This is an extract from a book I wrote in 1997 called The Unfallen. This amounts to me letting people I make up speak for me, too, but it’s apposite to the larger conversation, and it’s good, I think. I like art about adults, and this is fun for me because we get to watch a teenage boy growing into his adulthood. I have never yet written a good book, and I don’t know that I ever will; the last chapter of childhood consists of coming to grips with your own mediocrity, after all. But The Unfallen is concerned with nothing but my world — my kind of people tackling my kind of issues. I hope this book is not the best I will ever do, but it’s the best I’ve done so far. And if you want to get drenched my way, it will do that job from the very first page. –GSS
Devin stood with Spencer as the car pulled away. He said, “Are you cold? Can you stand to walk?”
“I’m all right.”
“Let’s just walk, then. I learned how to think on the streets of Boston and Cambridge. I don’t always find the answer I’m looking for, but I can always walk my way to peace, to serenity.” They walked their way to the Harvard Bridge across the Charles — named the Harvard Bridge because the students of M.I.T. thought it was too badly designed to be called the M.I.T. Bridge. Elements of the more-or-less perpetual repair crew were out in their orange vests and traffic was backed up in both directions. The walkways were free, though, and they walked, one foot in front of the other, without speaking.
Finally Devin said, “Are you a boy or a man, Spencer?”
“I’m not sure I get that…”
“It’s yours to say. People will treat you like a boy for the most part, I guess. But if you decide you’re a man, and if you decide to behave like a man, who can stop you?”
Spencer grinned, his smile as bright as the sun. “There’s that, isn’t there?”
“I ask because I think it’s a very brave thing you’re doing today. A boy might just let things slide, decide it’s not his concern, decide there’s nothing he can do. Are you being a man today?”
“…It’s just that she’s been so — am I telling you more than I should? She’s been so sad.”
Devin nodded, a grim acknowledgment. Facts are facts.
“What about you? You seem to be holding up well enough.”
He shook his head. “I do my crying in the rain… I don’t know how she feels, but I feel pretty rotten. I look at myself and I see two arms and two legs, but I feel as though huge chunks of me are missing, just gone. Cut away, cauterized, numbed, but gone…”
“Can I… Can I ask what’s gone wrong?”
“I wish I knew. One of the things I try to do, one of the things I resolved to do when I decided that I was a man, is to try to figure out what I’ve done wrong. It’s so tempting to blame other people or god or the malevolent fates when things go wrong, but usually it’s something you yourself have done, something you could have and should have done differently. The worst of it is, most of the time you know you’re doing the wrong thing but you ignore that knowledge and then later you try to pretend to yourself that you were ignorant all along, that you couldn’t have foreseen what was coming. It’s a comical business, sometimes, being a human being…”
Spencer said nothing, just walked along with his hands stuffed into the pockets of his parka.
“You’re waiting for me to tell you what I did wrong. The trouble is, I don’t know. Maybe I let things go too far too fast, and maybe your mother did, too. But everything seemed right until all at once it seemed all wrong. I can conjecture about what should have been different, but that’s all I can do.”
“Are you a boy or a man, Spencer? You’re asking questions, but the answers to those questions might reflect badly on your mother. Are you sure you want to continue?”
“…I want to know if there’s something I can do to help.”
“That’s a good answer. A very manly answer. I’ll do my best to live up to that.” Devin took a deep breath and let it out very slowly. “My problem was that I stopped trusting your mother. No, that’s too strong. I stopped feeling as safe as I had with her, and the change was enough that it scared me very badly. I don’t know what’s going on with her, and no matter how well we might guess, we can never know what’s going on in another person’s mind. But if she were a man, I’d feel a lot more confident about my conjectures. That’s what scared me, I guess, that she looked to me like I had looked to myself before, a long time ago…”
“I’m not following you.”
“It’s about marriage, Spencer. You know that, right? I don’t know that your mom and I were going to get married, but until a couple of weeks ago I thought for sure we were. We hadn’t talked about it, hadn’t planned anything. It was just the road we were traveling and I didn’t see anything to throw us off that course. I was married before, to Hunter’s mother, and Gwen started to feel to me like I had felt to myself when I was married… That’s not clear at all, is it?”
Spencer grinned and that was answer enough.
“Okay, let’s do it this way. My grandmother taught me to tell stories as a way of demonstrating ideas, so I’m going to tell you a story. When I first got my lab at M.I.T., I was delighted pretty much constantly. I didn’t have much in the way of funding then, and I was working around the clock, but I was getting results and the results were right in the zone, right where the theoretical model said they should be. I got hardly any sleep, but I made up for it with coffee and elation. I just walked around on clouds.
“One night I left the Institute very late and I hailed a cab right there on Mass Ave, right where we said goodbye to Winnie and Xander. The driver was a Palestinian and he was busting ass just like I was, a different job but the same total commitment. We were made for each other that night. I love everything this country stands for — everything that it used to stand for — and the people I love best are the immigrants, the ones who know how good they have it by being here. I can talk — can you tell? — and when I’m in the right kind of mood I can sell ice to Eskimos. I was just soaring that night and I needed to sing the praises of America and that was exactly what that driver needed to hear.
“You know how this works, right? People come here from Palestine or Eastern Europe or Africa or Taiwan and they take the dirtiest, most awful jobs and they bust their asses night and day and the lazy slobs who were born here just treat them like shit. This was my grandfather’s life, this isn’t something I had to discover on my own. Anyway, they come here because they’re willing to work hard and they want to live where hard work pays off and they work and work and work, driving cabs, running fruit stands, pushing food carts downtown. And they bust their asses and they lean all over their kids and the kids go to M.I.T. and Johns Hopkins and become the next generation of first-rate doctors and scientists.
“But still the lazy slobs treat them like shit, and that’s why I knew that driver needed to talk to me. He was taking care of business, and that’s what matters at the end of the day. But if you’re right, right in your soul, right in your bones, it doesn’t hurt to have somebody say so once in a while. And that’s a job that I can do…
“So he drove me home and I talked to him. Without coming right out and saying so, I told him all about why he was right, why the things he was doing were good and noble and admirable, why he should be proud of himself and why he should never be ashamed of being proud of himself. Make money. Provide for your family. Educate your children. And never apologize. That’s the American dream, and the people who dare to live it are the true Americans. By the time we got to the house he was soaring, and that was just what I wanted. I love my life, and I was proud of myself for sharing that love with someone who deserved it.
“Okay, that’s the happy part of the story. Maybe fifteen months later, a lot had changed. I was married and my marriage was a frozen wasteland — my own fault, don’t ever think otherwise. Things weren’t great at the lab, either. The numbers weren’t always in the groove and I didn’t know why. We had more money but that just meant there was more bureaucratic bullshit to plow through. We had ramped up from a pilot program to the full project and we were doing fussy little monitoring jobs on equipment all over the world, plus some in orbit. One night I got out so late I might as well have not bothered to go home. We’d been having transient hardware failures and the data was corrupted and we had no idea how far back we had to wipe it and finally I just gave up and let it lie. I was grumpy and tired and useless and I knew I couldn’t do anything anyway, not the way I was feeling. I growled my way out the door and went home to sleep.
“I grabbed a cab and got that same driver. He remembered me, of course, and I could see in the mirror that he wanted it again, wanted me to take him soaring with me. But I couldn’t do it that night. I didn’t have it in me, nothing like it. That’s no sin, I guess, but the sinful thing is that I didn’t do anything. I knew he wanted me to talk, but he didn’t come right out and say so. He hinted around a little, made a few small overtures, but I just froze him out. I was pissed off and grumpy and I argued silently to myself that he had no goddamned right expecting me to lay on a show for him the way I felt. I sat in the back of that car and sulked — that’s the right word. I sulked all the way home.
“That was shameful, Spencer, one of the most shameful things I’ve ever done. I’ve never forgotten that night and I’ve never stopped feeling guilty for it.”
Spencer looked confused. “Perhaps I’m missing something. What was the big deal?”
Devin shrugged. “Maybe it doesn’t seem like that big a deal, but it is. We hadn’t had a silly little chat that first night. I had shown that man my soul and I had coaxed him into showing me his. There weren’t any promises between us, but I had given him the right to expect a certain kind of intimacy from me — so much more remarkable because he was a cab driver — and then I had pulled that intimacy away without even the courtesy of an explanation. Do you see where I’m headed?”
“Frankly I don’t.”
“It’s marriage. That driver and I were married in our odd little way, and I pulled back on him, pulled back without a hint at a reason, just like I was doing in my marriage to Hunter’s mother. You behave in certain ways and you lead people to have certain expectations of you. If you’re comfortable with those expectations and if you want to make everything that much more secure you say the words out loud: This is what you are to me and this is what you will always have from me and I give you my solemn vow that I will never withhold from you anything that is yours to demand. That’s what we do at our very best. But what if you’re not comfortable with the expectations? What do you do then? Maybe you follow through anyway, but you never take that extra step, you never put it into words. You’re accountable for what you do as well as what you say, but if you don’t come right out and say it, you can always deny things, you can always claim you were misunderstood. Come on, Spencer. I’m not telling you anything you don’t know…”
“I guess not. …Are you saying this is what she’s done?”
Devin shook his head. “I don’t know. It just felt like that to me. I felt as though we could soar forever so long as I didn’t ask her to make it a promise.”
“Well, you can’t have that, can you? I mean, you can’t both be in perfect form every day. What happens when you have another bad day? What happens when she does?”
Devin smiled, a tight, bitter little smile. “The problem with the cab driver wasn’t that I’d had a bad night. The problem was that I wouldn’t acknowledge our ‘marriage’. The honest thing to have done, the honest thing to do in a real marriage is to say, ‘I’m not up to soaring today. If you are, I could sure use your help. And if not, let’s find a way to help each other back to the sky.’ That’s what men do. That’s what women do. That’s what grown-ups do.”
Spencer made no reply and they walked in silence through the Back Bay of Boston. At the Auditorium stop of the T Devin said, “You can get a train home from here.”
“Are we finished then?”
Devin smiled to himself. “God, I hope not… Listen, the Phoenix Suns are in town in a couple of weeks. I promised you a basketball game and that should be a good one. Battle of the coaches, Pitino versus Ainge, two of the smartest guys in the N.B.A. You want to go?”
“…Spencer, this is a very good thing you did today. A very manly thing. It took guts…”
The boy reacted boyishly, but Devin knew that was just from habit. There was a sadness in his eyes and a resolve and a measure of pride and he was every inch a man.
‘Soul food,’ Winnie had said. ‘Read it when you’re feeling hungry.’ Devin felt very hungry in his soul and he dug into his pocket to see what she had written. It was two quotations, written in pale blue ink in Winnie’s delicate hand.
The first was from Robert A. Heinlein: “Love is the condition in which the happiness of another person is essential to your own.”
The second was by Luciano De Crescenzo and Devin read it over and over again, blinking back tears. “We are each of us Angels with one wing, and we can only fly embracing each other.”
Devin looked at Spencer with glassy eyes and said, “I’ll do something. I don’t know what right now, but I’ll think of something to do…”
Spencer nodded and there was so much strength in him and so much confidence and Devin felt very young and weak and he was glad he had someone as strong as Spencer to help him find his way back to the sky, to help the two of them remember how to fly…