"Look, Jase, just because I love you doesn't mean I'm willing to do that with you," said Emma. "Can't we do something else?"
"Like, what?" Jason said.
"I dunno, like, talk, or something. How was your day?"
"Boring. I couldn't want to see you. How was yours?"
Emma sighed. "...Boring. I couldn't wait to see you." A boy had made some quiet motions in her direction--a friend of a boyfriend of a friend, kind of boring. She'd been able to say, Sorry, I'm already seeing someone. It was the first time in her life she'd ever said that.
"All right," we've talked," said Jason. "Are you ready yet?"
They were sprawled out on her bed, and as usual Jason's hands were wandering off to places they shouldn't. Emma was only sixteen, but still she was pretty sure that most girls didn't have quite as much trouble with their boyfriends as she did with hers.
"I mean, come on, baby," said Jason. "You know you wanna."
She did, kind of; and that was the problem. For the anniversary of their third month together she had let him touch her breasts for the first time, and sometimes she felt like his hands had never left them. She could feel them cupping, pressing, rubbing--while she talked with her parents, while she played flute, even while she walked down the halls of Mount Hill High School. They always made her feel a little bit uncomfortable. But daring as well, and dirty in some weird, glorious way. They made her feel sexy, and she liked it.
Not necessarily well enough to be sexy, though.
"Yeah," she said, "I wanna."
"Just, not now," she said. "Jase, we've only been together for four months. That's not a lot of time."
"That's just your parents talking," he said. "You high-schoolers are doing it on the first date nowadays. Before then, sometimes."
Emma had no idea what other high-schoolers did. Her best friend, Megan Graves, lived on the other side of the country, and while they maintained a voluminous phone and e-mail correspondence, Emma was sure something was being lost in translation. And it was hard to broach the topic to her local girl friends--especially since most of them had their significant others hanging on them at all times. Jason Castellano, who was a freshman at college, could do no such with his girlfriend, but her prestige had soared to amazing heights once it became known that she--Emma Stanton, of the plain brown hair and brown eyes, hardly the prettiest or most sexy of creatures--had snagged a college boy. Jason, a tall and haughty nineteen, might not dally around her neck all day, but his shadow sure did.
"You know they don't like me," Jason continued. "It's just 'cause I'm older and all that crap. And they're so conservative. They're shrinks, for God's sake."
Emma didn't think that had anything to do with their being conservative. They were very strait-laced, though; their idea of kinky sex was probably doggie-style. "They're just protective. You know how single-child parents are."
Jason's parents, to hear him speak of it, had doted on their only son enough to be ultra-permissive, so maybe that wasn't the best of arguments. Whatever the case, he wasn't about to be derailed. "Why're you defending them, anyway? I thought you didn't like them either."
No; she didn't. But she'd heard the tales of the bad boy, the handsome and charming older man who was out for only one thing. Jason protested that he was no such, and around her parents he behaved himself... But Emma couldn't help but remembering her father's voice: Actions speak louder than words.
"I thought you wanted me to help you get away from them," Jason was saying. "I thought you like that I have a car and we can go places."
"Yeah..." But if they were so conservative, why would they be letting me go out with this guy in the first place?
"All I'm asking for in return..." said Jason, and his hand moved almost protectively to cover the juncture of her pants.
Well... It was a pretty simple request. And she did kind of want it.
"Only touching," she said. "No..." No intercourse. "No other stuff."
"Of course not, baby," he said.
To his credit, he started calmly, kissing at her neck and chin in the way she loved. It was the hollow of her neck that was the most sensitive, and he knew to pay attention to that. He also kissed around her ears, which was not as nice as when he kissed her neck. Then his hand began to worm under her shirt to reach her breasts.
That was when she opened her eyes and saw her mother standing there looking in.
"Uh-- Mom!" she said. "Uhh."
"Shit," said Jason.
"It's okay, dear," said her mother, totally expressionless. "We'll expect you down for dinner in half an hour. Jase is invited too, of course, if you'd like him to stay."
Jason's hand had gotten caught in her brassiere. "Mom!" But she was already gone.
"Shit," said Jason again.
"Oh God," Emma whispered, covering her face with her hands. "We are so busted."
"You are so busted, you mean," said Jason, getting up.
"What?" said Emma.
Jason was putting on his shoes. "Have fun."
"Jase!... You're not--"
She could see it both ways. Her parents had never invited Jason to dinner of their own accord before; and her mother had not said anything at all upon walking in on them, so she must be saving it up until later--for instance, when Dad got home and both of them could rail at her at once. On the one hand, if she could spare Jason the coming storm, she probably should. But on the other, it would really nice to have his support in the coming battle.
"Do you want to stay for dinner?" she asked.
"No," he said, shrugging into his black leather jacket. It was his prized possession; he had only let Emma wear it twice. "I don't wanna get chewed out by some old fogeys."
Emma said nothing.
"Call me," he said. "We'll pick this up later."
When he had left, Emma got up and paced round the room for a moment, trying to get her bearings. Mechanically, she checked her e-mail, and then straightened up the bedsheets, which had been rumpled even before she and Jason had landed there nearly an hour ago. Then, almost compulsively, she started picking up around the room--clothes on the floor, schoolbooks strewn everywhere, computer gear and magazines and even discarded makeup paraphernalia. She went downstairs and started a load of her laundry too. She'd seen her room at worse, and Jason's dorm room even crazier... But not by much.
Then she flomped down in the middle of the pristine sheets and wondered what it was she'd chosen for herself. She'd heard Kelly and Morgan and all the others complaining about what a drag it was that their boyfriends were all so busy--to a woman, all her girl friends had ended up with the more nerdy and well-to-do types. They were much more docile than Jason, to be sure... But, by all accounts, far less exciting in bed. It had taken Cina and her boyfriend almost a year to get to the point she and Jason had just hit--though, to be fair, Cina had been a willing co-conspirator. But then, the increased time-span was because Sam was so busy, with honors societies and homework and maintaining an astronomical GPA and polishing those Harry Potter glasses he was so proud of.
Emma had looked at them and thought to herself, They look like my parents. She had inherited her mother's willowy frame and pale skin; actually, the only thing she really had of her father's was a lightening of the hair and eyes. Her mother was beautiful, no one denied that; what Emma didn't understand was why Cina and her mother and Kelly and all the others had settled for someone as nerdy as her bespectacled father--all awkward grins and hands scrubbed through hair--when she could've had someone much more appropriate. Someone with that dark, aching look. Someone like Jason.
I've got to be able to do better than this, Emma had told herself. And she had. It hadn't taken too long to get her hands on Jason.
Just as it hadn't taken too long for him to get his hands on her.
I knew he might balk, she thought to herself. I knew I'd have to fight him basically the whole way. I knew he'd want more of me than I was willing to give. But... I guess I was hoping he'd want more than just that. That was the one thing that could be said about her parents: they really loved each other. She supposed that might have had something to do with why her mother had picked her father, out of all the men she must have dated in her time. But, surely she could've found such devotion in someone a little more... Handsome?
Sighing, she went down to dinner.
Her parents were transferring flatware, silverware and food to the table. Her father was singing along with the radio--badly, off-key, a song Emma was pretty sure he had never heard before--and her mother laughing and swatting at him with a dish towel. Despite twenty years of the sedentary therapist's lifestyle and a sixteen-year-old daughter, Katrina Fallstead Stanton was just as slim as she had been in her youth; she could wear some of her daughter's clothes, if she wanted. And though Edward Stanton's face had lined some with age, he never seemed to stop smiling--especially when he was making his wife laugh. Emma was shorter than both of them, which rankled, as her mother was barely 5'3.
"Hey, Em," said her father. "What was all that door-slamming I heard earlier? Thought it came from the front hall." And just like that, she knew her mother had told him everything, but that he was going to pretend he didn't know. He seemed to like doing that--something about wanting to hear the story in that person's own words. It drove Emma nuts.
But, if he wanted a story, she'd tell him one. "It was Jase," she said. "He was... Leaving."
"Oh?" said her father. "Has something gone wrong?"
"Well, he didn't want to stay for dinner," said Emma blankly.
"And that caused door-slamming?" said her father, amused.
"Well," said Emma. "He really didn't want to stay for dinner."
"Hmm," said her father. "Well, he could have at least done the gentlemanly thing and invited you out of the house as well. Instead of leaving you here with our bland, paltry fare."
That was a joke; the food was, as always, delicious. Her father was an excellent cook. Actually, come to think of it, a lot of the gender roles were reversed: her father drove her to school and did most of the housework, while her mother, who saw six or eight clients a day at $100 an hour, was the breadwinner. This was not to say that her father didn't work; the practice was called 'Stanton and Stanton' for a reason. But more often than not, he was the one scheduled to run the errands, and some of his appointments were joint-counseling sessions, both him and his wife for one client and for only $50 more. Is that why my mother married him? He never complains about washing the dishes--actually, if anything, he complains when Mom bumps him off and makes him relax for a night. Got to admit, that's a pretty handy quality for a husband.
"So, how are things with you and Jase," her mother asked her.
Like I'd tell you. "Okay."
"Even after that door-slamming thing?" her father said.
"He said he'd call."
"Ah. And he wouldn't do that if he was just planning to dump you."
Wow, Dad, real smart. Is that what your master's degree was for?
"He didn't want to stay for dinner?" her mother asked.
Who would? "Not especially."
"Did you want him to stay for dinner?"
Emma concealed discomfort. As usual, her mother had a knack for asking the really sensitive questions. "Well. I wouldn't've minded."
"Mmm," said her mother, and Emma wondered what conclusions they were drawing. She could never get over the feeling that her parents were secretly psychoanalyzing her. She hated it.
"Have you heard anything from Megan recently?" said her father.
Megan Graves was the daughter of her parents' best friends. Emma often felt a little silly admitting that--especially since she and Megs had not seen each other regularly since her parents had moved west nine years ago--but they had been inseparable as children, and the friendship was simply too deep to fizzle because of a mere three thousand miles. Her parents had just shrugged and smiled over the long-distance bill. After all, they were racking up comparable charges keeping in touch with Megan's parents.
"She's fine," said Emma. "She got into Hertzfeld, and UC Golden State, but she's seriously thinking about coming out to Greenfield."
"Hmm, that's only two hours away," said her mother. "We'd see a lot more of them."
"And she said they caught Gordon doing something with a girl and her parents freaked out," Emma said. This was a bit of an exaggeration--there had been some kissing and a bit of hand-wandering, but no more, and while Mr. and Mrs. Graves had been startled, it was Megan who was most disturbed. That's my kid brother, she'd written. He's only fourteen. It's really weird to think of him growing up and doing adult stuff. Even though you and I were kissing boys before we were eight. But we weren't serious about it. We were just playing around, the way kids do. Gordie... Was serious. He was kissing with intent. And that's kind of creepy to me.
"Wow," said her father. "How fast they grow."
"Too fast," said her mother. "Sometimes I wonder where the last sixteen years went."
Too slowly, in Emma's opinion. "Oh, and, um. Some guy called earlier today."
"While you and Jase were here?" said her mother. Emma's friends had always marveled that her parents let her be alone at home with her boyfriend.
"Who was it?" her father asked.
"Uh, I don't know," Emma said, "I've never heard of him before. He said his name was... O'Connor. Something O-- Patrick O'Connor, that's it."
Her mother and father slowly came to a full and complete stop.
"What did he say," said her mother.
"I dunno, he was just..." He'd had a deep, confident voice, remarkably sexy for someone who was her parents' age. "He said he was just trying to get back in touch." He'd been very friendly on the phone--he hadn't just treated her like a kid, the way some people did when they called for her parents. Clients, mostly, but occasionally her parents' friends too. It got old really quickly. "Something about, you know, re-living old college days."
She scrutinized her parents' reactions. She had never known her parents to have a friend named Patrick O'Connor... But then, she had never known them to be this pale. What had she said?
"Emma," said her father, with nary a trace of that ever-present smile, "if he calls back, don't talk to him?"
"Why not?" said Emma. "He seemed harmless."
"Em, we don't ask much of you, but this is one thing we do ask. Do not talk to Patrick O'Connor."
"And why not?"
"Would it make a difference if we told you he ran into trouble with the law?"
"Dad, three years ago you got pulled over for speeding on Shoreway Drive. You've run into trouble with the law."
"He was in jail."
"And what does that tell me? Plenty of people end up in jail for three or four months. Some people make mistakes. Some people make big mistakes. What's so bad about him? He sounded nice."
"Appearances can be deceiving."
Emma snorted. "That's rich, coming from you."
Her father blinked at her. "What do you mean?"
Emma opened her mouth and closed it again, realizing what she'd just blurted out. "Uhh. Well."
"Emma, you know you can ask us anything," said her father.
"I just asked you about this Patrick guy," she said. "You wouldn't answer."
Her father gaped at her for a moment, and then gave a quick burst of laughter. "Okay, about almost anything."
"Why won't you tell me?"
"Because it's something we don't like telling anybody," said her father.
That gave Emma pause. Some sort of secret? "Do auntie Dawn and uncle Jeremy know?"
"They were there when it happened," said her mother in a quiet voice.
"Does Megan know?"
"Probably not, unless they've been a little more open-mouthed about it than we expected."
"So it's not just a when-you're-old-enough thing."
"Emma, when have we ever said that to you," her mother asked gently.
That was true enough. They hadn't even held back the facts of sex from her. Of course, that would've been difficult in that tiny two-bedroom apartment. And she hadn't understood any of it even after they'd explained; it took until her own hormones kicked in to really make sense. Back then, she'd mostly just been bowled over by the big words. "What's an emergency hysterectomy?" They hadn't when-you're-old-enough'd her on that either.
"So, what's this question you've got for us?" her father asked.
She looked across the table at her mother--hair like ebony, those big doe eyes that dozens of men had undoubtedly spent hours drowning in, the pale porcelain of her skin. She looked across the table at her father--rough-shaven, scruffy wheat-colored hair still uncombed, his eyes serious behind those myopic spectacles.
"How did you two meet?" she asked.
Her parents looked at her with identical expressions of surprise on their faces.
"I mean... Were you guys... Classmates, or something? I know you said you went to college together."
"We did..." said her mother cautiously. "We both graduated from Grantford in the same year. He was an English major, but we both applied to the graduate-level psychology program at Langdon University and got our degrees there."
"And you guys just... Ran into each other at school, or something?"
"Actually, it's your auntie Dawn and uncle Jeremy that got us together," said Ned. "They introduced us."
"And how... Did they set you guys up or something?"
"No, actually, we just sort of..." said her mother.
"Well, I'd had a crush on her for ages," said her father. "But no, we sort of worked things out on our own."
Emma was missing a connection somewhere. "So, you guys just... Started dating? Without..."
Her mother shrugged. "Yeah."
Her father squinted at her good-naturedly. "Am I missing something here?"
"But... Look at her," said Emma. "And... And look at you. You're in... You're in such... Different leagues."
She felt her face redden. What a thing to say to her own parents!
But her father laughed. "You just noticed?"
But her mother didn't. "Emma. 'League' is... 'League' isn't about how good someone looks, or, or how well they dress. 'League' is about perception. Yes, there's a bit of a disparity between how I look and how your father looks."
"Nonsense," said her father Ned, "we both turn heads, it's just that I turn them in the other direction because the viewer has to vomit."
"But when we came together, he didn't act like he was below me," said her mother. "He didn't act like he wasn't my equal in any way. And so I didn't think he wasn't."
"Which isn't to say that I didn't treat her like gold," said her father.
"But even that was a point in his favor," said her mother Katrina. "He was kind and he was sensitive and he made me feel like a princess. Which I'd never felt before in my life."
"Not even from your other boyfriends?" said Emma.
Katrina blinked at her daughter. "I didn't have other boyfriends."
Emma made no sound.
"Emma... You may not realize this, because my father has really loosened up over the years, but... When I was a child, he was very... Restrictive," said Katrina. "I lived with my grandma for a long time, but then she died and I had to move back. And even then, Grandma wasn't... She discouraged dating. It was for adults, she said, and I wasn't one until I had a job and was living on my own and... Well, obviously, I may not have agreed, but if not for her, I'd go back to my father, so I didn't want to misbehave. So I never dated. Not until I'd moved back in with my father. And even then it took a lot of effort before I said yes to your father, because if my grandma wasn't going to take it well, Papa was going to take it worse."
"Robert Fallstead is..." Ned passed a hand over his face. "Well, he's gotten better, but there's a very scientific psychological term for what he used to be, and it is, Upfucked-in-the-head."
"I did date someone else," said Katrina. "His name is Patrick O'Connor. But I wouldn't really consider that a relationship. He was... Well, he knew how to present himself. He was always flirting with other girls--he was very handsome, very charismatic. He liked leather jackets. It was easy for him to get women. And it was very... Flattering... To think that I had somehow captured his attention. But I found out later, after we broke up, that he was never able to keep the women he got. He was just too... Temperamental."
"Psychotic, you mean," Ned retorted.
"It's funny that you should ask these two questions," Katrina said. "Today of all days. Because they go together, in more ways than you know."
"What happened," Emma said.
"Well..." said Katrina. "Your father and I... We definitely had a thing for each other. Spent quite a lot of time with Dawn and Jeremy too, and the Pendletons over in Skyton Heights." Those were also family friends, but they were a little weird and their three children all younger than Emma--two of them younger than Gordon, even. "This was when we were all in school together, mind you. But I was still dating Patrick at the time, and he was spending as much time with me as he could... Just keeping in contact with me. Trying to draw me in, I suppose. And I should have cut it off earlier, but I knew he wouldn't take it very well, so I kept putting it off, trying to find a way to break it to him gently. And..."
"Kati," said her father--his pet name for her mother. "Are you sure?"
Her mother sighed. "She wants to know."
Her father said nothing, a complex shade of sadness and worry in his eyes.
"When I finally told him I wanted to be done with him," said Katrina Stanton, "he dragged me behind the building, and he yelled at me, and shouted at me, and hit me, and then... Forced me to have sex with him."
Emma Stanton thought: This is what astronauts feel. This is what it's like to be in space, to be weightless, to have nothing under you but an endless falling sky.
"We still don't know the precise details, we still don't know--what, exactly, motivated him. We've since heard, from other women that he dated, that he was always very... Insistent. Physically. He just wouldn't take 'No' for an answer. And he could be very dangerous, there was always this... This undercurrent of rage. As if he would hurt you, without a second thought, if it was to his benefit. I understand most of the other women he dated would, I guess, see the signs, and just roll over and let him have his way. I think I was the first who ever stood up to him, and, that..."
"It set him off," Emma whispered.
"It set him off," her mother agreed. "And after that it took many, many hours of counseling--some with my friends, some with my husband, some with actual psychologists--before I was able to go on with my life. PTSD, they call it. You don't have a brother partially because of the miscarriage, but also because your father and I were so infrequently able to be... Intimate. I know he would have liked a much more extensive love life, but I couldn't, not without screaming panic. Which most men, your father included, don't find to be much of a turn-on."
"It's fun when it happens, though," said her father. "--The sex, I mean. Not the screaming panic."
"And, to this day, my husband refuses to believe that it wasn't his fault," her mother said.
"Well, you refuse to believe it wasn't your fault," said her dad.
"It was my fault, Ned. I knew what was going to happen. --Well, maybe not as bad as it did, but I knew I'd have to fight Patrick to get free of him. And I knew you'd help me, if I asked you. That's why I said yes when you asked me out. But I chose this. It is my fault. I paid that price--and I would pay it again, to have what we have now."
"That doesn't make it your fault. You knew you'd have to fight, but you didn't choose to be raped." Her dad's eyes were hard. "He chose that. He chose to try to destroy what he couldn't have. It's not your fault he hurt you. It's his."
Her mother passed a hand over her face. "We've been over this."
"Yes we have," said her father.
"So, Emma. You wanted to know how your father and I got together. And you wanted to know why we don't like Patrick O'Connor. Now you know. Yes, other people used to ask me out. But I never said yes, not just to please my grandmother but because no one until Ned saw anything but my looks. And yes, we'd prefer it if you didn't talk to Patrick if he calls again. I don't trust him, not any farther than I can throw him, and I don't think you should either."
There was silence for a long moment. Emma saw her father reach out and lay his hand on top of her mother's. She took it and held it tightly.
"Wow," said Emma finally. "Makes my own problems seem real silly in comparison."
"Between you and Jase," her father asked.
Emma blinked. And then sighed. And then told them everything: the doubts, the confusions, the worries, the snuffling and pawing-around, the boringly-sedate relationships all her friends had, the bespectacled nerds whose earnest smiles seemed to wink out in the light of Jase's intense eyes. "I guess... I shouldn't be surprised," she said at the end. "I mean, I know what boys want, even at that age."
"Oh, even farther than that age," said her father with his customary grin.
"And Jase is... No exception," said Emma. "And, I guess... I wanted that, a little bit." That made her turn red.
"There's nothing wrong with that," said her mother. "Obviously, we don't know to what extent you've... Explored yourself... But from the sound of things you've gotten to the point where you know that sex is a fun, pleasurable experience. You're supposed to want it; that's how God made us. Whether you actually have it is up to you."
"I'm not sure I'm ready for that yet," Emma said quickly--partially to get herself off the hook, but partially because it was true.
"But there's lots of things a man and a woman can do besides actually getting it on," said her father, without a trace of irony. "I'm assuming Jase is interested in those things too."
"Yeah," said Emma, feeling a little uncomfortable to be having this conversation with her parents, of all people. "And... I guess I'm more okay with that. But... That's not really what worries me."
"What is it, then, that worries you," her father asked.
"From... From the sound of things, your... This man who called today... He sounds a lot like Jase."
There was silence.
"I mean, the--" She covered her face with her hands. "Just the... I mean, I don't know if Jase is... Is... The same way your father is." Crazy. "But... Just in hearing the stories..."
"We have often wondered too," said her mother. "Because, yes, there are similarities. There's a lot of the 'bad boy' in Jase. The same sort of brooding, the same self-absorption."
"The leather jacket," said Emma in a pained voice.
"Yes. We as women are attracted to men who seem, well... Dangerous. The kind of man whom we have to hang on tight to, though hopefully the ride will be worth it. And that was probably what motivated your earlier question, am I right?--about why I married your father. About why I settled for someone so... Boring."
"Well, it's because Indiana Jones is a slob around the house," said her father, grinning.
"Yes, that is true," said her mother, smiling. "But it's also because... I had a bad boy, Emma. I had too much of him. And when I needed someone safe instead, your father was there, just like he'd always been."
"I'm kind of surprised at your friends," said her father. "It takes most women another ten years or so before they calm down and start falling back on us nerds. Is it that they're preternaturally wise?--or just desperate?"
"Maybe a little of both," said Emma, and her parents laughed.
"So..." she said. "What do you think?"
"What do we think about what?" her father asked.
"About... What I should do about Jase," she said.
There was a long silence.
"Emma..." said her father eventually. "We talked, your mother and I, for a long time, over how much we should tell you about this. We've never been sure. Just yesterday we agreed that we should never tell you. You can see how well and how long that lasted. But ultimately what we want is for you to be able to make your own informed decisions. And I think what you proved today, by your questions and your answers, is that you're ready to make them on your own."
"Okay," said Emma. "So. What do you think I should do?"
Her father gave a wry smile. "That's just it. We aren't going to tell you."
"What do you want to know," her mother asked.
"What you think of him," Emma said.
"Unfortunately, we don't know enough to make a solid opinion," said her mother. "The two of you are either out at movies or up in your room. He doesn't speak to us much on his own. We've gotten a few impressions, but not enough for a firm opinion."
"So if you want to know whether he's like your mother's ex-boyfriend or not..." her father said. "We can't tell you. We don't know."
"If you intend to find out, we approve," said her mother. "But doing so may be... Risky."
It took Emma a moment to grasp the full concept. "Because you can't think of any way to find out but the hard way."
"You've called him both attractive and creepy," said her mother. "Some people just are that way. I know your uncle Larry's made me a little nervous at times, but he and Amber are happily married, and his children (so far as we can tell) are well-adjusted and confident. Maybe Jase is like that too. There's always hope."
"And, sweetie, giving Jase a chance like this says a lot more about you than it does about him," said her father. "It means you're forgiving. If means you're willing to look past the rough edges and give people a second chance. And I think that's a really important quality to have, and I'm glad we managed to teach it to you."
"What, to be one of the suckers born every minute," Emma grumbled, and her father laughed.
There was silence for a few moments as everyone got back to eating their dinners. Emma was strangely conscious of the space at the table across from her: the empty one, where a sister or a brother should have been, kept empty by luck and fate and maybe even God, if you believed in him. Here we are, this family, the three of us. What shapes and times and paths brought us here, us three and only us? What changes in our lives would have changed the us that sits here today?
Emma sighed. "Well. Get it over with."
Her father looked at her strangely. "Get what over with?"
"The chew-out." Emma gave him a dark look. "What we caught you doing is unacceptable, you're too young, you're grounded, blablablah. Get it over with."
"Who said we were going to ground you?" her mother asked.
"Umm," said Emma. "Well, the-- The statutory, um. The laws and whatever."
"I've always thought those were silly," said her father. "How can the law just pin down an age and say, 'Here, after this, everyone's an adult'? It can't, is the answer, but it does. And so Jase gets to vote, and he doesn't because he's too lazy, while people with smarts and brains and wisdom--you, for instance--are discriminated against because of age. How silly is that?"
"What he's saying, Emma, is that we don't approve of what we saw you doing with Jase," her mother said. "That's partially because we're your parents, and I don't think we'll ever be comfortable with the idea of you being a sexualized woman, even after we have grandkids. And it's also partially because you were doing it with Jase, whom (as we've established) we all have some misgivings about. But we can't stop you from doing these things; and besides, if we hold you back, how will you ever learn? The cost of knowledge, after all, is pain."
"What she's saying is," her father said, "that we aren't going to punish you. That won't accomplish anything. This is one situation where only you can learn and make decisions. Are you too young? We don't know. Only you can decide that. So we're going to let you."
Emma gaped. "I'm... I'm not in trouble?"
"You're not in any more trouble than you ought to be," said her father.
"You're not in trouble with us," her mother clarified.
"But then, we're not the people you might be in trouble with," her father clarified.
Emma sighed. "Right. Right."
After dinner she went back upstairs to her room, her thoughts awhirl. So much new information to process: new things to know and learn about her parents, her boyfriend, herself. That strange feeling of vertigo had not quite left her.
She realized she didn't know anybody at all.
It's like I have been blind before, she thought, and never could see. And now the blindfold has been taken off my eyes, and the world is so much more than I ever knew about. There are corners and angles and sides to things that I never knew existed.
Her parents, for one. They were so whitebread, so boring, so bland. To think they had such a sordid incident in their past! Suddenly plainness had an edge to it. I always thought they were boring because they didn't know how to be anything else. The truth is, they've been interesting. They've been not-boring. And now they're not because... They choose to be. They traded the soap opera for a life of monotonous domesticity.
Would I do the same?
She was staring blankly at a paper that wasn't writing itself when Jason called her cellphone. For a moment she almost forgot everything: Who's Jason? Who's Emma? Who am I? What's going on here?
Then she snapped back. "--ma? Em, are you there?"
"Yes, Jase. I'm here."
"Didja get in trouble?"
She was tempted to say Yes just to see how he'd react. "No, Jase. They didn't say anything either way."
"Yeah. They said they were going to let me make my own decisions."
"Wow. That's, like, so not old-fogey."
Don't call them that, she thought. "Yeah, I was surprised too."
"So, when can we get together again?"
"We didn't get to finish what we started. Come on, baby, didn't you feel it?"
"I didn't feel anything." She knew it would vex him to hear it; and, for the most part, it had been true.
"Umm, well, you will, next time. I'll do it better next time. When can we get together again?"
"Jase... I need to ask you a question."
"I need to ask you a question, and I need you to promise you'll answer truthfully."
"Why are you dating me?"
There was a pause.
"What kind of question is this?"
Strike one, she thought. "Well, I don't think my father has ever asked you what your intentions are towards me, so, I figured I'd better ask myself. Why are you dating me?"
"What did your parents say to you?"
The truth. "Nothing."
"They don't approve of us going out, do they."
"If you have to ask that question, you must already know the answer."
"Well, it doesn't matter what they want, it matters what we want."
"I know, and that's why I'm asking. What do you want, Jason Castellano? What, exactly, do you want?"
There was a silence.
"...Isn't it obvious?"
"Well, judging from what we do when we hang out, yes it is. Mostly, we just get frisky. We make out on a bed or on a couch or even in a movie theatre. You try to put your hand places you know I have issues with. To judge by all this: yes, I'd say it's obvious. You want to get into my pants."
"Baby," he said, hurt. "You know I love you."
"Love-love me?" she said. "Or love-to-get-laid love me? Are we going to be together in five years? Are we going to be together at five months? If I told you I didn't want to have sex with you unless we got married, what would you do?"
There was a lot of silence from his end of the phone.
"Jase," she said. "The sense that I get is that you're only interested in a physical relationship with me. And I'm sorry, but, I'm not interested in an only-physical relationship. If we had hobbies in common, maybe. If we had interests we could share. If we had conversations. But we don't. And that's just not enough for me."
"But this afternoon you said you wanted it," he said.
"Yes, Jase. I do. But not that much."
After a pause, he said, "Well, screw you," and hung up.
Nope, sorry, she thought. That's the one thing you aren't gonna be able to do.
At school, Kelly and Morgan and Alanna were incredulous. "You did what?"
"Look, I've said it three or four times, if you haven't got it by now, another repetition won't help."
Kelly and Morgan and Alanna gaped at her, their mouths working like fish. Then Alanna said, "That's... Really brave of you."
"Why?" said Emma.
"Because..." Alanna looked away for a second, color flaming in her cheeks. "Because you're the only one of us who has never had a steady boyfriend, and if I were you, I might stay with a boyfriend even if I didn't like him, just so I wouldn't be alone like that."
Emma considered that for a moment. "You know... Maybe I would've. Maybe I would've. But... I talked to my parents yesterday too. And... They said a lot of things that... Really made me think."
"What, about getting pregnant or something?" said Kelly, whose status as the only non-virgin in the group gave her extra prestige.
"Well... Among other things," said Emma.
"And not only that, a cool boyfriend too," said Alanna. "I mean, sometimes I really wish Cory..."
"He's so whitebread," Morgan agreed.
"Which is a little weird, considering we're both Chinese," said Alanna.
"He's so cracker," Morgan snickered.
"Shut up or I'll call the racist police on you, nigger," Alanna retorted, laughing.
"It's not every day a high school junior snags someone in college," Kelly said, struggling vainly to keep the conversation out of Racismland.
"And he's so dreamy!" Alanna said, moon-eyed.
Nightmarish, maybe. "Look, guys. Yeah, he's... Yeah, he's got that, that thing about him. You know, the attitude and all that. He's... He's dangerous."
"And that is sooo hot!" Alanna cooed.
"Yeah," sand Emma. "And that's cool... But only if he's a nice guy underneath. And... Jase isn't."
Kelly gave her a sympathetic glance, but Alanna said, "Yeah, but... The bad boy thing's so cool, you know! It's like... You never know where you're gonna end up!"
A strange, clear image appeared in Emma's mind: a broad male back, a thrusting pair of buttocks, and underneath, struggling arms and night-dark hair flailing and wide eyes the color of midnight. She couldn't see the woman's face very well. It might have been her mother's. Or it might've been hers.
"Yeah," said Emma quietly. "You never really do."
"Uh-oh, here comes the posse," Morgan murmured, and suddenly they were there: Alanna's boyfriend Cory and tall Tim Wynderley and James Logan, Kelly's beau of two years. Emma ignored the sinking feeling in her heart. After a high school career of it, she should be used to it by now. She really should.
"Is girl-talk over," Cory Chen asked. He rained kisses on Alanna's hair.
"Yes sweetie, it's over," Alanna giggled. "Stop eating my hair."
"Hey, um, Jonathan wanted to come hang out with us again," Cory said. "I hope that's okay."
"It's fine," Emma said. "No harm done." Jonathan was the boy who had asked her out yesterday. She and Cory beckoned, and Jonathan came over to join them. He looked a lot like Cory: scrawny, bespectacled, short blond hair flying in all directions, but with a strange distance behind the eyes that was intriguing. He missed little, it seemed like, and spoke less.
"Look," he said to her, "I'm sorry about yesterday, I didn't mean--"
"No, it's okay," she said. Polite too. He doesn't stutter the way Tim did when he asked Morgan out. "It was kind of flattering, actually. Only one boy's ever asked me out before."
"Okay," he said, running his hand through his hair. "'Cause-- I know some boyfriends get really ticked-off if a guy, you know, 'gets on their territory' or some such, and I didn't wanna suddenly get accosted by the football team or--"
"Yeah, mine was kinda like that," she said.
"Uh-oh," said Jonathan, pantomiming panic. "Should I go and hide?"
"Don't worry," she said, "he goes to college. He's at Juniper State."
"Oh," said Jonathan. "--Oh. Wow. I am. So totally out of my league, aren't I."
"Nahh," she said. "So am I. That's probably part of why we broke up."
"Whuh??" he said.
"Yeah," she said.
"Yesterday you said you were already seeing someone."
"Well... That was yesterday."
"Wow. I'm, um. I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I'm well shut of him, really. Wasn't a very nice guy."
"A keep-your-eye-on-the-prize sort of guy?" Jonathan said. "If by, 'prize,' we mean, 'pussy'?"
Emma laughed. "Yeah, basically."
"Hmm," said Jonathan. "Sounds like a good guy to be shut of."
"Yeah," she said.
They were silent for a moment.
"You know," Emma said. "Too bad you asked me yesterday instead of today."
"Because," Emma said, "yesterday I was involved. Today I am not. Today I am totally single and totally available. Or any time this week, for that matter."
"Oh," said Jonathan. "--Oh."
They laughed together. And then there was silence, and she found him looking at her, and the silence was beginning to be uncomfortable.
"So, um," said Emma.
"Oh, yeah, sorry," he said. "It's just-- I mean, wow, you know? It's like suddenly the whole world turns upside down. I'm worried about the worm in the apple. Your parents aren't, like, psycho or anything, are they?"
Emma thought about her parents: the school counselors, the therapists, the whitebread plains. Her father just as bespectacled awkward as the boy standing before her. The Stantons, who had traded excitement for boredom... And had found love, and happiness, and peace.
"No," she said, "I think they're like you."
"I said, I think they'll like you."
"Oh," said Jonathan, with those distant, careful eyes. He smiled. "Okay."
Okay, thought Emma. Okay.
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