Prey Versus Predator
It was just supposed to be a dinner. Milton made plans for them to go out with another professor from his department and his wife weeks ago, and there was no decent way out of it. They had done this plenty of times before, and it was never easy for her. But now, ever since Scott, their brilliant and troubled son, left home with no forwarding address two years ago, the same social expectations felt almost impossible for Fee to fulfill. Sons weren’t supposed to stop speaking to their parents, unless maybe their parents were so terrible that there was no choice but for the child to leave and never come back. But that couldn’t be true of Fee, right? She gave up on her childhood dream of becoming a famous artist so that she could be the best mother in the world, wanting nothing more than to be opposite from her own mother. She didn’t even go back to her full-time job as a teacher in The Art Center because it interfered with Scott’s nursing schedule. And all of that was worth it because Scott and Fee had always been so close, at least that’s what she told herself. She was a good mom, right?
Where had that little boy gone, the one who used to rest on her stomach while they stretched out on the living room couch every morning before pre-school, listening to his Raffi album while he clutched his well-loved pink and blue blanket with the satin edges with one hand and fingered her hair with the other? Or the wonderfully curious child who asked Ruby Bridges at a book signing she had brought him to as a toddler how she survived having to eat lunch alone every day when all the white parents pulled their kids out of school? What happened to the child who took an hour to walk down the block with her because he wanted to show her every bug he found? She blinked away those images; they hurt too much.
“Will I get a prize if I look like I’m having fun?” she asked Milton, as she tried to motivate herself to change into something other than her pajamas. She was aware that she sounded like she was six years old. Fee had turned to earning prizes in desperation when she could no longer find enough of an incentive to force herself out of bed. In the past, her lackluster performance with his friends had gotten her in trouble. He would never forgive her for the time she sat through an entire party of clinical psychologists without saying a word. Fee was proud that she resisted pulling her book out of her purse and reading to get her through the stultifying evening. Milton was embarrassed that people came up to him to ask if there was anything wrong with her. She tried to explain to him that she had run out of words to say to all these people with whom she didn’t feel like she shared anything, but Milton simply looked at her with a blank face, as if she was an alien from a different universe.
“Yes,” said Milton wearily, a reluctant participant in this reward system that she had devised for herself to get through these painful social engagements. Milton knew the drill. If she behaved well, she could pick out a present for herself that he would pay for. After all, these were all his friends that they kept going out with. He was the one who kept insisting that she put on her party face. She couldn’t so easily take off the sadness she wore like a second layer of skin, nor could she understand why fake party demeanor was so much better than how she really felt. Who did Milton really love, anyway? The harder it was for her to pretend, the better the prizes had to be. Tonight might require earning both the suede boots and a new enlarger for her darkroom.
“Okay, then,” she announced in the falsely bright voice she used when she was the most depressed, the one she usually couldn’t muster the energy for anymore. “I’m going to rock this evening.”
In the car, they went over the strategies that had worked best in the past for fielding off questions about Scott.
“I’ll start,” said Milton, rehearsing the party line. “Scott is in Europe with his girlfriend trying to find a name for himself in the music business.”
Fee shook her head mournfully. “That won’t be enough for Irwin. He always has to know everything. What will we tell him if he asks how often we see him or even talk to him?”
“Don’t worry. I’ve got that covered,” said Milton. He took a deep breath. “Thank God for modern technology. He FaceTimes us every week.”
“Why doesn’t he?” said Fee, slipping out of the script they were practicing. “Why the hell couldn’t he even give us that much?”
Milton shook his head. “Don’t go there, Fee. It’s too dangerous.”
Fee stared out the window. He was right. Every time they talked about this, at least one of them would break down and cry. Usually, she was the one who would lose it. She watched the houses loom in and out of the shadows as the car brought them closer and closer to the beginning of the dreaded evening. Stacey and Irwin were the most boring couple in the world, but Milton enjoyed their company, so she kept agreeing to see them. What choice did she have? She suspected that Milton was beginning to find her company boring. Or had he always? Milton was smiling as he listened to the female voice on their GPS give them directions. She wished he could take that sexy voice into Stacey and Irwin’s house while she curled up in the backseat and slept. She had watched Her
. It happened.
Of course, Stacey had insisted that they come to their house for dinner. There wasn’t much of an option. Milton was always going on and on about how messy their house was, insisting that he would be too embarrassed to have any guests over. She closed her eyes and pictured the stacks of books, papers, and photographs that littered their living room. She knew what he meant, but she still hated when he talked about how much nicer everyone else’s house was than theirs. Fee didn’t have it in her to care about how the house looked.
As they pulled up in front of Stacey and Irwin’s house, Fee slowly breathed in and out the way her yoga teacher had taught her. She was going to get through this. The prizes were going to have to make all of it worthwhile.
Stacey greeted them both at the door with hugs, while Irwin took their coats and offered them a drink. Fee watched their coats go into the hall closet, already dreading how long it would take for Irwin to bring them back out again.
As soon as Fee stepped into their house, she understood why the dinner had to be here. This is what Stacey and Irwin did. They made beautiful dinner parties. The dining room table was already elegantly set with bone china plates, cups and saucers. She kicked Milton when he started to gush about the size of their beautiful kitchen, compared to their pitifully small one. Fee pulled him over to the bookshelves.
“Don’t play the pathetic card,” she said. “It’s not attractive.” He never let her forget that their small, cramped house was a source of humiliation. Every house they visited, every non-depressed wife that they went out with ended up being something Milton could hold up to her like a mirror, showing her where she had failed.
As if Stacey realized that they might be having a personal conversation, she walked right over to them, her face tilted towards them like she didn’t want to miss anything.
“Your books are beautifully organized,” Milton said with that wistful tone Fee hated.
“Oh, these aren’t the books we’re really reading,” admitted Stacey. “These are the ones that look good enough to be in the living room, the ones with the nice bindings.”
Once they were all seated in their living room on beige brocaded couches that reminded Fee of doilies, she plunged right in.
“Stacey, how are you? Tell me what’s going on with you?” Fee said. She already resented that she and Stacey had ended up on one couch, while Milton and Irwin sat on the adjacent one, which felt like it was an ocean and a continent away from her. Milton was stuck with Irwin, except that he didn’t look as if he felt stuck at all. Milton liked everyone. Fee had no idea how he had ended up with her. She had never hidden the fact that she basically despised all social interactions, other than the occasional evening with a good friend.
“I just feel so tired all the time. I’m always worried. I don’t even want to work anymore,” said Stacey.
Fee was startled by her admission. Had she underestimated Stacey? Was it possible that she was smart enough to be depressed? Stacey was one of those conventional suburban women who wore prim dresses and suits in dark colors with hose and pumps, even in the summer. When Fee proposed meeting at an art museum in the city, Stacey stared at the other women open-mouthed, telling Fee that she could never get over how outlandishly these women all dressed.
Fee shook her head, trying to banish these thoughts. She had to forget all that; this was Fee’s night to be charming, not critical. She turned on an attentive face over the appetizers Stacey had just placed on the coffee table. Everyone reached for the edamame at once. Soon, their fingers were slick with salt. Fee had to restrain herself from wiping her hands on the couch like an oppositional child, soiling their perfect little world.
“I worry that I’m not doing my taxes right; that I’m breaking the law without knowing that I’m breaking the law. I worry I’m not earning enough money, and that everything is so expensive,” said Stacey.
How was it that she was still even talking? Fee tried not to show her disappointment. Was that really all that Stacey ever worried about? She tried to stop herself from being so judgmental. After all, she had not one, but two prizes to earn tonight. When Irwin offered to refill her drink, Fee agreed. It was not like her. Milton gave her a surprised look. Her energy was flagging; she hoped that the drink would fire her up again, make her fake it well enough to put a more positive spin in the evening.
Fee was back on her game by the time they sat down at the dining room table. Dinner was a lavish affair - steaming serving plates of lasagna, an enormous bowl of fresh salad, piping hot garlic bread, and flash-fried mushrooms and eggplant coated in breadcrumbs. She was grateful for the few moments of silence while everyone filled their plates. Fee even handled herself well when she became the butt of Irwin’s jokes.
“Hey, Fee, what keeps you busy these days?” said Irwin. “You’re not off getting another degree are you?” Fee was the only one of them who kept going back to school, fueling her passion for learning. Being a psychologist was never enough for her. There were always other interests she needed to pursue. He tapped his finger against his cheek, an old habit that she wished he had broken years ago, waiting for her response. It must drive his patients mad.
“You’re the only one of the four of us who is always doing something different,” said Stacey.
“Well, I’m actually applying to go back to school. I want to get a degree in photography at The New School,” said Fee.
Milton’s mouth fell open in surprise, but he knew better than to say anything. Had she forgotten to tell him? Was there anything at all that she was talking about to him anymore?
“No way,” said Stacey.
“What for?” asked Irwin. “Why do you need a degree to take pictures? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to take pictures now that the new iPhone is out.” He tilted his head, looking skeptical.
“An MFA might really help get her known,” said Milton, “Her work is great. After she gets an agent, her pictures can finally be shown in galleries.”
Fee shot him a withering glance. She didn’t even know if he had ever really looked at her pictures. Sure, she had sometimes convinced him to come up to her photography room to see her latest work. He would flip through a few pictures, tell her how talented she was, and then back out of the room, all with an indifference that suggested he couldn’t care less about her work. She knew it wasn’t academic enough to hold his interest.
“You know, I really just want to get better at my craft, to be the best I can be. Taking pictures is one of my passions, and I figured this was my last chance to move it onto the front burner, see how much better I can get,” said Fee.
Stacey looked doubtful. “You’re willing to put in all that extra work at your age, even it might not go anywhere?” she asked. Even that snide question did not anger Fee as much as it might have if she had been sober.
“Oh, you know me,” she said, poking fun at herself. “I can’t seem to stop myself from taking pictures. Might as well get better at it. I’m most comfortable seeing the world through a camera lens anyway.” She bit her lip. That was too personal, too true. She was relieved when everyone moved on to another topic.The two drinks were starting to have a sedative effect; Fee wanted nothing more than to go home, slip in between the sheets, tuck her quilt around her and sleep. But clearly they weren’t done with the evening. Stacey prattled on about the pastries she had bought for dessert, while Fee and Milton pitched in by clearing the table.
Fee turned away, so that she wouldn’t say something unpleasant to Stacey. She wanted to tell Stacey that indulging in a decadent dessert wouldn’t even momentarily take away the pain of losing a child. She watched Irwin and Stacey move fluidly through their appliance-rich kitchen making two kinds of freshly ground coffee, caffeinated and decaffeinated, steamed milk that had just been frothed and organic tea. It was like a dance between them. All Fee had to do was stay out of the way of their pas de deux
. Stacey urged Fee and Milton to pick out their favorite pastries first. Fee cut a rich chocolate éclair for both of them to split, knowing that Milton would choose the next one for them to share. That’s the way they always ate desserts. She wondered how they could be so in sync about some things, when there were times she felt he didn’t even know who she was. Or maybe that wasn’t it, and what she really felt was that he didn’t even like who she really was.
There was a moment when Irwin cleared his throat, and Fee sensed what was coming. She wanted to grab Milton’s hand and run out of the house, into the car, not stopping until they were home alone, safe, where no one could possibly ask them the inevitable question that they had been dreading. Instead, she tried to keep her spoon in her mouth, swirling the almost cloying sweetness of the chocolate around for as long as she could before she had to let go of it and swallow. Why did she have so much trouble holding onto anything good?
“How are the kids? Fill us in on what they’re doing.” said Irwin. This is what had been waiting to happen all night. They had known each other’s kids since they were babies.
Milton started out well, outlining all the responsible things that Mikey was doing, the play he had just been in, the colleges he had applied to, how well his football team was doing.
Fee wanted to do them both a favor and avoid what was coming next. “What about your kids?” she asked. “We’re so eager to hear what they’re up to.”
“But we haven’t heard about Scott yet. How’s Scott?” Irwin asked with gnat-like persistence.
Milton began bravely, the way that they had practiced in the car. “He’s actually in Europe with his girlfriend. He tutors kids in English and she baby-sits while they practice their music together. They’d like to eventually make a go of their music,” he said.
Fee held her breath. Would they let it go now, or would Irwin or Stacey sense their rising tension and try to milk it?
“What country are they in? Have you visited them yet?” Irwin said. Fee swore he was going after the kill, as if they were the newly dead, still bloody carrions waiting to be consumed.
“We’re in contact at least weekly by e-mail and FaceTime,” Milton said, still trying to keep up the front. “Thank God for technology, right? But Scott doesn’t tell us much; he’s trying to be independent.”
“Actually, we haven’t spoken to him or seen him or even heard from him in over a year,” said Fee.
Oh my God. Was that her shouting? She hated how much she wanted them to understand what she and Milton were going through. She was sick of the lies. She couldn’t even look at Milton, knowing full well how angry he would be that she had shared their terrible truth.
“What do you have to complain about? He lives independently. He’s not asking you for any money. Sounds pretty good to me,” said Stacey with a smug certainty that made Fee want to claw her face. If that wasn’t bad enough to say, Stacey added, almost as an afterthought. “We can’t get our kids to leave home.”
Fee picked at her finger so viciously under the scalloped edges of the white lace tablecloth that her finger began to bleed. She watched the blood stain the very edge of the tablecloth with a perverse satisfaction. There. She left her mark. She enjoyed imagining Stacey trying unsuccessfully to get the stain out.
“We really miss him. This has been an endless period of grieving for us,” said Fee. Even her honest sentiments were beginning to sound trite. How long could she keep trying to explain their loss? And why the hell was she even bothering?
“Is he mad at you?” Irwin said, as if he was on a game show hoping to win the big bucks by figuring out the hidden truth. Where was Vanna White offering him another vowel?
Fee interrupted Milton before he managed to say the next benign thing she knew he was about to say. She didn’t want him to hide their pain any longer. Not when they cried every day and night over the disappearance of their son.
“Sure, yes, he’s mad at us,” said Fee before even the distraction of her bloody finger could prevent her from saying anything else.
Irwin snapped to full attention, now that he had her wriggling like a fish on his hook.
“Mad at you for what?” he said, eyes glittering at being so near what he had been after all along, the predator asking question after question until he succeeded in hitting the nerve of his prey. She’d hate to be one of his patients.
“Well, Scott is quite good at externalizing his problems,” said Fee. She had to do the talking. It was her fault that she had allowed them in this far. “He probably blames us for everything that hasn’t gone well in his life.”
Irwin nodded as if he understood, but she knew he didn’t. No one did. He was just readying himself for another attack. “Where exactly did you say he was living? South of France? What part of southern France?” Irwin asked.
“I said we don’t know where he is,” Fee said with gritted teeth. And that was it. No one would ever get the pain they lived with day after day, year after year. She ripped off part of her napkin to try to bind the blood on her finger. She’d be quiet now; she’d be good. There was nothing more she’d say. But whom was she kidding? It was too late for her to earn her present now anyway.
She watched Milton try to smooth over what she had blurted out, making things sound better than they were. It was all smoke and mirrors now. This is how she sometimes felt in the darkroom, staring at the blank paper as the picture slowly began to emerge. She loved the darkroom, even though it made her the dinosaur of the photography world because she still insisted on developing her own pictures like she had been taught in high school. The darkroom made more sense to her than Photoshop, no matter how crazy it seemed to the rest of the world. She needed the intimacy of her hands-on interaction with the process of developing her pictures, which kept her more deeply connected to her work.
Last week, she had been developing one of her favorite pictures of Scott and Mike sitting on their identical tiny rocking chairs with their names painted onto the back of them in bright primary colors. As she swirled the paper around with tongs in the developing fluid, she saw the rocking chairs develop first, and then Mike, but where was Scott? She hung the photograph up to dry and studied it. Mike was in clear focus, but there was only a faint shadow of Scott sitting next to him. Something had happened to the negative. Had he started to disappear from their lives even then?
No one would ever understand what happened and it made Fee hate them. Interrupting Milton in mid-sentence while he was trying to explain that she had been under a lot of stress lately, he always apologized for her, Fee spit out the angriest words she could think of while staring at Stacey and Irwin.
“You’re probably thinking that this happened to us because we were such terrible parents. Well, guess what? Sometimes bad things just happen to good people, as trite as that sounds. They could even happen to you,” she said.
The evening was over. She had to get out so badly that she bolted from the table. Milton came up from behind her, threw her coat over her shoulders, and hustled her out the door, like an unwelcome package. She was still shivering when she got in the car.
Milton said nothing until they pulled out of their driveway and were back on the highway.
“What the hell was that all about?” he said. “Everyone at the university will know what happened to Scott by Monday morning.” His voice was cold and hard.
“So what?” Fee said. “I’m done hiding it from everyone.”
Milton narrowed his eyes. She could see the tightness of his face in profile. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe you made this choice without even consulting me?” he said.
“You care more about what people will think of you than you do about me or Scott,” she said.
“Why couldn’t you just leave well enough alone and stop talking? We practiced what to say for God’s sake,” said Milton. He pulled over to the shoulder abruptly, the wheels scraping on the gravel, and stopped the car. “Damn it,” he said, pounding the steering wheel with his fists over and over again. “Damn it. Damn it. Damn it.”
For the first time, Fee wasn’t afraid of his anger. “I think we need some time apart,” she finally said. “I’ll move out for a while.”
It was the tacit agreement in his silence that frightened her. By the time he started the car again, she knew that the tectonic plates had shifted under their feet, and that there was no repair for what had just happened to them. They had become each other’s prey.