Chapter 13 – William

Hello Beautiful

ovember 1983–december 1983

AFter he leFt the hospıtal, William lived the way he imagined drunks did after they stopped drinking: carefully, and one day at a

time. He felt newly housed in his body, aware that any negligence could cause the entire building to collapse. Each morning, he got out of his single bed, took four of the eight pills he had to swallow every day, and did as many push-ups as he could—five, at first—and then the knee exercises the surgeon had assigned him years earlier, which he’d ignored. William was almost amused at how his knee audibly creaked during the stretches, issuing loud complaints about being asked to function. But he didn’t stop, and he never missed a day; he had to take deliberate actions toward stability and health. “When I visit, we’re going to go for runs together,” Kent said, on one of their phone calls. “You have to get in shape.”

William nodded into the empty room. He’d been lucky that the dorm suite was furnished with a couch and bed when he arrived; these walls had seen a revolving door of questionable adults over the years: grown men who had lives small enough to fit into the miniature set of rooms, who were willing to handle middle-of-the-night emergencies and usher college students out of the building if there was a fire. “Another divorced guy, huh,” the aged security guard had noted when he gave William his keys, as if he was keeping an inventory of the reasons men ended up here. William could have said, Mental hospital, actually, to shock him, but he

didn’t. The fewer people who knew where he’d come from, the better.

William said to Kent, “I’ll go running, but not near the lake.” He knew he probably didn’t need to say these words, that Kent would naturally steer them away from the shoreline, but William wanted to be clear about what he didn’t want, when he knew what that was. Before his hospitalization, he’d done things he didn’t want to do all the time, and he’d gotten so good at muffling his own preferences that he was rarely aware of them. Knowing he didn’t want to jog along the lake path, and saying so, felt like progress.

He tried this tack again with Cecelia when she brought over a painting of Alice to hang on the wall in his dorm suite. She’d deemed his set of small rooms—a bedroom and a tiny living area with a kitchen along one wall—acceptable. “At least they gave you bookshelves,” she said. “They could use a coat of paint, though. I see Sylvie brought you a haul from the library.” It was true; all the books on his shelves were covered in plastic and had the Lozano Library seal on the spine. Sylvie had arrived one afternoon with equal amounts of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; the nonfiction was all basketball-related—biographies of players and histories of the sport.

“Careful, Iz,” Cecelia said. The thirteen-month-old was walking slowly around the rooms, her small face fixed with concentration beneath her unruly curls. She appeared to be judging the space: the walls, the furniture. She looked under the bed, then walked into the bathroom to check out the bathtub. When William had gone into the hospital, Izzy was still a baby everyone carried around; he kept doing double takes, startled by the tiny independent human studying his belongings.

“Sylvie said she was going to switch the books out when they’re due back at the library,” he said. “I mean, I told her she didn’t have to, but…” He shrugged. He was acutely aware of his relief that Cecelia, and not Sylvie, was here now. He was comfortable with Cecelia. She was who she’d always been with him, and his feelings

for her remained unchanged. This wasn’t the case with Sylvie. It felt like William had seen Sylvie through a sliver in a doorway, and now the door had been thrown wide open. She commanded his full attention in a way that mystified him, and whenever they were together, goosebumps rose on William’s arms. Sylvie showed up at his place every few days, and her presence always jolted him, as if he’d been dealt an electric shock.

He knew, rationally, that this change could be explained by the fact that Sylvie had accompanied him through the most turbulent moment of his life. She’d sat beside his hospital bed, spoken to the psychiatrist. She had received his secrets. He’d been confused when he woke up in the hospital to find Sylvie next to him, but she’d looked confused too, and somehow they’d started over from the same groggy place. She had accepted him unquestioningly, even when he was bloated with lake water. This had surprised William, and still surprised him. No one in his life, except perhaps Kent, had ever accepted him just as he was, and Sylvie had accepted him when he was so broken he was barely a person.

“The kitchen is a bit drab,” Cecelia said, frowning at the sink, mini-refrigerator, and hot plate. “Not sure what we can do about that.”

“Cecelia?” he said.

She looked at him. Of all the sisters, she reminded him the most of Julia. She shared her older sister’s searing focus. Cecelia was more curious than Julia, though, and more interested in getting to the bottom of things. He’d heard Cecelia tell her sisters once, “I don’t give a shit what people think of me.” William had been startled by this, partly because he believed her, and partly because it hadn’t occurred to him that this was an option.

“Thank you for the painting of Alice, but I don’t want to hang it up.

I”—he hesitated—“I don’t want it.”

Cecelia didn’t look offended; she studied William’s face the same way Izzy was currently studying the knob on the bedroom door. “It’s

too painful to look at her?”

“I’m not her father anymore.”

Cecelia’s eyes flashed; William was engaging with her, and that pleased her. “You’re still her father,” she said. “You gave her up because of your depression. And to please Julia. That doesn’t mean you don’t love Alice. And it doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to look at her.”

William had been raised by unhappy parents, and he’d been unhappy from his own earliest memories. William knew that a father could be present and nonviolent in a child’s life and still destroy that child. William’s parents’ grief had shaped him, like a glacier moving silently through a valley. Alice would be better off if her universe was filled with Julia’s light and none of his darkness. He said, “I don’t want to.”

Cecelia gave him an appraising look. “It’s an interesting thing to get to know you now,” she said, “after being in your life for so long. You’ve made a bold decision. I’m not sure it’s right, but it’s bold. It’s the kind of decision Julia would make.”

William nearly smiled, because Cecelia was right. His ex-wife was the orchestrator of big plans and life-shifting moves. It felt ironic that he’d made the same kind of decision in her absence. William almost told Cecelia that he would be fine with a portrait of Julia on his wall, that the idea of that didn’t bother him. Their marriage was over. William had said goodbye to his parents in a train station and goodbye to his wife in their living room. He was grateful that Julia had left Chicago. He’d departed his old life, and so had she. But William turned away from thoughts of Alice, so he naturally turned away from Cecelia’s painting.

“I’ll paint you something else,” Cecelia said. “You know you’re coming to Sylvie’s place for Christmas, right? She said you were making noises about being alone, but that’s not acceptable. Our family has gotten too small as it is.” She picked up the painting of Alice from where she’d leaned it against the wall and slung her purse

over her arm. “Come on, bean,” she said. Izzy appeared out of the open closet and headed toward them. Were you counting my sneakers? William thought. He took a step back, out of her way, but Izzy walked toward him. She walked straight up to his leg, her head level with his hurt knee, and hugged his calf hard.

“Good job, Iz,” Cecelia said, and Izzy let go and went to hold her mother’s hand. After they left, William stood still in the middle of the room until he could breathe normally again. It was hard for him to be touched, and he hadn’t seen that coming.

wıllıam sat ı the bleachers of the gym and watched the practices. He had no official role on the staff; he was there just to be helpful, for now. The program was strong this year, with an excellent roster of athletes. The NBA was in thrall to the rivalry between Magic and Bird, and the college players were inspired to mimic their no-look passes. The practices were loud, full of trash talk and whoops of pleasure when one of the players attempted a flashy move and managed to pull it off.

Arash had given William a binder of information that included the transcripts of his interviews from the summer; William had documented them on a miniature tape recorder, at Arash’s request. The player on the team with the highest vertical jump was the one who’d told William he’d been stabbed, and William noticed the worried expression on his face while he played. The young man with the large forehead tapped his shoulder sometimes, and William wondered if it had dislocated recently and if he was in pain. The boys with past concussions sometimes shied away from contact, and he wondered if they were scared of their brains thudding against their skulls a second time. William watched the players, and their histories, sweep up and down the court. He reread the contents of the binder at night in bed, because the better prepared he was, the

better chance he had of being helpful. William could feel the information swirling around inside him. He believed—even if that belief was couched in worry—that he could provide a service to this team that no one else could. It might be something small, almost unnoticeable, but there was something. He just had to figure out what it was.

In rereading the transcripts of his interviews with the boys—his eyes so tired they landed heavily on each word—William was reminded of his own manuscript, where his questions also appeared in typeface. The manuscript was in an unopened box in his closet, along with other items from the Northwestern apartment; William and Kent had emptied the small storage locker shortly after he’d left the hospital. Written on the outside of the box, in Julia’s handwriting, was: wıllıam’s belo Gı Gs. He wasn’t ready to look at the manuscript, to consider whether he wanted to write more about the game of basketball. When William tried to recall his questions in the footnotes, all he could remember was self-doubt and anxiety, as if he were standing on thin ice. He could read a note of worry in his questions in the transcripts too. There, he seemed concerned about the state of the ice the boys were standing on. William had asked: Have you been hurt before? During high school or the summers? How bad was it? Was anyone there to help you?

he showed up at Sylvie’s apartment on Christmas, but only because he thought one or all of the sisters would come and get him if he didn’t, and he didn’t want them to ruin their holiday waiting in the snow for a bus to Northwestern. He would have spent the holiday with Kent, but Kent was traveling to Des Moines to meet his girlfriend’s family for the first time. William understood that the three sisters were trying to continue to be a family to him, and he deeply

appreciated their kindness, but he knew he had to stop spending time with them.

He had a clear vision of what his new life should look like. He would be a lone, monkish figure. That was the safest way not to hurt anyone else, after all. He had his hours with the basketball team, his friendship with Kent, and a roof over his head. Most of his new life would take place on the side of a basketball court, where he might be able to help young players avoid the kind of injury he’d suffered. It would be a fine life, full of purpose and friendship. He didn’t need family, or sisters-in-law, and he certainly didn’t need whatever Sylvie had become to him. He promised himself, on the bus ride to Pilsen, that this would be his last evening with the Padavanos. They would be better off without him.

He arrived with a wrapped fire engine for Izzy and three identical women’s sweaters he’d panic-bought in the Northwestern campus store. Sylvie’s apartment was small, especially with a Christmas tree taking up one corner, so William leaned against the wall, near the open window. The cold air felt good against his back. Izzy marched in circles around the space, wobbling occasionally because she’d been too excited that afternoon to nap. Sylvie served Charlie’s favorite holiday food: turkey sandwiches. The three sisters seemed happy together, but they took turns glancing at the closed apartment door. It occurred to William that they hoped their missing family members might magically appear: Julia and Alice, Rose, even their father. The Padavanos had never spent a holiday apart from one another like this, and the three sisters still here were haunted by ghosts.

William hadn’t asked, but he assumed Julia had no idea her sisters were spending Christmas with him. He wanted to apologize for giving them another reason to lie to their older sister, but he knew that would make everyone uncomfortable. He shouldn’t have come. Loss and ghosts were his shadow, and his darkness was spreading across the small apartment.

“You all right?” Emeline said, coming to stand next to him. She was wearing the white-and-purple-striped sweater he’d given her; so were Cecelia and Sylvie. They looked like members of some unidentified winter-season team.

He nodded and sipped his wine. “I’m going to head back soon.

The city buses end early tonight.”

Emeline looked at him, her eyes wide, and then put her hand on his arm. William realized she was tipsy. “Do you know,” she said, “that I’m a lesbian? Did they tell you? I only just started calling myself that.”

He hadn’t known this. He considered it for a moment, then disregarded the subject as none of his business. “You look happy,” he said, because she did. Her face was wide open, and he realized he’d never seen Emeline look like this before. She’d carried a hesitation inside her ever since he’d met her at his basketball game when she was fourteen. Emeline had always seemed occupied with watching everyone else and trying to be helpful, but she’d stayed on the sidelines, as if it weren’t her turn to live. William had thought the hesitation was part of Emeline—part of her personality—but now it was gone. She seemed fully alive in front of him.

She leaned close to his ear and said, “I’m in love.”

Something happened inside William’s head; the words made his cheeks flush, and he felt a longing so powerful that for a moment he thought he might cry. That phrase—I’m in love—sent an ache like an arrow into his past. He knew that he never would have been able to love Julia in a true, deep way, nor she love him. And now, in his new, safe life, he was landlocked, and love was the sea; William had chosen stability over any more risk or loss. He smiled brusquely at Emeline, grabbed his coat off the couch, and said his goodbyes and Merry Christmases and thank-yous as he walked to and out of the apartment’s only door. He felt a great relief, under the snowfall, as he stood at the bus stop beneath the dim lights of the city. This was where he belonged, alone in the semi-darkness.

William had been back in his dorm for just half an hour—most of the building was emptied out, with only a few foreign students and committed athletes remaining over the holidays—when there was a knock at his door. He sighed, knowing it would be a lonely student, or perhaps the elderly security guard hoping William would offer him a drink. He tugged the door open slowly, reluctantly.

Sylvie stood in the hallway, with melting snow on the shoulders of her winter coat. She shrugged the coat off as she walked inside. She was still wearing her striped sweater.

He blinked at her, confused. “What are you doing here? Did you take the bus too?”

She walked past him, into the middle of the small room. “Do you think I don’t see what you’re doing?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re trying to pull away, to disappear. From me, from us. It’s like”—she bit her lip for a second—“Julia left and so you’re leaving too.”

The wall clock in the corner ticked loudly. It was one of the original furnishings in the apartment, provided perhaps to remind everyone who lived here that time was passing. Sweat broke out on the back of William’s neck. He’d worked hard, when he and Julia were first together, to convince the Padavano family to accept him. He’d read a book on plumbing to figure out how to fix a rusty pipe under their kitchen sink. He’d spent afternoons pulling weeds in Rose’s garden. He’d taken poetry books out of the library to try to understand the references Charlie made during conversations. Now he felt guilty about those efforts and how effective they’d been. He and his wife had split up, yet he was still somehow part of her family. A week earlier, Cecelia had called him when her bathroom flooded, and William had traveled there with tools. The three Padavano sisters still in Chicago seemed to be willfully oblivious to the truth of the situation: William didn’t deserve the family Julia had felt compelled to leave behind.

Please go away, he thought. His body and brain wanted to pull him to the dim, submerged place where he wasn’t aware of his emotions, where everything was dulled. But he couldn’t do that anymore.

“You’re not supposed to be here,” he said. “There are rules about having female guests after hours.”

“Oh, please,” Sylvie said.

He silently agreed with her. That excuse was weak. He was weak. The truth was, William felt awake, and uncomfortable, and he wanted things, in Sylvie’s presence. Things he didn’t deserve and that would create more mess. When he’d decided to separate himself from the Padavanos, he really meant Sylvie. Every time she’d entered his hospital room, his heart beat faster. He knew he needed to walk away from her. He could have done so more easily if Sylvie hadn’t asked to hold his hand on his last day in the hospital. For William’s entire life, he’d been trying to hold himself together. There was the little boy coughing in his closet, trying not to upset his parents. The unsteady college student, always a second too slow to smile or to return a high five. The basketball player, at home only with a ball in his hands. The young man who was relieved to be chosen by a powerhouse of a woman who’d handed him plans and schedules and even thoughts. He’d followed her every instruction, but eventually the directions had led him so far away from himself that he was no longer a person.

In the hospital, William had allowed himself to feel sympathy for the lonely child he’d once been and for the young man who’d lost hope after injury forced him off the basketball court. William had found his voice in the hospital, and the medication meant that when he opened his eyes in the morning, his first thought wasn’t about how he could get to the other end of the day. His ongoing goal—and, he thought, his doctors’ too—was that he be healthy enough, good enough, and happy enough. But when Sylvie put her hand in his, William experienced a sensation he hadn’t known existed. With her

hand in his, he’d felt whole. The shock and pleasure of this had reverberated within him. Right now he wished Sylvie weren’t in this room, forcing him to have this conversation, and yet he wanted to hold her hand. He wanted the feeling that came with her touch. He wanted it badly.

She said, “You barely looked at me or spoke to me tonight, and I think you pretended not to be home when I came by a few days ago.”

He nodded. He had left the lights off and kept quiet when she’d knocked on his door. “You should leave me alone,” he said. “You should go on dates and have fun. I’m a broken-down man. You have to go live your life.”

Sylvie listened while he spoke, and whereas Cecelia had given him a curious face, Sylvie gave him a pensive one. “But that breaks your mantra,” she said. “You can’t pretend not to be home if you’re going to live with no bullshit and no secrets.”

William took this in. She wasn’t wrong. He was making mistakes, which was why he needed her to go away. He needed to live quietly and carefully, alone.

“I’d rather you answered your door and told me why you wanted me to go away.” Sylvie took a jagged breath, and the sound made William think of a window being yanked open. She said, “I don’t want you to hide yourself, and I don’t want to hide myself either.”

You’re not hiding yourself, he thought. I see so much in you, more than in anyone I’ve ever known. This had started on the bench that cold night, but he could see the ache inside her now. He could see that she was filled with want too. William was still standing near the door. Sylvie was in the middle of the small living space, in front of the red couch. William wondered for a second what his parents might be doing right now. He imagined them sitting quietly in their living room, a fire in the fireplace, drinks in their hands. Their faces faded with age and unhappiness.

“Aren’t you going to say anything?” Sylvie said.

He looked at her, tried to express with his face that he was sorry, because he didn’t seem to be able to speak; he felt incapable of reaching into the maelstrom of feelings and language inside him and pushing words out of his mouth.

She shook her head, clearly frustrated. “I’m going to tell you something. Something I figured out because of you. When I was a kid, my dream was to find a great love, like the kind you read about in a Brontë novel. Or Tolstoy.”

William pictured this, as if flipping through an album: He turned from the image of his worn parents to Sylvie wearing a high-necked gown, standing in a Russian train station.

“When we were teenagers, my sisters wanted me to date boys and not do what I was doing, which was making out with them in the library. But I didn’t have any interest in being a girlfriend, and I didn’t care about becoming a wife. I knew that if I never found my great love, I would rather be single than settle for a mediocre relationship. I can’t bear to pretend happiness.” Sylvie waved her hands for a second, as if they were wet and she wanted them dry. “Here’s the thing I realized, though: I always thought that I wanted that dream because I was romantic and destined to live a big life, but that wasn’t true. I created that dream because real life scared me, and that dream seemed so far-fetched I didn’t think it would ever happen. I’d never seen that kind of love in person. My parents loved each other, but badly, and they were miserable. So were all the other couples in my neighborhood. Have you ever actually seen that kind of love?”

William shook his head. He had married out of fear, because he didn’t think he was capable of steering himself into adulthood. He’d needed Julia to be his parent more than his partner. He was ashamed of this, but it was true.

“I didn’t think I would ever find a man, other than my father, who truly understood me. Who would see the way I look at the world, what reading means to me, how I wonder about everything. Someone who would see the best version of me, and make me

believe I could be that person.” Sylvie blinked several times, as if trying to hold back tears. Her hands were in fists at her sides. “I thought that type of love was a fairy tale. I thought that kind of man didn’t exist. Which meant I got to feel good about the fact that I had a dream and yet I could stay safe with my sisters.”

Sylvie gave him a long look, and William knew he was in terrible trouble. He wasn’t walking away—he was standing in fire. “I see all of you,” he said, but his voice was quiet.

“I know you do. I knew it was possible when I read your book.

And when I held your hand.” She stopped.

He remembered Emeline saying, I’m in love.

“This can’t happen, Sylvie.” William spoke firmly now, from the center of the fire, to make this clear. I was married to your sister, he thought. He wished that when he’d first met Julia Padavano on the college quad, he’d walked away and left her alone. He’d known, even then, that there was something wrong with him; he just hadn’t known what it was or what to do. The eighteen-year-old Julia shone at him like a beacon, and he’d used her brightness to light the path in front of him. “I can leave Chicago,” he said, knowing even as he said the words that if he left the Padavanos, and the university grounds, and Arash, and the basketball team, he would break apart into pieces too small to be put back together. “Look,” William said, desperate now. “There must be other guys. Find another guy. Keep looking.”

“There is no other guy,” she said. “You’re the one.”

“I don’t deserve this.” He meant all of it: this moment, this woman in front of him, her hand in his, because she had crossed the room, and she was holding his hand now. Warmth rushed through him.

“Well, I do,” Sylvie said. And she leaned forward and kissed him.

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