No sooner does he put on the uniform than the banal truth announces itself: he feels like a new person. It’s a loss and a gain. Gidi stands before the mirror in the employee bathroom, adjusting the fit of his flaming red work shirt, his pointy paper hat with the garish font. At seventeen, it’s his first job, and not a particularly good one either. Still, he has his reasons for being there, a few of which he even understands. Now he pats the new person’s face with cold water, wipes it on a towel, and begins to fiddle with the drawstrings of his apron, tying and untying and then retying them for the rest of the afternoon, while Kevin, the day manager, puts him through the paces of his training, shuffling him along from station to station — grill, prep, fries, drinks – like an aspirant touring some provincial third-tier college.
“Let’s figure out what you’re good at,” Kevin says. “Then we’ll decide where to put you.”
Gidi nods. Truth is, he’s pretty good at everything. It’s less a boast than an admission. You can’t help the way you’re wired, and he happens to be wired this way, with a lot of splices, conduits, and extensions. He’s got a 3.9 GPA, he’s a soloist in jazz band, second team all-county in javelin, and somewhere near Paraiso in the Dominican Republic there’s a 36-meter house made of cement and iron rods he helped to build last February, because, as he’ll no doubt put it on the Common App, he’s been very fortunate in his life and wants to give back to the community. The point is he contains multitudes. He’s like Type-O blood: available to anyone. This is his charm and his affliction.
None of which he says to Kevin, of course. Square-jawed and trim, a veteran of some desert war or other, Kevin is a man of formidable if not punitive seriousness and nothing that goes on in his purview should be undertaken glibly. The main thing is not to set him off. The last guy to set him off, according to Carlos, the pony-tailed speed freak who works the grill, wound up buried back in Birdland, up to his neck in chicken carcasses at the butt end of the kitchen. So Gidi plays it cool. He listens, he learns, he masters the fine arts of every station. And then one day training’s over and he winds up buried in Birdland anyway.
Life in Birdland, as in any totalitarian nation-state, is at once rigidly circumscribed and tediously demanding. Every afternoon he trudges into the walk-in, past the crates of hamburger patties, the fish sticks, the sacks of frozen fries, to the lumpy cardboard tombs where his chickens lie headless and peaceful in their cold storage. One by one he hauls them out into the light. He washes them down with cold water — birds so porcelain-pale, so immaculately denuded, they seem never to have known feathers — pats dry their pimpled flesh, and lays them over a pillow of the whitest imaginable flour. Then he wreaks his vengeance. He fractures their wings. He breaks their backs. He cracks their pelvises. He chokes their pores in a paste of thick, peppery breading and dumps them in vats of 450-degree soybean oil, while people of questionable intelligence holler orders in his direction, orders that the flatulent thunder of the overhead fans and the raging metal or salsa or hip-hop (whatever Carlos is in the mood for that day) make more or less impossible to hear. It’s like something out of Kafka, he tells his friends. Of course he hasn’t read Kafka yet, but he’s pretty sure he will when he gets to college. He’s pretty sure he’ll read a lot of Kafka. And when he does he’s going to remember this job, too, not for the awful pressure of its authority over his life but for how quickly he comes to accept that authority, even relish it, like a dog sighing at the feet of an arbitrary master.
This is more or less where he’s at, when he meets Natalie. She’s up at the counter somewhere, skirmishing with the customers, while he’s doing the heavy ordnance work in back. He can’t remember precisely. He’s just trying to do his job. He can’t afford not to: he needs the money. Among other things he owes Justin “Bam-Bam” Bamburger, his drug dealer, three hundred dollars. His parents, when they creep into his room in the mornings to coax him from sleep and/or sniff his jeans for drugs, have been hectoring him lately about the price of gas, the cost of tuition, and the attractions of that free summer birthright trip to Israel he has zero interest in taking. (It’s an option, he’ll concede, and add it to the pile.) You can see it in their eyes, the sidelong, jittery deferrals, the pupils resigning themselves into vagueness. What has become of him, their high achiever, their golden son? A design flaw has arisen, some weird watermark’s bleeding up through his skin like a rash. No wonder he has no girlfriend, he can see them, see everyone thinking. No doubt Natalie’s thinking this too, or would think it, if she ever so much as glanced through the kitchen window to watch him working back there, a phantom in the steam of the pressure vats.
First things first, though. Dutifully he brings the contents of his first paycheck to school, hoping to resurrect his martyred credit. His hopes aren’t high. With his high-domed cylindrical buzzcut and his lofty, imperious ways, Bam-Bam’s only borderline sufferable at the best of times, and for Gidi, let’s face it, this is hardly the best of times. For Bam-Bam? Life’s a shower of gold. He’s a graduating senior; ever since the admission letter arrived from Tufts, he’s been growing out his sideburns and dressing in bow ties and suspenders, as if off to play penny whistle in some Irish pub. Also he’s raised his prices. Still it must be acknowledged he has a good head for accounting, and a good heart for it as well: small. From the window table in the cafeteria where he holds court, accepting tributes and dispensing favors, he watches Gidi approach, his lips pursed with a fine, aristocratic distaste. “Bam-Bam,” Gidi intones like an honorific. “Got a minute?”
“We’ve been over this. What part of you’re nothing to me now, Fredo don’t you understand?”
“I thought we could talk.”
“Talk? What’s talk? It’s just air moving in circles.” To underscore how tiring it is, the coining of these oracular little apercus, Bam-Bam yawns and stretches. Wake up, friend. The credit bubble’s popped. Money’s tight, the currency’s devalued. And it’s limpdicks like you who’re responsible.”
It actually cheers Gidi up a little, if you can believe this, to hear there are limpdicks like him. For years he’s nurtured an idea of himself as an exceptional creature, either exceptionally gifted or, more recently, exceptionally lonely and confused, to the point where exceptionalism itself is beginning to feel like a problem — maybe the problem – in his life. Not that he’s exceptional even in this. Kyle Gingrich, who used to fall droolingly asleep in first period World History, is said to be over in Kandahar these days, defending the very exceptionalism Gidi finds so oppressive, but that’s all very far away and abstract at the moment, while Bam-Bam and his blithe contempt are all too real. “Look, I’ve got fifty-eight dollars in my pocket.”
“Fifty-eight whole dollars? Wow. We can get chocolate milk with lunch.”
“Plus,” Gidi hears himself add, “two tickets to Bruce. Meadowlands. My Dad knows this guy…”
“Dude, please.” Bam-Bam looks genuinely pained. “Find a new narrative.”
“Sure. Can I just say this though? I have no idea what that even means.”
The dealer frowns and glances down at the backs of his hands, as if some toothless but persistent insect has gained purchase there. He might be remembering their backfield service together on a middle school soccer team that went 7-2, or the Winter Carnival where they both managed to woo and lose the same fickle, fishnetted, fourteen-year-old diva, Maya Mortman, to the same pony-tailed junior on keyboards. Whatever the reason, he condescends to invest one last minute of his lunch hour in the losing business that is Gidi. “Here’s the thing, Levy. At the end of the day, the world’s divided into two kinds of people. Your swimmers and your floaters. The question is which kind are you?”
Actually Gidi knows which kind he is: the kind who hate people who divide the world into two kinds of people. On the other hand he’s begun to hate the other kind too. His kind. The kind who practice not too much division but none at all. Who take the world as it comes, random and profuse, swarming with luminous but elusive potentialities, and risk getting lost in it.
At the end of the day he’s not wild about people who say at the end of the day either.
The point is, nobody apprehends him the right way. Until Natalie. With Natalie it’s different, or rather he’s different, though whether Natalie apprehends him the right way or only a nicer, more flattering version of the wrong way, and whether if so this represents a failure or a triumph of perception on her part, these are questions he’ll have to reserve for later, for some dark, pensive night in the future when he’s reflecting on loose ends, failures of will, roads not taken. Of which, he senses already, there are bound to be no shortage.
May comes and goes. He acquires a set of three-dimensional burns on his arms, like some far-flung volcanic island chain, as well as an acrid crust of salt that clings to the fibers of his clothes and hair and proves almost magically impervious to cleansing. The wages of battle. By now he’s no longer the docile new hire, watchful and diligent, but just another grunt and petty thief like Carlos, sneaking frozen fruit pies from the walk-in to gnaw between his molars on the drive home. Steaming trays of chicken sail out of the kitchen — bloated thighs, puffy breasts, golden wings. He bears them aloft to the warmer like a prize. Carlos takes to him like a brother. The counter girls tease him like sisters. Even Kevin, on good days, eyes him with the fond, irritable knowingness of an absentee father. Never mind that Carlos takes to everyone like a brother, or that Kevin, like fathers everywhere, doesn’t have many good days, only moody and mercurial, if not clinically bipolar days. At thirty, the man’s already served in a pointless war, gained two forking, empurpled scars down one calf, a condo in Roselle, a Pontiac with a Blue Book value of zilch, and a job supervising the distribution of toxic low-end food to teenagers, shut-ins, and the morbidly obese. So if he often seems like a totem or icon of everything that can go wrong between youth and adulthood, probably Kevin shouldn’t be blamed.
But he should be avoided. Which is why when things are slow, they make it their policy to slip out behind the dumpsters to get high, play Hold ‘Em, and reflect upon the vagaries and vicissitudes of Kevin’s moods, and of life in the food service industry more generally.
“I hear they’re transferring his ass to Bloomfield,” Carlos says, dealing out the cards. “Like any day now. That’s the word on the street. ”
Gidi frowns, taking this in, assessing its potential for accuracy, which isn’t much. Carlos often invokes the word on the street. What street, Gidi doesn’t know. Anyway, it’s not his. Though the restaurant is less than two miles from his high school, no one who works there knows, has ever known, will ever know, anyone he knows. Every afternoon when he slips through the back door and dons his polyester work shirt and his absurd paper hat, the entire lingua franca of his morning, with its ACTS, SATS, GPAS, and FAFSAs, seems at once as trivial and insubstantial as alphabet soup. “Is that good news or bad news?”
“For us?” Carlos squeaks. He exhales a fine blue stream of smoke, squinting like a connoisseur to admire its flight. “Probably bad. Better the asshole you know.”
“Raise or fold, buddy. I told you. Raise or fold.”
“Anyway it’s not Kevin’s fault we’re getting killed by McDonald’s. They got the resources and distribution. Their product line’s ridiculous. There’s no comparison.”
“They don’t have the bird,” Gidi points out.
“They got fries, bro. That’s all they need. That one thing. What’re we, like chicken and burgers and fish? You’re confusing your customer base with that shit. It makes you look insecure.”
“I don’t know,” Gidi says, feeling almost defensive for some reason. “People like variety. It’s human nature.”
“Since when are people human?” Carlos frowns at his cards. “People are zombies. They got no executive function. Look at Arby’s, Pizza Hut. Their food and location’s as shitty as ours but they do twice our business. Why you think that is?”
Gidi shrugs. This appears to be the deal he’s signed up for, as a moocher of other people’s weed: getting schooled on micro-economics by every autodidact with a grow-light.
“It’s that signature product. That one thing you do good, that’s the ace in your hand. Then when the time’s right, bang! — it’s all in.” His grey eyes go from vague to alert, spotting something over Gidi’s left shoulder. “Mercy. I’d bang that.”
“New girl.” He nods towards the back door, closing now, from which can be seen only the bright flash of a boot heel. “Nancy. Started two weeks ago.”
“Christ. How do you even keep track?”
“Turnover, bro. An occupational hazard. But also a very rare and beautiful thing.” Carlos tosses the roach and begins to tie up his apron, his thick hands spotted with burns from the grill. Clearly it’s too much to hope for, Gidi thinks, to emerge from this place unmarked. “Anyway trust me, she’s not your style.”
“Oh yeah? How do you know?”
“Because, you stupid fuck.” Behind the drooping lids, Carlos’ eyes are cold, and a little wild. “You don’t have one.”
* * *
They return from break to find Kevin battering away hopelessly at his calculator, as if the world of numbers is yet another treacherous desert to be Humveed across. Which does not prevent him from also brow-beating one of the counter girls at the same time. “Do I look like I give a fuck?” he concludes, his favorite rhetorical question.
It’s the new girl, Natalie. Right away it’s clear that Carlos is right: her not-his-style-ness is written all over her in lucid, stark calligraphy. You can read it in every aspect of her person, in her brittle, determined gaze, and in the cool flare of her eyebrows, and in the languid, casually proprietary fold of her arms below her breasts as she says, “I told you about this yesterday, Kevin. My mother?”
“Big deal,” he says. “People tell me all kinds of things. I never listen. I’d die of boredom if I did.”
“That’s your problem.”
“Ah, but you’re wrong. ” Kevin jiggles his pinky into his ear and then withdraws it, serenely inspecting the results. “You’re the one who wants to leave at five, Natalie. I’m the one who’s saying no.”
The girl – Natalie then – stands there nodding, with the faint, vacant smile of someone not quite present. If not for the corpuscles crowding into her cheeks, and the pale corona of fluff illumined on their slopes; if not for the way her nose swells up pink at the tip like the bud of some thorny, recalcitrant flower; if not for the fact that behind her mussy hair, as dark as it is blonde, her eyes are bright as buttons, shiny from strain, you might think she’s about to give in. “It’s not about wants. It’s about” — her voice is a minor chord, diminishing as it’s played — “needs.”
“Needs.” Kevin smiles: at last, a “Jeopardy” category to which he knows all the answers. “Hey, I got needs too. Want to hear them?”
“Not really, no.”
“I got a regional manager coming Friday. I got three cases of fish filets that went AWOL from the walk-in. I got Tito at home with strep throat, a prep girl who’s threatening to sue for harassment because I said maybe try tearing up the lettuce a little so it fits in the fucking bun, and a dinner rush starting in twenty minutes. Make that fifteen. Plus I’m already short today as it is.”
“Face it, bro,” Carlos says amiably, “you’re short every day. You’re a frigging troll.”
“Sorry, forgot. I also got these clowns–” he jerks a thumb at Gidi and Carlos – “running out to get stoned every ten minutes on my dime. Or maybe they’re sucking each other off. Which is it, boys? Tell Uncle Kev.”
“Actually your wife comes to visit,” Carlos says, treating the new girl to a view of his dimpled smile, and to the length and suppleness of his hair. “But don’t worry, we took up a collection and got her knee pads.”
“Har har. You’re fired.”
Gidi watches the girl, for whose benefit they’ve been playing this particular scene, execute a swift, noiseless do-si-do around them, rising up on tiptoe to slip her time card into its narrow slot. After five weeks on the track team, it’s hard not to look at the flexibility of her hips and the sleek definition of her calves and think: high hurdles. Out the back door she goes, her stockings making their own sibilant whisper. So long.
“What’re YOU looking at?” Kevin turns in his direction, voice piping with aggrievements. “How many trays in the warmer?”
“Three,” Gidi says.
“I want six.”
“It’s still early. You’ll end up throwing half of it out.”
“I like throwing shit out,” Kevin says. “It makes me feel powerful. It’s like having a big dick.”
“How would you know?”
Kevin shoots him a weary, et tu, Brute look, and turns back to his desk dismissively. Gidi hesitates, one foot in the kitchen and the other in the office. His fate, too, is a forking scar: he can feel it preparing to diverge from itself even now. “Six,” Kevin repeats over his shoulder. “And make it crispy. I want their mouths to bleed.”
How cool does he play it, this Natalie business? Very cool. Once or twice a shift he comes moseying out on break to loiter diffidently by the soda machine for a few minutes, chewing on ice and staring off into space like the moody and unfathomably poetic soul he is. But does he pay her any direct attention? Does he allow himself to remark the trim efficiency of her movements, or the glancing hide-and-seek of her pelvis against the register, or her low-bitten nails, her broad Slavic cheekbones, her two-toned hair and killer calves? Does the poignancy of her feigned smile as she takes worn slips of paper and redeems them with steaming bags of food and musically clinking coins (still cloudy and moist from the warmth of her palm) even register? Maybe it isn’t feigned. Maybe she has nothing else in her life, and this is the apex of her ambitions, making change for people in a fast-food franchise. Anyway what’s it to him? He’s not some horny loser like Carlos, with a lousy future and one-track mind. Gidi has more tracks in his mind than Penn Station. His parents are lawyers, one uncle teaches at Brandeis, the other works for CBS News. In the story of his life this place is hardly a footnote. He’s just biding his time, dipping a toe in the labor pool, generating a little cash flow, and then going back to his exceptional life. (By now he’s taken so many soda breaks his teeth feel varnished in shellac.) Only one night he catches Natalie, coming in late, sort of, uh, looking around for him a little, peering ever so casually through the slotted window to the kitchen, through the steam leaks that hiss from the pressure vats, until at last their eyes meet and her neck goes all mottled and flushed, as if stung by some virulent spider, and next he knows they’re going out after work and hey, it’s a thing.
When she gets into his car, later that night, he’s still dressed in his clown-suit of red shirt, grease-spattered pants, and ratty malodorous sneakers, but this does not prevent Natalie from beaming at him like a cavalier, or from having herself metamorphized into a shining, fresh-faced young woman in denim skirt and sleeveless blouse. Immediately she kicks off her flip-flops and puts her feet up on the dash, settling in. That she does this so freely, that her toenails are unpainted, that her hair, liberated from its work bun, is even longer and more abundant than he imagined, and smells like real and not chemical pears, that she appears to have some sort of tiny ruby on the side of her nose that reflects the anti-crime lights in the parking lot, winking at him conspiratorially every time she moves her head – all this seems musical and promising, as does the throb of cars going by like a second pulse. He flicks on the stereo and guns the engine, heading west, into the winding foothills of Summit with their dark low-hanging trees. “Cool car,” Natalie says, her head lolling back against the seat. “I’ve never been in a Prius.”
“It’s my mom’s,” he confesses. “She’s big on the environment.”
“That’s nice. Are you close with your mom?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes, I guess.”
Probably he should ask some sort of reciprocal question about her mom – if memory serves he’s heard Natalie invoke her once or twice in the context of some particularly vicious argument with Kevin — but he’s too busy grimacing over the vocabulary they’ve adopted, which feels like so many dull blades slicing up his groin. Why not just take her home for milk and cookies and call it a night? It doesn’t help that in the silence that follows the low, persuasive voice running through the stereo speakers turns out not to belong to some silky DJ, some erotic Doctor of Night, but one of his nice mom’s meditation CDs, full of murmuring platitudes and sexless mellifluous chants.
“Don’t,” Natalie says, when he goes to switch it off. “I want to hear this.”
She scrunches her forehead, digging runways on her brow where the words can land. The voice on the CD drones on. Something about intentional focus. Something about clearing away petty surface obstacles. Something about attaining your goals.
Begin to build the steps in your mind of how you will move through the creation of your intended goal. Each step you take will feel more real, and more in current time, rather than just in your mind. The secret is to feel, rather than think…
He glances over at Natalie. Her eyes are closed. Maybe she’s asleep. Gidi’s own goals at the moment are hazy and profuse, but also, in the end, rather elusive. What are his goals? With every word through the speakers he can feel them losing traction, sliding away and receding into the darkness, like the scenery flashing by on all sides. But of course it’s not the scenery flashing past. It’s them. At some point he’s going to have to learn to keep them straight, he thinks, his foregrounds and his backgrounds.
How do you want to feel, both in the journey and at the end of the road?
They have come to the end of the road now themselves. He parks in his carefully chosen destination, which commands a sterling view of the entire hazy, bowl-like valley, turns off the engine and rolls down the window. Somehow tonight the view seems smaller than usual, kind of minor league, actually. How has it contained him so long? At last the meditation CD goes quiet. There’s only the furious electrical noise of the cicadas and, deep inside its bone-pit, the plaintive wheeze of his heart’s accordion, a multi-chambered instrument with a limitless capacity for expression. Despite if not because of this, he can think of nothing to say. He reaches into the glove compartment for one of Carlos’ joints, as thick as his thumb, which he pretends to be surprised to find but has in fact stashed away for this very occasion. So close does this bring his face to Natalie’s warm, bare thigh that he has to fake a cough just to cover his embarrassment.
They pass the joint back and forth for a while under the moronic unblinking eye of the moon. Dandelion fluff drifts across the windshield. Samaras twirl silently from the maples, eerie and lurching, like helicopters downed in mid-flight. The dope is either very good or very bad; in any case it isn’t subtle. His limbs feel glued to his ribs, and whatever tendons are responsible for holding up his eyelids appear to have snapped. “What’s the matter?” he asks Natalie, who has touched one finger to her tongue experimentally.
“Mmm.” She holds her finger up to the moonlight, inspecting. “No biggie. Just another stem.”
“I don’t get it. This is supposed to be quality stuff.” With tremendous effort, he resists the urge to tell her how much he paid for it. “Top of the line, supposedly.”
“Just tell me you didn’t buy it from Carlos.”
“Carlos?” Since Bam-Bam’s recent possession bust, the whole local economy, that intricate web of supply and demand, is in tatters, dangling by the gossamer thread of a suspended sentence. Of course he bought it from Carlos.
“It’s just that he’s kind of notorious, that’s all.”
“Notorious for what?”
She hesitates. “Well, lousy weed, for one thing.”
Is it his imagination, or does something in the way she says one thing imply the presence of second and third things? Anyway he won’t pursue it now. It’s the end of the day: time for all young fish to get swimming. He stubs out the joint in his mom’s ashtray, which he’ll have to remember to clean out later when he goes at the car with the air freshener, which he’ll also have to remember to return to the broom closet afterwards, not leave in the garage like last time. Plus he has a test at seven-thirty in the morning. It would be French II. “What are you thinking about?” Natalie asks him.
“Nothing.” He gives a modest shrug, as if to suggest that these philosophical reflections of his are far too weighty and profound to go into at the moment. “What about you?”
“I’m thinking, what’s the matter with this guy? When’s he going to try and kiss me already?”
Her breath tastes a little like smoke, but then so does his. Her hair, trickling against his neck, is fine and cool as jewelry. There’s a pressure under her blouse, a soft swelling that appears to be either imploring him to put his hand there or imploring him not to. He does a little bit of both. Natalie’s eyes are closed, and not lightly either; it’s as if she’s trying hard not to be woken from the comforts of a languid dream. “What is it?” she says. “Why did you stop?”
“Actually,” she says, “you did.” She eyes him skeptically. “This isn’t going to be one of those things where it’s up to me to do all the work, is it?”
One of those things? She’s sixteen years old, he thinks; how many things has she had? “I guess I was just thinking,” he admits.
“Yeah, well, I’ve got a lot on my mind right now. There’s not much I can do about it.”
“It might be good to try though,” she says. “No offense, but I promised my mother I’d be back by twelve. She’s… she goes to bed.”
“The thing is,” he goes on, not so much ignoring the tremble of solemnity that has crept into her voice as feeding off of it, “it’s like lately, whatever I’m doing? I feel like I should be doing something else. It all feels so random. When I pick up the guitar it’s like, why not the keyboards? In track I’m like, why the javelin and not the pole vault? Why the newspaper not the yearbook? And now with colleges it’s about to start all over again; it’ll be why Oberlin not Kenyon, why NYU not Columbia, why Psych and not Anthro, etcetera etcetera. It never ends.”
“Mmm,” Natalie says, scratching a mosquito bite on her ankle. The tragic dimensions of his exceptional life have clearly rendered her mute.
“It’s my own fault, I know. Even in preschool I’d never draw inside the lines. That’s what my parents say. It was like I was made out of plastic. I’d have been better off back in the Renaissance, they say. Apparently back then it was cool to be all over the place.”
“Your parents sound nice,” she declares with a certain vehemence. “You’re lucky to have them.”
“Yeah. I know.” Here we go again with the nice parents, he thinks.
“But wait, I’m confused. Wasn’t the Renaissance about making things? I mean, I don’t know what I’m talking about,” she adds, “obviously. But I thought the Renaissance was about paintings and statues and all that.”
“Well, it’s complicated,” he concedes. “There’s a lot of facets. Art, architecture, etcetera.” As if he knows fuck all about the Renaissance. All the years he’s nursed himself along on the mother’s milk of his own specialness, dabbling in this and that, never quite learning any hard data, and meanwhile what had he actually made? “I think nudes were a big part of it, too.”
Natalie mulls this over. “Maybe you should paint me,” she declares.
“Maybe I should.”
“Which part of me though? Be specific. Cause I have facets, too.” As if to underscore the point she unbuttons her blouse, revealing, in the anemic moonlight that preys upon her neck, a silver chain like a thread of saliva. Dangling below it, unless he’s mistaken, the world’s tiniest, most benign-looking cross. “This one? Or that one?”
“Well, that one, for example.” A smell rises from her, salty and sweet, the seaside taffy that’s her flesh. His mouth is dry. With the back of his hand he strokes her smooth breast, willing himself to shut up and feel how this feels, and also at the same time to remember this feeling, so he might feel it again, but of course the effort to remember, as always, gets in the way of the effort to feel. “And that one too, of course. Let’s not discriminate.”
“What about this facet here? Or do you need to think a little more first?”
“I think I’m done thinking for right now.”
“What?” Now she’s the one who’s distracted, pawing at the door.
“I said, I think I’m –”
“Hold that thought,” she says. “I need to pee.”
In Psych class they read about the brain. In one study, people are taught a simple song on the piano. One group practices the song every day; the other just sits in front of the keyboard, imagining that they’re playing the song, though their fingers never touch the keys. From the maps of their brains, it turns out there’s no difference between doing the thing and imagining doing it. That at the end of the day, whether you swim or you float, you wind up in the same place.
* * *
No sooner do he and Natalie start fucking in earnest than he sort of overshoots the target a little, goes directly from thinking too much to not thinking at all. Everyone seems to prefer him like this too: thoughtless. Not a mope or a mooch but a man of action, having his way. Three, four times a week they drive up to Summit and spread out a blanket over the hard ground. He licks at her greedily; her hands play in his hair, conducting airy tunes. Massive oak trees shudder in the wind. They smoke a little weed, drink a little beer. With a kind of Olympian tolerance he gazes over the low, pitiable valley, with its choking traffic and fenced-in lots. It occurs to him that for all the AP courses he’s taken, all the bullet-pointed enhancements of his “resume,” nothing has prepared him for the life to come.
One night dropping her off he asks if he can come in and use her bathroom. “Sure,” Natalie says, after a moment. “Let’s be quick though.”
Her voice sounds vaguely guilty, apologetic. But really, what can she be guilty of, other than the misdemeanor of possession? Only of liking him, liking him with an ardent, single-minded intensity he finds bewildering and at times borderline scary. Though from the set of her jaw, as she turns the key and lets him into her house, she doesn’t seem to like him much now.
In point of fact, her house is perfectly nice. True, it’s a lot smaller than his house, as is the yard, but what does he care? He’s no architect or city planner; he’s just a stoned teenager with a painful bladder. It’s a house. There’s a kitchen and a living room and a TV screen and a little deck outside with a mosquito zapper, the purple light of which is just visible through the sliding doors, and presumably somewhere down the shadowed hallway is a bathroom. “Don’t forget to put down the seat when you’re through,” Natalie instructs with mock solemnity. She knows he has no sisters, and needs help with these things.
Once he turns on the light, the source of her anxiety seems all too clear. The tub is cracked, the sink leaks, the towel bar’s cluttered with panties and bras, and the fake-wooden shelf over the sink, sagging under the weight of all the pill bottles, hair dryers, and toiletries, looks like it’s been lifted from some post-apocalyptic Rite-Aid. There’s an odor of decay in the air, something clingy and sour that isn’t him. Meanwhile he can feel Natalie’s tension steaming in waves through the door. He transacts his business, disposing of his personal waste. In the roar of the toilet he feels empty and blameless. Out of habit he picks up one of the pill bottles at random. Tarceva. He has no clue what that is, but contrary to habit he leaves it be. High on life.
“Finally,” Natalie whispers, when he emerges.
As they steal their way out through the darkness of the living room, he’s struck by two things he has failed to notice. One is there are no books in the house. The other is the bald woman lying on the sofa under a flowered comforter, sucking on what appears to be a popsicle.
“Ma,” Natalie says tonelessly, hopelessly, “this is Gidi.”
“Who?” In her wan, pouchy face there’s no hostility or suspicion, though neither is there any particular interest. It’s like she’s the one on drugs. “Who did you say?”
“Gidi. The boy I told you about. Gidi Levy.”
“Hi there, Mrs. Kolodka. How you doing?” Like some idiot salesman he extends his hand and a smile. “I’m happy to meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you. Natalie talks a–”
“Hello,” Mrs Kolodka says vaguely. Unless he’s mistaken she’s literally closing her eyes, such is the force of his Levite charm. “Won’t you sit down?”
“Sure. Great. Actually I wouldn’t mind a popsicle myself.”
“Gidi works at the restaurant,” Natalie explains. Her voice is soft, even wistful. “He’s a sweet boy. You’d like him.”
Her mother nods. He waits for someone to say something else, but no one does. Outside there’s the hiss and pop of an incinerating moth. His eyes roam the room like an explorer, looking for a friendly landmark, a mountain pass. The furniture is teak, the rug is shaggy, the wallpaper demoralizing. At least the calendar is pretty. He perches lightly on the arm of a nearby chair, waiting to be released. Unfortunately it turns out to be a reclining chair. The arm slides backwards, dumping him ass-first onto the floor. Natalie gazes down at him with a kind of seamless wonder .
“For my next trick,” Gidi says, with what he believes to be wit, “I’m going to disappear.”
“Gidi has to go now, Ma. It’s very late.” She kneels over the sofa, tucking the comforter around her mother with quick firm movements. “I’m sure he’ll want to come back another time. Isn’t that right, Gidi?”
“Absolutely,” he says, and lets himself out.
* * *
The nice thing is he feels entirely justified, too. Has Natalie, in the month they’ve been together, said word one about her mother’s cancer? Let the jury be instructed, the word malignancy has never come up. The word metastes, the word Breslow’s depth, the word Clark level… no, none of this new, anti-romance language has intruded itself on his pursuit of an A- in French. True, he hasn’t pushed her for a whole lot of information about this mother of hers. Or her father for that matter. Does she even have a father? It’s hard to keep these things straight; the differences between them seem to be proliferating over time, not diminishing. And if the colleges she’s applying to are in fact somewhat less selective than his? If the music on her playlist, the movies on her hard drive, the web sites she wastes time on, are in fact sillier and more mainstream than his? Are these significant differences or petty ones? Christ is he in need of instruction! But who will instruct him? By some cruel irony, the only one even remotely interested in the job happens to be the very same Natalie he needs instruction on, or rather distance from — a distance admittedly hard to achieve with their pants around their ankles, their saliva goobering down each other’s chins.
“Are you tired?” she asks one night, at their usual parking place. “You want to stop?”
“Only if you want to.”
“What do you want, Gidi? Do you even know?”
Gidi hesitates. Clearly it’s evidence of some major unfairness, not just his but the world’s, that after all the years of aspiring to just this — a lively girlfriend with a nimble tongue who loves him inordinately — now that he’s finally attained the summit he finds himself sliding mysteriously down the other, shadowed side. No room at the top! He feels a kind of pain that’s more like the absence of pain, like the dull recognition of a place inside him where pain should be but isn’t.
“Why are you doing this, Gidi?” Scrunching her eyes she examines him through the dusk, like someone peering into a cave. “This isn’t right.”
“I’m not doing anything.”
“Don’t do this. Not now. Don’t do this to me now.”
“I’m not doing anything,” he repeats. It appears to be his mantra, all right. He can feel her squinting at him like an X-ray, seeing a dark, gummy mass at the core, like a piece of fruit that’s been hoarded too long. “I don’t know what you’re even talking about.”
“Oh? When were you going to tell me about Israel then? Carlos says you’re leaving in three weeks.”
“I never said I was going. I said I was considering it. It’s an option. One among many.”
“Oh, an option,” she says. “An option.”
Clearly she’s invoking the word as a criticism of some kind, but for the life of him he can’t understand why. Aren’t options good? He stews for a moment, feeling the unfairness of the Chosen, of being persecuted by a wrathful God for the historical crime of being oneself.
“Look,” he says, “you have no idea what it’s like. My parents’ve been on me to go to Israel since I was a fetus.”
“Poor you. Everyone wants to send you places.”
“Anyway. why are you talking to Carlos about me? Carlos is a moron. He works in fast food, for Christ’s sake.”
“He’s your friend,” she says simply, looking away. “You know, for someone who prides himself on being all flexible and open you can be kind of rigid and snotty sometimes.”
“I’m just saying—“
“I need to go home. I promised my mother.”
“Bullshit. You always say that.”
“Fine. Call her if you don’t believe me. Here.” She literally pushes the phone into his face. “You want to get to know her better, you said so yourself. Here’s your big chance.”
He stares at the phone, two inches from his nose: a red slab, a blank screen, a grid of letters he can make no sense of. “I lied,” he says.
When they pull up to her house they just sit there for two minutes with the engine ticking like a bomb. Say he comes in, he thinks, and chats up her mom like a good boyfriend: will that make things right? Say he doesn’t go to Israel, but works here all summer, frying chicken. Say he stops playing so much poker and drinking so much beer with Carlos after work. Stops going to concerts with his friends and not bringing her along. Say he finally introduces her to his parents, his nice Jewish-Buddhist mom and dad. What’s to prevent them all from having dinner together at the Levys, with the Rothko and Matisse prints, the long-necked Modiglianis, the tchatchkes from Mexico and Thailand and Nepal? It’s not so awful a place as houses go. It even seems possible he’ll look back on it sometime, after he gets to college, and wonder what the big hardship was in living there.
“I’m going in,” she says, and shoves open the passenger door with a grunt.
Three nights later he’s coming out on break, feeling guilty and horny and eager to make amends, when he sees her talking to a familiar-looking guy at the register. She’s got one hand on her hip; the other strokes the strings of some soft instrument concealed at the base of her throat. His stomach lurches like an elevator. Before he can wipe his hands on his apron or compose some kind of facial expression, the customer turns his way and smiles. “Levy,” he says. “What, you’re working here now?”
“You were always legendary for your perceptiveness, Bam-Bam.”
“Honest labor.” The dealer makes an airy, patronizing gesture with one wrist to indicate the candy-colored cage that surrounds them. “You’ve grown a pair. I respect that.”
“You shouldn’t. It’s a dump. And it’s minimum wage.”
“Dude, you gotta start somewhere.”
Gidi examines his voice and expression for irony and finds almost none.
“Ixnay on the Bam-Bam by the way. It’s back to Justin.” As he talks he watches Natalie gather the constituents of his order, examining her thoughtfully from behind like something he’s weighing on a scale. “I take it you heard about my fall from grace.”
“Yeah.” He’s pretty sure the right thing to do here is introduce the two of them, this friend he doesn’t particularly like and this girlfriend he’s not particularly sure he still has. But he doesn’t. “I heard.”
“Just some minor community service. I’m interning at the hospital three days a week. At the end of the day, my record’s clean.” He extracts a twenty from his bankroll and folds it coolly length-wise, a gesture he’s no doubt picked up from his father, Dr. Arthur Bamberger, over lunch at the Jolly Trolly. “What about you? Chilling out this summer?”
“Maybe,” Gidi mumbles. “Hard to say. I’m still going over the options.”
“Irons in the fire.”
“Something like that.”
The two of them stand there nodding, men of the world. Meanwhile Natalie’s struggling to fit the lid onto a cup of soda that appears to want to remain lidless. A lot of effort for not much reward.
“I may do that Israel trip you did last year,” Gidi hears himself announce. “You know, discover my identity. Plant a tree.”
“Cool,” says Bam-Bam. “The birthright thing. They eat that stuff up.”
“That’s six-ninety-nine,” Natalie says, smiling in that change-making way of hers. “Out of twenty?”
Gidi steps up to the register like a foul line. “I got this.”
“You sure?” Bam-Bam looks at Natalie, and then at Gidi, with both curiosity and amusement. “You’re free and clear, you know. You don’t owe me a cent.”
“No,” Gidi says, “I want to pay.”
* * *
The night before he leaves he takes her to dinner, their first sit-down restaurant with tablecloths and silverware and actual food. Natalie has made up her face with mascara, and snuggled into a bright blue sleeveless dress that doesn’t fit her, a dress he knows for a fact she borrowed from Tina, one of the counter girls at work. They sit in a corner booth, looking over the menus, which are heavy as marble slabs. Impossible to order. In the flickering light of the candle the ruby in her nose could be a drop of blood. Around them the tables are full of good-looking adults on their night out. It’s clear to Gidi that life is meant to be lived this way, that the purpose is not to accumulate material goods or spiritual wisdom but simply to desire these things and to go on desiring them, that desire is a process and not a product, and so the natural condition of things is not to have but to want. He wolfs down a piece of steak as Natalie, her head cocked at an inquisitive angle, nibbles the outer leaves of her salad. “Don’t you like it?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “It’s great,” she says.
And really, who is he to say it’s not? The salad costs fifteen dollars. They’ve been together all of seven weeks; how the hell should he know what she means? He’s young, he’s confused, he smokes way too much pot, and if he’s been a wee bit overly absorbed in his own epic dramas, and if this means he’s failed to ask this game, pretty, unhappy-looking girl on the other side of the table everything he might have, like why she looks so wan and depleted beneath her make-up, like what those stubborn needs are she packs away in the black bags below her eyes, well, he can always start now, right? Or maybe not now per se – he needs to go home and pack – but later, when he gets back from his trip. After all, they’re only rising seniors. They’ll both be around all next year; there’s still plenty of time before they head off to college.
Which reminds him: he hasn’t told her his big news yet. “I got my scores back,” he says. “They’re actually really g–
Except now some part of Natalie, some essential, previously overlooked facet of her being, seems very far away at the moment, almost irretrievably so. And maybe in response to that facet some equally essential facet of his own shuts down in mid-sentence, decides to save his big news for later. Let it wait. Meanwhile he goes ahead and pays the check. He has to pack, say some goodbyes, make some arrangements; probably that’s why he goes ahead and leaves the motor running when they arrive at her house for the last time. She turns to kiss him, her eyes swimming and fierce. It doesn’t matter, her facet says to his facet, I just love you. His facet says I love you, too. They cling to each other, shuddering. In a few days he and his facets will be thousands of miles away across the ocean, wearing cutoff shorts, picking fruit in the fields. Her letters and emails will arrive daily after lunch, busy with emoticons, frantic with feeling. At first, he’ll answer most of them. Then half. Then roughly a third. It’s very busy here on the kibbutz, he’ll say. First the potatoes, then the bananas, then the tomatoes. They keep moving him around from job to job. Even the chickens. He’s never felt so appreciated, so full of potential, so up-for-everything. Anyway, it’s a profound experience, difficult to put into words. She has no idea. How could she?
When he gets back in August he’ll go see her at work. A surprise. Actually he’ll wait a few days, then go see her at work. It won’t seem like such an important distinction at the time.
And indeed when he arrives, and peers through the window to find her playing cards at the break table, the surprise will be on him. For now instead of her two pallid, nail-bitten hands Natalie will have grown an entirely new pair herself, and all four of these hands will be tapping their cards on the table, keeping time with some Top Forty pop song that from his side of the glass he can’t quite hear. She’ll look different to him, as if she’s wearing an older woman’s uniform, not her own. But then he’ll suppose she’s still in mourning. He’ll wonder how it feels to be Natalie, to be capable of feeling one thing intensely and not everything at once. But maybe he’s wrong, maybe everyone is the same, and there’s nothing terribly shameful about it, and thus no reason for the sight of your own big, greedy head imposing itself over the glass to seem, at a time like this, so lurid and monstrous that you’d like to wring your own cold neck like a chicken. Though it would probably feel good to do so. And then he’ll look closer, cupping his eyes against the window-glare, and find everything exactly as it should be — Tito chopping up the lettuce, and Kevin hollering at the fry girl, and some poor dope back in Birdland, lost among the hissing vats, and sitting right behind Natalie at the break table, Carlos, his winning hand draped casually over her belly, like a set of aces for which he’s gone all in.