My brother fell on the stairs. It’s my leg, he said, it’s doing it again. He slid all the way down, holding his right knee with both hands to stop the convulsions. Then his left leg started shaking. By now he was on his back on the landing. George, he said. George. I hadn’t heard him say my name like that since we were kids. An older brother stood for something then, an older sibling could protect his bro from hurt and bullies. Not from this. Jesus, I said, and Wait—as if there were someone I could call on to truly stop all this. I’ll call 999, I said, we’ll get an ambulance. No, he said. By now his whole body was shaking. Put something between his teeth, I thought. I don’t know where that came from, some Boy’s Life article? This was meant to stop him choking on his tongue. But he was breathing fine, though even his head shook now. I put a pillow under his head so it wouldn’t bang on the floor. I’m calling 999, I told him and ran into the kitchen. My hands were shaking too, it took me three tries to dial. 999, a woman said. We need an ambulance, I said, it’s my brother. All right, darling, the woman said. She had one of those voices with strata in it: a level of humor, a tranche of concern, a stratum of affection. Of course the affection was illusory, but that’s what it felt like. It’s all right, she said again. Tell me what’s wrong, is he breathing? Yeah, he’s breathing, but he’s in convulsions. I’m OK, Louis called from the landing, I don’t need an ambulance. Yes you do, I yelled back. All right, love, the woman said, I’m sending an ambulance now. It’s stopping, Louis said, I don’t need one. We were trying to get home, he’d only just left hospital, he didn’t want to go back in. He says it’s stopping, I told the woman. Maybe he doesn’t need an ambulance. It’s on its way, she said, it’ll be there in three minutes. I realized this landline summoned an address on her screen. It’s stopping, Louis called, I don’t want one OK? He says he doesn’t want one, I told the woman, I’m not sure … I hesitated; can you cancel that? Yes, she said, if you’re sure. But if it starts up again, I continued, can you send one again? I don’t know why I asked that question. Of course 999 could send an ambulance again, that was their job. Maybe I just wanted to stay on the line with someone who knew how to deal with a brother who went into convulsions for reasons that in the deepest sense I could not grasp. But she knew all that; even through the static of London phone lines she’d figured it out. Of course, darling, she said. You can call us anytime. Thank you, I said. I didn’t want her to hang up. In those few moments I’d fallen in love with her—or rather, we’d gone straight to the part of love that is caring, that is help. Thank you, I repeated. Take care of your brother, she said, and I went back to him. He was lying quietly, exhausted but not shaking. I sat down next to him on the floor. I’ll be fine, he said, I’ll be fine. If it happens again, I said, I’m calling 999.
*The British emergency number, the equivalent of 911 in the US
The first girl I decided to kiss was Sophie Eberstadt. I never did because I got stopped dead by the proboscis problem: how do you avoid bumping noses as lip meets lip? The fact that you simply angle your face so as to dock your schnozz beside hers never occurred to me. I was a moron in such matters. Far as I knew my parents never fucked, they never touched each other. And as for sex education—they never even mentioned the stork. I found out about the stork from friends. I saw dogs hump in the park and for years assumed a girl’s sexual parts were in her butt and we all made love like poodles. By the fetid stream in back of my French grandmother’s garden the village bad-hat showed me and my brother how to choke the chicken but we were so young we couldn’t fathom what he was doing. He liked torturing frogs so we figured anything he did was cruel. My real education started when I came upon Fanny Hill in my dad’s bookshelf. It was a revelation: “He sheathed it now up to the hilt … their motions were too rapid for nature to support such fury long.” I spent my teens masturbating to 18th century meter. To this day the pronoun “thee” gets me hard.
A week before high school ended my best female friend Vicky decided it was time. Late one night she summoned me to her duplex on Park Avenue. Her parents were Viennese Jews who had got out before Anschluss, bringing with them the contents of several castles which they mostly sold off. Vicky led me on tiptoe through dim hallways hung with medieval tapestries, past suits of armor, rusty halberds. It was like Scooby Doo, minus ghosts. There was even a chastity belt. It was not on Vicky. Her bedroom was in the penthouse. Vicky led me there and all the lights of New York seemed to shine brighter as she peeled off my clothes. She reached out one hand to touch what Fanny Hill would have called my “red headed champion” and I came immediately, profusely, over a Shiraz. Five minutes later I came inside her. For the next three weeks I went through agonies, certain despite all probabilities that I had got her pregnant. Ten years later Vicky left her husband for a rabbi and died in childbirth. Long before that happened we met again in Paris. In a nightclub I said I wanted to sleep with her again. She refused. I spent the night on the airline terminal floor. “If you hadn’t assumed you could,” she told me later, “I would have let you,” proving—as if I needed proof—that my sex education might be making strides, but I’d learned next to nothing about women.
Titles lie. We know that. They screw a handle onto a city with the idea you can pick it up one-fingered. A story is a city, no, more than that, it’s world not luggage, it won’t fit in the overhead compartment. This one begins here, as all stories start, with silence
and then, a different beat
They stand on the southeast corner of 96th Street, always: the younger dressed in sweat clothes too large for him. He is twenty, thirty, it’s hard to say, the different planes of his face, though all seem to make sense on their own, don’t quite mesh as a whole. They translate into an expression of incredulity, or wonder, if that isn’t the same thing—panic, quite possibly.
The other man’s face coheres. Its lines and folds write a cursive of exhaustion that my curiosity about his companion leads me to read. And in that message, in subtext of tendons, in sag of back, and how he looks away—away from his companion, and somehow away from everything else as well; it’s not shiftiness or fear, but—of course I’m reading my own thoughts into his. Yet I am sure he’s feeling an amazement equal to the other man’s, that this street, this second, should contain him as he is now, explosive with needs that for the first time he knows for sure are as absolute as they are impossible to fulfill. He is older than the first man, his hair, his beard stubble are gray. He wears a battered raincoat, slacks, a shirt too big for him. His eyes are spaniel-brown. The younger man advances toward the curb, then, when he realizes the other is not following, stops, half turns. He does this twice. He plucks at his companion’s sleeve, tries to pull him forward. The fourth time he does this he asks, too loud, We go now, Daddy? He pulls his sleeve. We go now?
The other man, his father, does not move. Everything has gone too haywire for his mind to fathom. It is safer to stand on the corner, away from traffic, and not move at all anymore forever, though his son does not feel the same. All his life he has followed as his dad led him over the curb and safely through teeming traffic to the far side. So that now he keeps plucking, taking a step, and turning back, and on every fourth try saying We go now, Daddy? We go now? …
You wonder what any of this has to do with titles, or the graywater tools of writing. I’ll tell you, then, the title I might give this piece. It comes from a scene I observed when I was twelve, when for the first time I became conscious of the need to understand the behavior of people whose circumstances I could only guess at, whose actions made me sad, whose lives I could do nothing to affect. The title was going to be, How I became a writer–
but titles lie. And finally all that’s left is a boy watching two strangers stand on a street corner, preserved by and isolated in a silence that existed somehow like a bubble amid surrounding cars.