You must remember this.
A kiss is so much more than a kiss, everything and nothing all at once, time slipping into your soul and through your hands. A kiss is a hope, a possibility, a step, a dream, a gift, a reach, a death, everything and nothing. A kiss is just a kiss or so the song would have us believe.
You must remember this.
Remember every kiss I was told once, remember every little thing that comes with a kiss because you always know the first one, but you never know the last one. Remember every kiss she said, this girl I loved so much, who maybe loved me too, her words whispered in the hours where the sky fades from black into the most perfect shade of blue in all creation, just before the sun breaks over the horizon. A kiss is not just a kiss, she whispered, it is everything we can ever want it to be, the lasting touch and if we try and we hope and we want to, we can remember every one. First. Last.
You must remember this.
These are the words in my mind, in the lower whisper of my voice, just below human hearing, just where only I know they have been said as I lean in and my lips brush against hers, softly, not a good night kiss, but more a hello, this is nice, maybe we should try more of this kiss.
So think what should be said, how this would be described, what words could possibly come forth to capture this moment in time. He kissed her. That’s how Hemingway would have put it. He kissed her. The kiss was soft. When the kiss was done he longed for another. Wolfe would have said it differently: in such a time as this in the history of Santiago Oaks came these two, the young man looking for what is in front of him, the young woman running from what has been behind her, and in this history there came such a kiss between them that they both felt the sweep of time and the river moving them along. But that’s perhaps too broad a stroke for my tastes. Faulkner would internalize it, something like he kissed her, felt the longing, remembering times gone by being twelve and running across a field back through to his house full of hope this is so new so what I want so what I have never had but now it is so old and I can’t run like this anymore. Then Dos Passos, discussing the headlines of the day, the social movements, making our kiss seem like a part of history, not a personal history caught in a place like Wolfe but a social history that interweaves itself through the entire fabric of social history. Which is nothing compared to Joyce who would have the kiss symbolize everything about our lives and have it all take place within an hour. Hugo would digress for fifty pages, finding a backtrack way of explaining the entire history of everything that might possibly converge with the story. If it were Dickens, we would somehow have some ridiculously coincidental connection. Or I could go with Roth, always following Thoreau’s advice to simply, simplify. He kissed her and all he could think was how good it would be to be inside her. That might be the most accurate description yet.
You must remember this.
Stories don’t start with a kiss, they just get there along the way. A story starts with the ring of a doorbell, me flying down the stairs, anxious to no longer be in this house, be in this world that means nothing to me, has meant nothing to me since the first night I walked away. A story starts with me pulling open the door, expecting to yell at my best friend for being more than an hour late but stopping, taking a second to recognize the young woman with the short dark hair, the leather jacket and the sunglasses staring at me from my front porch. Then I recognize Michelle and I’m not sure why until I see the Mustang in the driveway and I wonder why she is here and she is smiling softly and I’m thinking this might not be such a bad way to go back to school.
“Where’s Kyle?” I ask.
“Sarah wasn’t feeling well. He was too apprehensive to make the trip.”
“Is she okay?”
“Just a bit under the weather. But enough that he felt like he should stay with her.”
“He could have called.”
“Didn’t he? He said he would.”
“He lied. He’s good at that.”
She looks past me, eyes gazing inward for a glimpse into what I do not let shine. With so many from our core group of friends being from California, many have visited each other at home during summer and Christmas, but only Kyle has been here and he has not set foot inside. It is not something I ask people to do and not something I talk about when I am not here.
“Shall we go?” I ask quickly, pointing to my bag, ready by the door.
“You don’t need to say farewell to anyone?”
“I don’t fare anyone here well.”
I grab my bag and shut the door behind me. She turns and walks towards the car and I get a good look at the jacket she is wearing.
“Is that my jacket?”
“It’s Kyle’s,” she says, turning to look at me. “How do I look in it?”
“Well, you look great in it. But it’s mine.”
“Kyle said it was his.”
“Well, as we have already discussed, Kyle’s earning a graduate degree in lying.”
“Does he ever tell the truth?” she asks, leaning up against the car. I open the door and throw my stuff in the back and squint in the Northern California sun, hoping to catch something of her eyes. I find nothing, her eyes hidden in the darkness of the glasses.
“If he ever tells you he loves you, he’s telling the truth. Anything beyond that is suspect.”
She stops, moves in slow motion, a slow curve to try to make herself open the door, suspended in time and emotion and I know he’s found those words for her, that Kyle cares enough about her to have said those three haunting syllables, perhaps before Jenn, perhaps after, but the only words he says with true veracity have been passed to her.
“How’d you get drafted into Gilroy duty?” I ask, trying to change the subject, since I worry that I have caused her pain.
“Conscription is a thing of the past. I volunteered.”
“Why on earth would you do that?”
“I was already back at school. I had to talk to Kyle about something. So, when Sarah wasn’t feeling well, it seemed like the nice thing to do.”
“Well I appreciate it.”
“You’ve got two weeks before school starts, Bruce. You don’t have to come back already.”
“I’ve been home long enough. Time to be somewhere else.”
“Got any place in mind?”
“Get in. I’ll show you a place.”
“High on a desert plain? Where the streets have no name?”
“Excuse me?” I say, confused as to why she has suddenly started spouting U2 lyrics at me.
“Sorry. Sarah’s game. I’ve gotten used to playing it.”
“Ah, right. You see, I’ve never been very good at that game. The rock and roll quotes don’t come to me fast enough.”
“Yeah, you’re more of a literary guy.”
“That’s me all over. I can show you a place where a moocow comes down the road and meets a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.”
“Now that sounds intriguing.”
“We just follow this road to the end of town.”
She smiles, her lips slowly spreading to show her teeth, perfect and white, so much nicer than mine, everything so much better than me and looking nice in my leather jacket on a nice December afternoon. We get in the car and head east.
“Do you think she’s cute?” Michelle asks. I turn, my head still watching the waitress go.
“You were eyeing the waitress. Do you think she’s cute?”
“What I think is that I went to high school with her and I thought she would get farther in life than the milkshake shack at the edge of town.”
“So you weren’t staring at her ass?”
“I was staring at her lost possibilities.”
“The romantic who lives with the cynic. Why is that?”
“What do you mean?”
“You and Kyle still live together after all this time. Three years in the dorm and now an apartment.”
“And nothing. Tom says the two of you are a couple unto yourselves.”
“Tom thinks if you don’t date someone new every few weeks you must be gay.”
“Is it he true he slept with Lisa’s sister? Or is that just bullshit?”
“Well, the way I heard it, Lisa’s sister was on her knees blowing him when Lisa walked in and Tom suggested it could become a three-way.”
“That does sound like Tom. He does like Freshmen.”
“Didn’t you date him when we were Freshmen?”
“Two very memorable weeks. Then he cheated on me with Heather Grafton.”
“Ouch. That’d be like if Kyle traded the Mustang for a fucking Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.”
She pauses and makes a funny little motion with her head. Then she smiles a bit and since we’re inside and she has taken off her sunglasses I can see she really means this smile.
“Thank you, I assume.”
“It was indeed meant as a compliment. I mean, Heather Grafton’s a perfectly fine person, but you’re pretty awesome.”
“I, I, I’m not used to compliments, Bruce. My love life hasn’t been so lucky. It makes me quite sarcastic and sarcastic people don’t know how to react to genuine compliments.”
“You’re a regular Jason Compson.”
“Good lord, Bruce, do you ever reference books that people actually read?”
“Catch-22 is in my repertoire, but yelling out ‘Death to all modifiers!’ in a creative writing class can be confusing to the other students. I also can quote Catcher in the Rye, but since high school there have been much fewer occasions to bring it out.”
There is a pause in our conversation when my high school classmate brings out milkshakes. She stares at me for a second but then walks away. I start to stir my shake. Michelle sticks the straw deep down and starts to suck. As she leans forward, stray bits of dark brown, almost black hair fall from around her ears and cover a bit of her face. Her lips press together tightly and I can see her cheeks move our slightly as her eyes come up and focus on mine. I look down quickly and put my spoon in.
“Tell me about Jessica.”
My spoon stops. When I look up her eyes are tearing into me, heading straight for mine, searching out nothing else in the room.
It is the only word I can possibly think of, the only word at this moment that makes any sense because surely it must be a mistake and she does not want to listen to me relive something which was a disaster straight from the start.
“It’s three and a half hours back to the Oaks. Did you want to drive in silence?”
“You don’t think we could find something better to talk about?”
“Why is it none of you will talk?”
“What does that mean?”
“Kevin is so shy that he can’t bring himself to talk about Kate. Kyle is so worried about what might happen with Sarah that he won’t talk about how he feels and before that, he was so intensely private about his relationship with Jenn. Jeff tells the most boring stories in the world. I don’t want to hear Tom or Jim talk about their women. Paul is gone. I just would like someone to open up. Besides, it might do you some good.”
“Did Kyle put you up to this?”
“Would you just relax, Bruce, and try to smile?”
“Talking about her won’t make me smile.”
“You don’t have any good memories that would make you smile?”
“She left, Michelle. It’s not a story with a happy ending. Wouldn’t you rather have a story with a happy ending? I know lots of them. I can keep you entertained all the way back to school.”
“Why’d you bolt out of the house so fast?”
“That is also not a story with a happy ending.”
“Do you really know any stories with a happy ending?”
“Not real ones. But I have an active imagination.”
“An active imagination?”
“What do you think I’m wearing underneath my jeans and t-shirt?”
Before I can even think of how insane this question is, of what she could possibly be playing at, I want to know where this is going, want to keep it flowing and don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t think about anything else.
“Underwear, because you’re not as forward as Sarah,” I say, but my voice cracks a little when I say it and I feel like an idiot, especially as I try not to imagine what her underwear might look like, try not to think of the curve of her legs up along her thighs and higher.
“What colors?” she asks.
“Is this a test?”
“A test of your imagination, yes.”
“You dated Jessie for how long?”
“Then shouldn’t you know that girls only wear the nice black ones when they know something’s gonna happen.”
“As I said, I have an active imagination,” I say, trying to sound bold, but I’m fairly certain I’m blushing.
“Isn’t there some rule about counting your chickens before they hatch?”
“I’m not counting any chickens, just postulating on the possibility of panty pigment.”
“Oooh, the alliterative literary lad emerges. But survey says eehhhhh,” she replies, making the noise from Family Feud as her hand slips along the seam of her shirt, gently against her collarbone, then slides underneath and pulls a white strap out so that I can see the color.
“That’s only half the equation.”
“It’s kind of difficult to show you the rest at a table in a diner.”
“They have a bathroom.”
“Were you this fast with Jessie? This forward?”
“Pretend it’s you and Tom.”
“I was with Tom for two weeks.”
“And that probably saw you as much action as my couple of years with Jess.”
“Do you really want to run off and get down in the bathroom?”
“Wouldn’t be the worst idea I’ve ever had.”
“Exactly how far does your imagination stretch?”
“It imagined me together with Jess.”
“Did you sleep with her, Bruce?”
“As honest as you’re willing.”
“More than once. Less than a lot.”
“Did you love her?”
“Oh good lord, I loved her more than I should have.”
“Did she love you?”
“Less than I hoped she did.”
“Do you ever talk?”
“We’ve made attempts at it. There are e-mails, there have been letters, a few phone calls, half-hearted pushes to keep something alive because she so desperately wanted to prove that she wasn’t leaving me, that our friendship, which she kept saying was so important to her, wasn’t dead and buried.”
“You sound bitter.”
“Oh no. I’m not bitter.”
“Now who’s being sarcastic?”
“I have been referred to as ‘one sarcastic son-of-a-bitch’. But then she stopped and went, ‘hey, wait, that makes me a bitch’.”
Michelle laughs, a soft slip into something nice and she sucks more of her milkshake from her glass.
“What about you?” I ask.
“What about me?”
“Are you a virgin?”
She stares and I stop and I can feel the red blush creeping over my face, the blood rushing to my cheeks and I suddenly want to crawl back into my parents house and hide.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, looking down, spooning out some of my shake and slowly lifting it to my lips.
“You don’t have to be,” she says. “It’s better for life if people forget things. If people can somehow learn to forget, then you don’t have to relive every awful things that’s ever happened.”
“I hope he wasn’t your first.”
I look up when I say this and see surprise in her eyes, shock that someone is actually willing to talk about it, to not ignore it, but not simply say, I’m sorry, to help her try to find a life again in these years beyond it.
“No. He wasn’t.”
“You actually fucked that perverted dipshit? I would have played you for having better sense.”
“I should have had better sense. I should run away before anything started with him. But when you’re eighteen and new to college and everything is so different and there are suddenly no rules and anything can happen, you begin to think it’s such a pain being a virgin and you just want to get it out of the way and get on with life. You find someone you think is nice looking and a lot of times you find out later you were wrong in your decision but by then it’s too late.”
“I can’t believe you just said all that without taking a breath.”
“Try not to breathe, you can hold your head still.”
I stare at her, not sure what she means, but then I remember the song. Given how many times I’ve listened to Automatic for the People I shouldn’t be this slow at picking up the game.
“I told you before,” I say, “I’m not very good at Sarah’s game.”
“What are you good at?”
“I’m not quite sure yet.”
“You’ve got one more semester to figure it out.”
“Time enough for a hundred indecisions and revisions.”
I am just coming awake when we slip out of the mountains and into the valley with the college that we call home. The first half hour of the trip had more flirting, some talk of loves past, but not much more than that. Then, not too long after we caught I-5 and started heading north I get lost in thoughts of all the things I hate about my hometown and why I’m so anxious to escape it and I let myself slip away into sleep.
“Sorry,” I say, when I realize where we are.
“What are you apologizing for?” she asks. I shiver slightly and notice that even though there is snow on the ground she has the window cracked a little, letting the winter cold slide into the car. Her hair is blowing in the wind, stray dark hairs filling all the space in between. When she turns slightly, awaiting an answer to her question I also notice that her eyes are a lovely shade of brown, so much like mine, like Jessica, but different, a soft brown, not puppy dog brown, not amazingly cute brown, just a nice brown, closer to mine, to dominant color of eyes in the world.
“It must have been a boring drive for you. Not quite what you were hoping for.”
“Not so at all. You talk in your sleep, Yale.”
“Oh, Jessica, that feels so good. Move your tongue ever so lower.”
“Yes. I do. I think I picked it up from Kyle.”
Night falls fast now, a winter darkness dropping over the valley as we come off the highway and slide into the Oaks and I wish I had stayed awake, wish I had spent the time talking to her, to find out everything she’s willing to let slip. There is no more time as the car glides along Main Street and in front of the campus, turning up College Way and then up University Drive and into the parking lot.
We sit in the dark, our eyes resting on each other. In the darkness my eyes can barely seek out, just below the jacket, just barely visible under the edge of her shirt, the strip of white she showed me before, as if daring me to know what she might hold beneath what she shows to the world. I remember the first day of classes in the spring semester of our second year, just a couple of weeks after everything had happened, as life started to come back together again and her eyes catching mine as we walked together down to Bio for Non-Science Majors and my voice softly asked if she was doing okay and she was able to give me half, nearly three quarters of a smile and say that everything would be okay and that was all I ever asked, all I ever wanted to know and now I want to know more, see what color is beneath everything, see what color the skin is against the cloth and for the first time since I saw Sean walk across the roof and everything that was starting between Jenn and I broke I find myself remembering what it is like to welcome desire.
“Ought to be easy,” I sing softly, “ought to be simple enough. A man meets a woman and they fall in love.”
Good Christ, did I really just say that to her?
“Sometimes, Yale, I don’t know whether you’re a romantic or . . .” but her sentence goes unfinished as her words slip into the darkness.
“You know, I’m not quite sure.”
She turns and I know I catch a smile, even in the darkness. She opens the door and steps out into the snow. I follow her. When I have pulled out my bag and turned to look at her as I shut the door her eyes have turned into something almost sad and I wonder what I said wrong but then her words come and I know I should say something but at first I don’t know what to say, I’m so moved by her intentions.
“Hey,” she says.
“If we shadows have offended. Think but this and all is mended. That you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, nor more yielding but a dream.”
“Come up for a drink,” I finally force my mouth to say after a long pause.
“In your apartment? Kyle doesn’t drink.”
“I know but he keeps a well-stocked bar.”
“I will never really understand him.”
“No one ever does. It’s part of the fun.”
“No response to my quote?”
“I’m just so stunned at someone giving me literature. Most people give me a rock quote. Or a blank stare.”
“You could have at least told me to get thee to a nunnery.”
“Well now that would be a waste of a beautiful woman. And you’re doing it again. I still don’t really know how to respond.”
“How did you ever manage to score with Jessica?”
“If I knew the answer to that maybe she’d still be here.”
She turns and starts to walk away. I start to run, slip in the snow, remembering still how to walk without ice forcing me to the ground, come around the car and stumble my way towards her. She turns before I can speak, before I can ruin anything and she’s not mad like I would have thought, just maybe sad, wondering, thinking, figuring things out.
“No, Bruce. You’re wrong. Jessie would still be gone. The way to a woman’s cunt and the way to her heart are totally different. I think maybe you had her heart for a while. You had her cunt too, it would seem. But if she left anything behind it was heart and she still left and she took her cunt with her. You can’t ever figure out the words to make someone stay. There are magic words that will get you in someone’s pants and they are usually ‘I love you’, though not always. But you can’t make anyone stay. She was gone, no matter what you said, no matter what got you inside her, she was still gone and there was no changing it. Just like Sean. Gone. And nothing could be done about it. You just learn to go on.”
I, conjoined with am, followed by sorry, are the only things that feel like coming out. But who would I apologize to? So words fail me and I wonder how I can possibly be a writer; though I may have time for those hundreds of indecisions and revisions there first must be words to flow forth in one manner or another and I have spent too much of my life standing speechless while every part of my life that may hold any possible meaning has slipped out of my grasp.
Her hand slowly moves close to me, brushing against my cheek, her fingers softly running down the edge of the two day growth of hair, running under my chin and down my neck, coming to a stop where my shirt begins. She takes a step closer and I can see her eyes in the light of the lamppost, ghostly pale in the winter night and the first few flakes of snow for my winter come down between us.
“I know you were up there with Sean and it must have been horrible. But you couldn’t save him. You couldn’t keep him for leaving us. And I know that Jessie left you and it must have been devastating. But you don’t need to feel bitter and you don’t need to feel lost. She may be gone. It was her mistake. Don’t waste your time running after someone who never looks back.”
She leans in and presses her lips to my cheek now, a soft kiss of friendship; yet, when she pulls back I lean in and a nice bond between old friends becomes something more and my lips are on hers and this feels good, so beautiful, so nice and I feel her respond and her tongue softly sliding along my lips and I can hear Jessica in my head telling me to remember every kiss, to remember every little thing that comes with a kiss because you always know the first but you never know the last and I decide to remember this one and my hands reach around my jacket that is fit so snugly around her body and I pull her in close to me and lose myself in the kiss.
I open the door softly. I look inside and see the small body curled up on his bed, lost in the folds of sleep. My eyes drift to the man sitting by the desk and he motions that it is okay and he steps out into the living room, that right now nothing will disturb the serenity of her slumber. I let my bag fall from my shoulder on the floor by the couch. Michelle comes over to him and places the keys in his hand.
“Handle okay in the snow?” he asks. It is not a whisper, not a full voice, somewhere in between, where I think we have all lived for the last few months, no longer students, yet not out of this life, somewhere in between and not sure which direction we will be pulled.
“The car or the package?” she asks with a smile. Kyle gives something like a smirk. I ignore them.
“How is . . .” but I don’t finish the sentence, don’t put a name to fear, just nod my head slightly towards his closed bedroom door where beyond the small curled up body lays beneath his blankets.
“She’s just asleep. Overly tired.”
“How was Christmas?” I ask, kicking back on the couch and throwing off my shoes.
“Nice. Best I’ve had in years.”
“Hey, Yale. What about that drink you promised me?”
“You still have some Schnapps?” I ask Kyle.
“Peach, if you have it,” Michelle answers and sits on the other end of the couch, throwing off her boots and keeping her eyes on me.
“Have a nice drive?” he asks as he pours her a drink.
“He slept most of the way.”
“Probably called out Jessie’s name.”
“Of course he did.”
“You know I am sitting here,” I say. “You can talk to me, I do respond. And I do not call out Jessie’s name in my sleep.”
When I look back at Michelle I wonder if the kiss was real, if anything out in the snow really happened, if all the writers have betrayed me with a vision that somehow things are better than they seem, that there really is hope to come from a kiss. Then a smile breaks across her lips and I feel one step behind, as usual and she half turns to look at him and asks “is he always like this or does he actually have a sense of humor somewhere?”
Kyle smiles, almost breaks into a laugh, except his first concern is the sleeping fragile body in his bed and he contents himself with just the smile.
“Has he been utterly without humor all day?”
“Well, he was actually flirting with me before. That was amusing.”
“He was what?”
“Oh, he was flirting. Hard core.”
I can feel the blush rise to my cheeks again, know I don’t want her to repeat our conversation from before, especially as I still don’t know what color down below is and before I know what I am doing I have images of Branagh and Thompson in my head and I lean forward and say “I will stop your mouth” and I press my lips to her and this second kiss is nice, not quite as soft as the first, but nice, and I when I slowly move away her lips push together and form the words “the course of true love never did run smooth.”
“Looks like someone had a good ride back,” Kyle says.
“But he still doesn’t know what color . . .” she begins to say but my lips are upon hers again and I have turned and she had laid back upon the couch and pulled my body close to hers and her arms are coming around me and this kiss is it, everything I imagined the first kiss with Jessica was supposed to have been, everything I have imagined for twenty-one years and I don’t want to let her go and so I don’t.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was (it was the best of times, it was the worst of times), somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert, the clocks were striking thirteen. Those should have been the first words, an opening worth remembering, like so many stories before, like everything I have been taught, don’t bury the lead, don’t open with a long exposition, just flow right into the story, Benjy watching the golfers tee off, Rabbit watching the boys playing basketball, the archangel Gibreel falling down to earth from thirty thousand feet, always come in late and leave early and have them begging for more. But we none of us know where the story begins, just find the part where we want to begin telling and figure out somewhere to leave off and in between the story takes its own life and I just mention the parts that sound interesting.
“I’m taking it slow,” I tell him. He takes another of my fries off my plate. I try to stab him with my fork but his hand has already darted back to his mouth, somehow stopping to dip it in catsup on the way.
“Be careful. Don’t go where angels fear to tread. Some things are worth waiting for.”
“I’m watching over her. Things will be okay.”
“What do you two need my car for?”
“She wants to take me to her mom’s house. Has some personal things she wants to show me.”
“Have you slept with her?”
“Like I said, taking it slow.”
“Did you ever find out what color panties she was wearing that night?”
“Probably not what you were hoping for.”
“I spent two years with Jess. Hopes aren’t something I strive for anymore.”
“She’s worth hoping for.”
“Do you think I’m good enough for her?”
The question slows him down and I am able to grab his sleeve and slam the fork down, the prongs piercing through and catching in the table. He looks down in amazement. I am somewhat surprised myself, surprised at the attempt, more at the success. His head moves slowly, jerking into different positions, struggling to put words to his thoughts, before he comes up and I can see his eyes and he is not smiling but not frowning and I suppose that I am as good as anyone he could have hoped for.
“You’re better than anyone else I can think of. You spend two years working to try to make Jessie happy. You’ll do what you have to to make her happy.”
“Think she’ll make me happy? Things usually work better that way.”
“Unless her power to kiss has diminished in the last year I think you’ll do just fine with being happy,” he says as he reaches over and pulls the fork out, holding it under my chin. “And do you realize that this jacket cost one hundred and ninety-seven dollars and ninety-eight cents?”
“Then perhaps you shouldn’t wear it while attempting to steal my fries.”
“What do you mean attempting?” he asks, holding three of my fries in front of my face before slipping them into his mouth.
“How often do you tell Sarah that you love her?”
He stops chewing. His eyes focus on me. He swallows hard.
“At least once a day. Try not to sleep if I haven’t said it. What about you?”
“Me? I don’t tell Sarah I love her. I mean, she’s a nice girl and all, but she’s not really my type.”
“Did you just make a joke?”
“Something like that.”
“Something like that is right.”
“Love is the greatest thing in the world. Except for cough drops, of course.”
“I haven’t said it yet.”
“Say it before you do it.”
“Thanks for the advice, oh romantic one.”
“Bruce. Do what I say. Look her in the eyes and say it. And unless you mean it, don’t go to LA with her. Stay here.”
He has me nervous now. Kisses mean nothing, my hands running along her leg, ticking softly, running up along the curve of her spine, finding the spot that makes her back arch and press into my kiss, staring into her eyes and realizing any child bearing our blood would have brown eyes, any dreams of seeing her with all her clothes gone, even the white bra and panties I have seen with my own eyes, none of this means anything next to someone who has held her in his arms, pressed his lips to her and whispered those words that I can not say, will not say, because I said them to Jess and she left anyway. But I’m not bitter, I don’t look back, don’t want to keep running back to something that left me behind, someone who ran out the door after the kiss, yes, ran back before reaching the door, then was there, her lips to mine, to my cheeks, my neck, my hands, everywhere, then to my lips again, but after it was all over, she was still out the door and she was still never coming back and I am still bitter and I gave her everything she could have ever wanted and she was still gone and I still love her and I love Michelle and I’m too frightened to say it because she might just disappear.
— Don’t disappear, I whispered one night, three nights ago, the first time I let myself fall asleep in her arms, don’t disappear out of my life.
— What makes you think I would disappear?
— Everyone disappears after a while. Every good thing dies. No matter how hard you try, all the good things die.
— That’s a horribly cynical thought.
— Way the world works sometimes.
— Do I look like I’m about to disappear?
— No one ever looks like they’ll disappear. You just look up one day and they’re gone. And you try to think and wonder if you had time to say goodbye.
— How badly did she hurt you?
— Bad enough.
— I want you to listen something, Yale, and I want to make sure you understand it. I have done a lot of things in my life. I dropped acid once and I wasn’t sure what the hell was going on and my own boyfriend turned into a fucking demon right in front of me. I’ve smoked pot and I have let myself be fucked and I have blown a guy while high. I’ve broken laws, ones that have to do with drugs, ones that have to do with driving, even once one that has to do with breaking and entering, because when you’re young, sometimes you do stupid shit. I slapped my mother once, told her that she had failed me, failed my father and I didn’t ever want to see her again. But I do not run away. I do not abandon. I do not disappear. You understand that and you make sure that it is clear before we leave for this weekend. We’re taking it slow and I kind of like that. It’s been a long time since I’ve been to bed with someone and I like the idea of taking it slow. You are nice and you are romantic and I like that. But I am not her. I will not tolerate being compared to her. I will not allow any of this to continue if you want to obsess about her. You have to let things go. You look at what I went through and I know you don’t want to hear about it, but I know that you know at least some of it. I’ve let it go. It’s time for you to let this go. You live your life in platitudes. It’s kind of nice. After years of getting John Lennon and Paul Simon and Sting and Michael Stipe and good lord, all the Springsteen that Kyle can quote, it’s kind of nice to get Faulkner, to get Joyce, to get Marquez, to hear a love song like no other I’ve ever heard. But listen to this. I ain’t no fool for love songs that whisper in my ears.
— You know I ain’t nobody’s bargain. But hell a little touch up and a little paint. Baby in this world without pity. Do you think what I’m askin’s too much? I just want to feel you in my arms. And share a little of this human touch.
She takes me in her hands, takes me in her arms, lets me fold away into the curves of her body and a memory floats away, a ghost is gone, a demon is exorcised and tonight and now she is all I need.
She lets me take control of the wheel for most of the journey: the quick first burst down I-80 and into the flow of the capital followed by a left turn on I-5 and another four hundred miles of free floating down through the valley, never straying too far from the promised land the Joads came to find, a nice long clear and cool drive in the Central California winter air until we hit the Grapevine. It is there, in a little truckstop before the mountains where we switch positions. She is in control now, takes us out of the valley and into the hills that guard the entrance to Southern California and all the paradise that hides in sight of the beaches and the movie stars.
It is also there where she begins her transformation. There is no phone booth involved, no magic lasso that, with a twirl can turn Princess Diana back into Diana Prince, no magic wardrobe from which she emerges where the trappings of maturity disappear back in the woods, but as I watch and listen and we are getting up into the mountains and we cut through the late January snow and something is different and I remember her from before, even before Tom I want to say, but most assuredly before Gary Wagner ever came into her life and I remember how shy and quiet she used to be when we were all together walking to Psych our Freshman year, all of us still following in the footsteps of our fearless leader and something in her drops away and that young girl comes to the forefront. Confidence slips away and she even looks younger, less assured of what could happen to her on whatever curve comes next and over the next forty miles it continues and by the time we drop out of the mountains, just within sight of the first of many theme parks to come our way, I wonder what terrors her mother’s house could possibly hold that she has yet to tell me of.
South of the mountains comes the brown stuff. I’m somewhat used to this from years of hanging around the Bay Area but up there it’s usually fairly gray and often mixed in with all the fog. I will never be able to understand the Southern California car driving mentality that leads to the huge mass of brown gunk that hovers above their cities and tries to pass itself off as air.
As we come into the brown stuff we cut away from the Golden State Freeway and pass ourselves onto the first of many subdivisions that belong to the Interstate Freeway Authority, this one being the 405. The theory behind these three digit freeways that begin with an even number is that they go around the massive downtown sprawl so that a large number of commuters will be able to avoid the copious amounts of traffic; the problem to this line of thinking being that there are so many fucking people in the Los Angeles city and vicinity that the only way to eliminate traffic is to force most of them to stay home all day.
We exit the freeway somewhere in the middle of the beaches (Redondo, Manhattan, Hermosa, we could be in South Beach, Florida and I wouldn’t know the God damn difference). She immediately drives through the intersection and makes a left into a gas station. I find this odd since we made use of food, gas and restrooms at the foot of the grapevine only about an hour and a half ago. She turns to look at me and I almost would swear I see panic in her eyes and there is a slight quiver to her lips as she tells me that she has to use the bathroom real quick and that she’ll be back in a minute. I barely have time to nod before she is out of the car and across the parking lot.
I have been spending a lot of time lately working on my thesis. I have a few months before it is done, the entire second half of my senior year, but I need to get this right. It has nothing to do with grades, even less to do with a need to know I can write. I know I can write, know the way the words flow to the page, have been understanding for the last few years the intricate manner of placing letters on a page to form words to form sentences to form meanings and allusions and stories and characters. I need to do it because I need to know I can finish something. There are four novels sitting in my desk, some four hundred miles away, tucked in an apartment at a college in a valley in a mountain range in some place that might as well be another country even though it lies within the borders of the very same state I am sitting in. Between the four novels there are approximately somewhere in the neighborhood of five hundred thousand words of prose (maybe some poetry tucked away in all of it as well) and none of them come anywhere close to being an ending or even the start of a wrap-up. There are stories that flow and ramble and detail and travel but not a single story finds an ending. I need to finish something. I need to make something in my life complete. The natural tendency to keep at work, to try to complete something takes over and I pull The Trial from my bag and the pages labeled “A Look at Existentialism as a Form of Black Humor” and I begin to read and mark and plan.
I have gotten through an entire chapter, pausing to highlight, stopping entirely to make some notes, when I realize that I am still alone in the car. I look up and see the usual crowd to be expected at a gas station in an LA beach town and I wonder where my girlfriend has gotten to.
I notice that she has left the keys in the ignition, perhaps so that I could listen to the radio, perhaps because she was in a hurry. This worries me. I have my own set of keys to Kyle’s car, have had them since the first month we lived together and I don’t need the set he loaned her. However, I am hesitant to get out and lock the car for fear that if I step away she will return and be locked out in the middle of a strange town. When I look around and satisfy myself that she is not within sight, I do take the keys and open the door and step out into the Southern California winter sun.
I lock the doors after I get out, a natural habit to check after things and I walk towards the door. Inside, the only person I see is someone at a cash register, some twenty-something clerk who think he’s better than everybody else while trying to forget the fact that he’s jockeying a register in a pathetic beach town gas station.
“Did you see a brunette come in here? Short hair, about my age, few inches shorter than me.”
“Was she wearing a bikini?”
“In the middle of January?”
“Beach girls are an interesting bunch.”
“Did you see her?”
“I ain’t seen shit, man.”
I’m tempted to say something else, to start an argument, but he’s taller than I am, probably got at least twenty pounds on me and I am in the outskirts of what they laughingly call the City of Angels and we are not so far removed from the ’92 riots as I would like to hope.
“Got a bathroom?”
“Outside. Round the corner.”
I turn and make my way back into the afternoon sun, the last gasps of light before the late January darkness settles in over the Pacific beaches. I walk around the corner to the women’s restroom. I knock. No answer. I knock, somewhat louder this time. There is again no answer but I think I can hear something inside. I take the chance that nobody else has felt the need to pull off the 405 and pee at this exact moment and I open the door and step inside.
Inside the dark, cramped room, sitting on the toilet, her legs pulled up against her, her entire body crouched in upon itself, sits Michelle Elizabeth Palit, my girlfriend of the last month and the girl, more than any other right now that I want to take in my arms and hold and comfort and then, my lips upon hers, make beautiful love to.
Her eyes are stained with tears and I can see that she has been crying for a while now, perhaps as long as she has been sitting here in the dark waiting for me to search her out. Or perhaps she hasn’t been waiting for me to come find her but rather still does not have the strength to return herself to the car and into my care.
I don’t say anything when I first see her, when she looks up and sees me walk in. I walk close to her and place my hand on her head, run it softly through her hair. I pull her to me, let her tears make a stain on my shirt, don’t say a word, just hold her there and when she is more comfortable, kneel down and look her in the eyes. She brings up my shirt and presses it against her eyes to wipe away enough of the moisture to allow her to bring me into focus.
“We don’t have to go if you don’t want,” I tell her.
“Yes. We do.”
“We can find a place where no one will ever look for us, just a place where we can be us and not have to play any . . .”
“Bruce, you don’t understand yet, you can’t understand yet. I want to hold you now, to feel your lips on mine, your body up against me. I need you, I want you, I wish I could have you, all of you, right now, every and any way I can think of. But I made a promise a long time ago. I need you to do this. Because, if you’re not willing to accept this, then it won’t work. You have to understand what’s gonna happen. I made a promise. I go through this before I sleep with anyone else. No fucking until all the work is done. And I really want to fuck you, Bruce. I need you.”
I am unprepared for emotions of this magnitude, for more words and power than I ever heard in those two wasted years I spent longing for a girl named Jessica. I take a half-step back and lean myself up against the wall, my body coming to a rest upon the handicap bar. I’m not used to hearing someone sound so much like me.
“There’s got to be a whole lot you’re not telling me about.”
“I love you, Bruce. I love you. More than anyone I’ve ever met. I don’t know why I couldn’t see this for the last few years, why it took so long. You’re the only one I want to take this journey with me. But we have to get this over with. This has to come first.”
I remember Kyle’s words from Wednesday afternoon, can almost hear his voice echoing in my head as he tells me I have to tell her, that there are places where angels fear to tread and I think that he must have taken this trip or at the very least knows what taking this trip will entail.
Her eyes come up softly, touch upon mine, let me slide away and I’m not sure what to think, what to know, what distant secrets could be waiting for me. I come over to her.
“How does it go?” she asks. “If it be not now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”
“Yeah. That’s how it goes.”
“So just be ready. Because, you know, the readiness is all.”
“I love you,” I tell her.
“I love you.
“Bruce, I’m sorry . . .”
“No has ever needed me before. I’ve had relationships and I’ve had what you’d call lovers, I guess. But not one person has ever said that to me before. Not my parents, not Jessica, not anyone. I’ve never been needed before.”
“I don’t just need you. I love you.”
“It’s nice to hear. It’s been a long time. It’s very nice to hear.”
“I wish we could just forget it all,” she says, curling up in my arms. “Just lock the bathroom door, close the door to the stall and slip into each other. Maybe we should have done that back in the bathroom at the milkshake place in Gilroy.”
“Not sure it would have had the same effect.”
“Be a little more patient with me. A little farther and we’re there and we can get this all over with. Then I’m yours. Just be strong and be ready for anything you might come across.”
“I will. The readiness is all.”
“We’ve been on the road all fucking day. Are you ever going to ask me what it is about my mother’s house that holds such a strong power over me?”
“I’ll see it when we’re there. And your hand will be in mine. And everything will be okay. You and me, we have love. And love truly is the greatest thing in the world.”
“Except for a nice MLT, a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich.”
“Actually,” I inform her, “except for cough drops.”
“Difference between the book and the movie.”
“Does the book still have a happy ending?”
“Then I’ll take the movie. I like happy endings.”
A black Mustang glides along the roads of Rancho Palos Verdes. It coasts up into a driveway of a nice two-story house, the popular model of the area, a neighborhood that almost looks like a housing project for the very rich. Sliding in next to the Mercedes, Michelle pushes the car into park and we come to a complete stop, though she also pushes down the emergency brake so we don’t go sliding back down the driveway. She turns and kisses me, harder than anything I have felt in years, harder than anything I can remember, a desperate plea from someone who needs right now to be loved and I return it, push back, lips pressed hard against hers, matching desperation with love and desire and all the good things that go with them.
“Tell me you love me again,” she says.
“I love you again.”
Her left cheek goes up slight, a half-smile, and her eyes close a little and I think it’s helping take the edge off.
“A sarcastic son-of-a-bitch. Isn’t that what she called you?”
“On numerous occasions.”
“I love sarcastic sons-of-bitches. They’re the best thing in the world.”
“I can provide you with one if you’re in need.”
“Just make it through the door with me. Two minutes, then you’ll understand everything and you can make the decision as to whether or not that is what you really want. In the end, it’s all gonna come down to you. It’s your choice.”
“Enough already,” I say. “Let’s just go. You build it up too much and I’m just gonna be disappointed when I find out it’s not really all that bad.”
Her eyes drop away from mine and I can tell she is debating, wondering whether she should just tell me what this trip is all about, or maybe just abandon the whole idea and find a motel where we can fuck the night away, but I know how important this is to her, know how long she has been worrying about this and I kiss her hand and throw open my door and say ‘fuck it, this’ll be fun’ and I am out the door and she has to run to catch up and she almost pauses at the front door but I nudge her forward and she opens the door and I see a middle-aged woman, somewhere around fifty I would hazard a guess and I don’t see anything so bizarre that could wind her so tightly and then I hear the voice cry ‘Mama’ and I turn and I see the little girl walking, almost waddling across the room and into Michelle’s arms and I see Michelle’s eyes light up as she picks the little girl up and spins her in a circle and I suddenly think about all the things that have come and gone over the past couple of years and how she wasn’t there when Rachel died, how her mother told us she was in the hospital with strep throat and she would be back at school soon but we were all wondering if maybe after everything that had happened that she was thinking of leaving school and going somewhere else, but then she was back a week later and we all forgot about it within a week and I think about the timing of it all, of the shit that went down during the last week before Finals in December of 1994 and how the timing from there works that we might never have known it when she left school in May and that born in late August the timing all works and Michelle turns and holds the little girl, so wonderful, so cute, so darling, so beautiful and points to me and says, ‘Kayce, this is Mama’s friend, Bruce,’ and then Michelle is turning to catch my eyes and is frightened for what might come now and I smile and I whisper in her ear, softly enough that the little girl, Kayce, can’t hear it and Michelle hears the words, ‘fuck it, she can call me Daddy if she wants,’ and Michelle turns and her lips are on mine and everything feels just right for the first time since long before Jessica turned and ran for the door the second time, the taste of her lips still on mine.
We spend our time searching for late night diners that are still open at the hours we are hungry and bookstores that have copies of all the old Modern Library titles complete with dust jackets. On the in-between days he and I have spent four years somehow managing to fit in some classes and arguing about pretty much everything that can be argued about. Four years of sharing, first a room, then an apartment, with someone leads to sharing interesting thought and sharing other things that you never dreamed you might share.
“Kyle, everyone knows that Sgt. Peppers is the greatest album ever recorded.”
“And everyone, as usual, is wrong. You’re an intelligent person. You should know better than to go along with the thoughts of the hoard.”
“I happen to think they’re right on this occasion.”
“London Calling. Second is Tunnel of Love, followed closely by Born to Run. Then comes Sgt. Pepper’s.”
“London Calling can’t even make the Top 5, let alone Tunnel of Love. Dark Side of the Moon. Joshua Tree. Pet Sounds. Then we’re into a toss-up between, I don’t know Born to Run, Automatic for the People, maybe Highway 61 Revisited.”
“Don’t get me started on the reasons that London Calling is the greatest album ever made. And most of the albums you mentioned can’t compare to Velvet Underground and Nico.”
“Have you seen her?”
“Is that an album I’m unaware of?”
“No, that is me changing the subject and ending an argument I’m not likely to win.”
“Okay. Seen who?”
I stare at him. He looks down, picks up his hot chocolate, slowly raises his eyes back up to my level.
“I presume you are talking about Kayce.”
“You know her name.”
“Have you seen her?”
“I have, indeed, seen her. But it was a while ago. She wasn’t yet walking or talking, both of which I presume she is doing by now.”
“You’ve made the trip?”
“I made the trip under different circumstances.”
“Who else knows about her?”
“Gary doesn’t know.”
“Gary sure as fuck doesn’t know and I think it’s best that way.”
“You didn’t ask her about this?”
“We had other things going on on the way back. I’m asking you.”
“California birth certificates don’t list a father if the mother is unmarried.”
“So Gary remains unaware. And there’s nothing with his name on it.”
“Nothing with his name on it. He would have to try and prove his paternity and why would he do that? And he would have to know first and we’re keeping him unaware. He can rot in hell for all I care. I already tried . . .”
“I told you, I don’t want to hear about it. What happened is between you and him.”
“You might want to know everything that went down if you really are serious about all of this.”
“Because I’m serious about all of this is precisely why I don’t want to know. She doesn’t ignore the fact of the rape, doesn’t try to hide it or forget about it as if it never happened. She deals with the fact that it happened and she goes on. I don’t quite understand the way she’s dealt with it but the fact is, she has dealt with it and quite admirably. I’m gonna do the same. I know what I know and I don’t care to know anything else. It happened, it was a horrible thing, a painful thing for her to go through, but something which she has come to terms with and which I have no need to know anything more about. I intend to keep it that way.”
He leans down and starts to eat. Before I notice what he is doing half of my fries are gone. I swat him away and snap my fingers under his face, forcing him to look up at me.
“Good? Why good? What the fuck does that mean? And why can’t you order your own damn fries?”
“I don’t order my own fries because it’s more fun to take yours. And it’s good because it’s not how you would have handled things with Jess. You would have pushed and wanted to share everything and know everything. It’s better to leave things alone sometimes. That’s one part of it being good. And it’s just not the way you would have been with Jess and any change from the way you were with Jess is a good thing.”
“Sounds like you almost hate her. I never knew you felt so passionately about my relationship with Jess.”
“I don’t hate her. I could never have hated her. But I hated the way she treated you. I hated the way she dealt with the relationship. I hated the way she made you doubt yourself all the time, something you didn’t need after your parents. You are my best friend, Bruce. I never could really like her too much given all of that. I was fairly glad when she was gone. Not because of her. Because of you.”
“I never knew any of this.”
“You never asked.”
“I never asked. Well, of course. Right silly of me.”
“It’s okay to open up sometimes, you know, Kyle. You don’t always have to have to be the mystery.”
He shrugs, lifting his shoulders just slightly, a movement I wouldn’t have registered a couple of years ago let alone understood.
“Why isn’t it you with her?” I ask.
“I have Sarah.”
“If Kayce was just a baby you didn’t have Sarah then.”
“I had Jenn.”
“Just answer my fucking question.”
“I wasn’t ready,” he says, looking straight at me. “I wanted so hard to make everything in life perfect for Jenn, to make things work in spite of all the things that couldn’t and I couldn’t take the idea of being a father. I could be a friend, I could be an uncle, a godfather I guess, something like that. But I can’t commit to being a father. I was the wrong person.”
“So what am I? Sloppy seconds? What comes after the first choice didn’t work out?”
His head snaps up sharply, his eyes drilling themselves into me. But before he can say anything, I’ve remembered something and continued on.
“Wait a minute, she talked to you. She came back to school early to talk to you about something, then she came to get me. Was this all a set-up? Am I just the fill-in for you?”
“No,” he says, forcefully. “She came to me after Christmas. She said she wasn’t sure what to do. It had already been months since I had been down there with her. She wasn’t looking for me again. She was looking for advice. So I gave her advice. I said to her, you need someone who is smart, who is compassionate, who is mature and willing. You need someone who not only could be a good father but would be a good father. If you are looking for someone to share, not only your life, but Kayce’s life, then you go to Gilroy and you pick Bruce up and you see if there’s a spark between the two of you, because he’s everything you’re looking for and if you pass that up, you won’t find someone else like him.”
I sit back, completely stunned. I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know what to think.
“You said that about me?” I finally ask with a weak voice.
“Look, Bruce, you’re not the second choice. You’re the only choice. You’re the one who can do this. You’re the one who said yes. Go be a father. You can walk where angels fear to tread, or where I fear to tread as the case may be. That little girl is wonderful and I love her with all my heart, but I can’t do that, I am not hard-wired in that way. But you are. So go love Michelle, because you know you do. Go love Kayce, because I know you can. You survived through being there in that room with Rachel, through being there on the roof with Sean. You are stronger than anyone realizes, including you. So go be that man.”
“I can’t even win an argument with you about me.”
“Maybe because you don’t know yourself as well as you think. I know who you are, Bruce. I’ve seen you down at the daycare when you’re at work. Do you think those kids react to you so well by accident? You were born to be a father. Go be a father.”
Somewhere in the middle of the years we lose track of the boundaries that separate and define us. We all come in and we’re from different places, different schools, different backgrounds, different states, even different countries and they give us a room and there are four walls to form a surrounding barrier that gives us the illusion of privacy. Then, friendships begin to form, relationships begin to blossom and the lines that give us room begin to lose their definition. Four years later, anyone still living close enough becomes fair game to anyone else who has the means to enter and the boundaries are gone.
“Talk to me,” I say, picking up the phone.
“You’re not Kate,” the voice responds and I recognize it as Paul. It’s strange to hear his voice, the phantom visitor from years now gone, almost like Jessica.
“You’re most perceptive, Barrett. I am most certainly not Kate.”
“That would be me.”
“Did I misdial?”
“Where is Kate?”
“She’s in class. I’m making use of the opportunity to play Tetris on her computer.”
“Why don’t you just put it on your own computer?”
“Because then I would play it all the time and would not finish my thesis in time to graduate. Want to leave a message?”
“Why don’t you come down to Harry’s.”
“The bar on A Street?”
“That’s the place.”
“Is that what all that noise is in the background? Are you down at Harry’s?”
“Come on down.”
“You okay, Paul?”
“Nope. Not even close.”
“This sounds bad.”
“I was hoping for Kate, but I guess you’ll do for a start. Leave a note for her. Try to find Jim on your way down.”
“What’s going on?”
“See you in a few.”
The line goes dead and I am distracted enough that the pieces pile up and the game is over.
When we come in the door we hear recognize the voice blaring from the speakers. We come around the corner and see some local punk wanna be band up on stage, except they’re actually grooving and Paul is out there in front, not only giving them a voice, but anchoring their groove with the lead guitar.
“Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong. There’s a protest singer singing a protest sing – he says ‘They wanna have a war so they can keep us on our knees. They wanna have a war so they can keep their factories. They wanna have a war to stop us buying Japanese. They wanna have a war to stop Industrial Disease’.”
“Who would have known he could do a decent Mark Knopfler?” I say, mostly to myself.
“I would,” Jim replies, “but I lived with him for two years. Come on. Every time he comes in here he gets the booth way in the back. He’s probably got a drink sitting there waiting for him.”
“I would imagine he’s had a few already,” I say as Jim and I make our way through the February Friday night crowd and into the far back booth. He is right and there is a drink sitting on its own waiting to be ingested. We take seats in the booth and look around. This is only my second time in here since turning twenty-one back in October and the place makes me vaguely uncomfortable. It’s not the drinking – Kyle shies away from alcohol because his mother is an alcoholic while my father’s drinking has never made me feel like I can’t be reasonable about drinking – but that the feel of the place is everything about small town life that I’ve been worried about turning into.
Somewhere in your twenties you begin to learn what crosses you have to bear, what baggage can be shed and what will stick and this as much as anything seems to be a signal for passing into adulthood. Forget voting or drinking or any other rites of passage handed to you at any age, forget what you may think you know about psychology or denial; everyone comes to an understanding of who they are and what they can face and what they must hold onto and what will never leave. I hold true to the legacy of the city by the bay so that I will not think about the small little nowhere town an hour south of the bay where I was really born and raised and I try not to remember all the things about small towns that I don’t want hanging around my neck. When they hand me that diploma I’m headed for a big city somewhere.
Paul has his own crosses to bear, his own way of life. We all watched him walk in front of the crowd and say ‘I’m Paul and I’m in charge because I’m the loudest’ and we all thought, well fuck, that’s who I want to be and we never took the time to think about what pain and hope brought him to that spot. He can lead, which is different from the kinds of things I have done, he can write, which might be more than I am capable of, at least at his level, he can romance, talk someone into bed, something I have never learned to do. But he does not like to look at the awful things he sometimes creates. He has a tendency to push the past into the past and make it die and doesn’t understand that the past is never dead. He can not handle death, can not take it in and push away with fury like Kyle, can not let it flow into tears like Kevin, can not find a place to think it all out like me, can not take it in stride and learn to walk away like Jim. He can not deal with death. And I know the signs. And something has happened. And I don’t think I want to know what it is.
I see him stop. The music is still going, the band pushing towards a kick-ass instrumental finale which needs no lyrics. I follow his eyes to the young woman with black hair in the doorway, my friend, a raven haired beauty of the valley and I see the pause in his expression before he turns back to the boys in the band. Their instruments come crashing together as they listen to his words and before anyone can take a breath he has the piano player slamming down on his keys and I recognize the tune, even have a live version on a tape that Kyle made for me a long time ago and the drums and the guitar come in together and I recognize a song of power and determination that is being sung as a last gasp of desperation.
“Lights out tonight, trouble in the heartland. Got a head-on collision smashing in my guts man. I’m caught in a crossfire that I don’t understand. Well there’s one thing I know for sure. I don’t give a damn for the same old played out scenes. I don’t give a damn for just the in-betweens. Honey I want the heart, I want the soul, I want control. Right now! Talk about a dream, try to make it real. Wake up in the night with a fear so real. Spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come. Don’t waste your time waiting. Badlands! You gotta live it everyday!”
Fuck Frost and Dickey and anyone else who might have come through the pages now and then because the American poets are huddled over in the music business finding notes and melodies to bring a line along. This is Paul like we never had to see him that first year, Paul holding on to desperation with his fingertips, fighting back the fear. Paul is tearing at the guitar, a howling sound that cuts through the noise of the bar, bringing blisters to his fingers. This is not Kyle in a rare moment of carefree silliness singing his best roadhouse bar Springsteen, this is a note of sorrow and pain coming through the words.
“For the ones who had a notion. A notion deep inside. That it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive! I wanna find one face that ain’t looking through me. I wanna find one place, I wanna spit in the face of these Badlands!”
He cuts through the current, bringing himself to the point he wants to make and my eyes drift to Jim, who has already downed one drink and is just starting another. Kate comes and finds us in the booth and her eyes float first to Jim, then slowly gravitate towards me.
“What has happened?” comes her voice, deadly serious and frightened as I have never heard it.
“Whatever it is,” Jim says, “it’s horrible, because he’s hanging on by his fingertips.”
“So you’re gonna drink yourself into a hole before you even know?”
“I’m softening the blow.”
“What’d he say when he talked to you?” she asks me.
“Next to nothing. All he said was that he wasn’t okay and for me to come down, bring him, leave a note for you.”
She turns as the music grows to its final crescendo and then ends with a slam on every instrument all at once. He lays the guitar back in its cradle and makes his way through to the bar. He orders up something and manages to drink it before he even comes close to us. He doesn’t stumble, makes no external sign of intoxication but we all know him enough to know that there are no external signs when it comes to him.
He slides into the booth, lets himself melt into the seat. His eyes don’t come up right away. Then, slowly, he raises his head and he finds the beautiful young woman in the seat beside him and before any reactions can be made their lips are upon each other, a long, powerful kiss that leaves everyone at the table breathless.
When their lips find space through the in-betweens I can see that she is crying, tears for them both, for a loss that no one yet understands, for words that he has yet to speak.
“Talk to me,” she whispers, barely loud enough to be heard in the din of the room and he sinks into her arms, slides into her embrace and I can almost recognize tears at the edge of his eyes. “Where’s Sharon?” she asks and I wonder why the question has not occurred to me and I worry about her, another friend now gone to the horror of graduation and the escape down to the bay.
“She’s fine. Well, I guess she’s fine. As fine as she can be holed up in Houston.”
“What’s she in Houston for?”
My first thought is a fight, something terrible between the two of them. Except Sharon is from somewhere west of Seattle, out on the peninsula and I can think of no reason she would flee to the wonders of big oil and desolate ranches.
“Some conference. Gone all week.”
“Are you this fucking gone that you can’t deal with a week without her?” Jim throws out. I think it’s a horrible thing to say, that there are terrible things which have clearly happened to him, things we can only guess at. Then I understand. We can only guess until he tells us and this is the way of a best friend making him say it. Paul looks up and I get the first real look at his eyes and what I see is not desperation but fear, fear of not being able to hold on tight enough and the fear that he might slip. Maybe something like the way Sean slipped.
My first thought is running through my mind, trying to remember her, remember what she was like. Then I remember that I never met her. We all just saw pictures in Paul’s room and scrapbook over the years. She was already a memory before we ever came on the scene. She was the raven-haired beauty before Kate, a young Vietnamese woman, a townie he knew and loved before any of us came to the valley.
Jim’s hand returns to his drink, the glass finds his lips and the alcohol finds a home in the depths of his stomach. Paul tries to turn away from us, push himself back up, but Kate has her arms around him and when he turns, her lips are on him again and it’s a beautiful kiss and I can’t bear to watch, can’t bring myself to turn away.
“When?” comes the question, from one, any of us, none of it matters, we’re all the same now.
“Several hours ago. She made the news, you know. CNN.”
“Oh, fuck,” Jim says. “Was she the crazy chick in Berkeley? The one who was threatening to shoot the cop?”
“One and the same.”
“Did she have a fucking death wish?”
“You could say that. Have they started reporting yet that the gun was empty?”
“How do you know that?” Kate asks.
“Because I was with her in the bar before she went out. Me and two of her high school friends. She left the bullets on her seat. We didn’t realize it in time.”
“That’s fucking horrible,” Kate says.
“Why the fuck would anyone do that?” Jim asks.
“Suicide without the moral weight of actually committing suicide,” I say. Paul looks at me and nods.
“She was Catholic,” he says. “This was just her way out.”
I don’t know what to say, feel sick, remember Sean, even think of Sarah, of her attempt to escape it all. Paul throws another drink down his throat, tries to flee out of this jungleland the world is becoming.
“Why are you here?” Jim asks. Paul looks at him, but stands without answering. He takes Kate by the hand pulls her from the bench.
“Go find the others,” he says.
“What?” Jim asks.
“Go find all our fucking friends. Anyone who’s here.”
“You know who. Come on. Kyle. Jenn. Kevin. Michelle. Sarah. Laura. That about does it. Go find the six of them.”
“And then what?”
“Then you come find me.”
“Up at the lake.”
“It’s a big fucking lake, asshole.”
“The tree. The one up above the lake, the one with the old tire swing hanging off. You know what I’m talking about. Go get ’em, get ’em and find me.”
He turns, takes Kate half in his arms, holds her close, almost romantically, almost sexually, but a friendship sort of hold, a desperate hold to keep from letting go of anything.
“You do me a favor, darlin’. You stay with me.”
“I got you,” she says. “Whatever happens next, I’ve got you.”
I’m bathed in the lights of Laura’s headlights as she tries to keep pace with the Mustang. I duck further down in the backseat to keep myself hidden in darkness. Michelle’s hand slides across the seat to mine, finds my fingers, clutches around them, holds tight. I turn and can see her eyes in the darkness, so much like we were back in December, hidden under the streetlights, two hearts hoping to stay together.
“What’s going on?” she asks, rightfully so since this is the first I’ve held back on her, the first I’ve seen fit to keep a secret locked away inside as Jim and I walked back across the paths through campus, trying not to fall over in a drunken stupor, agreeing not to tell the others anything more than was necessary, just enough to get them all in a couple of cars and on the road up to the lake.
“You’ll have to ask Paul,” I say. I see Kyle’s eyes come up in the rear view mirror and lock on mine.
“What does Paul have to do with this?”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
“He’s up at the lake?”
“Him and Kate,” I say with a nod. Sarah gives a low whistle.
“Paul and Kate alone at the lake again. It’ll be interesting to see how many of their clothes are still in the correct position.”
“You know something about Paul and Kate that we don’t?” Michelle asks.
“Freshman year, a bunch of us went skinny dipping up at the lake. Paul and Kate were alone for quite a while and naked the whole time and don’t bother saying that they’re just friends. I’ve seen the way those two look at each other.”
“Kate and Kevin are true love. As close as you get in this life,” Michelle throws back.
“Sean and Rachel were as close as you get. And they didn’t make it,” Kyle responds.
“No such fucking thing as true love, Michelle,” Sarah adds. “Kyle’s right. Sean and Rachel were as close as you could get and they didn’t make it. True love’s a myth.”
“True love’s a dream,” she replies.
“Dreams don’t come true.”
“Miracles happen,” I say. “Why can’t dreams come true?”
“A miracle happened two thousand years ago in the Middle East, Bruce. Don’t count on miracles happening any more.”
I lean up towards Sarah. She turns to look at me, lets her eyes float to me.
“Miracles happen, Sarah.”
“Then please God let one happen to me.”
I have never been to the tree, never explored the hills up above the lake where the right drop can be the most beautiful dive ever and being off by a few feet can break a body like a matchstick. Jim seems to know the way as does Kyle but before we have gone very far we can follow the sound of the guitar, an acoustic strumming from up above the trees and along the hillside.
Voices carry in the night, can travel amazing distances without much effort and the words sound familiar as they float down and across the grass.
“Like a desert needs rain, like a town needs a name, I need your love. Like a drifter needs a room, hawkmoon, I need your love.”
He is still singing, softly now, when he comes into view, sitting on the rocks below the tree, pressed up against Kate and tears in both their eyes. There is a small fire going and their tears are glowing in the light of the flames.
So many thoughts come at once, that Xian must have been a wonderful part of his life and her leaving must have felt like the moment when Jessie ran away, the taste of her lips still on mine, that Kate must really love him to watch him through this, that there is something tonight that Paul does not want to let go and he needs us all to help hold it in, that the campfire might be dangerous and catch the whole hillside on fire.
When I get closer I see that the area is set up for such fires and that Paul has prepared for any eventuality and that everything is set up for his friends, his closest friends to be by his side when he needs them. Because tonight he does need us.
“How much have you had to drink?” Kyle asks as the eight of come close.
“Much as I can fucking handle and I ain’t even close to done, Barton.”
“What the fuck happened to you?” Sarah asks.
“What happens to us all somewhere along the road. I lost something.”
“Is Sharon okay?” Jenn asks, everyone getting their questions in.
“Sharon is fine, Jennifer. None of you have anything to worry about. Take a seat.”
But none of us do that, instead opting to stand and stare at him.
“Take a fucking seat,” he says, more firmly. “Come on, it’s cold out, there’s still some snow further up the hill, I know you’re all cold. Sit down and relax and keep warm.”
Kyle turns to look at me.
“What the fuck is going on?”
But before I can say anything Paul starts to strum the opening chords of “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. Everyone stares at him.
“I once had a girl. Or should I say she once had me,” he sings. Then he looks up at all of us. “I once called her Xian. Now I could say, she’s no more to be.”
He gives himself a sort of cynical half-smile, something like you would see on Kyle, then looks back down.
“Yeah, I’m no John Lennon when it comes to lyrics.”
He looks up again, his eyes reflecting the fire, a brilliant red covering blue, someone who’s managing to fake a smile to make all the bad things good, to sort everything into its right place.
“Maybe I’ll try again when I’ve had time to grieve.”
No one says anything.
People react slowly to death, even to deaths that do not touch them. Kevin has eyes on Kate, comes around the fire and sits next to her. She puts out her hand to him without ever leaving Paul. Kyle continues to stand and Sarah sits in the dirt in front of him. Jim turns and wander over towards the tree, stares out across the upper reaches of the lake. Michelle and Jenn sit, side by side, both within inches of my hands, still within reach.
Laura is the last to react. Slowly she forces herself to take steps, to come around the fire to Paul’s side. She kneels there, stooping low enough that Paul can not look away. She puts out her hands, stops the chords, makes him look to her, makes him look at her. She moves his hands to her lips, presses softly.
“Are you okay?” she whispers. It should be a private moment, a chance for her to reach out, for him to take it, to stop pushing her away, but she is forced to share it, to let us all in on the intimacy.
“I should have brought you to meet her. I should have let you meet what you had to live up to. I shouldn’t have made you go through all that and never get a chance to at least see her face to face. And now it’s too late. Everything in life comes too late.”
“Sharon is in Texas for a conference.”
“Does she know?”
“I told her.”
“What did she say?”
“She said she was sorry and she wished she could be here for me. And she said, ‘go find yourself some friends and stay with them. They’ll know what to do. Some of them always know what to do’.”
His eyes stray, slide across the flames to linger on Kyle, then stray further across the fire and I find them resting, surprisingly, on me.
“What do you need from us, Paul?” Jenn asks, softly.
“Just to be here, I guess. All I ever asked from any of you,” he says, but he turns, catches Sarah’s eye and then comes back to Laura. “I may have asked a little more from some of you.”
Much to everyone’s surprise it is Sarah that blushes, Laura that manages a smile. Life comes around in circles and we end where we began, but it means that somewhere on the in-between days we find everything different from what we expect and smiles where only tears would be expected.
“A little more is right,” Jim says, still looking out over the lake.
“Bigger than yours, Jim,” Laura says, always on Paul’s side.
And something in that breaks the tension and the reactions run the gamut from slight smiles to flat out laughter. It feels like it was what we all needed to be said.
But I’m watching Paul as people are reacting and he’s staring into the flames and it seems like he finds something he’s looking for, something none of us can give him and then his voice is strong, the young man who stood on a table, so young when I look back now, yet so much older than anything we could have offered, the man who stood and announced that he was in charge and we all believed it because you automatically believed every word that came out of his mouth, no matter how insane, how absurd, you believed it all, because in the end it all came true. It all comes true.
“I do need something from you,” he says. And we’re all looking at him again, all looking for the answers that we’ve just been starting to find on our own now that he’s found somewhere else to be. And it still seems like he must have all those answers.
“What?” Jim says, looking back across the lake again, the only one of us who can find a voice, the only one of us who ever questioned him, maybe because when all the lights were out and everyone had gone to find sleep he was the only one who got to see Paul at his weakest.
Paul brings his eyes back to Laura, gives her almost something like a seductive glance.
“Still have the same keychain?”
“Let me have it.”
She doesn’t question him, doesn’t hesitate, just pulls out her keys and hands them across. He flips them in his hand, throwing the knife at the end of the chain into his palm. He pulls the blade open. Before any of us can say anything he has pulled the blade tight across his palm and the blood has risen to the surface.
All of us react as one, moving closer, but there’s a smile where there should be a wince and I don’t know what the fuck any of us can do. Or should do.
“Is that your answer?” Jim yells at him. “Xian killed herself so we all follow her, bring the blade to a vein and open it up? Xian wasn’t enough for you? Sean wasn’t enough for you? We all have to run forward to the nice cold embrace?”
Paul turns slowly, brings himself to Kate. His good hand, his right, his playing hand, he brings to her cheek, brushes down, pushing hair out of her way, caresses her gently with love. With his bad hand, the hand with the slice, he places the knife in her lap. She looks down and sees the blade, clean, and the blood wiped upon his jeans.
“I don’t understand,” she whispers.
“No one kills themselves tonight,” he whispers in return, a useless gesture as sound travels across the hills tonight. Then he raises his voice and seems to aim it at Jim. “Like you can fucking kill yourself anyway by slicing the palm of your hand.”
“Paul, I . . .” Kate begins, but Kyle interrupts her.
“What happened to Xian?”
“She found a way to peace,” Paul says without looking. “She decided that too many things in this world were too awful to endure. So she took a gun and she left the bullets behind and she threatened a cop and refused to put the gun down, no matter what he said, no matter what warnings he gave. And the cop was young and the cop was scared and he gave her a bullet in the chest. A nice way to meet oblivion when you choose without carrying the mortal sin of suicide on your everlasting soul.”
“I still don’t understand, Paul,” Kate whispers. “I don’t want to die.”
“No one’s dying tonight. We’re all finding ways to live tonight.”
He presses the blade into her hand. Slowly he presses her hand around the blade. Kevin moves to get closer and Paul has his right hand up, aimed straight towards him.
“Let her make her own choice, Kevin.”
He presses her hand tighter around the blade and I see her wince, I see her flinch, I see the pain pass through her eyes and across her face but I see no hesitation. Her hand comes open and there is blood on the blade, blood in her hand.
Paul stands and pulls her up. We all watch and I wonder how wrong Sarah might have been, how wrong I might have been, how much I have yet to understand about my own friends. Paul puts his hand out above the flames, pulls her hand with his. He squeezes his hand around hers and their blood intermingles as it drops into the flames.
“This isn’t some dumb movie, Paul,” Sarah says. “Blood can be a very dangerous thing.”
“An important thing,” he replies. “Something to swear by. Better than a Bible, especially for this group. Something everyone can believe in without hesitation. Blood of friendship.”
“So we all cut ourselves? Then what?” Jim asks.
“You let it drip in the fire, of course, and you make your vow,” Kyle says.
“Oh good,” Michelle says. “A blood vow. Just what I always wanted. Because you know, lately, with all the changes in my life, I’ve been sitting around and asking myself, before I graduate, what am I really missing in the friendships in my life? I know, a blood vow.”
“And what exactly are we supposed to be vowing?” Jim asks. “You seem to want to follow Xian’s blessed trip to oblivion but you say no one’s dying tonight. So what exactly are we vowing?”
But before Paul can answer him, Jim has pulled the knife off Kate’s lap and is holding the blade over the fire. It burns away the blood and Jim pulls the hot blade across his palm and while he makes sure not to react any more than Paul did it sure as hell makes the rest of us wince.
“Yes, Paul?” Laura says. “What is it you want from us?”
“Because I’m sure as hell not following Xian into nothingness,” Michelle adds. But then, to my surprise, she takes the blade from Jim and follows their example. She turns to me, the blade held out. I take it, don’t ask, don’t wait for any of the answers that Paul has yet to give and cut my hand, don’t worry about her blood, have shared everything I can with her for a month and will continue to share everything she will let me share till death do us part. God damn it hurts.
“Good,” Paul says.
I turn to hand the blade to Sarah. I hesitate and she sees it and she smiles softly, her lips lit a deep blood red in the light of the fire.
“It’s okay,” she says. “I’ll go last. Safer for everyone.”
She takes the knife and hands it to Kyle. He stares at Paul, waits for an answer and cuts his hand without one. The knife goes to Laura who does it without hesitation and now it comes to Kevin. He turns to Kate, sees her still holding tight to Paul, sees her blood in his, still a few drops dripping down into the fire. He sees as Michelle and Kyle stand forward to let their blood drip down. He looks down at his hand, closes his eyes, clenches his teeth and pulls it quickly across his palm. I see him flinch badly and know how much he can’t hope to understand but in the end he is bleeding like the rest of us and when the knife passes to Jenn and finally to Sarah there are nine of us, friends since the first day we all met, since that day Paul took charge of us all and took us under his wing and now it’s time for us all to pay him back.
“Everyone needs a blood vow, Michelle,” Paul says, finally, looking to each of the nine of us. “Everyone needs something to tie him to all his friends for ever and ever.”
“And friendship’s not enough for you?”
“Not tonight. Not for this.”
“So enough mystery,” Jim says. “Let’s find out what we’re agreeing on. I’m in no hurry to die tonight.”
“Well that’s good. Because no one dies tonight. No one dies ever. Not by their own hand. No one follows Xian’s example. No one follows Sean off that roof. No one seeks for death. No one strives for oblivion. No one gives up. That country stays undiscovered.”
The eyes of all of us slowly start to linger on Sarah, memories of her standing there with the razor in her hand, the line running up and across her wrist, thoughts of the virus in her blood, of the certain death it brings before it should. She looks up, straight ahead, at Paul only, the only one who wasn’t there, who couldn’t see wanting to give up and having to search for reasons to fight. He smiles to her. He smiles for her. For all of us.
“We all live. No suicides. No surrenders. Sometimes the world is an awful place, god knows I fucking know that. But there’s no other choice, there’s no better choice and there’s not gonna be one. So we stick it out as long as we can. We all live. And that’s what you’re swearing to. Not to die. To live. Forever, if you can.”
We all stare into the fire, eyes lingering on licks of flame in the dark night as the snow begins again, a soft flurry in the February sky, seeking to push the darkness from the world, the way Paul always promised it would, because snow brings something new and nothing can ever be bad then. I put my hand around Michelle’s, press it tight, let my blood flow on hers, find her smile in the darkness and I listen as she speaks the words to me.
“Living forever sounds good to me.”
Spring dawn is cold and bright in the Northern California sky, a beautiful day up over the lake. We’ve been here since before sunrise, watching the lake go from silver to gold and now to a deep blue, a beautiful dawn sky color that nothing else in the world can match.
Her eyes come close as I turn to her. I take her hand in mine, remember her words, think of her saying “living forever sounds good to me” and remember that all I could think when she said that was that I wanted her to be mine forever, to never slip from my hands.
Spring is like a perhaps hand, the poet said, changing everything carefully without breaking anything, and California is the Golden State, or so the nickname says. When dawn comes on the Equinox all words come true and love, love is everything every sappy love song ever said it would be, a tender seed, full of conflict, full of change, love is the answer as the rock star said and love is all you need, certainly the only thing I need.
Paul has taken my idea, followed it through as he promised he would a month ago, his hand still bleeding into the flames, taken his little piece of money and bought himself the license the Golden State will hand to anyone with the required five dollars. He now stands before me and says such silly words, full of a power that the state has placed upon him which used to only belong to a church, but for all my faith and all I believe it seems more right to be out in the open air, to be where we all belong, with Kyle behind me, Jenn behind her, Michelle by my side, her hand in mine, gold on our fingers.
I do, she says.
I do, I say.
By the power, he says.
I now pronounce you, he says.
There are smiles all around. There is laughter all around. There is love all around. You may now kiss the bride, he says.
I didn’t hear the words, lost everything in the glow of the morning, but I know he must have said it, must have said the words man and wife, but even so, I need no words, need nothing but the feel of her hand in mine.
A kiss is just a kiss, I guess.
These are the words in my mind, in the lower whisper of my voice, just below human hearing, just where only I know they have been said as I lean in and my lips brush against hers, not a good night kiss, more a hello, this is nice, maybe we should try more of this kiss. And so we will.
I will remember this.