Condolences, the card read and—she flipped it over—nothing else.
Tara Contreras opened the door to her apartment and, without meaning to, thought: Better late than never.
The card was sheer white and textured, with rounded corners. The mailing address was correct but not the addressee—Brian Halverson. She had no idea who that was. She had purchased her apartment three years ago, and the previous owner, a Chinese woman with MS who had never married, had lived in it for twelve years.
She removed a single sheet of paper from the envelope the card came in. In Memoriam: Gloria Halverson.
Mother? Sister? Wife?
Brian Halverson had apparently lost a woman close to him, possibly the closest person in his life, and someone, somewhere, was sorry for his loss and wanted him to know it.
Tara was embarrassed to have gotten the card and walked over to the kitchen trashcan and tossed it in.
I hate this place, she reminded herself.
“Don’t smoke around me,” Tara told the boy who stood next to her in the building’s fenced-in backyard. She frequently came outside after dinner and stared at the Whitestone suspension bridge and the placid, oily East River which divided Ferry Point Park and the College Point neighborhood of Queens. It was a view more striking than any she had expected to find in the Bronx, which, she knew, had been an ignorant assumption, especially since she had grown up minutes away in Parkchester. Still, day or night, it came as a surprise.
Enrique Menos, more often than not, would join her after a few minutes. He was either ten or twelve years old, maybe older, maybe slightly younger. “What?” he asked, and blushed as if she had flattered him.
“I know you want to.”
He looked at her. “I don’t smoke.”
“Just don’t do it in front of me.”
“My mother smokes.”
“Not in front of me.”
“You don’t like my mother.”
Tara squinted at the waning sun. “She’s okay.”
“You think she’s a loser.”
“What did I say?”
He lowered his head. “My sneakers are cheap.”
“They’re fine,” she said without looking.
“They last longer than the good brands. But nobody likes them.”
“Does nobody like you?”
Enrique smiled halfway. “I got friends.”
The autumn wind coming off the river grew colder, and she brushed back her hair and buttoned her jacket. “Good.”
“My birthday is coming next month. The week before Halloween.”
“I’m not buying you sneakers.”
He stared. “You think I’m a loser.”
“I’m starting to.”
He paused, then whispered, “I don’t smoke.”
“You don’t want the cancer.”
Her cell phone vibrated in her jacket pocket. She took it out and looked at it.
“Who is it?”
She wondered if her agitation showed. “I got friends too.”
Rattled, Tara could not think of an answer. She put the phone back in her pocket. “Go home, Ricky.”
He looked like he was about to cry. “I am home.”
She was dying, suddenly, for a cigarette.
I’m not, she reminded herself.
That night she awoke from the worst nightmare of her life.
I didn’t kill him, she wanted to say to the empty room.
And if she had said it, she might have added, Gloria Halverson will vouch.
The next morning she came to about twenty feet behind the sycamore tree where he was last seen. The streak of blood at the base was still visible but barely. It had rained twice since.
Six days ago—less than an hour after she had broken up with him—he called her on his cellphone and threatened to kill himself. He had tried three times before with pills. Acute depression ran in his family, she knew; he had openly warned her. His mother had killed herself with a razor when he was eleven. She gave no warning. On that day she seemed perfectly happy. She knew she would get it right the first time.
At the end of her second week as a single woman, Tara came outside after half a slice of pepperoni pizza—his favorite—after her stomach had closed, her throat had closed, in remembrance. She saw Enrique by the shore, past the fence, staring. He had a bruise over his left eye and cheek. In the lowering sun, it was abundantly rich with color.
He turned halfway. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”
She sighed. “It looks pretty bad, Ricky.”
“My mom was a Jehovah’s witness. For like a month last year. My friend Bobby, his mom found out. She’s a Jehovah’s Witness. She called my mom yesterday and told her she doesn’t want Bobby hanging out with me anymore. She said my mom’s a quitter and Jesus does not abide quitters.”
Tara smiled at the water, her cheeks creasing. “Jesus doesn’t abide,” she said. “If you say so. It’s supposed to rain tonight. You should go back inside.”
“I hate my mom.”
“She’s a quitter. She quits everything.”
“Does she still smoke?”
Enrique cast her a sidelong glance, smirked.
“You said you got other friends,” Tara reminded him. “Are you a liar?”
“Who hit you? Was it Bobby?”
“No. Bobby can’t fight,” he said. “It was my mom.”
There was a pause. They both gazed at an empty canoe drifting under the bridge.
“I hit her first.”
Tara raised her eyebrows. “Why?”
“When my mom told me I couldn’t hang out with him anymore, she started to cry. I hate when she does that. Like it changes anything. It’s a trick to spin you around. I just wanted her to stop.”
She laughed nervously. “I guess it worked.”
“No. After she hit me back, she just cried harder.” He paused, his face growing sharper, older. “I hate when she does that!”
“You’re both okay,” she said tonelessly. “Or you will be.”
“Oh, I’m supposed to ask you some—”
They both turned to Rosalida’s voice. She was standing just inside the fence, as if afraid to move beyond it. Or maybe she wasn’t angry enough.
“Your dinner is sitting there. You want it cold? Because I can put it in the fridge, if you really want it nice and cold!”
Eyes fixed on his mother, he whispered to Tara, “She would never do that.”
She smiled and told him to go.
He took a few steps away from her, then turned. “I’m supposed to ask you if you wanna have dinner. With us.”
Tara looked at Rosalida, then back at Enrique. She wondered if he had struck his mother hard enough to leave a mark. “You’re lying.”
“Not now I’m not. Go ask her!” He spun back around and headed for the building, passing his mother without stopping.
Tara walked toward the fence and was surprised to see Rosalida still standing there. Shit.
“You eat yet?” She was short and slightly plump. She had a rose-colored bruise above her lip. Her accent was almost as thick as her mother’s, which, Tara hated to admit, was exasperating.
“Yes,” she said automatically. “No, not really.”
“Come,” Rosalida said and turned before Tara could reply.
Their apartment was greasy, and shockingly small. Tara assumed it was a two bedroom like hers, like every unit in the complex, according to the management company’s website. But it didn’t have a long hallway or hardwood floors like her own unit; it was square-shaped with smaller windows and drab tiled flooring that stuck to the bottom of her shoes.
As if reading her mind, Rosalida turned off the sink and said, “You know, I put in a bid for your place, what, four years ago? Went even higher than I could afford. But Madame Sclerosis wasn’t having it.”
Tara nodded at the floor.
“You like Puerto Rican food?”
There was that old pressure in her head, a pressure she detested. “I am Puerto Rican.”
Rosalida looked at her for a long moment. “I wasn’t sure. You look it in the face but you’re kinda skinny, and you sound like a white girl.”
At the small, black metal dining table, Enrique rolled his eyes. Tara wondered if it was his mother’s voice or the superb ease of her judgment that irritated him more.
“I think you’ll like what I made. Carne guisada. You’ve had it?”
Beef stew. “Yes. I like it.”
She nodded once and turned to the stove, moving jerkily.
Tara took the seat she assumed was for guests; it had a thin layer of dust over it. Before she sat down fully, Enrique ran his hand over the cushion once. Dust motes floated away on either side. She grinned at him warmly and pulled up to the compact table.
Rosalida was hungry; she took the first bite of the stew and did not stop to consider its quality before taking another. On her third bite, Enrique joined her, scooping up a spoonful of beef and scallions and slipping it fast into his mouth. Neither of them spoke.
Tara leaned over her plate and began.
“What happened to your boyfriend?” Rosalida asked moments later, still chewing.
Enrique looked at Tara.
“We’re not together anymore,” she said flatly and swallowed. “This is delicious.”
“I know.” Rosalida appeared to think. “Thank you.”
“My dad used to make this,” Enrique said. He glanced at his mother and added, “But not as good.”
Rosalida grimaced. “We’re not together anymore either. I didn’t know it then, but even when we were together, we weren’t.” She was about to take another bite, then stopped. “Is that what happened? Maybe you realized it before I did. Maybe you’re smarter than me.”
“Maybe.” Tara looked at her plate. “No.” She sighed and glimpsed Enrique, then made eye contact with his mother.
She took another bite. “Believe me he’s fine. Parents are always talking about how to protect kids from the internet—or internet porn, mostly. Which is just sex. Which is going to be a part of his life eventually. One day I catch him watching something late at night on his tablet. Know what it is?”
Tara’s eyes darted between mother and son, the bruises they shared.
“An episode of Black Mirror. In the future this woman loses her husband in a car crash. She’s so messed up about it, she mail-orders his consciousness to her phone. He was very active on social media, so some tech company puts together a personality based on his conversations. And it’s close! It’s so close it messes her up more. She’s talking and joking with her dead husband on her phone, like he’s out of town on business. It gets crazier and sadder, and you know she is never going to get over his death—and then it’s over! I could barely sleep after I watched that. But this one doesn’t lose a wink.”
Enrique smiled shyly.
“So he can stand to hear our silly stories. The way I see it, maybe he’ll learn something that will be useful later.”
Tara nodded. Her head swam.
“James had a history of depression. I dealt with it at first, but nothing I did made it better, so I didn’t want to try anymore.” Her heart lurched, hearing herself say this aloud, so simply.
Enrique looked confused. “Nothing you did helped him?”
She shook her head once, then spoke as if making a well-rehearsed speech. “It’s like when you have a leak in your house. You plug it up, but then water starts to come out from a different place. If you can’t find the source, nothing you do matters.”
“Maybe there is no source,” Rosalida said.
Tara looked at her. A thin cold rain was falling in the kitchen window.
“Everything comes from somewhere,” she said.
Rosalida picked something from between her teeth and set it on the table beside her plate. “You are smarter than me. Because I tried to make my marriage work. I did every single stupid thing I could think of. You know what I did?” Suddenly, her eyes seemed delicate and insubstantial. “I switched religions.”
Enrique blinked. His face went scarlet, not, Tara thought, from shock but from embarrassment at not having guessed it himself. For a long moment no one spoke.
Rosalida brushed something—a fly?—away from herself and continued to eat. “All you lost for your effort was time. But because I didn’t know when to quit, my son lost his only goddamn friend.”
“Don’t yell, sweetie,” she said. “What?”
“I got other friends.”
“No you don’t.”
“Tara’s my friend. That’s why she’s here.”
Her senses stirred sharply, painfully. She wanted to hug Ricky. She wanted to get as far away from him as possible.
Rosalida smiled for the first time tonight. “Maybe you’re smarter than me, too. You want a cookie?”
Tara felt the tension between them flatten, neutralized by an uneven, lopsided affection. She liked them. She wanted to like them.
Enrique said, “I want to play COD. My clan has already started by now.”
“Finish your plate.”
In three bites he was done. He put his plate in the sink and ran water on it. “You want to come see me play?” he asked Tara. “I’m not great, but I don’t suck either.”
“She’ll come in a little while,” Rosalida said. “Let her finish her food in peace. Vete!”
He turned and disappeared. Tara heard a door open and close just a few feet behind her.
“He does that almost every night. Spends at least an hour playing Call of Duty, Mission to Mars or some shit. At least it’s company. But he’s too smart to think they’re real friends. Which isolates him even more in a way, you know?”
Tara thought that she did know, and her eyelids felt heavy with dull grief.
“So where are you from?”
Rosalida shook her head, swallowed. “Another place I can’t afford. Why did you leave?”
“I left in the nineties to go to school. My parents bought back when it was much cheaper. I stayed in the city after I finished. Lived on the Upper West Side for a while. Now I’m here.”
Rosalida stared. “You left the Upper West Side for the ass-end of the Bronx?”
Tara shrugged her shoulders. “It’s a beautiful ass. This spot, at least.”
She scoffed. “I’ve heard that one before.”
Tara laughed, pretending to understand.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a photographer’s assistant.”
“Is that what you studied—photography?”
“But why are you here?”
Tara cut the last piece of meat into three smaller pieces. “I followed a boy.”
Rosalida sighed and finished her plate. “You’re not that smart, after all.”
Tara’s throat felt raw. She was in danger of saying too much. Then she remembered a stranger’s name on a bright white card not meant for her, and somehow felt that she could survive anything; that she could be led anywhere she had to go and come out safely on the other side. “He was trying to make a point.”
Rosalida waited, running her tongue over her lip.
“He’d just started shooting on his own. People kept telling him he needed to move to the city if he could. Otherwise Brooklyn was the next best—or only—choice. But he was superstitious. He got his first break as a digital tech for a then-famous photographer while living in Riverdale, where he grew up. He wanted to stay there until he was on solid ground in the industry. I loved that about him…although hearing it now, I’m not sure why.”
“Because we love men simmering with noble passion. You cherry-picked the fact that others would judge him for staying here. He would accept that, and you thought that made him special.”
“Basically,” Tara said, remembering. “I chose to ignore that he was just a superstitious idiot.”
“Just an idiot?” Rosalida looked at her empty plate. “He would have been right at home at this table.”
Tara laughed uneasily. She started to get up when Rosalida motioned for her to stay seated and grabbed her plate. She put it on top of her own, then took both plates to the sink.
Tara flinched and Rosalida nearly dropped the plates when Enrique shrieked from his bedroom, “Oh, come on!”
Rosalida sighed. “Hackers,” she said and placed both plates gently into the sink. Happens almost every time now. Little bastards cheat the game, make it so that they’re impossible to kill or invisible or some other shit.” She ran water over both plates, tilting each this way and that. “I should be happy about it, because he usually gets so mad he ends up reading a book he’s already read. Because nobody is going to hack the story and make it something different than what it was.”
Tara watched Enrique’s young mother in the grainy, pitiless light of the kitchen window, and a shock of hectic melancholy stole through her. “I think James is dead.”
Rosalida’s hands went still. “My condolences,” she said without turning.
Tara breathed with difficulty, stung. She thought about what she should do, say, next. “But I could be wrong.”
“Why don’t we go outside,” she said and turned the water off. “Right now.”
“Come,” Rosalida said, and was already out the door when Tara decided to follow.
Outside, the rain had devolved into a mist that smelled like grass cut too short. Tara watched her for a minute. Then she looked toward the Whitestone Bridge where Rosalida’s attention was held. “Did you know the park has friends now?”
Tara listened closely. Her heart raced without cause.
“Friends of Ferry Point Park. They try to keep it clean. They plant new plants. They maintain the 3000 trees that were added in the 9/11 Memorial Grove. No one wanted to be a friend of the park before that, including me. When I was a girl, they were stripping cars in there. My first boyfriend used to sleep in one to get away from his dad. I brought him Chinese take-out one time and sat in the passenger seat and tried to ignore the smell of piss, which may or may not have been his piss.” She smiled oddly. “Say that three times fast.”
Tara could sense her thinking rapidly, her eyes pocketed with shadows.
“I should love that park. I’ve been around it all my life. But I’ve never gone in there just because.” She shook her head at the triangle formed by the East River on the right, Ferry Point Park on the left, and the Whitestone Bridge crossing them both. “James isn’t dead.”
Tara refocused on Enrique’s mother.
“I mean, I don’t know.” Rosalida turned around and backed away a step. “He tried. He cut himself, though I think he did it wrong. There was blood, but not that much.”
“How did you—”
“I saw him outside my window. He’d been buzzing your intercom for a while. From in here, it sounded like drunken Morse code.”
Tara stared vaguely over Rosalida’s shoulder. “I just wanted him to go away.”
She continued as if she hadn’t heard. “He came out here and walked around, like he was prepared to wait for you.”
“I should have called the cops.”
Rosalida gave her a look, as if in warning. “Mrs. McKenzie came out of the laundry room and saw him by the old sycamore tree. She probably thought he had dropped something. She’d seen him before so she let him be. But I knew she’d be back.” Her lips thinned. “I told him he should leave before somebody called somebody. That’s when I saw his wrist.”
Tara closed her eyes and rubbed them with the tips of her extended fingers.
“I got some gauze from inside and brought it out to him. Even if Enrique hadn’t been home, I didn’t want him in there. Should I have told you?”
Tara stiffened, disliking the question. “I should have called the cops.”
Rosalida hesitated before turning back around. “I brought him to the park. Not exactly where my old boyfriend used to sleep but close. It’s not because I thought he shouldn’t be alone or because I was lonely. I felt like I could breathe easier around him. That night, with him stupidly looking for a way out, I felt better about my own worst mistakes. How I had wanted an abortion but Enrique’s father begged me not to do it. He said my fear could be folded into something greater. Now I’m raising our son alone.” She drew in her breath, her back straightened. “For some reason, I couldn’t hate myself around James. I wanted to hold on to that, at least for a night.”
Tara asked, “Did he make it home?”
It took Rosalida a long time to respond. When she did, she kept her head down, as if there was something in the distance that offended her. “He thanked me after. For proving that he doesn’t love. Not himself, you, not anyone. He told me I freed him.” She spun around, quickly this time. Her eyes were small, now, scared. “What does that make me? A whore—which I thought I could handle—or something worse?”
Tara shrugged, sympathetic and baffled. “Where is he now?”
“I don’t know. We came out of the park, and I said goodbye. He looked up and around, like he was seeing everything for the first time. Then he looked at me and smiled. He couldn’t stop. Even when he got to the corner and disappeared. It was crazy seeing him so happy.”
Tara backed away, shaking her head, remembering the story of his mother, who got it right the first time. “Goddammit,” she whispered.”
“What?” Rosalida asked blankly.
Tara rubbed her forehead and sighed shakily. “Why are you telling me this?”
She reached out as if to touch her. “Enrique said you were sad. He thinks you’re his friend. Instead of making his friends disappear, I thought…I don’t know. Forget it.”
Her face damp with perspiration, Tara spoke with a perfect lack of sincerity. “Thank you.” The words felt to her like the evening lived in reverse, the stark contrast of a photograph negative stretched over a lit match. “Thank you.”
Inside, Tara found Enrique snoring lightly in front of his Playstation console. Rosalida had warned her that he’d likely fallen asleep by now, but she stayed behind and said nothing when Tara opened the door to his bedroom which was a surprisingly tidy affair. On one side of the small room was a five-shelf bookcase filled with every fantasy series she had heard of and a few she hadn’t. A number of them were unreturned library books which could have been second-hand purchases, but she didn’t think so. On the other side was a small computer desk with a laptop covered in stickers that were, to her, indecipherable.
Tara’s eyes returned to the bookcase. There were no hardcovers, only stocky paperbacks. Yet each spine came over the shelf’s edge by maybe half an inch. It could have been an aesthetic preference of Ricky’s to arrange them this way, but she guessed there was another reason. She walked silently toward the bookcase and pulled out two books from The Dark Elf trilogy. A pained smile spread across her lips. Then she bent at the knees and pulled a book from The Sword of Truth series from the shelf below. Her smile hardened and her eyes closed for a moment. She stood back up and left the room without checking the other shelves.
On her way out, she thanked Rosalida for the meal. She felt a sensation of panic that she couldn’t express gratitude for anything else. But Rosalida seemed to accept Tara’s quiet judgment, as if there were plenty of room alongside her own; as if, again, she had made a grievous error when trying to help a situation and had been shown proof.
I didn’t kill him, she thought for the second time, once inside her own apartment. Gloria Halverson—whoever she was—might vouch, but she might also suggest that Tara Contreras could have handled things differently and then offer her condolences.
Standing in her living room in the dark, looking out a window at the East River, the Whitestone Bridge, and Ferry Point Park nestled in its shadow, she was struck suddenly by several ideas. To sell this apartment to Rosalida at a price she could afford; to give Ricky an epic fantasy book he hadn’t read with a map inside to a fashionable pair of sneakers, as well as a note requesting that he stop hiding cartons of cigarettes in his bookshelves; to leave the city permanently, for another place as far as she could manage, an uncommonly beautiful and private land where grief and guilt and hackers held no power.