Fourth Conversation With Emily

A warm sunny day at the beach, Neal, sixty-four, a community college English professor, is sitting on a big beach blanket with his daughter Emily, thirty-two, a marriage and family therapist. Emily’s son Andre and Andre’s friend Joshua, both nine, are in the distance, playing Frisbee at the water’s edge.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: No, I don’t think so. They’ve even provided us with puffy white storybook clouds.

Neal: How are you doing in the aftermath?

Emily: I’m okay. A little depressed. Find myself saying less to my clients these days, allowing the silence to speak for me. What do I know about relationships? I know how to start them, but sustaining them is a mystery to me.

Neal: I don’t think sustaining your relationship with Michael had anything to do with you, except that you chose to be in a relationship with someone who had no experience of sustaining any emotional connection to another person until you came along and showed him how.

Emily: Which begs the question: why did I choose to pursue a relationship with someone like Michael?

Neal: Because he’s a wonderful person and you wanted to get close to him. Most of your two years together were fine. Don’t you think?

Emily: Except he was never comfortable with Andre or you, and that always made me uneasy. I kept thinking he’d eventually relax around you, but he never did. He was only comfortable when we were alone, which was wonderful, but I have a son and a father and friends, and he found the inclusion of anyone else overwhelming. He only wanted it to be the two of us.  

Neal: I’m sorry, dear. I hope you don’t think it was all for naught.

Emily: No, I loved being in love and being loved. It was a big healing for me. I’m just sad about not seeing him anymore, though I know it’s for the best.

Neal: I’m sure I’ve told you about Rosalie, but your two years with Michael reminds me of my three years with her, without which I would not have been prepared to sustain a relationship with your mother.

Emily: You’ve mentioned Rosalie, but you never told me you were with her for three years.

Neal: Shall I tell you about her?

Emily: If you want to, I’d love to hear.

Neal: So… other than a high school romance that never went beyond smooching and a brief college fling during which I lost my virginity but learned little about sex, I was at twenty-seven completely inexperienced in the ways of love. I was teaching English at a private high school while slaving away on my doctoral thesis exploring the complete works of Nikos Kazantzakis, and sharing an apartment with an ever-changing cast of male characters, most of them graduate students. And then Will Ciardi moved in, we became fast friends, and I became a regular at the pub where Will was a bartender and Rosalie was a waitress.

Emily: And she took you in hand.

Neal: Indeed she did. Rosalie was the most straightforward person I have ever known. The night Will introduced us, Rosalie looked me up and down and said, “Are you involved with anybody?” And when I said No, she said, “Quelle coïncidence. Nor am I. Why not ask me out?”

Emily: But you didn’t because you were too shy.

Neal: No, I did. Right then. And she smiled and said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Emily: Where did you go on your first date?

Neal: An Italian restaurant. We shared a bottle of wine, went to her apartment, and didn’t leave for two days.

Emily: Papa. I’m shocked. You never told me that. And then you were with her for three years.

Neal: Three wonderful years. During which time she helped me complete my thesis, we went to Europe twice for two months each time, and I was blissfully happy and she was happy, too.

Emily: Did you want to marry her?  

Neal: More than anything. And she wanted to marry me.

Emily: So what happened?

Neal: I met your mother. Or I should say… your mother arrived.

Emily: You left Rosalie for Mama?

Neal: Yes.

Emily: Was Rosalie crushed?

Neal: Devastated.

Emily: You never told me this.

Neal: And I’m still ashamed for hurting her as I did.

Emily: But you loved Mama more.

Neal: Yes and no.

Emily: How no?

Neal: Your mother was a beautiful powerful alluring woman. We met on my first day of teaching at the college where I teach to this day, and by the time I woke from my bedazzlement, I had left Rosalie and there was no going back, though I wanted to.

Emily: You mean after you and Mama were married?

Neal: Long before we were married.

Emily: Oh Papa, why didn’t you ever tell me this?

Neal: I never had a reason to.

Emily: What’s your reason now?

Neal: I’m not sure. I just had the feeling it might help you.

Emily: It does. Because I’ll always remember the good lessons of loving Michael and being loved by him.

Neal: There. That’s why I told you about Rosalie. Because I remembered the good lessons of loving her and being loved by her, and those lessons made it possible for me to have a good relationship with your mother for as long as it lasted.

Emily: Life can be so sad.

Neal: Sometimes sad, sometimes joyful. Ever changing.

Emily: Speaking of which, how are things going with Karen?

Neal: Fine.

Emily: Do you think if Andre and I didn’t live with you, you’d ask Karen to marry you?

Neal: I am sure I would not.

Emily: Why not?

Neal: Because save for a fortuitous affinity in the sack, we are different as two people from the same society could be.

Emily: How so?

Neal: She’s a compulsive neatnik. Every object on every surface in her house is arranged just so, as if the rooms are soon be photographed for a spread in Architectural Digest. My surfaces, as you know, are otherwise. Her politics are distinctly right of center, mine are far to the left. She is obsessed with her appearance and spends lots of time and money trying to beat back the hands of time, whereas I have only a vague notion of what I look like from one day to the next and don’t give a hoot about getting old. I love dogs and cats; she finds them annoying. I am a gardener and a cook; she abhors dirt and would rather eat at a swank restaurant than eat anything I cook. I like classical music and jazz, she has her radio ever tuned to easy listening elevator music that makes my teeth ache. And so forth.

Emily: Don’t you ever long for something more in the way of a relationship?

Neal: In the absence of you and Andre, I suppose I might. But in the meantime, Karen is a lovely person to be with now and then, and she seems to feel the same way about me.

Emily: Do you ever wonder what happened to Rosalie?

Neal: Often. But I know the last thing she would want is to hear from me again, so I do not seek her out.

Emily: How do you know she wouldn’t want to hear from you again?

Neal: Because I know how much I hurt her. And the last thing I would ever want to do is remind her of my terrible betrayal of our love.

Andre and Joshua return from the edge of the sea and flop down on the beach blanket.

Andre: Mom? Can we have our dessert now?

Emily: Yes you may.

Emily opens the little ice chest and brings forth two ice cream bars for the boys.

Emily: You want one, Papa?

Neal: No gracias. But might there be a beer in there?

Emily: You know there is.

Emily opens the bottle of beer and hands it to Neal, then gets herself an ice cream bar.

Neal: How went the flinging of the disk?

Andre: Fun. Kind of windy. But fun.

Joshua: I’m not very good at it. Andre is, but I’m not.

Andre: You’re quite good, Josh, especially when you don’t have to throw into the wind. Once we got our positioning right, you were great.

Joshua: I’m not a very good athlete.

Neal: Looked good to me.

Joshua: My dad says I’m a klutz.

Andre: You’re not a klutz. You just need practice. I’ve been playing Frisbee since I was a small child. That’s the only reason I’m so good at it.

Joshua: (to Emily) Is there any more of those ice cream bars?

Emily: One more. You two want to share it?

Andre: That’s okay. I’m pretty full. You can have it, Josh.

Joshua: (taking the ice cream bar from Emily) Thanks.

Silence falls.

Neal: So… any travel plans for the summer, Joshua?

Joshua: I think we might go to Lake Tahoe.

Emily: That sounds fun.

Joshua: Not really. I mostly stay in the motel room while my mom and dad go gambling. But maybe we’ll go water skiing.

Emily: Water skiing sounds exciting.

Joshua: Yeah. Do you have any Coke?

Emily: Lemonade.

Joshua: Never mind.

Joshua gets out his phone and starts playing a video game.

Neal: I think I’ll go for a swim. Anybody want to join me?

Andre: (jumping up) I do. You wanna jump in Josh?

Joshua: No. It’s too cold.

Neal: You coming, Em?

Emily: No, I’m gonna stay here and keep Joshua company.

Joshua: You don’t have to.

Emily: I want to.

Neal and Andre head for the water. Emily gets out a book and starts to read.

Joshua: What are you reading?

Emily: These are case studies of people in therapy and how therapy helps them.

Joshua: What’s therapy?

Emily: Therapy is when someone goes to a counselor or a psychologist for help with an emotional problem they’re having. Did you know I’m a counselor?

Joshua: Yeah, Andre told me. You mean like for depression?

Emily: Yes.

Joshua: My mom takes meds for depression.

Emily: Yes, she told me.

Joshua: Are you on meds?

Emily: No. But I have some clients who are on meds.

Joshua: What is a med anyway? Like a vitamin?

Emily: It’s medicine that helps people with chemical imbalances that make them anxious or depressed.

Joshua: What is depression anyway?

Emily: It’s a kind of persistent sadness that makes a person feel exhausted.

Joshua: What’s persistent?

Emily: Persistent means it won’t go away.

Joshua: Oh.

Emily: You know how sometimes we’ll be sad, but then the sadness goes away and we’re not sad anymore. But if the sadness won’t go away, we say it persists.

Joshua: I’m sad some of the time. But not all the time.

Emily: There’s nothing wrong with being sad some of the time. It’s a natural feeling. Everyone is sad some of the time.

Joshua: I’ll be sad when Andre skips two grades. I don’t really have any other friends.

Emily: Well you’ll still be friends with Andre even though he’s in a different grade.

Joshua: Probably not. He’s too smart for me anyway.

Emily: Oh come on. You’re just as smart as he is. Just in different ways.

Joshua: I’m better at video games, but that’s only because he doesn’t get to do it very much because he doesn’t have a phone.

Emily: Not yet.

Joshua: Hey how come you guys don’t even have a television?

Emily: I never had one when I was growing up because my father didn’t want one. He finds them annoying. So I never got in the habit of watching television and never wanted one.

Joshua: Oh.

Joshua resumes playing a video game on his phone.

Emily: What game are you playing?

Joshua: Fight To the Death. It’s the main one kids play now.

Emily: What happens in the game?

Joshua: Well… you’re going through this multiverse and these aliens and cyborgs and monsters are attacking you and you have to kill them before they kill you. And your powers change when you enter a new universe. Stuff like that.

Emily: You have different kinds of power?

Joshua: Yeah, different ways to kill them and dodge them and get past them.

Emily: Like what kinds of power do you have?

Joshua: You have lasers and lightning bolts and stunners and you can fly at different speeds and make yourself invisible. And you have shields and you can morph into different things. Stuff like that.

Emily: How do you win?

Joshua: You just go as far as you can and try to beat your best score.

Emily: You never come to the end?

Joshua: No. There is no end. You just try to get your highest score.

Emily: I see.

Joshua: Do you think it’s stupid?

Emily: No.

Joshua: Then how come you won’t get Andre a phone?

Emily: I don’t want him to have a phone yet.

Joshua: Why not?

Emily: I want him to learn other things first before he has a phone.

Joshua: Like what other things? He’s already smarter than all the other kids. Even if he skips two grades he’ll be smarter than all the other kids. And if he had a phone, then I could text him and he could text me any time we wanted. What’s wrong with that?

Emily: Nothing is wrong with that. I just want him to experience life without a phone for a few more years.

Joshua: But what if he gets depressed because he doesn’t have a phone and everybody else does? Wouldn’t it be better for him to have a phone than be on meds?

Emily: Yes, it would.

Emily stands up to give the returning swimmers beach towels.

Andre: The water was freezing!

Neal: But it felt fantastic!

They take the towels from Emily and dry themselves.

Andre: And now I’m starving.

Joshua: Me, too.

Neal: Let’s go for pizza.

Joshua: (puts his phone away) Now we’re talkin’.


Broke My Heart


Second Conversation With Emily

Neal, fifty-seven, a community college English professor, is sitting at the kitchen table in his house with his eighteen-month-old grandson Andre drowsing on his lap. Neal’s daughter Emily, twenty-five, is doing the breakfast dishes. Emily and Andre have just moved in with Neal. The day is sunny and warm, the French doors open.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: If you like drought.

Neal: We live in California, a state prone to drought. And this particular day, taken out of any long-term context, is gorgeous. My darling grandson is snoozing on my lap and my darling daughter is doing the dishes after making us a marvelous breakfast. And after the boy has his nap, we’re off to the beach. In short… paradise.

Emily: And your daughter and her baby live with you now because they have nowhere else to go because your daughter married a psychopath who dumped her after she had a baby.

Neal: Shall we talk about this when little ears are not listening?

Emily: (whispering) You warned me not to marry him. You begged me not to, but I wouldn’t listen because I am a supreme idiot.

Neal: Why don’t you put Andre down for his nap and we’ll continue this conversation on the deck with a pot of freshly brewed coffee?

Emily: Okay. Sorry. (takes Andre from Neal) He always fusses a little before he goes to sleep so it might be a while.

Neal: Take your time.

While Emily puts Andre down for his nap, Neal makes a fresh pot of coffee and carries the pot and mugs out to the table on the deck where Emily joins him a few minutes later. 

Emily: He went right to sleep. He’s so much happier here than he ever was living with Hugo or in that horrid little apartment we escaped to.

Neal: Do you think he was afraid of Hugo?

Emily: Of course he was. Big angry man storming around shouting about how everyone in the world is an idiot. Everyone except him.

Neal: Were you afraid of Hugo?

Emily: No. I just hated him.

Neal: Since when?

Emily: I can tell you exactly since when. I was five months pregnant and Hugo was supposed to come with me for my ultrasound, and when he didn’t come home to get me I called him and he didn’t answer. So I left a message and waited until the last minute, and then I went by myself. And when he came home that night and I asked where he’d been, he said, ‘None of your fucking business.’ And I’ve hated him ever since.

Neal: Yet you stayed with him for another nine months.

Emily: I was pregnant and then I had a newborn baby. And I thought things might get better. I didn’t want to believe I was just another in a series of his conquests. He married me, after all. He’d only done that once before me. Or so he said.

Neal: I wonder how he’s managed to keep his position at the university all these years, after all the women he’s abused.

Emily: He’s careful not to sleep with anyone under twenty-one. He’s a very clever psychopath.

Neal: A mesmerist.

Emily: I feel like such a fool, such a loser.

Neal: You’re not a fool or a loser. You’re a human being.

Emily: But how could I have believed him for even a moment? He’s such a phony. It’s laughable what a fraud he is.

Neal: He dazzled you when you were most vulnerable. And sex can numb our rational minds.

Emily: But how could I not see through him? I’m not stupid. You never would have married such a charlatan. Nor would Mama.

Neal: Your mother left me for another man when you were eight and didn’t even want partial custody of you. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t fight to keep you. But she didn’t. And the wonderful woman I thought I would know forever hasn’t spoken to me in seventeen years. But I wasn’t a fool for being happy with her. They were marvelous years, and she gave me the gift of you.

Emily: It’s not the same.

Neal: How is it not the same?

Emily: You were happy for ten years because you had a loving relationship. I was happy for eight months because I was delusional.

Neal: And now you have a wonderful child and the rest of your life to explore the mysteries of being alive.

Emily: I’m a failure. In every way. I’m not even a good mother.

Neal: How are you not a good mother?

Emily: I don’t have a job. I have no money. I’m entirely dependent on you.

Neal: For the time being you don’t need a job or money, and I love having you and Andre here with me.

Emily: I am the quintessential loser. I gave up my career to marry a man twenty years older than me, a renowned lothario, had his baby, he dumped me, and now…

Neal: (interrupting) You must stop telling this story. To yourself or anyone else. You must change the narrative.

Emily: Oh great. You’re gonna lecture me now?

Neal: With your permission, yes.

Emily: (laughs) With my permission? Okay. Fine. I give you permission to lecture me. It’s the least I can do in exchange for a place to live.

Neal: Let me preface my lecture by saying I love you and I have no doubt you are going to emerge from this seeming catastrophe stronger and wiser than ever.

Emily: Seeming catastrophe? You think I’m imagining what happened? I’m not that delusional.

Neal: Happened. Past tense. It happened. It isn’t happening now. What’s happening now is that you are living with me. You and Andre are as safe as human beings can ever hope to be. We have food to eat, money in the bank, and relatively friendly neighbors.

Emily: For which I am grateful.

Neal: Good. Which brings me to my lecture.

Emily: Does your lecture have a title? I love a good lecture title. Hugo baits his hook with his lecture titles.

Neal: Yes. The title of my lecture is How Andre Knows How To Be.

Emily: (subdued) Go on.

Neal: As you know, I am an avid reader of books and articles about neuroscience. I am also keen on all things having to do with child psychology and personality development.

Emily: And you don’t want me talking about Hugo in front of Andre.

Neal: That is not what my lecture is about.

Emily: Sorry.

Neal: Don’t be sorry. You have every right to feel hurt and outraged and angry and sad. You lived with a terrible person for seventeen months and you were traumatized. And you also may be angry with me and your mother for doing whatever we did or didn’t do that predisposed you to fall under the spell of someone like Hugo. But that isn’t what my lecture is about either. My lecture is about how you and I will influence your son from this moment on.

Emily: I’m listening.

Neal: He is a psychic sponge. All young children are. His brain and nervous system and body will learn more in the next three years than he will learn thereafter for the rest of his life. If you and I are morose, he will become morose. If we are angry most of the time, he will be angry, too. If we believe we are failures and life is terrible, he will believe he is a failure and his life is terrible. I am not overstating this. That’s how mirror neurons work. That’s how the brain and psyche develop at his age. And I am so glad he’s a happy, curious, intelligent child, and every bit as good-natured as you were when you were eighteen-months-old. Which means you’ve been a fine mother despite the difficulties you’ve endured. And it means we can continue your good work by being glad and grateful to be alive, glad and grateful to be with each other, happy to get up in the morning, happy doing what we have to do and what we want to do.

Emily: So I should pretend to be someone I’m not?

Neal: No. No pretending. Kids know when we’re not genuine. You need to change your attitude. You need to let go of the ideas that you failed, that your life is ruined, and know you are a good mother to a wonderful child and you live in a lovely place with your doting father who is overjoyed to have his daughter and grandchild living with him. We are going to make the best of every day. We are going to be kind and generous and helpful and funny and good listeners and excellent cooks, and we’re going to provide him with lots of hugs and stories and attention and freedom to find his own way.

Emily: And find him some other kids to play with.

Neal: Yes. And maybe we’ll get a puppy, and the puppy will become a dog.

Emily: But at night sometimes after Andre goes to sleep, I’ll whine and complain and you’ll let me do that for a while before giving me another lecture.

Neal: Yes. But soon you won’t be whining and complaining because it will no longer be your habit. You’ll have made peace with yourself and be concerned with now and the future and only rarely with the past.

Emily: I’ll try, Papa. But I’m prone to self-pity. I don’t know why, but I am. You never were. But I am.

Neal: Your mother left us at a critical time in your life and I was shattered for a long time after, though I put on a brave face. So perhaps something from that era got into you, and I’m sorry. But I know the essential you is not self-pitying. The essential you is strong and confident and loves life and loves a good challenge.

Emily: Then I should be overjoyed, because I have never felt so challenged.

Neal: I’ll help you in any way I can.

Emily: You aren’t disappointed in me?

Neal: On the contrary, you are my hero.

Emily: Why? I feel like such an anti-hero.

Neal: You ran a dangerous gauntlet, Emily, and you did so while pregnant and then with a newborn baby. And you emerged intact and strong and wanting to go on.

Emily: I do want to go on.

Neal: Of course you do. And look who you have to go on with. Your darling Andre.

Emily: And you, Papa.

Neal: And me. And you.

Emily: And me.

They sit quietly for a time.

Neal: Could there be a more beautiful day?

Emily: (looks up at the sky) A few more clouds would be nice.

Neal: They’ll be along shortly.

Emily: You promise?

Neal: I promise.


Ceremony of the Child