February 17, 2008

Sixteen, continued again

Asterisk (or, as the sign simply said: *) was one of only two 24-hour coffeehouses uptown, and the only one on Magazine Street. The employees had come up with names for the three distinct phases of business they had each day: Morning Rush, when commuters ran in on the way to work; Study Hall, when med students and college kids spent their evenings hiding behind laptops and headphones; and Graveyard, when young adults who claimed to be antisocial and maladjusted and unique hung out all night in large boisterous groups in which everyone looked exactly the same.

But four in the morning was at the tail-end of Graveyard—even vampires have to sleep—and when Michael and Emily came into the gratefully air-conditioned coffeehouse, there were only two other people there. They sat looking down at a chessboard, both wearing complicated black outfits that made them seem like medieval monks. One was skinny, with curly black hair and a carefully sculpted goatee. His eyebrows swept up towards his forehead, as though he teased them upwards. He sat with one leg pulled up to his chest.

The other was squat, with a shaved head and wire-frame glasses. He had a goatee, too, but his showed that he was a redhead before he’d shaved his head. When Michael and Emily entered, he stood up slowly, still looking down at the board. He was wearing a black T-shirt tucked into black cargo pants, with a large metal necklace dangling around his neck. He carefully slid his rook one space diagonally, and smiled up at Emily.

“Why hello, Miss Emily,” he said, with a gruff yet surprisingly kind voice. “What are you doing here this time of night?”

“Hey, Dickie…I could ask you the same. Where’s Sissy?”

Dickie walked behind the bar, wiping his hand on a towel. “I’m covering her shift. One of her nephews has a birthday tomorrow and she’s taking him to the zoo. Or at least, that’s the story she told me.”

Michael glanced over at the chess board, distracted. Rooks don’t move diagonally. The board was laid out curiously, too: one side was missing a king, and all the pieces were on the black squares. He realized that they were actually playing checkers, just using chess pieces.

“Who’s your friend?” Dickie asked her.

“This is Michael. We’re taking a bike ride together.”

“Nice to meet you, Michael.” Dickie had intricate silver rings on each finger, even his thumb, and when he shook Michael’s hand he held on to it, saying to Emily, “It’s a good thing Sissy is off, huh?” The two of them laughed and Dickie let go of Michael’s hand.

Emily tried to order a lime Italian soda, but Dickie reached behind the counter and brought up a large glass bottle of Coca-Cola imported from Mexico. He pointed to the ingredients list on the back and told them how in Mexico soft drinks are still made with cane sugar instead of high fructose corn syrup, which made for a richer, smoother soda. They bought two bottles.

Michael started to sit down near Dickie and his checkers opponent, but Emily ignored him and walked back out front, sitting at one of the outside tables. Michael followed her.

“This way we can talk in private,” she said, pouring the cola over her glass of ice.

“Talk about what?”

She shrugged. “Anything at all. Wanna get a paper? We could do the crossword. The Friday crossword is super-hard.”

“Yeah, okay. I don’t have any quarters, though.”

Emily dug through her purse. “I only have two.”

“Yeah, that’s how much a paper is.”

She looked up at him. “Really? Fifty cents? That seems cheap.”

“How much do you think a paper costs?”

“I don’t know. Two bucks?”

Michael went over to the paper box and put in the two quarters. The Friday paper hadn’t been delivered yet, so he took the last Thursday paper out of the rack. When he came back to the table, Emily was excitedly pointing at his soda bottle.

“Try it…Dickie was right, it’s way better.”

“You know, I was going to say: you really do know everyone.”

Emily rolled her eyes. “He works at a coffeeshop within walking distance of my house. It’s not exactly a miracle.”

The Thursday puzzle was tough, but with both of them working on it, they made it through in about thirty minutes. The hardest part was sharing the one ink pen Emily had found in her purse, and dealing with the slight breeze caused by the occasional passing car. Michael eventually weighted the paper down with his keyring.

When they’d filled out as much of the puzzle as they could, there were five empty squares they couldn’t figure out. They stared at the clues for a few more minutes, but it was no good…they’d never get the last five letters. Finally, Emily took the paper and filled in their initials—ESB, MK—in each of the squares, and that was that.

While the two of them had worked the puzzle, a subtle, almost undetectable, change had taken place, nudging the city past Very Late Night and into Very Early Morning. It was still totally dark, and would be for more than an hour, but there was more movement on the street. A garbage truck had passed by without stopping, the Friday papers were delivered, and janitors, breakfast cooks, and pastry chefs drove by, still half-asleep. A bus slid past, holding three women in hospital scrubs. Inside *, the skinny checkers player read a thick paperback covered in a handmade book cover while Dickie restocked the shelves behind the counter. Graveyard was over, Morning Rush would begin soon.

Michael drew thicker squares around each of the initials, highlighting their signatures. Then Emily centered the puzzle on the table, lay the ball-point pen across the top, and took a picture of the tableau. She was killing time, she knew, because she was scared to bring up what she really wanted to talk about. Neither of them spoke—Michael finished his Mexican Coca-Cola—and the solid gray of the Polaroid developed into a smeared and blurry grid, impossible to recognize.

“Michael…do you like me?”

He shrugged. “You’re okay for a girl.”

“No, I’m serious now. Do you like me at all?”

Michael looked up at her, and she smiled a little and looked away. “Yeah, of course I do. You’re my best friend’s girlfriend. And, uh, my girlfriend’s best friend.”

“Well, I like you. And I want to hang out with you this summer. I mean really hang out, not just talk about it and then never call each other. Robert apologized to me about the other night, but I think he was right: you and I aren’t really part of The Gang, and I feel like we owe it to each other to hang out. Wait, that sounds lame…mostly I want to be friends with you because when you’re not totally cold to me you’re actually pretty fun to be around. But also…I don’t know, I feel like we owe it to the twins to stick together.”

Michael nodded. “Yeah, totally,” he said, but he was already thinking of excuses he could make. Maybe he’d have to go back to Macedonia again.

“Good. But Michael…” Emily put her hand over his, running her fingertips over the knuckles and gently encircling his wrist. He looked down at her hand, surprised. Emily chewed her lip for a second, then blurted it out before she had a chance to lose her courage: “…is there something you need to tell me?”

Michael looked up at her sharply, and she could feel his arm tense up and quickly relax before he answered. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Emily looked down at the table, then back up into his eyes. She concentrated on appearing as harmless as possible. Michael felt his heart beating in his toes and his vision became spiky on the edges. “Michael, this isn’t some big dramatic deal. But I want to spend time with you this summer, and I can’t do that if you’re not honest with me.”

Michael’s arm jumped under Emily’s hand as he tried to pull it back, but she was faster, holding on tightly around the wrist. “What are you talking about?” he managed to get out in a strangled voice. “Let go of me.”

“Michael, calm down.” Emily looked around, but there was no one to hear him. “It’s okay.”

He tugged harder on his arm, but Emily held on tight. He probably could have pulled free if he’d really tried, but that would have meant pulling her out of her chair and possibly across the sidewalk. “No, it’s fine. I’m cool. I’ll go home, I won’t bother you again. And I’ll transfer back to my old school. So it’ll be over, okay? You win.”

Emily tried to put his arm back on the table, to calm him down, but she wasn’t quite strong enough. “Michael, please, it’s not about winning. Stop freaking out. Besides, you can’t go home…I, uh, I stole your keys a few minutes ago and hid them in my purse.”

Michael’s eyes flashed up at her. Calm down, he told himself, and she’ll let you leave. Then walk away forever. “Okay. Fine. Fine! I’ll just walk home, I don’t care. God…! I always knew it would be you.” He swallowed heavily and repeated the words, this time sadder and softer. “I always knew it would be you.”

Michael covered his face with his free hand and kept it there. He didn’t say anything else, and after a while Emily slowly let go of his other hand. Michael left it where it was. She reached into her purse and put his keyring on the table, but Michael didn’t move, except to rub his temples.

“It’s okay, Michael. You don’t have to say anything. You can go home if you want.”

Michael didn’t speak, but he didn’t get up and leave, either. Slowly he brought his other hand up to his face and continued rubbing his forehead. Emily didn’t think he was crying, just hiding. A bird landed on the table next to them, pecked at a muffin crumb, then fled back into the dark.

“Michael, I’m sorry…I didn’t realize how important this was to you. I’ve known for so long-” here Michael sucked in his breath quickly, as though in pain “-and I guess I thought you always saw it as a game, and we could talk about it like…I don’t know, like two con men…no, I mean, like two magicians who are in on a trick together.”

Michael sighed and pulled his hair back from his face. He looked up at her slowly, shell-shocked, almost but not quite meeting her eyes before drifting back down at the table. He reached out and nudged his keys with his finger.

Emily had expected a lot of emotions on his face, from anger to panic to arrogance to relief, but she hadn’t expected what she actually saw. Michael, who was always so confident and aloof, looked at her with a face full of exhaustion and sorrow. He was beaten, he was broken, he was done.

“It’s not like that,” she whispered. “It’s okay. Will you say something? You’re freaking me out. Please?” This wasn’t how she wanted it to go at all. She thought it would a formality, just both of them acknowledging what they’d always known. She thought he’d be relieved to have someone he could talk to about it. Emily felt tears seeping up from her eyes; Michael wasn’t crying—he seemed beyond that—but now she was. “Damn it,” she whispered.

Michael looked up at her and, without thinking, reached in his back pocket and pulled out his handkerchief. Emily took it with a teary smile and dried her eyes. She ran her thumb lightly over the damp monogram…MK, because Michael had explained once that Macedonians don’t use middle names. But who knew if that was even true?

“The twins promised me they would never tell,” Michael finally said.

Emily was shocked. “They never did. Even when we were alone, even after he knew that I knew the truth, Alexander never let on. The few times I brought it up, he acted like I was reciting Jabberwocky. Like what I was saying was total nonsense. I mean, to the end, Michael, neither of them said anything.” Emily folded and refolded the handkerchief. “I thought you always knew: it was Josephine.”

“Josephine?” Michael said it as though he were trying to place the name. “Josephine knew all along.”

“Michael, before the twins. I don’t think she did it on purpose. But her mom’s the principal, she was bound to find out at some point. It was probably innocent at first, Dr. Hayes probably just said something over dinner about the new boy in school whose dad is a tailor. But then after she knew, she had to watch you, well, lie to everyone, and she came to me about it. She was sick about it, Michael, she didn’t know what to do.”

“When was this?”

“Right after you joined The Gang. Josephine came over to my house the night of the Halloween party. She wasn’t in costume, said she wasn’t going. I thought it was just Josephine being Josephine, but eventually I got the reason out of her. This was when you were being introduced to the rest of the school, and she thought you were getting away with something. She’d tried to tell the twins, but for some reason it didn’t work out, and so she came to tell me. She was trying to protect the Budds, and the rest of us.”

Michael blinked hard at his fingers, spread out on the table as though he’d just counted to ten. “And after she told you she told everyone else.”

“No, I don’t think so. (You really don’t know any of this?) I…I’m not sure she even told the twins, actually. All she said about that was that it ‘backfired.’ But I don’t think she told anyone else in The Gang about you. I mean, I think everyone knows that you have, um, things going on…but I don’t think anyone suspects the truth. Don’t get mad, but I think that’s why they’ve never become super-close to you…there was always a part missing.”

“I guess.” He closed his hands, then folded one over then other. He swallowed, and finally looked up at her. “Are you mad at me?”

“Michael, no, this was never about that. It’s just…tonight and the other night in the car was so nice, and I felt like I was getting to see the real you, and I liked it. I just knew I couldn’t be around you if we didn’t talk about this at least a little. But I’m not angry at you, not really.”

“Not really?”

Emily shrugged. “I’ve known for almost two years. I had my chance to be mad at you, remember…? I didn’t talk to you for almost two months, Halloween to Christmas. Finally I just more or less got over it.”

Michael nodded slowly. “More or less.”

“People don’t like to be lied to, Michael. But I swear I didn’t know it was going to be like this. I never meant to attack you or whatever. I didn’t even plan to do this tonight…this wasn’t a set-up. I just wanted to take a bike ride. I’ve been really lonely and tonight I was having a really good time with you, then we were in front of Underhill and I thought we should clear the air so I teased you a little bit. I thought you would just be like, ‘Oh, you know, too? Ha ha.’”

He shook his head, and a lock of his hair landed on his eyelashes. Michael brushed it away. “No,” he whispered. “Oh god, no. Never like that.”

“I know, now. I mean, I hadn’t really thought about this, but I’m sorta relieved you weren’t casual about it. I guess things would be different, actually, if you had laughed it off.”

Pinching the bridge of his nose, and then placing a thumb and finger on his closed eyes, Michael opened his mouth. But he didn’t speak for a few minutes, then finally he lowered his hand. “I don’t know how to start.”

“It’s okay.” Emily put her hand over his and squeezed. “You don’t have to.”

Michael sighed and looked past the verandah’s high ceiling at the darkness above. The dark crust of the night sky was crumbling away, leaving a deep blue glowing underneath. It was quiet for a long time before he finally said “I have to be home before the sun rises.”

“Because of your dad?”

“Partially, yeah. But also because…I don’t know why, I just feel like this—all of this—belongs to the night. And yes, I know how that makes me sound.”

Emily smiled at him. “Let’s go. I’ll ride back with you.”

“You don’t have to.” He stood up and tossed the melted ice from his glass into the street, then couldn’t remember why he felt like he had to do this.

Emily stood up, too. “Michael, I made a solemn promise that I’d protect you from rapists, and I intend to live up to it.” She caught Dickie’s eye through the window and waved goodbye. She pointed at the empty bottles, her eyebrows raised, and he shook his head happily. No need to bring them inside. Emily bounced up and down, excitedly rubbing her belly and she could hear his laughter through the glass.