As they rose onto the bridge, Brendan leaned against the taxi window, gazing into the towers lit against the night sky, just as they are in the beginning of all the Miramax films, or the shots from the blimp when they show evening games at the U.S. Open—only now he could see the red-and-white streams of car lights rushing along the river's edge, beacons on the prows of ships jetting the waterway, a helicopter's taillights cruising down the glittering shore. His hand tightened on the wallet in his pocket, the $300 he'd saved from afternoon shifts at OfficeMax secured in the inner fold. This must be what it's like, he thought, for diplomats and stars—Roddick returning from another victory at Flushing, an actor weary from a foreign shoot, night travelers longing for the comfort of lovers and apartments back in the gilded city.
"I hope this man doesn't get us lost," his mother whispered across the back seat.
"Jesus, Mom. Like he's never been to the Plaza."
"What do you know about the Plaza Hotel?"
"I know what everyone else in the world knows, which is that it's at Fifty-ninth and Park Avenue, and it used to be owned by Donald Trump."
"Feeth," the driver said through the Plexiglas slot. "Thee Plaza eez on Feeth."
"Thank you, sir," his mother yelled.
Brendan glared at her, hardly able to stand the sight: tan sneakers, stonewashed jeans, a green fleece sweater. Under his rule her entire wardrobe would be drowned in a vat of black dye. But none of these dreadful choices came close to the offense of the item strapped to her waist. His eyes snared on the teal nylon of the fanny pack, and it felt as if all sixteen years of his life he'd worn her naivete through the streets like a crown of thorns. He'd pleaded with her since yesterday not to carry her valuables in that eyesore. He'd even recited the latest crime statistics; forced her to acknowledge that New York was one of the safest cities in the country, and that more people per capita had been murdered in their own state of Missouri than in the five boroughs last year. But still she wouldn't relent. Having to share his first entrance into a world-class hotel with that placard of ignorance struck him as more than anyone should have to bear.
"Won't you please take it off?" he implored again now, glaring down at her hand, which seemed to have unconsciously migrated to the defense of the wretched bulge.
A year ago she would have looked him in the eye and told him he was on thin ice. Now she just turned her head away and said, "Brendan, you need to calm down."
As if calm were an option! Every waking hour for two months had been burned up in anticipation of this weekend. The day his sad-sack, pale-faced, depresso father had finally moved out of the house and into an apartment closer to his job, his mother had got on the phone to his grandmother, and when she hung up she told Brendan he was getting the present he'd asked for each birthday and Christmas for the past two years: they were going to New York City, and they were staying in a hotel.
That same evening he'd sent an e-mail to Tom, the guy he'd spent so much time imagining since they'd met on the Web a few months before, whose pictures were so gorgeous: curly black hair, green eyes, a chest sculpted and smooth and strong. This wasn't one of those pathetic online non-affairs his friend Tanya was still having, where you fell in love with some 400-pound food-service worker in Jefferson City, believing he was Brad Pitt's nephew. Brendan had taken a bus to a few of those dates. The only relief they'd given him was the knowledge that some people on this earth were more desperate than himself. Sitting in the back row of Language Arts on the first day of school this year, the pothead desperadoes nodding beside him, he'd watched the teacher shift his saucer-sized red-plastic glasses up the bridge of his nose, and it seemed as obvious as the sentence diagrammed on the board that Brendan could become either a lonely, sad-assed middle-aged fag like Mr. Growley, up there in his cardigan, his perm, his yellowed moustache, as anxious and bitter an inmate of that place as the worst of them; or someone who got out, someone who lived in an apartment in a famous city.
Since Tom had replied, saying this weekend would be fine, his greatest fear had been that he would go all the way to New York City and be unable to lose his mother long enough to get down to the East Village on his own. To his surprise, what had seemed the most difficult step turned out to be the easiest. A week after she'd booked their tickets, he asked her if on the Saturday afternoon of their visit he could go to Tanya's nonexistent cousin's house, ten blocks from the hotel. He'd anticipated a grilling, and had a map ready to show her. But rather than asking questions, she'd kept on with the dinner dishes, this resigned look on her face, as if she'd expected him to ask such a thing.
As the cab descended from the bridge and turned on to the avenue, Brendan looked at his watch and realized he had less than twenty hours left to wait.
Life at the Plaza consisted mainly of trying to keep at least ten yards between him and his mother when they were not either in the room with the door closed or forced into proximity by a restaurant table. As soon as they'd pulled up, he'd leaped out of the taxi and ascended the steps past the doorman. As he looked back from the doorway, he could almost believe that the miserably attired woman looking frantically over her shoulder, as if bracing for the onslaught of al-Qaeda, was just some tourist one had to expect at such places. After she registered them and handed him a key, they rode the elevator to their floor and he walked well ahead of her down the plush hallway and into the room. The sound of her knocking after repeated failure to operate the lock properly led him to contemplate what she would do if he simply didn't respond. She would either begin one of her shouting whispers or call a manager, he decided, crossing to the door to let her in.
"Well, I think it'll be very good," she said, when he protested her hotel-dining plans. "I'm sure a place as nice as this is very reliable." For two short days they would reside on an island with perhaps the greatest variety of food in the world. But no. Not for the Blankenburgs. The Blankenburgs would eat chicken Kiev in a foyer.
"You're just afraid you're going to be shot," he said. "You might as well take that fleece off and put on a bulletproof vest. At least it would be the right color."
As it turned out, the Oak Room was pretty fancy, and when he saw the prices of the entrees Brendan became alarmed. He waited for his mother to whisper something about how they might need to find another restaurant, but she said nothing. They weren't poor, but they didn't eat out and they didn't travel, and his mother was always stressed about the bank account, about any purchases more significant than groceries. It wasn't as if his dad could afford to pitch in, and his mother's job at the mall didn't pay much more than Brendan's at OfficeMax.