If You Come Softly, page 6
“You sound like you’re in love, man.”
Jeremiah frowned. “Nah. I don’t even know her.” But he remembered that first day, bending with her to pick up her books in the hallway. Something inside him went cold that morning-cold and hot all at once. “I couldn’t even tell you her last name.” He was thoughtful for a moment. “But I was sitting next to her in class today-and I don’t know—I felt like we ... like we should always be next to each other. I don’t know.”
Carlton stood up and tucked the ball under his arm. “Sounds like love, man.”
“But she’s white.”
Carlton raised an eyebrow. “Hello, Miah. Look who you talking to, man. It happens. And you know what? It ain’t the worst thing in the world.”
THE APARTMENT WAS EMPTY AND STILL. I STOOD AT THE foot of the stairway watching the yellow-gold sunlight stream in from the living room window, and listening to the messages on the answering machine. My father had called from the hospital to say hello. Marc had called and the twins. And Susan—my older sister who was a therapist in Santa Cruz. She was more like an aunt than a sister—older and distant the way grown-ups can be. I pressed the “save” button and sat down on the bottom stair, leaning my head against the banister.
Anne was different. Even though she’s ten years older, she acted silly sometimes. I missed that Anne—the one that laughed so hard, whatever she was drinking came out of her nose. The Anne who had taken me on the Staten Island ferry when I was ten and surprised me with a cooler full of vendor hotdogs—all done up with onions and sauerkraut and mustard the way I loved them.
I closed my eyes now, remembering how me and Anne sat devouring hotdogs and watching the city grow smaller behind us as the ship pulled away from it.
Where was that Anne now? Marion had spoken to her a couple of times, but she never asked for me, the way she always used to. I pressed my forehead against the banister and swallowed. What had I done that was so wrong?
I heard Marion’s key in the door and got up, not wanting her to see me sitting like this.
“Marion ...?” I called, heading into the kitchen.
My father was standing at the refrigerator, pulling out sandwich meat and mayonnaise.
“No—not Marion—Edward—Dad to you. Why do you torture your mother like that, Ellie?” my father asked, his eyes twinkling. They were gray-blue like Anne and Ruben’s.
I kissed him on the cheek. “That’s why. Because you call me Ellie and she calls me Elisha.”
He sliced some bread from a loaf Marion had baked a few days before and started piling turkey onto it.
“I feel like I haven’t seen you in forever.”
My father nodded. He looked tired and thin in his blue shirt and khakis, his stethoscope dangling from his pocket. His hair was like mine, but the curls were gray now and starting to thin.
“In the emergency room this week. All week. Wouldn’t be surprised if they had to throw me up on a table.”
“You shouldn’t work so hard, Daddy.” I poured a glass of juice and set it on the table then put his sandwich on a plate. “I missed you this Sunday.”
We used to spend Sunday afternoons together, sitting and reading the New York Times. In the middle of an article, my father would frown and press his thumb against a paragraph. “Listen to this crazy thing that’s happening, Ellie,” he’d say, then slowly read, overemphasizing paragraphs he thought outrageous. And I’d lean back against the fireplace wall—I always sat on the floor those afternoons—with my ankles crossed, my eyes closed in concentration.
“Sunday afternoon,” my father said, smiling, “this intern came in carrying the Times and I thought—I’m not going to read it until I can read it with my Ellie.”
“You didn’t even glance at it?”
He shook his head solemnly. “Didn’t even see what books were being reviewed. But this Sunday—back to the olden days.” He laughed, sat down at the table across from me, and took a bite of his sandwich.
I leaned on my hand, watching him. It’s hard to remember when the ritual of reading the Times with my father began. When I was small I remember sitting on the floor, listening to him read. Of course, Marion disapproved. Every Sunday, as she fussed about the kitchen preparing dinner, she’d punctuate our quiet time with complaints. Elisha should be out—with friends her own age. Go to a museum. Go to a movie. Get off your rump. You’re becoming an old man. And my father would wink at me. And what’s wrong with becoming an old man? he’d called to Marion, who’d make annoyed noises and say, Don’t be ridiculous.
He lifted his glasses now, rubbed his eyes, and smiled.
I got up, poured myself a glass of orange juice, and sat back down across from him.
“So tell me about this boy Marion says you met at Percy.”
I frowned and didn’t say anything.
“Oh—don’t go getting upset, Ellie. Your mother just mentioned it in passing—that you had met someone you liked. Anne told her.”
“What else did Anne say?”
My father shrugged. “Nothing. She said to ask you. What would you say?”
“Nothing. There isn’t a boy, Daddy. Just this guy I met who—nothing.” Where would I begin anyway? In the same place I tried to begin with stupid Anne?
“Are we going to get to meet this, this nothing?”
My father was smiling, but I didn’t feel like smiling back.
I reached across the table and picked a piece of turkey out of what was left of his sandwich.
“His name is Jeremiah,” I said slowly. “I don’t remember his last name. Rosedale or something. On the first day of school I dropped my books and then he helped me pick them up and then I don’t know. Now he’s in my history class.”
“Is he nice?”
I shrugged. “We didn’t really talk a whole lot, but he seems nice. And Mr. Hazelton wants us to remember all twenty-seven amendments by Friday. Jeremiah says he knows them already. In order.”
My father whistled, impressed. “Do you know what his parents do?”
I took a swallow of orange juice. “Don’t care.”
He smiled. “And why should you?” He finished his sandwich and pushed the plate away. “Well, he sounds nice enough. And if he’s smart I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t be friends.”
“I didn’t know you and Marion were looking for reasons.” I felt myself getting mad again.
“Not reasons-excuses, I guess. We don’t want our baby leaving the nest just yet. It makes us feel old.” He stood up, reached over and touched my cheek. “It reminds us that one day this house will be empty-no children, just two ancient people padding through it looking at pictures.”
“I’m not going anywhere just yet, Daddy. You got a whole’ nother three years of me.”
“Three years isn’t a long time, Ellie. You’ll see.”
I sat at the kitchen table long after my father had gone upstairs to take a nap. Something about what he had said depressed me. Yes, of course I’d leave the way my sisters and brothers had. But that did seem like a long time away. Each day seemed to crawl slowly into the next and the next, and some nights I couldn’t sleep with the excitement of a new day—and another chance to see Jeremiah. Maybe this was what love felt like. I turned the empty orange juice glass around and around in my hand. Was it lying that I didn’t tell him Jeremiah was black? Why should that matter? Why did any of it matter?
Outside, the sun was setting over Central Park. I pressed my hand to my lips—wondering what it would feel like to kiss Jeremiah. Wondering if I’d always be wondering.
IN THE LATE AFTERNOON SUNLIGHT, JEREMIAH STOOD IN his mother’s room, running his hands over her dresser, softly fingering the bottles of lotion and the pictures in silver frames—him at two in a diaper and T-shirt, pointing at her, her smiling into the camera, the two of
How long had it been since Jeremiah had smiled in the presence of the two of them. Months maybe. He had smiled that first day, years and years ago, when he didn’t know anything—before the news of his father’s affair got out. He had come home to find his father sitting with Lois Ann on their stoop, and he had smiled. Smiled because it was so rare to find his father home relaxing, a glass of wine in one hand and a copy of a video in the other. “I been waiting for you to get home from school,” his father had said. “Figured we could watch this movie together.” And Jeremiah had smiled even wider—because he was young then, maybe twelve or thirteen, and he didn’t know the ways people—his parents-could hurt each other. Yeah—he was only twelve or thirteen, and he didn’t know that Lois Ann and his father had a thing going on, a heavy thing that would eventually break the family apart.
Jeremiah squinted at the picture now. He could feel tears coming on, a thick knot of them rising up in the back of his throat. It had to do with this picture of his mother in her wedding dress and October and the lazy afternoon sun streaming through the window. It had to do with Ellie and Percy Academy and the fact that maybe he was a little bit in love with a white girl he barely knew. But mostly—right now, standing in his mama’s room holding this picture close, it had to do with them, his parents.
They had married in Prospect Park-in the boathouse—on an amazingly blue day in October. It would be seventeen years tomorrow. Seventeen years ago, they had thought they’d be together forever—and in some ways, seventeen years is forever. Eleven movies in seventeen years. Three books-and maybe his mother would have written more if she hadn’t had him. And maybe that’s why they never had another one. But the only child thing—that had stopped mattering so much a long time ago. Yeah, sometimes he wanted a brother or sister, but it was more than that. He wanted more than that too-somebody deep. Somebody who could know him—know all of him—the crazy things he dreamed on stormy nights, when he woke with tears in his eyes and pulled the covers tight around him. How alone he felt most days-even with his homeboys surrounding him—the way the loneliness settled deep inside of him and lingered.
He placed the picture back on the shelf gently and closed his eyes. Ellie was there-behind his eyelids, smiling at him. What would become of them? Today in class, he had caught her staring at him, a tiny smile on her lips. Jeremiah stared back without smiling. He couldn’t smile. There was something scary about the way he felt-light-headed and out of control. The whole classroom seemed to drop away, and for a minute, it seemed like it was only the two of them in the world. Then Mr. Hazelton said something and the class faded back around them. Jeremiah turned back to his textbook. When Mr. Hazelton called on him, he stuttered some answer that seemed to satisfy the teacher. But he wasn’t in that room anymore. He was somewhere far away. With Ellie.
I’m going to kiss you soon, Jeremiah had found himself thinking. I don’t know when or where or how, but soon I’m going to kiss you.
And later, as he changed into his gym clothes, he had found himself thinking about her, imagining the two of them together somewhere. Somewhere.
He needed someone to talk to. Someone who knew him well enough to rub his head and say, “Everything’s going to be all right.” There was something like a fire in his chest, something hot and tight and unfamiliar.
Jeremiah felt the emptiness of the house settle down around him. Where was his mother? Where had all the people who used to fill these rooms gone to?
“Daddy ... ” he whispered. “Mama ...”
The house echoed. Jeremiah sat down on the edge of his mama’s bed, pulled his knees up to his chin, and wrapped his arms around them.
And with the late afternoon light casting heavy shadows across everything, Jeremiah rested his head against his legs. And cried.
I had been walking the halls when I found him standing alone, his head pressed against a window.
“Hey, Ellie,” he said, turning away from the window. “That’s funny. I was just thinking ... about ... about you.”
I looked down at my shoes, embarrassed suddenly. “What were you thinking?”
“I don’t know. You were passing through my mind—just kind of floating through it.”
He had been thinking about me. I had been floating through his mind. All morning I’d been imagining this moment, meeting Jeremiah in the hall. But I hadn’t thought it would happen, that I’d turn a corner and find him standing here, his head pressed against the window, his locks falling softly around his shoulders, thinking about me. No one had ever just been thinking about me. It felt odd-good odd, the idea that I was on someone’s mind. On Jeremiah’s mind.
“People call me Miah,” he said softly. He had the most beautiful smile.
The hall was empty, quiet and dim. In the distance, I could hear a teacher talking. His voice was muffled, like it was coming from behind a closed door. The late bell had rung a long time ago.
“Miah. I like that. What’s your last name?”
We were whispering now, but in the empty hallway, our words seemed loud.
Miah turned back to the window. After a moment he said, “Roselind,” so softly, I could barely hear him.
“Jeremiah Roselind. That’s pretty. Really pretty.”
Miah shrugged. “It’s just a name. What’s yours-your last name?”
“Eisen. Elisha Sidney Eisen. My parents went to Australia and liked it—I think they thought it was clever to name me after a city.”
Miah smiled. “Elisha. Ellie. I like both names.”
“I like Ellie better.”
“Then I like Ellie better too. You don’t have class this period, Ellie?”
I shook my head. “Trig. I’m not going. How about you?”
“English. I know it already. They’re reading Catcher in the Rye. I read that book three times already. Figure I’ll go back when the rest of the class catches up.”
We stood staring at each other, my heart beating hard beneath my Percy shirt. I folded my arms across my chest wanting to quiet it. Afraid he’d be able to hear it and laugh. Jeremiah turned back to the window.
“You ever get scared, Ellie?”
I swallowed, embarrassed. “Yeah.” It was not supposed to be like this-this real, this close to who I was. Like he could look right through me.
“Like right now?”
He turned back to me. “I could see it. In your eyes. How scared you are. You’ve got the kind of eyes that don’t hide anything.”
I felt my face getting red.
“People used to say I had eyes like that,” he said softly. “But I learned how to work them. To hide stuff.”
“You think that’s better?”
A tall skinny boy turned the corner, giving us a look as he passed. Miah stared back and the guy kind of waved and kept walking.
“I don’t know what’s better,” Miah said. “What’s gonna happen is gonna happen. I mean, the feeling’s still there even if you’re covering it up. You feel like walking? Getting out of here for a bit?”
“What’s the penalty for cutting?” I asked, even though I knew I’d
Miah smiled. “I don’t know. Never did it before.”
“Me either,” I said, relieved. I had been afraid he was a cutter, and if he was, I’d probably like him less. I didn’t want to like him less.
He lifted his knapsack onto his shoulder. “You live in Manhattan?”
I nodded and bent to pull up one of the stupid knee socks Percy made girls wear.
“Then I’m following you.”
It had rained all morning. Now the sun was out again, warm and bright. Miah pulled off his jacket and stuffed it across his knapsack straps so that it hung down behind him. We crossed Fifth Avenue and headed into Central Park.
Two old women, walking arm in arm, eyed us. Jeremiah frowned, glaring at them.
“Are you all right?” one of the women asked me.
“Biddies,” Jeremiah said under his breath. He started walking faster.
“They asked that ‘cause you’re with me, you know,” he said, eyeing me. He looked hurt and angry all at once. “If you were with a white boy, they probably would have just smiled and kept on going.”
I moved closer to him. “They’re just sheltered Upper East Siders,” I said. “And old.”
“Yeah,” Miah said. I could tell he didn’t believe me.
“It’s not anything. Just two old stupid women.”
Jeremiah looked at me for a moment then looked away. I could see his jawbone moving beneath his skin. He knew what I knew. That it was something more than stupid old women. And that I’d try to make it into nothing, to make it less embarrassing for them. For us.
We walked a while without saying anything. I felt hot suddenly, clammy. Clammy and white. White and clammy. Why hadn’t I said anything to those stupid women. Yes, I’m okay, I should have said. And maybe, maybe if I was brave I would’ve taken Miah’s hand.
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