Kristy hears Marvin Gaye singing from somewhere down the hall, “Let’s get it on . . . ,” and wonders, does he have to sing so loudly, and why is she freezing? She’s not ready to wake up, but the music is like an alarm going off – one she didn’t set, but can’t ignore. Her eyes won’t open – are they frozen shut? She rubs icy hands over her bare arms, but there’s no warmth in it, and why is she wearing shorts in winter? The leather under her calves feels covered in frost. She flexes, strikes her legs against each other like sticks trying to make heat. “Let’s love, baby . . . ,” Marvin sings – one of Josh’s favorites. He’s home already? She had planned to help him pick up his tux after he got home from school. Was he getting ready for his prom without her?
Shit – her eyes tear open. The living room is sunlit, too bright – how could she have fallen asleep? She rolls off the couch, stands, stumbles across the living room in her gardening clogs – dry compost falling in flakes across the hardwood floor. It’s dark in the unlit, windowless hallway and she bangs her knee into the corner of the hardwood bench. Groaning, she bends, touching the wound, feeling for blood. No broken skin. She crouches beside the peonies, bunched extravagantly on the bench where she left them. She was in the garden. It was hot – too hot – and they were leaning under the weight of their pink-veined heads. She cut them before they toppled, and when she came inside to get cleaned up her arms were full of them. She had filled the blue-glazed pitcher on the glass end table with tap water – imagined them blooming in the morning sunlight, a glorious still life, framed by lilac pillows on the snow-white couch. But now, in the shadowy light, her vision shifts. She lifts the bunch into her arms, turns back to retrieve the pitcher from the table, hurries down the hall toward the music.
Josh’s door isn’t entirely closed, but he’ll expect her to knock, even though he can’t hear anything but Marvin and his own voice, singing. He’s dressing in front of the beveled mirror, tucking his pink dress shirt into the back of his black trousers. She kicks the door frame with her clog until he can hear her.
“Yeah?” he shouts, because he has to, over the music.
And she has to shout back, “Josh? Can I come in?”
“Enter at your own risk!” This is what he always says now, as a joke. And she does, arms full, holding the pitcher in her hand. She pushes a damp bath towel off the bureau onto the floor with her elbow to set the pitcher down, letting the peonies spill onto the top of the dresser. She turns off his stereo without asking.
“You’re getting ready?”
He glances over his shoulder at her, doesn’t meet her eyes. “Gettin’ there,” he says, mildly. He’s trying not to mind about the music.
“Why didn’t you wake me?” Her fingers, still icy, snap an inch of stem off a peony before she sets it in the pitcher.
“I wanted to help you pick up your tux.”
“Dad got it.”
“Oh.” The jacket, black and sleek, hangs handsomely from his bed post. “Wow! Pretty sharp for a rental.”
“It’s new? That’s crazy! When are you ever going – ”
“What about my deposit? On the rental?” She’s got the collar in her fist.
“Ah, I dunno. Guess he put it toward the purchase.”
“What a waste!” she hisses, wishing she hadn’t. His bed is unmade, and she hates that, but ignores it. She places the jacket carefully down on the wrinkled sheets, posing the sleeves wide open across the bed, as if they’re waiting for an embrace. She wants to make him laugh. “Should I press it?” she asks, hoping he’ll look.
“Doesn’t need it.” He’s looking in the mirror at his shirt, trying it partially untucked. She hopes he doesn’t leave it that way.
“Oh. Are you hungry?”
“Nope.” He has re-tucked the shirt. He picks up a jar of gel from his nightstand, stares at her for a moment. “What’s up with you?”
“You look sick.”
“No, just waking up,” she says, rubbing her hands together, sitting beside the jacket. “I was outside all day, mulching my beds – that sun’s scorching my perennials! I came in to clean up and fell asleep on the couch. I was dreaming – ” she says, shivering, “that it was winter – why’s it so cold in here?”
Josh is streaking gel through his hair, sculpting the bleached strands on top to stand up straight with his fingers. “I turned up the air.”
“Oh.” After he leaves she’ll turn it off. Kristy closes her eyes, pressing cold fingers into her lids. “The wind was blowing, bitter cold, and there was snow on the ground . . . ”
Her eyes open. “In my dream! But when I went into the back yard I saw that all my flowers – you know, where the lilac bush is? – were in bloom! All these stems of . . . white peonies burst wide open . . . huge, radiant, blossoms . . . I dipped my nose into one, but it wasn’t soft – at all – it was icy . . . There were like these ice flowers, everywhere, blooming through the gate . . . and all along the path, and I was showing them to . . . to your father . . . and worrying . . . ‘They’re blooming too early,’ I said – ‘or is it too late?’ And, you know what he said?”
“No, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.”
“It was beautiful, actually. He said, ‘What does it matter? They’re blooming now.’”
“Um, right. You know what you need, Mom?” he asks, poking the skin on her arm with a gel-sticky finger.
“No, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.”
“One of those dream journals. You should get one,” he says, his brown eyes scanning the room. “Seen my car keys?”
Smiling now, she stands up, reaching into the back pocket of her shorts. “Why don’t you take my Saab?”
“Um, Dad said I could borrow his convertible,” he says, turning back to the mirror.
Her fingers curl into a fist around the keys in her pocket. “Oh. So, he’s dropping it?”
“No. I’m picking Julie up, then switching cars at his place.”
Why should she feel angry? She won’t have to stand watching, or worse, waving from the doorway as her ex and his wife drop his car in the driveway – or worse than that, hide out in her own house trying to avoid them. “You’ll have time, won’t you? To swing back by?” she asks, more lightly than she feels, uncurling her fist, releasing the keys. She pulls her hand from her pocket to pick his pink bow tie up from the carpet where it has fallen.
“Sorry. Can’t do it. Dad’ll take one.”
“He won’t send it.”
“I’ll remind him.”
Josh kneels, loosening his shoelaces. They’re both silent for a moment before she says, evenly, “I wanted to see Julie in her dress.”
“They take pictures there. I’ll buy you one.”
“Indoors? When my garden’s in bloom?”
Josh stands in front of her. He’s taller than her now, by inches, his lips at the same level as the top of her head. “Tie, please?” She stops twisting it in her hands, hands it over, watches his reflection as he puts it on in front of the mirror.
“I could come by Dad’s, I guess,” she says lightly, floating a trial balloon.
He turns, abruptly. “Mom. Don’t.”
“He won’t mind,” she lies, smoothing his sheets.
“I will,” he says, tightening the tie.
“Oh. I get it. She’ll be there.” She draws the comforter over the pillows.
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.” She looks at Josh’s back, wishing she could lay her hands on his shoulders. Instead, she reaches into the front pocket of her shorts where this morning, after driving to the bank, she slipped the crisp one hundred dollar bill the teller handed her. “Anyway, here. You might need some extra spending money – ” She reaches out to slip the bill through the slit of his back pocket – he pushes her hand away.
“No, I’m set. Dad – ”
Josh points to the jacket on the bed. “Look what he left. In the pocket,” he says, still looking in the mirror. Behind him, she lifts the lapel, and fishing her hand into the breast pocket of the tux pulls out a package of condoms.
“He thought of everything.” She holds the package up behind Josh’s back so he’ll see them in the mirror.
“No kidding,” he says, then, “– what the hell’s that? Not that pocket,” he barks, rifling through jacket pockets until he finds the wad of bills. “This one. Jeez – what was he thinking?”
“About himself,” she says, taking aim, pitching the condoms into the trash-filled waste basket under his desk. “His prom.”
“Yeah? Not mine!” His face is flushed as he picks his wallet off his desk, opens it, and stuffs the bills inside. She realizes he wants her to leave now. She’s exhausted his patience – his generosity – and she feels, suddenly, like a street urchin, homeless, unfed. She’ll finish arranging the flowers and go, she decides, snapping a stem.
“Will you be . . .”
“Late?” she asks, trying not to care.
“I won’t be home.”
“I’m staying at Dad’s. Then we’re all going to Kevin’s house on the Cape.”
He expects her to challenge this, only lightly. “His parents’ll be there, right?”
“Not –” he says, bending to pick up the cummerbund from the floor next to his bedpost.
“You can’t stay over unless there’s some kind of supervision,” she snaps. He stands up quickly. To meet his eyes – and she must – she has to look up at him.
“You’ve gotta be kidding,” he says, glaring down at her.
“Mom. C’mon. Get real. Dad told me about your prom.”
Is he smirking? She wants to slap him hard on the cheek, but she’s never followed an impulse like that, not with Josh, and she won’t. Why am I so angry, she’d like to know, but manages to ask her son a simpler question.
“About the party on the Cape? Meeting you there?”
She sits down hard on the wooden desk chair, clears her throat. “What did he tell you?”
He’s wrapping the cummerbund around his waist. “That it was an accident.”
“What?” she sounds alarmed – not desperate, she hopes.
“That you two hooked up. At the after party.”
“An accident?” she laughs. Now, she sounds bitter – she does. She wishes she could help it, but she can’t. “He used to call it destiny.”
“Didn’t sound supervised to me. Said your date – ”
“Oh, God, Whit Pyle – don’t remind me,” she moans, hiding her face with her hands. Recovering, she uncovers her face, tries to smile. “Cute. Crazy bad choice.”
“I can’t picture you with a guy who’d get popped for a DUI on prom night.”
“He had to give you all the gory details?” Of course he did.
“He tried, but I wasn’t all that interested,” he says, poking her, this time in the other arm. She’s not relieved, but manages to smile half-heartedly.
“Did he tell you his date was grounded because he blew her curfew?”
“Yeah, and how you both ended up at the after party, dateless, and unsupervised.”
“My prom didn’t turn out like I expected.”
“Is that what he said?” she asks, standing up, and she sounds a little desperate now. Her hand clutches his shoulder – trying to get him to turn around and look at her.
“Just because something unexpected happens, that doesn’t mean it has to ruin your –”
Josh backs away – away from the mirror, away from her – and stands at the door. “Mom, I’m trying to get ready. Can you – ?”
“Why can’t you just leave for the Cape from here?” she asks, like a child begging.
“I told you, I’ve gotta give Dad his car back.” Josh tosses the top off the old shoe box she found in the back of her bedroom closet a week ago, full of shoe polish in mostly used and a few unopened bottles, a blackened brush. His father left the kit behind, through oversight or indifference. She put it in Josh’s room, hoping it wouldn’t go to waste. He hands her the curl of plastic wrapping from the black polish.
“Toss this for me?” He dabs polish on the heel of a shoe.
“What’s this?” she asks, pulling a plastic to-go container out of the waste basket. “Salad?”
“You hardly touched it!”
“Mom, If you’re gonna pick through my trash like a bag lady, can you at least wait until –”
“Is there chicken in this?”
“Not anymore. It was a Teriyaki Chicken on mesclun greens salad. Go to it.”
“Is it too much to ask?” she’s shaking the container at him.
“I mean, the bin’s right on the kitchen counter. You lift the lid. You drop it in. Every single thing left in this salad is compost-able!”
He stops brushing. “Mom. Here’s the deal. I’m done with it. That’s why I threw it away.”
“You know, you sound just like him. You look just like him –”
“Yeah? Well, try not to hold it against me, will ya?” he says, playfully, surprising her.
“I’m sorry! I mean, you look . . . God! Stunning, sweetie. Really handsome!”
“Hot, Mom,” he says, punching her lightly on the arm. “I look hot! Julie will not be able to keep her hands off me! – C’mon, I’m just teasing you! Gotta go.”
“Okay, but, so, you’ll be home tomorrow night, right?”
“No! We’re staying on the Cape – ”
“I told you, not without any adults –”
“Not legally – ”
“– Practically! Besides, Dad said I could.”
“He shouldn’t have,” she says, kicking over the waste basket. The plastic salad container bounces across the rug spilling a trail of oily lettuce. “Shit!” she kneels near the mess.
“I’ll be home Sunday by noon,” Josh says from the doorway.
“He had no right to say yes without asking me! It’s not his weekend –”
“– It’s my weekend!” he yells. She drops the container, stands up. “Josh, I didn’t mean –”
“I’ve gotta go,” he says, urgently, like he really means it this time.
Her phone is in her hand. “I’m calling him!”
“Don’t, for Christ’s sake!” Josh reaches, but she pulls away.
“This is between him and me!”
She doesn’t dial, but grabs the damp towel from the floor by his dresser, goes into his bathroom, slams the door.
“You’re bitching about nothing! You did it yourselves!” he yells.
The bathroom is hot, humid. He forgot – or didn’t bother – to turn on the fan. Leaning against the door, she lets the moisture warm her skin, dampen her clothes. She pockets the phone, hoping she can keep herself from making a call she knows would be a mistake. She slides the shower curtain open to hang the towel over the rod. The tub is moist – completely drained. Her bucket is turned upside down on the floor beside the sink. She picks up the bucket, throws open the bathroom door. “You showered!” she screams.
“The tub’s empty! I just asked you to save – ”
“– For God’s sake – is nothing sacred?”
“My flowers need water, and – ”
“– It’s my shower! My water!”
“I know, but – ”
“I can let the water go down the goddamned drain if I want to!”
She’s holding her breath. He looks like he’d like to slap her, but he won’t. She wipes her hands, sweaty now, on her hips, trying to figure out which words to say to get him not to leave her like this. But, it’s simple – as simple as this, and he won’t understand but she says it anyway. “I just didn’t want it to go to waste.”
Without thinking, he rakes a hand through his gelled hair. “Shit!” he says, and looks for something to wipe it on, and when he uses the comforter, she’s silent. She hands him the jar of gel, he grabs it, goes to the mirror.
“Now I’m gonna be late!”
No you’re not,” she says, quietly. “You’re right on time.”
He reapplies the gel, sets the hairs straight, goes to the door.
“You have your tickets?”
He touches his breast pocket. “I’ve got ‘em.”
“But, what about flowers, for Julie?”
“It’s okay –”
“I could pick some spray roses from my garden –”
“I’m passing a Stop & Shop. They’ll have something there.”
He says it like a slap and her eyes sting, but she blinks and swallows. She picks the condoms out of the salad mess on the floor, the package slightly oily from the salad dressing. “Here – you forgot these.”
“It’s okay. I don’t need them. Julie and I are just friends.”
“You don’t? Or you just think you don’t, ‘cause you’re seventeen, and you think it’ll never happen to you?”
“Mom, listen – ”
“Never mind, don’t answer that!”
He looks at her. “Whatever, Mom . . . I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Okay . . . have a great time – I mean it.” She’s still holding the condoms, watching him step through the door. “Josh?” In the silence she doesn’t know if he heard her, but then he’s there, leaning in through the doorway, wondering what she wants.
“Mom, I gotta go –” She tosses the condoms. Reflexively, he catches them.
“I’ll see you Sunday,” she says, and he walks quickly down the hall.