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The Positionby Meg Wolitzer
The book was placed on a high shelf in the den, as though it were the only copy in the world and if the children didn't find it they would be forever unaware of the sexual lives of their parents, forever ignorant of the press of hot skin, the overlapping voices, the stir and scrape of the brass headboard as it lightly battered the plaster, creating twin finial-shaped depressions over the years in the wall of the bedroom in which the parents slept, or didn't sleep, depending on the night.
The book sat among a collection of unrelated and mostly ignored volumes: Watership Down, Diet for a Small Planet, Building a Deck for Your Home, Yes I Can: The Story of Sammy Davis, Jr., The Big Anthology of Golden Retrievers, and on and on and on. It was casually slipped in, this one copy of the book that the parents brought into the house, for if they'd stored all their copies, including the various foreign editions, in taped-up boxes in the basement marked "Kitchenware" or "Odds and Ends," that would have sent a message to the children: Sex is filth. Or at least, if not exactly filth, then something unacceptable to think about anywhere except beneath a blanket, in pitch darkness, between two consenting, loving, lusty, faithful, married adults.
This, of course, was not the view of the parents, who for a very long time had loved sex and most of its aspects — loved it so dearly that they'd found the nerve and arrogance to write a book about it. When they thought of their four children reading that book, though, they brooded about what kind of effect it would have on them over time. Would it simply bounce off their sturdy, sprouting bodies, or else be absorbed along with the fractions and canned spaghetti and skating lessons — the things that wouldn't last, wouldn't matter, or perhaps would matter, coalescing into some unimaginable shape and gathering meaning inside them?
But the parents' concern was mostly overshadowed by confidence, so why not put the book on a shelf in the den, a high but reachable shelf where the children could get to it if they wanted to, and the chances were good that they would want to, and that no one would be struck dead by it, and life would just go on, as it always had.
Michael Mellow, age thirteen and the second oldest of the Mellow children, was the one to find it. It was a late Friday afternoon in November 1975. He had wandered into the den of the house only moments after his father had stuck the book into the opening on the shelf and then retreated back upstairs. Michael was hunting for his Swingline mini-stapler in order to join together the many sheets of paper that constituted his essay on egg osmosis. Why his little red stapler should have found its way there, into the den, could not be answered. Things levitated and floated from room to room in this house: A stapler, which ordinarily was kept in a boy's desk, might inexplicably turn up open-jawed under the coffee table in the den; a box of Triscuits, empty or full, might make its temporary home on a bathroom counter. Objects moved and shifted and traded places, seemingly as restless as the people who owned them.
Walking through the den, Michael became aware of the presence of something new. It was as though he possessed one of those freakish photographic memories and could feel that something was here that should not have been, that had not, in fact, been here earlier in the day. He experienced a fee fie fo fum moment, smelling human blood — or more to the point, inhuman blood, something not quite earthly. The stapler, which was nowhere to be found, did not call out to him, but the book did, and he stood blinking and casting his eyes farther and farther upward, onto the shelves, moving among the familiar titles, the comforting ones that together over time defined his family life, just the way the UNICEF wall calendar tacked up inside the broom closet did, or the kitchen drawer filled with nothing but batteries that rolled freely when you opened it.
The Mellows' family life was also defined by a song, which had often been sung on vacations. For years, as they barreled along expressways toward Colonial Williamsburg with its candle-dippers and loom-sitters, or else toward a sleepy, shabby resort in the Poconos called the Roaring Fire Lodge, with everyone and their stuff packed tight into the Volvo station wagon, they would sing it:
"Oh we're the Mellows," they sang, "Some girls and some fellows..." And then they would continue in such a vein, using names of other families from the neighborhood: "We're not the Gambles/'cause we'd be covered with brambles." Or: "We're not the Dreyers/'cause we'd be liars." Or: "We're not the Rinzlers/'cause we'd be..." A stumped silence descended upon the car, while everyone tried to think their way out of this one.
"...Pinzlers!" shrieked Claudia, the youngest, and though this made no sense, the whole family paused for a moment, the older children making derisive groans that were quickly evil-eyed by the parents, and then they all gave in and sang Claudia's rhyme.
Every family in the world had its own corny, pointless song, or a set of ignored books, or a wall calendar, or a rolling battery drawer, all of which resembled, but only in part, those of other families. These details had been introduced into the Mellow household long ago and they were there for good. Here in the den, Michael Mellow leaped onto the couch barefoot, summoned silently, and there, second shelf from the top, he found it.
The book was white-spined, hard-backed, thick, sizzling, with a colophon of a mermaid gracing the spine, hand on hip, bifurcated tail flipped up in insouciance; it was this mermaid herself who seemed to be speaking to him. What she said was this: Pick it up, Michael. Go on. Don't be afraid. You have nothing to fear but fear itself. This last line was one that he had learned in social studies that very week.
Pulling hard, he yanked the book from its vacuum, glanced at his spoils briefly in terror, and then tucked it under his shirt, feeling its glossy surface against his bare, matte skin, forgetting the mini-stapler forever, forgetting the step-by-step progression of egg osmosis. Then he clambered up two flights of stairs and disappeared into the murk of his bedroom for one solid hour.
What he saw in the book was something that, Michael Mellow began to realize during that hour, he could not tolerate alone. He would have to bring Holly in on it, for he often brought her in when something was simply too difficult or perplexing or exciting or opaque to process on his own. She was older, she knew things, she had a worldly, cynical perspective that he lacked. But then he thought, no, it can't be just Holly, for she would think it was strange, even perverse, for her brother to invite her to sit with him and look at this thing. So he would have to invite the two others to look at it too, and it could become an important moment of sibling closeness, an eternal bond. That was what he would do. For if your parents write a book like this, one that's just burst out into the world, there's no way you can read it on your own and not discuss it, just as there's no way you can snub it entirely, act cool and indifferent in its presence. There's no way you can exist in the same house with that book, walking by it in the den while it's up there burning on the shelf, and tell yourself: I'm not ready for this.
Michael sat on the bed in his room, the book open on his lap. Sweat had formed in the notch above his upper lip, and he licked it quickly away, but already this innocent gesture seemed somehow sexual, and so did the taste of human broth in which bodies were basted. His own sweat had taken on a new quality, and so had his tongue, which seemed thick and alive. What would be next, his thumb-pad? The knob of his knee? Was everything that belonged to the body up for grabs and reinterpretation?
A little while later he returned the book to its proper place and said nothing to anyone. But already he had set his plan in motion, and now he waited. The following day, early in the afternoon, Michael said to the others, "They're gone. I heard the car."
It was a wet Saturday, and they were all corralled inside the house. The whole suburb of Wontauket seemed to be in an early hibernation, with children from other families trapped and stunned in their own homes, everyone inexplicably made helpless in the face of rain or a falling thermometer. In summer this town knew how to react, knew how to break out the timed sprinklers and sparklers and domed backyard grills and show a little spirit, but on a day like today it always seemed to plunge into a regional clinical depression. Nothing moved. Shades stayed down. Inside various white or avocado or copper-tiled kitchens, bread was dropped listlessly into the slots of toasters, dogs were fed from cans, newspapers were spread wide in front of faces, forming individual cubicles that neatly divided members of a family sitting together at one oval table. Things that had long been broken would perhaps today be fixed, at least partially. There was initiative, followed by boredom and then abandonment.
Such inertia seemed, at first look, to exist here in the large redwood house on Swarthmore Circle. Out front, leftover rain plopped rhythmically from paper birch trees, rendering the brick walkway leaf-slick, while inside, the Mellow children sat or lay on paisley throw pillows on the floor of their older sister Holly's hot-pink room. Long stretches of time passed during which no one spoke, though within the room, specifically within Michael, there was a covert stirring of energy and direction.
Dashiell, eight years old and the second-youngest of the four, sang to himself a song of his own design, something about an electric can opener that came to life and danced, while the three others played a somnolent round of the game Life, with its elaborate menu of choices: go to college, pick a career, buy a car, get married. (Why did you have to do things all the time? one or another of the children wondered sometimes. What did the world want from you? Why couldn't you just be left alone to exist?)
Michael Mellow, the cunning planner and decider of his siblings' fates, was thin and dark, good-looking though slightly adenoidal, destined to be considered bookish his entire life even if he were to become a forklift operator. He glanced across the game board at his older sister Holly, the person who occupied many of his thoughts, though this was not something that could ever be spoken. He would have to bury it like a bone. At fifteen, Holly fascinated everyone with her metallic blonde hair and aggregate of freckles that had collected on her face and arms and chest during many summers of sitting on a folding chair at Jones Beach with an unlistenable record album (Mitch Miller's Stars and Stripes Sing-Along) covered in Reynolds Wrap and splayed open before her. The sun connected with the sheet of aluminum and bounced back off onto the fair, vulnerable face of the girl who lay there. This was long before SPFs or melanoma death-warnings, and the sun created such a wall of light that even with her eyes closed, she seemed to be looking at something silvery white: falling snow, an enormous wave.
Now, in cold late fall, with the summer long done with, the reflector closed and put away in a third-floor closet among deflated inner tubes and thin, punishingly rough beach towels, Holly Mellow sat on the floor of her room, yawning, thinking not at all of her brother, or of anyone in the family except herself. Her feet were encased in spongy lime green socks. She was always cold, like many girls at age fifteen. It was as though female skin thinned out with the advent of puberty, leaving girls open to every stray thought and fear and desire, and in need of layers. Suddenly Holly had to have crocheted shawls wrapped around her, and ponchos with long fringe. Lately she had begun to feel she needed the draping of the warm, hairy arm of a boy, the pressure of which would create a contentment inside her that she couldn't find on her own up here in her pink room, which she'd long ago chosen for its frilly, undiluted girliness, but that lately seemed more like the color of inflamed desperation.
Adolescence had arrived recently and separately for both Holly and Michael, accompanied by the usual complement of sebum production and wild moods. Without consulting each other, they had taken on the roles of junior father and mother to their younger siblings Dashiell and Claudia, who sported giant new teeth dwarfing their baby ones, a series of untucked shirts, and vitamin breath each morning. Michael and Holly jointly ruled the third-floor duchy where the children all lived, coexisting with an assortment of animals that no one could really love: a ferret, a gecko, a tank of sea monkeys (technically brine shrimp, though the ad from the mail-order place had depicted the sea monkeys with mouths and eyes and even long, curling eyelashes), and an iridescent blue fighting fish with a decomposing tail that left fragments behind as it swiped like a blade through the rapidly clouding water.
The parents, always loving to their children but lately preoccupied by the sudden, massive success of their book, almost never came up to the third floor of the house, and as a result the place had become a kind of anarchic menagerie, dense with the dark stink and wall-fingerprints and equipment of child-life and animal-life, so different from the floor below, the parents' floor, which was a Danish-modern oasis. To a visitor, the parents' floor of the Mellow household seemed to suggest sex, or at least to suggest a sophisticated medium in which sex could grow unimpeded, a quivering, translucent agar where a man and woman could lie down together on any surface, blond wood or brass bed, and begin the overture of willing, playful, goal-free fucking.
The Mellow children, at the urging of Michael, who'd said to them that it was time they all saw it, time they "grew up, myself included," emerged from the bedroom and all went downstairs, clump-clump, down the groaning oak steps with their faded Persian runner, past the gallery of historically accurate, life-is-short family photos and school pictures, and, on the first-floor landing, past the penciled height demarcations that documented the children's rise from the size of fire hydrants to the size of, in Michael's case, an antelope.
Dashiell and Claudia straggled along. Claudia, age six, carried a troll doll by its shock of orange, wheaty hair, and she did not really understand what was happening; why the stealth, the need for solemnity, though she rarely questioned the authority of either Michael or Holly, who seemed to her as old as trees. As the youngest, she felt distinct from the others, even from Dashiell, who was only two years older. When she thought about Holly, she wanted to collapse and die, for Holly was so indestructibly female and beautiful, while Claudia herself was a crushable, fat, short-legged little thing, sexless and loveless.
After school Claudia often watched the four-thirty movie on channel seven, sitting alone in the den while the sky darkened outside and her brothers and sister went about their business elsewhere in the house. Movies had led her to believe, again and again, that when you became fully adult and grown, it was urgent that you find someone to love. In bed sometimes at night, Claudia embraced herself and kissed and licked her own hand, saying in a man's voice, the voice of an actor in the four-thirty movie, "I love you, woman, and I want to marry you."
She felt certain, even at her age, that it might be hard to find someone to marry her someday. She would have to pay him. Already, at age six, she was saving her money, stashing it neatly away in her hard white plastic Pillsbury Doughboy bank. Sometimes, on weekends, her parents would say, "Don't you ever want to spend your allowance, Claudia?"
"Claudia's cheap," Holly pronounced. Then she added, gratuitously, "I hate cheapness."
"I'm not cheap," Claudia said. "I have plans for my money."
Claudia Mellow saved her money quietly each week, spending nothing on herself, buying no chocolate, no Jolly Rancher watermelon stix, no little wax cola bottles whose single drop of liquid you were supposed to drink in a quick shot, your head flung back. She was parsimonious, she was a solitary nun, saving herself for the distant, swelling future.
Behind her on the stairs now came Dashiell, far more secretive than she was, and extremely contrary, walking along with one finger plugging a nostril. He knew what they were about to see, and he wanted no part of it. He tried to think of ways to get out of it, and as he thought, his finger continued to trawl. From the time he'd been born, Dashiell had seemed to be in a perpetual search for treasure of some kind. He spent entire days wandering around the Wontauket dump, sifting through old furniture and car parts. It was as though he was convinced that there was something extraordinary to be found somewhere, because this sobering life could not possibly be all there was. Or if it was — oh God, what an enormous letdown, what a tragedy.
Once, Dashiell's nose had bled for twenty-four hours and needed to be cauterized, a disturbing procedure involving a sizzling electric needle. He'd wept in the office of the GP, Dr. Enzelman, bright blood all over his small hands and face and the crisp paper scroll of the examining table, but afterward, on the way home in the car with his mother lecturing him, he had been unrepentant.
"Dash, you've got to stop this habit," his mother had said gently, though with obvious anxiety. "I'm worried that other people won't want to be around you, and that your friends will start to leave you out of games. You know, when I was growing up in Mount Arcadia — "
"I've heard this."
"No, you haven't heard this. Not this particular bit. When I was growing up, there was a little boy at our day school who had this very same habit. His name was William, and he just couldn't leave his nose alone. If memory serves, pretty soon he was ostracized in the school yard."
Dashiell had ignored her, not knowing what "ostracized" meant, but assuming it involved being tied up and perhaps even being beaten. He hunched down into the bucket seat of the Volvo and stared out at the expressway. His mother was a kind but sometimes overly emotional woman who liked to tell cautionary tales from her own Gothic, upstate childhood.
"Please look at me when I talk to you," she'd continued, and he'd turned his face to her with an expression of defiance, tilting his head up so that his nose — his nose, his — was front and center.
Dashiell felt defiant here on the stairs with his brother and sisters, too, except this time no one noticed or cared. If he resisted, he knew that his little sister Claudia would lord it over him forever. The moment she looked at the book herself, she would be pleased with the knowledge that she now possessed and that he still lacked. It wasn't only that he was afraid the book would disgust him — at age eight he had no doubt that it would — but also that he couldn't bear anything being imposed on him like an unwanted and sickening meal.
Out the large picture window on the landing just above the first floor of the house, they could all see the oil-spattered driveway with the station wagon missing. Their parents were indeed gone, having headed off to New York City, fifty-five miles westward along the Long Island Expressway. That was the thing about raising several children: If you waited long enough, eventually they formed their own colony and could largely take care of themselves, the older ones slapping bologna onto soft bread and handing it to the younger ones at approximately lunchtime, or else the older ones speaking in encrypted, deliberately stilted syntax over the shining heads of the younger ones.
Today, Michael shepherded the rest of them down the two flights of front hall stairs and straight into the den, that autumnally decorated room where over the years the whole family had watched Jacques Cousteau specials ("Eet eez deeficult to know when zee white shark he weel attack," they would mimic), where shy Claudia had sat alone on the kilim rug and chanted and arranged her troll dolls in a circle like a druidic ritual, where Holly had recently stood behind the drapes in experimental breath-to-breath closeness with Adam Selig from Princeton Court, where Michael had plowed through most of Cat's Cradle and Great Expectations, where Dashiell, wanting to make a point, had hidden behind the large Ming-like vase full of dried, crackling coins of eucalyptus for hours and hours, singing quietly to himself, and where late one night a few years earlier, after making love with particular gusto and affection on the old brown ribbed velvet sofa, the parents had hatched the idea for their book in the first place.
Now the children needed the natural world to disappear, the parents to be gone, heading off onto the expressway, the mother flipping down the passenger-side mirror that no man had ever used, applying to her lips a light coat of pearly gloss from a little pot, the father tapping a palm against the wheel to the beat of some loosey-goosey radio jazz, the car conveying them far from the house on Swarthmore Circle in Wontauket and off to the city, where they would be well out of the range of their children's ferocious curiosity.
"Once we've seen it," Holly had said a few minutes earlier when Michael announced his intention, "then we can never unsee it. It will stay in our minds. Remember when we all saw the electrocuted chipmunk? And then I had those dreams?"
"I remember." Her brother closed his eyes against the image, the tiny racing-striped little body hanging from an electrical wire in the yard. The dreams had come to Holly serially night after night; she had cried at 3 A.M. and had been so terrified that their mother, awakened from her own sleep, had given Holly a slug of NyQuil so she would calm down. "But seeing it didn't ruin you," Michael added. "You're still you." His sister absorbed this thought, nodding slowly. Her eyelashes were white, he noticed. She herself wasn't earthly; she herself was a mermaid.
"So then what, Michael?" she asked. "Are we supposed to tell them we've seen it?"
"Why would we tell them?" he said. "They'd only want to discuss it. They always want to discuss everything. Anyway, do you tell them anything about yourself anymore?" Holly thought for a moment, and she had to admit that no, she didn't, they knew nothing about her, and that was the way she liked it.
The parents were right now on their way to a packed auditorium at the New School in Manhattan, where they would be delivering the first of many, many lectures that they would give over time in which they discussed the genesis of the book, the research they'd done, the process of trying out sexual acts and writing about them. They would talk about what it had been like posing for the artist John Sunstein's drawings: The mother would say how she'd been embarrassed at first, because she wasn't an exhibitionist at all, but Sunstein had turned out to be a quiet, affable young man in his twenties with long, light brown hair and buffalo sandals, both professional and respectful, and after a while she came to look forward to the sessions. "You both look wonderful," the artist would say to them, and then he'd disappear behind his easel and she would forget about him for the rest of the time.
"It was very peaceful, posing for him," she'd tell the audience.
They would also speak knowledgeably about Chinese erotic art and the teachings of The Kama Sutra, some of which they had incorporated into their work. And they would talk about the new position they'd invented, and how exciting it had been first to create it and then to refine it. "All that practicing," the father would say. "It was grueling!" Then there would be laughter, followed by questions from the wound-up audience, endless questions, everyone wanting to ask or add something even if they really had nothing to say.
Right now the parents were hurtling forward in the family car, the Volvo whose very name was itself suggestive of sex. But then again, everything was, once you realized it: a Volvo, the way you licked away your own sweat from above your lip. The world itself buzzed and bloomed into something living and carnal made of dirt, sand, water, and restless humans who filled the air with the plaintive and often indistinguishable sounds of pain and arousal.
The book was called Pleasuring: One Couple's Journey to Fulfillment. The title, when the children had first heard it and begun to understand it, was so incontestably mortifying that it threatened to stunt them forever, leaving them locked in time and in a steadfast refusal to enter the adult world with its harrowing demands on your day, your energy, your finances, your body. In the den now they gathered around the book, Holly and Michael in front, controlling the rate and rhythm of page-turn, Dashiell and Claudia on either side, the whole group of them, at first glance, like an advertisement for homeschooling.
"Here we go," said Michael as Holly turned the first page, and everyone made vague sounds: a trumpet introducing royalty, a snort, a snicker, a summoned kid-belch, followed by violent shushing. The front cover, aside from the title, held nothing much to frighten or excite them. It was a classic shade of white, and shiny, with a simple drawing of a rumpled white bed, that was all, the covers thrown back as though they wouldn't be needed here, and you knew why. It was a couple's bed, a man-woman bed, and so far they could tolerate this knowledge. The title was written out in curly gold letters, hovering in the air above the empty bed like the residue of a dream. So far, so good. Inside the book there was plenty of leisurely text, including an introduction by an academic named L. Thomas Slocum from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
"Slocum," said Holly with contempt. "What a name."
"What?" said Michael, uncomprehending.
"Slocum. Slow-cum?" she said again.
"Oh. Yeah. Right," he said, finally nodding.
L. Thomas Slocum's prefatory remarks put the Mellows' enterprise in a social context, pronouncing the book brave and beautiful, and "exactly what is needed in times like these," and then after that came the opening chapter, "Sexual Intercourse: First Things First," which opened with a breathtakingly detailed description accompanied by a full-color drawing, the first of many.
It was them. Them. The parents. Lying on the creased sheets of the same large white bed from the cover of the book, him on top of her, both of them smiling and relaxed, their bodies fused together like the soldered parts of a single piece of machinery.
"Well, fuck me, Jesus," said Holly, who had lately taken to saying such phrases. In the Wontauket Mall on weekends with her friends, a group of girls standing in front of Blooberries or Stuff n' Nonsense and pretending to look covetously at halter tops but in fact glancing with smoldering disdain at the fleet of boys who skulked through the cavernous space, she only spoke this way for effect, but now she needed to say it, needed to respond out loud or else she feared she might split apart along some invisible seam that ran down the sides of her body.
Beside her, Dashiell looked away, furious at being here, muttering to himself, and then he quickly looked back. He went through a series of these repetitions, loathing his older brother for doing this to him, when all he had wanted today was to be lost inside the delicate, invented melodies that wafted through him. Instead, he was forced to sit here, looking at these pages, and he felt his face heat up, and he hated his entire life for the way it caged him inside it, and he vowed to show everyone, to show them, though he didn't really have anything to show. Meanwhile, his eyes kept drifting irrevocably back to the book, pulled there as if he'd been placed under a spell. Yes, master, he thought, but who exactly was the master: His brother? His sister Holly? His parents, with their outrageous openness? It was impossible to tell, and so he just let himself look and look, wishing someone would wake him up and set him free.
Beside him, little Claudia emitted giggling shrieks. She thought of herself and her future husband lying in bed at night, and for the first time ever she wondered if she really wanted to spend her money on this after all. What was the point? So that your back would arch and your teeth would bare? It was horrible; there was no other way to view it. Tomorrow she would spend all her money on candy, on those miniature cola bottles and Dum Dum lollipops, and those orange marshmallows that were shaped like peanuts but for some reason tasted like banana, and on anything else she could find at the little candy store that she'd been snubbing for months now. She wanted nothing to do with what her parents did in bed. She had been wrong all this time. Love wasn't for her; it wasn't what she thought it was.
In the den now, Claudia began to slap the side of her own face, saying, "Call an ambulance! Call a policeman!"
"Oh, just be quiet over there," said Michael lightly. Neither of the older children could bear any distraction right now. It was as though they were cramming for an urgent life exam, taking in everything that they possibly could and holding on to it for future reference.
Like all the illustrations in the book, this first one was pen and ink and shaded with lightly tinted pastel hues by that shy artist John Sunstein, who had already done a famous Rolling Stones album cover. Here he rendered the parents in all their humanness, and he drew them engaged in sexual practices both common and obscure, Western and Eastern, ancient and modern, freehand and apparatus-aided. No journalist had publicly come out and written that these pictures were actually meant to be the parents, and Sunstein had in fact tactfully altered the hair in both cases, changing the mother's Irish setter-red hue to something more neutrally brown, and turning the father, who in real life had a thick, dark beard and mustache, into someone clean-shaven but woolly-headed. But what did any of it matter? Everyone knew it was them. Everyone. The parents' own parents, elderly and fragile from bone loss and arrhythmia, knew. The family physician, Dr. Enzelman, knew. The mailman and the librarian and the neighbors on Swarthmore Circle and Princeton Court and Cornell Avenue knew. The children's teachers knew. The children knew. The hair alterations in the drawings were the equivalent of a poor disguise worn by criminals who unconsciously long to be caught and punished.
I would recognize my mother's body anywhere, Holly Mellow thought, for she and her mother used to undress in front of each other, though for the past year or so Holly couldn't bear it. In the changing room at Lord & Taylor in the mall, back before she became so self-conscious, they would slip off their blouses and jeans, standing there together in a space the size of a voting booth, with its straight pin-studded carpet and saloon doors; this female world in which henlike older women with eyeglasses on beaded chains and Kleenex tucked unaccountably into cleavage patrolled the corridor a few feet away, calling out, "How you ladies doin'?"
And at home, in the second-floor bathroom, they had once stood side by side, bare-chested, as the mother showed her daughter how to perform a breast self-exam.
"I learned how to do it from a diagram in Ms. magazine. And you should know how to do it too, Holly, because Grammy Jean had a radical. With lymph node involvement," her mother had cryptically explained as she lifted one arm up in a salute and brought her other arm across her own chest, fingers playing with sprightliness on the surface of the breast as though it were a harpsichord.
But here, now, in the pages of a book, the mother's breasts were available for the entire world to appraise, sloping slightly down to the sides of her chest as she lay on her back with the father astride her. Bodies, the children quickly understood, were one thing to view in isolation from other bodies, but when they were observed together, interconnecting in those ways that bodies could, then nothing could prepare you for that sight. Your eyes were simply unready.
On page after page, their mother and father gave themselves to each other in all kinds of ways. They had apparently assumed these positions in John Sunstein's studio, and perhaps they had also assumed them countless times in the house while the children slept with the vaporizer snuffling, or fed the unresponsive sea monkeys, or smoked a joint, or else ran a hand down the interiors of their own pajama bottoms, softly cupping their genitals as if protecting them from the future stresses and burdens they would by necessity endure. There was no way out, they were starting to realize; you just headed toward it all as though you were rushing to an extremely dangerous but thrilling war.
Michael glanced over at Holly; her fair, dotted skin was now universally flushed red — even the tips of her ears seemed to be aflame. She had a flexible, gymnastic body, and it was possible for him to imagine her arching up on a bed in a year or two, being fucked by a faceless boy in some spectacularly gymnastic way. But what could it possibly feel like to be fucked? He was incapable of imagining it, for you had to see yourself as hollow, receptive, and he was neither of these things. His sister's image tenaciously stayed with him now. No. No. Stop. Don't think about her like that, Michael thought.
The page had been turned during his brief, dreamy lapse, and now the mother and father were doing something involving scarves attached to the mother's wrists and ankles.
"They should be lovingly tied," read the prose, and as the children stared at the illustration, Dashiell thought: Oh no, my mom's being...ostracized!
All the children imagined the parents on a bed that had been set up in that New York City studio where they'd gone a couple of times a week over a period of months, "to work with the artist," they'd said, and none of the children had ever inquired as to exactly what that work entailed. Instead, they had often just looked up, bored and unconcerned, and let themselves be kissed good-bye. They'd said yes, we'll take care of lunch; yes, we know the Rinzlers' number in an emergency; yes yes, we'll be fine. And then they'd returned to their own states of self-absorption. But if they'd known then what they knew now, would they have tried to stop the parents? Maybe they could have barred the front door, keeping the parents captive in the house. Maybe they could have said, Don't do this, for it will change everything.
And it did change everything eventually, it did.
But for now, in the first flush of the book's grand success, its quick leap from money-maker to phenomenon, the parents were without either prescience or remorse. They were a good-looking woman and man in excellent shape for ages thirty-nine and forty, respectively. The father's unruly dark hair and beard gave him a slightly Satanic but artistic look, though in fact he was quite gentle and hardly an artist. He was thoughtful and playful and an excellent listener. He nodded his head slowly while the children talked, and he stroked his beard, and he remembered the names of their teachers. All told, he was an inordinately kind father who made banana pancakes on Sundays and taught his children how to sing "Norwegian Wood" in Pig Latin and how to whistle using two fingers. He wore turtlenecks, particularly black ones, and a thick, hand-tooled leather belt with a large square buckle of the sort you might find on a Pilgrim's shoe. While he loved his children thoroughly and sentimentally, this was nothing compared with the way he loved his wife, and all the children knew it, for the force of it was so strong that everyone could feel it as it traveled the house.
"Your mother," their father said once as they all sat at dinner in a seafood restaurant, "even looks incredible in a lobster bib. Just look at her. Winner of Ms. Sexy Lobster Bib of 1972."
"Oh, stop it now, you're being stupid," she said, waving a hand, her mouth bright with butter, as if to highlight this part of her that was particularly erotic to him. But he would never be able to pick a particular part; as far as he was concerned, the whole thing just worked.
It wasn't that the children felt ignored, for their father did turn his attention to them, too, and their mother never seemed entirely comfortable inside their father's gaze. At times she seemed as though she were irritated and trying to flutter away. It was a mating dance the two of them did: the worship followed by the pleased, proud, squirming response.
"Look at your mother," he instructed them. "See how graceful she is with a pair of chopsticks." Or "Look at your mother. She is an amazing woman." Or "Look at your mother. She is the most interesting person I've ever known."
So they looked. They looked across restaurant tables, across supermarket aisles, across the den at night, and across the kitchen, where their mother stood at the sink, tearing apart a head of lettuce under a column of water. Her deep red hair, pale skin, and large breasts rendered her vulnerable, motherly, welcoming, but also, apparently, seriously desirable. She was louder than he was, moodier and more dramatic, prone to tears that filled her blue eyes and made them look luminous. Her nose grew red quickly when she cried, complementing her hair, giving her the look of a fetching drunken Irishwoman with a deep, guarded secret.
"I know your father gets carried away," their mother sometimes said to them when he was not around. "But he's a very expressive man, which is a pretty unusual thing."
Certainly none of their friends' parents seemed to be so actively in love with each other. Most mothers and fathers coexisted like boarders in a rooming house, sharing the same space, trying not to aggravate each other, but essentially living separate lives, one involved with spreadsheets and the home office, the other involved with the children. The Mellows were different, and the children had long ago recognized this with a certain pride and unhappiness.
Their parents exercised every day at a time when exercise was not yet in fashion, performing the Canadian Royal Air Force's recommended count of sit-ups and push-ups each morning, keeping their abdomens from softening to that dreaded pocked-dough consistency that indicated surrender. Here, they were flaunting their self-preservation. In one drawing, their mother — "the woman," the children preferred to think of her — crouched on the bed, slightly bored, angling her head back as though to see what all the fuss was behind her, what "the man" was doing, as though she really had no idea, as though he might be back there folding a map. In another, she sat above him with her head raised, the segments of her throat carefully delineated by John Sunstein, who several years earlier had been the most stellar student his teacher had ever seen in his anatomical drawing class at the Cooper Union School of Art. The mother's eyes were shut, ostensibly because the pleasure was simply too great to absorb with them open, or perhaps because she knew her children would soon be seeing this picture, and she didn't really want to make eye contact with them.
"This can't be happening," Holly said as she flipped through.
"Well, it is," said Michael. "Obviously. So deal with it." Immediately he was sorry for the tone he'd taken with the sister whose trust and love he needed now even more than usual. He'd been the one to cause her to need to deal with it, though she would have had to deal with it on her own anyway. There was no way that she would have allowed the book to stay unread in that house. Like him, she would have had to know.
"I am dealing. Obviously. But are they totally sick? Whose parents do this?" she asked.
"Ours," he said. He needed to seem slightly unaffected now. He needed to seem casual, as though he wasn't to blame for having seen it, and, even more to the point, for having pushed it on the others.
All the action in the drawings seemed to take place during the daytime, the white pages serving as a sunlit or floodlit background. This was no bout of nighttime fucking; in the nighttime, specifics would likely be lost. Someone might touch someone else and the sensation would be wonderful but fleeting, and that combination of pressure and exactness could never be replicated. But on white paper, the white sheets of a bed let nothing be lost. A man's hand found a woman's nipple in just such a way, the thumb and index finger cradling it the way a photographer might reduce a shot to its essentials, leaving everything extraneous out of the circle. A woman pushed herself against a man, the surfaces of their bodies forming some kind of human grassland.
The man and woman in Pleasuring were presentable, very much so, though everything they enacted — every movement, every finger insinuating itself into folds, every cock tip, every hand, foot, abdomen, spine, opening, clavicle, swirl of hair, dew-bead of sweat, mouth pushing into giving flesh, silent scream, garter, handcuff, flowing purple scarf, stiletto heel on naked leg — was a new source of astonishment to their children, a series of faster and faster ball-peen hammer strikes, not all of them unpleasurable, some of them painful in the exquisite way that lifting the crisp little edge of a knee-scab is painful, and some of them arousing, though the younger children didn't even know they were aroused, for the sensation hadn't been defined for them yet.
The younger ones just felt ramped-up, heightened, the way they felt when they chased someone across the blacktop playground at school, or when they stayed awake until midnight on New Year's, or when they swam all day in the water at Jones Beach and then emerged, dripping, lips blue and scalps burning, inevitably wanting more, though their mother and father always told them Enough.
None of the four children could stop looking at the book; they had all been given orchestra seats for the primal scene, and now the heavy maroon curtain had gone up on the mysteries of love, which no child on earth has the privilege or the right to see.
Can I try that with Adam Selig? Holly wanted to know.
She would find out the answer sooner than she might have imagined.
God, I hate them, thought Michael.
He would learn to keep it in.
If I grab the book and take it to the Wontauket dump, will it disappear? thought Dashiell.
Sorry, no. The book would have many lives over the years. Nothing could kill it.
I will live a life alone, with my trolls, thought Claudia.
For a long time, some modified version of that vow would be true.
For this is what they do in bed, the children now knew. This is why the door gets locked sometimes at night. This is who your parents are, this is why you're not allowed in, this is who the world suddenly knows them as, this is what it's like to be human, to want, to be fully grown in America in 1975, to be in possession of body parts that move and react individually and startlingly; this is what it's like to be them, to be your parents, so don't turn away, keep your eyes popped wide, all four of you Mellow children, even the youngest one, six years old and overwhelmed with excitement and horror, for it's already too late now, the pictures may be pen and ink but they're anything but soft, and they will stay with you always, like that chipmunk in the yard that was frizzled in death and yet still clinging to a wire, for this is what it's like to cling to each other, a man and woman holding on tight, this is what it's like to be them, this is what it's like, and the most unbelievable part of it is that one day, this is what it will be like to be you.
Copyright © 2005 by Meg Wolitzer
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