The Puzzle (Revised)

Here’s a revision of my story, The Puzzle. It’s going to go through one more revision. I probably won’t post that on here, so make sure you read this one! If you read the earlier post, you’ll notice that the story went through a pretty major change, hopefully for the better. I’ll also have something else on Saturday for you guys. I won’t let my one post per week be something I already posted previously. You need to read something new! I need to write something new!

 

The Puzzle

“I’m glad you could make it, Mary!” says Carol. “Go grab some sangria. Linda found a nice recipe on the Food Network.”

Mary goes to the table and finds the pitcher. She pours herself a generous glass, loading it up with fruit for the extra kick. It’ll be necessary, she believes, to make it through the inevitable, inescapable onslaught of questions regarding Christopher’s wellbeing that always seem to ruin these types of nights.

The aroma of caramelized vegetables and barbequed meat fills the air while regular conversation takes place. Smoke from the fire pit seems to follow Mary no matter what seat she takes. No one else seems to notice.

“You know, I just don’t understand Facebook,” says Linda.

“Why?” asks Carol.

“Hold on.”

Carol and Mary look at each other. Carol rolls her eyes and Mary laughs quietly.

“My daughter’s texting me,” says Linda, “and I can’t see what she’s saying without my glasses. They should really make bigger screens on these phones, you know? So us older folks can actually see what we’re doing.”

Mary cringes the same way her son does when she shows him any kind of affection. She’s younger than both Linda and Carol, who are both in their late forties, but she lives down the block from Carol, so she usually gets an invite. She doesn’t always go, because Carol throws a party every weekend, but she’s new to town, and always felt more comfortable in a group.

“What were you saying about Facebook?” asks Mary.

“I can’t remember; it’s not important,” says Linda. “You know, I don’t think we’ve met, like, officially. I’m Linda. I live one block over.”

“Mary, I just moved from Astoria. Carol told me you’ve been away, which I guess is why I haven’t seen you here before.”

“Carol says a lot of nice things about you. She says you have an Autistic child.”

“I do,” says Mary slightly embarrassed. She cracks her knuckles and goes to drink from her glass, but the glass is already empty.

“Linda!” yells Carol.

Mary goes to find the pitcher, but someone took it off the table. “Carol!” she yells from across the yard, “Did we run out?” pointing to her glass, smiling through her mask.

“Yeah, I guess so. Can you live with beer? The cooler’s over here.”

“I don’t think I have much of a choice.”

“How is Christopher?” I didn’t mean to be rude before,” asks Linda when Mary sits back down.

“No, no, you weren’t rude. He’s fine. He’s at his aunt’s.”

“Does she live on the Island?” asks Carol.

“No he’s over there.”

“In Astoria?”

“Yes.”

“Is he spending the night?”

“Most likely.”

“Is it safe?” asks Linda, jumping in.

“Have you ever been to Astoria?”

“I’ve lived here all my life.”

“He’ll live.”

“There’s a lot of stimulation in the city, though. Aren’t you worried? He could have, like, a sensory overload, or something.”

“He’ll live,” Mary stresses, desperate for a bottle opener. Where’s the bottle opener, Carol?”

“It’s a twist off.”

 

I can just tell how someone’s feeling by the way they’re standing, the way they stare, or the way they ignore me. It takes great concentration. I have to drown out the world in order to understand it. If I’m talking to someone and at some point they’re actually interested, I notice them leaning a little closer to me, but not too close. It makes everyone feels awkward around me. Some tell me it’s my face, and there’s nothing I can do about it, but that’s okay too because I don’t want to be too close either. I value my personal space.

I choose to live a lonely life, like most kids on the spectrum, because it’s better to be safe than sorry. People are always out to hurt you. I don’t always sit inside, though. I wouldn’t mind, but my mom makes me go out. It can be nice, depending on the weather. There cannot be a single cloud in the sky. I hate storms, and I hate thinking about them. If I do go out, I have to watch the weather channel for about an hour or two before, in case an isolated weather system passes over. When I get outside, I like to have my jacket on (for protection) and my headphones on. I don’t listen to music or anything, but it makes me feel safe. The headphones drown out some of the noise.

 

Mary, trying to clear her head, stares aimlessly at the sparks flying into the night sky as Carol throws a small log on the fire. The kindling already on the fire compresses and adds to the bright orange embers glowing fiercely on the bottom. The embers don’t realize the weight of their world is on top of them, but instead of letting it bring them down, and simply turning to ash, they get brighter and hotter, looking and acting almost like lava. Mary wonders why it’s so easy to stare at fire, and if earlier forms of humans wondered about the same questions. Maybe fire was how modern man became conscious.

She’s now the only person at the party, but she’s not totally alone. Her thoughts accompany her and drown out the superfluous. Mary used to play with her sister’s dollhouse, pretending to be the matriarch. Everyone listened to her. If someone questioned her, they were punished, but only for a little while. You have to be understanding, of course, to be a good mother.

How could she see herself being the mother of a child with Autism. Autism didn’t exist back then. No child ever says, “I want to be the mother of a special needs child.” You’re still young enough to believe everything will work out perfectly, because at that age, life can only be perfect. There were children on her bus that the other’s always picked on for being weird, but they were still breathing, so life couldn’t be that bad. Her grandfather was peculiar, too, now that she thinks about it.  He was always interested in the weather. He’d watch the dogs on his farm upstate because he knew they knew when the storms were coming, and he’d be howling in the barn with them every time the thunder clapped. But he wasn’t always afraid. In the normal, white puffy clouds, he’d see all sorts of shapes and animals. He could stare at clouds all day. This was proof of God, he’d say, because “only God could make us realize there’s a connection,” and that “there’s no such thing as coincidence.”

“But it’s safe, right? You’re sure?”

“What?”

“He’s not in a sketchy neighborhood or anything?”

“He won’t leave the house!” yells Mary, back to reality. “He’s going to sit inside the entire time. He can’t do anything on his own. I make his meals, I bring him water, I remind to go to the bathroom when he’s playing his stupid, fucking Xbox for five hours straight; I do everything for him. I want him to go out and make friends, but he won’t let himself enjoy life the way you’re supposed to.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do know that. I live with him. I’m his mother! If I have to force him out the door here, on Long Island, what makes you think he’s going to go out in the heart of Astoria?”

After a long pause, Linda continues, “You know, you really should be more supportive. Why are you so quick to assume?”

“He’s still young.” says Carol. “He could change if you give him a chance.”

“You don’t know him, you don’t know me, and you don’t know what goes on in my house or what it could possibly be like to—”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“Mean to be rude? You said that before.”

Mary knows the night is over. In the back of everyone’s mind is Christopher. Sure, they won’t bring him up, but that’s because she’d have to tell them not to. Everyone now feels awkward and out of place, and Mary considers leaving, knowing everything they talk about from this point on will be unnatural and well thought out in order to not bring up Christopher, but doing so is hypocritical and they all know it. Mary changes her mind about leaving and sits there silently, watching the fire rage on, and she sips her beer silently, disregarding the smoke that’s trying to grab a hold of her. She waits for Carol to say something to salvage whatever is left of the night. At this point, Mary will settle for a minute without thinking about Christopher.

“I’ll stop now, but let me say this, Mary,” says Linda, “We all have kids and we all feel the same way towards them.”

“…”

“We really aren’t that different.”

Mary knows better not to answer. She lets Linda speak.

“What do you want to talk about, then?”

“I don’t know.”

 

I’ve always wanted to have a day to myself, where I could go anywhere, do anything I want, and there be no repercussions, but the idea of actually following through with it scares me half to death. I spend hours upon hours every day thinking about all these crazy scenarios, where I try new foods without worrying if it was cooked at the right temperature, if it was handled properly, if there are no surprise ingredients inside; or going to a barbeque and not worrying about the bees and flies and wasps flying all over me and contaminating my food and stinging me. I wanted to go to the barbeque with my mother so badly, to make her happy, but I couldn’t get myself to go. I let fear paralyze me. The little—well in my case, large—voice in my head told me not to go, so I backed out at the last minute, knowing that if I went against my gut and I ended up getting stung, I would never be able to live with myself. My mother was upset that I backed out. Very upset. Upset to the point where it turned into anger. I absorb her anger, and I get angry, myself. I hate being angry. Someone else’s anger is always magnified in me, to the point where I break things, and hurt myself. Turning anger into physical pain is the only way to get it out of my chest. It has to move to other places in my body, so it can slowly dissipate over time with Advil or Ibuprofen. I’m afraid if I don’t let it spread out, my chest will explode.

I’m told I can’t go to the party, but I’ll be staying at my aunt’s house in Astoria. My aunt is a nice woman, according to everyone in my family, but I don’t believe it. She treats me like I’m normal, and I’m not, so when I don’t act in the way she defines as normal, she gets angry too. And because of her anger, I locked myself in her spare bedroom. She gets upset very quickly, quicker than my mother, ever since her husband died. It makes sense that she and my mother are related, knowing it only takes something as simple as leaving a plastic cup on the counter instead of throwing it out to put them both in a fit of rage. Unfortunately, my aunt seems to be a little bit crazier, almost to the point where she might not be so normal.

I ask my aunt if she could drive me to Gamestop, so I can buy a couple games and maybe talk to the guy behind the counter. The guy by my house is really nice and likes videogames as much as I do. We get along really well. I want to call him a friend, but we don’t hang out. We’re all about business. Maybe we can play online. I don’t know how to ask him, though. That’s a big commitment. Anyways, my aunt tells me she doesn’t have an Xbox. She doesn’t even know if there’s a Gamestop around. I saw it on the way, on 31st Street, but my aunt lives down Steinway. I ask again, and tell her where it is, but she says she’s busy.

“Why don’t you take the train?” she suggests.

“I can’t take the train.”

“Why not?”

“It’s dirty, and people get pushed on the tracks.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You won’t get pushed on the tracks.”

“I could die. Worse, I might live. I read online that someone was pushed in front of the train and they lived! How could they live after getting hit by a train? They have to be scarred for life.”

How could my aunt not see that I’m not the type to tempt fate? Fate has never been kind to me. Whenever I overstep my boundaries, bad things happen. My aunt tells me that most twenty one year olds can figure out how to take the train and starts going off on a rant about my mother spoiling me. I ask earnestly if she can do better, but she takes it the wrong way. She gets really mad and starts throwing things, while drinking straight from a box of wine left out on the counter. I wonder how the wine inside doesn’t dissolve the paper.

“Please, don’t drink. I hate you when you drink!” I beg to her, but she doesn’t hear me.

“Why do you constantly try to solve your problems with alcohol? They only seem to make them worse!”

“Your uncle used to tell me that, but look what happened to him. He never touched a drop of alcohol in his life, and he still ended up dead. If I’m still here, I must be doing something right, right?”

I become hysterical. There’s no other choice. My aunt won’t listen to me. I have to show her I care more about her wellbeing than she does. Someone has to. I scream and start banging my head against the wall while she’s yelling from the other room. I claw at my own arms until they bleed, giving the anger a place to leave my body because yelling is never enough. She comes back and sees the blood on my arms and the blood pouring from my head and drops the wine on the floor. I stop for a second because the wine from the box reminds me of blood. It scares me, but calms me down at the same time because I enjoy the way the wine flows out of the box and onto the floor so effortlessly.

We realize the severity of our fits when we look around the apartment. Plates are shattered on the floor, shoes everywhere, wine on the floor, her dog, which is kept hidden in her room, is barking uncontrollably; everything that could go wrong went wrong, so I lock myself in my room again. I forgot it wasn’t my actual room, and my aunt has a key to get in. She unlocks the door and apologizes for getting so angry. She has a wash cloth with her and helps me fix the cuts on my arms and the one on my head. I forgive her and feel bad for making her angry.

“How do I take the train?”

“The N train will bring you right there. It’s at the end of the block. Take it to the last stop.”

“I don’t have any money.”

“I’ll give you my metrocard. Swipe it at the turnstile slowly, so it goes through on the first try.”

A strong feeling of uncertainty immediately overwhelms me, but my aunt’s warm smile and gentle backrub using only the tips of her fingernails quickly suppresses my anxiety and gets me out the door.

 

Mary, startling everyone, looks over at Linda and asks, “Linda, you’re perfect, right? Tell me how you would raise my kid.”

“I think you got the wrong—”

“That’s twice now you’ve told me that, Linda. Don’t bullshit me. You’re always right. Tell me what I’m doing wrong. Or you,” she says pointing at Carol. “Do you want to hear what I had to go through the other day?”

“Mary, please. You’re—”

“Drunk? No, not after two beers and a glass of sangria.”

“Mary—”

Mary loses it. She can’t see the frightened faces of everyone sitting around the fire. The smoke billows into the dark night, giving off smells of nostalgia, back to when she was little on her grandfather’s farm in New Paltz. Her mind pauses, desperate to grab hold of the thought and keep her calm, but she’s kept quiet for too long. The thought quickly dissipates. The stories regarding Christopher aren’t horrible. Many families have it much worse, but the stories never end. There’s never a break. She had done well so far, keeping it under control, but the stress from Christopher and the recent move, on top of all these women desperate to make their own lives seem better, have driven her mad to the point where her mind has made it impossible to react rationally. She knows the only way to get better is to let it all out, so she does.

 

Something inside told me to be brave and go out by myself. Normally, I’d ignore the thought, but I remember nothing is normal about me, so I go to grab my jacket and my phone for the weather, and I find my aunt in the kitchen cleaning up the mess we made.

“Where’s my jacket?” I ask her.

“You’re what?”

“My jacket. I need my jacket.”

“Christopher, it’s ninety degrees out. You don’t need a jacket.”

“I need it.”

My aunt surprises me by telling me it’s in the hall closet. I sensed another shouting match, but I guess we really don’t want a round two. She says I’m going to stick out like a sore thumb, but she doesn’t realize I do anyways, with or without the jacket.

“Do you have money for the games?”

“My mom gives me her credit card.”

She takes another deep breath. Don’t blow it now. You’ve been good so far. Just get out the front door.

“I’ll just look around. I don’t need to buy anything.” The smile’s back. Good.

“Keep your phone on. Call if you need anything.”

“It’s okay with my mother, right?”

“She doesn’t have to know.”

“I think she does. I could call her really quick, in case something happens. She’ll be mad if something happens. Let me just—”

 

“Are you serious, Mary?”

“Why would I make it up?”

“In the middle of the movie?”

“We didn’t even make it to the middle. Everything was fine at first. The lights were dimmed, but not enough to scare him. He was a little anxious at first, so he asked if he could listen to his iPod.”

“During the movie?”

“Yes.”

“Like, in the theater?” asks Carol.

“Yes,” says Mary annoyed at all the questions. Carol and Linda apologize.

“The lights went dark, after the opening credits stopped, and he started yelling. Everyone was okay at first, thinking Christopher would eventually stop, but he only got worse. The shush’s started to make their presence known as the movie began and I tried my hardest to calm him down. I apologized to the people close by, and they were nice, but I saw in their eyes that they wanted to snap my baby’s neck, and I couldn’t blame them. The screaming kept getting worse and worse and more people were starting to shush and mumbling could be heard from the rows behind us. At that point I caved and left. Not even five minutes into the movie. I swear, I remember hearing cheers and sighs of relief leaving the theater.”

“…”

“Yeah, he hasn’t left his room since. Not even for dinner. I have to bring it to him. He even sleeps with the lights on, if he actually sleeps at all.”

“Mary, pleads Linda, “I get it.”

“You don’t, though. You’ve never had to deal with something like that. Maybe when your kids were younger, but this happened a month ago. Christopher just turned twenty-one.”

“I had no idea,” says Carol.

“I thought you did. I thought we all deal with the same things.”

“I thought I knew, but obviously I don’t.”

“You know, if Mike was still around, it’d be easier, taking care of Christopher, but I’m doing it all alone,” says Mary as tears hang up in the corners of her eyes. “Sad thing is I don’t even blame him anymore for leaving. I’d do the same if I knew my life would be like this.” She rushes for an unopened bottle of wine on the windowsill, and fills her glass to the top.

“Bring that bottle out here! I think we could all use some,” says Linda, smiling.

 

I actually managed to find the N train. My aunt says the ride should be no more than five minutes. Everything, for once, was as easy as someone said it would be. I look at the time and notice that fifteen minutes have gone by. What happened? What’s going on? I start to panic. Everyone in the subway car is staring. Why are they staring? Can they see me panicking? Why aren’t they helping? They probably want to, but they know I’m crazy. They must have known it the second I walked on the train. I have to ask for help, but that would make me look like a tourist and New Yorker’s hate tourists. They’d send me off in another direction and I’ll end up in Jersey or something. I try to listen for the next station, but I can’t hear what the conductor is saying. The speakers are useless. I want to get closer, but there are people all around me. Why are they around me? They’re closing in on me, too. They see me, but they’re seeing through me, like, into my soul. They know I can’t fend for myself, and that I’m close to snapping, but they don’t react. They’re dead from the neck up, it seems. It’s like the thousand yard stare seasoned soldiers get after battle. I want to cry, but I stay strong.

I fight my way out of the car and am greeted with another group of people trying to get on. I push through and do my best to ignore the curses being muttered under their breath. Finally, I get out on the street. I want to scream, so I do, but to myself. People close by see this and take a couple steps away from me and I thank them for giving me some space. But there are still so many people. I follow a crowd of nice people and eventually ask them how to get back to Astoria, but they’re tourists and haven’t even heard of Astoria. I ask another man, but he didn’t speak English.

“What about Gamestop?” I ask him. “Do you know Gamestop?”

He walked away. I don’t blame him. My anxiety is starting to show. Sweat has been pouring out of my body ever since I got on the subway, and it’s starting to show through my sweatshirt. Everything happening to me is making the situation much worse. My mind works kind of like a GM or Toyota: once it gets going, nothing can stop it. All my mind needs is one insignificant thought and I could find a way to connect it to nuclear Armageddon. I run back in the direction of the subway station, but it’s not there.

 

Carol calls for her husband through the window, but no response. The wine hindered her ability to recognize she’s being ignored, so she just yells louder and louder. The glass door is locked on the inside. She’s too lazy to go around front, so she goes back to the fire pit.

“The asshole locked the door,” Carol explains.

“What do you mean?” asks Linda.

“My husband. He’s constantly depressed. He’s been reading a lot of philosophy lately; Nietzsche mostly.”

“I’ve read some of his stuff,” says Mary.

“Why?” asks Carol.

“I don’t know. It’s interesting stuff. People see him as being depressing just to be depressing, but he was just trying to find a source of truth.”

“My husband and I had to read some of his stuff in college,” says Linda. “He just came off as contradictory.”

“That’s not totally true though. He just tried to find what’s true in different ways. Unfortunately, he came up short, leading him to the conclusion that there is no origin of truth.”

“Either way, I stay away from that garbage,” says Carol. “I think Philosophy’s bullshit. Just enjoy life. Look at what it’s doing to my husband. Most nights, he chooses to sleep on the couch.”

“When was the last time you guys had sex?” asks Linda. Mary tries to hide a smile. Carol notices and gives her a look, but answers anyways.

“Six months ago, when we last slept in the same bed. Ten since we had sex,” says Carol with a sick sense of pride.

“Alright, alright,” says Mary.

“You know, Mary, maybe…”

“What?”

“Forget about it.”

“What about Christopher?”

“You should be more open to the idea that he’ll get better. Do you believe in God? You don’t have to, but He works in mysterious ways. You might call it luck, but I call it a miracle.”

“I believe in God, Linda, but I’m also a realist. I know when to throw in the towel. He’s not saving Christopher.”

“I’m not saying that, but you might want to be more open to the possibility of Christopher getting better. There are all kinds of therapies for kids like him. He could be more functional.”

“If God wanted to save him, He wouldn’t have given him Autism in the first place. And what’s He waiting for anyways? I’m sure He’s busy, but come on, He’s God. He could fix him in the blink of an eye.”

“He has His reasons, Mary.”

“That’s BS. Grab me another beer. I’ll let you know I feel when I’m done.”

 

“The Village?”

“Yes.”

“What street is this?”

“Astor Place.”

“Thank you.”

The first thing I notice about the East Village is how disorganized it is. What happened to the grid? Everywhere else in the city, the streets make sense. It’s like being on Long Island, except there’s actually something to do. Anyways, I need to find a numbered street. Locals look right through me, rushing all over the place, so I don’t want to disrupt them, and tourists are going to be just as lost as I am. I feel like I’m invisible. The streets start spinning all around me. Car horns echo in my ears, making it impossible to concentrate. Sweat continues to soak through my sweatshirt, and smells of garbage make their presence known, hitting me from all directions. Steam from underground billows around me and I run away hoping I’ll only die from one or two types of cancer. I find a corner and sit down in the fetal position. No one tries to help. People are staring, but I don’t care. I look at the tall buildings all around me, and all of the windows, and I see thousands of different versions of myself, all scared, but human. Each window acts as a portal to a part of my inner self I never knew existed. I can’t explore, though, because I have to get home. The ground starts shaking, so I get up and start moving. Last thing I need is to go rolling into the busy streets of Manhattan. I have to stay in control. I remember what my mother’s friend told me, and start to take deep breaths as I find a better place to rest. I wonder what it would be like if he married my mother. He’s so nice to me. He doesn’t expect anything from me. He just wants me to be happy. My life would be so different if he was my father.

 

“In the car?”

“It doesn’t matter where he is. He’ll throw up anywhere.”

“Why does lightning scare him so much?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t know either. It just does.”

The focus of conversation naturally shifted back to Christopher. It has to. The difference today is that Mary is bringing him up. It was a first for her. She never brings him up, not even with her sister.

“He’s always been that way,” she explains. “He was born in a hurricane.”

“And you’d think he’d used to the weather,” says Carol.

“In a perfect world, sure. Unfortunately I got the opposite.”

“You didn’t get it, Mary,” says Linda, butting in. “Christopher did.”

“What are you saying? I gave birth to him. His issues are my issues, are they not?”

His issues. Look at it from his point of view.”

“I get it now,” says Carol. “She’s right, Mary. Do you think Christopher wants to be afraid?”

“No, of course not.”

Mary’s inexperience with her own emotions frightens her, the same way old music you used to listen to during the hardest moments of your life does by making you relive the memories all over again, as if they’re happening for the first time. She comes to the conclusion that alcohol doesn’t numb her from the pain—she does it herself. Never at any of the Autism events has anyone questioned the way she raised her child. All parents of children with Autism seem to act the same. They know what it’s like, so they don’t bother asking. Now two strangers, who never met Christopher, are trying to tell Mary that how she feels is selfish. What scares Mary even more is the fact that they’re both right. You would like to believe Mary would be hopeful of Christopher’s wellbeing, but she knows he will always be the same. And it’s easy to forget because Autism isn’t a physical disease. If you see a man with a limp at the store, you aren’t going to laugh at him, knowing he’s never going to get better, so you do what you can to make his life easier. You act selflessly. Mary wonders why she can’t do the same for Christopher.

“So they really aren’t your issues. Sure, they cause you heartache, but they aren’t your issues.”

“Does that make me a bad mother?”

“You obviously mean well for your child, we get that, but maybe you have to take yourself out of the picture more. Let him live and learn his own way, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. He feeds off your emotions, so if you’re upset, he’s upset; if he sees you being more supportive, or understanding, he’ll feel it’s safe to reach out to you.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. It’s just a matter of understanding. Give him your hand and let him decide if he wants to grab it or not.”

“I’m going to call him.”

“That’s not going to do anything. He’ll call you if he wants to call. If you keep forcing yourself down his throat, he’ll resent you and get worse.”

 

“You never heard of this place?”

“No.”

“What’s your name?”

“Christopher.”

“Chris, I’m Kai.”

“Where am I?”

“McSorely’s! It’s famous!”

How could this place be famous? The giant crowd filled with hipsters, probably from NYU, makes it impossible to think clearly. And what’s all this stuff on the floor? And why is this person talking to me? I barely walked through the door. He needs to leave me alone, just for a second. I want to make one thing clear: I hate hipsters. They’re so stuck up. They think they’re doing the world a favor, but they grew up with a silver spoon. They force themselves down your throat. I know it’s a trademark thing for hipsters to deny being a hipster, and hating hipsters, but that’s not my case. Hipsters are weird, but I’m weirder, and I’m okay with that.

I look at my phone, and it’s dead? There’s no way. How is that possible? I leave it charged overnight. Maybe in the subway tunnels? I didn’t have service, but could that really drain the battery so quickly? I’m really by myself now. And I can’t ask Kai. He’ll want to know my number and call me and I’d have to tell him no or come up with some kind of stupid excuse, but I’m a horrible liar and I know he’d pick up on that and call me out on it and then I’d have no choice but to hang out with him, and I really, really don’t want to hang out with him or his stupid hipster friends.

“You alright, boss? You want a beer?”

“I don’t drink, and I’m not okay.”

“Light or dark? Dark’s good here, even if you don’t like dark beer.”

“I don’t drink,” I tell him again, in a more assertive tone. I start to believe I’d rather be lost forever than have to deal with this guy for another minute.

“It’s on me,” says Kai as he hands me a beer.

“I don’t drink,” I tell him again. But I take the beer anyways. Why?

“Taste it, it’s good.”

I cautiously taste my first sip of beer. It’s chocolatey at first, which I like, but the aftertaste ruins the experience. I get notes of coffee and I can’t stand coffee. Coffee is for grownups. I just turned twenty one. How could I be grown up? What have I done with my life? So far, nothing. I shake my head like a wet dog shaking its wet coat, and Kai, for some reason, laughs at my discomfort. I tell him it sucks and shove the glass back at him. He puts it down and grabs the light one.

“I don’t drink. How many times do I have to tell you?”

“You can’t try the dark and not try the light, dude.”

“I don’t drink, though. I can’t get drunk. I have to get home.”

“One sip won’t kill you.”

Fine. I take a sip, and it’s okay. I tell him it’s better, but I still don’t like it.

“Good. Now watch what I do.”

Kai grabs a light and a dark and holds the two glasses next to each other in one hand. He calls it a waterfall. The dark beer on top quickly spills into the light beer underneath and into his mouth, which, according to Kai, “gets you drunk faster and gives the beer a unique flavor that can’t be found anywhere else in the city.”

“Your turn,” he tells me.

“What?”

“You’re up, Chris.”

I nervously look at him, wondering what could make him think that I can do something like that. I’ve never had a beer in my life until today. I told him that I don’t know how many times already. Just having a sip is hard enough. Again, I tell him no, but he insists, so I try to walk away. He asks where I’m going, so I tell him out, but he holds me back. I think about yelling, but he has a smile on his face, which calms me down. I lift the glasses up, but they both spill on me. I try to dodge the beer, but I slip on the sawdust and fall on the floor. The beer and sweat helps the dust adhere to my clothes and I look ridiculous. As I go to get back up, I slip again and again and again. I look something like a fish out of water. I don’t know what to do, so I sit there hoping no one saw. Everyone did, though. Kai quickly pulls me up with one arm and tries to dust me off, telling me to calm down.

“I think you need another beer, Chris.”

I slap it out of his hand. How could he be so stupid? I start yelling and the bartender comes out.

“Is everything okay?” he asks.

“How could it be okay when you people won’t leave me alone!”

The bartender with the ponytail comes over and pats me on the back. He looks at Kai, with his hand still on my shoulder, and tells him I could use another beer.

 

“He didn’t pick up. That’s not like him. I’m going to call my sister.”

 

Infinite Jest really wasn’t that good.”

“How could you be so stupid?”

“The only reason we talk about it is because the book’s supposedly hard to read—and it’s not—and because Wallace killed himself. Do you know James Joyce? Ulysses? Finnegan’s Wake? Good luck trying to read those books. They’re more complex than anything Wallace ever wrote, and much better if you actually understand the subtext.”

“Yeah, but who wants to actually go through the trouble of trying to read it? Limiting yourself to such a small group of author’s is pointless. And Wallace is more talented than you’ll ever be. What have you published recently?”

“I’m not denying he wasn’t talented. I’ll even go so far as to say that we’ll still be talking about him fifty years from now, but we shouldn’t treat him like the god he isn’t. Tell me you finished the book and understood the ending without looking it up online.”

He’s right, but I won’t admit that. I’m in too deep. I bought the book because people online constantly talk about it. I thought it was funny while I read it, but like he guessed, I didn’t understand the ending. I didn’t get the book is the movie in the story itself, leaving you wanting more, desperate to find out what you missed. You love it, but you don’t know why, so you go online or read it over and over and over until you finally do get it, but you won’t, because that’s the point. That’s what I read online, and it makes sense, I think.

“Who says we’re treating him like a god?” I yell over the roar of McSorely’s, a feat difficult for anyone to accomplish. “His stuff is difficult, yes, but still approachable. Not many books a thousand pages long can do that and be a success. Why can’t I say the same about Joyce, if he’s as talented as you say he is?”

“People are afraid of change. They’d rather go with the status-quo than have to reach out and find something different.”

“Bullshit! If we were afraid of change, we’d still be in the Dark ages. People change all the time. The truth is that it doesn’t matter how talented you are. Talent is subjective. If you close yourself off from the rest of the world, you might be at the top of that tiny group, but there are still billions of people on Earth that won’t know, won’t care, and won’t want to know or care about who you are and what you write. Lots of people have talent, but that doesn’t mean they deserve to be successful. They have to want it, too.”

“How do you define success, then?” asks Kai. “Out of curiosity.”

“You did before. Timelessness. You said we’d still be talking about Wallace fifty years from no. Can you say the same about Joyce? Who else talks about Joyce?”

I sense everyone in the bar around me, but as a whole, and not actually there—more like a blur. I can pinpoint every noise: glasses being pounded on the tables, women laughing, men banging on the tables (some kind of drinking game, I guess). No music is playing in the background, but everything is in rhythm. And yet, nothing else matters except proving Kai wrong. Kai stands up from his chair and gets very close to me, completely disregarding my comfort zone.

“You okay?” I ask.

“…”

He stares at me through his thick-framed, Warby Parker’s, waiting for me to say something. I don’t know what to say, so I don’t say anything. I just stare at him, hoping I could pick up on something. It has to be a joke. Please be a joke. This is what I get for being too cocky. What I thought was a moment of liberation is really just another example of what happens when I try to be something I’m not: accepted. Kai may be a hipster, but the last thing I want is to get into a fist fight. Kai isn’t your average hipster. He looks like he used to play sports in high school. His tattoo sleeves can’t cover the muscles underneath his obscenely deep v-neck. I think this is my cue to leave, so I try to apologize. But he cuts me off, and surprises me when he says I’m right.

 

“What do you mean you had a falling out?”

“I told him to go out and he didn’t want to. He yelled at me, so I yelled back. You know I don’t tolerate that shit.”

“He’s different; you have to! Even if you don’t give a shit, you have to at least pretend.”

“I thought you wanted him to be normal. You can’t treat him like he has a problem if you want him to be normal. You have to treat him normally! Isn’t that why you never followed up on those tests or classes or whatever?”

“…”

“He’s fine, Mary. We both apologized and forgave each other. He’s been good ever since. I haven’t heard a word from him. Stay at the party.”

“I’ll drive you,” says Carol’s husband, eavesdropping through the kitchen window. “If you want.”

“I’m coming home now,” says Mary, and hangs up the phone.

 

My attention shifts from Kai to her. She yells something from across the bar, possibly at me. I look around to see if she’s talking to anyone else. Everyone is back to drinking at the bar and their tables, like nothing happened. I look back to Kai for guidance, but he’s also gone. He must have left with the crowd. I turn back again to find the girl, and she’s right in my face.

“What’s up?” she asks.

“Good,” I say. A little piece of me dies inside from embarrassment.

“We should go,” she suggests.

“We can’t—well, you can—but I can’t. I’m covered in sawdust. I can’t go out.”

Next thing I know, we’re already moving towards the door. She’s holding my hand, too. I make a mental note of this. My first.

We find a small store by Union Square and she buys me a new t-shirt. The girl, horrifyingly, rips my old shirt off in the middle of the sidewalk and tosses it aside. The new shirt is red. I hate red. Red reminds me of blood. But I put it on anyways. I hate exposing myself more than I hate blood.

“So,” I finally say, surprising her, “do you live around here?”

“Yeah, well, not in Manhattan—In Brooklyn. Dumbo.”

“Dumbo?”

“It’s a nice place. Cobblestone streets; big, industrial buildings; very artsy, Dumbo.”

“What’s your name?”

“Lucia.”

“That’s weird.”

“No, it’s Italian. People call me Luc.”

“That’s weird,” I repeat softly to myself (a habit I’ve never liked) as we continue to walk. I think she heard me, though. She hit me hard on the arm. It’ll bruise, for sure. I wish I knew where she was taking me. I can’t stand doing spur-of-the-moment type things. Then again, I’m lost in Manhattan and this girl might be the only person willing to help me. All I can do is hope to God she won’t murder me.

“Where are you from?” she asks.

“Astoria, but I live on Long Island now.”

“Do you like it there?”

“It’s quiet. Do you like Dumbo?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah.”

Did we already run out of things to say? I’ve never done this before. She already looks bored. Maybe I should tell her I’m going to go. But I can’t. I’m still lost. How could anyone have a conversation for more than a minute? I’ve imagined countless times how I’d talk about what I like, like going to the movies, and being around people in general, but I, like most people I assume (hope, actually), don’t realize that that’s not even close to who I actually am.

“Where are you taking me?” I finally ask.

“Do you trust me?”

“Not really, no.”

She definitely didn’t like that. She punched me harder in the same spot. The bruise will go all the way around my arm. I just want to go home. I want to tell her she’s crazy, but I think she’ll aim for my face next time. The look on my mother’s face when I come home all bruised up will be enough to finally give her a heart attack. She’s the type to go door to door, to drive by all the parks, and ask each and every person who did this to her baby. I’d tell her I’m not her baby, and she’d tell me to shut up, and I would. Then the next day at school, everyone would either laugh at me, or ignore me more than usual.

“Did your father ever hit you?”

“Excuse me?” she asks with a really nasty tone. Adrenaline rushes through my veins. Again, my mind tells me to run, but I hold my ground. I stand there quietly (awkwardly), not knowing what I did wrong, and hope she just keeps on walking. She does. We continue to walk silently. I’m desperate to apologize, so I apologize profusely. Lucia doesn’t say anything, but I can see her smiling: always a good sign. We continue to walk silently, her in the lead. People say New York’s a walking city, but I can’t help but wonder how long it’s going to take to get to wherever Lucia’s taking me. Twenty minutes must have gone by.

 

“I’m sorry, girls, but I have to go take care of something.”

“Are you okay? You sure you can’t stick around?”

“I’m okay,” says Mary earnestly, “but I have to go.”

“Get my husband to drive you. You’re too far gone to drive.”

 

“Where are we going? I can’t just go out to eat with you. I barely know you, and if you really want to know something about me, you should know that I don’t go out to eat.”

“How?” asks Lucia. “How am I supposed to know something like that?”

Don’t stare at me like that. I want to tell her to take me home, but I have to stay on her good side. There’s no way I’m going to eat with her, though. What if I ask to just go to McDonald’s? She’ll probably say something stupid like my mom, like, “We’re in the city, why would we go to McDonald’s?” and I wouldn’t say anything, but think, “If McDonald’s is so bad, why is it in Times Square?” I’m not going to push it. Maybe that’s where she’s taking me. If she’s going so far out for me, there’s no reason to think she wouldn’t go a little further.

“I only eat chicken and steak and french fries. Hot dogs are good too. Every once in a while, I’ll try a burger with nothing on it but raw onion. Raw onion’s the only vegetable I’ll eat by the way. Anything green scares me. Raw onion works because it’s clear. My mom says mushrooms are good on burgers, but I can’t get past the texture. Everything else looks like it came from the ground, so I stay away from it because I hate being dirty. Are you listening?”

“No, not really.”

“You should. This is important to me. Don’t you care? Is the place we’re going to a place I would like? Can you at least tell me the name?”

“We’re here.”

So soon? How is that possible? I’m not ready to go on a first date. I haven’t even looked at the menu. I always look at the menu beforehand because it takes so long for me to decide.

“I hope you like Ukranian, Chris.”

“Where’s the restaurant?”

“Downstairs. See the sign?”

“I can’t read it.”

She grabs my hand and leads me down the stairs. I hear myself mumbling and see Lucia smiling a smile that makes my knees tremble from excitement. I never want her to stop smiling like that, even if it meant I could never walk again. Something as simple as walking can’t take the place of a warm, genuine smile. We’re in the moment—together—as one.

We walk through a long, dark hallway below street level and finally get to the restaurant. It looks like home. This has to be one of the last joints in New York that suck, but manages to stick around. Probably because you have to know where it is to find out it sucks.

I order the potato latkes: something cheap and filling and familiar. I’ve had them before, but not like this. These are the size of my face, and there’s three of them. I don’t remember what she ordered. It doesn’t matter because it sounded disgusting and looks worse. It looks like what it would look like if I tried it and then threw it back up onto the plate. I don’t say much because I ran out of things to say. Lucia does me a huge favor by talking the entire time. All I have to do is nod my head.

After the meal, we leave and I ask how I can get back home. Lucia looks surprised and laughs when I say I got on the train the wrong way. All I had to do was go on the other side of the tracks. It bothers me that the solution was so easy and I had no idea.

“I had a great time, Lucia,” I say, desperate to change the subject.

“You didn’t say much when we were eating.”

“I couldn’t think of anything to say. There was too much food.”

“You were so full of life in McSorely’s. You and that guy were really going at it.”

I forgot about Kai. Everything today is just a blur. Having to get home sticks out, but other things like the weather and streets and cars and faces don’t even exist. I look up and notice there’s not a cloud in the sky. There are no sirens wailing, car horns blaring, or bums panhandling. Birds are chirping, children laughing, and Lucia’s smile.

“Come home with me, Chris. My parents are out of town.”

 

“How are you, Christopher?”

“Good.”

“I heard you went to Gamestop by yourself today. Are you just getting in? Did you have a good time?”

I want to tell her I had a great time. I want to tell her how I met a pretty Italian girl, but she’ll turn it into her own accomplishment. She’ll say she did so well raising me, but she wasn’t there. I did it.

“Christopher. Did you have a good time? Did you find the game you wanted?”

“No, I didn’t find the game.”

“You took a long time to get home, Christopher. And you didn’t answer your phone. What happened?”

“It died.”

“Why didn’t you come home right away?”

“Because I met someone. A girl.” Shit. Here come the oo’s and ahh’s, like I’m two years old. Even my aunt finds it embarrassing. She tells my mother to relax, and thankfully, she listens. It’s kind of odd, though. Usually, my mother would tell her to mind her own business.

“Did you have a good time?” she asks again. Why is she so hung up on this?

“I did.”

“Are you going to see her again?”

“No, the train left before I could get her phone number.”

“Well, maybe we can go on our own adventure next weekend. Would you like that, Christopher? We could go anywhere you like.”

“Can we get Ukrainian? In the city?”

“Sure, if that’s what you’d like,” says Mary, not quite sure how to react.

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