by Jeanne DeVore
There was a light on when Joyce Summers got home. That was odd, as she was certain all the lights were off when she left this morning. She unlocked the door cautiously.
Her daughter stood up from her seat on the couch. "Hi," she said softly.
All the "Mom" bells rang in Joyce's head. Buffy here, unannounced, when she should be at school.... But she put on her best cheery smile. "Hi, honey! This is a surprise." She gave her daughter a hug. "What brings you here?"
"Can't I come visit?" Buffy asked uncertainly.
"Of course you can, any time," Joyce assured her. "I just didn't expect you. I thought you'd call first."
"You weren't home," Buffy said softly. "If this is a bad time...."
"No, no not at all." Joyce quickly smoothed ruffled feathers. "I'm always glad to see you, no matter what the reason." She smiled gently. "Now why don't you tell me what's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong," Buffy said a little too quickly. "I just wanted to...."
Joyce just gazed at her. Buffy was the past-master at keeping secrets, but she could tell that this time, whatever was bothering her daughter, she wanted to talk about it.
Buffy looked away, looked down, looked everywhere except at her mother. Then she blurted, "Mom, what's wrong with me?" Large, hurt eyes turned her way. "Am I too trusting? Too stupid? Is there a big sign tattooed on my forehead only guys can read that says 'I'm Buffy, take advantage of me'?"
Joyce pursed her lips. Boy trouble. At least her one small consolation was that whoever this boy was, at least he was human. She hoped. "What happened?"
Buffy went back to her evasion routine and Joyce took her hand. "Honey, you know you don't have to tell me, but I'm a good listener. And I promise to not get mad or anything."
That made Buffy smile, a little half-smile, and still holding her hand, Joyce led her to a seat on the couch. She sat quietly, waiting until Buffy was ready to talk.
When she began, her voice was small, uncertain. "There was this guy...is this guy. Parker. He's in the dorms, we met in line at the cafeteria. He's a really nice guy. Or I thought he was. No, he was," she repeated, as if to convince herself. "Anyway, we hung out, talked...a lot. A bout all kinds of stuff. Not just fluffy stuff, like how to make your meal card last, but...but important stuff. Inside stuff and how we felt. I really, really liked him. And, well.... We got...um...close. Closer." Buffy paused, swallowing, and spared a glance at her mother. Joyce had a sick feeling she knew what was coming, didn't think she wanted to know about it, but kept her face as neutral as she could and steeled herself. It was bad enough to know your baby, your little girlchild was all grown up. It was something else again to have to be told the details.
Buffy looked away again. "It was...nice," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "It was good. Even the next morning.... He was so sweet." Then she sighed wearily.
"But he hasn't called?" Joyce prompted. She'd heard this story too many times before.
Buffy shook her head. "I...I saw him on campus...yesterday. And he was like...like it was fun, but...but no big deal. That's all it was to him. That's all I was to him. Fun."
She turned her head, tears rimming her eyes. "Mom, why does this keep happening? I mean, Angel...I could almost understand that, that was a demon thing. But this...." Her chin quivered and Joyce's heart broke for her daughter. Why did life lessons have to be so hard?
"Honey, I don't know why," she said gently. "Some boys are only interested in the conquest. Once they have, they don't want. But not all boys are like that. There are lots of wonderful, kind, considerate men out there. You'll find one, don't worry."
"But I thought Parker was like that!" Buffy insisted, a fat tear tracing down her cheek. "I felt like I could really talk to him, really get to know him. But he wasn't like he seemed at all. What am I doing wrong?"
"You aren't doing anything wrong, honey, it's him. Not seeing what's in front of him, wanting a notch on his belt instead of something that means anything."
"But how could I be so wrong about somebody?"
"That happens to everybody. They see what they want to see. Or people mislead them into believing they're something they're not."
"Did you ever get fooled like that?"
Joyce took a deep breath. She wasn't sure if bringing up the tragedies in her past would be better or worse for Buffy. She nodded. "Only it took me sixteen years to realize it."
Buffy frowned, then her eyes widened in shock when she realized what her mother meant. "He didn't pretend to be something he wasn't though, did he?"
"No, not really. But he wasn't the man I married anymore. At least I didn't think he was." She sighed. "But then, I don't think I was the woman he married anymore, either, so it went both ways." She was saddened whenever she thought about her failed marriage. She wanted very badly to cast the blame, to make Hank out to be the villain. But though his infidelity had been the final straw, she suspected he'd never have been unfaithful if he hadn't been so unhappy to begin with. She always wondered how two people who had once loved the very air each other breathed could one day wake up and realize they could barely stand the sight of each other. She hadn't believed people who truly loved each other could ever fall out of love. Until it happened to her.
"It's just...I feel like such an idiot. I thought...I thought he really liked me."
"I don't know if that kind of boy ever really likes anyone, not the way you mean."
Buffy went on. "I thought...here was a guy who could make me forget about Angel."
Joyce tried not to show her surprise. She wondered if Buffy even knew how that sounded. But her daughter hadn't come here for recriminations; she'd come her for love, for acceptance. "Oh, honey, you can't make yourself forget about someone like that. Especially not someone you still care about. I'm not going to pretend I'm not glad Angel's gone, but I do understand how you feel about him, and I know how hard it is, to lose someone you care that much about. But I think maybe you're trying so hard to forget about Angel that, well, maybe that made you a little more ready to be seduced by someone else. Now, I'm not saying that this Parker was right in doing what he did, not at all. But maybe in your effort to forget about Angel, you were using Parker, too."
"But it wasn't like that!" Buffy insisted.
"A boy you knew what? Two weeks? It's not that what you did is wrong, honey. But you have to decide what you want sex to be. It can just be something physical. A lot of fun. But it's best when it means something special. When it's a gift you share because you want to share everything with someone. Someone special."
Buffy ducked her head dejectedly. "I thought he was special. I thought I knew what I wanted. But...." She looked at her mother again. "But I guess I didn't really know him well enough to be sure. I thought I did, but I guess I didn't."
Joyce smiled gently and put a hand on Buffy's shoulder. "Honey, sometimes no matter how well you think you know people, you still don't really know them. You just have to hope that what they want and what you want are the same and that you get lucky enough to want them at the same time."
"Like you and Daddy?" Buffy's eyes were huge and open, her emotions very near the surface.
Joyce nodded. "We did at first. And I know it sounds corny to say we just grew apart, but I can't think of any other way to explain it. It was like...one morning we realized that whatever used to be there was gone, and we didn't know how to get it back, because we didn't know each other anymore."
Buffy frowned. "I don't get that. How could you not know each other? You lived with each other."
"But we'd developed separate interests, separate...views. I don't know, honey, it's hard to explain. It was like looking at someone you've known for so long, and realizing they're a stranger to you. And you're a stranger to them. Things that used to make him smile...don't anymore. And you don't know how to bring that smile back."
Joyce felt that pang in her stomach, the tightening she felt whenever she thought about what had happened between her and Hank. She still didn't understand it, not totally. Maybe it was mid-life crisis, maybe it was something more. But she couldn't remember that time without feeling the guilt, and the failure, and the sadness, all over again.
"Yeah, and I'm sure I didn't help," Buffy muttered.
That was enough to snap Joyce out of her melancholy. "Oh, no, Buffy. It didn't have anything to do with you."
"But I was what you fought about, mostly."
"Because it was easy to fight about you. You were having problems, so you were closest to the surface with us. If it hadn't been you it would have been something else. All our arguments about you were really arguments about other things ourselves, mostly. Who we were to each other and where we still fit in each others' lives."
"Yeah, but if I hadn't been--"
"It still would have been something," Joyce shook her head. "Remember when we fought about the new car? And my having to work Friday evenings? And his trips to Philadelphia?"
Buffy was silent for a moment. "Mom?"
"Was Daddy having an affair?"
Joyce's stomach clenched. She hadn't wanted Buffy to know this, not ever. But she'd asked, and Joyce wouldn't lie to her. Especially not tonight, when everything was so raw.
She nodded slowly. "Things were already...pretty bad by the time it...he...." She took a deep breath. She didn't want to defend Hank, what he'd done was unforgivable. But she didn't want Buffy to hate him for it, either. "We hadn't been happy in a long time. Things hadn't been.... It's hard to...to love someone...physically...when you're mad at them. And by then we were mad at each other most of the time."
Buffy was silent and when Joyce glanced at her, her jaw was clenched tight.
"How could he...?" she whispered harshly.
All Joyce could do was shake her head. "I don't know. But I do know he must have been miserable. Because I was miserable."
"Yeah, but you didn't--"
"I never had the opportunity. If I had, I..." She sighed. "I don't know what I would have done. I don't want to excuse what he did, Buffy, but I think he did it more because he was so unhappy than to hurt me. I don't think it had been going on more than a couple of weeks when he...."
"Was that when he moved out?"
She nodded. "I don't think he could live with himself, pretending that nothing was the matter. Maybe it gave him the excuse he finally needed to leave, I don't know. I do know that once I found out about it I.... It was almost a relief, in a weird sort of way. Now we didn't have to pretend everything was all right. Now we could admit it was over and do something about it. In the end, it just got too hard to try anymore. It was better once he left."
"If it was better, how come you were so unhappy?" Buffy asked with an astuteness that often surprised her.
"I'd failed," she said simply. "I'd failed at the one thing girls were supposed to get right, the thing we were all told mattered more than anything else. I'd failed as a wife. That kind of failure.... Hurts. But," she patted her daughter's hand, "you get over the hurt, and eventually, you go on. Despite everything, with my trying to run a business and a house, raise you, your being the slayer, and all the things we have to deal with, I'm still happier now than I've been in a long time. Sometimes maybe you need to fail, in order to go on."
Buffy was silent for so long that Joyce began to wonder whether this little conversation of theirs had done her any good at all. Truths she hadn't wanted revealed had been brought to light. But maybe there had been too many secrets between them. Maybe it was time for this kind of honesty.
Buffy sighed on a deep breath. "I still feel like...like I did something wrong. If I'd been a better person, prettier, nicer, then he wouldn't have left me."
"I doubt that," Joyce said. "Men can be very strange. They want to get a girl to bed, but they don't want to date a someone who'll go to bed with them, because that means she's 'loose'."
Buffy made a face. "That's wacked-out."
"Yep," Joyce smiled. "That's men. But," she qualified, "it's not all men. For every boy like Parker out there, there are more really good ones."
"Yeah, but finding them...." Buffy frowned.
"Oh, there will be someone out there for you, honey, don't worry. But...don't push it too hard, either. Don't expect the next guy who comes along is going to make you forget Angel, and don't expect that sleeping with him will solve all your problems. Usually that just creates more than it solves."
"Oh yeah, I know that one real well," Buffy nodded fervently. Then she stopped, and that sad expression returned to her face. "It's just...I see Willow with Oz, or I see other couples around campus. And that's what I want. And I think it's never gonna happen. I'm always gonna be alone."
Joyce's heart went out to her. "You won't," she said, hoping to reassure her. "You just have to be patient."
"Oh, yeah, easy for you to say. You've had...." Her words sputtered and Joyce felt that lump in her stomach again.
"Buffy, I get lonely, too, do you think I don't?"
Buffy didn't answer, just stared at her lap.
"Sometimes I get very lonely, missing what I had with your father. But I know I have to be patient, too. I hope there's someone else out there for me, because I think I'd like to be involved with someone again. But I'm not about to rush into anything. My last boyfriend was a homicidal robot, that's kind of made me cautious."
Buffy managed a smile at that. "Would you want to get married again?"
"Oh, I don't know about married. It's sometimes scary, going it alone. But it's exciting, too. I don't have to answer to anybody but myself. And you, of course." She smiled gently. Buffy still didn't look convinced, so Joyce went on. "Buffy, I spent most of my high school years without a boyfriend, and college was shaping up to be just as miserable and lonely when I met your father. That's why I say to be patient."
"Yeah, but you and Daddy split up."
"But we had fifteen pretty good years before then. And in spite of everything that happened, I don't regret marrying him, not for a single instant. The good years were very good, and besides, together we made you. And that's the best thing of all."
Buffy blushed and looked down. "Was he your first?" she whispered. Then her head popped up. "Oh, God, I can't believe I just asked that. Rewind!"
Joyce laughed. "Yes, he was. I wasn't his first, but I don't know how many came before me. I never asked and I never wanted to know."
"Did you wait 'til you got married?"
"Oh, no," Joyce shook her head. "I was a good girl, but not that good."
"Were you engaged, at least?"
Joyce shook her head again. "But we had been seeing each other for awhile, and I was pretty sure he was the one." She smiled gently at her daughter. "Have I just shattered your illusions about your parents?"
"No, I just.... I don't know. I think this falls under the 'too much information' category."
"Hey, you're the one who asked."
"Yeah, but usually when I ask totally embarrassing questions, you don't answer."
Joyce shrugged. "So I figured it was about time you got embarrassed for a change."
Buffy grinned. After the earlier sorrow, it was good to see.
"You feeling any better, sweetheart?" Joyce asked.
"A little," Buffy sighed. "I'm still feeling like...like somehow I should have known what he was really like. I still have a hard time believing it. I mean...he was so sweet.... I just wish I could feel really mad at him, but I can't."
"Like somehow you're to blame," Joyce nodded knowningly.
"Yeah. But I'm not. I know that. And I know he's a poophead. In here." She touched her head. "But in here...." She put her hand over her heart and sighed. "Romance really sucks, you know?"
Joyce chuckled. "Yeah, it really does, sometimes. But sometimes...it's really nice."
Buffy gave a reluctant smile, and nodded. "Thanks." She leaned into her mother and Joyce hugged her tight, giving her a little rock and a kiss on the top of her head for good measure.
"So," she said when Buffy loosened the hug, "you wanna stay for dinner?"
"Of course. Anything special you want?"
Buffy didn't even pause to think. "Macaroni and cheese?"
Joyce laughed. "Don't you get macaroni and cheese in the dorms?"
"Not as good as yours."
"Okay, honey. Mac and cheese it is." She stood up, bringing her daughter with her, and together they headed to the kitchen.
Buffy was practically grown now, dealing with the problems not of a child, but of an adult, a young woman. She was living on her own, involved in day-to-day activities, classes, experiences that Joyce would never know about. Joyce accepted it as a natural part of the changing relationship between parent and child.
But when all was said and done, it was nice to have her baby home.
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