Brooklyn, New York
I was a shy kid, very quiet. I never laughed or threw tantrums. Most of my time was spent in my room, doing homework or reading. In fact, the only time I reacted with a hint of violence was when my mother told me that Father had left us. I was eight at the time.
It was a Saturday and I sat in the kitchen eating Froot Loops. My mother came in just as I was finishing my cereal, her hair tied up in a severe bun, and horn-rimmed glasses perched on her nose, ready to spend her day in the study, grading papers. She stood looking at me with blank eyes, and I knew something was up; usually she barely ever looked at me.
“Wh…what’s wrong Mommy?” I asked. Her lifeless eyes burned with anger at the word “Mommy”, and I stuttered, “S-sorry, M-mother.”
“Your father is gone,” she said, with a stern tone.
“Doesn’t matter. He’s not coming back. It’s just you and me from now on,” she said, impatiently, and leaned over to pluck an apple from the fruit bowl, dismissing me.
I was confused, questions screaming in my brain. Why, how, when. My mother bit into the apple, sat on the chair, and read the newspaper in front of her.
A knot inside my chest tightened and loosened at the same time. I picked up my empty bowl of cereal and hurled it at my mother with a scream. It hit her forehead with a thump before falling and shattering on the floor. She jerked, her face tight with pain, eyes wide in astonishment. I was ashamed; I didn’t know what had come over me. It wasn’t me; the bowl slipped, I thought. Before I could lie and apologize, she left, and shut herself in her room all day.
Years ago, that Saturday my mother stopped loving me.
I was twenty-two when I attended my first college party at a classmate’s house in Brooklyn. I had just started a Grad program at NYU, and my roommate Sam insisted that I should go.
The blast of music, people’s laughter and cheers, could be heard from where I stood, covered in darkness, out in the backyard. It was too cold outside, dead and chilly. I stared at a massive willow tree with overhanging branches, sprawled in the middle of the snow-covered backyard.
The thick trunk forked in the middle and sprawled out into two daughter branches. That fork could be an ideal place to set my foot and climb. Then slowly, I could make my way up to the highest branch. However, I would pause and study them first. I would choose not only the highest but also the thinnest one. It would tremble with my weight and then snap, sending me free-falling to the ground. Perhaps I would injure my clavicle or my ankle or even my spine.
“Hey, what’re you up to?”
A hesitant girl’s voice came from behind me and I froze. I did not know if the question was addressed to me. No one talked to me and I liked it that way.
Footsteps rustled and then she was beside me. I saw her in my peripheral vision and recognized her as one of Sam’s friends, Natalie, though she was Nat in my head. She wore a blue parka that matched her eyes and her blonde hair floated loose around her shoulders. As always, she looked beautiful. Over the days, I had observed her a lot, more than a lot. It had nothing to do with her beauty but the way she moved, laughed. Nat was radiant.
“What’s so interesting about the tree? Are you going to climb it?” she asked, vapors smoking out of her lips, shooting me a bright smile.
If only she knew. She’d call me crazy.
“No. I was just…looking at it.” My voice came out scratchy with disuse.
“Okay,” she smiled and offered me a beer. “Here, I brought this for you.”
“I…I don’t drink.”
She cocked her head to the side, and gave me a bemused smile. “You don’t? Really?”
I felt embarrassed. “I, um, I’ve never tried it before.”
“Why don’t you try it now? Maybe you’ll like it.”
Hesitantly, I took the offered bottle. “Okay. Thanks.”
She watched me with expectation, waiting for me to take a sip. I brought the cool rim of the bottle to my chapped lips, and filled my mouth with bitter liquid. Then, immediately sputtered it out, coughing.
“Oh my God! Are you okay?” Nat asked, thumping my back.
I jerked out a nod as I wiped my mouth on the sleeve of my jacket. Finally, I looked at her distressed face. “I’m fine, I promise.”
“Okay,” she didn’t look convinced.
Now was the time for her to leave; I expected her to. I was too abnormal for her to stick around. So I was surprised when she said, “Do you wanna go inside and hang out for a bit?”
“You mean, you and me?”
She chuckled. “Yes, who else is here?”
I wanted to say yes so badly but I was afraid. I was afraid that if I spent time with her she’d decide that she hated me. In this moment, she didn’t know who I was, unloved and abandoned, abnormal. And I wanted to keep it that way.
“Come on, let’s go,” she laughed, and I found myself following her to a couple of chairs on the back patio.
She shivered as she sat down. “Aren’t you cold?”
I could see she was. “Do you need my jacket?”
I made to take my jacket off but she stopped me with her hand on my shoulder. Her touch was both jarring and… wonderful. “Hey, won’t you be cold if you take it off?”
Staring at her, I shook my head. “No. I, uh, don’t feel cold too much. You need it more.”
“How can you not?” she frowned. “It must be thirty degrees out here.”
“Maybe my frigido-receptors need oiling,” I joked but immediately regretted it. It was lame.
“You’re kinda cute,” she chuckled.
My heart pounded at her words. I felt like I was drunk, and I’d barely had a sip of beer. I stuffed my bloated fingers inside my pocket and thumbed the sharp edge of the push pin I carried with me.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” She sighed. “Okay, so if you’re not gonna talk, I have a confession to make. I convinced Sam to bring you here, to the party. I wanted to talk to you.”
“Talk to me about what?” Frowning, I gripped the bottle tightly, as if expecting a blow.
She shook her head in exasperation, and flipped her hair over her shoulder. “I like you, James. I’ve liked you since the first time I saw you with Sam. Whenever I come to your room, you’ve got your nose buried in a book or something. I see how smart you are. And I just couldn’t go on any longer without telling you.”
I watched her too, laughing, skipping in corridors, talking more with her hands than her lips, making me want to kiss them. And I had never kissed anyone before. I never had any urge to.
“You like me?” I asked, haltingly. When she nodded, I shook my head. “But you…don’t even know me.”
Laughing, Nat said, “And that’s why we’re here. So we can get to know each other.”
Unbeknownst to me, I had leaned closer to her and in the next second, her lips were on mine. She kissed me slowly, and I couldn’t help but move my lips against hers, tasting a hint of alcohol. In her mouth, it didn’t taste so bitter. I realized that I could kiss her for hours. Slowly, we explored each other’s mouth, our lips were the only touching point.
It was the most magnificent experience of my life.
Nat broke our kiss and leaned back. “I like you. So much. You’re this mysterious guy in the corner and I feel like I could talk to you, tell you things, and you’d listen.”
“What…what kind of things?”
Nat picked at the skin around her nails. “Random things. Things like I can’t live without music and peanut butter, and that my favorite animal is an octopus. That I want to swim in the ocean, live there and never get out. That I’ve known since I was five that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I feel like …if I told you all those things then you’d listen and you’d understand. I don’t know why but I just do. It’s in your eyes. They’re so calming and soulful.” She let out an embarrassed laugh. “God! I’m so lame.”
Her words doused me with reality. The things she thought about me could not be further from the truth. I was wrong in the head.
The truth was, I was not normal. I never had been. I would daydream about going to sleep in my bed and never waking up. My body felt too big, too heavy for me to lug around. Breathing was a chore too. Several times I had imagined my blood being tainted and thick.
Why was I the way I was? I never knew. There was no rhyme or reason to it. I was born this way.
And maybe that was why Father had left all those years ago. Mother had said that he didn’t want a family. But what if he just didn’t want me? Maybe he knew how abnormal I was and he didn’t want that in a son.
You’re better off without me, I forced myself to say, though the words of caution balled up and pressed over my windpipe.
For the longest time, I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t. This was too much of an unknown territory for me. But I saw the look of dismay on Nat’s face, and I began, “I, uh, my favorite animal is…” I thought really hard before saying, “I don’t think I have one. But I like water too. Water’s cool. But I don’t think I can live there like you.”
Her face morphed into a stunning smile as she asked in a soft voice, “What else?”
She was…so beautiful.
“I’m studying to be a geneticist. I am interested in…genes and heredity.”
In fact, I was obsessed with it. I had read mostly everything from the advent of Mendelian genetics to DNA structure, the mapping of human genes to cloning. Things that connected me to who came before. Especially my father.
“That’s great. I’m sure you’d make a great scientist. Just like I’d make an excellent fish feeder.” She laughed.
I decided to copy her, opening my mouth, stretching my lips, and crinkling my eyes. A bark-like sound escaped my throat. It was disconcerting. I should probably refrain or Nat would definitely run away.
After that we talked, by which I mean Nat talked, mostly about herself, about the things she liked. She did ask me questions every now and then, though.
She asked me about my favorite band, and I said the Beatles because it was the only band I could think of quickly. I didn’t have favorite hobbies but when she asked, I made one up. Then came my dreams and hopes; I had none. I didn’t know what any of those things were.
Every time I told a lie, I pinched the push pin between my fingertips; it soothed me, my guilty conscience.
As the night progressed, I excused myself to make the nightly call to my mother. Ever since I moved away for college, I had made it a habit to call her regularly to check on things. It was my fault Father had left, and she was all alone. Even though she would never say it, she needed me and I would always be there for her.
Nat insisted on trying every kind of alcohol at the party. Though I was hesitant at first, I eventually agreed. Alcohol made me loose-limbed, hopeful, so unlike the real me that for a few hours I forgot who I was. Words slid smoothly off my lips now. Kissing and touching her came naturally.
Even though she was a bright star and I, a black hole, I lied.
My tiny lies let me pretend that I belonged with her.