What Zach Won't Do
Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years. A temporal safety zone, if you will. No need to make decisions now. Not necessary to draw conclusions. Divorce and her seven-letter cousin, Custody, they're big words. They can wait. Zach said and I agreed: Let's just get through the holidays. For the children.
Easier said than done, I'm thinking, as I set the Thanksgiving turkey in the sink and pull the giblets out of its bony cavity. A twenty-four-pound turkey, it's far too large for my family of four. But somehow I couldn't tell my poulterer at the Eastside Market-such a sweet, confused, strangely-dressed old man, with his orange tennis shoes year-round-how our numbers have diminished. My parents in Arizona, my sister and I estranged, Zach's father dead, his mother in a nursing home.
That's where Zach is this morning, visiting his mother. Sitting in the atrium chapel of the Eliza Jennings nursing home, turning his mother's hymnal pages, her hands so knobby and arthritic she can no longer hold a book. Or so he says.
I shove a fistful of stuffing deep into the cavity of the bird. There is enough Grand Marnier apricot stuffing here to feed a score of people; really more, because no one in my family will touch it. Eeew, my twelve-year-old son, R.J., will say. What are these little orange things? Pancreas of oriole? Pickled worm brains? Afton, my twenty-one-year-old daughter, will be silently calculating the calories. Pork sausage. Tick. Slivered almonds. Tick. Dried apricots. Tick. And Zach. Yes, Zach. It's hard to know anymore what he likes. We've long since abandoned honesty.
As if to prove my point, Afton enters the kitchen, and looks over my shoulder. "Mom," she says, "why do you bother?" Hands on hips, she inspects the array of pots on the stove, then lifts the lid on one of them. The aroma of onions and something vaguely sweet fills the air. Pavlov, dozing on a rug by my feet, sits up, sensing opportunity. Afton leans toward the pot, sniffs, then looks at me questioningly.
"Yam soup," I say.
"Huh." She puts the lid back on the pot.
She fumbles in the refrigerator bin for a grapefruit. "How did you sleep?" she asks, and I wonder-not for the first time-from whom she's learned her morning etiquette. Certainly not from me and Zach, who rarely talk, and never in the morning. I tell her I slept fine. "Do you need me to pick up anything on my way home?" she asks. She pulls out a yogurt carton, reads the label, puts it back. The stove timer beeps-my cranberry bread-and I place my hand briefly on the small of her back to let her know I'm behind her, as I reach in the cabinet next to the refrigerator for toothpicks. Afton shuts the refrigerator, leans against the counter, watching me. "Like," she says, "maybe an army?" With the oven door open, I poke at the bread. Sweet breads baffle me. Doughy to dry is like zero to sixty in a Ferrari. Steam begins to gather around the edges of the window over the sink while I deliberate.
"Army, navy, whatever," I reply absentmindedly. I shut the oven door. "I'm going to give it another minute or two," I say, then set the timer for five. "And, Afton,"-I resume stuffing the turkey-"don't bring home any animals this time." When she came home in May declaring that her new major was pre-vet, Zach and I were both concerned. After all, this is the girl who cried for two days when we put the old Formica kitchen table out on the curb. How would she handle putting animals down? It was Zach's idea that she work as a veterinarian's assistant during her vacations to get a more realistic view of the profession. And how has she been handling the work? So far, not well. It's the kittens mostly; the ones that are dropped off at night in cardboard boxes.
"Okay, no animals." She sits at the kitchen table, slices her grapefruit, sprinkles it lightly with sugar. "I'm thinking about becoming a vegetarian," she says.
"Well, if I feel really strongly about it, it would be hypocritical to wait, wouldn't it?"
That's the thing about Afton, she can be so goddamned earnest.
"What kind?" I hope I sound more patient than I feel. "There are different kinds aren't there? Vegan? Lacto-something? Ovo ... whatever? I think you should know what kind."
"I just know that I can't eat anything with a face ever again. Not after what I've seen."
"So when do you think you'll be home?" I ask. The animal emergency hospital, she tells me, is as busy on holidays as the human ER.
"I'll need to stay until at least four, I think." There's a whoop from upstairs, accompanied by the sound of what must be computer-simulated intergalactic death. Afton catches my eye, nods in the direction of R.J.'s room. "Doesn't he ever come out anymore?" she asks, and I feel the morning's first real twinge of pain. R.J.'s been avoiding me, sliding along walls like a crab, ever since we teamed-disastrously-on his science project. Lately I'm amazed at how, in this household, even the smallest event can go bad. I know much of it has to do with my simmering frustration, my anger with Zach, my unhappiness with the way things are, my fear of the way things will be. I've become dangerous, prone to fearsome pyrotechnic displays, and R.J. is usually the spark that sets me off.
"That should be fine," I say, ignoring her question about R.J. "I'm not sure when your father is planning to come home, but dinner will be ready around six."
Afton doesn't ask where her father is. She scoops out the last section of grapefruit, eats it, then sets her plate in the sink. "What will you do today?" she asks, as she grabs her coat and purse. Her tone is light-polite-but she's watching me closely. She wants me to be self-actualized, or at least to announce the day's adventure, the way I used to do when she and R.J. were little. Darlings! Today we're going to go to the grocery store and buy Spaghetti-Os! Your favorite! Then we'll go to the park and swing on the swings!
I state the obvious: "I guess I'll be cooking."
She gives a half-shrug of disapproval. I haven't worked for twelve years, not since we moved into this house. Before that I was an English teacher, but when Zach's law practice began taking off, I quit. At school, Afton's been infected with feminism; she takes women's studies classes and tells me, when she comes home, that I'm an indentured servant. The thing is, I like to cook. There's an old saying-put in good, come out good Start with the best ingredients, follow the recipe, and the results are predictable. I like that.
"Have a good day," I say, watching her collect the car keys from the hook by the door. She's beautiful and smart and good, as near perfection as Zach and I are ever likely to attain. The sadness I'm feeling must be in my voice, because, hand on knob, she turns back with a look of concern. For a moment she seems ready to run back and give me a hug, the way she did when she was little. But sympathy from my daughter is not something I'm ready for, and I step back in alarm. Pavlov-underfoot again-yelps.
Most people have experienced that series of moments-during a car accident, for example-that expand and slow and stratify, so that it's possible to think of several things at once and quite calmly. Several years ago I tripped on a can of paint at the top of the basement stairs and during that moment when I first pitched forward and the split second it took to hurtle to the basement floor, there was time to think, So. This is it. This is what it all comes down to. And while I was thinking this, I was able to orient myself in the air, tuck my legs into a cannonball position, picture the things at the bottom of the stairs I needed to avoid, and wonder who would find my broken body.
This is how time expands before the breakup of a twenty-year marriage, when love that was one-sided to begin with has long since died and there are children to consider: So.
This is it.
The potatoes have come to a boil while I've been thinking this, and water is splashing over the rim of the pot and sizzling on the burner. Steam has filled the kitchen and the windows have turned opaque. The doorbell rings, startling me, and wine sloshes from my glass. I know it's only ten o'clock, but I am in need of vices. I may learn to smoke. Cigars. Big, fat, smelly ones I'll order from a connoisseur catalog.
Jessica, my next door neighbors' ten-year-old daughter, is at the door.
"Did you know that you have a chair in your tree?" she asks.
We do, and I recognize it. Someone went to great trouble to hoist the neighborhood La-Z-Boy, upholstered in Cleveland Browns tee-shirts, into our maple tree. It's perched-precariously, it looks to me-twelve feet up on a makeshift plywood platform. This chair has been making the rounds for years. People have found it on their roof, in their garage, in their swimming pool (drained), and in their living room when they return from vacation. When you get it, you own it until you can find a way to get rid of it.
"Tag," I say and shrug. "We're it." Now there's going to be a La-Z-Boy in the garage where a car should be, and dear god, who can find the energy for this sort of prank? As I shut the front door, I wonder: If Zach weren't living here, would we still have been next on the rotation? Without him, would I be included in the neighborhood's goings-on? Could I even afford to live here? Thinking these things, my jaw clenches. It's Thanksgiving, I remind myself, these things can wait.
In the kitchen, R.J. is emptying a box of Little Debbies into his pockets.
"Whoa there," I say. "Not for breakfast." Then, trying to soften things a bit, I ask, "How's the game going? Are you winning?" He gives me a look that clearly tells me I'm pathetic. He's right. I don't know what I'm talking about. The truth is, I never know what to say to him.
He ignores me while he bangs open cupboard doors, trying to find something to eat. On the second pass through, he seems to settle on cereal. He pulls a box of Golden Grahams out of one cupboard and grabs a bowl from another. Then he pours milk into the bowl until it reaches the rim. Watching him pour, I have to bite my tongue to keep from yelling at him. But when he starts to carry the bowl across the kitchen, making for the stairs and his bedroom, I have to say something.
"Stop!" Would it be awful to admit that right now even the way he looks annoys me? Everything about him is in disarray. His jeans don't fit properly and his tee-shirt hangs down to his knees. His feet are too big for his body. Even his face has lost the even neatness of childhood.
He stops, and milk sloshes from both sides of his bowl. "First of all," I tell him, "you should be eating that in the kitchen. And secondly, your bowl is too full. You're going to get milk everywhere."
"So there's nothing harder than getting the smell of sour milk out of carpet."
"So I'm the one that has to clean up the mess. And all you have to do to prevent it is empty your bowl a little."
I want to-as my mother used to say to me-wipe that smirk right off his face. But the phone rings and he is saved. Afton is calling to ask if she can bring home a guest, someone whose cat swallowed dental floss and doesn't have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving dinner. Only Afton could find someone to adopt for the day so quickly. While we're talking, R.J. walks to the sink and pours some of his milk out, then leaves the room without looking at me. I hear him run up the stairs and know that, of course, there will be milk spilled on the carpet.
I take a deep breath. It was a typical exchange between mother and son. Anyone listening would agree. So why are my hands shaking?
Dominick, Afton's stray, is an appreciative guest. "What a glorious room! What a feast!" he exclaims, as Afton ushers him into the dining room. In his fifties, still handsome, if a little jowly, a little puffy around the eyes, he is the kind of man who can get away with speaking in exclamation points. Or so it seems to me. Zach, standing at the head of the table and beginning to carve the turkey, raises his eyebrows at the word glorious.
R.J. snorts. Sitting on Zach's left, he looks as if he just stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting-somehow Zach has gotten him to comb his hair and change into a clean shirt-and he wears the pained expression of a boy being forced to sit through his sister's piano recital. A weird déjà vu sensation settles on my stomach and flutters there as past, present, and future collide and I remember this from somewhere-the raised eyebrow, the snort. A series of scenes with these gestures runs through my mind, and suddenly I know that our plan for a holiday reprieve-Let's just get through the holidays!-is in jeopardy and we're fooling ourselves if we think we're in control, or that families (and marriage) are anything other than a runaway train.
"Did you cook all of this, Diane?" Dominick asks.
He's oblivious. I usually consider this a character flaw; now I'm praying for it.
I tell him I have, it wasn't much trouble, Thanksgiving is an easy meal, how can anyone mess up turkey? He notices everything and comments enthusiastically. The Wedgewood dinner service: exquisite. The yam soup with cardamom cream: luscious. The hand-plastered celadon walls: radiant. (Zach has always called the color of these walls "bottled hangover.") Before I know it, everyone has been served and I'm telling him about being first alternate on the Olympic synchronized swim team twenty-five years ago.
Afton has changed for dinner and is wearing what she calls her LBD (little black dress). It's vintage Chanel. She's forsaken her usual ponytail and her hair is down and brushed to a shine. Dominick tells her she looks like a young Catherine Deneuve and she tosses her head back when she laughs. I've rarely seen her so animated. The energy between them is charged-sexual, even-and I think, Oh no.
R.J. tosses his head back and laughs, imitating Afton.
Afton says, "Cretin," and flicks her hair from her shoulder.
R.J. flicks imaginary hair from his shoulder.
"I'm so beautiful," R.J. says, hand on forehead, heroine-style. "I'm soooo beautiful I drool with beauty!"
"Ignore him," I tell her, although it's hard. A gob of spit is slowly rolling down his chin and will soon be swaying over his plate.
I try to catch Zach's eye, to communicate telepathically that it's time for him to be bad cop. But Zach's watching R.J., and anyway he's a sucker for gross humor. Here's a little ditty he taught both kids to prepare them for kindergarten: You pick your nose, you belch, you drool, you constantly are scratching. I don't know what your problem is, but I hope that it's not catching.
"It's a long story," I tell Dominick, with a what-can-you-do-that-won't-make-it-worse shrug.
Now I have Zach's attention. "Go on, tell it, Diane," he says. It's an anecdote I've often told at dinner parties-sans real drool-and one of Zach's favorites.
"That's okay," I say. "You go ahead."
Zach is at his benevolent best. "Well, you guys are going to have to help me with the details." He takes a deep breath. "Okay. When Afton was-what?-nine? Ten?"
"Nine," Afton says, helpfully.
"-she and her friends decided to enter the Miss Old Fashioned beauty contest."
"They don't have Old Fashioned Day anymore," Afton says. "It used to be a festival downtown. They blocked off Main Street and there were games and stuff."
"Let Dad tell it!" R.J. says.
"Well, that's right," Zach says. "They blocked off Main Street. Anyway, Afton and her friends entered this contest and they were all doing pretty well, but it looked like Afton had it cinched. Even back then she had a thing for clothes, and she spent weeks searching for the right dress. Diane had to drive her to every vintage clothing store in the state. Finally she decided on a little pink flapper number, with fringe that shimmied around her knees when she walked. For the talent part of the show she was going to dance the Charleston. Well, it came down to three finalists and Afton was one of them. So were two of her best friends. And backstage while they were getting ready for their performances, they got to thinking and talking and wondering what it would be like when one of them won and the other two didn't. So they all decided to throw the talent portion. The first girl came out and sang Send in the Clowns a little off key The second girl played the drums with one hand. Then it was Afton's turn. She walked to the front of the dais-calmly-she definitely got points for poise-and said, very slowly, very distinctly, 'I droooool with beauty' Then she started to drool. Like this." And Zach demonstrates Afton's award-winning drool.
Dominick hoots. "I drool with beauty. I must remember that. And did you win?" he asks Afton.
"I came in third, which was almost like winning," she says. "I did the worst."
I'm amazed at how well Zach has told this story, that he remembered details like the color of Afton's dress. Out of the corner of my eye I watch him wipe his mouth with his napkin. He enjoys this anarchy-drooling at the dining room table!-almost as much as R.J. He's a cool dad, a hip dad, a dad who raps with the songs on the radio and says, I'm Audi 5000 instead of goodbye when he leaves the house.
Now Dominick is telling us about his brother, a world-class belcher and not untalented spitter. There is a manic energy around the table, each one trying to top the other.
"Oh, and what about the pink marshmallows in the toilet?" Afton says. This is a familiar story. When R.J. was about six and sick with the measles, I bought a bag of strawberry marshmallows for him. He loves marshmallows, and I don't like him to eat them. Pure sugar. But he was sick and I thought the pink marshmallows would be a special treat. But he didn't like them, and ended up trying to flush them down the toilet.
"I looked down and there they were," Zach is saying, "like fairy turds, all pink and fluffy ..."
Afton is laughing so hard wine is sloshing out of her glass. "And they were there for weeks! Floating! Who knew it took them so long to dissolve?"
"Remember how they turned orange when you peed on them?" R.J. asks. You can just see how much he loves to say pee at the table. "Especially first thing in the morning? That was dope."
Afton wrinkles her nose. "Gross! You are so gross!"
"Why especially in the morning?" Dominick asks. He's really trying to follow this.
"You know," R.J. says, "in the morning, pee's more concentrated."
"What about the nice pink pillow they made when you-" Zach says.
"Yuck!" Afton wrinkles her nose. "Dad!"
Just one of my problems: I've never been able to practice this sort of scatological one-upmanship. I feel as if I'm in a movie. I'm a character who's dead and come back to earth, like Spencer Tracy in A Guy Named Joe. No one can see or hear me, but I exist.
"I don't understand," Dominick asks. "Why didn't you just fish the marshmallows out of the toilet?"
Everyone is silent for a moment. No one has ever thought to ask this question before. In the hall, our grandfather clock signals the quarter hour-Hark to the chimes-adding an artificial significance to Dominick's question. After what seems like an unusually long lull, Afton says, "Who would touch them? Would you?"
"And," Zach jumps in, "you have to understand. They were kind of an experiment. You couldn't help but wonder how long they were going to last."
"What about you, Diane?" Dominick asks. I look around the table. Afton's head is thrown back in laughter, her long hair gliding down her back. R.J. is nearly out of control, moving spastically, his face a bright pink. Zach is tilted back in his chair and tears of laughter are gathering among his crow's feet.
Watching him, I wonder if it's his training as an attorney that allows him-unlike me-to be so comfortable, so able to ignore things while they pend. And impend. Or could it be that he's chicken? Or just playing chicken? (Chicken: Another seven-letter word.) Looked at one way, it's a gift, this ability to live in the moment. Looked at another, it's paralysis, a way of never being wrong, of never needing to make a decision. It seems to me that this, more than anything, is the biggest difference between us. If it's true-and I wish it wasn't true-that neither of our children was an "accident" as I've claimed, would this, as Zach once told me, change everything? If they were unaccidents, but also unplanned-sort of a gamble: the first to catch, the second to keep-would this, as I sometimes wonder, make me a terrible person? Or could you argue that someone, at some point, has to be responsible for making a decision? Even if it's the wrong one? And if it's true that I trapped him, it's equally true that I've trapped myself.
"What about me?" I repeat, trying to refocus on the conversation. Slowly, I move the mashed potatoes around on my plate, stalling. "Actually, I don't remember being bothered by them. Then again, I don't use the children's bathroom." It doesn't seem to be the time to discuss one of the lessons of motherhood: How to pick your battles. "And anyway," I add, "sometimes you have to let nature take its course."
Even I'm not sure what I mean by that, but Dominick seems satisfied. "I'll drink to that," he says, lifting his glass. He is, I notice, drinking water. "To nature taking its course!"
"To pink marshmallows in the toilet!" Zach says, lifting his glass as well.
"Hear! Hear!" Afton says, and clicks her glass against Dominick's
Over his wine, Zach looks at me, and for the moment, he's no longer performing. He looks tired and sad. After a moment I raise my glass, too, in salute. At least, where the children are concerned, he tries.
"I know I'm going to regret asking this, but-" Dominick looks around the table, "Why were the marshmallows there in the first place?"
Silence. Another question no one has ever thought to ask. Now everyone is looking at R.J. "Well, duh," he says in a too loud voice. "I don't like strawberry marshmallows." He's tipped his chair back on two legs-copying his father-and is holding onto the table to keep balance. He's rocking ever so slightly. I picture him toppling backwards and taking the tablecloth and everything on it down with him.
Zach says quickly, "You know how it is. Kids do strange things. And anyway, why does anyone do anything?" He looks over at Afton and winks "Why did we catch Afton eating peanut brittle while she was sleepwalking?"
Dominick says to Afton, "You were a sleepwalker? You never told me-"
Afton glances quickly at me. Dominick, seeing this, stops and looks at me too. I pour myself another glass of wine, giving no indication I've heard any of this. The sloshing of liquid against glass is amplified, like the sound in a beer commercial. Afton, I notice, hasn't eaten any turkey. As always, her plate is orderly, each helping separate and distinct. She doesn't like different foods to touch each other.
Dominick returns to his original line of questioning, "But that doesn't answer the question. Why not just throw them away?"
R.J., who is overexcited, doesn't know what to say. When he gets like this he's incapable of reflection. The question-and his inability to answer it-flusters him. And I'm thinking, Why did he flush the marshmallows? Was he afraid of me even then? Afraid of hurting my feelings? Was this when things started to go wrong? Obviously, somewhere along the line I missed some signals, but pink marshmallows? Come on.
With so much attention trained on him, R.J. grows more and more agitated. He rocks further and further back in his chair. Suddenly he tips forward and sets his elbows down on the table. One of them catches the lip of his plate and it flips over. Turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes cover his lap. The plate clatters to the floor and breaks.
"Goddamnit, R.J.!" I yell, and Zach sends me a warning look. R.J. shrinks into his chair, seems to grow smaller. He can't be more than six now. I want to sit him on my lap, read him a story, make him Spaghetti-Os. Redo or undo the last six years.
I've gone over it and over it. Like tongue to the hole left by a missing tooth, I can't leave it be. R.J. and I alone in the kitchen, baking cookies for his ridiculous science project, a comparison of fats and fat substitutes. Afton back at college. Zach spending the day with his mistress. Oh, my feelings about that are complicated. Our carefully constructed life dangling over the edge of a cliff while Zach holds on with one finger. Barely. He's sloppy, wants to be caught. But even more than that, his method enrages me, validates my deeply held belief that men will concoct wild-ass lies, suffer untold humiliation, live in indefinite conflict, all in order to avoid making a decision.
They leave that to women.
But the day of the science project. Certainly I was angry that Zach was forcing my hand. Maybe that had something to do with it. Also, the science project was Zach's idea. R.J.'s grades had been slipping and Zach had come up with this idea for extra credit. But where was he when it came down to getting it done? Before we'd even started, R.J. was already well along the belligerency scale. Starting with the first batch, he wouldn't listen to me when I explained that there's a reason the ingredients are listed in a certain order. The butter and sugar need to be creamed, then the eggs added. The flour, baking soda, and salt need to be mixed in a separate bowl. He ignored me and instead dumped everything into the mixer and turned it on high. Flour spurted everywhere. Little gobs of butter and egg spattered the counter and cabinets. I turned off the mixer. Look, I yelled. Look what you've done! I wet a sponge and began wiping down the cabinets, my hand moving in furious circles. R.J. stood with his arms crossed and watched me. Then he reached over and turned the mixer back on. I don't care! he screamed at me. I just want to get this fucking thing over, so I can be Audi 5000!
I gripped his shoulders, which were narrow and bony and shook as hard as I could. He wasn't resisting me then. He'd gone limp as a dishrag His head flopped back and forth, like that time when Afton was a baby, such a colicky baby. I'd pick her up, she'd cry. I'd set her down, she'd cry. In her swing, she'd cry. Taking a bath, she'd cry. Unless you've been through it, you can't know what it's like to spend hour after hour, day after day, week after week with a baby who won't stop screaming. I can't help you, I'd whisper into her neck. I don't know what to do. Then, once, I picked her up and shook her. Stop! I screamed into her red squinched face. Please, please stop! It wasn't until the English nanny went on trial that I realized the damage I could have done. And I was shaking R.J. like that, the way I couldn't shake Zach. Listen to me! I screamed. Why can't you ever listen to me! But if he hadn't heard me before, he was even further away now.
He was unreachable.
"Kids," Dominick says now. "They're work."
"You have children?" Dominick is helping me with the dishes. The table's been cleared, the broken dish thrown away. Zach has taken R.J. outside to work on getting the La-Z-Boy out of the tree-and I've sent Afton out to supervise. I don't know how they plan to get the chair down, but I'm hoping she'll be able to keep someone from being killed in the process.
"In California with their mother," Dominick says. "Now I have a cat."
"So you really do have a cat? And it really swallowed dental floss?"
"Yeah, her name's Shiloh. She didn't swallow dental floss, though. She had a bad case of anal sacculitis last July. She was in a bad way for a while."
"I'm sorry to hear that," I say. Since July!
"You know, I feel pathetic when I talk about that damn cat, but I love her. When I was going through my divorce and I was drinking way too much, she was all I had to keep me alive. You can pretty much drink yourself to death when you own a wine store. It got so I couldn't get out of bed, I just kept a bowl by my bed to throw up in. And my cat, she started bringing me things. I had a box of winter stuff in the spare bedroom. Hats and mittens and stuff like that. Well, she started emptying that box. All day, she brought me things. She covered my bed. I don't know what she was thinking. It must have been a little like boiling water when someone's having a baby. You don't know why you're doing it, but you need to do something. I think she was panicking and didn't know how to help. So she covered me with outerwear."
I'm rinsing off the turkey platter, which is too big to fit into the dishwasher. "That's so sad. All Pavlov's ever brought me is a chewed-up shoe."
"Maybe that's all you ever needed."
"Good lord," I say. "Did Afton bring you here to practice dime-store psychology on her mother?"
"No, I'm just saying that pets know more than we think they do. So do kids."
He's a nice man. A little strange and too old for my daughter, but nice. I relent. "I know. When R.J. was a baby he could always tell what I was thinking. If I was upset when I was breastfeeding him, he'd reach up with his little hand and stroke my cheek. His fingers were so soft." I put the platter on top of the refrigerator and lean against the counter "I've never in my life known anything as gentle."
And now, in front of a stranger, I do what I've been trying not to do all day: I start to cry.
Once, on a flight to L.A., Zach and I were seated with a boy whose mother was in first class. There was a lot of harrumphing from Zach, as I recall. But I thought, Good for her! What mother hasn't wished, at one time or another, that she could send all that need, all that noise, all those mind-numbing questions to the back of the plane? Close the curtain Another bloody Mary, please. And perhaps a pillow when you have a chance?
The boy was eight or nine. Sitting in the window seat next to me, he never said anything during the entire flight. Never went to the bathroom, either. The comparison with our children was inevitable. He seemed mesmerized by the view outside the window. The clouds moved past us quickly, as they do when you're traveling a thousand miles an hour, providing an ever-changing landscape of shapes. I thought maybe he was playing the cloud game, something I played often with the kids when they were little. Its main virtue is that it can be played anywhere-as long as there are clouds, and there usually are-and it's free. Now, inside the plane, a flash version of the game was possible: cat, house, cow, frog, pear, rose. I played along silently with the boy, reeling off shapes, trying to keep up with the clouds.
After dinner they showed a movie, The English Patient. The boy bought a headset-and who was I to suggest that the material might be inappropriate? It was during the part where Ralph Fiennes carries his lover's body out of the cave that the boy's mother emerged from first class. She walked unsteadily down the aisle, using the seatbacks to pull herself along. I thought she might be headed for the bathroom, but she stopped at our row. Not sure what she wanted, I took my headset off so that I could hear what she said. The boy, I noticed, didn't. Beside me, Zach radiated annoyance. She was blocking his view of the movie. She wore a tight, low-cut dress, and when she leaned over to whisper to her boy, her breasts were all I could see. I was once loved like that, she told him.
Since then, I've often wondered about that boy. Did he hear her? When he's older, what will he remember of that day? Her unsteady walk, the smell of alcohol on her breath? How embarrassed he was by her cleavage? Will he ask himself why they weren't seated together and think her a bad mother? Will he forgive her? When he thinks of her, will he ever think of her as a woman-a woman with problems, yes-but still ... a woman?
The La-Z-Boy comes down the way I thought it would. I'm wiping my eyes with a dirty napkin when we hear the crash. (Dominick, bless him, has ignored my tears.) When there are no accompanying screams, I relax.
"Son of a gun. No one got hurt," I say to Dominick. "Let's go take a look."
The chair's a little mangled, but basically okay. Zach is still in the tree and Afton is maneuvering the ladder to get it closer to him.
"Where's R.J.?" I ask, hugging myself to keep warm.
"He's around," Zach says.
"Around where?" It's dark out, but the streetlight sheds enough light. I turn around in a circle, surveying the neighborhood. He's not here.
"Dad told him to get out of the way. Maybe he went inside," Afton says.
"I don't think so." But I check anyway.
R.J. isn't in his room, or in the garage, or in the basement, or anywhere else in the house. I knew he wouldn't be.
He's run away.
In the cold and silence, I wait. A stray leaf or two scurries across the walk, but nothing else on our street moves. My breath condenses and I count-one ... two ... three ... four-as it dissipates into the air around it. The La-Z-Boy has ended up on our front porch and I'm bundled in blankets on top of it. A glass of wine and the portable phone are on the table next to me. Dominick is patrolling the neighborhood on foot; Zach and Afton are searching by car. Every few minutes or so I call to hear them say, Nothing yet. Time slows to the drip of a faucet. My cheeks are numb, whether from cold or wine or worry, I can't say.
There's nothing for me to do here but bargain with God, who is, I'm finding, a tough negotiator. I'll never lose my temper again, I pledge. I'll change. I'll appreciate R.J.-no, both my children-for who they are and not for what I want them to be. But even to my own ears these promises sound hollow. It's not that easy. I don't understand my son, and worse yet, I think I might, in my own unhappiness, be damaging him. He's not like Afton, an easy child, who can ride the crest of any wave. No, R.J. travels underwater, where strange, unknowable things lurk, and communication with terrestrials, like me, is difficult. And now, somehow, I've got to find a way to get him back to the surface. Which means, I realize, getting myself there first. Okay, okay, I bargain, if you'll return R.J. home safely, I'll do what Zach won't do.
Which is: Act. Be the bad guy. Make the decision. Say the unsaid Take responsibility. Invite the seven-letter cousins into our home. (Divorce, there's a seat over there. Custody, can I get you something to drink?) But even as I decide this, fear is bubbling up from somewhere near my toes. I take another sip of wine and try not to think about the financial implications, the social awkwardness, the impact on both children, especially R.J., the admission of failure, failure, failure. What matters most now is the boy, I tell myself. His safe return.
It's after two when a police cruiser pulls up to our house, lights and sirens turned off. Dominick has gone home, after calling the police and all five hospitals. Zach and Afton have gone back out, although they've returned to the house several times to regroup. The last time they checked in, Zach's jaw was clenched and there was a muscle throbbing at the base of his neck. He looked like he was trying not to cry. Afton was unusually quiet.
When R.J. climbs out of the back seat, relief hits my bloodstream like a shot of Dewar's. He seems okay, unhurt. Two policemen join my son, and he shuffles up the walk, baggy gray sweatshirt flanked by blue uniforms.
I don't care what he's done. I'm just so glad he's home.
"Yes?" I wipe under my eyes with my knuckle. It takes me a moment to untangle myself from the blankets and when I stand up, I stumble a little. The three of them stop at the bottom of the steps. The porch light is yellow and it casts a ghoulish glow, making us all look sick, like we've had too much turkey. I can't make out anyone's expression.
The policemen look like Laurel and Hardy, one short and fat, the other tall and slim. The short officer speaks, and his voice is surprisingly gentle. "Your son was caught taking computer parts from the dumpster in the Springtree office park," he tells me. "He and his friends have been raiding it for the last week. Somebody in one of the office buildings asked us to keep watch."
"My son was stealing from a dumpster?" A dumpster! That's all! I want to laugh. I want to send up rockets. I want to give lots and lots of money to the people who put pictures of missing kids on the sides of milk cartons.
"Yes ma'am," the officer says.
"And that's a crime?" I look at R.J., whose head is down. I wish he would look up so that I can catch his eye, let him know I'm glad he's safe and that I'm not mad. Later I'd like to say, Stealing from a dumpster? That's bogus, man. But I know I won't.
The officers tell me the dumpster in question is on private property, so they had to pick him up. They say something about a curfew that is rarely enforced. Then they ask if they can speak to me alone. I tell RJ. to go on in, go to bed. He finally looks up at me, his face tearstained, and my heart lurches.
When the door is closed behind him, the tall officer says, "He seems like a good kid. We had a long talk. You might have the next Bill Gates there. He even gave me some tips on how to equip my Sylvan Unit to get past the Black Widow's Nest. But Mrs. McKenna?"
"What?" I say, but I'm barely listening. He had a long talk with R.J.? This must be my tax dollars at work, what it means to live in a community where the police are camp counselors with guns. This stranger had a long talk with R.J. Even Zach doesn't have long talks with R.J.
"Maybe you should make some coffee and relax a little before you talk to your son about this."
I'm embarrassed. They've seen the wine glass, noted the mascara smudged beneath my eyes-the lost sixth grader probably didn't help-and now they think I'm drunk. "Thank you for coming by," I say, dismissing them
I sit back down on the La-Z-Boy and pull the blankets around me. There's nothing I can say to R.J. right now that won't be misinterpreted He's tired-and although he'd rather die than admit it-scared. Later I'll go up and check on him. He'll be sprawled on his bed in his clothes, unbothered by the books and CDs beneath him. His room will have that boy smell, part locker room, part forest floor. I'll take his shoes off and spread a blanket over him. I won't kiss his forehead, that might wake him.
The officers are making their way down the walk, between identical rows of boxwood, when I remember something they said. "Officer?" I call as they're about to get into their cruiser. They both turn. I direct my question to the one who told me my son might be the next Bill Gates. "What kind of unit did you say he helped you with?"
"My Sylvan Unit." He says each syllable distinctly.
"Oh." It's not going to be the magic word. I have no idea what a Sylvan Unit is, couldn't use it in a sentence if I tried. There isn't going to be another way out: My bargain still stands. I take a deep breath, and let it out slowly. A cloud forms in front of me-one ... two ... three ... four-then disappears. The policemen drive away as headlights-moving very slowly-appear at the other end of the street. This second car speeds up; Zach must have recognized the shape of the cruiser, a talent he's developed over many years of trying to avoid speeding tickets.
As his car approaches, I move into that strange double-time of crisis. I think about what I'm going to say to him, at first and then later. I consider running out to the car and throwing my arms around him-and Afton-in joy and relief, then reconsider when I realize how awkward that might be. Now isn't the time for mixed signals, and anyway, it's been too long since Zach and I have touched each other. I think about R.J., upstairs in his bed, and that little sound he makes-pfff pfff pfff-in his sleep. And while I'm thinking all of this, I'm also thinking about the woman on the plane, and how often I've resembled her, and how much I don't want to be her. I wonder where she is now, and if she's happy. And whether her son is happy. Is he a whiz at math? An amateur photographer? A thespian? And then my mind moves to the warning flight attendants give at the beginning of every flight: In the event of a drop in cabin pressure, secure your own oxygen mask first. And I wonder what every mother wonders when she hears those words: Will I be strong enough to watch my child gasp for breath while I grab the mask for myself, place it over my own nose and mouth, fumble for the ear straps?
I'm about to find out.
©Stephanie Harrison, first published in South Dakota Review