The party details were coming together. Ethan promised to perform with his trio, Ménage à Trois (the name made Cassie blush), and Edith said of course she wasn’t an ass-wipe and would def tone down her language for the party even though it was dismal and sad the way Cassie insisted on controlling her.
On Tuesday Cassie finalized the menu with the caterer: baby lamb chops with fig chutney, curried new fingerling potatoes, little gems of romaine with royale dressing, and the mini cupcakes. Cassie stared at the printed menu… baby, mini, new. Why not mature, significant, established? How about experienced fingerlings? Sensible lamb chops? Even the menu font was glaringly youthful. When asked to change it to something less frivolous, say, Bookman Old School, the caterer held up her right hand. Don’t you see, she’d asked Cassie with a sad, subtle shake of her head, it would set an entirely inappropriate mood for her food. Her food—she paused to choose words even Cassie could understand — possessed an intelligent joie de vivre.
And, there it was, that word, joie. Ben noted its absence as he splashed delicious cream into her piping-hot-brimming coffee cup. Seth had told Cassie early on that if he were to write a mission statement for her therapy it would focus on recapturing her capacity for joy. How about we trade jaded for joyful, he’d suggested. He’d said some more after that, but the phrase mission statement made her deaf to everything else. Cassie responded, How about we trade hackneyed for honest, trite for truthful? She gave the t’s a spiteful, exaggerated click with her tongue against the roof of her mouth. Seth hoisted his brows as if to say See? This is exactly what I mean.
Cassie, intent on proving she was not void of joie, agreed to the menu font. But she asked that the fingerlings be mashed, a nod to the nostalgia zeitgeist. Middle age does not equal morose malcontent.
The last thing that remained on her to-do list, shop for a new dress, was the thing Cassie hated most. When Blythe Cooper (rhymes with supper) phoned to RSVP that she and Bradley wouldn’t miss the party for the world, and by the way, why hadn’t Cassie been back to the book club, they missed her, Cassie found herself blurting that maybe Blythe would like to help her find a dress, and Blythe had said, “How Wonderful!”
* * *
“Cassie, I want to thank you for inviting me.” Blythe clasped Cassie’s hand between her smooth, expensively ringed fingers. They were standing outside Anthropologie, a shop Cassie usually avoided as much for the boudoir pillows as for the frayed hemlines of the slutty Jane Eyre dresses. Not that she was against setting a mood in the bedroom or that she was a prude — she wasn’t — but Anthropologie was youthful shabby hauteur. However, today with Blythe, Cassie determined to keep her opinions to herself, even the most keenly held, that Anthropologie (the store, not the study of humankind) failed to recognize the irony of its faux gravitas name.
“Cassie, the clothes here are exactly right.” Blythe kept repeating Cassie’s name as if she were committing it to memory. “They’re festive.” She flashed a clap-on-clap-off smile, and Cassie, who did not want to be accused of a lack of festiveness, flashed a smile right back. “Go into the fitting room and let me be your personal shopper.” She squeezed Cassie’s hand like a delighted toddler. “This will be such fun.”
Cassie found herself humming as she undressed. Blythe was being so kind! Cassie and Ben should have thrown a party years ago, right when they moved to Oakland. Standing in her underwear before the huge mirror (the dressing room was about the size of a prison cell) Cassie did a head-to-toe assessment. Her hair, recently cut in a very short pixie, looked chic, smart. Her bra and underpants — sagging, mold-colored — would have to go. She’d buy something silky, perhaps flowered or purple, before the party. Knowing she was wearing something purple next to her skin might help her with her therapeutic mission statement. It might be just what Seth ordered. This made her smile, thinking of lingerie shopping as a directive from Seth, who never spoke to her about anything sexual. Never asked about her sex life, her desires. Only once he’d said the word erotic and then backpedaled, explaining he meant it in a nonsexual manner. Erotic as Eros, animus versus anima, Jung and spiritual love and communication. She’d stopped listening at erotic, the word tumbling in the hot dryer of her mind like an adolescent boy’s response.
In the soft dressing room light (thank God for soft light) Cassie grabbed two handfuls of flesh at her belly, one for each pregnancy, never to be undone, not by ten thousand sit-ups. She thought of the cruelty of Ben’s flat belly. His body unaffected by their children, at least for now, pre-tattoo. She slipped off her bra. Her breasts, uncased, were significant, Rubenesque, worthy of attention. Turning, she gazed over her shoulder, appraising her ass. Two dimpled melon slices dipped beneath the sprung elastic of her underpants. Cassie believed in the adage that a woman of a certain age must choose between her ass and her face, but here she was, forty-seven, and neither ass nor face looked too bad. Standing right up next to the mirror she looked, and saw, what? What had she been looking for in Jeremy Deak’s bedroom lo those many years ago when her face was trashed from the night before? Some melodramatic romanticized knowledge, carnal and mysterious, that explained who she was? Her fervent eyes were the green of moss on the glass walls of a dirty aquarium. Lines around them showed she’d been happy, had felt joy. She imagined Seth staring from across his office. Did he see her as half empty or half full? She stepped back from the mirror, sat on the stump in the corner of the dressing room (a real stump, as if she were in a forest! Oh, Anthropologie!), and made that twirling-finger gesture of his, the upward spiral is no more. The woman in the mirror still looked like a human with a sense of potential.
“Voilà.” Blythe passed in seven dresses. “Remember, color is the new black, and with your skin and elegant hair, something here will be perfect.” Half of Cassie’s void-of-joy wardrobe was black. “I particularly like the…” Blythe stuck her head in the room and took in Cassie’s reflection. Her expression froze but did not waver on her smooth-as-a-fitted-sheet face. “I’ll find you a slip, something slightly alluring.”
The first dress she would not try on could best be described as a getup, a Hostess Sno Ball-pink number that would be perfect for offering mini cupcakes. The next was yellow. No one looks good in yellow.
“How about something a little darker,” she called to Blythe, hoping she’d understand the code for black.
“Humor me. Slip on the turquoise.”
Cassie reluctantly stepped into the turquoise and tangerine dress. It was better than she thought, two giant blocks of color, turquoise skirt with a tangerine bodice. She looked like a walking Rothko painting. When she stepped out, Blythe held her hand before her mouth and said, “You look exactly like Susan Sarandon.” She walked around Cassie as if she were considering a major purchase, a car or a sofa. “With the right accessories…” And she glided out into the store again, Cassie in tow. Blythe gathered a scarf, crystal earrings, gold bracelets. Cassie glanced again in a mirror. In the brighter light of the store she saw that the dress wouldn’t do at all, it was puffy in the wrong places. Beyond the mirror was a clear day, an extravaganza of rust and gold leaves against a bright sky. Cassie truly hated shopping. She thought she might go ahead and buy the dress just to be done with it and then wear something she already had in her closet.
Across the street, pedestrians strode past Peet’s Coffee holding white paper cups, and Cassie yearned for one herself. She would offer to buy a latte for Blythe and then maybe they would talk about trips, GPAs (if Blythe asked after Ethan’s, Cassie would refrain from her stock answer: It’s π), college searches, the faux safe subjects that held secret treachery, hidden hierarchies for middle-aged, middle-class women. She looked up and down the street, seeking the clump of plaid-clad teens that Edith mentioned. What had she called them? Word? Ah, her charming kids! A blue head caught her eye. Her first thought was, Why so many blue heads? How ridiculous. But then the way this blue head turned was too familiar. Edith. Standing on the corner at one thirty on a Wednesday. Cassie’s heart revved up. Why were her surprises always unhappy?
“I’ll be right back.” She shoved her handbag at Blythe and bolted out the door, setting off the rhythmic bleat of Anthropologie’s alarm system.
Edith and a boy ambled up the street away from her. She noted the good-news detail that they weren’t touching. It mattered. She needed to handle this in the best possible way and so suppressed the urge to scream Edith’s name, which would be wrong and bad and she’d have to admit it later when she told Ben and Seth about this moment. Following after them, she called out Edith’s childhood name, nonchalant as possible, “Fred.”
Edith didn’t respond so Cassie ran, barefoot, she realized, when she stepped in something dank and damp, until she caught Edith’s shoulder and spun her around. “Why aren’t you in school?”
Rather than resist, Edith totally surprised her by throwing her arms around Cassie and saying, “Mom, Flood’s so psyched about coming to Dad’s party.”
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“Sweet! What are you wearing?”
Why was Edith talking so fast? What size were her pupils? Her eyes were hidden by ponderous smears of kohl shadow, both above and below her lashes, as if King Kong had applied her makeup.
“We had a short day. I told you this morning.”
Perhaps she had, Cassie couldn’t remember. She took her daughter by the shoulders and held her still. Edith wore sweatbands on her wrists.
“Fuck-ola, Mom.” Edith tried to shrug Cassie’s hands away. “Chill.”
Flood, the boy beside her daughter, laughed out a “Cracking dress.” He had a pierced tongue. Wasn’t that for sexual enhancement? Flood, Edith was explaining, worked at Peet’s and went to school at night to get his GED. “He’s, like, a latte genius.”
Another young man, this one in a Day-Glo yellow vest with a badge on his left chest, stepped up to Cassie and clamped his hand on her shoulder. “Ma’am?”
“WTF, Mom?” Edith stared at the security guard.
“I’m required to escort you back to Anthropologie.”
Now it was Cassie’s turn to shrug a hand away. The four of them created a small roadblock standing in the dappled shadows of the elms that lined the sidewalk. Pedestrians craned their necks as they sidled past, some stepping out into the street.
“Now,” the guard said, tightening his grip as if Cassie were a flight risk. Cassie turned her slit-eyed, mouth-thin-as-a-piano-wire expression toward him, and he added, “Please.”
“I need a moment with my wayward daughter,” Cassie explained. She must have said it very loud because Edith’s face went pale and she stage whispered, “Fuck my life, Mom. You’re a spectacle.”
“Take off the sweatbands.”
“Who’s the criminal here?”
“I need to see.”
Edith slid the ugly black bands from her wrists and threw them at Cassie. She held up her unscathed arms. “Satisfied?”
Cassie both was and wasn’t satisfied. She was relieved Edith’s skin was unmarred, but why did her daughter posture toward emo? All the drama and upheaval and plaintive music. What happened to her sunny child? A woman in a cooking store held a whisk midair and stared out at Cassie. Stared at the shoeless woman ranting at a blue-haired teenager on this lovely autumn afternoon.
Blythe, waiting by the door when Cassie and the security guard returned, asked if everything was okay and then added, “I guess that’s what you meant by feral.”
* * *
Cassie flipped through Real Simple magazine in Seth’s waiting room, eavesdropping on the clients before her. She couldn’t hear anything distinct, just the rise and fall of three voices that left her feeling territorial and excluded. When a great wave of laughter erupted from the inner room, she added discouraged to her emotional inventory. How could she follow whatever was going on in his office? She was like a standup comedienne having to go on after someone really funny, say, Eddie Murphy, before he started taking all those hokey movie roles.
She’d decided to wear her Rothko dress to the appointment, mostly as a sight gag for when she told her Edith/Blythe story, but also as a sort of penance because it was expensive and she absolutely would not wear it to Ben’s party. The dress swooped and clung, looking both absurd and kind of sweet, like a balloon bouquet.
“What’s on your mind?”
All signs of joviality were banished from Seth’s face. She wondered how he did it, how he shifted from being the vessel for one client’s messy life to being available for the next in just a few short minutes. Tai chi? Silent primal scream? Did he have some cleansing ritual? If he did, that’s what he should share with her. Enough of the weighty prolonged silences, repeating her words, the self-actualization crap; she needed to know how to be less herself, not more herself.
She had sort of worked out her story so it was a joke: shopping, sighting Edith, the wild conclusions that raced through her mind — cutting school, cutting her flesh, ecstasy, sex—the forced purchase of the ugly dress. But once on his couch, she didn’t have the energy. “I want…to be less vivid.”
He nearly smiled and then stopped himself when she didn’t join in. Yes, she got it; less vivid in her Technicolor dress, it seemed like a joke.
“I heard you laughing with your last clients, and now look at you. You’re sort of …amorphous. You have no clear outline.”
“I’m not certain what you mean by outline.”
Cassie stared over his head at the womb-colored tapestry. She wasn’t certain what she meant either. In fact, she had no idea what she was saying or where it came from. Sitting on the couch, fiddling with pillow fringe, she wondered if she was telegraphing information to him by crossing her legs, looking out the window, by needing to do something with her hands. God—therapy, this business of revealing and concealing, was hard fucking work.
They sat in silence for a bit and then Cassie launched into her story. “Well,” she said, the word carving a space in the room for her mind-dump to begin. She mentioned Blythe, the cost of honesty, and her decision to keep opinions to herself, trying on the garish clothing, seeing Edith and Flood on the street, the security guard, the dog shit she’d stepped in and then tracked through the store, Edith’s claim that she would never cut, she just thought sweatbands were tight.
Seth’s expression was pliant; it could go in any direction, smile, frown, or compassionate furrow. He brought his fingertips together in front of his chest the way he did. The story was good, but for some reason Cassie had no joy in the telling. Diminished capacity and all.
“I suppose what I meant about your absent outline… you have no agenda. I always have an agenda: hold the kids to a standard that I know is best for them, be a good wife, love my husband.” Her eyes stung and then spilled over. Why had she put on mascara today? It was shitting awful to be her.
“It sounds exhausting.”
“I’m wondering why you feel you have to work so hard?”
Cassie released a faltering sigh. “Last night, after the Anthropologie escapade, I called Ben and asked him to bring home Chinese. He brought Ethan’s spicy shrimp, Edith’s sesame noodles, his favorite — pepper beef — some sweet and sour pork, and white rice, and he didn’t bring one dish that I really like. He forgot. We’ve been married twenty years and Ben couldn’t remember what I like to eat.”
“How did you feel?”
“I scrambled myself an egg.”
Seth lowered his gaze and waited for Cassie to answer his question.
“It sounds so pathetic, but I want to matter.”
“Aren’t you going to tell me everything isn’t about something else? It’s what Edith tells me.”
He raised his eyes; the tightrope appeared. Only this time, he was stepping onto it. “I have no personal agenda in my office because I’m trained to be receptive. To become what best serves my client. To help them see clearly how patterns in their lives may not be serving them. I guarantee you that that is not the way I am in my personal life. We all have agendas.”
Cassie gave a tiny nod. “Thank you,” she whispered, both tensing and relaxing at the same time. Seth offering this kind of sympathy, describing anything about himself, was slightly unsettling. She yanked three tissues from the box and blew her nose, loud and ugly. “Excuse me.”
“I’m used to phlegm.”
“This is the dress.”
“Really? I feel like a Rothko. Untitled Number Forty-Seven or something.”
“Do you know how many times you’ve told me your age?”
“If you are going to reduce me to a midlife crisis, I wish you wouldn’t.”
“I would never reduce you.” She wasn’t sure, but she thought his smile smoldered. He took five or so steps along the tightrope. Cassie had the disquieting sense that Seth was seducing her, only she had a co-pay.
“I feel like a john.”
“So that makes me a gigolo?”
“Why must I pay someone to show interest?”
“You’ve said that before.” His eyes, her refuge, would not release her. And then he was beside her, gently taking the pillow from her hands and laying it on the floor. His hands were warm and moist, as if he were the nervous one. “Cassie, relax. You have no idea how amazing you are.”
She mumbled something about transference.
Only of course that wasn’t what happened at all. They had a terrible rest of the session consisting mostly of great walled silences while Seth waited behind half-closed eyes. She couldn’t tell if he was looking down to offer her privacy or if he was avoiding her. Either way, the tightrope never appeared.
Finally he said, “If I were describing your subtext, it would be, Hello? Over here. Care. Cherish me. Does that feel true?”
“Cherish? That’s a song I danced to in seventh grade.”
Seth looked down and to the left again. Didn’t that particular gesture equal something in the big book of body language? A lie? Love? Disdain? Silence pumped into the room, filling it until Cassie felt pressed against the wall. At last she told him that therapy consumed too much of her thoughts. She felt that she would have to work through her self-indulgent issues on her own.
“I don’t know what self-indulgent means.”
“I’m sick of my own whining when, really, I have nothing to whine about. Sometimes after I’ve been here, I cringe at the things I’ve said.”
“You’re talking about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Your basic needs of food, shelter, and safety are met, so you can focus on your emotional needs.”
“Whatever. You’ve become a sort of raison d’être for me. I mean, I go through my week looking at myself and how I act to see if anything is therapy-worthy.”
“That’s called self-awareness.”
“Or maybe boredom. I’m just…itchy, all over. I think I need a career.”
She stood to go, and he stood as well.
“We can talk about your itchiness next week. If you decide to discontinue therapy, we can have closure at our next session.”
Cassie never wanted to be on the receiving end of that type of sentence again. Have closure?
He must have seen it in her face because he quickly said, “My door will always be open.” She looked up and he leaned in and they were kissing. Seth awkwardly, far more awkwardly than she’d ever thought possible for him, conveyed her back toward the couch, leaned her against the cushions, bent his knee between her legs, made them fit together just so.
Only of course he didn’t and Cassie didn’t even want him to, she just wanted him to want to.