I offered up the box. They didn’t ask what was inside.
* * *
“So that’s it?” Dr. Golan said. “His death was meaningless?”
I’d been lying on the couch watching a fish tank in the corner, its one golden prisoner swimming in lazy circles. “Unless you’ve got a better idea,” I said. “Some big theory about what it all means that you’ve haven’t told me. Otherwise …”
“Otherwise, this is just a waste of time.”
He sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose as if trying to dispel a headache. “What your grandfather’s last words meant isn’t my conclusion to draw,” he said. “It’s what you think that matters.”
“That is such psychobabble bullshit,” I spat. “It’s not what I think that matters; it’s what’s true! But I guess we’ll never know, so who cares? Just dope me up and collect the bill.”
I wanted him to get mad—to argue, to insist I was wrong—but instead he sat poker faced, drumming the arm of his chair with his pen. “It sounds like you’re giving up,” he said after a moment. “I’m disappointed. You don’t strike me as a quitter.”
“Then you don’t know me very well,” I replied.
* * *
I could not have been less in the mood for a party. I’d known I was in for one the moment my parents began dropping unsubtle hints about how boring and uneventful the upcoming weekend was sure to be, when we all knew perfectly well I was turning sixteen. I’d begged them to skip the party this year because, among other reasons, I couldn’t think of a single person I wanted to invite, but they worried that I spent too much time alone, clinging to the notion that socializing was therapeutic. So was electroshock, I reminded them. But my mother was loath to pass up even the flimsiest excuse for a celebration—she once invited friends over for our cockatiel’s birthday—in part because she loved to show off our house. Wine in hand, she’d herd guests from room to overfurnished room, extolling the genius of the architect and telling war stories about the construction (“It took months to get these sconces from Italy”).
We’d just come home from my disastrous session with Dr. Golan. I was following my dad into our suspiciously dark living room as he muttered things like “What a shame we didn’t plan anything for your birthday” and “Oh well, there’s always next year,” when all the lights flooded on to reveal streamers, balloons, and a motley assortment of aunts, uncles, cousins I rarely spoke to—anyone my mother could cajole into attending—and Ricky, whom I was surprised to see lingering near the punch bowl, looking comically out of place in a studded leather jacket. Once everyone had finished cheering and I’d finished pretending to be surprised, my mom slipped her arm around me and whispered, “Is this okay?” I was upset and tired and just wanted to play Warspire III: The Summoning before going to bed with the TV on. But what were we going to do, send everyone home? I said it was fine, and she smiled as if to thank me.
“Who wants to see the new addition?” she sang out, pouring herself some chardonnay before marching a troupe of relatives up the stairs.
Ricky and I nodded to each other across the room, wordlessly agreeing to tolerate the other’s presence for an hour or two. We hadn’t spoken since the day he nearly shoved me off the roof, but we both understood the importance of maintaining the illusion of having friends. I was about to go talk to him when my Uncle Bobby grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me into a corner. Bobby was a big barrel-chested guy who drove a big car and lived in a big house and would eventually succumb to a big heart attack from all the foie gras and Monster Thick-burgers he’d packed into his colon over the years, leaving everything to my pothead cousins and his tiny quiet wife. He and my uncle Les were copresidents of Smart Aid, and they were always doing this—pulling people into corners for conspiratorial chats, as if plotting a mob hit rather than complimenting the hostess on her guacamole.
“So, your mom tells me you’re really turning the corner with, uh … on this whole Grandpa thing.”
My thing. No one knew what to call it.
“Acute stress reaction,” I said.
“That’s what I had. Have. Whatever.”
“That’s good. Real good to hear.” He waved his hand as if putting all that unpleasantness behind us. “So your mom and I were thinking. How’d you like to come up to Tampa this summer, see how the family business works? Crack heads with me at HQ for a while? Unless you love stocking shelves!” He laughed so loudly that I took an involuntary step backward. “You could even stay at the house, do a little tarpon fishing with me and your cousins on the weekends.” He then spent five long minutes describing his new yacht, going into elaborate, almost pornographic detail, as if that alone were enough to close the deal. When he finished, he grinned and stuck out his hand for me to shake. “So whaddaya think, J-dogg?”
I guess it was designed to be an offer I couldn’t refuse, but I’d have rather spent the summer in a Siberian labor camp than live with my uncle and his spoiled kids. As for working at Smart Aid HQ, I knew it was a probably inevitable part of my future, but I’d been counting on at least a few more summers of freedom and four years of college before I had to lock myself in a corporate cage. I hesitated, trying to think of a graceful way out. Instead what I said was, “I’m not sure my psychiatrist would think it’s such a great idea right now.”
His bushy eyebrows came together. Nodding vaguely, he said, “Oh, well, sure, of course. We’ll just play it by ear then, pal, how’s that sound?” And then he walked off without waiting for an answer, pretending to see someone across the room whose elbow he needed to grab.
My mother announced that it was time to open presents. She always insisted I do this in front of everyone, which was a problem because, as I may have mentioned already, I’m not a good liar. That also means I’m not good at feigning gratitude for regifted CDs of country Christmas music or subscriptions to Field and Stream—for years Uncle Les had labored under the baffling delusion that I am “outdoorsy”—but for decorum’s sake I forced a smile and held up each unwrapped trinket for all to admire until the pile of presents left on the coffee table had shrunk to just three.
I reached for the smallest one first. Inside was the key to my parents’ four-year-old luxury sedan. They were getting a new one, my mom explained, so I was inheriting the old one. My first car! Everyone oohed and aahed, but I felt my face go hot. It was too much like showing off to accept such a lavish present in front of Ricky, whose car cost less than my monthly allowance at age twelve. It seemed like my parents were always trying to get me to care about money, but I didn’t, really. Then again, it’s easy to say you don’t care about money when you have plenty of it.