I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Nothing you will see tonight is normal,” said Elihu’s mother. It was the first exciting thing she’d ever said. “Hold the railing or you’ll trip,” she added. They were climbing the stairs of the townhouse on West Tenth Street. “I love my sister, but this is not how a person should live.”
Why wasn’t it? Piano leaked from the windows, the notes insouciant. Breath went in one end of a trumpet and pure joy came out the other. If he had owned such a thing, shining and insolent, his mother would confiscate it.
She pressed the doorbell. She wore lime green pants and a matching jacket, a walking parrot. She had not left their own apartment in a long time. Twice, on the subway, she had tried to hold his hand.
His cousin Rainey opened the door, shrieked Aunt Laurette, and flung herself into his mother’s arms. She held a record album. Her eyes were alive and she looked like their super Ardelio’s daughter, who had a baby—but that was silly, Rainey was twelve. Her album cover had longhaired men with hard faces. At home, Elihu’s grandparents played records like Oklahoma! and The Boy Friend.
Rainey’s album said Who Are You. It was not a question.
She let go of his mother and stared at Elihu from across the threshold, from a different planet, from a Thanksgiving and a half ago.
In the foyer, Elihu looked up the staircase. He remembered secret rooms, high floors, places to hide. He had been ten. Uncle Howard played the piano and kissed some ladies, and Aunt Linda laughed. People lit lumpy, fragrant cigarettes right at the dining table, and shared them. A pale man with long white hair offered to let him blow into the trumpet, but his mother looked at where the man’s mouth had been and said thank you, no.
Then they stayed away for a long time.
He watched his mother’s gaze bind to Rainey’s chest. “Sweet pea,” she said. “You grew.”
The piano stopped. The trumpet stopped. People laughed in the parlor. His Uncle Howard appeared with his arm around a lady who was not Aunt Linda. The lady sang out her name, Radmila, and offered to get them drinks.
Her pockets were longer than her shorts.
“Maybe a Tab,” said his mother. “I’m Laurette. I’m the crazy sister.”
“I never said crazy.” Uncle Howard unslung his arm from Radmila and hugged Elihu’s mother hard. Elihu watched her hand float up. It quivered in midair. Then it gave up and patted Uncle Howard’s back.
“Clutterhound, maybe,” said Uncle Howard cheerfully. He released her. “Call me a bastard, I’ll own up to it,” he said.
“Howard,” said Elihu’s mother.
“Sue me,” he said, then presented Elihu with a large, long-fingered hand.
Elihu took it and found himself trapped in the handshake.
“What are you giving me?” said Uncle Howard. “A baby bird? Crush it, son. Be a man. Welcome to the house of laughter and song.”
“So who do you like better,” Rainey said, “Roger Daltrey?”
She was just standing there, but she had a fearsome way of just standing there like a snake gliding up a pole. His mother was right. Something had turned her into a woman. And however he squeezed his uncle’s hand, he was going to remain a stalk of wheat. Wheat was the third largest crop in the United States. He would always look like a stalk of wheat. He would look like wheat in four months when he turned twelve, and if he didn’t get killed in junior high he would look like wheat when he grew up. He knew it, and Uncle Howard, who squeezed his hand even tighter, knew it, and didn’t like it.
“Or Pete Townshend?” said Rainey. “Tina and I are having an argument.”
“Over what?” said Elihu.
Uncle Howard laughed and dropped his hand. “Tell Tina to get me a drink,” he told Radmila as he walked into the parlor. “An elixir of beauty and youth.”
Radmila said to Elihu, “Tina is a little girl.” She clopped away on shoes like wooden blocks.
His mother shouted up the stairs, “Linda!” She began climbing. Rainey bounded after her. Halfway up, his mother turned and said firmly, “Elihu. Come with.”
But in the parlor, he saw, the pale man was watching him.
Indeed, he seemed to be waiting for him, sprawled on the sofa with his trumpet. Uncle Howard leaned forward in an armchair, knees wide, watching Elihu with obvious amusement.
“Elihu,” said his mother.
“Crush it, son,” Uncle Howard said softly.
Elihu experienced a tiny explosion in his brain. He walked to the man. “I remember you,” he said. “You’re albino.”
“One of my many talents,” said the man. “I remember you. You asked if anyone played chess.”
Uncle Howard laughed. Across the parlor a girl lit a cigarette, the same kind from Thanksgiving.
The trumpet glittered and coiled. “Can I try it?” said Elihu.
“Can you blow it,” said the man. “Let’s find out. Seal your lips. Say mmm.” He waited while Elihu did this. “Now keep your lips together and blow out hard, like this.”
The man made a kissy face and then a fantastic, terrible fart sound.
Elihu glanced at Uncle Howard to see if he was in on the joke, the idea that Elihu was supposed to make this sound himself. But Radmila had walked in with a drink, and Uncle Howard was pulling her down to him by the hair.
From upstairs Rainey shouted, “Elihu! We can’t order without you!”
“I have to go,” said Elihu. He would not be humiliated by a mouth fart. But he did not move.
“When you do that into the mouthpiece,” the man said patiently, “you make music. But first you have to teach your mouth to do it.”
“Harder than you think,” said Uncle Howard, while Radmila sat on his lap and picked his fingers from her hair.
Elihu blew spit and air. No one laughed. “Developing your embouchure takes time,” said the man. He did not explain. “Relax your lips,” he said. He did not explain that either. But Elihu erupted, finally, in a mouth fart.
It was, for about three seconds, a fantastic, terrible mouth fart. No one applauded. This seemed to be serious business in this house. Radmila’s smile was a lovely, crooked line.
The man placed in Elihu’s hands a gleaming machine that might as well produce chocolates as music, so mysterious were its tubes and curves.
“Bell,” said the man, touching it. “Valves. Mouthpiece. Give me your left hand. Hold it around the valves. Relax those fingers, child. Thumb here, next three fingers around this curve. This one through the ring. Move it. That’s the third valve slide. Pinky here.”
Elihu took a breath and raised the trumpet. It might have been a goblet and he might have been a thirsty child.
“Whoa,” said the man. He tipped the trumpet back down.
“This is Gordy Vine, son,” Uncle Howard said. “I expect you to remember his name.”
Mr. Vine took Elihu’s right hand. “These three fingertips cover the valves. Pinkie here. Thumb here. Now just feel yourself with the instrument. Take a deep breath. Let it out. Feel the difference? Let those shoulders go. Man oh man. Who knotted you up?”
“Guess,” said Uncle Howard.
The girl ambled over to Mr. Vine and held the cigarette to his lips.
“Elihu,” Rainey shouted down the stairs, “you better like mushrooms.”
If they served mushrooms in this house, he would like mushrooms.
The girl held the cigarette out to Elihu and arched her blond eyebrows.
“Later,” said Mr. Vine. “Lick your lips. Seal them.” His finger landed at the corner of Elihu’s mouth. “Stay tight here,” said Mr. Vine, “but try to release the middle. Now raise the trumpet. Blow.”
Elihu blew. The trumpet sighed.
“Steady air,” said Mr. Vine. “You want steady air.”
The girl offered the cigarette to Uncle Howard, who sucked on it right from her fingers and held his breath.
Elihu understood that he should not wait for his brain to process steady air, that if he placed his faith in this nearly white man and did what he was told, the trumpet might transform the revolting product of his puny body, the mouth fart, into something clarion and burnished and pure.
He inhaled sharply and blew.
Uncle Howard, still holding in the smoke, said in a croaky voice: “Whaddayaknow.”
He found them eating pizza on the blue bed in the blue room, and playing cards: his mother, Aunt Linda, Rainey, and a girl with caramel hair, Tina, he guessed.
Who Are You lay on the dresser. When Aunt Linda scrambled off the bed to hug him, her ashtray spilled ash on her pizza. Rainey laughed.
Aunt Linda smelled of flowers. “It’s not fair,” she said. “He gets all the blond.” She stroked his hair out in little tufts. “Sweet pea, we never see you. Laurette, he can’t ride the bus?”
“There are creeps on the bus,” his mother said.
“There are creeps everywhere,” said Aunt Linda. Her voice was exactly like his mother’s, but happier. “Rainey rides the subway already. I swear this household runs on pizza. Let’s take it on the roof.”
Rainey and Tina exchanged a look and in the look Elihu saw the engineering schematic for the evening.
“Air would be lovely,” said his mother. She unfolded herself. Her feet were bare. Maybe Aunt Linda had told her to relax.
“No, thank you,” said Elihu. He would stay in this good room and read the posters, which had lots of agitated text, and pictures of horns and piano keys, and of black men blowing horns, and black hands on piano keys, and a yellow stick figure all twisted but excited-looking. No one had knotted it up.
“Why? Tina ran the tip of her tongue along her teeth. She was taller and she stood too close. “You scared of heights?”
Rainey edged up to the nightstand and tugged the drawer open. Elihu watched her hand dip into the drawer and extract a pack of cigarettes.
“Or you scared of us?” Tina’s voice was poured honey. It didn’t go with the words.
Meanwhile, Aunt Linda lifted the edge of the mattress and slid money far beneath. “Thanks,” she said. The women caught him watching. His mother placed her hands on his cheeks and sharply turned his head away.
Rainey came up beside him. “He’s always scared,” she said. “Double dare you.”
His mother and Aunt Linda moved into the hall. His mother carried her Coke and Aunt Linda’s wine, and Aunt Linda held the pizza boxes. All I could get, he heard his mother murmur.
“Hey, fifty bucks,” Aunt Linda said. The sisters ascended toward the roof, their bare feet glowing. “Ticket out of here,” he heard her say, and the women’s feet flashed out of sight.
The roof was the moon with lawn chairs.
He scuffed along the scumbly black surface. His mother and Aunt Linda dragged two chairs together so they touched. Rainey and Tina whispered near the doorway.
“Watch the parapet,” called his mother. “Sweet pea, that’s far enough.” The world lay everywhere, inky and glittering. Buildings of every height stood bravely in their places. No one made them line up by size.
Down on West Tenth Street, the cloth-covered people were convincingly real. They were not like the moving entities far below his grandparents’ windows. These were crushable. If Uncle Howard wanted to crush things, here they were.
“El-i-hu,” Rainey sang. He turned. She and Tina lounged in the doorway to the stairs. Aunt Linda’s head rested on his mother’s shoulder, and his mother was fanning away smoke, but peacefully.
He let Rainey and Tina lead him away from the mothers, out of sight, behind the little hut that housed the stairway door.
“Sit down, Elihu.” Rainey’s voice was velvety but not nice. He sat. “Elly-belly,” she crooned. Who are you. Not a question.
Rainey and Tina each lit a Kool cigarette, their long hair dangerously near the match, their hands touching in a tender cup. Then Rainey whacked the pack on her knee and a cigarette shot partway out. She extended it.
“Afraid, Elly-Belly?” said Tina.
“Yes,” he said.
“Jesus H. Christ,” said Rainey.
“Don’t call me that,” said Tina.
“Quit it,” said Rainey. “That’s my father’s line.” A knife shot out of her eye. Elihu would have bled for days, but Tina seemed not to feel it.
One of the mothers called out, “You kids all right? There’s still pizza.”
Rainey shoved the pack at him. “Smoke,” she said. “It’ll put hair on your chest.” She and Tina cracked up.
“I bet you’re scared to kiss a girl,” Tina said.
“No,” he said. This, too, was true. Kissing a girl would be not frightening but disgusting, and this was a function not of being eleven but of something deep inside, something that would persist, something, also, that his uncle could perceive.
Tina planted her palms on the tarpaper and leaned toward him so her chest stuck out. “Show me,” she said.
“Yeah, show her,” said Rainey. “Cause you look scared.”
Tina licked her teeth. Her mouth was a Venus flytrap.
If he ran, there could be no stopping. He would have to run past the mothers, down the stairs, past his uncle and Mr. Vine, east on West Tenth, uptown on Sixth, left around Central Park, north on Broadway, west on 100th, downhill and into his building and rudely past Ray with no explanation, up five flights, past his grandparents and into his own room, slam. And then?
“I can’t,” he said. “Kissing is private.”
Tina made a noise in her nose. “Not in this house,” she said. “Oh, come on. Rain. Your parents are all I Am Curious Yellow. No one cares.”
“Some people care,” said Rainey. She waved her cigarette and said, “Kiss her or we’ll drop you over the roof.”
They could do it.
He said, “My father is teaching me kung fu.”
A whirl of smoke found his face. “Oh, right,” said Rainey. “Everyone knows about your dad.”
But that was not possible. His mother never spoke about his father, ever. No one knew anything about Elihu’s father except Elihu, who had it all worked out, including: Hair color, eye color, hometown, career, unassailable reason for departure, the day of their eventual reunion, and the rest of their lives together.
“Your dad took one look at you.” Rainey exhaled a Saturn ring. Her hair dipped forward. From behind it she said, “My father was right about you.” Elihu waited. Sometimes, if you waited, they got bored.
Rainey said, as if murmuring to someone else, “Little faggot.”
“Kiddos,” one of the mothers sang out. “Last slice with pepperoni,” and then the other called, “Elihu? Sweet pea, you want to join us?”
Tina laughed. “Look, he’s scared to defend himself.”
Jab. Right hook. Grandpa Marty kept trying to teach him those. It turned out that what the body wanted was to curl like a poked caterpillar, and take its blows.
“I know,” said Rainey. “Let’s go to my room and play The Who.”
“I don’t know how,” said Elihu.
“Oh,” said Tina, “trust me. We’ll show you.”
Rainey prodded him to her pink rug, to sit. Tina placed Who Are You on Rainey’s stereo and he watched her carefully, even reverently, set down the needle as if some sacrificial ritual had begun.
The speakers hissed. Then music yanked at his body. He was a marionette. It danced him. The girls looked down at him with light in their faces, and he dovened to something sovereign and dark.
“Ooh, he likes it,” said Tina, and Elihu came to himself, and froze.
“We have a joke for you.” Rainey knelt on the rug, moving in that snaky way.
“It’s a test,” Tina said. “If you don’t get this, you are definitely what Howard says.”
But he was not going to pass the test.
Rainey licked her lips. “Ready?” He was not ready. “Two monkeys sat in a bathtub,” she said. “One said, pass the soap. The other said, no soap, radio.”
He looked at her radiant, expectant face. That was it? That was a joke? He reached out to her bookshelf and picked up a tiny plastic creature. Its ugly face had a sweetness, and from its head flowed a fantastic length of soft, orange hair.
“Un. be. lievable,” said Tina in three distinct sentences. “Rain? He doesn’t get it.”
“You need to hear it again?” said Rainey. “Cause I can say it ve-ry slow-ly.”
“No,” said Elihu, stroking the creature’s hair. A new song came on the stereo. The voice had an intimate rage he had never heard before.
Tina said, “That’s Roger Daltrey,” and he remembered now: an argument. He liked Roger Daltrey.
“I’ve told this joke to fourteen kids,” Rainey said, “and every one got it but you.”
If he stood up and walked to the door, would they stop him?
“Oh, hell,” said Rainey. She tipped gracefully to one side, a tulip, and he felt something heavy slip from her. “Let’s tell him.”
Tina touched his knee. “You passed,” she said. “There is no joke. If someone says ‘I get it,’ it’s peer pressure.” She took her hand back, but he still felt it.
“Everyone says they get it,” said Rainey. “Like every single one. Except you.”
“Okay,” he said. Maybe they’d let him get up now. He stood. They didn’t stop him. He walked to a pink table that wore a skirt, set down the plastic creature, and picked up a small glass bottle.
“That’s Lala’s,” said Rainey. “My grandmother’s. I get them when there’s just a little left. Sniff.” She sounded like a whole new cousin. The bottle said White Shoulders. He sniffed. It smelled of violin music and pretty teachers and buildings lit up at night.
“We could put a dab behind your ear,” said Tina. She got to her feet and walked over. “He has no idea how gorgeous he is,” she said. “We could even do makeup. Just the teeniest bit.”
He knew what Uncle Howard would think of that.
“You’d be beautiful, Elihu,” Rainey said. “You already are, but more.”
On the table he saw lipsticks and a compact, items his mother and grandmother seemed to fish for in their purses every fifteen minutes, and little containers that said LOVE. “If you don’t like it,” said Rainey, “it comes right off.”
“We’re really good,” said Tina.
His tongue stuck to his mouth inside so that he couldn’t answer.
“Yes,” said Rainey, addressing the ceiling. She pulled out a little stool, which wore a pink skirt like the table.
He sat. He closed his eyes. He was ready to eat mushrooms now. He felt and heard the girls moving around him, clicking things onto the glass top, leaning into him with a thigh, an arm, touching his face, murmuring in another language, the language of girls. Cream blush, he heard, and pass me the blue and gloss, right? and then Rainey told him to open his eyes but look down, and something stroked his eyelashes.
“Look at you,” said Rainey. “Twiggy’s little sister.”
He opened his eyes. A girl looked back at him. She had his hair, blond, and his eyes, blue. But these were girl eyes, dark-rimmed and long-lashed. She had his cheekbones, but very pink, and his mouth, also shiny and girl-pink.
But Elihu was not a girl! He thought he might vomit. “No,” he said.
“You’re beautiful,” said Rainey. “Most girls would kill to look like you.”
“I would,” said Tina. But she was already perfect. She had cat-eyes, and gold in her hair.
“Take it off,” he said. He had no idea what this might involve, the removal of a face.
“But we did a nice job, right?” said Rainey.
He rubbed at his eye and his knuckles smeared blue.
He wanted to be a boy again—but soft. A boy, but pretty. He wanted to move like a snake while standing still.
Rainey held up a cotton ball like a prize. “Just say you look pretty,” she said, “and I’ll take it off.”
The door to her room opened.
For a moment the grownups remained in the hall, laughing. Then his mother walked in with Uncle Howard. They were kidding with each other, and then not.
“Jesus Christ, don’t knock or anything,” said Rainey.
“Elihu?” said his mother.
Uncle Howard said, “Better turn the music off.”
“Elihu?” said his mother.
Rainey silenced the stereo. “It was my idea,” she said.
“But I did it,” said Tina. “I made him up.”
Aunt Linda leaned in the doorway. “A game,” she said cheerfully.
Uncle Howard said, “Laurette, let’s give him time to get ready.”
“What ready,” his mother said. She was a crazy sister, a clutterhound, a thirty-four-year-old spinster with no husband or job who lived with her parents and her bastard son. She was no one to be afraid of. And yet Elihu was afraid.
His mother said, “It’s eleven o’clock at night, he should be ready. What have you done to yourself, Elihu?”
“Laurette,” said Uncle Howard. “Come with me.”
Aunt Linda said, “Sweet pea, they were just playing. Why don’t you let me—”
“Don’t try to fix this,” his mother said. “This would only happen in your house.” She came over and inspected his face. Her irises were brown. His irises were blue, but she never commented on that. “Who are you?” she said. “I walked in with a son. You think I’m going home with a daughter?”
“Laurette,” said Uncle Howard, and Elihu knew, now, what his grandfather meant. That time those boys bloodied him up, walking home from Hebrew school, he had not fought back, and at dinner his grandfather looked down at his plate and said fegaleh, and his mother rose from her chair and gripped the table, and Grandma Sophie had said, Mart. You don’t know.
“I made him do it,” said Rainey.
“Excuse me,” his mother snapped. “He’s a boy. You’re a girl. You can’t make him do anything. I have news for you, sweet pea. In life it’s the other way around.”
Rainey didn’t answer, but Elihu saw light flare in her eyes, and he sensed that the light would be her ticket out of there.
Then Aunt Linda tugged his mother out of the room, and the door closed hard. Uncle Howard was with him now, talking quietly. He felt, to his amazement, Rainey braiding her fingers with his.
“Look at me,” Uncle Howard said.
Elihu watched instead Tina’s toes, long and elegant, curling into the rug. The nails were painted. They looked like garnets.
“I want you to have a good life, son,” Uncle Howard said. “A safe life. Who you are”—he touched Elihu’s cheekbone—”is not something to wear on your face. It’s your secret. You dig?”
“You think you can change now?” Uncle Howard said.
The door opened and his mother cried out, “Make him understand, Howard.” He heard her say, in a lower voice, “I should have done something, Linda. I should have taken care of it.”
Who knotted you up? he thought.
Out in the hall he heard Aunt Linda say, “Laurette. Don’t even think that.”
Elihu looked at his uncle, finally. He thought he could change now.
Uncle Howard said, “Try not to worry your mother again.” He thrust his hand out, and Elihu saw that he was, again, expected to shake.
Here was a little faggot fact. This was not a hand he would ever manage to crush.
But he took it.
Dylan Landis is the author of two linked books, the story collection Normal People Don’t Live Like This and the novel Rainey Royal. Her short story “Trust” appeared in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2014, and she has received a fellowship in fiction from the National Endowment for the Arts.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee