There Be Monsters

There Be Monsters originally appeared in – Tin House Issue 42 Winter 2009

However many years ago, Natalie and her husband used to amuse each other with the dealbreaker conversation.  Over dinner or drinks, they would list the dealbreakers of a first date—NRA membership, pro-life bumper stickers, gold chains, cologne—then move on to the dealbreakers of a twenty-year life together: abuse, adultery, other kinds of extremity.  The secular Jewish investment banker with a wife and three kids who announces he’s going to become a rabbi: that woman got to jump ship.

Now Natalie thinks of the things that deserved to be dealbreakers, but that you let slip while you waited for further evidence, extenuating circumstances, explanations worthy of forgiveness.  And that now, twenty years down the road, are off–limits, unfair game.  You took them off the table yourself.  They sequestered themselves in their own little room, emerging for purposes of mockery and torment.

Natalie makes herself unexpectedly grim thinking about this in the car on the way home from dinner at the new Brazilian place.  She’s driving.  Her husband of twenty years rides beside her studying the darkened margins of the road with a toad’s interest.  When she’s at her grimmest, she thinks of him as a toad.  When she’s not, she looks at him and remembers what she fell in love with.

            The restaurant was good, but not good enough to justify the half hour drive through the blackened countryside.  Why is it always a moonless night here where they live?  What was the point of having moved to the country?  She misses the city’s everlasting illumination, the way night held the comfort of the fabricated.

She slows, not wanting to arrive before her twins are asleep.

Her husband, his name is Lloyd, reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out a container of floss.  He reels off a long strand, raising his arm with the grace of a fly fisherman, and winds it securely around his index fingers.

He flosses.  Bits of food escape his teeth.  One hits the windshield like an insect on the wrong side of the glass.  One disappears into the darkness of the car.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” he answers, equaling her tone.

“Don’t,” she says.

He pauses, his mouth open, the floss laced between molars.  “Why not?” he says, genuinely baffled.

She can’t look at him.  She drives.  She concentrates on the chill of the steering wheel beneath her ungloved hands.  What is she doing here?  The edges of the woods fly past, illuminated in the headlights.  She wishes for the red eyes of some forest animal, a drunken hitchhiker, a lost child, anything to make her slam on the brakes and spin out.

“Isn’t it pretty to think so?” she quotes aloud.

Her husband pops the floss and saws it between another two molars.  “I never know what you’re talking about,” he says.

“Stop it,” she says.

“Stop what?” he says.

She’s suddenly inescapably sad.  The sad of keening dolphins.  She feels as though she might pass out.

“Have you ever thought about becoming a rabbi?” she asks.

“No,” he says.

It’s one thing she likes about him after all these years—his willingness to take everything she says seriously.

“What about violence?” she asks.  “Have you ever wanted to hit me?”

He stops flossing.  “You mean, like a role-playing kind of thing?”

He seems intrigued and her sadness plunges to new depths.

“No,” she says.

 

And now they’re home and the girls are asleep and he’s following her around like a puppy who has spied the biscuit box on top of the fridge.  He keeps trying to direct her attention to the stairs, at the top of which they’ll find the bedroom, with its four poster bed and her drawerful of stockings which, he’ll never admit to her, he has on occasion, when alone, wrapped around his wrist and neck, breathing slowly while he pulls with the deftness of a former yachtsman, which he is.

She checks the girls’ schedules for the next day.  She sets the coffeemaker for the morning.  She fills the dishwasher with the dirty dishes that the twins always ignore.  She closes the garage door and circles the house like a butler, shutting lights one by one.  It seems to him that her list of things to do is never-ending.  It seems to him he’s never on that list.

When she pulls out the two-day old Sunday paper and settles on the couch in the TV room, he stands behind her for a moment, trying to guess which article she’s reading.  His lab partner in college once told him, both of them bent over a computer screen, that he had a good scanning eye.  “Are you flirting?” he asked.  “No,” she said.

Natalie turns the page and absorbs herself in the weddings.  He touches the back of her head.  Her hair is the color of campfire embers.  Her scalp is warm.  It used to be that she could make him come by kissing his wedding ring.

“I’m going to bed,” he says.

She moves her head almost imperceptibly, and he drops his hand to his side.

Her husband is a banker.  He’s paid for this house, and the girls’ tuition, and the shoes on her feet and the couch under her ass.  She pays for nothing.  It bothers her more than it should, and him less, but he’s a kind, safe man, and it’s been a complicated year to be a banker.  She knows all this.  “All I want to do is read this paper,” she finally says.  “I never get to read the paper anymore.”

“Okay,” he says.  “You read.”

Upstairs, he drops his toothbrush on the floor.  He picks it up and snaps it in two.  Then he breaks hers.  He pads down the hall to the twin’s bathroom and breaks theirs.  He carries all the pieces back to his bathroom and tucks them into his wife’s toiletry kit.  Later, when she comes to bed, she’ll want to apologize, to talk about why she says and does the things she says and does, and he’ll pretend to be asleep.  Later still, when she discovers the broken toothbrushes, he’ll shrug, and she’ll let it slide.

 

It’s a Wednesday and that means lunch with Susan, who since her divorce the other mothers call Poor Susan even to her face.  Natalie is in the bathroom of the worse of the two Chinese restaurants in town looking at her best friend’s new breasts.  The women are squeezed into a stall trying to keep their voices down.  Susan’s shirt is up and Natalie is trying to keep space between her own body and the naked fake things.

“What do you think?” Susan says, gleeful.  She told Natalie over dumplings that the new boyfriend loves them.  He says they turned out even better than he’d hoped.  Apparently, Susan spends a lot of time running around the house without her shirt off now, laughing until the guy catches her.

It has been decades since Natalie has used the words boyfriend or fake boobs in a sentence about anyone she knows.  She wonders if this is what her fifties will be like.  She’s speechless.  They look engorged, like those of a nursing mother.  They look heavy.  “How much do they weigh?” she finally asks.

Susan smiles as if this were just the right question.  “A pound,” she says.

“A pound?”

Susan nods.

“Together?” Natalie asks.

“Each,” Susan says.

Each?” Natalie repeats.

Susan nods proudly.  “Do you want to touch them?”

Natalie is unsure of the etiquette here.  Her friend arches her back more assertively in her direction, and Natalie reaches out a hand.  They feel as swollen as they look.  She tries to touch them in a way that won’t be disagreeable, but also won’t give either of them too much pleasure.  They have the vaguely repulsive velvety feel of a newborn animal.

“Very nice,” she says, withdrawing her hand and tucking it into her jacket pocket.

 

At home that night she tells the girls about it.  They’re sixteen and at least as a parent, Natalie believes in full disclosure.  Anna wrinkles her nose but barely looks up from her math textbook.  She pronounced Susan a lost cause a long time ago.  Emily takes the story more seriously.  Emily takes everything more seriously.  “Do they make her happy?” she asks.  “If they make her happy, I don’t really see the problem.  She’s not hurting anyone.”

Anna snorts.

Lloyd comes into the kitchen and feels the conversation close like a well-sutured wound.  “Who’s not hurting anyone?” he asks anyway.

The girls return to their homework.  Natalie turns back to the sink, thinking about Emily’s question.

“Hi, Daddy,” Anna finally says, with real care.  “No one. Girl talk.”

*

That night, he can’t sleep.  He stands at the kitchen sink, drinking a glass of milk.  He’s wearing plaid jammy pants and a white undershirt and when he sees his reflection in the window, he looks just like himself.

When he climbs back into bed, Natalie wakes.

“Can’t sleep?” she asks, her voice thick and low.  Her eyes closed, she reaches over and strokes his forehead and tells him what she and the girls were talking about.  He understands her inclusion as pity, but is grateful nonetheless.

He doesn’t care about Susan and her breasts.

“I miss you,” he says watching her.  Her skin is so fair.  Beneath her lids, her eyes are the palest blue.  He thinks one day she might just fade away.

“Here I am,” she says, her eyes still closed.

“I know,” he says, but he doesn’t.  When they met, he was eighteen, she was twenty-four.  They worked for the same catering company one summer.  Word was she’d been on her own since she was sixteen when her mother took off one final time.  Her father had apparently never been around long enough to leave.  Even in black and white, she stood out.  Their boss got Lloyd’s name wrong for the whole summer.  Late one night, his mom forgot to pick him up, and Natalie offered him a ride.  The other waiters hooted when he got into the car.  She reached across him to give them the finger.

“Guess you’re kind of out of my league,” he said, noting that his feet were resting on what seemed to be a pile of her fine washables.

She laughed.  “This is just a ride,” she said.  “To your mother’s house.”

Everyone wanted her, and she chose him.  Even after all these years, he spends his days waiting for her to come to her senses.

She opens her eyes and climbs on top of him.  She tells him to close his eyes.  She tells him he’s her guy.  He doesn’t know which is more intoxicating, the reassurances from her body or her words.  When he starts to come, she tells him to keep his eyes closed.

Afterwards, she rests on top of him, her face in his pillow.  “What are you thinking?” he finally says.

“Nothing,” she says.  “Just resting.”

 

In the morning, Emily and Anna are a united front.  “Don’t ever do that to us again,” Emily says to the both of them.

“Really,” Anna says.  “Get a hotel room.”

“Years from now, we’ll be spending months, I mean months, on this in therapy.”

Natalie is somewhere between pleased and ashamed.

Lloyd tries to recall how loud he was.  A couple of years ago, he told her that he wished she would come on to him more often.

“You wish I’d what?” was all she ever said on the subject.

“And another thing,” Emily says.  “Where are our toothbrushes?”

 

Winter comes and goes.  April arrives in a tantrum of mud and rain.  The lawn is like a pockmarked child.  The forsythia refuses to bloom.  The rhododendrons are dying.  When she asks the lawn guy if the willow will ever stop shedding, he shrugs and explains that it’s a dirty tree.

And then during a heat wave in May, one of the girls’ classmates jumps from the roof of the school into a sea of recessing fourth-graders, and Natalie and Lloyd run into one of her exes at the Starbucks.  Of all her exes, and the number is legion, he was the most extreme in all regards.  Best lover, least good-looking, most likely to be living in his parents’ garage for the rest of his life, most likely to go through her purse, most likely to call her on things she deserved to be called on, most violent, least repentant.  Even twenty-something Natalie, the Natalie who wanted nothing more than to wrap herself in the extremity of others, understood that as far as Cullen was concerned, there be monsters.  When she tried to break up with him the first time, she told him that, and he slid his hand down the front of her jeans and put his finger inside her, pulling her onto her tiptoes to meet his waiting mouth.  When he was done, he took his mouth from hers, slid his finger away and said, “So?”

The sight of him in his black jeans—she swears they are the same jeans—his black untucked button-down, his black Cons is so convincing that it’s Lloyd who she stares at in vague incomprehension.

“What?” her husband says.

If rage is at her core, her husband is always drilling away at her surface.  He’s always saying what.  Figure it out, she wants to yell.  The girls had a nursery school teacher who told them over and over to use their words.  Use your words, she wants to tell him, but never does.

“It’s Cullen,” she says.

“Who?” he asks, looking around.

She attempts a low groan, but it comes out sounding like a whimper.

“What?” he says.

Cullen in Black is standing there smiling.  He always looks like he’s stoned, especially when he’s not.  It was part of his initial appeal.  “Holy Crap,” he says.  “Natalie, Nattie, Nat.”

Lloyd raises his eyebrows at her.  She pretends not to see.  It’s another thing about Cullen.  He liked to say her name three times, shorter and shorter.  Her therapist at the time said it was his way of disappearing her.  The therapist also said it was not a good sign that she found this attractive.  Natalie said she was sure he was right.

Later, when she’s gotten the call from the school, when she’s heard from other mothers that one boy had to be taken shopping by his teacher because well, parts of the girl who had jumped had, you know, gotten on him, when she’s heard that the girl had taken the time and effort to unscrew the safety bars on the windows, and that the mother is a single mother, and the little brother somewhat disturbed, when she’s heard more than she thinks she can deal with about a sixteen-year-old girl’s sadnesses, she hears one more thing: that morning the girl checked with her younger brother to make sure he’d be in gym when she jumped.  But he was on his way back to the main building and got there before the arrival of the ambulance.  His sister’s body was in front of the entrance.  A teacher tried to shield him.  Inside Natalie, something large gives way: the girl had tried to keep her sadnesses from the person she cared about most.  She’d tried and she’d failed.

After she packs lunches for the girls, empties the dishwasher and waters the plants, she calls Cullen.  He always loved her most after she’d been in tears.

“It’s me,” she says.  “I’d like to see you.”

He laughs.  “I don’t know, Mrs. Natalie.  Probably not such a good idea.”

She sniffs.

“Have you been crying?” he asks.

His place is not his parents’ garage, but it’s pretty close.  It’s on the side of town Natalie doesn’t have much call to pass through.  The manager’s apartment in a thirty-unit complex.  There’s a name like Oak Village.  There’s a pool facing the road.  There are carports.  Cullen is embarrassed about the whole thing, and Natalie thinks about joking that she hopes she doesn’t run into her maid.  His expression makes her wonder if she’s somehow spoken out loud.

“I’m sorry,” she says as if she has.  She sits on a couch that she thinks she may actually recognize from his parents’ garage.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she says and she’s crying again.  She wants to explain, but it’s just not in her to do that, not even to try.

After they have sex, he watches her dress, and he says, “Looking good in those jeans, babe,” and she thinks she may never have been more tired of herself in her life.  She starts crying again.  He takes it as some kind of homage.  He flexes his bicep and then wraps his arm around her.  “It’s okay.  You just cry, cry, cry.”

When she calms down a little, he says, “You always were a crier,” and it’s true that she hasn’t felt this way since she was eighteen, like she needed arm after arm around her to remind herself that nothing helped, that she was a game she’d already lost.

“Jesus Christ,” she says aloud.  “I’m ridiculous.”

“What?” he says, and she starts to laugh.

“You sound like my husband,” she says, and she laughs harder.

Cullen watches her.  “Hey,” he says.  “Not that I’m making any judgment calls here or anything, but you seem pretty fucked up.  I mean you might want to get some help with that, you know?”

“Great,” she says, “I’ve got Cullen fucking Marks telling me I’m fucked up.”  The mix of rage and sadness makes her feel like she used to during her best highs, right before the nausea.

What did the girl feel like after unscrewing the last bolt from the window bars and setting the screwdriver next to her book bag?  Did she have second thoughts?  Did she worry about her mother?  Her brother?  Thank God, she must’ve been thinking.  Thank God.

She’s looking at Cullen with such repulsion that even he gets it.  “Hey,” he says finally.  “You called me.”

“You’re right,” she says.  “You always were.”  She looks at him.  “Come back to the house for dinner,” she says.

Despite himself, a small smile plays across his mouth.

She leans over him, her hair curtaining their faces.  She runs the tip of her tongue under his top lip.

A sound escapes him.  “You’re bad,” he says, snaking his hand up the inside of her leg.

She thinks of Cullen in her house.  It’s a terrible, terrible idea.  “So?” she says.

 

At home, it’s darker inside than it is out, and she thinks with some disappointment that they’re alone, and she remembers that Lloyd is picking Anna up from practice.  She glances at her watch.  Sometimes they stop for donuts.  She hears the small sounds of crying somewhere.  She listens more carefully.  It’s Emily.  Emily always cries as if mildly embarrassed about the whole thing, staying sad and ashamed for days afterwards.  Anna’s the tropical storm of sadness.  She sobs and sobs and then whatever mattered suddenly and no longer does.

Natalie would like to leave.  Put the car in neutral and roll as quietly as possible down the driveway and onto the road.  She closes her eyes.  “Let’s go,” she says to Cullen.  “This was a bad idea.”

“Someone’s crying,” he says.

She can smell him on her skin.  When they were going out, he liked to make her come with his hand, and then hold his wet fingers to her mouth.  She never liked the taste of herself.  She distracted him from doing that whenever she could.

Emily’s cries aren’t any louder, but they aren’t stopping either.

“Stay here,” she says, and heads down the hall to Emily’s room.  It’s empty.  Emily is in Natalie’s room, sitting crosslegged on her bed like a tableau of Young Natalie.  She looks up at her mother.

“Where have you been?” she says.

Natalie doesn’t answer.  She’s never seen her daughter sadder.

“I’m sad,” Emily says.  She’s trying to stop crying, but she can’t.  Her hands wipe helplessly at her face.

“That makes two of us,” Natalie says.

Emily cries harder.

Everything Natalie thinks of saying—it’s complicated.  There are things we can never know about each other and ourselves.  Maybe even for sixteen-year-old girls who are lucky in so many ways, there are things that’ll never be right.  But it all seems pathetic.  So she sits on the bed and watches her daughter cry.  Her shoulder blades move up and down like the arched points of a bird’s wings.  Hair is stuck to her face.  Her hands are wet with wiped tears.  She looks at her mother.  “Do something,” she cries.

Natalie thinks of Cullen waiting in the foyer.  Maybe he’s moved to the kitchen, checked the fridge for something to eat.  Maybe he’s perusing the framed photos on the living room sideboard.  Maybe Lloyd and Anna have come home.  She feels like the shell of something. A spider’s victim.  An Egyptian corpse.  Her daughter looks like she’s treading water in the deep end of the ocean.

“What’s wrong with you?” Emily says.  She’s stopped crying.

Natalie tells her she doesn’t know.  She tries to smile.  Emily stares at her.  “I’m a mystery to myself.”

“You’re my mother,” Emily says.  She starts crying again.

“People get sad,” Natalie says.  “People do sad things when they’re sad.”

“Stop talking,” Emily says through her tears.  She takes a huge breath.  “Just shut up,” she says.

Natalie would like to tell her that although these feelings never go away, she’ll learn how to navigate their waters.  She’d like to put an arm around her and tell her that happiness is something we all deserve.

“I don’t want to lie to you,” she says instead.

“You’re not sad,” Emily says.  “You’re mean.”

Heat spreads across Natalie’s chest.  “I’m both,” she says.

Why?” Emily says.

Natalie strokes her forearm.

“Mommies know all,” Emily says, crying again.  It’s something Natalie used to tell them when they were trying to figure out how she knew they were lying about where they’d been or what they’d done and with whom.

Cullen is in the doorway.  He leans against the frame as if waiting for a friend.  “Everything okay in here?” he asks.

The sight of him on the threshold of her bedroom sends shivers down Natalie’s legs.  Emily looks at her, and then at him.  “Who are you?” she asks.

He nods in Natalie’s direction.  “Old friend of your mother’s,” he says.

“Really,” Emily says blandly.

Her face is puffy and wet, and Natalie says to Cullen, “She doesn’t like other people to see her crying.”

“Mom,” Emily says sharply.

“She also doesn’t like other people to know private stuff about her,” Natalie says.

“Mom,” Emily repeats.

Cullen says, “Wonder where she gets that,” and crosses to the chair next to the bed.  It’s where Natalie throws her clothes.  He’s sitting on her nightgown.

“What kind of old friend?” Emily says.  It’s not clear which of them she’s asking.

He stretches his legs out, fingers the hem of the lace nightie, and looks up at Natalie.  “You want to handle that one, Mom?” he says.

She can’t feel the muscles in her face.  She stares at him with an expression she hopes contains sufficient warning.  She says nothing.

Cullen smiles and leans forward, his hands laced between his knees.  “We were crazy in love,” he says to Emily.  “Like you can’t believe.”  He shakes his head, like even he can’t.  “Wild crazy,” he says.  “Out of this world.”

Nothing about him suggests he’s teasing.  He’s staring at Emily like he’s worried she won’t get it.  She’s blushing just the way Natalie herself used to when Cullen turned his full attention on her.

He crosses to the bed and sits between them.  “It’s the truth,” he says.  “Ask your mom.”

Natalie realizes he’s worried about what she’s going to say.  She nods at her daughter.  “It was crazy,” she says.

Emily isn’t sad anymore.  Every part of her suggests high alert.  “What’s he doing here now?”

Cullen suddenly looks worn out and angry.  “Yeah,” he says.  “What’s he doing here now?”

Natalie shakes her head as if arguing with herself.  Her eyes are tearing up.  She says she’s sorry, but she thinks he should leave.

His laugh is a short bark.  “I bet you do,” he says and stays where he is.

Emily looks more alarmed.  “Mom?” she says.

Anna and Lloyd are in the doorway.  They take in the scene.

“Who are you?” Anna says to Cullen.

She exchanges a look with her sister and then falls silent.

“Natalie?” Lloyd says.

Her husband of twenty years, and the father of her children: there he is, looking at her like she’s the only person in the room.

Lloyd tells himself not to look at Cullen.  He keeps his eyes on his wife and crosses to the bed.  She looks like he’s forgotten who he is, but he tells himself if he looks at her the right way, her eyes will sharpen and he will see himself coming into clear focus for her.  He sits behind her and puts his arm around her.  He rocks her back and forth.  The bed is the ocean.  He tries to be a tiny boat.

Cullen is still on the bed.  “Hey, Lloyd,” he says.

Lloyd holds her tighter and rocks her harder.  The guy is a child.  The thought of him with Natalie should make him laugh, but it doesn’t.

Emily says warily, “This is a friend of mom’s.”

Cullen smiles at her and flicks the edges of her hair against her cheek like a feather duster.  Then turns his attention to Lloyd.  “We’ve met.”

“Please,” Natalie says, distraught.  Lloyd can’t tell which of them she’s addressing, but he turns to Cullen and says, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Cullen smoothes the bedspread between all of them and looks at Natalie while doing so.  Then he shakes his head.  “Sorry, chief.  No can do.”  He takes a finger and traces it from Natalie’s hand up her arm and across her cheek to her earlobe.  “She invited me,” he says as if each word is its own sentence.  His hand drops to the bed.  “Isn’t that right, Mrs. Natalie?” he says.

“Quit fucking around,” she says.  She turns to Lloyd.  “I can explain.”

Lloyd releases her, glancing at each of the girls.  “Just be quiet,” he says.  “Don’t say another word.”

Cullen pulls his other leg up onto the bed and sits crosslegged.

Anna is holding the doorjamb as if on an airplane in turbulence.  Emily’s frozen on the bed.  Lloyd reaches for her hand.  “Honey,” he says, his voice steady.  “Go with your sister and wait in the other room.”

Nobody moves.

Natalie’s distress is more obvious.  “What’s wrong with me?” she says, and Lloyd has never been angrier with her, but he says, “Nothing.  Nothing’s wrong with you.”  If he says it, maybe it’ll be true.

But she knows what they don’t.  It’s not the ocean rocking their boat; it’s her.  It’s her standing with her toes curled around the gunwale, her knees flexing, just to see what happens.  She could tell them all this. She could say I do such damage.  She could say: I’ll jump and the boat’ll buck and sway, but the waters will close around me and all will be calm.

Cullen says, “You know what I think about all the time?  You remember that story you told me about that camp you went to?”

Everyone looks at him.

“That day you did those things, with the horse?  I can’t remember what it was called.”

Natalie’s still looking at him.

“Remember?” he says with some impatience.

She shakes her head.  She doesn’t.

He looks at Emily and then back at Natalie.  “When I think about you, I think about your face telling me that story.”

Emily’s blushing again.  Lloyd has reddened slightly and says with the control that lets Natalie know how angry he is, “You need to leave.”

Cullen nods as if Lloyd has said something very wise.  “You need to ask your wife what I’m doing here,” he says.

And then she does remember.  Flying lead changes, changing leads at the canter in the air between two strides, designed to make changes in direction easier and more balanced.  The day she couldn’t get them, her instructor let all the other students go, and slowed Natalie and her horse to a walk, going over what she’d been going over for days: A good lead change would appear effortless in both the horse’s actions and the rider’s cues.  She had to be able to feel where the horse’s feet were in the canter sequence.  She had to allow the change to happen underneath her.  “You know all this,” her instructor said.  “So show me.”  And she sent Natalie back and forth, cantering on the long diagonals across the arena, oily dirt flying up and around her horse’s hoofs, the sun long gone behind the barn.  “Swap your leg position,” her instructor called out.  “Not faster, just better.”  Her voice kept time with the horse’s stride.  “Balance into the hand.  Throw your weight.  Show me.  Now.”  And Natalie couldn’t, and couldn’t, and then she could, and the feeling was otherworldly, the ripple and shift of the horse’s giant muscles a liquid landslide beneath her.  She’d formed a kind of partnership with the horse, but even more than that, she hadn’t: the animal was like a willed extension of her power.  Together they’d shown off a little.  Her usually gruff instructor was genuinely thrilled.  “Now you’re going places,” she said.

“Flying lead changes,” she says.  She hasn’t thought about that day in years.  She composes her face.

“Natalie,” Lloyd says.  His voice is full of warning and sadness, humiliation and betrayal.  She’s never told him that story.

“I’m sorry,” she says to both men, her voice calm.  “I need a couple of minutes.”

Both men stand, but don’t move.

Natalie goes on.  “The best thing about flying changes was the moment when all four of the horse’s legs were off the ground.”  She beckons to Anna, who comes over and sits next to her sister on the bed.  “It wasn’t about the horse at all,” Natalie says as if talking to herself. “The suspension phase, it was called.” She looks up at the two men.  “Please,” she says to both of them.  “Just a few minutes.”

The men glance at each other, and move towards the door.  Lloyd lets Cullen out of the room first, then turns back to his daughters.  “I’ll be right down the hall,” he says.  “You call me if you need me.”

The girls nod at him and move a little closer to each other on the bed. Natalie listens to the sounds of the men making their way down the hall.  She turns to her girls and takes them in.  They eye her warily.

“Hey,” she says.

“Hey,” they say together.

She wants to be back at the beginning of something.  She wants the possibility of that best self to be waiting for her at the end of the long, unhappy lesson.  So she’ll show them what she’s known all along.  She’ll explain what Cullen’s doing there.  She’ll explain why she called him and what she needed.  She won’t leave anything out.  Full disclosure, she thinks, wiping her face.  She can teach them, she thinks.  How to throw their weight, change their lead.  Come on, she’ll say to her girls, let’s show off a little.

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