It is not meant to be cruel, it‘s just how you feel. Your father has just had too much time on his hands. You look away when he tries to catch your eye. He had arrived at the airport in what looked like expensive pyjamas, smelling like a bar of Turkish delight, but you did not mention it. You did not mention that even after all this time he has not let go or given in. Because you expect the usual five words: I wonder how she is.
Instead he says, ‘Your mother doesn’t want us to come to her apartment.’
‘So we’ll meet her somewhere else?’
‘Do you not want to see where she lives?’
This is, you say, the first thought you have given to it.
He’ll stink in the heat. He’ll soufflé completely—because it is clear, forty-five minutes after the other passengers have dispersed, that their bags have been lost. What this means is Gene Tobin will try to cool down in the airport bathroom for a few minutes before doing something about it. He runs the tap and, spreading his legs wide, leans in to take a drink, as if to inform his son that this is all part of the plan.
‘Why do I get the feeling that you find this slightly funny?’ says Gene, who had planned this trip like it was a Sahara expedition: squeezing cooling creams, powders, gels, wipes and sprays into their luggage; not to mention the summer clothes.
‘I’ll stick to questions I can answer,’ says Tom, who is trying to breathe cool air onto his own face.
‘Just asking,’ he says. As they wait—and wait—for information, not knowing how to begin, but doing his best, Gene asks Tom about the situation at school, where his son has proposed marriage to his maths teacher; a symptom, according to the psychologist, of a lack of maternal love.
Tom says a number of things: that he is maybe a little concerned about all the stuff that went on: ‘I need to come clean about a few things.’
All Gene can see is Tom’s mother—her little ears, her one big eye, always flickering and looking, her desire to be seen and understood that is of no use to him now. He starts leaving her messages in the taxi on the way into Manhattan. He suggests times and locations, perhaps a dozen different options.
‘Why doesn’t Mum like us?’ asks Tom.
‘It’s not about that.’
‘Why doesn’t she like us then?’
‘Maybe I should have married someone who liked what I like,’ says Gene. ‘Someone compatible.’
‘Not so compatible that they’re as boring as you.’
‘Someone who’s compatible but not compatible then.’
Like pilgrims, they approach the hotel reception to claim the room—chosen because it resembled not so much somewhere to sleep but a nightclub with beds; chosen to impress his ex-wife, who once said she liked to meet her editor for whiskey sours in hotel lobbies.
The baton-twirler behind the desk reels off names that sound nothing like Tobin. Levine? Sullivan? Bly? At this point, Gene only knows how to detach himself; like in the sudden moment when the branch you are sitting on gives a dry cough before dumping you to the ground. ‘Imagine an appendage and somewhere to put your gum,’ he says. ‘Toe. Bin.’
‘We call them trashcans, sir. I have no record of the booking,’ says the woman, who must want Gene to know there is somewhere she has to be—invented just to intimidate him, he is sure of it.
He is unable to speak. He knows he should have been more assertive at the airport—they are still bagless—and he knows he should be more assertive now. And he can’t now think why he booked this hotel, only that the lobby looked like somewhere you’d carry a tiny pooch or a portfolio—it was expensive, but he’ll find the money from somewhere. He is completely unable to speak. He wants to be able to say that, once he has purchased some new clothes, he plans to invite his ex-wife to this room and this invitation will mark his exit from a sad and directionless time in his life. The receptionist balloons her cheeks and will, when he regains the powers of speech, have none of it anyway.
He is turned away from eighteen hotels before somewhere owned by a famous actor calls back with a cancellation. The suite—it’s barely that—isn’t much to look at: whoever designed that wallpaper had time on his hands. Thank goodness for the air-conditioning. There is just one bed.
Bedtime gave Carmel the willies: moonlight, crumbs, footsteps, even imagined bedbugs would put her off. She was straightforward the rest of the time—smartly rolling in with talk and kisses. Then, just as smartly, seeing Gene so much as reach for the toothpaste, she would go downstairs to draw at the kitchen table like it was a contractual requirement. Every morning at seven Gene would walk into the kitchen and say, ‘I’m up’. He loved her so much.
‘Congratulations,’ she’d say. ‘My turn.’
Living in hope, and unwilling for any more uncertainty than they have had already, Gene schedules a frantic day of sightseeing. To his surprise they have fun: Tom says the lake in Central Park looks about as clear as Chinese soup. There is a visit to MOMA as jubilantly exhausting as finding a missing person. Tom buys basketball shoes the size of SUVs, a burger, music, clothes: Gene picks out a Hawaiian shirt.
‘What are you supposed to look like?’ says Tom.
‘You think Mum isn’t going to fall down laughing when she sees you?’
‘Or she might appreciate that it’s a good shirt.’
‘Did you accidentally drink some of that water in the lake? Or maybe you’ve been inhaling exhaust fumes? Because you’ve suddenly become retarded.’
‘It’s a good shirt.’
With still no response from Carmel—‘she must have meetings’—they retreat to their room, still arguing. At midnight, in sync, he hopes, with her sleeping patterns, Gene calls Carmel again. She answers with a cough, a groan as awful as actual pain, and hangs up. He calls again and, getting her message, listens like it is the dying words of a cherished poet. There, in a thousand-dollar hotel room, in the cold silence that now stands in for any kind of lucidity, he tries to speak again, but is unable to. What bothers him is that he is unable to tell Tom that it will be okay—that he will make sure it will be okay.
Tom plays some music from his MP3 player. Everything on it sounds like a Martian harpsichord, but Gene responds to LCD Soundsystem, a barmy song called ‘Drunk Girls’. Slowly he starts to dance—a lovely little shuffle, the lumbering becoming something structured; a majorette’s stomp. He doesn’t care where this has come from.
He catches his reflection in the bedroom mirror—there will be no telling him the new shirt doesn’t work. He climbs onto the bed, and, cheeks ballooned, he continues dancing, triumphantly, miming the trombone, although the song doesn’t feature any trombones.
He considers pulling Tom up to join him but thinks again. Tom is not saying anything—as though he might be embarrassed—but then he smiles. Only when he starts to smile does Gene smile. Someday Tom will be gone—odds are that day is coming soon, and he will belong to the world, though tonight this thought carries with it no sadness. Then Tom stands up on the bed, and for now, together, they joyfully dance and howl, arms wheeling and pointing to the ceiling.
‘I believe in waking up together,’ yells Tom.
They dance and sing and Gene hopes this can go for days. He falls back on the bed as if this is part of the choreography—his eyes shining, his voice returned but exhausted; released, it seems to him, from his overstuffed expectations, from the thousands of ways of avoiding the truth; the truth that he is scared of seeing Carmel—unaware, of course, that he is beyond release.
You can’t say when you started to feel this way about love. Of course you like girls your own age. The last time, you took a walk along Dun Laoghaire pier with a girl called Yvonne. The night felt too cold for a date. The pier had darkened completely, so the bay was filled with beams from the lighthouse. It was like being trapped in an oversized golden dome. You walked all the way to the end of the pier, pointing out the hospital where you were born and the church where your parents got married, groping for Yvonne’s hand at some point. She moved away from you, somehow distracted, only to drift back in your direction, like she was trying to nudge you into the water, which was black and shiny like paint. Eventually, after walking shoulder to shoulder, you put your arm around her, indifferently; as if you were just trying to warm her up. Her perfume was strange—sweet. Marzipan. And incense. It felt like a feather was tickling your nose.
When you got back to the street, you saw a car you recognised. A woman was doing some stretches after a run. There were neon stripes around her ankles and wrists—otherwise she was dressed entirely in black, like a cat-burglar. You thought you knew who it was.
‘Mrs Gibb?’ you said.
You froze when you saw the real Mrs Gibb at school the next day. Her smile was embarrassed and shaky, really shaky—a sign for you to act. You took a seat at your desk. You raised the desk’s lid; inside was like a burned-out house, an apple was left shamefully to rot. You unpacked the lunch your father had made for you and asked Mrs Gibb what she had for hers. Soup.
You took a few breaths, carefully, like a weightlifter presented with a load he has failed at before. And, when finally she turned your way, you rose and loped towards her like this was the kind of thing you regularly did in your lunchtime. You bowed from the waist. How did you phrase the proposal? You can’t remember. You don’t want to remember: something to do with floating—it made sense in a way you couldn’t explain.
‘I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding, Tom,’ she said.
You bobbed about, listening as she explained herself—in her voice something you hadn’t heard before, that you knew didn’t require an answer. And outside, your classmates gathered, awaiting class, as if what you had just done was as commonplace as schoolwork. Though you tried not to, you started to cry. It seems silly now.
Tom takes up too much space in the bed. Even at this hour Gene can hear the pouring avenues. First he watches an old episode of Bonanza with the TV on mute: a cowboy undresses before climbing into a tin bath, widening his eyes in astonishment—either relief or discomfort. The cowboy’s arms are tattooed and sunburned; his face is thick with dirt. This could be his first bath in a year. Except for the hat one would not know a thing about him. Gene looks on. Tom is sniffing and scratching like a puppy.
He gets into bed and spoons into his son, replaying the details and the mistakes of his mistakes—as foolish as the cowboy in the bath. It was just before Carmel left him. She had a nightmare, which wasn’t unusual—this time the nightmare was vague but awful; You’re not able, it said. After that she whispered in his ear: I can’t. I can’t.
He will not meet her. Tom must have his moment alone.
There is a boss-eyed man called Matthias farting in bed beside her. He bought her dinner. She didn’t eat it but it looked good and she would certainly eat it now, because 4am is usually a good time for Carmel to have dinner. Matthias’ farts are as long as news bulletins, but this is not the worst of it; the worst of it is that she used to sleep odd hours and now doesn’t sleep at all; working part-time in a consignment store and hanging around in diners at a time in her life when other women her age are at home with their children. She is not a genius—or even a viable artist anymore—but good at drawing, just very good at it. And she can still say why she draws, not to show off, never to do that—but to remind herself.
There is a message on her phone from Gene. And another and another: ‘Ignore me if you must, but not him.’
Oh well. People are always leaving her messages.
Maybe he’s grown his hair, or lost it. Maybe he’s found himself a girlfriend, maybe he’s got someone nice tucked away—she’d like to know. Maybe he’s gone cuckoo altogether. It’s possible that she loved Gene once; it’s also possible that she didn’t—it’s a lot to think about at once. When he first e-mailed to suggest the visit, she had just finished a good afternoon’s drawing. So she does have good days.
‘Sure why not?’ she replied. ‘Get over here.’
‘Tom’s behaving a little erratically,’ Gene wrote back. ‘Are you sure you’re up to seeing us?’
‘ThankyouyesI’dlikethat,’ she answered.
Now she replies to Gene’s text, suggesting they meet in Gravy, her local diner. She doesn’t want them to see her place. Her apartment is a catastrophe, as are her finances, her health, nearly everything. All she has to show for her life in New York is a studio in a high-rise on Avenue D; and in it a single divan, a chair, a mirror above a sink, one wooden hanger on a nail, a table covered with paper for drawing. Mind you, perfectly sane people exist in places like this—and she can’t do everything at once.
She watches Matthias sleep. She is a student of eyes: lashes, balls, lids, pupils.
Mouths are an afterthought, a quick line. After all this time at it she can barely get ears right, not to mention hands, which, when present, are reduced to stubs or thumbs. So eyes are what she is good at and she hasn’t sold a cartoon all year. Nineteen rejections from The New Yorker alone, which she can handle—not indefinitely, no-one lives for rejection; but what she really fears and what she thinks is happening is that the artist’s life is defeating her. This urge to be rejected bothers her but she is unable to shake it. She has an eye for oddly configured, motherless families and has, for years, entertained the notion that Tom is unconsciously but specifically happier that his mother has little part to play in his life. She hasn’t seen him since he was ten years old.
She used to write him letters: one a day for the first year. As she walks to the diner, she thinks about Tom’s last letter to her, before he stopped replying altogether. Today I rode my bike all the way to school. I did not need any help. I was independent.
She finds herself talking to the waitress, Florence, about him.
‘It’s amazing. It’s like we’ll be breathing the same oxygen.’
‘That’s beautiful,’ says Florence, who can be trusted to leave Carmel to it when, most days, she dozes off at the table. ‘It’s like serendipity or something.’
After a few minutes of staring at it, her omelette has begun to freak her out—it reminds her of something tragic. She asks Florence to take it away and starts work on a new character called Karen—Karen does Pilates and drinks coconut milk and not only is she able to sleep, she is able to listen and be loved. Carmel is determined to do what Karen does, and more.
When Tom arrives and presses his face against the glass, she wants it to be frozen there so that she can scrutinise him. He might be quite handsome up close, she can’t be sure. And she likes his style. He joins her in the booth and immediately she wishes he would leave and come in again, so that this time she’ll be ready and can spontaneously erupt in a startling, kindly smile.
‘Where’s your father?’ she says. Their knees are touching.
‘He had to do something,’ says Tom.
‘Does he say bad things about me? Good God, that was the first thing that popped into my head. I’m sorry, I haven’t been sleeping.’
‘He says hi.’
‘And that means?’
‘That he says hello,’ says Tom. ‘You look tired.’
‘I don’t sleep too well, I told you,’ says Carmel.
‘Whatever they are they’re not working. But I had this good idea for a cartoon just now. And the thing about good ideas is, I can’t think of the last time I had one.’
Carmel draws carefully on a paper napkin with an eyebrow pencil. One eye then the other, then a mouth, until Karen appears. Yes, Karen is her friend. Yes, Karen is one of those girls who end up in Vampire Weekend artwork. In fact, someone in the band is a good friend of Karen‘s. Yes, Karen has an apartment overlooking the river, you should see it. Yes, she has had many admirers, even if that isn’t a priority for her right now.
Tom doesn’t bat an eyelid when she suggests they go to her apartment.
It’s time for an adventure. Your mother wants ice. You’ve worked your way through her neighbourhood, bypassing two acceptable looking groceries because, she says, the ice in the faraway mini-mart will be cleaner—the cubes neater and the size of little marshmallows.
‘We’ll make drinks,’ she says.
‘Cold ones. And then we’ll discuss your escapades.’
‘What if I say I was confused?’ you say.
‘I’d say you’re a sixteen-year-old boy, of course you are confused.’
‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen when I get back.’
An elderly lady with greasy silver hair all the way down to her thighs loiters by the fruit display. Her shirt is drenched with sweat, absolutely sopping. Very politely she offers to bust your fucking head. Hearing this, your mother smiles and pokes the woman in the ribs.
‘More than you bargained for, I imagine,’ she says to you. ‘But we all do things we’re not proud of. Orange or grapefruit? Or both?’
‘Both,’ you say.
‘Or we could upgrade completely. There’s some watermelon on special.’
‘Let’s do that then.’
‘By the way,’ she says. ‘There are people that you love but can’t coexist with.’ Her nails are bitten and stained with ink.
And now you have one of your ideas: maybe your mother couldn’t love you as you were; and staying would have done more harm than good? And last night, as your father held you in his arms, this came back to you—her last weeks at home in Dublin. There was a garden behind the house: mostly lawn but, lower down, your father had a patch where raspberry bushes and rows of blackcurrants fought for space. You spent whole days there and only your Dad knew where to find you: the promise of dinner, reminders about homework, ideas for games—and now and then he found you without a reason, just because he wanted to see you. Of course.
‘I knew you were going to leave by the way,’ you say. ‘The day before, I knew.’
‘How come?’ she says, clamping her eyes in what you think is a kind of advance apology.
‘We were shopping for a picnic. You don’t like picnics, but that isn’t why you left. You bought brown bread. And fruit.’
‘You don’t like them and you had never bought them before.’
‘I knew your father had you covered,’ she says.
‘He had me covered?’ you say.
‘Like mustard?’ she says. ‘Or a big sheet of bubble-wrap.’
‘The sneeze-guard at a salad bar?’
‘He had you covered.’
You start to laugh and your mother does too, your laughter doubling then multiplying indefinitely—either this will lead to a blackout or something major, deciding which is beyond you. And only after too much of this, there, inside a thronging supermarket, very slowly but with clear conviction, you start to leave yourself, to trust again in everything, everywhere. The world is still exciting and beautiful. And because of that, you start to rise off your feet—floating the way a bubble floats. You expect to feel weightless, but this is not weightlessness; made more evident by the expression of surprise on your mother’s face, visible maybe six feet below.