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New York, Not Too Long Ago

November 29, 2012 | by

I hadn’t seen Jake since years ago, when we had met at the Guggenheim before going away to college. I remember only one scene from the encounter: spinning around the museum’s spiraling staircase with our arms spread like wings. When we reached the ground floor, we ran out as fast as we could before anyone could have a word with us about our behavior. I don’t recall talking about France, because I don’t think we really did. I remember just twirling with abandon. He had been the only one to understand my kind of crazy. I wouldn’t see him again for five years.

Our second meeting was in Manhattan at the Odeon restaurant. Jake looked the same as he had in France, though a little taller, a little more handsome, but the same sandy hair and flashing eyes. Except more than ten years of maturity had lent him the calm that had eluded us both back then. He seemed at ease with himself and happy with his work in filmmaking. I couldn’t understand why I hadn’t appreciated his attention as much as I should have when we were young, which meant I’d grown up as well. Instead of fixating romantically on Raees, I should have accepted and cultivated my friendship with Jake—that’s really all it was. Raees was no longer tall and he was an art dealer, having left behind dreams of working in cinema.

“If you’d have asked me then what you’d end up, I thought you’d be a hippie, a free spirit poet,” Jake said as he picked apart a piece of bread. “You were like a flower child obsessed with butterflies1—you had this really funny handwriting and drew insects on everything. You had a very beautiful spirit. You were strange, but it didn’t really bother me. I thought it was endearing. You weren’t like the other girls, and they definitely didn’t like you.” He laughed. “Sorry. You know what I mean. It seems as though you’re doing well now.”

“Thank you.”

“How’s your family?” he asked.

“Fine. I don’t see them very often. My brother loves the outdoors and spends much of his time working in Vermont or Colorado.”

“What does he do?”

“Disaster relief–something, or so he says. I think he actually works with my father,” I said.

“I remember your father did something strange?”

“He says it was ‘international business,’ ‘consulting,’ IBM, maybe. I think Sophie’s dad said the same thing. They both went to work in La Défense at this building you had to enter through Star Wars–like capsules.”

“I bet he was a spy, like Raees’s mom.” Jake had sensed my childhood hunch about my father’s profession without my ever explaining any details to him. “She once told us she worked for the Dutch National Science Foundation, the DNSF. We were like ‘What the fuck’s the DNSF?’ Whenever we hung out at Raees’s place it was always a little freaky. There were these Russian icons with gold-lined eyes. I think they were painted in some sort of wax technique. Raees’s mom always warned us about smoking around them. I swear, one started to melt once when he lit a cigarette too close. Freaky. We thought maybe we could sell a couple on the black market,” Jake said, laughing. “Whenever we went out she’d warn us to ‘Watch out for wild women.’ Everyone’s parents were interesting. Do you remember when I didn’t come to school for a little while?”

“Yeah, I never knew what happened. No one seemed to know. You just reappeared one day. I remember the teachers whispering. Considering you were my boyfriend, I thought you’d share if you wanted me to know.”

Jake laughed.

“My mom woke me up one morning and said we were going away and I couldn’t tell anyone. We were going to take the train to find my dad in Nice. He’d gotten a call from the CRS. They were like a special branch of the French government like the FBI.

“They’d told him, ‘You need to get out of Paris for a while.’ They’d intercepted a threat to an American executive at an American bank. ‘We will let you know when you can return. Go as far away as you can, but stay in France and check into the hotel under a different name. We’ll find you and contact you when it’s safe to come back.’

“So, we stayed in a bed-and-breakfast in Nice.”

“Wasn’t that bizarre?”

“I don’t know; it was normal. We were there with other kids too. They had thought my father was the most at risk, as he worked for United Bank of America. I guess if you were a terrorist you’d choose that over Chase? Anyway, after ten days passed, we received a call.

“‘The threat has been neutralized’ was all they said.”

“That’s so crazy. My father was gone most of the time. My only vivid memories from back then are of what happened when he would come home. I forget almost everything that happened after I lost it.”

“Lost it?” Jake asked.

“Yeah, I was severely depressed about a year before we moved back to the States. My mother found this American doctor in Paris that I used to see each week. I didn’t let anyone help me until I decided to get better on my own. My recovery was faked when we returned to New York after my father’s assignment. I tried to be normal, all-American: played lacrosse, dated football players, wore jeans. No one bought it, least of all myself. Every time I try too hard it falls flat. I had to finally accept I was different and figure how to get through the world alone this way. There was no cure. I never actually got better.”

“To be honest, I had no idea.”

“No?” I asked.

“It’s true. Like I said before, you were this beautiful spirit. What may be off is your point of view. Most of us were alone a lot. I got a lot of teenage stuff out of my system over there. We had so much freedom. Raees and I would just go out and get wasted. We drank and smoked, and then when I moved back, there wasn’t any desire for any of that partying anymore. By the time I got to prep school, it was like I had done all that stuff. We’d all grown up alone and so fast.”

Excerpted from An Extraordinary Theory of Objects.

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Annotations

  1. Just as Egyptian tombs and medieval catacombs were ravaged for treasure, butterflies are also victims of contemporary black market smugglers like Hisayoshi Kojima, the Japanese-born king of a vast multimillion-dollar ring of insect poachers. They were two Queen Alexandra’s Bird-wing butterflies ordered by an undercover agent that led to Kojima’s eventual capture. The species is the largest in the world, with a yellow body and mint-and-black-colored wings sometimes reaching almost a foot in width.

2 COMMENTS

1 Comments

  1. Petya K. Grady | November 29, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I think the dad was a spy.

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