A decision came to J., snuck in on the tips of its toes, settled atop his ear bones, and whispered five words over and over every day for a week after Blue’s visit until the seventh day when J.’s mother came home from work triumphantly holding aloft a paper takeout bag from Taqueria y Fonda already shimmering with grease spots and before he could stop himself the five words tumbled out of his mouth.
She stared at him. The bag descended to her side, a deflating balloon.
“You want to go back?” she asked.
“I want to go back,” J. repeated. The truth of what he had said shuddered through him, and he could not be unshaken.
“Have you talked to your uncle about this?”
“Don’t you think you should? He might have some opinions on the matter.”
His mother sighed and hefted the bag. “I got us burritos.”
“I’ll grab the plates.”
A letter felt too formal. A call too informal. A letter could be tossed out. A call hung up on. They cost nothing more than a stamp or the going long-distance rates. Some requests could only be made face to face. For the minutest chance that his boon might be granted, J. had to risk repudiation, humiliation, expulsion. To show true penitence, to be forgiven, he had to humble himself before his uncle. So J. once again packed his duffel bag, herded himself onto a bus, and waved goodbye to that happy island. As a wise woman wrote, one does not live at Xanadu.
SAY your sister, at the end of her proverbial rope, asks if you can take in her son — your nephew — for an undetermined amount of time. You want to say “no.” But among the living, the two of them make up a small and dwindling cohort you can technically call “family,” a word that carries an inordinate weight with you. The kind of weight that can flatten a “no” to an elongated, reluctant “oooohkay” somewhere between your brain stem and lips.
Say you say “yes.” Shortly thereafter, a nicotine-stained, truculent, monosyllabic package arrives on the regional bus, crowned with a meticulously coiffed hairdo. The hair makes you wonder if he cares more about what others think of him than he wants others to think he cares about what they think of him. The hair gives you hope.
Say the stay proceeds to go as well as anyone expects. No one expects it to go well. Six months toggling between skirmishes and stentorian silences. Your nephew is angry, hopeless, hanging from a ledge. You know how anger, hopelessness, and ledge-hanging feel at that age, but you don’t know how to help him. No one knew how to help you, either.
Say the two of you somehow wobble your way to a fragile détente. He still skips school, he still mouths off to customers at the diner, he still ignores you, but the gestures ring hollow. His heart just isn’t in them. His heart appears to have been commandeered. His heart has become more concerned about what a specific someone in the small town thinks of him than he wants her to think he cares about what she thinks of him.
Say he hurt that someone. Not intentionally. A car accident. A fractured wrist. The only person he’s shown any interest in and any consideration for since he arrived, himself included. When he asks to leave, you don’t argue. You put him on a bus back to the city. You did what you could do. You are blameless. You do not feel blameless.
Say he comes back.
PREFERRING a private sentencing, J. scaled into the second-floor hallway through a window with a weak latch, avoiding the diner altogether.
While he waited, blindfolded and cigaretted, for his uncle to come upstairs, J. imagined the scene about to play out between them, as he had on the bus, on the A train to Port Authority, on the walk to the 125th Street subway stop — really, almost every single moment since he said, “I want to go back.”
His uncle would walk in, see J., and lunge for the hockey stick/baseball bat/pool cue by the door (he didn’t).
His uncle would walk in, see J., pick up the phone, and call the police (he didn’t).
His uncle would walk in, see J., turn around, and leave (he didn’t).
His uncle would tell J. to get the hell out of there (he didn’t).
His uncle would ask J. how he got in (he did).
“A Jack Dawkins trick,” J. would say (he didn’t).
His uncle would ask J. if he was okay (he did).
“Tickety-boo,” J. would say, “Sabkuch ticktock hai” (he didn’t).
His uncle would ask J. what he was doing there (he did).
J. would look his uncle in the eyes without flinching (he didn’t), his voice would not evaporate under the heat of his uncle’s incredulous stare (it did), and he would say, “I want to come back” (he did, eventually).
His uncle would laugh at J. (he didn’t).
His uncle would say, “No” (he didn’t).
His uncle would ask why (he did).
J. would tell his uncle exactly why he wanted to come back (he didn’t).
His uncle would defenestrate J. (he didn’t).
His uncle would push J. into a lake (he didn’t, if only for the lack of a lake in the apartment)
His uncle would say, “Oooohkay” (he did).
How many times could his uncle forgive J.? Seven times? Seventy times seven? J. would eventually learn the answer to that question (he did).
WHERE was Blue? Bridesmaiding for a family friend at the town inn, J.’s uncle said, answering J.’s unasked question.
The wedding was outdoors, on a sloping hill. Rough winds shook the May buds. J. wandered the grounds, dodging guests and attendees. He paused at a pond ringed with a crowd of tall yellow irises that murmured in the breeze, nodding their heads in approval at a pair of swans warily circling each other in the center of the pond. The swans hissed and slithered like snakes wrapped in feathers, whispered vespertine songs, straining their twitching necks, hearts full of some cool, remembered lake, eaten by ceaseless needs.
J. spun on his heels to continue the search. Were there bells on the hill? J. never heard them ringing. There was Blue. In a dress the color of a late dusk summer sky just before the last faint tint of sunlight exited stage west. A dream within a dream. She was walking along a packed-dirt path with a man in a suit who had her eyes. The man stepped away to take a call on his cell, and Blue spotted J. She left the path and loped down the slope to him, her arms swaying loosely in the breeze.
“What are you doing here?” Blue asked.
“I moved back,” J. said.
“Couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee anywhere else,” he said (he didn’t).
“New York City’s like a graveyard,” he said (he didn’t).
“The same reason you skipped school, hopped on a bus, came down to New York, and made your way to Washington Square Park on the off chance that you might find me there,” he said (he didn’t).
They stared at each other for a few seconds, an unimaginable moment that culminated in an unimaginable gesture when Blue leaped forward and kissed him, a redlining ’49 Mercury Coupe at the drop of the flag. A kiss so sudden, so brief, so entropic that J. wondered after if it had even happened. Blue broke away and sprinted down the hill. Run and hide, Sunday girl.
How long did J. stand, dazed and confused, on that hill before turning back to the diner? Long enough to hear the processional song. In lieu of Wagner, Ella’s sonorous voice rippled up the hill:
Scheme just for a sight of you,
Dream both day and night of you,
And what good does it do?