Sitting down, Ricky noticed his knees came out to where Jimmy’s did. One more year, maybe less, and they’d be the same height. Side-by-side the two sat on the sticky leather couch, Jimmy’s girlfriend Lisa wedged between them.
“An amazing college essay and boom, 1, 2, 3,” Jimmy said. “Fuck Queens, he’ll get into Harvard!”
Jimmy always came around with Lisa. The couple reminded Ricky of his old Animorphs paperbacks—each time he saw them, they seemed to have entered a more progressed stage of becoming the same beast. Only that this beast had not one but two mouths, and they talked to each other as if Ricky wasn’t there.
“He needs something unique to make the cut,” Jimmy said. “Like being first-generation.”
“But that’s all of us,” Lisa said.
“No, I mean first generation to get a college degree.”
Ricky peeled his skin off the couch, and it made the sound of a goodbye kiss. Jimmy looked up, the collar of his Time Warner polo bursting from where it was buttoned around his thick neck. Jimmy was a beefy twenty-two years old, but Ricky’s mother still thought of him as her baby brother so she gave him a spare key and let him eat her leftovers on his lunch break. As Ricky crossed the living room to the staircase, Jimmy’s eyes followed, and it made Ricky’s cheeks burn. Jimmy ain’t shit, Ricky reminded himself, and his skin lit up as if his bad thoughts carried with them electric shocks.
“What about a role model?” Lisa said. “Everyone has a role model.”
“A role model? Like someone famous or what?”
“It could be anyone,” Lisa said. “Someone famous, sure. Or a family member. Who knows? Anyone he looks up to.”
Ricky quickly climbed the stairs. Two months ago, when school first let out for the summer, Jimmy and Lisa looked horrified to see Ricky at home. They reheated some rice and beans and left. But the next time they came over Lisa lingered in the kitchen and Jimmy sat right down next to Ricky and asked if he knew how effective rubber air filters could be. From then on they’d started smoking together, but even through his lukewarm high, Ricky still hated his uncle’s arrogant swagger, and even worse were the Diesel jeans he always wore, whose colors and patterns were so hard to grasp. Once upon a time, Ricky would’ve thought they were cool, but that seemed like a lifetime ago.
Ricky would be a senior next month and all summer Jimmy had been bothering him about college and writing the essay. Ricky hated to admit it but maybe Jimmy was right. Upstairs in his bedroom, with his door closed, he clicked on Microsoft Word. The computer was slow to respond and Ricky was impatient with clicking, so when he finally got to typing it was on Document6. He wrote his name and the date but he didn’t know what was next. It was pathetic how hard this was. When they were younger, Jimmy would always catch Ricky looking at girls. Ricky wants to pipe! Jimmy would scream, and Ricky would be mortified when the girl turned around, her face puckered in disdain. Shut up, Jimmy, he heard himself think. He turned off his desktop and turned on his speakers. Nirvana’s Bleach flooded the room. Shut up, shut up, shut up.
Jimmy and Lisa were gone when Ricky woke up to a spit circle on his pillow that was the circumference of his own head. He had dreamed the answer; he would see Jonathan. Jonathan would know what Ricky should write about. Ricky grabbed his CD player and left.
“Look,” Jonathan said, his diamond earrings bright green from where they reflected the neon OPEN sign. “It’s one thing that I sell you whatever you want, being 16 years old. It’s another that you come, post up on that crate, and stay talking shit all night.”
“But I’m 17,” Ricky said.
“That’s not 21. Get out.”
Ricky brought two forty-ounce beers to the counter. Jonathan was tracing the hair of his chin strap. One day Ricky would grow facial hair like that too. He’d go even further, he’d grow a full beard and twist it into a point. He’d go wherever he liked and no one would dare kick him out.
On the street, the light flickered to WALK. But before he could cross, he saw a black Crown Victoria stalled outside the park entrance. Ricky recognized cops. He turned around. But aside from the park, there was nowhere to go. Jackson Heights was like a hamster maze, and Ricky was sure he had walked hundreds of miles around the same blocks, hooking left, hooking right, over and over again.
He thought of calling Evelyn, his less-than-girlfriend. But her suggestion last week had been the stupidest, and she had said it because she was still angry that he refused to take a crowded train to Jones Beach.
“I bet they have a nice pool on campus,” she said. “Write about how you wanna learn how to swim.”
The funny thing was, when he looked it up later, she was right. His first-choice college had a huge gym. At 5,600 square feet, Ricky could practically live in the pool if he could learn first to float. Space, square feet—was that what he wanted? He had his own room at home filled with his own things. If he lived on a campus, in a campus dorm, it would need to be filled. It would mean he would need more things. As he walked past the weeping cherry trees in the dark, he thought of his mother asking but what will you eat? Ricky remembered how when his father lost his job his mother stole the weekly sales circulars off the porches of neighbors. It wasn’t just the thought of an empty dorm room—the prospect of scarcity anywhere scared him.
By the time he reached home he was drunk. The sky was a mottled-gray shade of cat fur. Stars appeared half-gleaming, suggesting a row of rhinestone adhesives peeling off a vinyl purse. It was Tuesday, and soon people would be rising for work. In the silence he pictured the street’s animal hierarchy. At the top, the strays. At the center, the rats. At the bottom, the pigeons that lived in the overpass where Ricky closed his eyes as he ran home, his hands shielding his face from shit falling from the sky.
And somewhere in there was Ricky—Ricky, awake in the darkness—and then the sound of the second beer bottle clinking open. Ricky wouldn’t be in school forever, one day Ricky would be Jimmy’s age and he’d have to decide what to do in the mornings on Tuesdays. Jimmy and Lisa were always smiling, but Ricky couldn’t imagine driving a cable truck that always smelled like milk, as if the two of them were already tending to some conceptual baby. They walked around like Fred and Daphne from Scooby-Doo—a couple of idiots so entranced with each other they couldn’t see they were missing out on the actual adventure. Ricky cringed as he remembered that Jimmy used to introduce him to his friends at the park as his mini-me. But only half as cute, right? Jimmy would say. All the girls would laugh. Ricky put on his headphones and took a big glug. Shut up, Jimmy. Shut up, shut up.
He wondered if he had a spirit animal. People spent so much energy deciding the advantages between a Siberian tiger or a black hawk, but there really were only three choices. It was all just the way you preferred to move through the world: swim, fly, or run. No matter what decision he made or didn’t make, it would always come down to the same thing. You move and keep moving till you can’t anymore. People woke up and did it every day. I see others just like me. Ricky’s thoughts were less singsong than scream. Why do they not try to escape?
By the time he had gone inside and upstairs, it was nearly morning. He sat behind the computer, his eyes like wounds from wanting to close, and opened up Document7.
In April, just before Easter, Jimmy and Lisa celebrated their fourth year of dating. His parents invited Jimmy and Lisa over to cut a cake lined with four candles, as if they were celebrating a birthday. Four years seemed like an eternity—you could build a shopping mall in four years, Ricky had seen it done a few blocks from his house. In that time, Ricky guessed, you could also get a college degree.
“Hey, hey, hey! It’s Ricky!” Jimmy came through the door with all the zippers on his leather jacket rattling at once like a tambourine. “We’ve missed you, kid!”
Behind him, Lisa giggled.
Ricky moved aside to let them pass. As Jimmy went by him, he noticed that he and Jimmy were exactly the same height. After the cake was cut, Jimmy and Lisa fled to the living room to play Tekken, and Ricky followed. In the months that had passed since he sent his application, nobody remembered to ask for updates. But Ricky had an announcement.
“Well,” Jimmy said, looking at Lisa. “That’s not so bad.”
“Yeah,” Lisa said. “They’re all the same.”
“He can transfer if he wants.”
“He’ll be thankful later.”
“Every experience is what you make of it.”
Lisa planted a kiss on Jimmy’s cheek. “You give good advice, Jimmy.”
“Thanks, baby.” He looked at her hands. “Pick a character,” he said. “Let’s fight.”
Ricky watched as Lisa sat back on the couch. He waited, but the two were silent. All of that pestering from Jimmy and now Jimmy couldn’t care less. Had Jimmy known that he didn’t have a chance at those campus colleges? There was a time before Lisa when Jimmy was like an older brother and when he’d pick Ricky up from school, Ricky had to walk twice as fast to keep up with Jimmy’s long stride. He hadn’t been resentful then, but now it didn’t make sense—why couldn’t Jimmy just fucking slow down? Ricky started up the staircase, up to his bedroom, but his anger turned him around.
“Hey,” he said, his hand gripping the banister, his knuckles white. He stared into Jimmy’s face. “Your advice isn’t good. Your advice is shit. I wrote about my role model, Kurt Cobain, and I didn’t get into any of those stupid private schools. ”
Jimmy and Lisa blinked before turning back to each other. Ricky turned too, up the staircase, his head raised. So what if he stayed in Jackson Heights? There were places in war-torn countries; there were worse places to be, like wherever his grandparents were born. He heard the village they came from was named after a swamp. If they had stayed, Ricky might have learned how to swim. And then he would have nowhere to go other than in circles around a muddied lake. You only ever went as far as your cage would let you. Swim, fly, run, whatever—why would you try to escape?
Here, Ricky would find a decent job. He would find a girl who liked to have sex but also one who his parents still liked. He would live his very best life. He would buy whole ounces of weed. He would move out but wouldn’t mind staying close by, where his mother could drop off beans and rice, where he could still come over for his birthday if they ever wanted to cut him an ice-cream cake lined with ribbon wax candles. At the top of the staircase, Ricky peered into the hallway mirror and smiled. Recently, he’d taken to shaving his jawline. He’d have to be careful or he’d grow a beard soon.
Jimmy must have pressed a button on the controller just then, because suddenly the living room speakers were blaring, and the sound of a countdown began. Still, Lisa’s voice overrode all the noise.
“He’s a rock star, Jimmy! Don’t be so dramatic,” Lisa said. “People change, they grow up. Who knows? One day you might make the cut, too.”