He brought in his shirt pocket the last photograph he’d taken of his son, an Instamatic snapshot: the carousel in the Park, wind in the boy’s hair, chocolate ice cream staining his smile, a pair of impossibly tiny blue jeans, striped socks, and a Yale sweatshirt snug across his chest. Jonathan had stood waiting in the grass for Marc to come around. The December day was warm, winter with a fever. Marc smiled, gripped tight the reins of his white plastic horse. This was years ago. Then, the visits were easy. Jonathan took the picture with him in case Marc wanted to see proof, evidence of a time when they had been able to maintain peace. Jonathan was not above superstition. His boy was a teenager now. They were separated by three miles, one river, one bridge, and two train transfers. The distance, he thought often, was far too great.
He stood on the street below the apartment, his head to the sky; he tried to find the 18th story, where Marc lived with his mother. Each window looked the same from the ground: the slotted vent of an air conditioner, ivy trained to the brick, small square glass panes in a grid. For nearly 15 years, Julia had lived on this block, with its old gingko trees, its gas lanterns, and its wide sidewalks. Steps away, in Central Park, children skated to Tchaikovsky on Wollman Rink, and through the trees he could hear the violins and the piano and the cymbals. This was, in every way, a better place than where he lived.
He’d rented a car for the afternoon. Parking had been difficult. He had lived too long in the city. From the sidewalk, he saw in the passenger-side window the reflection of his face and neck, streaked with the harsh winter sun, unflattering and bright. He had turned, at some point, into every man in his family. His mother had hoped that such a thing would not happen. She had said this, touching her hand to him, many years ago.
When he stepped into the lobby, he was met with a wall of warm air. He nodded at the doorman, and cleared his throat. “Could you let Marc know that I’m here for him?”
Jonathan waited on a small white banquette, and rested his hands on the tops of his knees.
The doorman pushed two buttons. “Mister Morris,” the man said. “Your father is here for you.”
The name Morris still sounded inaccurate. He’d fought over nothing but the name, and just to hear it here, in an empty lobby, spoken by a stranger, the softness of those last two letters, like something easy off the tongue, caused him to grimace. He’d wanted to leave his boy with some unimpeachable part of him, something concrete. Julia worked so hard to mold their son in her image. When they were married, she had done the same to him. “Few parts of you are truly unimpeachable,” she’d said.
He didn’t know his son well. He blamed this on Marc, who had always been quiet and distant, and on Julia, who did her best to inject their son with a subtle hatred for him. These were the clichéd, well-documented symptoms of divorce, and he’d expected them. What he hadn’t expected, though, was how much they would bother him. Twenty-four times a year they ate pizza in silence and then sat in the back row of a Times Square movie theater.
The elevator doors opened, and his son walked out into the lobby. “Johnny Cohen,” Marc called out. He never called him Dad. Marc made an overconfident swivel with his hips that to Jonathan looked vaguely sexual. He spoke too loudly, and in short bursts, as if he were screaming across a football field. He had headphones in his ears. “I’m. Like. Hungry. As. A. Horse.”
He wanted to give his son a hug. They had done this when Marc was younger, but not for years. He wondered whether his son could hear anything or whether his music disallowed, in its volume, any other noise.
“You look good,” he said.
Marc went out onto the street without stopping, pushing through the twin glass doors. When Jonathan followed him, he saw his boy’s handprint as it remained on the glass. Marc had small hands with fat fingers, as if the rest of his body had grown out of infancy and his hands had been left behind. Out on the street, Marc stood shaking his hips to the music in his ears. He wore tight black jeans that clung to the skin of his legs, white canvas sneakers, and a red hooded sweatshirt. Jonathan inspected his son for evidence of change. He was pained by how much about Marc seemed different every time they were together.
“Are those new?” he asked, pointing to Marc’s sneakers. “I used to have a pair of those.”
“Where are we going?” Marc asked, yelling over the clamor of his headphones. “I’m hungry for pizza.”
“We’re not getting pizza,” Jonathan said, walking to his rented car. He put the key into the door.
“It’s a car, Marc.”
“I know it’s a car.”
“I’ve told you not to talk to me like that.”
“So,” Marc said, tilting his head, putting a hand on the hood of the car. “Did you steal this? Because I thought you didn’t have any money.”
“Who says I have no money?”
“Well, I might not have the sort of money your mother has,” he said. “But I have some money. Now get in the fucking car, Marc.”
Jonathan drove north up the West Side Highway. The river glistened to his left. To his right, the city stretched out clean and blue. He had always loved Manhattan, its constant energies, the first day of spring in Union Square, nighttime below Canal Street; he only wished that he could afford to live there. His apartment in Brooklyn sat across from a middle school, and twice a day, at seven-thirty in the morning and at three in the afternoon, a rush of noise surrounded his house.
He tried to listen to the high treble coming from his son’s headphones. Marc shifted in the passenger seat, his weight on one side. He could see only the back of his boy’s head; he wondered what kind of music his son enjoyed. As they passed 125th Street, he saw, in the reflected glare of the window, that Marc was wearing black eyeliner.
“When I met your mother,” he said, pointing at his son’s eyes, “she used to do that.”
“What was that?” Marc said, touching a button, pausing the music.
“I said that your mother used to wear her makeup like that.”
“Maybe Mom was a homo.”
“Are you a homo?” he asked.
“You shouldn’t use that kind of language, Cohen.”
He had become used to the way Marc turned questions around. His son was like Superman in that way, catching bullets in his hand and redirecting them. His own father had never answered his questions, had let them dangle in the air and disappear. He was not sure which was worse, to be mocked or to be ignored.