Fiction

Congratulations on Your Graduation

By: Valerie Kinsey

charles-deloye-660433-unsplash

Her parents are professors at Brooklyn Law. I forget their names: Shel and Sarah or Saul and Sally. We haven’t said more than five words to each other, but I’ve watched their girl, Juliet, grow from a chirpy, sunny blonde to a pale, quiet teenager. She hides behind her long, straight, dishwater hair, with just the cuff of her silver-tipped earring poking out. Yesterday, I watched her walk up our block of brownstones toward the 2/3 Train. She takes these short, quick steps with her head down as though she’d rather not know what’s coming. And who can blame her? But yesterday I noticed she had a white gauze bandage on her hand. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, except now I happen to look across the street as she descends the porch steps, hair in her face, and see another white gauze bandage, peeking out from under her denim skirt.

I wash my hands with hot water, shake them dry over the kitchen sink, and count backward the years since my wife and I moved into this house. Cheryl was pregnant with Graydon and in full bloom. All summer she wore a floral muumuu in a cherry red hibiscus flower print and matching kerchief. That was almost twelve years ago. Juliet turned five that year. I remember her birthday party and how the yellow balloons in front of their house died a slow, painful death in the July heat. Seventeen, Jesus, Juliet is almost seventeen. In another five years she’ll be a heartbreaker, and I’ll be old enough to apply for an AARP membership.

Graydon lumbers into the kitchen, stops at the light switch on the door, and flips it a half-dozen times to get my attention.

“Dad,” he says, “what are we going to do today?” He fixes me with an open-mouthed, wide-eyed stare. He’s been mentally handicapped since he was born. I still trip over the phrase “mentally handicapped,” but I can’t call him “special.” It’s saddled with too much cruel irony.

“I don’t know, Graydon. What do you think?” We’ve done the Brooklyn Zoo, his favorite, Prospect Park, my favorite, and the movies, which neither of us enjoys. I’m sick of the Disney oeuvre, and he loses track of the plot and characters. When we watch television, he doesn’t seem to worry that most of it goes over his head, but for some reason, the movies make him anxious. It’s as though he knows the trouble he’s in, the dangers awaiting him. This prescience unsettles me as well. I’ve always comforted myself with the thought that he will never fully understand what he’s missing, and I repeat that comfortable cliché like a mantra, “Ignorance is bliss.”

Movies do pass the time, and we seem to have a lot of time, my son and I, since he was asked to leave the program Cheryl and I considered our “last hope.” We’ve said this to ourselves before, the “last hope,” because it gives us the peace of mind that there is such a thing, a finite amount of hope that can be spent like money and forgotten. On our cab ride home from Graydon’s latest school—one of two dozen such cab rides we’ve endured—Cheryl said, “This is unbearable.” I don’t know if she meant raising Graydon or sitting next to me.

Graydon eats toast sprinkled with sugar, and we decide to go to the park. It’s sunny and warm, one of a handful of not-too-hot, not-too-cloudy May days. We enter through the Third Street gate and do a lap around the perimeter, which takes us a good hour. Just a few short weeks ago, Graydon had to stop and sit down four or five times. Now, he’s able to keep up with me the whole way. I feel good about this improvement.

We skirt the lake on the pedestrian path where he stops to look in a muddy puddle.

“How come this one doesn’t have a rainbow in it?” he asks.

“Because the rainbows come from oil,” I explain. “From cars. We’re on the pedestrian path. No cars here.”

My son’s eyes are light brown, warm and consoling like his mother’s. I can see light flickering behind them, his mind struggling to make the necessary connections. I imagine the sparkle and fire of synapses.

“Rainbows come from cars?” he asks, cocking his head to one side, letting slip away the thread he was just barely holding on to.

“The rainbows in the puddles are caused by oil,” I say.

He kneels down and examines this rainbow-free puddle. He puts his nose an inch from the water and sniffs.

“Don’t put your face in it,” I say. “It’s dirty.”

He puts his hand on the surface as if mesmerized. If Cheryl were here, she’d be mortified. It makes me ashamed, for a moment, thinking of her embarrassment. I don’t mind spending the days with him, especially since, although neither of us has admitted it, we’ve failed him in too many ways: biologically, emotionally, even socially. Our connections haven’t been able to place him in a local school for such “challenging” cases. We haven’t said it aloud, but we will send him away. No date has been suggested, so I continue to pretend as though I am this father, this endlessly patient, good-humored, beneficent dad. This father who has all the time in the world for his son.

“What do you say we move along?” I ask.

He wipes his hand on his shirt but continues to stare into the puddle, as though it holds life’s deepest mysteries. Perhaps, I smile ruefully, my son is no more misguided than I am. Lord knows how much time I’ve spent focusing on the wrong things.

We wind up in one of the rambling, tree-rimmed meadows. Graydon beats the ground with a broken-off branch. I close my eyes, smell cut grass while he explores.

“Juliet’s here,” Graydon announces from several yards away.

“Juliet’s at school,” I say, confident in having seen her walk to the subway that morning.

“No, she’s not,” Graydon says in an uncharacteristically challenging tone. He stands over me, legs in a wide cowboy stance. “She’s over there.” He points to a girl reading, back pressed to the trunk of a tree.

“Are you sure that’s her?” I ask. I’d rather not know she’s cutting school. More than that, I’d rather not stumble over and try to make conversation.

“Just now she said, ‘Hi, Graydon.’” His eyes search my face. I see a certain defiance there. My son is almost twelve years old, and however young his mind, his body has its own biological designs, and soon he will be, like I was at his age, bombarded with hormones, the desire to rub up against soft, sweet-smelling girls, to lash out at the world in a state of confused sexual need.

“Dad,” he whines. “Juliet’s here.”

I follow Graydon to Juliet, her bandage plainly visible, a square patch just above her knee, on the smooth inside of her skinny leg.

“Hi, Dan,” she says. Her voice is soft and low. Her hair is off her face, tucked behind her ears, revealing high cheekbones. She looks older, more severe. Her mouth twitches in a look of what?—uncertainty? dismay?—it’s been years since I’ve tried to decipher the facial expressions of teenage girls. I consider walking away, but I’m already here and Graydon’s bouncing at my side like a nervous Labrador.

“Mind if we join you for a bit?” I ask.

She shrugs nonchalantly.

“What are you reading?” I ask.

She holds up her book so I can see the cover.

“The Bell Jar,” I read aloud for no one’s benefit. “I never read that.”

She rolls her eyes, turns the page dramatically, letting me know she’d rather be alone, and I realize how I must strike her: a middle-aged goofball with a pathetic life, a retarded kid and a breadwinning wife. I fight the urge to argue my case, to explain that I sold my (successful) real estate estimating business in order to be a better father. Somehow, I don’t think I will make a good pitch for myself, dazzle her with the glamour of my old exploits, so I pretend to be absorbed in the warmth of the day, the way the breeze feels in my hair. Thank God I still have hair.

Graydon has disappeared and I scan the meadow. I don’t see him anywhere.

“Shit,” I say a little too loudly, and Juliet looks up from her book.

“Must suck, having a kid like Graydon,” she says.

I gape at her. Her eyes are pale green, framed by dusty blonde eyelashes and overplucked eyebrows. She blushes at my stare and stammers on, “I mean, my parents told me that everyone hates their children to a certain degree, kids take up all your time and they make all these demands; then they surpass you, or they don’t, but either way, it’s hard not to be resentful.”

I smile, attempting to hide my discomfort, and wonder where the hell Graydon went.

“Let’s just say that being a parent is hard.” I sigh, suddenly dreading the rest of the day. I push myself to standing and look up at the leaves against the blue sky.

“Nice to see you, Juliet,” I say. “Give your folks my best.”

“You’re not going to tell them, are you?”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“That I’m not in school,” she says, looking at the ground. She now seems much younger than the pouty-lipped teenager I approached a few minutes before.

“I can’t even remember the last time I talked to them,” I say, exasperated.

“Cool,” she says. “Then it’s our secret.” And that word “secret” makes the hair on my neck stand up. Secret. My mouth goes dry.

Graydon comes charging up, a purple weed of some kind clutched in his fist. He hands the flower to Juliet, his entire being beaming at her.

She smiles a broad, sincere smile. “Thank you, Graydon,” she says.

I take Graydon’s hand, although he’s really too old to hold hands with, and lead him away. I’m still thinking about that word, secret, that deliciously sweet word. I wonder whether she meant to be so sexy, if she’s aware of the power she has. I whistle, as though the noise will drown out my thoughts of how her hair must smell, how soft the skin on her legs must be.

Graydon breaks away from my grip and runs unevenly toward the street.

“Wait,” I yell after him, sounding much fiercer than I intended.

He spins around in front of the crosswalk.

I look at his face. He’s wounded that I yelled at him. I feel guilty for thinking about Juliet, for wishing I could watch her all day instead of my son.

“Sorry, Dad,” he says. “I was going to stop.”

“It’s okay,” I say as I ruffle his hair.

We walk home in silence. I look at the top of my child’s head, now at my shoulder and gaining on me quickly. He will soon have the problems of a man and the wits of a child, and there is nothing I can do to stop him from becoming the person he will be. It’s happening. I noticed the way he looked at Juliet, and I’m angry that I’ll have to explain sex to him, help him to navigate the bewildering world of boners and masturbation and yearning. And rejection. What hope can I offer?

That night, when my wife is undressing, stepping out of the Gucci suit she bought when she made partner at her firm, I tell her about Graydon’s little gift to Juliet.

“He’s just a kid. I’m sure you’re reading into it.” She stands in her tummy-tucker underwear and the beige bra that smooshes her long breasts against her chest. “Maybe you’re reading into it because you’re attracted to her.”

I do my best scoffing sound. “Cheryl, I’m worried about his hormones,” I say. “They’re going to get all out of whack soon. Sooner than we think.” She pulls off the gold hoop earrings—the ones I bought at Tiffany’s for her fortieth birthday.

“Well, maybe we should drive out there,” she says, “check it out.” This is the fourth or fifth time she’s suggested such a trip. Yet she doesn’t speak with exasperation. She brings up the home (not home, but euphemistic “boarding school”) in a roundabout way, as though it is a new thought, a just-reached conclusion. She refuses to make her arguments sound tired, and for a lawyer, she hates direct confrontation. Cheryl’s one of those unflappable people who pushes her agenda without losing her cool. She will win every argument in our marriage by persistence, through a war of attrition. One day, she knows, I will make arrangements to rent a car, to talk to the director of the home, to have lunch with her parents in Morris. Throughout, we will behave as though we’d been on the same page about Graydon all along. And we will tell our friends, with confidence, “We thought it was the best thing for Graydon.” I will give in. I’ve seen the arc of our relationship. I’ve been pinned to the mat too many times before to be so naïve as to think I will prevail. In any case, I can’t raise him alone. Maybe a normal son, but not him. The specialists have told us he will have the mind of an eight-year-old as long as he lives.

I look at the womanly curve of her hips, the little pouch that hangs over the band of her underwear—a roll of fat and skin she’s had since giving birth to Graydon in spite of several otherwise successful diets. She looks maternal, and yet seems so divorced from the fate of her offspring. I want to shake her, shake her and say, “Why don’t you love him?” even though I know it’s more complicated than that. She hums to herself, goes to her full-length mirror, and unhooks her bra. She catches me looking at her body, and I wonder if she’s turned off by me, repulsed by her once manly man who’s become obsessed with woman’s work, consumed (in a boring and not an endearing way) with the welfare of a lost cause. The slackening attraction between us is both expected and depressing. I guess I always assumed that there would be deep feelings—of understanding? camaraderie?—to mitigate such losses in the sex department, but I don’t feel particularly close to Cheryl.

“I just wonder whether it will be any easier for him to hear about the birds and the bees from a complete stranger. Wouldn’t he rather hear it from us?” I’m speaking rhetorically, playing devil’s advocate. Cheryl raises an eyebrow.

“Stop beating yourself up,” she says, ending the discussion.

We go to sleep without sex. I’m angry with her for her chilly attitude toward Graydon. I punish her by turning away, but she doesn’t take it like a punishment. At least on the surface of things, she hardly seems to notice. I dream that I give Juliet, who isn’t Juliet, but Terri, a girl I “dated” briefly in college, a single purple rose. I have a huge hard-on, which Terri notices before bending over and licking it softly. I wake up with a powerful erection. I want to rub against something: it’s uncomfortable and it demands attention. Cheryl is sound asleep. I touch her skin, which is hot and moist under the sheet, and realize I don’t want to make love to her. I put the image of Juliet/Terri back in my mind as I touch myself, smothering my face with my pillow. In a white-hot flash I climax, breathing hard through clenched teeth. I wad up my now-soiled boxer shorts into a ball on the floor and then fall asleep.

Graydon wants to go back to the park. I’m tempted to warn him that Juliet won’t be there, but I wonder whether Cheryl’s right, that I’m the one who’s fixated on her whereabouts. “Dad, I don’t want to walk,” Graydon says at the park gate. “We’ll miss her,” he says. At the sound of his thick voice saying “her,” my heart swims. I know exactly the “her”’ he’s talking about, her of the too-too bone structure, her of the soft voice.

He trots ahead of me, turning around now and again to make sure I’m still in view, and heads directly to the tree where she sat yesterday and calls for me when he discovers she’s there, the lilt in his voice suggesting that she’s been waiting just for him. Part of me wilts. She will never call his name with such breathless joy. Another part of me is happy for him and, as I approach, I smile at his happiness, and mine, for I am happy to see her too. I remember her saying that word, secret.

“You come here every day?” she asks, a familiar and lighthearted teasing.

“I should be asking you,” I say.

“I can’t stand being in class on days like this. I’ve already been accepted to college. What’s Nightengale going to do?” She thrusts her lip out and I wonder whether she does it on purpose so chumps like me spend hours thinking about her.

“I didn’t know you were graduating this year,” I finally manage to say.

“I’m going to Amherst,” she says. “It’s in Massachusetts.”

“I know where it is,” I say because I want her to know that I know where schools like Amherst are, that I myself went to Colgate, not too shabby, a respectable liberal arts school. I don’t offer this, because, once again, I’m afraid that any attempt to reveal bits and pieces of my life in the hope of finding some common ground will make me seem pathetic. “Congratulations,” I say. I notice the same bandage is on her leg, and there’s another on the outside of her upper arm, barely visible under the cap of her white T-shirt. “What are you going to study?”

“English,” she says. She picks at the blades of grass beneath her and tucks her hair behind her left ear.

“I did English and Drama,” I add. I try not to stare at the faint freckles across her nose and cheeks.

Graydon has disappeared. I assume he’s off in search of another love offering. “You don’t work?” she asks.

“Nope,” I say. I hold her earnest green gaze.

“And your wife’s a lawyer?” she asks, trying to reconcile the miracle of this pairing. A mind-bogglingly successful woman married to a deadbeat. I want to add that I was once at summer stock. I built sets and knew Shakespeare by heart.

“Yes, she is,” I say.

She nods slowly, digesting this information—information we both know she already knew. “What are the bandages for?” I ask.

“What bandages?”

“The bandages on your—” I say, stopping short. Saying “on your body” sounds crude somehow. Even though I’ve known her since she was five years old, I’m not supposed to notice the way she looks up at me with pale green, searching eyes, or the challenging tone that creeps into her voice every now and again. I am supposed to take her literally—the sixteen- almost seventeen-year-old girl across the street—to ignore our cautious conversation, the way we catch ourselves looking at each other, the mysteries of her being a teenage girl and me a middle-aged man. So for the moment, I turn what might be a complicated interaction into one with a specific shape and script: I am a concerned family friend. Even as I make this decision, I feel disappointment.

As she starts to speak, her voice catches. “Do you ever feel as though you’re supposed to feel a certain way about something, or that things are exactly like you thought on the surface, but under that, they feel strange?”

As she talks, I get this tingling in my chest and a small leap in my throat, and I know exactly what she’s saying as though I’d been trying to say the exact same thing for so long without even realizing it and her words have exposed some tender, lonely spot. I laugh, I can’t help but laugh that I’m listening to a girl—a young wisp of a girl—put my feelings into words. “Why are you laughing?” she asks, and I see that there are tears bunching in her eyes.

“I’m sorry. No one ever told me life would be so disappointing,” I say. And with a pang of guilt, I think about Graydon and how love and disappointment tend to come hand in hand. “So tell me about the bandages,” I say.

“I cut myself,” she says. “It makes it easier to deal.”

I nod slowly, making sure to look her in the eye.

She looks down at the bandage on her leg. She picks at the surgical tape holding it in place, irritating her white skin. She gets it to come up and shows me a bloody “X” carved into her leg. The cut is deep and crusted over with wine-colored dust. For a second, I see her at twelve years old, walking up to our door to babysit with a Sweet Valley High book and a sweatshirt down to her knees.

“Disgusting, huh?” she asks.

Just then, Graydon comes charging up, flower-gathering project abandoned, and stares wide-eyed at Juliet’s fresh scab. “What happened?” he asks her.

Juliet looks from me to Graydon. “I hurt myself,” she says. Her bottom lip is thrust out. She again looks defiant, as though asking me to challenge the wisdom of her self-destruction, or of her confession, or of the discretion she’s shown in telling a half-truth to my son. Again, I want to hold her.

“How?” he asks. His eyes are wide and there is that light behind them, the strain and strange beauty of thought. “How did you hurt yourself?”

I look down at my hands. I don’t know how to answer, how she’ll answer.

She looks at me; her small pointy jaw opens and closes without a word. Tears cloud her eyes and she makes a puckered face. For a split second, I can see her as an older woman, beautiful and strong.

“I have French class,” she says, scrambling to stand. That quickly, she walks away. A lump sticks in my throat. I watch her slim hips sway. She trips in the grass and it breaks my heart.

“How did she hurt herself?” Graydon asks.

“Sometimes people do things even I don’t understand,” I say. “She’ll be all right.” I curse the opacity of my explanation, the dull, meaningless words that come out of my mouth. Graydon, who’s usually cheered by my cliché-garbled speech, looks sullen, his head bent forward, shoulders hiked up to his ears.

Cheryl finds my son and me on the couch, watching SpongeBob SquarePants. Graydon has finished off a plate of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets, and I’m nursing my second glass of merlot. She gives him a kiss on the head. I pour her a glass of wine and follow her upstairs.

She slips off her skirt and jacket. She takes her underwear off, slowly, and I notice an inflamed area around her crotch.

“What happened?” I ask. It looks like red pimpled gooseflesh.

“Oh,” she says, blushing. “I got waxed.”

I shrug my shoulders.
“It doesn’t look better?”
“I thought women were supposed to have hair there,” I say.
“I get razor burn when I shave. I wanted to do it for the summer.” She seems annoyed that I’m not delighted, or that I don’t see the obvious and tremendous advantages to such a procedure.
Waxing seems like a service for gay men and porn stars, and I’m not sure where my wife, who refuses to wear anything more revealing than Bermuda shorts in public, gets the idea that pubic hair removal is a good use of money.
“It’s not like our sex life is the best anymore,” she says, stopping short.
“Cheryl,” I say and walk toward her.
She dodges my embrace by opening her purse and taking out a pack of Marlboro Ultra Lights. Another surprise. I didn’t know my wife still smokes. I knew she was a smoker; she quit when she got pregnant with Graydon and then started again for a time after we realized he wasn’t “like other children.” I search my mind for evidence I might have missed. Her clothes don’t smell, not enough to notice. I know that she has two lives, that she spends half her time with people I don’t know, solving problems I’m not privy to. I stupidly and suddenly come to the realization that she must have more in common with these strangers, be more involved, more invested in these mysterious troubles, than she is with us. For a second, I feel sorry for her.
“My parents invited us to lunch,” she says and inhales. The trip to Morris is never fun; it involves renting a car and eating rubbery steak at her parents’ “club.” We haven’t been out there in months and I nod. Her dark red lipstick is still fresh, and in spite of her brown hair, which gets frizzy in the heat, she looks pretty, standing in her bra and panties, flaking her ashes out the window. “Two weeks from Saturday. It might be a good idea,” she starts to say and raises the cigarette to her lips again.
I know what she means. She wants to visit the “boarding school.”
“Sure. Whatever,” I say.
The following week, a heat wave descends on the city like locusts. New York is sick with wet, suffocating humidity. Graydon and I stay in the air-conditioned house. Friday, I watch a few kids walk home from school, wilted and dirty, backpacks on, climbing up the stairs to their front doors, and I feel like joining them outside.
“Get your shoes on,” I tell Graydon in a mock-serious voice. “Ice cream time.”
We walk along Seventh Avenue, against the flow of pedestrian traffic from the subway. Sweat rolls down my back and chest, and I feel sticky and exhausted. Graydon’s cheeks are red, and moisture beads on his forehead and over his mouth, where a thin moustache is starting to form. We smile at each other, enjoying the sensory overload—people, horns, traffic, heat, heat that swallows us whole, making us forget everything except ice cream. I hold Graydon’s hand against the crowd rushing off the F train and lead him to the back of the line at Haagen-Dazs.
“What flavor do you want?” I ask.
I survey the board, trying to decide between a milkshake and a waffle cone.
“Dan?” I recognize the voice instantly, and the hair on my neck stands up.
Juliet stands beside me licking a dark chocolate ice-cream cone. Her hair is in a loose ponytail, and she’s wearing low, baggy jeans that reveal small pointy hips, and a midriff-exposing kelly green T-shirt.
A kid approaches, wraps his arm around her neck, and gives her a too-hard squeeze. His wallet is attached to his pants with a chain, and he’s wearing a black T-shirt with white lettering that reads, “Nice People Suck.”
“Dan, this is Jamie,” she says, and she pushes her lips together to prevent herself from smiling.
I assume he is the worst kind of boy, too good-looking and self-confident for his own good. Thoughtless and insincere. He’s the kind of guy who’d hurt a girl enough to make her hurt herself. I immediately blame him for Juliet’s problems, the “X” on her leg.
“S’up?” He slides his hand down and shoves it in the back pocket of her jeans.
I want to hit him, want to pummel the smirk off his face.
Graydon comes rushing up. “Dad, I want two flavors.” He takes my hand and tugs me toward the clear plastic viewing cases. I tuck my anger down.
“Don’t you want to say hi to Juliet and her friend?” I hate how stiff I sound.
“Hey, Graydon,” Juliet says. “This is Jamie.”
Graydon takes one look at Jamie and buries his face in my shoulder. He hates meeting new people, especially older kids whom he perceives (not incorrectly) as unfriendly and potentially threatening.
“Say hello, Graydon,” I say.
“Hey, kiddo,” Jamie says.
Graydon looks at the squished rainbow sprinkles on the floor. I squeeze his hand in mine, but he won’t be coaxed into speaking.
As they leave the store, I hear Jamie ask, “What’s wrong with him?” It’s all I can do to keep my feet planted on the crappy linoleum floor.
On my way home, I try to shake from my mind the thoughts of that punk kid pawing at her, trying to slide his hand up her shirt, touching her.
The next day, an invitation to Juliet’s graduation party appears in our mailbox. It’s Saturday, the day we’re supposed to have lunch with Cheryl’s family. Already I’m thinking of excuses why I can’t go to the “club”: stomachache, backache, headache. I’m never sick and have never tried to weasel my way out of spending time with family. In fact, I’ve been present and accounted for at just about every major event, and just this once, I’m convincing myself already, I can take a day off.
I put the invitation in Robert Stone’s new book and plan to forget about it until that Saturday. When Graydon and Cheryl are in New Jersey, I’ll “drop by” to give Juliet my best. As I wait for Cheryl to come home, I think about what kind of gift I should get. A book. Something sophisticated and funny. Something I enjoyed when I was young—younger. Catcher in the Rye. Bet she’s read it. Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Dated? I consider Nabokov for a moment, but I don’t want to taint the gesture with Lolita. I think of Joan Didion, waiflike and strong, sharp cheekbones.
The Friday before Juliet’s party, Graydon and I make a trip to the bookstore. I touch every book in the place, attempting to come up with a perfectly suited soul to give to Juliet. I eventually settle on a leather-bound volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I sigh, remembering my last summer Upstate. I’d gotten two parts, met a few big casting directors, some Broadway, Off Broadway, anyway. At the time, it didn’t seem like a choice, acting or Cheryl. I was drunk on her milky skin, her smell, her womanliness. She’d encircle my back with her long, muscular legs. She held me to her in this way, pulled me in, closer and closer until it was impossible to think of life without her.
Graydon tugs on my shirt for the hundredth time. We go to the Korean grocery that sells fresh flowers. He picks out a bunch of cellophane-wrapped Gerber daisies and arranges them himself. I watch his thick hands grip the stems and shuffle them in the crystal. He blows his bangs up in exasperation, but doesn’t give up. I imagine Graydon twenty years from now hovering over an elaborate arrangement of roses and tulips and lush blooms of deep pink and red, a master flower man, a peculiar genius in his field, a valued and respected employee of the most elegant shop in Manhattan. I sigh. Stupid fantasy for a son. Still, I feel the smallest bit of joy watching him make beauty.
Cheryl arrives home in flip-flops with freshly painted toes. The polish is bright red and perfectly applied, like lacquer, the paint of a very expensive car. Her cheeks are flushed pink, and there are beads of clear sweat gathered around her hairline. When I kiss her cheek, I take in her breath and salt and the faintest touch of her Yves Saint Laurent perfume. I kiss her again.
“Where is all of this coming from?” she asks and pulls away. I hold her hand and lead her upstairs, where I kiss her neck and the depression between her collarbones and inhale her smell. “Stop,” she says. “I need to shower.”
Cheryl used to call me a real man because I worked in the sun; I built things, not just things, but sets. She used to brag about my muscles and passion for theater to her friends who were dating bankers. She talked like she had something special, and remembering that, remembering the feeling that we were so lucky to have each other fills me with lust, and I can’t get close enough to her, and I wonder how, in the course of a marriage, you allow yourself to forget that magic—the harmony of two bodies fitting perfectly together.
After dinner, we climb in bed, and as the fan ruffles Cheryl’s hair and cools our sheets, I think about the sonnets, still tucked in the slim paper bag. I feel guilty for the lie, however harmless, I’m going to tell Cheryl. And I know—I’m not stupid—that once I’m at the party, holding my gift, I will feel out of place. Juliet and her parents will wonder where Cheryl is, why Graydon isn’t with me. I will be cast out of the realm of friendly, affable neighbor to creepy middle-aged man whose intentions are, or could be, suspect. I know how it must look.
At seven o’clock Saturday morning, I find Cheryl in the bathroom, smoking a cigarette out the window. The cigarette instantly annoys me. I feel as though she’s using it to defend herself from me. To keep me at a distance.
“It stinks,” I say and fan the air with my hand.
“I feel awful. My stomach’s killing me.”
“You feel sick?” I ask.
She wipes her frizzy brown hair out of her face without looking up. “You can take Graydon to my parents’, can’t you?”
“Why don’t we all stay here?” I ask. “I can take care of you.”
“Don’t worry about me,” she says and inhales deeply.
I look out the window at the passing clouds. The day will be muggy and hot, and probably rain late tonight or tomorrow. I hope the weather holds until after Juliet’s party.
“I don’t want to go without you.” I want to say, You know I hate spending all day with your parents at the club, you know I only go to make you happy, you know I hate driving. “Will you put that fucking thing out? What if Graydon catches you smoking?”
She looks pale and scared. I don’t often see my wife look afraid. She takes one last drag, grabs an ashtray on the sink I haven’t seen since our honeymoon in Montreal. She looks out the window.
“I keep thinking about the last school, what Dr. Ciolio said. How he’ll be eight years old forever…” Her voice trails off. “He’s the same, he’ll always be the same. And we’re different.”
The first year after Graydon was diagnosed, Cheryl and I took long baths together. She’d huddle in front of the faucet, knees tucked to her chest. I’d soap her back. We’d take turns, repeating what the doctors, psychologists, learning experts said, making ourselves believe it, making ourselves believe it together.
“I guess I can take him to Morris.” I rub my hands.
“I’m sorry, Dan,” she says.
As I drive over the Verrazano Bridge, I steal glances at Graydon, who seems deep in thought, his hand absently rubbing the fur of the stuffed otter on his lap. He has a pimple next to his mouth. It’s red and irritated. I snapped at him this morning, told him not to touch it. He hasn’t said a word to me since. He’s unable to process my rage, rage at the very fact he’s growing up and there’s nothing I can do to make him grow right. My anger isn’t about the zit. It’s about missing Juliet’s party. And Cheryl, who smokes. Me being a bad father. I want to talk to him, but I can’t think of anything to ask him. I can’t think a single thing to say to my son.
Graydon and I suffer through lunch in a clubroom that smells of old people. Sometimes it’s hard to read how Graydon’s feeling, but I’m sure, at this moment, he’s grouchy. Grandma takes Graydon to the pro shop for new socks, and Cheryl’s father asks me if I would accompany him to the bar for his afternoon scotch.
“I don’t know how to tell you this, Dan,” he begins. “Here, have a drink. I’m going to take a little nip of mine.” He looks into the glass and shakes it, raises it to me, and takes a sip. “I think you’ve handled the situation as good as can be expected. You’ve had a tough go, and life, they say, isn’t always fair.”
He’s not a great orator, not prone to speaking in platitudes, and this opening makes me uneasy. I shift in my seat. I wonder whether he and Winn are okay. Whether he’s going to tell me they’re losing the house and moving in with us, whether one of them has cancer. Suddenly, I’m furious with Cheryl for putting me in this situation. Then, it dawns on me. While I was making my little plans, Cheryl planned this.
I decide to take a sip of the scotch. My hand shakes as I pick up the glass. It sticks to my throat, goes down into my belly.
“Cheryl’s moving out, Dan. She fell in love with a man at her firm.”
“What?” I ask, trying to shake off his words. I take a gulp of scotch, ignoring the burn, the water in my eyes.
“We think she’s making a mistake. We did not raise her to leave her family. But I know things have been hard for her for a while.”
“For her?” I whisper. I don’t trust myself to speak in a normal voice.
He looks into his glass. I can feel his discomfort and it feeds me. I want him to be humiliated. I want him to hate her with the same ferocity I now feel.
“I sold my business to take care of our son,” I say, pronouncing each word. “She’s not even there. She’s never even home.”
“I can’t control her, Dan,” my father-in-law says quietly. “You know how stubborn she is.” He shakes his head in bewilderment. He feels sorry for me. He is a frail old man, and yet, more of a man than I am. He has a healthy child, a faithful wife.
And she’s leaving me.
I take another long sip. I raise my eyes to meet my father-in-law’s, hoping that the intensity of my stare will convey just exactly how much loathing I have for him, for all of them, inside me.
“I’m going home,” I say.
“Something else, Dan,” he says. His voice is in a whisper. It’s white and frail. “Cheryl signed the forms for Graydon’s school.”
“Fuck off,” I say, raising my voice. I knock my glass on the floor. It’s heavy and lands with a dull, impotent thud.
“Don’t cause a scene,” he says, putting a hand on my arm.
I push him away, stand, turn, pace.
A black man in a ridiculous polyester suit appears and picks up the glass.
I have the strength of a thousand men and want blood. I want to rip something to shreds. I think of the wife I left, sitting on the toilet, smoking out the window, and I imagine choking her. Shaking her until her neck snaps. I hold my breath and close my eyes. I pace the length of the bar and raise my finger for another scotch.
“I’m not signing anything,” I say. What can I do? Rip her suits? Set fire to our bedroom? Smash our good china? How can I hurt her? How can I destroy that part of her that’s moved on and grown away from us?
“You might delay,” he begins, “but, Dan, how are you going to take care of him on your own? And is that what’s best for Graydon? He needs to interact with other kids, make friends. Think about this carefully.” He continues to stare into the drink.
I pace and drink again. I think of the “X” carved into Juliet’s thigh and I understand the exhilaration, the pain, the relief she must have felt, watching herself bleed.
She’s leaving me. What can I do? What can anyone do?
I turn to look through the sliding glass door to the rolling green lawn outside. I see my mother-in-law chasing Graydon. I’ve never seen her run before, and her face is red and twisted in exertion. I worry about my son. What he’s thinking, how afraid he must feel. For a moment, I watch him trip-run up the clubhouse steps, and I think of how lonely and hard it is to become an adult, how I will not be able to shepherd my son into manhood. I feel my face turn warm and tears begin to fill my eyes. This is the family we are, the family we’ve become. This is it.
I drive back to Brooklyn alone. My son stays with his grandparents for a few days, until I can pack his things and make the arrangements for him to begin “summer school.”
The windshield wipers bat away drops of rain. The clock reads four twenty-two, and I wonder whether Juliet’s party is still going on. I imagine Juliet and her pretty, preppy friends, carrying their white-frosted squares of cake into the kitchen. Can you believe we’re done? We’re going to college? I could swing by to see their apprehensive smiles before I sift through the remains of my life, before I drink myself to oblivion.
It’s raining hard by the time I pull into our driveway. I run inside. Cheryl greets me at the door in her red silk kimono, bottle of merlot in hand. Her face is flushed.
“Please don’t hate me,” she says.
I brush past her, go upstairs to the bedroom. I pay little heed to the stack of suits in dry-cleaner plastic on the bed. I take out my gift for Juliet. I flip the leather cover of the sonnets open, can think of nothing to write other than “congratulations on your graduation.” Finally, I jot down something simple and foolish.
“Dan?” Cheryl asks. She leans against the door to our bedroom.
I shake my head to silence her.
As I walk across the street, I’m aware that I smell damp and musty. Too late to change clothes. Juliet opens the door. A friend of hers runs out into the rain toward a cab I hadn’t noticed, parked two houses up the street.
“Hey, Dan,” she says. She stands wearing a too-tight pink dress. No shoes. Rain splatters her feet. She has some kind of silver toe-ring. I stare at it, momentarily awed by its beauty on her foot.
I climb up the steps, under the awning. The legs of my jeans are soaking wet; water creeps into my sneakers.
“I wanted to say congratulations,” I say. “So, congratulations.” I hand her the book, still in its paper bag.
“Thanks. You sorta missed the party.” She tucks her hair behind her ear.
I notice her pink bra straps, and a white bandage under the armpit in her dress.
“What happened?” I ask, nodding at the bandage.
“Cut myself. Shaving.” She looks away when she says this and shifts her weight. “Jamie didn’t come,” she says. She thrusts out her lip in defiance, looking tough, how she imagines tough looks. But I know better; I see her shoulders shake.
I put my arms around her, and for a minute we stand there, rain beating the pavement, and I think I could hold her forever, think all sorts of crazy thoughts about running the theater department at Amherst by day and holding this girl at night, holding her calm and quiet, holding her forever. I think of my son, and for a moment I pray he’ll have this feeling, just once in his life, of holding on to a shaking, lovely woman who doesn’t yet know her own power or the way she makes you feel.
THE END

Advertisements

Categories: Fiction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.