James. I imagine his lips, soft and faintly pigmented. It’s been forever since I’ve seen him in person. But by the way his voice sounds now, how he seems to digest language, I picture the curvature of his cupid’s bow, so deeply notched as if every word ever spoken to him is an arrow that is captured, swallowed and living in his belly.
James – I think he must be waiting for me. Maybe he’s sitting in the Jupiter Behavioral Consultants Office with a warm cup of coffee in hand. Maybe he’s on the sidewalk beneath the shimmer of a yellow streetlamp.
I don’t care that I missed my seven o’clock flight on the fancy commercial airline. I don’t even care that I have to return to the airport at some later hour this same day to catch a red eye overseas. I need to see him now. If I don’t, I’m not sure I ever will.
“Hey, Liz. You still there?” he asks.
“Yeah.” I hold the phone between my ear and shoulder as I fiddle with the handle on my rolling luggage until it comes loose from its hiding place, and I am able to pull it behind me. The suitcase is heavy with clothes and books from the last two weeks. A separate bag that I carry on my back contains my laptop and other electronics, which I cannot bring inside my father’s house where I have been staying. I leave them either in the mailbox or in the garage, depending on the seriousness of the item and the situation.
“You-- you weren’t being serious… Were you? Did you miss your flight? Did you miss your flight on purpose?” he asks.
I open my mouth to respond, but never do.
On my way down the corridor, I pass large and vibrant signs with loud advertisements. One reads: Our planes use solar powered lithium ion batteries. Fly with the new American. And: Jupiter Behavioral Consultants – empowering people since 2033. Also, restaurants proudly display their new policies, which require costumers buy their reusable cups and utensils.
“Liz,” he sighs. “Don’t you have work tomorrow morning?”
“Yeah. I’m just going to catch a later flight. I—I have to see you. Earlier the guys over at ADEP said there’s a huge project coming up, and there’s a chance that I might ship out to Tokyo for who knows how long. Plus, you’ve got that teaching job lined up and—“
“I might not even get the job, Liz.”
“James, come on. With all the fieldwork you’ve done over the last few years… Don’t be such a cynic.”
I board the tram, which is mostly full and sit on the seat closest to the door. The tram moves quickly, and we reach the terminal with all the carousels in no time. From here, I walk out into the arrivals section of the airport.
“I’m not a cynic. I’m just saying it’s not a sure thing!” he says loudly.
“But it is.” I nearly whisper. “I don’t want to fight. It’s just… We’ve both got a lot going on and when I go to Tokyo and you start your teaching job–“
He angrily sighs. I continue regardless.
“I just wanted to see you before I left. Don’t you think it’s funny that we never see each other yet we always talk?”
“We see each other, Liz…”
“Yeah, sure. In old yearbooks and photographs online and whatever, but you were just a kid then, and it’s been forever since some of those were taken. I don’t know what you look like now.”
“Well, I can tell you, Liz,” he begins. “I’m still as tall as I was.” And how tall is still as tall? Does he have longer legs or a longer torso? Could he touch the rooftop of the parking garage or slam dunk at the school gymnasium? We had gone to the same high school for two years, but I can’t remember. That had been five years ago…
“My hair is still blond.” But is it light blond or deep blond or slightly pink from the sun? Does he have freckles? And where?
We had met at the annual lunar festival during my sophomore year. Then, I was an olive-skinned youth with dark black hair like my mother’s, standing beneath a super moon. Discussions about light pollution, satellites in space and scientific advancements played out around me, but I just stood with my arms crossed over my chest, and the corners of my lips curved into a frown.
I went to a STEM school per my father’s request. “It’s a post-modernist’s education,” he often said. “Everyone is going to a STEM school now.” He wasn’t wrong. The other kids had always seemed more in tune with it, though, and I struggled to enjoy the activities and work assigned to me.
I think James had been lanky and tall. I can’t remember if I thought he was handsome. I know I liked him, though. He says he’s blond. So, he must’ve been blond.
“It’s not the same, James. You’ve been helping me out since senior year.”
“You’re my client, Liz. It’s my job.”
“We were friends before I was your client, and I’m not anymore,” I tell him. “The pictures, they’re… they’re not the same. I want to see you in person.”
“Yeah. We’ve been talking like this forever.”
“Not really. A little less than three years.”
“Since my senior year. Same difference to me,” I say. “Don’t you think after a little less than three years,” I mockingly add, “we ought to see each other face to face?”
“I guess so,” he says with a tinge of uncertainty in his voice.
“Alright, yeah. I’m sorry, Liz. I’m just… nervous. When you left town to work for the restoration project… I… I don’t know. I don’t want things to be weird between us.”
“And they won’t,” I tell him. “Trust me. It’ll be good for us to see each other again.”
“Yeah. Yeah, okay. You can meet me at the office. You’ve been by the office before, right?” he says.
“Uh… yeah. I remember. I dropped off the rental car already, but I guess I’ll take a cab to you and then maybe one back to the airport.”
“Okay. When’s your next flight?”
“Okay. The office is open ‘til ten. When you get here call me.”
“Okay. Are we really doing this?” I ask.
“We are,” he says.
“Alright, James. I’ll see you soon.” I sit on the phone line listening to static until he hangs up.
James and I had been merely acquaintances, although we grew up around the same neighborhood and knew most of the same people. In school, we would pass one another in the halls or pep rallies and say hello. We maybe talked twice during the community cookouts that my parents participated in.
I had always liked the way he listened to me, though, and let words settle before he responded. When he did speak, it was always something intelligible, something different. It was like he could use words in a sequence that nobody else could.
I signal a cab, put my luggage in the trunk and then get inside the backseat when it pulls over to the curb.
“Jupiter Behavioral Consultants Office, please,” I say.
“Behavioral Consultants? That’s West Avenue and Harding, correct?”
“Yes,” I confirm.
He nods and begins to drive.
Before I had begun school and then got into environmental work in New York, I was living in Jupiter. Then, I had driven by the Jupiter Behavioral Consultants Office many times. It sat on a busy main street as a dull but official-looking building consisting of bricks, all variations of grey, ranging from the lightness of fresh concrete to the dark of newly paved streets. A neon green sign with the words Jupiter Behavioral Consultants Office, written in semi-professional looking letters, hung outside the door.
I had always contemplated going inside.
James had told me a lot about his work since we’d first really started talking. I knew he was parking space number 23. He had the third cubicle from the door on the far left side and always got an Americano coffee with extra sweetener from the coffee stand across the street.
The behavioral consultants’ office and, specifically, James would receive several hundred calls throughout the day. All of the calls fell onto a spectrum of different problems. I could imagine James all these years with all the different people saying things like: I can’t control my daughter. She wants to marry the boy with the two DUI’s and move in with him. I don’t know what to do. What do I do? Or My uncle is always yelling, and yesterday, I saw him make my mother cry. I swear, in that moment, I had never hated anyone so much.
He’d probably coolly respond. It’s okay. She’s okay. You’re okay. It only gets better from here. It’s fine to cry. Just don’t wallow.
Once, I was a client of his, too.
Growing up in Jupiter, my family had maintained a somewhat perfect reputation among the neighborhood around Schindler Street and Lucille Avenue.
During his better years, my father, Roy Bancroft was a key member of the anti-decertification and environmental restoration project (ADEP) as well as a volunteer fire fighter on the weekends, and my mother Nancy was branded “The Beautiful and Interesting Nancy” or “Nancy with the Ocean Eyes” (coined by my father who’d often tell the story of how he’d met my mother at a rally to save the blue whales). “There she was with those-those ocean eyes of hers. If you’ve ever wondered what things might’ve looked like back then, just look at Nancy,” he would often sigh.
It had been August of my senior year when everything changed. My father had been recruited to work on an emergency restoration task right outside our house on Schindler Street. In Florida, we had been experiencing a longstanding tropical depression, which turned the sky a deep blue-gray for two weeks straight and made it so that rain droplets fell incessantly. It was an early Saturday that the whole neighborhood had been sent into a state of emergency.
Like time, the acid rain had aged the pavement and limestone sands until they were feeble and elderly. Water from the Atlantic then filtered into what seemed like an ever-growing void, and my mother, with her large love for my father, was worried. That day, I caught her several times looking out the window and remarking a sheepish but sincere, “My goodness, I hope your father knows what he’s doing.”
My father, along with the other members on the ADEP team, attempted to reconcile the situation by blocking off the road overnight, promptly responding to complaints by the neighbors and preparing everything to fix the concavity the very next morning. This hadn’t been the first time this had happened. In fact, sinkholes like this happened commonly. Just a week before this incident, a large depression appeared on the east side of town. So dad had thought he was experienced and ready.
“We’ll fix it as soon as we have the materials,” he told us. We all believed him.
Then Tim Meyer, our neighbor, a young sprightly boy about age seven, fell in. No one saw it happen. It must have happened very early, at about six o’ clock in the morning.
I found Mrs. Meyers on my couch, being consoled by mother and my father.
“We can call the consultants,” Mom had told her. Mrs. Myers, a plump and rosy-cheeked woman, sobbed violently. She used one hand to wipe her tears and another to clutch my mother’s fingers in her own.
All she could say was: “My poor Timmy. I had told him to stay in the backyard. The dogs… they-they hadn’t gone out since yesterday morning. They hate the rain, and it had finally stopped raining. I- I told him just to stay in the backyard. I told Gwen to watch him. She was supposed to be watching him. My-my baby. You said that you would fix it, Roy. Why didn’t you fix it? Why didn’t you fix it yesterday? Poor Timmy, he’s… oh, my God… how could you do this to us?” she had cried.
Sometimes, I think the hole in Schindler Street swallowed my father as well, because he was never the same afterwards. Other members of the ADEP team, our neighbors and our family tried to reassure him that it was not his fault. It never seemed to register with him, though.
In the weeks following the accident, he seemed to do everything sadly. In the mornings, rather than speak like he used to or read the morning newspaper, he would stare despondently out the window. He stopped driving me to school. Also, he stopped working his firefighter job and had begun to do his ADEP work from home.
My mother tried to tell me he was just tired, and I liked the idea that rather than regrettable or unfortunate circumstances depressing him, he had just another form of boredom. It got progressively worse, though. In fact, it got rock bottom.
On Dad’s worst day, I called Jupiter Behavioral Consultants for the first time. It was early one Saturday morning, and I woke up to find him outside.
He was kneeling in the middle of the street with his face buried in his palms. The sun was just rising, and the wash of stoplights glowing yellow, then red illuminated his prematurely graying hair and white sweats, which he had worn for two weeks straight.
I wrapped his Mylar blanket around his body then, which trembled as violently as shoes bouncing in a dryer. Pink blotches like sun spots had appeared on his hands, neck and face. My mother cried when looking at him, and she wondered aloud: What happened to you, Roy? What happened?
We could never be sure if it was physiological or all just in my father’s head. He would tell us he was allergic to the electronics, but the only physical testaments to this were those marks, which sometimes appeared on his skin.
Other than that, word of mouth about headaches, dizziness and the occasional memory loss were thrown around. I believe he feared news headlines and phone calls from concerned neighbors. My father made us get rid of the landline. Often, when our old friends caught wind of my mother who didn’t leave the house much anymore, they would ask her: What happened to Roy? Where has he gone?
She didn’t really know. We guessed: He had disappeared with Tim Meyer.
Speaking to James helped me through all of this, and I like to think that, as it is in the wild, our relationship is mutualistic. I help him, and he helps me.
The cab is getting close to James’ office now. I redial his number excitedly, although nerves waver in my chest.
The way a person processes and uses words can tell you a lot about their face. Are they always smiling? Do they smile with or without their teeth? Are they listening to you? Are they really listening?
“Hello?” I can feel the warmth that radiates out of the corners of his lips as they inevitably curve into a smile.
“Hey. I’m close. I’m driving down past Schindler Street now. Um… can you meet me in the lobby?”
“Okay. How long do we have?”
“Like two hours… I know it isn’t a lot of time, but–“
“It’s okay. Um… do you remember earlier when you were saying it’s been a long time?”
“Well, you were right. It has been a long time.”
“I know. I hope it’s not the last. I– “
“Let’s not think about that yet,” he says. “Let’s just think about right now, and right now, I am so excited and nervous to see you. When you get here, I… I’ll have you meet my friends in the office, and we’ll get coffee from the coffee stand. There are food trucks down the street, too. We can go to the food trucks. We can talk about our parents. We can talk about Schindler Street, and I’ll look at you, and I mean, really look so I can remember when you leave… sorry if that sounds weird…” he says.
This time, I feel like I’m digesting his words. “It doesn’t.”
The cab arrives in front of the building. I see him standing in the lobby with his phone in his hand. He is tall enough the touch the gymnasium rooftop. His hair is not light blond, but slightly citrus colored, and he is smiling just like I had sensed.
I stay on the phone even as I exit the cab, and he leaves the lobby. We walk towards each other. I remove the phone from my ear now. Finally, we are seeing each other in person, and it is like we are meeting for the first time.
James sees me for who I am, and he knows me better than anyone else. For this one moment, nothing needs to be fixed, and no one has to be found.