My last few years in the capital, I kept trying to make it work. I still believed in the subtitles. I still “just knew” everyone was going to come back somehow. I simply needed to keep the course and be ready. I’d kept up with the tutoring as best I could, taking on extra clients and, miraculously, even finding some freelance jobs around town. Add on a few of the embarrassing manual labor type gigs and I was able to keep my head above water. Financially, at least. Grad school was, of course, on its never ending pause, but I was also constantly swamped with liquid confidence by then, so I barely remember doing or dealing with most of these things anyway. I had a studio apartment, one I thought fit the ambiance I was trying to create for my life, whatever it was. Struggling artist, maybe. Troubled genius, for sure. I loved that one.
The bed was in the corner, an old cable tv in the other. I was adamant that I “rarely” watched television. I was too busy “studying,” following a haphazard curriculum I had created for myself, based mostly around what my tutees were working on. A kind of loose plan that provided me with just enough obscure and controversial information to say things like, “well, hold on, before we get to participles, we need to remember that language is a construct, and as such, it is constantly in a state of flux, so what we consider ‘wrong’ right now might certainly be ‘right’ in the near future.”
I can’t imagine how these kids ever passed a class.
I had one buddy at the time, a kid I’d sort of recognized from high school when I was out somewhere one night. Apparently we’d gotten along because he was pretty much my only interaction for a year or so. At least consistency-wise. He was a few years younger than me, around Chris’s age, I think. He’d switched majors mid-college, switched schools actually, and was currently working part-time at an organic grocery downtown by campus, living with his older sister and her friend. I never met them, though that’s probably for the best. He was taking a full load of classes to speed his graduation along as much as possible, working a decent amount, and also tutoring on the side. But I’m pretty sure he actually knew what he was talking about.
The point is, his manager at work, she had always lived in the city. She didn’t appear to have any real plan for the future besides sucking as much money as she could out of the grocery, and then, well to be honest, I don’t really know. I only spoke about five words to the girl before I lost her in the crowd late one night. She wasn’t totally the point anyway.
My buddy had shown up just before ten that night, his shift over, but an invitation to some kind of party extending to both of us, waiting to be realized. The city was divided up into quarters, each quarter quartered again. I was on the northwest side, in the southeast block. The party was in the southwest one, so in my mental map, just one hop over. The important part was he knew where we were going, and after a few preparatory drinks, we jumped into his old Corolla and headed over to somewhere. Later I thought I could’ve walked home. Months later, when I accidentally passed the place while lost, I realized it was a good eight miles away. Not much of a drive, but a hell of a hike at 2:30 in the morning in the middle of a snowy winter.
We went up to the house, him unsure if it was the right one, me unsure if I hadn’t maybe needed one more shot before we left. I’d certainly grown in confidence in the last half-decade. I even kept trying to believe that splitting up with the girl (and all the others, though she kept insisting on being the big one. Longest try, I guess.) had opened me up to a whole new kind of freedom, an outlook I was sure I hadn’t fully appreciated in my single days before.
Nevertheless, diminishing returns made what used to secure me a glowing personality merely give me a slightly less ragged edge. The air was too cold to debate though, and the screen door here worked mooer like a revolving door, and in a very familiar way. We tromped through the snow to the enclosed porch and began the uncomfortable search for a (to him) familiar face in a packed house of the unfamiliar.
She found us, after a thankfully short time, led us to the kitchen (even more thankful), and then got sucked back into the mix of people.
He and I stood by the counter, attempting to act like we fit in, and then beginning the fast drinking and slow wandering that (typically) solved these problems.
I don’t know when it was, but sometime later, we’d moved out to a screened-in porch, then up outside stairs to yet another screened-in back porch on the second floor, found and refound the bathroom a time or two apiece, and then promptly lost one another. He was always the more gregarious of us, so when he offered to go grab a couple more beers from the fridge (as usual, we’d brought our own, but these were promptly nixed by our host [or at least our inviter]), I wasn’t surprised when he was gone long enough for me to start slipping away again while I waited on the couch in the living room.
Someone, at some point, had pried the glass cover off the coffee table, arranged about thirty classic (for our generation) cd cases underneath, and then somehow re-secured it. I leaned forward, attempting to appear deep in thought, or reminiscent, or something besides awkward and mostly uncomfortable.
A maraca-like rattle beside me brought me out of my feigned reverie.
I looked over, a skinny white girl with beaded cornrows had taken up residence beside me. I looked at her hair, feeling a little bit bad for her; it had to hurt. And plus, I wasn’t entirely sure if white girls were allowed to do their hair like that. Wasn’t it racist or something?
I watched her watching me from her reclined spot, dark eyes matching dark hair, a spaghetti strapped top (also cut into strips and beaded along the bottom), cut-off shorts, flip flops. It suddenly dawned on me that *everyone* was dressed like it was summer time.
I also realized I hadn’t said anything for a weird amount of time, just stared at her like some kind of mute, or sexual predator.
“Hi,” I said. “Sorry. I think I just noticed something.”
She laughed. “I wondered, man. But I mean, it’s no big deal. Not everybody’s into the luau theme. Or theme parties in general. I just hate winter. This is my act of rebellion.” She flicked her hair, clacking the beads. “Take *that*, Jack Frost! Ya jerk,” she laughed
I felt immediately hot, overdressed, and ridiculous in my sweatshirt (where was my coat?).
“Are you having fun though?” She asked, leaning forward to grab a bottle of beer off the table. Her tank dipped down, and without really thinking, I glanced. The sports bra underneath made me feel both less creepy and yet somehow more shamed for seeing it.
“So,” I darted my eyes back to the table. “Do you live here, or...?”
She laughed again; I’m not sure why. “No, just came over for the evening.”
“Cool. Me too.”
And despite this extremely uninteresting beginning, I found myself on the couch with her past midnight, past one, past two, when my ride came wandering through the room again, asking if I was ready to cut out.
I glanced at my watch, at the girl, surprised that the time had gone somewhere else, but she hadn’t.
“Yeah. I mean, probably here in a minute.”
“Right on,” he wandered off again without asking for an explanation or attempting to ferret in.
“You need to go,” she said. I couldn’t tell if it was a statement, or just a question with the upward lilt at the end diluted by however many drinks she and I had brought back for one another.
“No,” I said. “I mean maybe. But I can always walk from here. I don’t live super far away.”
It wasn’t an invitation, despite that fact I was clearly enjoying my time with her. At this point though, I was probably more drawn to her showing any interest in me. I wanted to keep her talking, get her to tell me secrets, find out who she was and create something special that would only last between us, for this one night. I wanted to provide the best part of her evening, and all I asked was that she fawn over me a little.
“Nah,” she said, yawning. “It’s actually cold outside still,” the weather once again personally affronting her with its incessant existence.
“Hey,” she leaned over, her head on my shoulder and looking up at me. “I want you to know that I’m really glad you were here tonight. This is like, so good.”
For the first time, the way she looked, the way she spoke, I was reminded that others didn’t have my hesitancy to drugs. Or at least the illegal ones. You could call it cowardice, but I preferred to think of it as a moral standpoint. Either way, I was starting to see that none of this had been real.
“Hey,” she said again. “Don’t you be wandering off. Up here,” she tapped my head. “You’re not gone yet, and I want to give you something to say thank you.”
“Oh yeah?” I smiled a little, feeling myself slide into the more experienced, wiser, not-quite-condescending older brother type mode.
“Yeah. Here.” She took my hand and held it up to hers, fingers splayed. “Okay,” she said, looking at me.
I looked back, waiting for instruction, or a clue, or some kind of social cue to tell me what I was supposed to be doing.
“Did you feel that?” she said.
Unsure, but not stupid, I lied. “Yeah.”
“Really?” It could have been the light, or maybe she was just glassy-eyed from the night, but I swear her eyes sparkled. “You really did? You really did...” she sighed, a contented smile resting on her lips.
“Yeah,” I said. “Or I mean, I think so. What did you do?”
She leaned her head back on my shoulder. “I just gave you some of my spirit. Now you don’t have to be afraid or nervous or unconfident or alone anymore.”
I wanted to ask her why she did that, why she thought all those things, what was I doing that made her think I needed anything at all? Instead, I smiled as best I could, and I thanked her.
I was upstairs before I found my ride, or he found me. No attempt had been made to rectify the dark on the second-floor screened-in porch. I was looking out at the backyard, roofs and occasional trees spreading out in all three directions. The moon was out. Stars shined somewhere, though the inner-city positioning made them hard to see. I pushed on the screen with one hand, feeling the cold. With the other, with the one that had so recently provided the pathway for spiritual transference, I smoked a cigarette.
He came up beside me. “Hey, you ready to cut out of here? I don’t wanna be driving super late.”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s cool. You can just crash at my place anyway.”
“Right on.” He looked outside with me. “So what was up with that girl?”
“Hm? Oh,” I laughed. “She gave me some of her fucking spirit. Apparently it’s going to fix me. Can you believe that?”