THE NIGHT BEFORE he leaves for Boston for their friend Lionel’s wedding, he gets a message from Dr. Li telling him that Dr. Kashen has died. “It was a heart attack; very fast,” Dr. Li writes. The funeral is Friday afternoon.
The next morning he drives directly to the cemetery, and from the
cemetery to Dr. Kashen’s house, a two-story wooden structure in Newton where the professor used to host a year-end dinner for all of his current graduate students. It was understood that you weren’t to discuss math at these parties. “You can talk about anything else,” he’d tell them. “But we’re not talking about math.” Only at Dr. Kashen’s parties would he be the least socially inept person in the room (he was also, not coincidentally, the least brilliant), and the professor would always make him start the conversation. “So, Jude,” he’d say. “What are you interested in these days?” At least two of his fellow graduate students—both of them PhD candidates—had mild forms of autism, and he could see how hard they worked at making conversation, how hard they worked at their table manners, and prior to these dinners, he did some research into what was new in the worlds of online gaming (which one of them loved) and tennis (which the other loved), so he’d be able to ask them questions they could answer. Dr. Kashen wanted his students to someday be able to find jobs, and along with teaching them math, he also thought it his responsibility to socialize them, to teach them how to behave among others.
Sometimes Dr. Kashen’s son, Leo, who was five or six years older
than he, would be at dinner as well. He too had autism, but unlike Donald’s and Mikhail’s, his was instantly noticeable, and severe enough so that although he’d completed high school, he hadn’t been able to attend more than a semester of college, and had only been able to get a job as a programmer for the phone company, where he sat in a small room day after day fixing screen after screen of code. He was Dr. Kashen’s only child, and he still lived at home, along with Dr. Kashen’s sister, who had moved in after his wife had died, years ago.
At the house, he speaks to Leo, who seems glazed, and mumbles, looking away from him as he does, and then to Dr. Kashen’s sister,
who was a math professor at Northeastern.
“Jude,” she says, “it’s lovely to see you. Thank you for coming.” She holds his hand. “My brother always talked about you, you know.”
“He was a wonderful teacher,” he tells her. “He gave me so much.
I’m so sorry.”
“Yes,” she says. “It was very sudden. And poor Leo”—they look at Leo, who is gazing at nothing—“I don’t know how he’s going to deal with this.” She kisses him goodbye. “Thank you again.”
Outside, it is fiercely cold, and the windshield is sticky with ice. He drives slowly to Harold and Julia’s, letting himself in and calling their names.
“And here he is!” says Harold, materializing from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a dish towel. Harold hugs him, which he had begun doing at some point, and as uncomfortable as it makes him, he thinks it’ll be more uncomfortable to try to explain why he’d like Harold to stop. “I’m so sorry about Kashen, Jude. I was shocked to hear it—I ran into him on the courts about two months back and he looked like he was in great shape.”
“He was,” he says, unwinding his scarf, as Harold takes his coat. “And not that old, either: seventy-four.”
“Jesus,” says Harold, who has just turned sixty-five. “There’s a cheery thought. Go put your stuff in your room and come into the kitchen. Julia’s tied up in a meeting but she’ll be home in an hour or so.”
He drops his bag in the guest room—“Jude’s room,” Harold and Julia call it; “your room”—and changes out of his suit and heads toward the kitchen, where Harold is peering into a pot on the stove, as if down a well. “I’m trying to make a bolognese,” he says, without turning around, “but something’s happening; it keeps separating, see?”
He looks. “How much olive oil did you use?” “A lot.”
“What’s a lot?”
“A lot. Too much, obviously.” He smiles. “I’ll fix it.”
“Thank god,” says Harold, stepping away from the stove. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
Over dinner, they speak of Julia’s favorite researcher, who she thinks might be trying to jump to another lab, and of the latest gossip circulating through the law school, and of the anthology of essays
about Brown versus Board of Education that Harold is editing, and of one of Laurence’s twin daughters, who is getting married, and then Harold says, grinning, “So, Jude, the big birthday’s coming up.”
“Three months away!” Julia chirps, and he groans. “What are you going to do?”
“Probably nothing,” he says. He hasn’t planned anything, and he has forbidden Willem from planning anything, either. Two years ago, he threw Willem a big party for his fortieth at Greene Street, and although the four of them had always said they’d go somewhere for each of their fortieth birthdays, it hasn’t worked out that way. Willem had been in L.A. filming on his actual birthday, but after he had finished, they’d gone to Botswana on a safari. But it had been just the two of them: Malcolm had been working on a project in Beijing, and JB—well, Willem hadn’t mentioned inviting JB, and he hadn’t, either.
“You have to do something,” says Harold. “We could have a dinner for you here, or in the city.”
He smiles but shakes his head. “Forty’s forty,” he says. “It’s just another year.” As a child, though, he never thought he’d make it to forty: in the months after the injury, he would sometimes have dreams of himself as an adult, and although the dreams were very vague—he was never quite certain where he was living or what he was doing, though in those dreams he was usually walking, sometimes running— he was always young in them; his imagination refused to let him advance into middle age.
To change the subject, he tells them about Dr. Kashen’s funeral, where Dr. Li gave a eulogy. “People who don’t love math always accuse mathematicians of trying to make math complicated,” Dr. Li had said. “But anyone who does love math knows it’s really the opposite: math rewards simplicity, and mathematicians value it above all else. So it’s no surprise that Walter’s favorite axiom was also the most simple in the realm of mathematics: the axiom of the empty set.
“The axiom of the empty set is the axiom of zero. It states that there must be a concept of nothingness, that there must be the concept of zero: zero value, zero items. Math assumes there’s a concept of nothingness, but is it proven? No. But it must exist.
“And if we are being philosophical—which we today are—we can say that life itself is the axiom of the empty set. It begins in zero and ends in zero. We know that both states exist, but we will not be conscious of either experience: they are states that are necessary parts of life, even as they cannot be experienced as life. We assume the
concept of nothingness, but we cannot prove it. But it must exist. So I prefer to think that Walter has not died but has instead proven for himself the axiom of the empty set, that he has proven the concept of zero. I know nothing else would have made him happier. An elegant mind wants elegant endings, and Walter had the most elegant mind. So I wish him goodbye; I wish him the answer to the axiom he so loved.”
They are all quiet for a while, contemplating this. “Please tell me that isn’t your favorite axiom,” Harold says suddenly, and he laughs. “No,” he says. “It’s not.”
He sleeps in the next day, and that night he goes to the wedding, where because both of the grooms lived in Hood, he knows almost everyone. The non-Hood guests—Lionel’s colleagues from Wellesley, and Sinclair’s from Harvard, where he teaches European history— stand near one another as if for protection, looking bored and bemused. The wedding is loose-limbed and slightly chaotic—Lionel starts assigning his guests tasks as soon as they arrive, which most of them neglect: he is supposed to be making sure everyone signs the guest book; Willem is supposed to be helping people find their tables
—and people walk around saying how, thanks to Lionel and Sinclair, thanks to this wedding, they won’t have to go to their twentieth reunion this year. They are all here: Willem and his girlfriend, Robin; Malcolm and Sophie; and JB and his new boyfriend, whom he hasn’t met, and he knows, even before checking their place cards, that they will all be assigned to the same table. “Jude!” people he hasn’t seen in years say to him. “How are you? Where’s JB? I just spoke to Willem! I just saw Malcolm!” And then, “Are you four all still as close as you were?”
“We all still talk,” he says, “and they’re doing great,” which is the answer he and Willem had decided they’d give. He wonders what JB is saying, whether he is skimming over the truth, as he and Willem are, or whether he is lying outright, or whether, in a fit of JBish forthrightness, he is telling the truth: “No. We hardly ever speak anymore. I only really talk to Malcolm these days.”
He hasn’t seen JB in months and months. He hears of him, of course: through Malcolm, through Richard, through Black Henry Young. But he doesn’t see him any longer, because even nearly three years later, he is unable to forgive him. He has tried and tried. He knows how intractable, how mean, how uncharitable he is being. But he can’t. When he sees JB, he sees him doing his imitation of him,
sees him confirming in that moment everything he has feared and thought he looks like, everything he has feared and thought other people think about him. But he had never thought his friends saw him like that; or at least, he never thought they would tell him. The accuracy of the imitation tears at him, but the fact that it was JB doing it devastates him. Late at night, when he can’t sleep, the image he sometimes sees is JB dragging himself in a half-moon, his mouth agape and drooling, his hands held before him in claws: I’m Jude. I’m Jude St. Francis.
That night, after they had taken JB to the hospital and admitted him—JB had been stuporous and dribbling when they took him in, but then had recovered and become angry, violent, screaming wordlessly at them all, thrashing against the orderlies, wresting his body out of their arms until they had sedated him and dragged him, lolling, down the hallway—Malcolm had left in one taxi and he and Willem had gone home to Perry Street in another.
He hadn’t been able to look at Willem in the cab, and without anything to distract him—no forms to fill out, no doctors to talk to— he had felt himself grow cold despite the hot, muggy night, and his hands begin to shake, and Willem had reached over and taken his right hand and held it in his left for the rest of the long, silent ride downtown.
He was there for JB’s recovery. He decided he’d stay until he got better; he couldn’t abandon JB then, not after all their time together. The three of them took shifts, and after work he’d sit by JB’s hospital bed and read. Sometimes JB was awake, but most of the time he wasn’t. He was detoxing, but the doctor had also discovered that JB had a kidney infection, and so he stayed on in the hospital’s main ward, liquids dripping into his arm, his face slowly losing its bloat. When he was awake, JB would beg him for forgiveness, sometimes dramatically and pleadingly, and sometimes—when he was more lucid—quietly. These were the conversations he found most difficult.
“Jude, I’m so sorry,” he’d say. “I was so messed up. Please tell me you forgive me. I was so awful. I love you, you know that. I would never want to hurt you, never.”
“I know you were messed up, JB,” he’d say. “I know.” “Then tell me you forgive me. Please, Jude.”
He’d be silent. “It’s going to be okay, JB,” he’d say, but he couldn’t make the words—I forgive you—leave his mouth. At night, alone, he would say them again and again: I forgive you, I forgive you. It would
be so simple, he’d admonish himself. It would make JB feel better. Say it, he’d command himself as JB looked at him, the whites of his eyes smeary and yellowed. Say it. But he couldn’t. He knew he was making JB feel worse; he knew it and was still unable to say it. The words were stones, held just under his tongue. He couldn’t release them, he just couldn’t.
Later, when JB called him nightly from rehab, strident and pedantic, he’d sat silently through his monologues on what a better person he’d become, and how he had realized he had no one to depend on but himself, and how he, Jude, needed to realize that there was more in life than just work, and to live every day in the moment and learn to love himself. He listened and breathed and said nothing. And then JB had come home and had had to readjust, and none of them heard very much from him at all for a few months. He had lost the lease on his apartment, and had moved back in with his mother while he reestablished his life.
But then one day he had called. It had been early February, almost seven months exactly after they had taken him to the hospital, and JB wanted to see him and talk. He suggested JB meet him at a café called Clementine that was near Willem’s building, and as he inched his way past the tightly spaced tables to a seat against the back wall, he realized why he had chosen this place: because it was too small, and too cramped, for JB to do his impression of him, and recognizing that, he felt foolish and cowardly.
He hadn’t seen JB in a long time, and JB leaned over the table and hugged him, lightly, carefully, before sitting down.
“You look great,” he said. “Thanks,” said JB. “So do you.”
For twenty minutes or so, they discussed JB’s life: he had joined Crystal Meth Anonymous. He was going to live with his mother for another few months or so, and then decide what to do next. He was working again, on the same series he’d been working on before he went away.
“That’s great, JB,” he’d said. “I’m proud of you.”
And then there was a silence, and they both stared at other people. A few tables away from him was a girl wearing a long gold necklace she kept winding and unwinding around her fingers. He watched her talk to her friend, wrapping and unwrapping her necklace, until she looked up at him and he looked away.
“Jude,” JB began, “I wanted to tell you—completely sober—that
I’m so sorry. It was horrible. It was—” He shook his head. “It was so cruel. I can’t—” He stopped again, and there was a silence. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“I know you are, JB,” he said, and he felt a sort of sadness he’d never felt before. Other people had been cruel to him, had made him feel awful, but they hadn’t been people he loved, they hadn’t been people he had always hoped saw him as someone whole and undamaged. JB had been the first.
And yet JB had also been one of the first to be his friend. When he’d had the episode in college that had made his roommates take him to the hospital where he had met Andy, it had been JB, Andy later told him, who had carried him in, and JB who had demanded that he be seen first, who had made such an upset in the ER that he had been ejected—but not before a doctor had been summoned.
He could see JB’s love for him in his paintings of him. He remembered one summer in Truro, watching JB sketch, and he had known from the expression on JB’s face, his little smile, and the lingering, delicate way his large forearm moved over the page, that he was drawing something he treasured, something that was dear to him. “What’re you drawing?” he’d asked, and JB had turned to him, and held up the notepad, and he had seen it was a picture of him, of his face.
Oh, JB, he thought. Oh, I will miss you.
“Can you forgive me, Jude?” JB asked, and looked at him.
He didn’t have words, he could only shake his head. “I can’t, JB,” he said, finally. “I can’t. I can’t look at you without seeing—” He stopped. “I can’t,” he repeated. “I’m sorry, JB, I’m so sorry.”
“Oh,” said JB, and he swallowed. They sat there for a long time, not saying anything.
“I’ll always want wonderful things for you,” he said to JB, who nodded, slowly, not looking at him.
“Well,” JB said, finally, and stood, and he stood as well, and held his hand out to JB, who looked at it as if it were something alien, something he’d never seen before, examining it, squinting at it. And then at last he took it, but instead of shaking it, he lowered his lips to it and held them there. And then JB returned his hand to him and bumbled, nearly ran, out of the café, bumping against the little tables
—“Sorry, sorry”—as he went.
He still sees JB now and then, mostly at parties, always in groups, and the two of them are polite and cordial with each other. They
make small talk, which is the most painful thing. JB has never tried to hug or kiss him again; he comes over to him with his hand already outstretched, and he takes it, and they shake. He sent JB flowers—but with only the briefest of notes—when “Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days” opened, and although he skipped the opening, he had gone to the gallery the following Saturday, on his way up to work, where he had spent an hour moving slowly from one painting to the next. JB had planned on including himself in this series, but in the end he hadn’t: there was just him, and Malcolm, and Willem. The paintings were beautiful, and as he looked at each, he thought not so much of the lives depicted in them, as of the life who created them—so many of these paintings were done when JB was at his most miserable, his most helpless, and yet they were self-assured, and subtle, and to see them was to imagine the empathy and tenderness and grace of the person who made them.
Malcolm has remained friends with JB, although he felt the need to
apologize to him for this fact. “Oh no, Malcolm,” he’d said, once Malcolm had confessed, asking him for his permission. “You should absolutely still be friends with him.” He doesn’t want JB to be abandoned by them all; he doesn’t want Malcolm to feel he has to prove his loyalty to him by disavowing JB. He wants JB to have a friend who’s known him since he was eighteen, since he was the funniest, brightest person in the school, and he and everyone else knew it.
But Willem has never spoken to JB again. Once JB returned from rehab, he called JB and said that he couldn’t be friends with him any longer, and that JB knew why. And that had been the end. He had been surprised by this, and saddened, because he had always loved watching JB and Willem laugh together, and spar with each other, and loved having them tell him about their lives: they were both so fearless, so bold; they were his emissaries to a less inhibited, more joyful world. They had always known how to take pleasure from everything, and he had always admired that in them, and had been grateful that they had been willing to share it with him.
“You know, Willem,” he said once, “I hope the reason you’re not talking to JB isn’t because of what happened with me.”
“Of course it’s because of what happened with you,” Willem had said.
“But that’s not a reason,” he’d said.
“Of course it is,” Willem had said. “There’s no better reason than
He had never done it before, and so he had no real understanding of how slow, and sad, and difficult it was to end a friendship. Richard knows that he and JB and Willem and JB don’t talk any longer, but he doesn’t know why—or at least not from him. Now, years later, he no longer even blames JB; he simply cannot forget. He finds that some small but unignorable part of him is always wondering if JB will do it again; he finds he is scared of being left alone with him.
Two years ago, the first year JB didn’t come up to Truro, Harold asked him if anything was the matter. “You never talk about him anymore,” he said.
“Well,” he began, not knowing how to continue. “We’re not really— we’re not really friends any longer, Harold.”
“I’m sorry, Jude,” Harold said after a silence, and he nodded. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“No,” he said, concentrating on snapping the tops off the radishes. “It’s a long story.”
“Can it be repaired, do you think?” He shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
Harold sighed. “I’m sorry, Jude,” he repeated. “It must be bad.” He was quiet. “I always loved seeing you four together, you know. You had something special.”
He nodded, again. “I know,” he said. “I agree. I miss him.”
He misses JB still; he expects he always will. He especially misses JB at events like this wedding, where the four of them would once have spent the night talking and laughing about everyone else, enviable and near obnoxious in their shared pleasure, their pleasure in one another. But now there are JB and Willem, nodding at each other across the table, and Malcolm, talking very fast to try to obscure any tension, and the other three people at the table, whom the four of them—he will always think of them as the four of them; the four of us
—start interrogating with inappropriate intensity, laughing loudly at their jokes, using them as unwitting human shields. He is seated next to JB’s boyfriend—the nice white boy he had always wanted—who is in his twenties and has just gotten his nursing degree and is clearly besotted with JB. “What was JB like in college?” asks Oliver, and he says, “Very much the way he is today: funny, and sharp, and outrageous, and smart. And talented. He was always, always talented.”
“Hmm,” says Oliver thoughtfully, looking over at JB, who is
listening to Sophie with what seems like exaggerated concentration. “I never think of JB as funny, really.” And then he looks over at JB as well, wondering if Oliver has perhaps interpreted JB incorrectly or whether JB has, in fact, become someone else, someone he now wouldn’t recognize as the person he knew for so many years.
At the end of the night, there are kisses and handshakes, and when Oliver—to whom JB has clearly told nothing—tells him they should get together, the three of them, because he’s always wanted to get to know him, one of JB’s oldest friends, he smiles and says something vague, and gives JB a wave before heading outside, where Willem is waiting for him.
“How was it for you?” Willem asks.
“Okay,” he says, smiling back at him. He thinks these meetings with JB are even harder for Willem than they are for him. “You?”
“Okay,” Willem says. His girlfriend drives up to the curb; they are staying at a hotel. “I’ll call you tomorrow, all right?”
Back in Cambridge, he lets himself into the silent house and walks as softly as he can back to his bathroom, where he prises his bag from beneath the loose tile near the toilet and cuts himself until he feels absolutely empty, holding his arms over the bathtub, watching the porcelain stain itself crimson. As he always does after seeing JB, he wonders if he has made the right decision. He wonders if all of them
—he, Willem, JB, Malcolm—will lie awake that night longer than usual, thinking of one another’s faces and of conversations, good and bad, that they have had with one another over what had been more than twenty years of friendship.
Oh, he thinks, if I were a better person. If I were a more generous person. If I were a less self-involved person. If I were a braver person.
Then he stands, gripping the towel bar as he does; he has cut himself too much tonight, and he is faint. He goes over to the full-length mirror that is hung on the back of the bedroom’s closet door. In his apartment on Greene Street, there are no full-length mirrors. “No mirrors,” he told Malcolm. “I don’t like them.” But really, he doesn’t want to be confronted with his image; he doesn’t want to see his body, his face staring back at him.
But here at Harold and Julia’s, there is a mirror, and he stands in front of it for a few seconds, contemplating himself, before adopting the hunched pose JB had that night. JB was right, he thinks. He was right. And that is why I can’t forgive him.
Now he drops his mouth open. Now he hops in a little circle. Now
he drags his leg behind him. His moans fill the air in the quiet, still house.
The first Saturday in May, he and Willem have what they’ve been calling the Last Supper at a tiny, very expensive sushi restaurant near his office on Fifty-sixth Street. The restaurant has only six seats, all at a wide, velvety cypress counter, and for the three hours they spend there, they are the only patrons.
Although they both knew how much the meal would cost, they’re both stunned when they look at the check, and then both start laughing, though he’s not sure if it’s the absurdity of spending so much on a single dinner, or the fact that they have, or the fact that they can that is to blame.
“I’ll get it,” Willem says, but as he’s reaching for his wallet, the waiter comes over to him with his credit card, which he’d given to him when Willem was in the bathroom.
“Goddammit, Jude,” Willem says, and he grins.
“It’s the Last Supper, Willem,” he says. “You can get me a taco when you come back.”
“If I come back,” Willem says. It has been their running joke. “Jude, thank you. You weren’t supposed to pay for this.”
It’s the first warm night of the year, and he tells Willem that if he really wants to thank him for dinner, he’ll walk with him. “How far?” asks Willem, warily. “We’re not going to walk all the way down to SoHo, Jude.”
“It’d better not be,” Willem says, “because I’m really tired.” This is Willem’s new strategy, and he is very fond of it: instead of telling him he can’t do certain things because it’s not good for his legs or back, Willem instead tries to make himself sound incapable in order to dissuade him. These days, Willem is always too tired to walk, or too achey, or too hot, or too cold. But he knows that these things are untrue. One Saturday afternoon after they’d gone to some galleries, Willem had told him he couldn’t walk from Chelsea to Greene Street (“I’m too tired”), and so they had taken a cab instead. But then the next day at lunch, Robin had said, “Wasn’t it a beautiful day yesterday? After Willem got home, we ran for—what, eight miles, right, Willem?—all the way up and down the highway.”
“Oh, did you?” he asked her, looking at Willem, who smiled
sheepishly at him.
“What can I say?” he said. “I unexpectedly got a second wind.”
They start walking south, first veering east from Broadway so they won’t have to cross through Times Square. Willem’s hair has been colored dark for his next role, and he has a beard, so he’s not instantly recognizable, but neither of them want to get stuck in a scrum of tourists.
This is the last time he will see Willem for what will likely be more than six months. On Tuesday, he leaves for Cyprus to begin work on The Iliad and The Odyssey; he will play Odysseus in both. The two films will be shot consecutively and released consecutively, but they will have the same cast and the same director, too. The shoot will take him all across southern Europe and northern Africa before moving to Australia, where some of the battle scenes are being shot, and because the pace is so intense and the distances he has to travel so far, it’s unclear whether he’ll have much time, if any, to come home on breaks. It is the most elaborate and ambitious shoot Willem has been on, and he is nervous. “It’s going to be incredible, Willem,” he reassures him.
“Or an incredible disaster,” Willem says. He isn’t glum, he never is, but he can tell Willem is anxious, and eager to do well, and worried that he will somehow disappoint. But he is worried before every film, and yet—as he reminds Willem—every one has turned out fine, better than fine. However, he thinks, this is one of the reasons that Willem will always have work, and good work: because he does take it seriously, because he does feel so responsible.
He, though, is dreading the next six months, especially because Willem has been so present for the last year and a half. First he was shooting a small project, one based in Brooklyn, that lasted just a few weeks. And then he was in a play, a production called The Maldivian Dodo, about two brothers, both ornithologists, one of whom is slowly tipping into an uncategorizable madness. The two of them had a late dinner every Thursday night for the entire run of the play, which he saw—as he has with all of Willem’s plays—multiple times. On his third viewing, he spotted JB with Oliver, just a few rows ahead of him but on the left side of the theater, and throughout the show he kept glancing over at JB to see if he was laughing at or concentrating on the same lines, aware that this was the first of Willem’s productions that the three of them hadn’t seen together, as a group, at least once.
“So, listen,” Willem says as they move down Fifth Avenue, which is
empty of people, just bright-lit windows and stray bits of garbage twirling in the light, soft breeze—plastic bags, puffed up with air into jellyfish, and twists of newspaper—“I told Robin I’d talk to you about something.”
He waits. He has been conscious of not making the same mistake with Robin and Willem that he made with Philippa and Willem— when Willem asks him to accompany them anywhere, he makes sure that he’s cleared it with Robin first (finally Willem had told him to stop asking, that Robin knew how much he meant to him and she was fine with it, and if she wasn’t fine with it, she’d have to get fine with it), and he has tried to present himself to Robin as someone independent and not likely to move in with them when he’s old. (He’s not sure exactly how to communicate this message, however, and so is therefore unsure if he’s been successful or not.) But he likes Robin— she’s a classics professor at Columbia who was hired to serve as a consultant on the films two years ago, and she has a spiky sense of humor that reminds him of JB, somehow.
“Okay,” says Willem, and takes a deep breath, and he steadies
himself. Oh no, he thinks. “Do you remember Robin’s friend Clara?” “Sure,” he says. “The one I met at Clementine.”
“Yes!” says Willem, triumphantly. “That’s her!”
“God, Willem, give me some credit; it was just last week.”
“I know, I know. Well, anyway, here’s the thing—she’s interested in you.”
He is perplexed. “What do you mean?”
“She asked Robin if you were single.” He pauses. “I told her I didn’t think you were interested in seeing anyone, but I’d ask. So. I’m asking.”
The idea is so preposterous that it takes him a while to understand what Willem’s saying, and when he does, he stops, and laughs, embarrassed and disbelieving. “You’ve got to be kidding, Willem,” he says. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Why is it ridiculous?” asks Willem, suddenly serious. “Jude, why?” “Willem,” he says, recovering himself. “It’s very flattering. But—”
He winces and laughs again. “It’s absurd.”
“What is?” Willem says, and he can feel the conversation turn. “That someone should be attracted to you? This isn’t the first time this has happened, you know. You just can’t see it because you won’t let yourself.”
He shakes his head. “Let’s talk about something else, Willem.”
“No,” says Willem. “You’re not getting out of this one, Jude. Why is it ridiculous? Why is it absurd?”
He is suddenly so uncomfortable that he actually does stop, right on the corner of Fifth and Forty-fifth, and starts scanning the avenue for a cab. But of course, there are no cabs.
As he considers how to respond, he thinks back to a time a few days after that night in JB’s apartment, when he had asked Willem if JB had been correct, at least in some part: Did Willem resent him? Did he not tell them enough?
Willem had been silent for such a long time that he knew the answer even before he heard it. “Look, Jude,” Willem had said, slowly, “JB was—JB was out of his mind. I could never be sick of you. You don’t owe me your secrets.” He paused. “But, yes, I do wish you’d share more of yourself with me. Not so I could have the information but so, maybe, I could be of some help.” He stopped and looked at him. “That’s all.”
Since then, he has tried to tell Willem more things. But there are so many topics that he has never discussed with anyone since Ana, now twenty-five years ago, that he finds he literally doesn’t have the language to do so. His past, his fears, what was done to him, what he has done to himself—they are subjects that can only be discussed in tongues he doesn’t speak: Farsi, Urdu, Mandarin, Portuguese. Once, he tried to write some things down, thinking that it might be easier, but it wasn’t—he is unclear how to explain himself to himself.
“You’ll find your own way to discuss what happened to you,” he remembers Ana saying. “You’ll have to, if you ever want to be close to anyone.” He wishes, as he often does, that he had let her talk to him, that he had let her teach him how to do it. His silence had begun as something protective, but over the years it has transformed into something near oppressive, something that manages him rather than the other way around. Now he cannot find a way out of it, even when he wants to. He imagines he is floating in a small bubble of water, encased on all sides by walls and ceilings and floors of ice, all many feet thick. He knows there is a way out, but he is unequipped; he has no tools to begin his work, and his hands scrabble uselessly against the ice’s slick. He had thought that by not saying who he was, he was making himself more palatable, less strange. But now, what he doesn’t say makes him stranger, an object of pity and even suspicion.
“Jude?” Willem prompts him. “Why is it absurd?”
He shakes his head. “It just is.” He starts walking again.
For a block, they say nothing. Then Willem asks, “Jude, do you ever want to be with someone?”
“I never thought I would.” “But that’s not what I asked.”
“I don’t know, Willem,” he says, unable to look at Willem’s face. “I guess I just don’t think that sort of thing is for someone like me.”
“What does that mean?”
He shakes his head again, not saying anything, but Willem persists. “Because you have some health problems? Is that why?”
Health problems, says something sour and sardonic inside him. Now, that’s a euphemism. But he doesn’t say this out loud. “Willem,” he pleads. “I’m begging you to stop talking about this. We’ve had such a good night. It’s our last night, and then I’m not going to see you. Can we please change the subject? Please?”
Willem doesn’t say anything for another block, and he thinks the moment has passed, but then Willem says, “You know, when we first started going out, Robin asked me whether you were gay or straight and I had to tell her I didn’t know.” He pauses. “She was shocked. She kept saying, ‘This is your best friend since you guys were teenagers and you don’t know?’ Philippa used to ask me about you as well. And I’d tell her the same thing I told Robin: that you’re a private person and I’ve always tried to respect your privacy.
“But I guess this is the kind of stuff I wish you’d tell me, Jude. Not so I can do anything with the information, but just because it gives me a better sense of who you are. I mean, maybe you’re neither. Maybe you’re both. Maybe you’re just not interested. It doesn’t make a difference to me.”
He doesn’t, he can’t say anything in response, and they walk another two blocks: Thirty-eighth Street, Thirty-seventh Street. He is conscious of his right foot dragging against the pavement the way it does when he is tired or dispirited, too tired or dispirited to make a greater effort, and is grateful that Willem is on his left, and therefore less likely to notice it.
“I worry sometimes that you’ve decided to convince yourself that you’re somehow unattractive or unlovable, and that you’ve decided that certain experiences are off-limits for you. But they’re not, Jude: anyone would be lucky to be with you,” says Willem a block later. Enough of this, he thinks; he can tell by Willem’s tone that he is building up to a longer speech and he is now actively anxious, his heart beating a funny rhythm.
“Willem,” he says, turning to him. “I think I’d better take a taxi after all; I’m getting tired—I’d better get to bed.”
“Jude, come on,” says Willem, with enough impatience in his voice that he flinches. “Look, I’m sorry. But really, Jude. You can’t just leave when I’m trying to talk to you about something important.”
This stops him. “You’re right,” he says. “I’m sorry. And I’m grateful, Willem, I really am. But this is just too difficult for me to discuss.”
“Everything’s too difficult for you to discuss,” says Willem, and he flinches again. Willem sighs. “I’m sorry. I always keep thinking that someday I’m going to talk to you, really talk to you, and then I never do, because I’m afraid you’re going to shut down and then you won’t talk to me at all.” They are silent, and he is chastened, because he knows Willem is right—that is exactly what he’d do. A few years ago, Willem had tried to talk to him about his cutting. They had been walking then too, and after a certain point the conversation had become so intolerable that he had hailed a cab and frantically pulled himself in, leaving Willem standing on the sidewalk, calling his name in disbelief; he had cursed himself even as the car sped south. Willem had been furious; he had apologized; they had made up. But Willem has never initiated that conversation again, and neither has he. “But tell me this, Jude: Are you ever lonely?”
“No,” he says, finally. A couple walks by, laughing, and he thinks of
the beginning of their walk, when they too were laughing. How has he managed to ruin this night, the last time he will see Willem for months? “You don’t need to worry about me, Willem. I’ll always be fine. I’ll always be able to take care of myself.”
And then Willem sighs, and sags, and looks so defeated that he feels a twist of guilt. But he is also relieved, because he senses that Willem doesn’t know how to continue the conversation, and he will soon be able to redirect him, and end the evening pleasantly, and escape. “You always say that.”
“Because it’s always true.”
There is a long, long silence. They are standing in front of a Korean barbeque restaurant, and the air is dense and fragrant with steam and smoke and roasting meat. “Can I go?” he asks finally, and Willem nods. He goes to the curb and raises his arm, and a cab glides to his side.
Willem opens the door for him and then, as he’s getting in, puts his arms around him and holds him, and he finally does the same. “I’m going to miss you,” Willem says into the back of his neck. “Are you
going to take care of yourself while I’m gone?”
“Yes,” he says. “I promise.” He steps back and looks at him. “Until November, then.”
Willem makes a face that’s not quite a smile. “November,” he echoes.
In the cab, he finds he really is tired, and he leans his forehead against the greased window and closes his eyes. By the time he reaches home, he feels as leaden as a corpse, and in the apartment, he starts taking off his clothes—shoes, sweater, shirt, undershirt, pants— as soon as he’s locked the door behind him, leaving them littering the floor in a trail as he makes his way to the bathroom. His hands tremor as he unsticks the bag from beneath the sink, and although he hadn’t thought he’d need to cut himself that night—nothing that day or early evening had indicated he might—he is almost ravenous for it now. He has long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and he now recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself. Lately he has begun using the cream that Andy gave him for his back on his arms, and he thinks it helps, a bit: the skin feels looser, the scars a little softer and more supple.
The shower area Malcolm has created in this bathroom is
enormous, so large he now sits within it when he’s cutting, his legs stretched out before him, and after he’s done, he’s careful to wash away the blood because the floor is a great plain of marble, and as Malcolm has told him again and again, once you stain marble, there’s nothing that can be done. And then he is in bed, light-headed but not quite sleepy, staring at the dark, mercury-like gleam the chandelier makes in the shadowy room.
“I’m lonely,” he says aloud, and the silence of the apartment absorbs the words like blood soaking into cotton.
This loneliness is a recent discovery, and is different from the other lonelinesses he has experienced: it is not the childhood loneliness of not having parents; or of lying awake in a motel room with Brother Luke, trying not to move, not to rouse him, while the moon threw hard white stripes of light across the bed; or of the time he ran away from the home, the successful time, and spent the night wedged into the cleft of an oak tree’s buckling roots that spread open like a pair of legs, making himself as small as he could. He had thought he was
lonely then, but now he realizes that what he was feeling was not loneliness but fear. But now he has nothing to fear. Now he has protected himself: he has this apartment with its triple-locked doors, and he has money. He has parents, he has friends. He will never again have to do anything he doesn’t want to for food, or transportation, or shelter, or escape.
He hadn’t been lying to Willem: he is not meant for a relationship and has never thought he was. He has never envied his friends theirs
—to do so would be akin to a cat coveting a dog’s bark: it is something that would never occur to him to envy, because it is impossible, something that is simply alien to his very species. But recently, people have been behaving as if it is something he could have, or should want to have, and although he knows they mean it in part as a kindness, it feels like a taunt: they could be telling him he could be a decathlete and it would be as obtuse and as cruel.
He expects it from Malcolm and Harold; Malcolm because he is happy and sees a single path—his path—to happiness, and so therefore occasionally asks him if he can set him up with someone, or if he wants to find someone, and then is bewildered when he declines; Harold because he knows that the part of the parental role Harold most enjoys is inserting himself into his life and rooting about in it as best as he can. He has grown to enjoy this too, sometimes—he is touched that someone is interested enough in him to order him around, to be disappointed by the decisions he makes, to have expectations for him, to assume the responsibility of ownership of him. Two years ago, he and Harold were at a restaurant and Harold was giving him a lecture about how his job at Rosen Pritchard had made him essentially an accessory to corporate malfeasance, when they both realized that their waiter was standing above them, holding his pad before him.
“Pardon me,” said the waiter. “Should I come back?”
“No, don’t worry,” Harold said, picking up his menu. “I’m just yelling at my son, but I can do that after we order.” The waiter had given him a commiserating smile, and he had smiled back, thrilled to have been claimed as another’s in public, to finally be a member of the tribe of sons and daughters. Later, Harold had resumed his rant, and he had pretended to be upset, but really, he had been happy the entire night, contentment saturating his every cell, smiling so much that Harold had finally asked him if he was drunk.
But now Harold too has started to ask him questions. “This is a
terrific place,” he said when he was in town the previous month for the birthday dinner he’d commanded Willem not to throw for him and which Willem had done anyway. Harold had stopped by the apartment the next day, and as he always did, rambled about it admiringly, saying the same things he always did: “This is a terrific place”; “It’s so clean in here”; “Malcolm did such a good job”; and, lately, “It’s massive, though, Jude. Don’t you get lonely in here by yourself?”
“No, Harold,” he said. “I like being alone.”
Harold had grunted. “Willem seems happy,” he said. “Robin seems like a nice girl.”
“She is,” he said, making Harold a cup of tea. “And I think he is happy.”
“Jude, don’t you want that for yourself?” Harold asked. He sighed. “No, Harold, I’m fine.”
“Well, what about me and Julia?” asked Harold. “We’d like to see you with someone.”
“You know I want to make you and Julia happy,” he said, trying to keep his voice level. “But I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to help you on this front. Here.” He gave Harold his tea.
Sometimes he wonders whether this very idea of loneliness is something he would feel at all had he not been awakened to the fact that he should be feeling lonely, that there is something strange and unacceptable about the life he has. Always, there are people asking him if he misses what it had never occurred to him to want, never occurred to him he might have: Harold and Malcolm, of course, but also Richard, whose girlfriend, a fellow artist named India, has all but moved in with him, and people he sees less frequently as well— Citizen and Elijah and Phaedra and even Kerrigan, his old colleague from Judge Sullivan’s chambers, who had looked him up a few months ago when he was in town with his husband. Some of them ask him with pity, and some ask him with suspicion: the first group feels sorry for him because they assume his singlehood is not his decision but a state imposed upon him; and the second group feels a kind of hostility for him, because they think that singlehood is his decision, a defiant violation of a fundamental law of adulthood.
Either way, being single at forty is different from being single at
thirty, and with every year it becomes less understandable, less enviable, and more pathetic, more inappropriate. For the past five years, he has attended every partners’ dinner alone, and a year ago,
when he became an equity partner, he attended the partners’ annual retreat alone as well. The week before the retreat, Lucien had come into his office one Friday night and sat down to review the week’s business, as he often did. They talked about the retreat, which was going to be in Anguilla, and which the two of them genuinely dreaded, unlike the other partners, who pretended to dread it but actually (he and Lucien agreed) were looking forward to it.
“Is Meredith coming?” he asked.
“She is.” There was a silence, and he knew what was coming next. “Are you bringing anyone?”
“No,” he said.
Another silence, in which Lucien stared at the ceiling. “You’ve never brought anyone to one of these events, have you?” asked Lucien, his voice carefully casual.
“No,” he said, and then, when Lucien didn’t say anything, “Are you trying to tell me something, Lucien?”
“No, of course not,” Lucien said, looking back at him. “This isn’t the sort of firm where we keep track of those kinds of things, Jude, you know that.”
He had felt a flush of anger and embarrassment. “Except it clearly is. If the management committee is saying something, Lucien, you have to tell me.”
“Jude,” said Lucien. “We’re not. You know how much everyone here respects you. I just think—and this is not the firm talking, just me—that I’d like to see you settled down with someone.”
“Okay, Lucien, thanks,” he’d said, wearily. “I’ll take that under advisement.”
But as self-conscious as he is about appearing normal, he doesn’t want a relationship for propriety’s sake: he wants it because he has realized he is lonely. He is so lonely that he sometimes feels it physically, a sodden clump of dirty laundry pressing against his chest. He cannot unlearn the feeling. People make it sound so easy, as if the decision to want it is the most difficult part of the process. But he knows better: being in a relationship would mean exposing himself to someone, which he has still never done to anyone but Andy; it would mean the confrontation of his own body, which he has not seen unclothed in at least a decade—even in the shower he doesn’t look at himself. And it would mean having sex with someone, which he hasn’t done since he was fifteen, and which he dreads so completely that the thought of it makes his stomach fill with something waxy and cold.
When he first started seeing Andy, Andy would occasionally ask him if he was sexually active, until he finally told Andy that he would tell him when and if it ever happened, and until then, Andy could stop asking him. So Andy never asked again, and he has never had to volunteer the information. Not having sex: it was one of the best things about being an adult.
But as much as he fears sex, he also wants to be touched, he wants to feel someone else’s hands on him, although the thought of that too terrifies him. Sometimes he looks at his arms and is filled with a self-hatred so fiery that he can barely breathe: much of what his body has become has been beyond his control, but his arms have been all his doing, and he can only blame himself. When he had begun cutting himself, he cut on his legs—just the calves—and before he learned to be organized about how he applied them, he swiped the blade across the skin in haphazard strokes, so it looked as if he had been scratched by a crosshatch of grasses. No one ever noticed—no one ever looks at a person’s calves. Even Brother Luke hadn’t bothered him about them. But now, no one could not notice his arms, or his back, or his legs, which are striped with runnels where damaged tissue and muscle have been removed, and indentations the size of thumbprints, where the braces’ screws had once been drilled through the flesh and into the bone, and satiny ponds of skin where he had sustained burns in the injury, and the places where his wounds have closed over, where the flesh now craters slightly, the area around them tinged a permanent dull bronze. When he has clothes on, he is one person, but without them, he is revealed as he really is, the years of rot manifested on his skin, his own flesh advertising his past, its depravities and corruptions.
Once, in Texas, one of his clients had been a man who was
grotesque—so fat that his stomach had dropped into a pendant of flesh between his legs, and covered everywhere with floes of eczema, the skin so dry that when he moved, small ghostly strips of it floated from his arms and back and into the air. He had been sickened, seeing the man, and yet they all sickened him, and so in a way, this man was no better or worse than the others. As he had given the man a blow job, the man’s stomach pressing against his neck, the man had cried, apologizing to him: I’m sorry, I’m sorry, he said, the tips of his fingers on the top of his head. The man had long fingernails, each as thick as bone, and he dragged them over his scalp, but gently, as if they were tines of a comb. And somehow, it is as if over the years he has become
that man, and he knows that if anyone were to see him, they too would feel repulsed, nauseated by his deformities. He doesn’t want someone to have to stand before the toilet retching, as he had done afterward, scooping handfuls of liquid soap into his mouth, gagging at the taste, trying to make himself clean again.
So he will never have to do anything he doesn’t want to for food or shelter: he finally knows that. But what is he willing to do to feel less alone? Could he destroy everything he’s built and protected so diligently for intimacy? How much humiliation is he ready to endure? He doesn’t know; he is afraid of discovering the answer.
But increasingly, he is even more afraid that he will never have the chance to discover it at all. What does it mean to be a human, if he can never have this? And yet, he reminds himself, loneliness is not hunger, or deprivation, or illness: it is not fatal. Its eradication is not owed him. He has a better life than so many people, a better life than he had ever thought he would have. To wish for companionship along with everything else he has seems a kind of greed, a gross entitlement. The weeks pass. Willem’s schedule is erratic, and he calls him at odd hours: at one in the morning, at three in the afternoon. He sounds tired, but it isn’t in Willem’s nature to complain, and he doesn’t. He tells him about the scenery, the archaeological sites they’ve been given permission to shoot in, the little mishaps on set. When Willem is away, he is increasingly inclined to stay indoors and do nothing, which he knows isn’t healthy, and so he has been vigilant about filling his weekends with events, with parties and dinners. He goes to museum shows, and to plays with Black Henry Young and to galleries with Richard. Felix, whom he tutored so long ago, now helms a punk band called the Quiet Amerikans, and he makes Malcolm come with him to their show. He tells Willem about what he’s seen and what he’s read, about conversations with Harold and Julia, about Richard’s latest project and his clients at the nonprofit, about Andy’s daughter’s birthday party and Phaedra’s new job, about people he’s talked to and
what they’ve said.
“Five and a half more months,” Willem says at the end of one conversation.
“Five and a half more,” he repeats.
That Thursday he goes to dinner at Rhodes’s new apartment, which is near Malcolm’s parents’ house, and which Rhodes had told him over drinks in December is the source of all his nightmares: he wakes at night with ledgers scrolling through his mind, the stuff of his life—
tuition, mortgages, maintenances, taxes—reduced to terrifyingly large figures. “And this is with my parents’ help,” he’d said. “And Alex wants to have another kid. I’m forty-five, Jude, and I’m already beat; I’m going to be working until I’m eighty if we have a third.”
Tonight, he is relieved to see, Rhodes seems more relaxed, his neck and cheeks pink. “Christ,” Rhodes says, “how do you stay so thin year after year?” When they had met at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, fifteen years ago, Rhodes had still looked like a lacrosse player, all muscle and sinew, but since joining the bank, he has thickened, grown abruptly old.
“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘scrawny,’ ” he tells Rhodes.
Rhodes laughs. “I don’t think so,” he says, “but I’d take scrawny at this point.”
There are eleven people at dinner, and Rhodes has to retrieve his desk chair from his office, and the bench from Alex’s dressing room. He remembers this about Rhodes’s dinners: the food is always perfect, there are always flowers on the table, and yet something always goes wrong with the guest list and the seating—Alex invites someone she’s just met and forgets to tell Rhodes, or Rhodes miscounts, and what is intended as a formal, organized event becomes instead chaotic and casual. “Shit!” Rhodes says, as he always does, but he’s always the only one who minds.
Alex is seated to his left, and he talks to her about her job as the public relations director of a fashion label called Rothko, which she has just quit, to Rhodes’s consternation. “Do you miss it yet?” he asks. “Not yet,” she says. “I know Rhodes isn’t happy about it”—she smiles—“but he’ll get over it. I just felt I should stay home while the
kids are young.”
He asks about the country house the two of them have bought in Connecticut (another source of Rhodes’s nightmares), and she tells him about the renovation, which is grinding into its third summer, and he groans in sympathy. “Rhodes said you were looking somewhere in Columbia County,” she says. “Did you end up buying?”
“Not yet,” he says. It had been a choice: either the house, or he and Richard were going to renovate the ground floor, make the garage usable and add a gym and a small pool—one with a constant current, so you could swim in place in it—and in the end, he chose the renovation. Now he swims every morning in complete privacy; not even Richard enters the gym area when he’s in it.
“We wanted to wait on the house, actually,” Alex admits. “But
really, we didn’t have a choice—we wanted the kids to have a yard while they were little.”
He nods; he has heard this story before, from Rhodes. Often, it feels as if he and Rhodes (and he and almost every one of his contemporaries at the firm) are living parallel versions of adulthood. Their world is governed by children, little despots whose needs— school and camp and activities and tutors—dictate every decision, and will for the next ten, fifteen, eighteen years. Having children has provided their adulthood with an instant and nonnegotiable sense of purpose and direction: they decide the length and location of that year’s vacation; they determine if there will be any leftover money, and if so, how it might be spent; they give shape to a day, a week, a year, a life. Children are a kind of cartography, and all one has to do is obey the map they present to you on the day they are born.
But he and his friends have no children, and in their absence, the world sprawls before them, almost stifling in its possibilities. Without them, one’s status as an adult is never secure; a childless adult creates adulthood for himself, and as exhilarating as it often is, it is also a state of perpetual insecurity, of perpetual doubt. Or it is to some people—certainly it is to Malcolm, who recently reviewed with him a list he’d made in favor of and against having children with Sophie, much as he had when he was deciding whether to marry Sophie in the first place, four years ago.
“I don’t know, Mal,” he said, after listening to Malcolm’s list. “It sounds like the reasons for having them are because you feel you should, not because you really want them.”
“Of course I feel I should,” said Malcolm. “Don’t you ever feel like we’re all basically still living like children, Jude?”
“No,” he said. And he never had: his life was as far from his childhood as he could imagine. “That’s your dad talking, Mal. Your life won’t be any less valid, or any less legitimate, if you don’t have kids.”
Malcolm had sighed. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe you’re right.” He’d smiled. “I mean, I don’t really want them.”
He smiled back. “Well,” he said, “you can always wait. Maybe someday you can adopt a sad thirty-year-old.”
“Maybe,” Malcolm said again. “After all, I hear it is a trend in certain parts of the country.”
Now Alex excuses herself to help Rhodes in the kitchen, who has been calling her name with mounting urgency—“Alex. Alex! Alex!”—
and he turns to the person on his right, whom he doesn’t recognize from Rhodes’s other parties, a dark-haired man with a nose that looks like it’s been broken: it starts heading decisively in one direction before reversing directions, just as decisively, right below the bridge.
“Caleb Porter.” “Jude St. Francis.”
“Let me guess: Catholic.” “Let me guess: not.”
Caleb laughs. “You’re right about that.”
They talk, and Caleb tells him he’s just moved to the city from London, where he’s spent the past decade as the president of a fashion label, to take over as the new CEO at Rothko. “Alex very sweetly and spontaneously invited me yesterday, and I thought”—he shrugs
—“why not? It’s this, a good meal with nice people, or sitting in a hotel room looking desultorily at real estate listings.” From the kitchen there is a timpani clatter of falling metal, and Rhodes swearing. Caleb looks at him, his eyebrows raised, and he smiles. “Don’t worry,” he reassures him. “This always happens.”
Over the remainder of the meal, Rhodes makes attempts to corral his guests into a group conversation, but it doesn’t work—the table is too wide, and he has unwisely seated friends near each other—and so he ends up talking to Caleb. He is forty-nine, and grew up in Marin County, and hasn’t lived in New York since he was in his thirties. He too went to law school, although, he says, he’s never used a day of what he learned at work.
“Never?” he asks. He is always skeptical when people say that; he is skeptical of people who claim law school was a colossal waste, a three-year mistake. Although he also recognizes that he is unusually sentimental about law school, which gave him not only his livelihood but, in many ways, his life.
Caleb thinks. “Well, maybe not never, but not in the way you’d expect,” he finally says. He has a deep, careful, slow voice, at once soothing and, somehow, slightly menacing. “The thing that actually has ended up being useful is, of all things, civil procedure. Do you know anyone who’s a designer?”
“No,” he says. “But I have a lot of friends who’re artists.”
“Well, then. You know how differently they think—the better the artist, the higher the probability that they’ll be completely unsuited for business. And they really are. I’ve worked at five houses in the past twenty-odd years, and what’s fascinating is witnessing the
patterns of behavior—the refusal to hew to deadlines, the inability to stay within budget, the near incompetence when it comes to managing a staff—that are so consistent you begin to wonder if lacking these qualities is something that’s a prerequisite to having the job, or whether the job itself encourages these sorts of conceptual gaps. So what you have to do, in my position, is construct a system of governance within the company, and then make sure it’s enforceable and punishable. I’m not quite sure how to explain it: you can’t tell them that it’s good business to do one thing or another—that means nothing to them, or at least to some of them, as much as they say they understand it—you have to instead present it as the bylaws of their own small universe, and convince them that if they don’t follow these rules, their universe will collapse. As long as you can persuade them of this, you can get them to do what you need. It’s completely maddening.”
“So why do you keep working with them?”
“Because—they do think so differently. It’s fascinating to watch. Some of them are essentially subliterate: you get notes from them and they can really barely construct a sentence. But then you watch them sketching, or draping, or just putting colors together, and it’s … I don’t know. It’s wondrous. I can’t explain it any better than that.”
“No—I know exactly what you mean,” he says, thinking of Richard, and JB, and Malcolm, and Willem. “It’s as if you’re being allowed entrée into a way of thinking you don’t even have language to imagine, much less articulate.”
“That’s exactly right,” Caleb says, and smiles at him for the first time.
The dinner winds down, and as everyone’s drinking coffee, Caleb disentangles his legs from under the table. “I’m going to head off,” he says. “I think I’m still on London time. But it was a pleasure meeting you.”
“You, too,” he says. “I really enjoyed it. And good luck establishing a system of civil governance within Rothko.”
“Thanks, I’ll need it,” says Caleb, and then, as he’s about to stand, he stops and says, “Would you like to have dinner sometime?”
For a moment, he is paralyzed. But then he rebukes himself: he has nothing to fear. Caleb has just moved back to the city—he knows how difficult it must be to find someone to talk to, how difficult it is to find friends when, in your absence, all your friends have started families and are strangers to you. It is talking, nothing more. “That’d
be great,” he says, and he and Caleb exchange cards.
“Don’t get up,” Caleb says, as he starts to rise. “I’ll be in touch.” He watches as Caleb—who is taller than he had thought, at least two inches taller than he is, with a powerful-looking back—rumbles his goodbyes to Alex and Rhodes and then leaves without turning around.
He gets a message from Caleb the following day, and they schedule a dinner for Thursday. Late in the afternoon, he calls Rhodes to thank him for dinner, and ask him about Caleb.
“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t even speak to him,” Rhodes says. “Alex invited him very last minute. This is exactly what I’m talking about with these dinner parties: Why is she inviting someone who’s taking over at a company she’s just leaving?”
“So you don’t know anything about him?”
“Nothing. Alex says he’s well-respected and that Rothko fought hard to bring him back from London. But that’s all I know. Why?” He can almost hear Rhodes smiling. “Don’t tell me you’re expanding your client base from the glamorous world of securities and pharma?”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing, Rhodes,” he says. “Thanks again.
And tell Alex thanks as well.”
Thursday arrives, and he meets Caleb at an izakaya in west Chelsea. After they’ve ordered, Caleb says, “You know, I was looking at you all through that dinner and trying to remember where I knew you from, and then I realized—it was a painting by Jean-Baptiste Marion. The creative director at my last company owned it—actually, he tried to make the company pay for it, but that’s a different story. It’s a really tight image of your face, and you’re standing outside; you can see a streetlight behind you.”
“Right,” he says. This has happened to him a few times before, and he always finds it unsettling. “I know exactly the one you mean; it’s from ‘Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days’—the third series.”
“That’s right,” says Caleb, and smiles at him. “Are you and Marion close?”
“Not so much anymore,” he says, and as always, it hurts him to admit it. “But we were college roommates—I’ve known him for years.”
“It’s a great series,” Caleb says, and they talk about JB’s other work, and Richard, whose work Caleb also knows, and Asian Henry Young; and about the paucity of decent Japanese restaurants in London; and about Caleb’s sister, who lives in Monaco with her second husband and their huge brood of children; and about Caleb’s parents, who
died, after long illnesses, when he was in his thirties; and about the house in Bridgehampton that Caleb’s law school classmate is letting him use this summer while he’s in L.A. And then there is enough talk of Rosen Pritchard, and the financial mess that Rothko has been left in by the departing CEO to convince him that Caleb is looking not just for a friend but potentially for representation as well, and he starts thinking about who at the firm should be responsible for the company. He thinks: I should give this to Evelyn, who is one of the young partners the firm nearly lost the previous year to, in fact, a fashion house, where she would have been their in-house counsel. Evelyn would be good for this account—she is smart and she is interested in the industry, and it would be a good match.
He is thinking this when Caleb abruptly asks, “Are you single?” And then, laughing, “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Sorry,” he says, startled, but smiling back. “I am, yes. But—I was just having this very conversation with my friend.”
“And what did your friend say?”
“He said—” he begins, but then stops, embarrassed, and confused by the sudden shift of topic, of tone. “Nothing,” he says, and Caleb smiles, almost as if he has actually recounted the conversation, but doesn’t press him. He thinks then how he will make this evening into a story to tell Willem, especially this most recent exchange. You win, Willem, he’ll say to him, and if Willem tries to bring up the subject again, he decides he’ll let him, and that this time, he won’t evade his questions.
He pays and they walk outside, where it is raining, not heavily, but steadily enough so that there are no cabs, and the streets gleam like licorice. “I have a car waiting,” Caleb says. “Can I drop you somewhere?”
“You don’t mind?” “Not at all.”
The car takes them downtown, and by the time they’ve reached Greene Street it’s pouring, so hard that they can no longer discern shapes through the window, just colors, spangles of red and yellow lights, the city reduced to the honking of horns and the clatter of rain against the roof of the car, so loud that they can barely hear each other over the din. They stop and he’s about to get out when Caleb tells him to wait, he has an umbrella and will walk him into the building, and before he can object, Caleb is getting out and unsnapping an umbrella, and the two of them huddle beneath it and
into the lobby, the door thudding shut behind him, leaving them standing in the darkened entryway.
“This is a hell of a lobby,” Caleb says, dryly, looking up at the bare bulb. “Although it does have a sort of end-of-empire chic,” and he laughs, and Caleb smiles. “Does Rosen Pritchard know you’re living in a place like this?” he asks, and then, before he can answer, Caleb leans in and kisses him, very hard, so that his back is pressed against the door, and Caleb’s arms make a cage around him.
In that moment, he goes blank, the world, his very self, erasing themselves. It has been a long, long time since anyone has kissed him, and he remembers the sense of helplessness he felt whenever it happened, and how Brother Luke used to tell him to just open his mouth and relax and do nothing, and now—out of habit and memory, and the inability to do anything else—that is what he does, and waits for it to be over, counting the seconds and trying to breathe through his nose.
Finally, Caleb steps back and looks at him, and after a while, he looks back. And then Caleb does it again, this time holding his face between his hands, and he has that sensation he always had when he was a child and was being kissed, that his body was not his own, that every gesture he made was predetermined, reflex after reflex after reflex, and that he could do nothing but succumb to whatever might happen to him next.
Caleb stops a second time and steps back again, looking at him and raising his eyebrows the way he had at Rhodes’s dinner, waiting for him to say something.
“I thought you were looking for legal representation,” he says at last, and the words are so idiotic that he can feel his face get hot.
But Caleb doesn’t laugh. “No,” he says. There is another long silence, and it is Caleb who speaks next. “Aren’t you going to invite me up?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” he says, and he wishes, suddenly, for Willem, although this is not the sort of problem that Willem has helped him with before, and in fact, probably not the sort of problem that Willem would even consider a problem at all. He knows what a stolid, careful person he is, and although that stolidity and sense of caution guarantee he will never be the most interesting, or provocative, or glittery person in any gathering, in any room, they have protected him so far, they have given him an adulthood free of sordidness and filth. But sometimes he wonders whether he has insulated himself so
much that he has neglected some essential part of being human: maybe he is ready to be with someone. Maybe enough time has passed so it will be different. Maybe he is wrong, maybe Willem is right: maybe this isn’t an experience that is forbidden to him forever. Maybe he is less disgusting than he thinks. Maybe he really is capable of this. Maybe he won’t be hurt after all. Caleb seems, in that moment, to have been conjured, djinn-like, the offspring of his worst fears and greatest hopes, and dropped into his life as a test: On one side is everything he knows, the patterns of his existence as regular and banal as the steady plink of a dripping faucet, where he is alone but safe, and shielded from everything that could hurt him. On the other side are waves, tumult, rainstorms, excitement: everything he cannot control, everything potentially awful and ecstatic, everything he has lived his adult life trying to avoid, everything whose absence bleeds his life of color. Inside him, the creature hesitates, perching on its hind legs, pawing the air as if feeling for answers.
Don’t do it, don’t fool yourself, no matter what you tell yourself, you
know what you are, says one voice.
Take a chance, says the other voice. You’re lonely. You have to try.
This is the voice he always ignores.
This may never happen again, the voice adds, and this stops him.
It will end badly, says the first voice, and then both voices fall silent, waiting to see what he will do.
He doesn’t know what to do; he doesn’t know what will happen. He has to find out. Everything he has learned tells him to leave; everything he has wished for tells him to stay. Be brave, he tells himself. Be brave for once.
And so he looks back at Caleb. “Let’s go,” he says, and although he is already frightened, he begins the long walk down the narrow hallway toward the elevator as if he is not, and along with the scrape of his right foot against the cement, he hears the tap of Caleb’s footsteps, and the explosions of rain pinging off the fire escape, and the thrum of his own anxious heart.
A year ago, he had begun working on a defense for a gigantic pharmaceutical company called Malgrave and Baskett whose board of directors was being sued by a group of their shareholders for malfeasance, incompetence, and neglect of their fiduciary duties. “Gee,” Lucien had said, sarcastically, “I wonder why they’d think
He had sighed. “I know,” he said. Malgrave and Baskett was a disaster, and everyone knew it. Over the previous few years, before they had come to Rosen Pritchard, the company had had to contend with two whistle-blower lawsuits (one alleging that a manufacturing facility was dangerously out of date, the other that a different facility was producing contaminated products), had been served with subpoenas in connection with an investigation into an elaborate kickback scheme involving a chain of nursing homes, and had been alleged to be illegally marketing one of their bestselling drugs, which was approved only for treatment of schizophrenics, to Alzheimer’s patients.
And so he had spent the last eleven months interviewing fifty of Malgrave and Baskett’s current and former directors and officers and compiling a report to answer the lawsuit’s claims. He had fifteen other lawyers on his team; one night he overheard some of them referring to the company as Malpractice and Bastard.
“Don’t you dare let the client hear you say that,” he scolded them. It was late, two in the morning; he knew they were tired. If he had been Lucien, he would have yelled at them, but he was tired too. The previous week, another of the associates on the case, a young woman, had stood up from her desk at three a.m., looked around her, and collapsed. He had called an ambulance and sent everyone home for the night, as long as they returned by nine a.m.; he had stayed an hour longer and then had gone home himself.
“You let them go home and you stayed here?” asked Lucien the next day. “You’re getting soft, St. Francis. Thank god you don’t act like this when you’re at trial or we’d never get anywhere. If only opposing counsel knew what a pushover they were actually dealing with.”
“So does this mean the firm isn’t going to send poor Emma Gersh any flowers?”
“Oh, we already sent them,” said Lucien, getting up and wandering out of his office. “ ‘Emma: Get better, get back here soon. Or else. Love from your family at Rosen Pritchard.’ ”
He loved going to trial, he loved arguing and speaking in a courtroom—you never got to do it enough—but his goal with Malgrave and Baskett was to get the lawsuit tossed by a judge before it entered the grinding, tedious drone years of investigation and discovery. He wrote the motion to dismiss, and in early September, the district court judge threw out the suit.
“I’m proud of you,” Lucien says that night. “Malpractice and Bastard don’t know how fucking lucky they are; that suit was as solid as they come.”
“Well, there’s a lot that Malpractice and Bastard don’t seem to know,” he says.
“True. But I guess you can be complete cretins as long as you have enough sense to hire the right lawyer.” He stands. “Are you going anywhere this weekend?”
“Well, do something relaxing. Go outside. Have a meal. You don’t look too good.”
“Good night, Lucien!”
“Okay, okay. Good night. And congratulations—really. This is a big one.”
He stays at the office for another two hours, tidying and sorting papers, attempting to batten down the constant detritus. He feels no sense of relief, or victory, after these outcomes: just a tiredness, but a simple, well-earned tiredness, as if he has completed a day’s worth of physical labor. Eleven months: interviews, research, more interviews, fact-checking, writing, rewriting—and then, in an instant, it is over, and another case will take its place.
Finally he goes home, where he is suddenly so exhausted that he stops on the way to his bedroom to sit on the sofa, and wakes an hour later, disoriented and parched. He hasn’t seen or talked to most of his friends in the past few months—even his conversations with Willem have been briefer than usual. Part of this is attributable to Malpractice and Bastard, and the frantic preparations they had demanded; but the other part is attributable to his ongoing confusion over Caleb, about whom he has not told Willem. This weekend, though, Caleb is in Bridgehampton, and he is glad of the time alone.
He still doesn’t know how he feels about Caleb, even three months later. He is not altogether certain that Caleb even likes him. Or rather: he knows he enjoys talking to him, but there are times when he catches Caleb looking at him with an expression that borders on disgust. “You’re really handsome,” Caleb once said, his voice perplexed, taking his chin between his fingers and turning his face toward him. “But—” And although he didn’t finish, he could sense what Caleb wanted to say: But something’s wrong. But you still repel me. But I don’t understand why I don’t like you, not really.
He knows Caleb hates his walk, for example. A few weeks after they
had started seeing each other, Caleb was sitting on the sofa and he had gone to get a bottle of wine, and as he was walking back, he noticed Caleb staring at him so intently that he had grown nervous. He poured the wine, and they drank, and then Caleb said, “You know, when I met you, we were sitting down, so I didn’t know you had a limp.”
“That’s true,” he said, reminding himself that this was not something for which he had to apologize: he hadn’t entrapped Caleb; he hadn’t intended to deceive him. He took a breath and tried to sound light, mildly curious. “Would you not have wanted to go out with me if you’d known?”
“I don’t know,” Caleb said, after a silence. “I don’t know.” He had wanted to vanish, then, to close his eyes and reel back time, back to before he had ever met Caleb. He would have turned down Rhodes’s invitation; he would have kept living his little life; he would have never known the difference.
But as much as Caleb hates his walk, he loathes his wheelchair. The first time Caleb had come over in daylight, he had given him a tour of the apartment. He was proud of the apartment, and every day he was grateful to be in it, and disbelieving that it was his. Malcolm had kept Willem’s suite—as they called it—where it had been, but had enlarged it and added an office at its northern edge, close to the elevator. And then there was the long open space, with a piano, and a living-room area facing south, and a table that Malcolm had designed on the northern side, the side without windows, and behind it, a bookcase that covered the entire wall until the kitchen, hung with art by his friends, and friends of friends, and other pieces that he had bought over the years. The whole eastern end of the apartment was his: you crossed from the bedroom, on the north side, through the closet and into the bathroom, which had windows that looked east and south. Although he mostly kept the shades in the apartment lowered, you could open them all at once and the space would feel like a rectangle of pure light, the veil between you and the outside world mesmerizingly thin. He often feels as if the apartment is a falsehood: it suggests that the person within it is someone open, and vital, and generous with his answers, and he of course is not that person. Lispenard Street, with its half-obscured alcoves and dark warrens and walls that had been painted over so many times that you could feel ridges and blisters where moths and bugs had been entombed in its layers, was a much more accurate reflection of who he is.
For Caleb’s visit, he had let the place shimmer with sunlight, and he could tell Caleb was impressed. They walked slowly through it, Caleb looking at the art and asking about different pieces: where he had gotten them, who had made them, noting the ones he recognized.
And then they came to the bedroom, and he was showing Caleb the piece at the far end of the room—a painting of Willem in the makeup chair he had bought from “Seconds, Minutes, Hours, Days”—when Caleb asked, “Whose wheelchair is that?”
He looked where Caleb was looking. “Mine,” he said, after a pause. “But why?” Caleb had asked him, looking confused. “You can
He didn’t know what to say. “Sometimes I need it,” he said, finally. “Rarely. I don’t use it that often.”
“Good,” said Caleb. “See that you don’t.”
He was startled. Was this an expression of concern, or was it a threat? But before he could figure out what he should feel, or what he should answer, Caleb had turned, and was heading into his closet, and he followed him, continuing his tour.
A month after that, he had met Caleb late one night outside his office in the far western borderland of the Meatpacking District. Caleb too worked long hours; it was early July and Rothko would present their spring line in eight weeks. He had driven to work that day, but it was a dry night, and so he got out of the car and sat in his chair under a streetlamp until Caleb came down, talking to someone else. He knew Caleb had seen him—he had raised his hand in his direction and Caleb had given him a barely perceptible nod: neither of them were demonstrative people—and watched Caleb until he finished his conversation and the other man had begun walking east.
“Hi,” he said, as Caleb came over to him.
“Why are you in your wheelchair?” Caleb demanded.
For a moment, he couldn’t speak, and when he did, he stammered. “I had to use it today,” he finally said.
Caleb sighed, and rubbed at his eyes. “I thought you didn’t use it.” “I don’t,” he said, so ashamed that he could feel himself start to
sweat. “Not really. I only use it when I absolutely have to.”
Caleb nodded, but continued pinching the bridge of his nose. He wouldn’t look at him. “Look,” he said at last, “I don’t think we should have dinner after all. You’re obviously not feeling well, and I’m tired. I’ve got to get some sleep.”
“Oh,” he said, dismayed. “That’s all right. I understand.”
“Okay, good,” said Caleb. “I’ll call you later.” He watched Caleb move down the street with his long strides until he disappeared around the corner, and then had gotten into his car and driven home and cut himself until he was bleeding so much that he couldn’t grip the razor properly.
The next day was Friday, and he didn’t hear from Caleb at all. Well, he thought. That’s that. And it was fine: Caleb didn’t like the fact that he was in a wheelchair. Neither did he. He couldn’t resent Caleb for not being able to accept what he himself couldn’t accept.
But then, on Saturday morning, Caleb called just as he was coming back upstairs from the pool. “I’m sorry about Thursday night,” Caleb said. “I know it must seem heartless and bizarre to you, this—aversion I have to your wheelchair.”
He sat down in one of the chairs around the dining-room table. “It doesn’t seem bizarre at all,” he said.
“I told you my parents were sick for much of my adult life,” Caleb said. “My father had multiple sclerosis, and my mother—no one knew what she had. She got sick when I was in college and never got better. She had face pains, headaches: she was in a sort of constant low-grade discomfort, and although I don’t doubt it was real, what bothered me so much is that she never seemed to want to try to get better. She just gave up, as did he. Everywhere you looked there was evidence of their surrender to illness: first canes, then walkers, then wheelchairs, then scooters, and vials of pills and tissues and the perpetual scent of pain creams and gels and who knows what else.”
He stopped. “I want to keep seeing you,” he said, at last. “But—but I can’t be around these accessories to weakness, to disease. I just can’t. I hate it. It embarrasses me. It makes me feel—not depressed, but furious, like I need to fight against it.” He paused again. “I just didn’t know that’s who you were when I met you,” he said at last. “I thought I could be okay with it. But I’m not sure I can. Can you understand that?”
He swallowed; he wanted to cry. But he could understand it; he felt exactly as Caleb did. “I can,” he said.
And yet improbably, they had continued after all. He is astonished, still, by the speed and thoroughness with which Caleb insinuated himself into his life. It was like something out of a fairy tale: a woman living on the edge of a dark forest hears a knock and opens the door of her cottage. And although it is just for a moment, and although she sees no one, in those seconds, dozens of demons and wraiths have
slipped past her and into her house, and she will never be able to rid herself of them, ever. Sometimes this was how it felt. Was this the way it was for other people? He doesn’t know; he is too afraid to ask. He finds himself replaying old conversations he has had or overheard with people talking about their relationships, trying to gauge the normalcy of his against theirs, looking for clues about how he should conduct himself.
And then there is the sex, which is worse than he had imagined: he had forgotten just how painful it was, how debasing, how repulsive, how much he disliked it. He hates the postures, the positions it demands, each of them degrading because they leave him so helpless and weak; he hates the tastes of it and the smells of it. But mostly, he hates the sounds of it: the meaty smack of flesh hitting flesh, the wounded-animal moans and grunts, the things said to him that were perhaps meant to be arousing but he can only interpret as diminishing. Part of him, he realizes, had always thought it would be better as an adult, as if somehow the mere fact of age would transform the experience into something glorious and enjoyable. In college, in his twenties, in his thirties, he would listen to people talk about it with such pleasure, such delight, and he would think: That’s what you’re so excited about? Really? That’s not how I remember it at all. And yet he cannot be the one who’s correct, and everyone else— millennia of people—wrong. So clearly there is something he doesn’t understand about sex. Clearly he is doing something incorrectly.
That first night they had come upstairs, he had known what Caleb
had expected. “We have to go slowly,” he told him. “It’s been a long time.”
Caleb looked at him in the dark; he hadn’t turned on the light. “How long?” he asked.
“Long,” was all he could say.
And for a while, Caleb was patient. But then he wasn’t. There came a night in which Caleb tried to remove his clothes, and he had pulled out of his grasp. “I can’t,” he said. “Caleb—I can’t. I don’t want you to see what I look like.” It had taken everything he had to say this, and he was so scared he was cold.
“Why?” Caleb had asked.
“I have scars,” he said. “On my back and legs, and on my arms.
They’re bad; I don’t want you to see them.”
He hadn’t known, really, what Caleb would say. Would he say: I’m sure they’re not so bad? And then would he have to take his clothes
off after all? Or would he say: Let’s see, and then he would take his clothes off, and Caleb would get up and leave? He saw Caleb hesitate.
“You won’t like them,” he added. “They’re disgusting.”
And that had seemed to decide something for Caleb. “Well,” he said, “I don’t need to see all of your body, right? Just the relevant parts.” And for that night, he had lain there, half dressed and half not, waiting for it to be over and more humiliated than if Caleb had demanded he take his clothes off after all.
But despite these disappointments, things have also not been horrible with Caleb, either. He likes Caleb’s slow, thoughtful way of speaking, the way he talks about the designers he’s worked with, his understanding of color and his appreciation of art. He likes that he can discuss his work—about Malpractice and Bastard—and that Caleb will not only understand the challenges his cases present for him but will find them interesting as well. He likes how closely Caleb listens to his stories, and how his questions show how closely he’s been paying attention. He likes how Caleb admires Willem’s and Richard’s and Malcolm’s work, and lets him talk about them as much as he wants. He likes how, when he is leaving, Caleb will put his hands on either side of his face and hold them there for a moment in a sort of silent blessing. He likes Caleb’s solidity, his physical strength: he likes watching him move, likes how, like Willem, he is so easy in his own body. He likes how Caleb will sometimes in sleep sling an arm possessively across his chest. He likes waking with Caleb next to him. He likes how Caleb is slightly strange, how he carries a faint threat of danger: he is different from the people he has sought out his entire adult life, people he has determined will never hurt him, people defined by their kindnesses. When he is with Caleb, he feels simultaneously more and less human.
The first time Caleb hit him, he was both surprised and not. This
was at the end of July, and he had gone over to Caleb’s at midnight, after leaving the office. He had used his wheelchair that day—lately, something had been going wrong with his feet; he didn’t know what it was, but he could barely feel them, and had the dislocating sense that he would topple over if he tried to walk—but at Caleb’s, he had left the chair in the car and had instead walked very slowly to the front door, lifting each foot unnaturally high as he went so he wouldn’t trip. He knew from the moment he entered the apartment that he shouldn’t have come—he could see that Caleb was in a terrible mood and could feel how the very air was hot and stagnant with his anger.
Caleb had finally moved into a building in the Flower District, but he hadn’t unpacked much, and he was edgy and tense, his teeth squeaking against themselves as he tightened his jaw. But he had brought food, and he moved his way slowly over to the counter to set it down, talking brightly to try to distract Caleb from his gait, trying, desperately, to make things better.
“Why are you walking like that?” Caleb interrupted him.
He hated admitting to Caleb that something else was wrong with him; he couldn’t bring himself to do it once again. “Am I walking strangely?” he asked.
“Yeah—you look like Frankenstein’s monster.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. Leave, said the voice inside him. Leave now. “I wasn’t aware of it.”
“Well, stop it. It looks ridiculous.”
“All right,” he said, quietly, and spooned some curry into a bowl for Caleb. “Here,” he said, but as he was heading toward Caleb, trying to walk normally, he tripped, his right foot over his left, and dropped the bowl, the green curry splattering against the carpet.
Later, he will remember how Caleb didn’t say anything, just whirled around and struck him with the back of his hand, and he had fallen back, his head bouncing against the carpeted floor. “Just get out of here, Jude,” he heard Caleb say, not even yelling, even before his vision returned. “Get out; I can’t look at you right now.” And so he had, bringing himself to his feet and walking his ridiculous monster’s walk out of the apartment, leaving Caleb to clean up the mess he had made.
The next day his face began to turn colors, the area around his left eye shading into improbably lovely tones: violets and ambers and bottle greens. By the end of the week, when he went uptown for his appointment with Andy, his cheek was the color of moss, and his eye was swollen nearly shut, the upper lid a puffed, tender, shiny red.
“Jesus Christ, Jude,” said Andy, when he saw him. “What the fuck happened to you?”
“Wheelchair tennis,” he said, and even grinned, a grin he had practiced in the mirror the night before, his cheek twitching with pain. He had researched everything: where the matches were played, and how frequently, and how many people were in the club. He had made up a story, recited it to himself and to people at the office until it sounded natural, even comic: a forehand from the opposing player, who had played in college, he not turning quickly enough, the thwack
the ball had made when it hit his face.
He told all this to Andy as Andy listened, shaking his head. “Well,” he said. “I’m glad you’re trying something new. But Christ, Jude. Is this such a good idea?”
“You’re the one who’s always telling me to stay off my feet,” he reminded Andy.
“I know, I know,” said Andy. “But you have the pool; isn’t that enough? And at any rate, you should’ve come to me after this happened.”
“It’s just a bruise, Andy,” he said.
“It’s a pretty fucking bad bruise, Jude. I mean, Jesus.”
“Well, anyway,” he said, trying to sound unconcerned, even a little defiant. “I need to talk to you about my feet.”
“It’s such a strange sensation; they feel like they’re encased in cement coffins. I can’t feel where they are in space—I can’t control them. I lift one leg up and when I put it back down, I can feel in my calf that I’ve placed the foot, but I can’t feel it in the foot itself.”
“Oh, Jude,” Andy said. “It’s a sign of nerve damage.” He sighed. “The good news, besides the fact that you’ve been spared it all this time, is that it’s not going to be a permanent condition. The bad news is that I can’t tell you when it’ll end, or when it might start again. And the other bad news is that the only thing we can do—besides wait—is treat it with pain medication, which I know you won’t take.” He paused. “Jude, I know you don’t like the way they make you feel,” Andy said, “but there are some better ones on the market now than when you were twenty, or even thirty. Do you want to try? At least let me give you something mild for your face: Isn’t it killing you?”
“It’s not so bad,” he lied. But he did accept a prescription from Andy in the end.
“And stay off your feet,” Andy said, after he had examined his face. “And stay off the courts, too, for god’s sake.” And, as he was leaving, “And don’t think we’re not going to discuss your cutting!” because he was cutting himself more since he had begun seeing Caleb.
Back on Greene Street, he parked in the short driveway preceding the building’s garage and was fitting his key into the front door when he heard someone call his name, and then saw Caleb climbing out of his car. He was in his wheelchair, and he tried to get inside quickly. But Caleb was faster than he, and grabbed the door as it was closing, and then the two of them were in the lobby again, alone.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said to Caleb, at whom he couldn’t look.
“Jude, listen,” Caleb said. “I’m so sorry. I really am. I was just—it’s been a terrible time at work, everything’s such shit there—I’d have come over earlier this week, but it’s been so bad that I couldn’t even get away—and I completely took it out on you. I’m really sorry.” He crouched beside him. “Jude. Look at me.” He sighed. “I’m so sorry.” He took his face in his hands and turned it toward him. “Your poor face,” he said quietly.
He still can’t quite understand why he let Caleb come up that night. If he is to admit it to himself, he feels there was something inevitable, even, in a small way, a relief, about Caleb’s hitting him: all along, he had been waiting for some sort of punishment for his arrogance, for thinking he could have what everyone else has, and here—at last—it was. This is what you get, said the voice inside his head. This is what you get for pretending to be someone you know you’re not, for thinking you’re as good as other people. He remembers how JB had been so terrified of Jackson, and how he had understood his fear, how he had understood how you could get trapped by another human being, how what seemed so easy—the act of walking away from them—could feel so difficult. He feels about Caleb the way he once felt about Brother Luke: someone in whom he had, rashly, entrusted himself, someone in whom he had placed such hopes, someone he hoped could save him. But even when it became clear that they would not, even when his hopes turned rancid, he was unable to disentangle himself from them, he was unable to leave. There is a sort of symmetry to his pairing with Caleb that makes sense: they are the damaged and the damager, the sliding heap of garbage and the jackal sniffing through it. They exist only to themselves—he has met no one in Caleb’s life, and he has not introduced Caleb to anyone in his. They both know that something about what they are doing is shameful. They are bound to each other by their mutual disgust and discomfort: Caleb tolerates his body, and he tolerates Caleb’s revulsion.
He has always known that if he wanted to be with someone, he
would have to make an exchange. And Caleb, he knows, is the best he will ever be able to find. At least Caleb isn’t misshapen, isn’t a sadist. Nothing being done to him now is something that hasn’t been done to him before—he reminds himself of this again and again.
One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until
early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor, but had apologized directly afterward. But other than that, things have been unremarkable: Caleb spends Wednesday and Thursday nights at Greene Street and then drives out to the beach on Fridays. He goes to the office early and stays late. After his success with Malpractice and Bastard, he had thought he might have a respite, even a short one, but he hasn’t—a new client, an investment firm being investigated for securities fraud, has come in, and even now, he feels guilty about skipping a Saturday at work.
His guilt aside, that Saturday is perfect, and they spend most of the day outdoors, both of them working. In the evening, Caleb grills them steaks. As he does, he sings, and he stops working to listen to him, and knows that they are both happy, and that for a moment, all of their ambivalence about each other is dust, something impermanent and weightless. That night, they go to bed early, and Caleb doesn’t make him have sex, and he sleeps deeply, better than he has in weeks. But the next morning, he can tell even before he is fully conscious that the pain in his feet is back. It had vanished, completely and unpredictably, two weeks ago, but now it’s returned, and as he stands, he can also tell it’s gotten worse: it is as if his legs end at his ankles, and his feet are simultaneously inanimate and vividly painful. To walk, he must look down at them; he needs visual confirmation that he is lifting one, and visual confirmation that he is placing it down
He takes ten steps, but each one takes a greater and greater effort— the movement is so difficult, takes so much mental energy, that he is nauseated, and sits down again on the edge of the bed. Don’t let Caleb see you like this, he warns himself, before remembering: Caleb is out running, as he does every morning. He is alone in the house.
He has some time, then. He drags himself to the bathroom on his arms and into the shower. He thinks of the spare wheelchair in his car. Surely Caleb will have no objections to him getting it, especially if he can present himself as basically healthy, and this as just a small setback, a day-long inconvenience. He was planning on driving back to the city very early the next morning, but he could leave earlier if he needs to, although he would rather not—yesterday had been so nice. Maybe today can be as well.
He is dressed and waiting on the sofa in the living room, pretending
to read a brief, when Caleb returns. He can’t tell what kind of mood he’s in, but he’s generally mild after his runs, even indulgent.
“I sliced some of the leftover steak,” he tells him. “Do you want me to make you eggs?”
“No, I can do it,” Caleb says. “How was your run?” “Good. Great.”
“Caleb,” he says, trying to keep his tone light, “listen—I’ve been having this problem with my feet; it’s just some side effects from nerve damage that comes and goes, but it makes it really difficult for me to walk. Do you mind if I get the wheelchair from my car?”
Caleb doesn’t say anything for a minute, just finishes drinking his bottle of water. “You can still walk, though, right?”
He forces himself to look back at Caleb. “Well—technically, yes. But
“Jude,” says Caleb, “I know your doctor probably disagrees, but I have to say I think there’s something a little—weak, I guess, about your always going to the easiest solution. I think you have to just endure some things, you know? This is what I meant with my parents: it was always such a succumbing to their every pain, their every twinge.
“So I think you should tough it out. I think if you can walk, you should. I just don’t think you should get into this habit of babying yourself when you’re capable of doing better.”
“Oh,” he says. “Right. I understand.” He feels a profound shame, as if he has just asked for something filthy and illicit.
“I’m going to shower,” says Caleb, after a silence, and leaves.
For the rest of the day, he tries to move very little, and Caleb, as if not wanting to find reason to get angry with him, doesn’t ask him to do anything. Caleb makes lunch, which they both eat on the sofa, both working on their computers. The kitchen and living room are one large sunlit space, with full-length windows that open onto the lawn overlooking the beach, and when Caleb is in the kitchen making dinner, he takes advantage of his turned back to inch, wormlike, to the hallway bathroom. He wants to go to the bedroom to get more aspirin out of his bag, but it’s too far, and he instead waits in the doorway on his knees until Caleb turns toward the stove again before crawling back to the sofa, where he has spent the entire day.
“Dinner,” Caleb announces, and he takes a breath and brings himself to his feet, which are cinder blocks, they are so heavy and
clunky, and, watching them, begins to make his way to the table. It feels like it takes minutes, hours, to walk to his chair, and at one point he looks up and sees Caleb, his jaw moving, watching him with what looks like hate.
“Hurry up,” Caleb says.
They eat in silence. He can barely stand it. The scrape of the knife against the plate: unbearable. The crunch of Caleb biting down, unnecessarily hard, on a green bean: unbearable. The feel of food in his mouth, all of it becoming a fleshy nameless beast: unbearable.
“Caleb,” he begins, very quietly, but Caleb doesn’t answer him, just pushes back his chair and stands and goes to the sink.
“Bring me your plate,” Caleb says, and then watches him. He stands, slowly, and begins his trek to the sink, eyeing each footfall before he begins a new step.
He will wonder, later, if he forced the moment, if he could have in fact made the twenty steps without falling had he just concentrated harder. But that isn’t what happens. He moves his right foot just half a second before his left one has landed, and he falls, and the plate falls before him, the china shattering on the floor. And then, moving as swiftly as if he’d anticipated it, there is Caleb, yanking him up by his hair and punching him in the face with his fist, so hard that he is airborne, and when he lands, he does so against the table, knocking the base of his skull against its edge. His fall makes the bottle of wine jump off the surface, the liquid glugging onto the floor, and Caleb makes a roar, and snatches at the bottle by its throat and hits him on the back of his neck with it.
“Caleb,” he gasps, “please, please.” He was never one to beg for mercy, not even as a child, but he has become that person, somehow. When he was a child, his life meant little to him; he wishes, now, that that were still true. “Please,” he says. “Caleb, please forgive me—I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
But Caleb, he knows, is no longer human. He is a wolf, he is a coyote. He is muscle and rage. And he is nothing to Caleb, he is prey, he is disposable. He is being dragged to the edge of the sofa, he knows what will happen next. But he continues to ask, anyway. “Please, Caleb,” he says. “Please don’t. Caleb, please.”
When he regains consciousness, he is on the floor near the back of the sofa, and the house is silent. “Hello?” he calls, hating the quaver in his voice, but he doesn’t hear anything. He doesn’t need to—he knows, somehow, that he is alone.
He sits up. He pulls up his underwear and pants and flexes his fingers, his hands, brings his knees to his chest and back down again, moves his shoulders back and forward, turns his neck from left to right. There is something sticky on the back of his neck, but when he examines it, he’s relieved to see it’s not blood but wine. Everything hurts, but nothing is broken.
He crawls to the bedroom. He quickly cleans himself off in the bathroom and gathers his things and puts them in his bag. He scuttles to the door. For an instant he is afraid that his car will have disappeared, and he will be stranded, but it is there, next to Caleb’s, waiting for him. He checks his watch: it is midnight.
He moves his way across the lawn on his hands and knees, his bag slung painfully over one shoulder, the two hundred feet between the door and the car transforming themselves into miles. He wants to stop, he is so tired, but he knows he must not.
In the car, he doesn’t look at his reflection in the mirror; he starts the engine and drives away. But about half an hour later, once he knows he is far enough from the house to be safe, he begins to shake, so badly that the car swerves beneath him, and he pulls off the road to wait, leaning his forehead against the steering wheel.
He waits for ten minutes, twenty. And then he turns, although the very movement is a punishment, and finds his phone in his bag. He dials Willem’s number and waits.
“Jude!” says Willem, sounding surprised. “I was just going to call you.”
“Hi, Willem,” he says, and hopes his voice sounds normal. “I guess I read your thoughts.”
They talk for a few minutes, and then Willem asks, “Are you okay?” “Of course,” he says.
“You sound a little strange.”
Willem, he wants to say. Willem, I wish you were here. But instead he says, “Sorry. I just have a headache.”
They talk some more, and as they’re about to hang up, Willem says, “You’re sure you’re okay.”
“Yes,” he says. “I’m fine.”
“Okay,” says Willem. “Okay.” And then, “Five more weeks.”
“Five more.” He wishes for Willem so intensely he can barely breathe.
After they hang up, he waits for another ten minutes, until he finally stops shaking, and then he starts the car again and drives the
rest of the way home.
The next day, he makes himself look at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and nearly cries out in shame and shock and misery. He is so deformed, so astoundingly ugly—even for him, it is extraordinary. He makes himself as presentable as he can; he puts on his favorite suit. Caleb had kicked him in his side, and every movement, every breath, is painful. Before he leaves the house, he makes an appointment with the dentist because he can feel that one of his upper teeth has been knocked loose, and an appointment at Andy’s for that evening.
He goes to work. “This is not a good look for you, St. Francis,” one of the other senior partners, whom he likes a lot, says at the morning management committee meeting, and everyone laughs.
He forces a smile. “I’m afraid you’re right,” he says. “And I’m sure you’ll all be disappointed when I announce that my days as a potential Paralympic tennis champion are, sadly, over.”
“Well, I’m not sad,” says Lucien, as everyone around the table groans in mock disappointment. “You get plenty of aggression out in court. I think that should be your sole combat sport from now on.”
That night at his appointment, Andy swears at him. “What’d I say about tennis, Jude?” he asks.
“I know,” he says. “But never again, Andy, I promise.”
“What’s this?” Andy asks, placing his fingers on the back of his neck.
He sighs, theatrically. “I turned, and there was an incident with a nasty backhand.” He waits for Andy to say something, but he doesn’t, only smears some antibiotic cream on his neck and then bandages it.
The next day, Andy calls him at his office. “I need to talk to you in person,” he says. “It’s important. Can you meet me somewhere?”
He’s alarmed. “Is everything okay?” he asks. “Are you all right, Andy?”
“I’m fine,” Andy says. “But I need to see you.”
He takes an early dinner break and they meet near his office, at a bar whose regular customers are the Japanese bankers who work in the tower next to Rosen Pritchard’s. Andy is already there when he arrives, and he places his palm, gently, on the unmarked side of his face.
“I ordered you a beer,” Andy says.
They drink in silence and then Andy says, “Jude, I wanted to see your face when I asked you this. But are you—are you hurting
“What?” he asks, surprised.
“These tennis accidents,” Andy says, “are they actually—something else? Are you throwing yourself down stairs or against walls, or something?” He takes a breath. “I know you used to do that when you were a kid. Are you doing it again?”
“No, Andy,” he says. “No. I’m not doing this to myself. I swear to you. I swear on—on Harold and Julia. I swear on Willem.”
“Okay,” Andy says, exhaling. “I mean, that’s a relief. It’s a relief to know you’re just being a bonehead and not following doctor’s orders, which, of course, is nothing new. And, apparently, that you’re a terrible tennis player.” He smiles, and he makes himself smile back.
Andy orders them more beers, and for a while, they are quiet. “Do you know, Jude,” Andy says, slowly, “that over the years I have wondered and wondered what to do about you? No, don’t say anything—let me finish. I would—I do—lie awake at night asking myself if I’m making the right decisions about you: there’ve been so many times when I was so close to having you committed, to calling Harold or Willem and telling them that we needed to get together and have you taken to a hospital. I’ve talked to classmates of mine who are shrinks and told them about you, about this patient I’m very close to, and asked them what they would do in my position. I’ve listened to all their advice. I’ve listened to my shrink’s advice. But no one can ever tell me for certain what the right answer is.
“I’ve tortured myself about this. But I’ve always felt—you’re so high-functioning in so many ways, and you’ve achieved this weird but undeniably successful equilibrium in your life, that I felt that, I don’t know, I just shouldn’t upset it. You know? So I’ve let you go on cutting yourself year after year, and every year, every time I see you, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing by letting you do so, and how and if I should be pushing harder to get you help, to make you stop doing this to yourself.”
“I’m sorry, Andy,” he whispers.
“No, Jude,” Andy says. “It’s not your fault. You’re the patient. I’m supposed to figure out what’s best for you, and I feel—I don’t know if I have. So when you came in with bruises, the first thing I thought was that I had made the wrong decision after all. You know?” Andy looks at him, and he is surprised once more to see Andy swipe, quickly, at his eyes. “All these years,” says Andy, after a pause, and they are both quiet again.
“Andy,” he says, wanting to cry himself. “I swear to you I’m not doing anything else to myself. Just the cutting.”
“Just the cutting!” Andy repeats, and makes a strange squawk of laughter. “Well, I suppose—given the context—I have to be grateful for that. ‘Just the cutting.’ You know how messed up that is, right, that that should be such a relief to me?”
“I know,” he says.
Tuesday turns to Wednesday, and then to Thursday; his face feels worse, and then better, and then worse again. He had worried that Caleb might call him or, worse, materialize at his apartment, but the days pass and he doesn’t: maybe he has stayed out in Bridgehampton. Maybe he has gotten run over by a car. He finds, oddly, that he feels nothing—not fear, not hate, not anything. The worst has happened, and now he is free. He has had a relationship, and it was awful, and now he will never need to have one again, because he has proven himself incapable of being in one. His time with Caleb has confirmed everything he feared people would think of him, of his body, and his next task is to learn to accept that, and to do so without sorrow. He knows he will still probably feel lonely in the future, but now he has something to answer that loneliness; now he knows for certain that loneliness is the preferable state to whatever it was—terror, shame, disgust, dismay, giddiness, excitement, yearning, loathing—he felt with Caleb.
That Friday he sees Harold, who is in town for a conference at
Columbia. He had already written Harold to warn him of his injury, but it doesn’t stop Harold from overreacting, exclaiming and fussing over him and asking him dozens of times if he is actually all right.
They have met at one of Harold’s favorite restaurants, where the beef comes from cows that the chef has named and raised himself on a farm upstate, and the vegetables are grown on the roof of the building, and they are talking and eating their entrées—he is careful to only chew on the right side of his mouth, and to avoid letting any food come in contact with his new tooth—when he senses someone standing near their table, and when he looks up, it is Caleb, and although he had convinced himself he feels nothing, he is immediately, overwhelmingly terrified.
He had never seen Caleb drunk in their time together, but he can tell instantly that he is, and in a dangerous mood. “Your secretary told me where you were,” Caleb says to him. “You must be Harold,” he says, and extends his hand to Harold, who shakes it, looking
“Jude?” Harold asks him, but he can’t speak.
“Caleb Porter,” says Caleb, and slides into the semicircular booth, pressing against his side. “Your son and I are dating.”
Harold looks at Caleb, and then at him, and opens his mouth, speechless for the first time since he has known him.
“Let me ask you something,” Caleb says to Harold, leaning in as if delivering a confidence, and he stares at Caleb’s face, his vulpine handsomeness, his dark, glinting eyes. “Be honest. Don’t you ever wish you had a normal son, not a cripple?”
For a moment, no one says anything, and he can feel something, a current, sizzle in the air. “Who the fuck are you?” hisses Harold, and then he watches Harold’s face change, his features contorting so quickly and violently from shock to disgust to anger that he looks, for an instant, inhuman, a ghoul in Harold’s clothing. And then his expression changes again, and he watches something harden in Harold’s face, as if his very muscles are ossifying before him.
“You did this to him,” he says to Caleb, very slowly. And then to him, in dismay, “It wasn’t tennis, was it, Jude. This man did this to you.”
“Harold, don’t,” he begins to say, but Caleb has grabbed his wrist, and is gripping it so hard that he feels it might be breaking. “You little liar,” he says to him. “You’re a cripple and a liar and a bad fuck. And you’re right—you’re disgusting. I couldn’t even look at you, not ever.” “Get the fuck out of here,” says Harold, biting down on each word.
They are all of them speaking in whispers, but the conversation feels so loud, and the rest of the restaurant so silent, that he is certain everyone can hear them.
“Harold, don’t,” he begs him. “Stop, please.”
But Harold doesn’t listen to him. “I’m going to call the police,” he says, and Caleb slides out of the booth and stands, and Harold stands as well. “Get out of here right now,” Harold repeats, and now everyone really is looking in their direction, and he is so mortified that he feels sick.
“Harold,” he pleads.
He can tell from Caleb’s swaying motion that he is really very drunk, and when he pushes at Harold’s shoulder, Harold is about to push back when he finds his voice, finally, and shouts Harold’s name, and Harold turns to him and lowers his arm. Caleb gives him his small smile, then, and turns and leaves, shoving past some of the waiters
who have silently gathered around him.
Harold stands there for a moment, staring at the door, and then begins to follow Caleb, and he calls Harold’s name again, desperate, and Harold comes back to him.
“Jude—” Harold begins, but he shakes his head. He is so angry, so furious, that his humiliation has almost been eclipsed by his rage. Around them, he can hear people’s conversations resuming. He hails their waiter and gives him his credit card, which is returned to him in what feels like seconds. He doesn’t have his wheelchair today, for which he is enormously, bitterly grateful, and in those moments he is leaving the restaurant, he feels he has never been so nimble, has never moved so quickly or decisively.
Outside, it is pouring. His car is parked a block away, and he shuffles down the sidewalk, Harold silent at his side. He is so livid he wishes he could not give Harold a ride at all, but they are on the east side, near Avenue A, and Harold will never be able to find a cab in the rain.
“Jude—” Harold says once they’re in the car, but he interrupts him, keeping his eyes on the road before him. “I was begging you not to say anything, Harold,” he says. “And you did anyway. Why did you do that, Harold? You think my life is a joke? You think my problems are just an opportunity for you to grandstand?” He doesn’t even know what he means, doesn’t know what he’s trying to say.
“No, Jude, of course not,” says Harold, his voice gentle. “I’m sorry
—I just lost it.”
This sobers him for some reason, and for a few blocks they are silent, listening to the sluice of the wipers.
“Were you really going out with him?” Harold asks.
He gives a single, terse nod. “But not anymore?” Harold asks, and he shakes his head. “Good,” Harold mutters. And then, very softly, “Did he hit you?”
He has to wait and control himself before he can answer. “Only a few times,” he says.
“Oh, Jude,” says Harold, in a voice he has never heard Harold use before.
“Let me ask you something, though,” Harold says, as they edge down Fifteenth Street, past Sixth Avenue. “Jude—why were you going out with someone who would treat you like that?”
He doesn’t answer for another block, trying to think of what he could say, how he could articulate his reasons in a way Harold would
understand. “I was lonely,” he says, finally.
“Jude,” Harold says, and stops. “I understand that,” he says. “But why him?”
“Harold,” he says, and he hears how awful, how wretched, he sounds, “when you look like I do, you have to take what you can get.”
They are quiet again, and then Harold says, “Stop the car.” “What?” he says. “I can’t. There are people behind me.”
“Stop the damn car, Jude,” Harold repeats, and when he doesn’t, Harold reaches over and grabs the wheel and pulls it sharply to the right, into an empty space in front of a fire hydrant. The car behind passes them, its horn bleating a long, warning note.
“Jesus, Harold!” he yells. “What the hell are you trying to do? You nearly got us into an accident!”
“Listen to me, Jude,” says Harold slowly, and reaches for him, but he pulls himself back against the window, away from Harold’s hands. “You are the most beautiful person I have ever met—ever.”
“Harold,” he says, “stop, stop. Please stop.”
“Look at me, Jude,” says Harold, but he can’t. “You are. It breaks my heart that you can’t see this.”
“Harold,” he says, and he is almost moaning, “please, please. If you care about me, you’ll stop.”
“Jude,” says Harold, and reaches for him again, but he flinches, and brings his hands up to protect himself. Out of the edge of his eye, he can see Harold lower his hand, slowly.
He finally puts his hands back on the steering wheel, but they are shaking too badly for him to start the ignition, and he tucks them under his thighs, waiting. “Oh god,” he hears himself repeating, “oh god.”
“Jude,” Harold says again.
“Leave me alone, Harold,” he says, and now his teeth are chattering as well, and it is difficult for him to speak. “Please.”
They sit there in silence for minutes. He concentrates on the sound of the rain, the traffic light turning red and green and orange, and the count of his breaths. Finally his shaking stops, and he starts the car and drives west, and north, up to Harold’s building.
“Come stay in the apartment tonight,” Harold says, turning to him, but he shakes his head, staring straight ahead. “At least come up and have a cup of tea and wait until you feel a little better,” but he shakes his head again. “Jude,” Harold says, “I’m really sorry—for everything, for all of it.” He nods, but still can’t say anything. “Will you call me if
you need anything?” Harold persists, and he nods again. And then Harold reaches his hand up, slowly, as if he is a feral animal, and strokes the back of his head, twice, before getting out, closing the door softly behind him.
He takes the West Side Highway home. He is so sore, so depleted: but now his humiliations are complete. He has been punished enough, he thinks, even for him. He will go home, and cut himself, and then he will begin forgetting: this night in particular, but also the past four months.
At Greene Street he parks in the garage and rides the elevator up past the silent floors, clinging to the cage-door mesh; he is so tired that he will slump to the ground if he doesn’t. Richard is away for the fall at a residency in Rome, and the building is sepulchral around him. He steps into his darkened apartment and is feeling for the light switch when something clots him, hard, on the swollen side of his face, and even in the dark he can see his new tooth project itself into
It is Caleb, of course, and he can hear and smell his breath even before Caleb flicks the master switch and the apartment is illuminated, dazzlingly, into something brighter than day, and he looks up and sees Caleb above him, peering down at him. Even drunk, he is composed, and now some of his drunkenness has been clarified by rage, and his gaze is steady and focused. He feels Caleb grab him by his hair, feels him hit him on the right side of his face, the good one, feels his head snapping backward in response.
Caleb still hasn’t said anything, and now he drags him to the sofa, the only sounds Caleb’s steady breaths and his frantic gulps. He pushes his face into the cushions and holds his head down with one hand, while with the other, he begins pulling off his clothes. He begins to panic, then, and struggle, but Caleb presses one arm against the back of his neck, which paralyzes him, and he is unable to move; he can feel himself become exposed to the air piece by piece—his back, his arms, the backs of his legs—and when everything’s been removed, Caleb yanks him to his feet again and pushes him away, but he falls, and lands on his back.
“Get up,” says Caleb. “Right now.”
He does; his nose is discharging something, blood or mucus, that is making it difficult for him to breathe. He stands; he has never felt more naked, more exposed in his life. When he was a child, and things were happening to him, he used to be able to leave his body, to go
somewhere else. He would pretend he was something inanimate—a curtain rod, a ceiling fan—a dispassionate, unfeeling witness to the scene occurring beneath him. He would watch himself and feel nothing: not pity, not anger, nothing. But now, although he tries, he finds he cannot remove himself. He is in this apartment, his apartment, standing before a man who detests him, and he knows this is the beginning, not the end, of a long night, one he has no choice but to wait through and endure. He will not be able to control this night, he will not be able to stop it.
“My god,” Caleb says, after looking at him for a few long moments; it is the first time he has ever seen him wholly naked. “My god, you really are deformed. You really are.”
For some reason, it is this, this pronouncement, that brings them both back to themselves, and he finds himself, for the first time in decades, crying. “Please,” he says. “Please, Caleb, I’m sorry.” But Caleb has already grabbed him by the back of his neck and is hurrying him, half dragging him, toward the front door. Into the elevator they go, and down the flights, and then he is being dragged out of the elevator and marched down the hallway toward the lobby. By now he is hysterical, pleading with Caleb, asking him again and again what he’s doing, what he’s going to do to him. At the front door, Caleb lifts him, and for a moment his face is fitted into the tiny dirty glass window that looks out onto Greene Street, and then Caleb is opening the door and he is being pushed out, naked, into the street.
“No!” he shouts, half inside, half outside. “Caleb, please!” He is pulled between a crazed hope and a desperate fear that someone will walk by. But it is raining too hard; no one will walk by. The rain drums a wild pattern on his face.
“Beg me,” says Caleb, raising his voice over the rain, and he does, pleading with him. “Beg me to stay,” Caleb demands. “Apologize to me,” and he does, again and again, his mouth filling with his own blood, his own tears.
Finally he is brought inside, and is dragged back to the elevator, where Caleb says things to him, and he apologizes and apologizes, repeating Caleb’s words back to him as he instructs: I’m repulsive. I’m disgusting. I’m worthless. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
In the apartment, Caleb lets go of his neck, and he falls, his legs unsteady beneath him, and Caleb kicks him in the stomach so hard that he vomits, and then again in his back, and he slides over Malcolm’s lovely, clean floors and into the vomit. His beautiful
apartment, he thinks, where he has always been safe. This is happening to him in his beautiful apartment, surrounded by his beautiful things, things that have been given to him in friendship, things that he has bought with money he has earned. His beautiful apartment, with its doors that lock, where he was meant to be protected from broken elevators and the degradation of pulling himself upstairs on his arms, where he was meant to always feel human and whole.
Then he is being lifted again, and moved, but it is difficult to see where he’s being taken: one eye is already swollen shut, and the other is blurry. His vision keeps blinking in and out.
But then he realizes that Caleb is taking him to the door that leads to the emergency stairs. It is the one element of the old loft that Malcolm kept: both because he had to and because he liked how bluntly utilitarian it was, how unapologetically ugly. Now Caleb unslides the bolt, and he finds himself standing at the top of the dark, steep staircase. “So descent-into-hell looking,” he remembers Richard saying. One side of him is gluey with vomit; he can feel other liquids
—he cannot think about what they are—moving down other parts of him: his face, his neck, his thighs.
He is whimpering from pain and fear, clutching the edge of the doorframe, when he hears, rather than sees, Caleb move back and run at him, and then his foot is kicking him in his back, and he is flying into the black of the staircase.
As he soars, he thinks, suddenly, of Dr. Kashen. Or not of Dr. Kashen, necessarily, but the question he had asked him when he was applying to be his advisee: What’s your favorite axiom? (The nerd pickup line, CM had once called it.)
“The axiom of equality,” he’d said, and Kashen had nodded, approvingly. “That’s a good one,” he’d said.
The axiom of equality states that x always equals x: it assumes that if you have a conceptual thing named x, that it must always be equivalent to itself, that it has a uniqueness about it, that it is in possession of something so irreducible that we must assume it is absolutely, unchangeably equivalent to itself for all time, that its very elementalness can never be altered. But it is impossible to prove. Always, absolutes, nevers: these are the words, as much as numbers, that make up the world of mathematics. Not everyone liked the axiom of equality—Dr. Li had once called it coy and twee, a fan dance of an axiom—but he had always appreciated how elusive it was, how the
beauty of the equation itself would always be frustrated by the attempts to prove it. It was the kind of axiom that could drive you mad, that could consume you, that could easily become an entire life.
But now he knows for certain how true the axiom is, because he himself—his very life—has proven it. The person I was will always be the person I am, he realizes. The context may have changed: he may be in this apartment, and he may have a job that he enjoys and that pays him well, and he may have parents and friends he loves. He may be respected; in court, he may even be feared. But fundamentally, he is the same person, a person who inspires disgust, a person meant to be hated. And in that microsecond that he finds himself suspended in the air, between the ecstasy of being aloft and the anticipation of his landing, which he knows will be terrible, he knows that x will always equal x, no matter what he does, or how many years he moves away from the monastery, from Brother Luke, no matter how much he earns or how hard he tries to forget. It is the last thing he thinks as his shoulder cracks down upon the concrete, and the world, for an instant, jerks blessedly away from beneath him: x = x, he thinks. x = x, x = x.