Signs Your Son May Not Get into Harvard
"Chance Me" from Life Among the Terranauts by Caitlin Horrocks, recommended by Ramona Ausubel
Introduction by Ramona Ausubel
Some short stories are tiny dollhouses, real life but smaller, and some short stories are landscapes we only get to see a piece of—one thicket of trees, one hollow, one mesa. Like its subject, “Chance Me” by Caitlin Horrocks is a specimen of arcology—an imagined combination of archaeology and ecology—built out of nature, planned but alive, some impossible harmony struck between what is made and what grows there.
The story feels like wandering through a half-built house long since taken back by the land: here, the once-dreamed-of space for a family, now eroded and with a cactus growing through the floor; here, the trees that have gone wild and dropped branches through the roof; here, the sunlight bursting through, more beautiful and bright than if the wall was still standing.
The story starts in the unknown between a father and son who haven’t seen each other since the boy was little and the family of three lived in the Arizona desert in an intentional and off-grid, invite-only community envisioned by Italian architect Paolo Soleri. Now Just, the son, has come to stay with the father, Harry, and his new wife in their suburban condo while Just visits elite Boston colleges. Father and son are of entirely different ecologies now, species that seem at odds. Just does not appear to be especially brilliant or likely to get into these schools. Harry wonders, even hopes, that maybe the whole thing was a cover for coming to see him, though Just also does not seem especially open to him.
Just dons his red polo shirt and khakis and heads to the campus visits alone with a ratty backpack. Harry feels sorry for him, and helpless. He doesn’t know his son enough to know if he should be looking at a community college, a technical college, or maybe he really is Ivy League brilliant and Harry can’t see it. What he sees instead is the mismatch of a young ordinary-seeming man in this rarified place. Harry spots the unbelonging because he has felt it himself.
Boston is beautiful and neat, big green trees, brick buildings, nice straight lines and thoughtful landscaping, but here come the weeds, the seeds and roots Harry left behind in the desert years ago when Just was small. Vines, unnamable, are everywhere.
Maybe Just is the invasive species—scrappy desert kid pretending he can make it in the slick of an East Coast Ivy—or maybe, depending on the ecology, Just is good, dry soil and the Ivy is the real invasive.
– Ramona Ausubel
Author of Awayland
Signs Your Son May Not Get into Harvard
“Chance Me” by Caitlin Horrocks
“Just,” his son corrected him at the airport. “Just ‘Just.’ ”
Bond, James Bond, Harry thought. Like they were starring in a rip-off action flick and not the road-trip buddy comedy he’d been hoping for. “Harry, Harry Krier,” he said, holding out his palm for an ironic handshake.
“I know,” Just said, horrified. “I know your name.”
“I know! I know you know. It was a joke.” Harry had insisted on meeting his son at baggage claim rather than at the curb outside, but now he was dismayed at all the witnesses. Also, Just didn’t have any luggage. Only a ratty backpack slung over one shoulder. Harry went in for a hug instead of the handshake. Just raised his arms, awkwardly returning the embrace, and Harry caught a whiff of body odor. His son had grown tall enough that Harry’s nose was armpit height. Willow had been tall, Harry remembered. Willow had been an Amazon. Maybe she still was.
After fifteen years without seeing Just, Harry had steeled himself for almost any physical manifestation of his son, for Just to look exactly like his mother, Willow, or exactly like Harry himself. He was ready to be bludgeoned with memory, or guilt, or joy. But Just was a nearly blank slate — brown hair and eyes, a body that gave no hint of what its occupant used it for, no swimmer’s shoulders or runner’s wiriness. Jeans and sneakers and a plain black T-shirt. Such an ordinary boy, Harry thought, and the words seemed heartless, but not the emotion. Whole and healthy and ordinary. He could deserve no better fortune. He didn’t even deserve that.
“Sorry,” Just said, breaking the hug. “I probably need to shower.”
“You’re fine,” Harry said. “You’re perfect.”
Commentary on the flight (okay), the autumn weather (chilly, gray), and the traffic (heavy) got them out of Logan and onto I-90 heading toward Brookline.
“There are a lot of Dunkin’ Donuts here,” Just observed, looking out the car window.
“Do you want to stop for anything?” “No. I was just saying. There’s a lot.”
“I thought we’d have dinner at home, if that’s okay.
Miriam’s picking something up.”
“That’s fine,” Just said, and he asked Harry how he and Miriam had met.
“I sold her a condo.” After closing, they’d gone out for a celebratory drink. Six months later he’d moved into the condo with her. There was no stipulation against this in the National Association of Realtors bylaws. Second marriage for her. First for him, technically.
“Do I want to know what technically means?” Miriam had asked.
“I was very young,” he’d said, and the truth of this had hit him with unexpected force — a load of bricks, a piano out a window. He’d been very young when he was living in Arcosanti with Willow, and he wasn’t any longer, and he never would be again. Wherever else his life might take him, it would not take him back there, to the red desert hills and the bleached sheet of sky snapped open every morning above them, their baby squalling in a hand-painted card-board box. Now that baby was sitting in his Lexus, six feet tall and applying to Harvard.
On the phone, Willow had rattled off names like she was reading an online list of Boston-area colleges, not just Harvard, MIT, Tufts, but the off-brand schools out-of-staters never applied to, like Lesley, Suffolk, Simmons. “I thought Simmons was a girls’ school,” Harry had said. “I mean, women’s. A women’s college.” Was his son transgender and no one had bothered to mention it to him?
“He’s still narrowing down the list,” Willow had said. “There’s a school counselor who helps.”
Harry hadn’t realized that tiny Jerome, Arizona, even had a high school. After Arcosanti, Willow had ended up in a mining town turned vertiginous ghost town turned artist colony / tourist trap. She’d bought a house and a metalworking studio for almost nothing because it was at geologic risk of sliding off the mountain. Uninsurable, but she hadn’t cared. She’d sent photographs of Just posed with the lawn ornaments she made and sold; birdhouses on sticks were popular.
“He buses to Cottonwood,” Willow said, like she could hear what Harry was thinking. “It’s a good school. Pretty good, I guess.”
“It’ll have to be if he’s applying to Harvard,” Harry said, pointlessly.
“Look, everyone understands how competitive it is. Can he stay with you or not?”
Harry hadn’t wanted the conversation to go this way. He felt like no conversation he’d ever had with Willow had gone the way he’d meant it to. “Of course he can stay.”
“He just needs a place to sleep. He can get himself to the campus visits on the subway. Right? I think that’s right.” Her voice was suddenly uncertain.
She’d never lived in a town with more than five hundred people, he remembered. Neither had their son. “I’ll show him around,” Harry said. “I’ll take time off work.” “You don’t have to.” Willow never told him he had to do anything. She hadn’t made him the bad guy. He was the no- guy. Not the villain, just written out of the script entirely, and he’d let her do it. Miriam had rented that movie with Daniel Day-Lewis, the one where his character screams, “I abandoned my child! I abandoned my boy!” At least that guy abandoned the little deaf boy to become an oil baron, Harry thought. I abandoned my boy to become a real estate agent. The saddest movie never made. Or maybe it was a road-trip buddy movie after all, now that Just was finally here, and the real movie of Harry’s life had simply had a very, very long setup.
Harry had first encountered Arcosanti as a single slide in a darkened college classroom. The freshman course was a year
long and quixotic, lectures three times a week on subjects like “the urban consciousness.” Paolo Soleri’s work came after images of Babylon and Alexandria, Levittown and Detroit, and immediately after a slide with a big question mark on it, symbolizing, the professor felt the need to explain, how no one knew what the future of cities would hold. The next image was an architectural drawing of insane complexity, a palace of tunnels and arches, pencil lines so fine and densely clustered, the city looked woven. Harry felt an immediate sense of loss when the instructor clicked it away. The drawing felt like the maps that appeared on the frontispieces of all his favorite novels, a key to an alternate world, its promise of transport. He used interlibrary loan to get hold of all Soleri’s books, even The Omega Seed: An Eschatological Hypothesis and The Bridge Between Matter and Spirit Is Matter Becoming Spirit. At a copy shop, he had the drawing made into a poster, blown up until the lines bled, the city an unraveling skein of wool. No, not a city — an arcology, a system that functions so perfectly with and for its inhabitants that the place and people become a single living organism. “Like a snail in its shell,” an acolyte explained on the first day of the summer workshop Harry signed up for at Arcosanti, an experimental arcology being built in the desert north of Phoenix.
Soleri lived south in Paradise Valley, coming to Arcosanti only for master classes, which sometimes felt like the only class; most of the workshop turned out to be manual labor, digging foundations or pouring concrete or repairing the buildings that had already stood long enough to start crumbling. Arcosanti had been founded in 1970, and a quarter century later the future had not materialized. The towering
arches from Harry’s drawing were covered in peeling paint. The round, porthole-style windows, a Soleri trademark, made the buildings look like concrete ships, a fleet that had set sail for the future and run aground in rough weather. The nicest building was the cafeteria, where tourists could join the residents for communal meals. Upstairs was the gift shop, where tourists could buy metal wind chimes forged on-site. This income, plus workshoppers’ tuition fees, financed the city.
“But isn’t arcology also about humans taking responsibility for our own relationship to the natural world?” a girl asked that first day of the workshop. She did not bother to raise her hand. “I feel like a snail’s not the best metaphor. I mean, a snail’s got no agency.”
She was white with blond hair braided into cornrows that left pale furrows of scalp exposed and rapidly reddening in the sun. Despite this, Harry thought she was beautiful. She was wearing steel-toed boots, overalls, and a sports bra, her body underneath rangy and tan. She was sexy, although this was a word Harry’s brain gained the confidence to use only after they’d actually had sex, after the miracle of Willow choosing him out of all the architecture students and career-changers and spiritual seekers in the workshop.
Miriam had picked up sushi on her way home from work. Harry knew it was meant to be a treat — it was from the best place in the neighborhood — but seeing how carefully Just observed them mixing wasabi into soy sauce, Harry guessed that Just had never had sushi before.
“If you don’t like it, we’ll get something else,” he assured Just.
“It’s fine,” Just said and gamely thrust a raw shrimp in his mouth.
Harry felt proud, then ashamed — nothing his son did was anything Harry could take credit for.
“So why Harvard?” Miriam asked.
“That’s the one school nobody ever asks that about,” Just said. “It’s Harvard.”
“But what makes it somewhere you want to go?” “It’s Harvard?”
Miriam gave him a confused look. “You need an answer to that before your interview.”
“It’s a group thing. Like, an informational presentation.
Individual interviews are with alumni in your region.” “There’s a Harvard alum living in Jerome?” “Prescott. About an hour.”
“Still. They’re everywhere.”
“Like roaches,” Harry contributed.
“Preparing Earth for the alien invasion,” Miriam said, “when they’ll team up with our new extraterrestrial overlords.”
Just looked at them as if this conversation were causing him physical pain. Harry supposed it might be. He tried to remember being eighteen.
“You should have a question ready to ask,” Miriam said. “If there’s time for Q and A.”
She was really throwing herself into this college-counseling thing, Harry thought. He wondered if she were wishing she had her own child to go through this. But no
kid of theirs would be anywhere near college age. If she’d gotten pregnant the very first time they’d ever had sex, the kid would still be learning to read. And Miriam had talked about it that very first time in her direct way — not just pills or condoms but how she didn’t want children, then or ever. “Me neither,” he’d said. He’d omitted mentioning that he already had one.
“What majors are you interested in?”
“Miriam. Leave the grilling to the admissions people.” “I wasn’t grilling, I was making conversation.” Making it, manufacturing it, because it wasn’t happening naturally. “Not everyone’s born knowing what they want to do. Just you.”
“What do you do?” Just asked her, making conversation, except that now Miriam would think Harry had never bothered to tell Just one single thing about her.
“I’ve told you that,” Harry protested.
“I’m a lawyer,” Miriam said, and Harry knew the fact she didn’t specify what kind meant she didn’t think Just was savvy enough to understand or care.
“That was what you always wanted to do?”
“My parents watched a lot of TV-lawyer shows. I thought I’d get to make lots of speeches.”
“So you’re in litigation?” Just asked. Miriam nodded, surprised, and Harry wanted to cheer.
“Knowing what you want out of life, it’s a superpower,” Harry joked. “Rarer than radioactive-spider bites.”
“So in the absence of spider bites, you joined a cult?” Miriam sniped.
“You were in a cult?” Just asked with sudden interest, not understanding that Miriam was talking about the place his parents had met, the town he’d been born in.
“It wasn’t a cult,” Harry said. But it had been, a little. The least effective cult in the world, making you dig holes and eat generic peanut butter until all your illusions were crushed. He’d been looking for the jobs that weren’t on television, he thought. He’d been looking for the secret options he was sure existed. But there weren’t options, not really. TV had it pretty well covered. He didn’t want to think the world was like that for everybody, but it had been like that for him.
“I don’t see how he’s competitive for Harvard,” Miriam whispered that night in bed.
Harry flicked the sheets aside before he got in, to see what she was wearing. Nothing, as usual. She wasn’t going to let Just’s presence in the guest room change that. Hopefully, Just wouldn’t change anything else between them either. Harry stripped off his own pajama pants.
“It’s cold,” Miriam complained and pulled the covers back up as he climbed in.
“You’ve only known him for four hours,” Harry protested.
“Four long, monosyllabic hours.”
“He’s a teenager. They’re all like that,” Harry said with false authority.
“Not the ones who get into Harvard or MIT.”
“Look, I can’t say whether his mom’s had a realistic conversation with him about it, but there’s no way to ask without making everything worse. I’m not proud that I don’t know enough about my own son to tell whether this whole college-visit trip is deluded, but I don’t.”
“Okay,” Miriam said. They were both still whispering or her voice might’ve lowered with surrender. With tenderness, Harry thought as she brushed his hair off his forehead. He reached for her hip under the covers. She was bony in a deliberate way, sleek as a greyhound. They didn’t even try to work out together because he couldn’t keep pace with her on her runs. He wasn’t soft, exactly, but he was softer than her.
He’d been softer than Willow too. Even after his summer of hard labor, she’d looked like she could break him. Willow was his first, and it took him years to understand that much of what he thought he’d been learning about sex, or about women, were things unique to that summer: the layer of concrete dust their sweat lacquered to their unshaved bodies; the calluses over her hip bones where her tool belt rubbed; the challenge of fitting themselves onto the bunk beds in the plywood dormitories or behind the shelves at the wind-chime foundry; lying on a blanket in the desert at night, stars flickering above them as the temperature dropped and they both pretended they weren’t cold. Maybe Willow hadn’t been. She’d seemed superhuman, impervious to discomfort or doubt. This was why he hadn’t believed her when she’d told him she was pregnant. It seemed like a mistake her body wouldn’t make. He’d thought she was joking.
“Are we naming it Paolo? Or Soleri?”
“Fuck you. This isn’t fucking funny.”
“Oh. No, it wouldn’t be.”
If it were happening to someone else, he was thinking. Which it must be, because surely it wasn’t happening to them. But her face convinced him that maybe it was. He was still groping for the right way to ask whether she planned to keep it when she answered his question. “We’ll stay,” she said. “We’ll raise the baby here.”
“What do you think of the costume?” Just asked in the morning over bagels and cream cheese, gesturing to his clothes. Miriam had already left for work. Just was wearing slip-on brown shoes, khakis, and a red polo shirt. “Do I look right?”
Costume? That implied Harry knew what Just dressed like normally, which he didn’t. “Honestly?” Harry said. “You look like you work at Target.”
Just looked down at himself, then got up from the table without a word. Poor kid, Harry thought, alone with his mom out there in the desert, has barely seen a Target. Maybe he isn’t allowed to shop there, at the big-box stores. Maybe it’s all thrift shops and farmers’ markets. Just returned in a forest green polo. “Is this the uniform for anything?”
“Dick’s Sporting Goods? Bennigan’s, maybe? But I don’t think there are any more Bennigan’s. I think they all went out of business.”
“So the shirt’s safe?”
“I’d say so.”
Compared with the other prospective students’ outfits in the MIT admissions office, Just’s costume turned out to be marginal. He wasn’t painfully underdressed, but most of the others wore button-downs. There were almost no backpacks, and none as ratty as Just’s. He’d unpacked since the airport, and the deflated bag sagged off his shoulder.
“Do you want me to take that?” Harry asked. “Leave it in the car?”
Just declined, clutching the strap like a security blanket.
One poor child had a sweater vest and puffy insulated lunch bag. Harry felt a flutter of relief—he was doing better than that kid’s father, at least. There were more girls than Harry had expected, wearing shorter skirts than he’d expected, and he felt creepy watching all the teenage legs.
“I’m doing the shadow-a-student program after the info session,” Just reminded him. “You can still meet me after lunch?”
“I’ve got a showing scheduled nearby, but I’ll be back in time.”
“Great. I’ve got your number in my phone,” Just said. “I should go get a seat.”
Harry could tell he was being dismissed. The reception area was emptying as students filed into a nearby room. But it wasn’t just students. “There are parents going too,” Harry said. He’d meant it to come out as a disinterested observation, but he could hear his own neediness.
From the look on Just’s face, his son heard it too. “Sorry. I didn’t realize other people could come. And now you’ve got that showing scheduled.”
Other people. That’s how far they were from Just ever calling him “Dad”; he wouldn’t even use the word parents.
The possibility of living year-round in Arcosanti had dogged the workshoppers all session as both promise and threat. Workshoppers had to be officially invited to become residents, but none of them knew who made the decision or by what criteria. At first, Harry had thought perhaps Soleri took notes during the weekly classes, peering into their souls. By the end of the summer, he suspected one of the beady-eyed foundation reps was looking through their financial declarations to see whose families might donate the most. By then, most of the acolytes were tired of the labor, of the food, of one another. They wanted to go home and feel, from a safe distance, like they’d contributed something, like they’d watered a pale green shoot so tender that it was nobody’s fault if it failed to thrive. Soleri was just too far ahead of his time. The foundation couldn’t build Arcosanti any faster without big donors, and big donors did not line up to support revolution. Actually taking up residence in Arcosanti seemed to Harry like believing in something that had already been lost, like pledging oneself to the Temple of Apollo while knowing the Christians were coming to raze it.
“I didn’t realize you could just turn it on and off like that,” Willow said. “Belief.” She’d grown up in the Pacific Northwest on a succession of live-off-the-land efforts that all went sour: goats, organic tomatoes, mushrooms cultivated with a secondhand marijuana-grow setup. Then her parents gave up on the mushrooms and started growing marijuana — the kind of thing no one gets in real trouble for, they assured her, until they did, and she lived with a grandfather in Olympia until her mother got paroled. By the time Willow came to Arcosanti, her parents were living in a clothing-optional eco-village outside Bellingham.
“They’re in it for the long haul,” Willow told him once. He hadn’t been quite sure what she meant, but he’d liked that she thought he was the kind of person who would know. He was flattered and in love. Maybe he loved her in the way only a nineteen-year-old loves somebody, but most nineteen-year-olds don’t know there are other ways to love. And he still wanted to love their city. He wanted to look at Arcosanti and see what she saw, not the ruin of something, but its beginning.
At the residential interview the foundation rep asked about the tenets of arcology, then whether Harry and Willow understood that they would be classified as volunteers and paid only a modest stipend beyond room and board.
“We’re in this,” Harry said, “for the long haul.”
Miriam called to check in. Harry answered his phone in his car, waiting in front of a property he could already tell the buyer wasn’t going to want. He knew before he shared it that a description of the morning would rile Miriam, but as soon as she started in — “Does he know the difference between MIT and ITT Tech? Did he see the TV ads and get confused?” — he felt disloyal for having said anything. “Lay off him,” he told Miriam. “Please.”
“Okay, sorry. But I had an idea this morning: What if it’s all a pretext? Maybe he knows perfectly well that he won’t get into these schools, but he needed an excuse to come see you.”
“He didn’t need an excuse for that.”
“But maybe he felt like he did. To tell Willow, maybe.” “She would have let him come.”
“Would she?”No, not when Just was younger. She would have been too worried that Harry wouldn’t send him back. And neither of them had had the money for travel. But more recently? Just could simply have asked. He didn’t need to playact an entire college trip. It was both flattering and ugly — that Just might have invented a pretext to see him; that Just thought he needed one. It inflated Harry’s heart and cracked it all at once. Like having children, Harry thought. This was what it felt like from the moment they were born. He’d forgotten how it was, the light and the shadow. Still there, after all these years, his capacity to be destroyed.
“I thought you were named Justin, officially,” he told his son at a café in Kendall Square. Turkey sandwich and a Coke for Harry, coffee for Just, since he’d already eaten in the MIT dining hall. “For almost three years I believed that. Your mother and I had agreed on Justin. She never told me she changed her mind.”
They’d invented a last name, a combination of their family names. They’d agreed to pair it with Justin, and Harry didn’t mind Willow calling the boy Just, though it could be confusing: Just, go to sleep. Just go to sleep. But later, on the birth certificate, he saw that she’d actually named their son Justice. No middle name at all, although that was the place, he’d suggested, that you were supposed to put the risky, potentially embarrassing part of the name. “You think it’s okay for a child’s name to be embarrassing?” she’d said when he’d tried to explain this, about middle names. “You named him Justice,” Harry retorted. “Without telling me.” But Willow said she thought Justice was beautiful, not embarrassing. She had a way of making every argument into one he couldn’t win.
“How’d you find out?” Just asked.
Harry told him he’d finally seen his birth certificate. What he didn’t tell Just was that his parents, who were encouraging him to file suit for sole custody, had told him to make a copy. Harry hadn’t filed the suit after he and his parents were counseled by lawyers that the Arizona courts were never going to side against the mother.
Just asked him if he’d been mad, and Harry said that he had, but not about the name. “Justice is fine,” he said. “I just thought we’d settled on something different.”
“I like them both,” Just said diplomatically. “I would have been fine with either.”
He’d taken his coffee black, and Harry couldn’t tell from the way he was drinking it if he actually liked it or if he thought it was what he ought to want. Harry was tempted to offer something different. Root beer? Hot chocolate? Kid drinks.
“The info session,” Just said. “It would have made me nervous, having you there. That’s all.”
“You don’t have to explain.”
“I didn’t want it to be, like, something hurtful.”
“You didn’t hurt me,” Harry lied. “I mean, I wish I didn’t make you nervous, but I get that we don’t know each other that well.”
“It’s not that,” Just said, then opened his mouth like he was going to add that they knew each other fine. Then he shut it.
An honest boy, Harry thought. He might not get into MIT, but he was honest.
The long haul — two years in, Harry thought he’d figured out what it meant. The only diapers they could afford were old dish towels from the cafeteria, which had given Just an intractable rash. The foundation refused to advance Harry the money he needed to take his son to a doctor. Harry was supposed to be grateful that they’d been moved out of the plywood dorm into a family apartment with leaky windows. The long haul — a lifetime of pretending you didn’t want or need the things other people wanted, not just TVs or fancy shoes but shampoo and diaper cream, a lifetime spent paying the price of pushing back against what your life was supposed to look like. Maybe Willow’s parents had moved to the nudist colony because after decades of the long haul, they didn’t have the money to buy clothes.
Willow kept the faith, kept it years beyond his ability to understand her. Did he understand how rare Arcosanti was, she asked, a place that really meant something? And he could hear how long she’d watched her parents look for such a place, how miserable they’d made her, trying. Arcosanti was supposed to be the city of the future, but he could see every single day of his future there and they all looked the same, dusty and exhausted and poor. The only other child living in Arcosanti was a four-year-old so grubby that tourists stuck money into the chest pocket of her overalls. Not Justin, Harry was determined. That would not be his son’s life.
Just had scheduled visits to Emerson College and Tufts the next day, nearly back to back. If he had more time that week, Harry offered, they could visit Northeastern. Or UMass Boston. Or even Roxbury, which, Miriam said, was a really solid community college. “You know, if you wanted to get some Gen Eds out of the way before transferring to a four-year school.” Harry kept his eyes on the road, but he was aware of his son turning to give him an inscrutable look.
Last night Harry had been unable to sleep, imagining Just receiving an endless stream of rejection letters, growing frustrated and angry at the whole Northeast, at his father. What if he didn’t return for another fifteen years? Harry had ended up insomniacly reading online message boards full of panicky teenagers posting their grades, test scores, desired schools, asking other anxious teens to estimate their odds of acceptance. All the subject lines read Chance me?
Chance me for Harvard? Chance me for MIT? I got a B+ once and I think I’m doomed.
This morning he’d followed Miriam into the bathroom, asking her to strategize where else Just could apply, how he might be lured back to Boston, where Harry could start to learn things like what his son liked to eat or drink, what he liked to study, what he wanted his life to be.
“Of course you can use our address for the in-state tuition,” Harry rattled on now. “I mean, more than that — you know you’re welcome to stay with us for as long as you like.”
“Is Miriam okay with that?”
Miriam had not been asked about that. Harry imagined she wouldn’t be okay with it. Not for an entire semester or year. But she would understand why he’d had to offer. She would understand that this was Harry’s last, best chance. “Emerson is mostly an arts school,” Harry finally said.
“I know,” Just said and, after a long silence, added, “It costs, like, thirty-six thousand per year. That’s not even including room and board. That’s, like, another fifteen thousand.”
“Well, it’s in downtown Boston,” Harry said, as if he thought those numbers were reasonable, which he didn’t.
“If I used your address, I’d have to list your income,” Just said patiently. “For the financial-aid forms.”
Willow had been vehemently refusing Harry’s money for the past fifteen years. Harry hadn’t realized that the federal government wouldn’t care — he’d be automatically expected to contribute. “We’re keeping you out of the picture,” Just assured him. “If I apply to any of the really expensive ones, Mom and I are going to say my father’s unknown. Or that he died. You’ll be protected either way.”
“They’re going to declare me dead,” Harry told Miriam that night in bed, but he’d made the tactical mistake of mentioning the cost of every school’s tuition first, so she expressed more relief than shared indignation. “It’ll be like I never existed.”
“Just on a financial-aid form. Not in real life.”
“You still think he’s here to see me?”
Miriam had no response. She put her hand on his head in sympathy, but it felt awkward, like he was a little kid she was checking for fever. He reached up and pushed her hand onto the pillow.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Any of this making you reconsider your no-children stance? You too could have a teenager planning to pretend you never existed.”
“Ha,” Miriam said. “No. Holding firm on that one.”
But as she spoke Harry felt something crumple inside of him, heard a small voice protest. If he could do it again, he thought, surely it would all go better? Where was his second chance to get this right?
He wasn’t sure what he was waiting for, by the end. His parents had twice set up elaborate itineraries with paid-for taxis and plane tickets. The nearest scheduled bus service was thirty miles away. Twice he’d crouched at the edge of the Arcosanti parking lot in the predawn dark until he heard the cab crunching down the dirt road. Then he’d grabbed his backpack and run in the opposite direction, back to his and Willow’s room. His parents had called Arcosanti’s main office both times in a panic after he failed to get off the plane in Newark. They were sure he was being held against his will. No one had taken his ID, he told them, and no one was holding him prisoner. “I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave them.” His parents sent cash then, paper-clipped to a phone number for a company in Phoenix that had agreed to send a car up, “for whenever you’re ready to leave.”
But when he finally left, he didn’t call the number or take the cash. He put it in an envelope on his pillow with a letter for Willow and a series of flip-book drawings for Just. Harry couldn’t really draw, but there was a big stick figure and a little stick figure and if you flipped through quickly enough, they hugged. He hadn’t wanted to sneak away in the dark, hadn’t wanted to feel like he was doing something that required sneaking, but he knew he’d never make it in daylight. He wouldn’t survive the goodbyes, would cave again, convince himself that maybe the next day, or the next, Willow would either agree to leave with him or let him take Just or, conceivably, his belief in arcology might reawaken strongly enough for him to make it through another year or five or ten. In the dark, though, he knew none of this would happen.
That night he pressed his cheek against Just’s and inhaled. His boy’s face was impossibly soft and smelled like the silt beds in the foundry. Harry left on foot, the road shining white under a full moon, and hiked out to Cordes Junction. The town wasn’t more than a truck stop huddled against I-17, but he found a trucker willing to take him south to Phoenix. He called his parents collect from the airport, and they arranged a ticket for a flight home. During takeoff he watched the desert drop away beneath him and felt no relief, just a gutting pain. They were at cruising altitude, Arizona gone already, when he had two thoughts: that he’d stayed so long because he’d wanted his son to at least remember him and that he hadn’t stayed long enough for that to be true.
At Harvard’s Agassiz House, Just didn’t even want him in the foyer and still refused to surrender the ugly backpack. Harry said he’d find a café to answer some e-mails and sift through new listings. He walked back toward Harvard Square, peering in all the independent cafés for an available table, and paused outside a Panera Bread on Mass. Ave. Panera; he imagined Willow shaking her head, his own younger self wincing. He kept walking. Maybe he could work under a tree. Or at a library, at least until a security guard chased him out. Could he pass for a graduate student? Probably not at Harvard, where he imagined they all finished their PhDs by twenty-seven.
He crossed the street and went back through the brick and iron gates. The campus was shamelessly beautiful, a stately parody of itself. He wondered if Just was falling in love right this moment with something he was never going to have.
Harry’s last year in Arizona, he’d thought a lot about college. Not just the parties — late-night pizza and red plastic cups — but those darkened rooms full of ideas. Every idea Arcosanti ever contained felt bleached and flattened by the desert sun. Harry had been in his early twenties. He could sit in a classroom and look just like everybody else. No one would ever know he had a son. They would never even know he’d left college. He’d wanted to believe that Arcosanti was like Narnia, that you could step out of the wardrobe and back into the very afternoon you’d found it. But of course you couldn’t.
Students started to stream out of the buildings, changing classes. They wore nice sweaters and had clean backpacks. Harry tried to picture Just among them. He couldn’t. Until he could, because there was Just, walking straight by him, holding a video camera in front of his face. He was walking alone, without a tour guide or admissions host. He hadn’t made it twenty feet past Harry before a campus security guard stopped him. They were close enough for Harry to hear when the security guard said, “No filming.” Just was trying and failing to convince the guard he had a video permit from Public Affairs when Harry walked up behind them.
“I’m sorry, Officer,” he said. “My son’s a prospective student. He didn’t know about the filming rules.” My son. Harry could taste the words in his mouth long after he’d said them.
“Can I see some ID?”
“I don’t have one,” Just said too quickly, and the guard bristled.
There was so much, Harry thought, that his son needed to learn about the world. “Here’s mine,” he said, pulling out his wallet, and he watched the guard write down the name.
After being escorted to the nearest campus entrance, they were left courteously enough on the sidewalk outside.
“Different last names,” Harry said. “This won’t hurt you if you decide to apply.” Just was raising the video camera to film the guard’s retreating back. Harry swatted it down. “What are you doing? What were you doing?”
“We’re on city property,” Just said. “They can’t stop you filming from here.”
“You researched this?”
“Sure. But someone from Tufts had tipped Harvard off. They asked me to leave admissions before I got much of anything.”
“What did you do at Tufts?”
“It’s for a documentary. I’m not just screwing around. Mom’s been dating this Italian video artist. He gave me this,” Just said, holding up the camera. “I’ve been recording audio from the info sessions on my phone, but he said I should try for some quality footage too. He’s going to help me edit everything together. You know college in Italy is, like, completely free? Harvard costs sixty thousand a year. It’s so fucked up.”
“You’re making some kind of exposé?”
“Mom said not to tell you. She said she wasn’t sure you’d be cool with it.”
“What else did your mom say about me?” It was a huge question, ridiculous, too big for the rest of their lives, let alone for a sidewalk outside of Harvard Yard with students pushing past them.
Harry led them across the street to the nearest café’s outdoor tables. They sat, and Just returned the camera to the backpack, wrapping it carefully in the red polo shirt. It took him a long time to answer.
“Honestly?” he said. “Not a ton. You two were on a summer workshop together, and then you went back to school.”
“Four years. I was there four years.” Harry tried to meet Just’s eyes, but his son was staring at the perforated black metal tabletop. “I didn’t want to leave you.”
He just hadn’t seen how they could love the boy as much as they did and still raise him in Arcosanti. Willow hadn’t seen how he could love the boy as much as he said he did and still threaten to leave. There’d been no possible compromise, not one Harry had been able to see then and not one he was able to see even now. Which meant that in the great forking of his youth, he had ended up with nothing but bad choices. The painless road must have split off earlier, before he’d fallen in love with Willow, before he’d fallen in love with arcology. But that meant Just would never have existed.
“If you finish the movie — what do you do with a film like this? Submit it to festivals?”
“Put it on YouTube, probably. Higher education in this country is out of control.”
It sounded so rehearsed that Harry wondered who Just was imitating. Willow? The Italian filmmaker? Or maybe the words were really Just’s. Maybe this was what his son sounded like. At sixty thousand a year for tuition, he wasn’t wrong. Harry wondered what he’d sounded like as a teenager, parroting Paolo Soleri. Soleri had died last year, ninety-three years old. There’d been a memorial celebration at Arcosanti, a reunion of past residents and workshoppers. Harry hadn’t attended, but he’d been invited. He still got all the mailings, the pleas for donations. He still read them before he put them in the recycling bin.
“You should have told me,” Harry said. “What you were doing.”
“Mom said — ”
“Whatever she said. You were lying to me, and you were using me and Miriam. That wasn’t fair.”
Just took a moment to think about it, and when he said, “I’m sorry,” even though he said it to the sidewalk, it sounded sincere.
“Do you still want to visit Boston College this afternoon?”
Just’s head jerked up, his expression hopeful but suspicious.
“For footage,” Harry said. “I’m assuming you don’t actually plan to apply.”
“You’d do that?”
Was this a desperate ploy for his son’s affection? And did he believe this documentary would ever get made or that if it did, it would say anything that hadn’t already been said better by somebody else? Probably not. But maybe. This was his son, would always be his son. Didn’t you have to hope, totally and shamelessly, for “maybe”?
“I would. Although, for the record, I really liked college. I learned a lot. You should go. It doesn’t have to cost sixty thousand dollars.” Harry thought of himself scribbling notes in a dark room, desperate for someone to show him a picture of the future. That there wasn’t one was perhaps the best fatherly advice he had. Every possible arcology, they were all shipwrecked and insufficient. There was no city of the future, only the lecture slide before it, blank except for a question mark. But uncertainty could be a superpower. It could even be a love story, if you looked at it from a certain angle.