october 1984–september 1988
O ce emelı e had retur ed From New York City, exhausted and pale, William was careful not only with himself but with Sylvie
and the twins too. He had an appreciation for living in the center of a hard truth. Kent had been right: William couldn’t do otherwise. During the months of total secrecy, when he and Sylvie had limited their love to his small room, William’s mind had grown confused, and he’d had to steer his thoughts to get through the days. It hadn’t resembled the final months of his marriage, because Sylvie made him soft with happiness, and in the tiny dorm room they shared everything with each other. But the friction between life inside that room and the outside made him feel like a record needle being dragged across the vinyl surface.
William’s psychiatrist—a bald Puerto Rican man who enjoyed telling William why soccer was a better sport than basketball—ended each session by saying, “You gotta get outside and exercise, you gotta take your pills, and you gotta take care of other people.” No bullshit and no secrets went unspoken. It was a given and the foundation of William’s life. He often wondered, on his walk home, if healthy people used mantras to organize their lives. Whenever William felt his insides numb or if he hadn’t spoken in several hours, he would return to the psychiatrist’s list and do one of the commands.
He ran miles around the Northwestern track, and rehabbed his knee, and took his medications. He was now officially on staff as the most junior of the assistant coaches at Northwestern, and he focused on caring for the injured players. William developed a successful rehab exercise for a kid with recurrent ankle issues, and the student’s gratitude—he’d worried his playing career might be over—made William feel full, and of use, in a way he never had before. The impact of helping seemed to be cumulative; the more kids he helped, the more solid he felt in his own chest. He reached out to the twins when Emeline returned from New York. He’d stayed away from them, on the whole, since Sylvie told her younger sisters about her love for him. The twins had needed distance from Sylvie for a while, and he understood that they would want distance from him too. But now he knew that Sylvie wouldn’t be able to endure her new life without Julia if he, Emeline, and Cecelia weren’t on solid ground.
“We’re not angry with you, William,” Emeline said, when he asked the twins to meet him for breakfast. He hadn’t told Sylvie he was doing this; she would have wanted to come to the breakfast to try to protect everyone’s feelings, and he wanted the chance, for once, to take care of her.
He looked at Cecelia, who was cutting up a pancake for Izzy in her high chair. “It’s true,” Cecelia said. “You didn’t do any of this on purpose. I get that now. And”—she paused—“I’ve never seen Sylvie like this before. I keep painting her, to capture it.”
“It’s not that she’s happy,” Emeline said, “because I know she’s heartbroken about Julia. But she’s beautiful. She’s fully Sylvie.”
William had expected to weather some level of resentment, spoken or unspoken, from the twins, but they appeared to be letting him completely off the hook. He shook his head, confused, but he remembered the nights when he’d walked out of his bedroom to see Julia and Sylvie sleeping together on the couch. And how Emeline had left home with Cecelia, even though she wasn’t pregnant or in
trouble, and slept on Mrs. Ceccione’s floor. Even though William was a major player in this drama, no matter how you looked at it—the end of his marriage, his hospitalization, his relationship with Sylvie— the four sisters managed their hearts among themselves. He was always irrelevant, in a way that used to sadden him but now felt liberating. He was free to live his own life as his true, imperfect self, and Sylvie and the twins accepted him. William felt a pang of guilt toward his ex-wife; he had given Julia and Alice up, and yet he’d ended up surrounded by the women Julia loved most. It didn’t seem fair, but he would try not to think about that. He would try to follow his doctor’s orders and take care of the people around him.
“If you feel like you need to make something up to us,” Cecelia said, “you can be our unpaid handyman. There’s a lot of work to do.” Cecelia had just bought a broken-down house in Pilsen for very little money, from an art dealer who admired her work. Cecelia, Emeline, Josie, and Izzy would live there together, as soon as the house was livable.
“It would be my honor,” he said, trying to sound lighthearted, but he meant it. He felt astonishingly lucky to have emerged from this whirlwind with Sylvie in his bed each night and Emeline and Cecelia willing to keep him in their lives. William remembered seeing Charlie standing in a doorway, smiling at William, the same night he’d walked into the lake. He thought that his father-in-law would have been proud of the twins for keeping their hearts open. He would have liked that Cecelia was making art and that Emeline had allowed herself to love who she loved. William didn’t know what Charlie would make of him and Sylvie—since their love impacted his oldest daughter, he probably wouldn’t have been thrilled—but Charlie had wanted his daughters to live fully and deeply, and Sylvie was doing that.
For four months, William devoted his weeknights and weekends to replacing the insulation on the second floor of Cecelia’s new house, retiling the kitchen, and replacing the tub and toilet. The
house was only a stone’s throw away from where the Padavano girls had grown up, and it was similar in layout to the house on 18th Place. Sylvie came with him to Cecelia’s each time, and she painted walls with her sisters or babysat Izzy while they unpacked boxes. William liked to listen to the patter of the women’s voices and murmured laughter while he grouted tiles and unscrewed ancient nuts from rusted pipes. Izzy would occasionally appear in the doorway of whatever room William occupied and hand him random tools. He ended up with a pile of wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, and bolt cutters around his feet, and when the toddler wandered away, he would place them back in the toolbox.
On the evenings when he wasn’t needed at Cecelia’s, William met Sylvie at the library and they ate dinner together. There was a Mexican diner they particularly liked, and they would share a margarita and eat tacos. During their secret period, they had been careful when they talked. They’d discussed books, basketball, and the memories Sylvie was writing down. Other permitted topics were what they’d done that day, whom they’d spoken to, and anything funny that was said. They’d avoided talking about the past and anything beyond the current day. In the late fall, though, once they’d been together for eleven months and Julia knew the truth, they allowed themselves to imagine a shared future. They smiled shyly at each other during these conversations. William still believed that he didn’t deserve Sylvie, didn’t deserve the way she loved all of him, in every mood and every thought, but she beamed at him across the table, and he found that, in her glow, his plans became more concrete, more clear.
He admitted that he wanted to be a physio. He wanted a deeper understanding of the physiology and motivations of the athletes on the Northwestern team. Why were some kids’ joints more resilient than those of others? How could injuries be prevented? William had noticed that when players missed shots, they had different reactions. Some got discouraged and were scared to shoot again. Others got
angry and went on a scoring run. A few—the rare ones—were the forgetful goldfish the coach urged them all to be: They made a shot and forgot about it, then missed a shot and did the same. They lived in the moment. William wanted to understand all the threads that made up the athletic humans in the Northwestern gym so he could help them not only stay on the court but flourish.
Arash helped William apply for the graduate program in sports physiology at Northwestern. The two-year master’s would allow William to keep his job with the team and take classes at night; he was also permitted to include a few graduate psychology classes, and because William worked for the university, the program was virtually free. William repeatedly thanked Arash for his assistance, until the older man became annoyed and told him to stop. But the idea of committing to another graduate program, after having failed so badly the first time, made William so anxious that he knew he wouldn’t have been able to do this on his own. One Saturday morning, when they were going over his final application, Arash said, “Stop thinking about who you were when you were living the wrong life, William. You’re built for the life you’re living now. You have a gift for seeing what’s wrong with these boys. And besides, you can’t fail when you’re doing what you love.” William was silent, considering this. “Do you not get it?” Arash had said, exasperated. William started to respond, but the older man cut him off: “It doesn’t matter if you get it, actually. It’s true.”
During one of their dinners, Sylvie said, “I want us to live together.” She had been sneaking in and out of William’s dorm for almost a year, setting an alarm for five o’clock in the morning so none of the students would know she’d been there.
William nodded and allowed himself to imagine that possibility for the first time. The pleasure of coming home to Sylvie every night, of sharing a refrigerator, a closet, and a bed. The peace of being utterly comfortable in his home, with her. He couldn’t think of anything more wonderful. William informed the university that he wouldn’t be a
resident adviser the following semester, and right before Christmas, he moved out of his dorm suite and into Sylvie’s studio.
When he was unpacking his shirts into her small closet, he and Sylvie kept smiling at each other, elated. This was the first time William had lived off Northwestern’s campus since he’d arrived in Chicago, and he enjoyed making Pilsen his own neighborhood. He chose a favorite coffee shop, a barber, a pharmacy where he picked up his monthly prescription from the psychiatrist. It felt decadent to sleep beside Sylvie all night, with no alarm set, with nothing to hide. William made dinner, teaching himself to cook from books, the same way he’d taught himself plumbing and carpentry. On the evenings when he didn’t have class, he studied while Sylvie read beside him. He would turn from his textbook to look at her, not caring if she noticed, not caring if she looked up from the page. Sometimes he would pull her into his arms, or she’d climb onto his lap, and they would entwine their limbs, take off each other’s clothes, all their movements soft, gentle, reverent.
When Kent and Nicole visited Chicago, the two couples went out to eat, often at the Mexican diner. Nicole had six brothers and sisters, so she and Sylvie shared stories of growing up in chaotic, loving households. Kent and Nicole enjoyed horrifying the librarian and assistant coach with disturbing things they’d seen during their hospital shifts: a man hopping into the ER, carrying a bucket that contained his severed leg; two college kids who had superglued their bodies together; a toy dinosaur lodged in a part of a man’s anatomy where it did not belong. Sylvie recited the titles of the most-checked-out books at the library, because Kent was interested in how that list transformed, or didn’t, over time. They discussed Nicole and Kent’s ever-changing plans for their wedding. On one visit, the event was to be held on a riverboat; another time, it would be in Detroit in Kent’s parents’ small backyard, or in a window-lined ballroom in a Chicago skyscraper. “Maybe we’ll elope to Paris,” Nicole said one night, and Kent kissed her cheek. The couple clearly had fun coming up with
plans, but they delayed the actual event while they tried to save money. They were both putting themselves through medical school using a blizzard of loans.
“What about you two?” Kent said. “You’ll get married.” He uttered this as a statement, not a question.
William and Sylvie hadn’t discussed marriage. William waited to see if the subject scared him, but nothing inside him changed. He was sitting next to Sylvie in the booth, the sides of their thighs touching.
“I’ve never really cared about weddings, and I feel like we’re already married,” Sylvie said. “Or more than married, if there is such a thing. And”—she hesitated—“it doesn’t seem right to do that.”
William nodded. He knew Sylvie was thinking of Julia; she often was. She wrote about her sister in the middle of the night; a spotlight shone on Julia in every memory she put on the page. Sylvie cared about her older sister as much as she ever had, and if she could save Julia from more pain, she would.
Kent studied them from across the table. He’d picked William up at the Northwestern gym before dinner, and the two friends had shot baskets for old times’ sake. They’d shown Nicole the laundry room in the sub-basement where they worked throughout college. Sareka had already gone home for the day, so Nicole couldn’t meet her. When the weather was nice, William sometimes ate lunch with Sareka on a bench in the quad. She told him about her three kids, and he told her everything he’d been through. She listened carefully, her head tilted toward him. Like Cecelia, Sareka clearly appreciated getting to know him after all this time. William felt sorry for his younger self again, because he had missed out on real friendships like hers. He remembered how he used to try to get out of every conversation as quickly as possible so Sareka wouldn’t have a chance to realize he was barely holding himself together. Now he told her all the ways in which he had been broken, and she told him
about her husband’s unemployment and how her middle son had the most beautiful singing voice she’d ever heard.
“Are you trying to hide your love, by not making it official?” Kent addressed Sylvie. He was still the self-appointed watchperson for William’s mental health.
She took a sip of her margarita. “I don’t think so. We just don’t need that label or certificate. And I don’t want to do anything more that might hurt anyone.”
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Nicole said. “But I feel like you forget the fact that William and Julia had already broken up when you got together, so technically you didn’t do anything wrong. You chose honesty, which was brave. And you chose to be happy, instead of heartbroken and miserable.” She paused and gave them her clinical gaze. “You two are adorable, the way you light each other up. I bet you never fight. Kent and I fight all the time.” She smiled when she said this. “We’re feisty, but you two are always gentle with each other.”
This hadn’t occurred to William, but it was true that he and Sylvie had never fought, never even come close. Every morning, they ate breakfast together: toast and eggs that Sylvie cooked. Then they both went to work and were grateful to see each other at the end of the day. Sometimes they slow-danced in the kitchen to a song that was on the radio. On garbage nights, Sylvie showed William all the treasures that people left on their curbs. He loved how excited she got when she found a brand-new toaster or a pair of sneakers in Izzy’s size. What in the world would they fight about? Who takes out the garbage? Or how much money one of them spent at the grocery store?
“You should get married,” Kent said. “Everything you went through to be here…deserves to be celebrated.”
“We’ll do whatever Sylvie wants,” William said.
“How about this,” Sylvie said, with a smile. “We’ll get married after you do.”
“Careful,” William said. He eyed his friend, who had already cracked a wide grin. “Kent’s competitive. He’ll go to the justice of the peace tomorrow morning, because he’ll see that as winning.”
most su days, sylvıe read, and William studied for his classes. Sometimes he studied with Emeline, who still had a year of college classes left. “I do want my degree,” she would say, when she was exhausted from working full-time while attending classes at night. “It’s important for the daycare, but I know I’m really just doing this for Mama, even though she doesn’t talk to me anymore.” Her sisters would hug her tightly in response, because they understood completely and knew there were no words that could help. When Emeline did eventually graduate, they would bake a three-layer chocolate cake—her favorite—and shower her with confetti.
Late on Sunday afternoons, William and Sylvie went for a walk. No matter what route they took, they made sure to pass Cecelia’s murals. Pilsen had been known for colorful murals since the 1960s, but a local arts commission had set about cleaning the old murals and hiring more artists to create new ones in the past few years. Nearly every corner featured a three-story depiction of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Frida Kahlo, or a painted quote from the Bible. Whenever Cecelia finished a new mural, Sylvie and William attended the unveiling, which usually consisted of a cluster of people standing on the sidewalk and a sheet being dropped from the top of the building to the ground below. There would be photos of the mural in the local paper the next day. When Cecelia was allowed to paint whatever she liked, she painted women’s faces. The painted women
—some tucked into the corner of a wall, others spanning a full three stories—looked fierce and beautiful. Sylvie laughed at each unveiling, because William always said the same thing: “She looks like you and your sisters.” Sylvie would tip her head back to study
the woman’s face. “They can’t all look like us, William. We don’t look anything like this fifteenth-century saint.” William shrugged, because he disagreed. He saw all four Padavano sisters staring down from numerous walls in the neighborhood and remembered the sisters showing up at his college basketball game, turning their collective gaze on him.
wıllıam beGa to FıGure out how he could be more effective at work. His understanding of the physiology of the athletes was better informed now, and he was able to diagnose injuries and vulnerabilities with accuracy. He developed a program in which he interviewed the Northwestern players three times per season—at the beginning, middle, and end. He created a list of questions to find out their injury history and whether they were confident or floundering. He wanted to know where the ice was weakest beneath their feet so he could keep them from falling through. He shared the information he gathered with the coaches, and they all worked to address the needs of each student at this particular moment in his life. They built up the player’s physical weak points and tried to build the player up mentally too.
“I knew how to be good to the players after they graduated,” Arash said, once they’d finished the first season of the program, “following up and lending a hand if I could. But you built us an infrastructure of kindness.” The results had been positive and almost immediate. After several years with a losing record, Northwestern had climbed to the middle of the table in their conference— considered by all to be a big step forward—and William was able to lie down next to Sylvie at night awash in gratitude for his life.
“I want to build more infrastructures of kindness,” Arash told William, and a few weeks later he started a free monthly basketball clinic in Throop Park, not far from the Lozano Library. The older man
enlisted William and two assistant coaches from Northwestern to help. High school coaches from underserved Chicago districts sent their best players, hardest-working players, and smartest players for advanced coaching. Arash collected proverbs, and he would often make the kids recite back to him phrases like: Opportunity did not knock until I built the door. Arash and William looked for bad habits— poor shooting form, unstable landings—that could lead to injuries. They gave the teenagers exercises to strengthen their ankles or told them to do fifteen minutes of yoga before bed.
Sometimes, watching these young kids run the court, hungry for the ball and hungry for praise from Arash, William remembered himself at their age. He would have been in his Catholic school’s gym, impossibly skinny and tall, running the court, not expecting praise from anyone. Not expecting his parents to attend the game, not expecting to be passed the ball but deeply relieved when it found its way to his hands. Sylvie had asked him one night, in her gentlest voice, “Do you want to reconsider your decision about Alice?” William had shaken his head. He knew some of the ache he felt in his body watching these boys at this vulnerable age was bearable only because he wasn’t a father. He cared about Sylvie with every cell of his body; the idea of watching someone he loved navigate their way from childhood to adulthood was terrifying. He had barely survived his own coming of age.
julıa had bee Go e for almost five years when the event space Kent and Nicole had rented for their wedding flooded a few days before the ceremony, and Emeline and Cecelia offered their large backyard. The couple had waited so long to marry that everyone wanted their big day to be special. The Padavanos, Kent and William’s old teammates, and Kent’s and Nicole’s relatives showed up in jeans and T-shirts to make the backyard beautiful in a short
amount of time. William, Gus, and Washington built a trellis by following instructions in a library book, and Izzy and Sylvie laced the structure with flowers. Cecelia painted tiny doctor’s bags onto the folding chairs and gave the back of the house a new coat of paint. By the time the wedding started, everyone was exhausted, but when Kent cried with happiness under the trellis, everyone present cried as well.
Later that night, in bed, Sylvie said, “I remembered something during the ceremony. Something I never told you.”
William was already looking at her; they had just made love and were lying facing each other. It was past midnight, and they were both a little drunk. Sylvie and William were almost never up this late and rarely drank enough to be inebriated. They lived carefully, because sleep was a linchpin of William’s health, and excessive alcohol made his medications less potent. Both he and Sylvie felt a little mischievous now, like children who had defied their parents’ orders.
“The day we brought you to the emergency room, I told the ambulance driver and a nurse that I was your wife. Everyone in the hospital thought we were married, actually, for the whole time you were unconscious.”
“You were my wife for ten days,” William said, pleased with the idea.
“What I like about that…is that it was the truth,” Sylvie said. “I wanted to be your wife. I just couldn’t admit it to myself. I said I was your wife for a logistical reason, so the doctors would talk to me, but it was true.”
The idea that in some profound, invisible way they had been married before they’d even kissed delighted them both, and William drew her closer to him in the darkness.
They married officially a month later, in the back room of the Lozano Library. Sylvie wanted to hold the ceremony there, and William simply agreed. He knew she felt safe and whole in the
library. It was a place that belonged to her alone, apart from her sisters. William bought a silver ring for Sylvie and a new suit for the occasion. Sylvie wore a simple gray cocktail dress and left her hair down, because she knew William liked it best that way. Head Librarian Elaine, ailing and in a wheelchair, attended the wedding, and the other guests were Emeline, Josie, Izzy, Cecelia, Kent, and Nicole. Arash married the couple. William could feel his heart beating during the short ceremony, and he found he couldn’t stop smiling.
Afterward, everyone except Head Librarian Elaine went to the Mexican diner for dinner. There was a confusion with the reservation when they first arrived, and for a few minutes there was an extra chair at their table. William knew each of the Padavano sisters pictured Julia sitting in the empty seat, and a ripple of pain crossed their faces. The chair was taken away by the waiter, though, and Kent told a joke to make everyone laugh. Toward the end of the meal, Cecelia stood and toasted: “To love.” Everyone up and down the table said and felt the words—the beauty, and the cost, of love.