There’s nothing quite like curling up with a heart-warming book over the winter holidays, and TOGETHER AT MIDNIGHT is the perfect book for that. It’s a total snowmance!
In the wake of witnessing something tragic, high school seniors Kendall and Max find themselves accepting a dare to perform random acts of kindnessas a way to cope with the guilt. The challenge pulls these two teens, who have a history back home, closer and closer as they explore a vibrant city filled with other people’s stories and secrets.
Kendall and Max can’t deny their growing bond, even though they both have other romantic entanglements and uncertain futures. As the clock counts down on New Year’s Eve, will they find themselves… together at midnight?
Need more? You can read the first few chapters below while you wait for the book’s official release on January 2, 2018!
Here now, a list:
THINGS TO DO TO MAKE NEXT YEAR PERFECT
Okay, that’s way too much pressure. I cross out Perfect and replace it with Not Suck, knowing full well that even Not Suck might be reaching for the stars.
1) Get completely ready to go back to Fitzpatrick.
I’m not sure how to accomplish “completely ready to go back,” but writing it down feels like a first step. I’ve spent the last semester in a study abroad program and now I’m home. My high school is still here, right where I left it. It didn’t, for instance, explode in a blaze of white-hot glory while I was gone. When the holiday break is over in seven days, I’ll have to exist there again.
2) Start your book. Then, for the love of all things holy, FINISH it.
My novel is about the end of the world, and so far I’ve come up with a title, Together at Midnight, and drawn sketches and written bios of all the main characters. Now I just need to begin the actual writing. That’s the no-fun part, which is why I never do it, which is why I have to put it on a goddamn list.
3) Achieve quality time with Ari.
My best friend. We haven’t been apart this long, ever. We emailed back and forth a bit while I was away, but I need to know she still fits snugly into her spot in my life. Especially because now that spot has to accommodate her boyfriend. (Sigh.)
4) Get in touch with Jamie.
I stare at those five too-simple words. Then I add:
Let him know I’m home. Set up a time to meet.
Still doesn’t seem like enough so I add more:
Become a couple. Have a great spring together. Go to the prom. BE IN LOVE.
Nope. Dial it back, girl. I scratch that last part out.
I met Jamie last summer, when Ari and his friend Camden started dating. We clicked and I really liked him, until he told me he didn’t think of me that way. Then, after I left for Europe, he emailed me one of his photos. I sent him one back. Over the last few months, we’ve been having the kind of correspondence that makes you obsessed with your inbox and you hate hate hate that but also, you love it.
There. A list that will either motivate me out of bed or drive me deeper under the covers. We shall see. But at least it’s done what all my lists are intended to do: coax the Thought Worms in my head to wriggle out of hiding, whispering to them, You don’t need to bother Kendall anymore! Come play on this nice clean page!
I put down the notebook and pencil and look around my room. During my time with the Movable School program, I went to Paris, Rome, and London, Saint-Tropez and Monaco, the green hills of Ireland and the white cliffs of Dover. Now I’m back within these pink-and-purple walls, staring at a poster of kittens eating cake. (The kittens are as cute as they were when I was eleven, but still.) How do I fit inside this space again?
There’s another person in my house who knows what this feels like and might be able to tell me what to do about it, so I get up to find him.
On my way out of the room, I pat my enormous red suitcase on the shoulder. It sits just inside the door, only partially unzipped. For three days since I got back from Europe, it’s dared me to unpack it, and for three days, I’ve wimped out of that dare.
My brother Emerson is sprawled across his bed as if someone threw him ten feet and this is how he landed. At first, I can’t tell which blanket-lumps are which. I definitely don’t want to touch his head and have it turn out not to be his head. I’ve made that mistake before. I watch him for a moment, parts of him hanging off the mattress because it’s the same mattress he’s had since he was twelve.
One of the lumps moves. Definitely his head. I reach out and flick it through the covers.
“Hey,” I whisper.
My brother groans like an animal in pain. A woolly mammoth sinking into a tar pit.
“It’s Kendall,” I add.
“I know,” says Emerson. “Strawberry shampoo.”
“I have to ask you something.”
“Ken, it’s too early for one of your random questions.”
“How do you stand coming back home?”
Em laugh-grunts. “Welcome to the rest of your life, kid.”
“Be serious,” I say, flicking him again. “I need to know before you leave.”
He rolls over and pulls the covers down so I can see his face. Looking at him is like looking at myself, in the alternate timeline where I was born a boy. Same auburn hair, same awkward nose. But of course on him, it all works. Me, not so much.
“Sometimes I pretend I’m not actually in my body,” says Emerson, “and the thinking and feeling part of me is hovering near the ceiling, watching all the action.”
“Like the way people describe near-death experiences?”
“Try it sometime.”
“What time did Andrew move?” I ask.
Andrew is Emerson’s boyfriend. Even though they’re both twenty-two and live together in Manhattan, and my parents have known Em was gay since he was thirteen and probably way before that, my dad’s enforcing an “unmarried couples don’t sleep together under my roof” rule. He says it was the same when my other two brothers brought girlfriends home to visit. He says changing the rules because Andrew and Emerson are both guys would be reverse discrimination, which is a good point none of us wanted to admit out loud.
Emerson gives me his best fake-innocent look, complete with big eyes, something I can’t pull off even though we have almost the same face.
“Oh, come on,” I say. “He came in right after Mom and Dad went to bed, right?”
Emerson laughs. “What can I say? I sleep better if he’s here. He went back to the couch sometime early this morning. What time is it now?”
I glance at the clock above his bed. “Eight forty-five.”
“Jesus!” he says, throwing back the covers. “We have a cab coming at nine to take us to the train. Can you see if Andrew’s up?”
As Emerson starts frantically getting dressed, I rush downstairs. Past my brother Walker’s room, where Walker will probably be asleep most of the day. I always get a two-second whiff of marijuana when I walk by and I think it’s permanently embedded in the wood of his door. Then I pass my oldest brother Sullivan’s door, shut tight and unopened for so long, I keep forgetting it’s not a closet. He’s not there because he and his wife are staying at a hotel for this Christmas visit, which is one of the many reasons why being twenty-six sounds awesome.
Yup, we’re Sullivan, Walker, Emerson, and Kendall. People joke that my dad was trying to create his own law firm, but my brothers are actually named after artists and writers my parents admire. I was the accident baby, aka the “I can’t believe our parents are still having sex” baby. You’d think that after three boys, my mother would jump at the chance for a girl’s name, something that ends with a Y or A sound and has i’s that can be dotted with hearts. But, no. Kendall was the last name of the teacher who inspired her to be a history professor. Thanks a lot, dude-who-died-right-before-I-was-born.
The door of my parents’ room is always left open a crack so the cat can come and go. I see my dad asleep in bed, but not my mom.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Andrew’s already making coffee. For the record, I really love Andrew.
“Hey, monkey,” says Andrew. (I also love that he calls me this.) “Is he up?”
“Just now,” I say. “Where’s Mom?”
“She went out for a run but said she’ll be back before our cab comes.”
I nod. Of course she did. Janet Parisi doesn’t let Christmas Day calories just sit there in her body, being useless.
Suddenly, the sound of a car horn makes us both jump.
Andrew glances out the window. “Good God. The cab’s early.”
“Dammit!” yells Emerson from upstairs. “It’s early!”
Andrew sighs. “I’ll go ask him to wait.”
He pulls on his boots and coat, then grabs his neat little rolling suitcase and heads out the door. Painfully frigid air from the outside world rushes in. I watch him steer the suitcase down the icy path to the street. The cab driver hops out and pops the trunk, then takes Andrew’s bag for him.
I watch myself running toward the cab and throwing open the door and leaping inside.
No, wait. That’s only happening in my head.
I press my hand to the window and force myself to lay my whole palm against the cold, cold glass. This should keep me here, in reality.
Emerson jets down the stairs, a big leather satchel slung across his body, a shopping bag full of opened Christmas gifts in one hand. His hair, which is never rumpled, is rumpled.
“Why do you have to go back?” I ask him. “Andrew’s the one who has to work. You have the week off.”
Andrew writes for an online magazine. Emerson teaches sixth-grade science at a private school. They’ve been together since their sophomore year in college and it’s all unbearably adorable.
He shakes his head. “I wish I could, but another night here is beyond the limits of my out-of-body coping mechanism.”
Andrew comes back into the house. “Ready?”
Emerson takes the coffeepot off the burner, swigs some straight from the pot, then puts it down and wipes his mouth. “Ready.”
“Your mom’s not back from her run yet,” says Andrew. “She’ll be mad she didn’t get to say good-bye.”
“Eh, we’re seeing her and Kendall in a few days when they come in to see Wicked.”
Andrew takes Emerson’s shopping bag from him and hands him his coat. Emerson turns to me. “I’m glad you’re home, Ken. I’m glad you had an amazing time in Europe.”
For some reason, this makes me want to weep.
“It was a good Christmas,” I say, nodding, my hand still on the windowpane.
“See you on Wednesday.”
I pull myself away from the window so Emerson and I can hug. Then I hug Andrew, and then they leave the house. As the door opens, the air lashes my face and it feels horrible but I also don’t mind it because I’m having that flicker again.
This time, I picture myself sitting between Emerson and Andrew in the backseat of the cab.
Before I really understand what I’m doing, I step onto the porch and shout, “Wait!”
Holy crap, the cold through the soles of my feet in socks. Andrew, Emerson, and the cab driver all turn to me and I guess I’m supposed to follow that up with something.
So I yell, “Can I come with you?”
They both just stare, as blank as the snow between me and them, until Emerson asks, “What do you mean?”
“Can I come stay with you guys? In the city? For a few days?”
Emerson steps gingerly back down the path toward me, not taking his eyes off my face. Does it show? How much I need to go with him?
“We have to leave right now or we’ll miss the train,” he says.
“Give me two minutes.”
“Mom will be furious. And confused.”
“I’ll handle it.”
“We do have a guest room now,” adds Andrew, to Emerson. “It would be great to break it in.”
Emerson sighs. Glances back and forth between Andrew and me. “Fine,” he finally says, cracking a smile.
I dart into the house, up the stairs, into my room. Tuck my phone in the pocket of my pajama top. When I grab the handle of my suitcase, I can almost hear it hissing, Yes! To avoid making any noise, I pick the thing up. It’s obscenely heavy. I could die this way.
I make it to the front door, pull on my long wool coat and my winter boots, then haul the suitcase outside.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” says Emerson when he sees it.
Within moments, the trunk is full and slammed shut and it’s just as I pictured: I’m sandwiched between Emerson and Andrew on the way to the train station in Poughkeepsie.
This was totally not on the list.
“Leave that on CNN or I’ll write you out of the will!”
My grandfather’s voice booms through the apartment. It woke me up. At first, I thought it was the voice of God, and let me tell you, that’s a hell of a way to gain consciousness. Now I’m just lying in bed, listening to God be an asshole.
“That threat doesn’t work anymore,” I hear my dad say. “Can you come up with something a little less ridiculous?”
“Please, Big E,” adds a high, tight voice. My aunt. Dad’s sister. “The kids shouldn’t be seeing all this refugee footage. They’ll have nightmares for days. Just a half hour of Nickelodeon, okay? While we get everyone packed up?”
There’s a noise like something being dropped. Or thrown. That poor remote. It has more duct tape on it than, well, a duct.
My grandfather, Ezra Levine, aka Big E to those of us forced to put up with him, is in fine form. He’s got a heart condition, high blood pressure, and two bad hips, but his biggest ailment is chronic jerkiness. Always has been, but more so since my grandmother died in March. It’s in honor of her, our Nanny, that we gathered at Big E’s enormous Park Avenue apartment for Christmas. She was the Irish Catholic girl who made it magical for everyone. Especially her grumpy Jewish husband.
Everyone means my parents, my sister, my aunt and uncle, their two kids, and me. They stuck me in my dad’s old room with my twin cousins, Theo and Ezra. I’m eighteen. They’re four. It’s like the world’s smallest, weirdest overnight camp.
I can’t wait to get back home. Back to work. Away from the glances of my extended family. Even the four-year-olds look at me like, Tell me again why you’re not at college right now?
There’s a knock.
“Max, it’s Dad. Are you awake?”
My dad comes in and looks around the room. The airplane wallpaper’s still there from when he was little, along with a single faded poster of Freddie Mercury of Queen, shirtless in tight white pants, gripping a microphone. So yeah, it’s a strange vibe.
Dad pulls out the small chair from the even smaller wooden desk. It’s where he must have done many hours of elite private school homework. Then he takes a deep breath and stares at me. This feels ominous.
“It was a good Christmas,” I say.
“It was. Considering.”
“That Big E is being shitty to everyone?”
“Don’t be disrespectful,” says Dad, but then he laughs. “But okay, shitty is one word for it.”
“Aunt Suze said his home aide quit.”
“Yes. That’s what we wanted to talk to you about.”
I look around. Who’s we? The look on Dad’s face says it all: I’m not going to like what’s coming next.
“Maxie,” he continues. “We need a favor from you. It’s a big one, but I know you’re up to the task.”
Oh, crap. He’s going to ask me to help get my grandfather into the bathtub.
“Suze and I will hire a new aide,” says Dad, “but it’s going to take a few days to find someone. I need to go back to work tomorrow. Your aunt has to get the kids home to New Jersey.”
The picture comes together. It involves much, much more than an old naked guy in a bathroom.
“Maxie, you’re the only one of us who doesn’t have commitments this week. . . .”
Go ahead, rub it in. I’m the moron who was all set to start at Brown and then at the last minute, just a week before freshman orientation, said, Hey, can I take a rain check?
One of my reasons for this was right. The other was wrong. Wrong enough to overshadow the right. To make me regret every day that I’m not in Providence, Rhode Island. They’re holding my spot until next year, but I should be in that empty space now. Filling every corner of it. Letting it fill me in return.
“We need you . . . ,” my dad continues. “No, we’re asking you . . . to stay here until a new aide can start. We’re talking maybe two days, tops. Someone has to be in the apartment, or at least nearby, in case he needs something.”
“Big E and I . . . ,” I start to say, but can’t utter the rest of it. We have nothing to talk about. He thinks grandfathering means sending me magazine articles he wants me to read. I’m not sure he even likes me.
“I know,” says Dad, and maybe he actually does. “Look, you won’t be stuck in the apartment with him. You can go out, do your own thing. See a movie. Check out a museum. Just be in the area, in case he calls.”
The truth is, I really don’t have anything better to do at home. I’ve been working at a telemarketing company, trying to earn as much money as I can for college, but they gave everyone the week off. Plus, if I’m here, I can’t hang out with my high school friends or see my ex-girlfriend, Eliza. That’s all good.
“Sure, Dad,” I finally say. “You’re right. It should be me.”
Dad claps me on the shoulder. “You’re a great kid, Maxie. You always come through in a pinch.”
I totally do. When someone needs something, I’m there.
But where am I when nobody needs anything? Who am I when nobody needs anything? That, my friends, is the question.
An hour later, both families are packed up and ready to hit the road.
Except me, of course. I’ve been sitting in the kitchen, nursing a giant cup of coffee. My sister, Allie, comes over and takes a swig. She’s fifteen.
“Vaya con Dios, hermano,” she says.
Mom and Aunt Suze hug me in rapid succession. The little cousins hug me because Aunt Suze orders them to. My dad claps me on the shoulder again. Big E has fallen asleep in his recliner and I don’t know what’s louder, the TV or his snoring.
Aunt Suze takes me aside and runs down the list of his medications. “He knows what he has to take, and when. Just check in with him a couple times a day to make sure.”
She’s emptied the fridge of anything he’s not supposed to eat. Now she hands me a stack of menus from nearby restaurants, with certain items circled. I can order his lunch and dinner from any of those selections. Then she gives me a list of phone numbers for his myriad doctors. “But if it’s not an emergency, call me first,” says Suze. “I can be here inside an hour.”
I look at the frown line between her eyebrows and understand, for the first time, how much energy she pours into my grandfather. It must be like she’s got three kids, not two. I’m overcome with sympathy and appreciation for her. Then, relief. That I can be useful.
Just like that, both families are gone. Nobody wanted to wake Big E, so they never said good-bye to him. This might infuriate the guy, or maybe he couldn’t care less. I watch him for a few moments, his chest rising and falling. There’s so much heaviness to the movement. I know he’s just a person. He’s known me all my life. We share blood and a middle name.
I’m scared completely shitless.
We ran to catch the subway heading uptown to Emerson and Andrew’s apartment, and I don’t want to talk about how hard it was getting my suitcase through Grand Central. Now I’m recovering in a seat tucked against the wall. The guy sitting next to me wears Ray-Ban sunglasses, black fingerless gloves, and a leather jacket. He’s reading a book in French and doesn’t seem to care that a panting girl and her ginormous luggage are invading his personal space.
If he were a character in my novel, he’d be like Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club, but also valedictorian of his class. Quiet and full of secrets. All the girls at his high school make fun, but secretly lust after him. One girl in particular is obsessed with his fingernails peeking out of those gloves, because they’re always clean and polished.
This is a thing I do: turn real people into characters in whatever I’m writing. I draw a sketch of them, then jot down a few details. A name and where they live, what they do, what they want. Thought Worms that spring free from nowhere or everywhere.
The people-watching is one reason why I love riding the subway in New York. Also, I’m fascinated by how it can be loud and quiet at the same time. Outside the train, it sounds like universes are colliding and shattering, but here in the car almost nobody talks.
I check my phone. There’s a recent text from Mom.
What time are you coming home from the city?
This is sticky. I answer Staying overnight at Emerson’s, will text later because that’s all the information I have for her, and also for me.
OK, she replies, and if a pair of typed letters can look pissed off, these do. I don’t blame her. I’ve been gone four months and Mom was looking forward to some mom/daughter quality time, and here’s proof that I’m awful.
She also knows what a stupid idea this is. What am I going to do in Manhattan? I have almost no spending money left. I came back from Europe with twenty-four dollars and also some random currency from different countries. Coins that don’t feel the right weight, bills in strange colors, all with faces and names I don’t recognize (except Queen Elizabeth, duh). If I’m desperate, I’ll exchange them. But right now I just like to see them in my wallet because it feels like the rest of the world is waving to me.
I open up a photo album on my phone that has twenty-seven images in it. I remember when Jamie sent me each one, and where I was, and what I sent back in response. One picture is of a tree flush with bright red leaves, a clear blue sky backdrop. Another is a shot of two tip jars at a coffeehouse where one says “Invisibility” and one says “Flight,” and the Invisibility jar was winning.
Jamie never wrote anything with these photos and I’m glad because he didn’t need to.
I want to see him so badly I feel it at the base of my throat, like heartburn but more romantic. Number Four on my list is hanging there, ripe to be checked off. Oh, what the hell. Since I’m riding a subway train in my fleece penguin pajamas and basically can’t get any more pathetic today, I find his number in my phone and start typing.
Hi it’s Kendall. Hope you had a good Christmas. I’m back in town. Want to meet up?
Of course, it might not actually send until I’m out of the subway, but the hard part’s over.
“Kendall!” barks Emerson above the din of the train. “Did you hear me? We’re getting off at the next stop!” He taps my elbow because he’s learned this is an important step in getting and keeping my attention.
“Got it,” I say. It wouldn’t be the first time I missed a stop on public transportation. So much noise outside me, so much noise inside me, you’d think the roar would be deafening, but actually, it’s the most soothing thing I’ve felt in days.
More suitcase trauma, and then we’re on the street.
Holy crap, I’m back in a city again.
It’s grown some magic since the last time I was here. Colors and brightness, sparkle and shine. It’s amazing what electric lights and holiday window decorations will do to a generic street corner. Two blocks and two flights of steps later, we’re at the apartment.
“Welcome,” says Andrew as he opens the door and I follow them inside.
A fluffy black cat jumps down from something and rushes over.
“Louis!” says Em as he drops his bag and scoops up the cat. “Daddy and Papa are home!”
The apartment is small and cluttered, but in a way that seems carefully planned. “Nice,” I say, looking around. “It’s all really nice.”
By nice, I mean, I want it. I want all of it.
“Want to see the guest room?” asks Andrew.
He leads me to a door, flashes me a big grin, and swings it open.
It’s a closet.
With a bed stuffed inside. And clothes hanging from the rods.
“Um,” I say.
“This is the whole reason we got this apartment,” says Andrew proudly.
Emerson comes over and examines my face. “She does not look impressed.”
“If she knew anything about the types of living space available to a pair of twenty-somethings like us, she would be,” Andrew says.
“I am impressed,” I say. “You’ve been talking about living together in Manhattan since five minutes after you met and now look, you’re doing it. You’re adults.”
“Well, that remains to be seen,” says Andrew, with a look over at Emerson, who’s now burying his face in the cat’s fur. “But we do like to pretend. And on that note, I have to change and get to the office.”
I pull my suitcase into the closet. There’s enough room for it to stand there at the end of the bed, but not to open it. Eh, I’ll make it work.
After I’ve dug out some actual clothes and gotten dressed, I find Emerson sitting on the couch in the living room, the cat asleep on his lap. Andrew’s gone.
“So,” says Em as I sit down next to him. “Go ahead and check your phone again.”
“Whatever do you mean?” I ask with a smile.
“You’ve been looking at your phone every sixty seconds. Who is he?”
“How do you know he’s a he?”
Emerson laughs. “Sister, I’ve known you were straight since before I knew I was gay.”
“His name is Jamie. I met him last summer. He’s friends with Ari’s boyfriend Camden.”
“Oh, one of those Dashwood kids you told me about.” Dashwood is the alternative private school Jamie attends. “Wait. He’s not the guy who crushed your heart when he said he only liked you as a friend?”
“I wouldn’t say crushed. Trampled a bit, maybe. It’s much better now.”
There’s more to the story but I can’t even think about it without wanting to puke, and since I don’t want to puke on Emerson’s cool beige couch, I’m not going to elaborate.
“So give me the details,” says Emerson. “I need to live vicariously.”
“When I was in Paris, I got an email from him out of the blue,” I begin. “It was a photo of a man leaning out a window, with his head in his hands. The picture had this total ‘I’m sorry’ vibe. So I emailed him a photo back, one I took of a little girl holding a balloon in the Tuileries Garden. We’ve sent a bunch of pics back and forth since then.”
Emerson raises his eyebrows. “Just photos?”
“Just photos. No text. No captions.”
Emerson leans back and runs his hand along Louis’s back. “That’s pretty hot.”
Yeah, it totally was. But now I want the words, and the sentences, and the paragraphs. I want everything.
Almost on cue, my phone dings.
I’m waiting for my friend Jamie at the G&S Camera Store, wondering why someone would ever pay $2000 for a telephoto lens. Through the front window, I can watch the parade of humanity going by. They say it’s the most crowded week of the year in New York City. Holy Reproduction, Batman. There are a lot of people in the world.
When Jamie texted me last night that he was coming into the city to meet up with some girl he’s been e-flirting with, I jumped at the chance for some company. I even invited him to crash overnight at Big E’s. My buddy is late but I don’t even mind because I’m out of the apartment. That’s what spending most of yesterday watching football with my grandfather has done to me. We’re talking English football here. As in, soccer. Big E likes to wax on about how this is a more nuanced sport.
If “nuanced” means nobody ever scores, then yes. Yes, it is.
“See that guy, the team owner?” Big E asked me at one point. “I went to college with him.”
Of course this isn’t true.
“Did you know him well?” I asked.
“Yeah, pretty well, for a while. Nice person, but he treated his girlfriend like garbage.”
Then I asked, “How did you meet?” Big E ran with that for about twenty minutes of the most elaborate, detailed bullshit I’ve ever heard. In moments like that, I understand why he was such a legendary lawyer.
This is how I’ve seen my father and Aunt Suze interact with my grandfather. It’s how I’m going to survive my days here. I’m going to ask him a lot of questions, and I’m going to answer all of his with a form of yes. Eventually, he’ll get hungry or sleepy. (Preferably the latter.) There will be no talk about me, and why the hell I’m Not at College. No talk about a new home aide either, or plans to move him into a facility and sell his apartment for a gajillion dollars. There will be zero reason for him to throw the remote.
It must suck to outlive your wife, when everyone expected you to be the one to die first. To be given the gift of long life and not know what the hell to do with it. To be a sharp mind trapped inside a soft, weak, failing body.
Someone elbows me in the waist.
“Hey, man!” says Jamie when I turn around. He’s got his backpack chest strap clasped shut and he looks so out-of-towner dorky, I cringe.
“Jamie!” I say, and we guy-hug. It’s actually really, really good to see him. “You look different. It hasn’t been that long, has it?”
“At least a month. Maybe more? Dude, why don’t you ever drop by school for a visit?”
“Um, you know why,” I say.
“Oh, yeah.” Jamie’s face falls. “I do.”
The why has a name: Eliza.
“Well,” I say, “I’m glad you’ll be staying over so we can catch up.” I look around the store. “So you’re really going to buy that video camera you’ve been lusting after?”
Jamie grins and nods. “Christmas money just put me over the top.”
A sales clerk nearby hears this and shifts into Perky gear. “Our video department is upstairs!” she says.
“There are departments here?” I ask. “There’s an upstairs here?”
Jamie laughs at me. “Come on, I’ll show you my world.”
I give him shit for it, but really, I envy Jamie. He has a thing. A passion. A reason to keep his eyes open.
For me, that’s always been a girl. Eliza, and then before her, Nadine, and before her, Iris. I could go on. It’s only during the short breaks between these songs that I can really listen to myself. Up until now, though, I haven’t heard anything remotely interesting.
In the video department, I accompany Jamie as he feels up every camera they’ve got on display. It’s basically obscene, the way he gropes. Cups them into his hand and fondles the buttons. I feel like I should give him some privacy.
“Oh God,” he moans. “This is the one I’ve had my eye on, and it feels even better in person than I thought it would.”
“When are you meeting up with this girl?” I ask, trying to bring us back to a PG rating.
“One o’clock,” he says. “At the Met.”
“Museum date. Nice.”
“There’s a photography exhibit we both want to see.”
“Sounds cool. She sounds cool.”
Jamie pauses for a moment and takes a breath like he’s about to say something.
“So, how are we doing?” asks the salesclerk as she appears out of nowhere.
While Jamie buys the camera and arranges for it to be shipped to his house, I wander over to a wall of video monitors. I take a step and suddenly see myself on all of them. Not my whole self. My head and shoulders are cut off, but that’s typical. When you’re six foot three, you get used to parts of your body not fitting into things like camera frames. And portable toilets. And cars.
I examine what I do see. The body could be anyone’s. If I didn’t remember I was wearing a brown plaid scarf, I would have assumed it was a stranger’s.
“Oh my God, that was exhilarating,” says Jamie behind me. I turn to see him holding up a printed receipt for his purchase.
“Mazel tov,” I say. “I hope you and your video camera will be very happy together.”
We laugh. This feels good. It’s been awkward with him since Eliza and I broke up, and our circle splintered.
“Come on,” says Jamie. “I now have twelve dollars to my name and I want to spend it on hot dogs.”
We step out onto the street. The sun’s moved to a spot right between the buildings on either side of Seventh Avenue. It gives all the holiday lights a surreal middle-school-musical glow. We head uptown. At a sidewalk cart, Jamie buys us each two hot dogs, and I cover a pair of Cokes. We walk slowly and eat fast.
“So, Max. How’s your life?” asks Jamie between bites.
“Aside from the fact that I’m living at home and my job makes me want to stick hot pokers in my eyeballs? It’s stellar.”
“Then, quit. Do something else.”
“I’m making a lot of cash for school.”
“There have to be other ways to do that.”
Yes, there are. My mom’s brother Jake invited me to come live with him in Seattle for a few months. He could get me an internship at his tech company. We could do some traveling. He laid it all out for me at Thanksgiving. I didn’t tell anyone because I knew they’d all want me to go. Then they’d expect me to explain why I couldn’t. How could I, when I can’t even explain it to myself? It was easier to say No, thanks.
“It’s only for a few more months,” I finally say, then decide to change the subject. “How’s Camden?”
“Happy,” says Jamie. The simplicity of that causes me physical hurt.
Our buddy Camden fell in love with someone who’s really good for him. I would never tell anyone this, but seeing Camden in a healthy relationship made me see just how unhealthy mine was.
In other words, really completely fucking unhealthy.
But when your girlfriend has been living in a toxic family environment for years, what do you do?
If you’re me, you postpone your plans for college. You agree to stay in town, telling yourself it’s mostly so you can work a humiliating job and earn money toward your first year’s tuition. You give her everything she needs, emotionally and physically, plus the courage to seek help and call a youth hotline. You even walk her to her first Alateen meeting.
You watch her start to help herself and be okay.
Which is the moment you know you’re done.
Which can be one moment too late to leave.
“I should get back and check on Big E,” I say at the next corner. “Have fun with the girl. Text me when you’re heading to the apartment, I’ll come downstairs and meet you.”
“Will do,” says Jamie.
After another quick but significantly more awkward guy-hug, I walk away by myself. It’s something I know I have to get used to.
Well, are you as ready for this season’s snowmance as we are? Let us know!