Eli has never broken a bone. His spleen is intact, and infection eludes him. When he returns to his suburban hometown for a doctor’s appointment, citing an absence of symptoms, what he thinks is: “I can’t possibly have that great an immune system when my other, less corporeal defence mechanisms so often fail me.” He feels unfairly privileged.
On the way to the doctor Eli visits his mother, who gives him the news that his childhood babysitter, Chrissy Parish, has been killed in a car accident. She is spare with details, but the story isn’t in the details. Someone he knew as a child is now dead. She says she doesn’t want to upset him—really this means she’s the one who is upset, it being harder on the mothers when a child of the neighbourhood perishes, the sons and daughters failing to register much beyond swift shock—and changes the subject to Eli’s older sister, Ames, who’s gotten married and pregnant and has moved into a bungalow a block away. Talking about Ames makes Eli feel like a child. He’s in his final semester of college and has found an apartment downtown, in a shabby building flanked by a Lebanese restaurant and a halfway house. His roommate, Lee, has a scar that runs diagonally over his rib cage and resembles a sliver of raw pork, and these days Eli’s chief concern is whether to peek when Lee removes his shirt.
It’s been years since Eli last saw his family doctor. Here is a man who hasn’t seen his body since he sprouted chest hair. After a series of less intimate questions, the doctor asks his sexual orientation. Eli feels some abandon in telling a person however tenuously linked to his parents that he is a homosexual. It’s a simple question, like “Do you smoke? ” or “Have you ever had malaria? ” If the doctor hadn’t made it seem so banal Eli might have lied, as he does with others whose diagnoses he holds in lower regard. Instead the words glow on the computer monitor. “HOMOSEXUAL. FAMILY UNAWARE.” There is an air of clinical indifference.
Afterwards, in a different room, a nurse takes his blood. She asks him to spell his last name as she plunges the needle in. When she’s done he stares at the tubes of maroon fluid on the desk in front of her. It’s been a long time since he’s seen his blood.
“Is that it? ” he asks.
He wasn’t expecting it to be so easy.
When Ames comes to the door she has sheets of bubble wrap in her fists from a crib assembled weeks ago, and for a moment she looks mildly frantic, as though the baby might arrive by ringing the doorbell. From the kitchen her husband, Murray, insists over the sound of ground beef browning in a frying pan that Eli stay for tacos.
They sit down in the living room, and Eli asks, “Remember Chrissy Parish? ” The sizzling in the kitchen grows louder, like rain intensifying, and Ames twists her head to ask if everything is all right. Murray’s reply is chopped into bits like green onion and they ignore him.
“The babysitter,” Ames says. It’s been over a decade, and many things have happened since then. Certainly Ames has changed. Eli is still reserved but he has developed a bigger laugh—a croak, something involuntary and unselfconscious. He tells Ames Chrissy Parish has been killed.
“Mom said she was driving to meet her boyfriend. Or maybe she was on her way back and he was with her. I don’t think he died too, but maybe he was hurt? ”
“Jesus,” Ames says. “I think I know her boyfriend. I think she was dating my friend Marie’s cousin.”
Chrissy had not factored into their lives for years, but there were sporadic, unsolicited updates from their mother, who remained informed through various acquaintances. Eli didn’t think about her often, but he knew, remotely, the things that had happened to her in the years since he’d left for school.
Chrissy was a girl who’d had an accelerated adolescence and fizzled out by eighteen. She was tall and lean and could have been a ballerina or a track-and-field star if someone had pushed her toward it before she cultivated less constructive interests, like carving initials into her flesh or eschewing underwear at the spirit assembly. Eli’s parents had not selected her for her virtues as a caretaker. She was chosen because the Parishes lived on their block and had a cottage on the same lake, and because Chrissy’s father had once helped patch a hole in the bottom of their old fibreglass boat.
The first time Chrissy came over she was dressed in a brown bikini and denim cutoff shorts. She parked her ten-speed against the slatted fence and picked up a lounge chair that hadn’t been moved in years, leaving four lime-green squares in the grass where the legs had stood. She dragged the chair to the farthest corner of the backyard and settled into it. Eli and Ames swam in the pool all afternoon, and Chrissy didn’t say a word. She rubbed oil on her legs and belly. Eli didn’t realize until much later that she’d chosen the only spot in the backyard where their next-door neighbour, a bachelor in his forties, could watch her.
“Chrissy taught me how to have sex with a boy,” Ames says. “She had all these condoms in her purse. She gave me a handful even though I was probably only eleven. I sat in my room that night and blew a few of them up like balloons. It was the best thing I could think to do with them.”
Eli isn’t used to hearing Ames talk about sex. Bearing a child, he suspects, has made her frank about it—there’s evidence now. Murray calls out from the kitchen that supper is almost ready.
“That was when she was dating Derek Carefoot,” Ames continues. “He would come over to see her and not even look at me. Smelling like unwashed hair and putting his hands all over Chrissy’s stomach. Me and my friends used to think he was so hot.”
“I remember him.” Eli says. In junior high Derek had gone around selling posters of sports cars for a school fundraiser. Eli, despite having no interest in cars, had begged his father for ten dollars to buy a poster of a white Corvette set against an improbable purple lightning storm. Now the idea of it makes him cringe, the image with time seeming more obscene, an artifact of his confused lust.
“I was so curious. She must have known. I wanted every detail of every date she went on, and I listened for little clues that she was talking about Derek. She described all the glamorous, sexual things she’d done and they came out like insults, like she was saying, ‘These are things you could never do.’”
“I still can’t believe it,” Eli says.
Ames shakes her head.
Murray comes out and switches the lights on. It’s turned from evening to night without Eli and Ames registering the change. “Tacos,” he says, and kisses Ames’s head.
On the day they went into the woods—a memory Eli summons now, on the train back into the city—Chrissy had been watching over Eli and his friend Julian, who was more fanatical about catching frogs and whose crush on Chrissy, despite his being nine years old, seemed more legitimate. Chrissy had led them along a narrow path, swatting fondling branches out of the way, betraying a reflex she relied on regularly. It was late afternoon by the time they reached the middle of the woods. The sky dimmed and the mosquitoes descended. Eli’s mother always said, with a note of pride, that the mosquitoes liked his blood, that he’d inherited this curse from her. When he saw that the mosquitoes did not discriminate he felt strangely less special.
They made it to the creek at the edge of the property and lingered without purpose, surveying fossilized soda cans and the jagged tendons of a flayed umbrella. Chrissy straddled a log. Eli and Julian clapped mosquitoes off their arms.
“It’s your clothes,” Chrissy said.
It wasn’t unusual for her mood to change abruptly, for irritation to rise up without warning. She seemed suddenly to feel burdened by their presence.
“They’re attracted to the smell of your clothes,” she said again. “If you want to get rid of them you have to take everything off and get into the creek.”
At first they refused. Eli didn’t want to be naked—not in front of Chrissy, not in front of Julian. But Chrissy stood on the log and said it again, grinning now, ordering them to strip as though they were her prisoners. It was hard to resist someone like Chrissy—someone cool and frightening and sexual—telling them what to do, and being kids they changed their minds fluidly. They left their clothes in the dirt and ran into the creek laughing. It was shallow but they crouched, wet and hairless as frogs.
The memory has become vague over time. It isn’t one Eli recalls often, and he’s lost touch with Julian over the years. But when he does remember, due to some arbitrary trigger, he gets a chill. He’d been naked in a creek with his best friend, at nine. He can feel Chrissy watching him, her mouth open slightly in the slack, drugged expression she often wore, her attention so intense it was as though she was whispering in his ear.
When Eli returns to the city Lee isn’t home. Bored, he lights an old half-joint and eats a pear. He remembers the bandage from the blood test, near the crook of his elbow, and peels it off with difficulty, leaving a gummy rectangular border on his skin. There’s only a tiny red dot. He can’t even bruise.
“Someone I knew as a child is now dead,” he says aloud, to no one.
He sees Lee’s T-shirt on the floor. Pale blue, cotton. Probably he’d taken it off, on his way to the shower or out for a run. Eli looks around nervously before picking it up and holding it to his face, sniffing in a hungry, primal way. The shirt smells faintly of body odour. He sniffs again and again until his heart is beating violently. Soon he’s pacing the length of the apartment, a hand against the hot skin at his clavicle. He thinks, “Lee will come home and know what I’ve done.” He thinks about leaving the apartment. In this momentary panic he puts on shoes and a coat, and, some minutes later, finds himself on the elevator floor with an erection. A woman his mother’s age is struggling to lift him up by the armpits.
“Uh-uh. You’re coming with me,” the woman says when Eli tries, feebly, to push the button for his floor. There’s concern in her voice, though she’s a stranger to him. Possibly he’s shared this very elevator with her before, attempting, as was his custom, to make himself invisible among neighbours past a certain age, for whom this apartment building was a permanent residence instead of a temporary student dwelling. She has the characteristic spectral presence. Her hair is gold and grey, her face gaunt, weary: Chrissy, had she survived the accident and made it to her forties. She has a plastic bag of groceries that’s slick with condensation. Carton of milk, can of tuna.
“You took quite a spill,” she says in a folksy way as they get off on her floor. “Had me spooked.”
Eli leans against her for stability, reminding himself of his erection, while the woman rummages through her purse for keys. He wonders what her name is and imagines it’s Dawn; it’s Dawn who has rescued him.
He feels an unexpected intimacy crossing the threshold to her apartment—a feeling he is someplace he shouldn’t be. It’s an austere, tawny-coloured square, a macramé plant hanger drooping in one corner, and in another, a litter box for an invisible cat. Porcelain tchotchkes are gathered indiscriminately on a shelf opposite the wall where she’s hung a mouse pad like it’s a piece of art. Eli locates the sofa, where he unselfconsciously splays himself and watches the numbers of her digital clock jitter. Dawn disappears into her mostly brown kitchenette, returning with a mug of cloudy tap water.
“I don’t get many visitors,” she says, setting the mug down and ferrying clutter off in various directions. She disappears again and returns in a pilled housecoat.
“I think I had an anxiety attack,” Eli says.
“Drink,” she says. She’s lost the urgency she had in the elevator and has assumed the tone of someone who’s invited him up for a nightcap. If she has any trepidation about bringing a strange man into her home, it doesn’t show. She seems placid, not all there. Oblivious to the potential danger.
“I couldn’t breathe,” he continues. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”
The sentence lingers with him. He feels a compulsion to be honest, to pile his private humiliations onto the heap.
“You poor thing,” she says, reaching over to move a strand of hair out of his face. It’s a gesture of intimacy that comes easily to her, as though she’s been storing it up in her solitude.
She’s sitting on the coffee table, housecoat split open at her knees, exposing legs white as bone. Not Chrissy after all: no scars. Then she looks at his body in a way that fills him with a sudden modesty, and he brings his legs together, shifting onto his side.
“I was your age once,” she says.
Eli doesn’t say anything. He tenses as she runs her hand along his thigh, her touch feathery and tentative.
“Is this O.K.? ” she asks.
“I fainted,” he says, as if just realizing it.
“Why don’t you come to bed with me? ” she asks—a simple, gentle question, like a doctor asking, “Can you take a deep breath? ” So transparent he almost has to give it due consideration.
“I’m gay,” Eli tells her.
“That’s O.K.,” she says.
She loosens the belt of her housecoat, allowing the fabric to slip off her shoulder and expose one breast. “You could just lie with me,” she says.
The night begins to feel like a dream, a story he’ll tell someone years from now—a lover, maybe, a man he hasn’t met yet. With the effects of the pot fading Eli understands more clearly the steps that led him to where he is now. Events alike in their absence of climax. The patterns of a ghost.
“I should go,” he says. “My roommate will be wondering where I am.”
“Stay,” she says. “Please. You need to rest.”
Her words take on the brittle, singsong quality of someone on the verge of tears.
“I’ll be O.K.,” he says, borrowing her premise: concern for his health and not his sexuality. He tries not to meet her gaze, to return their interaction to the status quo of past elevator rides. It’s in vain: probably they will see each other again. He might smile vaguely, acknowledge her with a nod. Maybe she won’t remember this night in the way he will. Maybe she won’t recognize him at all.