A human body falling from a height of a hundred and fifty feet takes three seconds to strike the ground. Ballard had seen a statistic once, that a child dies every three seconds. He’d heard a song—a poem?—that said it takes three seconds to say “I love you,” much less time to say “I’m sorry.” That meant three seconds or fewer in which one person could change another’s life.
The morning of the bat mitzvah, it had taken three seconds for Ballard to decide: This would be the first day, or the last day, of the rest of his life.
One, one thousand.
Ballard’s name, his mother once told him, meant “a dancing song.” He’d tried, when he was younger, to puzzle out the sense in that. People danced. Songs didn’t. Songs sang and people moved. Ballard, who usually kept to himself, had little use for dancing. But songs were poetry. Songs moved him in ways that people rarely could.
Ballard favored opera. Now those were songs that sung. He’d had an uncle, a diplomat in Rome, who from the time Ballard was eight shipped him CDs every birthday. Ballard grew into adolescence with La Traviata and Salome, La Gioconda and La Bohème. He thrilled to the love songs of Rodolfo and the tragic Mimi, who sang as they mingled among the toy sellers and chestnut vendors of the Quartier Latin.
He liked to act out the parts. When he was twelve, he recruited Cameron, a golden-haired boy from his sixth-grade class, to help. Cameron was a flutist in their middle-school band, so Ballard figured of any boy, he would understand. Ballard drew all the shades in his room and handed Cameron a necktie.
“It’s my dad’s,” he said. “For your eyes. In this scene, we have to pretend it’s dark.”
Cameron looped the tie around his head, pulled it tight, and waited. Ballard turned up the music and took Cameron’s hand. “Che gelida manina!” he sang. (“What a cold little hand!”) But Cameron’s fingers were not cold—they were warm and supple, just as Ballard had imagined they would be, the way they moved so nimbly along the flute. Inspired, Ballard lifted the hand and pressed it to his lips.
“Ballard!” His dad’s voice. The man stood there, looming in the doorway, silhouetted against the sun.
Cameron snatched back his hand, tore the tie from his eyes and shoved it toward his friend. “I have to go.” The boy pushed past Ballard’s father as the old man entered the room. Ballard tried to speak but was cuffed by a silencing hand. He clutched at the tie. Beyond his father, the front door slammed.
Two, one thousand.
“Maybe it means a song for dancing.”
Jeremi was a boy who knew how to figure things out. Ballard had been struck by this right from the start, when they’d been grouped together in the Gifted and Talented track in fourth grade. Jeremi was always the quickest at solving puzzles, like the logic grids the teachers passed out during recess on rainy days. He was the quickest to raise his hand at a question, the first to finish his quizzes, the first to walk to the front of the class, drop off his test, and walk away.
Jeremi always seemed to be walking away from Ballard. Jeremi, with his lilting gait, his easy, waifish grace. And then one day at lunch hour, when they were both in the eighth grade, Jeremi gave Ballard the surprise of his life. He walked his way.
As was often the case, Ballard was sitting alone, beneath a maple tree. He was reading a book, and, certain of his solitude, began to hum a melody.
“Hey, I know that song.”
Ballard froze. “What?”
“That song. It was in a movie I just saw. What’s it called?”
“‘Sull’aria,’” Ballard replied. “From The Marriage of Figaro.”
Jeremi seemed impressed. He actually sat down, in the grass, by Ballard’s side. They had an entire conversation about Le Nozze di Figaro—who had composed it, how Ballard knew it. And so they became friends.
Ballard guessed from the start that Jeremi was merely humoring him. That he tried to parse meanings with Ballard—“What kind of name is Ballard, anyway?”—simply because he was kind. That he spent time listening because he knew Ballard would otherwise sit alone, that Ballard kept to himself because he was queer, and therefore shunned. But it tortured Ballard to be so close to this boy and not to know: Was it more? He would sit at lunch and patter away about La Bohème and all the rest, and all the while wonder if Jeremi might be wooed, if he might in fact be just like him.
He was not. In the boys’ room after school one day, Ballard made a clumsy pass, putting a hand on Jeremi’s cheek as the other boy fussed with his hair in the mirror. Jeremi swung twice—first to bat away the hand, then to connect with Ballard’s cheek, sending his friend to the floor and the shocking cold of the filthy tiles.
Ballard was stunned into stillness. Jeremi stood for a moment, breathless. And when Ballard moved to stand up, rather than offer a helping hand, Jeremi stepped around his friend and left him sitting, shaking, alone.
It takes fewer than three seconds to say “I’m sorry.”
It was Josephine’s bat mitzvah. Jeremi’s sister. Ballard wasn’t invited, but he knew Jeremi would be there. They hadn’t talked for a week. Ballard had stopped eating. He barely slept. For seven days, he hadn’t listened to a single bar of opera.
He pushed past a gaggle of girls squealing near the elevator. The band was warming up to go on. Brownies were being passed on silver trays. A child with hair the color of corn silk was running wild and ramming into things, colliding with the help and sending grown-ups to their knees. Ballard scanned the crowd and saw Jeremi at a table surrounded by girls. As Ballard approached, Jeremi spotted him and frowned, displeased.
“Ballard. Shit. What are you doing here, man?”
“Can we talk? I need to talk.” Ballard’s voice began to crack.
“Sure, sure,” Jeremi said. “Shit, don’t start crying here.”
He hustled them out to the balcony. The party was only on the tenth floor, but still they had a view. Ballard looked up through the tunnel of buildings reaching toward the sky.
“Jeremi,” he said, his eyes stinging. “I just wanted to say. About what happened.” He squeezed his eyes closed. The one still bearing a mark from Jeremi’s hand throbbed at the effort. He’d rehearsed in front of the mirror at home, and he’d wept then, too.
“Hey, man,” Jeremi said. “You don’t have to cry. I’m cool if you’re cool.”
Jeremi put a hand on Ballard’s shoulder. The band started to play. Ballard reached up and touched Jeremi’s hand, turned to face him, and began to sway.
“I hate this music,” Ballard said. He made an effort at a smile. “But I feel like dancing. For once. Don’t you?”
Ballard reached as if to take Jeremi in his arms, but Jeremi backed away.
“No, man,” he said. “You can’t do this. Not here.”
Ballard’s arms dropped. The air felt cold. His cheeks had chilled as the wind whipped against his wet face.
“You should probably just take off, man,” Jeremi said. “It’s my sister’s big day. She’s trying to keep it friends only and all.”
“Her friends, I mean.”
“O.K.,” Ballard said. “Just give me a second.”
He turned away to catch his breath and heard Jeremi’s footsteps hastening back inside.
Ballard faced the railing. He grasped it and leaned forward, testing his weight on his hands. Below him, the world looked small. Small, but full. There were so many people, darting in and out of traffic, moving in ripples and swells, as if carried along by a current. The city would never miss him, he thought. There were plenty of people here. Enough that every three seconds, without anyone noticing, someone could simply—take off.
He began to sing softly. “Addio dolce svegliare!” (“Goodbye, sweet awakening!”) He threw a leg over the bars. “Addio dolce svegliare!” Applause rang out from behind him as the band broke off its playing. He stood poised at the edge, his chest thrust forward, hands clinging to the bar behind him. We’ll see, he thought. He opened his arms. He let the air take him.
“Addio dolce svegliare!”