Amtrak delivered Ted to Penn Station right on time at four. He debated whether to catch the subway home or stop in the office, but heading home this early felt strange, so he opted for the office. He arrived in the lobby as the building’s denizens were filtering out. Jude had been scheduled to leave for Toronto in the afternoon. Mariette was presenting somewhere in Connecticut, with Daria as her shadow. Hap had his customary million places to be at once. The storefront usually trickled away by 4:30. After an hour or so by himself, Ted felt he had accomplished a great deal. Then he got a text.
He wasn’t even going to look, but something made him tilt the phone to “Eugene Chen.” It was the Columbia student from Ditmas Park. He thought he was done with Eugene’s life-sick tomes now that the twenty-one days were up. He wasn’t even going to read the text, but something made him click. “Ted, I’m pretty sure I’m going to jump. I can’t change the way I feel about it.”
“Eugene, man! Whassup, buddy! Where you at, Eugene? Where on Cathedral Parkway? That’s not your dorm, is it? And she works? Wow, that’s an awesome job! So how long is your sister gone for?” It was time for split-screen Ted as he panicked, thundering down the stairs to the fifth, fumbling with the digits of the door combination, darting from to room to find no living being.
At least he had the kid live. “You don’t want to do that, man. I can guarantee you.” He decided to continue his thundering down to the lobby, mainly because the sound of his heavy feet helped him think twenty seconds ahead. He pushed open the door to see Hap coming through the revolving doors ahead. He rushed toward his boss like he might jump into his arms.
Ted’s way of dancing around in communication seemed to Alan choreographed for West Side Story. Ted had put his phone on speaker, but Alan couldn’t make out what was happening. He pulled a Mont Blanc pen from inside his jacket and grabbed and turned over one of the cards stacked on the ornate Deco table. Ted’s ballet turned much more erratic at the sight of the paper Alan was urging him to use. Finally Alan handed Ted his phone and held Ted’s as Ted typed on the notepad: “Columbia stud. gonna jump. Cab 2 Cathedral Pkwy. Cops?”
Inside the cab Ted kept talking about talking. “Remember during my talk how I told you guys about Hap the man? Well, he’s right here”—he laughed. “Hap the boss. I’m handing him the phone.”
“Don’t call anyone,” said Eugene. “If I see police I’m jumping.”
“No police, Eugene,” Alan promised. “Just friends.”
“I don’t want a lot of people.”
“No one wants a lot of people. Is anyone there with you?”
“I’m sitting here alone.”
“It’s how we all start out.”
“It’s how we end.”
“Did something happen today, Eugene?”
Silence. “Nothing happened today. That’s what’s wrong. It’s the same as it was.”
“What would you like to change?”
More silence. “Me.”
“Ted said it would happen after twenty-one days. But I’m the same.”
“No, you’re not the same. If you were the same, you wouldn’t have called Ted tonight.”
He didn’t answer. “Did you hear that, Eugene?”
“Is it your grades?”
“My parents mainly.”
“Eugene, I’m a father. I’ve got two kids who’re probably ten years older than you.”
“I thought you were a priest.”
“I had the kids. That’s why they kicked me out.”
He didn’t answer. “Are you there, Eugene?”
“I want to talk to you from the perspective of failure as a parent. Too many parents get failing grades. They’re not bad people; they just can’t communicate with their own kids.”
“My parents went through a lot to get here.”
“Like I said, they can be incredible people—strong people.”
“They can say these things that . . . cut you in half, like a machete.”
“They think that they have this magical ability to help you do your best. I did too. That’s the failure part, thinking you own another person’s life. Just because that other person was helpless at one brief point. And the mind of a parent wants to stay in the past, at that point of helplessness. The baby cries, you give him a bottle to make him happy; it’s so easy. And when the grown-up baby isn’t happy, you think the fix is easy.”
“But my parents, like, make me unhappy all the time.”
“I hear you, Eugene.”
“Like during the New Year’s parties I heard my mother say about me, ‘He’s not Chinese-good; he’s Caucasian-good.’ And the lady she was talking to was another Chinese mother. She dropped her head, like my mother told her I was in jail.”
“Can I tell you a story, Eugene?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“When my daughter, Meredith, was nine she wanted a horse because her friend Jenny had just got a horse. She was crazy over having a horse, but I knew my daughter as sort of . . . well, she was already fickle and quit things very easily. This was before Dora the Explorer, but let’s just say that Meredith would never want to be Dora. She wanted to be the princess at all times.
“And I was driving Meredith somewhere with her best friend, Amanda, who also desperately wanted a horse like Jenny. I had the two girls in the back and was responding to this united horse front.
“ ‘But why do you want a horse, honey? You have to give me a thoughtful reason.’
“ ‘Because Jenny has a horse and I want one—so, so bad, Daddy!’
“Amanda, who always sat up straight with a sweet little smile, said, ‘If I had a horse, I would feed him oatmeal, carrot sticks, and marzipan.’
“And Meredith screamed, ‘I want a horse because I want a horse!’
“And I remember wondering what Amanda’s parents did to make for a successful girl like that—a girl who seemed to have the intellect to deserve a horse. I loved my daughter, but I was comparing her to Amanda so blatantly. It was cruel what I did. I did that all the time to both her and Ryan—compared them to their privileged, overachieving friends. And they knew it. Nothing was ever good enough for Dad, so Dad just . . . he just opted out of the parenting game.
“And now—now I’ve lost my kids. They have the lives fate gave them. Eugene, your parents aren’t like me—they’re much better people because they’ve stuck with you. But still, they’re going to live their own lives and die. You just have to outlast them. You probably can’t beat them at this point, but you can outlast them. You keep loving and respecting them, but you outlast all their machete whacks. When you get out of school, get a job, and start your own life, it will all be different.”
“I feel like I’m going to fall all the time. Through a manhole and past the rats. Just fall and keep falling into the dark.”
“You’re afraid of falling?”
“I was always afraid of heights because I felt I might jump. Even when I was little, I thought I might jump for no reason. And I pictured my parents beating themselves up over what made me jump. It would be such shame to them—that I would be so weak.”
“Kierkegaard said that some people are more afraid of jumping into the abyss than falling. Maybe it’s because we can’t live with our greatest fear. So we come to believe that sacrificing ourselves to that fear is the only option.”
“If I jump, the falling’s over.”
“And you’re over as well, Eugene, and you’re depriving the world of what’s inside you, what you can do and give.”
He laughed. “Caucasian-good.”
“I’m not religious, but I believe something I was recently told by a Roman Catholic. He quoted from the Gospel of Thomas, which most people don’t know because it’s one of the Gnostic scriptures. In this gospel Jesus says, ‘If you bring forth the genius within you, it will free you. If you do not bring forth the genius within you, it will destroy you.’
“When I said to outlast your parents, Eugene, I meant to continue your search to find the genius within you. When you do find that, it will free you. The point of the twenty-one days is to free you from random learned habits—rigid mental thought processes that stand in the way of simple objective thinking, the basis for discovering the genius within you.”
After a lengthy pause Eugene said, “I kind of faked the twenty-one days.”
“Maybe you were afraid of leaving your parents’ world. That’s obviously the world you’re comfortable with—their rules, their beliefs, their goals, their ways of looking at the future. Maybe you should try again. I’m looking at Ted right now, and I know he’d be willing to help you.”
The taxi had stopped in front of the number Eugene had given Ted, who was swiping his card while mouthing something to Alan about going around to the back as well.
Out on the sidewalk Alan handed the phone to Ted, and then almost immediately he was shaking his head in disbelief. “I’m not seeing this.” He wasn’t looking toward the ten floors of brick building as Ted was doing but at the curb behind them—specifically, at the kid in the hoodie, the one on the phone getting out of the back seat.
When Ted realized that Eugene had conducted the conversation from the back seat of a parked car he looked ready to explode. “Is that your car?” he shouted, pointing with his phone.
Eugene recoiled. “No. It’s my sister’s. She lives here.”
“Yeah. On the second floor.”
The fact that the apartment didn’t even guarantee death by falling was only vinegar in the wound. Alan put his arm around Eugene and led him away to give Ted a chance to cool down. When it seemed to Alan that Eugene could be trusted to his own care, and after the three discussed the peer counselors Ted knew at Columbia, a car stopped in front of them to dispense guy holding a very neat white bag. “Sushi Yasuda?” asked Eugene.
Now Alan wanted to kill the kid too. “How in the hell did you order takeout?”
Eugene held up the iPad in his left hand.
Ted was still seething as the Hap contingent walled away from the episode. “The least the fucker could do was give us a California roll.”
“Well,” said Alan, “he’s alive.”
Ted shook his head. “Was any of that true, what you said?”
Alan now wondered what possessed him to talk at length about Meredith like that, to dredge up a cautionary tale out of sad memories. They have the lives fate gave them surprised him. He had no idea what fate had given them. He missed the idea of his children but not the time he might be spending with them. He loved them even though they were selfish. He worried about them up until he drove off alone. How could he be that unfeeling? The guilt of not missing them seemed terminal.
Before Alan could decide how much truth he could bear to uncoil, Ted ran interference. “You’ve got secrets, I know. I don’t want to hear them.”
“Why don’t you want to hear them?”
Ted filled his cheeks with air and blew. “I don’t want things to change.”
“You’re the opposite of Eugene,” said Alan. Then he made a face. “How did he ever get that name?”
“They named him after someone.”
“Maybe his parents do hate the kid.”
“I guess English is random when it’s not your home language. You can pick a name from thin air. Something so important—what a lot of people pay lawyers shitloads to have changed.”
Yeah, thought Alan, it was funny. When they told him he could pick a surname, it seemed such a joke. He remembered in college seeing a movie from the sixties called Mister Buddwing, in which a man—James Garner before there was The Rockford Files—wakes up on a bench in Central Park and can’t remember who he is or anything about his life. He decides he needs to pick a name for himself and takes his cue from a passing Budweiser truck and a jet flying overhead: “Bud” plus “wing,” though for some reason he threw in an extra D to make it “Buddwing.” When, in 2005, Alan considered why on earth he was committing to this bizarre decision, he thought of the things he wanted to be when he watched Mister Buddwing as a college student: happy and good.
Suddenly the two men were stopped at an intersection, the light playing bad-cop to frenzied traffic. Directly before them was a Department of Sanitation truck with its passenger door open—in fact, there was no door at all, only the driver of the massive weapon and his blaring music: I blew six million on myself and I feel amazing. Ted slammed the side of the truck with his fist as it jerked into motion and barreled into the future. “That fucker could’ve killed Ethylynn.”
“You’ve got to stop calling people fuckers.”
“They are! Damn, that pisses me off—that you can use that ploy.” He jumped up to slap a street-cleaning sign. “Killing yourself as a ploy.”
“People need attention for different reasons.”
“Why aren’t we like that then? Why aren’t you and I and Mariette and Jude walking in front of buses?”
“Because we wouldn’t do that to people.”
“You’re damned right we wouldn’t do it to people. I’m gonna jump if you don’t make me feel better. I’m gonna pull the trigger. I’m gonna light the match.” He jumped up to slap another sign. “I’m gonna swallow this bottle of pills if you don’t get in the tub with me.”
Something had obviously snapped in two. Or maybe was hacked in two with a machete. Whatever it was, Alan let it go. He patted Ted on the back and kept his arm there.
“They’ll think we’re gay,” said Ted.
“Everyone who doesn’t want anyone to be gay.”
Alan took back his arm. “Did I ever ask you why you weren’t a skateboarder?”
“I don’t know. But I’ll tell you now that I sucked.”
He laughed. “Reason enough.”
Ted didn’t seem to agree with that. “I suppose sucking’s not the reason. It’s that . . . it always seemed to me a way to feel you’re not like anyone else, to feel you’re unique, but you’re really just riding round in the same circles. You want to stay yourself forever, like Peter Pan. You go fast, but what you get is deep into something, not away from everything.” He paused. “For me, life was all about getting away.”
Alan thought about his two years at the community college—those years of being impervious, just passing through to get away. He felt closer than ever to Ted and to Mariette and to Jude in their shared compulsion to pass over the present, to deny the right now in favor of the moving target ahead. He felt possessive of the enormous void Ethylynn’s death had handed him. And then he thought of Ryan on his skateboard, always with the locks of tangled brown hair falling forward like an enticement to test a new pair of hedge shears. You could never see his face; it was like trying to spot the black bear in a dense pine forest at dusk.
He didn’t understand what drew people together and what pushed them apart. All he knew was that everything we do is for revenge. You don’t love us so we won’t love you while you’re dying. Oh yeah? Well I’ll go out and find some other kids to love. In fact, I’ll double the number—four instead of two. One of them dies senselessly, I’ll find another. Oh really? How about I have you killed?
Yeah, how about that? Was he ready to die? Was he ready after two plus seven years in the process? He didn’t know if he had any fight left. Maybe he would just do nothing, surrender his hand to the universe. Better yet, place it in the care of Nice Nurse Tracy from Newark. I—is—you—angel—Mr. Gleason. In some strange way, that was the only imagined option that gave him comfort.