The absolute disaster of their 16-year-old daughter, Alison, rattled Leah so much she didn’t notice what her husband, Jesse, had done to their Lexus when he picked her up at the Bethesda Metro station that Tuesday evening for Ralph and Debra’s annual autumn Guy Fawkes party.
“It’s not all bad news,” Leah said, hearing Jesse dial down some Springsteen screed as she shoved her briefcase into the backseat and snapped her seat belt. “We’ve got a great lawyer. Mark, that associate who’s up for partner? He spent two years on the county prosecutor’s staff, so he’s already bargained the charges down to one misdemeanor that she should be able to community service out—plus counseling. Thank God she’s already in therapy! Everything should expunge before we have to deal with her college apps. And Saul got our firm for us at cost. He’s working out restitution and repairs with the computer store manager, plus he knows the guy who reps the parent corporation on the Hill. He convinced him that Wall Street doesn’t want publicity that might inspire copycats.”
“Don’t want to inspire,” Jesse said as they drove through downtown Bethesda.
“I’m on her Facebook, so she won’t post about it there. Plus, switching her phone for that 911 and call-us-only model will help keep her in check—we’ll have to eat the plan charges.”
Their car stopped at a red light.
Homeward-bound Latina nannies streamed into the crosswalk, as well as a midnight-skinned Metro driver, beefy white guys in green lawn service jackets, white-shirted waitpersons, not all of whom lived with their college diplomas in their parents’ basements. A Chinese businessman marched past an NIH doctor who’d almost figured out how to foil leukemia.
The traffic light turned green.
“Doesn’t matter how great her SATs are. Or all the after-schools and art shows and Paris. If only she’d made varsity volleyball. …And God, let’s not even think about what her GPA will be this time! How could she not know that they don’t admit criminals to Harvard!”
“Yeah, Harvard prefers to groom its own criminals.”
They rode past a red neon sign for a chic restaurant where the size of the entrées came in inverse proportion to the size of the check.
Leah glared at her husband of 21 years: “Do you think this is funny?”
She frowned at the unzipped black leather jacket he wore over a blue shirt and black jeans. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
“Not even a sports jacket?”
“These days you wear the suits for both of us.”
“What else should I wear?” She shook her head. “Never mind. Don’t answer that.”
He pushed the button to lower her window.
She pushed her button to reseal the car. “Why did you do that?”
“I like to watch your hair floating in the wind.”
The tires rumbled.
Leah stared out her window. “It’s cold out there.”
“I had to tell Cliff,” she said. “This close to the presidential election, the party doesn’t need ‘National Committee Member’s Daughter Arrested!’ in the newspapers. He says he doesn’t think it’s a problem, so for now, I don’t need to resign, thank God.”
She sighed. “Maybe we could do a Sarah Palin if it leaks. Turn Alison into some kind of salvation poster child. God, she’d be awful on Dancing with the Stars! Not that I’d do that to her.”
“You’re a good mother.” He read her sideways glance. “No sarcasm.”
“I just wish…” She blinked. “What happened to the rearview mirror?”
“I took it off.”
Then she noticed the tangle of wires that filled the metal holder mounted outside her door.
Jesse shrugged as they rode under the gold and crimson-leafed canopy of Ralph and Debra’s street. “Yeah, I had trouble with the side mirrors, too. Never been mechanical.”
Leah felt herself shrink on the passenger seat.
She whispered: “What are you doing?”
“Driving.” He waved at a regal woman walking a beagle. The woman wore bees’ eyes sunglasses, gardening pants and a windbreaker from a British company enriched by World War I. Her taut face ignored the car rolling past her.
“I got rid of the mirrors so I could focus on where I’m going,” Jesse said, “not what’s behind me.”
“Tell that to the cop who pulls you over on Bradley Boulevard.”
“Lucky I’m married to a great lawyer.”
“Please, Jesse. I—we—don’t need this. Not with Alison!”
“Don’t worry, this is just me.” At least she knew that smile as he said: “Though there is an us I can’t stop thinking about. After all, we’re going to a party.”
“That’s not what a party is for! Let’s just focus on the mirrors!”
“I’d rather focus on what us a mirror could see if.”
“Are you stoned?”
“You mean now?” He laughed. “Or do you mean did I already take a blue pill?”
“Apparently there’s no difference,” she said.
“Don’t worry,” Jesse said. “If a cop pulls me over for the mirrors, his probable cause gets him nothing.”
“Is this some kind of midlife crisis?”
“Midlife? I get more?”
Jesse clicked on the right blinker and slid the Lexus to the curb. He killed the engine and only then did she realize Springsteen had been playing in the background all along.
“Is this because you don’t have a job?” she asked.
“Right now, nobody’s paying me to work, and yeah, that’s odd after 30 years, but come to find out, I have a new attitude.” Leah frowned.
“Don’t worry, I’m great. You’re more stressed than usual, but you’ve done everything you can for Alison. She’s gotta use her own wings.”
Jesse got out of the car. Leah wasn’t sure if, above the clunk of his slamming door, he heard her mutter: “Good thing Alison’s coming from her therapist.”
Jesse, the father of her only child, stood on the sidewalk leading to their friends’ front door, holding out his hand as she climbed out of the car.
Holding it out to her. She let him lead her through the twilight.
“Remember where you are,” she whispered.
“Don’t worry,” he said as he rang the bell.
Her heart beat twice.
“Jesse,” she said, staring at the closed black door. “What did you mean when you were talking about…‘What a mirror could see if?’ ”
“I took the mirrors out of our place.”
“All the mirrors! How will…how can I get dressed?”
“Catch a reflection in our windows, I guess. Besides, I didn’t dump all the mirrors. What if somebody dropped over? Or we have a dinner party? Guests use the first-floor bathroom. Taking the mirror out of there would have been rude. Crazy.”
The black door swung open, and their host Ralph said: “There they are!”
Ralph was short and bald; Debra, tall and hurricane-haired. Their gravity pulled the younger couple into a party-prepped living room.
“Before anybody else gets here,” Debra said, “what’s going on with Alison?”
“What can we do?” Ralph asked.