Dr. Mackinaw entered and took my left foot in both of his rough hands. He had a thick silver mane, completely different from Thomas’s sparse brown curls. Dr. Mackinaw said something to me, presumably about what he was going to do next, but I didn’t hear it. I was too busy thinking about Thomas’s hair. So I was surprised when Dr. Mackinaw began administering shots to the membrane between my fourth and fifth toes. “It’s Novocain,” he said with a weird glee. I imagined a tiny mouth between my toes. I squeaked at the pain. The doctor smiled but didn’t speak, just as Thomas would have done in the same situation. Tree branches moved in the window over the silver sink.
As the anesthesia took effect, Dr. Mackinaw did start to talk to me, about birdwatching and woodworking. “I like to carve woodpeckers out of cherry,” he said, then laughed as he poked and scraped the little cap of dead skin on the side of my fourth toe. There was a lot of blood. After he’d removed all of the tissue, Dr. Mackinaw picked up a smooth white tool with a bare wire at its end. When the wire glowed orange he pressed it to the place the wart had been, cauterizing it. The room swelled with the scent of burnt hair, which I now recognized as the smell of burnt skin, too. I watched with interest as the edges of my wound turned brown.
Dr. Mackinaw bandaged my foot with long strips of stretchy white cloth. “Keep Neosporin on it, wear Band-Aids for the next two weeks, and be careful,” he said, and left. Mrs. Mackinaw beamed at me on my way out. Thomas was back in his booth, out of sight. My parents’ insurance covered the whole thing. I limped home, oddly pleased.
The night that Thomas noticed the wart for the first time, we had been sitting next to each other on the couch in my basement, watching a Bollywood movie I found at the Blockbuster on North Avenue. I laughed at the endless dance numbers, the way the characters sang their way through every mood: happy, sad, silly, in love. Thomas made a sound of disapproval and patiently corrected me. “You have to understand,” he said. “In India entertainment exists for other reasons. They don’t have the same relationship with moving images that we—” Then I refolded my legs, Indian-style, as a sort of joke, and he saw my wart and stopped in mid-sentence, so concerned about my foot that he couldn’t finish his thought. I closed my eyes and let my mouth drift into a dreamy smile as he reached for my toes.
The duplex on Thirteenth Street was Thomas’s Bubbe’s proudest accomplishment. She had paid off her mortgage the year Thomas began fifth grade. She had had tenants in the upstairs apartment: first, for twenty years, a childless Italian couple who worked in restaurants; and for the next ten, a well-groomed man whom Bubbe called “a confirmed bachelor.” Thomas spent whole weekends of his summer vacation watching television in Bubbe’s neat kitchen with its green cabinetry and orange countertops. From early morning on, Bubbe kept the television on Channel Two, the local CBS affiliate, so that they would not miss the beginning of Guiding Light. They watched the show together while drinking decaf coffee with heavy cream. During the commercials she reached over and cupped Thomas’s cheek in her soft, slightly moist hand.
“Tommy, Tommy,” she said, her Düsseldorf accent unsoftened by forty years in Chicago. “You know I own this house, yes? It is mine. I paid it down for thirty years, and now it is mine. I own it.”
She had bright blue eyes and a disappearing chin. The feel of her hand against his face reminded Thomas of a half-dry bathing suit, and he could only stand it for a moment or two before he pulled away. “I know, Bubbe. I know. You told me, remember?”
After Guiding Light, Thomas would help Bubbe organize her German books alphabetically by the authors’ last names, or follow her as she vacuumed and swept each room. On his favorite days they made a special German dessert, the name of which Thomas could never remember. It was a thick, moist chocolate layer cake. The layers were separated by a fluffy white frosting speckled with maraschino cherries, and the entire cake was covered in the same frosting, topped with chocolate sprinkles and eight whole maraschino cherries nestled in whipped cream. Thomas’s job was to cut up the maraschino cherries with a butter knife and to place the eight whole cherries in their nests of swirled cream.
When he talked about his Bubbe, Thomas always came back to the cake and its maddeningly elusive name. He had spent hours in front of his computer, entering combinations of words into search engines – German chocolate cherry cake, whipped cream maraschino chocolate cake, German cherry cream dessert – to no avail.
“I just wish I could remember what it’s called,” he said.
Bubbe died when Thomas was fourteen. The house passed to Thomas’s mother, who asked the well-groomed man to move out, telling Thomas’s father, “I don’t need his rent as much as I need peace of mind.” The next year Thomas’s Aunt Claudia went through a divorce, lost custody of her daughter, and moved into the upstairs apartment. Aunt Claudia had an agreement with her sister, Mrs. Mackinaw: Claudia could live at Bubbe’s if she fixed the place up and rented out the bottom apartment. But Aunt Claudia hadn’t been able to achieve either of these goals, due either to her stressful job as an office manager in a big building in the Loop (as Thomas’s mother claimed) or to her zealous devotion to online dating (as Thomas’s father suspected).
Bubbe’s apartment had stood empty and mostly untouched for more than five years when Thomas stepped out of his parents’ ancient white van, carrying the hardtop suitcase in his left hand. “Here,” said Dr. Mackinaw, who had driven Thomas down to Berwyn, from the driver’s seat. “Let me park. I’ll come in with you.”
“No,” Thomas said. “No, Dad, I’ll be all right.”
Dr. Mackinaw put the van in reverse. “Don’t be silly,” he yelled out the window. “Just hold on.”
“Dad!” Thomas shouted. “I’ll be fine!” Their eyes met, and then Dr. Mackinaw raised his right hand in a kind of wave before pulling back out onto Thirteenth.
Thomas went in through the back door and found himself in an ankle-high pile of detritus: flattened cardboard boxes, dark trampled scarves, mountains of unopened junk mail, pieces of stale rye bread. He trudged into the next room, which Bubbe had always called “the parlor.”
Here, all was as Thomas recalled. Iced tea-colored sunlight fell from the windows in straight lines down onto the floor. The tall dark wood bookcases were still crammed full of Bubbe’s tchotchkes, some of which he remembered (Hummel figurines, baby pictures of Thomas and his older brothers in novelty frames) and some of which he did not (clove cigarettes, an Afro pick embossed with a fist). The pink coffee tables were still cluttered with matchbooks; rococo ladies and gentlemen still bowed to each other at the base of Bubbe’s lamps. The yellow and brown rag rug was even still bunched up on one side, as if Bubbe’s heel had just pushed it up as she rushed to get to the other room. But a layer of dust had settled on top of everything. Balled food wrappers littered the floor, as if a vagrant had eaten several Happy Meals in Bubbe’s parlor.
Thomas put his suitcase down and went to the kitchen. The linoleum countertops were edged with tiny cracks but clean. The cabinets were full of old food and fast cockroach shadows, and the floor crunched slightly under Thomas’s feet. There was a single coffee mug in the sink. The wall-mounted Teutonic spice rack with the word DEUTSCHLAND carved into the top was still crammed full of glass jars that held crumbling brown particles. Thomas stepped closer and saw that one jar was full of tiny wriggling beetles. He turned the sink on as hot as it would go and dropped the jar under the faucet, letting it fill and run over several times. Later he realized that Bubbe’s sink was not equipped with a garbage disposal.
The bathroom turned out to be the cleanest room in the apartment, with sparkling blue tile and a newish bottle of Pantene Pro-V in the shower. In the small bedroom a faded pastoral scene above the single bed still depicted a Tyrolean lakeshore in springtime. The shelves above the bed looked as if someone had swept everything off of them with one movement of their arm. Thomas unpacked his things. He put his flannels, t-shirts, and pants in the low brown dresser. Mrs. Mackinaw had taken Bubbe’s ornate duvet and bed skirt home after the funeral, so all he had to do to prepare the single bed was tuck his green fitted sheet under the edges and spread his blue blanket over the top. He had bought the sheet for his bed at school; the blanket he’d gotten for free, on his flight from Bangor to O’Hare.
Thomas recounted all of this to me on the telephone one night in early June, a few weeks after his move. He always carefully accounted for all of his time, explaining the minute events of his day to me. I suspected this was one of the reasons we had been friends for so long. I actually liked hearing about his shower routine, and about the errands he had had to run for his mother before he could come out on a Saturday night in high school. I enjoyed thinking about him doing these things, imagining his gestures—the way he touched his hair when he was frustrated, his purposeful walk when carrying something heavy—against the boring backgrounds of the Jewel-Osco and the library. It made me feel that all was right with the world.
“Anyway,” Thomas said, after he had finished explaining the situation at Bubbe’s house, “I can’t come over. Now that I only have my bike, it’s way too far to your house. I’m exhausted.”
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said, coiling the cord around my fingers. My orange comforter lay in a soiled-looking heap at the end of my bed. The window was open, and a cold breeze snaked in. I felt betrayed by the weather, another element conspiring to keep Thomas away from my house. It was summer. It was supposed to be warm.
“No, it’s just too long a ride. I’ve been having trouble with my left ankle.”
We’re nineteen, I felt like telling him. My arm hurts sometimes, but I don’t call the pain trouble. “You were at Osmond’s last night. His house is like five minutes from mine.” And yours, I thought. Your house where you used to live.
“Why don’t you just come over?” He was washing dishes. I could hear the clatter of the ceramic plates and the whoosh of the water.
I glared at the phone. “I don’t know. It’s pretty far.” I kicked the comforter and my foot stung; I had hit the edge of a book.
He exhaled like a hassled housewife on TV. “Susanna, you haven’t even been over here yet.”
I didn’t say anything. I had had to stay late to do inventory at the bookstore, and my back hurt. My mom had forgotten to save some dinner for me, and my dad had gone to bed at eight o’clock. I wanted to tell my tape recorder a story, but I couldn’t think of anything.
“Look, I’m sorry.” Thomas said. “Do you want to come over?”
“No,” I said. “Yes. Okay.”
I pulled out onto Division and headed west. The dark trees hung over the streets like low clouds. On Harlem, yellow light splashed into my car at steady intervals. I passed the Denny’s where Thomas and I used to sit until one or two in the morning, me in pink leopard print pants and him in one of his louder flannels. Sometimes we cut across the parking lot to the Amoco where cans of Coke were only a dollar and the guy behind the counter would sell anyone cigarettes, which we used to call “squares.”
On the drive to Berwyn I entertained the idea that Thomas and I might go out together somewhere, to some local bar or diner. I wanted a square even though I knew I shouldn’t have one. But as we sat in Bubbe’s kitchen waiting for the kettle to sing, it became clear that Thomas’s diner-smoking days were long over. “The place looks nice,” I said, eyeing the sink full of dirty dishes. What had he been washing earlier, on the phone? He thrust a handful of dried leaves from a sack he had bought at the farmer’s market into a cracked yellow teapot. “We’re having sage tea,” he said.
Once, on the floor of Thomas’s room in his house on Highland, I had found a picture of a little boy, maybe seven, wearing heavy glasses with a thick taped-together bridge and a purple shirt buttoned up to the very top. Under the image, in neat Arial, were the words “Thomas Mackinaw, Second Grade.” When I showed him the picture, Thomas shook his head and grabbed it away. Seeing that little boy made me remember Thomas, drunk just after graduation, telling me again about the special cake. I wondered if he had made one tonight, as a sort of housewarming ritual.
“Hey,” I said as he poured the hot water into the teapot. “Did you ever figure out the name of that cake your grandma used to make with you?”
Thomas looked up, spilling a little of the water onto the table. He glared at me. “No.” Neither of us moved as the steaming water flowed slowly towards me. Thomas put my mug of sage tea carefully out of the path of the water. It smelled bitter.
“So how was Osmond’s last night?” I said. He wouldn’t meet my stare and finally turned to fiddle with the sink. I glared at the back of his head, imagining the way his neck stubble would feel against my hand, then my lips.
“Fine,” he said, crashing plates.
“I bet.” The water hit the edge of the table. I closed my eyes, ready for the burn. It didn’t come.
“You know why I didn’t want to come over, Susanna.” Thomas said, still not looking up. He had dropped an embroidered cloth – not a dishrag, but a nice hand towel for when company came over – onto the water. It only kind of worked. The towel absorbed most of the water, but a few burning drops fell into my lap as I told Thomas I thought we had already talked about this. “I’m your friend and I care about you,” I said. “I understand that you don’t want us to be together.”
During his third year at college, Thomas read a great deal about veganism and the Asian economic meltdown in the mid-Nineties. When he came home for Christmas all he could talk about was markets, futures, and organic food. He was angry that more people didn’t retrieve their food from dumpsters. His eyes blazed and his posture wanted a pulpit. I took him to the expensive grocery store where my family never shopped and pointed out the aisle where you could buy cereals and grains in bulk from enormous plastic tubes. “I guess this is a little better,” Thomas sniffed, and let me make him broccoli curry for dinner. It was the only time I saw him during his break.
We didn’t talk when he was at school. I thought about him sitting in a wood-paneled railroad dorm suite. His roommate had to pass through his bedroom to get out. I saw him walking down long white hallways and drinking orange juice from concentrate in the cafeteria. I pictured him down on his knees in the Dumpster behind the dorm, pulling tubers and bruised apples from the plentiful and sweet-smelling trash.
I thought he didn’t want to call me because he had nothing to dream about me, that he couldn’t see anything but my dark little bedroom and the big yellow landline phone I’d stubbornly held onto. I had refused to get a cell phone even after all of my friends went away and claimed to forget their home numbers.
If I had stayed in college, I would have declared my major by my third year. I would have read thick paperback books and leaned drunkenly into the bodies of black-haired boys in striped sweaters. Instead I took long walks over to the neon blare of North Avenue, thinking mathematically about the broken intersection of North and Narragansett, where Michael’s Beef House stared down a discount clothing store. North and east of the intersection was Chicago, south was Oak Park, and east was Elmwood Park, where my new boyfriend, Carlson, had grown up. I told my tape recorder a series of stories about an underwater world. The hero was a little fish whose only friend was a piece of coral that might be alive or might be dead.
When we got together at his Forest Park apartment after midnight, Carlson let honey slide from his mouth into mine as I lay in his arms like a little kid. We met at the Circuit City, where he was an assistant manager. I had gone to the store one night in late April to buy a pair of computer speakers on sale. As I stood in front of the long rows of products, he came over to me and took the speakers from my hands. He led me to the guts of the store, to the backstage area where other men in maroon polo shirts flipped through black binders. I followed him through the store’s broad gray hall. A Backstreet Boys song blared from the far corner of the showroom. I thought I had done something wrong. But he took me further, to the staff exit. He pushed the door open and walked me into the parking lot behind the store.
“Here,” he said, and thrust the speakers into my hands. A car honked and I jumped.
“What?” I said. “I need to pay for these.” The sun was setting and the sky was Chicago orange behind me, the sharp gray shapes of the low buildings on Grand turning into silhouettes behind his head.
His hair flamed, glinting the same citrus color as the sunset. “Just give me your number,” he said. I read his nametag for the first time: Carlson M. He had freckles, a pink mouth, white shell ears. I wrote my number on his palm with a smeary blue ballpoint pen he pulled from his shirt pocket. A warm breeze came up from somewhere and moved the hair on the back of my neck.
“Go,” he said, and I backed away into the hot night, clutching the speakers like a second pair of breasts. I tiptoed at first, and then I turned and ran back to the Toyota, laughing and panting. I played the radio at high volume the whole way home, singing atonally along with songs I didn’t even like.
I still worked at the bookstore, but I had started a second job, too: I babysat an only child in a weird hidden part of River Forest, out on Lake Street near Maywood. To get there I drove west on Lake Street, past Barbara’s and Dr. Mackinaw’s office, into the little woods before the river, and then hung a left into a circular street named River Oaks Drive. I wouldn’t have known how to find it if I hadn’t looked it up on a map. Every house River Oaks Drive was weird. One was entirely smooth in front, no windows or doors. Another had wide picture windows filled with junk, eight miniature Venuses di Miloes and like five televisions. A third had six lightning rods sunk into its front lawn. The family paid me in cash.
In May, Thomas wrote me an email. I hope you are well, it said, and that you are doing the good work of keeping the home fires bright. At first his words made me happy, then they made me angry. In the months that I did not see Thomas, I had wished for him. I wanted to give him a gift when I saw him again, but what could I give him? In high school he had loved Marx, so I had bought him a t-shirt printed with Marx’s profile with the philsopher’s name in bright orange block letters across the chest. I had never seen him wear it. He seemed to like the meals I made for him—austere curries and repentant salads of cooked vegetables—but he ate them with a sort of dutifulness, as if it was a trial to accept my efforts to please him. Whenever I offered him a dessert I had made (chocolate chip cookies and lemon squares were my specialty) he declined.
I went online. Gifts for him, I typed, and then deleted it without hitting return.
German recipes, I wrote. German desserts, German cakes, German Chocolate Cherry Cake, Bubbe, Cherry Whipped Cream Cake, Berwyn German, Chicago Suburban German Recipes, Chocolate Cherry Cream Dessert Germany.
After a few days, I felt a sort of queasy magnetic pull towards the computer whenever I walked through the room where it lived. Finally I wrote back to Thomas. Hey are you coming home? I’d love for you to meet my boyfriend Carlson.
Thomas was already home. I’d forgotten how short the college school year was. He was back at his father’s office for the summer. But Bubbe’s place had been rented, as a result of his careful repair of the kitchen tile and excavation of the parlor. He decided to try staying at his house on Highland again. Things seemed to have thawed somewhat between his parents, who had come together to pick him up at O’Hare.
The first three days were relatively quiet, he told me, but on the fourth he woke in the middle of the night to banging on the first floor. He rushed downstairs, afraid someone was trying to break in. Thomas always had a kind of idiot quiet bravery, a reckless disregard for his own well being in favor of the greater good. He found his mother sitting on the floor surrounded by the thirty or so boxes of teabags they kept in a large drawer. “I’m sorting them,” Mrs. Mackinaw said pleasantly, and proceeded to pick a cardboard box of tea up and smash it with a hammer.
Thomas never explained what exactly was wrong with either of his parents, or at least would never tell me what the doctors had said was wrong with them. He was prone to grand statements about destiny and bad genes.
The next morning, he left a note for his parents that he would be taking the day off from work to pursue “other housing options” for the summer. He spent the day riding his bicycle to the poorer neighborhoods surrounding Oak Park and River Forest: Elmwood Park, Forest Park, back even to Berwyn. But the idea of renting an apartment on his own was unrealistic, and he went to the office after lunch. His parents nodded at him and said nothing, but atop the keyboard in his booth he found the note he had left that morning. In a loopy red hand beneath his words was written “Thomas—I have a place for you. Lets talk, yes, Agnieszka.”
Agnieszka was Thomas’s family’s housekeeper, a hulking woman with thick black hair she kept braided and pinned at the base of her skull. She had been a presence in his house since before his birth, feeding Cream of Wheat and summer peaches to his three elder brothers, now departed to different corners of the country. In high school he became embarrassed by Agnieszka’s presence in his home, as he would become ashamed of every marker of his family’s wealth in comparison with the great poverty of the world.
He and Agnieszka had not spoken at length since Thomas was in grade school, but when he went to her that afternoon Agnieszka grasped Thomas’s left hand in hers and explained that her second-eldest son, had constructed a “guesthouse” behind the clapboard A-frame where she lived with her family. The guesthouse had not yet passed some sort of inspection, but it was perfectly fine, a good place to live, and Thomas was welcome to spend the summer there.
“We live in Jackowo,” Agnieszka told Thomas. He noticed the rosary tucked in the front pocket of her shirtdress and watched the outline of the beads as she spoke. “You might know it as Avondale. It is one of seventy-seven officially designated community areas in the city of Chicago.”
On Fridays that summer, when his work for the day was finished, Thomas left the office, and took the stairs down to the street level, ignoring the escalator. The accumulated weeklong grate of his parents’ relentless politeness (“Bill, hand me that file?” “Sure thing, Judy.” “Thank you.” “Don’t worry about it!”) lay heavily on him. He unlocked his bike from the rack in front of Barbara’s Bookstore, never once coming in to say hello to me, and pedaled down to Oak Park Avenue, which he took south. Under the train tracks, past Saint Edmund’s and across Madison, to the bridge over the Eisenhower that led into south Oak Park, where small houses crouched under heavy tree cover. He swept his bike through the CTA turnstile and wheeled it down the long slope to the tracks, which lay between two arteries of the expressway. When the train came he rode it to the Belmont stop. There, bike hefted on his shoulder, he waited for a bus under an old red shop sign that said FURNITURE.
Thomas never told me the number of the bus, or the name of its route. These things were unimportant to him. I never learned these details for myself, either, because I made my pilgrimages to Agnieszka’s guesthouse in my mother’s Toyota, a little black car I disliked and did not trust. I took Carlson with me the first time I went, on a late Saturday afternoon in June. Oak Park was suffused with the lemonade light of a day well lived by the passels of children playing at the park with two slides on Chicago Avenue. I drove Carlson down North Avenue and took a left on Narragansett, easing into block after block of sandy bungalows with single toys in their front yards. I hung a right on Belmont, at the red-and-white striped Circle-G Convenience Store, where I’d never been. Carlson played his band’s demo on the stereo and gripped my hand in his lap. His thick red hair seemed miraculous to me, like the accidental touch of God on the body of an otherwise ordinary person.
Belmont took us into the mess of tiny roads that surrounded Agnieszka’s house. Long stretches of single-family homes with iron-scroll fences and paved front yards faced ugly churches with almost-foreign names: Saint Philomena, Saint Hyacinth. “This looks like where I grew up,” said Carlson. There were wide back alleys and sidewalks full of old people and children, broad one-storey buildings that held combination bars and liquor stores. Every few minutes we were reminded of the Polishness of the place by some establishment, Czerwone Jabluszko Restaurant dawning across my windshield like a reward for my curiosity, Jimenez-Jarzebowski grocery stores splitting the difference between the encroaching Hispanic neighborhoods to the south and the entrenched Eastern Europeans that had emigrated there in the 1890s and again in the 1980s.
Which tiny street took us to the gray shack where Thomas lived? They all had such WASPy names: Avers, Hamlin, Harding. I drove down each, looking for the alley marked with a tall pine tree that Thomas had told me about, losing track of the order of the streets. Every time I visited I would have to learn, again, how to get there. That first day it was easier to find Thomas; he was out on the guesthouse’s back porch with his laptop, talking to a rooster. A little gray house knelt like a child behind him.
“Susanna!” he called when he saw me, but did not rise. I watched as he took in Carlson, moving behind me in his baggy black pants and t-shirt. I had not told Thomas I was bringing him. Carlson had never stopped dressing like it was high school, which was all right, I reasoned, since Thomas hadn’t, either.
“Hi,” I said. The three steps creaked unsettlingly under my feet. The rooster had black feathers edged in green and bright red feet. It stared at Carlson and me, unimpressed. “Is this your pet?” I asked Thomas.
He rubbed his hair, which seemed not to have grown an inch since the last time I’d seen him, nearly a year earlier. His shoes looked new, though, the type of footwear preferred by middle-aged men who fancy themselves mountaineers. “No,” he said, and looked back at his computer. A few minutes passed. I heard shouting in Polish from down the street.
“Hey,” Carlson said, stepping forward. His features, which were sexily familiar to me in the low light of his bedroom, seemed awkward and obvious here. “I’m Carlson,” he said. Thomas lifted his laptop and stood, extending a hand towards my boyfriend. I found myself counting backwards from one hundred in my head, an old trick from childhood to calm myself. They shook hands and Thomas led us inside. The rooster did not move.
The interior of the house reminded me of the set from Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film I had watched in my first and only semester of college. Dreyer had designed the set with round corners, no right angles, the teacher had explained, to be both more medieval and more subtly upsetting to the viewer. The door led into a kitchen outfitted with a hotplate and a miniature refrigerator, like the kit they sold at the opening day of the “Superdorm” on State Street and Congress where I had lived for those unhappy months. Thomas showed us the bathroom—unpleasantly plain, cheaply constructed of plywood painted white—and his bedroom, an unadorned small room with the same airplane blanket I remembered from Berwyn on the single bed. Each room had a perfunctory window high on the wall. The place was a nod to the idea of a dwelling.
“Cool digs, man,” Carlson said, bobbing back and forth on his feet. I tugged at the frayed green scarf I’d thrown around my neck, hoping Thomas might see that it was the same color as his eyes. Carlson put his arm around me. When I shrugged it off, he smiled like an idiot. He smelled strongly of his favorite deodorant. This was something I normally liked, but it was all wrong here, among Thomas’s kitchen smells of bulgur and fruit rot.
“Thank you,” Thomas said. Two hours passed like this, the boys—men?—lobbing vaguely polite compliments at each other across the room like jai alai players as I teetered between them, increasingly curious about the rooster. I remember saying, “Carlson is a manager at Circuit City,” at one point, to prove something to Thomas—what? That I understood the proletariat better than he? That even though I had not left my family home for the comforts of exile in a place like Avondale, I was trying new things? We drank some drink made from an unidentified citrus fruit, or perhaps a combination of citrus fruits. Thomas couldn’t tell us exactly what, because the label was in Polish. He had bought it at the Jimenez-Jarzebowski. It was the sort of thing in which he took pride.
The next time I went to Avondale, I went alone and at night. I met Thomas at a bar on Milwaukee, one of the unpronounceable places I had seen on my first drive out there. The room was low ceilinged, lit by clamp lights clipped to bare pipes. The patrons looked like extras from a movie about the Great Depression, middle-aged men in workboots and thick jackets. Behind the bar was a girl about my age with long brown hair. One man spoke to her in Polish and she nodded, smiling. She turned around and sank to a squat. A lower-back tattoo appeared in the window of skin between her shirt and pants. The dusty-faced man watched her body despondently. The bartender rose again with a glass of beer in her right manicured hand. She dropped a shot of Grenadine in it and passed it to the man, who turned his attention to the soccer game on the television.
The bartender came to me with a plate in her hand and placed it in front of me. “What can I get you guys?” she asked in accented English.
“You guys?” I said. The plate bore an open-faced ham sandwich dressed with pickles and mayonnaise. “I didn’t order this,” I said.
“They come for free, with the drinks,” Thomas said, appearing beside me. He said something in Polish and the bartender turned to begin her shimmy again. I turned to Thomas to ask a question: where had he come from? Where did he learn Polish? But before I could, the bartender put two pint glasses of Zwyiec down in front of us.
I reached for mine first. A dime-sized dollop of red syrup sank lazily to the bottom of the beer. Thomas sat up very straight beside me, his red flannel glowing in the halo from the Okocim sign in the window behind us. His arm touched mine as he leaned forward for his beer, and then he left it there. Our two arms pressed together. I resisted the urge to push up my sleeve.
“I like this place,” I said, and took a sip of my beer. “I like syrup in beer.”
He moved his arm away and drank deeply. The movement of his Adam’s apple reminded me of a small white rubber ball.
“It’s good, yes. This place is very authentic. That’s why I told you to come here.” As usual, Thomas avoided my eyes. His words felt like a reproach. I couldn’t figure out what I had said to convince him, once again, that my reasons for enjoyment were wrong. In high school he used to sit calmly next to me and explain why my thoughts about something—about anything—were incorrect. I hadn’t minded this because I loved the proximity of his body to mine, his cargo-panted thigh sometimes touching my denim-clad thigh. The contact had made my tiny tinny heart thrill, just as the closeness of his arm did now.
“After this maybe we can take a walk,” Thomas said, ruffling his hair with his right hand, which meant that he was frustrated. “Around the neighborhood. There’s some things to see.” Instead of looking at his eyes, which he would not show me, I stared at the knobby knuckles on his skinny hand.
“What will we see?”
He gave me a little smile and I forgave him everything. “I’ll show you the church that half-burnt down. The other half is still there, and you can look inside the body and see half of everything.”
“Half of the altar? Half of the pews?”
“Some homeless people still go to pray there. In Polish,” he added, sipping his beer again. “Sometimes they sing.”
He turned to look at me then. It always took Thomas a few minutes to get warmed up enough to look me in the eye. He didn’t like eye contact. I met his gaze full on, trying to soak up as much of it as I could. His green eyes darted around my face, trying to uphold his end of the bargain. When we were in high school I used to push his hair out of his face, hold it away from his eyes, and dare him to look at me. After a moment he would show me what I had been waiting for: the full mouth, the arched brows reaching for his hairline, the penetrating green eyes.
“How’s Carlson?” he asked, filling his mouth with beer.
“Great,” I said. “He got a raise.”
“At Circuit City, right?”
“Right,” I said. I only had one trick I could pull on Thomas. I couldn’t outread him or be more ethical than him, but I could outstare him. I pulled his eyes into mine and thought stupid poetic thoughts about his irises and pupils. His eyes were circular, not ovals at all, and his skin seemed heavy on his face. His hair curled at its ends. I sank my sight into his face and thought furious wishes at Thomas until he relented and looked away. We finished our beers and headed for the door.
Outside two men sat on the pavement with bloody faces. Dark cars zipped by, ignoring them. One of the men was bald. His blood came from a cut above his eyebrow. The other had curly blonde hair, pretty like a child’s, and his blood came from somewhere under his eyes. It was hard to tell because he was crying, loudly, in Polish, and clutching his broken glasses in his left hand.
“Should we tell someone?” I asked Thomas.
“No,” he said. “I’ve seen this before.”
We walked gingerly around them. I felt the hot night wind on my chest and neck and remembered every other night of my life. Five years ago, four years ago, I had been stoned on this night, this June twelfth, I was sure of it. Rachel and I had been running around Scoville, whooping like child warriors at the advance of dangerous men. Was that why I was here, looking at broken men on the Avondale sidewalk with Thomas, instead of sailing or doing whatever people did at college?
We reached my car at the end of the block, but neither of us made any move to get in. We continued to watch the two men. The bald one stood and flung his arm at the weeping one. It looked as though the bald one would hit the weeping one again, but instead he helped him up.
“Did you bring any of your tapes?” Thomas said without looking at me. I turned and took in his profile against the night.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Come over,” he said.
I started to tell him I couldn’t.
“I remembered the name of my Bubbe’s cake,” Thomas said. I took him to my car.
In his kitchen he made tea from some other dried herb, pushed some bananas at me. I bent towards the little fridge for milk and he caught my upper arm in his hand. Oh, Thomas, with his milk-pale pastor’s skin and his full pink mouth like a flower and his heavy dark eyebrows swooping like vultures above those shining green eyes, like pieces of spring in his face.
At every place he had lived I stared at his hands while he made the simple food he wanted us to eat together: brown toast with unsalted butter, a ramekin filled with stewed rutabaga, slices of a sour green apple. I was so hungry I didn’t know how to digest these gifts. They disappointed me. I wanted richer things. I didn’t know to look away from Thomas’s hands, away from his missionary face, to look instead at the scuffed white wall behind his head and the shadow falling at his feet, to look somewhere, anywhere else, and just feel his body as he moved towards me.
When Thomas went back to Maine for his final year of school, I became expert at worrying about him. Things were looking up for me. I had two shoeboxes of taped stories under my bed and a bank account. I had begun paying my house’s electricity bill, a small gesture that made my parents start smiling at me again. The bookstore had made me an assistant manager and Carlson had taken our breakup with a certain grace, nodding sleepily as I paced and spooled out the well-rehearsed words. Adults in my life began to speak about me using phrases like “making the best of her situation” and “taking a different approach.”
Yet I felt as low and dark as the first January day that I hadn’t gone back to college. Thomas and I had spent four nights together during his Avondale summer, had had sex twenty times in Agnieszka’s poorly built guesthouse. I saw his pale acne-scarred back, smelt the musk of his body, bit the backs of his calves. I had whispered that he could do anything he wanted to me. These things seemed true to me: I had always wanted him. His desire affirmed a small blooming part of me that meant that I was not alone, that we would be not alone together.
I was no virgin. I had slept with three boys besides Carlson, but everything about being with Thomas made me feel stripped bare again. I allowed myself to be nude with him in ways that I had refused other lovers, turned towards him instead of away when I felt my face contort in a moment of pleasure, spoke my wants instead of pushing them to the back of my throat. And then he was gone and even the memory of our last morning together—him holding my right hand between both of his as we lay together in bed, me attempting to weep and failing, the way he lifted my arms to wash them in his tiny mildewed shower—was little comfort.
There was never any question of Thomas staying past August, or my visiting him, or even of us talking more often while he was in Maine. We were old friends, the idea seemed to be; we wouldn’t lose touch. Eventually we’d find ourselves in the same place again. Thomas seemed to think the topic didn’t even merit discussion, but of course I was only guessing this. He was silent and impenetrable as a statue.
I began to pull the names of Thomas’s female friends from college up out of the depths of my memory, to create torturous shadow lives for him. He went biking with Ellie, saw a band play a show with Jessica, laid out his beautiful body on a bed next to a girl with the infuriating name Pixie. I knew I was hurting myself with these imagined dalliances, but I couldn’t stop. I didn’t know if the snatches of description he had given me were true or exaggerations, whether it meant anything or not that he had only had one girlfriend in college, a relationship that had dissolved before the end of his first year.
I used some of my babysitting money to buy a better tape recorder. All fall I stayed up late, telling long stories about my life. At the beginning I put the stories in a made-up town in Alaska and made the main character a boy. Then I got tired of making up details about snowmobiles and ice fishing, so I told new stories about a place in Illinois called Yew Grove, but the character was still a boy. He looked suspiciously like Thomas, with burning eyes and pale, able hands. Finally I realized I couldn’t know his mind and I couldn’t put my thoughts in his brain. I hit record and started explaining where I lived, what I did, how Rachel and I got high once in a park with statues of giant nuns all around, how Rachel took off her shirt and showed the world her breasts.
Thomas graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Economics just as I was given a late-night slot on a community college radio station in DuPage County. I had emailed the station director obsessively until she agreed to meet with me. From two to three on Tuesday and Thursday mornings I was allowed to play one of my tapes or tell a story directly into the microphone. I didn’t get paid; in fact, I lost money, since I had to take fewer shifts at the bookstore. The station had a broadcast radius of maybe twenty miles.
I was close to touching the gift everyone else my age had had for years. My friends from high school were writing theses on microeconomics and Victorian literature, doing art projects about the G8 summit, restructuring their schools’ recycling systems. I had been a cog in the machine that kept people like them going, the girl who made coffee, the babysitter, the well-read clerk. The idea that I had a right to dream a different life was precious to me. Other people’s interest in that dream seemed downright miraculous.
Thomas called me one night and told me he was living somewhere new. “It’s Pilsen, but not really. It’s almost a totally different neighborhood,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. I did not say, why haven’t we spoken in nine months? I thought, ask me to come see you.
“Would you like to come see it?” he said.
At some point in the spring I had gotten my worrying under control. Speaking the stories in the studio late at night was like a salve on my body. It calmed me down like a joint in high school. Now the anxiety came flooding back, hot urine in my veins. Why don’t you ever come see me? I wanted to say. You know where I live. “Where is your new place?” I asked.
Whenever I rode the Green Line out of Oak Park I looked out the window, trying to see something new. There was the top of the big high school building, the orange-and-red Loro Auto Works marquee, the broad green squares of the soccer field and Ridgeland across the street, Pilgrim Church like an alien castle with its spires and broad roof. I had spent cumulative months of my life at the intersection of Lake and Scoville, looking hazily out at the school and then back at whatever more interesting thing floated in front of me: a boy, a square, Rachel.
As Oak Park disappeared behind me and the train entered the city, I felt a great sense of sadness, like I was leaving and could never come back. The world out the windows looked shabbier and shabbier, empty lots sprouting yellow grass in the early summer, the domed promise of the Garfield Conservatory surrounded by ruin, the broccoli tops of trees and hand-lettered signs: WE ACCEPT FOOD STAMPS, LINK, NO BARTER. I pressed my face against the window the way I used to when we drove to Michigan for the weekend when I was a little child. I looked and looked out, trying to find a new place where I would be comfortable. A place where I could do what everyone I knew had done: leave and never come back. But all I saw was the approaching Loop, the tall buildings growing up into the sky like banners, the rooves over the train as it stopped at Clinton and then Clark and Lake.
The landscape on the Orange Line was different, more desolate. There was nothing I recognized here, just the city receding and being replaced by ruin. Not even residential ruin, just more dead space, open fields with cracked pieces of pavement, fewer and fewer stores. The station at the final stop was brand new and completely empty. From the platform I could see a broad parking lot with a single white car. I climbed down to the street and walked west, as Thomas had told me to do. I crossed a bridge with no water underneath and a fenced-off lot full of scrap metal. I watched for the intersection he had told me about, but it didn’t come. The vegetation grew up lush around me. Even houses disappeared. It was as if I’d walked out of the city.
I stopped and turned around, convinced I’d made a wrong turn, and saw the white car from the parking lot behind me. I kept walking, faster now, tripping over a coil of copper wire, almost sprinting. I heard the car’s breath and what was either a man murmuring or some ambient noise of this weird corner of Chicago. I cursed Thomas for every wrong he had ever done me, for the sight of his face rising from between my legs, an image I’d dreamed before it happened, and then dreamed after it happened. I ran, looking over my shoulder and tripping a little. The car was still behind me, following me for sure now, and I was lost against the steel-colored summer sky. I squinted at the stranger in front of me. I would never go home now, I knew it. I threw my body forward and into another person. I pulled back, ready to fight.
It was Thomas. “You!” I said, panting.
“Hi,” he said. “I thought I’d come meet you.” He always had such thick skin, like the membrane on hot milk. Had the chicken pox scar on the left side of his nose always been there? Was it just a shadow? He was sweating. His bicycle stood next to him, thin and silver.
“I got lost,” I said. “I was being followed.” He looked at me mildly. “You don’t get it,” I said. “It’s hard for me to visit you. I have to come such a long way. And you never talk to me.” I was crying. He pulled me to his chest and I smelled him: almonds, sage, chocolate.
“I heard your stories on the radio,” he said. “I listened.”
I pressed my body against his. He led me to his apartment in the basement of a house about five hundred feet from where we had met. We did not speak as he wiped down the white ceramic sink with a green towel and put a copper kettle on to boil. A window above the sink let in creamy light, illuminating a small herd of dust motes in the air near the refrigerator. I sat at the small black table and stared at a thick loaf of rye bread crusted in caraway seeds on a red plate. Without asking I picked up the long serrated knife and cut myself a piece, then used my index finger to smear room-temperature butter onto my slice.
Thomas brought a heavy mug of bitter tea to the table and watched me devour the bread. When I finished the last bite, he went to the fridge. The hinges on the door gave a little shriek, like a baby elephant. I blew on my tea, took a sip, and burned my tongue. From behind me Thomas put a beautiful cake on a purple glass stand down in the middle of the table. The cake was covered in white frosting and densely sprinkled with chopped canned cherries. On top were eight swirls of whipped cream, each topped with a bright red cherry and drizzled with maraschino syrup.
“Did you make this?” I asked Thomas.
He nodded. “I found the recipe in a drawer in the kitchen at my parents’ house.”
“How’s working there again this summer?”
“I’m not,” he said, and raised his hand as if to touch his hair, then dropped it. “For a long time I liked being there so I could watch my parents be kind to each other. But now they can’t manage that even there.” A shadow passed over his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Anyway,” he went on, brightening, “the house. It’s being foreclosed upon, and I had to go help clear it out. You see, Susanna,” he said, stopping to sip his tea. “My father could barely pay our bills, and now that he and my mother have separated, there’s nothing to keep him there.” He nodded towards the cake and reached for my right hand. I was still gripping the serrated knife. “Here,” he said. “I’ll cut you a piece.”
I felt briefly weightless, as if I too had lost my home. “You’re losing your house? Oh, Thomas, that’s awful.”
He shrugged. “Not really,” Thomas said, and sat down next to me. He leaned towards me and took my face in his hands. His green eyes opened wide and took me in. “It’s been a long time since I’ve lived there.”
Lisa Locascio’s work appears or is forthcoming in American Short Fiction, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Wigleaf, Product, Red Sky, and other magazines. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is at work on a novel. This February, Lisa will be writer-in-residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.