February 18, 2008

Sixteen, continued yet again

On the ride home, they talked easier than they ever had before. There was nothing explicitly different between them, but there had been a small shift between the two of them—like cracking your neck after an uncomfortable nap—that seemed to change everything.

They both pedaled quickly through the streets, passing sleepy dog-walkers and iPodded joggers. (They kept an eye open for Josephine, but they didn’t see her.) The two of them dodged the wrong way down empty one-way streets and weaved back and forth around each other. They were racing against the sun, trying to get back to Michael’s house before it peeked over the edge of the downtown skyscrapers and found them wandering the streets.

“I never really liked the idea of sunrises,” Michael said over his shoulder. Emily had been riding a little behind him, but on the sidewalk, and at the end of the block she dropped down to the street and pulled up beside him.

“What could that possibly mean?”

Michael crinkled his nose. “Well, think about it. We’re standing on the Earth while it spins us forward towards the sun, head over heels, at ten thousand miles an hour. It’s freaky. Sunsets are no better, falling backwards like that.”

Emily swerved around a pothole. “Is it really ten thousand?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

When they arrived at Michael’s house, half the sky was the color of a legal pad and already radiating warmth down on them, but the sun hadn’t quite slipped above the skyline. Michael put a finger up to his lips as they locked their bikes up.

“What time is it?” he whispered.

Emily reached into her purse and looked at her cell phone. “6:17.”

Mr. Karlinoff was an early riser, often at work by seven-thirty. He was usually awake by now, and the first thing he usually did in the morning was open the curtains in his bedroom. The curtains were closed. His dad was either sleeping in or hadn’t come home last night.

Michael crept up the fire escape slowly, skipping two steps at a time to minimize noise. He tried not to make too much of a racket, but it was unavoidable and he was probably louder than if he’d just run up the metal steps.

He climbed into his bedroom window and paused, listening to the house. Nothing. He slipped on his jacket. He had the vague idea that if his dad had heard him come in, he could pretend that he’d just gotten home from entertaining young ladies at a hotel piano bar. Not that this was any better than having snuck out in the middle of the night, but he didn’t have time to consider that. He hadn’t missed any calls, and when he stuck his head out into the hallway, the house was still dark.

Michael took off the jacket and climbed out the window. He slipped back down the fire escape and took Emily by the hand, pulling her up to his room. “Michael…” she whispered, but didn’t resist. Neither of them had talked about her coming up to his room, but it was assumed without being spoken.

She was the first person in The Gang, other than Lillian, to see Michael’s room. It didn’t look anything at all like what she thought it would…it was just a teenage boy’s bedroom. Cleaner than most, and with more books, but mostly the same. In Emily’s imagination it had been spare, like a Renaissance artist’s studio, with every surface covered in papers and low-burning candles. Shades of red and brown, a seamstress dummy in the corner. She hadn’t even realized how ridiculous that was until she was actually up in his small room, with a made-but-rumpled bed and a plastic cup full of ball-point pens. The sight of a GameBoy Advance scandalized her more than anything else that had happened that night.

She bent over on her side and looked at a couple of books on his desk—Modern Romany In Eastern Europe; Bury Me Standing—but a large row of Big Chief notebooks caught her eye. She ran her fingertips over the red and white covers of the composition books. “Proper,” she said.

Michael was on one knee in his closet, pulling an old doctor’s bag from a small shelf in the back. “What is?”

Emily showed him one. “Are these your diaries?”

“Not really.” He chuckled. “Well, maybe…take a look.”

The first page of the notebook had a carefully drawn illustration of an extra-wide necktie. After staring at it for a few seconds, though, Emily realized that it was actually a pattern, a tie unsewn and laid flat.

Most of the other pages will filled with short handwritten entries, some of them in complete sentences, some of them in a quick shorthand:

Don't have cashmere dry cleaned. Wash on the delicate cycle with cold water. Lay it flat to dry.

TO DO: Light blue shirt, chocolate tie. Not BLUE, of course…teal, almost. Mint?

Always walk on the outside of the sidewalk, with her on the inside. Let her walk first across a restaurant. BUT: get in a taxi before she does…esp if she’s wearing a skirt.

Gingham dress shirt:

  • Summer Only
  • Wear it with a khaki suit. (Not linen, of course.)
  • Wear a tie so you don’t look like an ass.
  • Solid colors only: brown, navy, or gray. Black?

TO DO: Research one button suits. (Maybe Sam knows something about these?) You'll never have to worry about which button to button.

If you wear a coat over a layered outfit, it must be longer than the jacket underneath. Maybe a trench or a mackintosh?

TO DO: Buy a Proper umbrella. A print, but nothing too loud. Curved handle a must.

If your pocket square is bright, your tie should be plain. And the tie pattern should always be bolder than that of the shirt. (Duh!)

Emily flipped through the notebook, then two more. All of them were filled with the same sort of thing. “This is very James Gatz.”

Michael was poking around in a dresser drawer, glancing back and forth at Emily’s legs. “Yeah, that’s where I got the idea, actually. Heh.” He pulled out three spools of white thread.

“You should totally type these up. You could sell them at school for hundreds.

“Yeah. Michael Karlinoff’s Guide To Looking Halfway Decent.” He held each of the three spools of thread up to Emily’s dress. Though they seemed completely identical to Emily, Michael immediately set one of them aside, then peered at the remaining two spools carefully. He covered one with his free hand, then the other, and finally decided on the second. “Better make that The Darling Budds’ Guide…they have a stronger brand presence.”

“What does this mean?” She held up the inside cover of one of the notebooks. Written sideways in magic marker were the words Ostentatious Plainness, and below it were a few symbols in Vietnamese.

Michael put the other two spools of thread back in his drawer and sat on the edge of the bed. Placing the doctor’s bag on his lap, he pulled out a small cardboard envelope that had slots for various sizes of needles. “Oh, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about. It’s another way of saying Proper, I guess: plain, but in a flashy way.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, it’s like that notebook you’re holding, or anything else. If I’d just bought a bunch of spiral-bound notebooks at Rite Aid for 99 cents, they would have been way too plain. But if I’d gotten some leather-bound journal with marbled paper, it would have been pretentious and boring.” He squinted quickly at the needle and effortlessly threaded it. “But those classic old-school Big Chief notebooks—or maybe a little Moleskine, though those are sorta played out—they’re just about perfect. Uh, not to brag.”

“No, you’re right. Ostentatious plainness…I like it. What’s the Vietnamese?”

Michael kneeled by her feet and pulled her flats off before she realized what he was doing. “Stand up on the chair.”


“Stand up in the chair so I can see your dress better.”

Emily tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and laughed once, nervously, then stepped up on the folding chair in front of Michael’s desk. She bounced up and down on the balls of her feet until he put his hand over her toes and she stopped. He carefully removed the safety pins.

“The Vietnamese was this fortune cookie I got when my dad and Lillian and I went over to August Moon one night. It said Everything should be made as simple as possible…but not simpler.” He leaned over and dug in his doctor’s bag, pulling out a jeweler’s loupe that he placed on his left eye. “I thought that pretty well summed up what I was trying to say, so I had Litta'Bit translate it for me one night when she was over at Alexander’s. We’d been drinking Manhattans and I had this totally retarded idea that I’d get it tattooed on one of my forearms. Not that tattoos are ever Proper, so it would have defeated the purpose.”

Michael squinted through the loupe and, pulling the dress tight with one hand, began to stitch the long hem back onto the bottom of the dress. Suddenly, though, he paused and waited, listening. He pulled the loupe from his eye and placed it silently on the desk.

“What is it?” Emily asked, but Michael placed a finger to his lips. The front door of the apartment had opened softly, and someone was tiptoeing up the steps. Michael stood up and turned out the light. He stood by the door, but didn’t open it.

Slowly, one step at a time, footsteps came down the hall, before finally pausing in front of the bedroom door for a few seconds. Emily, still standing on the chair, looked at Michael and at the door. Michael knew that it was his dad sneaking back into the house, but a wild quick thought hit him: are we being robbed?

Finally, after pausing in front of the door for what felt like minutes but was probably only fifteen seconds, the man on the other side of the bedroom door turned and moved back down the hallway. He coughed slightly once, and Michael knew it was his dad.

Emily felt vulnerable up on the chair, looking down on Michael as he gravely concentrated on listening to the door, but she didn’t dare get down while he was holding up a warning finger towards her.

In the hallway, Michael heard his father go into his bedroom and begin noisily changing clothes. He would be changing out of his jacket and shoes, both of which were too casual for work. His clients expected him to be overdressed at all times. Michael listened to him pull on a new jacket and then sit on the bed as he swapped out his shoes. His office at Underhill had a full bathroom, and he would probably shower and shave there. He also had plenty of clothes there, of course, so Michael wasn’t sure why he’d even come home.

Finally, as though he’d just woken up, Mr. Karlinoff stuck his head out into the doorway and yelled down at his son. Michael heard “Son! Are you up? Are you awake yet?” but to Emily, who’d never heard him speak before, it sounded like “Zun! Ar yoo ap? Ar yoo uh-vlake yat?”

Emily covered her mouth and silently giggled. Michael turned to her and widened his eyes. “What?” he mouthed. Emily replied by flapping her arms, then covering her nose with the inside of one elbow. “What!?”

“He sounds like Dracula!” she whispered, then bit down on her lip.

By this point, Mr. Karlinoff was halfway down the hallway. “Zun? My-gl?” Michael quickly locked his bedroom door barely a second before his father jiggled the handle.

“Dad, don’t come in! I’m…I’m busy!” he yelped, then winced at Emily. Great…now instead of thinking he had a cute girl in his room, his dad thought he was spending the morning beating off.

“Oh…okay,” his dad mumbled, sounding a lot less like Dracula this time. “Sorry.”

Michael shook his head sadly and laughed silently in spite of himself. His father moved away from the door and walked back towards the kitchen, where he opened and closed the fridge quickly.

“Michael,” he called, and I’ll spare you the dialect from here on out, “I’m going to the shop early. Lots of work to do. No time for breakfast, even…ha ha! You are awake? Good. I will…I will see you at lunch.” They heard him move to the head of the stairs and pause. “Okay, then. Yes. Goodbye.”

The front door closed behind his father, but Michael still shushed Emily. He crept over to his window and watched his father get into the Toyota Camry from the night before. His date was wearing large oversized sunglasses. She smiled at Mr. Karlinoff as he got in and he touched the tip of her nose with his finger.

“You know what’s funny?” Michael said out loud as the car pulled away. “He didn’t want me to know that he spent the night with someone. So he had her drive him all the way up here just to sneak in and pretend to wake up, then make a big deal about leaving for the day.” He said it with a smile, but Emily heard the sadness in his voice.

“He sounds adorable.”

Michael came back over and knelt before her. Picking up the needle that was dangling from the end of the thread attached to her dress, he continued sewing. He left the loupe on the desk. They were both quiet for a few minutes, then finally Michael spoke. “He’s not rich, Emily. He’s not an importer or anything like that…he’s just a tailor.”

“Michael, I know, it’s okay. You don’t have to say anything.”

Michael didn’t look up at her. “I want to tell you. I want to say the words to you. Listen: We came to the States when I was two…I don’t remember any of it. His family was rich in Macedonia, but that’s not exactly the same as being rich in America, okay?”

“Okay,” Emily whispered. Michael’s voice was slow and thick and deliberate, and she wanted to touch him on the arm or the hand as he talked, but she was stuck on the chair.

“His family owned a store in Skopje, the capitol, and people flew in from the rest of Europe to have suits made for them. They were famous for their neckties, which they’d ship all over the world. My father and his brothers were trained to take over the business, but he wanted to be a musician. He’d stay up all night in the cafes and bars, playing music, then show up at work the next morning. But when I came along, he knew that he had to take care of me. He found a way to bring us to America, and he came over here and got a job at Underhill and he put away his music, just like that…we have a piano and he almost never plays it.”

Michael pulled the needle free and examined his work, lining up the rest of the tear with the dress. He looked at the dress for a long time, and Emily heard him breath, heavy and ragged. “Honey, sweetie, please…you’re breaking my heart,” she whispered. Michael took the needle and poked her in the thigh. She yelped in surprise but not in pain…at the last second he’d turned the needle around and jabbed her with the dull end.

“I went to public school, and everything you’ve heard about public school in New Orleans is pretty dead-on. I wasn’t the only white kid, but I was the only white kid who spoke English. My dad explained it to me: we had money for private school or college, but not both.

“I didn’t have tutors, like I claimed…except I guess I did, my dad and this other tailor named Sam were always giving me books and quizzing me on them. Every night I had school-work and then I had home-work, you know? Oh, and my dad bartered lessons for me…he can play any instrument by ear, but he wanted me to really know the fundamentals, so he’d make a new suit every year for a German transplant in exchange for a year of piano lessons.

“In, like, seventh grade, my dad bought this house—we live up here and rent out the bottom—and then he got a loan to buy out the lawyers who owned Underhill. The store hasn’t been owned by an actual Underhill since the 70s, by the way. So we just had no money, even though ironically I guess we were richer, or at least owned more.

“Middle school was rough. But middle school is rough for everyone, right? I was at P.S. 38, Fitz Johnson Middle School. My teachers didn’t know what to do with me. Not because they were concerned I’d get lost in the shuffle, but because they were as dumb as any of the students and intimidated by me even though I tried to just stay out of their way. I guess things might have been different if there had been some sort of hard-working young teacher who took me under his wing, like in the movies, but no. They were just counting the days until their pension started.

“Anyway, the kids were way worse. Fitz Johnson is on Claiborne, and all the other students came from that side of Claiborne, and I was the only one who came from this side. Everyone else down here goes to private school. So at Fitz Johnson there was already this idea that I was some rich white kid slumming it in their school. And then…it didn’t make any sense to spend money on clothes when my dad was a tailor, so I’d wear clothes from Underhill, these fitted trousers and custom-made shirts. That was pretty much a recipe for disaster, right there.

“By the way, I don’t think any of this was because I was white…well, not most of it, anyway. I think if I’d been this nattily-dressed black kid from the good side of the tracks, it probably would have been ten times worse.

“By the end of ninth grade I was miserable. Sam, my dad’s right hand man, even offered to mortgage his house to send me to a private high school. So my dad and I had a talk. He said I could use my college fund to go to a private high school, in the hopes that if I did really well there I could get a full ride to college. It was a gamble, though, you know? So I told him I’d only do it if he taught me how to be a tailor like him. That way, if I disappointed him in school at least I’d be able to take over his business one day. That lead to an authentic Macedonian evening of tears and chest beating and bear hugs.

“So I applied to the big schools and I got into all of them. Beaumonde offered me a half-scholarship, but even with that help…oh my god, the tuition. My dad…my dad’s Eastern European, right? So after I made up my mind to go to Beaumonde he went to the bank then drove over to the school with a briefcase full of $100 bills, my full tuition for four years, and put it right on Dr. Hayes’ desk.

“So over summer things had totally changed. I went from being the ‘richest’ kid in school to being the poorest. I mean, not that I was poor—my dad does own a successful luxury clothing store—but compared to all that old money at school…yeah. And suddenly my clothes weren’t exactly the liability they’d been at Fitz Johnson.

“But, Emily, I need you to understand this. Remember how when we were little kids and we got lost at the grocery store, when our parents finally found us they weren’t overjoyed…they were mad?” Michael stopped sewing for a second. “Wait, never mind, that’s a terrible analogy. But when I arrived at Beaumonde I was angry, and I think in sort of the same way. Here was a school full of kids that had everything just given to them, and they couldn’t give a damn. When I met with the principal of The Parvenu School, he warned me that Beaumonde was an excellent school that didn’t demand excellence from its students. And that seemed true.

“What I’m saying is, I didn’t see you—well, not you, I mean the other students—as my saviors. I saw you as my enemy. It wasn’t about finally meeting people who were like me. It was about revenge.

“So when I came to school I kept everyone at arm’s length. I wanted to get everything I could out of the school—I wanted to demand excellence—and then get out of there. I didn’t want to have anything to do with any of you. (Again, not you you.) I would be polite and I would be invisible.

“I wanted to blend in and be forgotten. Emily, listen…” He looked up at her for the first time since he’d started talking, squatting on the floor at her feet. “I’m not trying to justify what I did, or make it sound like I had no other choice. But for whatever reason I felt like telling a lie was the easiest solution. It’s like…” Michael squeezed his eyes shut, and Emily tried to put her hand on his head, but could only reach far enough for the top of his hair to brush against her fingertips. She wasn’t sure if he even felt it. “It’s like I have something inside of me that won’t let me tell the truth even if there’s nothing to gain from lying. Do you understand? I fight it every day, and usually I lose.”

Michael opened his eyes and smiled at Emily’s hand. He reached over to the desk and picked up the jeweler’s loupe. “Look, I got this loupe out, and it’s helpful, but I didn’t really need it. I was just trying to impress you. Another lie.

“So, anyway, I had this idea that if I lied once, about who I was and where I came from, then I wouldn’t have to repeat it ever again. That it would just be accepted as the truth and people would leave me alone. So I dropped hints about being rich, about having private tutors. I said that my dad was super-strict because then I wouldn’t have to hang out with anyone after school, since I had a job at Underhill and no money.

“But obviously you don’t just lie once. You have to lie a hundred times, and before you know it the lying comes easier and easier. I even wrote down answers to questions I knew I was going to get, got the wording right. And it was starting to work, it seemed. I was just boring enough that people had already started to forget about me when the twins became obsessed. Suddenly the entire school followed me around like paparazzi.

“I guess you know more about this period than I do…all I know is that over Fall Break sophomore year I was working at Underhill when the twins came in, looking great and having fun, laughing and admiring my clothes, and they took me out to lunch. I tried to wriggle out of it, but Sam was there and I knew he’d tell my dad about how I was making friends at school or whatever, so we walked across the street to the Palace CafĂ©, where these two 14-year-olds had reservations.

“We ate lunch and over desert they made their offer. Now that I know that Josephine knew all along, I guess what happened is that she went to them and told them what I’d been telling the school and how it wasn’t true. I don’t know, I’m just guessing. Anyway, they made a deal with me over lunch. Either I joined The Gang, or one day everyone would know exactly who I really was.”

Michael had all but finished the sewing. He grabbed the loupe now and, without putting it in his eye, inspected his work. “Wait. That makes it sound like it was ruthless. It wasn’t. They were very charming, very friendly. I never felt pressured or anything. They weren’t threatening me, they just told me flat-out, and with affection, that I wasn’t good enough to do it on my own. I was going to need their help, and they were offering it to me. Protection. They were giving me what I wanted, but in a way that had never occurred to me. I wanted to be left alone, and they were offering to make me untouchable.

“I mean, I don’t feel like I was tricked by the evil twins or whatever. I sorta started dating Lillian that day, but it wasn’t like they traded her to me. We hung out and I genuinely liked her and her brother, and in a lot of ways that afternoon helped clear up a lot of issues I had about transferring to Beaumonde. Things were going to be okay. All my earlier objections to being friends with them just started to seem ridiculous. The way they talked about their Gang, too, it seemed like a good way to hide from the rest of the school. And, well…they could protect me. I hate to say it, but it’s true.

“And that was it. They invited me to movie night and I was introduced to you guys and the rest is history. I didn’t even have to lie any more, not about that…they did it for me. And the lie became my life, and the closer I got to all of you—yes, even you—the more desperate I got to live up to it.

“I guess that’s everything.”

Michael reached into his doctor’s bag and pulled out a small pair of scissors, severing the thread and laying the needle on the desk. He offered his hand to Emily, who stepped down to the floor and then sat in the chair. She didn’t know what to say, or if she was even supposed to say anything, so she looked at her dress instead.

“Wow, this is really good. It looks brand new.”

Michael sat back on the floor, crossing his legs. “It would have looked better if I could have used our machine. But then you would have had to take it off, and you running around my house in your underwear is the last thing I need.”

Emily dropped her dress and smiled. “That’s always so nice to hear.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Outside it was fully day. The sun, bright and warm, threw crisp elongated shadows against the far wall as it rose. A car drove by and beeped once, and someone walking by yelled a hello.

Emily reached forward and put her hand on the side of Michael’s face. He closed his eyes and she ran her fingers back into his hair. “Thank you,” she said softly.

“It took two seconds,” he whispered. “It was nothing.”

“You know what I meant.” She felt Michael relax under her hand, and she ran her thumb across the side of his face. She asked herself: Is this something I’d do to a friend? Is this something I’d want Alexander to do with a girl? She decided it was time to go home.

“Bedtime, Michael.”

Her jerked quickly, as though he’d been having the same thoughts as her. “I don’t know how much sleep I’m going to get.”

“What time do you have to be at work?”

Michael stretched without getting up. “Nine. But I have to leave here around eight to wait for the bus. My alarm’s already set for seven-thirty.”

Emily snuck a glance at her cell phone and frowned. “Well, you can lie down for a little while, anyway.”

Now that Michael had decided to go to bed, he seemed to focus all of his energy on it. As though telling her his story had drained the last of his energy. He crawled up and over the foot of the bed, losing his shoes in the journey. Emily moved ahead of him, getting the doctor’s bag and spools of thread out of his way. There was room on the bed for her, but she didn’t know if that was an accident or not.

“Thank you for taking me on a bike ride tonight,” he mumbled. “This was a good idea.”

“I had a good time, too.” She thought about sitting down on the bed next to him, but instead just leaned over him. “Close your eyes,” she said, though they were already closed. “Relax. I’m going to count to three. When I get to three you will fall into a deep trance.”

Michael smiled with his eyes kept closed. “Don’t make me act like a chicken or anything.”

“And when you awake…you will remember none of this. One.” She ruffled his hair and moved back from the foot of his bed. He seemed to already be dozing off…this game always worked with Alexander, too. Boys sure were good at falling asleep. “Two.” She put her shoes on and then slid the window open and began to step through, pausing halfway between his room and the summer morning. “And three.”

Michael dimly heard the last number, and he barely registered the sounds of Emily going down the fire escape, and then he let go and drifted down into sleep.

Seven minutes later, his alarm went off and he stumbled off to the shower.