On the way to the dentist, Mary is telling her son, Michael, a story about King Solomon. Michael says, "Uh, huh," at all the right places, but Mary wonders if he understands the point, the very clear point, when the Craftsman's wife says to King Solomon, "In this basket you see many colored eggs: red, blue, yellow, purple. Yet under the shell, all are the same. This is how it is with women."
Michael doesn't know that this is an audacious thing to say to a man with 700 wives and 300 concubines. But this isn't why Mary is telling the story.
"So, you see. She knew. Sex isn't like . . . a box of chocolates . . . "
"Yeah, yeah, yeah."
"Really, Michael. I know you want to crack those eggs now, but you get the same thing each time."
Mary knows that the myth was told to keep sexual impulses repressed, and she knows that one beautiful person is not just like another, but fourteen-year-old Michael has told her he has bought some condoms, wants to have sex with Deezy, his newest girlfriend, and won't be ordered around.
"It's my life," he says.
"Yes. No. Of course. But you're only fourteen. You can't drive, you can't drink, you can't vote."
"I can drink."
Mary can't talk any more; instead, she focuses on the 580 freeway, whizzes by cars, all her fear riding in front of her as if it were on the hood with the Dodge symbol.
Finally, she sighs, saying, "Sex is really great. And I know why you want to do it. But some things can wait. Some things get better. Sometimes, your head has to catch up to your body before you can really enjoy life."
Michael looks at his mother, says, "Eggs. Hmmm . . . " Then he stops talking, watches clouds, thinks of Deezy, leaves his mother to feel her hands on the wheel taking them places.
At the dentist, Mary sits next to a man in a smart jacket of some kind, maybe white and green plaid, black bow tie, and crisp ironed black pants. His two-year-old hangs on his arm, and Mary watches him fill out the information sheet, gold rings flashing under the dentist's fluorescent lights. Mary has a problem with left and right, so she struggles to determine if he is wearing a wedding ring. She wonders if he notices she doesn't. She smiles at him, he smiles back, they comment on the waiting room, the large aquarium, the problems with flossing, the latest cover of People magazine.
Later, they are both waiting to talk to the dentist's mother, a retired schoolteacher who lords over the books, her cheeks sagging just below her jaw line.
Mary looks over at the man. "I feel like I'm waiting for the principal."
When the man smiles back, so-white teeth against his burnt-butter skin, one fine scar over his left eyebrow, she thinks of eggs, colored eggs, some with surprises under the shell.
That night, Mary has a dream about a woman at work she hates. Or, maybe it is this woman, Kathy, who hates Mary; but in any case, somehow, they sized each other up early on and avoid each other during faculty meetings, yearly Christmas parties, and occasional surprise encounters at the grocery store, passing by politely when necessary, mouthing quick, meaningless "Hi's." They move their heads swiftly to the empty side, letting each other's whole bodies pass without breathing. But in this dream, Kathy is teaching Mary to make love to a woman. At first, Mary decides that she isn't really going to get involved with this lovemaking, willing to let Kathy do everything, but the next thing Mary knows, she is on her knees, bending over Kathy asking, "Is this right? What do I do now?" Kathy tells her what to do, and Mary rubs Kathy's breast, puts her fingers in the warm hair of her crotch, moves her lips down, breathes in all of Kathy's smells.
She wakes up on a full inhale, her body full of buzz, electric, her head full of the dark room, the hum of the clock, the sounds of her cat, curling and curling into a nest on the chair.
On the front of the note is a squiggly, curly Michael, some doodled flowers, an acronym L.Y.M.T.W.C.S--Love ya more than words can say--and a caveat: Do NOT let anyone read this note. Mary reads this message, flips the rectangled note in her hands, passes it between each palm. Portents of Michael's future therapy visits flash through her mind like captions on an Oprah show--Mother betrays son's confidence by reading his notes. Mother invades son's room and digs through backpack to see what is going on in his life. Very bad mother loses all morality while reading the personal, private notes of her son.
She catches a paper edge with her fingernail, peels open the note, and reads:
Thank you for the letter. I'm so glad to know I have a boyfriend who wants to do nice things to me. I want to fuck you too, and I'll be sure you get your blow job. Are you going to finger me today in Montclair? I think it might be weird in public.
You are different than the other boys I have gone with. You care about my feelings. I think you are fine!
I won't see you at lunch because I'm going to talk to Tamara in private.
Mary's heart has floated into her head, both now empty. She wonders if she is still standing and forces herself to breathe, look down, see her Doc Martens planted on the hard wood. She reads the lines, I want to fuck you, too and Are you going to finger me? over and over again. She reads them until she folds the note and places it back in Michael's backpack, careful to zip it up, just so.
Mary wonders what her ex-husband would say about Michael. She imagines a conspiratorial pat on the back, some kind of ritual male-bonding high-five, but even as she thinks this, she knows this is a fantasy of hers, something about the secret world of men she imagines exists, a world with intricate hand shakes, tremendous world secrets in breast pockets, and a handbook detailing how to have sex without suffering, without a conscience. But she wonders if Michael needs some kind of male talk, important information about what penises do and how to use them correctly, a father's discussion of technique rather than a mother's diatribe on condoms.
But Michael's father, David, is in a different state with a different woman and a new family, a man with diapers and mortgages on his mind, a man unable to see that his oldest child is almost as old as he was when he met Mary, a man who sent Michael a Lego kit for his last birthday.
"David," she said to him on the phone after a puzzled Michael had gone to sleep. "He's fourteen, for Christ's sake. He hasn't played with Legos for two years. In fact, I gave them all away to the neighbor kids."
David sighed. "I'm sorry. Can I talk to him?"
"Well . . . "
"What do you want Mary? Really? What do you want me to say this time?"
Mary felt a hundred answers shoot to her mouth like bullets, but she said nothing. She just listened to David's breathing, holding three Legos in her palm like broken glass.
Mary has never met Deezy, only heard her airy, "Is Mike there?" on the phone, or the longer, "This is Deezy. Tell Mike to call me," on the answering machine, the girl's words rammed so close together that Deezy and tell swirl into one two-syllable word, Deeztel. Mary has seen her picture, 8th grade mug shots with aqua backing, a girl with limp blonde hair and berry lips, careful blue lines rimming her eyes. She decides she'd rather Michael go out with a girl in another picture, one with a thick swag of brown hair and clear butter-brickle eyes. She stares into this picture, looks at the eyes, and can only find mascara, just a little, on her lashes.
"Who is this? Who are all these girls?" she asks Michael.
"Get out of my room," he says. "Who?"
"This one. This one with brown hair."
Michael walks in his room, past the Kurt Cobain and angled skater posters pictures on his wall. "That's Tyler. We're just friends. Now, get out of my room."
"Are there any more pictures?" Mary asks.
"No," Michael says, closing the door.
In seventh grade, Mary, her friend Bonnie, and two boys, Matt and Craig, meet at the Orinda theatre on a double date. It is disaster week, and there is a double-feature with a rerelease of the Poseidon Adventure and a new movie, Towering Inferno. Just after the cruise liner capsized, Matt sticks his tongue in Mary's mouth. Mary tries to relax, but all she can think is that she is holding a long, insistent slug on her tongue, its slimy juice running up and over her lips and down her chin.
During intermission, Bonnie and she excuse themselves and run into the bathroom, throwing themselves on the art deco sofas.
"Oh my god. It's so gross!" they laugh, muffling mock barfs behind cupped palms.
"I feel like my face has been licked clean by a cat," says Bonnie, rubbing her lips.
"Yeah. But more like, like a slug," says Mary, pulling open the bathroom door and walking with Bonnie back to their seats, the boys, and two more hours of kissing.
From then on, even when they start to like the kissing, and even later, much later, after they are married, they will raise eyebrows, and whisper slug, just to make each other laugh.
"Michael, you've got to wash your face. If you wash your face, you won't break out as much."
"Leave me alone."
"Think about Deezy. Wouldn't you like her to see your clean face?"
Michael looks at Mary. "What do you wash your face with?" he asks.
"Come here. I got all this stuff when I had my facial."
Michael gets off the couch and walks into the bathroom. "How do you do it?"
"Let me do it this first time, then you can do it yourself. Okay?"
Michael sits down on the toilet seat and lets Mary wrap a hot towel over his face. "You've got to do this every day. Believe me, it'll look a lot better soon." She hears his muffled uh-huh, then takes off the towel. As she smoothes on the cleansing lotion, she again sees his mustache and beard, not a really full beard, but thick wiry man hairs, all the same.
After she is done putting on toning lotion and moisturizer, Michael stands up and looks in the mirror, looks at himself for a long time, looking at himself as he wants Deezy to see him.
"Wow . . . will you do this every night, Mom?" he asks. "I can't do it as good. Please?"
Mary nods, looks into her own face, wonders who would want to look at her, whom she wants to look.
The next day, when she gets home from work, there is a message on the machine from the man she met at the dentist the week before. She listens to it twice before she really understands: Hi, my name is Damon Latrell. We met at Dr. Cass-Walker's last Wednesday. We were sitting together waiting to talk to Mrs. Cass? I got the receptionist to give me your number. Anyway, this probably sounds weird or is inappropriate or something, but I would like to get together with you. Maybe lunch? If this is too weird, I understand. Call me . . .
Mary remembers him immediately, envisions his skin, the scar, his fingers, trying to fit marriage on one of them, but she thinks, it wasn't a wedding ring, it was pinkie, no, a left hand, maybe an index finger. She writes his name and number down on a pad.
Mary finally meets Deezy the night of the eighth grade Winter Ball. She and Michael went to Tux-For-All early in the week and rented a black tuxedo for the night. As she stood side-by-side with him in the dressing room mirror adjusting his jacket, she realized that he had long ago passed her in height.
"It looks good, Mike."
Michael stared at himself, turning side to side. "I need one of those things. Those belts."
"A cummerbund. . . What color is Deezy's dress?"
"Red. Real red. She bought it last weekend."
"Okay. That'll look real good. Red and black. I'll go tell the man, okay?"
Michael smiled, and Mary caught something thick in her throat that had fallen from her eyes and come up from her heart. She wanted to shore up the minutes and hours of her life with Michael, all the time before this last five minutes in the dressing room and hold them in her body, savor them like a favorite flavor, lemon, toffee, peppermint. She wanted to pull Michael to her body and bring him back, for one second, to a body that wanted hers, an infant, dependent on her for everything, for her milk, something she made for him that he took.
But she turned, let him smile at himself in the mirror, went to get the salesclerk who would match Michael's outfit perfectly with his girlfriend's, with Deezy's real red dress.
The night of the ball, Deezy's parents come to pick up Michael, and the three of them walk to the front door, two coated parents behind a thin girl, her arms bare, two spaghetti straps holding her body to her dress. Mary thinks she looks different than her picture, less like the other girls in Michael's collection, more like someone to wear a tuxedo for.
Mary shakes the parents' hands, then Deezy's, and says, "I can't believe they are old enough to go to a ball. But they both look wonderful."
Deezy's mother Ann nods her head. "I know what you mean. Well, we better get them there. Deezy, I told you to wear a coat!"
But Deezy isn't listening to her mother; she is staring at Michael, a man in his tuxedo, red cummerbund, black, patent leather shoes.
"Wait," Deezy says, and turns to her father who has been holding a plastic container. She takes it from him and pulls out a red carnation boutonniere, pinning it carefully on Michael's lapel. Michael looks down at Deezy's thin fingers, his face red and clear.
"Okay, let's go," says Deezy's father.
"Have fun!" says Mary, watching them get in the car, and drive away until the tail lights are as far away as two red stars.
While she waits for Michael and Deezy to call her to pick them up, Mary decides to grade a stack of papers, lining up pens, pencils, and a stapler on the coffee table, but, instead, she ends up watching a string of sitcoms and reading a New Yorker. She looks at a part of a show, then reads a paragraph, her head bobbing up at news flashes, down during commercials. Every twenty minutes or so, she walks to the refrigerator, looks in, then closes the door. She opens the cupboards, finds nothing but a box of stale reduced-fat Wheat Thins, leftover French bread, and half a bottle of rice vinegar, and walks back to the living room. Finally, she spots the pad on which she wrote Damon's name and number and picks it up. She tries to reconstruct how she felt about his call by examining her handwriting. Her a's are wide and loopy, so she thinks that the idea of calling him excited her even then. She wonders why she is scared to call him, when she has given herself in small and big ways to men who never bothered to call her before or after a date.
Mary sits on the couch, picks up the phone, and dials. She listens to the ringing, imagines what his voice will sound like when he says hello.
During her junior year in high school, Mary goes out with a boy named Jim. After three months of careful dates, dinners, movies, dances, and hikes, she finds herself Friday night after Friday night in Jim's stationwagon, his penis hovering over her, she thinks, like some kind of wild marsupial, ready to reenter the womb. Her jeans are down at her ankles, her socks and shoes still on. Jim's penis pokes through his boxers and then waits. He asks, night after night, "Can I put it in."
Mary listens to his breathing, feels his body hot and brown, holds her hand around his penis, the first she's ever touched, this new smooth animal she pets and squeezes to keep alive. Later, she will wonder how it feels to have an erection for two hours, but then, every Friday night, she answers, "No."
After Jim has broken up with her and much later, after she has finally given away her virginity to a boy she meets at a party and decides--the eve of her high school graduation--to fuck, she wishes she could go back to the slow hot nights in the stationwagon, with a boy who dated her and loved her for a time, who was different than so many of the boys she would meet later, and say, now, this time, "Yes."
First published in The West Wind Review, 18th Anthology, 1999.