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Not long ago, I met a very attractive single mother of two at a dinner party in Sag Harbor, New York. We were seated next to each other—a "soft" setup—and by dessert, we were punctuating our stories with little touches: her hand on my forearm, mine on hers. Good signs.

Then the first of her two children, a boy of about ten, descended from an upstairs TV room. In each hand he clutched an action figure. This in itself was not disconcerting. It was the way he slammed the action figures into each other, his upper lip curled in a sneer, that gave me pause—that, and the adoring look his mother chose to bestow on him as he did.

Still, D—, the boy's mother, was definitely worth a follow-up. A few days later, I drove over to the waterfront inn where she had encamped with her children for a brief summer vacation. The plan was a swim in the inn's pool, then lunch at a nearby restaurant: a little ersatz family outing. D— ushered me into her room and announced the obvious fact of my arrival to her children.

Neither the boy nor his sister, two years older, looked over from the droning television. Not a word emanated from either one's lips. D— told them to turn off the television and change into their swimsuits. They ignored her. So D— pretended she hadn't asked them, and went into the bedroom to change. Only when the grownups started to leave did the children drag themselves, sluglike, behind us.

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