February 12: Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday
I was late to the tutorial, but Luke hadn’t even been in school that day so I wasn’t sure what was going on anyway. The whole ride over to his house I rehearsed my diatribe. He was either being insensitive or just clueless, and regardless, it was toying with Nikki’s heart, which was inexcusable. She was my friend, and I had every intention of protecting her. So, if he really liked her, he’d better start being a gentleman. And if he didn’t, he’d better leave her alone. This was what I was thinking as I stood on Luke’s porch, waiting for someone to answer the door.
But the second I saw Luke’s face, my entire plan dissipated. In my rehearsals, I had been picturing him the way he’d always been—self-possessed, with that supercilious air of looking down at you. But his blue eyes were a shade of gray, and rimmed with red, and his shoulders slumped down at his sides.
He blinked when he saw me. “Hey, Francesca,” he said, looking confused. Then something seemed to click in place. “Oh, right, tutoring. Sorry, I totally forgot.” He ran his hand through his curls, sagging against the doorframe. I recognized the hopelessness in his voice. It was the same inconsolable tone that used to bug me when Snuffle-upagus used it on Sesame Street. But it was so out of place coming from Luke.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He stared wistfully in the general vicinity of the ground behind me. “Come on in.” He turned and walked down a dimly lit hallway. I followed Luke through the kitchen. There was the sound of scurrying footsteps and the squeak of a door closing. We went past a room I’d never seen before—an aqua blue office space with African masks and a fish tank filled with aquatic life.
We ambled up a flight of stairs and into Luke’s bedroom. Jazz music was playing—the dolorous bleats of a tenor saxophone. Luke shut the door.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Is everything okay?”
Luke looked at me. “My Aunt Denise just died.”
“Oh, my God,” I said. “I don’t—Luke, I’m so sorry.”
He nodded, then sank down into his desk chair. There was a framed photo on his desk, of a woman with red hair cuddling her cat and smiling at the camera.
“Is that . . .?” I trailed off, and Luke gave another brief nod.
“She loved that cat,” he said. “She always loved her cats. She had, like, fifteen or something. I mean, not all at once.”
He smiled, a small smile, and I smiled back.
“We knew it was coming for a while,” he continued. “But it still felt like a shock, you know?”
“I’m so sorry . . .” A wave of compassion swelled within me, causing my eyes to tear up.
“Please don’t do that,” Luke said. “Maybe we should go outside.”
We went for a walk. For a while we didn’t say much. We crossed over National Road, the dewy grass saturating my shoes, and then ducked under a row of trees to the Oil Can Church. That’s what we’ve always called it, because it looks like this big ol’ colossal oil can. It has one immense spire that cuts way up into the sky, which is pretty stunning if you sit there and look at it.
“North Christian Church,” Luke said, breaking the relative silence of whizzing cars and chirping crickets. “I don’t go to church or anything. But this is where I spent a lot of time, late at night, when I first got here.”
“Depressed. You know, missing friends. Feeling sorry for myself.”
“Right.” I pointed up. “So d’you know that cross up there is six feet tall?”
We leaned way back and craned our necks. At the top of the church’s spire was the jet-black adumbration of a cross that looked roughly the size of a small bird.
“I didn’t know that,” Luke said. “But I did know it’s designed by the dude who did the St. Louis Arch.”
“Really? I thought it was his son. Saarinen.”
“Whatever. One of those guys . . . hey, wanna go check out the playground?”
We headed over and started out on the swings for a while, then climbed across the swinging bridge that linked the slide with the monkey bars. There wasn’t much to do on the bridge but bounce up and down and laugh about it. Luke stomped past me and artfully pulled his way across the monkey bars. I ran down the slide at breakneck speed, then ran back up and did it again. Luke hopped on the tire swing, and I pushed him. I forgot all about Nikki and her and Luke’s disastrous “date.” I was just relieved to see Luke acting more like himself.
After a while, our verve diminished of its own accord and we hopped onto adjacent swings. We just sat there, not swinging. With no activity to drown out the morbid thoughts, I worried that Luke’s mood would slide back into melancholia. A part of me wanted to go back to playing, but my gut told me he kind of needed to talk.
“How do you remember her?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“You know, when you picture her with your mind’s eye. Is she just like in the picture, smiling at the cat?”
“No. She’s standing, like this . . .” Luke pulled himself off the swing. He balanced himself on his left foot, with his right foot pressed against his knee, like an ostrich. “And she’s asking me questions about my life, and really listening to my answers. She always stood like that, and it struck me as odd when I was a little kid because she was tall . . . like five ten.”
“You couldn’t tell from the picture,” I said.
“Well, she was . . .” Luke’s thoughts seemed to trail off with his words. Just as I began to worry that I was losing him, he spoke again. “You know what, that’s not totally true.” I pivoted in the swing so that I was facing him. “The way I remember her isn’t quite that majestic. I mean, I remember her that way, too. But the way I usually see her is that last time, down at her place. She was thin as a rail from all the chemotherapy, but she still somehow managed to have a better disposition than the rest of us. She would sneak junk food behind Grandma and Grandpa’s back and talk with me in the kitchen. The thing I remember most vividly was, one day, and this was only a few months ago, she was lying on her little portable bed in the living room, half-conscious from her pain medicine, and she looked over at me and said, ‘Luke, those are just the nicest socks.’ I had on these thick blue cotton socks with green and white stripes . . .” I could see he was losing it. “They really are great socks, and you could tell she wasn’t kidding. She really liked those socks . . .”
With that, Luke just seemed to cave in on himself. I mean he was really bawling. I didn’t know what to do—I’d never seen a guy cry like that. I was crying, too, and I reached over and patted him on the back. But it felt so weak, considering, and my heart ached at how much he was hurting. So I foot-pedaled in Luke’s direction and put my arms around his neck. He swiveled and grabbed onto me, hugging me back. We sat there in our swings, holding each other so tightly I could feel his ribs against mine.
At first, I really was just consoling him, but then eventually he stopped crying, and so did I, and we didn’t let go. I could hear the steady thump of his heart beating so close to mine, and feel his soft breath on my neck. Suddenly there was this thing between us, something new. He pulled back from me, just a little, and looked into my eyes. A shudder passed through my whole body—I could feel myself being turned inside out, what that look did to me. Luke’s face moved toward mine, until our lips nearly touched. My breath caught, and I felt dizzy, like if he wasn’t holding me I’d fall. He inched closer, and my eyes fluttered closed, waiting . . .
A second later, I felt his lips touch—my cheek. “Thanks,” he murmured, and then he let me go.