Kate Walbert: “M&M World” from The New Yorker 5/30/2011

New Yorker art by Jaime Hernandez

Breaking her resolution to stop qualifying—five more minutes, this last page, one more bite—and wishing, mid-speech, she would stop. She has tried. Just as she has tried to be more easygoing, but when push comes to shove, as it always will, she is not easygoing. And she qualifies. It’s a verbal tic: first this and then that. A constant negotiation—action then reward, or promise of reward.

I started out biased against this story: I’m tired of the Single Moms are the Martyrs of the Universe mantra. I know that sounds heartless. I’m not heartless. I care greatly about a couple of individual single moms I know. I’m just tired of them as a category, tired of their self-pity and demands for compassion and lots of leeway. And definitely tired of them as literary trope. But this story grew on me, because of one paragraph which I’ll get to shortly.

Ginny is a Single Mom taking her girls, Olivia and Maggie, to M&M World. She’s a very nervous person. The kids might run into any number of hazards. She’s incapable of saying “No” and sticking to it. And while I may be heartless towards single moms, it isn’t lost on me that while Mom is negotiating ice cream with the kids, Dad’s off boffing an intern from work. She calls him “the girls’ father” throughout, because, I suppose, that’s the relationship that survives after what seems to have been a civilized divorce.

They stop by a row of carriages and horses. The horses’ yellow teeth remind Ginny she needs to bleach her teeth: “Suddenly everyone’s teeth are whiter than her own; they wear them like necklaces.” This is where I started to love this story (though I think there are too many tooth references here; Maggie’s teeth are also mentioned. She has teeth like pearls. And her tooth fairy obsession: she’s hoarding her teeth for one big hit when she’s lost them all). And on wrinkle removal: “a whole generation of women paying for erasure.” Now there’s a statement.

Unfortunately, there’s a sentence shortly after that annoyed me. In describing the horses: “it wears a hat with a feathered plume, as if it had trotted here from the stables of a fallen tsar.” This narration says to me, “I (the writer) am intruding here to show you how clever I am.” I’m not sure what the difference is between paying for erasure and the stables of a fallen tsar, but there is one, to me.

The horse’s gaze – an eye that says, “Where am I” – reminds her of a trip to Chile, taken with the girls’ father before they were married, and a whale-watching exposition:

On this particular voyage, the one Ginny found herself on with the girls’ father, Ginny chose to stay on the side of the boat with more shade. She was hot, she told the girls’ father. He could call her if anything exciting happened. She had opened her book: “War and Peace,” a paperback edition she had picked up in the paperback exchange in Santiago, where they had stayed for a few days before heading south. She had been at a good part, a really good part, and so perhaps it took some time for the whale to get her attention. She had had, when she later thought about it, the feeling of being watched. And so she had looked up from her place in “War and Peace” and seen the whale, a female, she would learn, uncharacteristically alone, lolling before her on the surface of the water. She folded the corner of her page and stood, shading her eyes; then she walked to the boat rail to get a better look. She didn’t call the girls’ father; she didn’t call anyone. She looked down at the whale. It lay on its side, staring with one eye straight at Ginny, drifting alone in its disappearing sea, the sun burning both of them, beaming through the torn shreds of the shredded atmosphere. They stayed like that for a while, Ginny convinced that the whale had a message to deliver, something she might translate and convey to the world. But she never figured out what, since too soon someone from the other side saw it and the whale was gone.

There’s so much in this paragraph – some I didn’t realize until I’d read the story a few times – I don’t know where to start. Who goes on a whale-watching trip and reads War and Peace? She has the feeling of being watched by the whale – the watcher does the watching. A female, uncharacteristically alone. She doesn’t call anyone but enjoys this herself, she and the whale, two females alone. She feels a communication but doesn’t know what it is. Then someone else sees it, and the moment is over. Later the girls’ father accuses her of being a whale hoarder (like a tooth hoarder?) – yes, this experience, she and the whale both saved for themselves. But it’s all a little hokey, at the same time, the M&M world of whale watching. I just loved this paragraph, and it turned the story around for me.

There’s another:

There are other things to fix, not just her yellow teeth. She needs some spots removed from her skin; she needs to dye her gray roots, the stubborn tuft that refuses to blend. She could use something for her posture—Pilates—and she’s overdue a mammogram, a bone scan, a colonoscopy. She needs a new coat, an elegant one like those she’s seen on other mothers, something stylish to go with the other stylish clothes she means to buy, and the boots, the right boots, not just the galoshes she’s slipped on every morning all winter; it’s spring now, isn’t it? She should pay to have her toes soaked, her feet scrubbed of dead skin. She could choose a bright color of nail polish, a hip color, a dark purple or maybe even that shade of brown. She should take a class—philosophy, religion, vegan cooking—and wear sandals there, the new kind, with the straps that wrap the ankle or twist all the way to mid-calf, her brown toenails shiny smooth, as if dipped in oil. There are posters on the subway and numbers to call. She writes down the Web sites in the notebook she carries for such things: lists, reminders. But she is constantly out of time, losing track, forgetting. Sunday’s Monday evening, then Wednesday vanishes altogether.

And we know Wednesday vanishes because she’s taking the girls to M&M World, or some other thing. Or getting lost in watching bags caught on the sycamore outside her apartment. It’s just like I want to read StorySouth’s 100 Best of the Web stories but, well, I’m off thinking about something else, or getting things done that must be done. And reading other things. Which goes to show you it isn’t only Single Moms who are unfocused and always whining about something. But of course Single Moms as Martyrs of the Universe have the right, because they are always caring for their children, or worrying about their children. I’m annoyed again.

There’s some kind of communication problem alluded to here. On their way to M&M World, Olivia gets momentarily lost, says “It’s the new kind” and “Did you see it?” and “It’s the new kind” again, and I’m never sure what she’s talking about. This comes about the same time as Maggie seeing a Mr. Softee truck and badgering for ice cream, so I’m not sure if that’s what she’s talking about or if there’s something else, something that gets crowded out by the ice cream (as Wednesday vanishes). This happens again: Ginny loses Maggie in M&M World and hears Olivia say she’s with “they guy” but then Olivia says she didn’t say that. I don’t quite get what this is. But it’s done twice so it must be important.

They find Maggie in a dressing room crying, she thought “they’d gone, too”. Too, Ginny says? Here is she being dense or just absorbing how Maggie has perceived the loss of her father? Then, after Maggie is safe and all is well, Ginny still dwells on danger and loss: “Ginny lets go first, leading them, pushing hard on the glass door against the wind, against what has become more than a blustery day, because in truth it is not yet spring, exactly; there is still the possibility of a freeze… How soon the whale dissolved into its darkening sea. How soon she was left at the side of the boat, alone.”

And now I want to slap her self-pitying narcissistic ass again, poor Martyr of the Universe.

Addendum: This story appears in BASS 2012; after re-reading, I have nothing to add, except to say I’m a little embarrassed by my rant on the Martyr of the Universe thing. I don’t disagree with it or wish to take it back – I’m just embarrassed by it. It’s the least I can do.

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