The woods spat Thomas into a clearing, and there they were: four men, one standing on the frozen lake, the others huddled around a smoking grill. Muffled reggaeton sounded from a portable radio buried halfway in the snow, antenna gamely perked.
One of them saw him and whistled. Thomas watched the man on the lake drop something, anchor it with a stone and shuffle onto land. Thomas stepped closer. He raised his hands in what he hoped was a sign of peace.
“It’s okay,” he said lamely, not sure what he was reassuring them of.
They were Mexican—or Puerto Rican, maybe, he couldn’t tell. They were looking at him: the painfully underdressed, painfully white interloper. Thomas considered, given the area, that they might not speak English.
“Hola?” he offered. In high school he’d opted for French.
One of the men said something, sure enough in Spanish. The man who had been on the lake now made his way back. On further inspection he appeared to be fishing. He picked up his line, obviously trying to ignore Thomas, and peered into the ice. A steel pipe chiseled to a point at one end lay nearby on the frozen surface. The man wore rubber boots that squawked every time he adjusted his position. Jesus, Thomas mentally named him, because of the walking on water. Naming the man helped Thomas feel that he knew where he was. But this was false, since he was very definitely lost.
He was supposed to be in class now, an elective course called The Philosophy of Time. He and his friend Simon had signed up for it on a whim, having by the second semester of their junior year fulfilled nearly all the requirements for their history concentration. Now there were a slew of texts from Simon on his phone, wondering where he was. He ignored them. Thomas would have to explain why he had skipped class to make his way down College Hill, half sliding down a set of iced-over stairs notched into the side of the incline. Thomas himself didn’t know why, only that people were supposed to give him a pass on these sorts of fancies, as just one month before on the most recent of Brown’s eternal winter breaks, Thomas’s father had finally succumbed to the cancer that had metastasized in his body for the past decade. He wasn’t supposed to be back in school; anyone reasonable would have waited out the spring semester at home, as Thomas’s mother had thought he should. But he hadn’t wanted to stay in that empty house surrounded by cedars, with that armchair in the living room that had been his father’s sickbed throne: oxygen tubes mustached across his lips, Peruvian blanket spread across his lap, ready to dispense unneeded advice.
Now Thomas was back, taking advantage of the gift of lightness the old man’s death had given him. In two and a half years at Brown he’d only been to downtown Providence a handful of times, mostly to see the nighttime river fires that were supposedly the city’s pride. This new Thomas could go for a seemingly simple jaunt and end up in Roger Williams Park, farther out than he’d ever been before, past the bridge over 1-95 and down Broad Street with its parade of cash advance storefronts to this strange wooded preserve with footpaths over glassy inlets like a fairytale and these ice-fishing brown people.
[Continued in Confrontation 116]