I HAD RECENTLY MOVED to New York City for a new job. I was thrilled to be there, and I stared to take in the newness of it all. I liked to stare. I liked looking at how people dressed, the shoes they wore, the books they read, and the looks on their faces. I liked listening to the words and content of conversations, and I was particularly intrigued by disagreements and fights. And I liked to visualize the size and the look of women’s breasts. It was easier in summer than in winter, but in the winter I could work with my imagination. Staring is like television—if you look around enough, you are bound to find something you like.
Initially, I couldn’t get enough of the Hasidic Jews. And then it was the Puerto Ricans. There were even working-class Indians and Pakistanis. But I was told that nothing good could come from my staring habit. New Yorkers didn’t like starers, particularly on the subway. A friend told me that men interpret a starer as a threat to their masculinity and as an invitation to throw down. Women, he added, equally interpret a starer as a threat to their masculinity and as an invitation to throw down.
I am a statistician, and I interpret large amounts of consumer data. I create patterns from the goods—cars, books, diapers—that consumers purchase. I worked for a company headquartered in San Francisco that was trying to expand its presence on the East Coast; I was one small part of the expansion. My boss asked me on a Monday morning if I wanted to move, and first thing Wednesday I told him I did. If I was destined to have such a decidedly unglamorous job, at least I could live in New York City. I moved because I wanted something new in my life.
I was on my way home from work one early evening, sitting on the subway, reading a John Grisham novel. In San Francisco, I drove everywhere and never took public transportation. Once I took the bus when my car was in the shop, and I saw three different people reading Grisham. Since then, I assumed Grisham was supposed to be read in the haze of one’s commute. But the truth is that the book was a front, a place to set my eyes between glances
We came to a stop, and I looked up to see who was coming on board. Two people entered my car. The first was a young woman who looked around and walked through the doors connecting the cars and went into the next section. I felt disappointed because I had just begun to appreciate Eastern European women. The second was a black man who walked past and then came back and sat in one of the empty seats next to mine. The car was only half-full because, as usual, I had gone into work early and left early. He looked very familiar when he passed the first time.
It was winter. He had on scuffed black work boots, faded black jeans, and a large beige canvas jacket. His layers made him seem soft above the waist. He was wearing a black cap, nylon on the outside to protect him from the rain and wooly on the inside to keep him warm, with two flaps that dropped past his ears. It was the type of cap that Elmer Fudd wore when he went hunting. The man had two plastic grocery bags filled with food—bread, eggs, a gallon of skim milk, various canned goods.
I consider myself a subtle starer, but twice I tried to take a look at his face, and twice he caught me.
He spoke first. “I’m his father,” he said.
I looked up from my book, which I had stopped reading the second he walked in.
“What?” I said.
He turned and faced me directly. “Patrick Ewing is my son. He looks just like me.”
Now I could stare unabashedly.
“It’s amazing,” I said. Why was the father of a famous, wealthy basketball player riding around in the subway, buying his own groceries, wearing old workmen’s boots?
“Patrick and I, we don’t get along,” the man said. He’d had this conversation before and knew what I was thinking before I could ask the questions.
“That’s too bad,” I said, which didn’t begin to express it. His circumstance wasn’t bad, it was catastrophic. Ewing had come from a humble family in the Caribbean, and now he was rich. But his father’s life hadn’t changed. He was still buying his own groceries and taking the subway home. And, worse, he was estranged from his son.
“Why?” I asked.
“You a reporter?”
“Oh, no. I’m just curious. I liked watching him play.” He shook his head, as if to brush off my last comment.
“There’s nothing to tell,” he said. “We don’t get along. He’s got his life, and I’ve got mine. We just don’t agree on some things.”
I wanted him to keep talking because he hadn’t said exactly why they didn’t get along. But I was a little afraid to push. There was something unstable in his manner—his eyes were not very steady. So I read my book, and he stared straight ahead. Several stops later, I got off the train.
As I walked from the subway stop to my apartment, I decided that I would check the Internet when I got home. There had to be stories about Ewing and his father. They looked identical. He was Ewing as an older man. He had the same nose and that same mouthy smile with all thirty-two teeth intact. He was not nearly as tall as his son, but he had large hands with long, bony fingers. I was suspicious about his claims, but the more I thought about how he looked, the more probable the story seemed. Their resemblance was convincing. The father wasn’t himself a celebrity, but he was close enough, and for a starer like me, a celebrity sighting was a divine moment.
When I got to my apartment, the phone was ringing.
“You’re home.” It was Mala calling from San Francisco. She sounded tentative.
“I just walked in.” I was excited and wanted to tell somebody about my encounter, but Mala had probably never heard of Patrick Ewing. I didn’t have the patience to explain who he was, nor did I have the patience, just then, for her. She neither knew nor cared about celebrities. And though she had not said it, she had a slight disdain for my interest in them.
“How’s everything?” she asked.
We’d spoken only a handful of times since I arrived, and it was getting more and more difficult to get past the small talk.
“Fine,” I said.
“What have you been up to?”
“Work has been busy. And there’s quite a bit to do here at night.” The second I said it, I wanted to take it back. But I didn’t. I was surprised that I felt fine with that small bit of cruelty.
Most things in my life could be handled with greater care and more thought. I lived in the Bay Area for many years and loved it until my last year there. To visitors, I boasted about the proximity of the mountains and the ocean, but I had no desire to visit what I myself thought was thin mountain air and cold water. I read a story about the elderly in Chicago dying in their apartments because they couldn’t afford air-conditioning. I learned that the average summer temperature in a part of South India hovered around 115 degrees. I was sick of how the weather made everyone in San Francisco so self-satisfied.
But I assumed I’d never leave the Bay Area. Leaving seemed counterintuitive. Sure, the heat would be interesting for a while, but the novelty couldn’t last. And I had most of my friends and family in the area. Several months before that Monday when he offered me the transfer, my boss asked if I’d be willing to relocate to New York. I smiled and said I’d consider it. At first, I didn’t. But then I let myself think about it. I knew the Bay Area so well, but it was the only place I knew as an adult. How had I become so provincial?
As it turned out, my boss’s timing that Monday morning was impeccable. Mala and I had been seeing each other for about six months, but for the last few weeks we’d been fighting. She was not so angry that it had happened; she was angry that it had happened twice. I didn’t know what else to say but sorry. Mine is not a lawless heart. I went alone to a friend’s party because Mala was out of town. I was drinking a beer and staring at a stunningly beautiful woman. She stared back. I was startled that I was the object of instant desire. We spent that night together, and I went back the second time to make sure that she hadn’t made a mistake.
Mala and I had a long conversation on the Monday night after my boss made the actual transfer offer. I kept repeating that it was good for my career. But really I was ready for a break. The question of her moving with me hovered over our entire conversation. But all night, we talked around the topic and spoke only vaguely about our future together. We agreed that the distance would help us figure out how to proceed.
We’d had a good thing, and since I had moved to New York, that vagueness about our future had been of great service. Whenever I felt lonely and thought the move was a mistake, the possibility of going back to Mala gave me the boost to ride through the difficult hours. I could always return to California and resume the life we had. She was a beautiful safety net.
“I know it’s last-minute,”she said, “but I’m going to be in New York later this week. I have meetings on Thursday and Friday, and I’m not flying back until Sunday morning. My Saturday is free. I’d like to see you.”
I wanted more time to devise an answer, though it was clear to me that I was doing fine without her. She’d interpret the two of us meeting as a sign of our relationship moving forward. She did not like the ambiguity nearly as much as I did. Then the image of the man I’d just met on the train flashed through my mind. I wanted to tell Mala that I was in a new place and seeing new people.
“Sure,” I said. “That’d be great.” As much as I was ready to move on, I had to see her when she was flying all the way across the country. I was in no mood to have the big conversation, but it needed to happen. I suggested we meet for lunch to defuse the expectations of a Saturday night dinner. And the question of her staying with me never came up. I assumed her firm was paying for a hotel through the weekend.
After getting off the phone, I forgot to check for Ewing stories on the Internet.
A FEW DAYS LATER, I was on the subway coming home from work, and Ewing’s father got on again. Did this happen often? Did people repeatedly meet randomly on the subway? After we made eye contact, he came and sat down near me. He was wearing the same clothes as the previous day.
“Hello again,” I said. “Do you take this train often?” It sounded like a pickup line.
“There’s a little shopping area where I go sometimes to pass the time.”
“My name is Sunil,” I said, offering my hand.
“Hello Neil, I’m Carl.” I didn’t like my name shortened, but I didn’t say anything. Finding a way to ease the strangeness of the strange struck me as being very American.
He told me about the different shops that he visited—a vegetable market, a music store, an electronics shop. He said he could spend hours looking at TVs and stereos. This was of little interest to me, and after he had talked about shopping for several minutes, I tried to steer him away from the topic. “I was interested in what you were saying a couple of days ago.”
“I’m sure you are,” he said.
This comment struck me as a little sharp.
He looked around the car. It was half-full, but there was no one sitting close to us. He looked around a second time and then began: “My wife, Dorothy, and I worked very hard in Jamaica. Kingston was nice, but there was not enough there, and we wanted to do something for our kids. Five girls and two boys—Carl Jr. and Patrick and the girls. We moved to Cambridge in Massachusetts, and we both worked. I worked as a mechanic, and Dorothy took whatever job she could find. We brought the kids one by one. Patrick didn’t come until four years after we first arrived. There was just not enough money to bring him.” He didn’t have a Jamaican accent, but there was a hint of something. And his story sounded polished, as if he had already told it to Barbara Walters. It was the stuff of the great American journey, but I knew that the journey had ended badly for Carl.
He continued. “Dorothy worked hard, and then one night had a big heart attack. Massive.”
I had never lost somebody so close to me, and I couldn’t imagine what he felt when he remembered his wife. I could only notice his looking away, the drop in his voice when he said “massive.” He must have missed her. And now he had lost his son.
“Then it was just me and the kids. Patrick had started playing basketball. Picked it up for the first time when he was twelve and ran with it. Those years in high school and college were tough. Do you remember all the taunting when he played? They said he couldn’t read. Bastards. They were animals.” Here was an emotion I recognized. There was fury in his eyes, the way there was fury in my mother’s eyes when she used her choice and only profanity: “Bastards.” It always scared me when she said it.
“Sure,” I said. I didn’t really remember him in his early years, as a high school standout and at Georgetown, though I had heard that he had trouble then. Spectators threw banana peels on the court and called him a monkey. But there were those glorious years in New York: the big man running up and down the court, his large hands palming the ball, the sweat pouring down his face as if he had just come in out of the rain.
As Carl spoke, the story about the move of the big family from Jamaica seemed familiar. There had been the Ewing myth about the hardship and the turn away from it in basketball. I couldn’t figure out whether I already knew some of these details or was just hearing them for the first time through Carl’s mouth. There were so many of these immigrant stories on TV and in the newspapers.
“You know the rest,” he continued. “First at Georgetown and then the years in the Garden. I loved the Garden. I never got tired of going in there. I liked to get there early. Spike Lee would come by, and we’d talk about the new movie he was making.”
I wanted to hear more about Spike Lee and the other stars he would see there. Had he seen Woody Allen? “And so when did things go sour?”
“It was when he wanted to be the man,” he said. “He had the money, and he was buying houses and cars. He was buying us houses and cars. I wanted a Cadillac, and he got me a Cadillac. The cars were fine, and we all deserved it. But I am the man. I worked to get us here, and I worked so that he could play basketball. And now he wants to walk around like he’s the one in charge. I dealt with it for years because I thought it was a phase that he would grow out of. But I had enough when it didn’t stop. I didn’t work this hard to have my kid walk around and pretend like he did all this. I did all this.” He was not angry. His voice stayed level throughout the conversation. Perhaps he had told this story to enough people that it didn’t make him angry anymore.
“That’s too bad,” I said.
“What’s too bad?”
“That the two of you don’t get along.” The second I said this, I knew I had said the wrong thing. “Well, I mean, it’s too bad that he hasn’t given you the proper respect.” I could see Carl approved of this response.
“But does it make you sad?” It seemed so girly to ask how it made him feel, but I really wanted to know.
“Sadness is not the point,” he said. “I want us to get along. What father doesn’t want that, after all that we have been through? And I like the luxury I feel around him. But all that is material, or immaterial. I came from nothing, so going back to nothing doesn’t seem that bad.” He sounded like a Buddhist. “But all that I have is what I think is right and wrong. If I give that up, I have nothing left. Patrick is wrong. He needs to recognize that I am still his father.” He paused for a second, and then said, “Here’s my stop.”
Carl’s stop was the one after mine. I told him that I had missed my station, and we both got out of the train and walked up the stairs. I could easily have walked to my place from his stop, but standing there, away from the subway train, I didn’t want to follow Carl into the street.
“I’m going to wait for the train on the other side. It’s too far for me to walk.”
We said good-bye, and he headed toward the exit. I looked around but didn’t immediately see where I needed to go to catch the train back. Carl noticed me looking around and took a step back toward me. “Here, I’ll show you,” he said. I let him show me. I was comfortable in the subway stations I regularly used, but new stations brought back the fear and disorientation I felt when I first arrived in the city. Perhaps Carl had sensed this.
We walked about forty feet and stood at the top of the stairs that led to the correct platform. I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to talk further.
“You seem like you’re new to the city.”
“Well, I’ve just never been to this station.”
“But how long have you been living here?”
I had a rule to never let on that I was new, but it seemed silly to maintain a front with Carl, who had told me so much about his life.
“A couple of months,” I said.
“I figured. You’re a lot friendlier than the people I regularly meet on the subway. Where are you from? The Midwest? Iowa, I bet.”
I couldn’t tell if he was messing with me. Of all the ways I had described myself, and had been described by others, the Midwest had never entered the realm of possibility. What was it about the way I looked, and the things I said, that led Carl to the Midwest? “Further west,” I said. “California.”
“Ah, California.” He said it twice and nodded his head as if this one piece of information explained everything about me. “Of course, I’ve been to Los Angeles a couple of times. Whew. That’s a big, beautiful ocean. You from L.A.?”
“No. San Francisco.”
“Now, why would you leave that good weather and all those beautiful women and come to New York?”
Before I could answer him, he had his own response.
“You came for the adventure, didn’t you? Got a little sick of the same old thing. Looking for a new job. No, wait. You left a pretty wife behind to start a new thing.”
I felt like I was talking to a fortune-teller. He had cast his net wide enough to hit on the larger issues of anyone’s life. But there was something eerie about how he made all the right guesses. “There was somebody, but not a wife. You know, even California stops being beautiful if you stare at it too long.”
Carl had a big smile on his face.
I was happy to hear the train coming. I said good-bye and went down to the platform. I wanted to be angry at Carl for the pleasure he took in predicting my situation. I had respectfully listened to him and hadn’t laughed at the change in his fortunes. And I would have been angry were it not for the fact that he was right about almost everything. I couldn’t be angry that he’d reduced me to a type. I had accomplished that all by myself.
As I thought about it, back on the train, Carl’s story seemed so sad. It was a sadness I thought I understood. After all the success, the unimaginable success, how could they fight? Patrick, it seemed, had crossed that very thin line between being the successful son who had made his father proud beyond any measurable means and being the son who had outgrown his father. I couldn’t blame Carl for feeling what he felt. No one deserved to be the one who was outgrown. His fatherhood, once so essential, had been reduced to a phase.
Yet, how could I blame Patrick? Little about his story resonated with my own experiences. I got along well with my father, perhaps because I had not yet outgrown him. I came to the United States with my family when I was quite young, and now we had stability, but nothing like the riches the Ewings had. Patrick had worked very hard and had the right to live the life he wanted, the right to be the big man.
When I got home, I turned on my computer and dialed into the Internet. I didn’t doubt Carl’s story. There was nothing excessive in what he described. I just wanted to know more.
I typed “Patrick Ewing’s Father” into a search engine, and it came up with a bunch of different stories. I began with one that seemed promising: “No Ring, but a strong circle of family and friends.” I had not kept up with things. I didn’t know that Ewing had recently retired. He played for the Knicks and then spent a year in Orlando and then, after seventeen seasons in the NBA, he announced his retirement. There had been a tribute to him in New York recently and everyone was there—old coaches, people he had played with, his family. The article discussed how through all the highs and lows of his career, his family had remained the bedrock for Patrick. He and his father, Carl, were very close. Had the family kept up a good front so as not to look bad in the press? Perhaps the fight was very recent. The story recounted the exact tale that Carl had told me earlier. They all moved from Jamaica, the kids coming one by one; they lived in a five-room house in Cambridge with nine people; Patrick played at the Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and then chose Georgetown over Boston College. The fans in Boston were brutal to him when he came to town with the Hoyas. They were angry that a Boston local had decided not to play for BC, and they were angry that he beat them handily on the court. His family was with him through it all.
It seemed strange that Carl wasn’t dressed well and took the subway with his groceries. But of course he was too proud to take money from his son. The article talked about how private the family was and how they, particularly Carl, seldom granted interviews. He had, however, spoken to this reporter and said he lived happily now, still in Cambridge, on the top floor of a duplex. His other son, Carl Jr., lived below him.
I MET MALA IN the lobby of the Hilton near Rockefeller Center at noon. I was quite nervous to see her. On my way there, I thought about the different things I was going to say, most of which revolved around the reasons why we couldn’t be together. It took the first sight of her—the short black hair, the high cheekbones—to remind me that she was an attractive woman. We hugged, and then somehow ended up kissing for several long seconds. I had missed this type of warmth in the past few months. And then we backed away from one another. I had certainly not planned to kiss her. Mala seemed surprised as well.
“Nice hotel,” I said, as I looked around the large lobby. She hated big hotels. The few times we’d traveled together, she insisted on staying in smaller places, even though they were more expensive.
“The office is close by,” she said. “At least it’s convenient.”
“Shall we go?” It was a very sunny day, and the temperature was in the high forties. I hadn’t lived in New York long enough to know that this was an ideal winter’s day. “Are you hungry?”
“Not really,” she said. “I slept in and had breakfast late.”
“We could walk around for a while and then eat. Is there something in particular you want to see?”
“I’ve never been to the Met. That’s close, isn’t it?”
We took a cab there, and when we got out in front of the museum, there were people sitting all over the steps. It was warmer than it had been for a couple of weeks. Inside, the line for admission was long. We decided to take a walk through Central Park instead. It felt like a touristy thing to do, but I was still, after all, a tourist.
Like the museum, the park was packed with people, though there was more room to spread out. I had walked around this part of the park once before by myself, and I remember thinking that the walk would have been better had I not been alone. I hadn’t pictured myself with Mala necessarily. Just not alone. Now with Mala, it felt more natural to walk among the couples, the young families, and the clusters of friends. As we walked, I didn’t know exactly how to interact physically with her. We certainly weren’t going to hold hands, but walking a few feet apart didn’t feel right either. We ended up somewhere in the middle. It was Mala who moved slightly away when we seemed to be getting too close.
“Did you get your work done?”
“Yeah,” she said. “But the real work will get done when I get back.”
“Why’d you come on such short notice?” I heard the reproach as it came out of my mouth. “Not that I mind. I’m glad you’re here.”
“The partner I do a lot of work for needed some help on a case he’s been working on out here and asked me to come along at the last minute.”
We walked through the park for about half an hour. As we walked, we slowly gained some of the ease we used to have. I told her about work, about how I was going on sales calls and feeling more comfortable in that role. When we had discussed the possibility of my move, I told Mala I wanted to go to New York because I’d have some opportunity to work with the marketing group. I was still the technical guy on sales visits, but I was doing something new.
She caught me up on some mutual friends. I was going to tell her about my encounter with Carl, but I didn’t. If there had been even a hint of indifference in her voice and manner, it would have blemished the joy I got from those interactions.
Then we headed toward Madison Avenue, another bit of New York that was far more interesting with a companion. We window-shopped and walked through Barney’s and Bergdorf Goodman before we ended up at Brooks Brothers. I needed some new clothes, and the one time she and I had been shopping together, she helped me pick out some nice things. And as we chose shirts for me to try on, it felt like we were back in San Francisco. We went upstairs with the shirts and picked out several pairs of pants. When I came out of the dressing room in an orange shirt and a pair of black slacks, Mala walked up to me to see how they fit.
“The shirt looks great. How do the pants feel?” she asked.
“Pretty good. How do they look?”
She looked at them and then placed her hand on the pleats to show that the pants were a little baggy below the waist. My body stiffened a little, and she quickly removed her hand. “I’ll check if they have some without pleats,” she said and walked away. I bought two pairs of pants, with pleats but in a smaller size, and several shirts.
Our walk through the park and the shopping felt like a perfect little domestic outing. Both of us were hungry now, and we ended up at a sushi place. For the first time that day, there were no other stimuli to distract us. We sat down and ordered our meal.
“What do you do on the weekends?” she asked.
“I haven’t had that many weekends here. For the first few, I put my place together. There are some people at work that I hang out with. And there’s this college buddy of mine who lives here. He has a bunch of his friends he’s introduced me to.” Even though there was nothing happening with the people I’d met, I tried to stay as vague as I could.
“Are you seeing anyone?”
For the past two hours, we’d stepped around the conversation we needed to have, and I was glad to get to it. “Of course not.” I felt like I was on some moral perch as I said this.
She took a sip of her Coke and then continued. “I’m beginning to see someone.”
I didn’t immediately respond because I thought she’d elaborate, but instead she drank some more of her Coke. It was her turn to be vague. She had every right to be seeing someone else. I was the one who’d cheated on her and the one who had been unwilling to define our relationship. She didn’t owe me anything. But that didn’t stop my heart from thumping in my ears. In that instant, Mala became incredibly desirable.
“Oh,” I finally said. “I’m glad.”
Just then the waiter came over with two bowls of steaming miso. I was grateful for the diversion. I took a few careful sips and then said, “Actually, I’m not.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I have no idea.” I was honest. I couldn’t figure out if she was telling me this as a way of ending our relationship or as an opportunity for me to step up and commit to her more substantially. I looked straight at her, but nothing in her face gave me an answer. But knowing what I knew of her, I was sure she wouldn’t try to get me back by finding someone else. “What if I told you that I could get transferred back, or we tried to get you transferred here?”
“That’s the problem, Sunil. You don’t know what you want. Do you want to get transferred back? Do you want me to get transferred here? You’ve had two months to make some attempt at keeping this going. I’m the one who always ends up calling.”
“Can we just drink this soup for a little bit?” I needed a few minutes. I had enjoyed New York a lot more in the past few hours than I had at any time in the past two months. It was an exciting place, with a lot of people, but I’d had some pretty lonely nights. There was no joy in going to bars with people you were just getting to know. I wasn’t suddenly in love with Mala, but it was hard to let her go. “Can we see if you can get transferred here? I’d really like that.”
“Maybe I misspoke. I’m not asking you to make a decision now about me moving or you coming back.” She paused for a second. “You cheated, and then you up and left. I’ve had a couple of months to realize just how ridiculous you’ve been. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve felt calmer and more settled since you’ve been gone. I work a lot to keep my mind occupied.”
“Do you work with him?” I sometimes had the feeling that I wasn’t quite successful enough for Mala. I never liked the guys I met from her work.
“I don’t want to talk about him.”
Mala was willing to make herself vulnerable. It was the thing that I admired when I was first getting to know her. But once someone messed with those emotions, she backed away. Her relationships with both her mother and sister were distant. I was surprised it had taken her this long to distance herself from me. But now I could hear it in her voice.
“Why did you tell me about your fling?”
I thought about it for a few seconds. Mala could slice up everything I said, analyze the parts, and put it back together.
“Because I felt bad, and it was the right thing to do. I figured that if I told you, we could deal with it and then continue on.”
“You felt bad, but not because you cheated on me. You felt bad because you wanted to break up, and this was the easy way to do it. You let me do the breaking up.”
“That’s not true.” I hated it when Mala was arrogant about her command of my emotions, and I hated how she made me feel like a typical man.
The waiter brought us our food, but I was in no mood to eat.
We both picked at our plates for several long minutes. Mala didn’t look angry, but she was far from the playfulness she’d had when she was pulling out different shirts for me to try on at Brooks Brothers.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
I called over the waiter and requested the bill. He looked at the untouched food, and then looked at us. “Is everything OK?”
I offered to walk her back to her hotel, but she said she’d be fine. We hugged good-bye, and this time it was quick and simple. As I was heading back home, I kept telling myself that it hurt now, and it did hurt, but soon I’d be glad that Mala said no. I could only start anew after I completely broke with the old. I kept telling myself that.
EARLY THE FOLLOWING WEEK, Carl got on my subway car again, and I realized that he, too, had a ritual for riding the subway. I always rode in the last car because I figured that when a head-on collision occurred—and I knew that it eventually would with all the different lines crisscrossing—I would be the least affected. I could walk out and see the damage in front of me. Carl must have had something similar in mind, because he always boarded my car.
He stepped in, looked around, and when we made eye contact, he came over and sat down.
“What’s up, Neil?”
“Nothing,” I said. “Just a long day of work.”
He didn’t ask me about my work, so I didn’t say anything. We sat in silence as the subway picked up speed. So there we were, and we had to make some conversation until I reached my stop. There was this one thing nagging me.
“You mentioned last week that you all moved to Cambridge when you first came. Have you lived in New York since Patrick came to play here?”
“No,” he said. “I still have a place in Cambridge, where I live most of the time. But sometimes I get a little bored of the routine, and so I come down and spend a few weeks here with one of my daughters. She lives here.” He paused and then continued. “I talked to Patrick last night. He called.”
I wanted to ask the things I wanted to know when we first met. What is he like? What kind of car does he drive? How big is his house? I wanted us to talk about the easy stuff, and I was relieved that I had resolved my one doubt.
“He said he wants to see me. Now that he’s not playing, he has more time, and he wants to spend it with me.”
“When are you going to see him?”
“I don’t know if I am,” he said. “I want him to think about what he’s done. I’ll see him, but not just yet. He needs to learn. He was such a good kid. I remember watching him in high school. He was still playing with kids even though he had become a man. He dominated them, and then we would talk after the games. I didn’t know much about basketball, but there were things that I picked up. Just sitting there watching my boy play his heart out, it was the greatest joy for me.”
I looked at him, and his eyes seemed to have watered. He was quiet for a moment, and then he asked: “Do you want to see some pictures?”
“Sure,” I said.
He reached into his back pocket and got out an old leather wallet. It was packed with receipts and notes written on scraps of paper. He opened it, and inside was a set of card-sized plastic sheets, all held together by a binding. I used to have one in the first wallet I owned in elementary school. In it, I placed my library card; a slip of paper with my name, address, and phone number; and a photo of myself taken at picture day in the fourth grade. I didn’t have anything else to put in.
Carl held his wallet between us and showed me his pictures. They were all cutouts of Patrick Ewing from the newspaper and from color magazines like Sports Illustrated. The first picture was one of Ewing from his Georgetown days, but the rest were from his days with the Knicks. He took each one out so that I could get a better look. The edges of the pictures were sloppy and uneven.
“Patrick gave me this one after his rookie season with the Knicks.” As he handed me the picture, his hand touched mine, and he kept it there for a few seconds longer than necessary. I looked at him, and his eyes were still a little moist, though the look in them had changed.
Carl had been so convincing. And I had been so willing to be convinced. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’d thought this would all lead to a brief, friendly meeting with Patrick. I wondered what Carl’s apartment looked like. I imagined that it was small and filled with magazines and newspapers. Weren’t all New York apartments cramped and full of things? Was there anyone there with him? There may have been family at some point, but they were all probably gone now, dead or moved away. And was his name even Carl?
At first I thought he was asking me to let him have the world he’d created. But I’d believed him before he brought out the pictures. He didn’t need to show them to me. Apparently he wanted me to see his real life. And what he had was far less than I had, but there I was looking for people on the subway the same way he was.
“Those are really wonderful pictures, Carl,” I said, handing them back.
He put them in his pocket. “Maybe I’ll see him,” he said. “It will be nice.”
“Yes, it would be.”
We rode in silence, and I didn’t feel any need to fill it. When my station approached, I got up and shook his hand. We avoided each other’s eyes, as if we’d said a little too much, a little too quickly. I got off the train and ran up the stairs, feeling sad—for Carl, for losing Mala, for the fool I had been, for everything. As I walked home, I thought about the choices I’d made, and the ones I’d failed to make. I thought about what choices I could still make, and I saw it would be a while before I’d find a way to leave New York.