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.
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.