The Lost Boys Symphony
Little, Brown and Company
Copyright © 2015 Mark Andrew FergusonISBN: 978-0-316-32399-4
All rights reserved.
The Black Corner
Gabe's first memory was of a game. His T-shirt was pulled up, pinned between chin and chest, and his pants and underwear were around his ankles. Henry was there, his clothes in roughly the same configuration. Henry was singing, and Gabe was listening. They would take turns making funny noises in the dark. They were both four years old, and though they would remain best friends throughout childhood and adolescence and beyond, they would stop taking their pants off in closets together shortly after the time of Gabe's second memory.
Gabe's second memory was of being caught. This time, he and Henry were together in a sleeping bag. All of their clothing had been left in a reckless pile down past their feet. They lay on their sides, foreheads pressed together. Henry hummed notes up and down a scale, and when he hit just the right one the air inside the sleeping bag seemed to come alive and tickle Gabe deep inside of his ear. When that happened they both laughed and Henry said, "Now you go." But Gabe could never find the right notes. His role in the game was to take his index fingers and try to tickle the inside of Henry's ears directly while singing a silly song. Henry giggled and fought back until one or the other of them gave up.
Henry's mother's voice was surprisingly clear inside the bag.
"What are you two doing?" she said.
Gabe froze. He wasn't positive that what they were doing was bad, but the fact that they'd always kept it a secret made him feel afraid. Henry, believing the bag to be magical, whispered that if they were quiet enough his mother wouldn't find them. Gabe remembered the blinding light when she opened the bag and the feeling of the cool air replacing the moistness of their breath. It made him feel small and cold. Henry's mother dragged her son out by the wrist. He cried and tried to get away, but she held on to his arm and spanked his bare behind as he ran in a circle around her. That image was clear in Gabe's memory. Henry was like the tail of a dog being chased by the snapping mouth of his mother's open palm.
Gabe doubted that she'd spanked him, too, but he couldn't recall. His mind hadn't recorded anything beyond the air and the light, her loud voice and the sound of the spanking.
Fifteen years had passed since that moment, but when Gabe was reminded of it the shame was still fresh. It opened up somewhere in his sinuses and spread down through his chest before pooling and hardening beneath his breastbone. He never told his own parents what had happened, and as far as he knew Henry's mother had never revealed their secret. Because of that, Gabe always felt like he was still hiding, even after having been found.
He never fooled around with another boy again, and he and Henry never talked about it. As he got older, as he came to understand how typical their early, unfocused impulses had been, Gabe resented having been made to feel bad about it in the first place. Even so, the shame remained like the phantom of a severed limb. It was there inside him whether it made sense or not, one of the many strange stones that formed his crooked foundation.
For reasons he could not at first understand, Gabe thought a lot about those memories when Henry disappeared. Eventually, after long consideration, the reason for their persistence became clear. In the blackest corner of his mind, the place where Gabe put sex and pain and fear and humiliation, this memory was king. And at the center of it stood Henry, singing, his pants around his ankles.CHAPTER 2
The Living Room
It started in the living room of Henry and Gabe's apartment at 215 Hamilton Street. The room was all mismatched couches and dark wood paneling. An old TV blared from a particleboard stand that had been sitting in the same fetid corner since before they moved in. Mounted into the ceiling was a fan that had never been turned on. Even the slightest breeze would have disturbed the delicate ecosystem of the big wooden coffee table that dominated the center of the room. It was perpetually covered in takeout menus; napkins, paper bags and plates from Tata's Pizza; scraps of paper; loose change; dusty-looking Ziploc bags; empty Arizona iced tea cans with blackened joint roaches teetering over their sharp mouths; aluminum takeout tins long since emptied of tacos or french fries, now slowly filling with the refuse of convenience store purchases; a Snapple bottle, its lid twisted tight to prevent the stench of cigarette butts from escaping the scum-streaked topiary. It was the coffee table of inveterate pot smokers, and its general likeness could be found in every New Brunswick house that Gabe had ever visited.
Once every few weeks he would get disgusted enough to throw everything away and wipe that table down. It always took two or three passes before the paper towel came up an acceptable dingy brown. If the mess bothered Henry he didn't show it, possibly because he was barely ever home. He spent most of each day locked in a practice room at Rutgers's main music building, where he worked to perfect percussion instruments that he would seldom use even if he did become a concert musician.
Gabe was sitting on the periwinkle couch one night, scratching at the loose threads that formed one of its thousands of tiny white diamonds, when suddenly Henry started laughing.
"What?" said Gabe. He had an expectant smile on his face.
Henry responded with a vague shrug of his shoulders and then laughed again. It sounded sharp and thin and out of key.
Gabe thought it was strange, but their nights were always strange. Gabe and Henry designed their time together to counteract and forget the monotony of their days. They strung late hours together, lengthened them with pot and caffeine, and didn't go to bed until they'd already fallen asleep while watching late-night talk shows or old sitcoms. Neither of them chased sleep anymore. It was easier to let it chase them. The habit had begun when Henry's ex-girlfriend Val disappeared from their lives the year before. At first Henry suffered from the kind of insomnia typical of the brokenhearted, and Gabe stayed up with him out of solidarity. But even after the pain subsided, the habit persisted.
Henry laughed again.
"What's so funny?"
Henry smiled and closed his eyes.
Gabe didn't know what to do, so he laughed too. He laughed until the corners of his mouth burned and his chest ached. It was the forced laughter of awkward parties and run-ins with old acquaintances. It deadened Gabe's senses and made him feel far away. When he couldn't stand it any longer he said, "Dude. What the fuck? What are you thinking about?"
Henry acted like he hadn't heard it. His socked feet were propped on the corner of the coffee table; his hands rested on the pouch of the charcoal-gray hoodie that had become his sophomore year uniform. He kept laughing, louder and faster until he was almost out of breath.
Gabe just stared. He didn't care to ask any more questions, so he listened to the organ jazz that flowed out of the little iPod dock in the corner and allowed himself be lost in the melody, to bounce to the beat. Minutes later Henry unlocked his fingers, waved one hand in front of his face, and nodded his head.
"Okay then," said Gabe. "Get some sleep. You're scaring the shit out of me."
Gabe's bedroom was right next to the living room. He stood up from the couch, waited for his head to stop spinning, crossed the threshold, and closed the door.
Perhaps the strangest thing about that night was that it didn't seem particularly strange at all. Not at the time. A lot had changed since their time in the dorms the year before. It was easy to blame that on Val's departure, but Gabe wondered if that was fair. Long before she showed up, he and Henry had been perfectly able to fill each other's time without getting high. It wasn't Val's absence that was the problem. Not directly, anyway. The problem was that she'd changed them. When they were kids, Henry had needed Gabe. He barely talked to anyone else, even before his dad died when they were in middle school. After that he dug even deeper into his own strange imaginary world, a world that even Gabe couldn't access with any reliability.
But they stayed friends even as their respective paths through adolescence diverged. When Henry successfully auditioned to be the replacement drummer for a local punk band called Upstart, most of his peers thought it was funny. They couldn't picture him as a hard-driving punk rock percussionist. Gabe knew it made perfect sense. Henry was defined by the music he played. He didn't relish performing—he didn't join Upstart for the notoriety. He did it because Upstart was good. The lyrics sucked and the other kids in the band oozed the faux angst that defined the scene, but they were not just another teenage noise machine. Each member was technically proficient. They were dedicated, well trained. And in that way Henry was a perfect fit.
The first time Valerie Mitchell came to a show, Gabe avoided her. She and Henry were in gym class together and somehow Henry had worked up the courage to give her a flyer. Other girls periodically latched on to Henry after he joined the band, but they usually lost interest as soon as one of Upstart's edgier members took notice of them. Gabe didn't want to tell Henry that he didn't have a chance with Val, so he resigned himself to waiting it out. She would eventually hook up with some other guy or ignore Henry at a crucial moment. Or she'd ask him to drop a hint about her to some friend of his and Henry would actually do it just to be nice. But then he'd quietly implode and Gabe would console him for weeks.
The second time Val came to a show Gabe had drunk two syrupy malt beverages and was practically wasted. He cornered her in the bright hallway outside the community room at the Wayne senior center. "Stop giving him hope," he said, and he slapped his palm against the wall in earnest emphasis. "You're killing him." He felt like crying. He felt like kissing her. He felt like throwing up.
If Val was insulted she didn't show it. "Take it easy on the hard lemonade," she said. And then she walked away.
A few weeks later, Val kissed Henry for the first time. In the months that followed she stuck around. Without really meaning to, Gabe grew to really like her. She was warm. She asked Gabe questions about things he cared about and seemed to actually want to hear his answers. She touched his arm when she greeted him and hugged him when she said goodbye. The last of Gabe's defenses told him that it was all a strategy, that she was simply trying to get him on her side. So he tried to outdo her. If Val was being big, he could be bigger. But what started as artifice became real over time, and his fondness for her bled into his friendship with Henry until he began seeing his old best friend the way Val did. Suddenly Henry didn't seem so weak or shy or insecure. He wasn't just the kid who maybe felt things too deeply and needed too much. In many ways that Gabe had scarcely noticed before, Henry was confident and funny, kind and strong.
The three of them grew closer. Their inside jokes evolved into a whole private vocabulary. There were, of course, certain kinds of intimacy that Gabe wasn't privy to, but over time he got better at ignoring the ache he felt when he considered what Val and Henry did in private. The thoughts that he couldn't ignore—stolen glimpses of Val's body and the way her laughter made him feel—Gabe reserved for when he was alone.
They graduated from high school, then all decided on Rutgers for college. The adults in their lives protested—Val's mother in particular was adamant that Val not make decisions about school based on love—but they ignored the advice, confident in the knowledge that what Henry and Val had would outlast the cynicism. Gabe was just as sure of that as his two best friends were. He felt lucky to be a part of it.
That faith was what made it so hard when Val ended it.
Now, a year after Val left and a week after that first strange night in the living room, Henry was quiet and distant. A perpetual smile sat fat on his lips without ever spreading to the rest of his face. One day Gabe came home from his morning shift at the Magic Dragon hungry and looking for company. He walked in the back door and rushed through the kitchen, willing himself not to see the filth. He dropped his shoulder bag on the couch and listened to the house, waiting for a sign that Henry was home.
"Hey," he yelled.
He launched himself up the dust-caked stairs, taking them two at a time. At the top there was a bathroom and Henry's tiny bedroom. Through the open door Gabe could see that Henry was sitting at his desk, intense focus evident in his slack mouth and unblinking eyes.
"Did you hear me?" said Gabe.
Henry didn't look up, and Gabe saw that he was drawing on a blue-and-pink-lined index card. H entered the bedroom.
"Do you want to go to Tata's? Pizza or something?"
Henry sniffled and kept scribbling.
Gabe sat on the bed. From there he could see that three teetering piles of index cards had been pushed to the side of the desk.
"What are you doing?"
Henry didn't answer.
"I'm drawing," said Henry. It sounded like an answer but it wasn't, not really, and Gabe felt a familiar anger, one that had been lurking all week.
Henry lifted his pencil and appraised his work. Apparently satisfied, he put the index card on top of one pile and grabbed a blank one from another.
"Do you want to see?" he asked. The question sounded as though it were rehearsed, as if Henry was trying so hard to sound natural that the opposite effect was perfectly achieved.
Gabe lifted a few cards from the top of the pile closest to him. They were covered in elementary shapes and mathematical symbols, arranged as if by accident. He flipped through them once, quickly, and then again more slowly, willing himself to see something meaningful. He stared at one card so long that the shapes started to shift. Two squares connected at their centers by a thick line spun like bicycle wheels. Squiggles swam by.
He shut his eyes tight and opened them back on Henry. "Cool," he said. "Um. What is it?"
A single labored exhale was the extent of Henry's response. Gabe dropped the cards on the bed and walked out.
Soon after that, Henry stopped going to class. He didn't practice. He stopped drawing cryptic symbols. As far as Gabe could tell, he didn't bathe or shave or eat, either. He just sat. He fidgeted. He mumbled. Sometimes on the couch, sometimes on the porch, sometimes in his room—but always the same.
Gabe left the house as much as he could, but that didn't mean he could escape. He spent most of his time curating a list of possible explanations for Henry's behavior. Maybe it was too much pot, but that seemed ridiculous. New Brunswick was home to some of the most dedicated cannabis addicts on the planet, and Gabe had never heard a single story about anyone losing it quite like Henry had. The music conservatory couldn't have helped. All year, Henry had spent the majority of his waking moments alone in a windowless practice room. But there were other kids—Henry's friends in the program—who were doing just fine. And anyway, Henry had practiced for hours each day for as long as Gabe could remember.
The only explanation that seemed feasible at all was Val, but the timing was all wrong. Gabe couldn't recall the last time either of them so much as spoke her name.CHAPTER 3
After the white cement blocks of her dorm at Rutgers, Val's new life in NYU's Greenwich Hotel residence hall seemed luxurious to the point of excess. Her galley kitchen was quaint and homey. In the morning, its single narrow window glowing with the reflected light of the building across the street. The institutional-white paint was offset by the deep gleaming brown of old wood floors. When it was nice enough, Val sunbathed on a pier that poked out into the Hudson River with the Statue of Liberty looking on. Even the names of the streets—the building sat between the tree-lined Morton and the cobblestoned Barrow—imbued the place with a patina of old-world authenticity.
Val's mom, Connie, was resistant to the transfer at first. No school was worth fifty thousand dollars a year, she said.
Val wasn't discouraged. She knew her dad might join in the melee if called upon, but he'd long been in the habit of leaving the difficult conversations to Connie. So Val set about testing her mother's defenses. She argued over class size and access to the greatest city on earth (a phrase she repeated as if it were the chorus to a long protest song). She researched NYU's award-winning faculty and emailed news articles that featured her fantasy professors.