“What’s on your mind?”
Settled in the exact center of the long green couch, Cassie looked at her hands in her lap. Her nails were uneven, half bitten, half torn, and she slid her hands between her thighs. Over Seth’s head, a wall tapestry of swirling gentle hues offered a safe place to rest her eyes; well, a safe place for all his clients to rest their eyes. She wondered if there were dictates for therapists, maybe even a required course on creating a haven where clients would delve and reveal. The list would include couch, chairs, pillows, rugs, and heavy curtains (all in subtle hues); a bookcase, plants, objets d’art (suggestive, rustic, and, if possible, African); a not-too-discreet clock to remind everyone that time is limited; a box of tissues; and a candle or maybe a small fountain for soothing burble. Check, check, check, Seth had it all. It was sweet, someone making this effort for her.
Cassie felt a smile tease against her cheeks, the words trapped in her mouth like a bee. She had a sparkly bit of life to offer up into the calculated tranquility. “In flagrante delicto,” she said.
Seth said nothing. He brought the tips of his fingers together, all ten, held right before his chest. He’d been trained to wait out silence. Cassie, whose mother was once mayor of their small town, had been trained to charm and entertain.
“Not me,” she said after she’d let the pause linger. “Ethan.”
“Ah.” He raised and lowered his head, one nod. “And?”
She told him about walking into the basement, what she’d seen.
“I guess you’re a convert to knocking now?”
“I didn’t know he… they were home.”
“What does it mean to you, having a son who is sexually active?”
Seth raised his eyebrows.
“He’s too young?” Her voice tilted up as if she were searching for the right answer, though of course there was no right answer. There was only her answer and why didn’t Seth tell her her answer so she didn’t have to do all this exhausting work? Ethan wasn’t exactly young, and she wasn’t exactly old. Yet there was a gaping, double-deep hole in catching Ethan in the act. Never again would he run to her, skin warm from playing, soft hair clinging to his damp face, to throw his arms around her legs. And couldn’t it still be Cassie and Ben joyfully groping, having clandestine sex in the basement? She sank deeper into Seth’s couch. Cassie was the center of absolutely no one’s life.
Silence and Seth’s fingers still pressed against each other.
“He’s having more sex than I am?” That wasn’t her voice, it was something Ben would say to get a laugh at a dinner party, she could nearly hear him, his swaggering voice, pride cloaked in self-deprecation. Why is it that men slap themselves on the back when their sons have sex? “Have you ever seen that show where people are challenged to eat disgusting things?”
Seth waited, unruffled by her diversion.
“I wonder, why do humans get pleasure from seeing other humans eat hideous food?”
“Voyeurism? Creepy gratification that they don’t have to give in to their own strange impulses, they can watch others do it for them. No-risk pleasure.”
“Creepy?” Cassie felt the bee in her mouth again. “Isn’t a person with your training supposed to withhold judgment?” She shifted her gaze from the tapestry to his high cheekbones, full lips, the skin at his jaw line beginning to hammock in a trustworthy, I-will-still-be-here-in-the-morning way, and then of course to his unflinching eyes. She blinked and the tightrope appeared, strung across from her eyes to his, inquisitive and velvety. She felt as if she could carefully tiptoe in those special acrobat slippers, her feet caressing the wire, one deliberate footfall after another, straight across the Persian-carpeted canyon between them. Though they had never touched (did they even shake hands on her first visit?), Cassie felt more intimate with Seth than with anyone else in her life. When she first came to him she spoke of the paradox of being so caught up in the lives of her family and yet lonely when she was in the house with them. She was the voyeur, hearing Ethan’s band practice in the basement, spying at the nauseous glow of the computer screen around Edith’s dark outline. “We don’t have game night anymore,” she’d said, realizing immediately how ridiculous she sounded. She needed a life of her own, and for now, Cassie was making it in Seth’s office, the only place where anyone said, Tell me about you, Cassie. The only place she could safely blurt.
“Well, not creepy.” He smiled. “Human.”
“So, my real question is, why do men get such a rush from their sons’ first sexual experiences? Maybe I’m speaking like someone educated by sitcoms, but it seems that TV men are either taking their sons to prostitutes or slapping their boys on the back or glorifying their own first sexual acts and then lamenting their daughters’ sexuality. Who do these men think their sons are having sex with?”
“Was that your situation?”
“My mother was always busy being reelected mayor. My father preferred to look the other way. If my sister and I talked about tampons he’d turn up the volume on the TV. I told you we had a TV in every room of our house, yes?”
“What about Ben?”
“You mean what does Ben think about Ethan and Alice? I haven’t told him yet. But Ethan and Alice have been together for nearly a year, it shouldn’t come as a shock.”
“And yet you told Ethan to cover his boner?”
Cassie winced anew. “That was messed up.”
“I just wonder why you made that choice; why you didn’t leave right away?”
A probing question followed by a pause and the tightwire between them slackened. Cassie lost her balance. Seth waited for her to come up with the insightful answer and she waited for him to do the same.
“Your threw a mini tantrum with that line. Could it be that you’re threatened by Alice? Threatened that you are losing your son and that’s more than you can bear? Aren’t they doing the exact right developmental thing?”
Cassie lowered her chin, offered an ingénue pout.
“How old were you when you first had sex and what did it mean to you, to your family relationships?”
She wanted to say, How old were you? But asking him anything was taboo. These fifty minutes were solely for her. Eighteen more minutes of Cassie, Cassie, Cassie. It was unbearable and exquisite. “I was seventeen. It completely defined me for a hideous period in my life.”
His fingers came back together in front of his heart. “Hideous?”
Cassie smiled. “I’ve served up a mystery.”
“I wonder, how is being alluring benefiting you right now?”
“It’s better than being a stereotype—the clingy mother with no identity.”
“And are you? A stereotype?”
It was Cassie’s turn to wait out the silence, suppressing the sting at the back of her eyes.
“You and Ben decided that you would claim traditional family roles, you as mother and homekeeper; you made a huge sacrifice — your independence, your career.”
“I didn’t want to miss out the way my mother did. I was supposed to be lucky, staying home.” In the beginning, it was as if Cassie had pricked her finger on a spinning wheel and fallen into a deep enchantment. She napped with her babies, paced the dark living room when they needed comforting at night, breathing in the vanilla and sour-milk scent of their skin. Her hand curved around a warm skull, a soft, wet mouth pressed to her nightgowned shoulder. Cassie would sway, gazing out the window at a stoplight cloaked in fog — red, green, red. Stop, go, stop. Its faint glimmer reflected off parked cars, off the cable-car tracks that marked the street like veins. Ben and Ethan asleep, Edith growing drowsy on her shoulder, Cassie’s family was precious as water cupped in her palms and there was nothing she could do to stop it from seeping through her fingers except hold tight and still for as long as possible.
“Now as your children grow and engage in adult behavior, your role is shifting. You have to define yourself outside the family unit. You’re all three — Ethan, Edith, and you — struggling with individuation.”
“Didn’t I already do that in my parents’ house?”
He pursed his lips and shrugged.
Pulling out of her parking spot, Cassie grinned at herself in her rearview mirror. Seth had called her alluring.
* * *
Ethan served himself dinner, carefully segregating his food: glazed carrots far from the meat loaf, salad on a separate plate. “Mom-dude, to commemorate his half century, Dad and I are getting tatted up.”
“If he does, I am def getting my nose pierced.” Edith swiveled her head from Ben to Cassie, causing her bluish hair to swirl like a ragged shawl around her shoulders. The dye hadn’t taken well over Edith’s red hair; rather than brazen, the desired effect, her hair had come out toilet-bowl-cleaner blue after a pee.
“Smurf, this is bigger than you and your nose, it’s about manhood. Me and Dad — connecting.” Ethan banged his fist against his chest.
Cassie floated a wry glance in Ben’s direction but he was involved with opening a bottle of Bordeaux. Ethan had been pushing the tattoo idea since last June. Both Cassie and Ben, in rare accordance, insisted he wait another year, until he was eighteen. It wasn’t that they fought about parenting — Ben mostly deferred to Cassie, but he was always telling her to lighten up. While she erred on the side of control, Ben was more about freedom. It was the veal-versus-feral argument all over again, only this time, when it was her children and not a book, Cassie was on the veal side. Most often she and Ben settled in the center. When Ethan’s tattoo yen came up, Cassie initiated an anti-tatt campaign by e-mailing him images from badtattoo.com — a man with a pickle in the center of his forehead, a pair of unicorns humping on an anonymous girl’s dimpled low back. Ethan never responded to the e-mails but Cassie was enthralled by the search. The worst tattoo, she never forwarded: a penis with your name here tattooed up the shaft. When her screen filled with the image she’d gasped—first at the pain and then at the idea that people could be so easily swapped out.
Edith declared she hated meat loaf. Ben filled the wineglasses. Ethan sallied forth with his tattoo campaign. It was a rare pleasure, the ting of forks against plates, the smell of garlic and meat, hum of voices. Cassie made herself pause. Next year her confident, tattooed boy would be away at college and Edith would suffer under intensified parental scrutiny, and then sweet Edith, a tiny gold stud gleaming in her nostril, would head off to college as well. She felt the speed of it pass through her and her hand went to her chest. Pay attention now to your unsullied children.
Out their dining room window, light leached from the day. Crows gathered to complain in the linden trees, and all along the street porch lights glowed, offering slight comfort to the deep violet sky. The neighbors’ Prius arrived home. Last weekend, these neighbors had set about their seasonal decorating campaign — pots of gold and sienna mums, an autumn-leaves flag. When their last kid left for college, flags became Carol’s thing. She had a flag for every holiday, Groundhog Day, Arbor Day, and Earth Day, even National Ice Cream Day. She taught appliqué classes in her living room. Staring out the window with a bowl of cereal last Saturday morning, watching Mike and Carol heft large pumpkins from their trunk, Edith had declared, “Celebration-fucking-Nation is at it again.”
Now Mike trudged past the flowerpots up his walkway. A moment later the light came on, blanching his porch with a hospital-waiting-room glare (Mike had switched out all his incandescent bulbs for energy-savers). Mike’s empty-nest passion was going green. Carol had made him a reduce, reuse, recycle flag.
Cassie switched on her energy-hogging light, and the dining room bloomed in her window, an intricate diorama of their family reflected on the glass — the round oak table, mismatched candlesticks, a bough cut from the persimmon tree with clinging orange fruit, haphazard pile of newspaper, the teenage daughter staring down a hunk of meat loaf on her fork, the wry father sipping wine, the nearly grown son talking around a mouthful of carrots, the mother lingering. She imagined them part of a natural-history museum exhibit. But what was revealed? Their diorama held no lasting evidence of any of them. It was suggestive and temporary.
“Don’t let your meat loaf,” Edith sang. Ben shook his fork at Edith, a jokey remonstration.
Ethan slung his arm over Ben’s shoulder, and Ben, cheeks flushed from wine and attention, grinned. He was convincible about the tattoo, Cassie could tell, and so could Ethan. Ben was a sucker for his children’s attention, and Cassie loved his susceptibility.
“What are you picturing, son?”
“State of California on our biceps.” Ethan slapped his thin arm. Even with his hours of drumming, Ethan hadn’t filled out like his father. He was lean and long, good on the basketball court, great drummer, decent student.
Ben rolled up his sleeve; he never missed an opportunity to flex his muscles. Slapping his biceps and glancing over at Cassie, he asked, “You like?” Then as an aside to both kids, sotto voce, “I drive your mother wild.” Ben worked hard at staying in shape. Every day either the gym or a long run, recounted in full detail while he undressed at the foot of the bed. She had to allow he had a great body, well muscled, long legs.
“State of California?” Cassie asked.
“All the hipster kids have them on their forearms,” Edith said. “They wear plaid flannel shirts, drink Peet’s coffee, and smoke Camels. They’re word.”
“Shut up, Blue Ranger,” Ethan snapped, his eyebrows creeping dangerously high.
“Bite me, douche brain,” Edith said.
“Hey!” This time both Ben and Cassie spoke up.
“Ethan, please say you don’t smoke?” Cassie held a slab of meat loaf midair over Ben’s plate. This would mean a whole new category of e-mails, cancerous lungs and permanent tracheostomies. Ethan grinned across the table at his sister. A threatening smile that said I can tolerate you because I am better than you, termite.
Edith stuck out her tongue, then mumbled, “Massengill.”
“Please!” Cassie’s throat went tight, gripped in the fist of her family. Why couldn’t they be discussing the sociological ramification of tattoos, how the need to decorate our bodies might separate us from all other animals and from one another. It very well might be what makes us human, what makes us individuals. That would be interesting. That would be safe. Unlike smoking and cancer and sex and speaking like a pimp. “Can we please just enjoy dinner? I worked hard to cook a nice meal. I cut up prunes and bacon for this dumb-ass meat loaf.”
Ben’s fork clattered against his plate. “Where do you think Edith gets it?”