Jase hadn't arrived from Bombay like he was supposed to, so the boy was alone in Amsterdam, at the seedy hotel: all he thought he could afford, spending his mother's money. This was when the world was still big, and anything could happen, and traveling—even to a place like Amsterdam, a civilized place—was new, and scary, and the boy didn't know anyone, didn't know where Jase was, or what had happened to him. They were supposed to meet; that was the plan. Jase was already two days late or a day and a half, really, the boy thought, talking himself down. He said these things to himself all the time: Don't be hysterical, stay calm. Cool, calm, and collected, like a man.
The woman at the desk had hair dyed the color of eggplant, permed into tight rings. She had looked him up and down, registered his uniform of jeans and jean jacket, his hand-me-down backpack, and assigned him a tiny, dark room, with what barely qualified as a window—a little square pan of streaky glass—facing the trash in an alley, and instead of protesting, he had decided it was simpler to just spend as little time in that room as possible. The day was a cafe; he read three unfamiliar English newspapers that he found affixed to dowels, hanging in a rack by the door. He read the first paper still attached to the dowel, then noticed that it was permitted to remove them and reattach them when you were done. It was too cold to wander. He read the second paper, then the third. He used them to avoid other people's glances. He ate two cheese toasties. Tourists came and went, and the boy envied them. If Jase hadn't been missing, he'd be among them, the two of them visiting museums—seeing the Van Goghs—and walking the canals, drinking sunny Dutch beers. Amsterdam had been Jase's idea; his flight home from India connected there, anyway, and he told the boy to come and meet him. The boy had felt pleased and proud—selected.
In the evening, still avoiding the depressing room, he was alone in the sad little "bar" at the lobby of the seedy hotel, drinking Dewar's (which he thought was very adult, very masculine). Just saying the words made him feel better: Dewar's, rocks. He still couldn't quite believe that people actually said "rocks"—that it wasn't just something from the movies. Each time he said those words, he felt, just for a moment, that he was going to be okay. Not just that Jase would appear and they would finally talk—though that too—but more: that he was growing up, and would act, would really do things. Become a man. There was something so decisive and strong in those words: Dewar's, rocks.
It was at the bar that the man appeared. The man was huge, with legs like hams sticking out of shapeless long-shorts, despite the January cold outside. He was an auctioneer, a professional auctioneer, which didn't seem like a real thing except that the man talked very, very fast, just like you'd expect a professional auctioneer to do. The woman with the eggplant hair was attentive; she walked back and forth between the front desk and the little bar, refilling their drinks, his Dewar's and, for the auctioneer, Gatorade, which she seemed to stock in a small fridge below the makeshift bar. The fat man, talking a mile a minute, taking dainty little sips of his Gatorade, was repulsive, but fascinating too, like a giant baby that had been left at the bar to jabber at whomever appeared.
The boy was warmed by the idea that this creature wouldn't judge him—couldn't judge him, by some law of repulsion. He thought he'd feel better if he could talk about Jase, raise the subject of his absence, his delay. And where he was, and was he okay? And beneath this, as always, was the puzzle of their long friendship, of never being sure if there was something else. But there were no breaks in which to speak; everything the man said seemed to flow out ceaselessly, with no pauses but with little loops in pitch, like an old-fashioned stunt plane doing tricks, unable to land, and that was before he passed over a little dugout packed with pot. The boy looked back to the desk to the eggplant woman for permission, but she took no notice. After a few hits, he thought the man's words were going to flood the little bar, knock over all the furniture, and press him against the ceiling. There was maybe something else mixed in with the pot. He felt sweat in his armpits, and he became aware that the enormous man was also sweating; he seemed slick, even, as though some agent of life expressed itself through his shiny skin. His hair was black and stringy, poured over his head. He was on holiday, he kept saying, waving the little chrome pipe from the dugout, but it wasn't an escape. He didn't need an escape. He was passionate—passionate!—about his work. He was talking about the things he auctioned back home in Florida: boats, jewelry, beach condos, works of art ("masterpieces"). A certain lifestyle, he kept saying.
The boy tried to put an expression on his face to confirm that he cared about these things, that he agreed they were important, but he was confused about which muscles to pull to create this impression. The man grew more enormous and more voluble.
As he got bigger, the boy got colder. It was ice-cold in the bar, and he hugged his arms around his own narrow chest; he wasn't just a boy, it was true, but he wasn't a man either. He was something in between. Waiting for the next thing to happen. Waiting was his natural state, but surely that would end soon; some hormone would kick in, and his real life would begin. He imagined what Jase would say if he were here—if he'd made it back from India and confronted this man. Jase would interrupt, amiably, confidently turning the subject to conflict diamonds, beach erosion, or classic sailboats, real boats like they used to make. And why couldn't he do this—wade in like Jase—and change the conversation? He cleared his throat, announcing his intention to speak. And then, finally—Finally!—there was a space, an inhalation and pause, and the big man waited for what would come.
"Motorboats?" he said, quietly.
"Motorboats!?" the man exploded, incredulously, and then, annunciating clearly, he said, "Motoryachts. Motoryachts and Picassos."
And he was off again. He was saying, and this is something he'd already repeated a few times, "You gotta take life by the balls." He made a gesture of reaching down to grab at his crotch when he said it, to where his own balls were, presumably, inside those great big shorts between the hams.
Each time he made this gesture, the boy looked away.
Jase should have been there instead. Beautiful blond Jase, who had been in India for months—who had left his credit cards behind, on purpose, wanting to see the real world, he said, with no money to speak of, just his smile: that way he had of making people want to help him. And why is it a rule that the people who already have everything are the ones that get taken care of? You grow up around money and people will take the shirts off their backs, give you the last of the soup. They can't believe their good fortune that brought you floating into their life. But if you're stuck on the ground, and you really need something and want it—the way he wanted Jase, if he could ever admit it, even to himself—well, that just means it's never going to happen. Desire doesn't build bridges; it builds walls.
The man was telling a story about a boat he'd sold: how it was the actual boat that they used in the credit sequence for Miami Vice.
There had been three postcards he'd gotten, back home, at his mother's house—the same address he'd known his whole life, the same rusty mailbox on the porch. One was from Kerala, fishermen's shacks floating over water in the sunrise. One was of jagged peaks, like broken ice, somewhere in the Himalaya, a string of colored flags like handkerchiefs fluttering in front. The boy imagined Jase in these places—eating crabs with the fishermen while their shy wives hid at the corner of the porch, climbing the peaks in some Sherpa's borrowed woolen clothes. How did Jase do it? Jase had crashed in his dorm room once, arrived drunk after some fraternity thing, needing to be taken care of. His shirt was missing and "bitch" was written across his chest in Sharpie. An arrow ran down his back, pointing into his low-slung khaki shorts. He had passed out immediately, fallen into the boy's bed and lain slumped over the boy's pillows and sheets—sheets he'd bought at the Ebensburg Walmart, especially to bring to college. Looking at Jase, the boy had considered getting towels and soap, to wash away the marks on his body, but in the end he'd been content to sit up, lean against the cinder-block wall, and watch him sleep. The breath in him rising and falling. In the morning Jase hadn't been ashamed, or even embarrassed. "I'm starving," he said, as clear-eyed and unpunishable as a puppy.
The last postcard from India was more of a joke: It was a reproduction from an old health guide, an illustration showing an Indian boy in an old-fashioned man's undershirt who stood at the sink on a little step stool. Underneath, in hand-lettered English, it said, "All Good Boys Brush Up the Teeth." On the back, Jase had written only, "be Good, boy." As if he needed that advice. As if he'd ever been anything but good. This last had come weeks ago, and nothing since. Nothing confirming or breaking their plan to meet, here. This was all a long time ago, before email or cell phones; there were no assurances or guarantees, and anything could happen. Back in those days the world was still big, for a little bit longer, and you were either the kind of person who went out into it or the kind who stayed and waited. But at least he'd made it this far; he'd made it to Amsterdam.
The man was snapping his fingers, bringing the boy's attention back. "Miami Vice," he said, "Miami Vice." He was laughing conspiratorially, leaning close to the boy's face and giving him the words fast, but quiet now, urgently. It still seemed cold in the bar, but the man was sweating, and the boy tried to make a mental note: to remember to ask the man what else had been in the pot. What was it doing to him?
But he couldn't interrupt. What the man was whispering, what he was explaining to the boy, with his life-by-the-balls smile, was that he skipped sixes. This was his secret. He went right up to the sixes and jumped over them, to drive the numbers higher. To get ahead.
Jase had been the one to make the plan for Amsterdam. He could have sent word, could have called the seedy hotel any time and left a message with the eggplant lady. He could have found a pay phone, or given money to a bartender to use the phone, or whatever you did in India. And if he hadn't called, then something must be wrong.
The auctioneer put on a radio voice and announced an item—Genuine Picasso Lithograph!—and started running through numbers, fast and steady. Four! Four hundred, four hundred, five! And now his voice was more like a bomber, flying low over land, level, unstoppable.
Something had to be done. What if Jase, finally, needed real help?
Five hundred, five hundred!
The boy could leave the next day. Fly to India. Lift off and find Jase.
Five hundred! Seven! Seven hundred, seven hundred. Seven hundred, eight. The bomber, heavy with the authority of the enormous man, circled for another run.
1988 Chris Craft Commander—starting at…
Forty-four hundred. Forty-four hundred, forty-four hundred. Forty-five! Forty-five hundred.
He could find the last hostel. Track down the people who'd seen him. The people who had offered things to Jase would lead him from one place to the next, across the wilds of India, while he got stronger and darker and older. He imagined Jase the way he was that drunken night—so undefended—in a hospital bed somewhere: fitfully turning under a mosquito net, insensible, having long ago lost his wallet, and his ID, on some night beach somewhere. And he would find him. Rescue his friend, and become someone.
The little bar was like an oven now. Like India itself. When had that happened? Time was racing forward, clattering on the rails with every skipped six, but moving forward and for once carrying him along. This is how the world really works, he saw: You climb on. If it doesn't slow down, you jump. Five! Seven! Eight! It didn't matter that India was big, had a billion people, was far away. That was the point! You jump. Ride.
Each time a six went missing, the boy's heart leapt, then caught up.
The auction would never stop.
Two-bed, two-bath Naples condominium…
The great world outside, outside the hot little bar was good; it was there for him.
Starting at two hundred and fifty thousand!
To chase what he wanted. Take life by the balls. Make a journey. Find him. In finding him, make it all right to say…
Two hundred and fifty! Two hundred and fifty!
To say—out loud—to anyone who might hear…
Two hundred and seventy! Two hundred and seventy!
Love, need… Desire.
Two hundred and seventy thousand!
To say it, having flown, having ridden the rails, crossed a continent, worn the soles from your shoes, and walked with bound, bloody feet; having spent your last rupee, knowing, ahead of time, with a full heart, and lungs full of animal breath, that you are worthy.
Two hundred and eighty thousand!
The little bar was too small to contain the boy.
He lurched to his feet, apologizing, knocking over the little table with the Dewar's and the Gatorade. The glasses crashed to the floor. The man who skipped sixes looked up with surprise, as if he'd never been stopped mid-count before. The boy ignored him, was done, pushed his way outside. He collapsed in the piled-high snow, beside the wall of the canal, ice-cold. It was so quiet.
It had to be at least 2:00 a.m. He held on, then remembered to breathe. He turned his attention to breathing, in and out, in a measured, careful way, as if he were already in India, meditating, at one with the world. Over the canal, the black sky was full of stars, and they wheeled around the boy, not from the motion of the planet but from whatever it was, maybe, that was mixed in with the pot. He remembered being a child and looking up at the stars back home in Pennsylvania and knowing that he mattered as much as they did; that they blinked in the night, a bajillion miles away, but that he could see them, and witness them, and that made him the center of the universe. When had that slipped away? It was back now. So, so welcome.
The auctioneer was calling from the open doorway, "You okay?" And he answered, "Yes. Yes."
After a long time, the voice said, "All right, just don't fall in a canal, kid."
Then the door closed.
* * *
The hangover lasted all the next day. By late afternoon, finally ready to leave his dark little room, he was back at the cafe, slowly sipping a large farm bowl of cafe au lait. He worried about the logistics of getting to India: finding a flight; whether he had enough money. He thought he'd be sick, felt the milk from the coffee rise to his neck and press at his throat. He walked as fast as he could—without drawing attention—to the toilets, but once there, nothing came up. Just heaving and air, an eye on the latched door.
At the hotel, the woman with eggplant hair took pity; she brought him dry toast and cold water with salt and sugar stirred in, and sat beside him wordlessly communicating the truth that she had been a mother, once. He slept fitfully, gathering his strength for the problem of India.
There was still no word on the morning of the following day, but it was bright: alternating sun and cheerful little cloudbursts. The boy walked, rallying to the sight of the organized little city: its concentric canals and bright red brick. Feeling well again, himself, he returned to the hotel to tackle the new world. The woman researched flights from the front desk while he drank bottled orange juice. But while on hold with her agency, she counseled him on the difficulty of his task, and on other, more sensible, options: calling Jase's parents, to see what they'd heard, for a start. Calling the hostels that were listed in the Lonely Planet: India, starting from the most highly recommended. They would all speak English, she assured him. She let him use the hotel phone to call United, and he was told that his scheduled return—in under a week—couldn't be modified and was nonrefundable, which, truth be told, he knew already. United couldn't be convinced that this was an emergency or, if it was, that it was his. That left him with just enough cash—his savings, hidden with his passport—to buy a discount round-trip to India. But then, depending on timing, there would be no sure way of getting home to the States from Amsterdam. Calling his own mother for extra money was out of the question; she didn't have any, and even if she did, she wouldn't know how to send it to Amsterdam. Nobody from his family had ever even left the States. So, again, that was something to fall back on: At least he'd done that, come this far. The idea of arriving in Bombay alone, knowing nobody, was too much to bear thinking about, and it was compounded by the fact that for some reason all the flights to Bombay got in after midnight. The boy knew, without quite admitting it to himself, that he might feel more courageous if he were allowed to imagine arriving in such a strange place during the day, when the sun was shining.
When they shifted from the desk to the little bar, the woman comped him two Dewar's on the rocks—"hairs of the dogs," she said, smiling at him like an old friend now. Drinking the scotch, clinking the ice in the glass, he decided that she was right. He would make phone calls the next day rather than spend his last money on tickets. Just in case. It was only sensible, and he told himself that he'd never find Jase if he didn't keep his head.
* * *
The boy was on hold, on the phone, sitting at the front desk, looking and feeling as if he'd taken a job at the seedy hotel and might never leave, when he saw Jase walk in, all smiles. He quietly put the heavy phone back on the receiver. Jase's white teeth beamed, his blond eyelashes and blond eyebrows newly visible against his dark tanned face. He was a negative from photography class, the light shining under the enlarger. He wore a bandana around his neck, but no sweater, no overcoat. No good sense. The attitude—which he always wore—of having no use for good sense shone from him. He apologized, saying, "Dude, I am so sorry. Dude." But the boy wasn't angry, just relieved to see him—relieved that the weight of adventure, the obligation to search—had been lifted from him.
Jase had stories of all his adventures: near misses, rickety bus rides along ravines, saints and beggars on the road, binges on illegal alcohol (a pilgrimage trail where even beer is forbidden), getting scammed at Varanasi, the sacred dip—a long swim, actually—in the Ganges, and the diarrhea that followed ("I thought it would never end, bro"). The woman with the eggplant hair listened discreetly from the desk, pretending to read. In the end, without prodding, Jase told about the girl: the hippie chick from Goa who he met on his second-to-last night, the one who kept him there, and how they went all the way on a beach in Bombay where local couples, away from their parents, whispered, held hands, and made secret plans to get married.
The boy told him his story, of Amsterdam. The story of the auctioneer, the man who skipped sixes. He made it funny, telling it to Jase. He lingered over the man's physical size, and he joked derisively about motorboats and Miami condos, and when he said, "Picassos," with air quotes, Jase laughed too. The boy didn't talk about his plan to come to India. He didn't talk about time jumping ahead, and him racing, and keeping up with it, and finding a gap, a place where he could fit in. But he told the little story well. He was entertaining. And there wasn't any harm done if he laughed at the auctioneer; wasn't the man who skipped sixes just a little bit ridiculous, anyway?