It’s past midnight when they arrive in Boston, so Wilson books into a hotel. Next morning he phones his parents.
“James, what a pleasant surprise!” his mother says.
Thus encouraged, he packs Joel’s day bag and swings by his parents’ place. It’s much as it was during his childhood, a mismatched assortment of the sixties and seventies. His parents haven’t replaced any of the furniture or window treatments; the couch and armchairs are more threadbare, the dining room chairs somewhat more rickety, the rugs faded. Pictures of Michael’s children augment the ones of Wilson and his brothers.
“Good to see you, son,” his father says, awkwardly patting him on the shoulder.
“James, dear,” his mother says, hugging him. “And that’s your boy? He’s so handsome!”
Wilson takes Joel out of the carrier seat and cradles him in his arm.
“You’ve called him Joel?” his father says. “A good name.”
“Hello, Joel,” his mother croons. “Sit down, James, sit down!”
He sits down on the couch. His mother perches beside him, his father sits in the same armchair as he always does, the ‘holy’ armchair, the only leather armchair in the room. When they were young, the boys were strictly forbidden to sit in it even in their father’s absence, for fear that they’d soil the leather. Michael, the daredevil of the family, had sat in it a few times to the great admiration of his younger brothers, but they’d all jumped at every sound in the apartment, scared of being discovered.
“So, how old is he now?” his mother asks.
“He’s four months old. He was born in February.”
“You should have visited sooner.” There’s an awkward pause.
“Why don’t you get James a cup of coffee?” his father suggests.
His mother takes up the suggestion gratefully. “I’ll get you a cup of coffee,” she says unnecessarily as she rises and goes into the kitchen.
His father fidgets. “Bit of a surprise for your mother, your arrival.”
His father fidgets some more. “She doesn’t cope too well with surprises any more. Next time, son, give her a few days’ notice.”
“Sorry. I’ll call in advance next time.” Wilson hasn’t noticed anything off in his mother’s behaviour, but what does he know? There’s another tense silence.
“And how are you?” his father asks.
“Fine. I’m fine,” Wilson says. “What about you and Mom?”
“Not getting any younger, but we’re coping. Yeah, we’re coping, your mother and me.” He frowns at his hands, gnarled and flecked with age. “Good to hear that you’re doing well. Michael said you were in a bad state, but he must have misunderstood.”
“I was …” Wilson begins, but then he backtracks. “Yes, he must have gotten it wrong. I’m fine now.”
“Michael said something about liver failure, but he must’ve gotten it all muddled up, I guess,” his father states. He adds with a chuckle, “Michael may be a financial wizard, but he has no head for medicine. You’re sitting here now, which you wouldn’t be if your liver had failed.”
“Yes … No. I mean,” Wilson stutters. “Yes, I had liver failure, but I had a liver transplant.”
His father frowns. He lowers his voice, leaning forward and glancing towards the kitchen. “I thought you had your … problem under control, James.”
Wilson takes a deep breath. “It had nothing to do with my alcohol problem. It was the cancer treatment that did my liver in.”
His father harrumphs. Then he says, “Don’t mention cancer in front of your mother. Things like that worry her unnecessarily. It’s cured anyway, right?”
Wilson considers explaining about remission, but then decides that it isn’t worth the bother. His father has more or less told him what to answer anyway. “Yes, Dad, it’s cured.”
His father leans back. “Good! That’s what I told your mother, see? Thought you’d get a handle on it; after all, you’re an oncologist. All those years in med school and then those residencies have to have been good for something, I figure.”
His mother comes back with a lone cup of coffee that she places in front of Wilson. “We don’t drink coffee anymore,” she says. “We can’t sleep when we’ve had coffee.”
Wilson glances at his father, who nods in unwilling confirmation. Coffee used to be one of his humble pleasures. Wilson takes a polite sip. The brew is truly terrible. Maybe his father stopped drinking coffee when his mother switched brands.
“James and I were talking about his health,” Wilson’s father says with forced joviality. “He’s fine, he says. He says Michael has gotten it all wrong; there was nothing much the matter with him. Just a spot of liver trouble that they fixed.”
“Well, that’s nice,” his mother says with an absent smile. “Health is very important, you know. You only learn to value it once it’s gone.” She sits down once again. “Such a lovely baby. It’s so nice of your … your girlfriend to let you bring him here.”
Wilson takes a deep breath. “Amy and I are not in a relationship anymore, I’m afraid,” he says. The ‘anymore’ is an afterthought, but the mind boggles at having to explain that Amy and he were never an item.
“Oh, dear,” his mother says. “So sad!”
“Sad?” his father says. “I don’t know what you’re thinking, James. Children need their father.”
By now Wilson is floundering. “Joel has his father. He’s growing up with me, not with Amy. Didn’t I mention it?” he says, turning to his mother. There are a lot of things he doesn’t tell his mother, but he’s sure that he mentioned that he has physical custody of Joel.
“You mentioned something, but I thought it was a temporary arrangement,” his mother says apologetically. “You said your girlfriend was moving away, so I thought you were taking Joel for the duration of the move until she’d settled down.”
His father is close to apoplectic now. “That child is growing up without his mother? What kind of nonsense is that? Children need their mother.”
Well, you don’t always get what you need, let alone what you want. “I’m in a better position to look after him than Amy is,” Wilson explains patiently, as he has done so often before, both to complete strangers accosting him in the supermarket and close acquaintances. “Nowadays lots of fathers raise their children. Joel won’t notice the difference.”
His father settles back into his armchair, muttering something about modern nonsense and the downfall of family values. “Look at the shul. Used to be a great place, but can you believe it, last year the rabbi married a gay couple?”
Wilson hums something non-committal.
“Don’t get us wrong, James,” his mother says. “We don’t mind people having homosexual relationships, but —”
“They can do what they like in private, but do they have to get married? How are kids supposed to learn to cherish family values when not even the shul upholds them anymore?” His father glares at him as though daring him to contradict him.
“How long are you staying?” his mother asks.
“I was going to return to Philadelphia at the weekend,” Wilson answers.
“You’ve taken the whole week off?” his father asks.
“I’m only starting my new job next Monday,” Wilson explains, feeling like a kid who’s been caught playing hooky.
“That’s lovely!” his mother says. “Then Joel and I can get to know each other, can’t we, dear?” She smiles at Joel, who yawns. “I’ll get your old room ready, James, shall I? Why don’t you bring your things up from the car?”
“They’re at the hotel,” Wilson says. “I haven’t brought the car. I flew here from LA.”
His mother looks indignant. “At the hotel? Did you think we’d let you stay at a hotel while you’re here?”
His father rises. “Are you sure you can manage, Evelyn?” he asks. “James will understand if you —”
“Of course I can manage!” Wilson’s mother says. She and his father engage in a staring match. “My grandson is here for the first time. I want to get to know him.”
“Well, son, let’s swing by the hotel and get your baggage,” Wilson’s father says with forced cheer.
Wilson rises too, Joel on his arm. “Mom, do you want to —?”
“We’ll take the young man with us,” his father decrees. “Your mother will be busy getting the room ready.”
The journey to the hotel and back is accompanied by stilted conversation. Wilson can’t recall talking much with his father when he was younger. There had never been much to discuss. His career choices had met with his parents’ unalloyed approval, his other life choices less so, but they’d never actually said anything. They’d simply not talked about his wives, as though not mentioning them would make them go away somehow — which it did. His parents have outlasted his three marriages.
“So, what kind of job is it that you’ve gotten now? Research again?”
So his father does know what he’s been doing the last few years in New York. “No, I’ll be working with patients again. I started again recently, giving consults at Philadelphia Central, and now I’m easing back into regular working hours.”
“Looking forward to it?”
“Yes,” Wilson says. “Yes, definitely. What’s wrong with Mom?”
“We-ell,” his father says, “nothing really. It’s just that … small things excite her, more than they used to. She’s never been very strong.” Shrugging as though to put the thought aside, he grabs one of the suitcases, the bigger one. Three minutes later, closing the trunk, he continues his thought as though there’s been no interruption. “Dunno if she’s up to having you for a week. She’s excited about it, and that’ll tide her over the first days, but after that she might need her old routine back.” He squints sideways at Wilson to see how he’ll respond.
“That’s okay; I can always move back into a hotel or go home,” Wilson says.
Getting into the car next to his father, he thinks about his mother. He supposes his father is right. His mother has always been nervous and inefficient in everyday life. When his father came home from work, she’d tell him about some disaster or other that had befallen her during the course of the day — the cat bringing in something disgusting or Michael being obstreperous or the window jamming — and his father would say, “Don’t worry, I’ll fix it.” And he’d fix the jammed window or tell Michael that he was grounded or dispose of the cat’s latest kill, and Wilson never wondered why his mother didn’t do these things herself. It was the way things were in their family.
When they get back to the apartment in Brookline, his mother is fixing a meal. “I’m afraid I don’t have much food in the house. Your father and I hardly eat anything anymore. I’m making us some sandwiches. What will Joel eat?”
Wilson hastens to reassure her that sandwiches are fine and that he has everything that Joel needs.
“I’ll cook a decent dinner,” his mother assures him. “What would you like?”
Wilson lets her standard meals pass before his mind’s eye. His mother’s cuisine, as he remembers it, is limited and unimaginative. “Meat loaf?” he suggests.
He senses relief. “You always loved my meat loaf, didn’t you?” his mother says.
‘Love’ isn’t the word he’d use to describe his feelings for her meat loaf. It’s a sight better than her chicken pot pie, but then, it’s difficult to ruin a meat loaf. Still, she’s making an effort, so he nods, realising too late that this is how Wilson family myths are created and perpetuated. He has spent fifty years of his life nodding at whatever his parents say, even at what Michael says, never saying what he thinks because that would upset the fragile balance between him and them.
“Michael doesn’t visit anymore,” his mother says as they eat.
“He came last year,” his father remarks, “for Thanksgiving.”
“Well, he hasn’t come since then. And he’s stopped coming for Pesach and Hanukkah.”
There’s something in the way his father says it that gives Wilson the impression that there are things he knows but doesn’t say, things that would explain Michael’s absence.
His mother, however, is on a roll. “The Tengelmans’ children visit all the time. Flo’s son comes twice a year all the way from Arizona. Yet our boy can’t be bothered to come even once a year.”
“He calls regularly,” his father says. “He called a few days ago.”
“Yes, he did. You were resting so I didn’t disturb you, but he talked to me for half an hour.”
“Well,” his mother says stubbornly, “he should also talk to me.”
“Next time I’ll make sure that he also talks to you,” Robert Wilson says, not taking his eyes off his sandwich.
“Yes, I’ll tell him to come for Hanukkah and to bring the children. He should bring the children more often. They are almost strangers to us.”
It’s the sort of circular conversation that Wilson remembers from his youth, but at that time he’d considered it normal. Now, more observant and maybe more distanced, he can’t help noticing that there’s more subtext than actual content. His father is hiding something about Michael from his mother, perhaps trying to protect her, while his mother, habitually paranoid and sensing that something is going on behind her back, is justifiably suspicious. Or maybe it’s the other way round: his mother might well be upset at a very real slight by his brother, while his father, not wanting to deal with the issue, is protecting Michael by lying for him. It had been much the same when the trouble with Danny started. His mother would report some misdeed or odd behaviour, which his father would then downplay — sometimes rightly (some of Danny’s escapades were no worse than Michael’s, but his mother had always been easier on Michael, her oldest and favourite child), sometimes wrongly so.
One time, Danny had refused to leave his room for a week, saying that aliens had invaded the earth and were about to kidnap him. His mother had been furious, insisting that Danny was acting up in order to avoid going to school. His father had laughed the matter off, saying that Danny had a vivid imagination and had watched too much television. Both of them had chosen to ignore the obvious, namely that no self-respecting thirteen year old would ever admit to being scared of aliens, much less pretend to be so, not even to play hooky. It had taken Wilson every spare hour that entire week to talk Danny through it and get him to leave his room again.
“You could have Danny over,” Wilson suggests on a sudden impulse, a very House-ian one admittedly, but he’s tired of beating around the bush and speaking in code, a code that he used to be fluent in, but which he’s now finding strenuous. “I’m sure he’ll be allowed to come home for a day.”
The effect of his statement is all he can desire. His mother freezes while masticating, her eyes widened. Then she casts a quick, hunted look at his father, a fix this! look. His father sort of retracts like a turtle, except that he has no shell to hide in. But he seems to shrink into himself, as though by taking up as little space as possible he can make everyone forget that he’s there.
Finally his mother swallows noisily and says, “I don’t know whether that’s such a good idea. We … .” She rounds on her husband. “Robert? What do you think? It’s not a good idea to have Danny over, because . . .?”
His father has recovered sufficiently to chime in on cue. “I don’t drive that far anymore,” he says, not meeting Wilson’s eyes. “Not getting any younger, you know.”
Wilson is sure his father could manage it if he wanted to. But the good son in him comes to the fore again, so he lets the matter drop.
In the afternoon his mother, Joel, and he take a stroll around the block. When they return his father, who must have used the respite to do some grocery shopping, is in the kitchen chopping onions. His mother joins him; she waves Wilson away.
“You go and rest, dear. I know how tiring little children can be.”
So Wilson takes Joel and retires to the living room. He is tired; he has jet lag, and Joel’s sleep rhythm, only recently anything close to regular, has suffered a severe setback. Joel is content to play with his rattle, banging it against his head, or to suck on the cloth book that Wilson bought him at the airport. Wilson is tempted to lie down and rest, but he knows that if he gives in to temptation now his jet lag will drag on for days.
“Dad, can I use your computer?” he calls.
His father grunts something that he interprets as an affirmative, so he boots the machine and starts searching — for Melanie Robbins. Yes, Melanie has an author’s website with links to Twitter, Facebook, etc. It’s all very ‘teen’ oriented, however, and doesn’t sound like the Melanie he knows. (Correction: knew.) There’s a blog with past and upcoming book signings and similar PR stuff, links to her books, an activity page where her fans can post their own fan art and fan fiction, and an excerpt from her next book. Her fame as an author seems to be founded on the vampire/werewolf/witch series of which he now possesses a signed volume. Before that she wrote a few books of ‘normal’ teen angst that reviewers compare to John Green’s novels. Those, however, have very few readers if the Amazon customer reviews are any indication. (It’s disquieting, how much information he has managed to glean in twenty minutes of amateur stalking. Someone like House or Lucas Douglas would undoubtedly be able to find out her address and telephone number with little more effort than he has invested.)
There’s an email address with the caveat that much as she’d love to, Melanie can’t answer the many emails that come her way, and that her FAQ page is a good place for answers to common questions. Wilson has a feeling that Melanie’s telephone number won’t form part of the information imparted by the FAQ, so he sends her an email via the contact form, hoping that she still reads her fan mail even if she doesn’t answer it. It takes him a solid half hour to phrase the email in a way that is light and imparts enough information that Melanie can be sure that it is him, James Wilson, writing it (not some creepy stranger who has gotten hold of a copy of her high school yearbook) without divulging so much personal data that he’d feel embarrassed if someone else were to read it. (Do authors of teen lit employ personal assistants?) When he’s satisfied with his literary efforts he clicks on ‘send’ before he has second thoughts.
He’s just through with that when his cell rings. Cuddy is the only person who has his present number — he should give it to Amy so she can reach him, he supposes — so he takes the call assuming that it’s her, but it’s House instead. (He wouldn’t have thought that House, who isn’t exactly on speaking terms with Cuddy, would get hold of his number so quickly, but House is a devious devil.) He sighs and steels himself. Forgetting his phone in Philly — though unintentional — had briefly freed him from the worry of how to deal with House, though he knew he must eventually. Now that Cuddy has passed his number on to House, ‘eventually’ has turned into ’now’, so he sneaks into his bedroom, hoping that Joel, busy chewing his foot, will hold his peace until he has dealt with House.
House is up to his usual tricks: he’s in Philadelphia. And he’s trying to sell this to Wilson as a medical emergency, not as House-losing-his-patience-because-
He’s in his bedroom putting Joel to sleep — a procedure that involves a bottle of formula and a lot of patience, because Joel can only fall asleep with one of Wilson’s hands trapped under his cheek and his foot encircled by Wilson’s other hand — when Wilson’s new cell rings again. Wilson lets go of Joel’s foot to take the call, which unfortunately pulls Joel back from the brink of sleep.
Good job, House! Wilson thinks, jamming the phone between shoulder and ear and grasping Joel’s foot again. “Hello?” he says testily.
“Hello, is that James?” a woman says. She doesn’t sound like Amy.
“Oh, hey, it’s me — Melanie.”
“Melanie!” Wilson says so loudly that Joel’s eyes snap open, drilling him with an accusing stare. “Melanie,” he repeats somewhat more quietly. “What a lovely surprise! You read my message.”
“Yes. It’s wonderful hearing from you after so long. You’re in Boston?”
“Yes, visiting my parents.” He’s at a standstill. This is where he should (and normally would) invite her out for a meal, but with Joel in tow, a fancy restaurant isn’t feasible. And somehow he doesn’t see himself leaving Joel with his parents, not just yet. Maybe never.
“Can we meet?” Melanie asks. “I’d love to see you again.”
“Sure,” he finds himself saying. “I’d love to see you too.”
“Do your parents still live in Brookline?” Melanie asks. “There’s a bar on Washington where we could meet, if you’re free tonight.”
“Uh,” Wilson says. “That’ll be a bit tricky. I’ve brought my son with me and he’s still too young for late-night outings. Or bars, for that matter.”
“Your son? Then the zoo, maybe?” Melanie must be really eager to see him if she’s prepared to spend a few hours traipsing around animal enclosures. It’s more than Wilson is prepared to do, though; so far Joel has shown no interest whatsoever in wildlife.
“Joel is only four months old. If you can make the time during the day, a coffee shop would be fine.”
Melanie thinks for a moment. “I know just the place on Harvard Street. It’s near —”
“Could you text me the details, please? I have, um, both hands full at the moment.”
“Sure.” Melanie chuckles. “Four o’clock?”
Wilson makes the mistake of nodding (which is really idiotic since Melanie can’t see him), causing the phone to slip from his shoulder and hit Joel squarely on the forehead, thus not only destroying his efforts of the past half hour, but also disconnecting the call. Not that he could have continued any sort of meaningful conversation in the resulting tumult, but he’d have liked to have ended the call in a polished manner, thanking Melanie for responding so promptly and expressing his eagerness to renew their friendship. Oh, well.
The next afternoon he makes his way down Harvard Street with the stroller, enjoying the sunshine and the appreciative glances that come Joel’s way. Even taking into account his own lack of objectivity there’s no denying that Joel is a cute baby. He doesn’t smile much, but those wide-open blue eyes, coupled with dimples and a snub nose, are practically irresistible. Wilson can’t even count the number of people who have started casual conversations with him by complimenting him on his son. (There was that one occasion — which Wilson prefers to forget — when a little girl asked him whether he was Joel’s granddad . . .) He easily finds the coffee shop where he is to meet Melanie, and when he passes the front window someone waves to him from inside.
Melanie comes forward to meet him as he enters the coffee shop, and Wilson’s doubts about resurrecting his past vanish. Even without the photo on her website to prod his memory, he’d probably have recognised her: she has grown older and heavier, but her clear grey eyes still shine above a wide, sensual mouth. A quick hug, then Melanie coos over Joel, remarks that Wilson hasn’t changed at all (a compliment that he can return without stretching the truth unduly), and expresses her pleasure at resuming their friendship.
She has a chai latte, but recommends the place’s espressos and cookies. Once they are served, Melanie sits up straight. “This can’t be the first time you’re in Boston after thirty years. What made you decide to seek me out?”
He pulls the book out of his backpack, the one that started it all.
“Oh my goodness, you’ve bought one of my books!” Melanie exclaims. “How embarrassing!”
“It’s even signed. You say that you hope I’ll enjoy it,” Wilson says with a straight face. “My friend’s daughter picked it out because she thought the hero looked like me.” He points at the young man on the cover.
She has the grace to blush. “I gave the cover artist a copy of our high school annual and asked her to make Jacob look like you,” she confesses.
He feels oddly flattered.
“I started writing when the girls were young. It wasn’t serious at first, just a way of killing time while I was a homemaker. Then came the divorce and I had to make money fast. That’s when I jumped on the Twilight bandwagon. I’m not proud of it, and heaven knows that churning out a book to order every half year is no fun, but,” with a shrug and a half-laugh, “it’s a reliable income and I am in control of my working hours. That’s more than can be said for journalism.”
Wilson for his part gives her the ‘tidy’ version of his CV, mentioning med school and oncology, dwelling a moment on his long stint at PPTH and another on his present job at Philadelphia Central, but omitting such minor matters as thymomas, stints at Mayfield, and longer rehab periods of various kinds. He explains Joel as the result of a relationship turned sour.
“So you’re not married?”
“Divorced — three times,” he feels compelled to mention. He’s already concealing too many blemishes.
“Three times? Wow!” Melanie gives him that wide grin of hers that catapults him back onto the high school bleachers. “I never had you down for a ladykiller.”
“No? I have quite a rep,” Wilson says ruefully.
“You were awfully shy in school. Lots of girls wanted to go out with you, but you never asked them.”
No, because I wanted to go out with you, Wilson thinks. Aloud he says, with a chuckle to take the sting out of his words (he’s good at that kind of thing), “You didn’t.”
“Of course I did!” Melanie remonstrates. “But I couldn’t very well ask, could I? At least, not then. Today, I would.”
That’s the forthright girl he remembers, the one who traded baseball cards with him in middle school during recess while the other girls hung around in tight groups, giggling and eyeing the boys and trying out make-up that they’d wipe off hastily before going home. The one who taught him yo-yo tricks and tagged along when he had to take Danny trick-and-treating on Halloween.
Since they’re being frank, he points out, “You let Kyle Calloway take you to the prom.”
Her chuckle is long and low. “A teenage stupidity. You remember Alicia, my best friend? She said that if I wanted you to notice me — as a girl, I mean — I had to make you jealous, so when Kyle asked me to go to the prom with him, I said yes.” She shakes her head at the memory. “We were so foolish then. Can you believe it, Kyle expected me to allow him to grope me afterwards? As though going to the prom with him obliged me to grant him sexual favours! When I didn’t let him, he spread the rumour that I was a lesbian. God, the drama of high school!”
His memories of high school are overshadowed by the constant struggle to keep his family life strictly segregated from his school life, a struggle that failed when Danny entered high school. He’d been a senior at the time. Till then, he’d managed to keep his brother’s weirdness a secret: he scrupulously avoided inviting classmates to his house and he didn’t participate in school athletics or drama productions for fear that his parents might attend, dragging Danny with them. But when Danny entered his freshman year, the corridors of Brookline High teemed with stories of how James’s little brother came to school in the same clothes every day, how he disrupted classes with confused tales of persecution and alien abduction, how he lined up his pencils and pens obsessively on his desk — and how he freaked out whenever his classmates brought them into disarray, a pastime they indulged in whenever they wanted to disrupt classes. Michael, two years Wilson’s senior, had a much easier time. He’d graduated by the time Daniel entered high school, so he’d never attended the same school as Danny. Their parents didn’t expect Michael to allow Danny to tag along when he went out with his friends, and Danny never felt the need to burden him with his fears and phobias. No, Wilson hadn’t had much time or energy to spare for teen drama of his own, not until he left home and entered college. Then he’d caught up with drama with a vengeance.
But all that is over now. And Melanie is leaning over the table confidingly, as though to imply that if he chose to remedy his mistake of long ago and ask her out, she wouldn’t say no. He for his part is quite prepared to make up for the aforementioned mistake— he’ll solve the problem of what to do with Joel later — when his cell phone rings.
“Excuse me,” he says to Melanie. It’s either his parents or —
“Where are you?” House asks.
“Boston,” Wilson answers, scooting back his chair a little. “Same as yesterday. I’m a bit busy, so if you don’t mind —”
“I do. What are you doing?”
“Drinking coffee in a café.”
“Alone?” There’s suspicion in House’s voice.
Wilson glances at Melanie. No, there’s no need to let House in on this part of his life. “You’ve got me. Actually, I’m in a strip bar, introducing Joel to the pleasures that will be his once you take charge of him.” Melanie gives him a curious look. He’d take the conversation somewhere else, except that there’s no need to continue it. “House, I’m not returning to Philadelphia just because you snap your fingers. Suck it up, okay?”
“Why are you in Boston?” House asks. He’s being tenacious; something is bothering him.
“I told you, I’m visiting my parents. I want them to get to know Joel. Is that so surprising?”
“They’re too old to take Joel if you die,” House says, clinically detached.
Wilson passes a weary hand over his face. “I can’t possibly be visiting my family without an agenda?” he asks rhetorically.
“You have less than one week before your job ties you down to Philadelphia. Any travelling you need to do has to get done now. So, no, you can’t.”
“I’m sorry that my spontaneity disconcerts you, but you’ll have to live with it.” He disconnects the call.
Melanie is regarding him quizzically, and he’s still so deep in thought about House’s preoccupation with his whereabouts that he says, “Joel’s dad. He’s upset that I took off without letting him know where I’d be or when I’d be back.”
“Joel’s dad?” Melanie echoes. At his disconcerted look she quickly adds, “Sorry, it’s none of my business, but I thought he was your son.”
“It’s — complicated,” Wilson says, rubbing the back of his neck as he wonders how to talk his way out of this one. Then it strikes him that there’s no need to talk his way out of it. There’s no reason not to tell Melanie the whole story, because she isn’t part of this giant fuck-up and therefore can’t benefit or come to harm from knowing the truth. And she’s discreet: she’d known about Danny almost from the start, when he’d started behaving oddly, but she’d never told anyone about it, not even her friends. So he tells Melanie the whole story, starting with his thymoma and ending with the revelation that Joel isn’t his son. Melanie sits wide-eyed, unmoving, not interrupting his story even once with comments or exclamations of disbelief or dismay. That’s what he likes about her, her ability to listen.
“Well, … wow!” she says at the end. “That’s just — totally amazing!”
“In what way?” Wilson asks drily.
“Here I am, making up ridiculous stories off the top of my head about vampires and werewolves, while you’re living something that’s real and a lot more ...” She hesitates, searching for words. “… raw and honest and exciting.”
“Forgive me for not gaining any pleasure out of living the ultimate soap opera,” Wilson says.
Melanie reaches over the table to clasp his hand. “James, you’ve always looked out for others. You used to protect that little brother of yours, smoothing his way and ensuring that no one bullied him. It’s the same trait that causes you to take responsibility for a child that isn’t yours. That’s who you are! It’s what makes you special. Would you really like to be someone else, the kind of person who abandons others to their fate?”
He doesn’t know how to answer that. Of course he wouldn’t want to go through life trampling over others, but why does his way come at such a price?
“You remember Danny?” he asks instead, taking Joel, who is getting restless, out of the stroller. Joel promptly grabs at everything within reach. Wilson sighs and bends down to get a rusk out of Joel’s bag.
“Of course!” she laughs. “I … I even wrote a book about him and you. My first one. It didn’t sell well, I’m afraid. Not racy enough: no doomed teen romance, no mysterious sparkly strangers with dietary issues and selenophobia, no pretentious cancer kids. Just a realistic book about realistic problems.”
“You — what?” Wilson asks. Joel takes advantage of his momentary inattentiveness to grab his coffee cup and upend it. Luckily it’s mostly empty. Melanie reacts promptly, dabbing at the mess on the table with a paper napkin while Wilson half turns away from the table so that Joel can’t reach anything else on it. He uses his free hand to push everything on the table away from Joel in Melanie’s direction before reaching back into the bag for the elusive rusk.
“Don’t worry,” Melanie says. “You’re both unrecognisable. It’s a story about a kid who tries to protect his schizophrenic brother from the world in general and high school in particular.”
“You knew that Danny is schizophrenic?” He’d only figured it out when he was in pre-med.
“Not then. I pieced it together later, when I was researching mental illnesses in another context.” She sighs, balling up a soggy napkin. “It must have been tough on your family. How’s he doing?”
“He’s in an institution in New York,” he tells her. “I don’t think he’ll ever be able to lead an independent life.”
“Tough on your parents,” Melanie says.
That isn’t exactly how Wilson would describe the situation. “Maybe. They don’t let it touch them.”
Melanie tugs her ear. “Too bad. In my book there’s a sort of resolution, but I guess it isn’t that easy.”
“No,” Wilson says, “it rarely is. Life is messy and mental disease particularly so. There’s no happy end. How did you resolve your story?”
“You’ll laugh: they find a good psychiatrist who becomes a sort of mentor to the older brother, and the younger kid — Danny — goes to live in supported housing with other challenging kids.”
Wilson lets out a deep sigh. That is what he’s been hoping for Danny, but so far, Danny hasn’t gotten any closer to such an arrangement. Whenever his mental health seemed to improve he stopped taking his medication, and then the whole cycle started from the beginning again.
“You know,” Melanie says, “your story would make a great plot for a novel.”
“My story?” Wilson queries. This doesn’t sound good.
“A werewolf raises the child of the woman he loved in vain, a human girl who was involved with a vampire and died giving birth to the kid, because … the vampire blood in the infant kills the mother when it mingles with hers during birth, like that thing with the negative rhesus factor,” Melanie says, a faraway look in her eyes, pausing every now and then in order to fit the bits and pieces of her plot together.
Wilson refrains from pointing out that rhesus factor incompatibility will kill the foetus rather than the mother. What does he know about the medicine of fantasy creatures?
“Complications ensue when the vampire comes to claim the kid, because … because he wants the kid to be a vampire too. The werewolf defends the kid’s right to be human like his mother. There’s a showdown and in the end, uh, … .”
Wilson stares at her. Joel bounces up and down on Wilson’s lap, rusk smeared all over his face.
“Sorry,” Melanie says. “I got carried away. I guess that was in bad taste.”
“No, it’s okay,” he finds himself saying. “You have to get your plots from somewhere, I expect. But why am I always the werewolf?”
“I don’t know,” Melanie says. “You just are. Would you rather be a vampire? That would work too.”
“No, no, werewolf is fine,” Wilson says with a grin. “I’ll be the Big Bad Wolf. Who gets to be Little Red Riding Hood?”
Oops, that sounded more like a come-on than he meant it to be. Embarrassed, he tries to remove a rusk stain from Joel’s cheek. Joel protests with a squawk, catching hold of Wilson’s hand and stuffing it into his mouth.
“Ouch!” Wilson says. “I think you’ve grown your first tooth. Yeah, your dad is definitely a vampire. So, what happens in the end, vampire kills werewolf or …?”
“I’d have the kid killing the vampire to defend his foster father, but that would be patricide, a big no-no in teen books. I guess they’ll have to reconcile somehow. I’ll probably have the nymphs mediate between them.”
“The … nymphs?”
“Yes, I have nymphs,” Melanie says defensively. “I was going to have elves, but my editor thought that would be too ‘Tolkien’, if you get what I mean. And mermaids need water, but my plots don’t necessarily allow for a convenient sea or stream nearby. It’s a primitive device: they work as a sort of deus ex machina whenever the plot gets out of hand.”
Nymphs. Of course! It’s his fate to be eternally persecuted by pesky forest nymphs.
Unfortunately, Joel’s interest in the niceties of character development and plot resolution within the context of young adult fiction is limited. He is of the opinion that it’s time for his afternoon nap — ‘Thank you, jet lag!’ Wilson thinks — and gets increasingly agitated. After a few attempts to distract him Wilson gives up.
“Will you be here more often to visit your parents now that …?” Melanie asks, nodding at Joel, as they leave the café.
“Uh, no, I don’t think so,” Wilson says. “I mean … .”
He stands in the sun contemplating cars passing by, student couples sauntering by hand-in-hand, a homeless person pushing a shopping trolley piled high with odds and ends. He pictures his parents sitting in the living room, the couch and armchair worn thin at the arm rests, the smells the same as forty years ago, the conversations identical. He thinks of Joel’s patchwork family.
“It’s more of a farewell visit,” he finally says.