Sophie put on the pearl necklace after an internal debate about whether it would appear gauche. It looked nice with the dress, and she thought she looked more mature with it on. Of course, it wasn’t a real pearl necklace. She transferred her phone, keys and wallet into the designer purse made from genuine leather that they’d gotten her for Christmas. She knew they would like to see that she used it, although she didn’t do so often because she was terrified of ruining it or forgetting it somewhere. She smoothed out her dress, then walked into the living room.
Jason was sitting on the couch, and Sophie nervously turned in a circle and asked how she looked. He said she looked beautiful, as always. Sophie rolled her eyes and asked him, really, how did she look? He told her she looked fine, and that he didn’t understand why she was so nervous about going to this picnic. They were her family, after all. She reminded him they weren’t really her family, and that they could decide at any point that they disliked her. He laughed at her and told her that even blood relatives could do that. She chuckled, although it came out hollower than she’d expected it to.
This was the place where The Virgin Suicides took place, she told him, and it was really that bourgeois. Jason had never heard of the film, and she got sidetracked while she tried to explain it to him. She didn’t even like the movie, so she couldn’t understand why she felt set on telling him everything about it. She asked him if he’d seen Grosse Pointe Blank with John Cusack and Minnie Driver, and he said no. She shook her head and told him just to trust her that this place was intimidating. A picnic at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club Park was more of a test of class and social propriety than it was a fun family get-together, and he was the new element this time, she reminded him.
Sophie was ten years old, and she’d put on knee-length jean shorts and a t-shirt with an illustration of a dolphin printed on it. She’d paired this with crew socks and the white, grass-stained tennis shoes that were part of her school’s gym uniform. They were her only tennis shoes, because her mom couldn’t afford to buy her a second, more fashionable pair for weekends. Sophie was oblivious to fashion anyway, and was excited for the picnic because Jeff told her there would be other kids there to play with and that the playground was top-notch. When her mother came into her room, Sophie couldn’t understand why she immediately shook her head and pulled the dress she’d worn for Easter out of the closet and thrusted it into her hands. She directed Sophie to wear the black patent leather Mary Janes that went with her school jumper. She protested, telling her mother that she wouldn’t be able to run in them.
His eyes trailed toward her pudgy stomach, and he formed an expression that made Sophie think he saw her as one of the neglected puppies in the ASPCA commercials.”
Her mother sighed and told her she shouldn’t run around today anyway. Things were serious with Jeff, she said, and it was a big deal that Jeff’s parents would be there to meet her. Her mother told her it was important for both of them, and for Jeff, that his family accept her. She reminded Sophie that their family situation was unique. Sophie felt something new and disconcerting wash over her, and it wasn’t until she was older that she realized it had been shame. She nodded and put on the dress clothes.
Sophie scanned Jason to assess the decorousness of his appearance, although she didn’t tell him that was what she was doing because she didn’t want to make him self-conscious. He noticed, and asked her if he looked acceptable enough to be seen with her. She hesitated before responding and saw his eyes widen, and she told him that of course he looked fine. He wasn’t like her. He’d grown up with nice things and in a nice place. Sophie had only been to Skokie to visit his family once, but it was nothing like Detroit or even the house they’d moved into with Jeff in Redford. Redford was nothing like Skokie, and Skokie wasn’t Grosse Pointe.
They had to leave in ten minutes, and she was worried about how her hair looked. She shut herself in the bathroom one more time. Her reflection caught her eye and she saw an unflattering side profile of herself and the form-fitting dress she was in, and she felt like a sausage. She considered making herself vomit, but was worried she didn’t have the time to brush her teeth and fix her makeup afterward. She pulled her phone out of her purse and opened the app she used to track her calories and set her goal from nine hundred per day to seven hundred. She had to hide this from Jason. He hated dieting because his mother and sister had been Weight Watchers fanatics until his sister had a nervous breakdown in high school.
When Sophie and her mother arrived at the park, Jeff met them at the gate to get them in because they weren’t on the list. It was exciting to be somewhere that had a guest list—even if she wasn’t on it. Her mother was nervous, and Jeff kissed her forehead and whispered something to her as they started to walk to the canopy his family had set up near the tennis court. Jeff said his parents weren’t there waiting for them because they were talking with friends elsewhere in the park. He introduced Sophie to his brother and sister-in-law, along with his niece, Stacey. She was fifteen with long blonde hair, and she was thin and tall like a fashion model. Sophie knew that this was the person she wanted to be when she grew up.
Sophie scanned Jason to assess the decorousness of his appearance, although she didn’t tell him that was what she was doing because she didn’t want to make him self-conscious.”
Stacey was headed to the pool to see some of her friends and she asked if Sophie wanted to come. Sophie’s mother answered before she could and told her that Sophie hadn’t brought a swimsuit. Stacey looked past Sophie’s mother and at Jeff, and she asked him if she could put a swimsuit from the beachwear kiosk by the lifeguard’s station on his tab. Sophie’s mother seemed hesitant, but Sophie was bouncing and pleading. Jeff turned to her mother and said it was a good idea for her to have some fun and that his parents paid to be members of the club so that the family could use all of its amenities, and Sophie and her mother were going to be part of the family. Her mother relented and smiled with a false sweetness that Sophie chose to pretend she didn’t notice.
When they left the pool, Sophie was exhausted and sunburnt. Stacey stopped by the snack bar and bought her a popsicle shaped like a cartoon character. She sat in a chair under the canopy with a towel wrapped around herself as she dried off and ate the treat. Jeff’s parents were seated across from her, and Jeff’s brother was showing them photos of a condominium he and his wife had just bought in Myrtle Beach that they planned on using as a short-term rental property. Jeff’s mother suggested they tell the Claibornes about it, since their daughter was in a sorority and might want to go there with a few friends during spring break. Sophie had never heard of Myrtle Beach, and she interrupted to ask if it was in Michigan. Her mother tried to get her attention by shaking her head, but she didn’t notice.
Jeff’s mother smiled and told her it was in South Carolina, and that maybe they could take a family trip there one day. Sophie was unsure about if this included her or not, but she hoped it would. She had never been out of state. Jeff’s father nodded and stood up to formally introduce him and his wife to Sophie. He shook her hand and told her not to get up because she was still drying off and eating her popsicle. His eyes trailed toward her pudgy stomach, and he formed an expression that made Sophie think he saw her as one of the neglected puppies in the ASPCA commercials. He regained his composure and said he was happy he could tell that she was a “good eater.” Her mother grimaced and pulled Sophie aside after they were distracted and asked her to make sure that she didn’t take a second helping when their lunch was served.
When Sophie and Jason got to the park, they were on the list and the man who operated the entrance let them in with a smile. He knew Sophie from all of her visits over the years. This should’ve put her at ease, Jason said. She disagreed. When they got to the picnic area, Jeff’s parents were telling a story about their recent trip to the Cayman Islands and his mother shoved her phone into Sophie’s hands so that she could flip through photos of them at beaches and in markets, and of colorful alcoholic beverages that Sophie wished she could drink now to calm her nerves. Jeff’s father complained about the rich people there, evading taxes, and how they all seemed so out of touch with reality. Every American they met in the Cayman Islands had a nanny, a maid or both, and they watched them make “the help” use separate entrances to their homes, which he said was so strange that he laughed when he noticed it was a common occurrence. Jeff’s mother said she wouldn’t mind being out of touch with reality if it meant that she wouldn’t have to wash her husband’s socks anymore, and he pretended to be offended. He told her she’d have to settle for the middle-class lifestyle he’d provided for them. Jason gave a sideways glance at Sophie, who was smiling and nodding like she’d been programmed to do so.
They were excited to meet Jason, they said. Jeff and Sophie’s mother had been singing his praises and had told everyone in the family that he’d graduated summa cum laude from the University of Chicago. Jason was used to playing humble about this, and Sophie enjoyed watching him get showered with praise, both because she felt like he deserved to be and because it felt like they were complimenting something that belonged to her. She bragged that his short film was going to be part of the Traverse City Film Festival. Jeff’s mother congratulated him, and Jeff’s father made a joke about how that was a great achievement, but next time couldn’t he avoid anything related to Michael Moore with a ten-foot pole? Sophie laughed while Jason said that he liked Michael Moore’s films, and Jeff’s father debated with Jason about Moore’s politics. It was very diplomatic and good-humored, and this made Sophie more frustrated than if they had really argued. She tried not to let this sour her feelings of pride for Jason’s accomplishments and good manners, but she was envious of his ability to float through tense social interactions with poise. He was nonplussed by the purposeful bait that Jeff’s father cast out for him, and he passed each test with flying colors. She took the bait every time. Jason’s success was impressive and made Sophie feel like an idiot child, which she told herself was what she was, especially for being jealous of him.
When they got to the picnic area, Jeff’s parents were telling a story about their recent trip to the Cayman Islands and his mother shoved her phone into Sophie’s hands so that she could flip through photos of them at beaches and in markets, and of colorful alcoholic beverages that Sophie wished she could drink now to calm her nerves.”
Jeff’s father excused himself for getting carried away in conversation with Jason, and he apologized for not asking Sophie about how work was going at—where was she working again? She’d worked at the same place, the domestic violence shelter in Pontiac, for a year and a half. For a year and a half, Jeff’s father couldn’t remember what she did. She thought this was because it didn’t impress him. She wasn’t a leader at the shelter. She handled intake paperwork and arranged the schedule of programs that the programming director planned. When she graduated, Jeff’s father told her she’d be a great lawyer and that his nephew had a firm, which could help her get her foot in the door if she went to law school. She didn’t want to be a lawyer. She wanted to be a counselor, but she needed a Master’s to do that. She was working at the shelter and applying to Master’s programs, and after that, she’d be a counselor at the shelter. She reminded Jeff’s father about this in a friendly way, and he reminded her that she would never make the money a lawyer could make. She shrugged and told him she had health insurance and a 401k. He nodded and said he hoped she was putting a good chunk of her paycheck into that retirement account, because it would matter later, and she reassured him that she was.
When Stacey arrived with her husband, he was summoned by Stacey’s father and Jeff to talk about how things were going at his practice, and Jason stayed with them to meet him. Sophie looked over at him and smiled when she had his attention, and waved for him to come over. He shook his head and gave her a thumbs up. She couldn’t believe it, but it seemed like he was having fun. Jealousy hit her again, and she looked away from him. The women found themselves in a group of their own, but without much to discuss. Jeff’s mother told Sophie she looked stunning and like she’d lost weight. Stacey nodded in a way that made Sophie feel pitiful, and Sophie’s mother looked proud and agreed. Jeff’s mother asked her what her secret was, and she did her best impression of a socialite as she laughed and said she’d never tell.
Jeff interrupted the conversation and suggested they take the boat out for a ride on the lake. The boat was the only truly enjoyable part of going to the park, and she hoped they would let her drive it this time. Jeff’s father sometimes let her if the water was calm enough, and she knew Jason would get a kick out of seeing her do it. When they were on the water, she sat next to him and she told him that, in another life, she would’ve liked to be a sailor. There was something freeing about being on the water, and she didn’t think she would’ve minded the solitude. Jason told her she would’ve minded the scurvy, and that there wouldn’t have been much solitude unless everyone else on board died.
When Jeff’s father took her on the boat during that first visit to the park, Sophie was too frightened to touch anything. Her mother was afraid of the water and was pretending not to be, and this scared Sophie. Jeff’s father didn’t notice. He showed Sophie the control panel and let her sit by him while he steered. His eyes were bright, and Sophie decided she at least liked him when they were on the water, and that was a place for them to start. He asked her about school and what subjects she liked best, and she was happy to tell him all of this. She kept looking at her mother in an attempt to show her that everything was going to be alright. As an adult, she wasn’t sure if these glances were endearing or patronizing. Either way, her mother eventually flashed a real smile back at her, and she felt like she’d done something right. As they deboarded the boat, Jeff’s father told her mother that she’d make a first-rate captain one day. Her mother whispered to her that she’d done a good job and that everyone liked her very much, and that if she kept being so good, they’d stop for a treat on the way home. Sophie hugged her out of relief that she’d made her proud.
When they got off the boat, Sophie could feel that she’d gotten sunburn on her cheeks from the reflection of the light off the water. She didn’t mind, but she looked at Stacey and her perfect tan, and then at the men who watched Stacey from afar, and she allowed resentment to creep through her body. She didn’t resent Stacey as a person, but she wanted to be as effortless and perfect as she was, and she hated every curve and difference in weight distribution that made her own body different. She liked to imagine she was a piece of marble, and that if she kept chiseling away, she would find a body like Stacey’s was waiting for her to uncover it.
It was very diplomatic and good-humored, and this made Sophie more frustrated than if they had really argued. She tried not to let this sour her feelings of pride for Jason’s accomplishments and good manners, but she was envious of his ability to float through tense social interactions with poise.”
Jeff’s mother handed Sophie a money clip with cash and asked if she and Jason would go to the snack bar to get everyone ice cream. Sophie agreed. On the walk there, Jason asked her what kind she would get. She told him she wasn’t hungry and would have a salad when they got back to the spread Jeff’s mother had set out. He said he was going to have the ice cream and a salad and that they’d cancel each other out, and that if she didn’t do the same, it was her loss. She said she’d survive. Jason tried to juggle the treats in his hands, until Sophie laughed at him and opened her tote for him to drop them in. He looked relieved and hugged her from the side. She was starting to feel dizzy when they returned, but willed herself to push through it. Everything around her grew dim and it became impossible to discern the difference between people and objects. She knew she needed to sit down. She stayed quiet out of a fear that she would embarrass Jason or her mother, but eventually she couldn’t see anything and the only sound she heard was a perpetual high-pitched ringing.
When she came to, she was on the ground. Her mother was holding a cold washcloth to her forehead. She sat up and told everyone she was fine. She hoped she hadn’t been unconscious for long. Jason looked at her with suspicion, and she smiled at him to show that she was okay. She just needed some water, she said. She never drank enough water. Jeff’s father said that he didn’t drink enough water either, but that he was German, so he made up for it with his beer consumption. Almost everyone laughed. Stacey brought her a bottle of water from the cooler by the picnic table, and she sat down in a chair next to Sophie. She said she wondered if Sophie and Jason wanted to stop by her new house after the picnic because she had some clothes she’d been planning to give away that she was sure Sophie would fit into since they looked about the same size now. The weight loss really did look great on her, she said. Sophie beamed and looked at Jason for approval, but he had a vacant and disappointed expression. She laughed and shrugged at him and turned back toward Stacey, and told her she’d be happy to take a look at the clothes.