Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Love you"

(To be read after Sour Times: A Memoir)

When Lena wakes the room is still pitch dark. X lies in his bed facing the green-glow solar system, only now he wears a gangly pair of headphones with a long, labrynthian black cord plugged into an Ipod. His eyes are closed, but his pointer finger taps along to the groove being funneled into his brain. He looks happily lost. Lena has to pee a little, but she can hold it. She wants to avoid any kind of encounter with the third person in the house.
 The music is barely perceptible, but the sound is funky and it’s definitely what members of The Gang would have called Old School. In that bookish room X would constantly evoke popular musicians in his discussions of literature. Gatsby reminded him of pretty much the entire Prince album Dirty Mind. “When U Were Mine is like a sonic mirror of the whole book, but in more ways than just the obvious, unrequited stuff. It gets at the whole bi-sexuality of Gatsby and Carroway’s community. The unidenfied man ‘sleeping between the two of us’ could easily apply to Gatsby as much as Prince. Nothing will get in the way of what he feels for Daisy, but isn’t there the option of bringing Tom into bed?”
 “How could he?” Nate had said to her later. They were in the sweaty middle of a 69 position when he outright stopped working her, lifted his head, and spat out, “that fucking philistine.”
 Who knows if X is listening to Prince right now. Maybe Lena should have listened to more music at school. Maybe she should become a Turn It Up regular. There was a time in 2008 when Cooper, the Gang’s music geek in residence, had introduced her to what was happening in music at the time. She occupied his room and, along with Cooper’s boyfriend Seth, listened to the worthies of his taste. Arcade Fire, Magnetic Fields, TV On The Radio, the first Portishead album in ten years-a “monumental day for the world”-and Kanye West’s 808s And Heartbreak. Lena didn’t want to tell Cooper that the only album from the pack that really affected her was Kanye’s, especially the final song, “Coldest Winter,” a Nomadic dispatch from a heart beyond saving. She couldn’t argue his claim that it was “interesting, minor Kanye,” because she hadn’t listened to his other albums. But Lena couldn’t reconcile his learned, music-buff criticism with what she actually heard. It affected her, a leather-metallic probe.
 “How long have you been awake?” X is propped on one elbow.
 “I don’t know.”
 “I think we’ve been sleeping all day,” X says wryly, pulling back a few inches of the blanket curtain to reveal the evening. “Wow. We suck.” They both laugh.
 “I guess we do,” Lena says.
 “I peeked outside. The roads are still a disgrace. The plows haven’t come down these parts but more than once.” X is more purely energized than he was before, though weighty skin bags still hang under his eyes. If he’s been awake, it’s because he’s struck upon something, an idea, a project of some great import. “I suggest we stay here for another night, what do you say?”
 “I’m not sure,” Lena says, though she’s quite comfortable, and feels properly insulated here.
 “What, did you leave the gas on?”
 “Haha. No. I just get the willies when I think of my empty apartment. Who knows why. When I was a girl I would scare myself silly picturing our answering machine getting a call in the middle of the day, when the house was temporarily vacant.”
 “That really scared me, the image of our answering machine blinking red.”
 “I can walk you back home.”
 “No. I should put away childish things. Besides, I like it in here. It’s warm but not too warm. But I am hungry. What would still be open now?”
 “Want to do another walk?”
 “Sure. Let’s just avoid the Palace this time. I won’t be able to eat.”
 Outside, the windchill sucks. X has pulled a gangly blue coat from an undisclosed closet. The wind lashes their faces like an invisible cat o’nine tails as they trudge steadily back to town.
 X and Lena take shelter in Pastor’s Antiques, another store in Brattleboro that deals in the recycled. Lena knows that X is watching her every move as she handles a dusty old music box. He scrounges beside the front desk, halfheartedly inspecting a crate of old records. What is he thinking right now? She walks up a small flight of stairs to an isle of old clothing. From her perch, Lena watches X flipping through records while thinking about her. His face burns with the greatest epiphany. She thinks she can see him mouthing the words, “of course.” He turns and, still crouching, looks up at her, smiling insanely.

She talks him into walking back the Palace way. She is shaking and he puts his arm around her but Lena shucks it off. There is a difference from the last visit, a station wagon parked on the front lawn, tires immersed in snow. Most of the interior fire is gone. What is that car doing there? X asks as much, but she doesn’t answer. Only the attic fire burns still. The front door opens and one androgynous figure in a black parka walks casually to the car, gets in, and, after a struggle, pulls out and rumbles away. The figure never acknowledges them; the car never stops or beeps the horn.
 X blocks her view of the palace. “Time to go.”
 “Just a little longer?”
 “You aren’t one of them yet. Do you want to be?”
 “Shut up. Fuck you. I hate you.”
 “I want to spend another night with you,” X says. “I think we need each other for a bit. Don’t you agree?”
 “I never wanted this, you know. You are a part of what I never wanted.”
 “But you’re coming back with me, right?”
 Eyeing X contemptibly, Lena steps out into the street and starts down the same course as the Palace car. It’s also the way to the lane where X lives.

They watch TV, viral videos, It’s So Cold In The D. And they listen to albums by the likes of Ladytron and M83. They read separately. On the upper rim of cable channels they catch a few minutes of an obscure 80s sex comedy, visually degraded laffs and tits, virgin twinks pissing their pants, Andrew Dice Clay stepping in for more laffs and pranks. On another channel two women, a redhead and a spunky brunette, pleasure themselves on a couch.
 “This movie is called Playtime. I must have beat off to this a zillion times. You have no idea. It’s a great movie. Those girls are so womanly, actual women, not girls. This movie is super old. I wonder where they are today? I wonder if these women are on Facebook?”
 “I’ve never seen it.” Except Lena has, when she still had the cable box. And she’s wondered a few of the same things.
 Is there really an Aunt living here? Lena feels truly alone with X. Nobody knows where she is. She left her cell phone back on the makeshift bed, because she thought she would only be out with him for a short while. Nobody can contact her, nobody can find her if something happens.
 “I look at porn sometimes,” Lena tells him much later as they watch a rerun of the masterbation drama. “Not like Claire, but I have been curious about what’s out there.”
 “What do you like, in particular?”
 “You don’t think I’ll tell you that, do you?”
 After they’ve smoked some pot, X allows Lena access to his XXX box, hidden in the closet. She peeks through the two-dozen or so titles. They’re remarkably inconsistent, ranging from Transgender to Lesbian to Bondage to “straight” Gay.  Many have the seemingly innocuous First Run Video sticker that only serves to remind Lena about a late charge she still holds for keeping Claire’s Knee out for as long as she did.
 She wants to watch one of his secret videos. A girl, another girl, with small tits and bottle red hair, is soon being choked right in front of them. One hand on the camera, one hand on her throat. Her face is beat pink but still she smiles.
 Lena asks, “Are you into this? Like in an erection way?”
 “Would you stay if I told you I was?” The girl is chokepushed to her knees. Something locks in place.
 “You know what’s kind of funny,” Lena says, blowing smoke towards the screen. “This is called Amateur Daddy’s Girls. But this girl isn’t an amateur. She’s probably being paid a little for—“ Lena winces when it becomes clear the redhead cannot breath. They don’t speak for the duration of her treatment. And then, when the girl puts the first foot behind her head, X turns to Lena and says:
 “Do you want to hurt someone with me?”

Gina is on her way. She’s left messages. She’s coming. “I hope you’re ready for me Lena Pie! We’re gonna trip the light fantastic on the sidewalks of Brattleboro together. And don’t worry, Seth is putting me up on Campus so you don’t have to squish me in your little place. Can you meet me at the dining hall? You still have your car, right? I can’t wait to see you! It’s been forever. You’ve been typically cryptic and very you on F.B. lately so I can’t wait to see if you’re as stony in real life. Well, anyway, I’ll probably be cut off soon, so bye. Goodbye sweetie.”

X wants to stage a relationship. Lena will meet Ben in a public place. It will appear as casual and unforced to him as breathing. Lena will display a performance as a winsome charmer. They’ll date through the summer. She will break up with him early that fall, right before he returns to school. It will all be perfectly timed. Take my hand. Will Lena be magic for him, for both of them? X will keep watch. He knows the traditions, knows where Ben goes with his sister Jennifer. He wants to cut a hole in Ben’s heart and fuck it till cumming. Will she join him on this holy mission?

When X told Lena about Ben Highland she thought he would burn away in fury. His palms were jaundiced in the non-light. X had known Ben for most of his life. He would be coming home after completing his third semester at NYU. Ben studied screenwriting. A little sister and a mother were the only family Ben had in Brattleboro, and he was totally devoted to them.
 If it didn’t work it didn’t work. They would move on. It probably wouldn’t work, but X had to try. From past evidence of Ben’s tastes X had the notion that he would be attracted to Lena. Ben believed in first sight love stories. Ben loved hard, and was vulnerable to female attention. He could also be stolen away from someone else if the offer was better. X knew all of this. He was vague about everything except the hate. There were no specific incidents. It just, in X’s words, “had to happen. Ben Highland deserves this.”
They had time to plan. He showed her pictures. Ben Highland was a tall, fit ginger, surrounded by friends in nearly every photo on his wall. His mouth was always hanging open, inches away from a smile. Ben’s arm was frequently slung around the backs of other girls. His Relationship Status was simply, It’s Complicated. Lena picked up the few things that were hers and left X. He didn’t go after her. As she passed through the living room Lena saw X’s aunt, an overweight woman, middle-aged, sitting in a light blue maternity dress and watching TV. Her cheeks and neck bulged out like they had been inflated with helium. She held a spoon pressed with an enormous scoop of Chocolate ice cream close to her face. The two didn’t speak as Lena walked back into the chill air.

Gina tries calling her again as she drives to Keene. This time her phone lies on the passenger seat, and Lena can see the name. She doesn’t answer.
 “Isn’t it funny how our names fit together? Gina and Lena. They’re kind of like a string of pearls, or two girl cousins who kiss and keep it a secret from their family.”
 The space between Brattleboro and Keene is a long rural sprawl. There are few manmade things. She only sees a fog of trees and guardrail before the first particles of the stripmall she’s become addicted to. These are the anonymous foothills. If any members of what was called The Gang were still here she wouldn’t come. Lena would simply do her shopping in Holyoke or North Hampton, striving against all the excess gas costs to keep her worth as a stranger to other people.
 A few months back she realized she hadn’t spoken in nearly a week. Lena stood in front of her bathroom mirror after a shower. She let the towel hit the floor. Lena touched herself and, like before, felt nothing.“ Fuck,” she said. “Fuck. Fuck you. Fuck you dead.”
 The winter days she isn’t able to make it to Keene Lena survives off crackers and sushi and after that starves. Because the most recent storm was the last audible gasp of winter, the plows have already cleared the distance between the two states. The air is warmer; sweaters are close to being peeled off the torsos of pretty girls. There is more traffic than normal on this commute, as cherry pickers lift city workers with buzz saws to sever the branches that threaten to collapse into the road. Still, the greening of the landscape has already processed towards a colorful bloom. Flowers rupture from beneath the whiteness. The birds are twittering their great reunion.
 Here she doesn’t have to speak if she doesn’t want to. Gina shouldn’t have called her when she was driving to Keene.
 Lena is looking over the paperback books in Price Chopper when she gets a call from X. This time she answers. His voice tries pushing through the hazy dirge of a low signal. She quickly goes outside, repeating his name until she is pacing through the parking lot.
 “I’m here, Lena. I hear you.”
 “Hey. What’s up?”
 “You left in a huff.”
 “I remembered that I might have left the gas on.”
 “Yea, I guess.” She walks past her car. She tiptoes between an SUV and a Hybrid.
 “I know what I asked you…”
 “Why did you ask me to do that?”
 “I don’t know. It seemed like the right moment.”
 “What kind of person do you think I am?” Lena doesn’t really know where she’s going. She starts back to the grocery store.
 “I don’t know. I don’t know you. It’s just an idea I’ve had for awhile. Tell you the truth I had all but forgotten it before we met up.”
 Lena sighs. “Am I the first person you’ve…propositioned?”
 “You really hate this guy.”
 “Enough to do this.”
 “What the hell did he do to you?”
 “Enough to make me want to do this.”
 Lena bypasses the superstore, leaning against a pillar beside the neighboring Gamestop. “Nothing, right? He did nothing to you.”
 X doesn’t respond. “Hello?”
 “Don’t say what you think you have to say,” he tells her. “I think you want to collaborate here.”
 “I should hang up right now and block you.”
 “You should. I’m a very sick person. But I don’t think you will. Because I think you’re kind of a sick person too.”
 “What’s your definition of sick?”
 X speaks to a third party. She can hear his hand choke the phone, but it’s obvious by his tone that he’s informing her where an item is. “I think ‘sick’ is sick. A brilliant malignancy that most people never consider. I see it in you, Lena. Individuals become more than themselves to you. They become ciphers who plot to take away your happiness. I think you felt exited when I spoke of my mission against Ben Highland. I think you got off a little. You were scared, I understand that. There are still conditions you’re wrapped up in, ways to be. But remember, Lena, the eyes of the world aren’t watching us. There is no God. Our lives are what they are. We can do this together. Do you know how much freedom is possible?”
 She hangs up the phone.

Gina had said something once that was slightly redolent of his words. Lena was sleeping in her bed that night because of continued annoyance with her then-roommate Erin, who couldn’t sleep without playing Jpop out loud. Gina, of course, always let Lena sleep in her single. It was an unwritten agreement that Lena had to sleep beside her friend, on the bed right next to the window. Gina was brushing her lips against her face, lightly humping her, forcing Lena’s hand to touch one of her full breasts. “Does this make you uncomfortable?”
 “I don’t know.” Lena let her fingers become tooled into stroking a nipple engorged in deep arousal.
 “Let me tell you something about people,” Gina said. “You can have sex with anybody if you love them. Sexuality doesn’t exist. We’re all wired to be with anyone as long as we’ve connected with their essence of love. And I think if you learned to be more attracted to me as a spiritual companion then as a woman we could be…so very happy together.” Her warm skin felt good on Lena’s hand, which was always cold in the winter due to low blood circulation. Gina’s nipple poked out between her middle and ring fingers. Gina continued, her breath expanding across her failed lover’s entire face. “When I realized this, I was set free. And I think you’ll be too. There’s something so hot about that essence. Even if you aren’t turned on by my…physical aspects. But we’re more than our bodies.”
 Lena rolled over and covered herself from Gina with the blanket.
 “I know you don’t mean to hurt me.”
 “What if I did?”
 Gina is kneading her back. “Don’t do that, Gina.”
 “Come on…”
 “No.” Before oozing into sleep, Lena wondered if she would be the next provider of Middleton’s Witching Hour screams.

Do they know who they are? The new blue square window pane, murky and moving, for every bat and passerby who chances a peek inside foreign apartments. The men in these Infomercials are as tanned and void as Florida. The women holding the products are always too happy, the women selling the products, the women old and withered and unhappily contrasting with women whose chests are stuffed like Thanksgiving Turkeys with Saline. When the last network program ends, seconds before the new night era of Paid Programming, Lena can feel the scaly whiplash of plummeting from one layer of culture to another.
 “Pat Harris,” someone Lena has seen in the depths of these hours before, holds a grey blender to a camera that cuts to the selling point more than it cuts to her lined, pinched face. This isn’t a regular blender. The WellTex 2010 allows you to, as Pat says, “combine health and wellness in your diet.” The WellTex is a smoothie machine that includes a top nozzle allowing the user to drop their prescription drugs into their smoothie, where the medicine disappears into the drink. The result, Pat continues, is “the most positive enrichment to your daily intake of vitamins, fruit, and well being.” The walls of the kitchen set could fall at the first quiver of a west coast quake. Like pebbles fall the mock pills into the quickening color mess. A banner of dry text races to say that only certain FDAA-certified meds are compatible with the WellTex. “Is Rohypnol one of them?”
 Lena could use this. She takes five pills a day to live. One pill to dissolve the acid that builds and rises like molten lava to the back of her throat shortly after every meal. One small white pill to control the anxiety and fear. Three Prozac tablets after that. She could eviscerate them all into her daily smoothie, though first she would have to start actually consuming daily smoothies.
 “Wonderful!” Pat says, before being unceremoniously wiped off the screen. Testimonials follow. A tanned, voluptuous dirty blonde Lena recognizes from Cinemax movies she’s watched over the years is now saying how much easier her life has been since she mashed her Prozac into her health drink. Lena changes the channel and falls asleep to a Girls Gone Wild promo without dreaming. 

There’s an Email from Gina about when she’ll be on the Middleton campus. Lena responds with a hazy time that she tries to stress could be subject to change. There is another new message. JPEGs delivered by X.
 Ben Highland sports a nearly invisible black mole underneath his left nostril. He is surrounded by adoring people.
 He looks to her like a supremely confident person. He knows how to talk to people. He might be very good for her, actually. Wouldn’t X love that, if Ben and Lena got into a committed, long-term relationship because of his doing? If that happened, would he tell Ben about everything, the whole scheme? He probably would.
 She couldn’t pretend to enjoy stroking that carrot stalk hair. He was most definitely a considerate and selfless lover-one of the thousand words the picture told.
 Who is he? A person. Ben Highland is a human being. He is an attractive young man. “What did you do, Mr. Highland?” Lena asks the photograph. “What did you possibly do to my evil friend?”

On the way up, Lena listens to the radio. Because she’s so close, Lena catches the waves of the Middleton station. The DJ, a student she can’t possibly know, is playing Joni Mitchell’s “A Case Of You.”
 “You taste so bitter, and so sweet,” she sings before saying those four words. X wants Ben to drink a case of me, doesn’t he? A case of me is what this is all about. Ben can only drink so much before we take the bottle away.
 The last time Lena was here she had just became a champion graduate. Her brother Terence had visited, along with her father, and her uncle Ken and Aunt Megan. Lena’s mother couldn’t extradite herself from San Francisco, but she did send viral “Congratulations” for the girl she couldn’t alter into her own diminutive mirror doll. She had hugged the remaining members of The Gang farewell, except for Gina, who had already gone back home.
 That doesn’t matter now. Lena was dreading the steep highway leading to the school, trying to spot black ice through the highbeams. But she made it here. Places-like the crude wooden benches beside the frozen pond, the mailroom, the library-places that bored her or made Lena unhappy are now drenched in remedial slick. Voices catch voices in the cool evening. When once she recognized everyone, Lena doesn’t know a single face. Except for Gina, if she can be found. And then…there she is, standing by the pond, looking off. Gina wears a black wool coat and a red beret. The women embrace. Gina calls her a sight for sore eyes. They decide to go to the Dining hall, one gloved hand holding and leading another.
 Only a portion of the wide space is properly illuminated. The coffee machine is working, so Gina pours herself a steaming paper cup. Gina ubuttons her coat and begins talking. She’s put on some weight, but it suits her; Gina always self-described herself as “full,” a real woman, and she even used to sunbathe topless on the hill by the library. Whenever Lena was being held by her she felt protected. 
 Her voice hasn’t lost that proud huskiness. “For a long time I was so unhappy. I was lost. Have you felt that after you left here?”
 “No. But I understand you. Totally.”
 “Before I found Chris I was absolutely gone. And I was in Portland, as you know, which is something of an afterlife for people who came here. Sadly, I would never see any of the good ones. Just the rapists and sociopaths.”
 “I’m sorry.”
 Gina has a satisfied smile. She’s gotten over this. Whatever it is that she is describing. Her hands are twitching on the table while Lena’s are firm in her lap. Gina takes off the beret and kneads it. Her hair has been reduced to a buzzcut, as if she’d just come back from Basic Training.
 “Don’t be, this was a long time ago. I can talk about it now because I’m past it. I’m just saying that finding happiness was a long time coming. In case you were feeling down.”
 “I’m not. I promise.”
 “Good. Cool. Because I worry about you, Ms. Lena.”
 Lena takes her hands. She gazes into her eyes. She asks, “Was it all because of another person? Did that get you out?”
 “I’d like to say no, but I guess it was. Which just scares me, truthfully. Throughout the whole ordeal I kept painting, but that didn’t get rid of the blues. I didn’t understand why I felt so…annihilated. I got more paint on my face than I ever got on the canvas. I tried to convince myself that it had nothing to do with the fact that I was single. When I met Chris and we started dating, I realized that yes, I was deeply depressed because I didn’t have someone else, and deep down I thought I would never find someone else. I want my life to be more than that. But I guess I’m just selfish.”
 “When my brain was stretched very thin, I thought about calling you, or sending you a long message. That’s what I was all about, writing long, long letters to people that sort of skirted around what I really wanted to say, which was that I was deeply lonesome and sad. I cried at the end of the dumbest movies. I painted stuff I would never want to show to anyone else. I painted a picture of you.”
 “Really? Can I see it?”
 Some people walk in, talking fast. Gina lowers her voice and tears her hands away, reaching inside of her purse. “If you really want to. It’s bad.”
 “It’s too late. You piqued my curiosity.”
 Gina scrolls and scrolls through an Iphone until she finds it: A painting of Lena. There she is, her face rendered through with shaded black and dingily obscured by rain. She looks like a secret.
 “This is lovely, Gina.”
 “It was one of several things that I tried. I tried a lot of things before I settled on a good old-fashioned relationship. I tried religion. Yes. I became a Mormon for about two months. There was a church of Latterday Saints blocks from where I worked. Everybody was so nice. I needed that, more than the Church itself. I used those nice people, I kind of sucked the niceness out of them. There were a few Mormons there who were my age, some of them were even high-school students. My face was posted on the Mormons Of Portland website, along with a little profile.” The two guys who came in are talking heatedly by the boarded-up kitchen window. Gina doesn’t seem to want them to overhear. “Finally I moved on. I realized how it wasn’t good for me to lead these people on to thinking I was a convert when I really wasn’t. Getting myself unglued from the mailing list and the internet was a hassle, but I did it.
 “I did other things. I took Yoga classes, I tried reading the Russian Classics but didn’t get past the first hundred pages of War And Peace. And I partook in even more…substances than usual.” Now Gina looks almost scared at the conclusion she has just reached. “It’s close enough to knowing hell if you feel always unfulfilled.”
 They’ve been here before. An empty dorm, this one at the top of the stairs located directly opposite the front entrance to Aquarius house. No time has been wasted getting here. The walk from the dining hall was steep and slippery, and they didn’t see anyone else or hear a shred of voice. Seth is gone; the room is theirs to own. Lena suddenly gets the almost irrepressible urge to tell Gina about X’s plan and what he wants her to do to this boy. Gina turns on a single light and belly flops to the bed. There’s another bed, made for Lena because her friend has planned in advance. They don’t have to sleep together anymore. Those days are over.
 “So,” Gina says, “How has this old town been treating you?”
 “Ok.” Lena sits beside her. Gina wasn’t expecting this. She moves over, giving Lena room. It has begun snowing outside. Random Knox, the party dorm, is ablaze tonight with music and streaming voices. Lena tried going to one her first semester. A nameless girl she never saw since had eyed her from across the smoky, chaotic room, made her way to Lena, who had stuffed herself against a wall and hoped nobody would pick her out. The girl asked Lena her name and she pushed her away and sat on a couch and the girl slinked over until a deathly cold stare from Lena told her No, fuck off now.
 “We should have fucked with Random Knox,” Gina says, still cautious of keeping their fingers and hips separate. Lena almost misses the clandestine following, when Gina thought she wasn’t noticing the pleasure her friend got from the closeness, secret kisses on hair and neck, quiet sure strokes. “We should have t.p.’ed the whole dorm. You remember your plan?” Lena suggested to the entire Gang in the library, when they couldn’t take the party din anymore, that she would drug a noted party boy-she could have proposed Darren Rudolph, who could remember-and create a post-rape crime scene in her room, with Lena as the staged victim. Rudolph, who had been bailed out of a few incidents and accusations by his parent’s generous addition to Middleton’s endowment, was surely responsible for a few of those raw screams Lena heard through the icy Vermont trees. She would only have to pretend to be one of those screaming girls to achieve justice for the real ones who weren’t confident in the power of their voices beyond that initial cry for help. It ultimately didn’t fly. The others weren’t as determined as her.
 “Yes, I remember. I remember a lot of things.”
 “Good, because I’ve forgotten most of it. Except hanging with you.”
 “That’s not true.”
 “It’s sort-of-true. I’ve trained myself to get rid of bad memories. And there weren’t a lot of bad memories with you.”
 “I know I hurt your feelings.”
 “No. You were just being honest. I always respected that. I’ve been turned down by some people who were just so cruel. You were always upfront about the kind of person you were.”
 “What kind of person was that?”
 “Guarded, private, very passionate but hesitant to show it.” So, I’m Guarded. You wanted to drink a case of me after the conclusions you had reached about me.
 “What was I passionate about, exactly?”
 Gina doesn’t know what to say. She’ll have to improvise: act. “All sorts of things. Art. You were passionate about making art. And music.”
 “I don’t think I’ve been passionate about a single thing, ever, in my entire life.”
 “Well…even if you weren’t, you fooled me. You were so…inspiring. The way you articulated everything, your desire to ‘own the language.’ Stuff like that I never forgot.
 “I think I was acting. I’m not that person anymore. When I look back, I can only see acting.”
 “Who are you, Lena?”
 “I like not knowing.”
 Lena sits up, turns, begins straddling her. Gina asks what she’s doing. She wrings their hands together, pressing sweat.
 Lena says, “Hey.”
 She kisses her on the mouth. Gina reciprocates, her minty flavored tongue sliding past her lips. Then the tongue is gone; Gina is pulling away. Lena pushes down, bites into her lower lip, drawing a small gasp of blood.
 Gina shoves her to the end of the bed. She stands and begins to pace. “You can’t do this to me!”
 “I’m tortured by you.” Gina points, the palest finger. “I fucking love you so much and you just toy with me. You can’t do this. I’m with someone now. Do you understand?”
 “Come ‘ere.” She sticks her tongue out, swirling it around and around.
 “No, Lena. Maybe  you should go back to town.”
 Lena stands, steps to her, but she breaks away, as much as it hurts her.
 “Where is your noble companion? Hundreds of long miles away. She’ll never know about this, us, not ever.”
 “I would tell,” Gina says. “I never lie. Not anymore.”
 “Aren’t you wonderful. Right?”
 “I’m just happy. I’ve never been happy before.”
 Lena stumbles, grooves dark hair away from her eyes. She’ll have to get a haircut or a headband. She might have to chop it all, clear the forest, until she’s just as butch and Ellen Ripley as Gina. She’s acting drunk. Lena walks out of the room, trips in and out of balance descending the stairs, going into the cold. That steely, unreal wind is back to bite. Her nostrils freeze. There is no Gina behind her, following, making any kind of attempt to coax her back into the room. Lena has been here before. This is the land where she used to stay, the land she inherited from the ciphers who used to be young. They are all dying. Even if they don’t know, they know. Tipped beneath the soil is the genuine world, this here is the underground; they are all a community of the buried. She twirls around magically and screams without making a sound. These secret screams are Lena’s to emit through the dirt. She walks reckless across the wooden plank laid by chalk monsters in the forest. Between mangled branches are the lights of the parking lot. Her car is there amidst the scatter. Lena’s foot slips off the plank and sinks in white muck. She will never return to Middleton, or maybe she will, because if she promises never to come back here then that means she will die, it’s a promise, it’s proof. The woods are hell. She rescues her foot and Lena realizes she’s actually scared. In some parallel universe-in the undercountry-she’s back with Gina. She’s the wrong Lena. She shouldn’t be experiencing this. She’ll never see Gina again, unless Never has a shocker planned before it takes her life away. She comes out of the wombish forest and still walking crawls towards the dance studio. Her car is with other cars. They are all people. Inside the blandly lit lobby to the Marcus Dance Building, Lena collapses in the center, rolls around like she used to do in the one acting class she took her first semester, pretending to be a daffodil alongside Rebecca Trillin, who became another soft forgettable face as the grooves broadened and the plaster cracked and split apart.
 Lena calls X and he answers after one ring and she says, “I’ll do it.”

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Sour Times: A Memoir

She spies one of them. Another trapped like her in the hard amber of Brattleboro sap. Except this former student apparently grew up here, so it almost doesn’t count. It isn’t like seeing Kevin Mears from Gloucester working the ticket booth at the Latchis, or Kelly Howard, another Californian expat like Lena, now a hostess at Friendley’s with a carved on smile. Lena doesn’t go to the Latchis or Friendly’s nearly as much as she used to, because of them.
 X is approachable, because he isn’t a hateful mirror. He might still be here anyway even if he didn’t go to Middleton. 
 X is also in the basement of the used bookstore. He is picking random books off the clogged shelves, carefully reading the front dust jackets before putting them back. The ones that don’t fit get stacked up. He hasn’t seen her yet, so there’s still time to run. Lena never thought she would ever consider him again. Even he didn’t seem to know what he was doing in Kelly Teagarden’s American Lit class, emptily pontificating on things he didn’t understand, making wild speculations on Faulkner when it was clear he hadn’t done the close reading. He found intonations of pedophelia in The Sound And The Fury where it simply didn’t exist. He pegged Holden Caulfield as gay, Benjy as a kid toucher, Nick Carroway as loving Gatsby as much as Gatsby loved Daisy Buchanan. What was more surprising than these reaching declarations was the intensely, morbidly serious way he delivered them. X appeared even more confident of what he was saying than the most intelligent literary students. Up in that cramped bookish room, they met twice a week for one semester before Kelly’s sabbatical, housed in by Library Of America editions. Out of all of them, X was the only one that interested her. They never had another class together, and Lena would only see him periodically across the expanse of her remaining two years at the school. He might have commuted from home, she didn’t know. One mid-November Tuesday after class he approached Lena to ask about a poem she had posted on the school’s network. He told her he liked it more than the “Little Miss Fauntelroy” garbage normally “shat out there.” She thanked him, not caring either way. Lena had shared the poem with the rest of the school during the tail end of a long night of catch-up in the computer lab. The poem was a rather acidic detonation of an ex-boyfriend, a periphery member of the Gang named Cory. “His cock is nothing/nothing.” X walked on, clumping through the snow.
 Yet here he is. Too late, he’s seen her already. The slow glide of recognition sears his face. Again it is winter, a grisly chill. February. A terrible storm is predicted for the night. Snow was already falling down when she stepped inside Brattleboro Books.
 When the books couldn’t be shelved they were piled up in massive rows. Here were the intellectual remainders, science fiction and horror, stocked here away from sunlight. Lena is divided from X by a wall of space books. He sits in her stool, gently fondling a mildewed science-fiction paperback. She spies through random gaps. On the book’s cover, a lone astronaut, standing on the redness of Mars, gazes with helpless desperation as his massive ship blasts off without him. She can’t make out the title. X skims the text. She doesn’t approach him yet. They both know the other person is there, and they’ll be alone in the basement until one decides to leave, because nobody else is coming down. He wears a black hoodie out of sync with his age, which has to be mid-twenties by now. X remains trim, clean shaven, the few gray hairs she remembers from class having metastasized across his head so that from a distance, with his height, X could be mistaken for a senior citizen.
 X walks upstairs, holding the little book. Lena follows him.
 She watches as he purchases the pulp novel and goes back into the thickened snowfall. It is almost impossible to see anything, but she makes out his receding black shape and catches up.
 “Hey you.”
 He turns around.
 “Hello,” he says.
 “Do you remember me?”
 “I’m not sure.” Of course he does.
 “From Middleton. I’m Lena Cole. We had Kelly Teagarden’s class together.”
 Calmly, dryly, he says, “Oh yea.”
 “Long time no see.”
 “I guess. How’s it going?”
 “Good,” Lena says. “How about you? What are you up to now?”
 “Grabbing some light reading for the storm.” He holds up the book. By now they are both topped with snow, though for Lena, wearing a coat tailored from fake white fur, the snow blends into her.
 He’s close to ending this and continuing on.
 “Are you doing anything now?”
 X shrugs. “Not really. Why?”
 “I don’t know,” Lena says, “want to get some dinner with me?” It's almost 6. She hasn’t eaten for two days.
 X wasn’t expecting that. From the look of him, X had resigned himself to a night of silent reading.
 “Ok.” Lena points across the street. “My car’s over there.”
 As they cross, X says, “Good thing we’re going now, before the world ends…”

They decide on China Buffet, a choice eatery in Middleton. The ample amounts of fatted up Lo Mein are a particular stoner cult favorite. Lena can’t go by herself. It’s too sad alone, with buttery regulars who are always pushed into the back by staff. A rambling, clearly unstable and overweight woman Lena had dubbed “Lilith” is there when she arrives with X. They didn’t speak on the ride over as X flipped through Lena’s Cd collection, occasionally nodding in approval or scoffing in musical disgust. As Lilith talks a little too loudly on the phone-“What do you WANT? I’ll BRING it to you? What do you WANT?”-Lena and X order two Pepsis from the waitress and make their way around the buffet table, awkwardly meeting as they both scoop reheated lobster tail. Vaguely exotic muzak zones the place out. They’ve been seated underneath a rectangular glass image of the mainland, lit from the inside by grub neon.
 Between bites, X asks her if she’s still writing poems.
 “No,” Lena says, with the final slamming tone of not wanting to continue discussing the matter. “How about you? What are you doing now?”
 “Freeloading. My aunt doesn’t seem to mind.”
 “You weren’t at graduation, were you?” She remembers his name being called, but nobody arriving onstage to accept the diploma.
 “No. I had…other obligations.” He takes a bite of fried rice. Now that she studies his plate, Lena realizes that X didn’t really take a lot of food. “What did you do after graduating? Looks like you didn’t get very far.”
 That smarts, but she lets it go. “I lived with somebody here for awhile, and that didn’t really work out. And then I was still here. I don’t know, I like it. I’m comfortable in this place.”
 “I’m not. I hate this fucking town. It’s incestuous. If I wasn’t dirt poor I would have moved to Brooklyn years ago.”
 Lena is starting to regret this. Why did she go after him to begin with? X ignored her in Brattleboro Books. And he was never really her friend to begin with.
 They go on eating. Now Lilith is grabbing at her natty black hair, asking the waitress if she can bring three portions home with her, not understanding why she can’t.
 X leans back, rubs his tired eyes. He groans. “I’m a bummer today, I’m sorry. I’ve been awake forever. I went to the bookstore on a whim because I couldn’t sleep. I would have nodded off if you hadn’t come downstairs.”
 Lena smiles a little. “You were in my spot. And that’s ok, I’m pretty wiped myself.”
 “I would have said something to you down there, but I wasn’t sure you were you.”
 “I understand.”
 “Because I always noticed you. In class. I mean I didn’t regard you with the same contempt that I did most of the others there. I mean, I knew I was out of my depth. I did pretty much all of the reading in the library six hours beforehand. I was a music major who found himself short two classes. Oh god, the seething pomposity of a Nate Clay!”
 Lena was in a relationship with Nate for a month after the class was over. But she doesn’t interrupt. X crazies on. “I heard their petty coughs whenever I talked, and I always thought that even though they were ‘right,’ they weren’t right. Because they didn’t approach it with the same full out, sleep deprived intensity that I did. I always thought they considered their intellect a status symbol in itself. You think I’m reaching, don’t you?”
 “Maybe a little. But I haven’t really thought much about it.”
 “Did you like it there?”
 “I did. I had a lot of friends and I liked the isolation of it.”
 “So did I.” X has some Lo Mein in his prickly beard. “Sometimes. I didn’t like it when I was lonely as the moon and pitching around the library at 3 in the morning, crying to faggy Bon Iver and knowing, knowing I was the only person on campus who didn’t have a warm body to love.”
 “I’d experienced that too. Not like that, but I had plenty of lonely nights in the library.”
 “Where were you? I was in there all the time. We could have made a cruising.”
 By now more people have entered for dinner, good-looking families and the multiplied elderly. The wait staff is nervously circling X and Lena’s table, roving sharks, hoping they finish up and leave soon to make more room. By now, the sky outside has darkened. The volume of snow is mounting.
 X pays for everything.

“Do you want to come to my house? It’s right by town.”
 “I don’t think I should. I have some stuff to do tonight.” All Lena really hopes to do when she returns to the apartment is to masterbate and fall asleep. During the snowfalls that entombed Middleton she would sit by a window in the library (spotting X, once or twice, wandering around the exterior) and wrote verse in her notebook. Could she do that again if she tried?
 The roads are still drivable, so they’ve gone to Hannaford, X to allegedly buy canned peaches and browse through the cheap DVD bin. She had lost track of him until X magically appeared beside her, walking with her, that’s all. At first she thought he was another worrisome shopper, treating tonight’s blizzard as The End.
 “You’re not getting anything?”
 “I don’t think so.” She wants to escape. She doesn’t want to know who else could be here.
 “I come here all the time. Why don’t I see you?” They stand before sushi rolls.
 Without meeting his eyes, Lena says, “I shop in Keene.”
 “That’s kind of a drive.”
 “I like driving.”
 “I would too, if I had a car.”
 “We should go.”
 “But it’s so nice in here. So vast.” The other shoppers fastforward beyond them. X says, “I almost never want to leave.”

In the car, watching the empty town, Lena asks where he wants to be dropped off.

The blinds are drawn. She won’t survey the damage outside yet. Let her hibernate, with the heat jacked up to boiling, as the only living organism should.
 Lena knew she would still be awake at the time she’s thought of as The Witching Hour since childhood. She lies face down on the floor, hugging a pillow and watching TV. She only gets twenty channels now since her father stopped paying for Time Warner Cable. That was one of the conditions he had for her if she wanted to keep living in Brattleboro without a job. It was acceptable. She might get a job in Keene soon. Why doesn’t she just live there? The Turn It Up is better, or at least safer to inhabit than the Turn It Up here. They have better bootlegs of artists like Boris and Neil Young. The town has people she loves because they are strangers.
 Lena watches static when the Paid Programming fails to keep her awake. There are a thousand stories there, worm flurries that can be traced across the screen if you’re observant enough. Unlike Lou Reed’s false promise of the melodic richness lurking beneath the dirt of Metal Machine Music, the electrical snow contains multitudes of artful transgressions, faces of the noble ghost Marvin Rodgers and other trapped souls, armies of blink that storm the spaced out void. Because the remote is currently lost, Lena, still wearing the fur jacket and nothing else, wrapped in a large down comforter, reaches to change the channel to something less invigorating. Keene public access. The real Twilight Zone. She’s arrived at the tail end of a high school lunch menu running over Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” After Sunday’s lunch, displayed in affectless white text, the image fades out. Another hour begins, washing up new programming. A man in a gorilla mask and a cheap suit stands in front of the Keene movie house, holding a microphone. This is Werewolf Willy, part of the “Scare Bears” brigade, a novelty troupe hosting screenings of older horror movies. Frankenslime is offscreen, but Lena has seen this promo before and knows what’s coming.
 “Hey boys and ghouls, do you wanna celebrate spring with a scare?”
 “God I do,” Lena says to him.
 “Then join the Scare Bears as we present a special 35 mm print of King Kong Vs. Godzilla, April 15th at 8. Bring the whole family! Purchase your very own Team Godzilla and Team Kong T-shirts in the lobby.” Willy produces one of the shirts, and is about to continue when Frankenslime, slick with green goo around his mask and tall person-obviously wearing shoes fitted with lifts, as Lena observed when she went to a screening of Theater Of Blood last Halloween.
 Frankenslime grabs Werewolf Willy, fitting him into a headlock. Willy struggles to get the rest out, “Also, stay for the halftime battle royale between myself and---“
 Lena switches channels, manually still. There’s something to be said for not using a remote. It makes veging like this more physical.
 She comes across a necklace of Paid Programming across the channels. Suzanne Sommers (wasn’t she in Serial Mom?) displaying a special oven that literally sucks unnesscesery fat from all beef, pork, steak and veal products; here’s a smarmy, tight faced actor Lena recognizes from red hour Cinemax softcore, here sitting with two hot women talking up another variation of a pill that has gone by many other names in the visscissitudes of nighttime streaming. Attention really shouldn’t be paid, but what can be revealed if it does? Lena used to wake early back home to see these, and even recognizes the “Talk Show” set from earlier exholations of earlier versions of that special pill. She can’t be cynical. Snark melts. She doesn’t love anything more than she loves these stupid things right now.
 “I want to love you,” she says, the tips of her small fingers cautiously touching the danger zone just so she can get closer to one of the implanted women. “Is loving someone’s body the same as loving them?” Lena asks the woman on television.
 “When I see a guy with confidence…all bets are off,” the woman answers.
 Lena starts fingering herself to the half-blooded fantasy of having sex with all three of these pitiful night workers. Their bodies become a mutant savage as the first ample, altered woman hackjaws her gums on Lena’s pussy and the man who has played so many unnoticed doctors, lawyers, adulterous traiterious Suburban husbands makes adventurous love to her breasts. Maybe his hair piece can fall and be accidentally kicked somewhere by a bucking foot. Lena smiles and comes. It’s a slight orgasm. She didn’t work hard to achieve it. It was nothing more than what it gave her.

She rolls over and steadies her laptop on her chest. Now the screen is the only light there is. Lena decides to check her Middleton Email, even though she hasn’t received anything besides spam and new issues of The Collegiate, the online school newspaper, after graduating. Still, it’s the only Email address she has.
 She has a new message. It isn’t spam, or the official word. It’s him.

Hey there
Thanks for hanging with me today.  I think I needed it, therapeutically speaking. I needed the being with another person. It was a pleasant surprise. Who knows how long we’ll know each other, or if we’ll ever speak again. Who knows?

Anyway, if you didn’t think today was a waste of your time, and you can’t sleep (one look in your eyes and I saw another nocturnal bat-thing. To the dreamers we are a threat) meet me in town. It’s gorgeous and we can literally go anywhere. The plows haven’t been dispatched. The roads are as white as virgin cream. Finally. Let’s meet in front of the bookstore at 2. We can break inside and loot all the fucking books we want.

Branches crash near the vacancy of Brattleboro Books. It’s close to Last Things. The snow glitters like Glam Rock, and Main Street has been defeated. The burden of the white weight is too much for the decorative trees, the sound of breaks and snaps send Lena twitching against the force.
 She tries to discern her own reflection in the store’s glass, but there’s only the dark approximation of a face, warped and funhouse-like, staring back at her, pocked with the white tendrils of her silly faux fur coat.
 X runs his finger over the bounced reflection. He’s wearing the same hoodie as before with no additions, shaking steadily. Isn’t this pure masochism? “You came.”
 “You were right. I don’t sleep.”
 “After awhile, it starts to feel good. You’ve resensitized yourself to the world.”
 “Come on,” Lena says. “Follow me.” She takes his ungloved hand.
 Past the Co-Op, the parking garage where Lena’s car is safe, past the Latchis-past everything safe and sane, to the sad crack house at the edge of town.
 She tells him what she knows, or what she thinks she knows, plucked from heresay and her own poet’s expressionism. “It used to be an apartment building for lower income families, and there was a community here. People helped each other out. But then came word that an out-of-area developer had purchased the property and was going to tear it down. Everybody had to move, and they did: back with families, into smaller places, away from this sinking ship. Except the developer never built here, and the house remained, decaying. It attracted slivers of people, gory half moons who squatted and made this place their own. I call it the Palace Of Dreams.” A few windows burn from within, some lights bubbling, others fading out quickly like dying stars. There are people inside, but X and Lena cannot see them. They stand in the yard of another empty house across the street, a real estate sign planted firmly. Their feet are as thoroughly sunk as the snowed-out broker's professional name.
 “When we were kids it was called the Witch’s Castle. We knew to stay away. How often do you come here?”
 Lena says, “Whenever I can. I try to keep a safe distance. I don’t want them seeing me.”
 “Have you ever thought about going inside?”
 Something happens. Lena grabs X’s hand. A figure passes behind the dirty attic window. It is more than a shadow. A tweaker must have finally reached the next evolutionary step: pure viscuous oil. The moving dark shape steps to the window, but firelight keeps the face obscure.
 They walk on, Lena following X reluctantly, afraid to leave the tall white house behind. There can’t be a heating system beyond the pipefire and huddling bodies. Whoever finds themselves inside must have to sleep with their backs against the wall. There is no greater horror beyond satisfaction.
 The abrasive dirge of the first plows begin, echoing through the backstreets. Lena thinks they’re just walking for the sake of it. She assumes neither of them knows exactly where they are, until X points to a minor one story place right beside a guardrail, with the river close behind.
 “Here’s me.”
 “You live here?”
 “It’s not home, but it’s much.” He’s suffering in the cold and is practically close to running cartoonlishly fast to the house. Unlike the Palace Of Dreams, there is no evidence of life in there.
 “Do you want to come in?”
 “I suppose I have to. I wouldn’t want to walk back alone, and you look like you’re about to die.”
 “Yea, I really fucked myself in the ass by not layering up.”
 So many Middleton students she used to know would regard the kitchen and living room with impenetrable snark. Illustrations of Jesus Christ hang in nearly every corner, with one especially devotional painting struck above the sink. A Palin in ’11 sticker is righteously placed in the most visible area of the refridgerator door, surrounded by assorted cat magnets and other discount trinkets. X pours himself a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and eats with a large plastic spoon as he walks into the immediately connected living room.
 “My aunt is asleep, obviously,” he says between crunches.
 The living room floor is carpeted and smells like a subversively homey mix of incense and cigarette smoke. There is no TV, which X incoherently blurts is in his room, along with his computer and pretty much everything else he needs to keep abreast of “that outside world.” His room is located at the conclusion of a long, narrow hallway. It’s unbearably clean, with a small multimedia center cradling the bed, the most care having been placed in a 6-Cd changer below. Two large speakers complete the sound-alter, and a fake woodstove has already been activated. He kneels next to a sizable, obsessively organized collection of records and cds. Lena sits on a red beanbag chair that’s large enough for her to sleep on.
 He starts playing the vinyl of Brian Eno’s Another Green World, creating the slightest bump of the needle with his shaking hands, but the extra-terrestrial ambient rock shortly begins unhindered. Pulling a cutting board from underneath his bed, X rolls them two joints.
 “I’m not going to sleep with you,” Lena says.
 X chuckles. “Please, let’s not get bogged down in that stupid shit.” He hands one to her and she takes a long drag.
 “Wow, this is great. Did you get this from Kevin Mears?” He’s the only one of the left-behind students who deals, and is known far and wide as the only dealer whose shit is actually good.
 “No, this is from my buddy in Mass.” Lying on his bed, X disappears under the covers. “This is a gateway drug, ya know. Only a short time till we’re in that white house with the dregs.”
 “Rebel Rebel,” Lena says. They both look up at the ceiling. “You have a view of the river, a kick ass set-up, and the best pot ever. Why would you ever want to leave?”
 “Because my Aunt is practically a shut in, and if I stay here indefinitely we’ll theoretically find ourselves in a sexual relationship. I’m not trying to be gross, just accurate. She’s on disability. I get a check from my father every month that he thinks is a bonus for the money I get from the job I don’t actually have.”
 “Dad pays for my lifestyle, too.”
 “Where’s my cereal,” X asks, before quickly answering himself. “Who cares. Anyway, that’s awesome. We’re lucky we ran back into each other, two spoiled brats who’ve never worked a day in their lives. We’re so contemptable.”
 “I guess we are.” Her eyes adjusted, Lena notices the green glow-in-the-dark solar system hanging still on the ceiling.
 “And I think I can speak for both of us when I say we’re both deeply unhappy people. But we don’t have to be, of course, because there’s really nothing to worry about, theoretically. We’re healthy and paid for. We have college degrees and no debt from housing and student loans! We’re the envy of millions we don’t even know, and we could care less! We’re in our early twenties and already at the end of the road, the future doesn’t seem likely, happiness doesn’t seem at all attainable, ever, the past trips us up wherever we go. People we used to know have been transmogrified into religious Idols, the very possession of which would never leave us wanting for warmth and happiness again. But those people are gone! And they want dick all to do with us! They’re embedded in the American roadmap, they’re gone. We waste the day buried alive in them. We brand ourselves and hate and loathe ourselves for not reaching our potential, because when we finally die there won’t be anything to sustain our legacy. We can’t be the stonemasons of the history of our own lives.”
 “Speak for yourself.” She exhales smoke and watches it ascend to the nuclear stars and planets.
 Rosalie. I’ve been waiting all evening. Passing the years I don’t know.
 “Whatever. I wouldn’t want to be aligned with me. I get you. I think. I don’t know. I think too much. I talk too much. I’d like to be high all the time, like every single day of my life.  I want to reach a point where I’m too lost to even remember the extraordinary baggage. Have you reached that point yet?”
 “You’re so hard to read. Like my Russian history assignments.”
 “Fine. I reached that ‘point’ a long time ago. I used to make up stories for the therapist I saw for my mother’s sake as a teenager. I started by simply giving false information about my life, like saying that I had been doing a lot of reading even though I really hadn’t read a thing. Then it progressed. I think he saw me as a peer more than a client. He told me how I saw things other people my age didn’t. His defenses lowered. I told him I had sex with my father, that it was mutually consensual, and he was nothing but quiet, kind of breathing heavily. I told him I had a lesbian three way during a sleepover at my friend June’s house. I gave him every detail, like I was a singing Penthouse letter instead of a singing telegram. I told him that June, my ‘lover,’ was going to kill herself and wanted me to join in. He seemed genuinely concerned for my safety.” She takes a long, sensuous drag. “For my very soul.”
 “How long did this go on for?”
 “Till I graduated and headed here. I haven’t seen him since. He emailed me a few times my first semester and I never got back to him so he stopped. That was something I did. I realized how easy it was for me to move on from one thing to another. I can’t care. The people who became my friends at school didn’t realize how little investment I actually had in them. Some, like Gina, acted as if they loved me. Campus was too evil to sustain such love. I lived next door to a guy named Kevin Bower. Remember him?”
 “The tall guy. Yea. Didn’t know him well. We talked a little. He liked Animal Collective.”
 “Well, he had a girlfriend. Claire Morris. In the last Spring semester before they broke up Kevin used to beat the shit out of her, pretty much every night. I heard it all. He punched her in the gut. He told her to suck his dick, because that was the only thing she was good for. She was my roommate after that. She barely left the room except for classes. She would stream weird pornography all. The. Time. Japanese shit, snakes and eels spewing from the pussies of girls who looked pre-pubescent. Incest scat. Did you even know there was an Incest Scat daughter? One video, the only video she convinced me to watch with her, featured a Philipino mother and daughter shitting into each other’s mouths in a classroom. The words ‘Death’ and ‘Dog’ were written in English on the blackboard. When the cameraman kneeled below the mouths and exposed brown asses I tried to look beyond the main action and saw that above the women were exposed pipes and fluorescent lights miles above the action. They weren’t in a classroom but a warehouse, with three walls erected to create the illusion of a classroom. Claire watched that particular video in one endless loop. I don’t remember much else about her. She dropped out, eventually.”
 Unknown hours later, after more records and dashed sleep hoarding, X flicks the molten end of the joint through the slightly opened window before playing another side. Live jazz now, though Lena couldn’t say who the composer is. Jazz all sounds like itself to her.
 “Still awake?”
 “Yea.” Bare blue morning light peeks through. X closes the window and brings down a blanket, keeping the light out. He rolls them two more and somewhere in the house a toilet flushes. X switches on a lamp beside his bed and picks up the science fiction novel he bought earlier. He’s already made it halfway through. After a while, he lays it on his chest and stares at her.
 “Were you lying about all that? Claire Morris and Kevin?”
 “I wish I was.”
 “I never lived there, but I heard things about what went on at night.”
 “I used to hear screams,” Lena says, “Very late. I would be jotting stuff down in my notebook and I would hear blood curdling screams from outside. It happened four times, I remember because I would make a slash in red ink on the cover of my notebook. There would never be second screams. But I knew they were all female. And the next morning I would stumble to the Dining Hall and investigate. I wanted to see if the world had changed?”
 “And did it?”
 “No, never. Faculty sat with young guys and treated them like people who would never hurt a woman. Girls waved to me and kept to themselves. Did they know I knew? Once, when only a few days were left in the semester, I was leaving the Dining Hall and walking back to my room when I passed a group playing foursquare. I was reading Keats and making notes with that same red pen when I heard a scream, this one of delight, yet it matched one of those death rape screams I had intercepted during the Witching Hour.”
 “Did you figure out who it belonged to?”
 “No. I walked back to my dorm. I’ve never told anyone that before.” He switches off the lamp. She confides to the lone ember. “Gina wanted to sleep with me so bad. The friendship she offered was always haunted by a love that I could never understand. Why me? And you know what I did, instead of simply telling her off? I teased her, I kept her on a chain, I made out with her sometimes and let her go down on me, then I would freeze and tell her that I only wanted to be friends. I would let her sleep in my bed and Gina was just emotionally fried. That’s one of the reasons she doesn’t keep in touch. Fuck, it might be the only reason. She kissed me with so much love. She wetted me with so much love, kissing and licking every part of me. And I didn’t feel one thing. And it wasn’t because she wasn’t a guy.”
 “I didn’t have a soul who is hungry for me like that, you know. Still don’t. And I never will. You should count yourself lucky you had at least one person like that.”
 “I know! And you can tell me that a thousand times and I still won’t believe it. I knew she would pass out of my life, just as she came into it for awhile. This music is really good. Who is it?”
 “Monk. Are you happy?”
 “That’s a weird question. Happy can be different things to different…”
 “I know, I know, but are you?”
 “Yes. Because I don’t need another person in my life to bring that happiness with them. I realized at Middleton that having a specific romantic alliance with another person is something I simply don’t want.”
 “So you don’t want to be with anyone? Ever?”
 “No, I don’t. I’ve thought this through. I only want to take as much as I need from other people and then go back into my own place. And this resolve didn’t come from one specific guy dumping me or anything like that. I was never happy in relationships; I always felt locked in.”
 “You’ll still think this way in your fifties?”
 “I plan on keeping people on retainer to fulfill me in ways that only other people can. But I’m not starved for intimacy enough to chain myself to another person for life, tolerating their tremendous flaws just so I won’t have to face some make-believe abyss. When I’m fifty I’ll be alone and very content. I’ll have numerous arrangements. What I want out of life is virtually undefinable by the standards of the rest of the world. I suppose you want to find that mythic ‘right person,’ correct?”
 X is quiet until his silence stops. “Sort of, but I’ve given up by now, and not out of some ascetic resolve. I get fixated on people. I have a habit of fooling people into thinking I’m healthy, and then they figure out the truth and I beg to be allowed back into their favor. But it’s too late. I’ve built a collection of these women. I could have been very happy with several of them. One or two even attended our esteemed alma matter. But sooner or later-always sooner-they’ve become tantalizing what-ifs. So I stopped trying, to save future unknowns from myself. I’ve learned to get along fine by myself, but I make the mistake of slipping into that old want when the rest of Brattleboro is asleep. I look up people who could theoretically still be in my life. I send them long E-mails that are nothing more than screams in the air. It’s funny when your own pattern becomes clear to you. The last someone was almost two years ago. There’s a small window where I think, ‘It’s my turn now. Like everyone else. I get to feel those things that I’ve heard the world speak of.’ But it slips on by. I miss it. I’m a little bit closer to death. And I never even began to live.”