Telepathy Is the Sixth Stage of Grief

"Exercises in Thinking" by Jane Pek, recommended by Wynter K Miller for Electric Literature

Introduction by Wynter K Miller

When you lose someone beloved to illness or violence, there can be comfort—cold comfort, but comfort nonetheless—in the stability of details. There is even, perhaps, someone to blame. The doctors, the medical system, the cancer. Or, the defendant, the criminal justice system, the gun. The point is: there are facts and things to do. There is a time of death. There are funeral arrangements. But what do you do when the loss is a disappearance? And what if it started long before the person in question actually went missing? What if the only details you have to consider are memories and regrets, the incomplete arc of a story you thought you’d have the chance to finish? How do you grieve in the face of so much uncertainty?

Michael, the narrator of “Exercises in Thinking,” is flush with unanswerable questions. His son has been missing for a year, disappeared—along with two-hundred and thirty-nine passengers and three hundred thousand pounds of metal—on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. Worse, before Connor went literally missing, Michael is acutely aware that he was, as a father, missing in action. Jane Pek’s affecting story picks up in the aftermath of this tragedy, at a stage that doesn’t fit neatly within the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief. Michael isn’t in denial; he doesn’t really believe his son will be found. He isn’t angry or depressed, he isn’t bargaining. But he’s not at acceptance, either, because if he was, he wouldn’t be contacting a psychic and flying with her to Kuala Lumpur.

It takes a great deal of effort to suspend your disbelief, particularly if you are inclined, as Michael is, to approach problems with the assumption that telepathy (or, to use his psychic’s preferred term, “psionic communication”) isn’t a solution. But as Michael’s skepticism parries with his hope, Pek’s narrative will draw you expertly in. In her fiction, as in life, black-and-white answers are impossible—the truth exists in the gray areas.

– Wynter K Miller
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading

Telepathy Is the Sixth Stage of Grief

Exercises in Thinking by Jane Pek


I chose my psychic for her name. Faith, or Hope—that would have been too much. But: Grace. Maybe she even heard me when I thought, Yes.

I found her, like everything else, on the internet. All you have to do is google finding missing people psychic brooklyn and the true believers float to the surface, unable to sink despite themselves. The crystal healers, the Tarot readers, the ghost whisperers and demon exorcists, the astrologers and alchemists. Grace Banks. Grace’s website was also the only example I saw that didn’t give me any middle-school project or Renaissance faire vibes, so, who knows, maybe I’d have gone with her even if she had been Seraphina the Seer.

This was right after I read about the bomoh showing up at the Kuala Lumpur airport, his self-imposed mission to exorcise the evil spirits preventing the rescuers from locating the plane. It wasn’t like I thought clacking around some coconuts would do anything for anyone, alive or dead or neither or in-between. But I also thought—I think—what the fuck do we know? Two hundred and thirty-nine people, three hundred thousand pounds of metal, the overcast silence of the sky. I said all of this in my email to Grace Banks. I was in the insomniac trough of my night, those underwater hours between one and three AM, and I said too many things.

She wrote back seven minutes later from her iPhone and asked me to come in.

The address was at the waterfront end of Greenpoint Avenue, separated from the East River by an empty lot that was nine months away from groundwork being laid for yet another sleek, cheaply built condominium. Banks Consulting occupied the second floor, above a bar and below an acupuncture studio. A shabby three-floor commercial building, local retail tenants, cusp-y Brooklyn neighborhood hobbled by lack of subway access—it could have been one of my properties. Surely this was a sign.

Grace’s office smelled of spirituality, which to me smelled like incense. Otherwise, the space less resembled a psychic’s storefront than a contemporary art gallery. Framed photographs of landscape scenes hung on exposed brick walls. The room had an open layout and no furniture, except for a coffee table and floor cushions in a corner. Grace herself, consistent with her online persona, similarly appeared committed to defying as many stereotypes about psychics as she could. There was nothing gauzy or glittery about her, no turbans or shawls or dangly jewelry, no dramatic eyeshadow or any other makeup as far as I could tell. She was dressed in black and carried an iPad. She looked like a young woman trying to channel Steve Jobs (which, given her profession, perhaps she was). Her handshake was dry, brisk and assured. I was relieved, if also a little disappointed.

When we sat down she said, “Michael, I want to be clear about how I can help and how I can’t.”

Of course she wouldn’t be able to find you. If she could, she would already have. She told me about the effort organized by the global psychic community when the plane first disappeared, practitioners across twenty-five time zones sitting down and focusing on sensing the location of the aircraft. The analogy she used was of individual users contributing the processing power of their PCs towards some big computing project, like SETI. Grace had participated, singing for two hours. (“Singing?” I asked. “Music is my medium,” she said. “Pun unintended.”) But the astral realm had been too shrouded. Too many negative vibes. Fear, said Grace, and panic—and hearing her say that stirred up some diffuse, silt-like memory of those emotions in me.

What she could do, she concluded, if I wanted, was help me get in touch with you.

“As in, telepathy?”

“We don’t like that word.”

“Why not?”

“It’s been co-opted by popular culture. I prefer the term psionic communication: one mind speaking directly to another mind.”

“So you think he’s alive?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“But if I can talk to Connor,” I said, “can’t he just tell me where he is?”

She explained that this would be a one-way setup: since you wouldn’t have a psychic to help you, you wouldn’t have the ability to respond in any meaningful way. I would be able to sense your presence—nothing more.

“And this will only work if your son is receptive enough. It’s possible that we’ll do everything we need to do on our end and he’ll still be unable to hear you. Are the two of you close?”

“No,” I said.

“Are you fine with the fact that it might not work?”


“No,” she said, “you’re not.”

I was impressed. “I can handle it.”

She looked at me. I tried to think confident thoughts.

“It will take some time for you to be ready,” she said. “You’ll have to build up your psychic range. I’ll talk you through the steps of what’s involved and you can practice.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And we’ll have to do it on-site. Have you ever been to Kuala Lumpur?”


Exercise No. 1: Clearing your mind

Think of a room in your house the way it is. Furnished, cluttered maybe. Think of removing everything in it, restoring it to emptiness. Then remove the room itself—walls, ceiling, floor.

(Grace’s voice, fuzzy on speakerphone: “What’s left?”

“Is that a trick question?”

“I don’t ask trick questions.”

“The rest of the building, I guess.” “Keep going.”)

There are no direct flights from New York to Kuala Lumpur. I booked two economy tickets on United. When I told Grace Banks which flight and the date I had chosen she didn’t object, which I took to mean nothing too catastrophic would happen.

I checked in online and arrived at Newark two hours early like one is supposed to. While I waited for Grace I replied to work emails to try to stop myself from doing what I really wanted to do. My architect was proposing a new floor plan for 333 Franklin. The tenant at 700 Manhattan #1 wanted to extend her lease. The city had more questions about my application for a plumbing permit for 76 Meserole. I ran out of emails, stared at the time blinking away on one of the LED screens that were everywhere in the terminal, watched people leave and arrive and leave again, figured fuck it, and called your mother. I wasn’t expecting her to pick up but she did. It was just before midnight in Beijing.

I told her I was going to Malaysia, and she asked me why.

“To try to talk to Con.”

“What do you mean?”—and I could sense the fluttering, still, beneath the appalled weight of her question.

“I think I have a shot of connecting to Con’s consciousness, but I need to be in Kuala Lumpur to do that.”

I heard, within the faint static of the subpar connection, Fuck, Walter’s right, he is losing it; and then, a breath later: “Mikey . . . I really think you should try seeing someone.”

I said, “I am, actually.” This was a quarter-truth. In the past month I had been on three dates with a woman I met on Tinder, an HR manager and aspiring comedian. I wasn’t planning to go on a fourth.

“Are you? That’s great. Did you tell them about, what you’re planning to do?”

“No. We only just started going out. I don’t think I’m ready to share something like that with her yet.”

“I meant, like a therapist.”

“I guess you could say she’s kind of like a therapist.”

“The woman you’re dating? I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“What?—no. My psychic.”

She sighed, and I heard, Whatever, you’re a grown man, or an overgrown child, one of the two, and in either case you’re not my problem anymore. The practice must have been paying off.

“When are you going?” she asked.

“I’m at the airport now. Back a week later.”

“This Wednesday is—”

“I know,” I said. “That’s why now. You thought I’d forgotten and this was just an incredible coincidence?”

“You’ve forgotten before.”

I contemplated the floor. Had the designer chosen this shade of speckled grey because it concealed dirt so well? Those are the kinds of questions I ponder now. I wanted to say that she had been the one to up and move to China when you were twelve—hadn’t California been far enough?—but I knew what her response would be. One: that was irrelevant. Two: relative proximity hadn’t helped my memory much. Jab, cross, knockout.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “There was no need to say that.”

“No,” I said. “You’re right.”

“Regardless. It doesn’t matter anymore.” She paused; I felt her attention shift. “I have to go.”

“Walter getting jealous?”

I wanted to snatch that back once I heard myself, trying too hard for a subpar joke that, it’s obvious to all, is really on me. But when your mother spoke I could tell she had barely registered what I said. “It’s Deanna. She’s been having these nightmares. Ever since.”

I knew, right then: Deanna thought her stepbrother was still alive, as well. True believer. “I’ll let you go.”

After I hung up I closed my eyes and emptied my mind, and then I looked around for Grace. The plane was taking off in a little over an hour. She hadn’t texted or called. I dialed her number and let the line ring itself out.

I was starting to let myself think that it had been a bizarre scam—except I hadn’t paid her yet—or a reality show gotcha-type situation—in which case I would be resolutely and disappointingly undramatic, just walk back out and get into a cab like I had known all along—when I heard, behind me: “Hello, Michael.”

I turned. “You’re late,” I said, striving to project admonition into my outer voice, utterly negated, no doubt, by the aura of panicked relief that even a non-psychic could see.

“I wanted to let you finish up your conversation with your ex-wife,” she said. “Also, the security line is the shortest it’s been for the last forty-five minutes. We should take advantage of that.”

She clicked off, wheeling her suitcase behind her. I followed.

During our layover in Hong Kong I asked Grace, “How did you get into the psychic business?”

We were sitting side by side staring out through the glass at the planes lined up on the runway. Behind them a low green wave of hills rolled across the steamy horizon. She sipped at her bottle of coconut water and said, “It was similar to how you got into real estate.”

“You gave up on being a shitty artist?”

She turned to look at me. “I don’t think you’re being fair to yourself.”

I shrugged, embarrassed.

“I’ve seen a few of your paintings.”

“Where?” I’ve shown in a few (small) galleries, but that was years ago. I suppose there are people out there who own my artwork, assuming they haven’t recycled it or given it away at a yard sale.

She tapped her temple. All right then.

“The Helen series,” she said. “That was your wife?”

Up until then I hadn’t mentioned your mother any more than necessary. Not how we met in Santiago de Compostela one hectic night in July, two college backpackers without the foresight to consider that showing up during the Festas do Apóstolos with no prearranged accommodation would mean wandering about on the streets of the old town until dawn, or how we got married seven months later, or how we laughed at the foolishness of the question people kept asking: were we sure? I talked about her only in terms of you. She had primary custody, and after she remarried she took you away from New York, first to San Francisco and then to Beijing, all in furtherance of her second husband’s lucrative, soul-destroying finance career. Over last year’s spring break she let you fly to Kuala Lumpur with your best friend to stay with his family. I pushed for it—I’d always thought your mother was overprotective of you, to your detriment. And then you had been late for your flight back to Beijing, gotten to the boarding gate after it closed, been rebooked on the first plane out the next morning.

I’d always thought your mother was overprotective of you, to your detriment.

“Yes,” I said.

“When was the most recent one completed?”

I frowned as if I was trying to remember. “Nine years ago?” I wondered if she knew about Helen VII, which I put away a week after I started, when your mother told me Walter had proposed—and then I wondered if my thinking about it might have alerted her.

“They move me,” said Grace. “Is that enough?”

“What do you mean?”

“For an artist. To know that their work moves someone.”

“I wouldn’t know,” I said. I nodded at the sky in front of us, above the hills, which had swelled and darkened while we had been speaking. “Looks like a thunderstorm.”

“Our flight will be fine. But the rain will be an issue in KL.”

It annoyed me how assuredly she said that. “I didn’t know your abilities extended to weather prediction.”

She smiled. She might have been about to say something in reply, but then the man at the gate counter began announcing that the flight was ready to board. She stood up, stretched. “Onwards and upwards.”


Exercise No. 2: Bringing the recipient into your psychic focus, Part A

You’re familiar with the two past tenses in Spanish. Start with the preterito: a specific memory of the recipient, sharp, bright, bounded. Wrap it around you so tightly that its edges dissolve, memory becomes experience, and what you remember you felt then—some glimmering of it—that’s what you feel now.

(We’re splayed out on my couch racing Mario Kart as we have been for the past three hours, hands cramping, vision haloed, shaking our heads to get rid of theme song tinnitus. That couch—it’s a Craigslist freebie, and something about the upholstery, it’s too coarse or maybe just dirty, is causing a rash to break out across your legs. You keep scratching, never saying anything, you’re that kind of kid, and it makes me furious, at the unhygienic bastard I got the couch from, and how your mother is right about what a shitty parent I am, and at you, how fragile you are, and how silent. I don’t say anything either, I’m that kind of coward. Then I realize you’ve been letting me win this whole time, staging your crashes, gauging my haplessness so you can steer one obstacle behind me.)

It was not raining when we landed in Kuala Lumpur. The sun flared down on the tarmac, so bright my eyes hurt just looking out through the cabin window. I resolved not to remark on the weather. In the arrivals hall we were set upon by a horde of men, all ages and sizes, demanding to know if we needed a ride to our hotel. I was prepared to shoulder my way through to the safety of an officially sanctioned taxi line, but Grace said to one of them, “Do you have a meter?” and when he nodded eagerly, looked at me.

“Why not,” I said.

We crawled away from the airport and onto the expressway and right into a shimmery impasse of traffic. Our driver jerked to a stop and fiddled with the radio dial. We tuned into a confection of a melody, somehow granted gravity by being sung in a language I didn’t understand. I stared at the pickup truck ahead of us and willed it to move. No dice. Men—construction workers, in long sleeves and safety vests and boots—sat along both sides of the truck’s cargo bed, under a tarpaulin rigged up like a roof, looking dusty and stoic. Everything was coming across as slightly wavy in the heat, although that could also have been an effect of jet lag and exhaustion. I hadn’t slept at all, the entire twenty-three hours. It had been my first time on a plane since what happened to you, and I kept thinking I should stay vigilant, just in case. Beside me Grace had reclined her seat as far as it would go once we reached cruising altitude, snapped on her eye mask, and peaced out for the rest of the flight.

I leaned forward. “Could you please turn up the AC?”

The driver stared at me through the rear view mirror. He was so young—I hadn’t noticed until now—and all of a sudden I knew, the absolute way that one does in every fairy tale, encountering the bird enchanted or the boy ensorcelled. What a strange, wild relief it was: you right there, watching me the way you used to, waiting for me to recognize you.

“Con,” I said, right as Grace said, “The air conditioning. Sila.”

The driver, just a Southeast Asian taxi driver once again, someone else’s son, another boy with morose eyes and bony wrists, pressed a few buttons. A labored whirring issued from the air conditioning vents, unaccompanied by any discernible change in temperature.

The song ended, and as we segued into the slightly manic patter of an ad spot, all the white light of the afternoon faded out around us. If we had been in a movie, this would be the scene where the undead armies showed up. I peered up at the sky through my window and saw that it had bruised over, purplish-yellow, as if some kind of violence had been done to it. Less than three minutes later it burst open like a cosmic wound. Now I was grateful for how slowly we were moving, as the rain thwacked against the roof and sides of the car like ammunition and the world blurred into abstract expressionism. I thought of Gorky, de Kooning, and then the men on that truck bed, less than five feet away and impossible to make out now despite the wipers frenzying back and forth across the windshield. I couldn’t imagine their makeshift roof had survived. I glanced at Grace, but she was looking out of her window.


Exercise No. 3: Bringing the recipient into your psychic focus, Part B

Now, the imperfecto. Picture the recipient again, but this time unattached to any single incident or event.

(“So he’s just, kind of, floating?”

“If you picture him floating.”

I pictured a picture. A Rembrandt, maybe, the solemn curves of the face holding the light and hiding from it at the same time. Blank out the Dutch nobleman and swab you in, with your unruly hair and ironic T-shirt. Except it was too hard, imagining your face the last time I saw you, and I ended up with a Magritte instead, a cut-out of the night sky.)

I lay in bed that first night listening to the rain beat the world outside into submission.

I don’t remember doing so but I must have fallen asleep, because at some point I opened my eyes and a dull light was bleeding into the room around the edges of the black-out curtain. At first I wasn’t sure if it was still raining or if the sound of it had simply taken up residence in my skull. I staggered to the window and looked out at the topography of office buildings, low tiled roofs, construction cranes pointing scaffolded fingers into the sky, tiny lagoons of greenery within the concrete. A pair of towers in the hazy distance made me think, momentarily, of the old World Trade Center. We celebrated your second birthday shortly before it fell. For months afterwards we hid out in our apartment, terrified of the prospect of another attack, discussing endlessly if the city had become too unsafe for you. We even planned at one point to leave. Now I can see that what really terrified us was realizing that we had made you and then placed you in a world of dangers we couldn’t keep you safe from: how fucking powerless we were.

Grace had said she would let me know when we were ready to, as she put it, begin the outreach. I ordered room service and practiced my exercises. When she knocked on my door later that day, though, it was to ask if I wanted to venture out for dinner. “The rain’s letting up,” she said. “It will stop soon.”

We hustled through the drizzle to a local eatery a few blocks away. It was the sort of place that the city seemed to be pockmarked with, an open storefront with folding tables and plastic stools and wall fans pushing hot air back and forth. The other diners stared at us like we had dripped in from another galaxy. An old woman who seemed to be the only server waved us to an empty table and then immediately asked us what we were ordering.

“Is there a menu?” I asked.

She pointed at the back wall, where a signboard listed a dozen or so items, none of which I had ever heard of.

I glanced at the next table, where a woman was tearing up a large pancake and dipping it in a side dish of curry. “I’ll have that please.”

Grace was still looking at the signboard. She said, “I’ll have the number two.”

She spoke with her usual definitiveness, but when the bowl of soup was sloshed down in front of her, she stared at it like a scryer divining disaster in its livid orange depths.

I said, “We can switch if you’d like.”

She blinked up at me. “Yes,” she said. “Thank you.”

On my second beer—a bland local brand that I was only drinking for its clarifying, icy coldness—I asked, “What did you mean, it was similar to how I got into real estate?”

Grace said, as if we had been talking about this for the last ten minutes, “I had an opportunity and I took it, and then I realized I had a knack.”

It’s funny, but until then, I’d never thought of it that way. Putting my close-to-zero net worth into a foreclosed building in a blighted neighborhood, at a time when banks were collapsing and debt markets were imploding and everyone else was shitting themselves trying to get out—that had been fatalism, if anything. A senseless act in a world that no longer made sense. But then I began fixing up the property, and looking into refinancing, and bidding at more fire sales, and I understood that I’d finally found something that could consume me without making me care about it.

“What kind of opportunity?” I said. “If you don’t mind my asking.”

“My sister disappeared.”

I instinctively started to say I was sorry, then decided I shouldn’t without further context. “Did you find her?”

She nodded.

“Was she . . . all right?”

She nodded again. I took the hint. “What were you doing before?”


The rain had intensified again by the time we were ready to leave. We stood on the covered sidewalk and watched the water sheeting down, illuminated in the orange blush of the street lights. We hadn’t brought umbrellas, given Grace’s assurance that they would not be necessary.

I said, “Seems like you’re a bit off your game tonight.”

I thought I’d intended it as a joke until I heard my voice. Grace continued staring out at the rain. I couldn’t decide if I should apologize or ask her to tell me, for real, if she believed that what we came here to do was possible.

“Tomorrow,” she said. “You’ll speak to him tomorrow.”

When we got back to the hotel I took a shower and had another beer from the minibar before sitting down to swipe through all the photos of you that I had stored in my phone. Your mother sent them every quarter; I’m guessing she had the task listed on her calendar. All your questionable hairstyles. That three-month period when you stretched out, like your limbs had been lashed to wild horses pulling in four different directions. How did fathers in the pre-electronic age handle distance? Their sons and their daughters strangers to them each time they returned from their quests, their wars, their voyages and expeditions, running further and further away so they could look forward to coming home again. But I guess you became a stranger to me as well, even if I know exactly what you look like.


Exercise No. 4: Presenting your message

Decide what it is you want to share with the recipient.

(“It could be anything. An emotion you have. A sunset you wish they could have seen too. Smells—trickier, but not impossible. I had someone once who shared her nightmare. The point is, don’t limit yourself. Unless you want to, of course.”)

Think of a Venn diagram that consists of two elements, the recipient—

(“Because you still have the recipient in your psychic focus, right?”

“Shit. Hold on. Okay . . . okay.”)

—and the message, and both overlap perfectly: in effect, they become the same concept. And then listen.

And now tomorrow is today, and the rain has stopped, at last, and Grace and I are walking around what Wikitravel says is the old city center. Even in the shade it feels like being in an open-air steam bath. Uncovered drains run along the side of the roads, water churning brown within them. As an American landlord, everywhere I see lawsuits waiting to be filed.

Grace, incredibly, is still dressed all in black: turtleneck, jeans, and boots. Even more incredibly, she looks dry-skinned and unflushed, as if her outfit is climate-controlled. “How do you do it?” I ask.

“It’s all in the mind.”

A plaque notifies us that we’ve arrived at Merdeka Square. It’s a large rectangle of grass with a massive flagpole at one end, a fountain at the other, and fake-looking palm trees all around. The buildings around us are an odd collection of architectural styles, part historic and part fantastic. Some British colonial nostalgia, some Arabian Nights, a church teleported from an English village. Behind them, skyscrapers advertise the names of banks and Fortune 500 companies, as if someone slid in the wrong backdrop by mistake.

Grace gazes up at the Malaysian flag that hangs like a dish towel at the top of the pole. The sky is abundant with clouds, fleecy masses of them, but right then the sunlight angles through and we’re left standing in its unforgiving glare.

“Here,” she says.

I look at her, the set of steps leading up to the base of the flagpole, the young couple pushing a stroller along. The woman is wearing a lilac headscarf; the man has a camera slung around his neck. I can’t see the child. The sweat pools under my arms and on my chest, and I feel like I might suffocate.

“Close your eyes.”

It’s as if a volume dial has been spun up. I’m suddenly, vitally aware of a motorcycle ripping past, the swoosh of car traffic, a distant jackhammering, a child’s shriek. Grace’s voice, a richness to it that I haven’t heard previously. I don’t recognize what she’s singing—the words are in a language I don’t know—but I feel almost as if I should, as if this is something I’ve heard before.

I’ve done this so many times by now. Empty my mind. The noises dissolve. The ground dissolves. The heat—it recedes, marginally. Specific memory. Your face on a screen, an amateur pointillist’s rendition, Cubist in proportions because of the nonchalant angle at which you have propped up your phone. No, not this one. I don’t want this one. But I hear myself again, my voice so fucking loud, as if I’m shouting at you across a chasm and not merely hampered by a substandard internet connection, trying to explain why having you here in New York with me this summer will be complicated. June is busy, July busier. I just bought two new buildings and they’ll need a ton of work. I see you gazing up and away, at whatever you’re obviously watching on your monitor. Finally you tilt your head to look at me, and as you do the video freezes. I hear your voice several seconds before your image twitches into animation again, as if issuing from the future: “Dad, I really don’t care.”

I open my eyes. All the colors are garish: the stale green of the grass, the flesh-pink tiles beneath my feet, the warped bronze of the domes across the field. What did I say, after he said that? “All right,” or “okay,” or maybe even “That’s fine,” like he had asked permission for something. And then some BS about how we could set something up for the end of the year, and he nodded along, and it was only after we hung up that I remembered he always spent Christmas with Helen and her parents in Milwaukee.

I say, “I lost him.”

“You didn’t,” says Grace.

For an absurd moment I want to press her palm to my cheek, feel the relief of her absolution.

She’s holding my hand. Her palm is shockingly cool. For an absurd moment I want to press her palm to my cheek, feel the relief of her absolution. But she can’t give me that; she can’t give me anything. I lost my son even before he died and now I’ll never, never find him again.

She says again, so gently, “You didn’t,” and lets go right before I pull away.


I rebook our return flight for this evening.  When I bring my bags down to the lobby, one of the front desk receptionists approaches me. Ms. Banks has already checked out, he tells me. He sounds at once apologetic and intrigued. “She say, thank you.”

I guess one of us got a free trip to Southeast Asia out of this debacle. “She’s welcome. Could you help me call a taxi to the airport?”

“She ask me to tell you two more things first.”

I shake my head: I am done. “I have to catch a plane. Can you just call the taxi?”

“Your flight is UA78? It’s delayed. Departure time now eleven p.m.”

I don’t trust him until he brings me over to the reception counter and shows me the flight tracking information on his computer screen. “Fine,” I say. “What did she want to tell me?”

He says, “She said, you can still do what you came here to do. There’s still time.”

I settle for a mental Fuck you and hope she’s at least psychic enough to register that. “Got it,” I say. “That’s great. The taxi—”

“Also that your son didn’t mean what he said.”

Something ripples up within me, the silent aftermath of a mine detonated on the deepest ocean floor. “What?”

The man hesitates. Then he says, again, “Your son didn’t mean what he said.”

We look at each other. I would guess that he’s in his mid-forties, like me, the upward inclines of our lives starting to level off at an altitude so much lower than what we once thought it would be—but which, now that we’re here, is easy enough to accept: all the things we’ll never be, never do. He watches me with a kindness that makes me want to ask if he has children. If he can tell me what it is to be a good father; if it’s not too late.

“I call a taxi now?” he says. “It will take ten, fifteen minutes.”

“Sure,” I say. “Apparently I have plenty of time.”

The pilot has just announced that we are next in line for take-off when someone’s phone begins to ring. It’s a song, instrumental, one of those sweet, uncomplicated tunes that’s immediately familiar because it sounds almost exactly like a thousand other pop songs, the anodyne aural backdrop of a thousand retail stores. I tug the strap of my seatbelt tighter and stare out at the hallucinatory orange shadows on the runway and wait for either the phone’s owner to shut it off or someone else to tell them to do so.

The song fades out and then begins again. The cabin lights dim. I feel, rather than see, the plane begin its glide down the tarmac—and even though I know it’s impossible, I can still hear the music through the engine noise, clearer than before. The song fades again, begins again. The certainty closes around me like a fist: I have heard this song before.  Twice before; three different incarnations of the same melody.  It’s coincidence, or it isn’t, and maybe it doesn’t even matter.  There’s only the roaring of three hundred thousand pounds of metal tilting inexorably up into an overcast sky, and the darkness behind my closed eyelids, and trying, trying to listen.


Do you remember that afternoon we spent in Brooklyn Bridge Park, right before you and your mother left New York? I picked you up as usual and we walked to the park and kicked around a soccer ball and then waited in an absurdly long line to get ice cream from a kiosk. Thinking about it now, I don’t know if either of us even wanted ice cream. But there were all these other parents and their kids standing there, and it felt like if we did the same thing then we could be like them, how I imagined them to be.

The day was warm for March, tepidly sunlit, calm. There was a moistness in the air that I associated with spring. We sat down on a bench out on one of the piers and I asked you if you were all set for San Francisco.

“Yeah,” you said.

Your overt lack of enthusiasm for the move enabled me to be magnanimous. “It’ll be good,” I said. “It’ll be an adventure.”

You didn’t say anything. You were turning your cone around in your hands, inspecting where the ice cream had begun to melt, licking at it before it could drip down the sides. Your feet swung back and forth, crossed at the ankles. If I were still painting, I thought, I would paint you like this.

I heard my voice, a lilt in it almost like surprise: “I’ll miss you, Con.”

You looked up at me and said, “Then why are you always late?”

That might have been the most shocking thing you ever said to me, up until that point. Even when your mother and I did the song-and-dance for you—about how we cared about each other and loved you deeply, but we had decided it would be better if I no longer lived with the two of you—all you had said was, “Okay.” You had aligned your gaze precisely between your mother and me when you said it, letting us know you wouldn’t take sides. Your ongoing loyalty to a team that no longer existed—that, more than anything else, had undone me.

“Well,” I said, trying to remember what time I had shown up at your mother’s door, if it had been at all within the realm of the excusable, “sometimes things come up and I need to take care of them first.”

“Things like what?”

“Things to do with work.”

In fact the gallery I’d been working at as a glorified administrator had closed down—our customer base was largely comprised of bankers and fund managers looking for something colourful to hang on their walls, and in the wake of Lehman and TARP and all that, it was clear none of them would be thinking about interior design for the foreseeable future. I had three weeks left on unemployment benefits and I hadn’t yet started looking for jobs. I told myself I was still in the process of figuring out what I wanted to do next. I would have told your mother that too, had she asked.

You continued to stare at me. Not in a hostile way, but as if trying to understand why I would say something so obviously false. Then you turned back to your ice cream, which by this point had melted all over your fingers, and you said to it, like a promise, “When I grow up I’m never going to be late.” I remember thinking that when you grew up you would be so many things, do so many things, you had no idea.

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