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.
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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
“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.”