Leaves crunched under her boots and the wind made her wish she’d grabbed her sweater from the rental car. BJ was walking next to her, navigating the cobblestone pathways to the Parents’ Reception where they would finally see their son after being apart for four weeks and three days.
She knew that this school was the right decision for him. No matter how much trouble Connor started, he was growing here. She’d shoved her maternal instincts down and let him fly the nest at 14, and now she lived for these short visits.
BJ was walking next to her, prattling on expansion project he’d read about in the parent newsletter.
“I think we should donate Min. I know these things are annoying, but wouldn’t it be great if we could show our grandkids that brick with Connor’s name on it?”
She didn’t respond. She couldn’t honestly say she’d been listening intently. She’d mostly been trying to build a mental block against the pain from the blister that was growing on her heel and decide how long she could hug her son in public without him pushing away from her like he was embarrassed.
Warm fingers tangled with her cold ones, and they slowed to a halt just in front of the reception hall.
“Did you hear me? Are you okay?”
“Let’s buy the damn brick Beej.”
If he was startled by her abrupt tone, he didn’t show it. He just nodded, rested his hand on the small of her back, and said, “Let’s go inside.”
She nodded gratefully, and leaned on his arm as they climbed the stairs.
As always at events like these, they were first greeted by a cheery twenty-something alumni in a Milton Academy blazer.
“Names?” she asked brightly, looking down at her checklist.
“Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak,” BJ answered. “Parents of – “
“Connor Novak!” blazer-girl cut him off. “You know, I am such a huge fan of you both! I was hoping you would show up.”
Mindy tried to make her gritted teeth look like a smile. She loved meeting fans, but not here – not when she just wanted to get past those double doors and hug her son.
BJ made polite small talk, and even laughed conspiratorially at her attempt at a “That’s what she said” joke.
She handed their nametags over with shaking hands and an attempted quip “not like you need these!” and gestured to the doors behind her.
Mindy, feeling a twinge of guilt, took care to shake – she glanced at the nametag pinned to her blazer – Alexa’s hand and say “Lovely to meet you, Alexa!” before she made a beeline for the door.
She yanked the door open, and rushed inside, scanning for Connor’s dark mop of hair. Finally, she spotted him, standing with his friend Rick and Rick’s parents. She navigated quickly through the crowd, leaving BJ in the dust, and enveloped him in a hug instantly. Surprisingly, he hugged her back with equal force.
“Hi Mom!” came the muffled voice near her shoulder.
She finally pushed him back, holding him at arm’s length to examine him. He is hair was a bit too long. He had a scrape on his left arm – she could see the edge of it poking out under his polo shirt.
She inhaled, ready to start quizzing him on the injury, when Ben swept behind her, bringing them both into a hug.
BJ released quicker, with a cheerful “Hi son!”
Her mouth quirked into a small smile when she saw BJ’s eyes travel quickly over Connor just as hers had – scanning him for all of the little changes they’d missed in the last four weeks.
Like her, he spotted the cut, and lifted Connor’s shirt to get a closer look.
“How’d this happen?”
Connor cleared his throat, and then launched into a well-rehearsed speech. Clearly, he had anticipated this line of questioning.
“Well, it happened recently – nothing dangerous was happening. I was just partaking in some fun activities with some friends in an outdoor environment and I happened to slip and scrape my arm on a sharp edge of something but it’s not a big deal. I went to the nurse and she poured peroxide on it and everything.”
They both instantly understood what this meant. He’d scraped it during his misguided attempt at vandalism and was doing his best not to remind them of it.
BJ simply chuckled and said “Uh-huh” and pulled Connor’s sleeve back down.
They talked with Connor and Rick and Rick’s parents, and lovely couple from Rhode Island named Jason and Keith, for about twenty more minutes. At that point, they noticed Connor and Rick losing interest and staring over their shoulders. Apparently Matt had just walked in, flanked by his twin 18-year-old sisters.
Laughing Mindy leaned down to whisper to Connor. “Fine. You can go say hi. Meet us out front in 30 minutes. We’re taking you to dinner.”
He smiled, showing every one of his braces, and dragged Rick off with him.
The next half hour was unbearable. Networking with other parents at these events was nothing short of torture. As much as she loved seeing Connor, she hated attending events at Connor’s school.
She was one-half of a very beloved former couple – that was bad enough. Attending an event with the other half of that beloved former couple was next to impossible. No matter how snooty these society types seemed, they weren’t above scrounging for celebrity gossip.
On some level, she understood the fascination. She and BJ had been married, they’d had a child together. They’d been deeply in love and perfect together and the idol for many relationships. And then, seemingly suddenly, it was all over. He’d moved out and they’d gotten a divorce. And yet, they still worked together. They were still friends. They were still photographed coming out of the movie theater or Whole Foods together, just like they had been when they were in the height of “Bindy.” She understood the fascination. Their situation was definitely weird. But that didn’t mean that the questions were welcome. Or that they weren’t extremely rude.
“It’s so great that you guys can keep working together. How do you do it?”
“You guys don’t seem divorced.”
“Wait, are you famous? Would I have seen you in anything? Oh, sorry, I don’t own a TV.”
“You guys should write a parenting book. That would be so funny. Or a book for exes! Like talking about your divorce and stuff!”
Every time they attended events like this, it reminded her of that Emmy party - their first big event after their very public divorce. They had discussed it, and the discussion had descended into an argument, and then they decided they should both go. They’d have to go to many events where they other one would inevitably be – they should just bite the bullet.
The first 20 minutes were horribly awkward. She didn’t want to talk to him – it seemed too raw for a public venue like this. But, she also didn’t want to talk to anyone else. She couldn’t handle the pitying glances.
She couldn’t take it anymore, so she found him – sitting at a table alone. She sat next to him – uninvited, but not unwelcome. For the first five minutes they just sat together, drinking in silence, and then they started talking.
He’d said something corny and annoying and tinged with self-doubt like “How about them Lakers?”
She’d laughed, and then they’d just started talking. Both pretending that this impenetrable wall between them didn’t exist. They laughed that night – for the first time in a while.
That’s the photo all the magazines ran the next day. BJ with his hands out – gesticulating as he told her some joke, and her clutching her belly as she laughed, eyes closed in mirth.
Since then – the label had stuck. BJ & Mindy – the one couple that divorce actually worked for, a pair to be envied. And everyone wanted to know exactly how they did it.
It was on nights like this, surrounded by stuffy parents under bright prep school lights that she wanted to throw her hands up and shout that she just didn’t know. She didn’t know how they did it. She didn’t know how she could be with him so much even though every time she looked in his eyes, she felt the pain of their separation ripping her in two. She didn’t know how they could go from fighting to loving in two seconds flat. She didn’t understand how she could hate him and still think he was the best person she’d ever met. She didn’t know any of that. All she knew was that he was still the most important person her life, besides Connor, and that if she looked too closely at why they worked, she might wreck it.
So, she just nodded politely and said things like:
“Oh, we just take it a day at a time.”
“We’re friends, colleagues, and parents first.”
“TV’s not the best medium for everyone. BJ, tell them about your book.”
“Ooh you’re bad, Helen! Thanks for the idea! We’ll have to credit you in the acknowledgements if we ever right a book like that!”
She’d said all of those things before and she said them again. She shamelessly used her bubbly personality and BJ’s dry wit get them out of talking about it. They escaped the crowd and went to dinner with Connor.
Late that night, in the solitude of her hotel room, she thought about shat she wanted to say to those people – the people who begged her for the secret to their so-called success.
“The reason we work is that we’re still in love. We never stopped. I just gave up too quickly. And it kills me. ”
That sentiment was reserved for the quiet nights she spent crying on her kitchen floor – reliving their final moments and wishing she could take them back.