Authors: Ben Dolnick
The minutes after the bell, which we all spent disassembling our instruments and chatting and loudly closing and latching our cases, were always chaotic, but now they had an extra edge, because we were all hoping for some sort of final confrontation. Either Mr. Adams would apologize again, or Thomas would tell him that he was going right up to the principal’s office. Mr. Adams, shuffling sheet music on the piano top, had the look of someone waiting for bad news.
But Thomas, with all our eyes on him, just clicked his case shut, stood up, and, for reasons I’ve never understood, turned to me. “Well,” he said, “that could have worked out a lot worse, huh?” And he walked out into the hall.
That was, I think, the moment when he became interesting to me. I hadn’t known there was any lightness in him, hadn’t known that, along with his brain, he was set apart from the rest of us by a sense that what happened in school wasn’t nearly so serious as we thought. I also hadn’t known that there could be forms of rebellion subtler than setting your farts on fire or drawing boobs on the back of your hand. I put my drumsticks away and walked out of the room next to Thomas. I had an inkling (which I would give a considerable amount to go back and tell myself not to heed) that I may have had him entirely wrong.
The thing I wanted most, during my months of suffering over Claire (the thing other than Claire herself), was to be distracted, and for some reason the person who was best at distracting me was an eight-year-old tutee named Nicholas.
He lived on one of those absurdly beautiful cobblestone blocks in Georgetown, in a row house with a heavy front door that made it impossible to know whether your doorbell ring had sounded. My tutoring boss, an overcaffeinated woman named Barbara, had warned me that he’d scared off a couple of tutors before me, but by then I was accepting just about every assignment she offered, since it meant being out of the apartment.
A housekeeper, Maria, answered the door that first time, smiling to apologize for her English, and led me up the stairs. The house inside felt like a daguerreotype. There was a parlor with a pair of dark green couches and a giant chipping mirror over the mantel; all the windows ran on rusty chains; the floorboards had nails that kept snagging my socks. I thought that Nicholas’s problem might be a kind of
feebleness—withered legs, Victorian snottiness.
My first sight of him was as a snub-nosed face barely poking
past the edge of a stars-and-comets blanket.
Maria said, pulling the door closed behind her. When I said hi he growled, “
I hate tutors. Go away. Now
,” and turned to face the wall.
I sighed and sat down on his low red desk chair (for some reason I always overacted
–ishly around kids that young), and said that I was sorry he was upset and that I’d be right here when he felt like doing some work.
I don’t care
So go away!
After half an hour Maria came back in, folding a bath towel, and said, “Sorry, he no working today. You come Thursday, OK? I tell
Thursday was the same as Tuesday, and so was the Tuesday after that, so for three afternoons I sat at his miniature desk watching it get dark outside, drawing interlocking cubes on scratch paper. Boulder-like patience/indifference was one of the few benefits of my misery that fall. Sometimes Nicholas’s little brother, Teddy, appeared in the doorway holding a half-built Lego airplane or a PSP, wanting to know if Nicholas would answer
tiny question. Sometimes Maria brought in the portable phone and it would be one of his parents, uselessly insisting that he get up right this instant or else.
At some point on the fourth afternoon like this, he broke. A couple of times per session I’d been saying things like, “It’s just too bad, because I was hoping someone could remind me who that
guy was with the red face and the little horns …” (his bed frame was covered in
stickers). Now, on a wet Thursday afternoon at the end of November, he finally said, in a voice that made clear that he was only calling a time-out from sulking, “Darth Maul.”
“Darth Maul. The red guy’s name is Darth Maul. And he’s a Sith lord.”
By the end of that afternoon he was sitting up, throwing
back his covers, asking if I’d hand him his binder of cards. He didn’t hate tutors half as much as he hated the idea of someone going through life not knowing about the entire episodes of
that existed only as comic books.
By December he was pushing in front of Maria to meet me at the door, tugging my hand to get me up the stairs. He had blond-brown hair that went halfway down his neck and he wore long-sleeved T-shirts, little boy jeans, sneakers with lights in the soles; by high school he’d probably be an athlete. His problems turned out to be ADD, hyperactivity, ordinary private school stuff. We spent most of our time in his bedroom. Barbara didn’t like her tutors working in bedrooms (“Even though I know, of course, that absolutely none of my tutors would
…”), but with Nicholas I had no choice, because the downstairs was so dark and because his bedroom was where he kept his backpack and his supplies. So we worked side by side on our stomachs across his bed, chatting between problems like kids at a sleepover. He asked me if I’d ever killed anything and told me how, at his grandmother’s in Florida, he’d once dropped a slug off a fifth-floor balcony. He asked me whether plants were immortal (meaning, he said, if there’s ivy on the side of a building, is it the same ivy that was there a hundred years ago?). He told me how he was pretty sure that if people ever moved to space, he’d want to live on either Neptune or Pluto, since he hated hot weather. “Do you think we’re kind of like best friends?” he said once. “I think the good thing about us is that we’re cool but we’re also smart.”
There seemed to be no limit to the number of hours his parents, or at least his mother, were willing to hire me. I had my own key to their house by December, and they bought food I liked—Orange Milanos, Fruit Leathers—for the nights I babysat (even though babysitting was another thing that Barbara forbade her tutors to do, and even though I hadn’t felt truly hungry since breaking up with Claire).
Nicholas and Teddy didn’t notice or didn’t care that I was
suffering, which may have been part of what made me suffer so much less around them. I would sit next to the two of them at the piano in their giant dark living room while they played “Heart and Soul,” and though I couldn’t quite bring myself to join them in stomping their feet, at some point I would think:
Hey, I haven’t felt bad in minutes
. (Teddy, who was seven, had the personality of an aging Las Vegas diva. He’d come into the room wearing his mom’s sunglasses and scarf and say, “Hello, sexies!” and then giggle and run down the hall while Nicholas chased him with a ruler.) For dinner we ate microwave pizza, which Nicholas and I would watch spin and bubble behind the dotted yellow window. We’d play Spy, sneaking around corners and pretending to shoot blowgun darts at each other. I felt like a father in a movie who has a terminal disease and doesn’t tell his kids, so they can all just enjoy a few final weeks of happiness.
On one of these nights—the three of us were sitting cross-legged in a circle, playing Crazy Eights (this was the winter of card games)—Nicholas said, “I think my dad has a girlfriend now.”
He said it in the clear, not-particularly-urgent way that someone who’s just woken up from a nap on the beach might say, “We should go in or we’re going to get burned.”
“Really?” I said. “Why do you think that?”
“I don’t know, he just talks about her a lot. And my mom says he does.”
After that I started noticing that Anna was calling him “the boys’ father” instead of Peter, and that more and more when she called me to babysit it was because she was going out for a girls’ night. On her bedside table (I could see their room as I passed on the way up the stairs) there was a book called
Making the Transition: How to Survive (and Thrive) After a Separation
Peter had always looked to me like the kind of guy who, under his expensive watch and camel-hair trench coat, would be capable of real nastiness, maybe even violence. He made me
think of a hyena. He’d hand me checks without looking at me, he’d drop the boys off without getting out of the car.
Anna was tall and pale with long dark hair that looked like it had never been cut, and apparently she worked for a nonprofit that had something to do with transportation alternatives. It was harder to imagine her in an office than in a club somewhere playing folk guitar—she was pretty, especially for someone close to forty, but it was the kind of prettiness that sometimes comes with a hint of BO or a streak of craziness (crystals, horses). She said to me, after one of those girls’ nights when we were standing in the front hall, “You’ve lost someone, haven’t you?”
“Did you lose someone? You’ve had that kind of … smashed look. How about a cup of tea?”
This was in January, a day or two after one of the blizzards we had that winter. I was happy to put off the half-block expedition to my car.
I couldn’t tell if she was slightly drunk or just unguarded in the way that people sometimes get late at night; for some reason she made me think of an exhausted little girl playing house. We sat across from each other at the wooden table in their kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil. Outside, the wind on the snow sounded like something trying to take off.
“How were they tonight? Were they OK?”
“They were good. Teddy didn’t want to take a bath, but they were good.”
“I’m sorry the house is like this. Half our stuff is still at Peter’s mother’s place.” She rolled her eyes as if I’d know what she was talking about.
“I’m sorry if I freaked you out,” she said, when she stood up to turn off the stove. “Asking you about losing someone?”
“You didn’t freak me out. It’s just girlfriend stuff. Or non-girlfriend stuff, I guess.”
“That’s kind of what I figured. It totally sucks, doesn’t it? I feel like no one ever tells you. Or maybe you just can’t believe
it until it’s you. My friends used to talk about getting separated and I’d be like,
Oh, OK, sorry
. But now just—
. Like having some disease. Do you want milk?”
We both held our mugs with two hands and I kept looking down into the steam so I wouldn’t have to meet her eyes. She asked me how long I’d been dating Claire, whether we’d been living together. She told me that she couldn’t look at Nicholas sometimes now; he reminded her so much of Peter, just his face when he laughed, the way he held his chin when he read.
“Thanks so much for the tea,” I kept saying, when I finally left, as if she’d brewed it from gold flakes.
She stood in the front doorway watching me make my way down the stairs (the snow on the ground had turned into what felt like hardened brown sugar), and I almost wanted to turn around and offer to spend the night: the thought of her alone with Nicholas and Teddy in that enormous dark house was too much. (Why was the thought of me alone in my crypt of a bedroom not too much? I don’t know. For those few minutes, under the influence of the conversation or the snow or the ice pick–sharp stars, I felt like I didn’t need anyone’s pity.)
At home I stayed up in our apartment’s only comfortable chair reading Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” (having time to read was another of the benefits of my unhappiness), but before I’d gotten more than a couple of pages in, before I’d even met the black monk, I was falling asleep. I woke up, with the lamp blazing in my face, from a sex dream about Anna in which she was hovering over me and telling me, in a voice that somehow felt like clean sheets, to calm down, stop worrying, that she knew me, she knew everything about me, and all of it, believe her, was OK.
Thomas and I took the bus to his house that first afternoon, which already put me off balance. I’d ridden on city buses only a couple of times (in fact I’d gone around D.C. without an adult only a couple of times), so I felt, as I spilled what seemed to me like every coin in my backpack into the bus driver’s silver trough, that I was doing something obviously wrong.