He noticed it more when he saw them together. He knew how beautiful Kirsten was, saw the way Sandy looked at her, had noticed how other men looked at her, even if she didn't. If only she didn't have blonde hair to remind him of Dawn…
Ryan's first impression of Kirsten was made on the sweeping curve up to the gate of the community. He'd been sitting on the leather seat, wishing he could get used to it, wondering where Sandy got his money, finally asking him.
"This is a nice car. Didn't know your kind of lawyer made money."
"No. We don't… My wife does." Then, Ryan had envisioned a hard-looking, dark-haired politician type of woman- distant, uninterested in anything except the bottom line, cold and unforgiving. He'd thought that even more when Sandy had left him in the car to talk to her before introducing him. But when he saw her, a waif-like figure, hopelessly blonde, hopelessly classy, he'd immediately thought of his own mother. Kirsten was, of course, sans heavy makeup and smelt rather more like expensive perfume than cigarettes and booze, but she was still irrepressibly blonde, and unfortunately distant.
Until the Vegas night, Ryan had managed to compare Kirsten to Dawn at least a hundred times, probably more. Kirsten cared about Seth, his mother didn't care about him. Kirsten loved Sandy and only Sandy, his mother had paraded men in front of him and Trey like fashion accessories. Kirsten was insanely successful at almost everything she did, his mother couldn't handle waiting tables. Kirsten was beautiful.. Kirsten was kind… Kirsten was fiercely loyal… Intelligent… Calm in catastrophes… A good driver… Almost too good to be true.
When casino night came, and Ryan's mother stood next to Kirsten, wearing borrowed clothes and perfume she would never be able to afford, Ryan saw his past reflected in Dawn. As nice as she thought she looked, Ryan could still see her disgusting cheapness reflected; could see everything he had once been subjected to, the stealing, the beating, the drugs. But Kirsten looked like she wanted this to work, and as Ryan had soon gathered, Kirsten usually got what she wanted. So he went along with it, this plan to change his mother to something she couldn't be; an actual real mother, someone like Kirsten.
The night had started off well, but as Ryan knew, it always ended in tears with her. He admired Kirsten even more when she claimed the catastrophe his mother was as her own, knew even then how much people would talk about the Cohen's and their propensity for bringing outsiders into the community to cause trouble. She was still distant though, still had an unattainable quality that he was sure was impassable. She'd left Sandy and Ryan to manipulate Dawn into the pool house, Seth making suggestions that he thought were helpful. Finally, Dawn asleep on his bed, his pool house blissfully still, Ryan looked hard at his mother. Tonight, he'd thought that she may have changed, that she might be more like Kirsten, less like the mother who had abandoned him and ignored him when he was getting his arse kicked by whichever boyfriend she had that week. The next morning she was already gone. He'd known she would be, had been expecting it, maybe even wishing for it so that he might have a better chance of staying at the Cohen's, becoming a permanent fixture in the pool house, being able to think of Kirsten as his mother. He'd quickly pulled on some clothes, walked outside to see her, belongings in a cheap backpack, outclassed by Kirsten even though she was only in pyjamas and a robe. Their differences were even more striking in the unforgiving morning light. The look in each of their eyes, so different as he emerged from the pool house. He saw her wave at him, didn't know what the response would be, waved in return. What does one do when confronted with the finality of their mother leaving them? He'd watched Kirsten watch her walk away, wondered what her next move would be, wondered if she'd kick him out again. She turned back to him once Dawn could no longer be seen and, unable to face what she might be thinking, Ryan retreated back into the pool room and sat on the bed. He was surprised at his lack of feeling, knew it would catch up with him, knew he could count on more sleepless nights. Kirsten followed him in, took up a tentative perch beside him. He was aware of her stillness, felt her being there without looking at her, could smell her shampoo from where he was sitting. She smelt fresh, free from cigarette smoke, like early morning dew. She waited, probably gauging his reaction, probably wanting to let him down gently. But, god, he wanted to stay here. He wanted her as his mother, wanted to be near Seth and Sandy.
"Ryan…" She said his name softly, paused again, waited. He turned to her, saw she was looking out past the pool where Dawn had been seen last only minutes ago.
"Whatever you want to do." He said in a soft voice, knowing that wasn't true, knowing he wanted to stay more than anything else in the world in that moment. She turned to him suddenly, and he saw her without the aloofness, saw her with her guard down, lashes tearstained, eyes wide and upset. He suddenly realised the main difference between Kirsten and Dawn; Kirsten really cared. He could see now that her previous interaction with him, keeping him at the maximum distance from him, was only brought on by her love for Seth, for Sandy, her overwhelming need to protect her family. Kirsten tried her hardest to hold her family together, she was the touchstone, while Dawn merely broke hers apart.
"Would you like to stay with us?" Kirsten asked him, her gaze holding his until he had to duck his head and look away so she wouldn't see his eyes tear up.
"For how long?" He had to know whether to set himself up for another fall, to be thrown and rejected from somewhere once again. Her silence made him start to let the hope fall that he had begun building, but her next words caused it to soar again.
"Indefinitely." He looked over at her, both of them with tears in their eyes, both of them almost strangers trying to be something else.
"Welcome to the family." She said, and held her arms out to him. He wasn't enveloped, as her frame was too small, but he felt safe as she hugged him, felt as if this family was where he was meant to be. If it was a fairytale, the stork had made a wrong turn and dropped him at the Atwoods rather than the Cohen household. Kirsten pulled back, held him at arms length, searched his eyes.
"Is that okay?" She asked him. He nodded, again unable to meet her gaze, lest she see more tears had sprung to the surface.
"Let's go tell Seth and Sandy." She said, getting up and heading for the door before turning for him to follow her. He paused for a moment on the threshold of the pool house before following her. He was home.