Better Nate Than Ever
I’d rather not start with any backstory.
I’m too busy for that right now: planning the escape, stealing my older brother’s fake ID (he’s lying about his height, by the way), and strategizing high-protein snacks for an overnight voyage to the single most dangerous city on earth.
So no backstory, not yet.
Just . . . fill in the pieces. For instance, if I neglect to tell you that I’m four foot eight, feel free to picture me a few inches taller. If I also neglect to tell you that all the other boys in my grade are five foot four, and that James Madison (his actual name) is five foot nine and doesn’t even have to mow the lawn for his allowance, you might as well just pretend I’m five foot nine too. Five foot nine with broad, slam-dunking hands and a girlfriend (in high school!) and a clear, unblemished face. Pretend I look like that, like James Madison.
I do, except exactly opposite plus a little worse.
By the way, despite our tremendous height gap, he and I weigh the same. The school nurse told me that once: “James Madison was just in, before you,” she said, grinning like her news was a Christmas puppy, “and you weigh the exact same!” This is the one attribute at which I’m not below average: body heft.
Oh, and I already knew that James Madison was in the nurse’s office before me that day, because we’d just passed in the door frame, and he licked the Ritalin crumbs from his lips and lunged at me to make me scream a little.
I screamed a little.
Luckily, I picked a good key and turned the shriek into a melody, walking into the nurse’s office humming a tune. Life hasn’t always been easy (my first word was “Mama,” and then “The other babies are teasing me”), but at least I’m singing my way through eighth grade, pretending my whole existence is underscored.
There. There’s your backstory. I was always singing.
Not that there’s any evidence. My parents weren’t very good about documenting my childhood; my older brother got all the video footage, including his first seven poops. By the time I was born, disturbing the tranquility of Anthony’s remarkable career as a three-year-old wonder-jock, the video cameras were fully trained on his every sprint, gasp, dive, and volley.
Those are sports terms. Reportedly.
So I always sang, not that there’s any proof of it. No high-res shots of little Nate Foster scurrying around the Christmas tree, belting “Santa Baby” in a clarion, silver soprano.
That’s just my imagination of my voice. Again: Nobody ever recorded it.
But I’m getting off track—you’re distracting me—and there is a lot to do.
“No pressure, but if you pull this off, you are going to be my hero forever.” This is Libby, my best friend for as long as I can remember (two years and three months, specifically, but I hate when stories are hampered by math). Libby’s standing in my backyard tonight, lit only by the moon. Although it might actually be the neighbor’s motion-activated floodlight.
“Bark! Bark!” That’s their dog. Yes, she’s definitely being lit by their floodlight.
“Libby, if I don’t pull this off and make it back home by tomorrow night, I’m dead. Like, my parents will never let me leave Western Pennsylvania again.”
I’m hugging my bookbag, which is stuffed with three pairs of underwear, one plastic water bottle (singers have to stay hydrated), deodorant (just in case I need it on the trip; so far I’m good, but I saw on the Internet that a teenager’s body can begin stinking at any moment), and fifty dollars. Fifty dollars should
be safe through at least Harrisburg, and once there, I’ll take my mom’s ATM card out and get some more cash.
Oh, yeah. I borrowed my mom’s ATM card. I’m babysitting it, we’ll say.
The plan is this: If I get money in Harrisburg, it’ll be less suspicious than visiting an ATM in our little town (unofficial motto: “48.5 miles from Pittsburgh and a thousand miles from fun”). When she gets her bank statement, Mom won’t suspect it’s me who stole from her; Harrisburg is the capital of Pennsylvania and thus must be crawling with big-city criminals.
“I’m serious, Lib. If anything goes wrong, my parents’ll never let me leave home again. Ever.”
“Luckily, they’ve never let you leave home before, either. So if you get permanently grounded for this, Nate, you won’t really know what you’re missing out on anyway.”
Unless I get trapped in New York without a hotel, in a freak late-October blizzard. Unless I finally make it back here after my trip and really do know what I’m missing out on, because I actually eat one of the famous New York street pretzels. Imagine: pretzels sold on the street! It’s as if anything is possible. Do they also sell hopes on the street? Do they sell hugs and dreams and height-boosting vitamins? Or hot dogs? I bet you they do.
Feather circles my feet in the grass, whining. I’m
sure he has to pee. Feather is so well trained (my older brother did the dog rearing; he’s not only the town sports star but a frickin’ dog whisperer, too, in addition to donating his old issues of Men’s Health to the library and also volunteer lifeguarding) that the dog only “goes” when we instruct him to. For a moment I want to believe Feather’s just sensing that I’m leaving. That he’s only whining because he’s scared. As scared as I am.
“Go, boy.” But really, he just has to pee.
Something stirs in the woods behind the house. Libby crouches down and her jeans strain at the knees. We have identical bodies, other than the obvious stuff.
“So we’re good on the alibi?” I say.
“Yes. We’re good. I’ll cover your dogsitting duties while Anthony goes off to win another track meet tomorrow. And if anyone calls your landline, I’ll pick up the phone and disguise my voice as yours.”
Libby’s being kind. We have the exact same voice already. When I order pizza, they always sign off by saying, “That’ll be thirty minutes, ma’am.”
“Let’s go over what happens if somebody tries to kidnap you,” Libby says.
“I make myself throw up.”
“That’s right.” She has theories for everything, and one of them is that if you throw up on criminals,
they’ll run. She watches more TV than I do.
“What if I can’t throw up? What if I haven’t had anything to eat?”
Libby smirks, reaching into her own bag and handing me a twenty-four-pack of Entenmann’s chocolate donuts. Nobody knows me like Libby.
“You’re so good to me,” I say. “Oh, God.” Now I’m hopping. “Maybe I should just stay home? This is crazy.”
“Don’t you think it would be crazier to stay here? And sell flowers the rest of your life?” The family legacy is a floral shop, Flora’s Floras. Mom runs it now, though we’re not making any real money. There’s nothing like a business in which your main product wilts by sundown.
“And tell me one more time,” I say, “what my New York catchphrase is? It’s—uh—Gosh, that A train subway sure is running local again. Right?”
Libby groans and takes me by the shoulders. “No, Nate. The key is to get it exactly right. The A train is running local today, what a hassle. That’s the phrase. I Googled ‘things that annoy New Yorkers,’ and I need you to trust me.” She twitches her nose, her habit when she’s nervous or certain I’m about to screw something up.
“The A train is running local today,” I say like a studious robot, “what a hassle.” I can handle this.
The neighbor’s floodlight clicks off, and for a moment it’s just me, Libby, Feather, and a sky of rural darkness, the crisp autumn air that leads to adventure. Or trouble. A bonfire that burns too hot, or a Halloween prank gone horribly wrong, or a boy-with-a-girl’s-figure getting murdered in New York City.
“Close your eyes,” Libby says. And when I do, and she doesn’t take my hand and put a treat into it—a lucky rabbit foot, once; tickets to a tour of Les Misérables another time—I sense something new is about to happen.
And just as I’m opening my eyes again, and watching her coming at me like I’m a chocolate donut, her mouth open and eyes closed and arms reaching out to me, my brother pulls his pickup truck into the side yard, high beams on full blast. Sixteen-year-olds always drive with their high beams on, to make up for their insecurity and lack of experience manning a seven-ton death toaster.
For the first time ever, Anthony has saved me from something.
“What are you freaks doing out here?” he says, slamming the truck door and turning his baseball hat around backward, rolling up a sleeve like he’s about to get into some dirty work.
“Keep your voice down, Anthony,” I say, “the neighbors are probably sleeping.”
“Oh please, Nathan,” he says, circling the entire length of his truck, inspecting it for the tiniest nick (this is a ritual). “Aren’t you usually belting out the chorus to Gays and Dolls or something around now?”
Try loving showtunes alongside an older brother who can bench-press your weight. No, literally! Before he became too embarrassed to be seen in public with me (right around when Libby dyed my hair blond), Anthony would bench-press me out back and we’d charge seventy cents to the neighborhood kids if they wanted to watch.
“It’s GUYS and Dolls,” I’m about to say, but don’t.
Libby moves away and looks at the stars, probably horrified that she was about to kiss me and got interrupted. Probably horrified that she was about to kiss me at all. “We’re hanging out here because there’s supposed to be a meteor shower tonight,” she says, lying to Anthony. I’m the only person she doesn’t lie to. “And your little brother and I never miss a show.”
I’m sweating so bad that I think this might be the first time I actually need deodorant, right here in the backyard, by the garden gnome and weird miniature Japanese bridge Mom put in when Dad had the affair.
“Listen,” Anthony says, walking over to us but stopping a full eight feet away, like we’re going to infect him with terminal jazz hands or something, “I’ve got a huge meet tomorrow, in Aliquippa. And I have to
be up at the crack of butt. So if you’re planning on staying up all night playing your theater games, howling at the moon like a couple of actresses, you might as well sleep at Libby’s. I’m serious. I’ve got to get my rest, Nate.”
Perfect. He’s playing right into the plan.
“Well, gee, Anthony, if this game is such a big deal, maybe that’s a sensible idea.”
“It’s not a game, homo. It’s a meet.”
He makes for the broken sliding screen door (years ago, Anthony wrestled me through the kitchen and out onto the back patio, smashing through the screen, ending up grounded for the first/last time in his whole flawless life) and disappears within, reemerging a moment later. “And don’t do anything stupid tonight, guys. I’m serious. Mom and Dad will kill me if they have to ID your body at the morgue.”
Anthony is supposed to be watching me this weekend, though I don’t know what parents, in their right minds, leave their gentle-souled thirteen-year-old in the charge of their girl-addicted sixteen-year-old.
This is not to say my parents are in their right minds.
Only that they’re broke. Only that they can’t afford a babysitter, let alone the special weekend Dad is treating Mom to, on account of their admittedly remarkable seventeen years together. I think Dad
was just too cheap to afford a divorce, so he splurged on a fancy hotel, someplace that probably has terry-cloth robes and heart-shaped good-night chocolates. Someplace parents like mine will renew their vows and think life can always feel this refreshed, from this anniversary night forward. Until they get home tomorrow and find that their younger son was sold into child slavery in New York City.
And now, with Anthony and Feather inside, and Libby and me alone, there’s nothing left to do but leave.
“I’m scared, Libby,” I say, choosing to pretend the almost-kiss never happened.
“Why?” Libby says, but I can see she’s scared for me, too. Or wishing she could come. Wishing she could be the co-adventurer in the fantasy she lit in the first place, introducing me to the magical escape of musical comedy. “There’s nothing to be scared of, Nate. You’re small and scrappy and can get out of any situation the world throws at you.”
Just this past week, I’d been stuffed into a locker by a seventh-grade nose picker who is shorter than I am.
“Okay, your cab to the bus station is supposed to get here in, like, ten minutes,” Libby says, walking me to my own fence. “I told him to come to the bottom
of the hill, so Anthony wouldn’t see you bailing.” What would I do without Libby? What will I do?
“What if I make a schmuck out of myself? What if I forget the words to my song?”
“You’ve been making a schmuck out of yourself for years, Nate,” Libby says. “At least this time you’ve got the possibility of being paid for it.”
“What if I stutter my name?” I always stutter my name: N-n-nate F-f-oster. Like I’m confessing to the crime of being alive.
“Let go and let God,” Libby says, “or whatever.”
“What if I lose my voice? What if—”
“Nate, just stop.” She snaps her fingers. In my face. “You’re going to sleep on the bus and arrive at nine in the morning. You’re going to ask any adult who doesn’t look like a murderer which way it is to Ripley-Grier studios, and you’re going to find a bathroom and splash down your face and try to run the hot water long enough that it steams any wrinkles out from your shirt, and you’re going to be fine.” She looks me up and down. “Do you have cough drops?”
“Do you have your water bottle?”
“Do you have your headshot and résumé?”
“Holy Dance of the Vampires, no! Dance of the Vampires!” (Instead of cursing, we shout out the titles
of legendary Broadway flops. Dance of the Vampires was an infamous musical from the early two-thousands, starring the original Phantom of the Opera actor, this time as a blood drinker. Evidently it featured an entire song called “Garlic.” Not even kidding.)
“Okay, okay, let’s not panic,” Libby says. I must’ve left my headshot and résumé at her place, last night, when this entire adventure scheme was hatched. “It could potentially be very charming to Broadway,” she reasons, “discovering a boy from off the street who doesn’t even have a photo of himself. Besides, let’s be honest about your résumé: You’ve only played a mushroom in a junior high pageant about the merits of eating vegetables.”
She has a point. Although I played the broccoli.
Also, I don’t really even have a headshot, so Libby and I just took my eighth-grade picture and blew it up, revealing my horrible skin and overuse of hair product and that blasted underbite that I always forget I have. I wonder if that’s what it’s like for people born with eight toes or a weird birthmark; if you always forget you’re different until you see a photo of yourself. This is one of the reasons I’m actually not so sad my parents didn’t document my life. This is one of the reasons I’m glad I left that picture at Libby’s last night.
The cab pulls up, and she hands me a fifty-dollar bill.
“Just take it. Your dad might be a doctor, but it’s not like he shares the wealth.” My dad is not, in fact, a doctor. He is a maintenance engineer at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center—he cleans toilets—but whenever classmates hear my dad works at the Medical Center, they just assume he’s a doctor, and who am I to ruin another kid’s dream?
“I’ll pay you back,” I say. “With interest. I’ll make this up to you.”
She looks around, checking for raccoons or stray mental patients on the frighteningly dark back road to my house, and sticks out her index finger at me. I do the same, and we touch them and smile, and she says, “Don’t forget to phone home, yeah?”
“Definitely. I’m just going to be gone for a day. I’ll be back by this time tomorrow night.”
“You better be. Your brother and parents will be pulling in at the same time, and you know he’s going to have a pickup truck full of trophies, and they’re gonna be ready to kill each other. And there’s something very, like, specific about arriving home and realizing your thirteen-year-old is missing. Even if they never notice you when you’re—you know—here.”
“You getting in, or what?” the cab driver calls out from an open window.
I look at my outfit, like maybe I’m actually dressed as SuperBoy and can just avoid this cab ride altogether.
Like maybe I could just fly to New York and avoid getting mugged in the Greyhound bathroom before I even make it out of Pittsburgh.
“Break a leg,” Libby says, hugging me and giving me a quick kiss on the cheek. “And text constantly, and here”—she thrusts a mysterious manila envelope out at me, pulled from her bag. “Take this, and don’t open it till after your audition. After they fall completely in love with you.”
“Thank you, Libby. I will.” And they won’t.
And from just above, a star blasts a trail across the night sky—like a visor of fire on Libby’s head—leaving it glowing a finger-painted smear, something human and touchable and reachable. Like maybe I could make the same kind of mark in New York, somewhere that might actually understand me.
Maybe Libby wasn’t lying about the meteor shower after all, or can sense things about the future that even I can’t.
“Get right back on the bus, after the audition,” she says. “Don’t go to the wax museum in Times Square or anything. Buy me an ‘I Heart New York’ T-shirt and then just get here. Just get back here.”
I shut the door and roll down the window. The cab smells like a dead person, what a dead person might smell like if ever I’d smelled one. I’m sure I will on this trip, if I don’t end up one myself.
“If anything happens, you were always my favorite Elphaba.”
The cab skids away, and I hold my bag close and shut my eyes and say a frantic prayer that it all goes off okay. And when I turn around to wave to Libby, she isn’t there—just that streak across the sky, still glowing.
Burnt into the Big Dipper like a dare.