February 15, 2008

Sixteen

When his cell phone began beeping loudly, Michael jerked awake in a panic and instinctively reached for his night stand, where his hand knocked over an empty water glass that teetered then fell softly to the carpet. Michael, on his stomach, pushed himself up and squinted around the room. The phone was beeping incessantly. He rolled off the bed, searched his desk and his bookcase. The phone was beeping so loudly and so constantly—there was no way his dad didn’t hear it—yet he didn’t see it at all. What time was it?

Finally, Michael woke up enough to figure out that it was coming from his jacket, which was folded in half and resting across the back of his desk chair. He fumbled with the jacket as the phone continued to beep, growing more frustrated because he couldn’t figure out where, exactly, the pocket was. Sam always hid a pocket exactly the size of Michael’s phone in all of his suits, so that he could discreetly carry his phone and not ruin the line of his silhouette. But now, half awake at who-knew-when (morning? evening?) Michael couldn’t find the little beeping pouch. Okay, if I’m wearing the jacket and it’s on my right, then when I’m holding it like this…

Finally, out of irritation, Michael just put the jacket on and pulled the phone out the very second it stopped beeping. Of course.

He had four text messages, all from Emily. It was 2:34…Michael squinted outside and saw that it was dark, and after some math, realized that it was 2:34 in the morning. The first message came in just a minute ago:

Are you cycle?

followed immediately by

Are you awake?

Michael sat down on the edge of his bed. When typing on a cell phone, the numbers 29253 defaulted to cycle instead of awake…he knew that much. But he had more important questions, like what day it was. The next message said:

Wanna go for a bike ride?

Michael shook his head hard and came completely awake: he’d fallen asleep reading, it was two-thirty on Friday morning, Emily was texting him to see if he wanted to go for a bike ride, he was only wearing one shoe.

I’m outside of your house.

Michael stood up quickly and looked down through his window. The thin metal fire escape and small patch of backyard was empty. Emily wasn’t there…she was at home, playing a joke on him for some reason. Out of instinct, Michael opened his bedroom door an inch and glanced across the hall. His father’s bedroom door was closed, but he couldn’t remember if it had been like that when he’d left for his date, so he could have been home or he could still be out. Michael closed his own door and switched on his overhead light.

Michael crossed back to his window, and was about to answer Emily’s weird text messages when she came spinning around the corner of his house, wearing a long white sundress that flapped behind her. She stood in the square of light his bedroom window threw on the grass below and smiled at him with an embarrassed little wave.

Emily opened her phone and Michael quickly turned his ringer off. A second later he got her text message: I didn’t know which room was yours!

Michael held up a finger and moved away from the window, looking around for his other shoe. His phone flashed again and he glanced at it. Oh my god, is that what you sleep in?

Outside, he heard the muffled sound of Emily begin to climb his metal fire escape. The sound was unmistakable. Michael flew back to the window and held up both of his hands, then waved her back. You may have already suspected that Mr. Karlinoff might not be as strict as Michael has claimed, but even so, it wouldn’t be a good idea to get caught sneaking a girl into the house in the middle of the night.

He found his other loafer, but then changed his mind and quietly dug into the back of his closet and found his low-top Converses. He pulled them on, then slipped out of his jacket and shirt and into a faded blue T-shirt he grabbed at random.

Michael climbed out on his fire escape and put a finger up to his lips. Emily nodded, watching him lower the window to within an inch of being closed. Too late he realized that he should have turned the light off, in case his dad was home and went to the bathroom before dawn.

Michael knew from experience that the metal steps of the fire escape made too much noise in the dark quiet of the night. No matter how softly he tried to walk, the thin steps attached to the stone walls of his house reverberated even the slightest touch. In the handful of times he’d snuck out in the past, though, he’d come up with a system. Gesturing at Emily to hold on, he climbed over the railing and quietly lowered himself down until he dangled from the ledge. His feet were now only about three feet above the ground, and with a slight swing, he dropped softly to the grass. He stumbled backwards but caught himself.

“Show-off,” Emily whispered, the same thing Lillian had said the first time he’d done it.

Michael ignored her. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Why?”

“Why?” Michael stuttered softly. “Because you show up in the middle of the night, scare me to death, make me sneak out my house…”

Emily gave him a lopsided smile. “I was bored. I thought you might want to hang out.”

“Hang…out. At three o’clock in the morning.”

“Yeah. Wanna go for a bike ride?”

Michael looked at her strangely, trying to decide what she was up to. “Where to?”

“I don’t know. Around.” When Michael didn’t respond to this, she added: “I’ll show you something cool…it’s just down the street.”

“But…it’s late. It’s dangerous.”

“It’s not that dangerous. Even criminals sleep, Michael. Besides, if any girls try to rape you, I’ll beat them up, I promise. Just say the word.”

Michael smiled in spite of himself. “You do have pepper spray…”

“So you’ll come?”

He ran his tongue back and forth behind his teeth. His legs were suddenly restless. “Yeah. Okay.”

Emily bounced up and down on her flats and cheered silently. “Yay! My bike’s around the corner. Well, I hope…I didn’t lock it up.”

“Good thing the criminals are asleep, huh?” Michael whispered.

Soon the two of them were riding down the middle of a deserted State Street that sighed and cooled in the dark. Emily was on her ancient heavy cruiser. It had been her father’s when he was in college fifty years before and he had kept it in perfect condition ever since. When Emily was seven or eight, her dad’s doctors told him that his morning five-mile jog was doing irreparable damage to his knees, so he began riding 25 miles along the Mississippi River levee six days a week on a futuristic fiberglass bicycle that weighed only a little more than this book. The cruiser had gotten handed down to Emily. Her Polaroid camera sat in the large basket on the front, just in case.

Michael rode the old ten-speed he’d found at a flea market before he’d started at Beaumonde. It was just a disposable Wal-Mart bike from the 80s (he’d probably replaced everything on it at least once) but he’d liked the curved handlebars, which you could no longer find once the mountain bike style became ubiquitous. The ten-speed reminded him of Woody Allen movies, of articulate New Yorkers of the 70s riding to the university, to the racquetball court, to the foreign film festival. Originally black with silver lightning bolts, he’d repainted it yellow and added grip tape made to look like light brown leather. He rode with the right leg of his cream trousers loosely folded up to his calf.

About four blocks ahead, a white Volkswagen pulled up to a red light, then slipped through it. The teenagers could faintly hear the sounds of music, muffled by windows and distance, fade away as the car disappeared down a side street. The city smelled of uncut grass and freon.

They rode mostly in silence. Sometimes, Emily would point something out—the shadow of a saint’s statue on the side of a Catholic school—but otherwise, Michael rode just slightly behind her without speaking, letting her guide the way. Emily seemed to know where they were going, and when she showed him something it was as though she’d known it was there all along and had remembered to share it with him.

Eventually, after riding towards the river for about two miles, Emily pulled ahead of him and turned left on Camp Street, a block before Magazine Street. They slowed down because the street was bumpier and dark, the dirty yellow streetlights obscured by the dense trees that grew in almost every front yard. They left the sleepy barks of a dozen dogs in their wake.

They crossed Nashville Avenue, then eventually Jefferson Avenue. At Jefferson, an oversized pick-up truck idled in front of a closed coffeehouse a block away, as a thick man in gloves filled a paper box with the next day’s Times-Picayunes. Emily waved at the man, and he saw her and nodded deeply.

“Did you know him?” Michael asked.

“What? No, just being polite.” They had moved a few blocks past Jefferson and Emily looked behind her at the street sign. “It’s right up here.”

A few streets later, Emily slowed down and eventually came to a stop on a corner. Michael’s brakes squeaked as he pulled up beside her and a cat the color of cinnamon, sleeping curled up in an empty planter, glared at him in distaste, then disappeared behind the shotgun house.

Emily pointed up at the crooked street sign. They were on the corner of Camp and Bellecastle Street. “It only runs for a few blocks,” she whispered. “It crosses Magazine but doesn’t make it up to St. Charles.”

“Was it named after your family?”

“I’m not sure. I asked my grandmother about it once, but forty minutes later we were still talking about the Bellecastles of 18th century England and I stopped paying attention. But there have been Bellecastles here for two hundred years, so I guess so.”

Michael smiled, still looking up at the bent street sign. “That’s really cool, having something that ties you to the city like this.”

“There’s no Karlinoff Expressway in Macedonia?”

“No, not that I know of.” He laughed. “ ‘Sorry I’m late. There was a wreck on the Karlinoff and traffic was backed up.’”

“Heh. I’ll tell you something dumb. There’s a Hammarskj√∂ld Plaza in New York, and back when-“

“Wait, really? After your dad?”

“No, no. After Dag Hammarskj√∂ld…he used to run the United Nations before we were born. No relation to my dad. Apparently it’s a common name in Sweden, I think? Anyway, when I was at the boarding school, if I’d get homesick I’d sneak away from class and go eat lunch there. You know, because it reminded me of my dad.” Emily opened up her Polaroid and turned the flash on. “Here, I want to take your picture.”

Michael, by now, was used to Emily’s Polaroid camera and her impromptu photoshoots, but there was something he’d always been curious about. He’d never asked it, though, because he felt he needed to keep her at arm’s length. But this night was different, and so much had changed in their lives that he found him asking the question before he even knew he was speaking. “Why don’t you just get a digital camera?”

Emily looked at the glowing red light on top of the camera. “Oh, I have one. I use it for school projects and stuff like that. But it can take, like, a billion pictures and…I don’t know, I just like how limited these Polaroids are. I only have ten pictures I can take, so I end up appreciating each one a lot more, you know?” She brought the camera up to her face and looked through the viewfinder. “Don’t smile.”

Michael didn’t smile. The flash of the camera popped, and the picture whirred out of the bottom, the image still swaddled in gray.

“What color was the flash?”

“I don’t know, white?”

“Good. If you’d said orange, it meant you’d closed your eyes and seen the flash through your eyelids. Pretty clever, huh?” Emily blew on the picture once and put it in her basket, followed by her camera.

Inside a house, a small dog began jumping at the glass of a front door, barking at the sound of the two of them. They pushed off, Emily leading them up Bellecastle, then another street, towards St. Charles Avenue.

“It’s like when we were little kids and we only had two or three CDs,” she said as they peddled slowly through the quiet streets. “No matter what they were, we listened to them over and over again, because they were all we had. Now we’re grown up and we have hundreds of albums on our computers—and I’m not complaining—but we never really listen to the music the way we used to when we only had two choices.”

They had reached St. Charles, and Emily steered them to the right, towards downtown. She reached into the basket and handed Michael his now-developed picture. In it, he stared quizzically out at the viewer, one eyebrow cocked. The Bellecastle street sign had caught the flash and was shining above his head.

St. Charles is a major street in uptown New Orleans, and even at 3:30 on a Friday morning there were cars occasionally moving past the two bicyclists. Just past Napoleon Avenue, there was a closed bar where a bouncer with a towel tucked into his jeans and a slight limp stacked up the patio chairs stranded on the sidewalk. He paused for a second, bent to pick up an empty plastic cup, and watched them as they rode past.

The closer they got to downtown, the less residential the avenue became. Large, carefully maintained mansions gave way to apartment buildings, which in turn became hotels and convenience stores. Michael was surprised at how much was going on, even in the dead of the night. Doormen swept already-spotless sidewalks as taxis pulled up to or away from the cab stands in front of the hotels. A police car without its headlights on idled in the parking lot of a 24-hour drugstore. The driver of a large refrigerated truck unloaded his cargo into the back of an expensive restaurant as a security guard watched.

As if reading his mind, Emily looked over her shoulder and called out, “I don’t want to sound too, you know, precious, but I love being out this time of night. There are so many things you miss if you’re asleep. The night is like the desert…most people think it’s just totally empty, but secretly it’s alive.”

They were passed slowly by a deserted city bus lumbering towards Canal Street. Emily pointed at the large advertisement on the side, a huge photo of David Sebastian’s father holding a check. His trademark fedora was set at an angle. Injured in an automobile accident? I’ll make the insurance companies PAY. The two of them had seen some variation of this ad for as long as they could remember, but seeing it tonight seemed important somehow.

Michael wondered if his own father had discovered that he’d snuck out yet. He hadn’t gotten caught the other handful of times he’d done it, but he’d prepared in advance for those. If his father had caught him, he surely would have called him by now, but then Michael remembered that his phone was still on his desk. There was no way to know if he was in trouble or not. Well, he did tell me to go out and have fun tonight…

They passed Lee Circle—“In the center of New Orleans is a statue in honor of a failed revolutionary,” Andre once pointed out—and even the gas stations seemed to be closed. They were in the foothills of the Central Business District, just before the skyscrapers that made up the modest skyline of the city. Michael had to be careful, now, because the streetcar ran right on the street, and his bike’s narrow tires would fit inside the embedded tracks.

Regardless of the time, both of them were sweating in the humidity of the June night. Occasionally, one of Michael’s curls would grow heavy and eventually release a drop of sweat before bouncing softly back up. He wished he’d worn a jacket…it would have made him warmer, but it would have hid the large wet smear on the back of his T-shirt. Emily, in the sundress, had more skin exposed to the air, but her arms and chest were shiny with perspiration. She seemed almost lacquered.

They paused at a stoplight for no other reason than it was red…though Poydras Street is wide, it was empty enough at that time of night to cross against the light. Emily pointed up over their heads at a skyscraper.

“See how every light is off, except for that one line?” A single band of light circled the building, about three-quarters from the top. It seemed as though every light on a certain floor was on. “That’s the cleaning crew. They start at the bottom and clean each floor, then turn out the lights and move up another level.” The streetlight turned green and Emily pushed off slowly. “I wonder if you could tell what time it is just by looking at where the lights are…?”