Looking back, I suppose we have to wonder why. Why did we let it get so far, he asks me, how could things have gone so wrong, what could make people do this kind of thing? What could make us stop? But none of the questions came when they were supposed to. It’s easy enough to ask the questions now, to think about what we should have done, after you can take it all in and reflect back.
He looks at me and I’m just staring back, my hands crossed, my fingers pointing along my nose, my thumbs joined together under my chin, but I’m not saying anything. This is the way it happened, he says to me, it’s the way the world was. You know, I’ve escaped your life, he tells me. Four friends dead and I never had to be there. I’ve never seen anyone die. I never had to brush the taste of death out of my mouth, somehow always managed to escape it, hiding in my room, down in the city, getting the calls, hearing the news, never having to face it. It’s so much easier to take when death comes second-hand. I imagine so, anyway, he says. He looks at me again. Because it’s always been me. I never get to hear about it second-hand. I just get to see it.
You know, Bruce, he continues, I think I might have let him die if Sean hadn’t been there. I think he would have died. Or maybe Kyle would have died. Someone might have died and it would have been my fault because I should have stopped it, never should have let things go that far. And I guess it’s time you heard that story. You should know this.
Look at me, he says. I’m thirty years old, I’m married, I have three kids. I got everything I ever wanted. Who’s to say I deserved any of it? I almost let it happen, almost watched someone die and I’m not sure he wouldn’t have deserved it. But who gets to make that choice? Who lets that kind of thing happen? But you never asked any questions. You, of all people, never asked about it. Kate did. Paul did. I’ve been waiting all this time for you to ask what happened. And I have no answer for any of it except that I loved her.
Is that weird, he wants to know. Is it weird that I maybe loved your wife. That Sean loved her. That Kyle loved her. Or is that what college is supposed to be about? Everybody falls in love with everybody else and the couples are just arbitrary? But I loved her and I wanted to make him pay.
I watch him sit in the chair, staring past me, out the window, into the bright desert air, watch him try to come to some sort of peace with himself. There be dragons here, he whispers, nothing good to look back on, nothing fun. But I’ll tell you now, he says, because you probably know something of it anyway, he says, though here he is wrong because I know nothing of this, asked Kyle to never tell me what happened, have tried to keep from knowing, but he says, I’ll tell you anyway, if for no better reason than to exorcise my ghosts.
Do you remember the way we used to walk to Psych class, Bruce? Largest class on campus, over a hundred of us, a third of our class. And there were the ten of us from the floor, always walking together, the group that took up the whole damn stairway heading down to class.
Up in front was Paul, always in front, always in charge. Don’t know why he took it that year since he was a Sophomore, but he was there. He told us all that random shit, all through the year, and it seems like everything he told us was always right.
Then, right behind Paul, you had Laura. Or sometimes next to him depending on how brave she would get. But then, after they were over, she would drop farther back, but still close, like she needed him near her. I never understood them, never have been able to understand unrequited love. I don’t care if he slept with her, it was still unrequited. She always loved him. He never loved her. Never made any sense to me.
Right behind Paul was always Sean and Rachel. The eternal lovers forever. I guess that’s redundant, but hey, I was a Comp Sci major. Do you think about them much? You see so much love that hurts, so much insane shit with people like Paul and Laura and then you think about those two. Their love never hurt. Not their love.
Then you had Jim, sometimes up with Paul, if there was no Laura, or hiding behind Sean and Rachel, trying to ignore Laura. Roommates, best friends, share the same room, the same clothes, the same women. Talk about things I can’t understand. Anyway. The hell with it.
Then there was you. Sometimes you would be up with Rachel, sometimes back with Dani. I guess the three of you had that connection with Jessie, whatever the hell that was. But I’ve already said enough about unrequited love, and whatever you and Jess had, it wasn’t nearly as fucked up as Paul and Laura. I won’t pick on you.
Then, the last three of us. Me, Kyle and Michelle. Because none of the others were in that class – no Kate, no Sarah, no Jenn, no Jeff, no Tom, no Jessie. So, there was just me and Kyle and Michelle in the back. You know, you and Kyle were so close, roommates forever, but there was also the connection between Kyle and I. We were the two that everyone seemed to think would be the heavy drinkers and yet we were the two who didn’t drink. And almost everyday, there, right between us, was Michelle. Michelle, who was everything that everyone else wasn’t. The soft beauty where Rachel’s beauty was so overwhelming. The quiet introspective one where Kate was loud and brash. The normal student who had good grades but mostly went unnoticed unlike Jenn the super brain. She wasn’t an artist like Jess was. She could match wits with anyone, unlike poor Laura who was always so outmatched by Paul. She knew what she was looking for in a relationship, so different from Sarah.
How did she end up back there with Kyle and I? Maybe it started when she started going out with Tom early in the year and Tom and I were roommates. They came together, slept together and then he threw her away like he did everyone else. She needed someone to cry to and my shoulder was the nearest. But what kept her close to me? What made her latch on to Kyle? What made her drift to the back of the group and hang there between us? I don’t know, but there we were, walking together, talking together, laughing together. I wish I knew, wish I had more time with her, to ask her everything I ever wanted to ask. But I think it was all the time between us that drew her to us. And because I loved her. And I’m sure Kyle did too.
I wish I had talked to her more after she broke up with Tom, wish I could have said all the things that would have made her feel better, would have kept her from trying to fill that void that Tom left when he pulled out. But I was looking after Tom as well. And I had Kate. But I would spend time with Michelle, and Kyle would spend time with her and indeed spent so much time in her room that he and Jenn finally realized that they belonged together. Roommates sharing this, good god, I’m glad that by the time I was rooming with Sean he had Rachel and I had Kate and there wasn’t any sharing.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Things will rush to fill in the void when things disappear. And sometimes they aren’t the best things. Sometimes not even good things.
I wonder what would have happened if Kyle and I hadn’t been sitting together, if Sean hadn’t been playing cards with us when she came in. I wonder what Kyle might have done. But “what if” can be boring. It’s just a game and a game you can’t win. What happened wasn’t a game.
“What have you got, Sean?”
He looked at me and I knew he was dead. He never could bluff worth a damn.
“A pair of sevens.”
“Well, I am just so impressed.”
My eyes fell on Kyle. He gave me the smile, the one we all know Paul used to love to throw on us but that Kyle had mastered.
“What about you, Barton? What have you got?”
“Full house,” he replied with a smile. I looked at him as he put down the three kings and two sixes. He smiled, but then he saw my smile and knew that he was beaten.
“Yeah, well four threes beats a full house,” I said. I put down my cards and the two of them just shook their heads. “Hand it over, jackasses. I win again.”
Kyle handed the pot over. Sean turned to look at him.
“I thought you always won at poker. I was prepared to hand my money over to you, not to smug smile boy.”
“I sense a great disturbance in the force. It’s fucking up my poker hand.”
“You are not a Jedi Knight,” I said.
“No. I’m a Dark Lord of the Sith. I’m much more impressive than a piss poor Jedi Knight.”
The door opened and we all turned to look. Everything good I was feeling, everything I had that made so much sense didn’t make any difference anymore.
I’m glad you weren’t there, Bruce, I’m glad you don’t have memories of this to hold onto, to make you mad, to make you sad. Her eye had turned a dark color, somewhere around black or blue or purple, not as bad as I’ve seen but bad enough. That was it, no more visible scars, nothing to say that anything out of the ordinary happened, nothing else except her eyes. I caught a quick look at her eyes and I froze and that was when it all slipped away.
You know, I got so lucky, one hour into college, right in the middle of Orientation and I saw Kate and I fell in love and by the end of the night we were together and I’ve never had to be alone since, never had to worry about all the horrible things that love can do to you, never had to think about the cruel things that people will do to each other, what love, lust, sex, pain, all mean when thrown together and then every now and then something falls in the way and I have to think about it, think about how lucky I got, how I managed to avoid all of that.
“Michelle . . .” I started to say as I rose. The money fell across the floor as I went to her side and closed the door behind her.
She didn’t say anything coherent, just whispers of my name as she sank to the floor. She put her arms around herself, holding tightly, letting everything out with tears. Sean and I went to her, helped her on to my bed. I tried to get her to lie down but she winced and lay on her side instead.
“Michelle . . .”
“I can’t lay down on my back right now,” she whispered, barely audible.
“But you . . .”
“No. Just, no.”
“Michelle, what happened?” Sean asked. She looked up at him, up at me, would not look over at Kyle, and when I turned I understood, saw the naked rage boiling over and understood that she was not ready for that yet. Kyle had no need to ask questions, no need to find out information, already knew what had gone, what was to come, what words would be said.
“Don’t you go anywhere, Kyle,” she said, and it sounded like a bare whisper but Kyle could clearly hear her. “You stay right here. You don’t know.”
Sean opened our little mini-fridge and grabbed some ice, wrapping it and placing it by her face. Her left eye was starting to swell up.
“So tell me,” Kyle, stark and cold.
“Gary. He, I, he . . . Gary . . . Gary . . . He, we, we were down . . .” but she couldn’t get the words out. I motioned for her to stop. I looked at her and remember how she was when I first met her, the soft introspective girl at the back of the line, before she slept with Tom, and then afterwards, the lost little girl incapable of hurt or hate. And this. This.
“Michelle, who are you talking about?”
“She’s been dating that DKS fuck Gary Wagner,” Kyle spit out. I turned to look at him and suddenly his anger seemed to make more sense. I knew how much he hated that frat life, the drinking, the womanizing. It was everything he wasn’t.
“Michelle,” Sean said, coming closer to her. “Did he rape you?”
She didn’t say anything, just stared at me, tears rolling down, but she started to shake her head, trying to deny it, trying to make sense of it. She held out her arms to me, maybe in the hope that she would find what she needed, and when she was safe there, trying to let everything disappear, my lost look went to Sean only to discover that he was scared, that this was outside his area of experience, so I turned to Kyle again, but there was too much naked aggression there, no fear, only hate.
I looked back at Michelle again, trying to find anything other than’s Kyle rage. I took some Kleenex from my desk and handed them to her. She pushed the tears away.
“No. It wasn’t rape,” she said finally.
“How badly are you hurt?” I asked.
“The eye happened after. It just, it hurt, but he didn’t stop. I just . . .” but then she stopped talking again and for a minute there were no words in the room, until Sean spoke two soft words.
“Don’t bother,” Kyle hissed at him. Both Sean and I turned to look at him. “There’s no fucking prayers getting answered tonight.”
“Kyle . . .” I said, softly, making a motion with my head towards Michelle and though I was starting to understand his rage, the fierceness of it was beyond me. For the first time he was beginning to scare me.
“If there was a god, Kevin, this wouldn’t have happened.”
And right then, I really couldn’t find a way to argue that.
Then came the first argument. I wasn’t in the room for it. By then, she had gone back to her room. She didn’t need me by then, she needed to be with Jenn, her roommate for a second year. She needed to be with Kyle, who was definitely the love of Jenn’s life at that moment and maybe was the love of Michelle’s life at the time too. She needed somewhere warm, somewhere comfortable and the fewer people there, the fewer people to surround and confuse her.
I wasn’t in the room. I was out in Sean’s favorite spot, the ledge outside the window, the small patch of roof between our room and Michelle’s. I just kept hearing that Amy Grant song inside my head, the one about the little girl who was abused. Ask me if you think there’s a God up in the heaven. Where did he go in the middle of her shame? Is there truth in pop songs? I remember Paul mocking that song once when I was listening to the album, saying “At best, this is the third best song about child abuse, behind ‘What’s the Matter Here’ and ‘Luka'” and then walking out. But it just kept echoing around my head.
I sat there for maybe an hour, just staring out at the snow, watching everything disappear under the cover of silence. I sat there and I thought about all those words as I listened to Kyle and Jenn talk to her about going to the hospital, could hear her steadfast refusal, her determination that this would not leave the floor, that this stay private. She wasn’t seeing a doctor and to hell with going to the cops. I remember as I watched the snow coming down, I was thinking about the first night it snowed during Freshman year, the first time I had ever felt snow in my hair and Paul talking to all of us, standing by the door until he thought we should go and then those words.
‘Tonight’s gonna be the best night you guys have all year,’ was what he told us. You remember that? He talked about how we were already bitching about him being a self-proclaimed prophet. But he was so right that time. ‘You’ll love tonight,’ he said, ‘because tonight, you won’t get tired, tonight you won’t get lonely, and tonight, no matter how much it snows, you will never get cold, and no matter how long the night lasts, it will never get dark.’ And he was so right. The bastard was always right.
It was later, after the argument had been settled and Michelle had refused to give in that I was sitting by her. She had been trying to sleep, but we seemed to have agreed that someone should be close by. I was sitting there, watching her, trying to keep everything safe, make all the bad things go away. But her body didn’t want to sleep, didn’t want to let go and she was reaching out for me and my hands was in hers.
“I need someone to talk to,” she whispered.
“I’ll bet you have some questions,” she said and her mouth somehow broke into Kyle’s cynical smile.
“You can tell me whatever you want.”
“Yeah, he’s one of those DKS guys.”
“We’ve been dating for a while. Since Kyle and Jenn got together.”
There seemed to be something more there, something left unsaid, but I wasn’t going to ask if it was because her roommate suddenly was dating or who her roommate was dating. So I did what we all do, how we all cope, by turning things in another direction, finding a way to keep the balance when you’re trying not to fall down.
“I’ve never seen the two of you together.”
“He likes to hang out at the frat. And he doesn’t like being on our floor.”
“He afraid of heights? It’s only four stories.”
“He’s afraid of Paul.”
“Yeah. There’s something between them and he steers well clear of Paul.”
“Michelle, you don’t have to talk about this. You should get some sleep.”
“I tried. It’s not happening right now. And I don’t want to hold this in. I want this out, away from me.”
“Then tell what you want.”
Her hand reached out for me, ran through my hair, pulled me close, held me in and she kissed my forehead. I wish, I wish, I wish, was all I could think, two words, full of hope, empty of meaning, if you need to say it, it can’t come true, a denial of reality.
“I should have been there for you,” I whispered, even though that made no sense. She seemed to realize that because she actually snorted.
“What is it that Paul says? You can’t save the world.”
“Yeah, and you’ll get hurt if you try.
“You have your own life, Kevin. You can’t be watching out for mine. And you didn’t need to be. This isn’t like it seems. And you can’t save the world.”
“I’m not trying to save the world.”
“Just trying to save the girl?”
“Michelle, are you sure you don’t want to go to the cops?”
“What am I supposed to tell them?”
“Tell them that he raped you.”
“And how would I prove that?”
“Aside from your eye? Rape leaves evidence.”
“And he’ll say, why would I rape someone who I’ve been fucking for months.”
“What?” It was all I could think of to say. She looked at me and then patted my hand, a little sweet, a little condescending.
“You’re so lovably innocent, Kevin. But you’ve been together with Kate for over a year. You should know the progression. A kiss to a touch. A touch to a feel. A feel to a moan. A moan to a suck. A suck to a fuck. I mean, there should be a warning that speeds may vary. But the roads all lead to the same place.”
“I don’t understand, Michelle.”
“Well, you see there’s these things called birds and these things called bees.”
“How can you be laughing at a time like this?”
“How can I not?”
“You’ve been raped.”
“I’ve been punched. I think the law might be dubious on whether or not I’ve been raped.”
“Were you sexually assaulted against your will?”
“It didn’t start that way.”
I sat and stared at her. I didn’t know where to go with this. Maybe she just needed to tell me more. Maybe she needed to tell me less.
“Look, Kevin, we were down by the river . . .”
“Out in the snow?”
“That was his neat idea.”
“Is he fucking insane?” I asked and she seemed to stop to think, to ponder, almost to laugh, the cynical Kyle smile coming through and this was so much more than I wanted to hear.
“I guess he’s insane about . . .”
“You’re not really gonna finish that sentence, are you?” I said and there was a pause as we stared at each other, so close, lips so close to touch the way they’re supposed to, lip to lip, soft, sweet. “How sardonic has being around Kyle made you?”
“Enough. Do you want to hear this?”
“Sure. Maybe I’m tougher than you think,” I replied but her look didn’t make me think so. And I don’t know that I was. And I think she knew it. But she told me anyway.
She told me about how they had gone down to the river in the snow. How they had been having sex, when Gary decided to flip her over and take her from behind. How she told him it hurt, that the angle was bad, but he insisted on finishing. How she yelled at him to stop because it hurt. That when he did finish and pulled out she kicked at him, trying to get him where it would hurt the most. That he swung his fist backwards by instinct, connecting with her eye. That she demanded that he take her back to the dorm and that he did.
I shouldn’t be telling you this. I don’t know why I’m telling you this part, Bruce. But it just feels like the whole story needs to come out of me, I have to stop holding it in. I just remember her lying there, telling me all of this, everything pouring out of her, then explaining why she didn’t want to go to the hospital, didn’t want to go to the police. Because they couldn’t offer what she really wanted. What she wanted was to feel safe. And that we made her safe, Kyle and I. She told me how Kate and Jenn always seemed to feel so safe. That she had tried to find something like that with Tom, had tried to find something like it with Gary and she just kept finding pain. And so I kissed her on the forehead, let my lips linger there against the warmth of her skin.
“You’re safe now.”
It was the next night when there was a knock at our door. Sean and I looked up and Kyle was standing there. It had been a rough 24 hours, but those of us who knew what had happened seemed to be trying to push it deep down inside and we tried to keep others from knowing.
It was probably sometime around ten when Kyle came by, getting towards late, but not too bad for a Saturday night. Once the snow came down and covered everything it was always so hard to get a judge on time.
“Get some clothes. Kevin, borrow some clothes from GQ there. You’ll want to look preppy and you don’t really have the wardrobe.”
“What are you, Joan Rivers?”
“You need to fit in.”
“Where am I supposed be fitting in?”
“A DKS party.”
“What the fuck for?” Sean asked.
“Call it a research project.”
“I don’t like the sound of this,” Sean said, but without much force.
“What are you afraid of, Ginger?”
“Whatever you might be capable of. And don’t call me Ginger. I’m not British.”
“Well, I’m not gonna kill anybody tonight. That make you feel better Carrottop?”
“Ginger was better.”
“You know, it’s your use of the word ‘tonight’ that makes me uneasy,” I chimed in.
“We’re going over there to observe and make an attempt at understanding. Think of it as a Sociology experiment.”
“I just finished with that class.”
“And I saw that last paper you wrote for it. You could use the help. Get dressed.”
“Beer,” I said. Kyle and Sean turned to look at me. “There is a whole hell of a lot of beer here.” Kyle half-smiled at me and patted me on the back.
“It’s observations like that which make you the life of the party, Frodo.”
“Being 5’6″ does not make me a hobbit, you know,” I said.
“So, which one is he?” Sean asked, almost screaming into my ear. I flinched back and turned.
“I can hear you. And how the hell should I know? I don’t know him.”
“Then how the fuck are we supposed to know which one he is?”
“I know which one he is,” Kyle replied. “Now, grab a drink and try to fit in.” I turned to catch his eyes.
“And am I supposed to just pretend to drink?”
“And what’s your plan for fitting in? Even that guy at the door knew you don’t drink.”
“I don’t have to drink. I fit in wherever I go,” he replied with a smile and then disappeared into the crowd. Sean and I started to move towards the other side of the room. I grabbed a beer from the keg line and soon found myself in the kitchen listening to some drunk blonde trying to explain to me why Forrest Gump was a better film than Pulp Fiction. Somewhere in the middle of her explanation of how one glorifies drugs and the other shows a true punishment for those who will not follow God’s will, I noticed Sean motion to me from the other side of the room. I left with her in mid-sentence and worked my way across the room, actually considering downing the drink.
“I think we have a winner.”
“Over by the fridge,” he said, nodding and I remembered, caught flashes from my brain of Michelle talking to him in the student center, of him racing across the soccer field to score a goal and I knew Sean was right.
“Let’s get closer and figure out what’s going on.”
“Already have. Drinking game. I Have Never.”
“How do you play? And how will I manage to stand there without drinking?”
“Well, you say something like ‘I have never had sex’ and everyone who’s had sex drinks. And so on. So don’t worry. It’s mostly about sex and drugs and you won’t have to worry about drinking anyway.”
I ignored him and followed him into the edge of the group. We managed to settle in as the group had apparently grown quite large. I was just trying to get comfortable leaning up against a wall when someone said ‘I have never received a blowjob while driving,’ and I stared in disbelief as Sean took a drink. I was so stunned I didn’t even notice if Gary had taken a drink, not that it would have mattered, or, given who he had been dating, not that I would have even wanted to know. I was about to try to say something to Sean when suddenly I recognized the next voice.
“I have never fucked anybody down by the river,” came Paul’s voice and I suddenly swung around to see him standing a few feet away from Gary. There seemed to be a crowd of Freshmen in the room, all the wannabe soccer players, wannabe DKS pledges and I suddenly seemed to remember how Paul got his hooks into all the people on our floor, how he never let us go. But something else seemed to sink in as I watched both Gary and Paul drink at the same time. That Paul was here for a reason that didn’t seem so dissimilar from ours.
“Got a problem, Barrett?” Gary asked. A drunken smile was slipping across his lips.
“And if I do?”
“How the fuck did you get past the door, anyway?”
“I know more people than you’d think.”
“I guess we need a better bouncer.”
“You think you can get me out? Hey, you’re welcome to try, Wagner.” But it didn’t look like he would even make an attempt. He just raised his cup to Paul, in something like a toast.
“I have never had heterosexual anal sex,” he said. And his cup was to his lips and he was drinking and then he was stopping because Paul was drinking as well, not that I could really notice, trying to once again cope with the fact of seeing Sean drinking.
“Drink it down, Barrett,” Gary said and his drunken smile had become a smirk. “You’re no better a person than I am.” But that only seemed to the add to the edge of tension because Paul’s eyes came closer together, didn’t quite close, just drew close and he help up his cup as well, returning the toast.
“I have never stayed in when she asked me to pull out.”
Dead silence slipped into the room. Nobody said anything. Then I watched Paul duck as Gary’s cup flew across the room towards his head. Paul came in a defensive stance I had seen him use once before, swinging his arms away from each other as Gary came charging across the room. They collided and Paul flipped him around and into the wall. Before anyone else could move, Paul’s knee came slamming up into Gary’s groin. His scream stopped all conversation in the party and he slid down the wall to the ground.
I watched the bouncer start to walk across the room, six six, working on three hundred pounds, an offensive lineman at a school with a football program. I saw Paul kneel down next to Gary and moved to try to say something, do something, stop Paul from getting himself killed but the voice in my ear stopped me.
“Don’t you do a thing,” Kyle said. “Paul got himself into this. He’ll get himself out. We’re not getting involved.”
“Why the fuck not?” Sean asked as we turned to look at him.
“I’ll tell you later. Just trust me.”
We all turned to look back at Paul as the bouncer stood over him.
“Time for you to go, Barrett.”
“It’s called rape, Wagner,” Paul said, ignoring the bouncer. “Stop means stop you worthless piece of shit. I see you around any of my friends again and I’ll make certain you never play soccer again.”
“I said it’s time for you to go, Barrett,” the bouncer said, but as he placed his hand on Paul’s shoulder, Paul grabbed his pinkie and yanked it at an awkward angle away from the rest of his hand. The bouncer screamed and knelt down as Paul stood up.
“I heard you the first time, Evans.”
Paul stood there, looking around, a timebomb ready to go off. But he seemed to have used up all the physical violence in his system. He just shook his head and walked to the door. Kyle tapped us on the shoulders and motioned that it was also time for us to be scarce.
“What the fuck is going on?” I asked Kyle as we got on the lawn. The noise from the party was starting to build up again, but things had definitely changed inside.
“We’ll talk about it, tomorrow,” he said. “Time to get out of here.”
“Look, Kyle . . .”
“Hey!” The voice made us all turn and we could see Paul, paused in the darkness, turned to look at us. “It’s your play. Do to him whatever the fuck you want.” Then he was gone, out into the night.
I turned back to ask Kyle what the hell he had in mind but Kyle had done his damn Batman thing and seemed to have been swallowed up by the darkness. I looked at Sean but all he could do was shrug.
“What do you think he has in mind?” Sean asked me later, out on the roof, staring out across the snow.
“I have no idea.”
“I was hoping you would know. Kyle takes the whole revenge concept a bit too far, I think.”
“Think he wants to kill him?”
“I would not put it past him.”
“So what we gonna do?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
We sat there and thought about it. We were still there when someone knocked on our door but neither of us bothered to move. We could hear the door open and then shut.
“Where are they?” I could hear Kate ask.
“Probably out on the roof,” came Rachel’s response.
“At night? When it’s been snowing?”
“Yeah, well they’re not known for their brains.”
I turned and looked at Sean. He shrugged. Neither of us turned to look when the two heads popped out of the window.
“What are you doing out here?”
“I don’t know,” Sean answered. “We do things for no reasons. We’re not known for our brains.”
“Very fucking funny.”
“It’s been a weird night,” I said.
“Why were you guys at the DKS party?” Kate asked.
“Well news on this floor travels faster than mono,” Sean commented.
“You’d have to ask Kyle,” I said. “It was his idea.”
“Paul pissed off Gary Wagner, Gary charged him, Paul flipped him into a wall and kneed him in the balls.” I turned to look at Sean. “That about cover it?”
“Something like that.”
“What were you doing over there. You don’t even drink.”
“I was trying to understand,” I whispered. “Trying to make sense out of it all.”
“Speak for yourself, Frodo. I was there to drink heavily.”
“You don’t get to call me that. You’re like maybe an inch taller than me.”
“Yeah, but I’m Ginger remember, so I already have a nickname.”
“Can you be serious for a minute, Sean?” Rachel said, softly. Sean turned and stared straight at her.
“He raped her. However you want to cut it, I call it rape. And Michelle won’t go to the police. If we were to go, she’d deny it or just wouldn’t talk. So I went over there to understand how a guy like that exists and then, just maybe, decide if I want to beat him into the ground.”
“You can’t save the world, Sean,” Rachel said, putting her hand to his cheek.
“I’m not trying to save the world, darling. I’m just trying to make it a little bit better. Make it a good place for our kids to grow up in.”
With those words, Rachel looked like a feather would knock her over. He had said the magic words, said exactly what she wanted to hear, what she needed to hear.
“Well, yeah. Don’t you want to have kids?”
“How about we start tonight?”
“Sounds good to me.”
And then she was in his arms and Kate was on the roof and I was holding her and for a little while things seemed okay, seemed sweet, seemed wonderful, all the way things are supposed to be when you’re in love.
That was the night when Kate and I finally made love for the first time. We had been one of the first couples on the floor, had been together for a year and a half. But it seemed like everyone else had beaten us to the punch. Good god, I think you and Jess might have slept together before Kate and I did. But maybe it was the right move. Because we’re the ones who are still together. All those couples that existed back in those first two years and the only one that ever made it down the aisle was us. Was it because we waited until we were ready? Was it because Kate saw how badly Michelle had been hurt by Tom and Gary and wanted it to be right? Anyway, I guess Sean and Rachel probably would have made it. But then, you and Michelle barely seemed to be in the same group of friends and you two were the first to get married. So what the hell do I know?
I do know that I was still undressed with her in bed when Sean started knocking on the door. It was snowing again and it was dark outside. I remember checking the clock and realizing it was three in the morning and wondering who in the hell could be knocking. So I slipped on some shorts and moved the chair that I had jammed under the doorknob to keep Sean from coming in and slipped out into the hall where I found him waiting, clearly wondering why he couldn’t come in.
“I’d like to get into my room. It’s late. I want to sleep. We still have Finals this week.”
“Go sleep in Rachel’s room.”
“Bruce and Jessie are in there.”
“Damn, can those two just figure out whether they are dating or not and get it over with? Enough with this vague bullshit.”
“Yeah, well I couldn’t agree more, but can I agree in our room? I’m really fucking tired.”
“Why can’t I go in? You do remember that I live in there, right?”
“Kate doesn’t have any clothes on.”
Suddenly Sean’s eyes grew wide and he seemed to grasp what was going on.
“Shit, I’m sorry,” he said. “Damn, Kevin, if I had known, I wouldn’t have come back. But, hey, it took you so long to get to this point, I can be excused for not expecting it.”
“You’re funny, Ginger.”
“Probably would have messed up the magic if I had walked in during the action.”
“Well, the chair was jammed under the door, so it was unlikely. But she’s asleep now.”
“So I can come in, then.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so.”
“How was she, anyway?”
“If you think for even a minute . . .”
“It’s a joke. Lighten up, Frodo.”
“Go sleep in Bruce’s room.”
“What if Bruce’s roommate objects?” came a question from behind us. As soon as we had regained the ability to breathe, we turned to look at Kyle.
“Stop fucking doing that,” Sean said.
“Or at least teach us how to do it,” I added.
“The ways of the force are imparted only to those that are worthy.”
“You are so not a fucking Jedi.”
“Dark Lord of the Sith. Grasp the concept. Now explain why Ginger is sleeping in my room.”
“Because my room is occupied.”
“And what if my roommate is asleep in his bed?”
“Your roommate is in my girlfriend’s room having a deep metaphysical conversation with her roommate and acting like a lovesick puppy.”
“I can not wait for this year to be over and for her to leave,” Kyle said. We both looked at him. I think we all knew it was coming because Jess had never hidden that her parents had made her come to SOU for two years before she would be allowed to go to art school but we had never really thought about it. That someone would be leaving the group. And I think we had underestimated Kyle’s loyalty to you.
“Can I sleep in his bed?”
“If you want. But tomorrow, I need to borrow both of you around 4:30 or so.”
“For additional muscle, let’s call it. Meet me over by the pool.”
“What are we doing, Kyle?” Sean asked.
“I’m gonna make him hurt,” Kyle replied. “Now, are you in?”
I turned to look at Sean. We both slowly nodded.
“Good,” Kyle said. “Tomorrow, we give him what he deserves.”
At half past four we were by the pool and a few minutes later, as sunset was coming fast, we were in Kyle’s Mustang with, for some reason, Sean behind the wheel, waiting just down the street from the DKS house. A little bit after that, just as Kyle said he would, Gary came walking out of the house and went down the road.
“How did you know?”
“He’s headed over to help Robin Coulter study for Bio.”
“Robin Coulter, the blowjob queen of Master Hall?”
“She owed me a favor.”
“How do you even know her?” I asked.
“We went to high school together. I was forbidden from dating her because my mother thinks we might actually be half-siblings.”
“Are you fucking serious?” Sean asked.
“You’ve met my mother. She gets an idea in her head, it’s hard to get out of it.”
“Is she your half-sister?”
“It is not outside the realm of possibility.”
“Why would she call Wagner for Bio help?” I asked.
“Because he’s pre-med.”
“That asshole has a brain?” Sean asked.
“Maybe a finer honed one than yours. Sean, pull up close and fast to him.”
“What am I doing?”
“You’re the backup. But I shouldn’t need you.”
And it all seemed so insane, like something out of a gangster movie, an action movie, a bad television show, but before I knew it we had screeched up next to him and Kyle had him and he was in the trunk and it was shut and we were driving away, around another corner, and then Kyle got behind the wheel and suddenly I knew where we were headed, down out of town, to where the highway pulls close to the river and we could hear Gary yelling in the trunk but before we knew it, we were there, the only spot anywhere near the river where you ever would think to have sex and Kyle was already out of the car and had the trunk open and had punched him in the mouth and then yanked him out of the trunk and thrown him down the snowbank.
“What the fuck is this about, Barton? All three of you assholes are going to jail.”
“Fuck you, Wagner.”
“What do you want?”
“I want to make you hurt. Is that clear enough?”
“Oh, your buddy Paul didn’t do enough for you?” Gary asked, but he was backing down the snowbank, closer to the river. At this time of day, cars were rarely on the highway and between the black cars and the black we were all wearing, we would be hard to see anyway.
“Paul left you still moving,” Kyle said and it froze all of us, not just Gary.
“Hey, back the fuck off, Barton,” he said and was getting as far away from Kyle as he could without turning and running. It wouldn’t have done much good anyway, with the river right behind him.
“Is there where you were, Wagner? Where you kept fucking her even after she told you to stop. When she told you it hurt and wanted you to pull out.”
“She didn’t fucking ask me to stop! She never said anything! She just made some noise, man.”
Suddenly I didn’t know what to think, what to believe, how things could have gotten this far and Kyle had leapt forward and grabbed him, slamming him into the tree by the riverbank and then smashed a fist into his ribs and Gary was spitting up blood and was down on the ground but then he had snow in his hands and it was up in Kyle’s face and he was gone. Up and over the other snowbank, he moved fast, the soccer player physique coming in handy and I was after him but Kyle was faster and Gary was jumping onto the river and started to slide across the ice and as Sean reached the top of the snowbank, Kyle jumped up and when he landed they both went through the ice, crashing into the shallow water of the edge of the river. Kyle had him by the collar and Gary was screaming that he hadn’t done anything, that he hadn’t meant to hurt her, that he had swung out of instinct from being kicked and I flew off the snowbank and crashing through the ice and was knee deep in freezing water and trying to separate the two of them.
We all turned to look at Sean, standing there up on the snowbank, barely visible in the snow and the darkness.
“What?” Kyle asked.
“What are you gonna do, Kyle?”
“I think I’m gonna kill him. That not work for you?”
“We can’t kill him.”
“Oh, yes. We can.”
“You can’t play God, Kyle.”
“Don’t speak to me about your fucking God, Sean.”
“Please, Kyle, don’t fucking kill me. Listen to what I’m saying,” Gary was pleading.
“You shut the fuck up!” Kyle screamed, turning towards him but as he turned Gary was stabbing at him, a piece of ice in his hand, slicing it up Kyle’s side and his yell turned to a scream of pain. I turned and leapt for him. Gary punched back and I found myself under the freezing water, gasping for any air, feeling the icy cold pounding against my head. My feet found the bottom and pushed up. I shoved Gary into the air and threw him up on the ice. More ice broke and he wound up waist-deep in the water. I started to move towards him then stopped.
I turned and saw Kyle standing there, a smile on his lips, the same cynical smile Michelle gave to me and I saw the blood dripping from his side and the only thing I could understand was that I didn’t understand any of it, would never understand any of it and when Sean offered his hand I pulled myself up on the snow along the riverbank.
“Are you okay?” Sean asked.
“I’ll be okay if I can ever get warm again,” I said, my teeth chattering.
“Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
“I want to kill him,” Kyle said. We both turned to stare at him. We could see Gary staring us, more ice grabbed in his hands. Kyle’s blood was staining his sleeve, turning the snow a bright pink.
“Forget about him, Kyle. You need to go to a hospital,” Sean replied.
“I want to kill him,” Kyle said, slowly, firmly.
“Killing him won’t solve anything. It won’t make her hurt less.”
“It’ll even the score.”
“Kyle, you don’t even know what the score is. Let it go,” Sean said as he took a step out onto the solid part of the ice and offered a hand to Gary. “You need a ride back into town?” Gary’s muscles stayed tense as Sean got close. But then he seemed to relent and he took Sean’s hand and let him pull him out. He shook his head in response to Sean’s question.
“I’ve got a cell in my backpack. Just leave it.”
“Better hurry. You’ll get pneumonia.”
“You seriously fucking care?” Gary asked, looking at him.
“No. I don’t.”
Sean then pulled Kyle from the water as I walked up to the car and grabbed Gary’s backpack. I tossed it to him as all three of them walked towards the car, Gary keeping as far away from Kyle as he could.
“So then what happens now?” Gary asked. I looked at Kyle who just shook his head and got in the car. I turned to Sean and let him answer.
“Well, Michelle’s not pressing any charges. She hasn’t told anybody about this except a few friends. So I’m gonna assume that you’ll do the same. None of this,” he said, waving his hand at the blood on the ground, at the hole in the ice, at the gaping wound in our lives, “none of this ever happened.”
“Makes sense to me,” Gary said, pulling out his cell phone and dialing. I turned away and got in the car with Kyle. I looked at him, but he wouldn’t look back.
“Paul’s right, you know,” he said, looking out the window. “You can’t save the world. You’ll get hurt if you try.”
“How’s Kyle?” I asked as Sean came into our room.
“He took some stitches. But he’ll live.”
“What kind of story did you use?”
“Some ridiculous concoction that Kyle made up as he went along. I basically just keep nodding and tried not to say anything.”
I nodded and turned and looked out the window as the snow started to come down again.
“What about you?” he asked. “Are you okay?”
“All I needed was a hot shower. I’ll be fine.”
“God, I hope you never have reason to lie to Kate, because you’re one of the world’s worst liars.”
“Why would I ever need to lie to Kate?” I asked, turning to him.
“Good point. I guess she can be the good liar.”
“And why would she need to lie to me?”
A fake sneeze came complete with the word “Paul” but I decided to just ignore him. I turned and went over to the window, opening it.
“You’re gonna go outside now?” he asked.
“What’s wrong? Don’t like that I’m stealing your favorite place?”
“I don’t go outside when it’s snowing. You’ll be lucky not to fall.”
“Don’t we all fall sometimes? Isn’t that the Hemingway quote that Bruce uses?”
“He said we all break. Breaking and falling are entirely different. I think most people break before they fall.”
“Well then I’ll try not to do either,” I said and climbed out the window. It was a darkness that was yet full of light, with the snow covering everything. It was the kind of night that Paul talked about when he said that no matter how late it got, it would never really be dark. I brushed the snow off my spot on the roof and sat down. I heard a knock on our door but ignored it. I could then hear Rachel’s voice from inside the room.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
“I’ll tell you about it later. After I’ve had more time to process it all.”
“Okay. Let me know when you want to talk,” she said and it sounded like she was about to leave. I think Sean must have reached out to stop her.
“Right now, just stay. Come sit with me,” he said.
“What do you need?”
“Let’s finish the story.”
“That sounds good to me.”
I could hear him starting to read to her, setting into his reading voice, the soft, sweet parental voice he used with her late at night when he thought I wasn’t listening or I was asleep and I couldn’t help but smile.
I turned at the sound of the next window opening. I turned and found myself inches from Michelle. The cynicism was gone. Kyle was gone. She was the sweet, lost little girl I had met over a year before.
“Whatcha doin’, stranger?” she asked.
“Can I join you?”
“You’re always welcome,” I said and she climbed out onto the roof. I cleared more snow away and she sat down beside me.
“How are you?” I asked. She didn’t answer, just looked away.
“Nothing’s ever gonna be the same again,” she whispered, finally. I didn’t know what to say. But I didn’t really have to. Sometimes it’s easier not to understand and it’s better not to speak.
“Thank you,” she said after a while, turning to look at me.
“For listening. For being there. For fighting back for me. For believing in me. For holding my hand. For kissing my forehead. For everything. For being you.”
“It’s what friends are for,” I replied. She smiled at me and kissed me on the cheek.
“I love you, you know,” she said.
“Well, I love you too,” I said, softly. She smiled again. She sat with me out there, listening to the wind, watching the snow, welcoming the winter blanket for the earth. After a while the words from my room began to float upon the air again and she stopped to listen.
“What is he doing?” she asked.
“Reading to Rachel.”
“What’s he reading.”
“You’d laugh if I told you,” I said with a smile. She leaned against me. It felt good to feel her warm body against mine in the cold of the night. I rested my arm around her, pulled her close, pressed her against me.
“We all love you, you know,” I whispered in her ear. She didn’t say anything but I could feel her stir against me. But she didn’t need to say anything. There are some things I understand. She’s said enough. I understood that. And so I smiled. I smiled against everything that had happened. I smiled and sat there with her, the snow falling gently around us, the only sound in the wind the soft touch of Sean’s voice on the words.
“So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”
Kevin is not a natural storyteller. If he were, he would have realized that this was the place to end the story, the two of them on that wind-swept snow-covered roof, listening to the end of the book. But he plows right through it as he stands up and walks over to the window. He looks out the window and I wonder if he’s going to be able to get through to find his real ending without losing it.
I mean, we all loved each other, he tells me. You and Michelle loved each other even then, you just didn’t know it. The dating, the marriage, that came later, but the love was always there. I think by the end of our first year, we all must have loved each other fiercely. In that sense, the couples were almost arbitrary. It was just a group of friends who all loved each other.
He’s right about this, of course. I have said as much in the past. I came to that realization long ago. But he still can’t manage to stop himself from talking.
I wonder, he says, I wonder about things like what happened to Michelle. I try so hard to believe in something, Bruce, to not be just the brooding cynical atheist like Kyle. I need to believe in something. So I think about what happened to Michelle and I wonder how there can be anything to believe in. And then I know what to believe in.
He turns back and looks out the window again. I feel I already know what he must be looking at, but I stand anyway and walk to the window. We stand together and watch Kayce pitching against the wall, her ponytail flashing in the sun every time she delivers a pitch.
We can all do math, you know, Bruce, he tells me. You two never wanted to talk about it, so we never talked about it. But none of us are stupid.
He stares at my daughter and says, did she think this was worth it?
I take a deep breath and think about how to respond to this. Finally I sort out the words in my head and decide precisely how and what I want to say. I hold up my hand to remind him of the scar on my left palm, basically the same scar that is on his palm. I say the words.
Michelle believed in life. She believed that life was the greatest miracle, the best thing that the world could offer. And she believed that she was never given a greater gift in her life than that little girl. You did her proud, Kevin. You all did her proud. You chose life. It is the same choice she would have made, the same choice she did make.
I shudder a little at my own words. Even knowing my wife for as long as I did, as intimately as I did, I do not feel comfortable saying out loud that she believed it was worth it, that something so unbearable, so humiliating, so terrifying, so unspeakably terrible could ever be worth it. But she would have said the same words, I am certain, because she valued her friends that much, she loved them as fiercely as she could. And for me? I would not give up my daughter for anything in the world, but oh god, I so wish I had one more day to be with my love, to see the light in her eyes, to remember how much she did love Kayce, did love me, did love all of us. I hope that when my time is done, I find her waiting for me on the other side and we can get all the time that we have missed here.