A Curious Boy Who Likes to Fly
Effortless, like floating in the Great Salt Lake.
Forty years ago, as a boy, Zach McKenna did this while on vacation in Utah, and he's never forgotten the sensation of lying still on the surface of the water, arms and legs spread wide, perfectly buoyant. Lately he's been thinking that in the span of a lifetime, these moments are too goddamn few. Everything requires too much work, too much worry. Even now, in the predawn, as he reads the newspaper before his family gets up, he feels a churning, a tugging at the center. The niggling knowledge that the laws of entropy are at work-- and he's been helping them along.
Upstairs, his wife, Diane, and his twelve-year-old son, R.J, are sleeping, the tension between them wrapped in dreams and put away for the night. For the moment, he can rest; in their sleep, they don't need him to act as their buffer. Before she went to college, this was his daughter Afton's role: the cushion, the lubricant, the shock absorber. Without her, Zach tries his best. But he longs for the brief moments when he doesn't have to try. In an hour or so, he will be in the bed of his lover, Kate, with a long morning stretched out before them like an empty beach. And, if he's lucky, there will be a moment--or two, or three--without effort, without weight, without thought.
Upstairs, the toilet flushes and Pavlov, their Westie, sits up. He listens for a moment, then trots away, nails clicking on the ceramic tile. Sighing, Zach sets aside the sports page, anxious to pass along his instructions and be gone before the sun is fully up. This afternoon, Diane and R.J. will work on R.J.'s science project, making six batches of chocolate chip cookies, each with a different type of fat or fat substitute. Zach has orchestrated this effort, after a call from R.J.'s sixth-grade teacher, Mr. Paulus, in part, to bolster R.J.'s grades. Apparently R.J. has been forgetting to turn in his homework, even the homework he's finished, even the molecule project that Zach spent one whole weekend on, gluing sticky M&Ms to foam board. Still, the news during their parent-teacher conference hadn't been all bad. Mr. Paulus had given them a copy of one R.J.'s poems, which, he said, "showed great promise." Zach, on reading the poem, had ached for his son; the awkward lines showed a purity and naivete that R.J. kept well concealed. Zach had tucked it into his wallet so that he could read it when he needed to be reminded of this.
While he waits for R.J. to come downstairs, Zach retrieves the butter, margarine, Crisco, Parkay and I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Butter from the refrigerator and lines them up on the counter to soften. He worries that a temperature variable will creep into the experiment. This is just one of the reasons he shouldn't let Diane and R.J. do this alone: they won't think of it as science.
He's scribbling a last-minute note about the applesauce batch-- the nonfat substitution--when R.J. shuffles into the kitchen with Pavlov on his heels. He blinks at the lights, then says, "What up, dog?"
"Sup wit' you?" Zach says, relieved that he knows that R.J. is talking to him and not Pavlov. Lately, Zach has been holing up in his office during his lunch hour--shoving aside half-finished briefs and avoiding the occasional walk-in client--so that he can surf the Net. He studies Ebonics and rap dictionaries, just so that he can reel off these bon mots at a moment's notice. Diane, on the other hand, has declared that she simply will not talk to R.J. unless he speaks English.
On his tiptoes, R.J. reaches for a cereal bowl. Pavlov is right beside him, sturdy tail wagging hopefully. A boy and his dog, Zach thinks. And R.J. still so small, not even grown into his teeth. So why is Diane so hard on him; why is it so easy to forget that he's just a boy? He watches R.J. tuck a box of Golden Grahams under his arm, grab a spoon, then open the refrigerator and pull out a gallon of milk. Both hands full now, he shuts the refrigerator with a kick. If Diane were up, she'd be yelling at him, telling him to make two trips. Automatically, Zach takes R.J.'s side.
Damn, he's arguing with Diane already--and she's not even up.
R.J. sits down at the table and begins reading the comics. He hunches over, concentrating, absentmindedly shoveling the cereal in: an eating machine. Zach normally likes to watch his son chow down, feels that at least when he's eating, R.J. is happy and well cared for. This morning, though, he doesn't have time. The furnace timer kicks in, reminding him of how early it is. He thinks of Kate, just a few blocks away, still asleep, tucked under a pile of old quilts. Or maybe she's awake, watching the clock, waiting for him. Zach begins to hum as he sets out six cookie tins. Outside, the sky is just beginning to lighten. It's late October and R.J.'s tree house, half-way up the old oak tree, is clearly visible now that most of the leaves are gone.
"Dad, why are you humming Puff the Magic Dragon?"
"Yeah." R.J. turns in his chair to look at him. "Are you, like, entering your second childhood?"
"Is that an option? I kinda liked my first one."
"Ha." R.J. says. "Shows how much you know." He turns back to the comics.
Now that Zach knows what he's humming, the words are a tickertape in his brain: Little Jackie Paper loved that rascal Puff, and brought him string and ceiling wax, and other fancy stuff ...
"Hey," Zach says. "What's ceiling wax? You ever heard of it?"
"Ceiling wax. Is it some kind of caulk? Something they use in England maybe?"
"Who knows?" R.J. rolls his eyes.
Then, with a laugh, Zach realizes it's sealing wax, not ceiling wax. His first thought is, I must tell Diane. It's Diane, The Family Storyteller, who used to collect these little anecdotes, embellishing them until they were full-fledged stories. She was particularly fond of wordplay: Afton, at ten, who'd thought the Rolling Stones were singing I'll Never Be Your Piece of Curtain. Or R.J., at four, who'd grown attached to Father Randolph, the priest who worked with his pre-school class. When Father Randolph had filled in for the regular priest at mass one day, R.J. had shouted, "Mommy, Mommy, it's my father!"
Funny, Zach thinks now, he doesn't remember any of these instances, only her telling of them. And how long has it been since Diane has told a story? Has it been since Afton left? Or since he began his affair with Kate? Zach himself is not sure how these events are related--if, in fact, they are at all--despite the one pretty much leading to the other. He'd begun his affair with Kate--accidentally, he still believes--several months after Afton left for college.
Kate owned the vintage clothing shop, located at street level, two floors below his law offices, where Afton bought most of her clothes. Afton's Christmas list that year had been explicit: only clothes from The Faded Frock. It was while he was buying Afton's gifts that Kate had mentioned her broken water heater. Seven hundred dollars--can you believe it? she'd said, and he knew her worry was genuine. She couldn't have been making much money selling poodle skirts and peignoirs. After work, he'd stopped by her house to take a look--sometimes, he told her, all that's needed is a new thermostat--and things had just, well, happened.
Still, with respect to Diane's unhappiness, Zach wouldn't know where to begin a root cause analysis. And truth be told, he doesn't see the point. After twenty years of marriage, cause is a taproot as thick as his fist, and blame is a thousand tendrils wound around events further back than he can remember.
Finished with his cereal, R.J rinses his bowl in the sink. Eyeing the ingredients Zach has amassed on the counter, he says, "This whole cookie thing is wack, you know."
Zach reacts immediately to the word; these days, everything R.J. doesn't want to do is wack. He almost launches into parentspeak--What was wack, Dude, was not turning in any of your science homework--but stops himself just in time. It occurs to him that the whole idea is wack. R.J. and Diane, alone together for six hours. There are so many ways for that to go wrong. Zach might clean a dish with the counter sponge; or clean the counter with the dish sponge. Diane might decide that this is the time--while he's a captive audience--to lecture R.J. on his missing homework. R.J. might slip and call something wack or tight. It's an indication of how desperate Zach is, that he's concocted a plan so clearly doomed.
"Yeah, well," he shrugs, "it's just six batches."
The logistics of having an affair are so difficult that Zach wonders why anyone does this casually. He rarely sees Kate on the weekends, because it requires weeks of intricate preparation. But here he is, on a Saturday morning, planning to drive five blocks in his restored '67 Mercedes convertible (red)--not exactly a car that blends --to see her. He's told Diane that he's playing golf, a tournament, which is meant to explain why she wouldn't know the rest of his foursome. He's devised a science project that will keep his wife and his son busy for the morning. He has his cell phone, so that if he calls home, it won't be Kate's number that displays. (This isn't the time to think about why Diane suddenly needed to get caller ID.) And still, despite his preparation, he feels as if he's forgetting something.
Zach turns his key in the ignition and the pop-punk sounds of Blink 182's Enema of the State fill the car. Last night, on the way home from soccer practice, he'd let R.J. play his homemade tape. And, really, it's not terrible music; if he tilts his head just right and focuses on a spot far, far in the distance, he can almost like it. But not this morning. He turns off the tape player and backs out of the driveway.
He hasn't taken the time to warm up the car and the steering wheel feels like cold pipe beneath his hands. Various breezes are circling around him, originating where the canvas top doesn't quite seal. Driving an old convertible anytime except summer is like driving an igloo. Every winter he regrets that he owns one, and every summer he forgets how miserable the winter was. Also, he should have dressed more warmly, instead of leaving the house in just a shirt. He fiddles with the heat, but it blows cold air, so he shuts it off again. He glances at the temperature needle, which is left of cold, so there's no hope of warm air before he reaches Kate's. When he looks up at the road again, there's a small white furry thing--a kitten--darting out from under a minivan parked by the side of the road. He steps on the brakes, but it might be too late; he's not sure if he's been able to avoid running it over. He looks in the rearview mirror and there it is: a white bundle in the middle of the road. "Shit," he says, letting his head fall back on the headrest, "shit, shit, shit." He's still looking in the rearview mirror when he sees the kitten move, then scurry back to the safety of the minivan. Zach's heart, which was beating very fast, slows a little.
He's turning onto Kate's street when he remembers that he has a jacket in his golf bag; he'll get it out when he reaches her house. Then, with a jolt, he realizes that he's forgotten his golf bag. He is, ostensibly, playing golf--and his golf clubs are at home, still in his garage. Quickly, he weighs his alternatives: hope that Diane doesn't notice that he's left behind his clubs, or drive back through his neighborhood--it's almost daylight, now--in his conspicuous little red car. He turns the car around.
Back at his house, he leaves the engine running and jumps out of the car, then has to wait for the garage door. He's never noticed before how loud the garage door is when it opens, or how slow. When the door is high enough, he runs in, grabs his clubs and throws them in his trunk. For the first time, he's grateful that Pavlov is such a terrible watchdog. As he backs out of the driveway, he checks for Diane at their bedroom window, but there's no movement behind the curtains. Driving back down his street, he watches the sidewalks for people he knows. He passes an occasional dog-walker, travel mug of coffee clutched in one hand, leash in the other, scooper tucked under the armpit--is there any significance to the fact that they are all men?--but there's no one he recognizes.
Like everything else, this is just too hard.
At Kate's house he has to deal with her garage door--she keeps the second bay of her garage open for him--which is old and rotted and groans as he lifts it. She doesn't have an automatic opener, or anything else invented in the last three or four decades. Zach usually finds this charming, but not at the moment; he feels very exposed, here in the daylight, and makes a mental note to talk her about this.
After parking the car, he hurries through her back yard. Kate's bedroom is at the back of the house in what was probably once a breakfast room; it's round and full of windows and looks to have been added at the same time as the porch off the kitchen. These additions give the back of the house an off-kilter look, not so much eccentric as who-gives-a-damn--which, now that he thinks about it, suits Kate. He can easily imagine the previous owner strolling through his backyard and suddenly deciding that what it really needs is--yes, of course!--a bulging breakfast nook; in the same way that Zach's watched Kate get dressed in the morning, pulling clothes out of her closet without looking, not at all concerned about whether or not they match. Afton, one of Kate's best customers, says that Kate has good fashion sense; but so far as Zach can tell, it's just luck.
He raps on Kate's window, then goes to the back door and waits for her to open it. She unlocks the door, then turns around to go back to bed, allowing Zach to let himself in. He follows her, catching up when she stops in the doorway of her bedroom and takes off her robe. She hangs it on the door, then crosses the room, naked, and crawls into bed. Her body is slim and pale and familiar. Watching her, Zach stops worrying about whether Diane heard him come back for his golf clubs, forgets about how many people may have seen him on his way here, can't remember why he was ever concerned about six batches of chocolate chip cookies. He takes off his pants and drapes them over the door of the armoire, then hangs his shirt on a doorknob. When he's naked, Kate holds out her arms to him.
He slides into bed with her, covering her with his body. Without makeup she's fair and freckled, seeming much younger than the thirty-three he knows her to be. She's warm, the bed is warm, and he touches his cold hand to her cheek. Her skin feels soft and powdery. She smiles and lifts her head to kiss him. Osmosis, he thinks. Heat transfer. She warms him; he cools her. Hot meets cold; cold meets hot. Soon he and Kate are both warm, so the cold must be somewhere else, out there, beyond this bed. He imagines her strange, circular room is an ice floe, feels it begin to melt, hears the groan as it breaks away from land and floats away.
Zach wakes to an empty bed. He finds Kate upstairs, in the room she uses as an office. She's at the computer, the one modern device-- besides a microwave--she allows in her home. When he lets himself dream, he imagines all the improvements he would make to Kate's house if they were living together. He would start with the stove--the one Kate has doesn't work--and then proceed to central air, an automatic garage door opener, a finished basement. It would be fun, helping her with all of this. But this vision of the future is like the city of Oz glistening in the distance; the problem is he can't see a path through the poppies.
When Kate doesn't look up, Zach circles the desk to come up behind her. He wraps his arms around her shoulders and rests his chin on her head. She's showered, and her damp hair smells of flowers and vanilla.
Kate says, "I thought you'd never wake up." He glances at the clock: already ten. He should be home by two.
"I love sleeping in your bed," he tells her.
As she scribbles a few numbers on a notepad, she says, "You might consider doing it more often." Then, as if she doesn't want an argument, she immediately points to the monitor. Her best vintage clothing is purchased through contacts on the Internet. "So, what do you think of this dress?" It's a plain beige dress with a striped vest. The model is wearing a stocking cap, the kind elves wear at Christmas.
"You're kidding, right?"
"Kate Hepburn wore it in The Philadelphia Story."
He kisses her neck, whispers in her ear, "With the stocking cap?"
"With the stocking cap."
"You know, it's a wonder you make any money at all." He tugs at her arms, trying to lift her away from the desk.
"Funny," she says. But she lets herself be lifted.
They're in bed again when the phone rings. It's only when he tells Kate to ignore it that Zach notices that the sound isn't coming from her bedside phone. In fact, it's the kind of high-pitched ring that sounds out of place, anachronistic even, in Kate's home. Finally, after three or four rings, a worrisome notion penetrates his cloud of contentment, and he realizes that it's his cell phone.
His adrenaline kicks in.
He tries to leap out of bed to get the phone, but his feet get tangled in the sheets. He reaches down to unwind them, and nearly topples backwards off the bed. When he twists his body around and finally gets his feet on the floor, his ankle gives way. Hopping, he tries to find the phone, then remembers it's in his pants' pocket. By the time he's found his pants and fished out his cell phone, it's stopped ringing.
The number displayed is his home phone.
His first thought is that Diane knows where he is, what he's up to, that she's on her way over. Someone saw him opening Kate's garage door or letting himself in the back door. Or Diane heard him come back for his golf clubs. As these thoughts race through his head, he's already looking around for somewhere to hide--only half-aware of how closely this resembles slapstick--when he realizes that the person on the other end isn't Diane, it's R.J.
Diane would have called Kate's number--she'd be looking for confrontation, for corroboration. Only R.J. would have called him.
"Who was it?" Zach can tell by Kate's voice, which has grown even deeper, that she's already guessed.
He barely registers her question. Sitting down on the bed, he lets Kate take the phone from him. She reads the number displayed, then sets the phone down on her bedside table.
"Zach, talk to me. What's going on?"
He waits for the phone to ring again. Surely if it were an emergency, R.J. would call back? When it doesn't ring, he begins to relax slightly.
He turns to Kate, who is staring at the phone as if it is something alien, as unexpected and unwelcome, here in her Ohio bedroom, as radioactive waste. "What do you want to know?" he asks, although he wishes she would be quiet so that he can think.
"I don't know. Probably R.J." He should never have forced R.J. to do this project with Diane. It was an ambush.
"I don't know."
"Zach, talk to me. I'm in this too." Of course she is, but what about their understanding: the promises to avoid, the confidences to keep, and, most of all, the things to never discuss. Did he make that up?
He tries to find a way to explain his behavior, stutters through a number of starts: "R.J. and his mother--I left him--R.J.'s--"
Kate pulls her knees up to her chest and circles them with her arms. "R.J.'s what?" she asks.
Bruisable, he wants to say. R.J. is still bruisable. Instead, he says, "He's alone with his mother. They don't get along."
He can practically see her thinking, trying to find a way into the problem. Her mouth opens several times, as if she's about to say something, then she stops. Finally, she says, "You never talk about him. Why don't they get along? What's R.J. like?"
Impossible to explain. Somewhere along the line R.J. has stopped being a list of accomplishments--He walks, he talks, he ties his shoes! --and has became an enigma. A complicated person. Zach searches again for the words, but none come. Then, unable to think of any other way to make her understand, he pulls out his wallet and hands her R.J.'s poem. He crawls over her, so that now they're sitting side by side, then leans back against the headboard to watch her read.
I AM: A Collection of Mixed Thoughts
by R.J. McKenna
I AM a curious boy who likes to fly
I PRETEND that I am invisible
I WONDER why people can't love each other
I FEEL electricity flow through my body
I DREAM about being so high in the sky
I TOUCH a cloud and it is cold
I UNDERSTAND that I have to go to school
I SAY that I am bored all the time
I HOPE that people can get along
I AM a curious boy who likes to fly
Zach waits for her verdict, vulnerable, afraid that to a stranger's eyes R.J. will seem weird. Like the kind of boy who makes pipe bombs in the basement.
She tosses the paper aside. "Jesus." He can't see her face, but her voice sounds hard.
Annoyed by her reaction, he says, "Why does that piss you off?"
She looks at him now and he sees that she's crying. "It doesn't piss me off," she says, and suddenly Zach's so proud he's ready to run out into the yard--never mind that he's naked--pumping his arms like Rocky. Hoohah. A poem written by his son has moved Kate to tears.
Still, he didn't mean to hurt her, and he knows that he has, although he's less sure of how or why. "Kate," he says helplessly, "you wanted to know."
Now she's crying harder. He reaches over and puts his arms around her. "So, what should I do?" he asks.
She pushes his arms away. "Don't do that. Don't ask me to make this decision for you."
He pulls away from her, lets his head flop back against the headboard. "Kate--"
"Don't abdicate. Don't ask me to be the one to tell you that there's only one thing worth considering."
"There is?" He'll be goddamned if he knows what it is.
It isn't as if he hasn't given this any thought. He has. Lots. In fact, he rarely stops thinking about it, looking for the way out where nobody gets hurt and nobody gets blamed. It's not an easy thing, trying to define and come to terms with words like sin and sacrifice. For a while he'd held out hope, when Diane began seeing a therapist, that she would leave him. But even then, he'd had misgivings about what a shared custody arrangement might mean for R.J.. (Afton he's never had to worry about.) The best scenario he can come up with--the only one in which no one really gets hurt--is, he readily admits, ridiculous. In it, Kate marries a rich and busy man--a cardiologist, perhaps--who ignores and neglects her. After a while, she begins to call Zach when she's lonely --and vice-versa--and they remain linked, lovers forever, until death parts them.
He knows better than to suggest this.
Now, side by side on the bed, their bodies aren't touching. To Zach, this absence of contact seems strange. He wants to reach out and stroke Kate's hair: change the subject. Stop her from speaking. But she's staring straight ahead, and even in profile he can see her slumped shoulders, her slack mouth. She's tired--of him, of his indecision.
Kate points to the poem, facedown on the floor by her bed. "Him. Just worry about him."
"What?" It's not what he wants to hear. This is her great revelation? Does she think he doesn't know this? He gets out of bed and starts pacing. "You don't even know R.J.. You read one lousy poem and now you're an expert? How do you know what's best? How to protect him?" He pauses, knowing that what he's going to say next will hurt her. He says it anyway. "How do you know what it's like to have a son?"
Kate seems to crumple. She draws her legs back into her chest and lays her head on top of her knees.
"Christ, I'm sorry," Zach says. "That was unforgivable. I didn't mean--"
The phone rings again, startling them both. Zach walks over to the bedside table, and looks at the number displayed on his cell phone.
He already knows it will be his own.