Friday, January 31, 2014

It's a Long Story

Illustration: Gordon Studer
You just never know what nutty thing will take you to the top of the heap. Of course I was already somewhat of a local celebrity, but I never thought I’d have to shoot someone to become a household name, in a good way, that is. Anyway, the fact is that just one week ago, I, Marlene Milstein-Whitman shot Benjamin Brian Whitman, sole bearer of my DNA. And I can’t even claim it was an accident, since there were many witnesses, eight if you count Benjy. Everyone was there to sample the dinner I was planning for the approaching bat mitzvah of Brittany Grossman, daughter of the plumbing Grossmans who not only run the town but are also major backers of Carl’s campaign. Bernie Grossman himself was so close to the actual “scene of the crime” that some blood spattered onto his 100% cashmere pants, which he did not like one bit, being somewhat of a snappy dresser.
“Jeezuz Kay-rist, Marlene, what the devil have you done?” he sputtered, calling 911 on his cell phone. “We need an ambulance out here to the mayor’s house,” he shouted. “There's been a shooting, the mayor’s son has been shot!”
“Oh God,” screamed his wife, the bejeweled and bulimic Belle Grossman, just before she fainted daintily onto my orange velvet sectional. The two other couples serving on the bat mitzvah menu focus group skedaddled pronto, leaving me with my husband Carl, Bernie, the unconscious Belle and the more unconscious Benjy to wait for help. As the paramedics loaded Benjy into the ambulance, I begged to ride with him. “Hold it, she’s the one that shot him!” shouted Bernie, but it was too late, we were off with the sirens wailing and lights flashing. Carl stayed behind for damage control, yelling, “Call me as soon as there’s anything!”
At the hospital they stuck me in some doctor’s lounge with a cup of coffee and a donut to await my son’s fate. I was petrified that he might die, which of course meant I would too, since what mother could live after killing her child? Like most people, I started making deals with God about what I would do if Benjy were spared: Besides fasting on Yom Kippur I promised to always pick up my dog’s poop even if nobody was watching, and never curse at telemarketers, just politely say, “No, thank you,” after all they are just trying to earn a living. But my thoughts of future good deeds were blotted out by visions of harsh legal proceedings, loosely based on bad TV movies starring Meredith Baxter Birney:

JUDGE: How do you plead, you despicable creature?
ME:  I plead for my son’s forgiveness, Your Honor.
JUDGE: Well, don’t hold your breath...unless, of course, it was an accident.
ME: No sirree, Bob, that was no accident. I did it on purpose, I took aim and shot.
JUDGE: How could you shoot your own child, and such a handsome boy at that?
ME: Actually, he started it, Your Honor. My wounds are far deeper than his, I’m sure, unless I’ve killed him. Oh, I never should have had children, in fact I never really wanted children, it’s just that Carl was always working late, and I went off the pill, you see, I had an allergic reaction to—
JUDGE: Shut up, you worthless cockroach! You are the lowest of the low; there is no excuse you could offer…

 Interrupting this reverie was a doctor who looked to be about 14, dressed in blue-green pajamas and paper slippers and with a little cotton mask dangling from one ear.
 “Mrs. Mayor? Or Mrs. Whitman, I’m not sure what the correct terminology is.
“Mrs. Whitman is fine.”
“Well then, Mrs. Whitman, you’ll be happy to learn that your son will be fine.”
“Really! My Benjy is alive? After a bullet through the heart?”
“Actually, the bullet merely grazed his buttock, impacting his hip joint more than anything else. He was never in any danger. Whoever shot him either never intended to hurt him or had very poor aim.”
“Oh, that was me. I have a severe astigmatism, not to mention a pair of very cheap glasses I got at Four Eyes.”
 “Mrs. Whitman? Your son is okay, but he’s not perfect: He will certainly live, but he may limp. And he will never run a marathon, will never summit Mt. Everest, and surely will never forgive you.  Ha ha, just a little joke there. Anyway, in the silver lining department, he will probably qualify for handicapped plates and so will always have that great parking spot outside the movies, restaurants, the mall, whatever.”
“What did you say?”
 “I said you can peek in on him now, but he’s been given a sedative and will most likely sleep all night, so you might as well go on home.”
“Can I just sit in his room?”
“Certainly, as long as you’re not packing heat.”
“Excuse me?”
“I said, would you like something to eat?”

LET ME SAY RIGHT UP FRONT that motherhood is not for everyone. I found this out too late, since I am a mother, and a bad one it seems, despite the fact that I would starve on a raft in shark-infested waters without benefit of sunscreen to save my son from harm.  It’s just this shooting thing, which is definitely not an example of good mothering, I agree. But there were circumstances, believe me, and they were pretty goddamned extenuating.
            Honestly, I’m a lot nicer than many mothers I know. In the case involving Benjy, which is the only time I ever resorted to violence, I must say in my own defense that I was slightly drunk (not that being drunk is a good thing), when I mistakenly (I see now that it was a mistake, but at the time it seemed so appropriate) pulled the trigger on the gun that dispensed the bullet that struck him as he was running home late at night, hours after his curfew I might add which is why he was sneaking in the back way through the woods behind our house.
            On the bright side, according to this particular 14-year-old doctor, Benjy will definitely recover, although he may limp. Of course, he will always hate me for it, but I’m his mother so he probably would have hated me anyway. Now at least he’ll know why, potentially saving time and money he might otherwise have spent searching for some psychological bunk like not being breast-fed (which in case you care, he wasn’t) or finding me in bed with his soccer coach, which may or may not have occurred.
Anyway, it takes two to tango as they say. The boy’s father, my husband, Mayor Carl Whitman of Cove Harbor, New Hampshire, and I had already created a child before we realized that we had major differences. For example, just to pick something at random, I am heterosexual. Truth be told, in the early days of our marriage Carl and I had a lot of that “chemistry,” and he still has many fine qualities if you ask me, but lately my growing suspicion that Carl might be a closet homo sapien has made me a little, shall we say, upset? I mean, the gays are fine in big cities, but here in our little town, it’s another story. 
We met in college and it was love at first sight, I guess, and we married right after graduation. After law school, Carl got a job pretty quick and started planning for his first campaign as city councilman, so I had plenty of lonesome nights, unless I wanted to attend those endless chicken dinners, which I didn’t and in fact couldn’t, since my little catering business—I’m an excellent cook, let’s face it -- was just starting to take off. But I wondered: what do women do if they’re not dating? And then it hit me: they have children! Carl thought it was a great way for me to keep busy, with the added bonus of furthering his political career. (“Cute kids get votes,” he always says.)
I had what my doctor described as a “normal” pregnancy—if anything could be called normal when there’s a whole other person growing inside of your body, consuming all you eat and demanding its own menu to boot, kicking your bladder so you feel like you have to pee every ten minutes, hiccupping at inconvenient times, and generally making itself known on a daily basis. Benjamin arrived three weeks early, apparently brought on by me scrubbing the kitchen floor with a toothbrush and a Brillo pad. My labor lasted two days and was ultimately hampered at the end by the baby’s refusal to come out, despite my screaming for several hours. (Even the labor nurse told me to “get a grip,” which I thought was unnecessary.) Finally the doctor went in with a pair of forceps and yanked the baby out like a stubborn splinter.
Aside from his ears being flattened Benjy appeared strong and healthy, but they took him away to the neo-natal unit as a matter of hospital policy. The first time I saw him--he was about six hours old--he was red-faced and wailing, and I asked the nurse what was wrong. Her answer haunts me to this day: “He’s fine, he’s just mad as hell that he’s stuck here instead of going home with you. In all my years of nursing babies, I’ve never seen one with a temper like that!” So the way I see it, things went awry on day one, and I’ve spent all the years since trying to make up for dragging Benjy out before he was ready, despite the fact that my doctor said there is absolutely no way to keep a baby inside once it gets going. (But I always wonder, was it those damn Brillo pads?)
Benjy and I bonded immediately, and I was the perfect mother--always ready with a hug or a Band-Aid or a story or whatever he needed. Except for the breast milk, which Carl thinks is the root of the problem and the obvious reason why Benjy did what he did. God knows I tried to breast feed, but it just didn’t work; it was painful for me and frustrating for Benjy, who had trouble “latching on” and so often went hungry. That went on for almost three weeks, definitely the worst three weeks of my life, what with Benjy sucking at my sore nipples and Carl standing by muttering that I was “doing it wrong.”
            And how would you know the right way, Mr. Know-It-All? Do you even have breasts?” I shrieked.
            “No, obviously I do not have breasts, but I do have eyes, I can read, and I’ve been reading about breastfeeding on the Internet.”
            “You and that damn Internet! Maybe your precious computer can breastfeed our baby, since I obviously can’t.”
            “Alright, so quit if you can’t do it! Go ahead and feed him formula! Take those pills so your breasts can go back to a normal size already, this is embarrassing.”
            “What pills?”
            “I think my mother took some pills to dry up her milk, don’t you know?” he asked. “Aren’t there pills?”
            “I never heard of any pills. You just stop nursing and the milk stops coming in. And suddenly you’re embarrassed by my breasts?”
            “Well, they have gotten sort of Dolly-Partonesque, which is distracting during a press conference.”
            “Carl, I promise if you ever even have a press conference I will bind my breasts with duct tape and the only big boob in our family will be you!”
 When I finally switched to a bottle, we were all happier: Carl got to feed Benjy, Benjy thrived, and my breasts gradually deflated to their normal D-cup size, but not before Carl had snapped a photo of me as I was getting out of the shower, a towel wrapped around my waist, to record me at my biggest-breast moment.
Things went pretty well for us after that rocky start. Carl’s natural charm took him from the city council to the mayor’s office on the eve of his thirtieth birthday, my catering business was growing, and Benjy was growing up healthy and with an incredible aptitude for separating eggs--he made his first lemon meringue pie at age six—and seemingly destined to be the next Wolfgang Puck. As the youngest mayor on record in our state, Carl started showing up everywhere. He had that charisma, and people loved him, even though by then I was starting not to.

SINCE HE ONLY GOT ANGRY when he didn’t get his way and he pretty much got his way all through his childhood, it was years before Benjy’s bad temper resurfaced. Despite a few tantrums, he was affectionate to us and seemingly a good kid until he met Theo Grimes, a high-school dropout who at sixteen was already bad news, and came from a family of bad news. His father was doing time for armed robbery, an older brother was a known drug dealer, and his alcoholic mother had been in jail for disturbing the peace, most notably for frolicking nude in the fountain outside of the courthouse during the town’s annual Oktoberfest.  Carl and I had a good laugh about it, and still permitted Benjy to spend time with Theo, thinking that a taste of a better world would encourage him to lift himself out of poverty. Instead of Theo being lifted, Benjy was being dragged down, cutting classes and coming home with a glazed expression which we later learned came from early drug experiments.
            It was about this time that I heard that many teens keep online journals detailing their exploits. After that I checked Benjy’s computer, which he always left on, every morning after he left for school to find out what he was doing all those times he said he was going “out” to “hang around.” I hit pay dirt with a posting by Harley Drake, a schoolmate of Benjy’s who posted his instant message conversations on his blog. One in particular caught my attention:

WORM: so what have you been up to?
DRAKE: just hangin’--smoking and drinking, you know, the usual. you?
WORM: same mostly, but I’ve had to cut back on my drinking since i almost got alcohol poisoning last weekend
DRAKE:  shit man, what happened?
WORM: well i was drinking vodka and propel fitness water which apparently gets you pretty fucked up, some stupid shit about eloctrolites or something, which i didn’t know
DRAKE: shit
WORM: so i drank enough to get me normally fucked up but i got completely shitfaced and ended up naked and puked on stoner’s bed
DRAKE: how did you manage to be naked?
WORM: well there was a ridge high graduation party at stoners and he has a pool which i was standing next to saying i was going to go in but i wasnt planning to then someone pushed me in so then i took off all my clothes which were wet
DRAKE: bummer
WORM: funny, this was when my parents came in to pick me up, i refused to put clothes back on and was talking to them naked
DRAKE: well that happens when you drink vodka and propel fitness water
WORM: yeah, from now on I’m gonna stick to plain vodka

            To my horror, I realized that on that particular night I had delivered Benjy to that same pool party. I wondered: did he do the fitness water-vodka thing too? I was sick at the thought that I knew so little of his life, this boy who had once been my world. Feeling depressed, I went to the kitchen and developed a new recipe for my signature dessert, Fool’s Pudding, omitting the vanilla and using bittersweet chocolate instead of semi-sweet. It was definitely an improvement, and so I decided to add it to my permanent recipe file that I keep in a cupboard above the refrigerator. It was there that I filed my most important papers, things that were meant for my eyes alone. Reaching up for my recipe box, several papers drifted down, among them being That Photograph.
             Even though I had failed miserably in the mother’s milk department, I still wanted documentation of my Earth Mother days, and had stuck the picture Carl had taken of me in all my motherly glory up with my recipes. Now it was on the kitchen floor, and as I picked it up and stuck it into the pocket of my apron, the phone rang. It was Marty Zane, our town’s Chief of Police, calling with not very good news. “Marlene? That boy of yours has gotten into a bit of trouble, nothing too bad, but, well, nothing too good either.” He sounded apologetic, adding, “you know kids these days.”
            “What’s happened?”
            “Well, young Officer Tate stopped him the other night, he was apparently driving and you know better than I, he has no driver’s license, and well, Tate says they were all on something, I’m not sure what. But I know your Benjy, and he’s a good kid. He’s just fallen in with a bad crowd, and I want to turn this around before it gets worse.”
 “Oh God, what next? I’ll talk to Carl and see when he’s free. And thanks Marty, we need all the help we can get.” Tossing my apron onto the kitchen counter, I ran out to see Carl in his office, and that was the beginning of the end of our happy family.
STARTING IN JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL, evidence of Benjy’s drug use naturally upset Carl and me, but for different reasons. I was fearful that my beautiful boy would end up living in a cardboard box, begging from strangers on the street. Carl worried Benjy would ruin his chances for the next step up the political ladder. Shallow as that worry was, I could understand it because Carl’s heart is definitely in the right place, but as he often says, “In today’s superficial society, how things appear is often of greater importance than a politician’s rhetoric.”
              That night after dinner Carl and I had a long talk about Benjy. Our total lack of a plan made it clear that we would never have been issued a parenting license had one been required. “So, what are we going to do about this?” Carl asked, pushing away from the table.
            “I have no idea. I was hoping you’d think of something.”
            “Listen, maybe we should try one of those treatment programs, you know, where they put the kid out in the wilderness for a few weeks.” Carl suggested this as if it would be good for Benjy, but I knew the real reason was that he wanted Benjy out of town for his upcoming re-election campaign.
            “I guess it wouldn’t do to have your teenage son busted while you’re out shaking hands or kissing babies or whatever, would it, Mr. Mayor?” I said sarcastically.  
            “Don’t be so condescending-- how would you like it if he messed up one of your fancy dinners?”
            “Okay, point taken. Now can we please just talk about Benjy? What if he’s really using Ecstasy, or cocaine, or meth, whatever that is?” To me, the whole drug scene was an alien world of needles and vials and powder and pipes and hallucinations and death, all of which I had learned about in Hollywood movies starring Michael Douglas. Carl was a bit more savvy-- he had actually tried marijuana in college, but since it aggravated his asthma he never pursued it, and thus neither one of us was what you’d call experienced.
            “Okay, I guess we have to sit him down and ask the hard questions. Make him take this seriously, or else,” said Carl.
            “Or else what?”
            “Or else he’s out of here! We send him away to one of those juvenile delinquent high schools. Look, that Benson girl turned out great, what’s her name? She was one step away from being a full-fledged hooker in the tenth grade when they sent her off to that institute out in Utah, and now she’s a nun.”
            “She is not a nun, she’s a counselor for underprivileged kids in Norwalk,” I corrected him. “And her name is Lily.”
            “Lily? That doesn’t ring a bell.”
            “Well, it used to be Samantha, but after she came back from the wilderness she changed it to Lily. Apparently she had a vision in the snow.”
            “Good God, what do they give those kids?”
“I don’t know, Carl, but she’s fine now, and seems happy, at least according to her mother.”
“Well, she doesn’t date at all, according to her father, so I don’t know how happy she really is. Anyway, it doesn’t have to be that exact place, but you get my point.”
“Yes, I do. I suppose we should look into some of those places, although the idea of Benjy spending the winter in a snowdrift is not at all comforting. Maybe we should wait until spring.”
“That’s months from now! Besides, it’s better than having him doing time in the county lock-up,” Carl said, ending the conversation by picking up the newspaper and stomping off to the bathroom.    “And we are telling him tonight, no matter what time he gets home!”
As if on cue, Benjy walked in. “Telling me what?” he asked, flopping down on the couch in the family room, clicking on the TV and tuning me out. As usual, I had to compete for his attention with the Simpsons.
“First you tell me something, what happened last Friday night? Why were you arrested?” That got his attention.
“Who told you that? That’s crazy talk,” he said, immediately agitated and angry. He got up and started to leave the room, when Carl came in and blocked his path.
“Son, we have to talk. You cannot hide things like this from us, you need our help. Do you want to ruin your life?”
            “You mean do I want to ruin your life?” Benjy snapped back. “Okay, I was with a bunch of kids and some of them were smoking pot and a cop pulled us over and I was with them, yeah, but it wasn’t me, really, it wasn’t me. Anyway, I was NOT arrested. He just gave us a warning.”
“Who was driving?” I asked.
“We were in Mike’s car.”
“Who was driving?” Carl repeated.
“I was,” Benjy murmured, looking down at the floor. “But really, I was the only one who wasn’t drunk! My friends were all wasted, and Mike was totally passed out in the back seat! I had no choice! I’d be dead if I hadn’t driven. Is that what you want? Would you rather I was burned to a crisp in a fiery car crash? I mean, I do know how to drive, Dad, you taught me when I was about ten, remember, at Uncle Jerry’s farm?” 
“You were 12,” Carl said, wrapping his arm around Benjy’s neck. “Son, believe me, we are very relieved you were not burned to a crisp, but breaking the law is serious business. When were you going to tell me about it?”
“Tonight, really, I was going to tell you tonight. Can’t you fix it, Dad? I mean, you are the mayor, right? I mean, honest to God, I would have been killed!”
 “Your mother and I are thinking of sending you away to school, to get you away from these bad influences,” Carl said, looking to me for reinforcement.
“You know, honey, Samantha Benson went to one of those wilderness programs, and she’s quite happy now,” I said.
“You mean Lily? You know she changed her name because she had a vision from eating some crazy mushrooms, don’t you? Sure, send me there, those kids have lots of drugs, they find stuff to eat in that wilderness! If that’s what you want, fine with me,” Benjy yelled, slamming the front door on his way out of the house. Stopping on the front porch, he yelled in to us, “I hate you both,” and stomped off into the night.
“That went well,” Carl said sarcastically. “I need a drink.”
An hour later Benjy returned and went straight up to his room without a word to either of us. By then Carl had polished off two beers and was snoring in front of the television, and I was sick of both of them. “I hate my life,” I said dramatically, and slunk upstairs to bed.

“MRS. WHITMAN, ARE YOU AWAKE? There's a call for you at the nurse’s station.” I opened my eyes and saw that I was still in the hospital and Benjy was still asleep, yellowish liquids draining into or out of him from a hanging plastic bag. It was all too real, and I had genuinely thought it was all a dream. I hurried to the phone assuming it was Carl, but it turned out to be a clever reporter who guessed correctly that I would take the call.
“Mrs. Whitman, is there any truth to the rumor that you shot your son on the porch at the rear of your home earlier this evening?  And is it true that a nude photograph of you appears on the Internet? Can we get a statement from you?”
            “You want a statement? About what?”
             “Anything that you feel reflects your version of the truth.”
            “Okay, here’s one: Bridges ice before highways,” I said, slamming down the receiver. “Imagine, at a time like this! No more calls, please,” I said to the nurse at the desk, “unless it’s Mayor Whitman. And where is the doctor? I’d like information on how my son is doing.”
            “Certainly, I’ll track him down for you,” she said, touching my sleeve tentatively. “And Mrs. Whitman? May I say that my cousin used your catering for her daughter’s wedding last summer, out at the gazebo on the lake you might recall, and I swear that was the best meal I ever had, if I may say so. And may I also say that I watch your cooking show on cable TV every Saturday morning? And of course, I voted for your husband, and I’ll keep on voting for him, no matter what folks say.”
            What did that mean? Was it out there on the streets already? I guessed that Belle Grossman woke up pretty quick and started making phone calls. This was big news; in fact, there had hardly been any crime in Cove Harbor for as long as Carl had been mayor, and now, ironically, his wife had gone on a shooting spree!
            “Oh goodness, look at me chattering on. Like I always say, I talk too much. Can I get you anything?” the nurse asked.
            “A cup of tea would be nice, thanks,” I said, and hurried back to Benjy’s bedside. I wanted to be there when he opened his eyes. To apologize. For what? Was it all my fault he turned out badly? They say it’s the mother who has the greatest influence—had I given him too many Hanukah presents? Carl always said, “One gift a night is enough—after all, it goes on for eight nights!” But Carl wasn’t even Jewish, so what did he know? Oh God, what had I ever done, before the shooting I mean, to have my son hate me enough to do what he did? I thought back, but not too far back, and remembered: Coach Jenkins, the skeleton in my closet that came clattering out.
The Coach—everyone called him that-- arrived at the Harbor High School from Savannah, Georgia when Benjy was in the seventh grade. By then it had been obvious for several years that Carl and I were drifting apart. As for sex, it had been months since I had experienced even a bad orgasm. Finding masturbation confusing, I was resigned to a life of celibacy and barely even fantasized about men anymore, so my attraction to the new soccer coach was a surprise. At our first meeting, a team picnic, he had held onto my hand a bit too long, saying I looked more like one of the students than somebody’s mother. That did it; within a month the Coach and I were lunching at a Mexican restaurant where we talked about my sexless marriage and the Coach’s custody battle with his ex-wife. Maybe it was the spicy food, but our innocent flirting gave way to the admission on both our parts of an increasing mutual attraction, and we boldly planned a tryst for a day when Carl would be out of town on business.
Thinking back, I can still hear the phone ringing as the Coach arrived at my home that first morning. We hurried upstairs and I proudly offered my considerable breasts for his amusement. He gasped at the sight of them—since I always wore a minimizer bra, which took off at least a cup size, he was understandably surprised--and pushed me backwards onto the bed, covering my breasts with kisses. Fortunately they occupied him for some time, and so it was well before any technical definition of “sexual relations” had occurred when we heard the front door open.
“Oh Jesus, someone’s in the house,” I said as the Coach lunged at me, licking my nipples.
“You’re imagining things, “he mumbled, intent on his prize.
“No, stop! It must be Benjy!” I jumped up and threw on my robe and went out to the hall. There was Benjy, looking guilty.
“Mom, I called, but there was no answer,” he said, furtively hiding something behind his back.
“Why aren’t you in school?”
“Why aren’t you at work?”
“Benjamin, I do not have to explain myself to you. You do, however, have to explain yourself to me.”
“I needed to pick up my science project. I called to see if you could bring it to me, but then I just got a ride home from one of the kids. In fact, I gotta go right back. See ya,” he called, running down the stairs and out the door, no sign of a science project in sight.
“Well, that was a close call,” said the Coach, coming out of hiding and grabbing me. “Now, where were we?” But I couldn’t go on. Benjy’s arrival had brought things into focus, and I was appalled at my behavior. Imagine, cheating on my husband in my own home, and with my teenage son just a few miles away! I was the lowest of the low! I was pond scum! The Coach bit my neck and stroked my stomach. “Really, Coach, I can’t do this, I feel too guilty.” He opened my robe and it dropped to the floor.
“Just this once, nobody will ever know,” he said, pushing me down right there in the hall. It was the first time I really appreciated our wall-to-wall carpeting.
“Okay, but just this once,” I said. I was wrong; that day we did it twice, and God, it was good. I had no idea that people even did such things, except perhaps in pornographic movies. Later that night, when Benjy and I were having dinner alone, he said, “Mom, why were you home today, in your bathrobe? Are you sick or something?”
“No honey, I was just feeling tired and so I stayed in bed this morning.”
“Was someone here with you?”
“Benjamin, why would you ask such a thing?”
 “I was just wondering,” he said. “Anyway, I wouldn’t blame you because I know Dad’s gay.”
“That’s a terrible thing to say about your father! Where did you get such an idea?”
“From Jasmine Levy. Her uncle is mad gay, and she says he hangs out with Dad sometimes.”
“Well, I have no idea who Jasmine Levy is, or her uncle, but I promise you she is absolutely misinformed. Besides, spending time with a homosexual does not make you gay. It’s not contagious.”
“Yeah, well according to Jasmine they do a lot more than hang out. She says her uncle is, like, dating Dad.”
“That is preposterous.”
“You’re not kidding—her uncle is a pizza delivery guy who’s like 20,” said Benjy, shaking his head in disgust. “You’d think the mayor could do better than that.”
“Your Jasmine is misinformed, and you can tell her I said so.”
“Yeah, well I think you’re misinformed! You know, you guys think you can keep secrets from me, but in case you haven’t noticed, I’m not a dumb little kid anymore!”
After that conversation I kept seeing the Coach, but we were much more discreet, meeting out of town at his brother’s summer cabin. Despite my unusual good mood on those days, and a certain high color in my cheeks, Carl had never noticed anything at all out of the ordinary, but now I wondered if Benjy had known about it all along.

DURING BENJY’S JUNIOR YEAR, I STARTED searching his room every morning. One day I discovered a soft, sticky lump stuck under his desk drawer. Panicked, I dug it out and scraped through it, discovering two small pills with cartoon images stamped on them. I hoped they were vitamins, but still I took them to our local pharmacist, Eddie Spencer, for identification. Eddie was an old friend, and on that particular day his cheerful nature seemed almost like a tonic.
“Hey, there’s my favorite ex-girlfriend,” he boomed. “How are you, Marlene? Better than the last time I saw you when you were down with the flu, I hope. Did that indigestion of Carl’s finally go away?”
“We’re fine, thanks, Eddie, but I have a little problem I hope you can help me with. Can we go somewhere private?”
“Well, there’s a proposition I don’t get every day! Your place or mine,” he laughed, winking.
“How about your office,” I said, motioning to the little cubicle in the rear of the store. “And seriously, can you promise you will not tell a soul what I tell you now?”
“Sure thing, you know you have my word. What’s wrong, you seem pretty upset.”
I showed him the two little pills that I had wrapped in a Kleenex. He studied them, and then asked,” Say, where did you get these?”
“What is it? Are they bad? Is it dangerous?”
“Well, they’re not good. These are what the kids call Ecstasy. Usually they’re stamped with these cartoon images, like of Tweety Bird and Buddha. It looks harmless enough, but kids find out the hard way how dangerous it can be.”
“How dangerous?”
“Well, taking multiple doses within a relatively short time increases the toxic risks of any drug, but these carry an especially high risk. The level builds and the user's body can't keep up with the amount of drug in the bloodstream. And you know kids, they think they know everything when actually they don’t know shit, excuse my French, Marlene.”
“So you think my son is taking Ecstasy?”
“Well, he might just be selling them, but either way, it’s bad.”
“Are you sure that’s what these are? I mean, couldn’t you be wrong?”
“Well, I’m wrong about as much as I’m right, and that’s a fact. But I’m darned sure it’s Ecstasy. It’s totally illegal and bad for you,” he said, looking as if his dog had just died.
I left the drugstore shaken and scared. What had I done to deserve this? How had we gone wrong? Was it Carl’s hidden sexuality? My affair with the Coach? Not breastfeeding Benjy when he was a baby?  Theo? Or worse, was it just the luck of the draw like the Mormons believed-- did we just bring down a soul from Heaven that was next in line, and he came that way? According to my college roommate, who actually was one, Mormons don’t drink coffee and what kind of life is that, but their “souls from Heaven” theory certainly gives the parents a pass.
Even though it meant admitting I had searched his room, I intended to confront Benjy that very day. Carl came home early so we could present a united front, agreeing that this family crisis was more urgent than the dedication of the new Melvin and Babette Schlesinger Reading Room at the library.
 Despite promising myself I would remain level-headed, all my love for Benjy-- my desire to help him at all costs, my maternal protectiveness-- evaporated when confronted with the boy himself. He lashed out, calling us hideous names, shouting that he had always hated us and always would hate us for treating him like a prisoner, searching his room, watching his comings and goings.  Twisting the knife, he said his drug problems were all our fault. “You’re a faggot,” he screamed at Carl. “And you, you’re a slutty whore!”
“Don’t you dare call your father a faggot,” I yelled.
            “You’re a whore? Why would he say that?” Carl asked.
“Please Carl, not now,” I snarled, anxiously hoping to buy time.
“Not now? When, then,” he insisted. “Why whore? Bitch I can see, but whore?”
“Oh, nice, so now I’m a bitch?”
“Marlene, you are not a bitch, but I just don’t understand why he would call his mother a whore. Am I missing something here?”
 “So you don’t know about her and the Coach? I guess you were too busy with Pizza-boy to know your own wife was screwing around, that’s just great, no wonder I’m a mess!”
Who knew that my sexual indiscretion, so personal to me, would hurt my son? And exactly how did my having sex impact him, anyway? And as for his father, despite his dreary performance in bed, Carl had been a good father. His sexuality was part of him, but certainly not all of him. I forgave him his appetites, just as I felt that Benjy should forgive him. And me.  Maybe we should have told him? Asked his consent? I imagined how that would have gone:
ME: Honey, Dad and I don’t really have sex anymore, so I’ve decided to sleep with other men.
BENJY: Oh, fine with me, Mom. Anyone I know?
ME: Actually, yes, it’s your soccer coach, Coach Jenkins. Is that okay with you honey?
BENJY: Hey, no problem. Enjoy yourself, and say hi to the Coach for me!
ME: Will do!
BENJY: Oh, and Mom, is it true that dad is a screaming faggot who is having an affair with a 20-year-old pizza delivery boy? Because some of my friends have told me that, and I’d sort of like to know the truth.
ME: Honestly honey, this is the first I’m hearing about it, but you know, Dad does not know anything about me screwing the Coach, so it doesn’t surprise me that he’s getting some action himself.
BENJY: Mom, you are the greatest, so open and honest, I love you for that. And you deserve to get laid by a real man. And by the way, I totally see why you sweep my room every morning, just doing your job!
Not likely to happen.
The next morning, Carl and I admitted to one another that things were bad enough to get professional help. We had already consulted with several of our friends, most notably Samantha-Lily’s parents, who said her turnaround had been dramatic, regardless of her name change. We called Outdoor Quest, one of “those places,” and arranged for one of their “escorts” to kidnap Benjy early one morning and take him away to their chosen Wilderness. It was the best thing for him, we thought. But I can still hear his shocked screams when it became evident that the two men who arrived in his room at five in the morning were not unwanted intruders, but rather professional thugs his parents had hired.
“You are kidding me, my parents did this? What the fuck is wrong with them? Get your hands off me, you ape,” and such came from his room. Bottom line: Benjy went with them almost willingly, yelling as he left the house, “Don’t worry, I’m going, it can’t be as bad as living here!”
Turns out it was. Two months later Benjy was back home, having been ejected from the wilderness by the program director, a former military man named James Biggs, who suggested we save our money for a defense lawyer since Benjy would surely need one eventually. Apparently our son had been caught with the Colonel’s 21-year-old daughter who had recently joined the Outdoor Quest staff. (She took the “morning after” pill and we got Benjy back, plus a partial refund.)

A LATE NIGHT INTERROGATION BY Chief Zane served to strengthen my story—which I believed wholeheartedly-- that I had acted erratically because I was somewhat drunk and, well, unbelievably hurt at what I saw online just moments before Benjy came sprinting through the woods behind our house. Anyway, since I am the mayor’s wife and since I do have a certain following in the town—for example, Marty Zane himself admits to being addicted to my brisket and potato pie--it would be up to Benjy to press charges or not. (And I figured he surely would, so I imagined I’d be wearing one of those orange jumpsuits pretty soon.)
Ultimately I sought solace in the empty hospital chapel. Under the watchful eye of a huge marble Jesus on the cross, wondering if my son would ever forgive me, my cell phone rang. It was Carl, hiding at home from the few reporters staked out on our front lawn. His voice was muffled, as if he were speaking through a sock. “Hello? Carl, is that you?”
 “Nice work, Marlene.  Really, how could you?”
“How could I what? Shoot him?”
“E-mail that picture to every goddamn person in town!”
“You thought I did that? Benjy did it. And that’s not all....”
“Why on earth would he do such a thing?”
“Well, just off the top of my head I’d guess it was to prevent any shred of happiness we might ever have, to ruin my business and your political career, and to make us the laughing stock of Cove Harbor. What’s your take on it?”  With that I burst into tears, adding, “And now, I’ve killed him! I’ll rot in hell forever, and why shouldn’t I?”
“Marlene, quit being so dramatic. He’s okay. I just called the hospital and they said that right after you left his room he woke up, drank half a Coke and then fell back to sleep. They say he will be fine, except he may limp. For awhile.”
“A Coke? He never drinks Coke, that’s why at the age of 17 he still does not have one cavity, thanks to me!”
“Marlene, he’s alive, who gives a shit if he has a Coke?"
“You’re right, I guess one won’t hurt him.”
“No, I guess it won’t, not as much as getting shot by his own mother! Christ, Marlene, what were you doing? Are you totally out of your mind?”
“I guess I flipped out. Excuse me, but I had just seen that photo, and I went wild. I went over the edge.”
“How did you even see the photo when you were busy making dinner for the Grossmans?” I could hear him shredding bits of the newspaper, something he did when he was stressed out. “And since when do you own a gun? There is a gun in my house and I don’t know about it?” He sounded crazed.
 “Well if you will just calm down I will explain everything,” I said, then launched into how during dinner, Ricardo, my catering assistant, had called and began sputtering wildly—his English isn’t great on a good day-- about pornographic e-mails sent to my mailing list and a certain YouTube video which had been posted by Benjy with the sole purpose of outing his father. As for the gun, I knew Carl wouldn’t approve but I felt safer having one, you never know when there will be a home invasion which you read about all the time, and so I had Marty Zane help me with the purchase several years ago, and had kept it tucked inside the dry goods pantry ever since, behind the red lentils which I almost never used.  
“Okay, fine, we’ll just see about that gun,” Carl said. “Now about that video, how far out am I, exactly?”
“Let’s just say that today many people, or as you call them, voters, know you like boys better than girls.”
“Oh, that’s great! Well, that’s just his word against mine, and I am the mayor and he’s a snotty teenager, but that picture of you, that’s for real.”
 “Oh, so what? So people see my breasts, big deal. Like every woman doesn’t have two of them, except for mastectomies, of course. At least I’m not flat-chested, which would be a hell of a lot worse.”
“Well, that’s certainly true, you were definitely not flat-chested in that photo! I can’t believe you were careless enough to leave it lying around.”
“I was not careless, in fact I have no idea how he got it, although I must say I did lose track of it recently. Anyway, you took the damn picture, remember?”
“Of course I remember. I thought it was a private moment.”
“It was.”
“Well, not anymore. But then, I guess you like showing them off. You must have shown them to Coach Jenkins, and God knows who else, isn’t that so?”
“Nobody else.”
“So you did have an affair! How could you?”
“I guess I wanted to see what it was like to have a man ravage my body once before I die, a desire you can probably relate to. And what about you? Having sex with a child! Of your own gender!”
“So you’re saying you only slept with him once?”
“Can we not talk about this now, with our son at death’s door?”
“Marlene, he just drank a Coke!”
“What about you and Pizza Face?”
“He is not a pizza face, and he is not a child, he is a second-year law student, very smart, with a brilliant career ahead of him, he’s just working at the Bella Vista on the side to make money. Do you think I would have sex with a common delivery boy?”
“Danny from the Bella Vista? That’s Pizza Face? I cannot believe you have been fucking Danny, that kid who changed my tire one day when I had a flat outside your office. Lucky for me he was right there. By the way, did you know that he is the uncle of one of Benjy’s friends?”
“Jasmine Levy, yes I know, actually she has been a bit of a problem for us.”
“Want me to shoot her?”
My words shocked even me. We were done. We couldn’t yell anymore, and we both realized the situation was so far out of control, it might take years to repair the damage done to so many people. “I need a shower,” Carl said, and abruptly hung up.

SO MUCH HAS CHANGED IN one week that it’s hard to remember what happened first. The most important thing of course is that Benjy did wake up and come home from the hospital, and he does not limp, even a little. And he decided not to press charges because, as he put it, “It’s bad enough my father’s a fairy, I don’t need my mother rotting in jail.” So I guess he loves me after all.
            Anyway, the good news is, in a nutshell, we’re famous! They want me on the “Oprah” show to talk about teenagers and drugs since I’m sort of an expert on the subject now. And the Food Network wants to “work out the details” of doing my cooking show on national TV, they say I’m the next Martha Stewart! And Carl is being profiled as one of the country’s top gay politicians for an upcoming issue of TIME.
            “All’s well that ends well,” Carl said after the magazine people called. “You know, Marlene, except for Benjy not speaking to us, this whole shooting thing has turned out really well.”
“I agree. Still, I’m sort of disappointed,” I said.
“Why? Isn’t this enough?”
Playboy didn’t call?


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