BY ADAM PRINCE
The distance from Tempe, Arizona to Newport Beach, California is 379 miles. At sixty miles an hour along the 10 freeway, it has taken Ted Asmund six hours and twenty minutes to get here. He has just crossed the bridge to the island and is parallel parking now. He checks his mirrors, cuts the wheel and inches back—all with a slow, deliberate precision that gives no hint as to the state of his heart, which is beating so fast it might be the heart of some much smaller animal.
Ted Asmund wears a Hawaiian shirt tucked into a pair of pleated khakis and cinched with a shiny belt. He is thirty, with short legs and a long torso combining into a medium height. He is not an ugly man exactly, but he gives off an awkward, unnatural quality that has prompted one of the students at Tempe Junior High School where Ted teaches math to call him Mr. Asimo or just Asimo after the robot built by Honda that can wave and get the newspaper. That student’s name is Casey Miller, and yesterday at detention, for reasons he does not entirely understand, Ted tried to kiss him on the mouth.
All last night and all this morning, Ted kept reassuring himself that Casey was not the sort of boy to tell, and thus, that the best thing would be to go into school and pretend nothing had happened. Ted got into his car at seven a.m. intending to do just that. But he found himself driving all the way out here to his mother’s house instead. He thought he’d call the school along the way with a madeup story about being sick, but was never quite able to do it. Seventy-five miles in, he shut his cell phone off.
It is Thursday, November 10. The housecleaners work on Thursdays, and Ted’s mother stays out doing errands until around two. But by the time Ted has himself suitably parked and out of the car, it is eighteen minutes after. He checks the garage for his mother’s BMW and experiences some measure of relief to find it isn’t there. He lets himself into the house. “Mom?” he calls out to the quiet, Pine-Soled air, “Mom?” just to be sure, before rushing upstairs to her bedroom.
The bedroom has just been remodeled for the third time since Ted moved out. The new carpet is beige shag. The bedside tables are shaped like hourglasses on which rest identical thin-screened clocks and identical vases each containing a single moist and suggestive orchid. The bed is canopied with red velvet curtains creating the effect of an altar or a stage. Variously sized mirrors crowd the walls, projecting images of the bed, orchids, vases, tables, carpet, and Ted Asmund himself infinitely in all directions.
Still, Ted doesn’t much notice the remodel, because he is staring in panic at the blinking light on his mother’s answering machine and thinking about the day he was hired, when he had written down her home phone number as an emergency contact. Eventually, he presses play, listens to a courtesy call from American Express, then to Max the jeweler reporting that the necklace Ted’s mother had commissioned is finished and lovely. That is all.
Ted lets out a breath. He checks his digital watch. He steps downstairs to the living room and takes a seat on the couch. Back straight. Hands folded. Polite though he is alone. The telephone doesn’t ring. Does not and still does not.
At two fifty-three Ted hears the garage door groan. His mother is home.
One midnight back when Ted was Teddy and Teddy was six, his beautiful young mother awakened him to announce that they were saved. An entrepreneur named Raymond Misterly was going to marry her and be his father and take them away from their one-bedroom apartment in Tempe, Arizona to his two-story waterfront house on an island in Southern California.
Teddy didn’t know what an entrepreneur was or much of what a father was, either. Still, he did know islands. Gilligan’s Island. Tom Sawyer’s Island. His mother started telling him something about her ring, but Teddy was already nearing sleep again, island-hopping his way there. Treasure Island. Fantasy Island. The Island of the Lost Boys.
Once a sandbar in a harbor, Newport Island was built up into a solid piece of land in the 1920’s, then paved over and reinforced with seawalls. It is a small cluster of wealthy, suburban blocks surrounded by a channel—a beautiful place certainly, but quite developed, and whatever resemblance it came to have to those islands that so captured Teddy’s imagination, whatever magic, had far less to do with the place itself than with the friend he met there.
Cannon appeared on the very first day the new family pulled up to the house. He was sitting on a red curb across the street without a shirt or shoes on, a boy all ready for summer.
“What is it?” Ted’s mother asks when she sees her son in the house. “Thanksgiving already? Cesar Chavez? Is that in the fall? National-Show-Up-and-Surprise-Your-Mother-without-Calling-First-Day? ”She smiles, flirtatious. “Hi, Teddy Bear.”
They hug. Ted would like to pull her close, to fall on his knees and cry into her lap, but he is careful. Hugs her lightly and pulls away.
“I just needed some time off,” he says, making a gesture toward the Hawaiian shirt. “You know how it can be.” He had bought the shirt at a gas station on the way here in an attempt at making himself appear an easygoing vacationer.
But Ted’s mother isn’t paying his shirt any attention; she is looking at his face, her eyes skipping all over it while Ted tries to arrange a suitable expression. He read in a magazine once that a happy expression is the most difficult to fake, so he thinks happy thoughts—thoughts of his childhood with Cannon. And maybe it works, because soon his mother breaks off the examination.
“Oh, Teddy,” she says, “of course I do. Now let me show you the remodel.”
Ted checks his watch again, sees that it is two fifty-five, the time the kids go home and the administration starts on the unfinished business of the day: absence slips mostly, and telephone calls. “All right,” he says. “I just need to get my luggage from the car,” and he is out the door.
Of course, there is no luggage to get, because Ted hadn’t planned to come here.
His car is a gray 2002 Toyota Echo—dependable, affordable, and fuel efficient. Ted gets in and drives away.
Restless and panicked, he tells himself to go back to Arizona, to leave right now before things get worse. Still, he can’t find the resolve to do it. So he just keeps driving around. Past the public library and the place he used to rent videos that has since become a sandwich shop. Down to the beach, back to the island, off the island and up Cliff Drive to the house where Cannon now lives with his family.
Cannon’s two young daughters run around a playhouse in the yard, yanking and slamming the front door, sing-songing mom-mee! daddee! bab-bee! while the mother herself looks on holding her baby boy. The father, Cannon, whom Ted has not seen for well over a decade, must still be at work. It is a big house, an expensive house but not at all gaudy. It is a house on a corner, and having forgotten himself, Ted has been at the stop sign for several minutes. The mother has turned to notice the car. Ted speeds away.
He drives a few more blocks before pulling over across the street from Bay Shores Junior High where he himself used to go. He is trying to catch his breath, regain his calm. The Bay Shores soccer team is just starting a scrimmage, shirts versus skins. The star of the skins’ team is an energetic, ball-hogging left forward with short, dark hair and a way of moving through the game that announces his obvious superiority. It is a nice day out, the grass bright green, and the sky wide open. And watching that game, those boys, the grace of coordinated movement, the health and physics at work, the simple, enforceable set of rules, Ted does regain his calm. For a little while, at least.