Fathers and teachers, I ponder, “What is hell?” I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.
—Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
When Theo first told you he had the painting, you did not believe him. Crazy talk, this: world-famous painting, Metropolitan Museum of Art, hidden away in bedroom. His eyes were glassy and red: yours, too, probably. But you knew you would remember this in the morning. You always did. Theo, not so much. Blackout bloom behind his eyes. And everything gone.
You did not know anything about art anyway. Painting of a bird—so what? You were more worried that Theo was losing his mind. A little messed up in the head—well, Theo was more than a little messed up in the head, if you were being honest. But, messed up in a different way.
“No,” he said stubbornly, rubbing at his eyes under his glasses with uncoordinated fingers. “No, I have it—it’s just—it’s upstairs, I’m going to—I’m going to show you—”
“If you say so,” you said, and lay back down on the couch.
You had half-fallen asleep when he came down, kicked your dangling leg, jerked you awake. “Fuck, Theo,” you muttered.
“Look,” he said, shoving it in your face.
This is something you will never forget: the first time you saw the painting. The Goldfinch. Theo’s painting. No matter where the painting went, where it goes, through whose hands it passed or on what walls it hangs, it will always be Theo’s painting. Bad lighting in the living room of that big house in Las Vegas—new, flimsy, would fall down in a storm probably—and still: you could tell. World-famous painting. Masterpiece. The bird looked like it was about to fly off the canvas and onto your shoulder. But no—just paint. And anyway, chained there, by the foot.
“What the fuck,” you said.
“I told you,” he said, collapsing gracelessly on the floor next to you, still holding the painting carefully aloft. “I told you.”
“Yes,” you said, staring at it. Probably you knew then you would not forget it. You haven’t.
Other things you have not forgotten: the first time you gave the painting away. And the last time. And all the other times between.
After you stole the painting—stole the painting from Theo, to whom it belonged, because you wanted it, because the painting was Theo himself, somehow—you brought it home and taped it (all wrapped up, careful, careful) to the ceiling of your closet. Best place for it, you thought. Where else, that your father would never look? Important things to consider. No joke—you thought: he finds that, it is gone. Never coming back.
Not around much, your father. Good. Good riddance. Empty house without him. No furniture even. After you stopped living at Theo’s (or, close enough), like a ghost house. Grimy white floors, walls. You alone in those big rooms. Crunching on potato chips, Raisinettes (“Those are disgusting,” Theo said, appalled). Sleeping, mainly.
Once you brought Kotku with you. “Like old deserted ghost town, I am telling you,” you told her, as you walked from the bus through the shitty new development, dust-covered walls. All the way out to yours. Ends of the earth.
“Spooky,” she said, peering around after night fell.
When you woke up your father was in the kitchen, reading the newspaper. Two strange things: Father: never home. Father: never read paper. You shooed Kotku out the back, quick like rabbits, before going back out to face him.
“Girlfriend,” he said, not looking up from the paper. Cup of coffee steaming next to him.
“Yes,” you said, and then added, “well, it is complicated.”
“Good for boys your age, have girlfriends,” he said. He turned the page. “Your friend, he has girlfriend, too?”
You didn’t say anything, frozen—lie or tell the truth? He looked up at you. Automatic fear response. This is what they say in biology class. Automatic fear response.
Something else from class: important, with some bears, to shout, charge them. With others, stay perfectly still. But which is which? How to remember? How to tell?
He looked back down at the paper.
“Thing to remember,” he said, “is these girls—in and out.” He made a dismissive noise. “In and out. Do not last. Between us?” His eyes bored into you. “No secrets. No lies.”
“Okay,” you said, heart pounding, and quailed when he turned to look at you again.
“Hmm,” he said, noncommittal, before turning back to his paper, leaving you to escape the room, where you closed yourself in the closet for a moment or two, breathing heavy, and finally looked up to see that it was still taped there, untouched.
He was not a bad man, your father, just a drunk. A full-time alcoholic with two fists. Two hands for holding things. You are an alcoholic, yes, but it is not the same. Not like that. You are not blackout, not like him. Not like Theo.
One time when Theo was drunk, drunk so you knew he would not remember, he showed you a picture of his mother—very beautiful, Theo’s mother, a real classy lady, as people would say. “I wish I had more pictures of her,” he said. “I don’t have—doesn’t it seem like people used to take pictures more? And then you’d—you’d—have them printed out and you could—hang them up and—everything—”
“Sure, Potter,” you’d said, patting him on the shoulder, and the two of you had sunk back against the couch, him clutching at his phone, staring at it, until he passed out, curled up against you, breathing with his mouth open against your shoulder, and you pulled the phone out of his hands and looked at the picture. A couple of years old, you thought. The two of them standing in front of some New York something you did not know—someday, you thought hazily, you would go to New York, with Theo, and make him show you everything—yes! And you would eat all the food you wanted, real Polack food and Ukranian food and Russian food, like you could hardly remember—and everything else. Pizza! New York pizza. Mexican.
And Theo could take you to all of the fancy rich person things he liked to do and you would pretend to be interested—oh, yes Theo, yes, fancy paintings, culture, yes okay, where are the girls, who is going to get us the vodka here, though, Theo—and if you were old enough you would go out to a club and get high and drunk and take girls back—somewhere. Or no girls, maybe. You would do everything. Theo moved against you, frowning in his sleep, and you made little clucking noises.
(“You always do that,” he said to you once, slurring, just before he fell asleep for real, when he was tossing and turning in bed. “Did your mom do that?”
“Don’t remember,” you told him. “Go to sleep, Fedya.”
“Don’t call me that,” he mumbled.
“You do not like it, so this is why I am doing it,” you said around a yawn. “You are making this problem for yourself.” But he was asleep.)
Back then you wanted to meet her. Theo’s mother. Just once. You thought that maybe this was the key—the thing that would make Theo understandable. That would make you able to understand him. You even dreamed it once—that she came and told you all of the answers. Told you everything you needed to know. But you woke up and it was all gone.
Now you think maybe if she rose up from the dead she would tell you nothing. Not about herself, not about Theo. You would still want to meet her, though. Theo has her inside of himself. Of course you would want to know.
It is cold in Amsterdam, in December: colder than last year. There is ice in the canals, at the edges, that chips off, melting, and slides away. It might even snow, you think. You were here a few years ago when it snowed like a motherfucker. Nobody could get out so you all just got high and fucked some girls and that was Christmas. Small lights in the windows of houses when you went outside in the middle of the night, head so fucked up you forgot your jacket, stomping through the snow, breath clouding in front of you. Moonlight on the canals. Come back inside, you stupid fuck, somebody yelled after you, and you realized you were shivering.
Stupid, to come back here again: stupid to be in this country at all, if you are being honest. Smart thing would be to fuck off to South America forever probably. Not like this is impossible: there is a lot of money in that bank account of yours. Buenos Aires would not be so bad, but you do not want to go to Buenos Aires. You want to stay in these cold northern countries. Fucking Belgium and Germany, Denmark and Sweden. Poland if you want to get homesick. How this is possible—to only be homesick when you go to what you guess is your home, if you are being technical—you don’t know, but it is what happens.
So Poland, not so much, but you like to be a train ride away, just in case. And you like your little shithole in Antwerp, your apartment in Munich. What about your wife? Theo and nobody else would ask, if you said you were going to fuck off to South America forever. A tragedy, you would say, leaving the babies, but what can be done? They will be getting the money, of course. Very good mother, that is the important thing.
Sometimes in the streets along the canals you catch sight of men who look like your father, good old papa, back from the dead—bam—for just a second. Two seconds. Like that. Like a flash. Crazy. Hunched skinny motherfucker. Dirty suit maybe. Everybody is high in this city, all the time. Well, the parts you know anyway. There must be women with babies somewhere.
They only look like him for a second, and then—nothing. How could it have been him? Even if he weren’t dead. But this is still something your brain does. Can’t stop it. Not only in Amsterdam but more here for some reason. Most of all in Poland. You think maybe if Theo were here you would ask him: This thing, it happens to you? You see your mother out there sometimes? Like, a ghost? Or something else. Different. Yes? Or maybe even your good old dad. Do you have this? But Theo is gone again. And who else would you say it to? No point really. Waste of time.
Subject: christmas bitches
What r u doing for Christmas this yr? Come hang with me again I have nothing going on but big as fuck bottle of vodka with as you people are saying, your name on it
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: christmas bitches
I’m going to be in New York with Hobie, where we will NOT BE GETTING DRUNK ON VODKA. I think I’m going to avoid the Netherlands for a while or maybe the rest of my life, thanks. Maybe if you ever come to New York we can go out for dinner, or something. I’ve been pretty busy what with everything.
PS What the fuck is a Christmas bitch?
Subject: Re: re: christmas bitches
This is how u talk to brother of heart, greatest friend who shall we say saved your ass just 1 year ago this month? Dinner u say I am insulted
Where is your redhead going to be then? Will u b all sitting at table together not looking at each other? Or has she forgiven u for confession of love? Sounds awkward. Come to Europe instead and I will get u so drunk u will forget sadness at redhead and other personal failures
PS why do u ask such stupid questions potter
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: re: re: christmas bitches
Pippa’s spending Christmas in London. They’ll be here at New Year’s.
I don’t know, Boris, you tell me.
Subject: Re: re: re: re: christmas bitches
So come for new years then, better anyway, more open. How do you argue with this? What else is your plan? Mope and avoid? And I will be sad and drunk alone and will make u feel guilty bc you were too boring to keep me company
Answer is you have no sense of humor anymore that is why
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: christmas bitches
What the fcuk would we even do in Amsterdam anwya
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: re: christmas bitches
Potter r u DRUNK
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: re: re: christmas bitches
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: christmas bitches
Is settled, is too sad to go on like this, u r coming and I will show u a good time here potter don’t u worry
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: christmas bitches
I don’t think you know what show you a good time means
If we get arrested by the dutch police I’m blaming everything on you
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: christmas bitches
I am not professional art forger so plan needs some work maybe but do not worry about getting arrested potter just worry about getting out of your shitty country and making me very happy for a while
Sent from my iPhone
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: re: christmas bitches
Oh duck off
Sent from my iPhone
You think, sometimes, about what is inside people. Well blood and guts, of course. Eighteen years old, your arm in a cast for six months. No money to pay those bills. Doctors all the time whispering, this and that, this and that. One of them helped you skip out. How did it happen? he asked, and you shrugged. Tripped, fell down. You tripped. You were tripping, if you want to be exact about it. Broke your arm right in two. Snap. Blood everywhere. Pain like a motherfucker.
Theo likes to try to figure everything out—this is his problem. Right thing, wrong thing, good thing, bad thing—you just like to know things. As much as you can. Not things like Theo knows—not things from books—just about people. Life. Bullshit, Miriam would say. Miriam takes seriously nothing but money. This, you respect. Miriam is no-bullshit, herself. You take money seriously also. But money just makes your hands dirty. Somebody said that to you once. Who was it? Whoever it was, he is gone now. Just the words left.
Theo was small when you first met him. Mess of hair, glasses too large for his face. And somebody had ripped out the inside of him and put something else there. You knew this even though you were just fifteen. You could tell. Theo, scrambling toward the closest thing that would let him die—the road, the roof, a lighter, a match—the mad awful look in his eye when he did—fourteen, fifteen years old. Bleary eyes from vodka and weed. Cigarettes. Everything else. You of course were the only one to calm him down. He wanted to set the house on fire but that was only because the inside of him was burning already, you think—you thought. You could tell. You used to drag him back into the living room and settle his head on your lap, glasses off, and comb your hand through his thick hair like he was some kind of fucking girl or something, while he fucking—shivered. It is cold at night, in the desert.
“I just want to—to die,” he would say, teeth chattering in the desert night, breeze coming in through the doors open out onto the pool. “Why won’t they let me? Why can’t I just—just—”
“Don’t talk nonsense, lapochka,” you told him, scratching at his skull, looking out into the night. “You die, I am where, then? Here in this bullshit town doing what? Probably I have to then be like, hmm, that Romeo and Juliet shit, you are seeing what am saying? Follow you right into the grave. No good for anybody.”
“I don’t want to be Juliet,” Theo mumbled.
“Well good then,” you said. “Do not go killing yourself and we will be all set. Or pretending to kill yourself, yes?”
He said nothing.
“Disrespectful to your mother, this killing yourself bullshit,” you said. “You think she is looking down at you now thinking, oh yes I am very proud of my good boy Theo, who will have long happy life dying by his own hand at fifteen? No.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in god,” he said, eyes half-closed, shivering.
“This is a metaphor,” you said, “shush,” and the corners of his lips turned up before falling again.
“Don’t think she’d be very proud of anything I’m doing right now,” he mumbled.
“Delinquent friend, no good,” you said sagely, and he turned to blink at you, and struggled to try to sit up. You pushed him back down and he went.
“No,” he said. “That’s not what I—what I—”
“But this is true,” you said with a shrug, rubbing at your eye with your free hand. You were drunk too, of course. Both of you were always drunk. “I would not be upset by this. I am, how do you say, bad influence.”
“Stop it,” he mumbled, shifting closer to you, face tucking in against your concave belly. “Just—stop it.”
“Okay,” you said agreeably. He let out a rush of warm breath, and you pulled your hand through his big soft curls, which fell away from your fingers. “Sure thing, kiddo,” you added, in your best American accent, and he let out a whuffling laugh into your stomach.
I don’t need you to pick me up, Boris, I already told you
The train from the airport is good, why bother driving all the way out here
Do not be stupid potter
Of course I will come pick u up
No more arguing
You can’t just say that when you’ve WON THE ARGUMENT
No more texting, getting in the car now
See u soon ;)
Boris I’m not even on the plane yet
It’s going to take me like seven hours to get there
Theo looks tired when he comes out of customs at Schiphol. Big purple circles under his eyes behind those glasses, hair a mess, clothes very fancy just like last time. You are thinking now of Theo in school, scowling at kids who teased him for his button-downs and sweaters. Of course he was not always like that. Not ideal clothes for delinquency. Does he even own a sweatshirt now, you wonder? Something to find out.
You smile, big, and open your arms. “Potter!” you crow, and he blinks blearily at you, doing the thing he does when he is not smiling even though he wants to smile. Very obvious. You clap one arm around his shoulders in spite of this. “Very good to see you,” you tell him, shaking him a little, until his lips twitch up a little at the corners, and then let him go to grab his suitcase. “Now come, come! Let us go, you are tired, drive of just a couple hours back home.”
He takes off his coat before he gets in the car, tossing it in the back, and then leans against the window, head resting against the glass. You open and close your fists on the steering wheel, glancing over at him as you drive away from Amsterdam and toward Antwerp.
“Good flight?” you ask.
“Woman next to me snored the whole time,” he says.
The sun is still low in the sky, frost crisp on everything. The sky is clear—this will be a good day. Theo will sleep through it.
“And how is your old friend?” you say. “You have celebrated, yes? Had all your festivities?”
He shrugs. “It was fine.”
“You are acting like we are on our way to—ah, what is the word,” you say, slapping your palm against the steering wheel in frustration. “A wake? Is this what you say?”
He glances over at you, the shadow of a smile on his face. “Yes,” he says. “That’s it.”
“Well,” he says, “Popper did die last month.”
You turn to stare at him, completely take your eyes off the fucking road, and say, “No! No! And you do not email me? You do not text? No word? Theo!”
He turns away again, resting his head on his fist. “I wasn’t home, either,” he says. “Hobie had to call to tell me.”
“Shit, Potter,” you say. “He was pretty old, I guess.”
“Yeah,” Theo says. “He was.”
“But there is something else, yes?” you say, glancing over at him.
He clears his throat. “I overlapped with Pippa for a day. She wasn’t—neither of us was expecting it.”
You whistle, low. “Bad luck, my friend.”
“No shit,” he mutters. “It was—” He makes a face. “Unpleasant.”
“Sorry, kiddo,” you say, and he glares at you, so you grin.
“This, no problem,” you say. “Antwerp, lots of girls. Not going to make you broke, either.”
“Not interested, Boris,” he says, sounding tired.
“Well, that is fine also,” you say. “Your trip, yes? Whatever you want.”
He sighs, leaning his head back against the headrest, eyes closed. “Right,” he says. “Right.”
He shuffles out of the guest bedroom in the evening, hair pushed all the way up on one side of his head, glasses slightly askew.
“Sleeping Beauty,” you say, raising an eyebrow.
“Fuck you,” he croaks. “Fuck, I need a drink.”
“For you, anything,” you say cheerfully, getting up from the couch and practically hopping over to the kitchen. “Beer? Vodka? Whisky, if you are a rich New York man now?”
“Just get me a glass of fucking water,” he says, pulling off his glasses and rubbing at his eyes, leaning against the counter. He peers through them and rubs them off with the bottom of his t-shirt, and when he puts them back on they are just as smudged as before.
“Thanks,” he croaks when you present him with the glass of water, and drinks it in one go, whole thing, no stopping.
“Christ,” he says. “I feel like shit.”
“This is how you look, also, I have to tell you,” you say, looking at him appraisingly.
“Thanks,” he mumbles. “I’m just—this hasn’t been a very fucking good month for me, you know?”
“Well we will make it better, yes?” you say. “Yes. Let us get some food into you.”
“You sound like a mom,” he says, so you ruffle his hair, and he makes a whining sound, like he is still some fourteen-year-old kid.
“Okay, sweetie,” you say, and he gags.
Later that night, when you are both drunk (Theo: “I don’t really drink anymore”; Theo: “Oh, come on, just one more shot, Boris”) and lying on your couch, giggling about some shit or another thing, who knows what at this point, you do not, it is all a mess in your brain right now anyway, he turns to you and says, “Do you have”—hiccup—“friends?”
“What kind,” you say, pulling yourself up from where you have half fallen off the fucking couch, “of bullshit question is that? When you are sitting here with me and we are—we are—”
“I know—I know—” he says, and then starts to laugh again, for no reason at all that you can tell. Or him either, you don’t think. “Sorry, I’m—giddy, or something. I mean—friends you like—see. Right? Like, all the time. Or—I don’t know—”
“How can you say that,” you say, “when you have met Gyuri, and, and—”
“But—people you don’t work with. Like—you know. Friends.” His eyes are red. Glassy. You remember this. You reach out and flick his glasses, right over the bridge of his nose, and he reels back, squawking, clutching at his face.
“I don’t know what kind of bullshit question this is so I am trying to snap you out of whatever place your brain is going to now.”
“I don’t have—friends,” Theo says. His head has tipped over onto the couch cushion. “I think—I think I had—two friends. Ever. Andy, and you. And that was before I was fifteen. Sixteen? I can’t remember. Fucked up. That’s—fucked up.” He yawns. “Fuck.”
“If I am telling you the truth I do not really either,” you say a moment later, watching him. He shifts around against the cushions, looking up at you.
“Do you ever see your wife?” he asks.
“I knew you were going to ask this,” you tell him, “I knew you were going to say, sometime, ‘But what about your wife, Boris? What about your three perfect babies?’ Well the answer is that yes I see her on some occasions but the truth is that for the most part we do not have very many things to say to each other. Babies, pfft. Do babies need drunk criminal father? I do not think so. Good mother instead, solves all problems.”
Theo just looks at you for a long time—too long, very unnerving. “That’s kind of sad,” he says.
“But true, yes?” you say, propping yourself up by the elbow.
“I guess,” he says. “Maybe.”
“Look at you, Potter,” you say. “Was time once when you would say, ‘No use for my father at all. Get rid of him!’ Change of tune for you, I see.”
“You’re not like my father,” he says, frowning.
“Well, no, not like mine neither,” you say. “Drunk, yes, but do I beat people? Women, children? No. But still, this is all true.”
“Okay,” he says, eyes fuzzy. “Okay.”
“Good thing you did not marry that ice princess,” you say around a yawn. “For sure children with that one, and that—no good. Bad mother, her. And the two of you together? Pffffft, disaster.”
“Thanks,” he mumbles, eyes half-closed.
“No insult,” you say. “But, true.”
“Yeah,” he says, yawning himself. “Kitsey and I would have made fucking terrible parents.” He shifts, moving closer to you. “Gonna fall asleep now,” he mumbles, practically impossible to understand.
“Go ahead,” you say, and he sags into you, breath hot against your collarbone. More hard angles to him, now, as an adult: knees and elbows, a shoulder. You hum, pushing yourself back into the couch cushions, and wiggle to get more comfortable, Theo curled against you. Just like it is all that time ago again. You pull a blanket from the other end of the couch with your free arm and put it over both of you the best you can, to ward off the Northern European cold, and then you, too, are fast asleep.
Theo, crying in his sleep with the fan going overhead in that high-ceilinged desert house, twitching under the sheets that needed to be washed, sounding like a little kid. You holding him down, face turned against his shoulder, waiting for him to calm down. No point in waking him up, you’d found out. And then, when he finally stopped, curling up closer to you, shivering, even if it was hot. Even if it was so hot it was unbearable.
You still dream about this sometimes. Wake up disoriented to find yourself in bed alone. Like a ghost haunting you in the night. An endless visitation. Maybe he really is there somehow. Or, maybe, dreaming the same thing.
When you wake up in the morning Theo is throwing up in the bathroom.
“Good morning!” you shout.
“I am so fucking hung over,” he says. “Jesus. Fuck. Why did I do that, I’m not fucking—fifteen anymore.”
“No, very old and wise now, it is true,” you say handing him a glass of water and two aspirin. “No bad decisions anymore. Model for children.”
He glowers balefully at you before taking the pills, wincing as they go down. “How come you aren’t sick? You drank more than I did.”
“No,” you tell him. “I did not. Besides, remember: I am alcoholic, yes? High tolerance.”
“Well, congratulations,” he mutters, looking into his glass.
“Did you black out?” you ask, straight-up. He starts.
“I—no,” he says, offended. You shrug.
“What was the last thing we talked about?”
“Having children,” he says, awkward.
“Well, good, then,” you say, tapping your temple. “All there.”
“Yeah,” he mutters. “Great.”
He does not want to do anything but sulk the whole day, which you do not think is very guest-like, but what do you know. Always has been moody, Theo, always will be. He is having woman problems. The worst kind of problem, and very tedious to deal with, also.
“Are you reading this?” he says in the middle of the afternoon, when he seems almost himself again, holding up The Brothers Karamazov.
“Yes, yes,” you say. “Project for myself this year. Almost finished.”
He flips through it. “Is it as good as the other one?”
“Difficult to say,” you tell him. “About different things, maybe.”
“Like what?” he asks.
You shrug. “Bad father, three sons. Father dies—is murdered. Very philosophical of course. Religion, god, guilt, innocence. Russian novels, you know.”
“I don’t remember the last time I read a book,” he says, putting it back down amongst the mess on the coffee table. “I don’t know what I fucking—do. With my time.”
You look at him, standing there in his rumpled pajamas, reaching up to dig one hand deep into his hair. What does Theo have inside of him? Do you stop burning up, you think, inside of yourself, after some predetermined period of time—does it ever stop? Is everything done burning, sometime? Or does it just keep going, and going, and going?
“Come on,” you say. “We are going out. No, no, not out like that, stop looking at me like this. Out of this apartment. You smell, I smell, it is no good. Food is better outside anyway.”
“Fine,” he says, “but I’m showering first.”
“Please,” you say, waving your arm dramatically toward the bathroom. “My home, it is your home.”
“And what a home it is,” he mutters, kicking at an empty takeaway container on the ground as he goes.
“Ungrateful!” you shout after him, and tidy up, sort of, while he runs the shower.
It is cold outside, your wet hair freezing in place, Theo hunching his shoulders and tucking his chin into his scarf. But there is still some light left in the day, though not much: clear northern light streaming through the stone streets and against the old houses, the clock towers, the Marian sculptures on the corners of buildings. There is Christmas gilding everywhere, still: lights hanging from buildings and pine boughs over doors. What would it be like, you find yourself thinking, to be a normal person? To live here and speak Dutch and work in an office? Little Borises reaching their hands up to you, smiling smiles with crooked teeth, a cat curled on the back of the couch—and a wife—but you can’t imagine her. Not your wife, in this dream. Not your children. What do their faces look like? Who knows.
Some woman to sleep next to, some children to take skating, some cat to scratch on the belly. A whole life in this city. Forever, probably. Nobody with that life has lived all the places you have lived. Has put bullets in people, probably. Or turned over The Goldfinch and looked at the verso.
“A little different from Vegas, yes?” you say to Theo, and he smiles a little. “Not so much, though—you will see.”
You sit him down at the edge of the Grote Markt and go off to find mulled wine in the Christmas stalls—tacky, bright, everything you like. Theo will hate this probably, Theo with all of his fine culture. I wish you’d stop talking about that: Theo at fifteen. I’m not—it’s not like that. It is though, you said. No, no, not that this is everything, but I am telling you—what is this nonsense about art! Please, look at what you are saying now.
He is looking up at the nearly blinding Christmas tree when you come back and push the mug into his hand.
“Souvenir mug, huh,” he says, raising his eyebrows as he looks down at it.
“Only the best from me, Potter,” you tell him haughtily, taking a sip yourself, warming your hands on the clay. “I am a good date, yes?”
“The best,” he says drily.
“Good,” you say approvingly. “Here we are, the most tourist shit in the city. More bright lights than everything else combined I bet.”
“It seems kind of—blasphemous,” he says, and you scoff.
“You should see Bruges, I promise you, it is ten times worse,” you assure him.
“I saw that movie once,” he says.
“Yes!” you exclaim. “This film, I love. Excellent movie. But Christmas in Bruges, not so much like that. They made that film in February, I think. Well, this is my guess, anyway. It is not like that in December, I am telling you.”
“I’ve heard there are lots of houses unoccupied,” he says, sipping carefully at his drink, “in Bruges. But they can’t do anything to them, so they just—nobody lives there.”
“Yes, this is so,” you say. “It is a strange place. Maybe strange in the exact opposite direction of how Vegas is strange, if you understand what I am saying? All very old, cannot touch it, no way. Vegas—all new, stuck down for no reason, we can do it so fuck all you people, that is that.”
“Yep,” Theo says. “I know what you’re saying.”
“That is a good film,” you say. “Purgatory. Very, how do you say—topical? Pertinent. No—ah! Yes. Germane.”
Theo looks at you and smiles. “Yeah, that’s right.”
“A good word,” you say, with satisfaction. “You like that movie, too, I am betting. Yes?”
“Yes,” he says, glance sidelong.
“Germane,” you say again, raising your mug to toast him, and then take another sip. He lets out a lifeless little huff of laughter, and you sit there together watching the lights for a while, noses red from the cold, and all the normal people, in their hats and coats, in the pooling electric light.
Your stomach is warm when you get back to your apartment, kicking your shoes off at the door and dumping your coat over a chair. “I have something,” you mumble, “something—good—ah! Yes. Here.” You pass him the bottle of bourbon and open a cabinet to take out glasses. “Good stuff, somebody gave it to me for—something, no clue. Nicer than vodka. Come on, come on,” you say, putting the glasses down on the counter in front of him.
“Or, or,” he is saying some time later, face flushed, eyes a little too bright, laughing, passing the joint back to you, “the time you—you told—fuck, what was her name—the English teacher—you hadn’t done the homework because you didn’t believe in homework—philosophically? Something to do with Thoreau—”
“I don’t remember that,” you say, letting out a sputtering laugh, “I remember your bullshit excuses when you hadn’t done your homework—”
“Well they were better than yours—”
“More creative, Potter,” you say, leaning close, to tap your fingers against his head, hard enough that he makes a little yelping sound and tries to pull away. “More—innovative—than your—subpar—shit—”
“If you had put half the time you put into those excuses into your actual work—”
“Preparing myself,” you huff, taking a hit off the joint and passing it back to him. “Real world problems. Thoreau, pfft. American Government, my god—”
He collapses against the back of the couch again, laughing. “I bet you still don’t know jack shit about how the American government works.”
“I know many things about American criminal law,” you say, offended, as he exhales. “Otherwise, no.”
He smiles up at you like he has not since arriving: like he has since he was fourteen, drunk, stoned, fraying from the inside. Soon it will be back to normal, you know. Only like this when he has this much liquor in his veins. Theo. Great friend of your childhood. Blood of your heart. Love in his eyes.
“You will be straight soon, yes?” you say, and he blinks up at you, hazy. “With your furniture? And you will do what then?”
“What I was before,” he says, adjusting his feet. You take the joint from him, take one more hit, and then put it out in the ashtray on the coffee table.
“That was what, huh?” you say as you settle back onto the couch. “You were selling that stuff without faking it for how long?”
He shifts uncomfortably.
“Yes, precisely,” you say. “You are crook like me. I like that word, crook. Crooked. Right sense of it.”
“Fuck off, Boris,” he says.
“You have some girl you want to impress maybe?” you ask, although you know the answer, and he just jerks his head away, to look at the wall.
“Nothing wrong with being a crook,” you say philosophically, kicking his foot with yours. “Worse things.”
“Do you remember,” he starts, and then pauses. “You said—you only wanted to steal from—big companies, not real people. Right?”
“And you wanted to steal from everybody,” you say, raising your eyebrows, itching for a smoke. Just one fucking smoke. “Look how that turned out.”
“I just want to make myself—better,” he says, rubbing at his eyes under his glasses like a kid.
“No point worrying about that,” you tell him pragmatically. “Is impossible. Means nothing anyway.”
“I know—” he starts, violently, and then stops. “I know you think that,” he says, more neutrally. “I still—I—”
“I know, I know,” you say, slipping an arm around his shoulders and pulling him close to you, chin on his mess of hair. He slumps against you. “I know, golubushka.”
“I hate it when you call me names,” he mumbles, but his spine is loose, his breathing slower.
“Dirty liar,” you say.
“Fuck you,” he mumbles, glasses cutting into your neck for a moment before he pulls himself back a little.
“I know it’s—stupid,” he says hazily, “but I—I miss that fucking painting sometimes. And I didn’t even have it for that long. You had it for—way longer. But I—I thought I did. It didn’t even—matter that I didn’t go look at it. I thought it was there. And I miss—the—having. Having it.” He closes his eyes, brows drawing close together. “I’m not making any sense.”
“You are making sense,” you tell him.
“I miss my mom,” he says in a small voice, and you reach out a hand to card your fingers through his hair, and pull him close again.
“You don’t really remember your mom, do you,” he says.
“No,” you say against his forehead. “Just—you know. Small things. So small I maybe made them up.”
“Maybe that would be better,” he says dully.
“No,” you say, “not better,” and he curls his hand in the front of your shirt.
You pull yourself up not long after, drag him after you, force him to drink a tall glass of water—“I don’t want to”—and then stumble toward your room.
You are in before you realize he is there behind you, yawning, looking—you swear, Jesus Mary Joseph, everything you never prayed to, never believed in—younger than you ever knew him. “What city are you in,” you ask him, because it is a little bit funny, you cannot lie, and he blinks, unfocused, and then looks at you, and scowls, and says, “Antwerp,” and you fall back down on the bed, laughing. And soon enough you are lying there together, like it is back then again, like you are fifteen, his bony spine pressed against you, limbs tangled together.
“Boris,” he mumbles.
“Theo,” you reply, yawning.
“I,” he says, and then he falls asleep.
It is hard to remember, now: the first time. Stupid kids. You were drunk—this, you know, for sure, even if it is hazy now. Theo said something stupid—like he always did, that stupid little shit. And so you grabbed him and you were—who knows, impossible to say. Anyhow it ended with you sitting on him practically and him laughing and trying to grab you and you laughing and telling him you’d get off if he surrendered and then you both laughing because you hadn’t known what “get off” meant until not so long before that and kept forgetting still, and then it was even funnier because you could feel Theo’s dick under you and maybe he actually was going to get off—this seemed hilarious—and then you realized you might, too. And he was laughing too hard because you were fifteen and drunk and high as shit and fucking stupid and didn’t even get out of your clothes.
It never counted, really. Doesn’t matter that Theo is still the only person on the earth, probably, you would cut open your chest for: here is my heart. You have it. You ached for girls—not just with your dick but with some empty part of you. Watched them at school—not just tits and asses but their pretty faces, the way they paid attention to the teachers, the way they talked to each other. That was what you wanted. Theo, though—Theo barely talked to anybody else, didn’t give a fuck, hated Kotku when you finally started to date her. Just sat around that fucking house with his dad and Xandra thinking about his dead mom and his painting which was not even his anymore really because it was yours by then, probably. When did you take it? You can’t exactly remember, anymore.
Used to happen, though. Did happen, you know that. You feel bad about this sometimes. Poor Theo, inches shorter than you then, curled against you, translucent eyelids closed in sleep, eyeballs twitching beneath them, knees tucked in front of him like a little kid. Things he did remember sometimes—you laughing and pinning him to the ground or him managing to topple you over, victory flush on his cheeks—and then others he didn’t—worse, those times, and you could tell, always, which was which, even before he did: weird light in his eyes, unnatural, the way he pushed himself against you that was not the same as the way he did normally. When you are fifteen and you want to get off it is no big thing to get off with whoever, it is nothing—Theo when he did not remember, though—it was not like that. It was like there was a reason.
And then he would pass out and get up a couple hours later to be sick. And you wondered why. The liquor only? Or something else. Both maybe. Probably. Probably both.
Theo’s father liked you mostly because Theo liked you, and he wanted Theo to like him. He was a funny guy, Mr. Decker—very witty, big voice, big laugh—not evil like Theo thought. But not such a great person either. Mainly to get Theo’s attention, when you were all three together, he ignored him. You did not understand this. “I promise you, he talks about you very much,” you used to tell Theo, who just scoffed. But it was true.
You were in the living room of Theo’s house one evening when Mr. Decker came home unexpectedly, weaving a little. Unsteady. Even smelled like liquor. Put the keys down on the counter too hard.
“Boys,” he grunted. Belched.
“Hi, Dad,” Theo said cautiously, looking away from the movie. Your beer bottles were stuck under the couch, from the sound of the door opening. “Did you drive home?”
“Of course I did,” his father snapped. Well, slurred. Walked over to you, collapsed into an armchair on the other side of the room. “Don’t you two have—homework?”
“It’s Friday,” Theo said.
“Oh, stop the fucking movie,” his father said, waving his hand at the TV, and Theo reached for the remote, paused it. Mr. Decker blinked blearily at the two of you.
“I had a friend when I was in high school,” he said, eyes glassy. “We acted together. Once we—graduated. Great guy. Great—great man. George Lewis. My best friend.”
Neither of you said anything.
Mr. Decker belched again. “Died when we were twenty-four,” he said, rubbing at one of his eyes. “Tragedy. We said—a real tragedy.
“I wanted to name you after him,” he said to Theo. “But your fucking—mother—wouldn’t let me. You had to be—Theodore—instead. Don’t know what was wrong with George.
“Lots of queers in acting, you know,” he said. “Lots of fucking—pansies. Not even just fairies, you couldn’t always tell at first glance. Like they were—hiding in plain sight. But George was never like that. Played upfront.” He leaned back in his chair. You and Theo were sitting very stiffly next to each other on the couch. “None of this goddamn—ass-fucking nonsense. We used to go out and pick up girls together. Took ‘em home and screwed ‘em until they were screaming.
“Car ran into him,” he said. “Not that he was, you know”—he gestured toward his head—“all there at the time. Worst fucking thing that ever happened to me.” Theo’s fingers were clenched so tightly together that his knuckles were white.
Mr. Decker let out one last long belch. “I’m glad you boys have what I had,” he said, slurring his words, and then got up, staggering a little, before making his wending way out of the room toward the stairs. Neither of you moved until you could hear him starting to climb, and then Theo sagged backward toward the couch cushions.
“I hope he dies in a car accident,” he said from behind his hands, voice muffled.
“Nyet,” you said into his shoulder. The television was still glowing, figures frozen on its screen, faces twisted in unflattering rigor. Burned onto your retinas even when you closed your eyes.
Theo is still sleeping when you wake up—turned around in the night, knees knocking against yours, arm curled up against his chest, under his chin. Like a kid. The contradiction of Theo: old soul, yes, but also: a kid, still, forever maybe.
His eyes crack open a while later, who knows how long, squinting against the light coming in through the curtains, and he squeezes them closed again.
“I haven’t been hung over in—months, god,” he mumbles, pressing his face against the pillow. “Until—coming to see you.”
“You are full of shit,” you say, yawning. “You emailed me, very drunk. No hangover then, you are telling me?”
“Ah hah,” you say, kicking out at him. “I see.”
“Shut up,” he mumbles.
“This is how he talks to the man who will take care of him all day,” you say. “Very ungrateful.”
He just groans again, so you just push yourself out of bed, yawning, digging a thumb against your temple, and manage to find a couple of clean glasses in the kitchen to fill with water, along with the aspirin.
“Here,” you say, pushing it into his hand. “Come on, sit up—yes, you have to, you have to fucking swallow this—”
“Fuck you,” Theo manages, or at least that is what you think he says, really it is impossible to say. But still, he manages to sit up and get the water down, and the pills, before sliding back down into the bed, and turning to push his face into the pillow again.
“If this is what you want, fine,” you say, and go get your phone and your book.
He falls asleep again, fitfully, twitching and muttering, and wakes up again a couple of hours later, turning a bleary eye to look at you where you are sitting next to him with your book propped against your knees.
“Hnngh,” he says, and you reach down absently to pat his head.
“You see, become alcoholic, like me, this does not happen to you,” you suggest, pragmatically, as he mashes his face into your hip. “Or maybe this is some kind of masochistic thing, who knows, I do not. Much less unpleasant, though.”
“Shut up,” he says, muffled, and you just scratch at his scalp, right at the base of his skull, and he makes a pleased noise and curls up closer to you.
Later that day, when you are both showered and feeling human again, you putter around in the kitchen making coffee while he sits in the armchair in the next room, swiping away at his phone and glowering.
“Bad news?” you ask.
“No,” he mutters, “just—pictures of Hobie and Pippa and—whatever his name is.”
Theo, you know, knows the name of whatever his name is, but you do not say this.
“They are sending you this?” you ask dubiously. “Very rude. Whey you come all the way to Europe to get away from them. And to see me, of course.”
“No,” he says sullenly, “they’re on her—Facebook, Instagram.” He swipes viciously to the right.
“So do not look at Facebook or Instagram,” you say with a shrug. “There you go, problem solved, thank you Boris.”
He just glares at you when you hand him his coffee. “That isn’t helpful.”
“Seems very helpful to me,” you tell him, sitting down on the couch. “Why cause unnecessary pain? No good to anyone. You, especially.”
He tosses his phone down on the coffee table a little too hard.
“It’s not just as easy as—as saying, oh, okay, I won’t look,” he says, disgusted, and makes an angry sound when you raise your eyebrows. So full of angry sounds, is Theo. “You don’t understand, Boris, I love her and she’s just—she’s so far away and I can’t do anything about it—”
“My friend,” you tell him, “I must tell you—I think it is time perhaps to you try to, ah—you know—get over her, as you would say.”
He flushes, annoyed. “It’s not that easy—”
“Well, find somebody else,” you say pragmatically. “Simple, done.”
“I did that once,” he says, “and that turned out so well—”
“Oh, once, then that is all sorted forever,” you scoff. “You have spent how much time with this girl, anyway? I mean—summed up?”
“Oh, just stop it, Boris,” he snaps. “You wouldn’t understand, anyway—”
You sigh, leaning your head back on the couch. “I am just saying, it seems—”
“I don’t care how it seems,” he says, face red now, hands tight around his mug. You think of him, lying outside next to the pool, staring up at the sky, talking about her—redheaded girl in the museum, the last thing he saw. Mother. Mother why did you die and leave me here like this. And Pippa who came back. Theo, you think, is not good at putting his thoughts together when he is awake. Everything is connected and he can see none of it.
“Theo,” you say, and pause. “Are you happy?”
He blanches, stares at you. “What?”
“Are you happy,” you repeat. “Your life, are you happy.”
“I,” he starts. “I’m—”
“Me, I cannot say,” you tell him, tapping at your coffee mug. “Depressed all the time? Wanting to kill myself? Crying myself to sleep? No. Happy? Also, I think no. What is there to do now? After everything that has happened? This I have not yet figured out.
“So, you make your apologies with your furniture,” you say, waving a hand. “This, it makes you happy?”
“I,” he starts again. “It’s—it’s satisfying, it—I know I need to do it. I feel—better, doing it. And I will feel even better—after it’s done.”
“Okay,” you say. “So, this is something. But—no friends—we know, me neither—and no redhead. This, depressing, yes?”
He attempts a glare and doesn’t quite succeed.
“Friends—this is fixable. With your charming personality. Redhead—never. At least this is how it seems to me. Yes?”
He looks down at his coffee.
“Theo?” you prod.
“No,” he says. “No, I don’t think so.”
“So this is, what, many more years of sorrow, anguish, for—why? Very impractical, if you ask me.”
He swallows, and scowls, still not looking at you. “Well it’s easy to just—say that—but it’s not like I can—do it—”
“Not as difficult as you think,” you say, “I am telling you. You, very good-looking, charming”—Theo is not charming—“all your culture, brains—you, find yourself a girl, a boy—”
He twitches violently. “Boris,” he snaps.
“No, I am serious,” you say, turning your mug around in your hands. “I mean, let us be honest. We are both knowing this, yes? Not new information—”
“I’m not—I’m not fucking gay,” Theo says, putting his coffee down. “Jesus fucking Christ, Boris—”
You give him a look. “Perhaps you are forgetting some things,” you say. “Was very obvious, at the time. Of course, for me, too young to understand this fully. What do they say—experimenting, yes, okay. But, there is a difference. Me”—you wave your hand again—“no big deal. But—”
“Oh my fucking god—” he says, rubbing his hands over his face.
“You are—how do you say—fixated,” you say. “Yes? This girl—not really anybody. I mean—women, they are not so different really. Not worth this much in any—”
“I have had lots of sex with women,” Theo bursts out.
“Well, okay, yes,” you say with a shrug. “I cannot say I understand this but Sacha was like this too. What can I say? All sorts of people in this world.”
“Jesus,” he says. “The fucking—hypocritical bullshit—coming out of your mouth—”
“This is the end of the world?” you ask. “What—”
“I’m the fucking gay one,” he snaps. “Right. Right. That’s me. Not you, right? You never—started any of it. You never wanted to sleep in the same bed, even though that was—weird—and never—” He’s flushed bright red again, embarrassed. “Your memory must be pretty fucking faulty, Boris.”
“You are—deflecting,” you say. “Deflecting, yes? Me, I am married, babies, always girlfriends—you, what? I am only wanting the best things for you, Theo—”
He lets out a weird choked off laugh. “Married,” he says. “Right. How often do you see your wife, Boris? You guys have a really meaningful relationship?”
But now he is standing up.
“Just—fuck you, Boris,” he says. “Don’t fucking get up, I’m leaving.”
You sit and watch him grab his phone and coat, stomp the few paces out to the door, and slam it behind him as he leaves, before lurching up, stumbling to the window, and swinging it open.
“Theo!” you yell down to the street, but he just flips you off before turning a corner, and vanishing into the twilight gloom.
“You swear you don’t know where that little dipshit went?” Xandra asked you once, near the beginning of the time you spent there with her, skin sun-cancer brown, eyes glassy like fucking oxy.
“This I have told you already,” you said, shrugging, pushing your hair out of your face. “No clue. Took off.”
She brought her cigarette to her mouth—slow, slow. Or maybe that is just how you remember it. Like something out of a fucking movie. Old seventies shit. Sun in the desert is like sun in the movies—who used to say that to you? Somebody, anyway. Somebody.
“I don’t believe you,” she said. “I don’t believe you for—one—second.”
“I have told you—everything,” you said, spreading your hands out. That—like a movie, too. Too much. Very dramatic.
“No you haven’t,” she said, exhaling. “You aren’t that fucking stupid.”
And you went back and lay down in clean sheets on Theo’s bed (it was night then, somehow; time compressed) and watched the wind blow the curtains, and thought about the painting, which was like Theo’s soul, really, even though he wasn’t the one who’d painted it. And you had it, now. It didn’t belong to you but it was in your hands. So, that was something. You guessed.
Where the fuck r you?
Yr bag is still here
I know u took your passport
Theo did you get on a plane or are you in some alley dead somewhere
Subject: (no subject)
Are you alive? Are you back in New York?
Subject: (no subject)
Theo you don’t have to talk to me but would you answer one fucking email
Subject: if you are deleting these without opening in them stop doing that
ARE YOU DEAD
Antwerp is fucking depressing after New Year’s, when the Christmas market comes down, and everybody goes back to their normal everyday lives but you, because you don’t have one. Theo’s roller board suitcase is still standing against the wall, full of dirty clothes and toothpaste and shit. A ghost.
So anyway you leave because it’s too fucking depressing to be there, drive up to Amsterdam—but this is not better. This just makes you remember other things you would rather forget, just now. The ice has melted in the canals. There are still lights hanging over the streets.
It has been a while, since you have been to Stockholm. It is nighttime by the time the cab pulls up outside the house outside the city, lights streaming out of the windows onto the snow.
You do not have a key, you realize when you get to the door, so you have to knock, and wait for Astrid to come to the door.
She cracks it open tentatively and stares at you blankly for a moment before opening it. “Boris,” she says, and glances behind you. “Is something going on?”
“Thought I would visit,” you say, pushing past her. “This is not allowed?”
“Of course,” she says, glancing out at the street, “we are very happy to see you—Aurélie—Pietr—”
The twins scramble around the end of the hallway, curious. “Papa?” Pietr says.
“Look at the two of you!” you say. “So big! So strong! So pretty! Adults soon practically!”
“Did you bring us preeesents?” Aurélie asks, pulling at her hair and rocking back and forth, smiling with her baby teeth.
“Pfft, who do you think I am,” you say. “Chocolate all the way from Belgium.”
Their little blue eyes go mercenary.
“Where is the other one?” you ask. “Felix?”
“Oh, this way,” she says, leading you down the hall to the kitchen, where the baby is sitting in his high chair, happily pushing his food around. The twins are following, sniffing for their chocolate practically. “Say hi, Felix.”
Felix looks up. “Hi,” he says.
“Hello,” you say.
“Let me just get him cleaned up,” she murmurs, and whisks him away, leaving you to bribe the other two with their candy.
“Boris, this is a big surprise,” she says, whispering, when she comes back into the room once the two of them have vanished back to their rooms. “No warning at all—what am I to think! For all you know, we are not even here! What is going on?”
“We are married, yes?” you ask, irritated, and she rubs her foot against the back of her calf.
“Yes, yes,” she says. “Yes, but—what is all of this, Boris? Is there something you want, right now? Something you need from me?”
“No,” you tell her. “I am just here for a visit.”
“Well, I am putting the children to bed,” she says, and leaves the room.
She sleeps curled up in a ball, back to you. All sorts of old sad love songs for this, probably, but you don’t know any of them.
Funny how often memories stop making sense after a while: Astrid standing in front of you in that purple tube-top dress, in some club somewhere. The first time you saw her. But you met her in Warsaw on a street corner because that is the story she tells everyone and you know she is not lying. And she does not wear dresses like that. Not anymore anyway. Too classy, Astrid. Not that kind of girl.
You were puking all your fucking guts out in Warsaw around that time, over and over again, blood running through your fucking eyes, hands shaking all the time, no stopping them, money stuffed in one pocket, little baggies of blow in the other.
“More money in Paris,” Astrid said, inspecting one, and you said, “More cops.”
“You sound like an American,” she said.
No more to that one. All gone. How old were you? Nineteen? Skin and bones. “Watch out, you’re gonna kill yourself soon,” a medical student told you once, when you were selling to him, eyes wide, blitzed.
“You too,” you said.
“I don’t remember like, half of the last six years,” Theo said in your apartment last year, after you got the painting back and gave it away again, worrying a joint between his fingers. “I was so—fucked up on pills. You don’t—we used to do all sorts of shit, you know?” He shifted, crossed his ankles where they were resting on the coffee table. “We were pretty fucked up. But this wasn’t—” He swallowed. “It wasn’t the same.
“There are whole—months—that I just can’t—it’s like I can sort of see them, but if I try to touch them they aren’t—there—fuck, I’m high. You can’t fucking—feel memories.” He rubbed at his face. “But I—I don’t know. I don’t—like it.”
“I don’t remember everything, either,” you told him. “It is all—mixed up. Not in order anymore.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Theo said, “if I was actually—there. Like, if I was really—if I really existed that whole time, or—” He looked down at his hands, spread out in front of him. “I feel like I can just—put my hands through each other sometimes. Through my stomach or something. Like there isn’t anything—there.”
He curled his arms around himself. You took the joint away from him and took a drag yourself before putting it down in the ashtray, and then reached out a slow hand to cover his eyes, fingers pressed against his face. “I can feel you,” you said, and then reached down with your other hand to pull one of his arms out, and gripped his hand with yours. “Seem real enough to me. Unless we are both of imaginary.”
He clutched your hand so hard your bones squeaked together. But he breathed more slowly, and sunk down back into the couch toward you. And when you slowly took your hand away from his face, he kept his eyes closed, even though—you could tell—he was still awake.
“Okay,” he said eventually. “Okay. If you promise.”
“I promise,” you told him.
You did not tell him: yes, yes, I fucking know that, too, did not say that once you tripped acid with a couple other kids the summer after he left, out in the desert because you were idiots, fucking stupid kids, yes, dumb, all of you, and when it bloomed inside of your skull you opened your eyes and were not there anymore—who knows where you were, just gone, could not touch the sand even, and the other kids were all just things you had imagined—somehow this was also true, even though you were not there—and you were lost because Theo was not there. If you could find Theo maybe he would have the thing that would make you a person again. This was what you thought. Eighteen fucking years old.
Gone soon: Warsaw. Home. Ojczyzna. No people there, though, to make it so: just words. And you were still the weird one. A little foreign. Will be forever, most likely. Nowhere is home really: this is why. Not Poland. Not Ukraine. Not America. Not anywhere.
Blonde hair, Astrid. Too pretty for words. Impossible. Classy, no money. In bed, legs bent all the way back, face almost—nothing. “Things have been very difficult for me,” she used to say around a cigarette. Very distinct way of doing this. “You need to get better, be a man for me.” Yes, okay. Okay. Heart beating too fast. Drugs will kill you. This, you know. But you did not want to die. You were not like Theo. You had just woken up somewhere you did not recognize. How to get back? How to get back if the place you were coming from is already gone?
Astrid would die in the desert, probably. Sun would eat her up. But what you did not then realize was that you were all dying in the desert the entire time you were there. It was eating you alive.
You wake up before her, in the morning, and stumble out into the unfamiliar house you bought in her name not very long ago, really, if you think about it. Five-something in the morning. Motherfucker. You are trying to figure out how to make coffee in the ridiculous machine in the kitchen when you hear the baby start to make noise.
Unfair to call him a baby, maybe—toddler? No. Not old enough yet. You reach down to pick him up out of his crib, anyway, and carry him out into the living room. “Do you need me to change your diaper?” you ask once you get there, and he just looks at you, morose, so you sigh, and turn back around.
“You’re too old for these,” you tell him, grumbling. “Aren’t you? Christ. Disgusting. Well, that is done anyway.” He seems calmer, so you carry him back out and set him down on the floor with you, to watch the sun rise.
“I guess you don’t know any Polish,” you say, moving your finger around, watching him watch it move, gripping onto it firmly. “No Ukrainian words neither. No Russian. Just Swedish and English.” His hair is very blond and his eyes are very blue. You tweak his nose a little and he giggles. “Eh, mój skarbie? Probably grow up to be very good citizen. Worst law-breaking, downloading songs illegally online.”
You move your finger again and he keeps watching it, until you stop finally, and he looks up at you, straight in the face.
“Where is Papa?” he asks.
“Right here,” you say, and his little face starts to crease.
“Where is Papa?” he asks again. “Where is Papa?”
“I don’t know, maluszek,” you say, curving your hand around the back of his soft skull. “I don’t know.”
You could not remember who it was, when you were a kid, a baby, who told you the story of the man whose soul was a painting. But you thought this was Theo. His heart, maybe. If something happened to the painting—would something happen to Theo? If it was lost? Destroyed? Theo, almost transparent sometimes. Up in smoke.
You took it from him—his heart, soul, whatever. Something. Because you wanted it. Then it would belong to you. So you were always carrying Theo around with you, the deepest part of him—knew you could not sell it, an impossible thing. This—a convenient excuse, really, to keep it with you. Historic masterpiece of art, in your backpack through all the train stations of Europe.
But in the end—inevitable that you would give it away. That enough time would pass. That Theo would turn even more transparent in your mind. In your memory. And meanwhile The Goldfinch stayed solid—more and more real, maybe, with time. Money in every brushstroke. You could not sell it but you realized that you could loan it. Just for a while.
The first man had a gold band around one of his teeth and too much product in his hair. Badly made suit. You could practically see the grease on his hands. Greed all over his face, looking at it.
“Do not touch it,” you snapped at him, when his hand drifted closer. He looked up at you, unimpressed. “Oil from skin. Very bad for old painting.” The boy you had with you packed it up again. “This is understood? No touching. We will know.” As though you knew what you were doing. As though you had power.
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said, running one hand through his hair. “You get me what I want, no touching your painting.”
“Good,” you said, and had to leave it there with him. Every step like bricks on your foot. Weighing you down.
Money buys a lot of things, and the painting bought money. So you gave it away, just for a while. Again and again and again. And like a bird it flew back to you, over and over again, until one day it didn’t. And then Theo’s heart did not belong to either of you anymore.
Gyuri is living in some apartment building full of Turkish families East Berlin for reasons you do not understand, do not even try to. But he is happy there so, good. Much happier than you have seen him. It was a blessing, that painting, after it was a curse. A blessing for everyone but Theo, maybe. Theo was born under a dark star. This is what Xandra would have said.
Berlin is ugly, new, young, compared to Antwerp; you like it. Munich is old, like Antwerp is; all your hideaways are in those old cities. Those years in Vegas live inside you still, somehow. But you like Berlin. It got fucked and it said fuck you and survived. And Gyuri likes it, anyway. He’s gotten a cat.
“Really retired, huh,” you say, scratching her behind the ears.
“She is a good excuse to stay home,” he says, leaning back in his chair.
“No shit,” you say. She purrs, stretching out munificently on the rug.
“Beautiful creature,” you say. “Very noble.”
“No trouble here?” you ask, looking up, and he shakes his head. “Good,” you say, looking back down at the cat, who for some reason has no name.
“None there either?”
“None anywhere,” you say. Not, anyway, of that kind. Lots of trouble. None that will put you in jail.
You are sitting in the back of a dive that night, smoking and making your way through more vodka than should be legal, probably, doing what women would call gossiping. Gyuri knows more, hears more, says more than he lets on. Loyal. Trustworthy. The two of you were like brothers, at least for a while. Not like you and Theo. This was, you suppose, always going to end. Gyuri is older than you: thirty-six, thirty-seven; nobody knows. You are twenty-six this year. Theo is twenty-five.
You did not know how grateful you are for him, you realize now, before coming here. He has been keeping you safe. Well, kind of. As much as either of you can be safe.
“I like this place,” he says, ruminatively, looking around. “Cheap liquor. Pretty girls.”
“Make you feel like you aren’t rich?” you ask.
“Feels very normal,” he says, calmly, and you shake your head.
You are so drunk you can barely walk straight, heading back, the air cold and clean against your cheeks. You scratch at your jaw absently—you need to shave—and start, “Gyuri—”
“Yes,” he says around a yawn, practically staggering around himself.
“Gyuri,” you say. “What do you think about—homosexuals?”
“Homosexuals?” he asks. “Unnatural. Goes against the church.”
You make a humming noise. He shrugs.
“My sister likes to fuck women,” he says. “My parents—get out, they say. So, away she goes, in Brno now. Why Brno—no idea.” He belches. “I send her money every—twice a year—help with the rent—” He shrugs. “Okay, so, morally wrong, but I make my living stealing things, yes? And I like to fuck women too.”
You let out a sharp bray of laughter, and then he does, too, and you are standing on a street in the middle of the night in Berlin laughing like maniacs, like fools.
“You are retired, now, though,” you remind him, and then you both start to laugh again.
“We are just old, I guess,” you say when you get back, the cat hopping up to sit on your chest, red numbers of the clock not as late as you were expecting. “No going to clubs. No criminal activity.”
“You are not old,” he says, picking up the cat and taking her with him to his armchair. “I am old. You—infant.”
“What are you going to do?” you ask, looking over at him, as he pets the cat.
“To do?” he asks.
“With—oh, you know. Your life.”
“Well, half it is gone already.”
You sigh, and lean your head back against the couch. “I feel old,” you say. “I don’t remember not feeling old.”
“You are not old,” he says. “You are just older than you have been before.”
You glance over at him. “Very philosophical,” you say. “Hiding this from us, all these years.”
Gyuri doesn’t say anything for a while, just pets the cat. “Where’s your American friend?” he asks finally.
“I don’t know,” you reply. “He does not reply to his emails.”
Gyuri makes an ambiguous sound, and you close your eyes. It’s late. You are tired.
Fake or real:
Theo, crouched over Popchik, looking anxious, one bony hand curled against his head: “I think he might be sick—I don’t know, he keeps making these weird little whimpering noises and he isn’t really moving right—should we take him to the vet or something?” and you crouching down next to him, shoulders touching, palm flat against the dog’s belly, feeling it breathe, in and out, in and out;
Crawling around the other side of the boxes in the dark room in some haunted town while your father fucked some woman, skinned knees pulled close to your chest, eyes pressed closed;
“Theo’s not—normal,” Mr. Decker was saying, face clouded with smoke, squinting out beyond the house from behind his sunglasses, “I think you know he’s not normal, I’d appreciate it if you could look out for him,” and you nodding even though you didn’t really know what he meant;
Gyuri slapping your face, once twice five times, dumping cold water over your face, “Dumb shit Ukrainian fuck, what is your plan, to die,” and you turning and gagging, choking out, “Fucking Polish—” before he slapped you on the back and you threw up;
Rolling over on top of Theo in bed, sticking your face against his neck—“Jesus, your nose is cold, Boris—”
“Not possible, we are in desert—”
“Well you managed to get your nose co—” sliding into a yelp as you stuck your tongue out, jerked your hips forward, no idea what you were doing, no idea about anything, and Theo was laughing again and so were you, your hips jerking together, and him curling one hand in your thick hair and you thinking fuzzily that you would probably stay there as long as he wanted, if he wanted you to.
You go back to Amsterdam and rent out a room. You do not want to be in Antwerp. There are not as many tourists anymore, at least. Students ride across the canals on their bicycles. Rain slams against the windows from time to time, lights oblique in the distance.
You walk at night. Long walks, all around the city. All sorts of people here, every single kind of person under the fucking sun. Kids out too late and couples on dates and dumbfuck Australian backpackers and people doing laundry at two in the morning and hookers walking home from work even later. You smoke too many cigarettes. You talk to Theo in your head.
It is pretty underground, the place you wind up one night—you can’t remember, anymore, who told you about it. Someone. Another life. Knock on an unmarked door, look up at the camera, let yourself get padded down. These are the rules of procedure.
You light up another cigarette walking down the narrow, dark hallway, the little orange light bright under the red lights bleeding in from the ceiling. You feel like you are tripping even though you haven’t taken any LSD since you were eighteen. Like the world is slowing down around you. A movie. When does the music start? Any second now.
You sit on a couch in the bar and wait, looking at the other men and wondering about them, finishing your cigarette and lighting a new one. Some girl comes out finally, sits down next to you.
“Hi,” she says. She sounds French.
“Hi,” you say.
“I am Tamar,” she says.
“Nice to meet you,” you reply.
“Is this your first time to Amsterdam?” she asks.
“I live here,” you tell her, which isn’t exactly true, but is not lying, either.
“Oh,” she says. “Just new for us, then.”
“Yes,” you say, bringing the cigarette to your lips again, and then exhaling. “You could say.”
“Do you want something to drink?” she asks.
“Vodka,” you tell her, “straight,” and she goes to get it. She is wearing hardly anything.
You keep smoking, start drinking when she gives you the glass. Should have taken some LSD, maybe. Some coke. She crosses one leg over the other.
You tip the glass back until you have finished the drink and then put it down on the table next to you. She watches you, saying nothing, and stands up when you are finished.
You walk back down another hallway to a door, which she pushes open, stepping inside.
“It is three hundred to fuck,” she says, arms crossed in front of her. “Other things, we discuss.”
You pull out your wallet and count out the bills, passing them over to her.
“Thank you,” she says, and closes the door behind you. She walks over to a bureau, and puts the money in a drawer, closes it again while you take off your coat and hang it up on the hook on the wall.
She turns around and looks at you for a moment. She is not tall, is wearing too much eye makeup. She reaches up to untie the straps holding her—it isn’t a bra, but what the fuck it is, you couldn’t say—holding that up. Her dark hair is settled around her face. Eyes, flat.
You sit down on the bed. She puts the—bra—down on the table and pulls her hair over her shoulder. Her breasts look too big for someone so small. Uncomfortable. She stands there for a moment, hand in her hair, before turning around.
“So, Mister No-Name,” she says. “What do you want to do tonight?”
She has one hand on her hip. The nail polish on her fingernails is chipped.
“I don’t know,” you say, honest, and you can see the way she rocks the weight back from the balls of her feet to her heels.
“Lots of things we can do,” she says, even though there is not, really. If you think about it. Right here. Only so many things. She takes a slow step forward, and then another. “Yes? Lots of things.” Three hundred to fuck. Extras: negotiate.
She is standing directly in front of you, and puts one hand on your shoulder. Her breasts are very close. She reaches her other hand down to pick up your hand, and raises it up to place it on her hip. She has wide hips. A flared curve out.
You turn your hand, spread it out—span from thumb to fingertips—almost all the way to her navel. You look at it for a long moment before putting your other hand on her other hip and pulling her into your lap. Her knees fold on either side of you, and her hand comes down to your shoulder. You are still looking at her when she leans forward and kisses you. She kisses like a machine.
You think suddenly, of saying to Theo: Fuck, Theo, no way to get out of here without being a fucking cliché. I fuck her—cliché. I leave—cliché. I apologize—cliché. I cry—worst cliché at all.
Well maybe you shouldn’t have gone and found a prostitute in the first place, Theo-in-your head says sourly, and you start to laugh, sounding slightly unhinged, so hard that you have to lean back, leaning your hands on the mattress, and the girl slides off, sitting next to you, unnerved. You cover your face with one hand.
“Fuck,” you say. “Fuck.”
You don’t remember, anymore, the first time you spoke to Kotku. Just watching her around school, her big nightmare eyes, skeletal wrists, faint hints of the lines of her ribs under her breasts. And then, hanging around her locker, making jokes, trying too hard, probably. Well, you were a kid. This is what kids do. Yes? Try too hard.
Theo did not like her, of course. Hardly a surprise. Very passive-aggressive about this—about Kotku, about you, about everything. You were high a lot, around this time. Everything was fuzzy. You told him about how much you and Kotku were fucking but this was not correct—well, sometimes, yes, but not often. Sex made her tired. She would put her clothes on again after and light a cigarette, and ignore you. Very physical, all of it. It was better for both of you to sit together, talk a little, or not say much, maybe: everything in the room unspoken. Theo, you understood somehow, even then, sucked everything—all sadness, all distress—in a room toward him. You and Kotku knew that you were sad. Theo knew that he was sad but he did not understand the thing that was inside of him. That was burning him up. And so everything collapsed around him. A sinkhole, a vortex—in you go.
“Why do you like her?” he asked one day, not looking at you, when you were out walking Popper around the empty dusty houses of the development.
You shrugged. He asked versions of this question not infrequently, Theo. All sorts of tones of voice. You replied all sorts of ways.
“We, you know, we understand each other,” you said, and he just kept looking down at the dog, adjusting the leash around his wrist. Popper was sniffing around at a few sad-looking weeds at the edge of one little strip of sidewalk. You were walking on the road. Nobody drove around there, anyway.
“Oh,” Theo said, “okay.”
“You must get a girlfriend also,” you said, bounding forward a couple of steps. “Many beautiful girls at school—some not-so-beautiful, also, if you are afraid—many girls, many with no boyfriends. What boys are there at this school? Huh? These—sports types.” You made a dismissive sound, waved your hand around. “You—sensitive soul! Great intelligence! Very much to offer!”
He snorted. “Yeah, yeah, okay, why don’t you lay it on a little thicker,” he muttered.
“You do not want this, I am telling you, will get very sentimental,” you told him, kicking up a puff of dust at him. “But I am telling you, girlfriend. Very good plan.”
“I thought she had a boyfriend.”
“Well, yes, who knows about this person,” you said dismissively, “but you know all this already, Potter, that is fake, this is real.”
He stopped walking when Popchik stopped again to sniff at a signpost. “How do you know she doesn’t say the same thing to him?” he asked, watching him.
You shrugged. “I cannot, but—this, human interaction, no? Must trust somebody.”
“I guess,” he said, glancing up at you, and then looking back down at the dog. Not so long before—you pinning him from behind, crowing victory, him muttering while trying to push back—and—and—dropping your hand to the floor as he went still under you. Under your splayed knees. The absolute knowledge that you are thinking the same thing as another person without saying a word. Biting the curve of his shoulder blade before tumbling you both down and over. His bright eyes, a little too wide, his breathing a little too shallow. And never talking about it.
Different with Kotku, yes—like a person who isn’t there: a thought you have once and try to banish—but no point in thinking about that. Not the same thing. Not the same thing at all.
“Come on, Popper,” Theo said, and tugged him along as you kept wandering down the dusty sunny street. You watched him out of the corner of your eyes, and neither of you said anything for the rest of the walk back to the house.
The next day it pours. You sit curled up in bed in a sweatshirt listening to the din, drinking a cup of black coffee and resting your beat-up copy of The Brothers Karamazov on your knees. You read:
Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others. Not respecting anyone, he ceases to love, and having no love, he gives himself up to passions and coarse pleasures, in order to occupy and amuse himself, and in his vices reaches complete bestiality, and it all comes from lying continually to others and to himself. A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn't it? And surely he knows that no one has offended him, and that he himself has invented the offense and told lies just for the beauty of it, that he has exaggerated for the sake of effect, that he has picked on a word and made a mountain out of a pea—he knows all of that, and still he is the first to take offense, he likes feeling offended, it gives him great pleasure, and thus he reaches the point of real hostility… Do get up from your knees and sit down, I beg you, these posturings are false, too.
New York is cold in March, cold and soggy, bare branches on the trees not yet trying to bud. Dirty, too—a dirtier city than any of those cold northern European cities, except Berlin maybe. You like the grime. Makes it feel like a real place, even if it is less and less real, these days.
You eat lunch at one of your old haunts and walk all the way west across the Village, through the park, watching the men and women with their dogs, the annoying university students, the lunatics. Birds flying in silent sloping circles overhead.
You lurk at the end of West 10th Street for a while—no use waiting outside Theo’s shop, in case he sees you. Bad scene. Finally, you make yourself walk down to the friendly old doorway, and push it open. The bell tinkles. But there is nobody behind the counter.
You lick your lips. “Hello?” you say a moment later. There is no response for a long moment, and then some distant clamor. You shift your weight from one foot to the other, until a door opens—and the old man appears.
“Ah,” he says. “Mr. Pavlikovsky.”
“Sir,” you reply.
“I thought you might stop by sometime,” he said, pulling a rag out of his pocket and wiping off his hands. “Very clever of you to do it while Theo is out. Though he is in town.”
“It—this was not on purpose,” you say. “Sir.”
“I didn’t really think so,” he says drily. “Though I expect you are a little relieved, isn’t that right?”
You just look at him, which you expect is confirmation enough.
“Yes, I thought so,” he says. “Well—shall we have some tea?”
“I suppose so,” you say, and he smiles a little.
“Flip the sign,” he says, gesturing at the door, and then turns around to walk slowly to the back of the house. You turn around, and stare at the CLOSED sign for a moment before flipping it over and following him.
He fusses around the kitchen while you sit watching, hands clenched together between your knees, rubbing one thumb over the other knuckle. The teakettle is very fancy. The tea smells fancy, too.
When he’s finished he lets the tea steep and sits across from you, hands folded over his little belly, looking at you speculatively. You shift, uncomfortable.
“Very nice home,” you say dutifully.
“Thank you,” he says. “I have lived here for so many years, now, that it almost defies belief. The matter of who shall inherit it when I move along remains a great source of debate.”
You blink at him. “You have a will, yes?”
“I have not updated it in many years,” he says. “Currently it reads that the house shall be sold, with the profits being divided between Pippa and Theo, unless they reach some more satisfactory agreement.”
You think this over. “Seems like the best option to me,” you tell him.
“Yes,” he says. “Reason is on your side.” He looks around the room. “But I am not sure about selling the house at all. And I am not sure about putting Theo and Pippa together, even if the end result is only to separate them.”
You don’t say anything. He looks back at you. “It is mine,” he says mildly. “The house. Not Pippa’s. She inherited most everything but she did not inherit the house.”
He leans forward, lifts the top off of the teakettle, takes out the tea, and pours one cup and then the next, very carefully.
“As you can probably guess, I would really rather leave it to Theo, in spite of all of his—various—behaviors,” he says, making a face. “But there would be pushback.”
“You would be dead,” you point out.
“You make a good point,” he says, taking a sip.
“Theo has been very moody these past few months,” he says a long moment later, while you have your hands curled around your cup, probably very undignified, sipping slowly. You glance up at him.
“Theo is always moody,” you say, and he laughs, sounding surprised.
“Yes,” he says. “I suppose this is true.” He puts his cup down on the table, tapping his fingers against the handle. “Do you know, when he first came here—years ago, it feels terribly long to me, though it shouldn’t, since it hasn’t been so very much of my life—when he first came, he used to ask me all the time if I thought he would see you again.” He pauses. “He was—sixteen then? Not as young as he might have been. But he seemed—he seemed very young to me. Very much like a child. He asked me over and over again.
“I told him I thought he might, of course, even though I didn’t—what else are you supposed to tell a child? He seemed to be—he was just living in this—waiting. Limbo, I suppose. He talked to that dog all the time. He took care of that dog better than I have ever seen anyone take care of a dog, and he was only sixteen. As though if he did it long enough he would wake up one day and find you had replaced it.”
He sighs. “Of course he eventually stopped asking. Almost like little children who eventually figure out Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Though he kept taking care of the dog—not quite in the same way, but he did love that dog.
“And yet here you are,” he says, raising his brows, and taking another sip of his tea. “So I was wrong.”
“Yes,” you say. “I am here.”
He watches you for another minute, and then smiles, old skin crinkling around his eyes. “You are very different from the way he described you, Mr. Pavlikovsky,” he says. “But I guess you are very nervous.”
You open your mouth to say something when you hear something upstairs, and turn your head toward it, instinctive. The old man looks at you and then toward the noise when it gets louder. “Ah,” he says. “Well, here he is.”
“Hobie,” Theo says from behind you when he opens the door, “I tried to find the—” He stops talking.
You turn around to look at him, smiling, you suspect, weakly. He has frozen in the doorway, coat still on, glasses slid halfway down his nose.
“What is he doing here?” he asks.
“We were just catching up,” Hobie says, standing up. “Having some tea. Remembering Popper.”
A muscle twitches in Theo’s jaw. “I—” he starts, and stops.
“I’ll leave you to it,” Hobie says graciously, beginning to make his way out of the room, and then Theo says, “No,” very quickly.
“No,” he says, “we’ll go,” and turns around and leaves again without looking at you.
The old man looks at you and shrugs, glancing after him, so you hurry to follow.
“You didn’t tell me you were coming,” Theo says once you’ve gotten out onto the street, voice sharp, clipped, hands shoved into his pockets as he walks down the sidewalk faster than he should be able to.
“Well, you and email, this is not exactly an ideal situation,” you say, hurrying to catch up with him. “How many am I sending you, and no reply? And so then I think—maybe I tell him, and he is gone. Only old man left. Though he is excellent company, I think.”
“Don’t talk about Hobie,” Theo snaps.
“Okay, okay,” you say, raising your arms in the air as he turns right.
He stops once you have entered the park again. The benches are still a little damp from the rain in the night—but not so bad. He pulls up his coat and sits down, leans forward, elbows on his knees, so you sit, too.
“Well, let’s have it,” he says, looking anywhere but you: weird hula-hoop performers, the woman with the toddler who is scaring the pigeons, the homeless man asleep across the path from you, a few benches down.
You look at him: he is skinnier now than he was in December, and he was skinny then. Sunken cheeks. Dark shadows under his eyes. He needs a haircut, even. “Are you okay, Theo?” you ask.
He lets out a weird bray of laughter. “Jesus, Boris.”
You take a deep breath and turn to look out at the park for a moment, stretching your arm out on the back of the bench, away from him. It is full of people. And none of them has any idea what either of you has done.
“I tried to fuck a whore in Amsterdam,” you say, as you pull a package of cigarettes and a lighter out of your jacket pocket. You feel him stiffen next to you. “Bad place to start maybe. Well you know I am a very melodramatic type. This, always said about me. All teachers, all adults. What can I say. I tried to fuck this whore—no good. Impossible.
“So I am going home—I go home—and I think about all other times I have done this—not fucked whores—about—oh, I suppose fucking. All fucking.” You take a long drag on your cigarette and exhale. “My wife—brief period, yes. Then, no. Not anymore. Kotku, not much at all, if you want the truth.” You pause, watching the end of the cigarette turn slowly to ash. “Something, ah—how do you say—numb. About all of this. Or—frightening, sometimes. Very bad, sometimes.
“So I am thinking about all our fucking—no, I know, not what we would say, then, but—we would say what? This, this is what I would say now. Not a very romantic word, anyway, so okay. No sentimentalizing anything. But I think—that was not numb, or bad—frightening sometimes, yes, but bad? No. For me, this is.
“I am saying you were—you are right,” you say, and glance over at him when you feel him going stiff next to you. He is looking down at his hands, clenched so tightly in-between his knees that his knuckles are totally white. “I think. Well I did not think you would—care so much. This I still do not understand, myself. For me—” You look down at your shoes. “Well, I do not know either. Maybe—my father, he was not a very advanced person on these issues.”
You look out at the park again. The pigeons are flying in a circle again—hardly even hemmed in by the buildings, here. Around and around and around.
“I used to take that painting out,” you say, “to look at it. And I used to think—this is Theo’s heart. Like if I had put a knife in it”—he twitches—“your blood would come out. And then I gave it away anyway. Because I needed the money. And I think—it never came back. Really.”
When you look back over at him he has his hands pressed against his eyes, glasses dangling from two fingers. In another version of your life, you lean over to press your face against his, your fingers against the nape of his neck. But this is not that one. So you lean a little closer, and grip his shoulder for a moment, and say, “I am sorry,” and wait for him to shudder once before getting up and walking away.
When you were five, six years old, your father woke you up in the middle of the night once. Door open. Smelling of something you recognized but did not yet know was sex. “Boris,” he said. “Borya.”
Already at that age you knew. But you still pretended to be sleeping, when you were six: silly. You would learn better. “Borya,” he said again, and when you burrowed your little head further down into the filthy pillow you were sleeping on he smacked the back of your skull hard enough that your vision whited out for a second.
“Stop it,” he said when you started to cry. Maybe you were four. Maybe you were you don’t know what age. “Boris. Sit up. Listen to me. I have something very important to tell you.”
So you pulled yourself up and looked at him through your bleary eyes, hands clasped between your knees, and he put his hands on your shoulders.
“It is just you and me,” he said, eyes red and glassy. “You got that? Us two, forever. That is it. None of these idiots, these bitches, cunts trying to fuck us over—no. Just us.”
“Okay, Papa,” you said, starting to fall asleep again, even sitting up, and he shook you so hard your head snapped back and forth and you started to cry again.
“No,” he said. “You think things are one way, maybe. You will think this one day. But that is not right. We have only us. Us two. Yes? You get it?” He shook you again, not quite as hard.
“Okay,” you said, “okay,” and he rubbed one sloppy hand over your hair before passing out across the room.
It is raining in Antwerp the day you come home from the store to find Theo, soaking wet, sitting in your hallway, wet head leaning back against the wall. He blinks when he sees you, body going tense all the sudden.
“Potter,” you say, stopping a few feet away from him, keys dangling in your hands.
“Hi,” he says, pushing wet hair out of his face. “I didn’t—I didn’t know if you were—away, or—out.”
You hold up your bag, and he scrambles up, to let you unlock the door.
Neither of you says anything while you put the groceries away, and then when you turn around he’s just standing there, arms crossed defensively, uncomfortable. You take two glasses down from the cabinet and fill them up, hand him one.
He takes it wordlessly, staring at it as though he doesn’t recognize what it is.
“How is the old man?” you ask a few moments later, and he puts the glass down, fumbling, and presses a hand against the bridge of his nose.
“I—he’s—he’s fine,” he says. “He’s having a—will drawn up, it’s all very—it’s a mess, I don’t—” He stops, dropping his hand and letting out a long breath.
“I thought,” he says awkwardly, and then starts again, sounding like a child—this is your Theo, the Theo you will always recognize, the one who, deep inside of himself, is just a little boy—“I’d like to go see the painting.”
You stare at him for a moment.
“Okay,” you say eventually.
There is a grey, filmy light around the Mauritshuis: looks like something some painter would have painted back then. Theo would know the name of which one, but you don’t. It doesn’t matter. You just look at the long sheet of glassy water reflecting the grey sky, at the hint of sunlight gilding the building, and turn toward the museum entrance.
You are both tense, hands clenched in your pockets: do they have photos of you somewhere, Do not let these men close to The Goldfinch; may try to steal a second time? But nobody looks twice at you. You are just tourists like everybody else.
You follow Theo, hunched under his coat, who as far as you know has never been here before, but seems to know how to get to where he is going anyway: maybe he can feel it beating. The painting, or the heart of the bird inside of it. You follow him and look at all of the other paintings, imagining what they would feel like in your hands, imagining the versos, imagining the artists doing the same. And then you keep walking.
He stops in the doorway of the room, hesitant. It is crammed with tourists: a big Italian group being lectured by a nasally guide, a bunch of Americans who keep trying to take photos despite the guard’s aggravated instructions to stop. It looks very small there, on the wall: from this far you can hardly make it out. Theo’s bird.
You make it closer, finally, jostled between other tourists, from Japan and—it sounds like—Cleveland, Ohio. There it is, you think, shackled to that red wall. Safe forever. You cock your head, looking at it. Somehow it is less an object now than it ever was when you two had it—like this, in a museum, it is an image—and more, too, somehow: here it is just a thing on the wall. Untouched. Unloved. The two of you—you know this was so because of what Theo told you when he was drunk, and because of the way he handled it when he showed it to you—loved it—loved it in a way that made it into something real. Gave it a corporeal and more-than-corporeal body.
It is just wood and canvas and paint. You know this. And here are those things in front of you—never privately again. You turn to glance at Theo. He looks at it for a long moment before turning and leaving.
You follow him, past the landscapes and the still lifes and the girl with the pearl earring looking at you both like she can see straight through you. You follow him out back into the street, next to the long still pool, which is swarming with pigeons. The sun is just beginning to filter weakly through the clouds.
You both stand there looking at the pigeons for a while: the male ones puffing up their necks and bocking around behind the females, who scuttle around away from them.
“Stupid,” Theo says.
You shrug. “They have to give in eventually,” you tell him. “Biological imperative, is this right? So, why not be stupid first.”
Theo lets out a choked little laugh.
“Much less noble than your goldfinch, anyway,” you say, still watching them. “But less chained up, so maybe they have the advantage.”
“I just needed—” he starts, and pauses. “I just needed to see it,” he says.
“I know,” you say. “I know.”
He looks at you for a long moment, breeze blowing through his curling hair. “Well,” he says. “Let’s go.”
He sits on the couch, half-watching you while you cook something in a pan on the stove.
“I never thought you’d be cooking anything for anybody,” he says.
“Not complicated,” you say. “Meat, vegetables, oil. Sauce somebody else has made. This is it. Bam.”
He smiles faintly. “All I ever wanted to eat with my mom was Chinese food,” he says. “So that sounds fine.”
You hand him a bowl when you’re finished and you both sit on the couch eating in silence.
“The TV is gone,” he says suddenly, when he finishes, looking around.
“Broke,” you say, taking another bite. “Picture stopped working.”
“You didn’t get a new one?”
You shrug, put your bowl on the coffee table.
He looks at you for a long moment and then leans back against the couch, looking at the ceiling. “I still have dreams that she comes back,” he says. “Not as much now as—before. But—the other day I dreamed I was in the Met, and I was looking for her, because I was lost—I kept going through all those rooms, one after another, and I couldn’t—I couldn’t find her. And in the end I just found The Goldfinch.”
He takes off his glasses and runs a hand over his face, keeps staring at the ceiling without them on. “I used to talk to her in my head all the time, too. I mean—all the time. Not just—telling her what was going on in my life, not just updates, like—if I was upset about something, or—whatever, I’d—I’d complain about it, you know, to her. But she wasn’t—she wasn’t there. It wasn’t like I was just—waiting until I could really tell her. That was—that was it.” He swallows.
“I had dreams about you, too, you know,” he says, glancing over and then away again quickly. “After—I would be walking down some street—like, the thing where you know it’s New York even though the streets aren’t real? And I’d see you. And I’d get so fucking excited because it’d be like everything was—fixed. Even though that didn’t even make sense. And sometimes I’d see you and you wouldn't see me and I couldn’t—I couldn’t keep up or something, and then you’d be gone again.
“And I dreamed people came and found the painting,” he says. “And I got put in jail. I had that one a lot.
“Drugs help you sleep,” he says, glancing up at you with the traces of an ironic smile on his face. “And then—with everything else, I guess. So I just… kept taking them.”
You look at him for a long time. He is even skinnier than he was the last time you saw him. Unhealthy. Almost ill.
“This is worse, again, since you are not doing this anymore?” you ask.
“Yep,” he says, smiling humorlessly. “It is.”
“I am sorry,” you say.
He stares at the ceiling, unseeing. “Sometimes I feel like there’s a whole other person walking around in my body,” he says. “Controlling it. Like I don’t even—like I’m not even here. Or—like there’s this person I don’t even know but that’s—that’s me. I think—” he lets out a hysterical little laugh. “I think I might be crazy, Boris.”
“No,” you say. “Not crazy. In mourning.”
He snorts, derisive. “That’s a long time to be in mourning.”
“I do not think so,” you say. “Forever, probably, for you.”
“Thanks,” he says, pressing his hand over his eyes.
“Not like this,” you tell him. “Just—cannot be helped, no? Cannot be undone.”
He turns to look at you. “Yeah,” he says, voice hoarse. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Many other things in the world,” you say. “For—the rest. The future.”
“Okay,” he croaks. “Okay.”
“This man, here,” you say, pointing out from the balcony at an apartment a storey down, across the road, cigarette held between two fingers, “you see him, yes?”
“I think so?” Theo says, squinting, squeezed up against you, breeze blowing through your hair, against your bare arms. It is not so cold, tonight, in Belgium.
“Cleans naked,” you say, self-satisfied.
“No,” Theo says. “He—really?”
“Yes,” you tell him. “And he is singing, while he is doing this. I cannot hear, praise god, but I can see him. Not a sight for sore eyes, I can tell you.”
He laughs, slightly hysterical, leaning on the railing, smoking. “Who else?”
“Well, this one,” you say, moving your hand, “new baby. Very cute, very sweet. Father, he is a deadbeat. Hardly home. Not interested. Very depressing actually. Over there”—you move your hand again—“this is the woman with six dogs.”
“How does she have six dogs,” he says skeptically.
“I promise you, there are six,” you tell him. “All different sizes. I promise you! How long have I lived here, and always this woman with her six dogs. Middle-aged, all alone, must be very lonely to have all those dogs.”
“You should set her up with the guy who cleans naked,” Theo mutters, exhaling, and you practically choke laughing.
“Cleaning naked with dogs,” you say, and he bursts out laughing.
“Sounds like something at MoMA,” he says.
“Sold for ten million probably,” you agree, and he grins.
“Performance art,” he says, and you make an aggrieved sound.
Neither of you says anything for a while, just smoking and watching the city take its meandering course. Not many people out now of course. Not so late, even, but—this is an old city. Boring people. You are boring too, now, maybe. Could be worse.
“Thanks,” Theo says suddenly, looking down at his hands.
“Hmm?” you say vaguely, turning to look at him.
“I said, thanks,” he says. “For—you know.”
You are not sure you do, but this is no matter. “Do not mention it,” you say.
He is staring at the rapidly disintegrating butt of his cigarette now. “Boris—” he starts.
“Theo, it is fine,” you say. “Here we are, yes? Europe, place of old masters. No desert anywhere. Neither of us dead. Not so bad, this.”
“Boris,” he says again, and takes one long breath before unfolding himself up toward you and pressing his mouth against yours for the first time as adults, his fist curled against your shoulder.
“Oh,” you say when he pulls away, hand shaking.
“I,” he says, voice shaking as badly as his hand, “I—”
“It is okay,” you say, “neither of us is going anywhere, yes?” and lean forward to kiss him.
The day you gave the painting back you sat looking at it for a long time, in the car. Cracked the window open so the tepid winter sunlight would come in and illuminate it. You held it on your lap and looked at it. Forgot about everything you had done to get it back. Forgot about what tiny damages might have been done to it. Forgot about everything except the thing in itself. The painting. The bird. The glimmer of its wings, its dark shadow, its beady little eyes. And you thought about Theo holding it, Theo taking it out of the wreckage, Theo keeping it for all those years. It said Fabritius but it may as well have had Theo’s name, at the bottom.
You packed it up again and drove to the collection point. They were waiting for you: the police, the curator, the historians. You looked at them from inside the car for a long moment before taking the key out of the ignition, opening the door, and stepping out. They all went very still when you appeared.
You walked toward them, hands in your pockets, and smiled as charmingly as you could manage, when your heart thudding dully in your chest, just as you always did, just as you had time after time after time. “Gentlemen,” you said. “I think we have come to make a trade.”