Bart arrived at last and hugged her nearly naked son, but he gave her a brief glance drenched with unnecessary guilt and stepped back. He quickly handed Van a present wrapped in brown paper and a white bow and grinned sheepishly.
They moved out to the poolside patio where the other guests--three high school senior girls--had collected like uncertain chorus members of a brand-new play, and Van tossed the gift onto the pile. He was wearing his rayon trunks and a bracelet, and he kicked off his flip-flop sandals. "Let the party begin," he announced, and he dropped into the water.
Bart stood stiffly by the screen door until Monica took his arm. "Come on, now, don't be shy. We're all friends here."
"Thank you, Mrs. Monet."
"My name is Monica," she told him. She tried to whisk away his trepidation with a smile, but he wouldn't look at her long enough.
The girls shed their sweatshirts and jeans and sat at the edge of the enormous pool, one Mr. Monet had built so that he could row a boat like he owned in his boyhood. Van swam about halfway across, disappeared under the surface for a minute and then came back, popping up like a dolphin and spitting water like a fountain. The girls laughed, but Bart ignored the splashes and sat down with a plate of food from the buffet.
Van climbed out of the pool and shook his wet head. The girls ducked and put their hands to their faces and giggled as if they were all secretly in love with him. Monica watched her son flash them a smile, and then he plopped onto a reclining deck chair and said, "Bart, get Daddy a towel."
Monica watched the three girls burst into laughter like a flock of pigeons erupting from a treetop when Bart, his head hanging from his shoulders as if to mimic a withering balloon, got up and walked over to a table, picked up a towel and handed it to Van.
"Oh, thank you so much," her son said. He patted his lean limbs dry as if he might scratch his smooth young skin if he rubbed too hard. Bart returned to his seat and took a bite of his hot dog.
Like ducks lost on a golf course, the girls followed each other to the buffet and began to gather miniature hors d'oeuvres. Each of them, Monica noticed, wore an almost identical bikini, but of different colors: bright yellow, canary yellow and lemon, and they all had tattoos around their navels. She decided she did not want to get close enough to compare those, or to see if they were indeed permanent.
"Did you know," her son said, out of the blue, with an accentuated falsetto, "that one out of every 2,000 little boys and girls are born with both boy parts and girl parts?"
"Oh, Van," one of the girls said, "it can't be that many."
"It is," he said. "It's a very highly kept secret like the stealth bomber or something. One out of every 2,000 babies born with both a wee-wee and a no-no. What are a heterosexual mommy and daddy to do?"
Another of the girls seemed genuinely curious. "What do they do?" she asked. Crumbs fell out of her mouth, and she tried to catch them in her cupped hand as she finished her cracker.
"Snip snip," Van said. The girls laughed. Monica grinned, but she didn't know about her son's statistics. She sat down with her lemonade and put her hand over her eyes.
Van produced a pair of sunglasses from somewhere on his skin-tight trunks and put them on. It was like a magic trick, and Monica could not figure out where he had hidden them. He put them on only to push them down the bridge of his nose and bat his eyelashes as he looked around. "Where is my big sister anyway?" he asked.
"Gay is upstairs with your father," Monica told him.
"Oh, goody," said Van. "Good old Dad, always sick on my birthday."
"You know he's just had a cold."
"Yes, and he's too fat to climb out of bed."
"Your father is not fat," Monica argued. "Not anymore. You should be proud of him."
"Like he is of me?"
Having finished grazing, the girls quacked and waddled over to the pool and descended into the water. They each selected a floating air mattress and made slippery, suggestive and completely unappreciated gymnastic movements to climb onto them. Van pushed his glasses up to mask his eyes.
"Guess what," he said, in a theatrical whisper, as if he had heard a scandalous rumor.
"What?" Monica asked.
"I've decided to go to Stanford."
Monica put down her hand from her eyes and squinted at him. She felt a trickle of condensation roll from the glass onto her fingers, and she wished the lemonade would turn into a sherry.
"You're not..." she heard Bart say, in his deep and quiet voice. "You're not going to CCU?"
"CCU?" Van repeated, elongating the "u" into some kind of vulgar letter she felt should be stricken from the alphabet. "Oh, puh-lease."
"But you told me," Bart began, but he said nothing more.
Monica swallowed. Her mouth felt suddenly and terribly dry, and she drank down her lemonade in one long, continuous swallow. She put the glass on the iron table beside her, and she faced her son. He was watching her, a half smile on his face as if his mouth had caught on a hook. "I heard you," she informed him. "I'm just have no response at this particular moment."
"Daddy told me I could go wherever I choose," he said. "I'm smart enough to get into any college, as you remind me every day, and I choose Stanford. I've heard good things about the men there."
"Van," Monica said, but it was pointless. Bart looked down at his plate and frowned.
"What?" her son said. "Am I to be nice today? It's my birthday."
"Yes, it is," Monica said. She got up and brushed her damp hands on her tan slacks and then reached up and felt her earrings to make sure they were both still there. The sun felt hot and shined so brightly, and she wondered where she had left her hat.
"Well, you can't expect me to sit around here for the rest of my life, can you, either of you?" her son asked.
"I'd prefer you did," Bart said. Monica admired his frankness, but she had to wonder why.
"Good ol' faithful Bart," Van said. He seemed to revel in his cruelty. "Afraid to be alone."
"Van," Monica said. She did so wish she had her hat.
"I know what he's thinking. He doesn't even like me, but I'm the only other one of his kind around," Van suggested, as if he believed himself. "Admit it. We're freaks. We're like those mutants on the other end of town. Nobody wants our kind here."
Monica sighed. She took a step forward, but then backed up. She didn't know where to stand. She saw Bart pick up a potato chip from his plate, but he didn't bite into it.
"We're nothing alike, really," her son continued, "but it's hard for him to admit it." He had rolled his towel into a tight weapon, and he unleashed it like a whip at Bart. The poor boy flinched and moved his chair a few inches back. "I'm gay, you see," Van said. "Spelled G-A-Y. I'm not happy about it, either, but I'm fuh-laming."
Monica looked up at the sun. There was no getting away from it. She took a step forward.
Van laughed. "Bart. Even his name is butch. Bart. Nothing gay there." He made a clucking sound with his tongue. "Such a waste of a manly name."
Bart looked up. He opened his mouth and thought for a second. Then he said quietly, as if offering a confession, "I'm as gay as you are."
"Yeah. You'd be just like me if you got a haircut and lost, like, 30 pounds."
Bart's head dropped, he looked sideways, and he put his hands on his knees. He pushed himself off the low chair and stood. "I need to use the bathroom," he said.
Monica stood quickly and walked with him, slid open the screen door before he walked into it and pointed him the right way, squeezing his arm once to try to tell him that he didn't deserve the abuse. She slid the door closed and returned to the patio and watched the girls float far in the distance on the other side of the glittering pool.
She reached down and grabbed the towel from Van as he wound it again. She threw it down against the concrete patio and it made a resounding splat. Van looked up at her with a curious stare. "You will apologize to that boy when he comes back out," she demanded, "if he comes back out."
"I believe he just told us that he is out," Van said.
Monica struggled to think of something clever to say, for she knew her son had her beat in the quick wit department and she just hated that. He was still, she reminded herself, her child, so she began to speak, in spite of not knowing exactly what to say. "I admire you," she began. "It's hard, it's very hard, I know, to be what you are in a town like this. I wish you could see it from Bart's point of view. He's only 17 years old. His father drives a potato truck and his mother is a housewife. We are 2,000 miles from anything near a gay mecca, and you cannot hold him accountable for that. I will not have my son acting like he's a character in a badly written cable TV show!"
There, she had said something clever, and she felt rather proud of herself. Van adjusted his shades and sat back, but she could tell he was still looking at her, despite the glare on his lenses.
She decided to add some more lines to her speech. "I don't know what I did wrong. I tried to raise a good boy. I didn't care, I mean I cared, but I didn't mind when you came out of the closet at the age of nine, but I must have somewhere done something wrong to have raised such an indignant, unpleasant child. Maybe I spoiled you. Maybe I shouldn't have paid for these birthday parties of yours, with the pink balloons--not the cheap rubber kind, either, but expensive rose-colored Mylar balloons that we don't even blow up ourselves--but let me tell you something, honey. You may be only 18 today, but you, young man, have grown into a bitter old queen."
"Oh, Mother, you're so melodramatic. Very Johnny Guitar."
"I don't even pretend to know what that means," Monica said. Damn it, she thought. She felt trumped again. She bent over and picked up the towel at her feet. "Now go inside and apologize to that boy."
"I don't want to apologize. I don't have to just because he's the only other homosexual within a hundred miles of this sordid little mud hole. You know why I'm choosing to go somewhere other than Crooked Corners University? You know why? Because I'm sick of living in this fucking small town!"
Monica stopped folding the towel and stood still. "I would say," she offered, pushing her voice down and squeezing both fists against the towel in order to seem calm, though her heart was beating a mile a minute, "that little boys should not use words like that in front of their mothers. But I guess you're a big boy today."
Van watched her, but said nothing. The sun reflected off the lenses of his shades and shined at her like the headlights of an approaching car.
"I'm going inside." She turned around and almost walked into the screen door, but stopped and slid it open with frustration, slammed it closed as best as she could and stepped through the kitchen.
Bart had come out of the bathroom, but he was hovering in the hallway. He looked away from her, as if studying the wall.
"Nice paint we have here, Bart, don't you think?" Monica said. She tried to sound light and breezy and gay. She liked him, and she wanted to get that across.
"I must apologize for my son. I don't know where it comes from."
"That's okay, Mrs., uh, Monica."
"Monica, that's right."
"That's okay, Monica," Bart repeated slowly. He grinned. He was a foot taller than her, but she reached up and grabbed his chin and shook it like he was in kindergarten.
"You're a good boy," she said. She put her hand down when he blushed. "You don't have to stay, today, if you're unhappy. I don't blame you."
"It's okay. I'm used to it."
"He's a spoiled beast."
"Well, ignore him. Feel free to come and use the pool any time you want, Bart," she said. "And bring your friends, even if his highness does move on to greener pastures."
"Yes, I mean it. Even next summer if you want."
"Okay. I'll take you up on it."
"Good." She smiled and gave him a wink, and went past him and climbed the stairs.
Her daughter met her halfway.
"How is he?" she asked.
"Daddy's fine," she said. "I could hear shouting."
"Not shouting," Monica clarified. "Bitching."
"Oh, dear," Gay said.
Monica had given up on lamenting the irony of her sweet daughter's name contrasted with the actuality of her son's design. She sighed. "If you wouldn't mind, I need you to go out and baby-sit a while. I'm exhausted already."
"Have a lemonade," Monica said, as her daughter descended and she finished the climb. She ran her hand through her hair and tried to fix her expression before she entered the bedroom. Mark was under the covers, sleeping on his side.
"Are you feeling better?" she asked.
"Feeling better," she said. She sat down beside him and put her mouth to his ear. "Are you?"
She took that as a yes. She put her fingers on his shoulder and ran a tickle down his sleeve. "Our son has decided to go to Stanford," she told him.
Mark stirred and rolled over a little, wincing. "What is that, a restaurant?"
"It's a college, dear."
"Oh. The world is too big."
Monica nodded. She sat up, thinking. She gazed at her husband, who looked sleepy and puffy and so kind. She felt bad suddenly, and said without thinking, "Our boy is his mother's son, I'm afraid."
"What do you mean?" her husband asked.
"Oh, nothing, dear." She patted him on the rump and got up and walked to the dresser, where she found her hat waiting for her. She picked it up and placed it on her head and admired herself in the mirror.