The King Of A Vast Empire

By Danielle Evans

Two weeks before Thanksgiving, my sister called to tell me she’d decided to be an elephant trainer.  At first, the only thing I could think of elephants being trained for was the circus, which we had never been to as kids, so I pictured cartoon elephants balancing on giant plastic beach balls, like in “Dumbo.” I thought for a second that Liddie was dropping out of school altogether to wear sparkly spandex and chase them around with a baton, which seemed unlikely on any number of counts. My sister liked college, had once been banned from the local Fluff N Stuff pet boutique for trying to liberate a show poodle, and hadn’t been near a stage since she quit dance school, in the sixth grade, after calling its photo display of smiling ballerinas the hall of kiddie porn for voyeurs without the balls to be real pedophiles, in front of the academy’s male director. Liddie was not running off to join the circus. What she actually had in mind was working at some kind of conservatory for elephants with post traumatic stress syndrome.

“Elephants experience trauma the way humans do,” she informed me. “They’re fascinating animals.”

“Humans aren’t that fascinating,” I said.

*   *   *

What was happening with me right then was the first woman I’d been with for longer than a year had left me, my car had died unexpectedly, and someone named Carlos was stealing my identity and improving my credit in the process. I’d found out the last bit while trying to buy a used car, and had yet to do anything about it because I kind of liked the idea of someone wanting to be me. If I were my parents, I’m not sure Liddie’s the kid I’d worry about, but maybe they’d given up on me.

My mother called three days after Liddie had.

“Terrence,” she said, “you need to talk to your sister.”

“I just talked to my sister,” I said.

“Well talk to her again. She’s changed her major to some sort of comparative-biology nonsense, and she’s not coming home for Thanksgiving this year.”

I thought of last year, when Liddie had come home for Thanksgiving with her white anarchist poet boyfriend and caused my mother to glare at me every time Liddie referred to Thanksgiving as the Day of Native Resistance, as if I were somehow responsible for this. I’d played a drinking game that involved taking a shot of whatever was convenient every time a glare happened, and was utterly shitfaced by the time Liddie drove me home and told me that I ought to watch being drunk around our parents on holidays because it obviously upset them, as if she’d been Marcia Brady all night.

I wasn’t too broken up about scaling back Thanksgiving this year — Liddie and I did better with each other on our own terms. When I talked to her she said she wasn’t mad or anything, it was just that changing her major from ethnic studies to comparative biology meant switching into a lot of classes late in the semester, and she had some catch up studying to do. Liddie seemed OK to me, or at least she’d had way more alarming phases.  I figured the elephant thing would end, as had the summer she converted to Judaism and the year she stopped eating cooked food.

*   *   *

Difficult phases notwithstanding, Liddie was the most together person in my life, which says maybe more about my life than Liddie’s togetherness. I was a mess before I met Gabi, but it got worse when she left me. We’d had something like a fight the week before she took off, but nothing compared to the worst of them. Fighting with Gabi, I’d thought, was like fighting with Liddie: at the end of the day she wasn’t going anywhere. Gabi, understand, was addicted to bad news. Every morning she read five newspapers in three languages, and if she couldn’t get to a newspaper she’d start shaking and looking for the nearest television. On really bad days she binged and purged on old microfiche the way bulimic girls I’d known in college did with food, sucking it all in and then hurling back out into the world at the first opportunity. The worst of the news she thought it was appropriate to share in the middle of sex, and when I say worst I mean: dismembered child soldiers, bomb victims burned beyond recognition, elderly women beaten and raped, and when I say middle, I mean we’re naked and sweaty and I’m inside her and it’s really not the time.  The last time I stopped and said she was fucking weird and perverted.

Without bothering to put clothes on, she’d proceeded to explain to me, not for the first time, that really, all pleasure was perverse, that it was perverse to ever enjoy anything in such an awful world, that any moment of happiness was selfish when infinite horror was always happening somewhere else.

“Tell me,” she’d said, “tell me, Terrence, how you can ever be happy about something as stupid as sex, in a world where children are beheaded for no reason. Doesn’t that make you really fucking sick?”

“You make me really fucking sick sometimes, Gabi,” I’d said.

She’d silently walked into the kitchen, still naked, opened the cabinet, and proceeded to line up my cherry-red drinking glasses and one by one throw them at the living room wall, waiting for the last to shatter before reaching for the next.  When she finished she looked up.

“If you’re going to call me crazy, I’m damn well going to act it,” she said.

Technically, I hadn’t called her crazy. I did not, in fact, think she looked so much like a crazy person as a quite rational and calculating person behaving the way she thought a crazy person might, a prospect I found significantly more frightening and not entirely unattractive. I said nothing, went for a long drive, and returned to find the glass swept up and a new set of glasses lined up on the kitchen counter. I thought it was a peace offering and not a goodbye.

I never paid for the newspapers after she left and most of them stopped coming, but the German paper still came weekly. It was a week behind the present and in a language I didn’t speak, but I read it religiously, reveled in its deliberate and drawn-out words. I thought that so long as you didn’t understand a thing, it was a goddamn lovely world.

Two months after that I bought the new car, and Jane the credit bureau lady, who’d somehow managed to give her voice the blank intonation of a dial tone, informed me that my credit report had been red-flagged for an unusual amount of activity, and I ought to review it to make sure it was all mine. I hadn’t; I’d been vaguely flattered. Plus, I had to consider the minuscule improvement in my credit score. I’d almost forgotten about it by the time the cops showed up a month later. I’d had the day off from the bookstore, and was stretched out in bed in my boxers and a T-shirt when they knocked. I answered the door just like that because even after the breakup, the only person I could think of who’d drop by in the middle of a weekday afternoon without a phone call was Gabi. The sight of two of Fairfax County’s finest was a disappointment.

“You Carlos Aguilar?” they asked.

I tried to squint at their badges, wondering whether it was a trick.

“No,” I said, after a second.

It was cleared up pretty quickly. I may have been brown, but my Spanish was pathetic, and, I had a wallet full of crap with my name on it: license, employee ID, college ID, ID from the university where I’d pretended I was going to get a masters, library card, Giant discount card, Hollywood video card, etcetera. Enough to prove that I never let go of things, and that I was not who they were looking for.

According to the cops, Carlos was in serious trouble. He was facing several counts of credit card fraud for impersonating other people, some of whom now owed thousands of dollars. Carlos had also been selling people’s Social Security numbers on the black market. Mine he was using to be a good citizen, getting the cards he paid on time, apparently renting an apartment in my name. The cops left me with a number to call in case I had any more trouble. I thought about Carlos during the next few days, feeling a certain solidarity with him.  I knew most likely I’d just been careless with some kind of important paperwork, but I couldn’t shake the feeling I’d been chosen for a reason.

Bored and curious, I spent a lunch break doing an Internet search for myself and pulled up six addresses, one of which was my parents’ house, one of which was the shithole apartment I’d had in college, and one of which was my present address.  The most recent of the other addresses I thought I recognized as an apartment complex just over the Wilson Bridge. I considered the possibility of going there, maybe to introduce myself, maybe just to watch for a while, to see if I could pick this guy out of a lineup. The possibilities of such a situation seemed limitless, but the fear of having to explain myself put a stop to most of them. I thought about giving the cops the other address I’d found, but I figured they had people who got paid for that. I’d never even bothered to file any of the things they told me to. I had an imaginary conversation with Gabi about it, in which she told me this was the physical manifestation of my existential crisis, and I told her to stop talking bullshit and then left the room.

Part Two

While I was having imaginary conversations with my ex-girlfriend, Liddie was finishing up her first semester of junior year at Harvard. It was no wonder that even people who’d known me for the three years that she didn’t exist often mistook her for the older sibling. I always thought it was because of the accident, the one she swore that she remembered in perfect detail. Driving us back from the city, Dad had slammed into a car stopped in the middle of the highway. I was nine and sleeping and was carried out of the car in perfect health. Liddie, six and wide-awake, was hit by a piece of flying glass, and put in the same ambulance as the children in other car, two of whom died on the way to the hospital. Liddie was released a few hours later with twenty-five stitches across her forehead.  They’d left a faint scar when they came out.

 When Liddie was twelve, a plastic surgeon neighbor mentioned to my mother that Liddie’s scar could probably be surgically corrected.  

“Great,” Liddie said, before my mother could respond. “And when we’re done with that, why don’t you just give me a boob job? Is there anything else you see wrong with me?”

“I’m sorry,” the woman murmured. “I know it’s a sensitive subject.”

“We were in a little accident a few years back,” said my mother. “I think Liddie wants her battle wound.”

“It wasn’t a little accident,” Liddie said.

“She was six,” my mother said, as if this proved something about Liddie’s reliability.

The truth was we all trusted Liddie’s memory, and she knew it. Anytime Liddie wanted a favor from me, or wanted my parents’ permission for something she had no business doing, she’d lift her hand and push her hair back ever so slightly, so subtly you couldn’t call her on it. I blamed her — sometimes — for my mother’s cheerful denial of everything that was wrong with us, and for my father’s whiskey habit and nightly disappearances into his study. Without her, it might have been easier to forget what had happened. It was Liddie who knew most of all how fixated our father was on the accident, because she regularly brought him coffee and food at night, even during that year when she was boycotting cooking.

“Don’t you think he goes in there with the door locked because he wants to be alone?” I’d asked her once when we were teenagers.

“I’m just trying to get his mind off it,” she said.  According to Liddie, our father had a drawer full of clippings about the accident. Alone in his office, each night, he drank and read them over and over.

“Maybe he wouldn’t dwell on it so much if you weren’t always throwing it in his face so you could walk all over him,” I said. She’d done it at dinner that night, flashed her scar at our parents when they started on her for mouthing off to her history teacher.

She looked at me, exasperated more than angry.

“It’s called love, shithead. You hurt people, and then you make it better.”

*   *   *

Every woman in my life had a screwed up philosophy about love. My mother’s was that love was built on a series of unbreakable formalities, which was her excuse for buying me a train ticket  from D.C. to Boston so that Liddie wouldn’t spend Thanksgiving alone, which I had understood to be the whole point of her not coming home in the first place.  Gabi had spelled hers out in the note she left me:

Terrence,

When I was a kid I had these caterpillars I used to pick up off the sidewalk on the way home from school and keep all over the balcony, in shoeboxes and jelly jars with the tops off. My mother wasn’t a fan. Little furry worms, she called them. She always used to say, if you love something, let it go. If it comes back to you it is yours, if it doesn’t it was never yours to begin with. She said this especially often once I started with the caterpillars. I think really she just wanted the balcony clean, but at the time I didn’t know that and I felt guilty about having them, so after school one day I said goodbye to all the caterpillars and dumped them out of their jars from our fifth-story balcony, where, of course, they fell to their deaths. I am thinking there ought to be a corollary to that set it free thing. If you love something, don’t throw it off a balcony.  But I’m not quite there yet.

Gabi

That was it. I pictured her as a child, beige and freckled and crying over the smushed and mangled bodies of caterpillars, her eyes flickering from brown to green the way they did when she was upset. It seemed like the kind of thing that she would dwell on; though her childhood was a TV movie waiting to happen, she would blame her craziness on some dead caterpillars. I thought about tracking her down, begging her to come back, but I was not given to sweeping romantic gestures. Anyway, I didn’t know where to look. She’d worked in the bookstore that I managed, pouring overpriced and watered-down coffee for people too cheap to buy books before reading them. I was so used to her being everywhere I was that I had no idea where to look for her once she was not. Her co-workers didn’t know where she’d gone, even when I abused my authority as manager to bribe them with shift changes and unearned overtime bonuses. Really there was no one else to ask. I was not the first person she’d disappeared from in her life.

After I got done being angry at her for walking out like that,  I was pissed that she had compared me to a caterpillar — though I had to admit, hungover  and sprawled on the living room carpet, I was not unlike a spineless insect.  It was, I told myself, the suddenness of the whole thing; sudden for me, anyway. Scanning the bedroom,  I noticed that all of her perfumes and brushes and inexplicable tubes and creams were gone, that as impulsive as her leaving seemed, she’d thought about it long enough to pack completely.

It was beautiful in Boston when the train pulled up, and even more beautiful when I arrived in Harvard Square via rental car. Harvard’s campus seemed designed to demonstrate to outsiders what was missing in their lives.  It was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving , and the Square was much emptier than the other time I’d visited, but the trees were lush with color, and the brick buildings looked almost theatrical. I parked without much trouble and waited for Liddie on a cobblestone corner until she finally appeared wrapped in a brown sweatshirt that was too big and too plain looking to actually belong to her. Her hair had been dyed some shade of burgundy since I’d seen her last, and she’d lost weight in a way that made her features look sharper.

After confirming that mom had authorized me to use her credit card for this trip, Liddie dragged me to a Mediterranean restaurant called Casablanca for dinner. It had giant scenes from the movie painted on the walls, and while we gorged ourselves, me on three kinds of chicken, Liddie on dressed-up squash, she dramatically said things like Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade and You know how you sound, Mr. Blaine? Like a man who’s trying to convince himself of something he doesn’t believe in his heart.  Mostly she was speaking to her silverware, which both entertained me and kept me from having to make conversation. We were at wine and dessert before she asked me about myself.

“What’s with you?” she asked. “Where’s wifey?”

“That’s a boring story,” I said. “What happened to the poet?”

“Broke up with him. He loved me so much it was starting to get weird. Besides, he wasn’t a very good poet.” Liddie licked some chocolate off of her spoon. “That was a boring story too. Tell me something interesting.”

“Someone’s been using my Social Security number to get credit cards,” I said.

“I thought you couldn’t even use your Social Security number to get credit cards anymore,” Liddie said.

“That’s the thing,” I said, “Fucker makes his payments on time more often than I do. The cops said he’s probably illegal or something and just needs the number.”

“Undocumented,” said Liddie, “and there are cops involved?”

I told her about my unexpected visitors.

“Aren’t you curious?” Liddie asked when I’d finished my story. “I mean, don’t you want to find this guy?”

It was moments like this when I remembered why I loved my sister so much; anyone else would have nagged me about the paperwork. Liddie looked like she’d been presented with an early Christmas present and couldn’t wait a week to shake it or carefully peel the wrapping.

“His name’s Carlos Aguilar,” I said, and I didn’t mean for there to be anything in my voice when I said it, but Liddie flinched anyway. Then she shrugged.

“There’s like fifty billion people named Carlos Aguilar,” she said. “He’s not ours.”

“Of course not,” I said, as if the thought had never crossed my mind, maybe like I didn’t even remember the name.

Part Three

It wasn’t impossible that I’d forgotten; I deliberately remembered very little about the accident and the years immediately following it. What I remember about the year after the accident is mostly silence: The silence of our house without the television, which my parents locked in the basement in case I was old enough to connect our accident to the vigils and fundraisers for the dead children and their surviving family; Liddie’s three weeks of complete silence, which caused our parents to call every child psychologist in the New York area; the dinner-table silences as our parents tried not to blame each other; my own silence, because I had no one to talk to; and the silences of my parents’ friends and colleagues, who knew it wasn’t technically their fault but could not bring themselves to offer condolences.

The children were survived by their bereaved parents and an older child who had not been in the car — Carlos, age ten.  They were poor and immigrants and there was a public outcry when the family returned to El Salvador to bury the children and was denied reentry into the country. A popular right-wing talk show host lost his job for saying it served them right for being here illegally and implying they’d been driving poorly because they couldn’t read English. There was too much tragedy to be compounded with sympathy for us.

If you were wondering who to blame, it goes like this: the family is driving back from the city, coming around a curve only to find the road blocked by fallen lumber. The father, maybe he looks backward, maybe he thinks about whether he can make it if he swerves, maybe he conferences with his wife, but he slows, he stops the car, he gets out to move the wood so they can pass.  We are coming around the corner, on our way home from dinner at my aunt’s house, and my father does not see them until it is too late. Maybe it happened because the road was curving and poorly lit and no one could have. Maybe I shouldn’t have whined that I wanted to stay at my aunt’s house until the cartoon I’d been watching was over. Maybe my mother shouldn’t have told my father to hurry up so that she could make her church board conference call that evening.  Maybe my father, who had been drinking wine with my aunt, but wasn’t drunk by any legal standard, should not have had the second glass. Maybe the other father should have swerved around the roadblock. Maybe he should have put his hazards on. Maybe the city should have lit the road better, or maybe it’s all the fault of some jackass truck driver who let lumber fall off the back of his truck and drove off scot-free.

The official police report says that it was a no-fault accident, but it is always someone’s fault. At the start of high school, they sent me home with this puzzle:

The king of a vast empire is so impressed with his new and foreign territories that he is hardly home, foregoing the palace to visit the rest of his realm. Lonely, the queen takes a lover, a nobleman in a neighboring town. Not wanting to raise the awareness of the king’s loyal guard, she sneaks out of the palace to meet him disguised as a peasant. The guard is aware of this deception, but says nothing and does nothing to stop her. Traveling alone, the queen is attacked and murdered by highway robbers who have no idea who she is. Who is most at fault for the queen’s death: the robbers, the guard, the queen, the king or the lover?

I took the puzzle home and told Liddie about it. I said the robbers were to blame, Liddie picked the queen. The next day, the teacher told our class that who you blamed showed what you valued: justice, duty, faith, love or family. I thought it was bullshit, and when I got home I lied and told Liddie that the teacher had said she was wrong, that only the robbers were at fault, because only they acted with intent. Liddie shook her head and said that was stupid; the queen probably knew the road was dangerous and anyway the robbers were the only people who didn’t owe anybody anything to begin with.

To me the accident is something like that, blame for everyone and no one. A stupid puzzle, not worth solving.   My parents never saw it that way. It was a difficult fall and a worse winter. Once Liddie spoke again, my mother began talking to her nonstop, about everything but the accident. Mid-conversation my father would get up and disappear. My mother first threw herself into Christmas with an enthusiasm as profound and suspect as that of department stores. Then she began to yell at us, mostly at me, since everyone else had chosen not to listen. We got used to yelling, and when Becky from the electric company called the morning of Christmas Eve to complain about the bill being late, not because we didn’t have the money but because my parents had stopped thinking about that sort of thing, my mother yelled at her too. The difference between being Becky and being anyone else my mother yelled at was that Becky turned off our electricity.

Christmas Day my parents left the dark house early in the morning.  They didn’t tell us they were leaving, they just walked out and shut the door, and Liddie and I weren’t sure whether we had been left on purpose or forgotten. The lights had been out all night, and the food in the refrigerator was starting to go bad. Liddie and I sat in our pajamas, alone, staring at the tree that wouldn’t light up. When our parents returned hours later with pizza and Chinese food and flashlights and candles, we exhaled breath we didn’t know we’d been holding and ate cold food in the dark silence.

*   *   *

The next summer we moved, hoping for redemption through change of location. My father accepted an offer from Georgetown, where so far as anyone knew he’d always been quiet and eccentric and prone to drinking, not unforgivable traits in a law professor. My mother devoted herself to the kind of ostentatious suburban pursuits that let her pretend we were the ideal family, without actually having to talk to us. She chauffeured us to sports and dance lessons until we were old enough to refuse, she won three homeowner’s association bake-offs in a row, and she made such a show of ceremonial occasions that Liddie and I tried to skip our own birthday parties.  Even when we had good days, at night it was clear that we had run away from everything except ourselves. Most nights my father was locked in his study, and my mother was knocked out on sleeping pills. Liddie brought her nightmares to me; I did what I could to comfort her. She slept in my bed more often than not, until she was twelve and I was fifteen. I woke one night and found my hand cupped over her breast, I shook her awake. 

“Liddie,” I told her, “You can’t sleep here anymore.” If my mother, who already looked at us like slightly dangerous strangers, walked in on us curled up in bed together, she’d throw herself off the nearest bridge. Liddie looked at me like I had slapped her. It had never occurred to her that we could be anything but kids together and I had shattered something by the very suggestion, forced her into premature adulthood. She went back to her bed and slept there for the rest of our adolescence, though her nightmares continued; I could hear them through the wall.

At fifteen, she started bringing her boyfriend over and having sex with him in her bedroom. No one stopped her. My father was passed out in his study, and my mother, when she was awake, knew Liddie had more control over the house than she did. I listened to the frantic panting for a few nights, then bought a Walkman with headphones.

Part Four

Sometimes I thought she’d never forgiven me for not taking some action to save us. For never taking action when I should. She was pleasant enough tonight though, singing “As Time Goes By” off-key, all the way back to her dorm room. My mother had refused to pay for a hotel room, on the grounds that if we each had our own spaces we’d probably ruin the point of the visit by confining ourselves to them.  It was a rare insight on her part. I dropped my stuff in Liddie’s wood-paneled common area and tried to think of something brotherly to say about the formality of her living quarters, but all I could think of to say was, “It’s very clean in here.”

Liddie ignored me. She’d grabbed a book from out of her bedroom, and sat across from me on a beanbag chair, reading furiously and applying yellow Post-it notes to pages. She was sitting between the radiator and the open window, and occasionally a breeze made the pages flutter. Watching her, it seemed even sillier to me that my mother had sent me here to advise Liddie.  I had no business telling her anything about how to be a student. When I was in college, I’d lived in an off-campus pigsty and spent most of my free time playing video games. I’d been an OK student, but I did more reading working at the bookstore now than I had back then. I picked up a newspaper and pretended to care about things for a while, then I switched to her suitemate’s copy of Entertainment Weekly and stared at Beyonce instead. Liddie muttered to herself about vertebrate bone structure. After about an hour she slammed the book shut.

‘Let’s find him,” she said.

“Who?’

“That guy who wants to be you. Let’s confront our curiosity.”

There were many reasons why this was a bad idea. I wasn’t supposed to take the rental car out of Massachusetts. Even if we left now, it would probably be early tomorrow morning before we arrived in Maryland.  When we got there we’d be twenty minutes away from our parents. If we didn’t show up, we’d get caught or feel guilty about not getting caught. If we did there’d be explanations to give; neither of our parents would believe we’d driven nine hours because we missed them. Our curiosity about Carlos was probably not the best motivation for a trip like this. Right then, though, it seemed so easy not to disappoint my sister, and such opportunities were rare.

“You know it’s not him, right?” I said.

“Of course,” Liddie said. “But I want to know who it is. I mean, who wants our lives?”

I hadn’t unpacked anything, and Liddie didn’t bother to pack at all, so it was only an hour later that we found ourselves headed south on the interstate. It was already after midnight, and the roads were emptier than I had expected. People had either done their leaving already or they were waiting until the last possible minute. The weather was clear, and you could even see stars, which felt like a good omen. Liddie fiddled with the radio until she found a jazz station, and then continued reading her textbook with a flashlight. We were just outside of Hartford when she finally shut it.

“So, Gabi,” said Liddie.

“She left me.”

“Obviously.”

“I could have left her.”

“No,” Liddie said, not obnoxiously. “No, you couldn’t have.”

“I could have,” I said “I just wouldn’t have.”

Liddie didn’t respond.

“So,” I said finally. “The elephants. What’s so amazing about them that they need my sister as their shrink?”

“Lots of things. They’re so much like us. Elephant society has been breaking down just like ours has. Increased violence. Pack violence, even.  They experience shock. They’ve got elaborate grieving rituals, like humans. I guess that’s why they always seemed sad to me.”

“Always?”

“I used to go to the zoo sometimes in high school. It was calming.” A minute later she said, softly “Let’s go see them. The elephants. Before we look for Carlos, I mean.”

She turned to look at me with very big eyes, and very lightly brushed her hair off her forehead. I knew what she was doing, but it was working anyway.

“Liddie,” I said, “it’s Thanksgiving.”

“The National Zoo is open every day of the year except Christmas.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.

“We’re in a car going back where you just came from to find a guy who’s improving your credit by using your name illegally because we think somehow he might be a guy we didn’t kill, and he might be as obsessed with us as we are with him, just because he’s got like the second most common name in the world. That’s ridiculous.”

“Hey, that was your idea too,” I said.

“It was your idea first. You just wouldn’t have gone through with it.”

As usual, I caved. Content, Liddie fell asleep for a while. Outside of Maryland I pulled over for a second, and she woke up and took over driving, which was maybe the fourth thing in the car rental contract that I’d violated. It was a little after nine when we pulled into the Zoo’s parking lot. I’d been trying for an hour to stay asleep in spite of the sun prying at my eyes. I was surprised the Zoo was open that early, but Liddie seemed confident it would be, which was the first thing that convinced me she wasn’t bullshitting me about hanging out here in high school.

We went straight for the elephants, but even they seemed to know that it was a holiday and they didn’t need to be awake yet. There were three of them, two adults and a baby. We watched them sleep for a while, and I tried to see something magic about it, but I didn’t. I looked at the other early-morning zoo weirdos and tried to imagine what we looked like to them. There was a wan looking art student with long blonde hair, sketching the sleeping elephants on a giant pad. There was a man in uniform with a little girl on his shoulders. There was a teenager who looked like he was either homeless or that was how he wanted to look; eventually his cell phone rang and I figured it was the latter. There was a middle aged woman in a nice coat that was too thin for the November weather. She reminded me of Gabi, though she was older and less pretty. Something about the calculated vulnerability of her shivering when she didn’t have to.

None of the strangers seemed interested in me. The teenager checked out Liddie briefly, but then went back to walking around in circles. One of the elephants got up eventually and wandered off where we couldn’t see her. The other two kept sleeping.

“You’re right,” I said to Liddie. “They’re fascinating.”

“They are,” Liddie insisted. “What do you think the sleeping one’s dreaming about?”

“Peanuts,” I said.

“Don’t be a dumbass,” said Liddie. “I bet he’s dreaming about his mother, who was killed by Ivory poachers in front of him, and he’s wishing he’d been big enough to trample the men and save her.”

“I bet mom and dad are sorry they read you ‘Babar’ when you were a kid,” I said.

“That wasn’t mom and dad, that was you,” she said. “I don’t know why you were reading me that colonialist bullshit anyway.”

“Is that what this is about?” I joked. “That I raised you badly?”

“No,” she said. “I think as long as you get raised it can’t count as badly.”

I disagreed, but didn’t say so.

Part Five

We spent a few more hours at the zoo, just wandering around, looking at the stray people and occasional families. Around one we ate lunch at a downtown McDonald’s. It was sad how crowded it was. There were paper turkey cutouts stuck to the windows. I ate two Big Macs while Liddie picked at her french fries and neglected to say anything about any of the ways McDonald’s exploited people, which is how I knew she was getting antsy. Our mother called around two. I could hear the television in the background, the too-cheery voice of morning TV anchors. It was the Macy’s parade, I realized, my mother must have taped it and was watching it again. It made me a little bit sad and a little bit angry.

“How are you two doing?” she asked, in her voice straining to sound happy.

“Great,” I said, “just great. We’re cooking things now, in the common room kitchen. The chicken smells wonderful.”

This seemed to me the biggest lie of all, since we were still in McDonald’s and everything smelled like grease and plastic.

“How are Liddie’s studies coming?” Mom asked.

“Fantastic,” I said. “Today she taught me about elephants.”

“You haven’t tried to talk her out of that nonsense?”

“I have never talked her out of anything. That’s why she talks to me.”

Liddie rolled her eyes at this, and grabbed my cell phone.

“Mo-om,” she said. “It’s a holiday. We’re festive. Can’t we just stay festive?”

I could hear through the phone my mother trying to sound conciliatory, but I could see on Liddie’s face that she could hear the taped parade in the background too.  Her tone got softer and sadder when she said goodbye.

After she hung up, I got a milkshake, and Liddie ordered some pitiful-looking granola without the yogurt. When we’d wasted all the time we could, we got back in the car and headed for Maryland, to the address I’d confirmed and written down before we left Cambridge. We were quiet, and ashamed of ourselves on many counts.

We found where we were going quickly. It really was right over the bridge. It was a garden apartment complex, everything low to the ground and in the same shade of dull red brick. There were already Christmas lights strung across some of the balconies, and there was music coming from several different parked cars: Nas on one side, something with the same bass in a different language on the other. I parked right in front of the building and turned off the engine. Liddie and I sat in the car like criminals preparing for a heist. I couldn’t tell from the outside which of the apartments in the building might have been Carlos’s. We watched people come and go for a while, many of them carrying aluminum-covered dishes. A harried woman in a uniform rushed in, almost tripping over two kids playing with toy cars on the steps. A few feet from the front stoop a teenage couple kissed a passionate goodbye, the boy’s hands inching slowly down the girl’s waist before she caught them with manicured pink fingertips and raised his grip back to safer territory.

A woman laughed loudly at the spectacle, her stilettos clicking against the ground as she walked. She walked confidently, her hips swinging, her hair tossing backwards in soft curls. There was a baby in her arms; it bounced with the rhythm of her walking. Everything about her seemed musical.  Beneath the apartment building’s front awning, she paused, shifting the baby and fumbling for her keys. The orange light above her made her look alien, but still pretty. She turned and called behind her, “Carlos!”

At the other end of the sidewalk, two men obscured by shadows looked up at the sound of her voice. I looked in their direction, waiting to see who responded. Neither of them looked anything like the Carlos Aguilar we’d seen in the picture. He’d been much darker than either of the men I was looking at, his features, even as a kid, had been sharper. I watched the men carefully anyway. I wondered which of them would hug the woman, and which of them would hold the baby, and what the woman and the baby would smell like up close, feel like to touch. I wondered if either of the men had what he wanted, if either of them could have been me in another life.

“Let’s go home,” I said to Liddie, who was watching the woman intently.

“Yeah,” she said.

I knew she’d understood me when I turned south toward Virginia, instead of north toward Boston, and she didn’t register any surprise. She played with the car CD player until Mingus wailed sadly in the background.  I stopped at a Chinese takeout place and ordered dinner. Walking back to the parking lot, with the food warming my arms, I saw Liddie sitting in the car, the sideways light of the setting sun making her scar glow. We were what we had in life, I thought, and I was not sad about it or apologetic for its corniness. We drove the last five minutes home, where both of our parents’ cars were in the driveway but the blinds were drawn. I pictured my parents as I knew we’d find them, alone in the quickly darkening house, sitting next to each other on the couch and imagining everyone else’s family while the television lied to them. I pictured them being lonely without us on one of the few days a year we were promised to them. Liddie and I got out of the car and stood on the front porch, bracing ourselves for the sound of the doorbell.