I liked riding the trains during rush hour. The Red Line was packed butt to belly. Commuters ride home to screaming families or lonely studio apartments, full meals at dinner tables or cereal bowls alone in a naked kitchen. I liked sifting through the car, my thin body slipping between the silent crowd, backpack hanging from a frail wrist swinging beneath my knees. There’s a community to riding the trains, an agreement of conduct by a group of strangers packed into a small space. We glared in disapproval at the passengers who refused to drop their bags to the floor, talked too loudly, wouldn’t step out of the car to let others off at their stops.
I was twenty-six and had been living in the city for a couple of years. I wore the standard office uniform, slacks and a button up with a half-zip jacket to hide the sweat stains under my arms.
I was on my way to the office happy hour. We had the same event every week at the same Mexican restaurant, awkwardly making small talk with my twenty-something coworkers, Big Ten University marketing and business majors that spent their days cold calling. Even at twenty-six, I was older than most of them. They still chatted about Greek life and their favorite bars from senior year.
By 11:00, when I was heading home, the trains were no longer crowded, just a few college kids and a guy who seemed to be settling in for the night, who lit a cigarette and dropped its ash in the aisle. I took a seat, pulled out my phone and scrolled through one of those apps most people used for a hookup.
I had hundreds of matches on the app that quickly revealed themselves as algorithms offering a no strings attached suck and fuck. All I had to do was click the link below.
Farah was a new match, her name looked real, or at least a creative choice for a webcam service. Her photo wasn’t a stock thumbnail ripped from a porn site. Her skin looked soft and dark in the picture, clashing with bright red lipstick, a leather jacket covering shoulders draped with a “The Future is Female” shirt. The app said she was twenty-three and lived four miles away.
How are you managing this political nightmare? I typed my stock icebreaker. I stared at the screen for a couple stops, a hint of excitement bubbling in my chest, waiting for a response.
Lots of alcohol, she sent back.
Our first date was coffee in Lincoln Square, where Farah told me she was a student at Northwestern studying Speech Pathology and still lived at home with her parents and two younger sisters.
When I walked into The Grind to meet her, I noticed long black hair at a booth in the corner, a textbook covering her face. She wore glasses she thought masked a nose too large for her head, a conservative sweater, gold crucifix hanging from her neck. We ordered mochas and lattes, which turned into appetizers at a bar down the street.
“What do you drink?” she asked me at the bar. “I got this round.”
“I don’t. Alcoholism kinda runs in my family,” I said with a bit of a blush.
She squinted, “Okay,” turning to the bartender. “One gin and tonic and one coke for the light weight,” she said with a smile.
I chuckled and sipped from the glass set in front of me.
We left after a few drinks, a quick hug before she got in her car, an exchange of phone numbers and text messages good night.
Our next date was a week later, a Friday when the streets were covered with a thin veil of spring snow. I bought a new button up and went to the barber before we met for dinner.
“So, how old are your sisters?” I asked while we waited for our food, her eyes pointed at the table.
“Ten and fourteen,” she said, not looking up. “The older one is taking the selective enrollment exam next week, so things have been crazy at home. I’ve been helping her study.”
“What high school does she want to go to?” I asked.
“Northside Prep,” she said. “Where did you go to school?”
“Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton High,” I said with a smile. “It’s a mouthful.”
“Is that in the suburbs?”
“Nah, Minnesota. I grew up on a farm outside of Mankato. There were only about five hundred students in the school.”
“Five hundred?” her mouth dropped open. “I went to Lane Tech. We had just under five thousand.”
“Yeah, big difference.”
“Do your parents still live there?” she asked as the server placed masala and plates of naan in front of us.
“My mom does. She grew up on the farm too. Actually, we live in the same house where she grew up.”
“What?” Farah’s eyes grew wide with confusion.
“Yeah, we both had the same childhood bedroom.”
“That’s crazy. What about your dad?”
“He moved to California about fifteen years ago. He lives outside of LA.”
“Oh, Los Angeles,” Farah said with a smile. “Do you visit often?”
“It’s not the LA you’re thinking of. He lives in the Inland Empire, out in the desert. I try to visit every couple of years, but you know, he’s busy,” I wanted to change the subject.
We both ate in silence for a few minutes. I could feel my cheeks turning red as I waited for the conversation to start back up.
“I’ve never dated a white guy,” she blurted out. I stared at her for a moment. “Sorry, I’m just not sure how else to say it,” she said.
“Is that a problem?” I asked, and she squinted at me.
“Not for me. But my parents, they’d really prefer if I married someone from an Arab or Assyrian family. I swear, if my mother tries to set me up with Amir down the street again, I’m going to scream.”
“Oh,” I said, the word marriage taking me by surprise. “Well, I’d like to meet them sometime. Your sisters, too.”
“We’ll have to think about how to do that,” she said with a smile. “My family can be a bit…guarded.”
“Sure,” I said, not in any actual rush to meet them. I was a bit surprised by her confidence, that I would be interested to sit and chit chat while her parents judged me just because we’d been out a few times. But I couldn’t shake her pause before
“guarded” pushed through glossed, full lips. It wasn’t curiosity so much as intuition. I knew that pause. My father was an abusive alcoholic who I hadn’t spoken to in years. When I was a teenager, my mother divorced him and he fled to California, banished from our family’s land in Southern Minnesota to the desert to drink himself to death. My mom was never with another man. Not even a cheap date or dinner or a movie. After my father, she was guarded.
“Why don’t we just see how things go. No rush,” I told her, and she smiled, a chewed wad of naan stuck between her teeth.
Farah and I started a routine, weekly dates every Friday for about three months.
“We should go to Devon tomorrow,” she said on the phone the night before our date. “I want to show you my culture. We can go to all my favorite spots since I was a kid.”
Devon was a street in a Jewish neighborhood that had gone through a transition over the last twenty years, an influx of Middle Eastern immigration. She grew up a block off the main street that housed the clubs and restaurants.
At the time I didn’t know it, but she had decided to keep me around, and she came up with a plan to ease her family into our relationship through neighborhood gossip. We started meeting on Devon once a week, where everyone would see us eating sumac fries and drinking smoothies from the juice bar at Fresh Farms.
Farah’s drinks were always pungent: kale, carrots, and beets with extra ginger. I hated ginger. I held my breath as we sat on a bench outside the grocery, heavy fumes from her cup wafting to my face. We’d walk a few blocks after our smoothies were drained and the last of the sumac powder was sucked from our nails.
Farah’s black hair ran down the middle of her back, split ends resting on the curvature of her hips. On windy days, when the breeze picked up, her hair would fly and twist into a mess across her face, covering deep brown eyes, only teeth smiling through.
The foot traffic on Devon greeted her in Arabic and Assyrian, inquiring about her mother and sisters who waited a couple blocks away in the family’s bungalow. We walked past California Avenue, crossed the line into new territory, to a bakery where we satisfied our sweet tooth with chocolate covered matzo.
It wasn’t long before word got back to Farah’s parents that she was walking hand in hand with a tall white guy every week.
“They want you to come over,” she told me the day before our weekly date.
“Sounds good,” I said. “Don’t worry, parents love me.”
“Right,” she said, “just wear something nice and don’t refuse to eat. Eat everything they give you. I should probably tell you in advance, you’re the first guy any of the daughters have brought home, and my father is,” Farah took a breath, “protective.”
“You’re scaring me a little.”
“You don’t have anything to worry about. You should pray for me, though,” she let out an awkward laugh. “There’s just a lot you don’t know about him, about my family.”
“He’s very traditional. He grew up tough, hungry, so when we were kids, if we didn’t finish our dinner, he’d pour whatever was left on our heads as punishment.”
“He’s really protective of us around boys, men, I mean,” she said.
“Well, I’ll make sure to be on my best behavior.”
“We were the first Christian family in this neighborhood,” her father told me in the living room the first time I visited the house. I nodded and smiled as Omar, a proud Jordanian, talked of his childhood in Aman, thick smoke flowing from his mouth as an orange stuffed with argeeleh burned on top of the hookah. “I love my neighbors,” he said, motioning to an Orthodox Jewish family walking in front of the house. “I never hear shit from them. Just a quick smile and wave. No fighting.”
I sat silently, politely, and blew the sweet stink from my lungs.
“When I came here, I couldn’t speak a word of English. I just got out of the army in Jordan, working fifteen hours a day at a liquor store on the Southside. They paid us less than minimum wage. We didn’t know any better,” he shrugged his broad shoulders. “The violence there, especially holidays. Every Halloween we’d have three extra people working the counter just to make sure nobody robbed the place. I saw a guy get pegged in the skull right outside the door a few months after I got here, a quick pop,” he motioned with his finger to his head. “Just like that he fell into a pile on the sidewalk. That’s why I never let my kids go trick-or-treating.”
I gave him a concerned but neutral look. He was growing old by the time I met him, gray hair creeping across a receding hairline. It was hard for me to imagine him as a young man, mustached, sitting behind a convenience store counter, or later, as he said, riding the back of a garbage truck. He was kind, even though I was white and penniless. At first, I couldn’t believe he was the same villain Farah had told me about, the one breaking up the house, tipping full bowls of soup on his children’s heads if they couldn’t finish their dinner.
Farah’s mother spoke almost no English, even though she had lived on the Northside for thirty years. While we smoked, she set plates of fruit and pumpkin seeds on the table, glass mugs of chai with a mint leaf from her garden spinning on top. She walked back and forth from the kitchen, by a portrait of Saint Charbel Makhlouf, above burning candles, signing the cross each time she passed.
Farah and I were seldom in the same room at her parents’ house. She spent her time in the kitchen with her mother rolling dolma and chopping parsley or picking up and dropping off her teenage and grade school sisters from school or a part time job.
Farah’s teenage sister pushed through the front door and slammed it behind her as Omar and I smoked and sucked on the seeds. She was stocky, broad shoulders like her father, draped in a uniform from the restaurant where she worked as a cashier. She moved quickly toward her room, saying nothing, eyes on her feet, bangs hanging in front of her round face from a bowl cut.
“Miss America!” her mother yelled, smiling.
The girl grunted a high-pitched whine.
“Come here. Meet your sister’s friend,” Omar said, and I smiled large teeth stained brown from the tea and smoke. We shook limp hands and she scuttled off to the basement.
The youngest poked her head out of the doorway, subtle giggles and nervous squeaks behind brown eyes.
“Come here, habibti,” Omar called, motioning to her with a strong wrist.
She slid bare feet against the hardwood, plopping in her father’s lap.
“I’m Alex,” I said, smiling, holding out my hand, and she slid thin fingers across my palm before placing them back over her face, cracks between digits just wide enough for her to see me behind the barrier of her hands.
After my first visit, Farah and I started going by the house after fries and smoothies every Friday. Most of the time we’d only stay a few minutes, taking her sisters downtown to ride the ferris wheel or consider the complexities of abstract art at the MCA. Sometimes, when Farah didn’t want to drive, we rode the train downtown, and we all sat together, me and Farah in two bench seats and the girls in front of us, turned around, kneeling on the stained fabric, showing us photos of boys from their schools on their phones, smiles so wide it seemed to push their cheekbones up to their eyebrows. The teenager no longer looked at her shoes when I was around; the younger sister’s bashfulness evolved into incessant questions.
“I think we should go bowling tonight!” I proclaimed one Friday evening after we picked them up, mimicking the form of a perfect strike from the passenger seat, and the car erupted in communal groans.
“Are white people good at bowling?” the youngest asked. “Baba watches white people bowling on TV sometimes,” and Farah let out a howl. The teenager pinched the younger sister and she crowed with laughter.
“I’m not sure. I think it was invented by white people,” I said.
“Is that why you’re so good?” the younger sister asked.
“Egypt,” the teenager said, and everyone turned to her. “We learned in school, in history class, that they played bowling a long time ago in Egypt.”
“What kind of school do you go to?” I said, and the younger sister giggled.
“CPS’ finest neighborhood school. Poorest ward on the Northside,” Farah said.
“Okay, fine. What about miniature golf, putt-putt? My mom used to take me every week during our summer breaks. That’s a sport I’m really good at.”
“Doesn’t get much whiter than that,” Farah said, and the car burst into laughter.
Once a month we didn’t take the sisters out after fries and smoothies. We stayed at the house for dinner and spent the evening smoking hookah and eating kanafeh swimming in syrup.
“You get that report card?” Omar asked his teenage daughter, a bit of syrup dripping down his chin.
She groaned and unzipped her bag by the front door, carrying a paper back and handing it to him.
“You have C’s in two classes. I told you how smart you are. What are you doing?”
“This boy in my classes,” the teenager said. “He keeps bothering me. Whispers things in my ear when we’re taking tests.”
“What’s he say?” Omar asked, leaning in, smoke curling from his lips.
“I don’t know. Just stuff, I guess,” she said.
“What do you say back to the boy?”
“Nothing,” she whined.
“So you just say nothing all day in class when this piece of shit whispers in your ear?”
“Tell me what you say back. I know you say something back.”
He grabbed her wrist, pulling her close, “What do you tell him?”
“Nothing,” she cried, her voice squealing. “You’re hurting me.”
Omar squeezed her wrist tighter, reaching for the lighter on the table. He sparked the wick and held the flame to her fingertip as she squealed.
“What do you do with this boy?” he shouted, and she puckered into a whistle and blew out the flame. He sparked it again; she blew, and again, and again.
The youngest, who was poking her head through the living room door, watching the commotion, pattered her feet into the living room, leaping on her father’s back, swatting small hands at the lighter.
“Stop it. Stop it,” she screamed.
Omar released the teenager’s wrist, standing up with the girl still attached to his back, both of his hands grasping her thighs so she couldn’t drop to the floor. He lumbered toward the kitchen, Farah and her mother now screaming at him to let her go, for her to run to her room and lock the door. Omar turned with his back toward the wall and with one thrust slammed the child, cracking the drywall and letting the girl slip down to the hardwood.
My stomach dropped. I was glued to the chair. For a second, I remembered my father, reeking of vodka, body wrapped in a blue button up with ‘maintenance’ stitched on the breast, throwing my mother’s head into the drywall as she crumpled to the floor, bits of white paint falling to her sweater. I kept hearing it, the guttural slap, crack. The cringe inducing sounds of actual violence.
The youngest sister curled in a ball as the teenager scurried to the basement. Farah rushed to the weeping girl who was holding the back of her head, picking her up and carrying her to the backseat of her car as if she had done it a thousand times before. I followed Farah as Omar grabbed his keys and walked out the back door.
Five stitches to the back of her head. No one spoke as we drove from the hospital back to the house. Omar was still gone when we walked through the door. Farah carried the youngest like a toddler to her bed as I waited in the threshold. I could hear their murmurs as they laid together.
Farah kept telling her, “He’s not mad at you. He’s not mad at you. We can still go out on Fridays.”
Her mother walked to the door wearing a nightgown. She came to me, wrapping her arms around my neck, and standing on the tips of her toes to reach my face, kissed me on both cheeks. I could almost taste the peppermint from her breath.
She sat me down on the couch in the living room and went back to the kitchen as the teapot whistled. I sat in the dark, thinking of my mother at home, earl gray steaming in a mug next to her recliner, eyes scanning the pages of a mystery or fantasy novel from the county library, an overfed cat purring on her lap. Her only son in a distant city, with a new family, dealing with the same issues she tried to free his childhood of.
When she came back, Farah’s mother was holding a glass mug of chai in each hand, one spoonful of sugar with a mint leaf swirling on top. She passed the portrait of Saint Charbel Makhlouf, candles burning low, hands too full to sign the cross.
FOR ABSENT FRIENDS
It didn’t seem entirely coincidental that after having endured a prolonged and relentless winter, the summer was shaping up to be the worst one—several record-high temperatures had already been documented, and there was still August to contend with—in recent memory.
At the wedding, the service, Chris couldn’t resist noting the irony that an official state of emergency had been declared, admonishing less hearty folk to remain indoors unless it was absolutely necessary. And there they’d been: Marcus and his new wife, the visibly uncomfortable parents, gamely putting their proudest faces forward, and the handful of close friends, including Jerry and Chris, miserable in their semi-formal attire.
As Chris attempted to pay attention and not think about other things, he remembered the last time he’d been obliged to wear a tie was the funeral. Already it seemed a disjointed, distant memory. And before that, the other funeral, almost exactly a year ago. It was unbearably hot that day as well. This connection seemed portentous, and Chris was unable to put it out of his mind, even as he watched his friend and the now officially recognized bride (who was already beginning to show evidence of her indiscretion) smilingly exchange their vows before the magistrate, who kept glancing at the piece of paper he held to
remember their names.
The affair was almost entirely somber for Chris. He was old enough (and perceptive enough) to recognize the difficulty the groom’s parents were having concealing their disappointment. And despite his friend’s insistence that he had no reservations forgoing his senior year to work full time in preparation for the baby, Chris knew he’d been forced to play a hand he’d never anticipated.
And that had been it. A quick exchange of promises, then a brief and strained reception at the bride’s parents’ house (where the newly-wed couple would live, until they got secure and settled and so forth). Of course the plan was to have a real service—a proper celebration, in a church, Marcus promised—once the baby was born, and they could afford it. It was unclear to Chris where the money they didn’t have now was going to come from as soon as they had a child to take care of, but this was just another incongruity, another of the changes the past year had fashioned.
The sun had long since set, but an impenetrable humidity lingered in the air. Chris could not let Jerry, who insisted on smoking, do so in the house, so he’d reluctantly joined his friend on the porch. His parents were gone, half a world away vacationing on an island named after some saint he’d never heard of. Their excursions abroad had become an annual ritual as soon as Chris went away to college, and his brief returns to the nest at holidays seemed to remind them they only had each other, and had better get used to the idea. In each successive year they’d chosen a more exotic locale, as though hoping to salvage their marriage (or at least protract an indefinite stalemate) by venturing into tropical climates. Perhaps they figured
the frozen spaces that had grown between them would dissipate in the distant warmth of some foreign locale.
As he stood up to put the hot dogs on the grill, Chris finally asked him the question that had been on his mind all night:
“What would you have done if it happened to you?”
His friend paused and looked at him. “You mean if I got some chick pregnant?”
Chris nodded his head. “Yeah, I mean but if it was your girlfriend though.”
Jerry shrugged and turned his attention back to the hot dogs. “I don’t know, I guess it would depend on how she felt about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, like if she was all against abortion and whatnot.”
“What if she was?”
“It would present problems.”
“And if she wasn’t?”
“How do you figure?”
Jerry looked at Chris tiredly. “No baby,” he gestured with his left hand. “No problem,” he gestured with his right.
His friend’s nonchalance didn’t convince him. “You mean it wouldn’t bother you? To be involved in...that?”
Jerry shrugged again, putting the lid on the grill. “Well...no, it wouldn’t. Not as much as it would bother me to drop out of college and have to get a job,” he replied. “To support a family,” he added, shaking his head.
Chris sipped his beer and watched his friend light a cigarette, captivated by the rising cloud that disappeared into the sweltering air above them.
“I just can’t believe Marcus is married. Marcus. Of all people...”
“I can’t believe he’s so stupid,” Jerry retorted.
“He said she was on the pill...”
“That’s what they all say.”
“I don’t know man,” Chris continued. “I always figured if a girl is on the pill, or whatever, and she still gets pregnant, it’s like destiny, you know?”
Jerry didn’t respond.
“As if it were meant to be,” Chris added quietly.
No one said anything for a while.
Chris finished his beer.
Jerry stood up and turned the hot dogs over. “You think too much,” he finally said.
“I think you’re right,” Chris agreed.
“See what I mean?”
They both laughed.
Jerry wolfed his hot dogs down, but Chris only poked his around, eating just half of one. He put his plate down and watched his friend eat. Jerry noticed and made a face at him.
“What’s the matter, these hot dogs not good enough for you?”
“I’m just not hungry, I guess.”
Jerry opened his mouth, showing his food. “Are you watching your figure or something?”
Chris laughed, but it was a half-hearted gesture, purely for his friend’s sake. He just wasn’t hungry, and hadn’t had much of an appetite in general. There didn’t seem to be a particularly good reason for it. The heat perhaps. It drained all your energy, especially at this point in the summer. In any event, it was certainly not something he had any desire to try and explain to Jerry. He looked down at his plate and thought about how hot dogs were made. This made his appetite disappear completely.
Jerry got up. “Need another beer?”
“No, I’m good.”
“What is it with you? You’re turning into a little girl on me,” his friend muttered as he walked into the house.
The comment bothered Chris.
He’d always been able to hold his own with Jerry, or anyone. As it was, he’d barely been able to finish his last beer. And he’d lost weight, which hadn’t escaped his parents’ attention. Recently, his mother had seemed almost unduly concerned, and supportive. Ever since the funeral. He’d developed bad habits at college, she felt. He had smiled sardonically, realizing the truth of her words, and thinking to himself: isn’t that what college is all about? She said he looked too thin, and asked if he felt healthy. She implored him to eat more. He promised he would, and that had been the end of it. But Jerry’s remark made him think about it, and he didn’t like being unable to ignore it. The way he felt: it was becoming increasingly more difficult to disregard. He had, of course, come to terms with disenchantment: you reached a certain age and were obliged to embrace the sensibilities that confer adulthood, or something. Or else you inverted into yourself, spending the remainder of your life trying unsuccessfully to become your parents, a circumstance that only befell those who sought most desperately to avoid it.
He felt he’d come a considerable way toward liberating himself from the conventions that defined his youth. He had, in short, learned to think, and understand what it meant to be accountable for thoughts which only he could claim. A blessing? A curse? Perhaps both.
Hoping to put these thoughts out of his mind, Chris looked out at the orange flashes of the fireflies flickering beneath the dark branches. The air hung languidly, as though holding its breath. It seemed resigned to the fact that its short, seasonal reign was soon to expire. He could feel it: within him, it seemed.
Chris anticipated the coming year with an almost unsettling indifference, a reaction to the feelings of uncertainty he occasionally acknowledged. Lately he’d been in the habit of remembering summers past, and how much easier everything seemed then. Of course, he never appreciated it at the time. No one did. And he’d been almost obsessed with a recurrent desire to relive those relatively carefree days, when things such as graduating or getting a job, or going out on his own, were no more on his mind than his recent preoccupation that someday everyone he presently knew—his friends, his professors, his parents, himself—would simply cease to exist. He had no wish to entertain these thoughts, or be forced to confront the anxiety that accompanied them, but they’d become more frequent. And less manageable.
Jerry reappeared and lifted his beer above his head. “Well, here’s to Marcus,” he proposed, taking a long, sloppy sip, spilling onto his shirt. He didn’t notice, but Chris did.
“I have a feeling we’re gonna have to get used to his...absence...considering that he’s got more important shit to take care of now.”
Chris knew his friend was getting drunk.
“It’s up to us now brother,” Jerry continued. “We need to carry on the tradition. It’s just us two now.”
“Come on man, it’s not like we’re never going to see Marcus again...”
“No,” Jerry interjected, spilling more beer as he held up his hand. “It’s all over for him, he made his choice. Once that baby comes, his life ends. You’ll see.”
“He told me it wasn’t so bad. He’s accepted it.”
“Yeah, not so bad...that’s great. What a trooper.”
“Well, that was a nice gesture that he asked you to be the godfather,” Chris offered.
Jerry shook his head sadly and sat down. “I don’t know, Chris. It’s a pretty dubious honor, considering things...kind of pathetic, really.”
“So why did you tell him you’d do it if you don’t want to?” Chris asked and then immediately regretted it.
Jerry looked at him narrowly. “I told him I’d do it because I’m his friend,” he replied. “But it doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Jerry lit another cigarette.
“Lots of people get married young,” Chris said, thinking aloud.
“Yeah, maybe. But they don’t drop out of school to do it.”
“He seems happy.”
“Right. I’d be real happy leaving college right now, right before our senior year, to work at the fucking Food Lion full time.”
Chris was resolute. “I think he’s doing the right thing.”
Jerry looked over with a surly grimace his friend was accustomed to. “He just gave in...He gave up. For her,” he muttered,
turning away. “He’s doing the chickenshit thing if you ask me.”
Chris stared at his friend in disgust and recalled another conversation, another time, when there were three of them.
Discussing another friend, who wasn’t there.
“You know, that’s exactly what you said about Jake. Right here, after the funeral.”
Jerry considered, and looked at the ground. “That’s right.”
“Yeah, but Jake is dead, Marcus is alive.”
Jerry glanced at his friend defiantly. “They’re both dead as far as I’m concerned.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
Jerry mashed out his cigarette into an empty beer can and turned to Chris. “Marcus marrying this girl, it just,” he started, then looked back at the ground. “He may as well go ahead and kill himself too.”
“What did you say?”
“You heard me...and you know it’s true.”
Chris got up and stood over his friend, glaring at him. In that moment he hated Jerry and wanted to fight him. He needed him to stand, or even to look up, so he could lash out and begin to pay back the years of self-righteousness and sarcastic remarks. He wanted to do it for himself and he wanted to do it for his absent friends. But Jerry didn’t accept his challenge. He sat quietly—as though recognizing that he had gone too far—looking at his beer. And the moment passed.
Nevertheless, it had been decisive. Chris couldn’t deny what he’d felt. He knew his anger was real, and he understood in that moment that his friendship with Jerry, as he had known it, was irrevocably altered.
Both of them were silent for an uncomfortably long period of time.
Chris walked away and examined his father’s flowerbeds. They had managed to make it through the first half of the summer not too much the worse for wear, but in the last several weeks they’d finally begun to sway under the force of relentless heat. Despite their frailty, they tended to be resilient, but there was only so much they could be expected to endure. Rooted in soil,
they couldn’t remain impervious to the extremities, and eventually they fell prey to the same warmth that sustained them.
They’re not so different from us, he thought. They didn’t ask to receive life, they just existed. The weather acted and they reacted, that was all.
Chris stared at the sagging flowers and tried not to think, but he couldn’t avoid remembering that day. The phone call, his parents’ disbelief, then his own reaction: the shock giving way to a numb feeling (the worst part) of vague comprehension; an abrupt confirmation of his fear, the fear of an act he’d not been altogether unprepared for. It was spring. After such a difficult winter, finally new life was exploding on the ground and in the trees; the earth finally disengaging from its slumber.
And Jacob’s vaguely optimistic letter: no note, no greeting, just two lines, scribbled in his friend’s handwriting, from a poem both of them knew:
O Wind, if Winter comes
Can Spring be far behind?
That had been it.
So he’d hoped this was a sign, an indication that his best friend was coming around. And he looked forward to seeing him, less than a week away, home for spring break.
Then, a few days later, getting the call from his father: You need to come home early.
The funeral. Watching Jake’s mother, who otherwise would have been the last person in the world he’d be inclined to pity. This was the same woman who had often been harder on Chris than his own parents, always strict with Jacob, which made his folks seem lenient, even indifferent by comparison. The same woman who, when he and Jacob were six years old, had been listening at the window while Chris bragged about the pocketful of candy he’d pilfered from the convenience store, and had stormed out and spanked him, telling him, among other things, that God could always see him, no matter what he was doing. He’d been too surprised, and frightened, to hate her that day. But the look on her face stayed with him, and lent an uncomfortable insight to the strained relationship she and her son struggled through when Jacob’s father passed away. That face: how different it looked at the funeral, so unguarded, so human. Chris shared her perplexity, yet also felt his own frustration: the accountability of a close friend, the exasperation at not having an answer. And the almost overwhelming sense of isolation because he’d been left behind, again. Jake had left him when he broke up the group and gone north, alone, to attend the school the rest of them could never have gotten into. And now he was gone for good. No farewell, no explanation. Nothing.
And above all, that emptiness he’d felt as he looked down at his friend’s serene, still face. The despair, not only for his friend (and his mother, who was now truly alone, having lost her husband and only child in less than a year) but for himself as well: a nagging dread that hadn’t subsided. The fear he could share with no one. Something slightly beyond sorrow or remorse: a perverse, almost morbid curiosity. It was certainly a sin to think about it, to contemplate his friend’s desperate deed. But there it was: that feeling for which he had no words, and no outlet to try and explain himself. No hope.
“I still can’t believe he’s gone,” Jerry said softly.
“Me neither,” Chris replied.
“I’ll never understand that,” Jerry remarked, shaking his head. “What happened to him? What went on there?”
Chris remained silent and continued to look at the flowers, as though they might offer some insight.
“I mean, he had so much going for him...a goddamn Ivy League school...he had everything to live for, you know? And here’s Marcus...” Jerry stopped abruptly, but it didn’t matter, because Chris understood what he had almost said.
There was another uncomfortable period of silence.
“You know, Jerry,” Chris finally said. “I think you’re the only one of us who didn’t change.”
“What, do you think you’re so different than you were three years ago?”
“I feel different.”
“I don’t know, man. I’m not as confident about...things as I used to be, for one thing.”
“Sure you are. You just think too much.”
Jerry got up to get himself another beer.
He has no idea, Chris thought bitterly as he watched his friend disappear into the house. “You have no clue, absolutely no idea what it feels like,” he said to Jerry’s vacant chair. Then his resentment gave way to another, much different emotion, and he realized that, in spite of himself, he couldn’t help envying his friend’s apathy. But you’re not like him, he reminded himself. And he knew, as he always had, that it was the truth. But, as always, the truth wasn’t quite enough to comfort him.
“I better get going after this one,” Jerry announced as he sat back down.
“Are you okay to drive?”
His friend casually opened the beer and took a long sip. “I’m always okay to drive.”
Chris grinned and shook his head. Jerry really hadn’t changed. He watched him guzzle his beer, fast and sloppy. He even drinks the same way he did in high school, Chris thought.
Jerry crumpled his beer and tossed it on the ground. Chris looked at the pile of cans. There were six by Jerry’s chair and two by his own.
That’s a three-to-one ratio, his brain automatically computed, for no apparent reason.
Chris sat down and looked intently at his friend.
“Jerry, do you ever worry...you know, about the future?”
His friend looked back at him, meeting his eye, and answered immediately. “Nope. There’s no point in it.”
“You don’t think?”
Jerry shook his head and stood up. “We live in a world we didn’t make, my man,” he said.
After Jerry was gone, Chris sat on the porch by himself, thinking about nothing in particular. Everything worth thinking had already been thought. Already said, already done.
It was past midnight now, but the heat had scarcely subsided.
It might cool off, he thought. If only it would rain.
But it wouldn’t rain, and it wouldn’t cool off. It seemed resigned to its reality, content to exist in its intractable state. And wishing it away would do no good.
Chris sat silently, watching the embers in the grill turn from orange to gray. After a while they turned white.
Eventually they totally died out.
She was a dancer.
I knew she was a dancer right away even though the only ballerina I had ever really studied lived inside a white jewelry box. That one was fashioned of plastic and minuscule with a painted face and body, and a stiff, pink tutu glued around her waist. She popped up and spun to a reedy rendition of “It's a Small World After All!” when the lid was lifted.
The woman I was looking at, just then, stood alone inside a wooden room with a mirrored wall. The room looked large for just her but she didn’t seem to mind, notice. She stood straight, arms in a wreath in front of her and, in this way, filled the space.
There was nothing extra about her. She was whittled into essentials, skin, sinew, bone.
She looked spare, compact like a well packed bag. When she turned, I saw that her hair was coiled at the back of her neck like a very tidy snake.
Mother tugged on my arm. We were on a mission for my first pair of school shoes when I stopped to peer through the plate window. Mother looked at me and then through the glass and into that room.
“Would you like to take ballet lessons, Susi?”
I was considering the idea, about to ask what ballet lessons actually were when Mother pushed on the door, walked in. I stayed where I was, watching. Mother smiled, pointed out at me. It was like one of those ancient silent movies. The dancer turned, regarded me through the glass, extended her hand toward me.
* * *
We arrived too early that first day. Mother stood with me for awhile but I stuck out my chin, insisted she leave. I hated being young in front of her and it seemed I was always doing that. With her there, I would be tempted to be shy, maybe even cry if things got rough. Alone, I knew I would be forced to be whoever I was planning to become someday.
Still, after Mother had gone, I felt I had dropped to the bottom of a long, waterless well.
High space all around, there was nothing to focus on except my own reflection on the mirrored wall. So I kept my attention on what I was wearing. Black leotard, pale pink tights, smooth black slippers given to us by the dancer.
The dancer’s name was Miss March, Mother informed me when she gave me the costume. Before going to sleep I ran my hands over the sleek, stretchy fabric as if it were something woven by fairies. Mother had pulled my hair back into a tight braid, tied it off with a red satin ribbon which was already slipping out of my loosening plait.
I needed to move, do something with my hands but leotards have no pockets. I spotted the barre and felt as though it were pointing its unbending finger directly at me. Narrowing my gaze, I charged forward, caught the pole with both hands, wrapping my feet around it for good measure. Up there, I felt powerful. For a dizzying moment, I thought I might be good at ballet.
“Who has allowed this simian into my studio?” A voice without an ounce of flesh demanded.
A swell of laughter followed her question. Tipping my head back, I saw that a pint-sized corps de ballet had silently assembled during my acrobatics and was now doubled over laughing. Normally, I would find this embarrassing but, at the moment, I had more pressing concerns. Like, getting down.
“Enough,” Miss March said to the class. “Simian, remove yourself from the barre.”
“Yes,” I began in a small voice. “I’d like to, but, umm, my foot is stuck.”
Miss March approached, her hand extended like a large tweezer. In a single, swift motion she pinched my feet and I fell to the ground with a thud. This, to the further amusement of the group until she turned and her hot gaze seared them into submission.
“Why,” she began imperiously, “are you girls not in line?” And they fell into place like a practiced platoon.
“Simian, take your place behind Chameleon. Chameleon, raise your left hand.”
A dark haired girl lifted her arm. I began in her direction, then turned to speak to Miss March. “Miss March, actually my name is Susanna. But people call me Susi, with an ‘I’.”
“I know your name, Simian. Take your place at the barre.”
I nodded, leaned forward to the girl ahead of me in line, whispered: “Hey, what is a simian anyway?”
She shrugged. “Who knows. Don’t worry. She has little names like that for all of us.”
I sighed. “Well, my real name is Susanna, but I prefer Susi with an ‘I’ at the end. What's yours?”
She did not answer until there was a chance to bend, lean back. “Charlotte,” she hissed, her head upside down.
Some of the other girls, like myself, were too young or small to easily reach the barre. But Miss March kept her eyes on all of us until it seemed that our arms, by her will, grew that needed inch. The barre was a rounded hunk of oak smoothed by many fingers before mine supported by puny looking copper brackets. Miss March insisted that the barre was not something to rely upon, but to strive for, a goal.
“Do not hang on the barre, Sloth. A lighter touch. Levez, Chameleon! Ah, that's better, Charlotte. From the center, Simian, ascend.” Miss March said walking the line.
I suspect that Miss March watched me at first sternly and finally, in exasperation. I was not a dancer. The brisk and abrupt way I moved was probably what inspired Mother to enroll me in Miss March’s Ballet School in the first place. Mother, no doubt, hoped Miss March could convince some grace into me even though I was far more suited to other pursuits such as, say, log rolling or bailing hay. So, it was slow going. Miss March called me Simian far more often than even Susanna and never Susi, with or without an ‘I’. Miss March only addressed students by their formal, given names as reward.
“Simian! I see you. Do not bend from the waist like you are about to tie your shoes. Descend. Port-de-bras! Arms gentle, Simian. Gentle but firm. Concentrate, watch me.”
Miss March herself seemed not to move so much as to flow like poured water. Every motion fluid, thirst quenching. Watching her, it seemed that any obstacle could be transcended, covered with grace. Watching her, after a while, I forgot myself, recalled the difference between us, only if my eye snagged on my own image in the mirror.
When things were going well for me in class, I would clamor to learn the Grand Jete, the leap. But Miss March always shook her head.
“Do not worry so much about leaping. A dancer cannot fly until they are grounded with a center. I will know when you are ready,” Miss March said, striding over to me and tugging on my slippery braid. “Simian, instead of thinking about leaving the ground, get this length of rope in hand. Try to remember that a dancer needs only just enough hair.”
What did that mean? Deciphering Miss March’s verbal riddles was always a challenge. Was I supposed to grow my hair longer so that I could tie it back more neatly or did she expect me to cut it short enough to ignore altogether? I tightened my braid and corrected my fourth position stance, keeping my feet crossed, arms en haut.
“Simian, hold your head higher. Use your neck. Extend. Think as a swan instead of a monkey. Extend...extend. Bravo, Susanna.”
I flushed. That single word of praise from Miss March was like the sun coming out after so much rain. Hearing her use my real name, I was transported to the beach on a perfect, cloudless day.
* * *
After some time, the exercises and discipline worked. Those of us in her class were growing up with less of the awkwardness of our non-plieing peers. Perhaps we sensed this because most of us continued to take her classes despite more earthly temptations like The Twist, glee club, cheerleading, The Beatles, boys, The Dave Clark Five, the school play, Class Night, intramurals, or boys. Sometimes I think, some of us might all still be there if two of us had not seen Miss March when she was not dancing.
It was Saturday, and Charlotte and I were eloping from our cul-de-sacs into the city. We planned to see a movie deemed ‘too mature’ by our parents. We walked to the station and purchased the two dollar lady's day fare and waited on the edge of the platform.
The train could be heard from far off. By the time it was within view, it had picked up so much speed that I did not think it would be able to stop. But, at the last possible second, it hissed to a halt and the doors slid open right in front of us. We got on.
The train jogged from side to side, throwing our shoulders together. The tracks spread out before us. We rattled by houses, streets, women hanging clothes on the line, children on rusted bicycles. There were small boxy yards with round above ground pools. Cyclone fences corralled discarded TV antennas. There were roofs that needed mending. Garbage cans with
lids flat as big dimes. No doubt about it. We were going somewhere, on our way.
By the time we got off the train I felt grown up. In the city, on my own, I ducked into a kiosk and bought a pack of French cigarettes, opened the pack, wedged a stubby cigarette from the pack, lit it.
“Simi!” Charlotte said using the shortened version of my dance name. “Are you nuts?” she demanded.
“What? They’re great. Want one?” I said between fits of coughing.
“Certainly not,” she said reaching for the pack and lighting one herself as we walked on to the theater.
At the movie house, we stubbed out the butts, held our breath, concerned that we might be questioned (or worse, carded) on account of being only thirteen. But the man inside the glass booth did not even look up when I said, “Two adults, please.”
Inside, we stopped at the candy counter to stock up on Jujubes and popcorn. We found seats in the first row of the balcony, set the treats aside, and each lit up a cigarette, coughing and waving at our own smoke. We sat there alternately puffing smoke and popping candy, excavating wayward kernels from our molars all during the coming attractions.
When there was a lull, I crushed my cigarette out on the floor, looked over the railing to the people below us. That was when I spotted her.
Seeing any teacher outside class was unnerving. I wanted my teachers to be above such vulgarities as food shopping, driving a car, or going to the movies. And this was Miss March. I had no wish to catch her in the act of being ordinary. But there she was, in the same theatre that I was in with my friend and dance mate, Charlotte. I put my hand on Charlotte’s arm and she shook it off.
“What are you, queer?” she asked. “Come on, the movie is starting.”
We had come to see Valley of the Dolls. That Miss March should have elected the same movie was unfortunate. The fact that she sat beside a large boned, fleshy, older woman huddled at the rear of the theatre, discreetly holding hands in the dark was unthinkable.
“Charlotte, look down there,” I whispered and she gasped. “Maybe it's not her,” I offered.
“But it is,” she said looking at me through the dark.
I told myself that they were friends. I tried to sell this idea to Charlotte in a hushed voice, but she shook her head.
“Friends don't hold hands,” she insisted.
“Yes they do. I’ve seen it in the movies. Women hold hands in movies,” I hissed back.
She shook her head gravely. “Only French movies.”
“Miss March teaches ballet. That's, sort of, French.”
“It's not the same. I'm telling you, Susi, they are together.”
The way she said the word ‘together’ made me want to spit out the remains of my Jujubes. Sex of any kind was cause for consternation, gossip. We traveled across a slippery wire strung over a moral waterfall. No interest in boys branded a girl as backward, but one open mouthed kiss could get you labeled a slut. And contact between members of the same
sex? There was that word again. Unthinkable.
My best friends were girls. Every one of them was smart, funny, pretty. But any girl-to-girl alliance that went beyond borrowing records or sharing secrets on sleep overs was viewed with skepticism. A girl wearing a pink sweater with a green skirt on a Thursday was shunned. Everyone knew that only ‘fags’ wore pink and green on Thursday. A slip like that could
get a girl marked for life, or longer. This in my mind, I could barely keep track of the on-screen antics of Sharon Tate and
Patti Duke. I just stared with horrified fascination at Miss March and her companion. They
touched, shared popcorn. It was far more dramatic and compelling than the movie.
In the midst of throwing a hissy fit, the Patti Duke character froze and the screen went dark. We sat in the blackened theatre for a moment and then the lights came up while the projectionist fiddled with the film. It was then that Miss March looked up into the balcony, saw me and Charlotte, turned away. The lights came down and Miss Duke began her theatrical
“She saw us!” I declared.
“Did not!” Charlotte insisted.
“Did too. Listen, let's not tell anyone that we saw them,” I suggested ardently.
“All right. Let's swear to it!”
We kissed our pinkies to the sky and swore like scouts to never repeat it to a soul. We did not wait for the end of the picture but ran from the theatre toward the station and safety.
When I got home, I threw myself on my old canopy bed and cried until the rims of my
eyes were raw. My mother must have heard me. She came into my room and sat next to me.
“Susi, what on earth is the matter?”
“I can’t…” I said, choking on the oath I had made an hour earlier. “I can't go back to ballet anymore. I just can't!”
She paused, pressed the flowing skirt of her pink and white shirtwaist with her long fingers. “All right. There's no need to become hysterical. I never meant for you to become a ballerina. I guess clubs and boys are more important now.”
We looked at each other. Mother and I had reached a terrible crossing. We both tried to protect the other. We both knew there was no such thing as the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus but, neither of us were willing to admit it to the other.
“Right,” I sniffed. “It's boys and stuff. Time to move on.”
“Don't cry, sweetie. Finish the series. We won't sign up again.”
I stood up. “No! I’m never going again. Not ever. No!”
Mother stroked my back, laughed just a little, stood up with me. I suppose I should have been grateful for having such a Leave It To Beaver Mom but, at that moment, I envied orphans.
“Susi, you can’t just walk out on Miss March? You should show her the respect of finishing. You can’t just abandon the class in the middle without explanation.”
Respect? I felt something much stronger than respect for Miss March. I coiled my braid into a bun Miss March style, and even walked in her peculiar wing footed manner. I had taken Miss March inside of me, so completely, that I had actually come to treasure the awful name ‘Simian’. I did not think I could explain this to Mother anymore than I could explain about what I had seen. But, for some reason, I decided to try.
“I saw her,” I said after a while.
“You saw who?”
I swallowed. “Miss March. I saw her...with someone.” I looked up at my mother and her left eyebrow inched upward.
“Susi, teachers are allowed to be with people other than their students.” She sat down again, looked at the bed and smoothed the comforter. “Who did you see her with?” she asked in a calm voice.
“Oh...well?” Mother shrugged, rolled her blue eyes. She finished mugging and looked at me. I did not look away.
“OH! Well,” she began, then looked out the window, then back at me. “Are you sure?”
I nodded. She sighed, took my hand, dropped it, then raised her chin just a little. True, Mother was a homemaker. She cooked, cleaned, shopped, fixed things, chatted with the Doogan Man (bread delivery), mended stuff, all that. But she did not have a job-job like my father, who rose at 7:00, left the house every weekday at 8:15 for the 8:35. He wore a fedora, carried a briefcase, and did God-only- knew-what when he got to the city. He was a ‘businessman’. Mother’s work was something I knew about first-hand because I saw it, though I don’t think either of us viewed it as work. It was life that she made happen.
But in addition to that, she raised money for Orphans Around The World and had volunteered for President Kennedy’s campaign. She read Margaret Mead and told me countless times that she wished she were young enough to join the Peace Corps. My Father and she had political discussions at the dinner table right in front of me. They did not always agree on things.
Now, she stood up, looked me in the face. Her usually placid blue eyes flashed silver, and she took me by my shoulders. “Susi, none of that makes the slightest difference young lady. Miss March is a grown up. The question is, are you?”
* * *
The next day I found the dressing room remarkably empty. Usually, it was packed with girls pulling on leg warmers and tightening toe shoes. I checked the white wall clock assuming that I was late and everyone was already in the studio, but I was right on time. I changed, went into the studio, found it as empty as that first time I had seen it.
The scratch of a needle on a record player signaled the beginning strains of Schubert's March Militaire. Miss March stood at the end of the empty room.
Suddenly, I knew where everyone was, or rather wasn’t, and why. Apparently, Charlotte had not kept her word either. I had told Mother. Charlotte told everyone else.
Miss March looked at me. “Are you ready to begin class, Susanna?”
Apparently, to Miss March, even one student made the class full enough.
“Well, umm, well, sure...I guess…”
“Stop stammering, Simian. Take your place at the barre.”
The injustice of no one else showing up for class pierced me through, especially since I had almost done the same thing myself. But standing at the barre, Port-de-Bras, I realized the importance of accepting a person as a whole. How they worked, moved, held themselves in and out of the studio.
It turned out to be a good class. Miss March taught me how to leap that day. I found my Center, came to depend upon it.
“When a student is ready, the Grand Jete will be natural,” she said. “But you cannot fly, Susi, without mastering balance, a Center. Watch me, then try.”
I stood back. Miss March owned the moment, took a step, and soared, arms wide. For an instant, she was airborne. She did this with seeming ease and profound grace.
But then, she was a dancer.