By Andrew Jacono
I. On October 30th, 1970, he was born in a hospital that no longer exists. He had pale blue eyes, was handsome like his electrician father, and was small-framed like the God-fearing woman who birthed him. He was given the name Andrew, after the saint, and the middle name Angelo.
A week later, he was escorted to his grandmother’s house in a rickety Chevy. Over the next few weeks, Daddy worked daylight hours, but Mommy was home. Andrew would reach for the light brown beehive atop her head while she changed his diapers and recited sorrowful prayers over his body.
Grandma Jane would sometimes sneak in and speak to Mommy in a low voice.
Have you been crying, Pat? You just had a kid. Be happy, for God’s sake. And don’t put most of the baby powder on his front. Put it on his bum, or he’ll get a nasty rash.
Sometimes, Grandma Jane’s voice would rise, and Andrew’s ears would rattle. When she left the room, Mommy would fall to her knees and burst into tears, demanding the Lord for strength and guidance. Occasionally, Andrew would sob with her. Other times, he would stare at the stains on the bedroom ceiling and try to stroke them with his plump fingers.
One night, after tucking Andrew into bed, Mommy stepped into the bathroom with a knife and a small orange bottle. A few minutes later, sirens blared, and paramedics in dark blue shirts flooded the house, kicked in the bathroom door, and hauled her out.
Mommy would not be home for nine months. She’d be far away, gnawing on stocky rubber mouthpieces as electric currents coursed through her skull. Until she returned, Grandma Jane would change Andrew’s diapers and feed him formula while Daddy worked into the night.
II. When Mommy returned, she was always smiling, and much skinnier. She’d watch School House Rock with Andrew. They’d marvel at the portly, dancing conductor of Conjunction Junction as colorful animated trains chugged along the winding tracks. Mommy would only frown when Daddy returned after work and tossed plates of food across the room because they weren’t warm. Grandma Jane would often intervene, but she soon grew weary of their antics and encouraged them to leave.
They relocated to a cramped, single-floor ranch with dirt-spotted windows in the suburban boondocks of Ronkonkoma, whose nameless streets were fissured to dirt and gravel. Daddy took up a more grueling job as a telephone lineman. He’d only be home on weekends, when he’d complain about the aches in his sides. Andrew would wrap his arms around Daddy’s stomach to ease the pain.
The pain worsened. Daddy visited the doctor. He was prescribed potent steroid medication for kidney disease. He’d swallow little white pills every morning before work. They remedied some issues at the expense of his ease; he started to scan everything around him with wide eyes, investigate empty rooms for intruders, and see people in the dark. He’d skip work, and during the day he’d lock himself in his room to smoke foul-smelling cigarettes. To get his attention, Andrew would slip his finest drawings under Daddy’s door. He always hoped Daddy liked them.
On a rainy autumn evening when Andrew was four, Mommy carried an extra dinner plate down the creaky hallway to Daddy’s room, muttering prayers. After a moment of silence, Daddy’s fiendish voice penetrated the walls.
Why the fuck is the potato cold, Pat? Did you even cook it?
Calm down, Jamie. Andrew can hear.
The fuck did you just say to me? Do you wanna get tossed in the loony bin again?
Stomps on the creaky floorboards. Something shattered. Andrew stared at the peeling yellow wallpaper in the dining room, cheeks coated in a layer of tears, until the yelling fizzled. A few moments later, Mommy appeared, plucked Andrew from his chair, and bolted for the front door. As she fumbled with the lock, Andrew turned his head to see his father standing a few feet away, sun-beaten skin crimson with rage, aiming a rusty shotgun.
Where the fuck do you think you’re going?
Mommy buried Andrew’s face in her chest. He could feel her heart beat against his temple. It was fast. Faster than the chugging locomotives he’d seen in Conjunction Junction. He wondered what Mommy’s function was. Was she an additive? Hooking things up and making them run right?
That night, after Daddy put the gun down and retreated into his room, Mommy lay with Andrew. She muttered God’s name and held him close and stroked his soft black hair with a quivering hand.
Daddy loves you, Andrew. Very much. And I do, too.
III. Grade school afforded him new friends. They’d bike around town, climb thick-branched trees along crooked sidewalks, and vault over flimsy picket fences, trying not to fall on their faces.
Andrew was the shortest and quietest of the bunch. He was also the chubbiest. Though his friends never commented, Dad would poke at Andrew’s stomach and snicker. Andrew would shrug it off most of the time because Dad was increasingly aggressive and would knock Andrew in the jaw if he talked back.
Andrew would stay out with his friends until they had to go home. Instead of heading home himself, he’d sit and sob in the streets, thoughts of his father’s inevitable wrath inundating his headspace.
Though he was usually out, he’d always do his homework. He had a knack for solving math and science problems. Practical problems, too; he’d formulate convoluted plans to escape his home. He decided the best way was to work toward a well-paying vocation. But what would it be?
Andrew found the answer on the school bus, an uproarious jungle filled with swearing, roughhousing kids. He’d sit in a seat across from a timid girl with a facial cleft that severed her smile into the rolling hills of a ravine. Other kids would creep to the seat behind her and spit, smear gum in her hair, mockingly contort their lips, and cackle at her hyper-nasal sobs. Andrew would look on without intervening. He never defended himself when Dad did similar things, so why defend someone else?
He quickly became guilty about his inaction, so he started walking her home from her stop. On the way, they’d kick rocks and talk about school, their homes. She’d tell him she had a nice family, that she loved them very much, and he’d wince and say the same. He’d reveal that he listened to the likes of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd, even though his mother believed they were patrons of Satan and had banned them from the house. She’d giggle because it seemed so silly, and he’d laugh along, slowly realizing that she wasn’t very timid, that maybe he wasn’t either.
After a number of their walks, Andrew decided that when he grew up, he’d defend other people. Speak for them. Help them. He’d do it with scalpels and sutures, forceps and saline, a pair of meticulous hands.
He decided to announce his plan when Aunt Stella, a woman who smelled of moth balls and musk, visited one night for dinner. After Mom said grace, Andrew declared he was going to be a surgeon.
A surgeon? Aunt Stella scoffed, a grain of rice-a-roni darting out of her mouth. You’ve gotta be smart for that. And who’d pay for medical school? You think money grows on trees?
Something inside him sank. He glanced at his parents expectantly, hoping they’d defend him, but his mother was looking down, and his father was nodding in agreement.
He spent the rest of dinner glaring at Aunt Stella, mentally cursing her as she guzzled wine from her glass. After excusing himself, he slipped into his room, collapsed on his bed, stared at the cracks in the ceiling, and buried his head in his textbooks. He worked through countless problems. Every one solved seemed like a step further.
Before sleep, he converted the heat of Aunt Stella’s words, of his raging thoughts, into fuel. Fuel for the strong little voice inside propelling him, telling him to run, to gallop even if it would hurt, chanting that nothing in this universe or another could slow his sprint. Fuel for The Voice.
IV. When Andrew was in sixth grade, his father won a hefty medical malpractice lawsuit for his kidney pills, which he asserted had caused steroid psychosis. With the money, the family relocated to King’s Park, a wealthier town with asphalt roads and even street names. Their new home wasn’t much larger, but it was tidier. Blocky, similar-looking houses ran in all directions for miles.
Even with the change in lifestyle, Mom and Dad fought more. Dad would disappear on long business trips for weeks at a time. Andrew doubted this was the truth, and suspected Mom did, too, but she never said anything about the matter. Instead, she’d cook and clean a lot more and force Andrew to pray with her at night. She’d occasionally call Dad, yell for a few minutes, then hang up. Once in a while, Andrew would gaze into the vast emptiness of her stare, trying and failing to fill it.
At thirteen, he made new friends to escape home. Rather than scan his textbook pages and solve problems, he’d stay out after sunset and smoke pot even though it made him anxious. He liked alcohol more because it made him loose and uncaring. On weekends, he’d drink until he was sick and have sex with girls he’d met at parties. He received his first set of B’s and C’s as the school year came to a close. Because his mother never paid much mind to his academic success, she didn’t say anything about the slippage.
It wasn’t until ninth grade, when Andrew met Emily, that things started to change. Emily was a pretty girl with soft eyes and a fair complexion. He’d admire her from afar in class as she twirled her loose curls around her index finger. One day, he mustered the courage to ask her on a date. She said yes.
Over the next few months, they went to movies, to restaurants, to parks where they’d sit on lopsided benches and talk until the stars hurled themselves overhead. She was from a good family and was an excellent listener, someone with a beauty that emanated like an aura from within. She made him feel wanted more than anything else. Loved.
After a year together, Emily brought Andrew home to meet her parents. Her father, a successful lawyer named Joseph, became a sort of mentor. He’d have Andrew cut his lawn, clean his house, scrub his toilets in exchange for cash. He gave Andrew another person to confide in and regularly shared indispensable advice.
You can do whatever you want, Andrew, he’d say. But you’ve gotta work hard for it, and you can’t ever stop. That’s all there is to it.
Over the next four years, Andrew lost touch with his drug-addled friends, and every night, he’d worsen his eyesight with textbook readings in the dark. Before bed, he’d listen to The Voice as it told him to climb, to lumber if needed, but to never let the miry slopes and quicksand fields in his path wrench him to submission.
His final year of high school, he was accepted on a generous scholarship to Muhlenberg College. At around the same time, his parents filed for divorce. His father left for New Jersey within months. Without spousal support, Andrew’s mother latched onto him for comfort, but was constantly choleric. She’d pray more and more, babble in tongues, and demand Andrew do the same. He never did.
At the end of his last term, he prepared to leave. He sat with Emily and bid her an amicable farewell. He and Joseph shared a firm handshake and a drink after Andrew’s last mowing job. On his final day in King’s Park, he packed his belongings, bid his mother farewell, phoned a stolid farewell to his father. Then he headed to Pennsylvania, The Voice urging him onward, telling him not to look back.
He did not.
V. Muhlenberg: an incongruous hybrid of debauchery and study. Weekdays, he’d be boxed in the library, smothered by multivariable calculus equations and Lewis structure diagrams. Weekends, he’d play the role of a rowdy brother in Muhlenberg’s most notorious fraternity, guzzling booze with close friends and courting beautiful girls. He was a respected academic champion and social lion at the expense of sleep.
He rarely phoned his father, and less frequently his mother, as he was tired of hearing her drone about problems God wouldn’t fix. The two would still visit occasionally, albeit separately, usually to check if his room was clean. It never was.
He got an A in every class except English composition. He attributed the dreaded B to an ill-tempered professor who hated him for his fraternity affiliation, and would blame his graduation as salutatorian in the class of 1992 as a consequence of discrimination.
He relocated to the Bronx after his admission into the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Though he was initially bright-eyed, The Voice reassuring him he was treading the right foothills, his new lifestyle proved overwhelming, isolating. He’d work white nights at the local bodega to pay off the enormous loan he took out to attend, and most of his peers were too busy dissecting cadavers to interact with the living. He’d often lie awake until early morning, listening to the eerie quiet in his tight campus flat, surrounded by pillars of medical textbooks and slips of scrap paper he’d torn in frustration. The companionless darkness would seep into him like a plague. He sometimes felt compelled to scream, but nobody was there to listen.
He would visit the run-down sports bar down the road on weekends to avoid the darkness. One wintry Saturday night, he spotted a woman leaning over the bar in tight black jeans, loosely patting her black perm. For a moment, he muted the anxiety in his expression and approached her.
Tell me, he said. What’s a nice girl like you doing in a shithole like this?
She turned to him, eyes glinting. Visiting for the night, she chuckled, and held out a hand. I’m Alexa.
She accepted his request for a dance. In a few minutes they were slipping and whirling, hopping and thumping to the funk, hands sewed to each other’s hips. When the music died, they talked over rounds. She was a Long Island girl, born and raised, and worked in her Cypriot father’s hair salon. She was inquisitive about his Sicilian heritage, charming when she wanted to be, caring when she needed to be. Like a more alive version of himself.
You know, she remarked. I think you’re gonna be really successful one day.
He smirked. You think so?
Yeah. You’ve got a fire in your eyes.
Within two years, they were married.
VI. On June 7th, 1997, his son was born in a hospital that still exists. He had dark, stringy hair and chestnut eyes, was soft-faced like his physician father, and was small-framed like his cosmetologist mother. He was given the name Andrew, after his maternal grandfather, and the middle name Jason, after the Argonaut.
People drifted in and out of the room during the hospital stay. Alexa’s parents came with overinflated balloons and sweet walnut cake and split time between cooing Greek greeting phrases to Little Andrew and massaging Alexa’s swollen arms. Andrew’s mother came by herself to bless the baby and sing hymns. Even Andrew’s father made a rare appearance, clutching a steel cane. He nuzzled Little Andrew’s face against his own, boasted of his grandchild’s good looks, and commended his son and daughter-in-law on their strength as a unit. It was one of the few times Andrew had seen his own father so happy.
When everybody was gone, Andrew watched Alexa hold the baby. She cradled him in her arms, rubbed her pale face against his, whispered gentle lullabies as he fell asleep on her chest. They looked more beautiful together than anything Andrew had ever seen.
While Alexa slept, he took the baby, sat in the unsteady chair next to her cot, and looked down at Little Andrew’s big newborn eyes, at the little brown birthmark on his cheek, at the one just above his heart. For a few moments, Andrew forgot about his grueling medical residency, the twenty-two hours of hospital rounds he would have to slog through on his first day back because of The Voice’s restless desires.
Andrew promised he’d treat Little Andrew better than his own father treated him. He’d love him. He’d never let go of him. He’d never lose him. And when Little Andrew grew, Andrew would pass on The Voice, its undying resolve, as if it were a treasured heirloom.
VII. By the time Little Andrew could waddle, Andrew was rarely home. He would usually arrive at their tiny Bronx apartment well into the early hours of the morning and pilfer leftovers in the refrigerator from the dinner he’d missed. If he came home any earlier than usual, he would have to deflect Alexa’s concerned protests.
This isn’t the life either of us want, Andrew, she would say, turning on the kitchen light to steal an accusatory look at his puffy red eyes.
It’s gonna change, he would rebut. You said I was gonna be successful, right? This is the only way. I swear it is.
Once in a while, he would have some time to relax. He’d lift Little Andrew from his crib and collapse on the living room couch and whisper to him words of love. Little Andrew would fall asleep against his bicep, his little wet mouth moistening his father’s skin.
Andrew would rarely stay. His pager would blare and he’d be off to bark at operating room nurses, The Voice telling him that now was the time to act, to work for his wife and his child and the legacy that he’d leave behind only if he told himself he would not be able to live without it.
And how he knew he could not.
VIII. When Little Andrew was six, Andrew rented office space in a wealthy hamlet called Manhasset to begin his career as a facial plastic surgeon. He and Alexa had saved enough money to mortgage a huge yellow house nestled in a forested cul-de-sac. The down payment drained their financial reserves, but Andrew knew he’d make enough money in the next few years to buy the house twice over.
Though he worked far less than during his training, he would still be out until well after dinner, The Voice always growling encouragements in his head to keep him conscious. Alexa became increasingly disapproving of his absence, and whenever he returned, eyes fluttering with exhaustion, she would implore him to take more time off, as she rarely saw him and Little Andrew barely knew him.
Alexa, he’d say, slow and measured, I’ve told you before. I’m working on it. This is all gonna pay off.
She didn’t believe him at first, but he was right. After taking on a pro-bono case that reconstructed a domestic violence survivor’s flattened face, he appeared on national television, and patients flooded his office waving stacks of crisp green bills above their heads. Never in his life had he possessed so much money. The Voice, impassioned by these strides toward success, encouraged Andrew to enjoy what he had wrought. Andrew listened.
For Alexa he’d bring home fine leather bags embossed Coach or Louis Vuitton, diamond jewels and rose-gold necklaces, a gleaming Range Rover SUV with enough horsepower to draw along a small village. To Little Andrew he’d give shiny laptops with the fastest processing speeds, Xbox and PlayStation video games, heaps of collared shirts and adolescent colognes from Abercrombie & Fitch. For himself he’d buy stainless steel Rolex timepieces, sleek rollerball pens branded with the alabaster Mont Blanc asterisk, the newest Mercedes coupé with its easily-retractable roof. And for them all, he’d provide business-class plane tickets to Europe, regal rooms at five-star ski lodges in Vail, evenings of fine dining in the Hamptons.
For a long time there was only praise, encouragement, and gratitude from his family, so the world for Andrew began to take on a rich green tint. Every moment in and out of the operating room became a means to maximize profit, to further prove to The Voice that he was finally picking the sweet fruit from the orchard it had helped him cultivate.
But even with it all, Alexa grew jaded with Andrew’s obsessions, the now-frequent days he would disappear from home before dawn and wouldn’t emerge from the operating room until well after dusk.
Is that all you want, Andrew? She would demand. The money?
Goddammit, Alexa, I’m providing for you. Making your life better. Our kid’s life better. Isn’t that what you want? What you’ve always wanted? Fuck’s sake, it’s not supposed to come easy.
Over the next few years, they battled nightly over his ever-increasing preoccupation with financial fortitude. Little Andrew would lie awake and learn what his parents’ angry voices sounded like. His father’s sounded low and rumbling, like a bear’s. His mother’s was shrill and shrieking, like a hyena’s.
When Little Andrew was ten, his parents started sleeping at opposite ends of the house. Andrew, distraught, would come home more often. He’d stumble upstairs, sit cross-legged in Little Andrew’s room, read all the short stories and comics his son had penned on his free time. He would tell Little Andrew how gifted he was, how proud he was, how much he loved him. Sometimes he’d lay his head on his son’s shoulder and cry. Little Andrew would hold him and tell him that he loved him, too, and that everything would be okay, all okay.
Andrew would lose thirty pounds in the next few months, grow his hair to shoulder-length, and sprout a scraggly salt-and-pepper beard, products of neglect, pain, and a mid-life crisis. Every night, he’d lie alone in his sheets and stare at the mahogany beams running along his ceiling, at the silk drapes around his windows, at his black convertible outside, and ask The Voice if any of it was worth the price.
The Voice would not usually have an answer.
IX. Alexa asked Andrew to leave after a year. Because he needed to be near enough to Long Island to drive to work and visit AJ, he searched for an apartment in Manhattan. He moved into a compact but pricy apartment for rent in Nolita, a modish neighborhood on the Lower East Side.
Under its creaky ceiling he’d sign divorce papers, scrawl illegible notes in medical files, and learn how to prepare fresh Sicilian-style octopus salad. Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, The Voice would rouse him at four o’clock in the morning, impel him to arrive at work just before five, and push him to rearrange faces for thirteen hours so he’d have enough time to take AJ out to dinner at one of the local diners or pizza parlors.
This was all at the expense of Andrew’s comfort, but he cherished the moments AJ would tell him about the many books he’d read, muse on the absurdity of reality television, and recount the joys and pitfalls of middle school existence. He loved even more that his boy would listen to his own stories about the wonderful and vicious patients that drifted through his office, sit through his ramblings on how the meaning of success was changing for him, on what he thought happiness truly signified. The two would become proud of their reputation as the town’s most vocal patrons, the duo that mindlessly clinked their forks against their drinking glasses and squawked in accented gibberish and cackled as if nobody were around to hear them.
Most evenings, after dropping AJ off, Andrew would stay in the house to talk divorce settlements with Alexa. Somehow, they’d never yell. She’d sometimes invite him to lie on the living room sofa, sip a glass of Merlot, and commiserate about the difficulties of finding new love. Other times, if he was feeling lonely or too exhausted to drive back to the city, she would let him stay the night in the bedroom adjacent to AJ’s, and his snores would carry throughout the house.
Fridays, after AJ had returned from school, Andrew would pull into the driveway. AJ would scamper through the front door, backpack on and laptop in hand. He’d sit in the front seat and Andrew would squeal away like a cheetah on the chase. Between rhythmic jerks of the steering wheel he’d turn up old hip-hop tunes, jig his head in wavelike motions, and on the highway, he’d accelerate to eighty, ninety miles-per-hour, weave through lanes of traffic as heavy metal tunes screaked through the hi-fi speakers. AJ would either bob his matted head to the guitar riffs or roll down his window to air off his face gone clammy from the effort.
When they arrived, the city’s dim lights would always just be keeping night’s total darkness at bay. AJ would set his belongings on the bunkbed in the bedroom across his father’s, yawning to the drone of the air conditioner half-spilling out of the window. Andrew would have to clap his hands loud and ruffle AJ’s hair to set in motion the evening exploits he had planned.
Once AJ deferred, they would burst through their front door, gripe about the elevator’s sluggish descent, step through the apartment complex’s entrance and into the night air thick with the clamor of passersby chittering in European tongues and plates and glasses chinking in low-lit street-side cafés. Andrew would lift a finger in the direction of the best Italian joint on the block and they’d rush inside. The waiter’s brow would fold in concern as he noted in his little white pad heaps of creamy burrata cheese, troughs of rigatoni, and sweet veal parmesan cutlets, Andrew’s personal favorite. That same waiter would blanch in astonishment as he watched the two devour everything in less than ten minutes, all the while giggling and gripping aching bellies that would not quite settle until the following afternoon.
Following these feasts: gobs of pistachio ice cream, R-rated Hollywood flicks, Broadway shows that each derided for their melodrama yet secretly adored. And when the fruits of these nights grew dry, they’d tap along the dull gray cobbles of their still-noisy neighborhood, drifting together through the dark as though they were the only beings in existence.
Once home, Andrew would trim his beard in his bathroom mirror, bid AJ good night, and sink into bed. Not a few moments after he closed his eyes, he would hear toes crackling, his comforter crinkling, would feel a warmth sidle to his back. He would pretend not to notice until AJ’s breaths petered out in sleep, then turn to watch him. Even without light, his son’s face would be glowing. Plump red lips, nose as long and broad as his own, each calm breath catching itself on the tail of the last. This boy. This immaculate being spawned of his own flesh. All the worry and all the joy and all the cause.
Andrew would remain in that silent position for what might have been hours. All the while The Voice would not say anything. It would simply marvel with him, as though it had finally realized when it was time to talk and when it was time to let silence speak for itself.
X. Near the end of 2009, Andrew received a disturbing call from a hospital in New Jersey. Though he had much to do, he took off work for the day and sped across the state line.
His mother had been there for a while when he burst into the waiting room. They had had little contact in the last few months, and even from afar she looked older. She rushed up to him and wrapped him in a tremulous hug, her breaths heavy and cheeks pruned by tears.
A nurse who had been consoling her motioned them to follow. She guided them to the ICU, where Andrew’s father was connected to a series of clear tubes and a heart rate monitor. They were informed he had lost most brain function during a coronary bypass surgery largely due to earlier kidney failure.
Andrew backed to the door as his mother stroked her ex-husband’s face, squeezed his hands, wept through invocations of God. When she pulled away, Andrew stepped warily to the cot. His father’s face was stuck in a wince, his skin was gray, and the drone of his artificial breaths made him seem more machine than man.
Andrew had seen many dying bodies before, but Dad’s was somehow different.
The nurse asked what they wanted to do with him. It did not take them long to decide. Soon, a few doctors entered the room and turned off life support. Mom gripped Andrew’s arm as Dad made small noises and then went quiet.
Andrew was unable to sleep that night. He thought long about how his father’s voice would trill when he yelled, how his face would contort when his kidneys hurt, how he smelled like tobacco and the sweat of decades of hard labor.
Somewhere in all of this there was pity. Cold, sharp, stony. Or was it love? Foreign and violent and battered? Or was it hatred? Pure and fluid and crimson? Or was it something else entirely?
He could hear The Voice wailing within. Asking questions. Why was he feeling this? Would he feel similar were his mother to succumb to the same fate? Would AJ be doomed to suffer the same ambivalence were he to pass?
Neither he nor The Voice could answer.
The wake took place a few days later. Andrew brought AJ. There were many people there, distant and immediate friends and family, and they were all wearing black. The casket was open and around it were bouquets of striking flowers and easels decorated with washed-out photographs of times long past.
During the priest’s oration, Andrew broke into tears. AJ held his father’s hand until they went up to see the body. As this was AJ’s first vigil, Andrew instructed him to kneel on the low stool next to the casket and say a few kind words in his head. AJ did these things very well. When he was done, Andrew went forth. He touched his father’s cold cheek and said his first meaningful prayer in years.
Later that evening, after most of the mourners had trickled out, Andrew sat with his mother on one of the couches at the back of the room. Her hands were quivering, so he held them. They sat in silence for a while. Then they spoke quietly of his father’s life. Of the things he did wrong, of the things he did right.
At the end of their discussion, Andrew promised he’d make more of an effort to call and see his mother. He could tell by her simple response, Okay, that she believed him.
XI. It would take months of therapy, weekly Manhattan excursions with his son, and a number of his mother’s visits for Andrew to confront the finalization of the divorce settlement and the death of his father. While the initial stages of this coping proved tiresome, he gradually found himself more reflective, better mindful of his appetites, and increasingly indifferent to the immutability of time. By his fortieth birthday, he had mostly led himself out of the somber haze into which he had diffused.
The Voice would grow much quieter, almost to a whisper. Still, it possessed a careful yet mystifying strength and urged him toward more substantial work in less time, toward unmatched manual precision, toward the asymptotic confines of perfection.
By the time he could complete ten procedures before five o’clock in the evening, he would be widely regarded as one of the preeminent facial plastic and reconstructive surgeons in the nation, a tenacious workhorse with almost preternatural mechanical and aesthetic ability. With this renown came constant opportunities from around the world; he’d find himself at exclusive international conventions in France and Germany and Russia lecturing to thousands of coworkers on his innovative facelift technique, at conferences in Las Vegas and Los Angeles raising awareness for victims of domestic abuse, at local hospitals in Colombia and Thailand operating pro-bono on children with congenital facial abnormalities.
No matter where he went, people were there to listen to what he had always wanted to say. Something he’d only dreamed of as a boy who yearned for recognition. For escape.
When these trips were over, he’d return to his little Nolita flat, settle into bed, and stare at the web-like cracks in the ceiling, feeling as though he’d become the noble surgical orator he once swore he’d be. The one The Voice had always known he’d be.
Though this surge in work-related absence meant that regular sleep would become a fond memory, Andrew rarely missed an opportunity to see AJ, who had become a veritable teenager with a broad, muscular frame and a face so similar to his father’s that he often joked he was a product of Dad’s mitosis. What he seemed to lack in verbal confidence he made up for in written; he’d come home from high school carrying stacks of prose and poetry he had refined and offer a few his parents, who would read, often amused, intrigued, moved, then sing, with hyperbolic inflection, that from the time AJ could put a pencil to paper, they had known he was meant to write. Andrew would find himself trumpeting his pride to patients, operating room nurses, and friends, as if doing so would make his son’s aspirations come true.
Whether it was due to years of reading fat novels or button-mashing video-game controllers, AJ grew a taste for the exciting. He would venture off with friends into the shady woods around the house to build forts out of fallen, fungus-speckled trees or to shoot amateurish comedy videos with a shaky camcorder. The more time he spent running through undergrowth in search of a well-earned adrenaline high, though, the more he itched for something grander.
During his sophomore summer of high school, he picked up Michael Crichton’s memoir, Travels, from the town library. It included a detailed chapter on the author’s ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, “The Ceiling of Africa.” He finished it in a few hours, then dialed his father to ask if they could undertake the journey together.
There was static on the other line for a few moments. Then a long laugh.
Of course, came the reply.
July of the following year, they boarded a plane to Tanzania in hopes of making it to the summit. Two days later, they stood at the mountain’s rocky base. Packs weighing them down, they began their shuffle, slowly, slowly, their boots marking winding imprints in the dirt behind them.
Five days under the brutal sun. Unusual bodily odors, fatigue, thirst and appetite shriveling with altitude. Five nights under a shifty, silver-backed moon. Under the dull blue tarp of a tent billowing with wind, the tips of their noses glittering with frost, sleep playing its most elusive games.
Countless times they doubted.
Countless times they considered turning back.
But they did not.
Midnight of the sixth day, they rose after two hours of unbearable high-altitude sleep. They packed down jackets, headlamps, energy bars, a few liters of water. Out under the stars they stared up at the summit’s slag-black shadow. Their whole bodies burning with dread, they tottered on, and the night began to wear, blind and silent and eternal.
Countless times they doubted.
Countless times they considered turning back.
But they did not.
Seven hours later they wobbled atop the summit. Pink morning light blared on the horizon. AJ shambled to the edge of the plateau to get a better glimpse of the blue glaciers and sea of clouds roiling hundreds, thousands of feet below.
A few moments later, Andrew inched up to AJ, put his hands on his shoulders, and swiveled him around. AJ looked up at him, at first with wonder in his eyes, then with concern.
What’s wrong, Dad?
Andrew wiped his eyes, damp with sweat or tears or both. Look at what you just did, bud, he croaked, holding a hand out to the plunging scree slopes, to the sun whirling on the break of orange. You can do anything. Anything. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
He pulled AJ close, lay one hand on his wool cap and the other on the back of his neck. He kept telling himself that he would not let go.
And inside he could hear something shift. Feel it splash about, pulse through him, emanate from his skin, flow with their combined warmth and seep back into him, into his child.
Something told him he’d passed The Voice’s message along. It seemed to take the form of a seed, small but firm, waiting for its time to sprout.