Nancy & Sephiroth – Kathryn Mayer

The feeling is a bit like how she felt when she started purging in high school. Terror at the thought of being caught, but a rush too, a rush of something restless and alive, something vivid and poignant. She has a secret, and it’s hers and hers alone. A thing she will never admit to, no matter how hard-pressed. No one will ever know about Nancy and Sephiroth.
        When she sees something that reminds her of him now, she feels an electrifying jolt of energy. A man on TV has long silver hair. She feels her heartbeat speed up. She sees a long black coat on sale at Marshall’s. Her palms go slick with sweat. And when Caleb asks her to play Kingdom Hearts with him, her throat becomes dry, blocked. But the fear feels good too. Oh, it feels like bliss, like she’s nearing climax in a public place. Too enrapt to care that there are other people around, because in her mind it’s just her. Just her and him.
        She’ll ride the high of it all day. It doesn’t matter when Caleb pulls her back to reality.
        “Mom?” he says. “Hello?”
        “I’m listening,” she says. “You were talking about the frame rate.”
        Caleb means to convince her that video games aren’t a waste of his time, but are actually a real art form, and a science, and even maybe someday a legitimate career path for him to go into.
        He says, “Right. You have to pay attention to the number of frames when the character moves. You have to find the rhythm. Don’t think of it like a real fight. Think like you’re playing an instrument and you have to count yourself in… right, right. Yes. Good!”
        They’re playing some kind of cowboy fighting game now, which Caleb concedes is a bad game, but it’s good for learning the basics. “Baby mode,” he calls it. But that doesn’t stop Nancy from being absolutely terrible at it.
        “Can I watch you play again?” she asks.
        “Fine, you can watch me for one round, but then you have to finish one yourself,” he says.
        Nancy hands the controller over.
        Her eyes wander to the Final Fantasy DVD case lying on the floor.
        “What did I tell you about leaving your toys on the floor, Caleb?” she says, getting up to grab the case and put it away. But really she doesn’t care. It’s just an excuse to catch a glimpse of the back, the picture of Sephiroth, to feel him pulsing through her fingertips.

Sometimes she likes to thrill herself, get up close to the edge. For instance, she buys the long black coat that’s on sale at Marshall’s. Her husband is surprised when she wears it to bed one night, with nothing underneath. She’s never been that kind of person – sexy on purpose – but there’s something about having him against her skin – scaly, silver, a ghostly whisper in binary.
Will she say his name by accident? That would be a hard one to explain.
        Another time, while she’s having coffee with Linda and the boys are playing in the TV room, she says, “Is Aaron into Final Fantasy? I’ve been wondering if it’s appropriate.”
        Of course, she’s already watched about ten play-throughs of VII on YouTube. She doesn’t need another mom to tell her whether it’s appropriate or not. She just wants to see what will happen when she speaks the title out loud, if maybe the rest will spill out after it. But it doesn’t. She doesn’t even know what it would sound like if it did, or how she would put it into words in the first place. I’ve developed some sort of feeling for a character from a game my son likes? Is it love? Lust? Yearning? Projection? Am I the first? The last? The only one?

She’s not the only one.
        When Stu goes to work and Caleb is back in school, she retrieves her laptop as if it’s some sort of illicit drug. She doesn’t have any accounts – no DeviantArt, no Tumblr, no AO3 or Wattpad. She’s what they call a lurker, she learns. A virtual peeping Tom. She doesn’t interact, doesn’t leave any traces of her presence, but she sees all.
        The erotica available is tremendous. Pages and pages of intricately-written stories. Galleries of illustrated porn. Most of it, she finds, is old. Rotten links to defunct websites from the 1990’s. Fanfiction published on LiveJournal before Caleb was even born. Community forums left to gather ages of dust. A ransacked museum.
        It feels wrong to look. But that’s part of the appeal. Maybe even the whole of the appeal. She’s sixteen again, going to the bathroom after every meal, always on her toes thinking up excuses. A rush like morphine in her veins.
        With Sephiroth on her mind, the days no longer blend together, each one indistinguishable from the last. Now she feels every moment with lucid clarity. Now she feels.

Nancy wonders if she might be mentally ill.
        Caleb is with the psychiatrist in the other room. Nancy sits by herself in the waiting room. She leafs through the pages of a Highlights magazine that someone has scribbled through in permanent marker. She listens to the faint sound of the radio, the classical station, a woman with a soothing British accent discussing Brahms. She thinks about what music he would listen to, if any.
        The voices on the other side of Dr. Nowicki’s door get louder. Nancy puts the Highlights back where she found it. Caleb comes out sniffling, his eyes red.
        “Mom’s turn,” Dr. Nowicki says, gesturing for Nancy to come inside.

Most of the time, it’s sunny when they come to Dr. Nowicki’s, but this time it’s raining. Through the windows she can see the gray streets, the Citgo across from the office park, the lethargic traffic lights blinking yellow. She imagines she’s in Shinra Tower.
        “I know you’re not allowed to tell me what the two of you talk about,” Nancy says. “But what about what I talk about? Are you allowed to tell Caleb?”
        “No, I’m not, Nancy,” says Dr. Nowicki. “Not unless you give me permission. Is something on your mind?”
        She can hear the crackling of the lemon La Croix sitting on Nowicki’s desk. How can an undisturbed liquid make so much noise?
        “I’m concerned about Caleb,” she says. Her eyes drift to the Swiss cheese plant in the corner of the room. Monstera deliciosa. Delicious monster. “I know he loves his video games,” she says, “but I’m afraid he’s starting to confuse them with reality.”
        Nowicki shifts in her seat, intrigued.
        “Why do you think that?” she asks.
        Nancy clears her throat, suddenly aware of her heart.
        “Well,” she says. “There’s this one game. This one character.”
        Nowicki furrows her brow.
        “It’s all he talks about nowadays. And his computer history… I know I’m not supposed to look, but sometimes he’ll leave the laptop open, and I just peek, and it’s all … it’s all things having to do with this character. Some of it is pornographic, like drawings of the character in sexual situations. But some of it is mundane. He reads these stories, fanfiction, and sometimes it’s smut, but other times it’s just things like this character opening a coffee shop.”
        Her head feels light. A throbbing between her legs. If Nowicki makes her say his name out loud, she’s afraid of what might happen, that it might push her over the edge.
        You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Seph whispers in her ear. Disgusting.
        Nowicki smiles and puts her clipboard down on the desk.
        “Oh Nancy,” she says. “Don’t you remember how we were with our bands back in the day? Wasn’t there a special poster you kissed goodnight?”
        She doesn’t wait for an answer.
        “I know it seems different, but imagine if we’d had the internet back when we were Caleb’s age. Isn’t there someone you would have been searching for?”
        “So you don’t think I should be worried is what you’re saying?” Nancy asks.
        “That’s right,” says Nowicki. “I don’t think you should be worried. I think this is just normal teenager stuff.”

Nancy has always been a glutton. She’s always felt shame because she’s always deserved to. When she first got her license, sometimes she would drive to the grocery store on the way home from school, pick up a cake, and take it to the abandoned house on Sycamore. She’d wade through the untended grass in her tights and oxfords, sit down on the rotting front porch, and cut herself a slice of cake. One slice, she’d say, and she’d eat it as slowly as she could, watching the waning sun, reading the graffiti scrawled on the sides of the house. And then she’d finish the slice and she’d say one more. Just one more slice. Two isn’t that big of a deal. People eat and go back for seconds.
        But you know you’ll eat the whole cake, Sephiroth whispers to her. You’ve known it from the beginning. If you wanted a slice, you would have bought a slice.
        Now what is he doing? Messing with her memories?
        He sits beside her on the decaying floorboards.
        So much guilt, he says. So many cakes, and I bet you don’t remember what a single one of them tasted like. You were only ever thinking about the aftermath, even while you were stuffing your face.
        That’s not true, she thinks. She remembers the cakes just fine. They were delicious. Tres leches, double chocolate, sponge. It wasn’t just about the stomachaches, the purging, the bitter shame of not being able to control herself or anything around her. It was about the cakes too!
        Then why do you never think about the cakes? Sephiroth asks, twirling a strand of her hair around his finger. Why do you think you treat them like they were purely symbolic?

Nancy can remember her mother warning her against men like Sephiroth – beware of bad boys, of charmers, of manipulators. And yet here she is, breaking all the rules, and what danger is she in? She isn’t seeking anyone’s approval or validation. She isn’t seeking love. What she seeks is at once impossible and inevitable.
        She’s been drinking tonight.
        They’re having dinner with Stu’s parents, and the wine has been flowing, and she feels airy, light on her toes.
        Now she’s sitting on the toilet in the bathroom of a fancy restaurant, and against all odds, Sephiroth is here in the stall with her.
        You can’t be here, she thinks.
        He says, But this is right where you want me.
        He kneels before her, his black coat pooling around his knees and her feet.
        Tell me to go, he says. Tell me you don’t want me here.
        She takes hold of his impossibly sharp chin and lifts his gaze to hers, squeezing. His jaw is slack. He is so dangerous, lethal even, unpredictable, and yet there is no danger at all. She is as safe as she’s ever been.
        “Fuck me,” she says, tangling her fingers in his soft silver hair.
        He smiles.
        I don’t think I will, he says.
        She tightens her grip.
        Not worth my time, he says.
        “Please. I’ll die if you don’t.”
        Sephiroth considers this.
        Hmmm, he says, his nimble hands pushing her skirt up her thighs. Well I suppose you’re no use to me dead.
        “Yes,” she says desperately. “Jesus.”
        He lets her pull his head forward, kissing the insides of her knees, touching her, slipping his fingers down the front of her underwear.
        Ma’am, he says. Are you alright?
        A knock at the stall door.
        He’s gone. She’s alone. A bathroom attendant is peeking in at her through the crack in the door hinges.
        “Miss? Are you okay? You’ve been groaning.”
        “I’m fine,” she says hurriedly. “I’m fine. Sorry.”

They get home late.
        Nancy thinks of other nights they’ve gotten home late, nights where Caleb fell asleep in the back seat and she or Stu had to carry him up to his room. But Caleb is very much awake now, headphones in, staring vacantly out the window, his face obscured as they pull into the garage. She feels a strange wave of guilt that she can’t quite explain.
        Late at night, after Caleb and Stu have both fallen asleep, she sits at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and watches the unchanging stillness of the neighborhood through the window. She’s been here many nights before, trying to get back in touch with her own mind, to try to remember what she thinks of when she’s not thinking of her husband or her child or the groceries or the bills.
        More often than not, she just remembers things that happened a long time ago, in another life, things only tangentially relevant to where she is now. And she goes to bed feeling deeply unsatisfied, as if she’s come close to breaching some surface, as if she’s nearly woken up from a very long and dark fugue state. But not quite.
        Now she thinks of the other moms she knows. Linda, Janice, Rita, Meg. The times they’ve helped her with the dishes after a birthday party. The times they’ve sat together by the pool watching the kids do flips off the diving board. The times they’ve talked but not really, like extras in a movie, like now that they were mothers, that was all they would ever be. How are the kids? How is Stu? What do you use to sleep better at night? How do you get tie-dye stains out of carpet? Chewing gum out of hair?
In the window, Sephiroth reclines in the dip of the crescent moon, dripping.

When Nancy wakes up, Stu is adjusting his tie in the mirror. She looks at the place where his hair parts to make way for the smooth jut of his bald head.
        “Morning,” she croaks.
        “Morning,” he says. “Hungover yet?”
        Nancy scoffs. “I didn’t drink that much,” she says.
        He gives her a look.
        “Fine,” she says. “Next time I’ll be the designated driver and you can get drunk.”
        “Deal,” Stu says, and with that, he’s out the door, leaving Nancy to her own devices.
        Sephiroth lies beside her in the bed, his legs crossed neatly atop the duvet, his soft hair like a silver waterfall cascading over the edge of the pillows. She touches her fingers to his, smiles at the rise and fall of his exposed chest.
        “Shall we pick up where we left off?” she asks.