When I first laid eyes on James, he was fast asleep. We were in the high school auditorium, at assembly. James was wearing a green windbreaker, and stuffed in its mesh kangaroo pocket was a brand-new paperback copy of Moby Dick. Even though I went to one of the most competitive public high schools in New York City, the tomes the teachers handed out were almost always ugly hardcovers covered in pen marks. I’d spend an hour with an author trying to goad me into envisioning the Fertile Crescent, or polynomials, or the world’s invisible particles, or Gatsby’s wild parties, or the intricacies of a boneless moon jellyfish. Then I’d close the book and there, on the back cover, would be sketches of genitals like some kind of peevish reviewer’s lurid blurb.
James’s book, which rose and fell with his breathing, had no such marks. I hadn’t read Moby Dick, but my father said it was the greatest novel ever written—although he hadn’t finished it. “No time,” he claimed. He worked six- to seven-day weeks managing a series of laundromats in Astoria, where we lived. Even though my father was a laundromat guy, he said that if he’d been able to finish college, he’d have become an architect. “Do you think you’d want to do something like that yourself, sweetie?” he asked me once, hopefully, and I said yes. I didn’t really know what being an architect involved. However, I liked the idea of building something as much as pleasing my father.