14 :: PAUSE
— Cooper —
THERE ARE THREE suitcase options lying open on my bed. Why do I have three suitcases? It doesn’t do any good, standing here staring at them. The only items I need to pack could fit in a backpack. I end up pulling out piles of clothes from my dresser drawers. Whether I need them or not is irrelevant. Just to fill the empty space. I choose the biggest suitcase.
Atticus’s letters sit in a messy pile of read beside unread. For the past week or so, I’ve been steadily making my way through them. Mostly, he’s told me his life story. I know the name of his first dog, the colors he dyed his hair when he was fifteen, the way he ran into Cecelia on her bicycle when they were teenagers. I know the beginning of their love story, but I haven’t reached the middle or the end yet. I don’t know if I want to.
Without really thinking it through, I grab an envelope from the top of the unread pile and shove it in the outside pocket of my suitcase. Agreeing to go home for Thanksgiving may or may not have been the worst decision I’ve ever made.
Work has been bleak and long-winded each day, with nothing to look forward to coming back to the apartment. This month has been hard enough without Grace to talk to. I realize that she hasn’t even scraped the surface of everything I’ve been keeping from her. But Grace knows me more than anyone. I would feel guilty if I wasn’t absolutely positive that this is in her best interest. Regardless of that whole situation, I’m going home.
My phone rings. Through the week’s worth of complete silence, the Facetime ringtone is piercing.
“Jaden!” I can’t hide the excitement in my voice as his face appears on the screen. The boy’s a young Matt Dillon, I could swear by it. With a set of thick black eyebrows and deep-set brown eyes, the resemblance is uncanny. I exhale. “Hey man, what’s going on?”
The internet isn’t choppy, it’s just his face. Years of processing emotions have taught him a careful and measured means of getting through them. Almost mechanical. That’s why he doesn’t respond as soon as I’d like him to, or half as enthusiastically.
“Coop,” He deadpans, hollow cheeks more noticeable than they were when I last saw his face. A stab of guilt gets me in the gut. Shake it off, Cooper. Keep smiling.
“Yeah man, what’s good?” I plop down on the couch, resort to covering my mouth with my free hand. I’m surprised at what I realize is the stubble that’s been growing there for probably a few weeks now. Nothing like complete and utter loneliness to draw out the animal in a man. It’s funny, how I tend to measure time around her. Even now, as I’m trying to focus on the reality of this life, she’s twisting the whole dimension.
I sniffle, and it must sound like I’m crying, because Jaden shifts uncomfortably over the screen.
“You suck at keeping appointments, by the way.” Comes his raspy, leaf blown voice.
I can’t help but chuckle. But it becomes heavier after that, the full extent of my screwups weighing down on me. I honestly can’t find the words. “It’s my bad, man, I—”
“Nah, Coop,” He scoffs, shrugs. “I know you’re busy.”
“That’s not—I mean, that’s not an excuse, Jaden.” I swallow a lump in my throat. All of this is more difficult over FaceTime, so much worse through pixels and a speaker. I want to see how he’s doing in real time, help him build up his strength. I want to show him how to ask out girls and get out of detention and toss around a football. I want to be a big brother to him. Protect him from everything and everyone, show him how to protect himself.
“Sorry,” He grunts, flopping over what I can see is his unmade bed and a haphazard pile of clothes. “We just got back from the hospital. I’m kinda’ tired.”
It’s a relief to see the mess, to know that at least he’s still his typical sixteen year old self. It’s equally as painful of a reminder that he’s just a kid.
“No worries,” I say. “You’ve got more interesting things to do than talk to me, right? Last time I saw you, there was that girl, wasn’t there? What was her name?”
His whole face turns bright red. He laughs and looks away from the camera.
“No, dude, seriously…” I say, laughing. “What’s that story?”
Jaden waits a minute, rubbing his forehead. I can’t tell if it’s the chemo headaches or just because he’s just trying to concentrate really hard. I’d like to be optimistic, so I go for the latter. He finally replies, “She’s… she’s cool, man. Like, I dunno’—”
I must look too amused at this point, because he tells me to shut up before I’ve even said anything. “Jay, it’s cool. You don’t have to tell me. I’ll just…” I give him a wily grin. “I’ll just sit here and think the worst.”
“God, you suck so bad.” He laughs quietly. “Do you really wanna know or are you just gonna keep being a dick about it?”
“It’s a family trait, you know I can’t help it.”
“Alright, alright, fine,” I pause. “Go ahead.”
He takes a deep breath, and suddenly sounds more invested in life than I’ve ever heard him. He sounds strong. I find myself thanking whatever god is out there for modern technology, and for the high school girl that was brave enough to fall for my dying brother. Because he’s describing her to me and he sounds so alive and so hopeful. He tells me about her favorite bands, and how good she smells, and how she paints her fingernails all different colors. He tells me she visits him at the hospital and they make fun of the cranky nurses together. He tells me she brings him a different set of movies to watch each week, and that she’s smarter than anyone he knows.
It doesn’t even surprise me that I can’t hear all of this without picturing Grace over and over again. By the time he’s told me everything, she seems to be in the sunlight pouring in through the window, the warmth radiating from the heating unit. She’s in the very walls. I want her to meet my brother, to show him all the wonders of the sea and the air and the city, just like she’s shown me. I want to show him that it’s possible to open the world right open and look inside it and feel at home here, right where we stand.
“So…” Jaden finishes. He runs a hand through his hair, what little remains of it, anyway. “What do you think?”
“What do I think?” I pinch my mouth. “Well, she sounds great.”
“Ha, yeah, she’s—she’s gorgeous, too.” He assures me. “She’s, uh… she’s different.”
His contagious warmth radiates through the screen, energizing every fiber of my being. I can tell how much he likes this girl, and from the way he can barely pronounce two coherent sentences about her, the feeling might go a little deeper than that. I don’t push him for more information than he’s willing to give, partially because I don’t feel I have the right to that information yet, but mostly because I just want to let him really speak to me. Freely. The way we used to.
Minutes turn into hours this way, and I find that there’s a rhythm to his speech patterns these days. He’s more decisive in every word—except about the girl, of course. I can’t put my finger on this quality that he’s gained, one that I haven’t been around to help cultivate. He’s confident, tired, but strong. He’s got this spark in his eye and a conscious, focused expression on his face. Nothing is guarded anymore. He says what he thinks. Jaden is a man now, and the longer we speak, the more I realize he seems to be everything that I want to live up to.
A year ago, I would have said that death is more destructive than anything. But looking at him now, I’d venture to say that it can create a sort of refinement of the human experience which nothing else can. A dignity, a vulnerability. Jaden has become less of a suffering creature of consequence and more of a master of his life’s shortcomings. Anger and shame have melted away from him. With every sentence, he manages to blow me away.
“So, uh…” He says, rolling off his bed and carrying me through the hallway. “I wanna show you a few things I’ve been working on.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s cool.” He shrugs, pounding down the stairs. “I’ve improved a lot. I mean, it’s still some pretty shitty stuff, but…”
And then I’m being carried outside, across the driveway to the separate garage. It’s all so familiar. I picture the layout of that place as he wanders around to the side door. Jaden raises his eyebrows playfully, then flips the camera around so it faces the interior of the garage.
I choke down a surprised gasp. Colors of every shade, hand painted images of scenic views, reaching hands, floating leaves. Everything in the whole world. He’s got collages and water colors, acrylics and oils, canvases stacked against the walls, shoved in great piles in every corner. From what I can see through the screen, there’s even the beginnings of a mosaic on a giant porcelain plate. He must’ve been working with glass, sifting through paints and canvases and supplies faster than my mother could supply them.
I want to congratulate him, take the time to appreciate all of this work he’s done. But from here, it suddenly just looks like money and messes.
I want to understand it, but I can’t from this perspective, from this distance. I watch his grip start to shake and the screen shudders from work of art to work of art. Eventually, he gets too embarrassed and turns the camera back around to his face.
“I’ll just show ’em to you when you come out.” He laughs self-consciously. “You still got that one I sent you for your birthday a few years back? I think it was an acrylic?”
I picture the drawer in the kitchen where Jaden’s painting currently resides. Guilt settles over me, and I nod. “Yeah, man. I’ve still got it.”
Jaden kind of half-smiles, casually and without a second thought. “That was some of my best work, ya’ know?” He lowers his eyes. “But I thought you would’ve gotten rid of it or something by now.”
“No, Jay,” I rub my forehead, tense. “No, it’s—it’s good… really good.”
Jaden exhales a full-blown raspberry and scrunches his face. “Yikes, don’t get all nostalgic on me, ’kay? Just, uh… if you could just bring it out with you if—when you come, alright?”
Suddenly we’re brothers again. It feels like seven years ago, when I could protect him from anything, when reality wasn’t nearly as cruel.
I chuckle. “Sounds good, buddy.”
“Alright,” He’s leaving the garage now, heading back toward the house. “I should probably go, man…”
“Yeah,” I cough. “Yeah, I should, too.”
“See you this weekend then, huh?”
“Yeah, this weekend,”
He gives me a satisfied nod, his signature dorky smile stretching across his face. “Alright man, love you,”
“Love you too, buddy.”
And then the call freezes and dies.
There’s a church at the corner of St. Anne’s street and fifth. Every time I look at it, all I see is a deep, deep hole in the ground. This hole must have had to be mined, refined, sculpted by slaves. Isn’t that ironic? The stones of this church came from some infernal realm of darkness, and was built on the blood and backs of the innocent.
I’ve found that injustice resides in the roots of the earth. If there is a god, perhaps he has forsaken us.
Alabama air is like molasses, slow and sticky. You catch a breeze and it’s like catching love. It’s hot, it itches, and then it fades. But I’ve been better since I left your mother. I want to say that because it seems optimistic. I want to say that right choices are defined by the spirit of a man. Truth is, I don’t know what the truth is. All I can say now is, you were beautiful.
I got to see you once, before I left. It was a Sunday, in a church just like the one on St. Anne’s. Your mother had you baptized, and I made it in through the back. I watched you blink big and wide at that water as it came down on you. The prayer sounded like angels crying. Your mother crying.
Maybe that’s what I never got about god. Why he made this business of being alive seem so damn unfortunate. For my part, I like to think it’s a round and lovely world, not so terrible as all the Christians and the god-fearing folk would have you believe.
I hope you’re happy, wherever you are. This is written a long time from reaching you, but I hope it finds you when you need it most.
Atticus R. Sinclair, April 16, 1992
Boston Logan International Airport is crowded, to say the least. It’s been years since I’ve flown anywhere, or even left the city. The holiday season is admittedly not the best time for traveling, but I’ve got a reason to keep stepping. In a few hours, Jaden and my mom will be greeting me at the gate.
I’m regretting bringing the biggest suitcase I own. Dragging it along behind me, the painting and a single letter from Atticus tucked away inside. I feel kind of uneasy. There’s something in the air. Tired oxygen being breathed by tired people, too many people.
I’m treading water, steadily, uneasily, apprehensively. I’m going home.
I spot my gate, hustling toward it with haphazard composure. I could describe myself as being in a state of pathetic disgruntlement or something along those lines, but I’m too focused on catching this flight to care about strangers’ fleeting impressions. The flight attendant greets me with a rehearsed smile.
“Hi there!” She tilts her symmetrical head to the side.
“Hi,” I exhale. “Here,” I hand my folded ticket to her.
She scrunches her nose as she unfolds it. “Alright, sir,” she punches the keyboard a few times and hands me everything back. “You’ll be sitting in 24B… And look at that, it’s a window seat! Lucky you,”
I gather the papers under my arm and give her an appreciative nod, mumbling a sarcastic “lucky me,” under my breath.
Suddenly, my phone buzzes in my coat pocket. Shuffling over toward the waiting area seats, I have to readjust my backpack over my shoulder and take everything left handed to pull my phone out.
My mom’s name is displayed on the screen, and I accept the call in breathless relief. “Hey, ma, I just got checked in. Should take off in the next hour, so—”
Something changes just then. Something in her voice and in the noise of the people all around me and in the sudden dryness of my throat. Because all I can hear is pain. All I can hear is pain and I already know she is alone in it.
“What?” I croak.
She gasps shakily. “It’s… it’s Jaden.”