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The Giving Up Game

The peculiar thing was that Astrid appeared exactly as she did on screen. She was neither taller nor shorter. Her smile had the same stretched quality, as if it had been worn thin from overuse. She seemed less like a star and more like one of her movie roles, a beautiful but otherwise normal woman who swore in traffic and ate takeout in bed. Jenny tried to imagine how she would describe this moment to her brother. The house was large and the drive was gated. The leaves of the terracotta-potted ficus trees looked glossier and more recently watered than the ones outside Jenny’s own small house. But the light that hit Astrid’s face was no spotlight. The same sun was jerking sweat from Jenny’s forehead.

 

‘Jenny Narahashi, the Japanese tutor,’ Jenny said. Strictly speaking, Jenny was not a tutor — she was a translator. The fee was generous, but that wasn’t why Jenny was here. She was doing this for her brother. Franklin had been the sort of movie geek who, unprompted, informed strangers that to shoot Barry Lyndon, Kubrick used the low light lenses NASA designed for the dark side of the moon.

 

What would he make of the soft pucker of Astrid’s eyebrows as she peered at Jenny? There was something disorientating about being so close to someone famous. It was disorienting. Jenny needed a moment to make sure that Astrid was not recoiling but stepping back to let Jenny inside.

 

The kitchen, like its owner, was almost too normal. A stained mug loitered in the sink. The fridge was magnet-poxed. The countertops were marble; but whether it was Egyptian, French or Tunisian, Jenny couldn’t tell.

 

The boy sat on a barstool at the kitchen island. He had a child’s slouch and a leading man’s designer sunglasses balancing on styled hair. So this was her prospective tutee, drinking Italian mineral water. The glass bottle dripped green light onto the white counter-top.

 

‘Marlow, Jenny,’ said Astrid. ‘Jenny, Marlow.’ Jenny supposed movie stars didn’t have to ask to use your first name. ‘The Japanese tutor, the one who translates Dinowhatever.’ Astrid paused.  The kid rolled his eyes at his mother and grinned at Jenny as if they shared something. At this kid’s age, her brother had trouble meeting people’s eyes.

 

‘I’ll let you guys have at it. Ask Renata if you need anything.’

 

Konneeeeechiwa. He held out a hand, and as she took it, she almost expected alarms to go off, like in a museum when she moved too close to a painting. Letting go, he added, ‘You don’t seem very Japanese.’

 

‘When you can say that in Japanese, I’ll explain.’

 

Even in LA, where Eurasians were common, people often mistook Jenny for Slavic. She had high, flat cheekbones, and very pale skin. Her brother was tanned, freckled and plump. Even his elbows were pudgy. Their mother called him Little Dumpling.

 

She decided to start by teaching Marlow to say his name.

 

Ma-lo. Two syllables. The low should be half way between a lo and a ro, let the tip of your tongue stroke the top of your mouth, don’t pout but don’t stretch your lips either.’

 

‘Marrow,’ he mirrored her.

 

He had long lashes that pulled shut on the second syllable, his whole face twisting with the effort of saying his own name. Something about the face was unaccountably fragile. Maybe it was that the skull was still slightly undersized. But she guessed the bones would push up and closer to the skin and the jaw would square, as puberty steamed through his cells.

 

‘No, that’s too far. Try again. Ma-lo.’

 

‘Marrow.’

 

Ma-lo, you aren’t a zucchini.’

 

‘What?’

 

‘Zucchini are a type of marrow… don’t worry, it was an old-lady joke.’

 

He laughed a strangely deep laugh from the thin neck.

 

‘You aren’t that old.’

 

Jenny was twenty-seven, but she felt older. Was it her mind forging the way for the body’s decay?

 

‘Say it again. Ma-lo.’

 

She tried to remember what her brother had been like at fourteen, what he’d wanted. But back then she had had too much youth of her own and it had fogged up her vision. She saw him instead as he had been at nineteen, the last time she saw him healthy. He was studying at UCLA. She’d taken him to a bubble tea place near campus. Between gulps of milky purple tea, he’d described this movie short that he was making for class. The story was told from the couch’s point of view.

 

Just as Marlow finally said, ‘Ma-lo’, Astrid walked into the kitchen.

 

‘Hey, kid. Time to get ready for set.’ Jenny’s Google that morning had revealed that Marlow was to make his film debut alongside his mother in the blockbusterisation of some Swedish art house film.

 

‘Already? They’re just going to make me wait around for hours while you let that guy shove his tongue in your face. It’s gross.’

 

‘Ready. Now.’

 

‘Mom!’

 

Jenny waited until Marlow had thumped up the stairs.

 

‘I guess I’ll see you next week,’ Jenny said to Astrid.

 

‘Next week Renata, the maid, will let you in.’ Astrid was looking down at her phone. Ask her, ask her now, Jenny thought. It would be so easy. On the table was a pad of paper. The header listed the Miami Marriott’s telephone number and address. Had Astrid stolen it or been given it? Jenny knew commercial objects had a way of clinging to a person after family heirlooms had been smashed and love letters lost. What had she done with the decades of birthday cards her brother had made himself?

 

All Jenny had to do was ask. To explain that it was for her sick brother. In his last days of consciousness, when Franklin was too tired to talk, they’d watched Astrid’s movies in chronological order. It’d been a month since the last time she saw his open eyes. She knew they were hazel-brown, but somehow she had already forgotten the ratio of orange to green, and couldn’t have picked them out on a paint chart.

 

Franklin wasn’t an Astrid fan. He wasn’t a fan of this decade. He liked Kubrick and Kurosawa movies. But Jenny had wanted to give him something bright and simple. The box-set of Astrid’s films was three dollars at the closing video store. Jenny and Franklin watched them together while she spooned hospital mush into his mouth. On the laptop’s screen Astrid fell in love, had her heart broken, and fell in love again. One of the last things Franklin said was they usually pour water on the street for night scenes. It makes the tarmac gleam. On screen, Astrid was getting drunk, hunching over a dark bottle of beer, her hair falling over her eyes. Jenny asked doesn’t knowing all that ruin the magic? But he’d batted back, would seeing God make the world boring? Jenny thought it might. Maybe that was why his mind hadn’t returned to the body under the mint-green hospital sheets. Maybe God’s glow had made LA’s shimmer less tempting.

 

Astrid looked up from her phone. ‘Yes?’

 

‘Nothing, just going.’

 

*

 

In her overheated car, Jenny clenched her hands on the steering wheel. She’d been pathetic, just standing there not asking, but Astrid must’ve known Jenny wanted something. She would ask next time.

 

The gates of the mansion released her, triggered by an invisible sensor. Jenny felt a breeze of irritation. Up until that afternoon she’d been able to say she was one of the few people in LA who really didn’t give a shit about movie stars. Paused at the intersection, she pulled up Franklin’s number on her phone. She thought about texting him, but calling disconnected numbers was for sad old ladies in movies. Anyway, Franklin wasn’t dead. He wasn’t, no matter how it felt.

 

Desperate for any hint, the family had sent their spit to a genome tracking service. The site exploded their DNA into charts and graphs. A neon pink and blue map guessed where the client was from. But the test was not built for their miscegenated grab-bag genetics. It placed her on the Mongolian steppes with a 45 per cent degree of uncertainty. Its best guess for her brother was Bhutan. A distance of 1,500 miles separated them, as if the future decades were not enough. She wished she looked more like her brother — could carry the record of his life in her face.

 

‘Finished,’ she texted her boyfriend.

 

They’d been dating for six months. They didn’t love each other but there was nothing precisely wrong with him. He kept soy milk in his fridge for her. He was a pretty man, not movie pretty, but with a sweep of blond hair and a gym-rat body — only in LA would a man who looked like that be an accountant. Dating him was like waiting outside the doctor’s office and flipping through last year’s magazines. What else was there to do? Once things with Franklin were finished, she’d leave LA and this man. She just hadn’t figured out where she would go.

 

He replied: hamburger emoji, Japanese flag emoji, tonight?

 

Translation: Let’s go to your favourite fusion place for dinner.

 

‘So, your first celebrity client.’ The boyfriend’s hands reached across the reclaimed wood table. Jenny kept hers on her lap. A week ago, during a commercial break, he’d muted the TV. He’d turned to face her and put one hand over hers, ‘I am The Accountant to The Stars.’ She’d seen the words swing across his eyes like the opening title of a bad reality show, full of sparkle and bang. He’d continued, ‘Astrid needs a Japanese tutor for her son, someone discreet.’ Jenny spent about as much time with fourteen-year-olds as she did with movie stars. She translated manga to be sold in the US. Her bosses, unable to speak Japanese, couldn’t evaluate how long anything should take, so her hours were flexible. If she had a headache, she drank tea and looked at real estate in Vancouver, Seattle and Tokyo: places with seasons. Places where things changed.

 

Now here she was, doing it, working in the movie biz. Or whatever. The food arrived. The Accountant said, ‘So?’

 

‘So?’ she asked.

 

‘What’s the kid like? Is he a druggie? Marla at work says the kid’s a druggie. But she thinks everyone’s a druggie.’

 

‘Well, he didn’t shoot up in the kitchen,’ she said. ‘And I didn’t exactly check his arms for track marks.’

 

She bit down hard on her teriyaki-avocado burger. The Accountant paused, his face almost expressionless. Anger? Disappointment? Jenny wondered. She closed her eyes and let the avocado’s sweetness spread across her mouth. On the other side of her eyelids, the Accountant switched tack.

 

‘I’m not really supposed to tell you this, but I think you should know what to expect.’ He outlined whose $300k flower budget was for something else entirely and whose ex-wife had discovered her former husband’s shell companies and blackmailed him into a better settlement.

 

Jenny played a game. Each time he gave a dramatic pause she ate a sweet potato fry. The restaurant was wedged into a steep hill. She stared at him; the pine-yellow lights slicked The Accountant’s hair, and Jenny could see the golden parabola of the city behind him. She wished she were sharing dinner with someone else, but she didn’t see her friends any more.

 

Jenny didn’t blame them for drifting away. Too many awkward pauses soaked their conversation. But now those silences were all Jenny had. Her apartment was sodden with them, she could feel them pooling in her ears and running down her hairline. This was the reason she’d made the dating profile that led her to The Accountant, to fill the waiting time. She’d agreed to go to the job interview only as a new distraction from her brother’s endless death. People with tumours on their brains could live in a coma for decades or suddenly stop breathing. She didn’t know which was worse.

 

*

 

Fuck. He’d forgotten his Japanese homework. Marlow felt like an idiot. Who asks for extra schoolwork? But he liked the language. He kept the flash cards in his backpack and when he was waiting on set it gave him something to do with his hands so he wasn’t just Astrid’s gawping kid. That week he’d spent all his free time staring at his phone. It wasn’t just Japanese. He hadn’t done his maths. He hadn’t read Pride and Prejudice. He’d fluffed a line on set. It was all Steph’s fault.

 

Steph was a bitch. It was like her Homeric-whatever. Steph-the-bitch. Girls like Steph ended up with bit parts or selling shit on the home shopping network. She thought she was hot shit because her mom had been some big deal underwear model? So the fuck what? But she’d had this way of fingering his earlobe while they sat in the cafeteria that felt stupidly good.

 

And she’d stolen his watch. The one Marlow’s mom’s director friend had given him. He’d been pissed off until Steph said it felt like he was holding her hand and then he kind of felt that way too when he saw her wearing it. He wondered if now they’d broken up, she’d give it back. Probably not — Steph-the-bitch wasn’t the sort of girl to return things.

 

Marlow couldn’t remember how to say study-notes or forgot. ‘Sumimasen. Watashi wa Benkyō shimasen deshita.’ Sorry. I didn’t study.

 

‘You don’t need to say watashi so much. We can infer that its you. It’s bad luck to say “I” too much.’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘The bad spirits find you.’

 

‘That’s dumb.’

 

‘What’s dumb is not studying.’

 

‘I’m busy. I have a lot to do.’

 

‘Fine then. Don’t learn Japanese.’ Jenny was weird. His mom threatened to quit things all the time, but when she did she threw stuff, shouted, and let her face twist into ugly shapes. Jenny was calm. She stacked the books.

 

‘There isn’t any point in my staying if it gets in the way of your schedule.’

 

‘Seriously?’

 

‘Seriously — this isn’t an easy language.’

 

‘You know I’ve seen the movies. Like you aren’t Robin Williams, I’m not some dumb kid you have to trick into a love for learning or some bullshit.’

 

‘I know,’ Jenny said.

 

‘Fine,’ Marlow said. Did she really just not give a shit? He reached for his phone to text one of his friends to come over and get pizza. But he was supposed to clear guests with security the day before. Anyway, he didn’t have that many friends since he’d booked the movie. At his school, drama was bigger than football, only everyone was on their own team. Kids started talking about him rather than to him. He almost wished he could give it up, but only almost. He didn’t feel like sitting alone waiting for Steph-the-bitch to upload a picture of herself in a bikini or eating macarons.

 

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Marlow asked. She looked up at him with her blandest teacher expression, and he almost expected her to ask, Can you say that in Japanese?  Instead she tugged at the zipper of her Jansport. It stuck. She bent down, pushed her hair out of her eyes, and tried again — the zipper refused. What adult carried a Jansport? What teenager really? Last year, all his friends had Nordic backpacks, but this year the thing to do was just to carry your books under one arm. He used his Dad’s old Nike bag, which at least had the benefit of being retro. Also of having a secret pocket sewn into the bottom, though Marlow had yet to find anything worth putting in it.

 

‘Let me do it.’ Marlow took the bag, working the zipper left and right. It struggled and then he felt it release, the movement easy and smooth as if nothing had ever been wrong. ‘I’m good at that stuff.’

 

‘You should make that your Miss Universe Skill,’ Jenny said.

 

‘What?’

 

‘It’s a joke my brother had. Like we all have some completely brilliant talent, that no one will pay us for. That’s your Miss Universe Skill.’

 

‘What’s yours?’

 

‘I don’t know.’

 

‘That’s dumb.’

 

‘Maybe it’s remembering stupid shit my brother used to say.’

 

Marlow wasn’t an idiot. He noticed the past tense. She didn’t say it like it was for dramatic effect, just like a fact. In the movie, his character’s sister was dead. And he never knew how the boy was supposed to look when her name was mentioned.

 

‘Hey, give me another shot.’

 

‘Did you study last week’s vocab?’

 

He shook his head, tried to look repentant. His coach believed in the Meisner technique, an acting method where the actor focuses not on themselves, but on the other actor. The actor was supposed to focus on each face twitch, each turn of emotion in their acting partner. Acting was about communication. Communicate Marlow, communicate!

 

Jenny’s face was still. Two triangles of shadow marked her cheeks. She didn’t seem upset, but the moment of good humour had evaporated. Repentant was not working. He tried cheerful.

 

‘I have the new Dinonauts DVD. We could have a cultural studies day.’ He’d never told Steph-the-bitch that he watched Dinonauts. It was kid stuff. But it wasn’t like any of the adults he knew were happy. Also Dinosaurs and Space — that was hard to beat.

 

‘Fine,’ Jenny said. ‘But we’re watching it subtitled, not dubbed.’

 

Marlow rolled his eyes. Exaggerating. Jenny laughed.

 

‘TV’s this way.’

 

As they walked into the TV room, Jenny’s neck scrunched at the cinema screen. Her eyelids twitched in surprise.

 

‘Mom got it so we could watch our reels,’ he said to make the size of the TV seem less dumb — but it only seemed like he was showing off. The Meisner technique was supposed to teach an actor to ‘live truthfully under imaginary circumstances’. His acting teacher said that it was the only technique that could teach an actor to seem like a real person. The only problem was that he was in high school, and an acting high school at that. He never saw real people and pretty much all circumstances seemed imaginary.

 

Marlow realised that Jenny wasn’t looking at the TV. She was looking at the photographs. Marlow and his mom. His mom. Marlow. Marlow. Marlow. Marlow and his mom. There were no relatives, no friends, just Marlow and Astrid. It was embarrassing. He’d been such a dumb-looking kid.

 

There used to be pictures of his dad, but his mom had cleared them away. Which was stupid, because she chose the week that his father was smeared across every stupid magazine. Apparently running away from rehab wasn’t a good move. Or maybe it was. Marlow guessed it depended on what your goal was — to get better for your family or to be famous.

 

‘Look, this was a mistake.’ Jenny said. ‘Your mom probably doesn’t want me in your private rooms. I’ll come back next week, when you’ve studied your transport words.’

 

Jenny was already stepping away.

 

Watashi no kanji wa.’ My girlfriend is. No, urg, he tried again. ‘Steph-san wa kanojo de wa arimasen.’

 

‘Steph isn’t your girlfriend?’ Jenny frowned. She sucked her lower lip when she frowned and the lines around her mouth deepened. It was hard to guess how old his teacher was. A twenty-year-old with a cigarette habit? A thirty-nine-year-old with a Botox addiction? ‘Oh.’ A smile flicked across her eyes as she understood. ‘You know you have to do your homework even if your girlfriend breaks up with you.’

 

Sumimasen. Marlow tried to remember the other ways she’d taught him to apologise. There were a lot. He couldn’t. ‘Sumimasen oh wise sensei.

 

‘Fine. Do you have popcorn in the house? And a microwave, I assume there’s a microwave somewhere behind all that steel?’

 

She didn’t check the calorie count at the back of the Newman’s Light Butter popcorn, although he could’ve told her there were 34 calories a cup. All the guys at school secretly counted calories. Well, apart from the fat kids who couldn’t deal with having famous parents, smoked pot in the bathrooms and got drunk in the mall parking lot.

 

As the corn burst, she asked, ‘Cheese? Do you have any cheese? Yeah — cheese. Okay good. Help me chop — you want slivers, that way they melt easy. And get me a big bowl for the popcorn. Careful with the bag’s corners. Okay. So now we pour the cheese like this — voila!’

 

Orange stripes sagged and stretched in the corn’s steam.

 

‘My magic anti-sadness recipe.’ For three hours, they watched Captain Cretaceous. Jenny watched properly, leaning forwards. She didn’t talk over the dialogue, and she laughed when he laughed. And the flicker of rocket ships on-screen glanced on the cheese. It was nice.

 

His mom came home early. In the low light of the TV, Marlow and Jenny’s fingertips glistened with cheese.

 

‘Mom. I thought you had a thing tonight.’

 

‘I came home to get changed.’

 

‘We’re doing a cultural thing,’ he said pointing to the screen where Captain Cretaceous was arm wrestling Dr Diplodocus.

 

Marlow again wondered about the whole real people idea. Meisner was supposed to make you less wrapped up in yourself. But he wanted to be wrapped up in himself. He didn’t want to see the awkward stiffening of Jenny’s shoulders. He had no need for his mom’s worried stares, as if he were a co-star whose motivations she didn’t quite get.

 

After Jenny left, his mom said, ‘No, don’t go to your room. Family talk.’ She always called it family talk, as if there were more than two of them.

 

‘So they’re asking me to be in this big outback movie.’

 

‘That’s great.’

 

‘Well, I’m the Mom so not that great,’ she said. ‘Urg. No, I didn’t mean it like that.’

 

‘It’s fine. I know. You’re my mom. You like it.’

 

‘But the director, he’s really smart, and he takes care of all his people.’

 

‘That’s cool.’

 

‘They’re asking me to go to Australia.’

 

‘Bring me back a kangaroo.’

She swung open the fridge and pulled out a pint of Fossil Fuel — his ice cream.

 

‘It’ll be a couple of months. You could come out to meet me for Thanksgiving?’

 

‘I can’t go to Australia for a long weekend, Mom. Anyway, we have rehearsals for the Christmas play.’ He didn’t know his part yet, but he’d get one. He could feel it. ‘Anyway, you missed last Thanksgiving and it’s not like another one is going to make that much difference.’

 

She began, reckless of her manicure, to pick out the chocolate dinosaurs.

 

‘Mom, don’t do that.’

 

‘Do what?’

 

‘Eat my ice cream; it’s not in your diet plan.’ Her diet plan was tacked up on the fridge under his last school report. They still used the alphabet magnets scuffed white in places by his baby teeth.

 

‘Maybe I’ll just eat all this ice cream. I’ll get fatter and fatter and fatter. I won’t have to be in any more fucking movies.’ She pulled a spoon from a drawer and began to shovel in earnest. ‘You and me, we’d go live in Vermont near Grandma. I could teach you how to shoot a deer. You’d like that.’

 

‘Not really. I’m a pacifist.’ Even though he knew better, he added, ‘You could just quit.’

 

‘Maybe I will.’ She wouldn’t.

 

Sometimes he wanted to tell her a lot of kids at his school had famous, busy parents. She was doing fine. She came to parent-teacher meetings and gave him granola bars. She bought books with titles like How to Create Confident Boys, Being the Man of the House, The Masculine Heart: Sons & Husbands. She kept the dog-eared copies in her bathroom.

 

‘Whatever, Mom. You’re going, so go.’

 

In his room, the computer had a message from Steph, and for once she wasn’t being a bitch at all. For a bit, he forgot his mother’s expression, spoon hanging from her mouth as if she’d been impaled on it.

 

‘So is the kid smart?’ The Accountant asked.

 

They lay in bed, sun coming in through his slatted blinds. It was Saturday morning, outside someone was mowing a lawn; machines were probably humming against grass across all of America. In half an hour, she’d have to get up, drive home, change, drive to the hospital, and sit beside her brother. She’d sit in that stupid chair and think about how they’d barely talked when he was conscious. Before he got sick, they’d mostly communicated when he sent her the strange silent movie shorts that he was making as part of some film school project. And before that? She rowed back through five years. When Franklin was Marlow’s age, she’d been too enmeshed in her own teenage pain to deal with her geeky brother. She was tired of the what-ifs. What if she’d been kinder? What if she’d hung out with him more? He’d still be in that fucking hospital. And somehow that hurt the most. Nothing she had done or would do made any difference.

 

Maybe she could ask Marlow to ask his mom for her signature. But that wouldn’t be fair. It would put him in a position.

 

‘Jenny?’

 

‘I suppose. Average, I’d guess. I mean we’ve been going for three months. But he keeps missing class for rehearsal.’ She didn’t say that at Marlow’s age her brother just saved up enough to buy his first video camera. It was a hulking thing that squatted on his shoulder like an extra limb.

 

‘So do you like teaching?’

 

The only good part of her week was when Marlow got it. The triumph that zipped along his lips made her feel like she was finally doing something. Speaking a foreign language was like learning piano. The student learns finger stretches, notes’ names, and the interval names. None of which are music. Then, a melody tumbles out, and this impossible noise can be created again and again, easy as blowing a kiss.

 

‘It’s nice. Teaching him, I mean. He’s a good kid. Thanks for sending him to me. Or me to him, I guess.’

 

The Accountant reached out and touched her face.

 

‘What was that for?’ she asked.

 

‘I was being affectionate. To my girlfriend.’ He was smiling. His teeth were bone china white. She wondered if they were real. ‘Who I’m lying in bed next to.’

 

‘Oh,’ she said. ‘We finished all the Dinonauts episodes. So I brought him this other show. It’s about a virus that teaches machines to love.’ Soon she would have to get up and email her parents. She needed to filter the doctor’s report for her parents’ consumption. The problem was that filters end up covered in grit and slime.

 

‘Honey?’ she asked The Accountant, sampling the sweetness of the word.

 

‘Yes?’

 

‘Have you ever asked one of your clients for an autograph?’

 

‘Are you kidding? My clients are confidential. It would be,’ he paused, seemingly unable to come up with an adequate word, ‘Unprofessional.’

 

*

 

A long pale hair stuck to the sink. Jenny ran her fingers along its ridge. She held it up to the bathroom light. It must be Astrid’s, Jenny thought as she teased the hair between her thumb and forefinger. Astrid’s white hair, plucked out to maintain her perfection? Jenny considered bringing it to her brother and laying this relic at his bedside. But there was something ill about this offering and there was enough sickness circling Franklin. She laid it back down.

 

Back in the kitchen, Marlow ate his sandwich from the corner, fitting the maximum amount into his mouth at once. He ate hunched over the multigrain pita, pushing and folding it inside. And then Marlow was gone and she could see only Franklin slamming down dinner so he could get back to his room to — to do what? She couldn’t even remember. Her brother was alive and she’d already begun to forget him.

 

‘Marlow, are you listening?’

 

‘Yes, Kanji are picto —’ He paused to scrape a flake of tuna from between his teeth. ‘—graphic. And when you add them up they make words.’

 

Jenny explained to Marlow that worry is heart + exile, or to worry is to have a heart in exile. And exile is made up of drink + stop. So worry is a thirsty heart.

 

‘Sounds like a band from the ‘90s.’

 

Jenny had looked up Astrid’s signature online. Over the i Astrid always drew an eight pointed star. Franklin would like to know that fact. Her brother would probably never be able to open his eyes to see the scribble. But what if he did? Wouldn’t that be worth staying awake for?

 

‘How do you say I love you?’

 

Marlow had all the delicacy of a child still. His eyes took up too much of his face. His skin was so smooth that it appeared poreless. Who was he trying to say I love you to?

 

‘What sort of love?’

 

‘Like —’ He took a glug of his mineral water. ‘Like for a girl.’

 

‘Well, that’s a bit complicated. So you obviously know that suki is like. And that dai suki is big like. So that’s what most Japanese people would say. Ai also means love, but up until the twentieth century it was a mostly sexual word. So people would feel funny if you said that to them.’

 

Marlow ran a finger around the mouth of the San Pellegrino. ‘Cool, thanks.’

 

‘Why is it that people always want to know how to say My Name Is and I Love You, the first time they learn a language?’ Jenny said, half to herself and half to Marlow.

 

‘People want the person they’re fucking to know their name?’

 

‘Marlow — That is not how you talk to your teacher.’

 

Sumimasen sensei.’ He was grinning at her and it was such a kid-smile, so guilty and happy, and ready to be forgiven.

 

‘So if the word for love is daisuki, put together the sentence. I love, what’s this person’s name?’

 

Marlow looked panicked for a moment and then grinned, pulling his sunglasses down over his face, and said, ‘Please direct your questions to my press manager.’

 

‘Can you repeat that in nihongo?’

 

‘Fine. Watashi wa Steph-san wo daisuki desu.

 

‘Close. Steph-san ga not wo. So, this is the same Steph?’

 

Marlow underlined the date in his workbook. ‘Well,’ he said. He peeled a hangnail, leaving a bright lick of red on his index finger.

 

‘You should put disinfectant on that.’

 

‘Don’t be a mom.’

 

‘Okay then. Let’s get back to kanji.’

 

‘I mean okay, yeah, I guess. I think we’re back together.’ He made air quotes over the together. But, the pause between the to and the gether sounded more like shyness than sarcasm. What did together mean for this child? Making out? Holding hands? Drinking together? Together was such a weird word. She was together with The Accountant. But she saw him so little. Weekdays, Jenny worked. Monday, Wednesday and Friday weeknights, she taught Marlow. Saturdays were hospital visits. She and The Accountant were together on Sundays. The hours looped like a set of vocab cards. She liked it that way; if time were a loop, her brother would live forever.

 

But there was Marlow, the hangnail still flapping from his finger, getting older, breaking up and getting together. Jenny handed him a pencil. ‘The kanji for together is the word for one and the word for string. One string.’ And she wrote  一緒 on his workbook.

 

‘So Steph said I could go to her place for Thanksgiving. Because Mom’s going to be away.’ Marlow had considered staying home. He was used to eating alone. Did they serve marshmallow-sweet-potato bake in rehab? Or was that too sinful? His dad’s mandated time had ended a month ago, but apparently he thought it would be safer if he stayed there. Splayed in the suede sofa, Marlow thought you had to be some special kind of fragile to find this house unsafe. But, he didn’t need to think about that shit.

 

‘That’s nice,’ Jenny said.

 

‘But her mom’s vegan and like I don’t want nut-turkey.’ It even sounded gross. But then again, if he went Steph might finally let him take her jeans off.

 

‘You only just got back together. So maybe you should give nut-turkey a chance?’

 

‘But she’s such a bitch.’

 

‘Please stop calling women bitches, it’s degrading.’

 

‘I don’t call women bitches. You aren’t a bitch. Steph just is a bitch. Like she was telling the whole lunchroom that she was just too endowed to be a catwalk model. She was squeezing her tits together like this.’ He paused to demonstrate. ‘At Jake. And everyone knows Tiff, Jake’s girlfriend, is flat.’

 

‘Marlow — I —’ She sighed. ‘Japanese. Marlow, your mom is paying me to teach you Japanese. So if we’re going to talk about your ideal Thanksgiving I’m going to need you to do it in nihongo.’

 

Nikku wo tabetai da yo.’ I want to eat meat.

 

Jenny’s phone began to scream.

 

‘Sorry, I’ve got to get this.’ She grabbed her phone and walked into the vestibule. Marlow lay back, listening to the muffled lilt of Jenny’s voice in the hall. Who would she spend Thanksgiving with?

 

She walked back into the room, pushing her bangs out of her eyes. Her face had the same exhausted despair that the refrigerator light always cast in his mother’s eyes.

 

‘I have to go.’

 

Doko desu ka?’

 

‘The hospital.’ She was halfway into her windbreaker. ‘Tell your mom she doesn’t have to pay me for today.’

 

Jenny hadn’t even assigned him homework. They were shooting his scene tomorrow, and he felt jittery. Like, he’d been in the background of other scenes. But this was the big one. His mom wasn’t in it. She’d already left for Australia. It was just him and the lake. You can’t Meisner method a lake.

 

Jenny normally distracted him from that. Marlow shoved his phone in his pocket, grabbed some cash from the fruit bowl, and followed her. He wasn’t stopping her from seeing her brother.

 

Jenny didn’t look pleased, as he threw himself in the passenger side. ‘Lots of the kids get lessons on the go, when we’re doing location work.’

 

‘This isn’t. Oh, you know what, never mind,’ she said, sounding just like his mom when she decided he was too young to understand.

 

The Nissan was cramped, and the front seat was covered in Japanese comics, romances mostly. He swiped them aside. Illustrated girls fell to the floor, tears static on their cheeks. There was no legroom.

 

Jenny stared at the road as if it’d done something to her. She’d turned the radio on, and it was playing country music. She hated country music. Likes and dislikes were staples of beginning a language, and so he knew that Jenny hated country music, babies and hospitals. The people in their textbook were always going to the hospital because they had eaten bad shrimp.

 

Marlow looked out the window at the static cars. He waved at a little girl, in the back of a pink Toyota. She stuck out her tongue.

 

He flicked the radio station. News, News, Sugar Pop, Witch Punk, Pop, Pop…

 

‘Stop that.’

 

In the SUV he rode to school he could see over the humped traffic. In Jenny’s low-slung machine, he was stuck staring into the backside of a Chevy. He read again and again a sticker that said, ‘My kid’s in the movies. Fuck the Honor Roll.’ Marlow doubted that the kid was anyone major; the windows were untinted. This was the first time in a long while that he’d looked through clear glass.

 

*

 

Jenny’s parents lived in Michigan. Franklin had fallen ill during term time. The family had deliberated whether to bring her brother back from LA, but didn’t want to risk moving him, and so they’d left him to his older sister’s supposedly capable hands. Her fingers felt too achey to be capable. She twisted the silver bangle The Accountant had given her around and around.

 

The nurse was wearing floral slacks and rubber sandals. She could’ve been dressed for a seniors’ cruise. The make-up ladies at the mall looked more professional in their white coats.

 

‘His fever’s gone down. We think he’s out of the danger zone. The doctor will be with you shortly.’ Shortly never meant soon.

 

There were six beds in the room, divided only by thin blue curtains. It was a navy blue, and Jenny wondered if it was supposed to make residents imagine that there was some port at the end of the long painful voyage of life. Probably not, it had probably just been the cheapest. Her brother was the youngest by decades, although the process had aged him. His face looked unnatural, like a computer simulation of how he would look as an old man. He was no longer chubby. Somehow she always forgot about the weight, the 25 per cent of her brother that was now what? Heat energy? The vibration of air molecules? Parts of him were already untouchable.

 

She looked at him and played the giving-up game. To make her brother well she’d give up: her savings, her legs, Japanese, English, all the flights out of LA, and all the highways, too. Then came the little things: the fingernails that her manicurist said were ideal and nobody else noticed. The schadenfreude of seeing beautiful women smoke and knowing what it would do to their skin, their teeth, their lungs. Hot showers. Cold showers. Rain. Sky.

 

Through the plate glass window the flat blue sky looked like the swimming pool behind Astrid’s house. Jenny wanted to dive into that sky.

 

Marlow had pulled up an orange plastic chair and was staring at his phone. Jenny wanted to smack him. She stepped forwards, about to tell him to turn it off. Then she saw he was on WebMD. She’d spent so many hours in that electronic waiting room with the words crawling over her skin like so many lice. Marlow was trying to understand. She wouldn’t list the symptoms or the possible causes or the probabilities. The hour of the lesson had passed in traffic. She was on her own time now.

 

‘Come here. I want to introduce you to my brother. Marlow this is Franklin, my little brother. Franklin this is Marlow,’ she said. ‘Astrid’s son. You know — the Astrid.’

 

‘Hi,’ Marlow said.

 

Her brother’s face remained still and slack-skinned. The pale pimple on Marlow’s right nostril was fatter with life than her brother’s whole body. She hadn’t been expecting a miracle and still its absence hurt.

 

Before Jenny understood what he was doing Marlow was shaking hands with Franklin. Franklin’s hand was spotted by small scars from set-work and pale from sickness, while Marlow’s was smooth and sun-smoothed. But in proportion they could’ve been from the same body. Long fingers, short nails, big knuckles. She wanted to slap Marlow for the simple sin of being alive. And then she was slugged by all that might happen to him before he too was nineteen, all the accidents he’d have to swerve to avoid, all the misses, near-misses, and hits that came with each year. Her throat was clogged with life and death and so she just sat with the two boys and the hum of the hospital. At least she’d brought Franklin this. The child of a star had to beat an autograph.

 

None of the patients noticed them leave. They were too busy cradling their own pains. A girl, just out of seventh grade, blushed when she saw Marlow, didn’t know why, and quickly felt awful because her dad was sick and how could she be warmed by the flinty angle of a cheek?

 

‘I’ll drop you home,’ Jenny said when they reached the doors to the parking lot. ‘But you’ll have to tell your mom I didn’t make you come.’

 

Marlow thought he should probably say something about the brother. But he wasn’t sure what. The boy’s palm had been warm. The whole hand had felt so normal.

 

Leaving the hospital the sun always felt too bright and Jenny squinted, as voices and cameras seethed towards them.

 

‘Marlow, Marlow, are you sick?’

 

‘Is it your dad?’

 

‘Did he OD again?’

 

‘How’s the movie going?’

 

‘Marlow, where’s your mom?’

 

‘Smile, Marlow.’

 

‘Smile!’

 

Flashes obscured the photographers’ faces. The flutter of light had always been there as Marlow grew up. He wasn’t surprised to find paparazzi outside the hospital any more than it surprised him to find them outside his school, on his vacations, at the mall, on his Boy Scout retreat. Anyway, no press question could be worse that the doctors asking his father, ‘How many pills? How many pills did you take?’ Marlow and his nanny had been the only two people home when it happened. Had Jenny read about it? Seen the photos of his dad, all greasy-haired and stubble-mouthed? He turned to her. She’d pressed her face into her elbow. She leaned back on the heels of her canvas sneakers; the rubber toes were ragged, buckling at the edges.

 

She was a civilian. Of course, she didn’t know how to deal with this shit. He pulled her towards him, turning her face from the cameras, but he misjudged and she was closer to him than he’d intended. They were the same height. Her eyes were hidden, but Marlow could see her unwhitened teeth biting into her chapped lower lip. She was shaking. The photographers were still shouting, but Jenny dropped her arm, as if giving up. Her eyelids shuddered, and her pupils dilated. This close, he could see her irises were the gold of buttery popcorn. He kissed her.

 

Cameras still snapped at their feet, but now it was too late to hide. Living in LA so long Jenny had seen the paparazzi, always on the other side of the street. They were guys with baseball caps, and badly fitting jeans. They had paunchy bellies, and Dunkin Donuts coffee. She never thought they’d be aimed at her.

 

Marlow was only fourteen. He knew how to speak in the present and the future, but still had a shaky command of the past tense. She didn’t have to reread her contract to know she was fired. She’d never know if he made it all the way with that girl. It was the end of popcorn.

 

It was too hot and too bright. Snow, she thought. Snow. She’d go somewhere with snow. She’d heard that in Hokkaido they build giant snow structures — dinosaurs and cartoon characters, temples and palaces. Each spring the snowscapes melted and the next winter they build the world from scratch again. She couldn’t look at Marlow, didn’t want to look into the bright lights of the cameras, and so she tilted her head up, up, at the place where heaven was supposed to be.

 

Franklin would die a week later. The hospital wouldn’t call her in time. During movie funerals, it rained. In novels, it was ironically arid. But she wouldn’t recall anything about the sky the day they buried her brother. She was too focused on the crisp edges of the stone. So in her memories it was that sky that hung over his granite oblong.

 

Back in his room, Marlow blamed it on the instinct to cut to the credits. A kiss at the end of the movie can compensate for any sickness, any loss. Was it his fault he was raised on magic-movie kisses? It was just the two dry mouths glancing against one another. It was the sort of kiss he’d seen fathers give their daughters. That’s how he’d explain it to his mother. Later, alone in his trailer, he would wonder if the pity he felt was real. Sincerity seemed more and more like a Photoshop filter. Later still, by the lake, when his character looked down into the water, Marlow would see his reflection and try to understand the rippling boy. The director would pat him hard on the back after that take. It turned out you can Meisner a lake.

 

‘I’m sorry. Sumimasen,’ he would say to the dark water. She’d hugged him. The sun had run its hot tongue over their scalps and the tops of their ears. The cameras had gnashed their lenses.  But as long as she could, Jenny had held on.



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


is the author of the novel Harmless Like YouHer short work has appeared in GrantaGuernica, The Guardian, The Harvard Reviewand NPR's Selected Shorts


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