The Good Life
by Lenore

Summary: What Kirsten thinks about when she can't sleep. (Early first season time frame)

Warnings: Rated PG.

Kirsten sees the irony in it, not that this helps anything, living in a dream house, waking up with nightmares. She stares at the ceiling and concentrates on breathing, in, out. Beside her, Sandy snores on obliviously, leaving her to worry alone, just as he does when he's awake.

So she does what she always does in these situations, closes her eyes and communes with her house, gliding in her mind through rooms, over plush carpets and hardwood floors, along marble and porcelain surfaces. There is no corner she doesn't know intimately, from the concrete of the foundation to the wooden studs that hold up the walls to the last tile, molding, fleck of paint. She chose it all, watched it come together, exerted her will over it. Houses are in her blood, and this is her ultimate accomplishment. Home.

But tonight, this mental tour fails to reassure her. She is too aware of the elements that jar--her increasingly distant husband, her son who has become a stranger, the outsider living in the pool house. You can make a house just the way you want it, but there's nothing you can do about people.

Except, of course, that she could have done something about Ryan. She could have refused to take him back, could have left him there in juvenile hall or made Sandy get him into a group home like he'd originally promised. Only when it came right down to it, she couldn't.

It was not just that it was too dangerous in that place, although how anyone could put a child in a hellhole like that she will never understand. Nor was it simply that she felt guilty because the trouble had started in some measure because of her, although there was that, too. It was not even just a matter of gratitude, although she did find his impulse to defend her oddly touching. When he warned off that hoodlum, there was steel in his voice, unflinching certainty in his eyes. This was his limit, and he was drawing a line. Kirsten feels as if it's been forever since she's known anyone who had lines or limits. It's possible that this abandoned sixteen-year-old boy may have the clearest convictions of anyone she knows.

Sandy says Ryan reminds him of himself when he was younger. In moments like that, she sees the resemblance too, the same quiet spark her husband once had, that burned fiercely in him through the early years of their marriage, something she misses so desperately now. It's grown unbearably cold in their house since they let that fire go out.

This is finally why she had to bring Ryan home. She could no more have left him there to fend for himself than she could have left Sandy. It is also why she is awake now in the stark hours of the morning restless with regret, why she never wanted this boy in her house in the first place. She already has enough reminders of everything she's lost, all the ways the slow grind of time has diminished her, diminished all of them, and she doesn't need a mirror turned on her life, reflecting back to her things she doesn't want to see.

She wishes Ryan were not so aware of her ambivalence, but of course, he is. On the way home, Seth talked, but Ryan stayed quiet, seeming almost nervous. Back at the house, he waited until he found her alone to apologize.

"I'm sorry about your house," he said, quietly.

"We do have insurance. But what you did was very dangerous. It's a miracle you weren't hurt or worse. You need to be more careful. Think about the consequences of what you're doing." She regarded him sternly. It was the kind of talking-to that always made Seth sarcastic

Ryan's expression, however, was solemn. "I will. Be more careful. And, like I said, I'm really sorry."

She nodded. "Why don't you go find Seth? He has some new video game. I'm sure he'd like to show you." Seth was supposed to be grounded, no video games for a week, but Kirsten really couldn't see how that mattered anymore.

"Thanks. I'll do that, Mrs. Cohen." Ryan's little lopsided smile was both thankful and relieved, and Kirsten felt that nagging guilt again. She wasn't his savior, and she didn't want any undeserved gratitude.

She doesn't want credit either for being understanding about the house. Even Sandy has commented on how well she's handling it. He meant it as a compliment, of course, but Kirsten feels a criticism in it. She shouldn't be taking it well. This was supposed to be her finest professional achievement, the crowned jewel of the new development. She supervised draft after draft of architectural plans, picked out every fixture with great care, gave detailed instructions to the contractor on a daily basis. Her father taught her that you have to breathe life into a structure before it can become a home, and she gave it her best. But even from the beginning, she could tell all her efforts were futile, that the house was going to be stillborn no matter what she did. When she saw the black smoke roiling out of its windows, she felt nothing so much as relief.

This is one more reason to worry, one more thing that sits on her chest like a crushing weight. When has she ever not cared about her work? It's what she's clung to like a lifeline, the one thing that has always been clear even when everything else was murky and elusive.

She discovered early on that it's important to be a woman with purpose. She learned this from her mother who had none. It seemed the more prosperous her father became the more her mother faded into the shadows. In Kirsten's memory, she stirs through rooms like an awkward ghost, pale and inconsequential in the flawless decor of her father's perfect house. At the many parties they threw for clients and business associates, her mother never had much to say. She would smile like a wooden doll and drift through the crowd, a tray of canapés permanently attached to her hand. When Kirsten was allowed to mingle with the grownups, she would stand close to her father and smile up at him and tell everyone who asked she was going to be just like him when she grew up.

She remembers clearly the first time he took her to one of his job sites. She was five years old. They'd gone for a drive after lunch on a Sunday, and her father wanted to show her what he was working on. When they got to the house, there was mud and gravel everywhere. Kirsten had been wearing a new dress, blue and white checked with a white sash that tied in the back, and her favorite shoes. She didn't want to get out. But her father teased her, calling her a princess, not a compliment coming from him, until she threw the car door open, shoes sinking into the muck, chin tilted up at a defiant angle.

"That's my girl," her father said, with a smile.

They walked up a plank of wood to get inside, and her father took her all around, into every room of the house's empty shell, pointing out the details. Materials that were the highest quality, old-fashioned workmanship, because if you were going to build something it should last. There was a comfort in her father's certainty. This is the right way and this is what's important and this is who we are.

She's worked her whole life trying to hold on to that feeling, looking for people who have that same certainty, who make her feel that safe.

It used to be Sandy. They met when he was in his first year of law school and she was finishing up as an undergraduate at UCLA. She liked to study in the law library, because it was quieter there. She first noticed Sandy sitting at the end of one of the long tables, surrounded by a stack of hefty volumes, concentrating as if the secret to everything was in those books. It was his intensity that caught her eye, the rawness of his passion for what he was doing. As she got to know him, as they grew closer, she felt it even more keenly, in the hot press of his skin against hers, in the whispered fervor of their conversations late into the night. He was determined to make something of himself, to do something important, and it reminded her, in the best possible way, of her father.

She was not prepared for his fieriness to cool. People make jokes about getting older, but no one ever warns you how soon it comes, how it shakes you to the core, wrenches you from the moorings of your old safety, making you doubt the very things you've depended on to define you. Kirsten knows it would probably make things better if she could just ask Sandy why he's struggling and how she can help, but the words die in her mouth before she can get them out. That he seems so adrift makes her feel shaky too, like a paler version of herself, more her mother than she ever wanted to be, and she can't help resenting it.

Perhaps it's only natural that she would start to look in Jimmy's direction, as if she could rekindle herself by reaching back for the past. She remembers how she used to feel watching him walk down the hall in high school like he owned everything and everyone, so bright with confidence he almost glowed, the shiniest kind of promise. If she thinks about it long enough, her heart still starts to pound.

That day at the house, though, when he asked her for money, she took a good look at him, really saw him, for the first time in a long time, not the way he was back then, but how he is now, frayed at the edges and wearing thin. Whatever she's looking for, she won't find it by clinging to him. He needs saving even more than she does.

Even Kirsten's father is not exactly the man he used to be. When she told him about the house, all he cared about was the insurance payout, how quickly they could throw up another model home, when the money from the new development would start pouring in. That's not how her father ever did things, not what he taught her. The work, Kirsten. What you leave behind, he always said. That's what counts.

She'd like to blame this disturbing change in his outlook on his new wife, a well-lacquered, rather dimwitted blonde only a few years older than Kirsten, who spends the gross national product of a small country on clothes and jewelry every year. But it's not just her father who's losing his footing. It's everyone she knows. The good life, it seems, really isn't that good for any of them.

Her father has always insisted that it was his hardscrabble roots that made him the success he is, the fact that he never had it easy that made him eager to rise to the challenge. There were ten children in his family, and their father deserted them right after the youngest was born. When Kirsten's dad turned sixteen, his beleaguered mother told him she couldn't take care of him anymore. He'd have to take care of himself. He left home with nothing, hitchhiked his way west from Indiana, doing odd jobs along the way, finally reaching California with thirty-seven dollars in his pocket and big dreams in mind.

Kirsten has always had mixed feelings about this story. Her father loves tells it, with bold gestures and salty language, as if it was all a great adventure, the modern-day fairy tale of a boy going out into the world to make his fortune. He never utters a word against his mother, never seems to blame her for abandoning him, but Kirsten does. She secretly and utterly despises her grandmother, just as she despises Ryan's mother for leaving him.

She refuses to believe that living on the hard edge is the only way to keep that driving sense of purpose taut and alive inside you. She knows there must be some other answer, some other way. There has to be.

Sometimes, she thinks her mistake is needing someone else to help shore her up. Her father always preached self-sufficiency, and Kirsten has tried to follow in his footsteps. She really has. But trying to stand by herself has not made her stronger. In fact, it's leeching the life out of her, and she's afraid what will happen if she goes on feeling this alone much longer. Weaken a structure's supports, and it fails. You don't have to be a builder to know that.

She stirs restlessly, turns to look at the clock. It's 4.30. In half an hour she has to get up anyway, and grinding over this same old discontent is accomplishing nothing. She slips out of bed, careful not to wake Sandy. In the bathroom, she splashes water on her face and stares at herself in the mirror.

Sometimes she wonders what people see when they look at her. Do they see the strong, focused woman she set out to be? Or do they mistake her for one of the legion of disenchanted Orange County wives? One of those well-manicured middle-aged women with nothing more to look forward to than the pool boy's weekly visit. Just like her mother before the cancer set in, flitting from one tawdry affair to the next, looking for someone, anyone, who would make her feel like she was something more.

When Kirsten replays in her mind some of the recent fantasies she's had about Jimmy, the heat rises in her cheeks. Maybe there really is no choosing. Maybe it's like mother like daughter no matter how hard you try.

She lets out her breath and pushes away these thoughts before stepping into the shower. She knows it's never a good idea to ask hard questions before you've had even your first cup of coffee. She finishes getting ready and walks quietly down the hall. Outside Seth's door, she lingers a moment. She wonders most of all what Seth sees, but she's far too afraid to ask.

In the kitchen she's startled to find Ryan already up.

"Oh, um, hey, Mrs. Cohen." He looks almost sheepish. "There's coffee." He shifts his weight awkwardly.

"Thanks. That's exactly what I need." She reaches for a mug in the cabinet. "What are you doing up so early?"

He shrugs. "Just couldn't sleep." His eyes drop to the floor, and she lets the subject go.

The awkward moment passes, and they settle at the table. Kirsten toys with the handle of her mug. Her impulse is to ask him motherly questions: What do you dream about? and What do you want out of life? It could help fill in that emptiness that has gnawed at her since her little boy stopped being her baby and turned into someone she doesn't recognize half the time. She could say to Ryan all the things Seth has never wanted to hear. This is the right way and this is what's important and this is who we are. And he would soak in every word, she feels certain of it, as if he were being trusted with something precious, just the way she used to listen to her father.

But he's not hers, and she has to keep reminding herself of that.

Has to remember that everyone sees something different, something of their own making, when they look at Ryan. Sandy sees the crusader he set out to be. Seth imagines friendship out on the fringes. And she...she sees a second chance, the opportunity to get it all right, at last.

This is finally why she can't let him stay. It can't possibly be good for him in a place where no one really sees him, only their own losses and a way to compensate for them. But it's too hard to explain this to Sandy and Seth, and she wouldn't even know how to begin with Ryan.

It's easier just to let them all go on thinking she could never love him as a son.


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