I could see flashlights flicker on and off inside the tents that dotted the hillside on Josh's property outside Bangor; I could see the outlines of girls' breasts. Laughter and silence flashed just as intermittently. Those were my friends in there, and I knew what they were doing, and though I could understand intellectually why they were doing it, I was glad I was where I was. I was with Skeeter and Wallace, and we were smoking pot.
Rereading that first paragraph, I am wondering why I said what I said—why those details appear first, and not others. What am I trying to say to you about myself? Am I trying to present myself as I am, or as I am not?
Skeeter was the hippie. Wallace was the funny one. There were times that I wouldn't have minded being more like either of them. But, then again, I generally came down to the fact that I was glad I was not.
I was outside the tents. I preferred to be outside. Skeeter and Wallace were outside, but they didn't think about it. It would never occur to them to be anywhere else. But sometimes I let some people convince me otherwise, to lure me inside, until I find myself outside again under the endless sky and know that is where I belong. I do not mean to imply that I am self-aware; I'm much too neurotic for that. All I am saying is that the fundamental difference between “inside” and “outside” is something I think about.
It's funny how, at a party, you find yourself with a group of people and everything that is said and done is more important than anything else in the world. While the light of the fire shines only on your little group, everything else is in shadow. Then, half an hour later, you're in another place with other people and there's a whole new world of opportunities. You're talking about things with meaning, you think, and suddenly you find a whole new meaning that replaces the previous in entirety.
Wallace, as usual, was on fire. I didn't really understand half of what he was saying but I was laughing my ass off. The sky was perfectly black, and the leaves waving around us were silver. I couldn't believe how bright everything was—objects exhaling the whiteness of light—even though it was so deep into the night.
At first I thought the trees were moving, but then the moving trees shrank into two guys I knew, Marcus and Derek, who had been in my Spanish class. Though Marcus actually was Spanish, he did terribly in the class, and Derek liked to throw things when the teacher wasn't looking. They were juniors and I was a senior, just graduated, so I didn't know them well at all.
“Yo, Kendall,” said Marcus, reaching for my hand to shake, “can you hook us up?” The heaviness of rings cut into my palm.
I don't sell drugs. I have them, people ask me for them, and I—often grudgingly—pass them along. I can't stand sharing my shit with idiots, though. I am not a snob, but I have standards of behavior, and I know who the people are who just don't know what they're doing. There is an implied understanding that whoever gets will some day return the favor, but I never think about it—I was taught by my religion teacher that desire can abort karmic return. I don't think I know one more word of Spanish than Marcus does, but the laws of Karma seemed highly pragmatic, and I frequently thought about them.
“Man, sorry,” I said. “I barely have enough for myself.” I quickly turned back to Skeeter and Wallace, who weren't paying a bit of attention to my little non-transaction, probably because they knew exactly what was going to happen.
And so it went on, an evening in which we all were the central characters, with our acolytes and hangers on paying homage. For there was a very distinct and exclusive “we” in those days, in fact, up until that night. We and only we were the fabric of the evening; everything else was ornament. We were so effete and particular that we scarcely thought the other members of our group worthy of ourselves. Eli was so worthy it often made him unworthy, if you know what I mean. Wallace and Skeeter sometimes, Josh should have been, but he was short, Jamie was crazy which made him worthy and unworthy, intermittently... you get the drift. That snobbery defined us, but only in part.
We were a dystopia with the expected set of rules. They were simple, obvious rules about stealing and girls, particularly the stealing of girls, no matter what the status of a relationship, and what we would and wouldn't let each other do when we were seriously partying, like drive. Of course, we broke the rules all the time. So it became hard to know what to do when Skeeter's Mom called his cell and said that Jamie had gotten into a serious accident on the way to the party.
Josh, playing the role of sleazy lawyer, his favorite, spoke up.
“Dude,” he said, addressing no one. “We can't drive now. They'll assume we're fucked up.”
“We are,” said Eli. He was the most impatient with Josh's relative truths.
“He isn't going to die,” Josh announced, and I winced, waiting for the jinx.
“He had plenty of opportunities to die before,” said Wallace, “and he didn't.” We laughed, grateful to Wallace for the opportunity.
So we stayed. Skeeter calling Jamie's sister (he had all of our relatives' numbers programmed into his phone) to firm up that Jamie's condition was pretty stable, then we fell back into the party like we had jumped from a plane without a parachute and we were waiting for our superhero powers to kick in.
Thank God when we woke up the next morning and climbed into Eli's jeep Jamie was still alive. Skeeter lit up and Wallace smoked with him, but the rest of us wanted to wait till after we left the hospital.
Eli drove to the hospital, of course. Even when we were having the most fun, driving, smoking a bowl, and arguing about something, Eli truly wanted to be alone, driving. He was cooler that way, detached, barely touching the wheel, a kaleidoscope of music swirling around him. His seat reclined so far back, I honestly don't know how he could see out the window, but he was the best driver of all of us, and he never got lost.
Skeeter sat shotgun because he was the biggest. Though the joke was that Skeeter was fat, really he was tall and thin but pudgy in a few key places—lips and hands especially—that were far too prominent. In addition, even though he knew how to drive, he was always mooching a ride off someone, so he was a perpetual passenger. Most of the time we paired off, Skeeter with Wallace, me with Josh, and Jamie with Eli because of proximity, music tastes, and other lifestyle choices. To go to the hospital, though, there was no discussion: we were all going together.
When we got there, Jamie's Mom looked at us with a combination of gratitude and fear, which is how she often looked. She had round cheeks and a tiny nose and mouth; she looked like a cartoon rabbit, nothing like Jamie.
Jamie was in such bad shape none of us could look at him except Skeeter, who wasn't squeamish about anything. He went right up to Jamie, took his hand, and told him all about the party.
But maybe I'm lying; maybe it happened another way.
Maybe it was still early evening—that platinum-rimmed early summer dusk. The party hadn't even begun. There were no pills and powders in our regimen, in those days, though they were certainly looming on the horizon. So we were careful about pacing ourselves. We were busy setting up shop, making sure tents were in order, fires laid out but not lit, kegs, bottles, and cups in easy access. So we ditched the waiting girls and the booze and headed straight to the hospital.
Jamie was asleep, and visiting hours were over fifteen minutes after we got there. So we stood there while his parents talked in voices both frantic and quiet, a combination I could not have imagined possible. We studied the oxygen mask over his mouth, the bright-red splotches on his face which were some cross between a wound and a bruise, the tubes coming from his arms, the blanket over his torso and legs that barely veiled the twisted damage beneath. He looked so heavy; I couldn't imagine lifting him, moving him, plunging through space in a vehicle with him. He seemed rooted as Gibraltar and as impossible to move.
He did not wake. The clock struck. We, the visitors, left.
Then we headed straight back to the party. In a sense, it had been a good break. We started afresh, girls were waiting (well, for Eli and Josh) and we possessed a mystery, a proximity to danger and uncertainty that made us in extra high demand. Marcus and Derek wouldn't dare approach me under those circumstances; the words would splutter out of their mouths nonsensically, and I would swat them away.
Which story is true matters not at all. The stories are the same, really, despite the difference in the details. Banalities! A story's meaning does not come from action, setting, and imagery, but from the gist of it, and the gist of this particular story was implicit in everything we thought and said and did, no matter what it was that we actually thought and said and did; it was that most hideous yet most ordinary of human constructs: it was all a colossal justification. For what? For the fact that we didn't really care about Jamie. But the “what” doesn't matter any more than the particulars. All that matters is the word “justification,” that invisible, bloodless leviathan, that room 101; it would play chess with Death on a beach to save its own underwear.
In thinking these events through, recently, I looked the word up to strum it liked an untuned guitar.
Justification. n 1: the cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason [syn: rationalization] 2: a defense mechanism by which your true motivation is concealed by explaining your actions and feelings in a way that is not threatening [syn: rationalization] 3: (math) the simplification of an expression or equation by eliminating radicals without changing the value of the expression or the roots of the equation [syn: rationalization]
Two was the useful definition; three was the metaphor I would use at a later time. Then the fourth definition was for Josh, who was from landed money and questionable ethics.
4: (Law) The showing in court of a sufficient lawful reason why a party charged or accused did that for which he is called to answer.
Yes, I thought. Josh held the firm belief that he could accurately measure “sufficient.”
The final definition gave me pause.
5. (Print.) Adjustment of type by spacing it so as to make it exactly fill a line, or of a cut so as to hold it in the right place; also, the leads, quads, etc., used for making such adjustment.
I was dazzled. To write is, necessarily, to justify. The point I am making is moot by the mere fact that I am writing it.
Why do we tell a story? To entertain, to call attention to ourselves, to give language to the otherwise incomprehensible? I think, in most cases, it is to expose a secret once and for all. Here's mine.
The rest of them weren't like me: they didn't have a great love. I fought to keep my secret, undying love for Saffire, Josh's older sister, from becoming a cliché. But it was difficult to avoid. The spying, the coveting of certain otherwise innocuous objects, the painful shyness when she entered the room . . . it was all so obvious and tawdry. Hence my need for the secret.
If you studied Josh carefully, you could see a wildness in him, a sense of dislocation and almost panic. But he masked all that potential delirium behind preppy shirts and conventional expectations. Saffire, on the other hand, masked nothing. To say she was beautiful undermines the very things that made her beautiful. She was, in fact, strange looking. With a Moroccan mother and a Pennsylvania Dutch father, she had features and qualities that simply didn't match up: too small nose, too big eyes, midnight eyebrows and a smattering of freckles on darkish skin. And her skin . . . it was, in most light, blue, a slate blue flecked with silver. I studied that skin to understand its blueness, and, as best as I could tell, it was blue because she inhabited a perpetual shadow, even when she walked in full light.
A few years have passed since that summer, and I have told a story of drunk, consensual sex so many times it has acquired a solidity, like a dollhouse or a diorama in which two naked, dirty dolls lay sprawled face down on a mattress the size of a playing card. But it is language that represents nothing in a way I find both horrific and fascinating, like the belief that there is no afterlife. We place such naïve trust in language!
Am I violating the rules of storytelling? Do you simply want the facts? Ok, here goes. Saffire was alone in the house. It was one of those houses with a name, Thistleberry Manor, from the Pennsylvania Dutch side of the family, surrounded by forests and the sounds of birds, a great place to find yourself alone.
“I want to ask a favor,” she said.
“Sure.” I couldn't imagine what. Drive her somewhere (she could do that herself), buy her drugs (she could certainly do that herself), paint a fence?
“Will you,” she paused, nervous, and my brain became a hot cavern of emptiness, “read something I wrote?”
Her feet twisted nervously. And right there before me, Saffire the Magnificent deflated from super hero down to human size . . . became a girl, a woman, more beautiful than ever before in her sudden reality. Then I was seized with terror—what if the poetry was bad? What could I say . . . well I just wouldn't say, I resolved.
But when I started reading I was entering a tunnel that may have been her aorta, maybe her small intestines, maybe that strange place where another person's thoughts reside, that floor we generally chose never to walk, because the trappings on the wall so completely fly in the face of our own. I had no notion whether the poems were good or bad; I was scarcely certain as to whether they consisted of words at all.
One line I memorized while reading:
When Abel saw the ax
he hated Cain,
hating hate so much
he had thought to raise
the ax first.
Why did she write that, think that? From where do words come? I looked at her and she was grinning. Something in my expression, I supposed, some delightful incredulity, suggested I liked her poems.
I knew, at that moment, that I would get to read more.
Skeeter visited Jamie every day, some days twice, on his ways here or there. In fact, he started driving himself places to make sure he could find his way to the hospital. He'd leave us as Tony's, our hangout, for the hospital, though he quickly stopped asking if we wanted to join him. Sometimes Josh went out of some sense of abstract nobility—Eli attributed it to his country upbringing—but every time he did he came back swearing it off for good.
“It embarrasses Jamie,” said Josh.
“Jamie has never cared how he looked.”
“Not how he looks. That he can't DO anything.”
“Skeeter gets him stoned and brings him beer.”
“He is in a hospital bed,” insisted Josh. “All the drugs in the world cannot turn a hospital bed into a party.”
Everyone understood what he meant. Partying was a very specific term—like grace, nirvana—that people without reverence used improperly. We, the initiated, never misused it. The first point of definition is that partying has little if anything to do with parties themselves, though sometimes parties are involved. That is purely accidental. But partying can happen just about anywhere, with the right mindset. The mindset was simple: detached from the tangles of minutia and wide open to possibility. The center of the lotus. You certainly couldn't achieve that in a hospital bed, particularly with your rabbit of a mother holding vigil. We felt bad for Jamie not because he had nearly killed himself nor because there would be complications, further operations, plastic surgery, and all kinds of parental guilt to deal with; we felt sorry for him because he couldn't party. But we felt no obligation to stop ourselves from doing just that.
I started visiting Saffire with books.
We'd sit under trees, sometimes smoke, sometimes not, and read aloud to each other, sometimes her words, sometimes the words of others.
Men's fantasies have to do with ejaculation; women's fantasies—I have learned— have to do with proximity. I really can't remember what specifically it was before, but, from then on, my fantasies have always had to do with poetry.
I find it hard to transition from Saffire to my friends, so forgive my abruptness. I suppose I could say things like “later that day,” or “after I left Thistleberry Manor,” or “that evening,” thus grounding my actions in time, but, as I've said before, those sorts of contrivances are irrelevant to meaning.
So. We were sitting in Tony's waiting for our pizza. Skeeter had his mozzarella sticks, like always, and Eli was getting huffy. “You're going to get fat,” he exclaimed. Eli got on his high horse every once in a while, generally with Skeeter, but Skeeter knew just how to blow him off.
“Nah,” said Skeeter. “I'm going to start exercising again tomorrow.”
We watched as Skeeter chewed. “We're gonna need to find a restaurant in New York that has mozzarella sticks this good.”
“Skeeter,” said Wallace, “Mozzarella sticks are the same everywhere.”
But Skeeter wasn't talking about mozzarella sticks. He was inviting us into the comfort of our perennially favorite conversation: about how we were all going to move to New York City after college and lives exactly the same as our high school lives except that we would be surrounded by the trappings of opulence.
“Yeah, New York,” said Eli. “But what are you going to do to get there? You have to anticipate the next big thing.”
“Pocket televisions,” said Wallace, though he would never own them.
“Bigger breast implants,” said Skeeter. There were high fives all around.
“How big?” asked Eli.
“So you can't see the girl's face.”
More high fives, of course.
I wasn't really in the mood, but I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring. “Survivor X, XI, XII in Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Congo. Everyone gets an uzi and camo.”
“You're way over my head, dude,” said Skeeter.
Eli leaned back, grinning. “I'm going to develop Cambodia.”
“Dude,” said Wallace, “what about the Kmer Rouge?” This time, Skeeter just stared blankly. Only Eli and I knew what Wallace was talking about.
“They're gone, dude. And I'm serious,” said Eli. “I'm buying land in Cambodia. I'm gonna use some of my graduation money.”
“To build all-inclusive resorts.”
“Trust me—it's the next big thing.”
And I saw it all: Eli in a white suit on a white beach in front of a white hotel, on his arm the grand niece of Pol Pot, who had been tortured by her grand uncle so that she was politically sound as well as totally dangerous to have as a girlfriend. He would make millions and secure that Park Avenue apartment, the first of us to fulfill the dream, maybe the only one.
If you were to ask me about handsome men, I would point to someone old fashioned like Cary Grant or Gregory Peck. When I think of handsome, I think of suits and ties, of presence and voice, not of abs and pecs. But I have to give a nod to Eli. Eli had been an athlete so long that every part of him was muscled, not excessively, inherently. He could play any sport, and was graceful even when he fell down. He laughed a lot when he was playing basketball or softball or tennis or Frisbee—it was all fun to him. He was in love with motion, and he didn't need the excesses of planes or bungee cords or race cars (though all of those things were surely in his future) to satisfy him—he was just as happy kicking around a well-packed wad of paper.
Our pizza came, and we indulged. Skeeter, after quickly inhaling four slices, abruptly tossed some money onto the table and stood. “I'm gonna go.”
We all started moving for our wallets, muttering about our various obligations.
“You know you should really come with me.” Skeeter was a little nervous, saying it; then he gained courage. We all stared at him, and he stared right back, moving from person to person. He seemed to hold his gaze the longest on me. But no amount of guilt could dissuade me from going to read poetry with Saffire.
I stayed the afternoon at Thistleberry Manor, then went home to quickly shower before coming back to help set up for Josh's fourth party of the summer. It was a muggy, starless evening. As we pitched tents and tapped the keg we continually slapped at bugs on our sweaty necks. We were no longer hungry for parties as we were a month before. Now, I think we simply saw them as a public service. If Marcus and Derek approached, I would probably be more friendly.
Though Saffire had been around much more than in previous summers, I had the good sense not to let myself think that her presence had anything to do with me. As I listened to her laugh as she passed from fire to fire, I tried to imagine the poetry that she was writing in her head.
At around midnight, I saw the bluish glow of Saffire pass through the door of Eli's tent, her light expiring. Girls only entered Eli's tent—or, I should say, Eli only invited girls into his tent for one reason.
But maybe I'm lying, again; maybe it happened another way.
Maybe Eli came to me at around midnight. I was roaming through the murky woods, smoking a cigar, something I seldom do. I don't know how he found me; I assume he was guided by the smell of the cigar.
“We need to talk,” he said.
I guessed at what. “Have you heard anything about Saffire.”
“Saffire likes me,” he said. “But I told her I'm not interested.”
I was quick to answer so as not to reveal a thing. “Ah, go for it Eli.”
“Kendall, I wouldn't do that to you.”
How did he know, I wondered. Who else knew? Those and a million other questions raced through my mind, but, I suddenly found, I really wasn't all that interested in the answers.
“Thanks, man,” I said, and as Eli drifted back to the party, I was Abel, ax-less.
You tell me, does it matter which story is true? Aren't they both in some way true? Or, at least, don't they both say the same thing? Here's the only truth: I could tell the story of Saffire and Eli a million different ways, and they would all mean the same things to me.
When we passed around a bowl at Josh's while cleaning up in the morning, Saffire had a little too much. I watched her; there were times that she seemed so far away she that her hold on gravity was tenuous at best. Then at other times, she was attached, almost physically, to Eli. She was a curl of his hair, a freckle on his arm. He, on the other hand, busied himself with hosing down tents.
We piled into cars to go to Tony's for lunch. She got in the back seat of Eli's jeep, and I climbed in after her. Promptly, against my shoulder, Saffire fell asleep.
As soon as I looked down at her, I knew she was far too good looking for me. I stared at her sleeping face and felt myself starting to cry. Eli was driving and he never looked in the rear view mirror so I was safe there; he and Skeeter, shotgun, were engaged in a pleasant argument about the merits and demerits of two-ply toilet paper. So I let myself have the luxury of grief because it was really all I really had.
I was smoking in the company of that grief in my backyard, on the stone bench behind my mother's rose bushes. The roses were totally covered in Japanese beetles, which drove my mother crazy; she was always offering me money to pick them off. I told her to use pesticides, but only because I knew she wouldn't.
There, with the flowers and the beetles, I expatriated myself.
Skeeter was silly, but not dumb. He knew just where to find me.
“Where have you been?”
I knew it was coming. Everyone forgave Wallace because he was cynical and funny; everyone forgave Eli because they knew he would always come out the winner. Everyone knew that Josh always thought he was doing the right thing, even when he wasn't. What was my excuse?
“What if Jamie had died?” He was mad but he wasn't trying to be mean. He wanted to talk about it.
“Then we would all have gone to the funeral, gotten wasted, then never seen each other again.”
“It wouldn't have to happen that way. Or this way.”
“Things just happen,” I said. I knew I sounded clichéd, but I didn't much care.
“No,” insisted Skeeter, “you have a choice.”
“Our choices are all made after we learn exactly what we are not allowed to choose.”
“Jamie is coming home tomorrow,” Skeeter replied. “Do what you want.”
I went to visit him.
The hallway was eerily quiet. I wondered if some emergency had called everyone to the furthest corner of the hospital where hoards of women, children, and octogenarians were crouched and bleeding or if, perhaps, gentle gaseous sedatives were pumped throughout the building just after supper. I know that I felt I was lifted off my feet, buoyant like a Clorox bottle on the tide, eddying in the direction not of choice, not of destiny, but of the purely accidental nature of which human life really consists.
Skeeter had told me that, by early evening, Jamie's mom and sister were generally gone, so the two of them had the place to themselves to do whatever they wanted. Jamie was always urging Skeeter to bring porn, and once he did, but afterwards felt guilty.
The scars on Jamie's face were so fresh that they seemed moist, like cold noodles. Long fronds of facial hair looped over the scars. The topography terrified me. I knew that eventually he would have plastic surgery, but for now I felt that Jamie was, in essence, dead.
“It's ok,” he said. “I know it's freaky.”
I was so surprised to hear Jamie's voice coming from that face I couldn't speak.
He cut to the chase. “Did you bring me anything?”
Of course I had.
He took a deep hit from the bowl, pressing his lips together to stifle a cough.
“We've gotta have fun while we can,” he said. “We might not even be friends next year.”
It occurred to me, Skeeter's visits to Jamie were not about loyalty to Jamie but about getting high with Jamie. Skeeter would call it friendship, even love, till he was blue in the face; for him those words would be a life preserver in a turbulent sea. But as soon as you take the words away, what is there? As a near as I could tell, there was only marijuana and a keg of beer.
Skeeter and the rest would hang onto that little world as long as they could, but I had let go long before, with the poems, I believe, but maybe before. That there is no going back is the consolation of being an expatriate. We don't want to go back. Otherwise, we would not have left in the first place. And though the rose bushes were only the initial departure, I have always looked back on them as a lovely country, a place where I found great solace. There is no relationship between time and space, and though I am now the same person I ever was, I am in a different place.
When did the first two people agree on the sound and the shape of a word, on its unarguable meaning from that moment onward? Maybe it was a couple who had just discovered the wonders of fellatio, and the man wanted to be able to say, do THAT again; maybe it was a guy trying to explain to another guy that, when you lit the buds of a certain plant on fire and inhaled the smoke, you felt good. I imagine it was much later before there was language to talk about safety and health. We want, above all, to feel good, because, if you don't, no amount of language will help you.
Sally Pont is in love with motion. In addition to the two marathons she has completed, one in Philadelphia and the other in Anchorage, she has hiked up and run down the slopes of Mount Fuji, cycled to the Great Wall of China and to the house in which Dostoevsky wrote Crime and Punishment, trotted on a horse around the Pyramids, rode the subway in New York City, the tube in London, gondolas in Venice, and the funicular up to Mt. Blanc. Her great regret is watching, not joining, the running of the bulls in Pamplona. Her stories, fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in several literary magazines, among them Conjunctions, Whiskey Island Magazine, Iowa Woman, and Ambergris. Her two full works of creative nonfiction, Finding Their Stride and Fields of Honor, were published by Harcourt Brace. “Abel’s Secret” which appears in this issue of Noneuclidean Café, is the first chapter of a novel that is well underway.
Photo Courtesy of 123rf.
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Story Copyright © 2006 Sally Pont. All rights reserved.