Chapter 1: Ruth RUTH
Is that her ex? Over there by the apples? In the faded Red Sox baseball cap pulled down low over her eyes?
Ruth Thorne ducks behind a banana display. The last time she saw her BFF was over a year ago at Rite Aid. Ruth had run in to get some dental picks, and there was Gemma waiting in line at the pharmacy. Ruth hid that time, too, in the toothpaste aisle, hoping she’d overhear the pharmacist murmur the name of Gemma’s medication. All she discovered was her co-pay was fifteen dollars.
A wave of déjà vu rolls over Ruth. Did she dream this moment into reality? She’s thought of nothing but Gemma for the last week and now here she is, practically trembling with anxiety as her hand dips into the pile of Galas, searching for the unbruised gems.
Ruth gets out her phone and refreshes the San Francisco Chronicle’s home page. The article is still the number one most-read story and has 998 comments. With Gemma standing only twenty or so feet away from her, she reads it anew, as if through Gemma’s eyes. Has she been obsessively refreshing the page for the last week like Ruth?
Study Right, Oakland and Test Prep Center, Involved in Cheating Scandal
Gemma Howard, the owner of Study Right, claims she had no idea that one of her most popular tutors, Julie Winters (Harvard, BA English, 2017), had a profitable side business taking SAT and ACT tests for nine of her clients.
Gemma rolls her cart down the produce aisle and stops at the nectarines. Ruth knows her favorite variety are the Diamond Brights, but they’ve come and gone already; she’ll have to settle for the Honey Blazes. Gemma tears a plastic bag off the roll and tries to open it, biting her lip in frustration. Finally, she licks her finger, and the edges of the bag separate. Gemma glances up, doing a quick check. Has she been made?
Ruth squats, her heart thumping wildly. Quads firing, she continues reading the article.
“?‘Julie Winters was a sole operator. A bad actor,’ said Howard. ‘I was shocked to find out she’d been running this kind of scam.’?”
Ruth mouths Gemma’s words silently. I was shocked. Julie Winters had pled guilty. And even though Gemma had been cleared of all wrongdoing, attendance at her test prep center had declined by nearly 50 percent.
Ruth skims the latest comments.
What a disgusting little cheat. Of course she was in on it.
Lying scum. Burn the place down.
She’s got a daughter. Whattya wanna bet her SAT scores are off the chart hahaha.
Bitch. She should be thrown in jail.
Jail? That’s taking it a little too far. Still, Ruth can’t help the smile that creeps across her face.
Comeuppance. She’s always loved that word. Gemma Howard is finally feeling what it’s like to be exiled from a community. To be publicly pilloried, just as she’d been, seven years ago, when Gemma and her daughter, Bee, turned their backs on Ruth and her daughter, Marley. Tossed them aside like they were strangers. Like they hadn’t been allied since that long-ago kindergarten meet and greet party that Ruth hosted at her house. Gemma was a widow and Ruth was divorced. They were the only single moms in the class and they’d bonded instantly. Within months, they were like family. They became each other’s emergency contacts. They spent Thanksgivings and Christmases together. They were inseparable until the girls were in third grade, and then Ruth hooked up with Mr. Mann on Tinder.
Mr. Mann was irresistible. A Stanford linguistics professor. Erudite and incredibly fit. He told her he did the Bar Method three times a week; she liked his long, lean muscles. They’d slept together twice before Ruth discovered Mr. Mann’s true identity: Barry Egan, father of Chance Egan, a boy in Marley’s class, very much married with three children, a wealthy contractor with a thesaurus in his back pocket. His opening gambit? Did she know the etymology of the word obsequious? No, she had not.
At the same time Ruth had discovered Mr. Mann’s identity, his wife, Sal, discovered hers. The news spread like a virus through the Momonymous pods. Momonymous was an anonymous app for mothers. In order to participate, you either had to start a mom pod (taking on the role of moderator) or be invited to join. The pods were similar to sororities, each with its own rituals and vetting processes. Members were rabid about hiding their true identities. The moderator knew who was in the group, but once the members chose a username, she was in the dark, just like everybody else. The anonymity allowed for uninhibited speech. That was the whole point of Momonymous.
In the best of cases, pods shared tips and complimented children, mothers, and teachers. In the worst of cases, the pods were cruel. They gossiped about the mothers who hadn’t been invited to join (Ruth!). About the scapegoats, the mean girls, who got their period first. Many of the pods were basically cabals. Cabals that threw Ruth Thorne to the ground and ripped out her throat.
Ruth had begged Gemma to see her side of it. Mr. Mann had lied. He said he was single and did the Bar Method (in retrospect that was a glaring red flag—how had she missed that?). And what about his accountability? He pursued her. Why was she being slut shamed? Why did he get off scot-free?
Gemma didn’t abandon them all at once. She and Bee pulled away slowly, which in the end was more painful.
Gemma leaves the produce aisle and disappears around the corner. A minute later, Ruth follows her. She’s picked up her pace, trotting past the cereal, the cleaning supplies, the toilet paper, the soda. Ruth has to walk briskly to keep up with her. Finally, Gemma makes an abrupt turn into the wine and liquor aisle and puts four large bottles of Woodbridge sauvignon blanc into her cart.
Ruth refreshes the page again. Nine hundred and ninety-nine comments. One thousand. Ding! Ding! Ding! “Buy low” is Ruth’s tenet. She sends Gemma a text.
Come to dinner Saturday night. xx
Ruth can hear Gemma’s phone chime, even though it’s buried in her bag. A clarion call straight from the Hobbit soundtrack; she’s had the same text alert for years. Gemma doesn’t pick up her phone but she startles at the sound of the notification. She hurriedly joins a line, readjusting her baseball hat so it covers her eyes completely.
I bet she wishes she could go back to the Shire, Ruth thinks.