Afternoons and Coffeespoons
I'd noticed him before. A couple of times, actually; hanging around the modernist sculptures, staring in that quiet, intense way at the exhibits as if they held some great existential meaning for him. I recognised him vaguely... one of Buffy's friends. He seemed older, beyond the frivolousness of Buffy's teenage dramas. Or maybe just calmer; with Buffy there's always some new crisis, some new panic that means she's rushing off to save the world again. But he never seemed to be fazed.
Today was different though. He just sat on one of the little wooden benches, looking at a rather derivative sculpture, and he look troubled, I guess.
For a while I left him alone with his thoughts, but it was getting near to closing time and the jeep was on a meter, so I approached him almost nervously, my footsteps echoing around the room, heels clicking on hardwood flooring. He tilted his head slightly, in consideration or acknowledgement - I wasn't sure which. It seemed like it was the first time I'd seen him move in hours.
He'd sauntered in on a Saturday afternoon when things were slow... well, things were always slow, but especially so today. And I'd been astonished, pleasantly so, to see someone his age take more than a cursory glance around. He was all spikey bleached hair and baggy jeans slung low around his hips, the fashion kids favoured nowadays. His lips moved and I realised he was speaking to me.
"Its cool how art can have a different meaning when your mood changes."
"Yes..." I began, then looked again at the sculpture in front of him. It really wasn't that good a piece. A lump of clay with a hole in the middle that made it looked like a bagel that needed more time in the oven. I wondered what meaning he saw in that. "I suppose so."
"I used to think this was just a big thing with a hole, kinda like a lifesaver. But today it's not. It's... me."
He didn't look the type to have body image issues. Although I think I had a self-help tape about it and it said it could happen to anyone.
"Well, I think you look a bit less lumpy," I said, for the sake of saying something.
For a moment a smile flickered across his features, then disappeared. "Yeah. I know; but it is sorta me. A big lump of junk with the heart ripped out."
Oh. Something was wrong. The obvious question was asked before I could stop myself. "Are you ok?"
His mouth twitched as he looked back at me, the slight trace of a smile returning to his lips. There was something about his eyes and the cadence of his voice that compelled me and concerned me in equal measure. He nodded his head a little. "I will be, once I figure it all out."
"The art?" I asked, furrowing my brow.
His mouth curled slightly at the corner, a sort of half-smile. "Art, life, whatever happened to the Partridge family."
Finally he stood, shoved his hands into his pockets and I felt like I had to say something of profundity. Or just something.
"You know, every Thursday we have a guest speaker at the Friends of Sunnydale Gallery meeting. You should come along, if you're interested in the exhibits." I floundered for a moment, wondering why the hell a teenage boy would be interested.
The steady gaze moved from the art to me, sea-green eyes encased in a heavy-lidded expression. "I would. I will. Although not this Thursday... I kinda have unavoidable stuff."
"Of course," I said, giving him a cheery smile. "It's Oz, isn't it. I'm Joyce... Buffy's mom."
"Yeah, I remember the party. With the zombies."
"Oh yes, you were there, I remember."
There was a pause and I remembered my meter too. I thought about saying goodbye, but... I don't know. Call it my maternal instinct, but I thought he might like someone to talk to.
"Look, I need to close the Gallery now, but I sometimes go for a cappuccino at the Espresso Pump. Care to join me? My treat - I guess I owe you for the, uh, zombies."
For a moment I think surprise registered in his expression.
"I don't want to put you to trouble."
"No, really, I'd be glad of the company. I'll even throw in a Danish pastry."
"Sure, that'd be cool."
The Espresso Pump was curiously empty for a Saturday evening, so we took a coveted seat by the window. A cheerful girl took our order, obviously one of the students from UC Sunnydale working part-time. Now that we were here I wasn't sure what to say to Oz. He just stared at the salt shaker, turning the object over and over in his hands, his nail-polished fingers mapping out the tiny scratches and imperfections in the glass. His expression remained inscrutable.
Conversation openers evaded me somehow but I managed to latch onto one. "So, are you looking forward to going to college?" I had remembered that Oz and Willow had applied to UC Sunnydale along with my daughter.
He raised an eyebrow in contemplation. "I guess. Seems like a natural progression from school. Just somewhere you're supposed to go."
I nodded slowly feeling like my attempt to engage him had been usurped. The waitress arrived with our cappuccinos and a plate of pastries, relieving the awkwardness.
After we sipped for a moment in silence,I decided to bite the bullet. After all, I'd had plenty of practice for awkward mom conversations with Buffy. Even if I wasn't really Oz's mom.
"Oz, if I'm prying then forgive me, but, y'know if you need a shoulder... "
He set the salt shaker down. "Why did you divorce Mr. Summers? If you don't mind my asking."
I snorted into my cappuccino and foam was blown across the table. Now that was something I hadn't thought about it a while. He blinked. "If that was too personal, then never mind."
I didn't reply at first. I'd never really discussed my divorce with Hank with anyone but Hank. It was just too painful. You get used to the excuses that are doled out to others: 'we grew apart'; 'we became different people'. You repressed the real reasons. I thought about parroting the usual lies. I almost did. But that gaze...
"If I tell you, you have to promise not to tell Buffy. Or Willow. Or anyone."
He looked a little uncomfortable. "You don't have to tell me."
"I know. So do you promise?" There was some illicit thrill in this, I was finding. Since Pat died I hadn't really had a proper girly chat. Not that this was, either, but I missed having someone to talk to about relationships and stuff.
Oz meanwhile nodded his head. "Sure, I won't tell."
"Put simply, I walked into Hank's office to find him screwing his secretary on his desk."
The cappuccino cup paused halfway towards Oz's lips. Again, he lifted his eyebrows. "Ouch."
"That's what I thought. Actually, I thought of other things - taking a gun and shooting the pair of them suddenly seemed very appealing." I swallowed at the memory. They just carried on fucking even after I walked in, not even having the good grace to wait - or even break rhythm! - until I'd stormed out. "All of a sudden all that overtime made perfect sense. I was raging when I left, I just wanted to make him pay."
"What did you do?" Oz asked.
I gave a guilty smile. "I'm afraid I wasn't very grown up. I went home and cut up all his clothes. And I left a dog shit on his car seat."
Oz actually did smile at this and it transformed his face. "Touché." He drawled quietly, and took a gulp of coffee.
"It certainly fulfilled the immediate need for revenge," I paused, revelling for a moment in pride at the sheer pettiness of the act. While I could laugh at it now, back then... "But things were strained for a long time."
Even now, Hank and I had an awkward relationship, maintaining contact for Buffy's sake. Not long after the incident with his secretary the woman filed for sexual harassment and Hank was fired. So I guess he got his comeuppance at the end... and I got my lovely jeep with the alimony.
"And Buffy doesn't know about this?" he said, more as a statement really, than a question.
"No, she was in real trouble at school at the time and lousy husband though he was, Hank was good enough to end the marriage in a civil fashion. We both agreed to hide as much as could from Buffy; after all she had enough to deal with - more than I realised at the time."
"But you've never told her since?"
"How can I? She'd be so upset and she has all this... Slayer duty to deal with. Besides, she'd never forgive me for lying to her - or her father for cheating on me."
He picked up the salt shaker again at that, staring at once more. "If she did, she'd have some double standards."
Now there was a loaded statement. "Double standards? What's Buffy done that I don't know about? If that isn't too broad a category."
His brow furrowed briefly as he stared at his hands. "It's not Buffy." He paused for the longest time and I was beginning to wonder if he was going to be any more forthcoming. Just as I opened my mouth to prompt him, he continued. "Some stuff went down with Willow... she cheated on me with Xander and Buffy seemed to be the first to leap to her defence." He cleared his throat quietly.
"Oh, Oz, I'm sorry."
He just shrugged but I could see that he wasn't as nonchalant as he was trying to be.
"Well," I said with a sigh, "looks like we've both seen that love can be a bitch. And Xander - I never thought he'd do that to a friend."
I had to marvel that he could be so calm about it. That kind of thing can tear a group apart, I knew from experience. When I was at college, I'd been the 'other woman' myself, stealing Hank away from his girlfriend. So, in a way, I should have known that if it was that easy for him to be seduced it follows that someone could take him away from me just as easily. Especially an airhead floozy half my age.
He ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't think he stole her from me. Well, I think it was fifty-fifty. I don't know. But I can't get past it - I need to know what I did wrong, or what Xander did, or does, right that Willow chose him. And - and I'm not really angry at Buffy. Just being a little bitter. I'm not even angry with Willow or Xander. Much. I just want to figure out whether I can ever mean more than Xander to Willow deep down, or if I'll always just be the guy she likes cos I'm in a band." His hand dropped to the table and he looked out of the window.
I sat my cup down and placed my hands over one of his. "I hope Willow realises how lucky she is. And I'm sure you do mean more to her than Xander. Sometimes the things we know we shouldn't have - chocolate, waffles, other people... they're just too tempting. It's a thrill, a danger ..." I realised what I was doing. "and can you tell I maxed out my credit cards on Oprah books when Hank I divorced?"
Another smile flashed across his features "I thought it sounded more Dr. Ruth, actually."
I grinned. "Is that a compliment? Actually, don't answer that. Anyway - just don't be so hard on yourself. Do what I did - take it out on them. Which probably wouldn't be Dr. Ruth's advice, but it made me feel a helluva lot better."
"Willow doesn't have a car," he deadpanned, and I heard myself giggle. "Although I could make sure the shit was genuine canine."
A confused expression shaped my features. "Huh?"
There was another pause, and then I tried again. "Have you spoken to Willow since you found out?"
He nodded. "A coupla times at school, and she's left like a hundred messages on my machine."
"So she wants you back?"
A shrug. "I guess so."
"Well, then you're the one in control,Oz. You can set the boundaries now. The question has to be, do you want her back?"
He opened his mouth to speak, then shut it again. After he collected his thoughts he spoke quietly. "I think so, I just... I just don't want to be hurt again."
"Do you think Willow will do it again?"
"Huh. I didn't think she'd do it the first time."
I cast my eyes at the table, I knew how that felt. "Tell me about it."
"I just don't know if I can trust her again."
"Well, she'll have to earn it, Oz."
There was another pause, and I realised both out cappuccinos were finished, and it was getting dark. "Look, I need to go, Buffy'll start to worry soon."
He nodded. "Yeah, I gotta do study. Thanks."
I paid the bill and we made for the door, and as we left to go out separate ways I said. "If it's any consolation, I'd make a play for you myself, if I was twenty years younger." I laughed nervously.
Oz smiled. "Mrs. Summers, you wouldn't have to be to get me."
He left me standing outside the Espresso Pump blushing to the roots of my hair.
I hadn't had the courage to ask Buffy what had happened with Oz before the following Thursday came around and I was sitting at the top table at the weekly Gallery meeting, as Professor Cassidy from UCS went up to he podium to speak on the art of Greek urns, or something.
Just then, the door at the back of the room swung open, and Oz entered. Just behind him was Willow, a slightly uncertain look on her face that changed to a fake grin as soon as Oz turned to her. They sat down at the back, and Oz caught my eye and smiled. I nodded back discretely. I was glad that someone in Sunnydale could make use of a motherly pep talk from me, even if they fall on deaf ears with my own daughter.
I caught Oz's glance again and tried my best to feel maternal pride. Because it really helps to feel maternal when you want to ignore an irrational twinge of jealousy. You see, that's all it is, irrational. Really.