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Nights in Madison ran skinny so that the couple’s steps rang to the other side of the street without much hesitation. At 8pm, the streets looked lonely as midnight. In the Bowtie movie theatre, their elbows either kissed or did not kiss, and the hard object that Ren’s foot brushed more or less than fifteen times during the movie either was or was not her foot that was hidden beneath her boot. He had chosen this movie because it was long and bad. The scene he had pictured at the theatre, as with everything, was different than the reality. In the morning, she giggled, he thought, like hot butter. He thought that some part of this would fall into place at the Bowtie, that somehow her presence would melt into his as softly as her laugh into the air, but the meeting was, instead, sticky. They spent the twenty dollars in uncomfortable silence, stiff and unsmooth against each other.
He walked her to her dorm room. Passed by the fence guarding the preschool he had jumped over once when the dark met dawn when he was seventeen years old. And the maple trees that held more green than the rest of Madison. And an empty car with help-signalling headlights. By the time she made her way to the steps of her dorm and didn’t linger by the steps outside, he had come to terms with the shape of her back that he would never touch and the pale skin behind her knees he would never taste. But that didn’t stop him from anticipating, as he had naively done for nearly two weeks, at these step-sides her knees buckling into his as he sucked sweet the shallow of her neck.
* * *
Tonight at the jazz club, Ren winked at a girl and watched as the mousy-haired boy next to her fisted and unfisted his hand at the table’s edge. Shooed summer camp kids from the university away with a McCool’s is next door. Flattered an old lady with some slight flirtation over Mango Shrimp. Yawned loudly twice during the trombone solo. Served to the warbler’s renditions of Cheek to Cheek and other sickishly sweet songs. Watched feet tap underneath the table.
The jazz club, besides its music, was known for its beautiful boys. Jeremy, the only server still in school, had sharp cheekbones, a sharper nose and eyes so angled they looked womanly. Lin had his sideways smile and six-foot-one gentility. Max had his free-styled hair and slow voice. They were hand-selected by the manager. They were checked for skinny jaws, white teeth, strong backs, and necks that looked good in collars. And the customers, tapping their feet to the sweet songs, recounting their rests, losing their thoughts in the whiteness of the tablecloth, breathing to the yellowness of the deliberate lamps that served this fragile ambience, believed their beauty was ornamental and inherent to the mystique.
The jazz club paid well. The customers ate well. The servers served more than well. The food was cooked less than well. The music rang well. The smiles were well-formed.
By the end of the night, as every night, Ren was exhausted, and the wellness of the club was all he could comprehend, as he waved good-bye to one, kissed another, patted two on the shoulder, sang good-bye—come-again—good-bye. As women with feathered hair touched his face with their wrinkled fingers and called him sweetheart. As the singer unstiffened his position and the pianist stuffed his hands back in his pockets. As the boys walked to the backroom of the restaurant to strip off their black work clothes and pull on their t-shirts. Their shorts revealed their skinny legs. The boys dissipated into the Madison night like the final moan of the saxophone, the last midnight ticking.
Before Ren made his way to the train station, he sat on a bench next to the playground of the elementary school that was behind the jazz club. He watched a swing run back and forth like a pendulum. And even stranger, this night, he watched the girl on the swing. Small and barefoot, messy hair stuck to the sides of her face. Less than twelve years old, probably. Swinging with no effort, big toe glued to the ground. Her head rested on her elbow and she focused down before everything else. Her neck drooped like a newborn’s. She was unaware of him. So he watched her, still as the swing wheezed to her breathing, and when the clock called out for him to leave, he crept delicately to keep her asleep, though he was sure, from his distance, she would have remained unmoved even if he had screamed.
* * *
He decided that night, before going to sleep, that he would not contact the girl from the Bowtie date. Instead, he ritualized her. He wished he had touched her once, and then he would have been more satisfied than he was now, off the train from Madison to Newark whose skies were always gray, in his small rented room, and lonelier. He pictured her facing away from him at the foot of his bed that was too small to hold his feet. He pictured her back unclothed and her arms crossed, milky moonlight against her shoulder.
The day he had quit community college was always painted golden in his memory. He had taken everything in ceremoniously. Construction buzzes made his skin tingle. Red-bricked buildings reminded him he was alive. A greener leaf landed on his shoulder. A buzzing zipped beneath his fingertips and inside his chest. He’d handed in the form, which felt weightless in his fingertips, and left the parking lot with the buzzing filling greater and greater portions of his body. He’d cruised down JFK and watched as the skies went from gray to blue, and as the buzzing grew soft, small, and striking. The buzzing, he’d realized, was no longer contained in his skin and now bled into the rest of the car and the outside, dusting everything with a golden hue. The buzzing, he’d realized, was happiness.
When the girl he was seeing at the time heard from a friend or a friend of a friend, she knocked up to his apartment. He tried to kiss her, but she pressed her cold fingers against his neck instead, silencing him. Her hair was golden between the ridges of his fingers.
“I thought you were planning to transfer,” she’d said. “I know it’s been hard for you lately, but I thought you were planning to.”
“Yes,” Ren said.
“But you didn’t.”
“I’m worried about you.”
“You don’t have to be.”
“I’m sorry, but,” she’d stepped inside the room then, and inside the darkened house, her hair had looked more silver than golden, “didn’t your dad want you to transfer?”
“Of course,” he’d said.
“And doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
There was no way to answer that question except to look at her pink lips then look at the area around her figure, at how calm and dark it seemed against her golden silver hair. “It felt right. Have you ever felt that? When you do something and everything just clicks into place.”
He couldn’t answer her. He only felt the remnants of the buzzing from that afternoon, when the world turned gold and the wind sang in harmony with the rustling leaves. They looked at each other slowly, and he could feel her eyes remembering his figure, and he felt he should do the same. She asked again, but this time more as an echo than a question, and when he still did not answer, she slowly backed her way out the door. Then he heard her feet clicking through the hallway quickly.
He slept on the floor next to the open window that night, and though the corners of the room blurred together and the midnight moon blinded him, he still felt the buzzing, the coursing. He wondered if this was what his father had felt a month before, when all the English he had learned—the language, the suited manners, the tall articulation—had melted off him, leaving only the Chinese boy of his past’s past, who’d worked on the rice paddy in a world that was fleeting and an era that was quiet. His father had held his hand for two nights straight, and when it was time to leave, he had looked at Ren with such softness. He had rubbed his thumb against Ren’s palms. Ren wondered if the world was golden at that moment, so that when his father left, he felt, more, the possibility rather than the sadness, an empty refilling peace.
* * *
Ren didn’t have to come to the jazz club on Sundays, but he arrived anyway. Put on his suit and listened to the jazz players until his thoughts turned mushy and unsharpened. And then he left. Madison, like most suburbs, was too quiet at night. The streets were so bare. The lights were so dim. He passed by the playground and saw the same girl on the swing, but this time, with a boy. He sat on the bench as he had done days before, when he’d watched the wheezes of the swing under the deadweight of the girl.
Two children on two swings, both twelve years old. Two black-haired heads in the night, two pairs of almond eyes. The girl was swinging breathlessly, kicking her feet on the woodchips so she could shift higher, while the boy shook his head to her oscillating motions.
“You come here every night?”
“Yeah,” she said, giggling so it bounced off to the infinite. “I open my window a bit and jump out when I hear my parents snore. I didn’t think you’d come today though.”
“God,” he said. “Don’t they ever wake up?”
“No,” she said.
“Stop swinging a little.”
Ren, masked by the shadows of the full tree, sat stiller. “You know what I want to do badly?” the girl continued, as the swing rolled to a stop.
“What?” the boy asked.
“I want to make a lemonade stand.” They both laughed. “It looks so sweet in the picture books. I’d make my cups 50 cents though, instead of the typical 25. I’d squeeze the lemons. Put an extra amount of sugar in. Be like, ‘here you go’ and watch everyone drinking my lemonade. With all of them laughing on my porch.”
“Nobody has lemonade stands here.”
“No,” she said. “I talked to my mom about it, but she said no.”
“Bet they didn’t have lemonade in China,” he said.
“Bet they didn’t.”
“You stopped swinging,” the boy said. He leaned closer to her.
“I did stop,” she said.
Ren watched as they kissed, slow and sloppy and unsure. As they practiced, probably for the first time, an age-old tradition, and felt, as he had once before, their bodies lose their weight. They did not stop. They were curious and fumbling and wonderful, and this kind of beauty, this buzzing around his tired bones and even more tired heart, after all the empty peace and emptier plans, made Ren tremble.
* * *
He trembled on the train ride home. He trembled as he sniffed the putrid orange smell of the Newark air next to the waste incinerator. He trembled when he fumbled for his keys to open the door. He trembled when he opened his window and heard the train call out lonely an hour after midnight. He trembled as he slept on the floor for the thirtieth day in a row and basked in the new moon moonlight. And when he woke up, he was still trembling at the kiss, at the laugh, at the swing, at the lemonade, at the quietness of Madison, at the sweet jizz of jazz, at the girl, at the boy, at their possibilities, at the buzzing that was fading, at the future he couldn’t discern. And the thought of his father, too, quietly melting into nothingness on the hospital bed thirty days ago, he trembled at that as well. Oh, how he trembled.
* * *
Ren clutched his paycheck and cashed it immediately at the bank waiting at the corner of the road. Night was no longer quiet, and the quietness no longer frightened him. He held the bills between his two fingers and didn’t bother to hide them, as there was no one but a sad teenage couple afraid of daybreak on the street. The moon sighed transparently but audibly. And even louder was the anticipation of morning, one footstep sequence combined with another, then a multitude of footsteps until it faded to sameness. It was strange how one was louder than many, even stranger how none seemed loudest of all.
Ren gripped an envelope in one hand and his bills in the other. He made his way to the playground. It was too early to see the girl and the boy, who only came twenty minutes before midnight. He rested on his knees, put fifty dollars into the envelope, and stuck the envelope in the woodchips so its white face greeted whoever would swing. For the lemonade, he addressed it.
For the lemonade, he thought. For the day he would finally get off from the jazz club work, suddenly sure and permanently buzzing, of what would happen and what could happen and what did happen. And for the day he would walk through Madison’s neighborhoods in the afternoon, and for the moment he would see dogs lapping sugar off their owners’ fingertips, children sucking their lemonade popsicles, the wind whistling with the message come and be, come and be. For the second he would approach the girl and she would say, “Here you go.” And for that lemonade that would taste sweeter and more flavorful than the sky itself, as the world turned golden and Ren was, at last, free.