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Domestic relations.

The primary thing she was concerned about, Ada told her lawyer, was that her son grow up to be a man.

"A real man," she emphasized, soliciting a sympathetic nod from across the Spartan cherry conference table, which housed only a box of tissues moistened with aloe and a thin Manila folder containing Ada's maiden name. This was the third lawyer Ada had been to but the first woman, and from the moment they met it was clear that they had a match. "Your husband sounds like an asshole," the first lawyer had said within two minutes of meeting her. "How much does he make a year?" He propped his Bruno Magli shoes up on a rickety glass coffee table in his office, making Ada worry that his oversized feet might plunge right through. By contrast, the second lawyer had been so mousy that he wouldn't even meet Ada's eyes, and when she brought up her husband's ambiguous sexuality he seemed to squirm uncomfortably and his gaze drifted towards a remote corner of the room. Despite the wedding ring on his finger, Ada's intuition told her that he spent his Saturday nights languishing in gay bars in Chelsea, and when she asked if he had any children he muttered something about his wife being "nontraditional." But the third lawyer--Nikki Blasko, whose name somehow suggested to Ada that she could kick ass with a smile--had focused immediately on her son.

"In New York we start with what's called a 'separation agreement,' and the divorce can be granted about a year later," she had said. "But that's just diction and dollar signs. Now your son--your son is your own flesh and blood."

"Mine in particular," Ada had said, raising Nikki's eyebrows. "His father has gone to the other side."

Ada watched approvingly as Nikki Blasko propped her elbows on the armrests of her leather chair, laced her fingers together, and rested her chin on her thumbs, listening to Ada tell how dangerous and seductive an influence the boy's father could be. Ada told Nikki how they had first met in a coffee shop outside the Academy of Art and even then she had sensed, with her soon-to-be husband arguing that Bernini's statue of David was superior to Michelangelo's, that there was something unnatural about the way he interacted with people--he challenged the status quo like a philosopher, spun detail like a televangelist, and defended his vision like an artist. Within two months he had talked her into marrying him, then acted surprised when she suggested it.

"A passive-aggressive manipulator," Nikki Blasko offered.

"Exactly," said Ada, "which is what he always accuses me of being. Men can be bitches, too, you know."

Her lawyer nodded knowingly.

So now when her son David asked questions about his father, usually while they were eating dinner, Ada made sure to emphasize how important the influence of a mother can be to an adolescent.

"When I was your age," Ada said, "and just getting interested in boys, my mother taught me about chemistry with a brown paper bag, a green pear, and a yellow banana."

David looked up from the aluminum compartments of his mashed potatoes, Salisbury steak, broccoli, mushroom gravy, and a brownie, seemingly interested.

She explained to him how her mother once made her eat an entire hard green pear just to emphasize how bitter and overly crisp it could be when not ripened properly, then asked Ada if she would like to understand how pears ripen so she could avoid such an unpalatable experience in her future. The key, her mother had told her, was a chemical signal emitted by ripened fruit--which Ada now understood as a concentrated burst of ethylene and available respiration--which could be shared by neighboring citrus, especially in a closed environment. By putting the green pear and the yellow banana in the paper bag together, one allowed the ripe banana to influence the immature state of the pear, while the bag held them both chemically intertwined in the stagnant air. Ada's mother had let her pack the fruit into the paper bag herself, twist shut and fold down the neck, place the bag on a kitchen shelf, and then eat the ripened pear several days later as a prize.

"But why can't I stay with Dad an extra day this weekend?" David asked, and Ada forked some of her broccoli stalks across the table, mixing them into the gravy to be sure he would eat them.

The ethylene story, Ada had decided, was probably the one she would use in court if the judge asked her to describe their marriage. Nikki Blasko had suggested she prepare anecdotes to clarify her argument, and the ethylene metaphor seemed to work best, with she the banana, her husband the pear, and the paper bag their marriage. She also secretly enjoyed the pun of her husband being an immature fruit directly associated with the shape of the uterus, but Nikki had cautioned her against betraying any amusement in court--her attitude was to be one of controlled outrage and motherly protection. Ada would share the meaning behind the metaphor with David one day when he was old enough to understand.

She hated to admit it, but David was starting to take on some of the physical attributes and affectations of his father. His cheeks were growing more chubby, his hair more thick and wiry, and suddenly he claimed to need glasses after 12 years of perfect vision. Like his father, he was also reclusive, nearly friendless, and almost too studious, and his big goal this school year was to be sent to Washington, DC, for the finals of the National Spelling Bee. When he started drawing obsessively with mechanical pencils and his father gave him a book on sketching, including a chapter on nudes, Ada decided that it was time David learned to pipette.

"Learning the proper pipetting technique is one of the most valuable ways you can employ your hands," Ada told him, giving him the same speech that she shared with her new undergraduates. Ada ran a university research lab and supervised several grad students and undergrads, and even though she had recently gotten tenure she remained involved in even the smallest details of lab operations. Holding the pipette out to David in both palms, she displayed the long slender glass tube topped by a mechanical plunger like the work of art that it was, explaining how the simple device allowed her to ensure that every sample taken involved exactly the same amount of liquid, right down to the milliliter. Noticing that he was fiddling with the pencil in his hands while she talked--another habit he had picked up from his father--she had David write down definitions of the words "aspiration," "measurement," and "meniscus," noting that he spelled the words correctly without any help. But when it came to the actual transfer of liquid from one container to another David fumbled about, perplexed at the concept of avoiding contamination from his own body heat, unable to extract the pipette tip without touching the sides of the container, unnecessarily causing the liquid to foam, and haphazardly discharging the plunger without reason or warning.

After twenty minutes Ada abandoned the lesson and instead had David make several sketches of the pipette from different angles, then as a reward told him that he could get on the computer for an hour while she got some work done at the bench. She now let him use only her laptop exclusively so that she could monitor his activities and any communications from his father, required him to share his IM screen name and password with her, and used a nanny software service to block adult websites. This was a critical time in an adolescent's sexual imprinting, she knew--a time when precocious boys like David might discover masturbation and when young girls might steal away to the bathroom, perhaps even in pairs, secretly armed with tiny hand-held mirrors.

Ironically, she had stumbled upon her husband's secret life by accident one day after he had borrowed her laptop and failed to sign off his IM account. Suddenly she began getting messages from "buttboy113" and "backdiver_slam," and instead of replying she had signed off and searched through her Preferences options, shocked to find cookies from websites that included strings like "shemale" and "penisbot." When she had confronted her husband he was defiant, almost proud, it seemed, apologizing for using her laptop for his activities but claiming that his interest was mere idle and artistic curiosity, and that the friendships he had developed on-line were anonymous academic entertainment rather than actual physical indulgences. But a quick mental review of their sex life for the thirteen years of their marriage persuaded Ada otherwise, with her husband growing increasingly withdrawn emotionally, unable to become aroused by anything but non-missionary positions, and showing an alarmingly specific new interest in touching her perineum--a region on her body that he had never before paid attention to even when David was born and it was in jeopardy of tearing.

Ada looked up from her pipetting and stretched her neck far enough that she could see what David was IMing to his virtual friends. Something harmless about anime comic books, it seemed, so she returned to her work reassured that her son was a perfectly normal boy with normal boy concerns. She made a mental note to talk with him about girls the next time they had dinner together. As long as David was going to begin masturbating, she wanted to be sure that he did so while thinking about the right things.

"Our son wants a dog," Robert said over the phone.

"What? He's never mentioned it to me," Ada said. "Well, you're the one who has to get it. I'm at work too much to take care of a needy animal."

"No--it's impossible."

"Again, your fault," Ada said. "No one made you move out into a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx where you can't have pets."

"I didn't just move, I was squeezed out," Robert said. "But that's not the issue. The dog itself is impossible."

Ada switched the receiver to the other ear and listened, flabber-gasted, while her husband told her that David regularly fantasized about having a dog that glowed in the dark when you stroked its fur. He wanted the dog to be as big as he was so that he could hug it while it slept alongside him, and when he woke up in the middle of the night he could pet the dog and create a soothing dance of light beneath his fingers. David was sure it would help him sleep better. He'd even named the dog--"Milfred." Ada winced at the name.

"Well, I'm puzzled as hell," Ada said. "He has a perfectly good night light."

"There's more to it than that," Robert said. "He wants you to make it--to genetically engineer the dog for him in the lab, but he's afraid to tell you about it. He got the idea from that glowing rabbit."

Then she remembered the story about a Chicago artist who had persuaded a laboratory in France to extract the fluorescence genes from a jellyfish and splice them into a rabbit embryo, producing an albino rabbit that glowed lime green when illuminated under black light. The artist and his wife and daughter had kept the glowing bunny as a pet, naming it Alba by family consensus, as well as displayed her in museums as an example of "transgenic art." Early in their marriage, Ada and her husband had briefly been excited about it because it had wedded their disciplines of art and science. Playfully, they had even used a glow-in-the-dark condom in bed one night to celebrate.

"Why should he be afraid to tell me about it?"

"Don't know," said Robert. "That's what his therapist said. She had him draw a picture of his family, and he put the dog in the picture. It was the only thing he colored in. He made the dog bigger than you. She wants to talk to you about it next week."

So this was what it was all about, Ada realized--getting her to go see David's shrink. Nikki Blasko had recommended it, too, but she had resisted so far. Nikki had warned her that in New York joint custody required the parents to show evidence that they could work together amicably, and that David's father might actually be awarded sole custody in this case, with Ada having only limited visitation rights. Boys were more likely than girls to be placed with their fathers, and David was clearly close to his father--especially in the last five years since Robert had been denied tenure, lost his position at the university, and retreated to home-based writing of articles and books about art, which had made him little money but had turned him into the parent who took care of David most of the time. The idea that she could lose custody of her son and actually have to pay child support to his obviously gay father was galling to her, but Nikki had also advised her about all the factors in her favor: she was the responsible breadwinner, Robert had been the one to move out of their apartment, and now she was the one preparing many of David's meals, taking him into the office with her when he wasn't in school, and even footing the bill for the last two months for the shrink that Robert had found for their son. Nikki had told her that she should go see David's therapist for the same reason that she had memorized the names of his teachers--if she wasn't fully informed it would look bad in court.

"Fine," she said to Robert, "I'll see the shrink next week. But no goddamn dog."

"He doesn't really want a dog, Ada--he wants his family back. He talks to me. He tells me the truth."

"I'm not the one who moved out," she reminded him again. "And the fact that he's close to you is purely circumstantial--one of us had to make a living. This divorce is not my fault."

"You were too busy getting tenure," Robert said.

"And you were too busy blowing yours, and God knows who else," Ada said. She had rehearsed the line carefully, and had been waiting for three weeks to use it.

"The therapist wants to talk to you about that, too," Robert said.

Dr. Boehman's waiting room was in Long Island City and was pretty much what Ada had expected. Littered with well-thumbed self-help magazines and decorated with plastic ferns, it somehow projected an atmosphere of mandatory quiet only available in padded rooms and motionless elevators. Ada had been to the waiting rooms of two other therapists in her life, once just as a companion to her husband when he had lost his teaching post, and once on her own before she had been married and her father was dying of a rotted liver. She'd barely spoken to her father after her parents filed for divorce on her nineteenth birthday, unable to understand how a man who claimed to love someone for over twenty years could suddenly decide he preferred alcohol to marriage. Now that Ada was divorcing she told herself that her parents should have split when she was a child--that way she would have had a chance to get to understand them as individuals rather than as a collective, and she might never have become estranged from her father. The therapist that Ada had seen had tried to convince her that, both individually and collectively, her parents were part of a generation who systematically and subtly abused their children without even realizing it. After only their fourth meeting when the therapist suggested that Ada should be hypnotized to dredge up her repressed memories, she stopped going to therapy and resolved to skip her father's funeral--a promise to herself that she kept just five months later.

Dr. Boehman's office itself--a universe apart from the waiting room in atmosphere--was flanked on two sides by large un-curtained windows, and the abundant sunlight revealed a patchwork carpet of variously colored squares, with oversized soft toys and several large neon exercise balls carefully placed along the walls of the room--sort of a modern, mental health exercise club, Ada realized. In the center of the room were two heavily upholstered chairs facing each other and uncomfortably close together, so Ada had no choice but to sit in one of them. She pushed the chair back a few feet as soon as she sat down, surprised to find that it rolled easily on its wheels across the carpet.

"Your son likes to shove the chairs into the corner and sit on one of the exercise balls," Dr. Boehman said, "and within a few minutes he'll roll the ball back and balance on his head, talking upside-down to me."

"No thank you," said Ada.

"Oh, I wasn't suggesting it for you--just pointing out that David has such a restless, interesting, creative soul."

Ada nodded uncomfortably and asked how David was doing in therapy, and Dr. Boehman said that he was progressing in that he was opening up more, but that his actual behaviors were sometimes worrisome. He wasn't able to sit still for long and once suggested that they play a game of human checkers on the large squares of the carpet. When Dr. Boehman had pointed out the difficulty David would have jumping overtop of her as a checker piece he had awkwardly thrown himself onto the floor as an apparent display of athletic prowess. Whereas most patients liked to use the Nerf bat to take out their frustrations on a pillow, David liked to hit himself in the head with it. And recently he had taken one of the smaller exercise balls and placed it beneath his shirt, suggesting that this is how he would look if pregnant.

"And exactly what, Dr. Boehman," Ada asked, pausing meaningfully, "does he say about his father?"

"That I'll keep to myself for now," she said, "we're here to talk about you and your son. And please call me Joanna. We needn't be so formal, really."

"I guess so," Ada said, "since I've been sending you checks every week."

"Touche," Dr. Boehman said, smiling. "Am I making you uncomfortable?"

Ada waited several minutes before answering and was surprised to find that Joanna Boehman simply waited silently along with her, finally closing her eyes and sinking lower in her chair as if settling in for a good long stay. When Ada exhaled heavily and did start talking, she pointed out that she was there not for herself but for David, and that her husband--who surely called her Joanna as requested--had obviously persuaded her that Ada was an emotionally absent parent who didn't understand her son at all. The fact that she was devoted to her career was being used against her by all three of them, and even choosing a female shrink for David rather than a man was a way for Robert to deny his homosexuality and play the more mature parent, when in truth Ada was the most grown-up woman that Robert had ever been with. Here she was paying $180 an hour for her son--who was perfectly normal in his behavior at home--to treat therapy as some sort of psychotic gymnasium in which to act beneath his age. But what bothered her most, Ada said, was that she held a PhD but was being patronized like a child, and that the woman sitting in front of her with her eyes closed as if hibernating was actually qualified to pass judgment on her motherhood in a court of law--and she'd be damned if she was going to continue to pay someone who would be toting the hanging rope along with her to family court.

"I won't be involved in the custody decision," Joanna Boehman told her, opening her eyes. "Your husband has already agreed to that condition."

"He never told me that," Ada said. "And I can't believe anything that comes out of that man's mouth anymore."

Joanna Boehman paused as if thinking, then told Ada that because Robert had given her permission, she would share what they talked about in their therapy sessions, most of which included David as well. David's desire for a dog that glowed in the dark was representative of his inability to interact normally with his peers, and his deep need for unconditional love. Robert, she said, claimed that he was not a homosexual at all but merely a bored, dabbling academic who had experimented for a while by chatting with gay men while working on an article about depictions of boys in Byzantine art. She conceded that Robert was surely himself emotionally troubled and crippled in confidence but he also seemed genuinely concerned about his son, and he agreed that something was stunted in David's emotional development. In fact, Robert had secretly paid for David to see a male therapist months earlier--a man in the same group practice as Joanna's--but those sessions had ended when David had kicked the therapist violently in the shins. They all wanted Ada to know that they were worried David was afflicted with something potentially serious but still manageable if treated--perhaps a high functioning Aspergers Syndrome or ADHD--and that he probably should be tested. At this point, they needed Ada's permission and cooperation to proceed any further.

"I'll think about it," Ada said, standing up to leave and resisting the temptation to toss one of the exercise balls into the therapist's face--which this doctor might actually have taken as a good sign of unrepressed aggression, she realized.

"You won't be back--I can see that," Joanna Boehman said.

Japonica on University Place, Ada decided, was the perfect location to make her announcement. It had a family atmosphere and it was a restaurant that David had never been to with his father. Furthermore, the food at Japonica retained its color well--a critical part of Ada's presentation.

"I'm ordering you maguro and uramaki," Ada told her son, who was staring out the window at the passing traffic. "Tuna and rice, mostly. But the tuna won't look or taste like it does out of the can at your father's."

Since this was David's first introduction to sushi, Ada thought that the maguro was the safest bet, and its deep magenta color was almost a perfect match with the red glo-fish. She had decided to get David a small aquarium for his room full of glo-fish--transgenic tropical fish that would shine a fluorescent red under black light. They would glow through the night while David slept peacefully nearby, soothed by the warm hum and bubble of the water filter.

"The glo-fish were developed in Singapore," Ada told her son, who hadn't touched his maguro yet but was as agog as she'd ever seen him at her announcement. "Scientists were busy creating bio-sentinel fish to monitor environmental pollution, and then they got the idea to make red glo-fish for boys like you. They'll be shipped here from West Haven, Connecticut--the closest pet shop that sells them."

Over the phone, Nikki Blasko had applauded the idea. "It will show a very personal level of commitment," she agreed. Ada had told Nikki about the meeting with Dr. Boehman, and Nikki had talked her out of cutting off the therapy sessions, recommending instead that she do something visibly parental and positive. Buying David the glo-fish and setting up the tank for him herself over the weekend, when he would be at his father's, would show David that she was taking a critical step forward in serving his needs.

"That sounds great," David said, poking a tiny smiley face into his untouched maguro with the chopsticks. "Did Joanna tell you about Milfred, my dog?"

"Your father did," Ada said, "but the glo-fish will be better for you. Now eat your tuna."

David picked up one of the pieces of maguro using both chopsticks and both hands, leaned back his head, and slid the three-inch piece of raw fish right down his throat so quickly that Ada couldn't stop him. She gasped and asked if he was okay, telling him that sushi was an acquired taste, to be eaten carefully.

David tilted his head forward slowly, as if savoring the moment. "I'm fine," he said, smiling at Ada with his father's cheeks. "It's like a cold rubber candy."

It was the most successful dinner they'd ever had alone together.

When Robert picked up the phone on the first ring, Ada was almost startled, unprepared for exactly what to say to her husband. It was just after midnight.

"Our son has had an accident," she managed. "He should be okay, but we're at St. Luke's Emergency."

Robert listened while Ada fumbled through an explanation, but by the time she told him that she had been giving David aspirin with a sleeping agent added at night, he said he'd catch a ride to the hospital. Ada heard him slam down the phone and turned off her cell, grateful that she had been spared giving a full explanation for now. Things had been going fine with the glo-fish for weeks, she thought, but then David started complaining of headaches at night that kept him up. One morning Ada had found him still awake, his nose pressed to the glass of the aquarium in his room and the black light still on, watching the red glowing fish tirelessly swimming around in a tiny ocean of water less than two feet wide. David brightly told her that he now had individual names for all seventeen fish and he could actually tell them apart. He had memorized their names in order of their ages, and he could recite them alphabetically. So Ada removed the black light and told him that the headaches were from staring into the tank for hours. For the next few nights, she gave him aspirin with an antihistamine to help him sleep, but the headaches still persisted, he said. Then after she heard him rustling around in the bathroom and noticed a heavy thump from his room, she found him passed out and slumped halfway off his bed, the empty bottle of medication and a tall wet drinking glass placed neatly on the dresser beside the fish tank. He had taken about half a bottle of pills, she realized, and the tank had only a few inches of water left in it.

Ada's body slouched in an emergency waiting area on the orange plastic of a small couch while they pumped her son's stomach behind a nearby curtain--she had no desire to witness the drama in person, and there was nothing she could do to help anyway with David unconscious and four people already gathered around the bed. She knew all about stomach pumping thanks to her father, who had twice been pumped due to alcohol poisoning. Her mother had described the events to her in exacting detail. "Pumping is really a misnomer," her mother had said. "Suction and vomiting is more like it, at least with your father." She told Ada how they inserted a tube as thick as a finger through the nose, down the esophagus, and into the stomach, then sucked out whatever was inside, followed by an injection of salt water through the tube to rinse out the lining. Some patients awoke during the process and had to be held down while vomiting repeatedly, so they kept a container underneath the mouth to catch the contents. They sometimes finished things off by administering a charcoal powder as a neutralizing agent to be certain the stomach was completely flushed, and the black powder ended up on the patient's mouth, teeth, and face, then stained the bowels and feces for days.

By the various sounds coming from behind the curtain, Ada could tell that David had awakened. She sat paralyzed, unsure what to do with herself. When things finally quieted down, Ada looked up and saw Robert approaching hurriedly, but he was stopped by a nurse who emerged from behind the curtain and spoke to him in a low voice for a minute. Behind Robert stood Joanna Boehman, quietly holding a large ring of keys and avoiding Ada's eyes. Absurdly, it suddenly occurred to her that her husband and her son's therapist might be having an affair.

"The nurse says he'll be fine," Ada heard Robert say to Joanna as he walked past, then slipped behind the curtain. "Aspirin and fish. He swallowed every goddamn fish."

Joanna Boehman sat down next to Ada, loudly crunching the orange plastic and dropping her keys to the floor.

"I suppose this makes you very happy," Ada said, her voice choking.

Dr. Boehman put her hand over Ada's and told her she should go behind the curtain to visit with her family.

They were just setting up the IV and wiping down his shoulders when Ada saw her son David, barely recognizing his puffy face. Most of his body was covered by white sheets, and a basin of water with long strings of colored mucous and mangled fish sat on the bottom of the bed just beneath his feet. David was apparently asleep now and Robert's thick, familiar body was leaned over him, his face buried in their son's chest and his back shaking. Someone swept up the basin from the bed and everyone but the IV nurse left noiselessly in their quiet white sneakers. For a moment the only sound Ada could hear was her son breathing heavily. She had a painful urge to call Nikki Blasko on her cell phone, but she had no idea what to say, really, and she was sure that her lawyer would be very disappointed in her. Ada looked down at the circle of her son's open wet mouth, blackened by the charcoal, and felt as if she were being swallowed whole.
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Author:Schall, Joe
Publication:Confrontation
Article Type:Short story
Date:Dec 22, 2008
Words:4999
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