Once and Again...Once Again
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Summary of Cat-in-Hat
by Manh Tuong Lewis Nguyen
edited by Angela Stockton
As morning light streams through the blinds, Karen wakes up beside Leo in his apartment. [In black and white, Karen, her head in her hands, exclaims, "What am I doing?"]
She slides out of bed and, while she tries to find her clothes, which are strewn across the room, her cell phone rings. She answers it and hears Rick asking where she is. She lies that she left for work early and is stuck in traffic.
Rick asks her if she can pick up Jessie after tae kwon do. Just as she agrees, her call-waiting beeps. She switches over and finds herself talking to her secretary, Libby, who also asks where she is. Again she lies about being on her way in, but Libby's innocent question "Why are you whispering?" leaves Karen stammering and fumbling with her call-waiting switch.
Finally disconnecting her phone, she turns around and sees Leo awake and smiling. He calls her "cute," a description which Karen admits she doesn't hear a lot. "I have Frosted Flakes," he offers, inviting her to "stay for one minute." Her subsequent arrival at work fifteen minutes late, and her rosy cheeks, are so unlike her that Frank, another member of her firm, comments on them.
[Karen admits that she is not spontaneous. She needs a plan, needs to know the parameters of her life.]
After school, Eli and his buddy, Coop, visit a music shop. They meet Blake, a former schoolmate, and his companion, Jenny, who are members of a band playing at a club called The Doghouse. Coop suggests that he and Eli visit the club. Although the boys are late for basketball practice, they linger in the music shop while they fantasize about forming their own band.
At the tae kwon do academy, Jessie tells her friend Toby that she's matched with Paul (a boy she secretly likes), and thinks she can beat him. Paul tries to intimidate her about the black belt test she will take later in the week.
Jessie and Paul are the first pair to fight. Patronizingly, Paul assures her that he will go easy on her, but Jessie retorts that it's not necessary and quickly flattens him with a head kick. Paul refuses her outstretched hand as he picks himself off the mat.
Karen arrives to pick up Jessie and runs into Naomi, who sardonically remarks that Karen resembles a friend she's lost touch with because she hasn't returned any of Naomi's calls. Like Frank, Naomi can't help noticing Karen's flustered manner and glowing complexion. "Are you having sex?" she gibes. "With somebody?"
Naomi takes Karen's awkward silence for assent and gloats, "Go ahead, Lloyd!" Karen reluctantly explains that it's not Lloyd but someone else, a doctor. Before Naomi can pump her for more information, Jessie and Toby (Naomi's son) join them. Toby is embarrassed when his mother reveals that he has mentioned what a good tae kwon do player Jessie is, and adds, "I think he's afraid of you."
Jessie has forgotten her jacket. When she returns to the coatroom, Paul is there. She tries to talk to him but, still sulking over his defeat, he ignores her completely.
While preparing dinner that evening, Karen coaches Jessie on the written portion of her black belt test, but Jessie cannot answer any of the questions. The telephone rings, and the caller informs Karen that Eli missed basketball practice. When Eli comes into the kitchen, Karen asks why he missed practice, and he replies that he was at the music shop and lost track of the time. He notices that Karen seems "less organized," a remark she tries to brush off.
[In her interview, Karen explains, "I'm a rotator of underwear," who carefully places her freshly washed underwear under the clean pairs already in her drawer so that they all get equal time. However, she insists, "I'm not a strict rotator," and will occasionally wear a favorite pair out of order.]
On the stove, the gravy is bubbling over. The doorbell rings, and Leo and his bike barge in. Karen is surprised and not pleased to see him, and he makes her even more uncomfortable by commenting on the mashed potatoes in her hair. She hesitantly invites him to stay for dinner, and he accepts.
At the table, while Karen tries to pretend that nothing is out of the ordinary, Eli and Jessie watch in fascination as Leo eats as though he's famished. When Jessie can no longer contain her curiosity, she shocks Karen and amuses Leo by bluntly asking him, "Are you homeless?"
The kids ask him more questions: where he lives (in the city), if he biked all the way to their house (he did), how he knows Karen (from work), what he does (he's a doctor). Jessie asks, "Are you a real doctor or just, like, an optometrist?"
"I'm like an M. D.," he answers wryly.
Jessie asks Leo to examine her thumb, explaining that she thinks she jammed it at tae kwon do. He manipulates her thumb and pronounces it fine, then -- hearing that she's studying for her black belt -- pulls up his T-shirt and invites Jessie to test her skills by punching him in his bare chest. She does, and he stoically manages not to bend double. Without missing a beat, he challenges Eli to a game of basketball. Karen tries to stop them, reminding Eli of his homework, but Leo promises that they won't take long and embarrasses Karen by kissing her in front of the kids. In the driveway, Leo does some stretches which put him off to a slow start, and Eli easily drives around him and scores.
In the kitchen, Jessie discovers that one of her tae kwon do study guides is missing. Karen calls Rick to ask if he has it. Rick is in his truck with Lily, and he finds the study guide in the back seat. Ignoring Karen's protests that tomorrow is soon enough, he offers to bring it over immediately.
When Rick and Lily arrive, Leo and Eli are still playing one-on-one. Karen comes out and the adults all greet each other cordially. Eli excuses himself to start his homework. Leo again embarrasses Karen by putting his arm around her and kissing her in front of Rick and Lily. Once Karen has taken the study guide and gone back inside with Leo close behind, Rick and Lily are left alone to consider Karen's new boyfriend. "Good for her!" Lily comments. "I suppose," Rick responds doubtfully.
Karen is cleaning the kitchen when Leo pops back in, fresh from having taken a shower in her bathroom. When she wants to talk, he assures her that he isn't spending the night. She agrees emphatically that no, he isn't, and points out that it was inappropriate for him to drop in uninvited and then to use her shower.
"I have to have boundaries for where and when this happens," she insists. "There's this dividing line between being a parent and not, and it's just not easy for me to do--"
"--what you want?" Leo finishes her sentence. He continues, "I guess being a parent means you have to stop being a person." When he kisses her, she doesn't resist at first, but she pushes him away when Eli comes downstairs. Leo takes his noisy leave, bumping the bicycle against Karen's furniture.
The next morning, Jessie tells Karen that her thumb is swollen and that she shouldn't go to tae kwon do. Karen suspects that she just wants to skip class. Eli asks Karen if he can borrow the car that night to go with Coop to hear a band. When she pries from him the fact that the band is playing at a club in downtown Chicago, she refuses, but offers to drop them off if Coop's mother will pick them up. Eli stalks away angrily, accusing her of being too rigid. Karen protests, "I think I'm pretty flexible..." but her voice trails off as if she can't even convince herself.
[Karen confesses to fearing that people will discover that she has no idea what she is doing.]
Leo drops in at Karen's office. She is about to scold him for showing up when he pulls out a contract and asks her to look it over. He invites her to his home for lunch, but she refuses and moves away when he tries to hold her. When she says she needs to be in control, he replies that she can't keep bad things from happening no matter how much she tries. Leo calls himself "pathologically impulsive," but Karen says it is one of the things she likes about him. They spar about kissing in her office, Karen fending him off because they're not "out in the world." As he leaves, Leo promises that they'll do enough kissing that night, during their date "out in the world."
At the tae kwon do academy, Jessie and Toby are warming up together and comparing their English grades when Paul walks by. He ignores Jessie when she speaks to him. "I think he's mad 'cause you kicked his butt," Toby explains. Jessie is upset when their teacher, Master Kim, matches her with Paul again. In their showdown, Jessie doesn't even try to fight, and Paul quickly knocks her down. Karen is there, and both she and Master Kim are not pleased that Jessie's usual quickness and determination are nowhere to be seen.
Afterward, Karen asks Jessie if she is all right. Jessie irritably responds that she could have beaten Paul easily. When Karen wonders why she wouldn't want to beat him, Jessie says she doesn't want to talk about it. Karen drops the subject.
At Rick's apartment, Eli -- without disclosing that he has already asked to borrow Karen's car, and been refused -- asks to borrow Rick's car for the night. Rick agrees, and the conversation turns to Karen and Leo. When Eli voices his hunch that Leo is younger than Karen, he and Rick exchange man-to-man grins.
Leo and Karen go to The Doghouse for their date, and Karen is tickled when she's asked to show her ID at the door. They find a table, and she immediately clears away the peanut shells while Leo buys two beers. He pulls her onto the dance floor. Stiff at first, Karen slowly relaxes in his arms.
Jessie is spending the night with Rick. She tells him she's too nervous to eat and isn't sure she wants to take the black belt test. He replies that no one will force her to take it, and advises her to get some sleep and decide in the morning.
Eli and Coop, carrying fake IDs, arrive at The Doghouse, and Coop goes to buy beer. A girl calls "Hey, Eli!" and when Karen looks around, she comes face to face with her son. Karen is furious, especially after Coop, beer bottle in hand, drapes himself over Eli, and Eli tries to defend himself by taunting Karen, "Don't you think you're a little out of place?" She confiscates his fake ID, orders him to go straight home, and warns that he'll hear more about this.
Leo, amused, reacts with a boys-will-be-boys nonchalance which only makes Karen angrier. When he suggests that they did worse things when they were Eli's age, she snaps, "Well, I didn't!" She tells Leo that she doesn't think this is going to work out, and walks away.
In the morning, Eli thanks Rick for not making an issue of his night out, but Rick replies that he's simply waiting for Karen. Once she arrives, they inform Eli that they're tired of his playing one parent against the other, and that they're revoking his driving privileges for a month.
Karen has brought Jessie's tae kwon do uniform, but as she hands it to her, Jessie declares that she is not going to take her test and doesn't want to talk about it. Karen reminds her how excited she was last week, but Jessie replies that it was Karen who was the more excited. "You get way too attached to these things," she snaps.
Eli jumps in to support Jessie and accuses Karen of expecting too much of her children, and Jessie backs him up before they both walk out in a huff. Philosophically, Rick reminds Karen that someday they will lash out at him, "probably in therapy." Karen suggests that he enjoy the current detente while he can.
Karen goes to Jessie's room, where Jessie greets her with, "Please don't tell me the story about how you quit piano lessons and regretted it for the rest of your life," then apologizes for disappointing her. Karen fervently replies that she is not disappointed in Jessie, insisting, "You're more confident and braver than I ever was."
Jessie remembers Karen saying that she was such a shy girl, she couldn't even talk to boys. When Jessie asks if she ever had boyfriends, Karen recalls the time she decided to run for class president. She worked hard, campaigned and introduced herself to people. But she was infatuated with her opponent, a boy named Ethan, and when they had to debate each other, all she could think about was how much she wanted Ethan to like her. She blew the debate ("On purpose?" Jessie asks; "I think so," Karen admits) and lost the election.
"Did Ethan talk to you after that?" Jessie asks. "Not really," Karen replies wistfully, a confession that Jessie finds touching.
Karen goes back downstairs to talk to Rick. But before she can say much, Jessie herself comes down, dressed in her uniform and head held high. She announces that she wants to take her test.
[While she watches Jessie compete, Karen reminisces about her "controlling, obsessive, and overprotective" mother. When Karen was seven, her mother took away her pet frog, for fear that it would give her warts and wasn't very attractive. Her mother, who "really knew how to install fear in a person," was consumed with fear all her life until, ironically, she was diagnosed with cancer and learned that she was going to die. Once the worst thing that she could imagine had happened, she had nothing left to fear, and she became the warm human being Karen always wished for -- but too late. "Why couldn't she have just been that person to begin with?" Karen wonders.
Now, Karen admits, when she sees her children afraid, she worries that she has passed her own fears along to them. She wants to be a better mother but doesn't know how. "Why do we become so afraid to be who we are?" she asks plaintively.]
Jessie passes her test and receives her black belt from Master Kim. Beaming, she runs over to Rick and Karen to receive their congratulatory hugs and kisses.
That evening, Leo is at home when he hears a knock on his door. When he opens it, he is surprised to find a nervous Karen. "I thought you were Chinese food," he greets her. He invites her inside, where she immediately begins tidying up. When he asks her why she's there, she replies, "I'm not quite sure what I'm doing here, but I know that I want to be here."
She tells Leo he's probably not the right person for her, because he's everything she's not looking for, "but you make me laugh, and you make me question who I am."
Leo: "That's good, right?"
Karen: "Yes. I think I want to try this again."
Leo: "You do? Do you think you can handle it?"
Karen: "I don't know." Silence.
On the sofa, they curl up in each other's arms and kiss.
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