With Zack coming to the clinic four days a week, it was inevitable that Sari would run into the Smiths again and she knew it. She thought a lot about what she might say if Jason accused her again of having been cruel to Zack but didn't like anything she came up with.
The truth was that she actually felt pretty guilty about abandoning Zack, which made it hard to come up with a good argument defending her right to have done so.
Every day at work, she worried about running into Jason and reopening all the old wounds, and every night she went to bed relieved it hadn't happened.
Mostly relieved. There was a tiny bit of disappointment mixed in there-whether she liked to admit it or not, there had been a thrill to seeing Jason and, with that gone, the days just felt like work again, tedious and monotonous and extremely unsexy.
And a sense of unfinished business hovered over her. She wanted to see Jason again-she needed to see him again, to set everything straight so they could be done with each other.
She wanted to see Jason again.
She turned a lot whenever she heard a man's voice at the clinic.
Her heart would start knocking hard against her chest for a second or two, and then she would realize that it wasn't Jason, was just some other guy who had no right to be standing there talking and not being Jason. And the disappointment and relief were just about equal.
One Thursday, a couple of weeks later, Ellen was out at a school IEP meeting, and Sari had gone into her office to try to find a clients folder that Ellen had sworn she'd left on the credenza in there. Sari's back was to the open door when she suddenly felt something hit her from behind-and there was Zack, throwing his arms around her leg and clutching it to his small chest as if he were drowning and her leg was the only flotation device he could find.
With a rush of delight, Sari bent over him, sniffing at the good sweet little boy smell of his hair and neck.
“Sari,” he said. “Hi, Sari.”
“It's good to see you,” she said and squeezed his shoulders hard. When she lifted her head, she saw Jason watching from just outside the open office door, his face tight and expressionless.
Still holding on to her leg, Zack looked back at his father. “Sari,” he said.
“Yeah,” his father said. “I remember.” He held out his hand to Zack. “Come on, pal. We have to go.”
Zack shook his head. “Sari.”
“She's busy,” his father said. “Too busy for us. Come on.”
“I’ve missed you, Zack,” Sari said. “How are you?”
“How are you?” he replied politely.
“No, say, ‘Good,’ Zack.”
“Even if he's not good?” Jason took a step forward, into the office. “That's the great thing about autistic kids, isn't it? They'll say what you tell them to, even if it's not true. Why don't you teach him to say, ‘I don't miss you at all, Sari’?”
Sari stared at him. “You don't need to make me feel guilty, you know. Zack is fine. He's doing great.”
“How do you know that?”
“The way he's talking to me. I can tell he's making progress.”
“Sure,” Jason said. “Whatever gets you through the night.”
“Stop it,” Sari said. “Stop it. You're not being fair.” She swallowed hard, then plunged in. “I didn't quit to be mean to Zack. I quit because it was all too hard. And he's okay. He's going to be fine. He's got Christopher, who's a really good therapist, and he's got you to take care of him. And Maria, too, who means well even if she's-” She stopped, shook her head, got herself back on track. “Anyway, the point is he's going to be fine, you know he is, whether he sees me or not. Because you're doing the right things for him. So it's not fair to make me feel bad about it. I love the little guy.” She rubbed Zack's back. “I think he's great. And I would have kept working with him, only it was too hard.”
“Why do you keep saying that?” Jason asked. “That it was too hard? What was so fucking hard about it?”
“You know,” she said. “High school and-”
“You recognized me the first day we came in,” Jason said. “And you started working with Zack anyway. And kept working with him for a while. So that's not it. That's not what made it so hard.”
“It was part of it,” Sari said. She brushed her fingers through Zack's curls, looking down so she wouldn't have to meet Jason's eyes. “And then you and I started-I don't know what we started doing. But I didn't feel right about it. I kept trying to stop-”
“Yeah, I noticed.”
“But I couldn't.” No matter how hard she swallowed, the swelling in her throat wouldn't go down. She was grateful at least that they were alone in Ellen's office, not in one of the public areas. “It was all too much. Thinking about Charlie and seeing you all the time and knowing that Zack needed my help-I just couldn't take it anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” Jason said after a moment. “I probably shouldn't have been so hard on you the other day. But I hate it when Zack cries like that. I can't stand it. And then seeing you sitting there, not caring, filling out your little forms like it had nothing to do with you at all-” His voice, Sari noticed, was as shaky as hers. “I told you, I used to watch you two together and I thought he meant something to you. And that meant something to me.”
“He did,” Sari said. “He does. I miss being with him. But it's all been so complicated that it just seemed better for everyone if I stayed away.”
“That's exactly what Denise said that night you came to dinner. And you said she was wrong.”
“I’m not Zack's mother,” she said. “I’m Charlie's sister. And that makes all of this… impossible.” There was a silence and then she sighed and said, “Okay. That's it.” She gently removed Zack's hands from her leg. “Time to go, sweetheart.”
“Hold on,” Jason said. “Just hold on a second. It's my turn to say something.”
“I think it's been-”
“I said hold on.”
Zack suddenly let go of her leg and slid down onto the floor as if he had become too bored with standing to do it any longer. He flopped onto his back and looked up at the ceiling.
Jason said, “I’ve been thinking. Since we last talked. And if I was ever mean to your brother back in high school-and maybe I was-God knows it's possible, even if I don't remember it-if I was, I’m sorry. Deeply and horribly and painfully sorry. If I could go back now and help him out, I would.”
“I know,” she said. “I know you would. But only because of him.” She gestured down at Zack.
“What do you mean?” Jason said.
“If Zack hadn't been born-if you'd had the perfect golden child you thought you'd have-you'd probably still be walking around, acting like an asshole, thinking you were better than everyone else-maybe even still being mean to anyone who was different, maybe even teaching Zack to be mean to the other kids at school-”
“Whoa,” he said. “I would never have taught my kid to be mean… But say it's true that if things had been different, I’d have been different-doesn't the same go for you? If Charlie hadn't been born, do you really think you'd have been such a saint your whole life?”
“I never said I was a saint.”
“Pretty much-all that talk about how you were never mean to anyone in high school…” He ran his hand through his hair. Some of it stayed sticking up, and Sari had to fight the urge to reach up and smooth it down. “Of course having Zack changed me. I don't think I was ever really as bad as you seem to think I was, but either way, I’m a more decent human being now and I’ll freely admit it. Does it matter why? You had a brother a couple of decades before I had Zack, so maybe you had an advantage there. But you and I ended up in the same place. And for the same reason.”
“I would never have been mean to a kid with special needs. Even if Charlie hadn't been my brother.”
“How can you be sure of that?”
“I just know.”
“Whoever you think I was-whatever you think I was-back in high school, I’m not that guy now,” Jason said. “I’m not sure I ever was him, but I’m definitely not him now.”
“It doesn't matter,” she said. “You can't just say ‘I’m good now’ and have everything suddenly be forgotten.”
“Why not?” Jason rubbed his temple savagely. “Why are you fighting this so hard, Sari? Why do I have to be evil through and through? Why can't I have changed? Why do you want to think badly of me?”
“I don't.” She sagged back against the wall, suddenly exhausted. “At least… I don't think I do.”
“Then why can't you give me a break?”
It was so hard to explain. “I’ve hated everyone from high school for so long. I’ve gone to sleep thinking about how much I hated you all for years now. I don't think I could even go to sleep without thinking about all that.” She gave a little painful smile. “It's like my security blanket.”
“You need to give it up.”
“Charlie's been so screwed over,” Sari said. “In every way. He never had a chance, Jason. You don't know what it's like. Zack will be fine. Charlie won't.”
“You can't blame the kids from high school for that.”
“If they'd been kinder to him-”
“It would have been better,” he said. “But it wouldn't have cured his autism. There has to be more to the story than that.”
“Maybe,” she said. “I mean, of course. But-”
“But what? Why do you have to keep hating me?”
“Because it's easier than-” Than what? She turned away from him, pressing herself against the wall, trying to think, trying to find something coherent to say.
It was all such a mess, everything to do with Charlie. First there was her mother's craziness and her father's indifference, and then the cruelty of the kids at school… and then when all that was behind her, she had thought I’ll learn how to make everything better for him, but nothing she learned had ever made any difference-and the truth was she hadn't helped him at all.
She hadn't helped him at all.
God, it hurt to think that. She had spent the last six years of her life studying how to help Charlie, but he was still stuck at home watching TV and eating too much, isolated from the real world. For all her schooling and good intentions, she hadn't done a thing for Charlie. Her mother always got in her way when she tried to change things, and eventually she had given up even trying.
It was too awful to think about-all that failure, all that giving up. It was so much easier to blame everyone else-her mother for not getting it, her father for not caring, her sister for running away, everyone at school for laughing at him-
But what had she ever done to make Charlie's life better? Who had hurt him more in the end-some strangers who made fun of him or the sister he loved who used to hit him and scream at him because he couldn't change? What good had any of her promises or hopes or anger actually done him?
“Oh, shit,” Sari said. She hid her face in her hands, her body crouched against the wall. “I can't do this.”
Through her fingers, she said, “I can't just suddenly change the way I’ve been thinking about things.”
“Why not?” Jason was suddenly standing very close to her. “Didn't you tell me the brain is very good at reshaping itself? Ever hear of a little thing called neural plasticity?”
Sari let her hands drop to her sides. “If you tell me to lay down some new neural pathways, I swear I’ll-”
“You'll what?” Jason said.
“I don't know,” she said and wouldn't look at him. “It's just not that easy.”
“We could schedule some interventions for you, if it would help,” Jason said. “I know some excellent therapists.” He took her hand. She looked at their fingers and saw how quickly hers twined around his. “I know how hard it is to change the way you think about things,” he said. “Do you know how long I’ve clung to the idea that I’m going to make it in Hollywood? That I’m some undiscovered genius? And meanwhile I’m just a part-time kids basketball coach whose wife-soon to be ex-wife- has to support him. I need to lay down some new pathways of my own.” He rubbed his thumb softly against the rounded part of her palm. “You could help me, Sari. You're good with all this brain-retraining stuff. It's what you do.”
“Why would you want me to help you?” Sari said. “I was mean to you and Zack. You said so yourself.”
“Yeah, you were,” he said. “And back in high school, I used to laugh when someone tripped a retard.”
“So what are you saying? That we're even?”
“Not that. More like… people can act badly and not be bad people.”
“How do you tell the difference? Between a bad person and one who just acts badly? Because I’ve been trying so hard to figure that one out and I can't. I cant.”
“You just know,” he said. “One pretty good indication is when the person devotes her life to helping other people. Truly bad people don't usually do that. Not unless it pays well.”
“It doesn't pay well,” Sari said. She couldn't look at him, just kept focusing on their hands-on how her fingers were clutching on to his. She felt choked with hope and dread and uncertainty.
“Also,” he said, “when someone kisses you and it's all you can think about for weeks and weeks, you just can't believe that person is bad.”
“Bad people can be good kissers.”
“I’m sorry.” Jason pulled on her hand, gently reeling her in toward him. “I just can't think of you as evil. God knows I’ve tried, Sari. For the past few days, all I’ve done is try. I’ve been so pissed off at you… But I keep seeing you throw your arms around Zack because he said ‘more’ one day, and everything else gets lost.”
“I know,” she said and extricated her hand from his, but only so she could slide it up his arm, feel the muscle there and the warmth of his skin. “I’ve been trying even harder to hate you. To keep hating you, I mean.” She was whispering now, not to be quiet, but because it was so hard to find the breath to speak out loud. “But you keep making it almost impossible.”
“Sari,” he said, and it was a question, only she didn't try to answer it, just pushed herself against him, and maybe that was answer enough. She could feel his whole body sigh with relief. She buried her face in his chest. She only came up to his shoulders, and it felt good to just collapse onto him, to let someone else hold her up for a change. “Sari,” he said again. His fingers went to her hair and he stroked it gently for a moment, but then he caught some of the short strands in his fingers and tugged it back-not painfully, but firmly enough to force her head back and make her look at him. His face-his so-handsome-it-hurt-to-look-at-him face-was taut and anxious, and his voice was hoarse when he said, “If this is another one of those times when you're playing with me-if you're going to turn on me again like you did last time-”
“And the time before,” she said, ashamed, remembering how every time she started to like him and let him see that she liked him, she'd force herself to be cold and angry with him again, with no explanation or apology. “I won't. I swear I won't. And I wasn't playing with you before-I was fighting with myself.”
“That's not what it felt like from where I was standing.”
“I was pretty awful, wasn't I?”
“Just a little cruel.”
“Here I was thinking you were the bad guy,” Sari said. “And it was me all along.”
“Yeah.” He kept the firm hold on her hair, kept her head pulled back, his eyes studying her face. “But I forgive you.” He bent over her. There was enough anger left in him that his kiss was hard and violent.
She was instantly aroused, instantly drawn under. She had been waiting a long time for this, she realized, and her body was already tightening with the lust she'd been trying to ignore for all that time. This time, there was no holding back, no wondering whether she was making a mistake. All she wanted was to be this close to him forever, always feeling his mouth and body demanding hers and hers demanding his.
And then someone cleared her throat just a few feet away.
They sprang apart.
“Hi,” Ellen said, standing in the doorway, holding her briefcase across her chest like a shield. “Am I interrupting? Or am I allowed to come into my own office?”
“Oh, God,” Sari said. She felt her hot face flush even hotter.
“I’m so sorry, Ellen. Oh, God.”
Ellen came into the room. “Hey, curie,” she said, holding her free hand out to Zack, who was still lying on his back on the floor. “How about standing up now? It's time to go home. Past time, I’d say,” she added with a sharp look at Sari as she hauled Zack to his feet and extended his hand to his father.
“Come over later?” Jason whispered to Sari as he slipped by her on the way to taking Zack's hand.
Sari nodded. She wasn't capable of speaking at the moment.
“Really?” he said.
She nodded again, and he led Zack to the door. “Sorry,” he said to Ellen. “We never meant to-”
“Just please take your child and go,” Ellen said. Jason hesitated, looking at Sari, who gestured with her head toward the door, and he nodded and left. Ellen dropped her briefcase on the floor and turned to Sari. “Tell me why I shouldn't strangle you.”
Sari forced a smile. “You'd be short a clinician?”
“That's the only reason I’m not. But if you ever do anything like this again-”
“I’m so sorry, Ellen,” Sari said. “I-” It was hard for her to get words out, but she cleared her throat and tried again. “I wouldn't. Ever. I never have before, I swear.”
“Well, that's a relief. I’d hate to think you're in here making out with men whenever my back is turned.”
“This was the first time-”
“First, last, and only. You understand?”
“Of course. Of course.”
“The kid was right there,” Ellen said. “God knows I’m no prude, Sari, but the poor kid was lying on the floor and his parents aren't even divorced yet. What were you thinking?”
“I wasn't really thinking,” Sari said.
“That's obvious.” Ellen studied her carefully. “I assume this was connected to the whole ‘I can't work with Zack but I swear his father's not a letch’ thing?”
“Kind of. I mean-”
“Do we want to revisit the question of whether his father's a letch or not? Because it seems to me-”
“Please,” Sari said. She put her hand to her forehead. “It's not like that, Ellen.”
“Really? So tell me what it's like.”
“I don't know,” she said. “Can I get back to you on that?”
“Whatever it is or isn't, keep it out of the office,” Ellen said.
“And if you ever ask to be taken off a child's case again for personal reasons-”
“You better not. Or you'll be out of here. You understand?”
“All right then.”
Sari went to the door.
“One last thing-” Ellen said.
“What?” She turned.
Ellen scooped up her briefcase off the floor and dropped it onto her desk. “Don't forget to go over there later. Might as well finish what you started. Only this time in the appropriate environment.”
Sari managed a nod and stumbled out of the office.
Jason was putting Zack to bed when Sari arrived. She volunteered to read Zack a bedtime story, and Jason sat on the bed and watched her intently through the whole book. It made it hard to read.
Once she was done, she put the book back in the bookcase while Jason tucked the blanket around Zack's little body. Over his shoulder he said to her, “I have to lie down with him until he falls asleep or he'll scream for an hour.”
“You should let him scream,” she said. “Eventually he'll learn to-”
“No,” he said. “Not tonight. I want him to go to sleep quickly tonight.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Me, too.”
“Wait for me in the family room?”
She was alone in the family room for almost half an hour. Which gave her plenty of time to wander around looking at photos she would rather not have looked at and then to torture herself by studying them minutely-photos of Jason and Denise getting married (she wore a satin slip dress cut on the bias and was gorgeously slim and elegant), photos of a weary but triumphant Denise cuddling a newborn Zack, photos of the whole family on vacation near a beach, Zack just a toddler in his fathers arms-photos, over and over again, of the perfect family, perfectly happy together.
Jason walked in while she was still studying one of the older photos-Denise and Jason in their college graduation gowns, kissing, each of them holding a diploma up to the camera, but otherwise apparently oblivious to its presence.
“Hi,” he said, coming to stand next to her.
“Is he asleep?”
He nodded then gestured at the photos surrounding them.
“So what do you think?”
“There are a lot of them,” she said, carefully placing the one she was holding back among the rest.
“I know. I’d like to get rid of some of them. Or even all of them. There's something sad and creepy about having to look at them all the time, like nothing's changed. But I don't know how Zack would feel about it if they all just disappeared.”
“Yeah, that might be hard on him.”
“It might.” They were both silent for a moment.
Then Sari said, “She's really beautiful.”
“I guess.” He nudged her shoulder with his. “I like the way you look.”
“You didn't back in high school.”
“I barely knew you. If I had ever stopped and really talked to you-“
“It wouldn't have made a difference,” she said. “We weren't in the same place back then.”
There was another pause. Then: “How mad was Ellen?”
“Pretty mad. I don't blame her. We were acting like-” She stopped.
“I don't know. Teenagers, I guess. Getting carried away by our hormones.”
“That's not such a bad thing,” he said, and he grinned suddenly. “Want to do that again?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I do.” But when he reached for her, she suddenly ducked away. “I’m sorry,” she said, twisting her hands together. “It's just a little scary.”
She gestured toward a photo of Denise sitting by a pool and laughing. “Well, she is, for one thing. The way she looks… it just makes me wonder how many other beautiful women you've been with.”
“Not that many,” he said. “You'd be surprised.”
“Oh, come on,” she said. “In high school alone, they must have numbered in the dozens. All those cheerleaders.”
He shook his head and reached for her hand. Just the touch of his fingers on hers made her want to jump out of her skin in a good way. “You're nuts. I had two girlfriends in all of high school, and they both ended up dumping me.”
“You were always with some girl or another,” Sari said. “Always. You were like this movie star on the campus. All those girls, all over you-they were always giving you massages on that wall behind the cafeteria and-”
“You gave me a back rub not that long ago,” he said. “That I remember.”
“A back rub?”
“With a hot towel.”
“Oh, right,” she said. “Did you like that?”
“Are you kidding? It was maybe the most erotic two minutes of my life.”
“Don't say that. I was there to work with Zack, not to turn you on.”
“Sorry,” he said. “I did my best to hide it.”
“Anyway, what are you talking about, two minutes? It was a lot longer than that.”
“It was not. You were in and out. Got me all excited and then walked away-telling me to go take Advil. You're a cold, cold woman, Sari Hill.”
“Turn around,” she said and he obeyed her. She pulled up his shirt, put her hands against his warm back.
He shivered. “You really are cold. Your hands are like ice.”
“They'll warm up,” she said. She slid her hands all the way up under his shirt, to the muscles of his shoulders and let herself really feel how warm and strong he was, then she slipped them down and around his waist to his flat stomach and up again to explore the broad planes of his chest.
“Ah,” he said.
They stood like that for a moment, her hands pinning him against her, front to back. She rested her cheek against the swell of his right shoulder. And then he turned around, so her hands were caught for a moment in his shirt and by the time she had worked them free, his arms were pulling her tight against him, and then his mouth came down on hers and for once-for once-they were alone somewhere private, with no cars or people to stop them from doing what they both wanted to do so badly, and no anger left in Sari to make her pull back and reject something that she wanted with all of her body and all of her heart.