In the living room her father is watching Walter Cronkite on their new color television, coverage of the war and the protests that keep breaking out like pockets of wildfire on college campuses across the country. At one of the Ivy League schools back East, they are burning Nixon in effigy, and her father tisks in disgust at the screen. He has a World War II veteran's innocent patriotism. And besides, he is a stoic and would not approve of such heated, public displays even if he believed in their cause.
He has no idea of the quiet conflagration going on right in his own home, but then, some rebellions are less obvious than others.
Martha counts in her head as she brushes her hair. She is actually skeptical that there is anything magical about a hundred strokes, but she dedicates herself to it anyway, just in case. Her hair is by far her best feature, and she tends it lovingly. When she turns her head just so, it catches the light, and she smiles, pleased with her efforts.
There is a boy waiting for her, and every moment she lingers in front of her mirror will make him restless, frenzied, even more desperate to touch her. She enjoys the thrill of her power and reaches for the crystal perfume bottle, a present from her aunt, her mother's younger sister, who still remembers what it's like to be a seventeen-year-old girl. She dabs a little sandalwood scent into the warm cleft between her breasts. They are, after all, her second best feature, and she cannot neglect them.
She hums to herself, softly, off key, as she brushes color onto her cheeks. She's never had much of a voice or, really, any inclination to sing. But now everything has changed. There's a hot, underground pulse surging through her. People stop and look at her in a way they never did before, as if she is something shiny that draws their eyes, maybe even a little dangerous.
Sometimes, she marvels at the fragile chain of circumstances that led her here. If she had not been late for her after-school job at her father's law firm and dreaded another lecture. If she had not screwed up her courage and taken the short cut through the smoker's porch, a place she normally avoided. So many "ifs", and the possibility that they could have missed one another entirely, like hapless ships, that she might never have felt this way, terrifies her beyond all reason.
She had expected the porch to be deserted that day. But when she pushed through the door, there were clusters of boys in leather pants and girls with heavy, black eye makeup lingering over one last cigarette. Martha didn't know any of them. She kept her eyes down and hurried, but in her nervousness her books slid out of her hands and tumbled to the ground. She froze for a moment, the way she often did in dreams when something was after her.
She heard a soft chuckle, and then someone bent down to retrieve her belongings.
The boy wore a blue work shirt, ancient, faded jeans with holes in the knees, dusty boots. He was unshaven, despite the school's dress code, and his long dark hair fell messily in his eyes. He was exactly what her father meant when he went on about "these young hoodlums today."
When he straightened up again, the boy looked her squarely in the eye, a challenge of sorts.
"Here you go," he said, holding out her books.
He did not say it the way other boys might, with proud, overblown chivalry. Instead, there was just a hint of irony in the crooked line of his mouth.
"So what are you reading?" He glanced down. And frowned.
"It's for class," she said hastily, trying to hide the Shakespeare in the bend of her elbow.
He shook his head sadly. "You have to find out what's really going on. Here." He pulled a battered copy of "On the Road" out of his back pocket. " You can borrow mine."
He slid the book onto the stack, running his thumb silkily along her arm, so much bolder than the boys she was used to. A white-hot jolt of sensation shot through her, and she trembled, hard. She had been waiting to feel this way since her first blush of awareness. And never had. An absence that made her think there really might be something wrong with her. But here it was, finally, and all the carefully delineated boundaries of her life suddenly gave way. She was no longer the Martha Kent that only class-President-types looked at, with their obvious, domestic designs.
She has spent every day since then with the boy. She does not expect it to go on forever. Nothing that burns this brightly ever does. She is too clear-eyed not to realize that. There are even times, when the boy takes her to places in herself that scare her, that she is almost glad it won't last. That he is just her right now.
When the boy touches her, right now is all that matters anyway.
On her way out, she cuts through the kitchen to avoid her father and runs into her mother. She is sitting at the table in her bathrobe, her hair mussed, smoking with determination, a pile of used-up butts in the ashtray next to her. There is a yellowish-brown stain on the wall by her mother's place in the otherwise spotless kitchen. Martha isn't sure if she even got dressed today. She has taken to sleeping until late in the afternoon and then staying up all night like a lonely vampire.
When she notices Martha standing there, she glowers. Martha thinks she sees disapproval and perhaps even fear in her mother's face. It's impossible to be certain, though, and it might have nothing to do with her at all. Her mother is fuzzy around the edges again, both sad and familiar. At least, there is no half-empty bottle of vodka on the table this time. But only because her father laid down the law after the incident at the country club, and her mother is chastened, for the moment. It will not last. It never does. And it doesn't matter anyway. In the cabinet next to the sink, there is a neat row of prescription bottles. "Nerve pills," her mother calls them. But they give her the same glassy-eyed look that the kids have after spending a long, secretive night in someone's basement.
Martha lingers in the doorway, not sure what to do. She can smell her mother's dissatisfaction, an old, sour stink permeating the house that cannot be aired out, no matter how many windows are ever opened. Martha has no idea what would fix it. Her mother is so bottomless. She can't imagine how she could ever be filled up again.
And yet, there is still some small part of Martha, the hopeless dreamer that would love to have an ordinary mother-daughter moment. What's his name and I hope he's nice and Have fun. But her mother won't say any of that. And for the most part, Martha has learned to stop waiting for it.
Finally, it's easier just to ignore her and head resolutely for the door.
"He's no good, you know," her mother says.
Martha turns back, a stinging retort at the ready. She is a teenage girl, after all. But when she sees her mother hunched there in her chair, a listing bag of bones in a faded housecoat, she feels a surprising stab of pity. Her mother has no way to understand that this is something Martha is doing, not something being done to her. No way to know how very much she wants it, the hot tickle of his beard between her thighs, silky curls brushing her breasts, sliding through her fingers, as she bucks up into every touch, reaching out for him, for more, for some incarnation of herself she never even dreamed might exist.
Martha slips out the door. It is suddenly no wonder that her mother feels so put upon.
Martha wakes up luxuriously late on her twentieth wedding anniversary, her husband's mouth on her breast, his hand sliding between her thighs. She sighs and leans into his caresses, and he smiles.
When they were first married, Martha sometimes worried that they would grow too comfortable with one another. She was more girl than woman then and believed, as girls do, that heat was the only powerful connection.
She has learned since then and now understands the beautiful strength in loving effortlessly, familiarly. To know that Jonathan will press a kiss behind her knee and against her belly and have his tongue on her nipple as he enters her. That she can touch him in that one place and make him moan, every time.
"Jonathan, Jonathan," she calls out, as he begins to move inside her.
She feels his smile against her skin. This, too, is predictable, reassuring, good. He grows more urgent, and her body coils and uncoils, rhythmically, until she is riding the waves of her own pleasure.
Afterwards, she lies with her head on his chest, his arm curved around her, hand moving affectionately in her hair.
"I love you," he says.
"I love you, too," she says softly, floating in that sheltered place between dreams and life.
This is always the best part.
It is interrupted too soon, though, by the ringing of the phone. She snuggles against him with determination.
"Let Clark get it."
But it keeps ringing.
"Must be outside," Jonathan says, reaching for the phone. "Hello?"
His eyes go hard and his mouth tightens, an expression that makes him seem small, as much as she wishes it didn't.
"It's for you." He holds the phone away from him as if it's contaminated.
"Lionel?" She feels the glower of Jonathan's displeasure and instinctively turns onto her side, pulling the sheet over her, as if modesty is somehow in order. "What is it?"
The bed dips, and Jonathan is up, pulling on his clothes. She throws him a helpless look, but he does not relent. He thumps out of their bedroom. She hears his boots thudding down the steps. Lionel is in her ear, talking business. Martha makes noises as if she's listening and even manages to ask a question or two.
But she is thinking about Jonathan.
He seems to be closing in on himself these days, dwindling, and she worries for him. He's so sharp and unyielding. With Lex particularly, too blind to see a boy, in search of a surrogate father, the worst kept secret in Smallville. But with Clark too sometimes, although it pains her to admit it, as if Clark needs to be corrected simply for being who and what he is.
She has tried to speak to him about it, very gently. But he just stares whenever she brings it up, a locked door in his eyes, stubbornly convinced that he is right. And this only makes her worry more. Nothing good can flourish in the cramped spaces, she feels certain of this, or in the absence of those hard questions you ask yourself in the middle of the night, the heart pounding in the back of your throat.
Jonathan seems to have settled into his assumptions the same way he might an easy chair, far too comfortably. When she closes her eyes thinking of him, sometimes she pictures her father instead, in that gold and avocado living room of theirs, locked in a one-sided argument with the television, his proxy for the world. It is little wonder, really, that he and Jonathan never got along.
"I'll be over around noon to collect you," Lionel says.
"Noon? Well-- All right."
"Good. See you then, Martha."
Her heart stutters as she hangs up. If she hadn't been so distracted, she would have asked how urgent this really was, maybe told him it was her anniversary. Now she will have World War III on her hands.
When she comes down the steps in her pantsuit and heels, she expects it to begin, but Jonathan only smiles.
"Ready for our picnic?" He holds up the basket proudly. "The chicken's all fried."
It's sweet and impractical, the way men's gestures often are. She doubts it's even forty degrees outside, and the barn is hardly romantic. But she knows what all this effort means. And she has always been grateful for it before.
So she's not quite sure why it annoys her now. Why it bothers her so much that he avoids the city, wouldn't even make the trip to celebrate their anniversary, using Clark's little escapade last year as a convenient excuse.
"I'm really sorry," she tells him. "But something's come up. I have to go to Metropolis with Lionel to take care of some urgent business."
His lips press into a thin, disapproving line.
"It came up at the last minute. I can't just--" she flounders painfully.
He gives a slight nod. But his face is red and stony, and he won't look at her.
"If that's what's important to you, Martha."
"That isn't fair!"
He meets her gaze at last, and the familiar smallness is there in his eyes again. She feels as if the walls are closing in on her, as if she can't breathe.
"How many times have you put the farm before Clark and me?"
"That's different. Everything I've ever done has been to take care of this family."
"And that's exactly what I'm trying to do."
"Is it really?" he asks, quietly.
She curls her hands into fists and doesn't answer. Sometimes she thinks Jonathan would only be truly happy with a pioneer life where they milled their own flour and wove their own cloth and never left the farm at all. She refuses to apologize for wanting more than that, for needing some part in the world.
She hears the gravelly sound of the limo picking its way down the driveway. Jonathan hears it too, and his eyes fasten on her. For the first time, she has to look way, because what she feels is not regret, but relief. And that is a cause for guilt she can't deny.
Whatever Jonathan sees in her face, it makes him look away, start to unpack the picnic basket. The old clock above the stove ticks loudly, reminding her that Lionel is out there, waiting. She hefts her purse onto her shoulder, takes a deep breath and turns to go.
She imagines she can still feel Jonathan watching her long after the car has slipped from his sight.
Many hours later, when they can finally go home, Martha sits in the truck between her husband and son and holds Clark's hand as if someone is trying to steal him from her. If he finds it odd that his mother clings to him this way, he gives no indication, just offers her the occasional, reassuring smile. She is glad he doesn't seem to mind, although it would not matter if he did. She cannot make herself let go.
She remembers, with the usual, sharp clench, the first time Clark wrapped his little-boy arms around her and rested his head against her belly. It was as if he were absolving her body for defying all her hopes, a forgiveness she had not been able to offer herself. This was the true moment he became her son.
It is the one thing that has stayed just as black-and-white as the whole world once was, back when she was Clark's age. Her child, and it doesn't matter if he is as close to invulnerable as this world will ever see. She is still his mother, and anyone who wants at him--Lex or Lionel or even Jonathan himself--will have to go through her first.
When they finally pull up to the house, it is very late. Jonathan needs Clark to help him do the few things that cannot be put off until morning. And Martha at last has to release her hold on him. There is something in Clark's eyes, as if he understands, the impulse, if not the details.
He kisses her on the forehead and whispers, "Love you, Mom."
"Love you too, honey."
She wishes everything were this easy, this clear.
When they go to bed, Jonathan curls around her like comfort, and for a moment, she really thinks she might be okay, if he'll just hold her, if they never move again, if they can stay entwined like this until the dark and the doubt pass. But soon enough, she feels his breath, even and deep against her shoulder, peaceful in his sleep, and every thought in her head takes off again, thundering and chaotic.
She wishes she would not think about Lionel, but it is a habit she can't seem to break, even now when the disappointment cuts so sharply. Fool that she is, she honestly believed she saw something in him, some better nature. That he saw her, as something other than an easy bridge to her gifted, powerful son.
She remembers with shame how she clung to him, almost as tightly as she held onto Clark. How comforted she was by the solid press of his body, a pillar to lean on, the steady, reassuring touch of his hand on her hair. How supremely grateful she was for him. But all of this can chalked up to fear. And ultimately forgiven.
There are other things, though, that have no excuse. The heady thrill, as impossible as it was, when he told her that it was her office. Accepting that clever watch, with its just-mixed-enough message, not giving it back to him, even afterwards, bringing it home instead, shoving it carefully into the back of her dresser drawer, telling herself that she would return it, soon. The fact that she can still summon up, despite everything, the surprising strength of his arms, the sound of his voice against her ear, his lips brushing her hair, the way his fingers slid over her wrist, making her pulse thud against her skin as if there was something inside her that wanted out.
No excuse that sometimes when she closes her eyes what she imagines is the hot tickle of a beard between her thighs, long hair against her breasts, sliding like silk through her fingers, as she leans in, reaches back, for some distant part of herself that she thought had been lost forever.
She tries not to toss too restlessly. But nothing is clear in her head, and there's no safety anymore. She slides out of bed, searches her jacket pocket, carefully, although Jonathan is a dependable sleeper. But she can't take any chances. She glides silently along the hall, willing Clark not to hear. The disk is heavy and metal and should be cool to the touch, but feels strangely hot in her hand. She suspects this may be guilt.
But she can't turn back now. She understands too much about her own limitations, the pitiful inadequacy of foresight and judgment and agency. And this is the only thing that's still clear, the one thing she can do. Her baby, and no one in this twisting, unpredictable universe, not even his rightful parents, will ever take him from her.
She opens the cabinet and kneels down and digs in the back for the ancient tin of flour she keeps there just in case. Although now that she's thinking about it, she's not sure what kind of emergency she ever thought would necessitate baked goods. The fuzzy logic of it reassures her. Surely, this will be as good a hiding place as any.
She buries the disk like a bad memory and puts the tin behind several rows of canning jars and household cleaners. Closes the door with authority. Which she knows, sadly, is only a gesture. She gets to her feet and heads back to bed, weighed down with the knowledge that this not-so-carefully-laid plan will no doubt end the way so many others have. That no matter how fiercely she tries to grasp the many threads of this life, of her own self, to hold them all at once, something invariably will slip through her fingers. And it's just no good thinking she can control any of it.
No good at all.
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