They were two 12 year old boys fighting sleep in an attic room, wondering when their balls would drop and why fathers were so strange. They stretched across the top bunk of the bed unit that was theirs for the summer, bopping feet over its edge and squishing crotches on the coverlet, eyeing what they’d just learned to call a dormer window, whose Latin root they cribbed from a book in the library downstairs and which made them think of the sleep that their bodies pushed away. Through the glass-covered square cut into the roof’s long slope, they saw August get wet and hot and steaming and the moon lift itself over the almost forest that was Piermont, the rest of Rockland County fanning out, against the Hudson. They didn’t know much about balls, descending or otherwise, except from the rumors overheard during group showers, after gym class. Some swung between your thighs; some hid and puckered, bunched up under the pricks that humbled them. About fathers, they knew most came and left too early, too late, that some returned home in a cloud around their faces: these fathers had to pump their voices out of that murk, waiting for the quiet on the other side of yelling, or wrap their mouths around whiskey bottles to reach the kind of nothing that they should have been too afraid to want. Under the window, far below, both boys spied a different sort of wanting—one buck aimed his antlers at the moon, not a leg moving. His doe and fawns stirred beneath the pines, they whispered, nibbling at what the not-quite-forest gave them. But the buck pulled his furred neck back, taking in the light he hungered for. They slid under the covers of their bunk-beds when one boy said goodnight to the other, believing that this word sketched out the we they were, that any “goodnight” means an answer must be coming.
In the glint of the pool behind Jimmy Hammerstein’s house, we were two half-naked boys trying not to think of the mess that mothers made. Yet we belonged to them, the mothers and their messes. Adam, Jimmy’s step-son, became a Hammerstein because of the father who forgot him, who yielded Adam to his mother, Millette, since the social clout of the Hammersteins outdistanced the fight that lay beyond most fathers, anyway. I was the boy Jimmy shielded, for the few summer months he could spare, from a father thumping around the fiefdom of wife and children that he’d made but didn’t want, while my mother sucked in her lips at the bestormed terrain she merged herself into and had been schooled to pinpoint as her single goal, the husband, the marriage, the encysting that followed all of it. Jimmy, Oscar’s son, whose words carried each ache in Richard Rodgers’ tunes, had a quick smile, and its gloss made him “Jimmy” for everyone he touched. He was directing a charity show of South Pacific at the Tappan Zee Playhouse, gone for more hours than Millette could count. She sat in a little round of shade before the rectangle of the pool, watching the boys in the water draw close in a way that she wished she didn’t understand. But understanding was her training, her business.
Playing Dr. Sara McIntyre, the star of The Guiding Light that still looped its soapy tales on daytime television, Millette understood how she must be the woman who would read beneath any symptom and light on the corruption that was its cause, yanking the beleaguered body from a loss that was hers to blot out. Off screen, she understood that Jimmy, her second husband, was big and broad and trumpeted the boom of life inside him, or his loved ones needed to echo this belief in order to keep him standing up. She knew that Andy, Jimmy’s son from his first marriage, was a teenage Goth before kohl-smudged eyes and an overkill of black would be magicked into the prevailing fashion, at a time she couldn’t see herself shoved into, yet. She felt the new life in her middle kick at a few ribs, straining to come out too soon, found me in flashes of foam and sparkle working my way across the pool and back, across and back, while Adam clung to the wafer of a raft, his sun-flicked curls turning in my wake. Thinking of the muck that trailed all love without a future, Millette wanted to curb this thing that she couldn’t know how to stop.
I didn’t swim that day in remembrance of the medals I’d collected for my local country-club team, the ones my father hoped would change me into the sporty boy he longed for. I raised each limb in curves of water as if kicking and plunging would motion me beyond everything I saw no exit from, as if the geometry of the pool would do anything but keep me in it. Standing on tiptoe in the water, Adam opened his arms to me, and I swam straight into them, knowing that his holding was what I wanted.
In our attic room before dinner, we sat knee to knee on Adam’s bunk-bed, the lower one that wouldn’t kill him if he fell from it. We were shirtless, hiding from the heat in boxers, a lone ball slipping through his vent and mine, the pool’s chlorine speckling them. That South Pacific song was a vortex in my head: You’ve got to be taught / To hate and fear in eddies around the sling of Adam’s arm on my left shoulder, as if raising it up; in the dusky light about to pop and blaze on the cymbals of the drum kit that he loved too much and banged at; on Adam’s belly button like some period put to the time when being netted inside Millette kept him alive and signposted the way out. It seemed to me that the other side of swallowing instructions to hate and fear, the side with more life to it, must be learning to love, to hope, but I didn’t know who could bring themselves to teach these to us. The lesson, though, was ours. Soon, Adam kept dropping down the needle on John Lennon’s “Julia” from The White Album, making a croon of the words, “When I cannot sing my heart / I can only speak my mind,” music aligning the song and the talk, the heart, the mind, and sound was the boost for each, hauling the inside, up.
Millette and Jimmy were downstairs, facing each other at the pair of baby grands that filled most of the living room. In a unison they’d almost perfected, they played the first movement of Mozart’s eleventh sonata in A, its theme a lilting pang in 6/8 time, varied in ways that the ear has a tough time numbering. I thought: if you saw and heard all this from the outside, from a spot of lawn before the French windows, swung open, you’d guess that Millette, an hour on, will be chopping radishes and tomatoes into bits, because she could measure out the scale of their pieces but not the hankerings of those who would eat them. She was in a worry, while Jimmy flipped the Spanish omelette that all of us were going to sit in front of. Millette’s eyes were half-closed over her plate, when through them she discovered that the 6 foot 7 inches of her husband will outpace her, that the bigness within him must continue to come out, extending beyond the daughter who won’t nestle into her for long and, a few years later, the boy who follows her. She sees Jimmy with an English wife and the new boy-child they make together, in a London that will be theirs. These visions become a drum beat for the curse waiting on this house, rumored to have been conjured and built by that thieving baron of the 19th century, Jay Gould. But he outgrew the 4 stories and the tennis courts and the pool and the Tiffany windows, abandoned for what he maintained should be a castle in Tarrytown. It sits on a man-made hill through which Gould intended to master the Hudson’s thrust—and failed. Yet its 67 acres gave him a range of sight, and in that range, he could see anyone coming. Millette slants her eyes my way. I’m the boy who can only mean that Adam will escape her, too, though she forgets that every successful birth announces the break of being left.
For the rest of my stay in that house, it’s always 2 in the morning. Adam and I take turns, looking at the other sleep. My neck slopes down in a lean over the edge of my bunk, hunched below the dormer window. I see the gulch of my heart tipped out, halved open, and Adam lies inside it, for as long as I can hold on to watching.
I’ve been living in Barcelona for most of 1990. I’m with a Danish ex from my time in Paris, a graphic artist trailed by a childhood friend, braving divorce from a Brahmin woman galled by his family’s bluster at the fact of her. The place is a mosaic of tiled floors and French windows in every room, so that you need a few moments to tell outside from in, but for the wind connecting both. I haven’t seen Adam since Millette put him in the pocket of a private school that kept him safe from me, and I left home at 13, running from the rasp of a father’s anger at this boy whom he couldn’t turn rod-straight and from the mother who let him rage. I’m in a city thrilled by, and preparing for, the 1992 Olympics that will nearly bankrupt it. If I focus, hard, I can see the Manhattan I’ll return to in the mid-90s, laboring at a graduate education that will credential me for work with college students, waking to what they can do with words. I hear the cough that will rattle me in the middle of this schooling, the wheeze that signals a double pneumonia that will almost kill me. I listen to doctors in my isolation-room at New York Hospital, fretting over my stay in Barcelona, given its closeness, they imagine, to an Africa that must outsource this virus, whose cause they’ll never locate. That may be another story, but I’ve been angling at stories about trying to break through, into a place that outranks what stays, or almost stays, behind.
I dream that the earth is like a wicker basket, visible in 4 dimensions, high, wide, deep, with time including every moment that charged you where you stood, where you stand, and these moments can be plotted around the whole, so you meet past and future selves in places that stoked your ability to feel and halted your power to walk on, even if, once, you did. Adam and I, at 12, are joined by the men that both will become, 40 years after. We move our eyes to the attic window, which we find it possible, now, to open. Through it, we see the buck, his doe, the fawns, alongside their later incarnations, surrounded by the forest that Piermont’s grown into. The buck and his near-multiples don’t twist their antlers towards the moon. Every eye, the family of eyes, raises itself up, at us.
And we look back.