“Don’t you listen to, like, normal music?”
“Calms me down,” he says. He lit a cigarette and speaks between long drags. I told him to roll the window down, and crisp air unfurls through the car. I don’t tell him to stop smoking, even though the smell digs digs into the car like nail marks on a palm. Mae’s going to find out when she drives to work tomorrow morning, but I think he knows and just doesn’t care. Shaves of ash fall onto the leather seat and he brushes them off cooly with spindly hands.
“You shouldn’t smoke and drive,” I say bitterly, watching the way his slender fingers on one hand curl around the steering wheel, the orange tip glowing at the end of the other.
“I live a dangerous life,” he said with a sly smile.
“So dangerous. We’re going at ten miles an hour,” I say as he crawls to stop at a crosswalk, the traffic lights in the dark gleaming off the hood of Mae’s car. “Where are we even going?”
“Mm.” Jax flicks his cigarette out the window and taps me on the shoulder. “You wanna
know where I used to go while I was your age?”
“Not really,” I retort.
Jace, unamused and unaffected, tosses the rest of the cigarette out the window, and without its dim light the car is dark. “I’m sure you do. It’s pretty great.”
I scoff as he turns left, away from our apartment building. I catch his cellophane eyes in the mirror as he’s driving. They’re cooler than they were before, more pristine and less fiery, and we both share the crystal blue color. I see Mae’s hardness in them, her collectiveness. This and our thick, tangled blond hair are the only things that strings the three of us together.
He stops in front of the hotel a few blocks down. In our urban neighborhood, the buildings are clumped tightly together, and the hotel is a tall thin place jutting up between a bar
and a restaurant. It reminds me of Jax, the way the windows bulge out of the brick walls like the gauntness of his eyes.
He pulls up to a curb and reaches over to turn the radio up. “You know who this is? Louis Armstrong. My personal favorite.”
“Mae plays him a lot,” I say quietly. I think of the way the trumpet cuts through the car’s quiet and how it wails through our kitchen on Saturday nights from Mae’s lime-green radio on the counter.
I nod, picking at a loose thread in my car seat. I catch a palpable note of quiet surprise in his voice. “Yeah,” I say forcefully.
“That was Dad’s favorite, too.”
This is the first time I hear him making a connection to our family. I fold my arms across my chest. I don’t know anything about my father, since he left before I was born and Mae never talked about him, and I hate that Jax knows something I don’t about where I come from. I don’t like the way he always diminished me when he lived with us. When he came back, he greeted me with a loose hug and, “How’s my little asshole doing?”
“You would have liked him,” he says now, leaning back into his seat. “Dad.”
“No,” I said. “I know I wouldn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t like people who leave other people behind.” I throw as much sharpness into those words as I can, and he laughs, a flutter of an aloof chuckle.
“Is that why you don’t like me?”
I reach over and turn the radio down, the music reduced to a hum. “Why did you come back?”
He clears his throat, leaning his forehead against his window and glancing up at the hotel. A thick silence swells between us, and I wait for him to answer. But instead, he switches the subject and turns back towards me. “When I was your age, this place was very important to me. I came here almost every night for a while to reflect. And to smoke.”
I look over his scrawny shoulder at the building, the lower level windows lightened, the top floor’s dark. “To a hotel?”
“It’s special to me, okay?” He fixes me with a stern gaze. I see him parked here ten years ago, blond curls tousled upright as a cloud of smoke encircles his head, listening to jazz and trying to slow down after a fight with Mae. Or me, who was lying awake fuming at how small he made me feel.
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“Okay?” he repeats coldly.
“Okay,” I return defensively.
He pulls the keys out of the ignition, plunging the car into silence. I get out of the car and walk beside him across the street. I match his long strides as quickly as I can. I don’t want it to seem like I was following him, but a part of me buried in the pit of my stomach is curious, wanting to build up those memories into a clearer image. I wasn’t left with much of him.
It’s cold, but not that cold. Not cold enough to be wearing a tan coat that hangs all the way to the ankles. Jax has it closed tightly around him, too, each button fastened securely. His knobby hands are tucked into his pockets. I watch the way his thin, long legs beat against the flaps of his coat.
Mae stopped answering the phone for a few weeks after he left. She let it ring, the receiver rattling against its mount on the wall. Our kitchen seemed bigger without his lengthy
figure hunched over the table, and I remember thinking it seemed to dominate the entirety of the apartment. One day, in third grade, I came home from school and she was crouched on the tiled floor with a half-used pot of paint, the once yellow walls being soaked in a new color that so blue it burned in the backs of my eyes.
“Do you like it? It’s robin’s egg blue,” she beamed, reading the label on the can and wiping her hands on her ripped jeans.
“Yeah,” I said slowly, looking at the way the sun hit the blinding new palette of my favorite room in our apartment. “But. . . why?”
“Why not?” She had started answering the phone again, although most of the time it wasn’t Jax. “I thought we could use a little sprucing up.”
She never used words like sprucing. Years later, after her sixth cup of tea and milk on one particularly dry Thursday night, she told me Jax had picked out the sunshine yellow when he was young and new to the apartment.
I never wondered, in the beginning, where he went. I never cared. He made fun of my bottom lip that naturally rested in a pouting position and the way my face plummeted into a deep red when I was angry with him. It was later, when I was old enough to understand sometimes Mae poured something else other than milk into her tea, that I grew curious about him.
He takes me back around through a narrow alleyway where a fire escape clings to the exterior of the brick wall. The hum of distant traffic fills the alley and my ears, and he swings
himself gracefully up onto the fire escape in a rustle of dark. Sandwiched between two tall buildings, I wonder how safe this is. I think of Jax, sixteen, fumbling up the staircase with booze-darkened breath and an unlit cigarette between his teeth. It probably isn’t.
I look up at the iron staircase. Usually, I spend these nights riding around in the rusted black car pulling through McDonald’s drive throughs or the to the movies. There are greasy paper bags and ticket stubs wedged into the seats of Mae’s car, instead of the empty packs I picture Jax left in there ten years earlier.
“Are you coming?” he asks, his arms stretched out on the railing. His voice cuts through coldly in the dark.
I hesitate for the briefest of moments. “Yeah. I’m coming.” I hoist myself up onto the fire escape. The stubborn part of me doesn’t want to follow his lead. All the fights we had when I was younger were primarily him yelling at me to stop following him around, but tonight he’s been waiting for me to fall into stride beside him, and it causes the metal in my stomach to flatten out. The railing is ice cold beneath my grip, and the iron rattles loudly beneath my Converse.
“Stay cool back there, kid,” he says over his shoulder.
He turns around and I want to kick him in the back of his knees. My head climbs deeper into the night air as we head higher up onto the hotel’s building. At the top of the staircase landing is a white door, which Jax shoulders open with the eased force of an action repeated many times before. He dips under its low threshold and disappears into the milky blackness.
I linger outside in the chilled night air, on the top floor of the hotel, my hands tucked into my green jacket. I don’t hear anything beyond the threshold, not even the flap of his coat or even pattern of his footsteps.
Suddenly, the lights flicker on, and I step inside, rows of blue fluorescents shining from above and below. I look down and see my feet rest on shimmering white tile, and the walls are painted with light green depictions of palm trees.
A bright pool stretches out below me, lights causing the water to melt from blue to green to purple to white to blue again, the water smooth and glassy, not even a single ripple dissipating its surface. Rows of striped white chairs line the outer edges, racks of pressed white towels and glass tables with empty pitchers sit beside each one.
“I didn’t even know you could get up here. . .” I begin.
“I stood right over here, almost every night,” he says. He walks over to the large bank of windows overlooking the streets, hands in his pockets. We live in a small city, but from this rooftop pool, you can see it unfold and expand through buds of traffic. It’s snowing, barely visible flakes whipping through the crisp air. “It’s just so peaceful.”
I cross over to him and stand far enough away from him that I can’t smell his sharp scent, smoke and those little green trees you hang in your rearview mirror to make the car smell better. He looks so concentrated, jaw sloped downwards towards the scene below him. I slide my eyes away and towards the hazy skyline blurred with white. Eventually, he walks away, the heels of his shoes clacking against the tile, and I stay put.
One night I remember the cops brought him home. A bruise flowered under his eye and made a blackish-purple ring, his hair dripping wet. I sat in the kitchen, my little legs swinging back and forth, listening to the cop’s low-stooped voice and the periodic drip of water onto the floor.
“Why are you all wet?” I asked him, and he responded with some crude remark I can’t remember before storming off, Mae angrily following him. Now, I know he was here, in the rooftop pool escape, backbones pushing against the water.
“Why did you come back?” I ask again now, more gently.
He shrugs, his feet dangling on the pool’s brim. This time he answers quietly. “It’s been long enough, I guess,” he says. He’s looking at his reflection in the water. “I kind of messed up the whole family dynamic thing, you know?”
I scrape the bottom of my shoe against the pristine white tile. “Fuck yeah you did.”
“Don’t swear, kid,” he says, facing away from me. “It’s degrading.”
This puts me over. All the times he tore my youth down to a label bubble up in my throat, and I step forward. His feet are so close to the water that when I push him, he lands with a wild splash, resurfacing a few moments later sputtering words and chlorine.
But he’s not angry. I stand near the pool’s edge as he combs a hand through his wet hair, his coat clouding around him in a bunch of tan fabric. He swims to the other side, gliding smoothly, resting his elbows on the tile. He dips his hand under the water and removes a damp cigarette, placing it between his lips. When he get back into Mae’s car, the smell of smoke intertwines with chlorine. I let him keep the window closed.