How it was for Me
By Andrew Sean Greer
Picador Copyright © 2000 Andrew Sean Greer
All rights reserved.
The sky is a crowded attic. Clouds at different heights look like old chairs and cushions, stuffed heads of animals, wheels, instruments, a claw-foot tub. Davis stands below, chilled on a street corner, having stepped from his bus into Seattle's Chinatown. He is sniffing the air and wondering if the patrons in that restaurant will turn and look at him, notice him, hands in pockets, on the sidewalk, sniffing. He waits for a look, but the eaters keep on eating. Most people in windows never turn.
He will, within days, be in a well-furnished room on the edge of a school campus, staring at a boy who picks his scabs and eats them, and soon enough he'll find it too much to take, somehow, the draped and fringed plaid curtains, the lacrosse sticks nailed to the walls, the framed painting of snow in a schoolyard, after these long days of snow, and soon enough he'll think of each memory in terms of scent, the way a cougar mind might function, drifting back on the wet odor of light in spring. Davis will remember this smell of humbow, catfish hot-pot grease, green onion in the moist gray air, which seems to carry scents on platters toward him, the invisible waiters of the air, the carts of soft wind.
He must be hungry, but do not misunderstand him. Do not mistake his poverty for vanity, because it seems so in the circumstances: well-off parents, decent schooling, and a familiarity with drinks and ties and the small precious food rich people eat. He has an idea of himself so strong now that he's quit his job — such an idea has not come often in Davis's life. He has a sense that a thing his stepmother told him as a teenager might be true — that he might "have an eye for things." For what things? He doesn't know. Better things, delicate or broad, maybe for buildings or fractal design. Who knows? The purpose of joblessness is to train his eye or, rather, to trick it into seeing its own talent. His only talent, you see. It has only just occurred to him that he might have one — and how lucky if it were true!
He has no ready cash, though, for tricking his eye, and he doesn't know how long that will take, so he's been working in his apartment this whole January, turning the heat down by degrees until he realized, just the other day, that a vase of daisies left unattended had frozen — or that's the story he tells. This job he's heading to now is a piece of luck, then, a coin found in the street. His friend (more an acquaintance) Margaret has been tutoring young Vietnamese boys for prep school exams, teaching them the tricks to getting in, the kinds of words prep schoolers should know, the importance of metaphor — "tornado is to wind as maelstrom is to ..." Usually she also accompanies these boys on their interviews, sitting in plush rooms and convincing stern directors of the brilliance of this young mind, the quiet, amazing things the blinking boy might do. But this time, with this young boy Trung, Margaret can't be with him. Someone else has to lead him into rooms with overlapping rugs and grinningly read his soft palm aloud. A stand-in tutor. A fraud.
So that is the job, you see. Davis is to pose as Trung's close friend, his mentor and instructor, and paint him like a hero to the committee, the principal, the dean or whomever. Three days of driving to schools and this intense lie, but Davis is at an age when lying is a common thing, something tied together intricately with all the interviewing he has done, for jobs, for grants, for college, and even for prep schools. Don't judge him — could he really say, "I'm an aimless young man who is just looking forward to lunch"? Thus his only experience for the job at hand is not a degree in English, but his acquaintance with brick towers, carillons, hazing rituals, small-brimmed cricket hats, and how to sing in a quartet.
The interview goes well, you should know — the one with the parents. A small apartment of stiff green colonial furniture, Vietnamese health calendars tacked to the walls, a stunted, tinkling chandelier. The parents ask him few questions, and Davis asks only the ones that he prepared to seem professional. As if this were a profession of some sort, to pose as something else, to fake your way through another job. The mother is thin, smiling, her forehead creased with worry, turning always to the hidden kitchen, which makes her black ponytail flip against the wall. The father is stout and tired, wearing a red apron. He has only taken a moment off from his grocery store downstairs. Surely they are thinking this is taking too long — why is he talking so much, this young blond man? This droop-eyed young man touching pink hands to his even pinker face, babbling through his thick chapped lips? Isn't this already settled?
Davis is not even listening to himself, however. He is looking at the head now peeking from the kitchen steam, a small boy in an oversized red college T-shirt, chewing on his palm. The skin of that palm seems soft, unathletic, unused to helping at the grocery store. There is the smudge of a birthmark on his cheek, and Trung (for it must be Trung) is staring, the kind of stare you make when you think no one else can see you, but Davis can see him. Davis waves to no response, just the gnawing mouth on the hand, the birthmark bobbing on the ripples of motion. Davis smells the raw steam and thinks of his long January.
Cabbage, chili oil, sweet lemongrass, and chicken fat.
* * *
What follows are a series of long waits in rental-car agencies, long pauses in conversation, as if breath were being conserved, long, blinkless stares into the sky, seeing the impossible flakes of snow first appearing, the snow that rarely comes to Seattle at this point in winter, sending instead the mere cold dampness of wind or sudden sighs of rain. But we never remember pauses or silences, in the way we never notice all the bare sheets round a sleeping body. Davis has been trying on this car ride south to Centralia, to St. George's Boys' School on a plot of old farmland, trying to puzzle together some sense of this young Vietnamese boy quietly breathing from the red hood of his thick coat. The coat is too large for him, too new-looking to be a hand-me-down, too long to have been meant for his growth spurt — instead, the kind of coat that might make a child think you didn't know him, or meant it for some future him, some teenager too far off to recognize yet. Davis teases Trung with jokes, tries to learn his favorite music, his secret habits, his talents, but Trung is hopeless.
"How about food? What's your favorite food? Mine's hamburger."
"That's not food, Trung. How about spaghetti? Or, oh ... nim chow? Is that Vietnamese?"
Just a glance of wide, fascinated eyes from beneath the hood, a murmur too thin to make out in the heaving sound of the rental car's heater. Despite his reticence, it's clear he likes Davis. The sign is this barrage of unnerving answers to everything.
"TV shows? Sports?"
"My favorite sport is human brains."
"That's becoming clear, Trung."
"My name is not Trung. It is Davis."
"But that's my name."
"Now it is mine."
On and on in this way, the snow soundlessly filling the air like summer light. Davis does not notice this, brightness on a day whose sky is taut with clouds, although summer comes to him on its own, in memory, the chalky smell of tomato vines, the scent of their warm skin pressed to his nose, the feeling of tiny hairs on the fruit, and cigarette smoke pushing through summer like an obligation. A girl comes into Davis's mind along with summer. An actress in town for a Shakespeare festival, her hair always in a braid, her voice choppy and rough, corn being husked, happy to hold hands with him, or sneak down to the lake at night to swim, or kayak into the salt water; almost anything he wanted to do, she did, without judging, giving her few spare hours of time to him, usually sunset hours, letting Davis lead her. He has been penning a letter on the surface of his brain, a letter to her, something to let her know how close to him she really got.
At lunchtime, Davis begins to talk to Trung. About art, and how like Davis the boy is, with generous parents, a future at a boarding school, a future bright with learning and prospects and amber light and those things. Davis is filling the space between them with words, as his stepmother always does at dinner. Trung listens more intently than he should, his coat off, picking at a Salisbury steak and smiling now. He believes in Davis now, somehow, and tries to remember these important words. He is so young still.
Corned beef salted, damp cooked greens, warm sausage gravy on potatoes.
* * *
The first interview is fine, easier than Davis thought it would be, nothing more than a visit with Trung in the office of a kindly dean of students, tropical plants potted everywhere, great cabbage roses blooming on the wallpaper, a soft pink rug. The snow outside has stopped and there is sunlight for a moment — Davis has been concerned for some time about the tires on his car, and now it looks like there is no storm coming after all, just a light film he can see covering the broad green, not even enough for the snowballing boys careening past the window. The questions are simple, broad, all about Trung's goals and favorite subjects. Whenever Trung pauses, Davis fills in the details with something he's learned on the car trip, something Margaret has taught him — for instance, the comment that Trung is excellent at art, which is half made up, but which goes over so well with the dean that Davis will always use it in the interviews.
"He has an eye," Davis adds with a peaceful smile, and the dean shares his smile, tangling her fingers. Trung sits and says something about a superhero he admires, and this seems charming also. Davis is then asked to leave, and as he waits in the grand hall, a two-storied library ringed with balconies surely no student ever uses, he thinks how used to lying he has become. This is a pleasant thought. He sits back in the thick leather chair, not noticing the light fall of snow again, and he is relieved that he can be a fraud. So much in his life he is expected to have done; now it is nice simply to pretend.
His school wasn't like this one. He has to admit his was even nicer. Even the most cramped first-term lodgings were of wood, with all kinds of surprising doors and cabinets, bookshelves with unreadable turn-of-the-century boys' books in them. Davis remembers his school vaguely and therefore fondly, and one reason memories have not stuck firmly is that he wasn't much of a superstar there. There were plenty of boys, rich or funny or handsome, who demanded cults, but Davis wasn't any of these things, and as time went on, he became less rich, less funny, and his looks were never boyish again except for the ruddiness of his rough skin. The friendships he made turned out to be frail things, fading outside the greenhouse of school years, so Davis is left with forced nostalgia, droll anecdotes of lonely nights and boyhood cruelties he says he "had to have" to continue into adulthood. It was all for a purpose.
There is another drive, to a nearby rural boarding school, this one more severe, and though this time Davis finds himself having to perform without Trung there as a prop, alone with a counselor in a high attic room of the administration building, dark and woody, with a brooding man who bends over his desk, looks over his silver glasses, Davis does fine. He is riskier this time — he makes up stories about Trung, about the time the two of them went sea kayaking together on Lake Union, tossing back and forth small poems in English they had memorized. The next time he tells this story, he will smile as if it were real memory, and the time after that, when the snow has fallen so deep that drifts can hide a young boy, it will feel just like memory. Davis will barely be able to tell the difference.
That night, in a motel recommended by the secretary, they order room service on the parents' money, an extra order of sweet-potato fries, two hamburgers oozing blood jeweled with fat. Trung eats only a third of his and watches, chewing on the fleshy mound of his palm, speaking now and then about how Davis eats too much. He even eats Trung's leftovers.
"Tell me about your friends," Davis says between bitefuls. It has not occurred to him yet to ask about this subject, which might be crucial for interviews.
Trung, in blue satiny pajama bottoms, raises his eyebrows and spreads his words out from a jutting lower lip: "I've got two friends, Sang and Randy. We are always at Sang's house."
"What do you do?"
"Draw pictures." He grins at his false tutor. "Of car accidents."
"So you like art? You like drawing, then? See, I tricked you."
But Trung is still grinning, his birthmark bounced up near his eye: "Cracked bones, split skulls, oozing brains!"
"Stop it, Trung," says Davis, putting down his hamburger.
"Once we had a party and one boy cut his fingertip off!" A rally of guffawing as Davis sits unprepared to react, cracking half a smile to seem game, wondering if this joke is meant to draw him close or frighten him.
Davis's friends were nothing like this, prep school losers who dipped tobacco so as not to get caught smoking, one boy still wetting his bed, another full of dirty jokes and a disturbing wandering eye, all of them terribly frightened of the boys who seemed capable, athletic and sure, talented and awarded by the faculty. Davis's friends lingered, clearing their throats, in the halls after basketball games, smelling the success they would never really get, all later tripping over their own doubts into careers in disparate fields, all similar in their vague duties to help the salesmen, partners, vice presidents who really made the deals. In their youth, though, one of their favorite games was to all dress up in black, paint their faces dark, and stand in the shadow of the bell tower, seeing if people would notice the glow of their white eyes in the darkness. Few people did, and this was success for Davis and his friends. Their sorry purpose was to disappear voluntarily.
Trung calls his parents for the first time of the trip and leans tense-mouthed against the window as he talks, turned away from Davis. He talks in a language probably no one in the building understands, but the tone is all too familiar — bored, tired answers. Long pauses, then something meaning, Okay, okay, I will. He carefully hangs up the phone and climbs into his bed. From under the wool blanket, he calls out good night in English.
Davis thinks about himself at this age, not as mysterious at all. Bright and talkative, impressive to adults in a way Trung has not proved himself to be — but the son of academics has to be this way, has to grow up able to perform at cocktail parties, play a piano, recite a verse, show early signs of mastery. Davis thinks often about his family. His mother left before he knew her, and his father left when he was fifteen, not long after Trung's age. Just a stepmother to bring him up from there, all wooden beads and velvet hats, a woman thrilled by so much because of her deep sadnesses, a hardworking woman who once wanted to be a potter, taking up a new job to tend to him. There was no one else to watch, so she did it; she watched his different selves as they emerged — the invisible boy, the vain teenager, the opinionated young man, the graduate moving from job to job like a donkey stumbling into gopher holes. Davis thinks back on himself, not clearly — when did this "eye" of his first appear? So much of him is gone, replaced.
The fries grow colder as Trung falls asleep, buttering his hair with their sweet smell.
* * *
Today, the sky is clenched in a fist. Overnight, snow has conquered everything, and as Davis rises to the window, he breathes twice quickly to see how everything has changed. Travel will be tough today. Despite the trouble, despite the slow pace and skidding wheels, the sight of cars abandoned in the meadows, which yesterday were green, the interviews go well indeed. Davis and Trung have to take a ferry to an island out in Puget Sound, then drive a long way to a quaint town on a peninsula, a town attached to an old abandoned fort. The houses are clapboard, pink and yellow. Snow piles in the flower boxes. Things look a bit abandoned, the people kind but desperate. (Continues...)
Excerpted from How it was for Me by Andrew Sean Greer. Copyright © 2000 Andrew Sean Greer. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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