Developmental Blah Blah

By Natalie Serber

Mini cupcakes — iced,  sprinkled, and dressed in ruffled paper wrappers — lined the pastry case like a jolly marching band. Cassie leaned forward to peer in at all the tiny perfection. “I don’t know…He’s going to be fifty.”

The young woman behind the counter, bleak and gothic with kohl-lined eyes, a metal stud flashing high on her cheek like a hammered-in beauty mark, and thick black sweatbands on both wrists, was a flesh-and-blood contradiction to the buoyant mural on the wall behind her — rainbows and bluebirds.

“Little cupcakes seem appropriate for an eight-year-old girl’s birthday party. Are these too hopeful?”

“You mean like too much hope?”

Cassie’s daughter, Edith, loudly sighed but didn’t look up from the blur of her thumbs stabbing out a text message on her cell phone. Edith had a package of Manic Panic Blue & Black hair dye in her backpack and was supposed to already be coloring her hair with Pammy. Her mother dragging her along on this unscheduled stop at Hello Cupcake! on the way home from the orthodontist was just One. More. Thing.

“We sell out every day.” The bleak girl shrugged. “The audacity of hope and all.”

“Every day?” Comfort food was all the rage. At a recent dinner party Cassie and Ben were served poshed-up mac and cheese as the main course. The hostess said she was nostalgic for a pre-al-Qaeda evening. “Do you think it’s because of uncertain times? Seeking comfort from a cupcake.”

“Sometimes people buy cupcakes just because they want a tiny cake.” Edith took the German chocolate samples the girl offered, passed one to her mom. “Everything isn’t always about something else.”

Cassie’s mouth was swamped with cloying sweetness. The older she got, the less she craved sweets. And what did that mean? What was it Seth said at her last session? Cassie had asked him about developmental milestones in midlife. What should she expect going forward besides the appearance of mysterious dark neck hairs and sudden bouts of inertia with her arms halfway submerged in lukewarm dishwater or behind the wheel in her own driveway? Pausing just long enough to show mild amusement, Seth told her that the sense of one’s life in a constant upward spiral vanishes. He gestured too, his finger describing a tiny tornado pointing forever higher. “That’s no more,” he’d said with his frustratingly unflappable tone. If Seth didn’t (1) hang on her every word, (2) find her funny, and (3) sport a thick brown ponytail, which she fantasized about lopping off and stashing beneath her pillow, she might have slugged him for his cavalier nonchalance. Either that or quit therapy. What did he mean, the possibility of ascent was over? Perhaps Ben on his fiftieth birthday deserved the gravitas of a bittersweet chocolate sheet cake. To Cassie everything was absolutely about something else.

“Oh my God, I’m about to have an orgasm,” Edith said.

Cassie flinched. The girl behind the counter was unfazed. Only Cassie was fazed by Edith, small and sweet, whacking her clumsy new language bat against Cassie’s sensibilities.

“Dad will love them.”

Truth be told, Ben would prefer whatever was cheapest. A pile of Twinkies still in their cellophane wrappers would delight him. Ben took the joy out of gift-giving because she could see him calculate the cost of, say, a dove-gray cashmere scarf as he twined it around his neck in front of their Hanukkah bush. Whatever lay beneath the wrapping was too extravagant in Ben’s view. He’d returned that scarf, bought an electric drill, claimed he was looking forward to being handy once they moved to the East Bay. The scarf, it turned out, would have been more practical. He’d used the drill only once in the new house, to attach a bookcase to the wall in Edith’s room. When he severed an electrical wire, he called a handyman, who ended up earthquake-proofing the rest of the house.

But the cupcakes weren’t really for Ben, they were for the women in the neighborhood who would attend his surprise party with their husbands, the women who hadn’t quite accepted Cassie into their ranks, even after five years of living in Rockridge. Yes, they’d invited her to join their book club, but when she’d blurted a contrary opinion about the selection, an unsurprising novel set in Afghanistan, she’d felt them pull away. Cassie always blurted. Ben described her personality as pungent and then, when she let him know it hurt her feelings, he chided, “Oh, stop,” with a diminishing tone, as if he had no clue why the adjective upset her.

“Honesty is admirable,” Seth had agreed at another of their sessions, “but at what cost?”

At the book-club meeting, Blythe Cooper (rhymes with supper, she instructed Cassie at their introduction), wife of an orthopedic surgeon, gripped the novel in her manicured hands like a stone tablet and claimed it the best thing she’d ever read. Perhaps Cassie shouldn’t have responded, in her quietest, most careful voice, that she found the novel’s perfectly balanced shape boring, as if the novel itself had been raised in a confined space, like a veal calf. Perhaps she shouldn’t have gone on to explain that she preferred messy to symmetrical, feral to polite, because isn’t feral the truth? Her flushed cheeks and strong opinion were met with a long pause, furtive glances, and the sipping of good pinot noir from the surgeon’s wine cellar. Then, maintaining her smile-royale, Blythe said, “When one reads only to feel better about oneself, shitty real-life stories make sense.” Cassie could tell by the way her hostess touched her throat that it pained Blythe to swear.

*   *   *

“Hello? Mother?”

Edith and the counter girl stared at Cassie, who brought her fingertips to her own throat. Another moment of inertia until she realized what they wanted, her cupcake verdict. “You’re right,” Cassie said. “Orgasmic.”

Edith’s mouth fell open, revealing chunks of frosting in her braces. “Never-ever. Never say that word again.” The counter girl too looked pained and wouldn’t make eye contact as she wrote up the order.

On the way home, Edith informed Cassie that the counter girl was a cutter; that’s why she wore sweatbands on her wrists, to cover up new and old wounds. It knocked the wind out of Cassie. The girl worked around cupcakes. Damn it, she’d spoken to them about hope. Edith went on to say that cutters break light bulbs and slice their skin with the thin shards. “You’d have to be so shitting strong-willed to make yourself bleed like that.” The fact that Edith knew about the light bulbs and the ruse of sweatbands also shocked Cassie. Was it common knowledge because it was so common? She reached her hand toward Edith’s wrist. It must be shitting awful to be a teenager today. Edith inserted her earbuds, and tinny, flea-size Nirvana music ended their conversation. But Edith let her mom’s hand remain.

After the book-group debacle, Cassie hadn’t gone back. She was stung by the truth of Blythe’s comment. She did read to soothe the constant nattering in her head. Didn’t everyone? Maybe that was why memoirs were all the rage. If you read about triumphant drug addicts, families who lived in dumpsters, or the brutalized children of megalomaniac alcoholics, your own mundane story didn’t seem so impossible. Maybe the women of the book club all lived perfectly orderly lives with casseroles and paid bills, appliqué and soccer games. Maybe Cassie was the only one with a seventeen-year-old son who no longer seemed to have room for her now that he had his first serious girlfriend. Maybe she was the only one who had a fourteen-year-old daughter who swore and had developed a taste for the vodka Cassie kept in the freezer for penne à la vodka, Ben’s favorite dish. Maybe she was the only one whose husband whistled in the kitchen while making her coffee every morning and accused her of being joyless. As she pulled in the driveway, even before she’d come to a complete stop, Edith jumped out and ran down the block to Pammy’s, leaving Cassie to idle in front of their home.

*   *   *

Thursday mornings the neighborhood women racewalked past Cassie’s dining room window, a flock of house finches dressed in their serious name-brand sports gear, arms swinging to optimize calories burned, hair confined in tidy ponytails, tugging on leashes. “Come on, Phil,”… “Wilson,”… “Theodore,” she heard them say in frustration. The dogs bore manly names and were yanked away from tree trunks. Occasionally the women erupted in laughter, and Cassie felt a slight jab near her heart.

“Loneliness,” Seth had suggested. “That’s the cost of your honesty.”

Never mind the walkers; Thursdays at noon she had Seth for fifty minutes. Should she ask about the cupcakes or would it be a waste of time? She found she’d been using her fifty minutes more and more to talk about the things one normally discusses with a spouse — a funny conversation with the butcher, the rescue of a stray dog from traffic, a social blunder at the posh-mac-and-cheese dinner party. Seth hung on her every word as if he really wanted to know her. If only she didn’t have to pay someone to show that kind of interest in her life. It was pillow talk sans pillow. She sometimes left his office feeling like she needed a shower. When she told him this, he extrapolated from Cassie to women in general, saying a woman’s need to be known is as basic as a sexual urge.

Before leaving that morning, Cassie blew through her house, the usual tidy. Syrup back in the fridge, coffee spoon traces wiped from the counter, towels gathered from the floor, her son Ethan’s socks and boxers as well. Edith’s heavy-soled black boots and her science text splayed on the living room floor in front of the TV where she’d fallen asleep studying the laws of physics and watching So You Think You Can Dance, not connecting the two at all. In fact, she’d rolled her eyes with long-suffering forbearance when Cassie brought it up, the dancers’ bodies arcing through space, flouting gravity and inertia. The show was cruel, its very title a taunt. It’s so depressing what we consider entertainment. She placed Edith’s textbook on the coffee table, carried a wineglass to the kitchen. And what about that show that makes people eat disgusting things like pig snouts. What’s the entertainment value? Cassie allowed a smug smile. She had it, her entrée at Seth’s office. Each week she dreaded the moment she settled on his couch, and he appraised her with his dark eyes, hands coolly resting on his thighs, then, his voice languid and, yes, sexy, asked, “So, Cassie, what’s on your mind?” The first time she was taken aback. She’d been imagining incisive therapeutic questions that divined why she was quietly unhappy in her wonderful life and then specific directives to make everything better — walk in the mornings, volunteer, medication, keep a journal. “Cassie?” Was it his voice or the question? Whichever, she found it daunting, deciding what to say. The days her answers came easily were when she had endured some argument or disappointment she could rail against from his couch. Slow news weeks were hard. This was a slow news week; she had Edith’s minor language infractions and disturbing knowledge of cutting, and now a diatribe on reality TV.

Throughout her quiet house Cassie gathered clothes, the bathroom rug, hurrying so she wouldn’t be late. She’d start a load of wash and then head out. Downstairs, passing through Ethan’s dim and cluttered room to the basement laundry, she smelled the tang of boy. Not a small boy’s uncomplicated scent—grass and dirt and red vine licorice—no, a mysterious yeasty smell, skin and greasy hair. She thought to open windows. Then she heard a shivery moan and in her peripheral vision caught furtive movements on the bed, arms and legs, a bare ass, tangle of blond hair, rustling, and then an OhmyfuckingGod, and a startled Alice, Ethan’s girlfriend, flew past her and up the stairs.

Cassie’s breath escaped, her ears thrummed. Amazingly her first thought was not of what she’d walked in on but of Ethan’s sheets. They were filthy. How could he bring a girl to that stinky bed? Next she thought of Alice’s extravagant car. Alice drove a Saab. Ben joked with Ethan all the time that if he planned to pursue his passion for drumming, he should keep Alice by his side. He then rolled on with a favorite joke. You know what they call a musician without a girlfriend? Homeless. Alice’s car was cleaner than Ethan’s bed. Why hadn’t they had sex in the car like Cassie had with long-limbed Jeremy Deak? That’s what Ethan’s room smelled like, sex! A hot fistful of pennies. All of this raced through her mind and then the words came to her: in flagrante. The only Latin she knew.

Ethan sat on the bed in his hostile Miles Davis T-shirt; bitches brew it screamed. A sheet covered his lap. He gaped at her from behind lush and greasy bangs. “Haven’t you heard of fucking knocking?”

Cassie started mumbling, somewhat apologetically, about not knowing they were home. But then she thought, It’s Thursday. Ethan was having sex in the basement when he was supposed to be at school. “Why are you home?” she demanded, mostly because she could think of nothing else to say. She picked up a hoodie from his floor and threw it at him. “Cover your boner.” She winced after she said it. Where did that come from? Her inner Edith?

He winced back. “Don’t converse to me about my body.”

“Don’t make it available for conversation. Alice has a car. With a back seat.”

He wasn’t listening, he was jabbing his cell with his thumbs, texting Alice, who had slammed the door when she left.

Cassie retreated up the stairs, hugging laundry to her chest. If she had it to do all over she would have knocked. Poor Alice. Cassie did not want her to be mortified. “We’ll talk about this later,” she called to Ethan.

“No, we won’t.”

“At the very least we’ll talk about condoms. Again.”

The first person she thought to tell about Ethan’s sexual activity was not her husband, the boy’s father, but Seth. And the choice didn’t even seem strange.

Part Two

“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.

Seth waited.

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?”

“I’m old.”

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?”

Part Three

It was barely warm enough to leave the windows open. From the bed Cassie listened to the easy give-and-take of a conversation as the last of the night’s dog walkers passed their house. “Does my weight feel good?” She pressed fully onto Ben, ankles to shoulders, her face against his neck.

He moaned his affirmation.

Cassie lifted his T-shirt and then hers, bringing them skin-to-skin. She’d read recently that newborns should have at least four hours of skin-to-skin contact each day and the recommendation made her wonder, Had she failed her own children? She started to ask Ben, “Honey, do you think –,” but he put his hand over her mouth.

“Don’t talk. Don’t think,” he whispered.

She was hyperaware of the sensations—warm, smooth, alive. How many hours should adults have? She felt an urge in her hips but allowed only slight pressure toward Ben. Sex was a commodity in their bedroom, with an unspoken tally kept of who instigated when. Lately, Cassie had been the initiator. She craved sex—not lovemaking, nothing tender, something brutish, two wrestlers going at each other. Was it the final cry of her ovaries? Reproduce! Ensure the survival of the species! Maybe that was what the cougar phenomenon was about. Middle-aged ovaries blogging and writing books and producing TV shows about their yearnings toward strong-gorgeous-too-young-to-marry sperm. Another developmental milestone.

Ben flipped Cassie onto her back and kissed her shoulder. He drifted south and she squeezed his arms. In bed their communication was effortless. Of course sex had evolved (devolved?) over their twenty-year marriage, from the initial rough and greedy consumption, to easy and comfortable (dreary?), and then to the duty of exhausted new parents, to tender nostalgia (remember how it used to be?), and now the surprise of how it used to be all over again.

Cassie wanted to say shocking, nasty things, to whisper words like cock, suck, fuck me hard, to throw her head back and reveal her pale, vulnerable neck. She slid beneath the covers, wrapped her hand around Ben, your name here, and squeezed, both her hand and her eyes tight. A woman’s need to be known is as basic as a sexual urge. She pictured Seth’s dark stare, the tightrope between them, as Ben pushed against her. Fuck me, Seth. Then she opened her eyes and there was Ben, his stare hungry, intent, unfocused, a hunter’s concentration that embarrassed Cassie. She used to close her eyes to offer Ben privacy, but now she closed them and thought, What’s on your mind, Cassie? She gripped the sheets and pushed back against Ben/Seth in her imaginary ménage à trois.

“Everything,” she exclaimed, moving her hands up Ben’s arms, groping his triceps like a rock climber seeking purchase. She wanted Ben to recall this moment the next time he was at the gym doing dips or whatever he did to develop such wonderful arms, counting off his reps, twenty-eight, twenty-nine, and suddenly be aflame with desire for Cassie. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, yes.” And it was only a slight exaggeration.

After, when she leaned over to turn out the light, she imagined the pale curve of her back like a Manet nude or a slice of ripe pear. She paused, wanting Ben to notice, to stroke his hand down the length of her spine and say, You are lovely. She tried to telegraph her longing through the absolute grace of her extended arm. But he was already gone, drifted into solid sleep. This was not the first time she’d imagined Ben admiring her back. During the middle months of her first pregnancy, Cassie lived in a constant state of amazement. She inhabited her body with another human being! She was a voluptuous poster child of strength, fertility, and energy. One morning, standing naked in a square of sunlight, reaching for a pair of green boots on the top shelf of her closet as she balanced easily on her toes, she extended her arm with such elegance she was sure Ben was astonished and overcome. She could feel his eyes, hungrily exploring her back, her ass, her newly luxurious hair. “Honey,” he’d said, “even your back is fatter.”

*   *   *

Her first time, she’d been at a keg party in Pacifica with Jeremy Deak and was suddenly freezing and dizzyingly drunk. Jeremy drove her to his house. They didn’t have sex on his back seat. Jeremy hid Cassie in his closet while he said good night to his dad, anchored in his Barcalounger in the blue glow of the all-night movie channel. Jeremy’s mom worked the night shift at the cannery, and their house, Cassie remembered, always smelled faintly of whatever was ripe: pears, green beans, yams, peaches. She may have thrown up in his car on the way over. She probably threw up in his car. When she woke the next day, naked in his bed, her head felt as if it were painfully cobbling itself back together. Her mouth was pasty with stale vomit, and Jeremy was gone. It took several attempts to overcome the spins and stand. When she couldn’t find her underpants, she pulled back the sheets and saw the silver-dollar-pancake-size spots of blood. Cassie was not on her period. It had happened and she didn’t remember a thing. Her head throbbed so painfully she couldn’t tell if she hurt down there as well, but she did feel slightly crusty. In the mirror she was too horrified by the catastrophe of her reflection to search for new womanly knowledge in her eyes. Her hair was massively snarled, her eyes smeared with mascara and iridescent blue shadow as if she’d been in a fight with a peacock. A note from Jeremy was taped to the corner — I’ll call you. Cassie dressed; she couldn’t find her purse, so she finger-smoothed her troll-doll hair, shoved his note in her pocket, and quietly opened the bedroom door. The TV was still on. Jeremy’s mom slept sitting up on the couch, her hair confined in a net, her feet in a tub of water. The living room smelled sweet, like fruit cocktail. Cassie nearly made it to the door.

“Goodbye, Cassie,” Mrs. Deak said.

“You too, Mrs. Deak.” Cassie answered as brightly as she could and then realized she made no sense. “Thanks for having me over!” Outside she found her purse, its contents strewn across the front yard — hairbrush, lip-gloss, a mimeographed page of algebra problems, movie-ticket stub, a Bic lighter.

Cassie told this story on herself plenty of times, to girlfriends, to Ben. She even made up a name for that horrible walk across Jeremy Deak’s living room, the tramp-traipse. She usually finished up by saying that to this day fruit cocktail made her ill. The story garnered laughs. Of course the parts she left out—the part where Mrs. Deak said, “I can smell from here what kind of girl you are” and the part when Cassie realized her first sexual experience was stolen by Jeremy and the part where she was swallowed up in shame and loneliness—those were the only parts Seth would want to talk about. Which was why she hadn’t told him.

*   *   *

“Should I get a tattoo?”

Cassie hadn’t realized Ben was awake. She wove her leg over and between his, skin to skin again. “Really?”

“If I do, when I see it—”

“Forever, you know you’ll see it forever.”

“I know, forever. But every time I do I’ll think about Ethan catching a glimpse of his tattoo and remembering going with his dad. It’ll be like that drawing of the man holding the glass paperweight and inside it you can see a man holding a glass paperweight and inside that a man holds a paperweight, on and on.” In the dark of their room, Ben’s voice was soft as cotton. “It’ll mean something.”

Cassie closed her eyes. Yes, when Ethan was fifty he might be sentimental enough to think it. Ben was sentimental right now and for that she loved him.

Part Four

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.

“Go on.”

“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.”

She nodded.

“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.”

Seth waited.

“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.”

“It’s lovely.”

“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.

Part Five

The centerpieces were adorable. Cassie had stayed up late printing black-and-white baby pictures of Ben onto vellum and then gluing them into frames placed before votives. Ben, wise and cherubic, a buttery sage of a baby, glowed at each table. The setting was perfect, lighting optimal, Ménage à Trois played just loud enough to make it feel as if the party were a happening, food stations were dotted throughout Ben’s photography studio, both upstairs and down, same with the liquor, so people mingled. Check, check, check. It was all good.

Real-life Ben looked adorable too. After the tattooing (yes, it proved to be the perfect distraction), Ethan had convinced Ben to stop by his studio to document the experience. When Ben stepped in and threw on the lights, Cassie saw confusion, then recognition, and then glee. Ben adored all eyes on him, and here was his party, in his space, on his fiftieth birthday, with all his friends and neighbors singing “Happy Birthday” and applauding. Egged on to unveil their tattoos, Ethan hugged his dad loosely from behind and whispered in Ben’s ear. They were nearly the same height, with the same avid smiles, same toast-colored hair; they hung together easily. Cassie, standing in the midst of the clustered guests, looked around for her daughter. Edith kept her promise and didn’t bring Flood, but as her mini act of spite she’d brought Pammy and René-René, a pale, sullen-sullen boy from her school with a thick-linked chain looping from his ear to his lip piercing, who piled his plate high and then sat on the floor, picking his teeth with the sharp ends of lamb bones. Cassie in her own mini act of spite suppressed her displeasure and told René-René the way he’d slit his T-shirt with great gaping holes was off the hook.

“My dad says hold tight on the tatt unveiling,” Ethan said, and a collective groan rose from the crowd. “Maybe if we get him drunk enough,” Ethan added. “Beer pong?”

“Son, remember, I’m fifty.”

Good-natured, comfortable laughter rolled like a wave through the room. Cassie stepped forward with two beers for her men. She was both in the moment and not. She knew that this was what she should be doing, stepping into her family, looking too-too in her black dress, adoring smile, only her smile was slightly ironic. In her mind she was the self-mocking party thrower.

“Termite,” Ethan called out, extending the circle of magnanimity, “get up here.”

Edith emerged from the guests and hugged Ben. Her bluish hair worked perfectly with the color palette of the Rothko dress. Cinched with a black studded belt to show off Edith’s waist and personality, the dress looked great. She stood with them, holding Cassie’s hand. Her smile had a hint of mockery as well, only unlike Cassie’s, Edith’s was other directed. She leaned forward for what Cassie thought would be a peck on the cheek and fiercely whispered into Cassie’s ear she was def getting her nose pierced tomorrow. “It’s my time to shine.”

*   *   *

The tattoos ended up being the theme of the night. Ben and Ethan relished denying everyone the pleasure of seeing what they’d committed to.

“You pulled it off.” Ben nuzzled Cassie, his hand sliding along the plunge of silk on her cut-low-in-back dress.

“I guess I’m amazing.”

“If you’re lucky, I might show you my skin ink.”

Cassie said, “Broccoli with fermented black beans.” When Ben pulled slightly away, squinting at her, she added, “That’s my favorite dish.”

*   *   *

“Cassie, you’re amazing.” Blythe Cooper stopped her on the stairs, enveloping Cassie in her exotic cinnamon-and-bourbon perfume. “I don’t know how you kept this fabulous party a secret from your husband.”

Cassie maintained her serene, good wife expression.

“Ethan’s band is Wonderful, your Edith looks perfect in the dress. And you, you look just like Rita Hayworth with a pixie. Bradley, doesn’t Cassie look like Rita Hayworth with a pixie? Wonderful? And after what she’s been through this week.”

“How did that lucky husband of yours convince you?” Bradley’s hand on Cassie’s arm was so soft and warm it felt as if he’d kept it in the pocket of his cashmere blazer for the last twenty years. Cassie waited for Bradley to continue his inquiry but he seemed to have nothing more to say. Of what had Cassie needed convincing? What had she been through? The conversation was a confusing mishmash of half revelations. Cassie gulped more wine, waiting for Bradley to explain.

“They’re permanent, you know.”

Well, of course. Cassie hoped for just a second that when finally unveiled, the tattoos would be ridiculous: vaginas, marijuana leaves, or marijuana leaves growing out of vaginas.

*   *   *

The bartender had no rum, and Mike and Carol let Cassie know they were disappointed. She apologized and motioned for them to follow her. Apparently drinking was also an empty-nest passion of her neighbors. “Ben keeps a supply of booze to relax people, you know, when family portraits aren’t going well.”

“Does he give it to the babies?” Carol placed her damp hand on Cassie. Why was everyone touching her?

“He’s been known to soak the corner of a blanket in Manischewitz.” She winked and stepped sideways, ditching Carol’s hand. “You’re having a good time?”

“What a party,” Mike boomed. “Ben is a lucky, lucky man.”

“I made him a flag, a camera with a big lens.”

“Yep, a lucky, wasteful man.”

Cassie turned to look at Mike but he wasn’t looking at her. He was staring at the ceiling, his hands thrust deep into his pockets.

“Leave it, Mike,” Carol warned. And then to Cassie in a loud whisper, “Now you see why I need a drink.”

“Just that I saw the new weather stripping around the doors…good first step.”

“Who goes to a party to look at weather stripping?”

“If Ben’d switch out all these incandescent bulbs, he’d save a bundle on electricity.”

Cassie opened the cabinet: whiskey, gin, vodka, and a gap where Ben normally kept the rum. “Will whiskey do?” She gave them the bottle. “The bartender is wonderful. He’ll fix you right up.”

From the balcony, Cassie scanned the room for blue hair. Ethan’s trio played “Song for My Father,” the cue that Ethan’s toast would be up next, and then Edith had something prepared as well. Where was Edith? No doubt with the rum.

“Excuse me,” Cassie murmured two, three times, placing a hand on a shoulder, offering a mild smile. Striding through the room, purposeful and casual, she felt the sway in her hips, the air against her back. Cassie fit inside her body.

*   *   *

The weatherman had predicted the first frost. The end of the marigolds, he’d said. Hurrying down the driveway, Cassie wrapped her arms across her chest against the chill. The moon, a giant cocktail onion in the inky sky, lit the street. She peered between houses, inside cars, and heard them before she spotted them sprawled on a lawn, the bottle, their teeth, and the whites of their eyes gleaming in the moonlight. They were singing the Barney love song between spasms of laughter. Cassie paused. It seemed innocent, friends lingering on one of the last nights before winter. She stepped behind the Coopers’ Escalade listening to the kids’ voices make a round out of the smarmy song, Edith’s raspy voice cutting below René-René’s tenor and Pammy’s reedy soprano. Even when Edith was in preschool, her sweet voice seemed to harbor repressed desires: “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” had sounded vaguely smutty, as if Lil’ Courtney Love was in the classroom. Pammy lay flat on her back, singing up to the sky. Edith propped herself up on her elbows, and René-René stood smoothing down his dress. Yes, René-René was now in the Rothko dress, and Edith had on his red pants and dangerously slit T-shirt.

Cassie stepped out from behind the car and Edith caught sight of her.

“Mayday, mayday. Shitstorm approaching.”

“Edith.” Cassie closed her eyes and the name came out a discouraged lament. Default mode would be to yell, to grab the bottle and hiss at them about brain development and stupidity and grounding, but in her clearest moment of the night so far, she simply held out her hand for the bottle and told the three of them to go inside and get some coffee. All that other stuff could come tomorrow.

“Doesn’t your dress look sick on R.R.?”

He did a pirouette in his yellow Converse high-tops, which set them staggering with laughter. Cassie followed behind, wondering if there was a right thing she should be doing. Pammy, near to tears, turned around to face her and said how sorry she was. She held a finger to her little bow of a mouth and slurred, Shhh. If Cassie were Pammy’s mom, she wouldn’t let her hang out with Edith.

“Straight to the coffee and eat some cupcakes.”

“Cupcakes are comfort food…” Edith’s voice swelled, she waggled a finger and heaved herself at her mother. Cassie bent her knees, braced for her daughter’s clumsy force. Holding Edith-gone-limp in her arms was like flipping a mattress. Damp warmth radiated from her skin to Cassie’s bare shoulder, only now, unlike those long-ago nights in their San Francisco living room, her daughter smelled of rum, and Cassie’s fingers felt like claws, ready to tear. “I can smell what kind of a girl you’re becoming.”

Edith pulled back and stared sloppily into her mother’s eyes. “Well…you don’t smell like anything.”

The door opened; laughter spilled out. Cassie felt the sting, sharp, in the center of her chest, behind her eyes, and she gripped Edith’s tender arms so hard it was nearly the same as pushing her away. “Don’t. Don’t ruin your father’s party. I mean it. Don’t.” Before she followed the kids inside, she took a long pull from the rum bottle.

Everyone was listening to Ethan, who was pleased with himself, telling a story about his dad. Cassie smoothed her hair, took a glass of wine from a tray that went past. Edith politely maneuvered toward the front of the room. This story of Ben’s childhood was Ethan’s favorite. He held up his hand and made flicking gestures with his thumb and index finger. “It was a piece of inside-out Scotch tape stuck to the end of his” — now he wriggled his pinkie in front of his fly— “and it was all linty and schmutzy. My grandparents freaked; they thought it was a tumor.”

Someone called out, “How old was he?”

“Sixteen!” Ethan’s grin was wide, wide, wide.

“Two! I was two.” Ben fake slugged him, pretending embarrassment, but he glowed.

Then, as if they’d choreographed it, Cassie’s two men unbuttoned their cuffs and rolled up their sleeves. On the pale skin of their forearms they each had a mud-flap girl, one of those nude, big-busted, big-bummed, flippy-haired silhouettes you see on sixteen-wheelers rolling down the highway. Ben’s girl sported a pixie haircut and was reading a book. A whoop went up. Cassie could feel all eyeballs turn to her as if magnetized. What would the wife say? Everyone was caught up in the delicious spectacle. What happened to the state of California? Truth be told, she didn’t really care about Ben’s tattoo; it was Ethan’s that made her bristle. What kind of woman would marry a man with a mud-flap tattoo? There went her grandchildren.

“Mine is an homage to my smart, lovely wife.” Ben opened his non-tattooed arm, called Cassie’s name. The gathered guests parted so she could step toward his embrace.

“I hope she’s reading Divorce for Dummies,” Cassie deadpanned.

Ben leaned down and whispered in her ear, “You’re so sexy.”

Cassie whispered back, “What were you thinking?” before she bit his ear hard enough for tears to spring to his eyes. The party sang the birthday song again, then Edith jumped onto the band platform and Ethan settled himself behind the drums.

Launching into “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” Edith sang like a cat licking herself, languid and intent, the microphone pressed against her lips, her eyes closed. Cassie could feel Ben’s rising vigilance as he watched Edith. Whether he was nervous for her, singing in front of sixty people, or could sense that she was drunk, or was just now noticing Edith’s twin-edged power and vulnerability, Cassie wasn’t certain, but she was grateful for his tensing muscles. Yes, it would take two of them to see Edith through. In the tight red jeans and boots, blue hair and pale skin, she looked like a modern-day Norma Jean.  Cassie ached.

“‘And though you’re perfectly swell…’” Edith, coquettish and confident, let the words hang in the air. Then she turned to Ethan, her eyes now open and bold, and the music suddenly thrashed. Ethan swept into a raging drum solo. That the two of them had practiced this, found something to do together, for their father, increased Cassie’s pleasure and guilt. I can smell what kind of girl you’re becoming. Ben unwound his arm and fist-pumped the air. Edith nodded vigorously, the rhythm jolting her body until she was jumping, a crazy pogo worthy of Patti Smith. She let out a throaty, ragged scream that was met by René-René hooting from the back of the room while all the adults in the middle seemed trapped in amber. Blythe would be there, looking at Cassie, ready to offer up smug concern. Cassie forbade herself to take her eyes from her children.

Her skin luminescent, Edith shouted, “‘My heart belongs to my daddy…’” She moved with the confidence of a jungle cat, wild and fierce with rage and love. “Da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da-dad.”

Cassie’s hand covered her mouth. Her ribs could barely contain the huge beating within. Her daughter caught her eye and for a moment the tightrope appeared, the two women stepping onto it, knowing everything about each other. Cassie’s swelling heart split wide and Edith mouthed something: I love you or fuck you, or both. All Cassie knew for certain was that Edith was everything.