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A Still-Life Watercolor of a Now-Late Afternoon

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What would you say, Benjamin, if I told you that I meant for this to happen? Would it surprise you if I told you I planned it all along?

Oh, I’ve shocked you again, haven’t I? (Or I would have shocked you, if you were really here with me. I wonder where you are by now.) I don’t blame you. I guess you might say my methods were ... unorthodox, especially the part when I told Elaine you raped me. Not exactly the way one normally fixes one’s daughter up with a husband. But think about this: it worked.

When you were at college, Benjamin, you might have run across a genre of fiction called the chivalric romance. Knights going on quests to win their lady-love, that sort of thing. Overcoming strange obstacles. Sometimes the knight doesn’t know himself what the quest is. He confronts antagonists. Sometimes they are evil sorceresses. Older women, seducing heroes, brewing love-potions and poisons. Lonely women.

Excuse me, I’m going to brew myself a potion. Gin and tonic will do for now. I might add some sleeping pills later.

Where was I? Oh, yes. What they probably didn’t tell you at college is that the sorceress is necessary. Where would the hero be without her? Where would you and Elaine be? She would have married that Berkeley boy and settled into a life of quiet desperation. And you, my drifter, would have kept on drifting.

I gave you a purpose, a quest. I made you into a Knight of the Cross.

Did you think I didn’t know that the surest way to make you go out with my daughter, the surest way to make you fall in love with each other, was to forbid it?

Of course I knew. Believe it or not, I was young once too. Not for very long. I was already a mother when I was your age. But I do remember.

So I pulled the strings and I wrote the script, and God! I resented it by the time I was finished writing it. I didn’t expect to feel anything for you, Benjamin, or at least not as much as I did.

I need another drink.

You pitied me. I will not forget that. Ha. Most likely I won’t forgive it, either.

What? Yes, Benjamin, of course I’m crazy. Would I be sitting here alone with a bottle of gin, talking to a boy who might be 500 miles away by now, if I weren’t crazy?

I don’t really believe you’re that far away. I think you and Elaine are probably in San Francisco. That seems to be where all the kids are going these days, and neither of you has much imagination.

If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair...

Bet you didn’t know I knew that song. Yes. I’m drunk.

I don’t know if you’ll be happy there. But I wanted you and Elaine to have your chance at happiness. That boy wouldn’t have made her happy, and you – I didn’t make you happy. I saw that in your eyes.

While you’re in San Francisco, you might go to the art museum. They have an exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite paintings on now. I read about it in the newspaper.

What? Oh, Benjamin, do I have to explain everything to you? I thought you knew about art. Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Millais. Those people. Some of them led very Bohemian lives, and some of them pretended they did, while actually leading lives of bourgeois respectability. Just like people do today.

If you went to that exhibition, you would see girls like Elaine in those paintings. Girls in long gowns, with flowers in their long hair. I think you should go there. It will show you how little people have changed.

No, I haven’t seen it. I haven’t been to an art museum in twenty years. I suppose you won’t either. Your generation doesn’t care for museums. You’re too busy doing – whatever it is you do with flowers. And trying to change the world.

You’re not going to change it, you know. No one does. Perhaps, if you and Elaine are very brave and very lucky, you will change yourselves.

I know. You think you’ve already done that. You think everything will be different after this, that you will never be your mothers’ and fathers’ children again. The last thing my daughter said to me was, “Not for me.” Maybe it’s the last thing she ever will say to me. I wouldn’t blame her.

But it is too late for me, and I will tell you this: It is hard. Hard to change. You have to give up everything you own, everything that makes you comfortable. I couldn’t do it. It was too easy to go on being respectable, to go on for another year with my husband and my house and my liquor. You settle into a pattern. And so I had to make you throw yourselves into the teeth of the storm for each other. I made you break free. Think of it as a wedding gift, if you will. I won’t be sending you another one, so you may as well.

Maybe someday, if you do speak to me again – and if you and Elaine do end up being happy together – I will tell you all this. Then again ... maybe I’ll keep my secrets. I don’t think Elaine would understand. But maybe you would. You’re smarter than she is – I have to admit that, though she is my daughter, and I did it mostly for her and not for you. Mostly.

Good night, Benjamin. Thank you for understanding.

What?

All right. Since you asked me, I will.

Tomorrow I’ll go to the museum.