WHEN JACOB WAS very small, maybe six months old or so, Liesl came down with pneumonia. Like most healthy people, she was a terrible sick person: grouchy and petulant and, mostly, stunned by the unfamiliar place in which she now found herself. “I don’t get sick,” she kept saying, as if some mistake had been made, as if what had
been given her had been meant for someone else.
Because Jacob was a sickly baby—not in any dramatic way, but he had already had two colds in his short life, and even before I knew what his smile looked like, I knew what his cough sounded like: a surprisingly mature hack—we decided that it would be better if Liesl spent the next few days at Sally’s to rest and get better, and I stayed at home with Jacob.
I thought myself basically competent with my son, but over the course of the weekend, I must have called my father twenty times to ask him about the various little mysteries that kept presenting themselves, or to confirm with him what I knew I knew but which, in my fluster, I had forgotten: He was making strange noises that sounded like hiccups but were too irregular to actually be hiccups— what were they? His stool was a little runny—was that a sign of anything? He liked to sleep on his stomach, but Liesl said that he should be on his back, and yet I had always heard that he’d be perfectly fine on his stomach—would he be? Of course, I could’ve looked all of this up, but I wanted definitive answers, and I wanted to hear them from my father, who had not just the right answers but the right way of delivering them. It comforted me to hear his voice. “Don’t worry,” he said at the end of every call. “You’re doing just fine. You know how to do this.” He made me believe I did.
After Jacob got sick, I called my father less: I couldn’t bear to talk
to him. The questions I now had for him—how would I get through this?; what would I do, afterward?; how could I watch my child die?
—were ones I couldn’t even bring myself to ask, and ones I knew would make him cry to try to answer.
He had just turned four when we noticed that something was wrong. Every morning, Liesl would take him to nursery school, and every afternoon, after my last class, I would pick him up. He had a
serious face, and so people thought that he was a more somber kid than he really was: at home, though, he ran around, up and down the staircase, and I ran after him, and when I was lying on the couch reading, he would come flopping down on top of me. Liesl too became playful around him, and sometimes the two of them would run through the house, shrieking and squealing, and it was my favorite noise, my favorite kind of clatter.
It was October when he began getting tired. I picked him up one day, and all of the other children, all of his friends, were in a jumble, talking and jumping, and then I looked for my son and saw him in a far corner of the room, curled on his mat, sleeping. One of the teachers was sitting near him, and when she saw me, she waved me over. “I think he might be coming down with something,” she said. “He’s been a little listless for the past day or so, and he was so tired after lunch that we just let him sleep.” We loved this school: other schools made the kids try to read, or have lessons, but this school, which was favored by the university’s professors, was what I thought school should be for a four-year-old—all they seemed to do was listen to people reading them books, and make various crafts, and go on field trips to the zoo.
I had to carry him out to the car, but when we got home, he woke
and was fine, and ate the snack I made him, and listened to me read to him before we built the day’s centerpiece together. For his birthday, Sally had gotten him a set of beautiful wooden blocks that were carved into geode-like shapes and could be stacked very high and into all sorts of interesting forms; every day we built a new construction in the center of the table, and when Liesl got home, Jacob would explain to her what we’d been building—a dinosaur, a spaceman’s tower—and Liesl would take a picture of it.
That night I told Liesl what Jacob’s teacher had said, and the next day, Liesl took him to the doctor, who said he seemed perfectly normal, that nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Still, we watched him over the next few days: Was he more energetic or less? Was he sleeping longer than usual, eating less than usual? We didn’t know. But we were frightened: there is nothing more terrifying than a listless child. The very word seems, now, a euphemism for a terrible fate.
And then, suddenly, things began to accelerate. We went to my parents’ over Thanksgiving and were having dinner when Jacob began seizing. One moment he was present, and the next he was rigid, his body becoming a plank, sliding off the chair and beneath the table,
his eyeballs rolling upward, his throat making a strange, hollow clicking noise. It lasted only ten seconds or so, but it was awful, so awful I can still hear that horrible clicking noise, still see the horrible stillness of his head, his legs marching back and forth in the air.
My father ran and called a friend of his at New York Presbyterian and we rushed there, and Jacob was admitted, and the four of us stayed in his room overnight—my father and Adele lying on their coats on the floor, Liesl and I sitting on either side of the bed, unable to look at each other.
Once he had stabilized, we went home, where Liesl had called Jacob’s pediatrician, another med-school classmate of hers, to make appointments with the best neurologist, the best geneticist, the best immunologist—we didn’t know what it was, but whatever it was, she wanted to make sure Jacob had the best. And then began the months of going from one doctor to the next, of having Jacob’s blood drawn and brain scanned and reflexes tested and eyes peered into and hearing examined. The whole process was so invasive, so frustrating— I had never known there were so many ways to say “I don’t know” until I met these doctors—and at times I would think of how difficult, how impossible it must be for parents who didn’t have the connections we did, who didn’t have Liesl’s scientific literacy and knowledge. But that literacy didn’t make it easier to see Jacob cry when he was pricked with needles, so many times that one vein, the one in his left arm, began to collapse, and all those connections didn’t prevent him from getting sicker and sicker, from seizing more and more, and he would shake and froth, and emit a growl, something primal and frightening and far too low-pitched for a four-year-old, as his head knocked from side to side and his hands gnarled themselves.
By the time we had our diagnosis—an extremely rare
neurodegenerative disease called Nishihara syndrome, one so rare that it wasn’t even included on batteries of genetic tests—he was almost blind. That was February. By June, when he turned five, he rarely spoke. By August, we didn’t think he could hear any longer.
He seized more and more. We tried one drug after the next; we tried them in combinations. Liesl had a friend who was a neurologist who told us about a new drug that hadn’t been approved in the States yet but was available in Canada; that Friday, Liesl and Sally drove up to Montreal and back, all in twelve hours. For a while the drug worked, although it gave him a terrible rash, and whenever we touched his skin he would open his mouth and scream, although no
sound came out, and tears would run out of his eyes. “I’m sorry, buddy,” I would plead with him, even though I knew he couldn’t hear me, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
I could barely concentrate at work. I was only teaching part-time that year; it was my second year at the university, my third semester. I would walk through campus and overhear conversations—someone talking about splitting up with her boyfriend, someone talking about a bad grade he got on a test, someone talking about his sprained ankle
—and would feel rage. You stupid, petty, selfish, self-absorbed people, I wanted to say. You hateful people, I hate you. Your problems aren’t problems. My son is dying. At times my loathing was so profound I would get sick. Laurence was teaching at the university then as well, and he would pick up my classes when I had to take Jacob to the hospital. We had a home health-care worker, but we took him to every appointment so we could keep track of how fast he was leaving us. In September, his doctor looked at us after he had examined him. “Not long now,” he said, and he was very gentle, and that was the worst part.
Laurence came over every Wednesday and Saturday night; Gillian came every Tuesday and Thursday; Sally came every Monday and Sunday; another friend of Liesl’s, Nathan, came every Friday. When they were there, they would cook or clean, and Liesl and I would sit with Jacob and talk to him. He had stopped growing sometime in the last year, and his arms and legs had gone soft from lack of use: they were floppy, boneless even, and you had to make sure that when you held him, you held his limbs close to you, or they would simply dangle off of him and he would look dead. He had stopped opening his eyes at all in early September, although sometimes they would leak fluids: tears, or a clumpy, yellowish mucus. Only his face remained plump, and that was because he was on such massive doses of steroids. One drug or another had left him with an eczematic rash on his cheeks, candied-red and sandpapery, that was always hot and rough to the touch.
My father and Adele moved in with us in mid-September, and I
couldn’t look at him. I knew he knew what it was like to see children dying; I knew how much it hurt him that it was my child. I felt as if I had failed: I felt that I was being punished for not wanting Jacob more passionately when he had been given to us. I felt that if I had been less ambivalent about having children, this never would have happened; I felt that I was being reminded of how foolish and stupid
I’d been to not recognize what a gift I’d been given, a gift that so many people yearned for and yet I had been willing to send back. I was ashamed—I would never be the father my father was, and I hated that he was here witnessing my failings.
Before Jacob had been born, I had asked my father one night if he had any words of wisdom for me. I had been joking, but he took it seriously, as he took all questions I asked him. “Hmm,” he said. “Well, the hardest thing about being a parent is recalibration. The better you are at it, the better you will be.”
At the time, I had pretty much ignored this advice, but as Jacob got sicker and sicker, I thought of it more and more frequently, and realized how correct he was. We all say we want our kids to be happy, only happy, and healthy, but we don’t want that. We want them to be like we are, or better than we are. We as humans are very unimaginative in that sense. We aren’t equipped for the possibility that they might be worse. But I guess that would be asking too much. It must be an evolutionary stopgap—if we were all so specifically, vividly aware of what might go horribly wrong, we would none of us have children at all.
When we first realized that Jacob was sick, that there was something wrong with him, we both tried very hard to recalibrate, and quickly. We had never said that we wanted him to go to college, for example; we simply assumed he would, and to graduate school as well, because we both had. But that first night we spent in the hospital, after his first seizure, Liesl, who was always a planner, who had a brilliant ability to see five steps, ten steps, ahead, said, “No matter what this is, he can still live a long and healthy life, you know. There are great schools we can send him to. There are places where he can be taught to be independent.” I had snapped at her: I had accused her of writing him off so quickly, so easily. Later, I felt ashamed about this. Later, I admired her: I admired how rapidly, how fluidly, she was adjusting to the fact that the child she thought she would have was not the child she did have. I admired how she knew, well before I did, that the point of a child is not what you hope he will accomplish in your name but the pleasure that he will bring you, whatever form it comes in, even if it is a form that is barely recognizable as pleasure at all—and, more important, the pleasure you will be privileged to bring him. For the rest of Jacob’s life, I lagged one step behind Liesl: I kept dreaming he would get better, that he would return to what he had been; she, however, thought only
about the life he could have given the current realities of his situation. Maybe he could go to a special school. Okay, he couldn’t go to school at all, but maybe he could be in a playgroup. Okay, he wouldn’t be able to be in a playgroup, but maybe he would be able to live a long life anyway. Okay, he wouldn’t live a long life, but maybe he could live a short happy life. Okay, he couldn’t live a short happy life, but maybe he could live a short life with dignity: we could give him that, and she would hope for nothing else for him.
I was thirty-two when he was born, thirty-six when he was diagnosed, thirty-seven when he died. It was November tenth, just less than a year after his first seizure. We had a service at the university, and even in my deadened state, I saw all the people—our parents, our friends and colleagues, and Jacob’s friends, first graders now, and their parents—who had come, and had cried.
My parents went home to New York. Liesl and I eventually went back to work. For months, we barely spoke. We couldn’t even touch each other. Part of it was exhaustion, but we were also ashamed: of our mutual failure, of the unfair but unshakable feeling that each of us could have done better, that the other person hadn’t quite risen to the occasion. A year after Jacob died, we had our first conversation about whether we should have another child, and although it began politely, it ended awfully, in recriminations: about how I had never wanted Jacob in the first place, about how she had never wanted him, about how I had failed, about how she had. We stopped talking; we apologized. We tried again. But every discussion ended the same way. They were not conversations from which it was possible to recover, and eventually, we separated.
It amazes me now how thoroughly we stopped communicating. The
divorce was very clean, very easy—perhaps too clean, too easy. It made me wonder what had brought us together before Jacob—had we not had him, how and for what would we have stayed together? It was only later that I was able to remember why I had loved Liesl, what I had seen and admired in her. But at the time, we were like two people who’d had a single mission, difficult and draining, and now the mission was over, and it was time for us to part and return to our regular lives.
For many years, we didn’t speak—not out of acrimony, but out of something else. She moved to Portland. Shortly after I met Julia, I ran into Sally—she had moved as well, to Los Angeles—who was in town visiting her parents and who told me that Liesl had remarried. I told
Sally to send her my best, and Sally said she would.
Sometimes I would look her up: she was teaching at the medical school at the University of Oregon. Once I had a student who looked so much like what we had always imagined Jacob would look like that I nearly called her. But I never did.
And then, one day, she called me. It had been sixteen years. She was in town for a conference, and asked if I wanted to have lunch. It was strange, both foreign and instantly familiar, to hear her voice again, that voice with which I’d had thousands of conversations, about things both important and mundane. That voice I had heard sing to Jacob as he juddered in her arms, that voice I had heard say “This is the best one yet!” as she took a picture of the day’s tower of blocks.
We met at a restaurant near the medical college’s campus that had specialized in what it had called “upscale hummus” when she was a resident and which we had considered a special treat. Now it was a place that specialized in artisanal meatballs, but it still smelled, interestingly, of hummus.
We saw each other; she looked as I had remembered her. We hugged and sat. For a while we spoke of work, of Sally and her new girlfriend, of Laurence and Gillian. She told me about her husband, an epidemiologist, and I told her about Julia. She’d had another child, a girl, when she was forty-three. She showed me a picture. She was beautiful, the girl, and looked just like Liesl. I told her so, and she smiled. “And you?” she asked. “Did you ever have another?”
I did, I said. I had just adopted one of my former students. I could see she was surprised, but she smiled, and congratulated me, and asked me about him, and how it had happened, and I told her.
“That’s great, Harold,” she said, after I’d finished. And then, “You love him a lot.”
“I do,” I said.
I would like to tell you that it was the beginning of a sort of second-stage friendship for us, that we stayed in touch and that every year, we would talk about Jacob, what he could have been. But it wasn’t, though not in a bad way. I did tell her, in that meeting, about that student of mine who had so unnerved me, and she said that she understood exactly what I meant, and that she too had had students— or had simply passed young men in the street—whom she thought she recognized from somewhere, only to realize later that she had imagined they might be our son, alive and well and away from us, no
longer ours, but walking freely through the world, unaware that we might have been searching for him all this time.
I hugged her goodbye; I wished her well. I told her I cared about her. She said all the same things. Neither of us offered to stay in touch with the other; both of us, I like to think, had too much respect for the other to do so.
But over the years, at odd moments, I would hear from her. I would get an e-mail that read only “Another sighting,” and I would know what she meant, because I sent her those e-mails, too: “Harvard Square, appx 25-y-o, 6′2″, skinny, reeking of pot.” When her daughter graduated from college, she sent me an announcement, and then another for her daughter’s wedding, and a third when her first grandchild was born.
I love Julia. She was a scientist too, but she was always so different from Liesl—cheery where Liesl was composed, expressive where Liesl was interior, innocent in her delights and enthusiasms. But as much as I love her, for many years a part of me couldn’t stop feeling that I had something deeper, something more profound with Liesl. We had made someone together, and we had watched him die together. Sometimes I felt that there was something physical connecting us, a long rope that stretched between Boston and Portland: when she tugged on her end, I felt it on mine. Wherever she went, wherever I went, there it would be, that shining twined string that stretched and pulled but never broke, our every movement reminding us of what we would never have again.
After Julia and I decided we were going to adopt him, about six months before we actually asked him, I told Laurence. I knew Laurence liked him a great deal, and respected him, and thought he was good for me, and I also knew that Laurence—being Laurence— would be wary.
He was. We had a long talk. “You know how much I like him,” he said, “but really, Harold, how much do you actually know about this kid?”
“Not much,” I said. But I knew he wasn’t Laurence’s worst possible scenario: I knew he wasn’t a thief, that he wasn’t going to come kill me and Julia in our bed at night. Laurence knew this, too.
Of course, I also knew, without knowing for certain, without any real evidence, that something had gone very wrong for him at some
point. That first time you were all up in Truro, I came down to the kitchen late one night and found JB sitting at the table, drawing. I always thought JB was a different person when he was alone, when he was certain he didn’t have to perform, and I sat and looked at what he was sketching—pictures of all of you—and asked him about what he was studying in grad school, and he told me about people whose work he admired, three-fourths of whom were unknown to me.
As I was leaving to go upstairs, JB called my name, and I came back. “Listen,” he said. He sounded embarrassed. “I don’t want to be rude or anything, but you should lay off asking him so many questions.”
I sat down again. “Why?”
He was uncomfortable, but determined. “He doesn’t have any parents,” he said. “I don’t know the circumstances, but he won’t even discuss it with us. Not with me, anyway.” He stopped. “I think something terrible happened to him when he was a kid.”
“What kind of terrible?” I asked.
He shook his head. “We’re not really certain, but we think it must be really bad physical abuse. Haven’t you noticed he never takes off his clothes, or how he never lets anyone touch him? I think someone must have beat him, or—” He stopped. He was loved, he was protected; he didn’t have the courage to conjure what might have followed that or, and neither did I. But I had noticed, of course—I hadn’t been asking to make him uncomfortable, but even when I saw that it did make him uncomfortable, I hadn’t been able to stop.
“Harold,” Julia would say after he left at night, “you’re making him uneasy.”
“I know, I know,” I’d say. I knew nothing good lay behind his silence, and as much as I didn’t want to hear what the story was, I wanted to hear it as well.
About a month before the adoption went through, he turned up at the house one weekend, very unexpectedly: I came in from my tennis game, and there he was on the couch, asleep. He had come to talk to me, he had come to try to confess something to me. But in the end, he couldn’t.
That night Andy called me in a panic looking for him, and when I asked Andy why he was calling him at midnight anyway, he quickly turned vague. “He’s been having a really hard time,” he said.
“Because of the adoption?” I asked.
“I can’t really say,” he said, primly—as you know, doctor-patient
confidentiality was something Andy adhered to irregularly but with great dedication when he did. And then you called, and made up your own vague stories.
The next day, I asked Laurence if he could find out if he had any juvenile records in his name. I knew it was unlikely that he’d discover anything, and even if he did, the records would be sealed.
I had meant what I told him that weekend: whatever he had done didn’t matter to me. I knew him. Who he had become was the person who mattered to me. I told him that who he was before made no difference to me. But of course, this was naïve: I adopted the person he was, but along with that came the person he had been, and I didn’t know who that person was. Later, I would regret that I hadn’t made it clearer to him that that person, whoever he was, was someone I wanted as well. Later, I would wonder, incessantly, what it would have been like for him if I had found him twenty years before I did, when he was a baby. Or if not twenty, then ten, or even five. Who would he have been, and who would I have been?
Laurence’s search turned up nothing, and I was relieved and disappointed. The adoption happened; it was a wonderful day, one of the best. I never regretted it. But being his parent was never easy. He had all sorts of rules he’d constructed for himself over the decades, based on lessons someone must have taught him—what he wasn’t entitled to; what he mustn’t enjoy; what he mustn’t hope or wish for; what he mustn’t covet—and it took some years to figure out what these rules were, and longer still to figure out how to try to convince him of their falsehood. But this was very difficult: they were rules by which he had survived his life, they were rules that made the world explicable to him. He was terrifically disciplined—he was in everything—and discipline, like vigilance, is a near-impossible quality to get someone to abandon.
Equally difficult was my (and your) attempts to get him to abandon
certain ideas about himself: about how he looked, and what he deserved, and what he was worth, and who he was. I have still never met anyone as neatly or severely bifurcated as he: someone who could be so utterly confident in some realms and so utterly despondent in others. I remember watching him in court once and feeling both awed and chilled. He was defending one of those pharmaceutical companies in whose care and protection he had made his name in a federal whistle-blower suit. It was a big suit, a major suit—it is on dozens of syllabi now—but he was very, very calm; I have rarely seen a litigator
so calm. On the stand was the whistle-blower in question, a middle-aged woman, and he was so relentless, so dogged, so pointed, that the courtroom was silent, watching him. He never raised his voice, he was never sarcastic, but I could see that he relished it, that this very act, catching that witness in her inconsistencies—which were slight, very slight, so slight another lawyer might have missed them—was nourishing to him, that he found pleasure in it. He was a gentle person (though not to himself), gentle in manners and voice, and yet in the courtroom that gentleness burned itself away and left behind something brutal and cold. This was about seven months after the incident with Caleb, five months before the incident to follow, and as I watched him reciting the witness’s own statements back to her, never glancing down at the notepad before him, his face still and handsome and self-assured, I kept seeing him in the car that terrible night, when he had turned from me and had protected his head with his hands when I reached out to touch the side of his face, as if I were another person who would try to hurt him. His very existence was twinned: there was who he was at work and who he was outside of it; there was who he was then and who he had been; there was who he was in court and who he had been in the car, so alone with himself that I had been frightened.
That night, uptown, I had paced in circles, thinking about what I
had learned about him, what I had seen, how hard I had fought to keep from howling when I heard him say the things he had—worse than Caleb, worse than what Caleb had said, was hearing that he believed it, that he was so wrong about himself. I suppose I had always known he felt this way, but hearing him say it so baldly was even worse than I could have imagined. I will never forget him saying “when you look like I do, you have to take what you can get.” I will never forget the despair and anger and hopelessness I felt when I heard him say that. I will never forget his face when he saw Caleb, when Caleb sat down next to him, and I was too slow to understand what was happening. How can you call yourself a parent if your child feels this way about himself? That was something I would never be able to recalibrate. I suppose—having never parented an adult myself
—that I had never known how much was actually involved. I didn’t
resent having to do it: I felt only stupid and inadequate that I hadn’t realized it earlier. After all, I had been an adult with a parent, and I had turned to my father constantly.
I called Julia, who was in Santa Fe at a conference about new
diseases, and told her what had happened, and she gave a long, sad sigh. “Harold,” she began, and then stopped. We’d had conversations about what his life had been before us, and although both of us were wrong, her guesses would turn out to be more accurate than mine, although at the time I had thought them ridiculous, impossible.
“I know,” I said.
“You have to call him.”
But I had been. I called and called and the phone rang and rang.
That night I lay awake alternately worrying and having the kinds of fantasies men have: guns, hit men, vengeance. I had waking dreams in which I called Gillian’s cousin, who was a detective in New York, and had Caleb Porter arrested. I had dreams in which I called you, and you and Andy and I staked out his apartment and killed him.
The next morning I left early, before eight, and bought bagels and orange juice and went down to Greene Street. It was a gray day, soggy and humid, and I rang the buzzer three times, each for several seconds, before stepping back toward the curb, squinting up at the sixth floor.
I was about to buzz again when I heard his voice coming over the speaker: “Hello?”
“It’s me,” I said. “Can I come up?” There was no response. “I want to apologize,” I said. “I need to see you. I brought bagels.”
There was another silence. “Hello?” I asked.
“Harold,” he said, and I noticed his voice sounded funny. Muffled, as if his mouth had grown an extra set of teeth and he was speaking around them. “If I let you up, do you promise you won’t get angry and start yelling?”
I was quiet then, myself. I didn’t know what this meant. “Yes,” I said, and after a second or two, the door clicked open.
I stepped off the elevator, and for a minute, I saw nothing, just that lovely apartment with its walls of light. And then I heard my name and looked down and saw him.
I nearly dropped the bagels. I felt my limbs turn to stone. He was sitting on the ground, but leaning on his right hand for support, and as I knelt beside him, he turned his head away and held his left hand before his face as if to shield himself.
“He took the spare set of keys,” he said, and his face was so swollen that his lips barely had room to move. “I came home last night and he was here.” He turned toward me then, and his face was an animal skinned and turned inside out and left in the heat, its organs melting
together into a pudding of flesh: all I could see of his eyes were their long line of lashes, a smudge of black against his cheeks, which were a horrible blue, the blue of decay, of mold. I thought he might have been crying then, but he didn’t cry. “I’m sorry, Harold, I’m so sorry.”
I made sure I wasn’t going to start shouting—not at him, just shouting to express something I couldn’t say—before I spoke to him. “We’re going to get you better,” I said. “We’re going to call the police, and then—”
“No,” he said. “Not the police.”
“We have to,” I said. “Jude. You have to.”
“No,” he said. “I won’t report it. I can’t”—he took a breath—“I can’t take the humiliation. I can’t.”
“All right,” I said, thinking that I would discuss this with him later. “But what if he comes back?”
He shook his head, just slightly. “He won’t,” he said, in his new mumbly voice.
I was beginning to feel light-headed from the effort of suppressing the need to run out and find Caleb and kill him, from the effort of accepting that someone had done this to him, from seeing him, someone who was so dignified, who made certain to always be composed and neat, so beaten, so helpless. “Where’s your chair?” I asked him.
He made a sound like a bleat, and said something so quietly I had to ask him to repeat it, though I could see how much pain it caused him to speak. “Down the stairs,” he finally said, and this time, I was certain he was crying, although he couldn’t even open his eyes enough for tears. He began to shake.
I was shaking myself by this point. I left him there, sitting on the floor, and went to retrieve his wheelchair, which had been thrown down the stairs so hard that it had bounced off the far wall and was halfway down to the fourth floor. On the way back to him, I noticed the floor was tacky with something, and saw too a large bright splash of vomit near the dining-room table, congealed into paste.
“Put your arm around my neck,” I told him, and he did, and as I lifted him, he cried out, and I apologized and settled him in his chair. As I did, I noticed that the back of his shirt—he was wearing one of those gray thermal-weave sweatshirts he liked to sleep in—was bloody, with new and old blood, and the back of his pants were bloody as well.
I stepped away from him and called Andy, told him I had an
emergency. I was lucky: Andy had stayed in the city that weekend, and he would meet us at his office in twenty minutes.
I drove us there. I helped him out of the car—he seemed unwilling to use his left arm, and when I had him stand, he held his right leg aloft, so that it wouldn’t touch the ground, and made a strange noise, a bird’s noise, as I wrapped my arm around his chest to lower him into the chair—and when Andy opened the door and saw him, I thought he was going to throw up.
“Jude,” Andy said once he could speak, crouching beside him, but he didn’t respond.
Once we’d installed him in an examination room, we spoke in the receptionist’s area. I told him about Caleb. I told him what I thought had happened. I told him what I thought was wrong: that I thought he had broken his left arm, that something was wrong with his right leg, that he was bleeding and where, that the floors had blood on them. I told him he wouldn’t report it to the police.
“Okay,” Andy said. He was in shock, I could see. He kept swallowing. “Okay, okay.” He stopped and rubbed at his eyes. “Will you wait here for a little while?”
He came out from the examining room forty minutes later. “I’m going to take him to the hospital to get some X-rays,” he said. “I’m pretty sure his left wrist is broken, and some of his ribs. And if his leg is—” He stopped. “If it is, this is really going to be a problem,” he said. He seemed to have forgotten I was in the room. Then he recalled himself. “You should go,” he said. “I’ll call you when I’m almost done.”
“I’ll stay,” I said.
“Don’t, Harold,” he said, and then, more gently, “you have to call his office; there’s no way he can go into work this week.” He paused. “He said—he said you should tell them he was in a car accident.”
As I was leaving, he said, quietly, “He told me he was playing tennis.”
“I know,” I said. I felt bad for us, then, for being so stupid. “He told me that, too.”
I went back to Greene Street with his keys. For a long time, many minutes, I just stood there in the doorway, looking at the space. Some of the cloud cover had parted, but it didn’t take much sun—even with the shades drawn—to make that apartment feel light. I had always thought it a hopeful place, with its high ceilings, its cleanliness, its visibility, its promise of transparency.
This was his apartment, and so of course there were lots of cleaning products, and I started cleaning. I mopped the floors; the sticky areas were dried blood. It was difficult to distinguish because the floors were so dark, but I could smell it, a dense, wild scent that the nose instantly recognizes. He had clearly tried to clean the bathroom, but here too there were swipes of blood on the marble, dried into the rusty pinks of sunsets; these were difficult to remove, but I did the best I could. I looked in the trash cans—for evidence, I suppose, but there was nothing: they had all been cleaned and emptied. His clothes from the night before were scattered near the living-room sofa. The shirt was so ripped, clawed at almost, that I threw it away; the suit I took to be dry-cleaned. Otherwise, the apartment was very tidy. I had entered the bedroom with dread, expecting to find lamps broken, clothes strewn about, but it was so unruffled that you might have thought that no one lived there at all, that it was a model house, an advertisement for an enviable life. The person who lived here would have parties, and would be carefree and sure of himself, and at night he would raise the shades and he and his friends would dance, and people passing by on Greene Street, on Mercer, would look up at that box of light floating in the sky, and imagine its inhabitants above unhappiness, or fear, or any concerns at all.
I e-mailed Lucien, whom I’d met once, and who was a friend of a
friend of Laurence’s, actually, and said there had been a terrible car accident, and that Jude was in the hospital. I went to the grocery store and bought things that would be easy for him to eat: soups, puddings, juices. I looked up Caleb Porter’s address, and repeated it to myself—Fifty West Twenty-ninth Street, apartment 17J—until I had it memorized. I called the locksmith and said it was an emergency and that I needed to have all the locks changed: front door, elevator, apartment door. I opened the windows to let the damp air carry away the fragrance of blood, of disinfectant. I left a message with the law school secretary saying there was a family emergency and I wouldn’t be able to teach that week. I left messages for a couple of my colleagues asking if they could cover for me. I thought about calling my old law school friend, who worked at the D.A.’s office. I would explain what had happened; I wouldn’t use his name. I would ask how we could have Caleb Porter arrested.
“But you’re saying the victim won’t report it?” Avi would say.
“Well, yes,” I’d have to admit. “Can he be convinced?”
“I don’t think so,” I’d have to admit.
“Well, Harold,” Avi would say, perplexed and irritated. “I don’t know what to tell you, then. You know as well as I do that I can’t do anything if the victim won’t speak.” I remembered thinking, as I very rarely thought, what a flimsy thing the law was, so dependent on contingencies, a system of so little comfort, of so little use to those who needed its protections the most.
And then I went into his bathroom and felt under the sink and found his bag of razors and cotton pads and threw it down the incinerator. I hated that bag, I hated that I knew I would find it.
Seven years before, he had come to the house in Truro in early May. It had been a spontaneous visit: I was up there trying to write, there were cheap tickets, I told him he should come, and to my surprise—he never left the offices of Rosen Pritchard, even then—he did. He was happy that day, and so was I. I left him chopping a head of purple cabbage in the kitchen and took the plumber upstairs, where he was installing a new toilet in our bathroom, and then on his way out asked him if he could come take a look at the sink in the downstairs bathroom, the one in Jude’s room, which had been leaking.
He did, tightened something, changed something else, and then, as he was emerging from the cabinet, handed something to me. “This was taped under the basin,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked, taking the package from him.
He shrugged. “Dunno. But it was stuck there pretty good, with duct tape.” He repacked his things as I stood there dumbly, staring at the bag, and gave me a wave and left; I heard him say goodbye to Jude as he walked out, whistling.
I looked at the bag. It was a regular, pint-size clear plastic bag, and inside it was a stack of ten razor blades, and individually packaged alcohol wipes, and pieces of gauze, folded into springy squares, and bandages. I stood there, holding this bag, and I knew what it was for, even though I had never seen proof of it, and had indeed never seen anything like it. But I knew.
I went to the kitchen, and there he was, washing off a bowlful of fingerlings, still happy. He was even humming something, very softly, which he did only when he was very contented, like how a cat purrs to itself when it’s alone in the sun. “You should’ve told me you needed help installing the toilet,” he said, not looking up. “I could have done it for you and saved you a bill.” He knew how to do all those things:
plumbing, electrical work, carpentry, gardening. We once went to Laurence’s so he could explain to Laurence how, exactly, he could safely unearth the young crabapple tree from one corner of his backyard and successfully move it to another, one that got more sun.
For a while I stood there watching him. I felt so many things at once that together, they combined to make nothing, a numbness, an absence of feeling caused by a surplus of feeling. Finally I said his name, and he looked up. “What’s this?” I asked him, and held the bag in front of him.
He went very still, one hand suspended above the bowl, and I remember watching how little droplets of water beaded and dripped off the ends of his fingertips, as if he had slashed himself with a knife and was bleeding water. He opened his mouth, and shut it.
“I’m sorry, Harold,” he said, very softly. He lowered his hand, and dried it, slowly, on the dish towel.
That made me angry. “I’m not asking you to apologize, Jude,” I told him. “I’m asking you what this is. And don’t say ‘It’s a bag with razors in it.’ What is this? Why did you tape it beneath your sink?”
He stared at me for a long time with that look he had—I know you know the one—where you can see him receding even as he looks at you, where you can see the gates within him closing and locking themselves, the bridges being cranked above the moat. “You know what it’s for,” he finally said, still very quietly.
“I want to hear you say it,” I told him. “I just need it,” he said.
“Tell me what you do with these,” I said, and watched him.
He looked down into the bowl of potatoes. “Sometimes I need to cut myself,” he said, finally. “I’m sorry, Harold.”
And suddenly I was panicked, and my panic made me irrational. “What the fuck does that mean?” I asked him—I may have even shouted it.
He was moving backward now, toward the sink, as if I might lunge at him and he wanted some distance. “I don’t know,” he said. “I’m sorry, Harold.”
“How often is sometimes?” I asked.
He too was panicking now, I could see. “I don’t know,” he said. “It varies.”
“Well, estimate. Give me a ballpark.”
“I don’t know,” he said, desperate, “I don’t know. A few times a week, I guess.”
“A few times a week!” I said, and then stopped. Suddenly I had to get out of there. I took my coat from the chair and crammed the bag into its inside pocket. “You’d better be here when I get back,” I told him, and left. (He was a bolter: whenever he thought Julia or I were displeased with him, he would try as quickly as he could to get out of our sight, as if he were an offending object that needed to be removed.)
I walked downstairs, toward the beach, and then through the dunes, feeling the sort of rage that comes with the realization of one’s gross inadequacy, of knowing for certain that you are at fault. It was the first time I realized that as much as he was two people around us, so were we two people around him: we saw of him what we wanted, and allowed ourselves not to see anything else. We were so ill-equipped. Most people are easy: their unhappinesses are our unhappinesses, their sorrows are understandable, their bouts of self-loathing are fast-moving and negotiable. But his were not. We didn’t know how to help him because we lacked the imagination needed to diagnose the problems. But this is making excuses.
By the time I returned to the house it was almost dark, and I could see, through the window, his outline moving about in the kitchen. I sat on a chair on the porch and wished Julia were there, that she wasn’t in England with her father.
The back door opened. “Dinner,” he said, quietly, and I got up to go inside.
He’d made one of my favorite meals: the sea bass I had bought the day before, poached, and potatoes roasted the way he knew I liked them, with lots of thyme and carrots, and a cabbage salad that I knew would have the mustard-seed dressing I liked. But I didn’t have an appetite for any of it. He served me, and then himself, and sat.
“This looks wonderful,” I told him. “Thank you for making it.” He nodded. We both looked at our plates, at his lovely meal that neither of us would eat.
“Jude,” I said, “I have to apologize. I’m really sorry—I never should have run out on you like that.”
“It’s all right,” he said, “I understand.”
“No,” I told him. “It was wrong of me. I was just so upset.”
He looked back down. “Do you know why I was upset?” I asked him.
“Because,” he began, “because I brought that into your house.” “No,” I said. “That’s not why. Jude, this house isn’t just my house,
or Julia’s: it’s yours, too. I want you to feel you can bring anything you’d have at home here.
“I’m upset because you’re doing this terrible thing to yourself.” He didn’t look up. “Do your friends know you do this? Does Andy?”
He nodded, slightly. “Willem knows,” he said, in a low voice. “And Andy.”
“And what does Andy say about this?” I asked, thinking, Goddammit, Andy.
“He says—he says I should see a therapist.”
“And have you?” He shook his head, and I felt rage build up in me again. “Why not?” I asked him, but he didn’t say anything. “Is there a bag like this in Cambridge?” I said, and after a silence, he looked up at me and nodded again.
“Jude,” I said, “why do you do this to yourself?”
For a long time, he was quiet, and I was quiet too. I listened to the sea. Finally, he said, “A few reasons.”
“Sometimes it’s because I feel so awful, or ashamed, and I need to make physical what I feel,” he began, and glanced at me before looking down again. “And sometimes it’s because I feel so many things and I need to feel nothing at all—it helps clear them away. And sometimes it’s because I feel happy, and I have to remind myself that I shouldn’t.”
“Why?” I asked him once I could speak again, but he only shook his head and didn’t answer, and I too went silent.
He took a breath. “Look,” he said, suddenly, decisively, looking at me directly, “if you want to dissolve the adoption, I’ll understand.”
I was so stunned that I was angry—that hadn’t even occurred to me. I was about to bark something back when I looked at him, at how he was trying to be brave, and saw that he was terrified: He really did think this was something I might want to do. He really would understand if I said I did. He was expecting it. Later, I realized that in those years just after the adoption, he was always wondering how permanent it was, always wondering what he would eventually do that would make me disown him.
“I would never,” I said, as firmly as I could.
That night, I tried to talk to him. He was ashamed of what he did, I could see that, but he genuinely couldn’t understand why I cared so much, why it so upset you and me and Andy. “It’s not fatal,” he kept saying, as if that were the concern, “I know how to control it.” He
wouldn’t see a shrink, but he couldn’t tell me why. He hated doing it, I could tell, but he also couldn’t conceive of a life without it. “I need it,” he kept saying. “I need it. It makes things right.” But surely, I told him, there was a time in your life when you didn’t have it?, and he shook his head. “I need it,” he repeated. “It helps me, Harold, you have to believe me on this one.”
“Why do you need it?” I asked.
He shook his head. “It helps me control my life,” he said, finally.
At the end, there was nothing more I could say. “I’m keeping this,” I said, holding the bag up, and he winced, and nodded. “Jude,” I said, and he looked back at me. “If I throw this away, are you going to make another one?”
He was very quiet, then, looking at his plate. “Yes,” he said.
I threw it out anyway, of course, stuffing it deep into a garbage bag that I carried to the Dumpster at the end of the road. We cleaned the kitchen in silence—we were both exhausted, and neither of us had eaten anything—and then he went to bed, and I did as well. In those days I was still trying to be respectful of his personal space, or I’d have grabbed him and held him, but I didn’t.
But as I was lying awake in bed, I thought of him, his long fingers craving the slice of the razor between them, and went downstairs to the kitchen. I got the big mixing bowl from the drawer beneath the oven, and began loading it with everything sharp I could find: knives and scissors and corkscrews and lobster picks. And then I took it with me to the living room, where I sat in my chair, the one facing the sea, clasping the bowl in my arms.
I woke to a creaking. The kitchen floorboards were noisy, and I sat up in the dark, willing myself to stay silent, and listened to his walk, the distinctive soft stamp of his left foot followed by the swish of his right, and then a drawer opening and, a few seconds later, shutting. Then another drawer, then another, until he had opened and shut every drawer, every cupboard. He hadn’t turned on the light—there was moonlight enough—and I could envision him standing in the newly blunt world of the kitchen, understanding that I’d taken everything from him: I had even taken the forks. I sat, holding my breath, listening to the silence from the kitchen. For a moment it was almost as if we were having a conversation, a conversation without words or sight. And then, finally, I heard him turn and his footsteps retreating, back to his room.
When I got home to Cambridge the next night, I went to his
bathroom and found another bag, a double of the Truro one, and threw it away. But I never found another of those bags again in either Cambridge or Truro. He must have found some other place to hide them, someplace I never discovered, because he couldn’t have carried those blades back and forth on the plane. But whenever I was at Greene Street, I would find an opportunity to sneak off to his bathroom. Here, he kept the bag in his same old hiding place, and every time, I would steal it, and shove it into my pocket, and then throw it away after I left. He must have known I did this, of course, but we never discussed it. Every time it would be replaced. Until he learned he had to hide it from you as well, there was not a single time I checked that I failed to find it. Still, I never stopped checking: whenever I was at the apartment, or later, the house upstate, or the flat in London, I would go to his bathroom and look for that bag. I never found it again. Malcolm’s bathrooms were so simple, so clean-lined, and yet even in them he had found somewhere to conceal it, somewhere I would never again discover.
Over the years, I tried to talk about it with him. The day after I
found the first bag, I called Andy and started yelling at him, and Andy, uncharacteristically, let me. “I know,” he said. “I know.” And then: “Harold, I’m not asking sarcastically or rhetorically. I want you to tell me: What should I do?” And of course, I didn’t know what to tell him.
You were the one who got furthest with him. But I know you blamed yourself. I blamed myself, too. Because I did something worse than accepting it: I tolerated it. I chose to forget he was doing this, because it was too difficult to find a solution, and because I wanted to enjoy him as the person he wanted us to see, even though I knew better. I told myself that I was letting him keep his dignity, while choosing to forget that for thousands of nights, he sacrificed it. I would rebuke him and try to reason with him, even though I knew those methods didn’t work, and even knowing that, I didn’t try something else: something more radical, something that might alienate me from him. I knew I was being a coward, because I never told Julia about that bag, I never told her what I had learned about him that night in Truro. Eventually she found out, and it was one of the very few times I’d seen her so angry. “How could you let this keep happening?” she asked me. “How could you let this go on for this long?” She never said she held me directly responsible, but I knew she did, and how could she not? I did, too.
And now here I was in his apartment, where a few hours ago, while I was lying awake, he was being beaten. I sat down on the sofa with my phone in my hand to wait for Andy’s call, telling me that he was ready to be returned to me, that he was ready to be released into my care. I opened the shade across from me and sat back down and stared into the steely sky until each cloud blurred into the next, until finally I could see nothing at all, only a haze of gray as the day slowly slurred into night.
Andy called at six that evening, nine hours after I’d dropped him off, and met me at the door. “He’s asleep in the examining room,” he said. And then: “Broken left wrist, four broken ribs, thank Christ no broken bones in his legs. No concussion, thank god. Fractured coccyx. Dislocated shoulder, which I reset. Bruising all up and down his back and torso; he was kicked, clearly. But no internal bleeding. His face looks worse than it is: his eyes and nose are fine, no breaks, and I iced the bruising, which you have to do, too—regularly.
“Lacerations on his legs. This is what I’m worried about. I’ve written you a scrip for antibiotics; I’m going to start him on a low dosage as a preventative measure, but if he mentions feeling hot, or chilled, you have to let me know right away—the last thing he needs is an infection there. His back is stripped—”
“What do you mean, ‘stripped’?” I asked him.
He looked impatient. “Flayed,” he said. “He was whipped, probably with a belt, but he wouldn’t tell me. I bandaged them, but I’m giving you this antibiotic ointment and you’re going to need to keep the wounds cleaned and change the dressings starting tomorrow. He’s not going to want to let you, but it’s too fucking bad. I wrote down all the instructions in here.”
He handed me a plastic bag; I looked inside: bottles of pills, rolls of bandages, tubes of cream. “These,” said Andy, plucking something out, “are painkillers, and he hates them. But he’s going to need them; make him take a pill every twelve hours: once in the morning, once at night. They’re going to make him woozy, so don’t let him outside on his own, don’t let him lift anything. They’re also going to make him nauseated, but you have to make him eat: something simple, like rice and broth. Try to make him stay in his chair; he’s not going to want to move around much anyway.
“I called his dentist and made an appointment for Monday at nine;
he’s lost a couple of teeth. The most important thing is that he sleeps as much as he can; I’ll stop by tomorrow afternoon and every night this week. Do not let him go to work, although—I don’t think he’ll want to.”
He stopped as abruptly as he’d started, and we stood there in silence. “I can’t fucking believe this,” Andy said, finally. “That fucking asshole. I want to find that fuck and kill him.”
“I know,” I said. “Me too.”
He shook his head. “He wouldn’t let me report it,” he said. “I begged him.”
“I know,” I said. “Me too.”
It was a shock anew to see him, and he shook his head when I tried to help him into the chair, and so we stood and watched as he lowered himself into the seat, still in his same clothes, the blood now dried into rusty continents. “Thank you, Andy,” he said, very quietly. “I’m sorry,” and Andy placed his palm on the back of his head and said nothing.
By the time we got back to Greene Street, it was dark. His wheelchair was, as you know, one of those very lightweight, elegant ones, one so aggressive about its user’s self-sufficiency that there were no handles on it, because it was assumed that the person in it would never allow himself the indignity of being pushed by another. You had to grab the top of the backrest, which was very low, and guide the chair that way. I stopped in the entryway to turn on the lights, and we both blinked.
“You cleaned,” he said.
“Well, yes,” I said. “Not as good a job as you would’ve done, I’m afraid.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“Of course,” I said. We were quiet. “Why don’t I help you get changed and then you can have something to eat?”
He shook his head. “No, thank you. But I’m not hungry. And I can do it myself.” Now he was subdued, controlled: the person I had seen earlier was gone, caged once more in his labyrinth in some little-opened cellar. He was always polite, but when he was trying to protect himself or assert his competency, he became more so: polite and slightly remote, as if he was an explorer among a dangerous tribe, and was being careful not to find himself too involved in their goings-on.
I sighed, inwardly, and took him to his room; I told him I’d be here
if he needed me, and he nodded. I sat on the floor outside the closed door and waited: I could hear the faucets turning on and off, and then his steps, and then a long period of silence, and then the sigh of the bed as he sat on it.
When I went in, he was under the covers, and I sat down next to him, on the edge of the bed. “Are you sure you don’t want to eat anything?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, and after a pause, he looked at me. He could open his eyes now, and against the white of the sheets, he was the loamy, fecund colors of camouflage: the jungle-green of his eyes, and the streaky gold-and-brown of his hair, and his face, less blue than it had been this morning and now a dark shimmery bronze. “Harold, I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I yelled at you last night, and I’m sorry I cause so many problems for you. I’m sorry that—”
“Jude,” I interrupted him, “you don’t need to be sorry. I’m sorry. I wish I could make this better for you.”
He closed his eyes, and opened them, and looked away from me. “I’m so ashamed,” he said, softly.
I stroked his hair, then, and he let me. “You don’t have to be,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.” I wanted to cry, but I thought he might, and if he wanted to, I would try not to. “You know that, right?” I asked him. “You know this wasn’t your fault, you know you didn’t deserve this?” He said nothing, so I kept asking, and asking, until finally he gave a small nod. “You know that guy is a fucking asshole, right?” I asked him, and he turned his face away. “You know you’re not to blame, right?” I asked him. “You know that this says nothing about you and what you’re worth?”
“Harold,” he said. “Please.” And I stopped, although really, I should have kept going.
For a while we said nothing. “Can I ask you a question?” I said, and after a second or two, he nodded again. I didn’t even know what I was going to say until I was saying it, and as I was saying it, I didn’t know where it had come from, other than I suppose it was something I had always known and had never wanted to ask, because I dreaded his answer: I knew what it would be, and I didn’t want to hear it. “Were you sexually abused as a child?”
I could sense, rather than see, him stiffen, and under my hand, I could feel him shudder. He still hadn’t looked at me, and now he rolled to his left side, moving his bandaged arm to the pillow next to him. “Jesus, Harold,” he said, finally.
I withdrew my hand. “How old were you when it happened?” I asked.
There was a pause, and then he pushed his face into the pillow. “Harold,” he said, “I’m really tired. I need to sleep.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, which jumped, but I held on. Beneath my palm I could feel his muscles tense, could feel that shiver running through him. “It’s okay,” I told him. “You don’t have anything to be ashamed of,” I said. “It’s not your fault, Jude, do you understand me?” But he was pretending to be asleep, though I could still feel that vibration, everything in his body alert and alarmed.
I sat there for a while longer, watching him hold himself rigid.
Finally I left, closing the door behind me.
I stayed for the rest of the week. You called him that night, and I answered his phone and lied to you, said something useless about an accident, heard the worry in your voice and wanted so badly to tell you the truth. The next day, you called again and I listened outside his door as he lied to you as well: “A car accident. No. No, not serious. What? I was up at Richard’s house for the weekend. I nodded off and hit a tree. I don’t know; I was tired—I’ve been working a lot. No, a rental. Because mine’s in the shop. It’s not a big deal. No, I’m going to be fine. No, you know Harold—he’s just overreacting. I promise. I swear. No, he’s in Rome until the end of next month. Willem: I promise. It’s fine! Okay. I know. Okay. I promise; I will. You too. Bye.”
Mostly, he was meek, tractable. He ate his soup every morning, he took his pills. They made him logy. Every morning he was in his study, working, but by eleven he was on the couch, sleeping. He slept through lunch, and all afternoon, and I only woke him for dinner. You called him every night. Julia called him, too: I always tried to eavesdrop, but couldn’t hear much of their conversations, only that he didn’t say much, which meant Julia must have been saying a great deal. Malcolm came over several times, and the Henry Youngs and Elijah and Rhodes visited as well. JB sent over a drawing of an iris; I had never known him to draw flowers before. He fought me, as Andy had predicted, on the dressings on his legs and back, which he wouldn’t, no matter how I pleaded with and shouted at him, let me see. He let Andy, and I heard Andy say to him, “You’re going to need to come uptown every other day and let me change these. I mean it.”
“Fine,” he snapped.
Lucien came to see him, but he was asleep in his study. “Don’t wake
him,” he said, and then, peeking in at him, “Jesus.” We talked for a bit, and he told me about how admired he was at the firm, which is something you never get tired of hearing about your child, whether he is four and in preschool and excels with clay, or is forty and in a white-shoe firm and excels in the protection of corporate criminals. “I’d say you must be proud of him, but I think I know your politics too well for that.” He grinned. He liked Jude quite a bit, I could tell, and I found myself feeling slightly jealous, and then stingy for feeling jealous at all.
“No,” I said. “I am proud of him.” I felt bad then, for my years of scolding him about Rosen Pritchard, the one place where he felt safe, the one place he felt truly weightless, the one place where his fears and insecurities banished themselves.
By the following Monday, the day before I left, he looked better: his cheeks were the color of mustard, but the swelling had subsided, and you could see the bones of his face again. It seemed to hurt him a little less to breathe, a little less to speak, and his voice was less breathy, more like itself. Andy had let him halve his morning pain dosage, and he was more alert, though not exactly livelier. We played a game of chess, which he won.
“I’ll be back on Thursday evening,” I told him over dinner. I only had classes on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays that semester.
“No,” he said, “you don’t have to. Thank you, Harold, but really— I’ll be fine.”
“I already bought the ticket,” I said. “And anyway, Jude—you don’t always have to say no, you know. Remember? Acceptance?” He didn’t say anything else.
So what else can I tell you? He went back to work that Wednesday, despite Andy’s suggestion he stay home through the end of the week. And despite his threats, Andy came over every night to change his dressings and inspect his legs. Julia returned, and every weekend in October, she or I would go to New York and stay with him at Greene Street. Malcolm stayed with him during the week. He didn’t like it, I could tell, but we decided we didn’t care what he liked, not in this matter.
He got better. His legs didn’t get infected. Neither did his back. He was lucky, Andy kept saying. He regained the weight he had lost. By the time you came home, in early November, he was almost healed. By Thanksgiving, which we had that year at the apartment in New York so he wouldn’t have to travel, his cast had been removed and he
was walking again. I watched him closely over dinner, watched him talking with Laurence and laughing with one of Laurence’s daughters, but couldn’t stop thinking of him that night, his face when Caleb grabbed his wrist, his expression of pain and shame and fear. I thought of the day I had learned he was using a wheelchair at all: it was shortly after I had found the bag in Truro and was in the city for a conference, and he had come into the restaurant in his chair, and I had been shocked. “Why did you never tell me?” I asked, and he had pretended to be surprised, acted like he thought he had. “No,” I said, “you hadn’t,” and finally he had told me that he hadn’t wanted me to see him that way, as someone weak and helpless. “I would never think of you that way,” I’d told him, and although I didn’t think I did, it did change how I thought of him; it made me remember that what I knew of him was just a tiny fraction of who he was.
It sometimes seemed as if that week had been a haunting, one that
only Andy and I had witnessed. In the months that followed, someone would occasionally joke about it: his poor driving, his Wimbledon ambitions, and he would laugh back, make some self-deprecating comment. He could never look at me in those moments; I was a reminder of what had really happened, a reminder of what he saw as his degradation.
But later, I would recognize how that incident had taken something large from him, how it had changed him: into someone else, or maybe into someone he had once been. I would see the months before Caleb as a period in which he was healthier than he’d been: he had allowed me to hug him when I saw him, and when I touched him—putting an arm around him as I passed him in the kitchen—he would let me; his hand would go on chopping the carrots before him in the same steady rhythm. It had taken twenty years for that to happen. But after Caleb, he regressed. At Thanksgiving, I had gone toward him to embrace him, but he had quickly stepped to the left—just a bit, just enough so that my arms closed around air, and there had been a second in which we looked at each other, and I knew that whatever I had been allowed just a few months ago I would be no longer: I knew I would have to start all over. I knew that he had decided that Caleb was right, that he was disgusting, that he had, somehow, deserved what had happened to him. And that was the worst thing, the most reprehensible thing. He had decided to believe Caleb, to believe him over us, because Caleb confirmed what he had always thought and always been taught, and it is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to
change your mind.
Later, when things got bad, I would wonder what I could have said or done. Sometimes I would think that there was nothing I could have said—there was something that might have helped, but none of us saying it could have convinced him. I still had those fantasies: the gun, the posse, Fifty West Twenty-ninth Street, apartment 17J. But this time we wouldn’t shoot. We would take Caleb Porter by each arm, lead him down to the car, drive him to Greene Street, drag him upstairs. We would tell him what to say, and warn him that we would be just outside the door, waiting in the elevator, the pistol cocked and pointed at his back. And from behind the door, we’d listen to what he said: I didn’t mean any of it. I was completely wrong. The things I did, but more than that, the things I said, they were meant for someone else. Believe me, because you believed me before: you are beautiful and perfect, and I never meant what I said. I was wrong, I was mistaken, no one could ever have been more wrong than I was.