I let myself in with the key, dark cumulus carpet stains, half-eaten fast food, and burn marks on the coffee table, video games and consoles, plastic eye-drop containers, cereal boxes, instant pasta. Above the TV, a poster of a long line of ectomorphic college cheerleaders. Flynn’s bedroom door, decorated with scuff marks and boot-made dents, was closed.
“Come out,” I said.
He made his teachers “nervous”; he corrected them. He remembered and recited beginnings of ’50s dime-store novels, batting averages of dozens of baseball teams, Latin names of spider species in Chile and Tanzania, and he knew paintings, about which he did and didn’t care. He was thirteen. Our mother, Deedee, had him entertain dinner guests—yes, sir, the etymology of error is wander. Delilah didn’t shave off Samson’s hair, her servant did. Domodossola, in Piedmont, was conquered in 12 BCE by the Romans; the Romans themselves were sacked by the Gauls, the Normans, the Visigoths, the Vandals.
“What?” I could hear him on the other side of the door, his voice still slightly high. “No.”
“Come out right now.”
“I drove out here just to see you.”
“I drove out here just to see you.” When he didn’t know what to say, he mimicked you, and this was always eerie, as it wasn’t quite intended to be mockery.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“Baby. It’s okay.”
“Thank you, and have a nice day.”
“Let me see you.”
“I smell,” he said.
Deedee had called me from work, worried about Flynn not coming out for days. He’s my half-brother, fifteen years younger, born to Deedee and her second ex-husband. Flynn lived with Deedee and her third husband, a consummate Dullard (what Flynn and I called him), an oral surgeon. Flynn opened the door in his long stained undershirt and glasses with lenses so thin they seemed not there.
He liked pornography, the Internet. He liked explosions, chase scenes, TV shoot-’em-ups and crashes, gang fights on the local news. Social networking sites, pop songs and rap, sitcom reruns in the afternoons. He hoarded gumballs, fruit sours, sixlets, jellybeans, lollipops, lemonheads. Weeknights he watched adult cartoons.
Deedee let him stay in her guesthouse, behind her own house. She thought this made her a good mother, progressive. There was a sheetless king-sized mattress on his bedroom floor, something chaotic, colorful, and quick on the bedroom TV. He stood, waiting for some end to come to this moment that, like most moments, you felt was merely stalling him—he waited to return to whatever it was people like me kept him from, and I told him to shower, right now, and he did.
It was the summer I was twenty-eight and recovering from the previous year. I called myself a painter but didn’t paint. Deedee gave me some money. I taught adult art classes at the community center and was compensated so little that I couldn’t have my car’s air conditioning repaired. I apologized to Flynn on the drive—he just looked out the window.
We would attempt the relief that comes after a doctor reassures you a problem is common, treatable, and will be gone soon.
His counselor’s office specialized in teenagers, anxiety, attention deficit, autism, social anxiety, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive, the menu. In the waiting room was a generic framed Escher spiral staircase, ’80s rock on a boom box on the floor, overlaid by sound from a saucer-shaped appliance in a corner, a white noise maker. Well-browsed ragged women’s magazines on the table.
“This really is obscene,” said Flynn, gesturing to the waiting room as if showing me a museum piece. His arm was so thin and breakable—we were both smaller than average, something we’d inherited from Deedee.
“Did you know that 98 percent of women are dental hygienists? Interesting? Relevant? Or who the hell cares? Your thoughts on this, please, Miranda.” He took a pamphlet from the little rack, tightly rolled it up, and held it to my mouth.
“Well, what you have to remember is that what we think of as hell is just a Judeo-Christian construction,” I said into the microphone. He seemed satisfied.
A boy sat beside us, eyes closed, dreamily stroking the inflamed rims of his nostrils. A girl hunched over, hands between her knees, and the two other kids, with their parents, watched their phones, scrolling and tapping, in front of a sign that read “Cell Phone Use Is Not Permitted In Mental Health” and another that read, “If You See Something, Say Something.”
“That’s true about cell phones,” said Flynn, taking off his glasses to clean them with his shirt.
The counselors, women and men in shabby business-casual clothing, all Gen X and Baby Boomers, retrieved their patients one by one, looking apologetic, their mouths turned down, a universal expression: I’ll do what I can. I couldn’t see them as they asked to be seen, as professional healers—these were the people who’d worn everyone down, who’d realized the mistake too late, who tried to build everyone up again, but without clarity—witch doctors wandering far from the ruins of Freud. Each child left the room and each time, in me, there was a little ache, incredible. I didn’t even want children.
Now Flynn and I were alone in the waiting room. “Let’s steal something,” he said.
I would play most games he asked me to. I picked up a large stack of diabetes pamphlets and put them in my purse, then took a particularly thick pamphlet on domestic violence—a woman with a man’s hands clamped around her bruised face—and sat on it. Flynn went up to the unattended check-in desk and slowly, slowly tore the last week of August from a blank calendar.
“And don’t forget to bring condoms,” he said, kneeling like a knight in front of my chair and offering me the torn week.
“Inappropriate,” I said.
“Sorry.” He smiled. “And have a nice day.”
His counselor arrived, younger than the others, her facial features so delicate she seemed a child herself. When they left for her office, I pumped sanitizer onto my hands from a bottle on the table and rubbed. He sent me a text message from inside: “Such a rebel! Using my cell phone in the mental health!”
“Me, too!” I replied.
After a while, the counselor came to take me to him.
“I’m Kerry,” she said, closing the office door and sitting at her desk. “You can sit right there.” Her voice made me think she was my age or younger.
Flynn sat next to her and faced me, too, across the desk. I wondered if he enjoyed the attention. About his doctors he’d once told me, “You really have to give them a show, that’s what they’re there for.”
Another saucer-shaped white noise maker in the corner. Neutral carpet, fluorescent lighting, framed pastel floral prints. One of Kerry’s eyes was red, with what could have been the beginning of a welt underneath. Maybe a husband or boyfriend had hurt her, had put his hands around her head.
“He needs to set an alarm and take his medication in the morning,” Kerry said. “If he takes it at night, he won’t sleep.”
She seemed fragile, wistful; she was very short, my height. Poor thing, I thought.
“He could try a different serotonin reuptake inhibitor,” I said. “Why hasn’t anyone suggested that?”
Flynn shuffled two appointment cards in his hands rhythmically.
“I don’t know too much about the different chemicals,” Kerry laughed. “That’s for the doctor.”
“The only way to deal with an unfree world,” said Flynn, “is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.”
“Hm,” said Kerry.
“I didn’t say that, by the way. That’s Camel Camus.”
“You don’t know anything about the chemicals?” I said.
“The psychiatrist decides that,” she said. “As well as the dosage. She’s across the hall. But it’s important that he sets an alarm to take his medicine.”
“He’s thirteen, and it’s summer. That doesn’t seem realistic.”
“It is what it is.”
She said it finally. This was satisfactory—the solution to the problem being found in that tautology—and so I stood. We would attempt to leave with that particular relief that comes after a doctor reassures us the problem is common, treatable, and will, certainly, be gone soon.
“Let me know if anything else comes up,” Kerry said, looking at Flynn as he stood. “Have a good one.”
I took him out to an early dinner and told him he should call Deedee. He preferred not, he said. I asked about school in the fall, if he was ready for high school, I asked about girls, if he’d seen his friends lately, if he thought the salad was soggy, if he was too hot or cold, if he wanted ice in his drink, and he answered it all, monosyllabically, waiting for this, too, to be over, staring past my shoulder, watching a basketball game on TV on the restaurant wall.
On the ride back to his house, I said, “How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“I think you do.”
“So. Tell me.”
“Have a good one,” he said.
• • •
Zoloft and Paxil and Prozac. Cymbalta and Klonopin. SSRI. This is the language of friends of mine from college. Daily pills to save them from defeat. Kate’s grandfather died: “That simple, put in a box in the ground,” she said. Lee lacked impulse control, had a miscarriage, a sister in a car crash. Johannes simply had bad dreams. I once told him I disliked my own bad dreams and didn’t wish them gone. I could watch myself living and watching all the parts of my life, ecstatic, painful, and I wanted all of it, all threads, the knitted and the unraveled.
I didn’t hear from Deedee or Flynn for two days. I tried calling, once very late and another time early. On the third day, Deedee called.
“He really needs you. He’s been asking about you.”
“Is that true?” I said.
She could believe in nearly any emotion she let herself swing to—when she was a “pretty blonde child,” she’d worked a little as an actress, a toothpaste commercial and some clothing catalogs. Then she’d danced, ballet, but was told later that she was too short to continue professionally. Her “life had ended” then. My height and Flynn’s were reminders of the thing that crushed her. At twenty-two came the first husband, my father, now long forgotten, hardly mentioned.
“Flynn misses you,” she said. “I’m at work, and he needs to be around people.”
“What happened to his friends from last year?”
“He doesn’t tell me very much, you know I don’t know. It’s just how he is. But you need to go get him and take him somewhere. Maybe the mall. Only don’t tell him you’re taking him to the mall, or he won’t go.”
“The problem is he has no impulse control,” I said.
“You saying that right now doesn’t help anyone.”
Zoloft and Paxil and Prozac. This is the language of friends of mine, daily pills to save them from defeat.
A few years ago she’d become half-aware that I had come to disrespect her, that I treated very little of what she said seriously. I’d married Victor (now separated) in part because the gravity of marriage, the ritual and contract, was supposed to have distanced me from her shallowness.
I sent Flynn a message on his phone: “Coming to get you. Be ready. 15 minutes.”
He wrote back incongruously: “Hey qtpie.”
I bought him a pizza in the mall. We ate in front of the spinning cake-like carousel, kids fat and thin repeating on repeating horses. I took him to three clothing stores. He came out of the dressing room, the clothes too large, sleeves drooping, body language as if asking me not to judge him for what he was, because none of this was what he actually meant. None of it. I wanted to tell him I already knew. He combed his blonde-white hair sideways like an old man, and in fact his motive was an old man’s, as he used his hair to cover a red, scabbed-over bald spot. He’d been born with it—one of those tolerable imperfections that means little at first. Nothing fit. A salesperson suggested we try a children’s store.
“You shouldn’t insult customers,” he told me when we’d left. “Customers pay your taxes! Imbeciles.” He shook one fist above his head, the gesture of a cartoon villain. He’d likely learned it, unaware, from a cartoon.
I took him to a pet store. The dogs that were awake looked at us with wet, winky eyes, like beached whales barely alive. I looked back sleepily. Flynn leaned on a shelf and stared. I entertained an image of us all living underwater. I thought of Victor underwater. Underwater, he couldn’t move.
“That’s Leslie,” Flynn said, straightening his glasses. He was looking at a tall, indifferent girl with crimped hair dyed lavender, facing us, standing in front of a cage of gerbils on wheels.
“You know her from school?”
“You should talk to her.”
Without arguing, he did. I watched him say hello, then they stared at the cage like at a television, saying things I couldn’t hear. I walked over. She slouched, hands in pockets. I could tell she was polite, that she didn’t want to be standing next to him. She looked his age, uncomplicated and, except for her lavender hair, untouched.
“The more gerbil pellets this guy eats,” Flynn was saying, “the more points he gets. Some are worth more than others, that’s how the mechanism of the game works. There’s an element of uncertainty. We can’t know what each is worth, or even if some will hurt us.”
“Gerbil food hurts gerbils?” Leslie said.
“We don’t know, that’s what makes us play the game.”
She looked trapped—just from her face, I knew Flynn’s status at his junior high school, the same one I’d gone to years earlier: he was not disliked, nor was he thought interesting or intelligent, as I thought of him, but he was simply ignored, avoided. Leslie tapped on a glass terrarium next to the dizzying gerbil cage. A pale chameleon came out from behind a vine of pale, fake flowers.
“That’s Benjamin,” Flynn said. “That’s the chameleon’s name.”
Leslie thumped her thumb on the glass, then looked away. “I have to go find my friends.”
An elderly woman sitting behind the counter looked up from her computer. “Please don’t touch,” she said.
“He likes it when you do that,” Flynn said to Leslie. He tapped the glass quietly. “He likes girls. He really likes you. Benjamin says, ‘She’s pretty.’ Say that, Benjamin. Can you say that? She’s pretty.”
“Thanks,” she said to Benjamin, “but you’re a lizard.”
“Chameleons come from the family Chamaeleonidae.”
“Oh-kaay,” she said.
“Look out, Benjamin.” Flynn picked up the tiny terrarium and turned it upside-down. “Earthquake, Benjamin! What are you going to do now? What are you going to do?”
He held the cage upside-down, leaving Benjamin to scramble and eventually crouch on his new ceiling-turned-floor. His vine fell and landed on his triangular head; he blinked once. I should have stopped Flynn sooner, but there’s always some grotesquerie, some coarser curiosity in me that waits to see what he’ll do next. Maybe he knows this.
“Young man,” the woman said, coming out from behind the counter.
“Flynn, that’s enough,” I said, taking away the terrarium.
“Young man. Young man.” The woman was stunned, repeating herself, looking like a parrot with deep red eye shadow and thin, tufty black hair. This probably hadn’t happened before.
Leslie tittered. Flynn smiled with his arms crossed, having won something from her, finally, a small prize he’d keep for himself.
“Is he with you?” the parrot-woman said. “I’m sorry but he needs to leave. We don’t tolerate that.”
I didn’t apologize. I bought Benjamin and his cage for thirty-five dollars.
• • •
“I think he’s starving it on purpose,” Deedee said to Dullard as she set the table. “I know you think I’m crazy, but I do.”
It was Saturday afternoon, and Flynn had had the chameleon a week. He played with it, talked about teaching it tricks, but wouldn’t feed it.
“Leave the poor kid alone,” said Dullard. His prominent ears wiggled a little when he spoke.
“Poor kid? What poor kid?” said Deedee.
‘You have two buttons: the first saves a thousand people, but deletes Shakespeare. The second button does the opposite.’
She’d been dying her hair blonde for years, but down one side she left a line of gray she wore like a medal. She often revealed it to friends. The only marks of her age were in her veined and spotted hands, in the wrinkles and rings on her neck and chest. Her jeans were too small.
“He’s thirteen,” Dullard said, as though explaining a wisdom tooth extraction. “He’s a guy, and he’s thirteen. Simple. That’s all there is to it.”
“It is what it is,” I baited him. I was learning the language.
“Exactly,” said Dullard. “It is what it is. Can we eat now?”
“What did he name that lizard?” Deedee said. “He refused to tell me.”
I wouldn’t tell her, either. Dullard’s actual name was Benjamin.
Deedee liked to say the dinner table was an airplane, and all electronic devices must be turned off. Meals were for conversation. We were silent when Flynn walked in.
“I was sleeping,” he said. His face was round and swollen, his hair in his eyes, his scabbed bald spot exposed.
“It is what it is,” I said.
“We’re going in to the doctor tomorrow,” Deedee said. “Both of us.”
“What imbeciles,” said Flynn, shaking his fist in the air. “I’m not hungry.”
“Sit down. Right now. Then Miranda’s taking you somewhere.”
“Where?” he said.
“It’s a surprise,” I said.
He sat down and pretended to yawn. He quickly finger-combed and patted his light hair over his bald spot. That summer I’d never seen him up before 2:00 p.m.
“I have a thought experiment for you,” he said.
“Please, no,” Deedee said, bringing to the table long plates of sushi rolls we’d had delivered. “Can we just eat?”
“This is important,” he said. He cracked his knuckles. “You’re at war.”
“At war with what?” I said.
“A fictional place, okay?” Flynn said. “It doesn’t matter.”
“Except we are at war,” Dullard said, unwrapping chopsticks. “That’s what people like to forget.”
“Right,” Flynn said. “So pretend you’re at war. You have two buttons in front of you. Two. The first saves a thousand people, but all of Shakespeare gets deleted. Or Bach, or Camus, choose whoever would mean the most to you. The second button does the opposite.”
“What’s the opposite?” I said.
Flynn placed large petals of ginger on his tongue.
“Tell us the opposite,” I said.
“The second button,” he said, “saves Shakespeare, but kills the people. The question is, how many people dying would make you choose the first button? See? It’s like, how many deaths are worth deleting Shakespeare? How many people would you sacrifice?”
“Who are these people?” Dullard said.
“Not the point. It’s a fictional place,” Flynn said.
Deedee put a whole eel roll in her mouth and chewed. “A hundred people,” she said finally. “I’d only push the second button to save Shakespeare if it killed less than a hundred.”
“Really, a hundred?” Flynn said. “What do you think?” he asked me.
“I’m not sure.”
“You read about this somewhere?” Dullard said. “You saw it on TV?”
“What’s the point?” Deedee said.
“Just think about it,” Flynn said.
“Go get dressed,” she said.
• • •
I drove us to a museum in a neighboring city, quite out of the way. The permanent collection had been given by a mining magnate. I’d taken my adult art classes there on field trips and had gone several times on my own.
“Do you think you’re a good person?” Flynn asked, rolling down his window. “It’s damn hot.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It isn’t so black and white as that. Why are you asking?”
“I don’t know.” He played with a black lighter, flicking the flame on, the little flick sounding like kick to me. Kick. Kick. “I guess I was just testing you.”
“Where’d you get that? Are you smoking?”
“You ask a lot of questions,” he said. “And no.”
Victor had never liked Flynn, and I didn’t understand how an adult male could genuinely dislike an adolescent boy, since one was no match for the other. Because of Flynn, and because of Victor’s own depression, Victor had constantly looked for symptoms of mental illness in me—washing my hands more than I should, excessive anxiety over a darkening mole. Kick. Kick.
In the museum was an exhibit by a contemporary Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, that I hadn’t seen yet. It began with a photographic triptych: three gelatin silver prints of Ai nonchalantly looking at the camera, dropping a Han dynasty urn (“That’s roughly 206 BCE to 9 BCE,” Flynn said). In front of the triptych was, on the floor, an arrangement of ancient Han urns, similar to the one Ai dropped in the triptych, but painted by Ai in gaudy colors. Colored Vases, 2007–10.
“I should grab one of those and drop it!” Flynn said.
“Don’t say that,” I said. “It’s like saying ‘bomb’ on an airplane.”
“But he’s already doing it.” Flynn pointed at the photos of Ai.
“That’s not the point.”
We passed a crowd circled around a glass case that displayed Ai’s Han Dynasty Urn with Coca-Cola Logo. We couldn’t see around a tour group taking pictures with their phones.
“Let’s go,” said Flynn. “I feel implicated.”
“Implicated? You mean complicated?”
He didn’t say.
“Have you heard about Ai before?” I said. “Some people think he’s a political hero.”
“Big deal,” he said. “He destroys an ancient urn to say he’s against destroying an ancient urn.”
“Maybe it’s fake,” I said.
“Very original,” he said.
We entered a different period, a different room, Warhol and Klee. I instructed Flynn, just like with my adult students at the art center. Approach carefully, stand facing head-on, and, at first, do not think.
“That’s impossible, you know,” he said.
I sat on a bench between two little-known Klees and started to sketch one of them as Flynn approached the Warhol.
“Take a step back.” A docent in a red jacket came out from his corner, making a motion with both hands. “Take a step back, son. You’re too close to the painting.”
“I’m not your son,” said Flynn.
“Just step back,” I said.
He semi-stomped into the next room. I could hear him in there, walking from one side to the other, then back again, flicking his lighter. Kick, kick. I heard someone ask, “Are you alright?”
“Have a nice day,” I heard him say. Kick, kick.
Once Deedee asked if I loved Flynn, and I told her of course, thinking it an unanswerable question, in the way most of Flynn’s questions were. I could not think I could not love him, and yet, between us, there existed no abstraction that could be called love. He’d have laughed at me if I’d suggested it. There were things about him I couldn’t see, things he wouldn’t give up, almost out of resentment. I’d sometimes be convinced he held on to some precocious wisdom, but I’d begun as well to think there might be no interior, no sketch beneath the painting, that would reveal what he was or intended. As easily as I could imagine his full inner life, I could imagine a cavity, hollowed out by us and all the things we’d told him he was.
Kick, kick. He came back into the Klee and Warhol room.
“Come here,” I said. “Baby. Sit right here.”
I used to rub his back when he sat next to me. He was too old for that.
“To me,” I said, looking at the Warhol, “these colors pulse, if you stare at it long enough.”
He grunted and fixed his glasses on his nose.
“That’s it?” I said. “You could give me more of a response.”
“Well. There’s just something wahoo-y about a Warhol on a white wall.”
He stood and walked up to the painting as if, I thought later, approaching an enemy. He was so close to it, I whimsically imagined he was seeing into it. The docent, who had three rooms to look after, was in the adjacent room, hands clasped behind his back, head bowed, as though he were standing in the back of a church. And Flynn looked at the Warhol, as I’d told him to, but too close, peering strangely, for a long time.
I had heard there was a cube of light by Ai on the second floor, and since it was the last day of the exhibit, I told Flynn where I was going and walked upstairs. It was large, the size of a tiny room, a metal jungle gym–like cubic grid, with hundreds of crystals inside, lit by bulbs arranged within it. Somehow it emotionally drained me. I walked around the cube, imagining this as some kind of performance. It was a chandelier, a meteor of meanings, a small sun. Or else it wasn’t meaningful, mere metal and light bulbs, probably built by Ai’s assistants. Children looked inside the cube with their parents. A girl reached to touch it, and her father said her name sternly, three times, until she put her hand back in her pocket.
“Will you take a picture of me with it?” A college-aged boy stood next to me with his phone.
“This is going to be cheesy,” he said, “but it’s this thing I do in front of monuments. I send the picture to my friends.” He stood in front of the cube, I counted to three, and he jumped up and spread his arms out in a V. “Thanks. Do you want one of you?” he said.
I didn’t, I told him. It’s just metal and bulbs.
When I heard the museum alarm go off, I felt I already knew what had happened. A few other people in the room proceeded calmly to the exit, which is what an automated voice instructed us to do. I exited with them, but ran down the stairs, through the door to the first floor, then through to the room of Ai’s ancient urns, to find Flynn in the center of a small crowd, including two docents and a museum guard, all looking down at what I could not reverse or unsee—the shards of a shattered, painted Han urn. Flynn looked down at the shards as nonchalantly as Ai did in his photograph.
I don’t remember what was said, but I remember stepping over the dark pink shards and grabbing Flynn’s wrist. The tour group from before was taking pictures of him and the shards. I wanted to take him home, to put him in bed with soup and decide he had flu, this was the problem, but four more guards arrived, and they escorted us both to the third floor. A larger crowd of people had gathered. They watched us leave and seemed very far from us, watching our pantomime from the other side of the screen.
The museum guards took us to a small room, where two policemen were waiting with the docents and teary museum director.
When Deedee arrived, she smiled bizarrely at everyone and said, “I’ve never been so embarrassed in all my life.” I believed her.
The room was an office, maybe an intern’s, full of art books and prints. A policeman asked Flynn if he had anything in his pockets, and he surrendered his lighter and three quarters and continued sitting where they’d told him. Flynn, Deedee, and I were questioned. The director didn’t, perhaps couldn’t, speak, except for once, to state her name for the police report, and then she leaned above her knees and put her hands over her eyes. I wanted to tell everyone sitting in that circle that we should all be blamed, it was our great burden and fault, that we were at least half the problem, but all this felt glib and wrong-even-if-right. And there sat the other half, holding, in his lap, a small painted shard no one had thought to take away from him.
It was criminal, said everyone in the room. Criminal to the police, the museum director, and Deedee for the same reasons. But if Ai-as-artist could destroy an ancient urn, how were we certain Flynn-as-criminal couldn’t?
“This affects your whole life,” Deedee said. “This goes on your record for life.”
They kept asking Flynn why he’d done it, even though he appeared, they said, to be “in his right mind.”
“I just saved a hundred people,” he said.
It is what it is.