Suddenly Robert stops, so I stop too. He’s looking at something, and I turn my head to see, but he steps around in front of me. “No, don’t stare.”
“What? Stare at what?” Because from the look on his face I’m thinking it’s got to be Michael Jordan himself. Or maybe a vampire.
He’s talking to me in a rushed whisper. “Okay, look at the tile wall, to the left of the Tiger Woods poster. No, don’t. Don’t point. And try not to stare. Just take a quick look at the wall and tell me what you see. Because I think I see something there.”
So I look, and there is something. I say, “There’s . . . sort of a shadow, except it’s not very dark, and it’s kind of blurry—but . . . it’s a man’s shadow.”
He nods, agreeing. “Okay. And do you see how his shadow’s moving?”
“Yeah—the guy keeps turning his head. I mean the shadow. It’s blurry, but it looks like he’s got a lot of hair. And a beard.”
“Okay,” Robert says, “that’s the shadow. Now, locate the person who’s making the shadow.”
I look around, trying to be casual about it. From the hair and the beard in the shadow, I’m thinking to spot a hippie, or maybe some homeless guy with dreadlocks.
There’s an older woman with an umbrella and a canvas shopping bag. And a young mom with a baby in a stroller. I see two teenage girls wearing black leather jackets, and ten or twelve college guys, all with short hair, and most of them tall—looks like a whole basketball team. And lots of other people. But no long-haired, bearded guys—not near, not far, not on the first or the second floor, not anywhere.
And I turn to glance at the guy’s shape again, and suddenly the shadow wiggles, and it’s gone. Just gone.
The hairs on the back of my neck tingle, and I say, “What . . . what
Robert whispers, “Probably nothing. Let’s go.”
But I can tell he’s spooked.
And that feeling I’ve had, that Robert is full of surprises? It’s not just a feeling anymore. And as we rush out of the store, I’m wondering if it was really a good idea to invite him to stay at Grampa’s with me.
We’re out on the street, and I have to trot to keep up with him, and when we cross the Avenue of the Amer icas, I say, “Hey, you can slow down. I just looked, and the shadow isn’t chasing us.”
He snaps, “Not funny.”
He’s really upset, so I say, “Sorry. I just . . . I mean, I don’t know what’s happening . . . I don’t know what that was about.”
Still walking fast, still snapping, he says, “That’s right. You don’t know.”
“So tell me.” But he doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t slow down.
When we get to Carnegie Hall, I say, “I have to catch my breath,” and I find a place under the marquee that’s not covered with pigeon droppings, and I sit on the low step with my back against the glass in the second doorway. In the shade it feels ten degrees colder, and even though I’m overheated, I shiver.
Robert sits beside me, and he’s breathing hard too. After a minute or so he says, “Remember how you asked me if I could keep a secret?” I nod, and he says, “So, how about you? Can you keep one?”
“Yes, I can. I will.”
He nods, but he doesn’t say anything. And I get ready, because I have no idea what’s coming. He’s watching the traffic, so I’m looking at one side of his face, and he’s thinking hard. Finally he says, “Okay. What would you say if I told you that two years ago I turned invisible?”
I want to laugh, but looking at his face, I know not to. “In . . . visible? You mean, for real? Like, no one could see you?”
He nods, still looking at the cars and taxis going by. “Right. No one could see me for almost a month. Because my body stopped reflecting light. For real. What would you say if I told you that?”
that what you’re telling me?”
“Just answer my question. What would you say? If I told you that.”
“Well . . . if I believed you, or if I just wanted to go along with the story, I’d say, So how did this happen?”
He nods and says, “And if you asked me that, I’d say, It was because of scientific principles—spectroscopic anomalies, particle light theory—physics, stuff I don’t completely understand. But it really happened, and some other people saw it happen the same way I did, a whole group of very smart, very normal people. It happened to me, but they saw it too. So it wasn’t my imagination, and we can’t all be crazy. That’s what I’d say back to you. If you went along with the first part.”
“About becoming invisible,” I say.
Of course, I’m not going along with the first part because it’s got to be some kind of a joke, but I’m nodding anyway. I feel like I’ve edged my way out onto a frozen pond, and the ice isn’t thick enough, so I want to stop . . . but it’s not safe to stand still, either. So I take another step. Because I have to.
And I say, “So if we got this far, I guess my next question would be, Who are these other people, the ones who know for sure that this really happened to you?”
Robert glances at my face, then looks beyond me, scanning the flow of people walking toward us. And I see a tiny flicker of fear in his eyes, there and gone. Then he turns back to watching the cars. He smiles to himself and says, “That’s the right question. Who else knows? And to answer you, I’d say, there’s my mom, who teaches literature at the University of Chicago; there’s my dad, who’s a physicist at the Fermi National Lab; there’s Alicia’s mom, a serious, college-educated American citizen; and there’s Alicia’s dad, also a physicist and also a professor at U of C. And there’s Alicia. And now, you.”
He looks at me. I’m trying to keep my face still, trying not to let my thinking show. But he sees I’m confused. And he probably sees I’m also a little scared. And I am. Because, really, I don’t know this boy. For all I know, he’s got serious problems.
He turns back and stares up at the buildings across the street. “It’s okay if you don’t believe me. But keep all that a secret anyway. Because it’s not a story. And there’s more. While we were working out the problem two years ago, I found someone else. Another person it happened to. Only one—but it was important because that proved it didn’t only happen to me. And that’s what I think we saw back there. In the Nike store. Another one.”
And suddenly my heart’s beating so fast, it’s hard to breathe, and my mind is stuttering at itself—
N-no! N-no way!
Because I don’t know what to think. Because I really did see it. That shadow. A faint, wavy shadow of a guy with long hair, turning his head, looking around, there in the store, up against the wall. I saw it. His shadow was there, but there wasn’t a body to match it. And then his shadow disappeared. Just vanished. I saw it.
Robert stands and brushes off his pants. “Ready?” And he reaches down to help me. And when I look up into his face and take his hand, that’s when I start to believe. This person pulling me to my feet is not a liar. And he’s not weird, not at all. And I’m not afraid of him, or of what he’s saying. Because why would he make up a story like that? And I
see it. That shadow. I saw it with my own eyes. I saw it.
Riding the subway home, he answers my questions, and I have a lot of them. Because once I accept that any of his story is even a tiny bit possible, I want to know everything, all the details. And he tells me everything, except he doesn’t tell me what triggered the phenomenon. That’s what he calls it—the phenomenon.
“And you . . . you went out in public too?”
He nods, and I say, “But, like . . . you couldn’t wear clothes, right?”
He nods again, blushing now. “Yup. Naked as a Greek statue. Takes some getting used to.”
He tells me how he stood out in front of his high school, watching the kids come out after school. And how he took a long cab ride with Alicia. Naked.
As I listen, I’m still trying to find a reason to dismiss the whole thing as crazy, but the story’s tight. There’s nothing inconsistent, nothing off-key. Because it’s like when I begin to play my violin: If one string is even a little out of tune, it can’t be hidden. And I hear Robert’s voice and I see his eyes, and there’s not a single false note.
Sitting on the noisy, swaying train, I begin struggling with the idea that someone could be hidden like that. I look around at all the people. And I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to be invisible. For a month. Even if I don’t completely believe it happened, I believe that Robert believes it did. I’m sure of that much.
And then I have this sudden mind-snap, and I know what Robert didn’t tell me the other night. In my practice room, about how he got over being shy. He had
experience. Two years ago. And it was like disappearing. Shutting off the lights.
And even though I don’t know what to believe, I’m also sure I really saw that shadow man—or at least something that
like a man’s shadow. And I wonder where that guy is right now. If he’s real, that is . . . if I really saw what I think I saw. Or if I really saw what Robert thinks I saw.
And I steal a look at Robert, and I try to imagine what effects being invisible might have had on him. If it happened. Because an experience like that would have to leave some marks. If it happened.
And then I steal a look at myself, at my reflection in the window on the other side of the subway car. And I wonder what the experience of just
about this stuff is going to have on me—even if it’s only knowing that Robert believes it happened.
Because I can already feel a change in the way I look at people. And at myself. And it’s also changed the way I look at Robert, and not just because of
. I’m seeing him differently because of the way he’s taken me into his confidence. That took some courage. After the thing in the Nike store, he could have just laughed it off, or he could have clammed up. But he chose to tell me. He’s trusting me. And I don’t want that to stop.
Because I want to keep being friends with Robert. I admit that to myself. I really like him. Not necessarily in a romantic way, or even a Romantic way. I like him in a classical way.
So here I am: My grandfather is a missing person, the most important auditions of my life begin the day after tomorrow, and I’m sitting on the subway next to a boy named Robert who has become my current best friend, and who is easily the most interesting person I’ve met in years. He’s a great musician, he’s an original thinker, he’s a fearless problem solver. And—oh yes—he’s saying that what I saw in the Nike store this afternoon was an invisible man. And what makes Robert think that? Because he was invisible himself for a month or so a few years back. That’s what he’s telling me.
And even though I’ve only known Robert for two days, I believe him. And I believe him because I can see that if I’m going to stay friends with him, then I need to accept that what he’s told me is true, accept that it happened the way he says it did. And I am willing to do that. I
to believe him.
Because it’s sort of like this girl at my junior high, Belinda, who said she wanted to tell me a secret. It was at her house one afternoon, and she made me swear on the Bible that I wouldn’t tell, and then she told me that she’d been abducted by aliens. And either it really happened to her or else she’s a crazy liar, because her story was pretty amazing. So Belinda took a risk, and she told me, and after I listened to her stories, I decided I’d just go along with her. Because, well, why not? Why call someone a liar and lose a friend over something that’s impossible to prove or disprove, especially when it’ll never have anything to do with my own life? Because this girl wasn’t crazy, and she’d never lied about anything else.
And that’s sort of how it is with Robert’s story. I can accept it because I want to stay friends with Robert, and it won’t cost me anything to accept it, because it’s just a story,
story. It’s just something that he says happened to him, and he’s shared it with me. But it’s not part of
life, not really. It’s his story, not mine.
Except I never saw Belinda’s aliens. And I did see that shadow in the Nike store. So that’s different.
We get off at 110th Street and start walking home on Sunday afternoon, and I feel like my world is changing. Again. And there’s nothing subtle about it. Everything has shifted, like when a symphony suddenly modulates to a different key.
And I wonder how many times the world can change in one week.
I’m beginning to think that it’s a large number.
We’re out of the subway, walking south on Broadway, not talking. I glance into the faces of all these people out for a Sunday stroll, but I’m not seeing eyes and noses and mouths. I’m seeing stories. Every person has a story. All the hopes and dreams. And fears. And secrets.
In every face.
So many stories. And I feel like I can’t ignore them anymore.
And then I remind myself that I have to keep telling myself my own story.
story. Because if I don’t, then my story’s going to get swallowed up by Grampa’s story and Uncle Hank’s story. And now Robert’s story.
And I remind myself that my story is very simple: I am a musician. I play the violin. That’s all I want to do. I am trying to get into music school. I am trying to keep on my practice schedule. I am not concerned with jointly owned buildings, and feuds between brothers, and trumpet players with blind girlfriends. Or some invisible bearded guy at a sporting goods store. Those are all bits and pieces from other people’s stories. Not
story. I have a job to do here. I’ve got to get a scholarship to a great music school, and everything else is just a distraction. An obstacle. Because on Tuesday morning I have to walk into a room and face the experts with my borrowed violin and prove that I can play the thing. I have to keep working on
This is what I’m saying to myself on Sunday afternoon. And as Robert and I walk along, getting closer to home, I resolve that nothing is going to pull my own narrative off track. Nothing. I am a musician. End of story.