The Island – Iman Hariri-Kia

It had been ten years since the Jefferson family’s last Christmas card. The picture had been taken on a December afternoon at around four PM when the sun had just began to set, creating a slight orange halo around that island on Park Avenue and 80th street. Ellie was only eight years old at the time. In the picture she’s smiling like an angel, but minutes before she had thrown a tantrum because of the white bow that held her bangs back that just refused to stay in place. She is grabbing onto Mr. Jefferson’s corduroy clad leg as he looks down at her with all the concern of a father-to-be and the confidence of the a newly employed man. His arm is around Mrs. Jefferson and her face is flushed, a shade of red brighter than her bulky Christmas sweater, which hides the baby bump that in 6 weeks will become her son Thomas. His hand grazes her newly inflated breast, which a little five-year-old Sam’s head barely reaches. The picture is unadulterated all American Beauty. Their happiness is intangible. It offers up a vision of living in New York City that seems possible, attainable. At least it did 10 years ago. The card now sits on a mantle above the fireplace, which is never in use due to hazard limits set by the building. Every year Mrs. Jefferson attempts to recreate the photograph. But every year, a roadblock gets in her way and she fails. Sometimes Sam has a terribly difficult final, others Ellie has the most painful cramps she’d ever experienced. Regardless, by the time holiday season rolled around the family has nothing to send in the mail. Things had changed, Mrs. Jefferson feared. The children were no longer kids. Her husband was no longer a man. And that island on Park was no longer an oasis from the dangerous corruption of Manhattan.

Twenty years ago, that cross street bore witness to love at first sight, or something clichéd and wonderful. Mrs. Jefferson, Ms. Penny at the time, had been on her way to a job interview. She was to go corporate, according to her father who had been in the business sector for 45 years. She was never truly certain of what he did, and to be honest neither was he. But he made enough money to support their family and pay for a private education for his three daughters. They grew up on Park and were accustomed to a kind of life that only money can provide. Ms. Penny didn’t know the world outside of the bubble of the Upper East Side, but she knew that one existed. That was more than either of her sisters wanted to know or understand. Ms. Penny dreamed of not only seeing the world, but changing it. So what was she doing on her way to that meeting? She never got the chance to find out. Ms. Penny was in such a rush and was having so much trouble keeping her bright blue trench coat closed and her hair neatly tied up that she missed the light turn red. She kept running, right in the way of an unsuspecting yellow cab. The driver, a young 22-year- old man from Pakistan named Asif, said she appeared out of mid air, like the angel of death begging to make her case one last time. The man in the backseat, who yelled for Asif to stop right before the cab made contact, saw her as only an angel. Mr. Jefferson had never seen anything so ethereal. A struggling writer, he had considered himself a cynic and a realist. He didn’t believe in fate or any of that bullshit, but even he couldn’t deny God’s presence on 80th and park that day. He had gotten out of the cab to make sure she was all right, and it drove off with his briefcase containing every notebook, and every dollar, he had left. Ms. Penny then took him for a cup of coffee and he let down his pride long enough to allow her to pay for his scone. She never made it to that interview but a year later she became Mrs. Jefferson. Her father was thrilled; the only thing better than going corporate was being married to an executive. Mr. Penny paid for Mr. Jefferson’s desk and rumor has it that the drawers were monogrammed with their initials, intertwined in gold leaf and mahogany.

Ellie had been their firstborn, and you know what they say: you never forget your first. She had been the object of fawning and obsession. She had the luxury of wearing all the matching outfits, the cute frills and festive bows. She had
the ‘Mommy and Me’ matching shirts, the ‘I love New York’ Bib and even the Mini Me American Girl Doll. She was everybody’s little girl for three years until Sam came along and took part of the burden off her shoulders. Still, she hated feeling like an accessory, but was forced to embrace it because what other choice did she have? She was beautiful, the product of two fairly attractive people, who it appeared had combined their most competitive genes to create a force of nature. Her blonde hair was perfectly straight and her body was painfully thin, but she starved herself anyway as all the other girls did. She went to an all girls’ school for thirteen years and learned all the tricks of the trade. With a single stare she could make another girl cry. One pout and her father couldn’t help but open his wallet. She had her first kiss in seventh grade at a collegiate mixer at the Harvard Club with the son of a creator of a major television network. She knew how to pick them, even then. For the next four years she continued to kiss the right boys at the right places and made sure to lie to her friends and say it was more. But it never was more, just a few pecks here and there and a hand under her bra once in the ninth grade. She never went on dates, only to parties. One night her junior year, Jake Higgins offered to walk her home. She had sipped a few beers and was feeling limitless, so she allowed him to hold her hand and guide her back to 80th and Park. They were waiting for the light to change when he kissed her with an intensity that she had never felt before. So she returned the favor the best she could and when the light changed, they didn’t notice. They sat there on the concrete for fifteen minutes, discovering each other. Hidden by the darkness of the night, they were unseen by everyone but the few windows baring light from above. Ellie wasn’t an accessory that night, she was all that there was, and all that Jake Higgins had. So when he unbuckled his pants and pushed her head downwards, she let him. When she finally made it home at one in the morning, she didn’t tell Mrs. Jefferson a thing. She went to school the next day and didn’t gloat. And, in many ways most importantly, she never heard from Jake Higgins again.

Sam wanted to save his sister. Really, he did. But he was missing one fundamental factor: he wasn’t a girl. Not that you could tell by the way Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson raised him. They were so attached to Ellie, so in love with their foundation that raising Sam was an afterthought, done with the leftovers of all the love they had given her. His blankets had been pink, his stuffed animals bunny rabbits and Raggedy Ann dolls. When he was four Ellie was taking Ballet Classes, so the director of her production of the Nutcracker cast little Sam, far smaller than any of the other boys, as a party guest. Four years later he was still dancing, this time around with the New York City Ballet. He had no idea how things had gotten so out of hand. Sam remembered one Christmas getting a truck from his great uncle, but taking no interest in playing with it. It’s my fault, he always thought to himself, I should’ve kept that damn toy. Now there was no chance at reinventing himself, no way for him to do it all over. Manhattan was a small island, and the Upper East Side was an even tinnier community. All the boys he went to school with called him a queer. Often times he’d stop and wonder if he was, a queer or a gay or whatever they called it. He wasn’t convinced because he was constantly thinking about girls. Their long, slender legs, their perfect Form. The way that all the female ballet dancers moved with alacrity and rhythm that no male dancer could ever achieve. They flew, but Sam thumped. Was he in love with these girls? No, he came to the conclusion that it was more of a respect, or an obsession. He wanted perfection, but was stuck in the middle, the in between child. Hell, Sam was the poster kid for mediocrity. Outside the studio, he struggled to prove his masculinity. Attempting to reject the clothes Mrs. Jefferson bought for him proved useless and trying out for any sports teams was impossible; he never had the time or the agility. No girl would ever look at him as more than a partner, a vessel to make herself more beautiful. But Sam wanted to be the whole damn package. One night, Mrs. Jefferson had a dinner party for a few close strangers. After serving petite fours to her unsuspecting guests, she requested that Sam perform a short piece for some sort of post dinner entertainment. He refused, but it was no use: Mrs. Jefferson got all the guests to clap to the beat until he put on his point shoes. Sam kept a straight face the entire song, then returned to his room and cried. He packed a suitcase, grabbed a sleeping bag and left the house. Mr. Jefferson assured his guests that Sam had just gone to a friend’s. They found him the next morning asleep in the middle of that Island on 80th and Park.

Five years passed after Sam was born and the Jefferson’s became comfortable. Mr. Jefferson was now the CEO of some company. Ellie was cunning and witty for an eight-year-old girl and Sam was, well, adorable. Mrs. Jefferson felt content and at peace. Little did she know that Thomas was on the way to interrupt that tranquility and restart the cycle. Not that she was unhappy when she got the news; she was in fact ecstatic. She now had a new project to set herself aside from all other housewives and declare herself important once more. Ellie was getting to that age where she didn’t want her Mommy constantly coming to her rescue. Thomas was another perfect child, one who never cried and loved being the center of attention. He was a genius, the doctors claimed, incredibly advanced socially and mentally for his age. At five years old he balanced taking computer programming classes (basic animation, lets not get carried away) and throwing tea parties for the elite of the first grade. He was a regular Reagan and everybody either loved him or feared him. As a little boy, he had the respect of his teachers and the love of both his parents. But Thomas had a vice: he was easily bored. At only eight he had a mid life crisis, or an eighth life crisis or something or other. He claimed that his namesake, the great president of the United States, was holding him back. He was forcefully born into greatness with a name like that. If he ever failed, Thomas could just imagine what the other kids would think. “There goes the wimpier Thomas Jefferson. Couldn’t even expand America. What a pansy ass.” The thought made the young Thomas shudder, and ultimately abbreviate his name to the more appropriate ‘Tom’. Tom decided to smoke his first cigarette at the age of nine. He would sneak into Mr. Jefferson’s desk and take them from a compartment that even Mrs. Jefferson didn’t know existed. Late at night he would sit on the island on 80th and Park and smoke up with his friends, talking about politics, world hunger and the occasional 7th grade girl. A year later, in the middle of the night, the Jefferson’s got a knock on their door. “Does he belong to you?” the cop had asked. Mr. Jefferson nodded and the cop threw Tom into the house, then tossed Mr. Jefferson a pack of cigarettes. “These too?”

For Mr. Jefferson, the moment his life changed was very apparent, because it literally flashed before his eyes. As dramatic as that seemed, it was his nature to be dramatic for after all, before he was a CEO he had been a writer. It had been a year ago, on his way to work, the same path that he had met Ms. Penny on 19 years earlier. He had been standing on that very island, paying no attention to his surroundings. Why would he? Nothing about that island ever changed. Sure with spring came tulip beds and with winter came the Christmas trees, lit up as if a million fire flies had landed amongst the pine to warm the hearts of the Park Avenue residents. But the Island itself never changed, only the people that passed it. If Mr. Jefferson hadn’t looked up that very minute he would’ve missed it; but he did. The cab crashed right into the civilian, and this time, Mr. Jefferson could do nothing to stop it. He was powerless. It’s a good thing he didn’t believe in fate because it would absolutely kill him if it had been his fate to be only a bystander. For the next year, every time Mr. Jefferson closed his eyes he heard the sirens. He saw the small, slightly obese child next to him crying for a reason he was too young to understand. But the worst was the smell, reeking of blood and gasoline and crisp New York air.

Mr. Jefferson tried to make it stop. He took medication to make it stop. But the memory was like a persistent mosquito, constantly buzzing in his ear no matter how many times he swatted it away. He tried to distract himself, but suddenly his life lacked meaning. His marriage to Mrs. Jefferson felt like a ruse, or well-scripted act in a play. Did he ever love her? Or maybe he just loved the man her father had promised Mr. Jefferson could become. Mr. Penny hadn’t created a monster, but a powerless pawn. And it was Mr. Penny who would ensure his demise. Mr. Jefferson lost his job the day he was found by his father in law with the company’s secretary behind his desk. She became one with the mahogany and gold leaf and he lost himself. Mrs. Jefferson thought her husband was fired because of a deal gone wrong, but couldn’t say anymore; partly because she had no idea what he did.

80th and Park was a nexus, a place of power gained and love lost, of conflict and triumph. With Ellie leaving for college in the fall, Mrs. Jefferson attempted one last time to recreate the card. Looking at the final product, the changes were evident: the kids had grown into young adults; the Jefferson’s were now tired and gray. But then came the little adjustments that an outsider would remain oblivious to, like Ellie’s loss of innocence. Or little Sam’s lipstick or even Thomas’s existence. Or that behind Mr. Jefferson’s smile was the anxiety of divorce papers he had yet to show to Mrs. Jefferson, waiting for him upstairs. Mrs. Jefferson decided the picture simply wouldn’t do, so the family sent out the same card from ten years ago, the card that sat above the fireplace, with a note that read, “Some things are timeless. Happy Holidays, The Jefferson’s”. And so they were.

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