In an armchair at the center of a Starbucks, nearly hidden by its arms, a young boy reads, perplexed but concentrating hard:
Once upon a time, the book tells, there lived a man of little importance. But his fine young daughter did belong to him: her lovely face, the soft and the angular parts of her body, her hips, her strong legs, her laugh – everything that made her worth the price of ecstasy.
Naturally the father had to search for some suitable person to bid for her. And every day the daughter offered a million prayers, begging for the blessing of a lover who wouldn’t pay money, and every night she lit a million candles, facing the lights away from where her father always watched. She’d occupy herself for the whole night with the one task, so that the father would be asleep by the time the sun came up.
The god of death was fed up with the piteous silent pleas of that tenacious girl, who asked for a salvation he would not be able to grant. Finally, either to avoid hearing the subterranean nearly growling prayers of her father (which the girl also heard, and attempted to ignore), or out of some divine mercy for the girl herself, the god of death performed a miracle. But neither the girl nor her father were aware of it at first.
The lover who would become the husband of the girl had to walk five hundred miles.
With time, he found their house, but he limped like an old man. The finest clothes awaited him, but the blisters on his feet prevented him from standing up.
After his first night in their house, the girl begged him to marry her.
The clever girl found a palanquin meant for brides, and promised that after the wedding, he could rest on its cushions. And since she had no horse, she promised that she would carry its long handles on her shoulders.
The first night, instead of making love, the man slept a dreamless sleep. The girl stayed awake. When the sun rose in the marriage bed there he was with his feet in bandages, the girl with her gown tightly fastened.
The girl then stole another palanquin that would allow more room for making love, and sought out men who could take up her burden. And there was another sunrise, and another dreamless sleep, and the restless girl searching out another palanquin, to be carried by a litter of strong fearless men whose legs could easily outrun those of her father’s, and another when that fragile vehicle broke and when the father seemed about to track it down, and another, and so on.
Soon enough, the girl was left penniless and with just the one man. But soon, the stranger promised her, when he was healed, when he could walk again and did not need the palanquins, the man would make love to the girl on solid ground. But when the hours crept on, the girl’s father pressing on their trail with his good horse, to recover the girl – the girl and her husband, who had still to become her lover, lay down on the fifth night of their marriage, on the road next to their last broken palanquin, whose carriers had gone. The road was still. The girl and her hopeful lover rested, drifting to sleep but not before the girl commented, satisfied, that the man’s feet were nearly almost healed.
Just then a horse with a masked, dark, heavy rider slashed the ground with steel-shod feet, striking the man in the head.
Instantly the god of death appeared.
As the horse and his rider – the rider seeming to growl a prayer, the girl believed – stopped short far down the road, seemingly preparing to turn back from where they trod – the god of death cushioned the dying man’s head in his hands, silently urging him to close his eyes. To stop her from lamenting the man, the god showed the frightened girl his own solemn face.
But he is so beautiful, she thought with joy.
The girl knew, from the stories she had read, and from the story that might be told about her, years from now, that she was to bargain with the god of death. Plead for her husband’s life. Show that her devotion extended beyond tears. Inspire the god of death, by her courage, to spare them both.
But she could not look away from the god of death’s bleak, handsome face. The sound of the horse with its rider – relentless, louder against the night’s silence – grew closer, pressed closer, growling desire, impatience.
And the girl, her eyes never leaving the god of death’s beautiful eyes, unfastened her dress, offering her bare skin.
“Hurry,” she whispered, winning him.
In the Starbucks in Greenwich Village near West Fourth the boy shut his book and sighed in contentment. He wasn’t old enough yet to drink coffee, let alone see the illustration in the book of the girl’s bare chest, though he lingered over it, not realizing that a barista with floppy soft hair swinging in his eyes was looking over his shoulder, admiring her breasts too.
“My man,” the coffee-meister purred. “My little man. What you got there, huh?”
The boy, small for his age but nearly twelve, nodded with solemnity. Yes, there was something fruit-like and dark and perfect about the girl’s breasts in the book – without wanting to touch them, exactly, the boy felt content looking at them. He wasn’t a boy who had ever seen Playboy. His father wouldn’t allow it. And his sister –once long ago he did have a sister, though no one in the house, not father, not aunt, not photograph of the mother who had died when the boy was three– none of them ever mentioned her, the sister-girl, with breasts like these in the other photograph, the one in his father’s sock drawer, the place where a picture of the boy’s lost sister was hidden, buried under softest cloth, dust motes like petals on her cheeks, her skin in the photograph lustrous and unlined, his father’s wide fingerprints confined to the very edges of the photograph, as if that might keep her from being consumed.
No one at school asked the boy anymore, “Where’s your sister? Did the cops ever find her?” No one seemed to worry: only the boy who’d once missed her whenever she ran away from home, the boy who had promised when he was four or five (though he didn’t remember) that he would somehow rescue her.
Now in the Starbucks the boy licked the foam off the plastic lid of his paper cup and put it down reflecting, wondering.
“What if she hadn’t gone?” he thought, and couldn’t get the quest out of his head. But in his childhood and as a young man, he couldn’t find her.
At college it became worse, the wondering, and coupled with an edgy curiosity. Not only just: Where did she go? But also: “What does it make me, that she left for good?”
By then some of the questions were answered: what the boy’s father had done. The family knew, but no one else imagined. By then the boy could make sense of some things – loud arguments, crying and shouting, slapping, pushing, pulling, then silence, the girl emerging afterward, quieted, appearing overcome.
In the years since the boy first discovered his favorite story book, there had not been any news. Silence again, but this time not following any loud noise; only silence following on silence, building in its intensity, proving the truth of what happened – she was gone, no one could dispute it. “Must have had her reasons though,” the neighbors said.
At first when the boy had become a young man – post-sex, post fumbling around, post-fantasies –counting himself lucky for the one summer he had hitchhiked before college, not telling anyone, breaking away from the quiet house with his glowering father and overly talkative aunt – the boy also felt he was lucky to have been younger than the girl, younger and small for his age at that, no threat. No one who knew the girl had her reasons for leaving could blame him.
Later was when he felt angry, resentful. Why had she left him with this legacy? Hadn’t she loved him at all? How had she known that the father would never even look at him once she was gone?
“You should have taken me with you,” he’d say softly, reading the book that he still had with him in his college room, turning to the place where he had tucked the stolen picture, the same one that his father had stolen before him.
In the city the boy had felt anonymous. Walking through the whole Village or sitting in a public square where construction workers watched pigeons and women with equal jadedness –sneaking coffees at Rafaella café or eating a slice of pizza slowly, to savor it, at Three Boots, or waiting, just waiting, not really doing anything, in the waiting room of the hospital, thinking that the ambulance siren could cover any screams – the boy had felt at once like his life mattered, but not that anyone expected great things of him.
But out in the country, where the college was, even when others were not drinking or looking for a tall boy to go home with from parties, their gaze settling on him, their eyes not knowing how much his face resembled his beautiful sister’s – the boy felt put upon. Girls expected him to prove to them what boys were like: shallow, callous, laughing animals that could smell irresistible. Other boys wanted to see if he realized he was handsome, if he knew how to use it against them. And teachers – teachers mistook his quietness and matter of fact diligence for respect for them, when in fact the boy just didn’t know what to say – in the small, cool, underground classrooms that could have been mistaken for tombs.
There wasn’t any subject that moved him. Art history, geology, architecture, engineering, poetry: he liked classes about things, objects he could draw on the blank page whose intricacies absorbed and distracted.
Without fanfare, he finished. The father would call; the aunt would actually come to the college, only once or twice, enough to make his neighbors look at him with sympathy –the querulous woman whispering too loudly about all the foreigners, the slutty girls, the subpar cafeteria. The lack of a Starbucks, for his aunt was addicted to sugar – not just in coffee but in pure crystalline form, scooping out the substance with her finger from the bottom of cups when she thought no one could see.
The aunt had been married once; the boy remembered an uncle. This uncle, his father’s brother, had taken his sister aside and said in a voice probably meant for others to overhear: “You deserve better than this. You can get out.”
Then the uncle had driven a long way, for miles, returning in a bleak snowstorm. He had passed country and city, driving through mountains, in most remote country. The father had gone to meet and help the uncle with a jump but then come back alone, refusing to say when the uncle would follow, refusing to talk to any of them. When the aunt heard that the uncle’s car was lost, she hadn’t wept. “Foolish beast,” she’d said. “He never would listen to me. He’d never behave.” To try and bring back their uncle the boy’s sister had gone out in the same snowstorm without wearing proper shoes. Walked and walked alone. Come back to the house with blistered feet and face chapped from crying, not telling the boy that the police opined the uncle had been killed.
The uncle was the last of the grown men he’d ever seen alone with his sister even once. After the uncle disappeared, the father relaxed some but watched more carefully, controlling both the sister and brother, warning them that if he ever caught them doing wrong, including telling anyone what transpired here, he’d cut off their hands, no questions asked.
At first the threat had made the boy, at age twelve, afraid of knives. This was why he couldn’t sit home drinking hot chocolate in his kitchen – though his aunt began making this for him, along with cakes, the day his sister disappeared; as if by feeding herself and him, and sometimes the father, the aunt could fill the absence left by the sister and the uncle; as if she were preparing extra food as for a wake.
Even once the threat was no longer a promise the boy believed in he fled the house as often as he could. The Village Starbucks became less than an ordinary shop – instead a kind of dirty, lived-in living room, where the boy knew each upholstery intimately, knew where the crumbs had spilled and by which newspaper-reading man, knew the barista’s name was Stan, short for Stanley, that he liked reading dirty books behind the counter, then sweeping his floppy hair aside with a broad hand and granting the customers, especially the pretty girls, an even broader smile.
If only his sister had run off with a Stanley, her brother thought, watching the baristas play and laugh, dance to the same prepackaged music as if it were new, watch the clock in boredom even when customers waited. If only there had been some boy – strong enough to pull her to freedom, simply by his reality, but never strong enough to take her father’s place. Some boy to carry the palanquin, the kind that protected young women. A friendly boy she could have used to get away, and then get away from.
A boy like me, the brother thought. A kind of older brother to them both.
Once the boy had finished college, paid his dues, worked for a time in a Starbucks, though not the one anywhere near where his father and his aunt still lived – he saw the world.
A brilliant red palanquin bearing a rich man’s wife in the middle of a rushed street in China, then a white elephant in India gravely bearing a rich groom. Bejeweled princesses; palaces that might be considered relics, but made of mirrors where the boy could see his reflections.
It was never deliberate, how he would look for his sister, backpacking and hitchhiking and sleeping rough places for cheap. It was just that he’d never believed that she was dead. She could have been a thousand places – on a movie poster, pouting out at him, or peering from the window of a café, or shopping, mindlessly shopping, wearing furs, or teaching a classroom of children, looking out the window only when a beloved came by to watch her in his turn.
The boy imagined life for her, life with her, her children and his children playing together, his wife thinking of her as a sister.
The images eventually made him get married – and in the marriage he was happy but waiting. Waiting for his sister.
And there was life in between the years of searching and imagining– a job for him, first at another Starbucks to have that reminder of her once he’d forgotten how her voice sounded, then med school, because of how fully it distracted him; then a fine day at the hospital where, through no accident, the body of his sister was brought in, though he wasn’t sure at first.
She looked the same. He knew not to tell his father – and that was a great gift, not telling, not even whimpering out loud in front of anyone – because in the end he only had his memory to reckon with; and how did he know it was she? It was a young woman his sister’s age, face still familiar and beautiful but body wrecked, an accident, he saw – a car accident, struck by another motorist, and she had been pregnant, and there – and there was the pale band on her ring finger, mark of a wedding ring, he thought, that had been cut off; and pictures in her wallet too, of family. Not a single one of him, the father, the mother, family she started with, only the family she had made. And now this, now to lose, now to come to the end.
Later to his own wife the boy, a much older man by then, would say: “I was never sure that that was my sister. I never had the proof. She had a different name.”
And by then he had thrown away the book, and the aunt was long dead, and his father was as good as dead, so far away, alone by then.
But the boy didn’t forget what he had read.