The Silver Linings Playbook (Chapter 39)

An Episode Seems Inevitable

I rise before dawn on Christmas morning and begin my weight-lifting routine. I am nervous about being reunited with Nikki today, so I double-time my exercises in an effort to work off my anxiety. I realize the note Tiffany gave me last night suggests that Nikki might not be interested in meeting me at that special place once dusk rolls around, but I also know that in the movies, just when the main character is about to give up, something surprising happens, which leads to the happy ending. I'm pretty sure that this is the part of my movie when something surprising will happen, so I am trusting in God, who I know will not let me down. If I have faith, if I go to that special place, something beautiful will happen when the sun sets – I can feel it.

When I hear Christmas music, I stop lifting and go upstairs. My mother is cooking eggs and bacon. Coffee is brewing. "Merry Christmas," Mom says, and gives me a little kiss on the cheek. "Don't forget your pills."

I take the orange bottles from the cabinet and twist off the lids. As I swallow my last pill, my father comes into the kitchen and throws the newspaper's plastic cover into the waste bucket. When he turns and heads for the family room, my mother says, "Merry Christmas, Patrick."

"Merry Christmas," Dad mumbles.

We eat eggs and bacon and toast together as a family, but no one says much.

In the living room we sit around the tree. Mom opens her present from Dad. It's a diamond necklace from some department store – tiny diamonds in the shape of a heart on a thin gold chain. I know for a fact that Mom has a similar necklace, because she wears it almost every day. My father probably gave her the same thing last year, but Mom acts really surprised and says, "Patrick, you shouldn't have," before she kisses my father on the lips and then hugs him. Even though Dad doesn't hug Mom back, I can tell he is happy, because he sort of smirks.

Next, we give Dad his present, which is from both Mom and me. He tears off the wrapping paper and holds up an authentic Eagles jersey, not one with iron-on decals. "Why doesn't it have any numbers or a name on it?" he asks.

"Since McNabb went down, we thought you'd want to pick a new favorite player," Mom says. "So when you do, we'll have the correct number and name sewn onto the jersey."

"Don't waste your money," Dad says, putting the jersey back into the box. "They won't win today without McNabb. They're not going to make the play-offs. I'm done watching that lousy excuse for a football team."

Mom smiles at me because I told her that Dad would say as much, even though the Eagles have been playing pretty well. But Mom and I both know Dad will be watching the Eagles play the Cowboys later today and will pick a new favorite player late next summer – after watching one or two preseason games – at which time he will say something like, "Jeanie, where's my authentic Eagles jersey? I want to get those numbers sewn on before the season starts."

A few dozen presents are for me, all of which Mom bought and wrapped. I get a new Eagles sweatshirt, new running shoes, workout clothes, dress clothes, a few ties, a brand-new leather jacket, and a special running watch that will help me time my runs and will even calculate the calories I burn while running. And –

"Jesus Christ, Jeanie. How many presents did you buy the kid?" Dad says, but in a way that lets us know he is not really all that mad.

After we eat lunch, I shower and put on underarm deodorant, some of my father's cologne, and one of my new running outfits.

"I'm going to try out my new watch," I tell Mom.

"Caitlin and your brother will be here in an hour," Mom says. "So don't be too long."

"I won't," I say just before I exit the house.

In the garage, I change into the dress clothes I hid there earlier in the week – tweed pants, a black button-down shirt, leather loafers, and the expensive overcoat my father no longer wears. Next, I walk to the Collingswood PATCO stop and catch the 1:45 train to Philadelphia.

It begins to rain lightly.

I get off at Eighth and Market, walk through the drizzle to City Hall, and catch an Orange Line train headed north.

Not many people are on the train, and underground it does not feel like Christmas at all. But the trash-smelling steam that wafts in at every stop when the doors open, the marker graffiti on the orange seat across from me, the half-eaten hamburger lying bunless in the aisle – none of it brings me down, because I am about to be reunited with Nikki. Apart time is finally about to end.

I get off at Broad and Olney and climb the steps up into North Philly, where it is raining a little harder. Even though I remember being mugged twice near this subway stop when I was a college student, I do not worry, mostly because it's Christmas and I am a lot stronger than I used to be when I was an undergraduate. On Broad Street I see a few black people, which gets me thinking about Danny and how he always used to talk about going to live with his aunt in North Philly just as soon as he got out of the bad place – especially whenever I mentioned my graduating from La Salle University, which is apparently close to where Danny's aunt lives. I wonder if Danny ever made it out of the bad place, and the thought of him having Christmas in a mental institution makes me really sad because Danny was a good friend to me.

I stick my hands into my dad's overcoat pockets as I walk down Olney. With the rain, it is sort of cold. Soon I am seeing the blue-and-yellow flags that line the campus streets, and it makes me feel happy and sad at the same time to be back at La Salle – almost like looking at old pictures of people who have either died or with whom you have lost contact.

When I get to the library, I turn left and walk past the tennis courts, where I make a right and stroll past the security building.

Beyond the tennis courts is a walled-in hill, with so many trees you'd never believe it was in North Philly if someone had led you here blindfolded and then removed the blindfold and asked, "Where do you think you are?"

At the bottom of the hill is a Japanese teahouse, which is as picturesque as it is out of place in North Philly, although I have never been inside to have tea – because it is a private teahouse – so maybe the inside has a city feel to it; I don't know. Nikki and I used to meet on this hill, behind an old oak tree, and sit on the grass for hours. Surprisingly, not many students hung out in this spot. Maybe they did not know it was there. Maybe no one else thought it was a nice spot. But Nikki loved sitting on the grassy hill and looking down at the Japanese teahouse, feeling as though she were somewhere else in the world – somewhere other than North Philadelphia. And if it weren't for the occasional car horn or gunshot in the distance, I would have believed I was in Japan when I was sitting on that hill, even though I have never been to Japan and don't really know what being in that particular country is like.

I sit down under a huge tree – on a dry spot of grass – and wait.

Rain clouds swallowed the sun a long time ago, but when I look at my watch, the numbers officially make it dusk.

My chest starts to feel tight; I notice that I am shaking and breathing heavily. I hold my hand out to see how bad the shakes are, and my hand is flapping like the wing of a bird, or maybe it is as if I am hot and trying to fan myself with my fingers. I try to make it stop, and when I can't, I shove both hands into my father's overcoat pockets, hoping Nikki will not notice my nervousness when she shows up.

It grows darker, and then even darker.

Finally, I close my eyes, and after a time, I begin to pray:

Dear God: If I did something wrong, please let me know what it was so I can make amends. As I search my memory, I can't think of anything that would make You mad, except for my punching the Giants fan a few months ago, but I already asked for forgiveness regarding that slip, and I thought we had moved on. Please make Nikki show up. When I open my eyes, please let her be there. Maybe there was traffic, or she forgot how to get to La Salle? She always used to get lost in the city. I'm okay with her not showing up exactly at dusk, but please let her know that I am still here waiting and will wait all night if I have to. Please, God. I'll do anything. If You make her show up when I open –

I smell a woman's perfume.

I recognize the scent.

I breathe in deeply to ready myself.

I open my eyes.

"I'm fucking sorry, okay?" she says, but it's not Nikki. "I never thought it would lead to this. So I'm just going to be honest now. My therapist thought you were stuck in a constant state of denial because you were never afforded closure, and I thought I might afford you closure by pretending to be Nikki. So I made up the whole liaison thing in an effort to provide you closure, hoping you would snap out of your funk and would be able to move on with your life once you understood that being reunited with your ex-wife was an impossibility. I wrote all the letters myself. Okay? I never even contacted Nikki. She doesn't even know you're sitting here. Maybe she doesn't even know you are out of the neural health facility. She's not coming, Pat. I'm sorry."

I'm staring up into Tiffany's soaking-wet face – wet hair, runny makeup – and I can hardly believe that it's not Nikki. Her words do not register at first, but when they do, I feel my chest heating up, and an episode seems inevitable. My eyes burn. My face flushes. Suddenly I realize that for the past two months I have been completely delusional, that Nikki is never coming back and apart time is going to last forever.

Nikki.

Is.

Never.

Coming.

Back.

Never.

I want to hit Tiffany.

I want to pound her face with my knuckles until the bones in my hands crumble and Tiffany is completely unrecognizable, until she no longer has a face from which she can spew lies.

"But everything I said in the letters was true. Nikki did divorce you, and she is remarried, and she even took out a restraining order against you. I got all the information from – "

"You liar!" I say, realizing that I am now crying again. "Ronnie told me that I shouldn't trust you. That you were nothing but a – "

"Please, just listen to me. I know this is a shock. But you need to face reality, Pat. You've been lying to yourself for years! I needed to do something drastic to help you. But I never thought – "

"Why?" I say, feeling as if I might vomit, feeling as though my hands might find Tiffany's throat at any moment. "Why did you do this to me?"

Tiffany looks into my eyes for what seems like a long time, and then her voice sort of quivers like my mom's does when she is saying something she really truly means. Tiffany says, "Because, I'm in love with you."

And then I am up and running.

At first Tiffany follows me, but – even though I am in my leather loafers and it is raining pretty steadily now – I am able to find the man speed she does not have, running faster than I ever have before, and after taking enough turns and weaving through enough traffic, I look back and Tiffany is gone, so I slow my running a bit and jog aimlessly for what seems like hours. I sweat through the rain, and my father's overcoat becomes very heavy. I can't even begin to think about what this all means. Betrayed by Tiffany. Betrayed by God. Betrayed by my own movie. I'm still crying. I'm still jogging. And then I'm praying again, but not in a nice way.

God, I didn't ask for a million dollars. I didn't ask to be famous and powerful. I didn't even ask for Nikki to take me back. I only asked for a meeting. A single face-to-face conversation. All I've done since I left the bad place was try to improve myself – to become exactly what You tell everyone to be: a good person. And here I am running through North Philly on a rainy Christmas Day – all alone. Why did You give us so many stories about miracles? Why did You send Your Son down from heaven? Why did You give us movies if life doesn't ever end well? What kind of fucking God are You? Do You want me to be miserable for the rest of my life? Do You –

Something hits my shin hard, and then my palms are sliding across the wet concrete. I feel kicks landing on my back, my legs, my arms. I curl up into a ball, trying to protect myself, but the kicking continues. When it feels as though my kidneys have exploded, I look up to see who is doing this to me, but I only see the bottom of a sneaker just before it strikes my face.