Joyland

New York |

White Walls

by Darley Stewart

edited by Emily Schultz

We lived then in North Haven, beautifully by most standards. My mother and father and me — I was by all accounts a beautiful child, their only son. Mom kept our house looking as beautiful as polished crystal. Cool light slid through the branches of the trees in our front yard, past my bedroom curtains, and swelled upon my eyelids every morning. The house contained many formal occasions for the elite of North Haven. Dad still had his hands without the tremor, wide as a farmer, calm as a surgeon, his face, his height. Everyone who knew our family was stung by our beauty.

*

Jacob. I wouldn’t say I think about him a lot. I think about the name. Dad put some real thought into it when he changed his original name from the adoption place, Elliot. Jacob. It has that ring of the respectable, but can be shortened to Jake, someone you can relate to, someone maybe a little athletic. When I think about him, I see into his impossible future. In the early days of our relationship, I come home from school and I look at him like a china cabinet. He looks like he can be opened up, peered inside, with pretty things hidden away, protected by glass and parental admonishment. One time I come home and it’s the middle of August and he has a funny look on his face — similar to the kind he gets after an asthma attack. He is sitting on the couch in the living room near the large window. I sit down a seat apart from him.

“What is it?”

“Nothing.”

“Something.”

“Just a girl.”

Just a girl. I tell him he’s too young to think about girls. “So what does she look like?”

“Like a girl.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“I don’t know.”

“Look you’re never going to know.”

He’s silent. I learn that he is silent when he begins to fall into a state of trust. I tell him as many things as I know — I don’t hold back. I tell him that he needs to stop worrying about this girl and if he can avoid hanging out with girls altogether he’ll only do himself a favor and boost his status. The girls will come to you when you ignore them. Because the girl — you don’t need the girl. You might want her for a while, but you don’t need her. You’ll move on to another. He says I’m mean. I don’t say anything in response and look him in the eyes. Jacob can’t handle direct, neutral eye contact and shifts his gaze towards the window. The windows are closed because it’s one of those weird summer nights when it’s raining. Jacob is so new to this town, to this house, to the school, and already he has feelings about a girl. He is wearing a shirt with some embroidered logo on the chest pocket that Dad picked out for him, neatly pressed cargo shorts, the drawstring in neon orange. I mention that the clothes he’s wearing probably turned her off. Though it’s a joke, I can see fast hot tears coming down his ten-year-old face. I walk over to the television and flip it on and a newsperson is talking about whatever is new with the state of American healthcare. Bruce, the dog, is settling in on the sofa next to Jacob, comforting him.

*

Dad and I have a solo trip together that I suppose I’ll never forget — I hate the phrase, but it’s my first time to New York.

It isn’t, I determine, a place I can live — I don’t know, maybe I’ll change my mind about that, maybe I’ll earn so much I’ll be able to afford it without any of Dad’s money. Apart from that, I think it is impressive. Maybe it’s the first time I am impressed. It’s not easy to catch hold of that feeling, so I hold on to it the whole trip.

It is my freshman year, late October. I’m expecting a cold embrace from the city. I mean that at face value, temperatures in the low 50s, all these fashionable people in leather, furs. The weather is a bust. I walk around Kips Bay, Midtown East, Central Park. I don’t take any drugs, I don’t even smoke cigarettes on the trip, but I’m inhabiting a new space, glittering, timeless. The air is thick, the moon is out. I am strange in my bones, strange inside my own head, like a woman baring herself to someone she knows she doesn’t love, and I want to meet women like that.

*

Here I am now, several months before I have sex with a prostitute for the first time, lounging at the Carlyle, in a night so full of that strangeness that the floor and the ceiling look the same, in unison, to my eye pure, negated by the same things. I’m fourteen years old. Mom is dead. The golden era is over.

I tell Dad’s most recent prostitute that New York feels like a place for all the women to gather and complain that there are no good men left, then go home drunk and lay themselves bare and pretend that they have at least made use of an evening, tell themselves at least what looks hopeless isn’t really lacking in hope. She only looks at me with a curious look in her eye. I tell her I like New York and that I especially like to walk around Chelsea in this cough syrup air, even though it tightens the core of my

chest, that I think about women like her all the time. I say I enjoy looking at the storefronts, which always look important at night because they are empty. The mannequins, ranging from smaller dewy-looking ones to full-breasted fabric torsos, with webs of leather crisscrossing them, reflections of emergency lights twitching in the glass, as beautiful as a drag queen’s makeup or one of those statement necklaces, hung on the thin necks of those Park Avenue women with high cotton-candy hair, the infinity of emptiness — it all feels worth looking at.

The thing with New York is that even when it’s slow it’s fast. Nothing stays in place for long. I see these pairs of people dotting the night with their strange dynamism of empathy and enactment of aggression, and move on to the next block where I’m hypnotized by moving trash. I could watch it for hours until it becomes demystified (turns out a transient of some kind is inside the great pile of trash), making that pile breathe into the night. Why are you at the Carlyle? the prostitute asks. Dad has business appointments uptown. We stay here out of convenience.

I associate the Carlyle with these eccentric middle-aged women dressed in dark, almost unbecoming clothing, except that they are heritage pieces, like walking around in an expensive rug, women who visit flower shops and buy three-hundred dollar candles perhaps for dead or nearly dead friends, insisting on unfussy customer service in their own pretentious way, behind very dark heavy-shaded glasses that don’t block out the sun, just people. I don’t know anything about their lives, only that Dad’s parties were frequently attended by these women back when Mom was alive. Back when your Mom was alive? I say yeah. She is really nothing like Mom. The fourteen-year-old part of who I am is suddenly gone, and she feels this, that my knowledge of her might as well be complete. Is it ever all that difficult to decode a person? You can compress them, sometimes, into a sentence. Her sentence is that she is a young woman better off not enacting the role of prostitute, but that is how she pays the bills (I have no appreciation of bills at this time) and she is now past the point of enactment because I assume the paycheck is an umbilical cord that ties you to the future — it is eventually cut for you to be considered fully born, but you can see that she is tethered to an idea of her future that will never come alive.

She starts to talk a lot at once, nothing like Mom. She wants to tell me what it’s been like for her. She says she’s always in repair in this city and that she used to save up money for school and attend church on Sundays. I find that it is very easy to pretend to listen. I don’t like to give too much credit to my virginal self — what do you really know about the world before you’ve fucked someone? — but I know enough to make this woman feel like she is the center of the universe, that every long-repressed secret could tumble out of her chest and be caught by someone who cared. I could fake that for hours. She is nervous about having sex with my dad.

She finally spills her name, Angie.

Heat swirls around us and clamps down on our bodies, despite the air conditioning that blows through the lobby.

It is so hot that the heat swirls in from the street as people come in, unaware of the conversation we are having, not at all curious about my sitting next to a prostitute who is dressed openly like a prostitute. This is what I like most about New Yorkers, their lack of curiosity. I am calm, she is terrified. I suggest we drink.

But you’re not even sixteen, she says. I’ve been drinking longer than you’ve been fucking, I say, unimpressed with myself, wondering when it will be time for me to fuck. It is true that I have been drinking scotch since I was nine years old. My father is upstairs, I assume, preparing for sex. He is a strange bastard and suddenly I am afraid for this girl. Mom was the only woman I knew who could keep him in line. I once heard Mom tell one of her friends over the phone that their sex was going stale, and it made sense to me as a nine-year-old that something was boring Mom, and that Mom was looking for something elsewhere. It wasn’t until I was ten that I understood that Dad was doing the same.

*

Me and Angie are into drinks and some serious conversation at this point. I watch her mouth. It alternates between looking like she’s sucking on bitter, badly made coffee and turning in on itself like a lipsticked merry-go-round, twisting with anger. It’s comical.

“Let’s get out of here,” Angie calls out to me as if I’m halfway across the room. “I need to get some fresh air.”

I know that stalling my father will not turn out well for her. I ask her about the time of her appointment and caution her to be on time. Angie says she can show up whenever she damn well wants, and I think that she is not ready for the truth. Sweat collects on our bodies like snow on headstones. I lean into the heat. Her body is studded with piercings that give off light, as she leads us to another drinking spot not far from the Carlyle. This street, Madison Avenue, is something of a palace and impresses her, she admits. I shrug. She says she is always rushing. I offer that she is rushing towards nothingness and that she is too young to crush the mindfuck of talking to her client’s son. She waves her hand to dismiss my conjecture.

“Are you scared?” I ask, more aggressively. Suddenly I want to dig the vulnerability out of her.

“I’m a professional,” she says carefully, but I notice a tightness in her jaw. She grinds her teeth when she is afraid. Angie’s eyes are as dull and bright as the billboards in Times Square. I tell her so. “Times Square?” she hisses, recoiling at the comparison. “I never work there.”

She has the right to say it, she is a New Yorker. She is not afraid now, she has liquid courage in her and something to hate. She uses phrases like liquid courage. Raw fleshy Chelsea is supplanted by the serene perfection of luxury. For a moment we are straining against the great lie of perfection together, the crystal loops strung around the necks of bleak mannequins, hitting our faces with their bejeweled light, the heat increasing its hold on the black sticky night. The secret of solidarity is this — you run away from what you hate together, before you realize you are two people with nothing in common but the fraction of a moment.

“You know, Robert,” she says, trying out my first name. “God is going to intervene one day and I’ll quit this. This job means nothing to me.”

It is the first and last time she mentions God.

She says she misses small towns with classic American lawns, great sloping ones. With cars in the driveway? Yes, with cars. She wants to move upstate. Her desire is absurd. You can almost see the milky sap of her futile desire rising up her neck, filling her dumb face with sentiment, as she waxes lyrical about what she doesn’t know. It reminds me, right then, of the fig trees Mom planted that got destroyed by the winter when Mom passed away and Dad didn’t do anything to help the fig trees out. That was when I started seeing the psychologist twice a week and when everyone felt real sorry for me. I said to them — these strange women who hardly knew Mom and wept harder than I did at the funeral — what about the fig trees? Don’t you feel sorry for them too? I pointed out that their lives were cut short by the winter, that the white, milky blood of trees counts for something too. The women responded with blank stares, for a moment confused and disgusted, but not for a breath did they question their place in things, the silent hierarchy of the right to falsely mourn.

Our faces shuttle past us in the shop windows, all dark glass and modern spot lighting, until we stop back where we started, on the corner of Madison and Seventy-sixth and she appears to me as an unhappy mermaid in a purple sequin mini-dress swimming as hard as she can to catch a new life. Our faces stare back at us from the glass, and we look red-eyed, drenched, this October heat wave has grabbed us by the back of our necks like helpless pups. A wealthy couple, each wearing loafers and crisply tailored greys, drone past us, hardly giving us a glance. I smile. We are unworthy. She smiles back, the cords of her lips stretched tight against her face. She becomes memory right then and there. Any sweet moonlight reflecting off this golden street comes up for a moment and is smothered by the humidity, every pair of eyes pulled narrow by the salt of the hour.

It is hot and she shouldn’t be drunk but she is, and she keeps reaching into her dress for pockets that aren’t there.

Eventually we make it back to the Carlyle and we head up to the same floor. We are silent in the elevator.

She turns left, I turn right. The next day I knock on Dad’s door around noon, then let myself in after no answer. He is reading the paper. He doesn’t look up. I ask him how it was with her. He says, “It’s like sitting on a hollow log.” I still have no idea what he meant or what, if anything, could have gone differently.

*

Amtrak is unusually full that evening. Many hours later Dad and I are back in the house. Jacob is doing his homework. We have nothing in common — no wonder there. Dad finalized the adoption of Jacob a month before Mom died, I wasn’t given any details in advance and there was this tiny stranger in my house looking up at me with shaky eyes.

Dad wants me to go and help Jacob finish his homework. I try to conceal my irony, since Jacob is self-sufficient when it comes to anything academic.

Dad has one hobby. It is possible to consider them two separate hobbies, but I see them as one. He works with leather, decorates pieces from hides he has obtained himself. I have expressed interest in the past, it’s supposed to be one of those sacred arts that gets passed down from father to son. Dad works on his leather pieces alone and I understand that some of them are used in his personal life. I understand that from our trip, from seeing a torn saddle covered in spikes on the floor, coated in blood. I have all of the information I need about that aspect of things, and I have grown in my ability to see through not only every room of the house but every living tissue in Dad and Jacob. The house is quiet with the exception of the occasional sonic booms that come from downstairs in Dad’s leather workshop. Jacob is a tender mouse doing his homework, eating his vegetables. He pleases Dad.

“What are those sounds? Are you ever going to tell me?” Jacob asks me again when I sit down next to him to have a look at his math homework. I have no idea why Jacob’s fingers are splayed on his right hand, and I tell him to shut up about the sounds, that he’s lucky to be able to write with his left hand and I don’t ask him about his fucked-up fingers so what’s the point. Jacob obeys. I know that Jacob was in another foster home before Dad adopted him and that his fingers were probably rearranged there. Dad has feeling only for Jacob. I am destroyed that night trying to understand what it is about the child that Dad recognizes in himself. I have no answers.

We look at the math homework together. “Are you understanding this shit?” I say.

“Yes,” Jacob replies.

I squeeze the back of his neck. He looks up at me and smiles. I can feel his heart singing for freedom.

*

That winter I have sex for the first time with a different prostitute that has seen Dad. I ask him if it’s okay. He says he doesn’t care, it was around my age that he had sex for the first time with a prostitute too — then he does this pause with his eyes shifted to the side and asks if I have any girlfriends at school. I say no, they don’t want to have sex. He says nothing and goes back to reading the paper, spreading out the pages wider than necessary, ruffling them as though he is shaking the knowledge out of their inked feathers. It’s all bullshit, the man only pretends to read. He has stopped caring about almost everything since Mom died — and of course I get tired of saying “since Mom died,” but there’s no other way to say it.

I go off to celebrate the death of my virginity.

The winter has been cruel, and now there are heavy breasts thrust into my face for no cost at all, she owes one to Dad, she says, unsmilingly. I laugh a little at the idea of manners between them. It’s a business, she says, scolding my laughter. There are rules. I take off my pants and I feel a little pain inside my dick. I am so hard it hurts. As she relieves me with her mouth, I say I’m ready for the real thing. She says, it’s over honey. I am embarrassed that I am small and soft. I take a dildo and fuck her with it until my dick is working again. She is quiet and looks surprised. More than likely she is just tired.

I return to the house and Dad is cooking for Jacob. I am too tired to eat, so I sit down on the couch. I hear laughter coming through the walls. The reliability of their happiness is, I tell myself, an impersonation. I am the one with Mom’s looks. I have her cheekbones and I am better-looking than half the girls in my school, which means that all the girls have wild crushes on me. Jacob is ordinary, studious, carefully groomed and makes an effort to play soccer, though he isn’t very good. He and Dad have dinner together every night before Jacob finishes his homework. I walk through the room like a ghost.

Three years later the moon will be full in the sky, and I will have dinner with Dad, whose face will have changed shape from grief, rather remarkably, one corner of his mouth sagging a little lower with the stress of loss, Jacob will be nowhere, Mom will be where she has been. And I will have all of the world ahead of me. I am the light of the world.

*

Jacob doesn’t like surprises, but I tell him not to worry. It’s not that he likes some more than others, like most kids his age, he doesn’t enjoy them at all. I tell him that this isn’t a surprise. You would think from observing this kid that all he had ever learned about life was from books, and so it goes, you just can’t tell in advance how kids are going to turn out. Some have a real lust for life and some don’t. He answers back — with that uncannily logical voice of his — that almost everything in life is a surprise. We are in the car. I am driving us out of town to a spot off a street that marks the half-mile from a deeper, woodsier area, definitely not suburban. I like this area, it’s pretty much coastal, still it is all woods and brings me a sense of comfort. We’ve been on the road for a while now.

A faint whining sound emerges from the back of the car. I’m not too concerned about anything other than making time, I want to get there as quickly as possible, I want it to stay within the boundaries of daylight. Jacob looks at me from the corner of his eyes, then bites his lower lip. His skin looks almost pearly with sweat. He is such a delicate little guy, those sad freckles standing out on his face and arms like a rash. As I drive through the neighborhood, I roll down the window and light up my last smoke. Jacob hunches down in his seat, his nostrils flaring up and the collar of his flannel jacket pushed up around his neck. A small tremor threads through his eyelids. I turn up the music, and watch the tremor morph and thrash like an animal.

“Roll down your window, Jacob. Look at the pretty houses.”

I say it just to get him breathing normal again. But I always thought the houses were a little stiff, like nobody played music in them. And I always thought I would have been happier growing up in Southern California, or somewhere on the West Coast, where girls weren’t afraid to show skin, and not everybody you met was a friend of a friend of Dad’s, and you had to sit down with them to talk about college while stomaching a long, boring story that came with some rare scotch, just in case you thought the scotch came with the story.

At this point I have received early admission offers from USC, Yale, and of course Princeton, Dad’s alma mater. I obviously didn’t have to do much to get accepted there. I want to go to USC, so Dad and I haven’t been speaking. We pass by the house where I snorted heroin for the first time, though the house is on the market again, now that Nick’s family belongs to an even swankier neighborhood. Not much of a story there, I had an argument with Dad about something I can’t remember, probably my ripped-up jeans or my haircut, a rare argument where he bothered to pull out the gun and described in detail what my brains would look like once he’d blown them out. I ran out the door. My brains aren’t worth blowing out, I yelled back. I thought about seeing Mom at the hospital, but that’s when Nick texted me to come right over. And that is how you start. Six weeks later, we were shooting up.

Jacob rolls down his window. He doesn’t say anything. His eyes are closed, and the wind is blowing back his light brown hair. We are at the spot. I park the car. Jacob wakes up, drowsy like kids often are when they come back from a nap. I unbuckle his seat belt for him.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” I said. “We’re going to take Bruce out of the trunk and we’re going to walk to the woods. Are you ready?”

We walk in silence for the entire half-mile, Bruce whining softly in his cage. We reach the heart of the woods. Jacob breathes harder.

“Now let him go,” I say.

“I don’t understand,” he says in a soft slur.

“Take him out of the cage and let him go,” I answer, feeling myself grow warm at the back of the neck, the way that I did walking around with Angie that time.

“I don’t understand why you want me to do this,” he says, and his face looks real pitiful.

“Sometimes you have to do things you don’t understand,” I explain, getting philosophical and impatient at the same time. “It’s not a surprise, it’s just what life demands.”

Jacob opens the cage and looks at Bruce, whose liquid brown eyes stare back into his without a trace of living intelligence. Bruce was a pretty slow-minded dog for a pretty smart kid, in retrospect. Dad bought it for Jacob because they went to PetSmart one afternoon, and I guess I just couldn’t understand why

Jacob loved the damn thing so much. It followed him everywhere. I always wondered how you could possibly love something that followed you everywhere.

I touch Jacob under his collar — he is quickly sedated. “Let him go.”

There is still plenty of life in Jacob. He screams that he will never let Bruce go. I say that this is the only way he will ever find his way back. Otherwise I will leave him here. He says people will find him. I say maybe they will, maybe they won’t. He is still too young to know he is right. He can stumble over his beliefs. I watch him in all his squirming youthfulness do what I tell him to do, open the cage. The fucking dog is still sitting there.

I pull out Dad’s gun. I fire two shots into the ground. Bruce takes off.

Jacob cries out. His face is swollen. “My chest,” he says, pointing to it. He is an at-risk patient. His bony chest is familiar to me. I have taken him to the family doctor on multiple occasions and most recently for an upper respiratory tract infection. He wheezes at night not too different from Bruce’s wheezing. Bruce is gone. We are at least a good ten miles from the nearest hospital. I watch his chest, his face, his eyes, their bright pristine ignorance. His lungs, however, are dark and will no longer support him.

I watch him die. I put his body in the car and we drive to the hospital and I make a strong case for how there wasn’t enough time and how I can’t believe this has happened when we were just having a walk in the woods for a little bonding time. Then I say the crucial thing. I am responsible for everything. They tell me, it’s not your fault, son. You did everything you could. He wasn’t taking his medications. They do not say this little life could have been going places, this is a tragedy. They are doctors and they are very calm. They can look me straight in the face as I lie to them and I am happy to lie to the liars who couldn’t save Mom.

They are like white walls around a dead boy, architecture that I am ready to leave behind.