“Right now he’s in a phase where if you touch him, and he doesn’t want to be touched, he just says ‘ow.'” Lily explained, of her two-and-a-half-year-old child, PJ. To her brother, Wren, the name, short for Peter Joshua, recalled Prince John’s line in the Disney version of Robin Hood: “PJ! I like that, do you know I do? Put it on my luggage. P.J.” Lily had only just resisted giving PJ some middle name starting with B, mainly because of the family’s entreaties to spare the child of future mockery from peers, although Wren knew all too well that such prevention was impossible.
Wren’s allegiance was with Lily, evidenced, perhaps, by his progression and regression through a series of terms of enfearment for PJ, including “the ejected,” “the thing from her black womb,” “the small assassin.” After he was convicted by an episode of “Grace & Frankie” – wherein Mallory told Brianna that if she didn’t want to spend time with her kids then she wouldn’t be spending time with her – he apologized to Lily over the phone. Amends should be done in person, of course, but Lily, her husband Shane and PJ lived on the west coast, and anyway, she responded with, “you don’t have to apologize. I like all your nicknames for him.” Currently the three were staying at Lily and Wren’s parents’ house in the country for a couple of weeks, but Wren lived in the city, so he dashed back and forth, staying at the former Friday through Monday, the latter Tuesday through Thursday, and feeling like James Bond in that scene from Goldfinger, where the laser is about to slice him in half. Wren was easily overwhelmed.
However it’s easy to be overwhelmed while you’re reading the New Testament. Wren and a group of his friends were going through it together, and the further he got, the more disturbing Jesus became, particularly the passage describing that “when an evil spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.” Wren felt worse than the first. But no one was doing him any favors. Not the friend who sent an article declaring his Theology “puts kids on the street…tears families apart…[and] is a murderer.” And certainly not the friend who texted him the video.
It was a video of someone Wren didn’t recognize at first. A guy he had sporadically seen at parties for years, who was really outgoing or completely gay, and either way, adorable. Once, their interaction began to resemble flirting, so Wren said, “you’re trouble,” though in truth he was saying it to himself. In the video, everyone was on the porch, and since it was mid-Saturday on a holiday weekend in Wisconsin, they were almost definitely drinking. The friend was attempting to coach a kind of confession out of the guy, but he was resisting it with a goofy bashfulness that captivated Wren. There was an edit in the footage; the friend had stopped and started recording again. The guy seemed a little more prepared this time. With the chaste sincerity of a junior high boy, he said that he remembered Wren, liked him, would like to see him again. The video wasn’t long, but it was long enough to reach into the center of Wren, turning a knob slowly, opening something quietly.
He couldn’t watch the video again, he had to watch the video again, it seemed like The Ring, a curse that would end him; would reverse all the realizations, the repentance, the painful and tedious shuffling in the right direction he had done with his head down. It was a threat to celibacy, to recovery from approval, to a sane future. And it had come from a friend. Wren called his therapist, went over it all, went over it again. “It’s like some injured rabid animal,” he said. “It’s vulnerable, it’s dangerous, but I can’t stop staring at it. I want to come closer, but I don’t dare. To go closer is to go backward.”
Meanwhile PJ was going forward and getting cuter than ever, with red hair, an entourage of action figures, dolls and animals, an affinity for pink and black cars. Actually, he was Wren Redux, and everyone said so, even Wren, who relished in sharing with all his friends that PJ’s favorite words were “no” and “go away,” after which he would quip, “so we have that in common.” It was sort of an All About Eve situation, with Wren as Margo and PJ as Eve, and no attempts at rational thought on Wren’s part – that the child was not developed enough to be a threat, that they weren’t even in a Mankiewicz film – would shake the comparison. It was not that Wren disliked PJ. He didn’t. But he had a feeling the child was a little clone, some horrible replay, the moment when you see something about to fall and cannot form words of warning.
On a Friday, Wren closed his parents’ front door and set his bags on the carpet. Like much of south Wisconsin, they would travel north for Independence Day, to a cabin which contained the best of Wren’s childhood memories. Most of the children from then were having children now and Wren would have to sleep on the couch. Everyone was very apologetic about it, but Wren assured them the couch was the single man’s bed. And it was in a room for living.
Mother must have heard Wren close the door because she appeared from around a corner and with delighted eyes she stage whispered, “PJ discovered the dollhouse in Grandma’s basement.” Grandma had given it to Auntie, then Auntie had given it to Wren, and now it was being given to PJ. Wren followed mother to the dollhouse, which had been moved and placed onto two side tables, just at PJ’s height. She said he had circled it for hours, talking incessantly, putting the dolls in, taking them out; he was doing it now. Wren noticed the house was empty and remembered aloud: “there’s no furniture because it’s all in a box at my apartment.” PJ did not hear him.