A couple of weeks back, the first book I’d ever written, A Few Streets More To Kensington, was published by Crossroad Press. It is a coming-of-age novel set in Brooklyn, New York, mostly in the mid to late 1990s, and follows its protagonist through the end of middle school. It can, I suppose, be described as “young adult fiction”, albeit much closer to the ‘literary’ children’s fiction from the 1950s-70s. (Think, for example, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace.) That is because it follows adult themes, in an adult way, yet filtered through the experiences of a child, whose presence and self-definition are controlled by an adult narrator looking back on his life.
Although I wrote it almost six years ago, I am, now looking back on it, still proud of the writing, even though I’ve gone on to fresh challenges and even more difficult projects. To celebrate its release, I’ve picked seven passages that struck me as I was re-reading them. They are not necessarily the best parts of the book, but parts passages, in the course of writing, had some sort of lasting impression on my creative development, or are memorable for some others. Here they are, in chronological order of appearance.
And so, I let him finish the level. It was, oddly, very peaceful to hear. As Fats ran through the Air Platform, hinging his own body off the filaments of chair, the piano deepened from the TV. It sounded hectic. Mario jumped from tile to tile, turning every once in a while to jerk away from an enemy Koopa, jumping up again, and falling even further, ready to navigate the sky maze once more. Yet where was he going, really? The game, like all Super Mario games, was about saving Princess Toadstool from a dinosaur called Bowser, but go a few minutes into it, and you forget what, exactly, you’re supposed to be doing in the first place. You forget who the little man on the screen is. To a kid, he’s just a bit of color blurring through caves, ghost houses, and open fields. Only on the Air Platform does he seem to be reaching for something higher, jumping through slabs of earth, coasting on bullets, yet hitting a kind of invisible ceiling once he goes too far, stepping, as it were, outside the parameters of design. Do kids ever see this? I recall wasting many hours trying to break through this ceiling, thinking there was something behind it all. And yet, Fats was simply trying to get to the very end, throwing Mario into acrobatics he, himself, could never do, grabbing on to things, running to the smash a piano he’d never learn to play.
Fats was getting near the end. A bullet flew past him, and he dodged another. A bright coin was ignored. He was hit by an enemy as the controller slipped through his greasy fingers. He laughed harshly as he stomped across the level, dying over and over again, but not caring. All he cared about was the end. Yes, I now think, as I imagine the piano slowing down again. We did things differently. I couldn’t be like this. And he couldn’t be like me. But I still don’t know enough of ends, of what it means to finish things – and is that any better than not knowing how to get to them?
Fats grabbed the controller, slamming it a few times in joy as he finished the level. That was his way. He looked at me, smiled, and put his head into his lap. For a while, I didn’t hear much, from anybody. The toss of branches, Mauricio’s asthma pulling at my ear – all began to slow, until not even the pendulum could follow. And then, I yawned, and my eyes folded over themselves.
He seemed to take on the very features of a rat, hitting puberty well before the rest of us, developing a few whiskers above the lip, and getting contacts that irised him into a kind of lukewarm red. The jaw sharpened. The cheekbones began to rise. And then, he let his nails grow, chipped a few teeth in a fight, and, well, the transformation was complete. At his peak (if one could call it that) he’d fish through garbage bins, looking for a broken watch, a rusty pocket-knife, doorknob, or some other treasure. Once he’d find something, he’d show us that very day, introducing it slowly, elaborately, as if peeling a banana one inch at a time, giving the exposed fruit a lick before he’d change his mind, twist the peel back up, lay it down, and walk away, suddenly talking about some grand thing that had nothing to do with doorknobs. After a while, though, he’d change his mind once more, go a bit further, then retract his words until we’d beg (or force) him to open his mouth again, as we knew he would. This is how he was a part of things, yet apart from them, too, orbiting the neighborhood like the collateral around the sun, the things we learned about in school, but most of us couldn’t name. The Rat. Jon. The Rat. And yet, he was always in his proper orbit. Perhaps that was the only thing that was special? Or is it the opposite, somehow? How many people stick to one little road, scooping at a cosmos that only seems to atomize at being touched, then re-collects itself when you look away? But it didn’t matter. For now, it was enough for him to smile with a clenched hand, unable to pronounce a single thing tumbling through my brain, his tail blowing off his body as it faced, but never fell to, its own annihilation.
Now, Medhet was a kid we all knew, an immigrant from Egypt who lived in a weird universe of his own inner architecture, for good or for ill. And yet he was a kid that, despite it all, turned out to be deeper, and more decent, than the world gave him credit for. I remember how I’d watch that infamous Mike Tyson fight, a seemingly psychotic boxer who, in the end, knew more of life, people, and people’s incongruent trappings than those poking their smarmy fingers all around him, as he tried, and failed, to roll the bit he knew of things into a word, a phrase that, by some empty thievery, made its way onto the Rat’s person:
All around was an open palm, thatched by hand-prints that, for all their uniqueness, were really just a bunch of scratches on a dentless world, as if made in error, yet also without bond, without the kind of wonder intrinsic to the smallest sound, translated to a squiggle three hundred million people built entire lives upon. And yet, unlike the hand I was staring at, this was not a mess of genes, re-establishing itself into some void, but a thing even more complex, always striving to re-create the thing that made it possible in the first place. Yet, I knew there was only going to be one palm, one holy phrase, one Rat, and one me, looking through the moment which, once gone, could not be rescinded from that vortex. I knew, even then, some things could not be repeated. And I knew, looking over at Frankie, there was something here that no one else could see.
As he went over to the Rat, picked the piece up, and fingered it a little, I realized I had never seen Frankie so rapt by anything before. He looked distraught almost, and yet, he couldn’t look away. As we stood there, attention seemed to ebb away from Jon, and towards Frankie, who was now the only person interested in this dying little token. And, turning over that image of him in my mind, playing with the tiny door sign like an autistic child, I wish it weren’t true. I wish our eyes could have stayed on gold, and treasure, and the negligible things that, over time, elongate their own shadows, warbling in the thrush of things. I wish, in short, that Frankie could have been a bit different. I can’t say that I hate myself for it. I can’t say that I’m wrong for thinking this. And, imagining Frankie, there in my room, hypnotized like a cobra, unaware of when or why the venom spills, I know exactly why.
As Mya watched the door close, Valinoti was all over her eye – in the pupil, where she sucked him in, to the final beam of tail-coat, and to the hair, tilting off her iris, changing his within its brown, and the whites, not noticing these adjustments, reflecting what the other parts could not. And although Valinoti was a man in his prime, even with the skin a little loose, the nails no longer polished, he seemed to disperse, at least in body, along some current leading up to me, for, in the black of ten, maybe fifteen minutes, I found myself in a private room with Mya who was a few feet away now, changing her clothes.
I heard the same song playing from earlier, and wondered if Valinoti was back, fiddling with the jukebox again. But, I didn’t hear him. In fact, I couldn’t hear anything, really, except the soft drop of clothing on the ground as Mya turned to me, moving, it seemed, to the weird, almost inimitable sound of that piano. Yet she pulled that off, too, in a kind of rhythm that, over time, began to make sense, like the song that, up until now, seemed almost without mood, without a place in the stream of angles, cast through a room that seemed to shed its borders with Mya’s clothes. I do not have to say she was beautiful. I do not have to say she was tall, or shapely, or olive-skinned, for these things were oddly extraneous. And yet, what I didn’t see was clear, already, until, after another space of black, she was on top of me, moaning.
The city, in all the approximations that I knew, was closing in on me. It was big. It was rough. It was deeper, more interesting, more alive in this moment, alone, than all the magazine articles, plush uptown apartments and wagging, condescending fingers ever knew. This was Brooklyn. This was its woman. And yet, all I could think about was Frankie. Thank you, Frankie, I breathed into the air. Thank you, Frankie. Thanks a lot. And, feeling an unexpected wetness wrap itself around me, I knew I meant it, too.
It was early afternoon and the seagulls were already quiet. They only circled the coast every now and then, but came up the same birds every time: tall, white, and thin with anger. I guessed it was the water. I’d swim for hours at a stretch, and yet I couldn’t see a single crab, fish, or oyster, just the glum Atlantic kelp sucking up the ocean’s crud. Looking at the seaweed loosened by the water, it seemed that every day that summer the news talked of swimmers getting flushed into the ocean, even with all of the lifeguards around. This made sense as the current never seemed to be in one place; it shuffled and turned. Watching from the sand, I’d see its full on alterations, its swelling waves and how it ripped them apart. In a word, it was not loyal. It couldn’t stay. To get caught on the wrong end of this process was fatal. And yet, the five of us went anyway, for as long as the weather stayed warm.
My body, new with hair, was glistening in the sun. A warm breeze stirred through my chest, like the gong and back and forth of metal, exiting through my toes and into the sand. I was hot now, but gave into it, feeling myself melt into the blanket’s roughage. My friends were further back, tumbling in the sand and throwing mud at each other. I felt apart from things, and yet, I was a part of them too – even if it was in the mere space of a blanket. But it all felt somehow larger than it was, a domain that, in every strand, every granule of sand dissolving into the sums it shaped, was my own completely. And, looking out into the ocean – vast, domineering, yet conforming to the shoreline, too – I could feel my chest getting red. With a sudden heave, I picked my body up, and turned it to the side, like a gear that forces the rest of the machinery, not caring that the sand got into my hair.
I opened my eyes and saw Adeline on her side next to me. She was, I noticed, darker now, her shoulders a kind of brown, sloping uphill towards her neck, then back down to an emerging chest. The childish clothes were gone. We were going to be in sixth grade, after all. The polka dots disappeared that summer, and were replaced with threaded tops of delicate knots that would come undone at the gentlest tug. Even the bottoms were made of strings and fabric, and it all capitulated, in a weird way, to skin, even while clothing it. I noticed her legs. They didn’t look soft like I last remembered them, but muscular and thick, as if polished down from a ream of wood. Her hair was getting longer and longer by the day. Every once in a while, she’d paint her nails and wear sandals. I didn’t know what I felt, exactly, but I was no longer repulsed by women. “Indifferent” might have been the better name, but, looking back on all this, I know I also felt compulsion. In the past few months something had awaken in me, got up, stretched about, and refused to sit back down. I didn’t know what I’d do exactly, but I knew, in the crude way kids might, that I wouldn’t be the only thing moving my own arm, or thinking my own thoughts. Other forces would be involved. And, when I was ready, I’d be a part of them, too.
I was taller than her: wider, too. She breathed up into my face, but strangely, I didn’t get the usual smokiness from her mouth. I still didn’t know what she wanted. She hadn’t even kissed me yet, and she didn’t look – now that I think of it – that she wanted to, either.
“Tell me, Artem,” she began.
“Tell you what?”
“That…” she said, motioning to my leg. “What’s in your pocket?”
“Yes,” she said. “Your pocket.”
I put my hand on it and felt the bump of paper. She did this, too, running her hand across the ridge, tracing the rectangle until she was sure.
“The note. You don’t want me to see it?” she asked, as we shuffled up the stairs, her hand still on my leg every once in a while.
“Ah, fuck, I don’t care anymore,” I mumbled, still making my way up.
“If you didn’t care,” she reasoned plainly, “you would have passed the note to me, and not to Mauricio.”
I waited for something. But, nothing happened, and not even the air seemed to flow from the open windows all around us.
“Can I see it?”
“No. Let me see it…”
But, I didn’t budge.
“Please,” she said, after a while.
And, as if by automation – engineered long ago, through nooks and tunnels, firing and misfiring through the mind – I went into my pocket, pulled out the slip of paper, unfolded it, and gave it to Mei Li, who took it just as thoughtlessly as I’d relinquished it. I followed her eyes, dilating and constricting to words I could not remember, expressions – it felt – that I did not write. The process must have taken a few seconds at most, but for most of the time thereafter, she just looked at the corner of the paper, then at me. I didn’t really see a reaction. But, even if I could have, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it, anyway.
By some weird assemblage of legs and moving denim, shrinking stairs, and the opening and closing of various doors, we ended up in front of the classroom. The door opened almost by will, and a bright wash of light lapped over my face. I still don’t remember what the teacher looked like, and I don’t even remember giving her Mrs. Ronald’s note. I only remember being shook a little by Mei Li, who told me to get the hell out of the doorway, and back downstairs, as the light – subdued now – clipped around the hall.
Girls – in all their colors and their moods – are a symptom. They do not steal. They do not even take. They give, but the gift is always full of nettles, stipulations. And men, they can’t mind too much, either, or else, at some point, this tangle of gifts and moods would have been selected out. It’s a symptom, but of what, exactly? Mei Li gave me something that day, something I was glad to have – and not just our first kiss, on the walk back – but for all my wondering, all of my rationalization, I couldn’t figure out what that was.
And so, I want to return to that word – “forever.” It has such shape. I’ll give it that much. But what does it mean, really, when it’s applied to people? I mean, we’re not here for very long. The sum of what we are – our struggles, our loves – is even shorter. Yet the word seems to pent up, regardless, from the mouths of children, of adults, of artists, as if things don’t change, at all. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of words, which take reality by the horns, and chisel them down to a mere shell of what things were, prior to their intrusion. Instead, I want the things, now, that can stand alone, impervious to what may clutter all around. Is that too much? Or is the converse, now, a kind of settling?
As I pulled away from your house, I looked at my watch. It was only nine o’clock in the morning. Turning a few corners, I realized that it was the first day of class for the sixth graders by our old school. It only took five minutes for me to get there, but, in that space, I was flooded by the things I’d long disallowed, things that, after a while, I simply started to forget. I saw the church. I saw the kids, too. And yet, they had little to do with me now, and the place – well, it was even less. As a few kids got hustled into the side door, I recognized one of the deans. He smiled at me, although I doubt he knew who I was. As I was about to get back into my car, I saw a little girl, struggling with her backpack, walk on over to my direction. She stopped mid-way to stare at the cathedral – as many do, I’m sure – then crossed the street, to where I was standing. I stepped to the side, so she could pass, but it was like I was a ghost. She didn’t even look up at me, but climbed the stairs, fixed her hair, and closed the door behind her – as late to class, I realized, as we always were. Oh well, I thought. I didn’t wish to intrude, for I knew that, with time, everything, down to the flick of her hair, would repeat itself, anyway. The only difference was that, this time, I would be excluded, that there was a reason that I had to step aside.
As I walked back, my eyes poked around the schoolyard, wondering if, by some odd coincidence, there was a boy, there, looking out at everything that was happening now? I thought back to that grandfather clock, there, in my living room, under which I’d sit, rapt for many hours by the pendulum. I always imagined that I’d hear it go on forever, swinging in my head, too, when the clock itself would finally die. But for whom does it thrush now? Who sits under it, to trace a shape with an eye forever set on what’s invisible to most? And perhaps in that exchange – tiny as it is – is a kernel of the word’s meaning. I was not the first, Mei Li. But, perhaps I’m not the last, either. Today, a boy is at the window, looking out into the world, so that, tomorrow, he can settle into what is left of it, un-agitated by the waves that rock on by. I have known a part of this. As for the rest? I want to say I know it, too.
Oh, I’m buying this, hopefully before that Equifax BS gets my identity stolen.
The last paragraph recalls the ending of A Tree Grown in Brooklyn, what with the recurrence of children starting out their own futures in the way both protagonists began theirs.