My 13-year-old niece wanted cappuccino with breakfast. She wore pink Burt’s Bees lip gloss, of which I disapproved. Also black jeans, a black sweater that showed too much shoulder for my taste and meticulously scuffed black boots. A waiter approached. He was stubble-cheeked, tousle-haired, and chisel-cheek boned. He had black eyes, very white teeth and he was looking at my niece as an especially rude wolf might regard a pork chop.
Would the young lady care for anything?
I told the waiter to give us a few minutes — maybe I said something about “backing off” — and rubbed my temples. I excused myself and walked to the bathroom. There, I telephoned my sister. Was it customary, I asked, for her daughter to start the day with caffeine?
“You want to fight her, be my guest,” my sister said.
I did not. Just 48 hours earlier, Iris had texted me from Durango, Colorado, where she and my sister lived. “Please promise you won’t treat me like a child,” Iris had written, regarding the event I had promised her since she could talk, namely Thirteenth Birthday Celebration Week in New York City with Uncle Stevie (TBCINYCWUS). Then, just yesterday, after I had texted her some of the very grown up activities I had planned for us, she had replied, “Yes, Stevie. I suppose we could hang in Times Square, but if you don’t mind, I’d rather visit Soho.” Before we left my Upper West Side studio apartment to head downtown for breakfast, Iris had looked me up and down and asked, deadpan, “Are you wearing those shoes?”
After cappuccino, we shopped. We made our way through Sephora, Top Shop, Zara, Uniglo and a lot of other stores and boutiques whose names I can’t remember, because my eyes were closing and my limbs seemed to be going numb.
“You know, Stevie,” Iris said, without even looking up, as she rubbed a sweater sleeve between her tiny fingers, with the chilly confidence and pitiless judgment of a veteran diamond merchant inspecting a rock of cubic zirconia, “You might not be so sleepy all the time if you ate a salad occasionally, or kept some fresh fruit in your apartment.”
I felt a pang in my chest. I remembered the days when one-and-a-half year-old Iris would stumble toward me screaming with laughter, then fall into my arms. I thought of barely three year old Iris tottering into my room and burbling, “Let’s make this our best day ever. ” Had I imagined those drowsy afternoons when Iris, not even four years old, would roust me from a nap with a kiss on my cheek, whispering, “I think we need to have a conversation, just you and me.”
After a subway trip uptown, I bought us pizza slices at a shop near West 72nd and Broadway, then demonstrated to Iris the proper way to curl her slice lengthwise, in order to chew the doubled up dough at the narrow end, without losing any grease. “It’s how real New Yorkers do it,” I said.
“Cool,” she said. It didn’t sound cool.
Ten years earlier, Iris’s older cousin had arrived in Manhattan from Oregon to mark his sacred passage from boyhood into teenaged hood, and after a visit to Coney Island’s occasionally lethal Cyclone roller coaster, which he had requested, I had shown him how to fold and eat pizza, and he had been impressed. Seven years later, Iris’s older brother had come for his TBCINYCWUS and not only had he liked hanging in Times Square, he had been taken with the pizza folding maneuver too.
Was there something wrong with Iris?
We walked east, past the massive Dakota apartment building, where I told Iris about the assassination of John Lennon, Rosemary’s Baby’s place in the pantheon of horror film classics, and devil worship in general. Iris’s older cousin and brother had loved the Rosemary’s Baby stuff.
“Cool,” Iris said. Again, did not sound cool.
We entered Central Park.
“Pop Quiz, Iris!”
She exhaled loudly.
“Really?” she said.
I felt like crying. Iris used to love pop quizzes. “Fire away, Uncle Stevie!” she would scream whenever I said the words, while my sister shook her head, or muttered under her breath, or, if she was feeling especially grouchy, hissed, ‘Knock it off, Uncle Stevie.” By the time she was eight, Iris could name the fastest living land mammal and the three deadliest human-eating animals on earth. All I had to say was, “How does the terrifying saltwater crocodile….” to make Iris shout, “Death spiral! Death spiral!” In kindergarten, Iris could — and would — intone, with squeaky gravitas, “Behold the snow-white alpha predator as he roams the barren tundra.” She scared some of the other children.
I reminded myself that the world-weary waiter-magnet standing beside me was the same bald, bug-eyed baby who squealed with laughter before vomiting on me the first time I held her; the same little girl who would fall asleep only after Uncle Stevie rubbed her belly and told her the tale of Rumbaba the eternally hungry but also unfailingly polite elephant.
“Yes, really,” I said. “Do you know why they call this patch of land the Sheep’s Meadow.”
Iris looked out over the oval lawn, then back at me, then back at the oval lawn.
“Wild guess. Because they used to feed sheep here?”
After a hike to the Hudson River promenade (“It’s sad that people have to run on concrete here,” Iris said) and a late afternoon slice of coconut cake pick-me-up, Iris and I took a train to Times Square, not to hang but to park ourselves in the orchestra seats I had procured for Wicked. When Elphaba, the shunned, maligned and despised green witch, refused to compromise her principles merely for the sake of popularity, and levitated in triumph, singing “I’m Defying Gravity,” I ducked and turned away in order to hide my snuffling and sobbing. From behind my program, I managed a sidelong glance at Iris. Perfect posture. Golden eyelashes. Luminous blue eyes, dry as dust.
I thought of the snowy winter morning when I had held fourteen-month Iris in my lap while we watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame on television (the black and white classic with Charles Laughton). We shared a cup of hot chocolate while blankets of snow pelted the window behind us. Gruesome but noble Quasimodo, chained outside the fabled church, awaiting the lash, endured the cruelties and mockery of the mob. When incandescent Esmerelda, defying church, state and power itself, carried a dipper of water to the hunchback, I almost broke down sobbing. When Iris, who could barely speak, sang, “She nice, she nice!” I did.
Would I ever meet that little girl again? We walked home, and while we stood at an intersection, waiting for a light to turn green, I asked how she had liked the play.
“Sort of sentimental,” she said. “A little cloying. But the actress playing Glinda? She made some really interesting choices.”
The next day, we picked out a cashmere navy scarf and a tailored black peacoat for Iris at Bloomingdale’s, shared croissants and more cappuccino in the West Village and toured a women’s magazine where a friend was an editor, and when Iris emerged from the “fashion closet” she looked like a baby seal who had been clubbed with a soft, perfumed pillow.
Then it was onto a performance of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, a play about infidelity, the killing of a dog, Asperger’s, lies, betrayal and the never-fully-healed- wounds of childhood. Iris loved it.
I gave in to her request for a late night, post-theater cappuccino. Then, at 11 p.m., she told me she wasn’t tired, and asked if we might watch a movie.
“Well, you are my favorite niece in the universe….”
“I’m your only niece in the universe.”
“Yes, but still, my favorite. How about Mean Girls?
“Bend it Like Beckham?”
A dozen or so Seenits later, I had an idea. A sad chapter in our nation’s history, but a story of selflessness nonetheless. Animated, but oh so human. Had Iris ever heard of Pocahontas? She raised an eyebrow. Had Uncle Stevie ever heard of cultural appropriation?
Uncle Stevie was, again, suddenly very tired. But Uncle Stevie had an idea. New York City-centric. An empowered female lead. Romance. Music. A happy(ish) ending.
“What about Breakfast at Tiffany’s?” I asked.
“The one with that old dead actress? Katharine Hepburn?”
“It’s actually Audrey Hepburn, and some of it takes place at Tiffany’s, which is not far from here.”
“Oh, yeah, mom really likes that one. But once I heard Nana say she thought it was inappropriate for me. Let’s watch it!”
“Well, Iris, the thing is, the movie is based on a book, a really great book, by a really great writer, named Truman Capote, who loved New York City, even though he wasn’t born here, but when they made the movie, they changed the main character, whose name is Holly Golightly, from a…well, Holly Golightly was really a free spirit, she savored life, I think you know what savored means, right? And, well, she went on lots of grown up dates and had more than a few boyfriends and….”
Uncle Stevie was sweating even though it wasn’t hot in his apartment.
“Stevie,” she said, as if she were explaining multiplication tables to a particularly dense fourth grader, “I know what a prostitute is.”
At nine a.m. the next morning, I marveled at how guileless my niece looked with her eyes closed. I pictured her at four years, when I could still place my palm on her forehead and tell her what she was thinking by telepathic means (It usually involved ice cream, candy and Princess Barbie) and make her believe me. I settled at my computer, where I searched for “sophisticated things to do with sophisticated teenagers in Manhattan.” At about 9:30, I heard stirring.
“Good morning, Iris!” I said. “Are you ready for another fantastic day in the greatest city in the world?”
She stared at me. Unblemished skin. A soul unmarked by betrayal.
“How’d you sleep, Iris?” I asked.
Iris continued to stare. I tried to remember how long it took for a 13-year-old to gain consciousness when waking up.
“Iris?” I said.
“God, Stevie,” Iris said, “you still use Firefox?”
Over nova, onion, eggs and bagels at Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King, I outlined some of the places we would visit that day: Tompkins Square Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, The Museum of Modern Art….
“Let’s skip the library,” Iris said.
“But you read four books a week,” I said.
“But I don’t like libraries.”
“Your mom put it on the list. She made me promise.”
“It’s my list. It’s intrusive of her to be putting stuff on my list. It’s not respecting my boundaries.”
I again lamented the passage of time, the steady accumulation of hard truths, how sweet, credulous toddlers inevitably turned into moody, rebellious adolescents. I realized that since I met Baby Iris, I had trudged almost a decade and a half down a crowded yet lonesome road, a one way path that led straight to wormfood. Or merciless judgment. Maybe both. I shoveled a forkful of nova and eggs into my mouth. For both our sakes, I had to resist such dark thoughts. I had to focus.
“I know, Iris, and in principle I agree with you, but…”
“Besides, Stevie” Iris said, “Didn’t you promise Mom that in principle I’d be asleep by midnight every night, too? How do you think Mom would feel if she knew how that worked out, and how you got me to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s?”
I chewed my sesame bagel. Iris chewed her poppy bagel. My sister had warned me that her daughter was tough. But I’d had no idea.
Less than three feet from my face was the little girl I had loved more than any little girl in the world, and she was changing — had changed — into someone I didn’t know. Should I simply have let her be. Yes, of course. I should also eat salad more often and keep fruit in my apartment.
“Pop quiz,” I said, after a sullen march to and through the library. What was wrong with me? The older I get, the more life confounds.
A sigh from Iris, which I tried to ignore. Teenagers want to be challenged. I had read that somewhere.
I wondered, I said. Could Iris name the robber baron who donated a large chunk of his ill-gotten gains to build not just the main branch of New York City’s public library, but more than 2500 libraries in every state in our great land?
“I’m out of school this week, Stevie. Can we please just stop with the pop quizzes?”
On the final day of TBCINYWUS, before we headed to Laguardia, we took a stroll through Central Park.
We wandered through the forested pathways of The Ramble. I asked if Iris knew the origin of the phrase “There are eight million stories in the Naked City.”
”Do you know where we are, Stevie?” she asked. “Because it seems to me we’re lost.”
After about half an hour of hiking (yes, we were in fact lost), we passed one of my favorite statues and I understood. It wasn’t that Iris had lost her love for pop quizzes, it was that I had been giving her the wrong pop quizzes, at the wrong times. Sheep’s Meadow? Too obvious. Iris’s teenaged pride had probably been insulted. The Naked City? I might as well have asked her about the dining habits of ancient Babylonians. The Andrew Carnegie question was fair, but I had asked it during a trip to the library. Who could blame her for refusing to play along?
We stood at West 72nd street and the outer road of the park, at the base of a 12-foot bronze man. It wasn’t the pop quizzes that were the problem. I had simply failed to tailor them to my niece. I knew she liked history. Understanding Iris made me feel good.
“Final pop quiz!” I shouted. Did Iris know who that larger than life figure was?
“Seriously, Stevie,” Iris said.
“Here’s a hint: One of our nation’s great orators. But a complicated man, because tragically, when it came time to take a stand on a critical moral issue, he….”
“I don’t know!” she screamed. “I don’t know! I don’t know!”
We trudged toward my apartment in silence. I couldn’t let her trip end like this.
“Iris,” I said. She grunted.
What would happen if one of your teachers asked you a question and you didn’t know the answer to it?”
“That wouldn’t happen.”
Uncle Stevie was so tired. So very, very tired.
“Well, what if she said, in the middle of English class, out of nowhere ‘Okay, Iris, what’s the square root of 64 times three?’ Huh? Then what?”
Now I was shouting. I try not to think of that moment.
Iris repeated what she said before, but more slowly, sans contraction, as if she were speaking to a friendly but unusually stupid pet turtle.
“That. Would. Not. Happen.”
“Okay, but if she ever did ask you a question you did not know the answer to, and you actually did say “I don’t know,” you could say it two ways. One would be a neutral “I don’t know,” which would simply indicate a lack of knowledge and a statement of fact, maybe even a willingness or eagerness to know.”
Iris was studying the pavement.
“Or you could say it like you said it.”
Here, I adopted a sneering, whiny voice that to this day makes me flush with shame. And then I imitated my 13-year-old niece screaming, “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“And if you do that, the adult will probably think less of you. And you’re such a great kid, and you’re going to be a great adult. You don’t want people thinking less of you for silly things like your tone of voice, do you?”
Iris had narrowed her eyes. Her cheeks were pinker than usual.
Where was the laughing child I had known, the little girl eager to join every one of Uncle Stevie’s schemes — whether it involved a funnel cake eating contest, hypnotizing Sam the family dog or making hippo sounds? Where had she gone?
Iris seemed to be looking for something, too. Was it the patient, wise, cool uncle she had seen many years earlier, when she was much shorter and couldn’t see nearly as much? Was it an uncle with a three-story townhouse and a bathroom specially set up for a visiting niece? Was it an uncle married to a warm and understanding wife who could calmly and intelligently discuss lip gloss and boys? Or maybe it was an uncle who didn’t break out in flop sweat and hives when handsome waiters approached.
“Twenty four,” Iris said.
“That’s the answer to your question. The square root of 64 times three.”
The flight was delayed and the seats at the gate area were filled. Iris laid down on the floor, fashioned her new scarf into a pillow and her new jacket into a blanket and promptly fell asleep.
A couple with two young children sitting next to me stared at Iris, then turned to me.
“Is she okay?” the mother asked.
I looked at Iris’s shiny, blameless hair spread over her scarf, her pink Burt’s Bees-glossed lips puffing in and out with each breath. Poking from the purse she clutched to her collarbone were playbills from Wicked and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Was she dreaming? Of what?
She had insisted on wearing purple velvet pants to school every day in second grade. She could spend hours swimming in chilly lakes and frigid rivers. Coffee ice cream was her favorite. I considered all I knew about my niece.
She stirred, shifted her head on her scarf. She sighed, then grew still once more. Would she ever scream with laughter in my presence again? Would she ever agree to another funnel cake eating contest? Would life’s frustrations and disappointments make her stronger, fiercer, or just sad? Would she ever confide in me?
What I didn’t know about Iris was vast and deep. No pop quiz would give me the answers I sought. I would have to be okay with that. I would have to wait for Iris to reveal herself in her own time and on her own terms.
She looked so peaceful. I imagined her growing up, wearing judicial robes, or a lab coat, or jeans and a denim shirt while she worked the lights backstage at a Broadway production. I saw her happily escorting a niece — or a nephew, or a son or daughter — around a city that was bright and buzzing, strange and wondrous, and I allowed myself to envision Iris quizzing the child about a statue, whispering the secrets of a hidden bakery, expounding on the delights of a film that might be a little too mature for the child, but that the child could watch with Iris nonetheless. Even if it was past midnight.
“She’s okay,” I told the mother. “She’s fine.”
Iris opened her eyes. She asked if there had been a boarding announcement. I told her there had not.
“Then what do you say we grab a couple cappuccinos?” Iris said. “Just you and me?”