommies had aged in life after children, even in their affluent neighborhood, with its countless yoga studios and salons and spas. With money came babysitters, and time away for the gym and private training sessions and hours sweating off pounds in the sweltering heat of a Bikram studio.
Tiffany was still beautiful, yes, but it wouldn’t last much longer, Leigh thought. Not if she kept filling her plate, as she had at breakfast that morning. Two thick pats of butter on her toast. Half & Half in her coffee. At that rate, Leigh thought, Tiffany would be just like the rest of them in five years.
The children scurried away from the seaweed-speckled foam of the waves, back onto the sand dotted with red, white, and blue inflatable beach balls, which they kicked, threw, covered with sand, and the most daring (Harper, of course), set afloat in the cold, dark water. Chase sat on his ball, rocking gently.
How foolish she’d been to think coming out to the beach house might make him happy. Chase couldn’t be content, or comfortable, anywhere, it seemed. Or was it her? Was her own unhappiness infecting him? When all she had ever wished for him was less suffering? If only everything would be okay. If only Monday’s meeting with the fund-raising-committee chairwoman went smoothly, she would be happy, she promised. She would make Chase happy.
But Leigh knew that wasn’t true. She knew they would take her to jail. A series of concerns popped into her head, all of which seemed trivial. But what was more important than preserving the children’s day-to-day life? How would breast-milk-exclusive Charlotte thrive? Who would remove all the tags in Chase’s clothing so not one stray thread rubbed against his skin? Who would remind him to howl like a baby wolf in the bathtub, chin lifted to the moon, so soap didn’t run into his eyes? And brush him with the soft-bristled surgical brush his occupational therapist had given Leigh? Up his back, over his shoulders, and down each arm, just the way he liked it, soothing him before bed.
That morning at breakfast, recharged after a good night’s sleep, as she had spooned scrambled eggs into Chase’s mouth and dabbed his smile with a napkin, the sea outside the window stretching endlessly under the bluest sky, she had felt hope.
Sure there had been the usual grumbling from Chase about not wanting to eat, his fidgeting, spilling a whole cup of juice across the table (Leigh had apologized to the room—we’re working on our fine motor skills), but once they walked out into the blazing sun, Chase had fallen apart. The sand was too sticky, the wind too cold, the sun too hot. The seagulls hurt his ears. The sea snails, which the other children squealed at gleefully, were scary. The greenhead horse flies were biting him.
“They’re going to get me!” he had screeched.
Use your words, Chase.
Calm down, Chase.
No throwing sand, Chase.
By nine, Leigh’s patience had been obliterated.
Then a bikini-clad Tiffany had appeared, skipping down the sun-blanched wooden stairs that led from the deck to the beach, the tops of her tanned breasts jiggling. Chase had left Leigh, running to clasp Tiffany’s hand, looking up at her in a shy but also, Leigh had noted, flirtatious way. His mouth twisted as he tried to hide a smile.
“Go ahead, Leigh. Take a break,” Tiffany had said with a wink, nodding up to the deck. “Get some sun. We got it covered. Don’t we, Chase, my dear?”
And so Leigh had retreated.
Now, over the flapping of the deck umbrellas, she heard Tiffany on the beach.
“Say cheese! Say cheese!” Tiffany sang.
Tiffany loved to be photographed, and it made Leigh feel embarrassed for her. Couldn’t Tiffany see how vain she seemed? Not long after the barrage of cheese, Leigh heard Tiffany’s demands. Now to Michael, she imagined.
“Let me see,” Tiffany commanded. “Are there any good ones?”
Leigh knew Tiffany would post the photos immediately to her Facebook page, especially the ones showing off her bronzed cleavage. With cheery status updates like: A day at the beach with the Tiff’s Riffs kids!
Leigh sat up when she heard Chase’s cries, carried up to the deck on a gust of wind.
“Everything okay down there?” she called out.
She spotted Tiffany with two children, one at either side. Harper and Chase.
Leigh shielded her eyes and waved. “Hey! Should I come down?”
Tiffany shook her head and waved Leigh back, as in we don’t need you. But Chase was hopping from foot to foot like a furious little elf. She followed his pointing finger to the blue-and-white ball floating out to sea, tossed by the waves. Chase pointed to Harper, and Leigh could see that the little girl’s hands were balled on her hips. Leigh read the distress in Chase’s widened eyes, his stretched mouth.
“Harper,” Leigh whispered. “That little . . .”
Insecurity, exhaustion, fierce protectiveness . . . the essence of parenting young kids is captured in this brief scene. In her cover blurb, Karen Thompson Walker says Cutting Teeth “captures the anxiety of our times with the authority, insight—and humor—of lived experience.” What other grit do you hope found its way to the page?