East Bay, Late October

It’s 12:22 PM and Apple and Christine are waiting for banh mi sandwiches in a small Vietnamese cafe on Franklin Street in Oakland’s Chinatown, just blocks from the city’s urban epicenter at 12th and Broadway.  Apple is explaining, for perhaps the fifth or sixth time since Christine began working under her in late June, the economic benefits of assuming the role of 20th century American adult and undertaking a lengthy, amply sized capital M Mortgage, but despite both women’s proficient familiarity with economics (both micro and macro) as well as statistics, mathematics, data science and the relative stability of local and global financial institutions, Christine smiles broadly and shakes her head, content and comfortable in the familiar, unflagging opinion that owing anyone something in the arena of 500 thousand dollars can never be the correct choice for her life.  Her mind barely even makes a cursory attempt at imagining a scenario in which she’ll ever see numbers attributed to her person anywhere near the range of 500 grand, outside of being generally middle aged and married and having kids and seeing that number affixed to the top of some vague savings account or 401k or something.  

“Spicy?” asks the tiny elderly Vietnamese woman currently occupied with making the banh mis, holding up a slice of a jalapeno pepper toward the women.  

“Yes for mine, thanks.”

“No spicy for me.”  The sandwich artist nods, smiling, and tucks the jalapeno away into Christine’s sandwich.

“But what if I just want to up and move one day, just like I hate where I’m living, or the city gets terrible, or I get a new job or like my husband or something gets a new job, and so we have to move.  Then we’ve got this giant amount of money over our heads and then what?”

“Then you just sell the house, and pay off the remaining mortgage balance with the profits.”

“But then we gotta sell the house, and that just seems so stressful.  Like what if it’s not a seller’s market?  What if it takes months or years to sell it and we wanna get out right now?”

“It will sell, don’t worry.  You just have to be patient.  Right now market is very good.  If I wanted to sell my house, I would have a buyer in maybe… three weeks.”

Right now, but what if there’s like, a financial crisis, you know?  Like in ‘08.  Then the house values go down and you have a giant mortgage and you’re fucked.”

“Then you’ll have to refinance, if the economy goes bad and no one can pay, the banks will let you refinance.”

“See, there you go, re-doing anything just sounds awful.  What do I gotta do, like go to a bank, and talk to some dude, and we’re talking about like, hundreds of k and twenty years and like, interest rates and stuff?  God that just sounds awful.  I don’t ever wanna do that.”

“Well, then I guess maybe you don’t want a mortgage.”  The sandwiches are presented, wrapped in paper, tied with a rubber band, taken from the counter as thank yous are exchanged and the women walk out the door of the cafe (Christine has no idea what this cafe is actually called, by the way.  It’s just ‘The Banh Mi Place’), where on the sidewalk they are flanked on the left by a heroin addict squatting like a Slav and rocking back and forth on his heels over a styrofoam cup (which Christine can’t bring herself to glance into out of fear it will be empty, or worse, contain something like a few pennies and a nickel), and on the right by an ancient Chinese immigrant sitting in a dirty plastic garden chair before a blanket, folded into a square and hosting heads of cabbage, roots of ginger, long, gnarled carrots, cucumbers and giant stalks of bok choi.  

Apple Zhao, employee of this city for over a decade now, has filtered out such sad and unsettling images as the homeless addict and sees only the rogue vegetable merchant, whom she thinks looks a bit like her own mother, albeit significantly more weathered, the differences similar to those between a long, gnarled carrot, grown in the wild, placed next to a carrot that’s been tended to gingerly from within the confines of an upper class residential backyard vegetable and spice garden.  Apple tries to picture her mother’s activities at this very moment; surely she’d find her sitting on the blue denim couch in the sun room, either reading a Chinese newspaper or working on the scarf she’s crocheting for Daniel’s birthday, which she keeps hidden in a shoebox under her bed and can only work on while he’s at school, or maybe she’s in the kitchen, preparing a snack (her mother never seems to eat enough at once to constitute labelling any of her mid-day intake ‘lunch’).  She might even be sitting outside, Apple thinks as Christine remarks to her on the sunshine’s glowing warmth despite it being now the final week of October, and how wow she can’t believe that it’s the end of October already, it felt like 2017 just started and bam now it’s five sixths over, and doesn’t 2018 just sound like a weird year?  2018 always seemed like such an abstract and distant year, though 2020 is inexplicably tangible, probably because she’s heard so much about the 2020 election already.  Apple never even thinks to mention her own automatic, internal response to this ‘speed-at-which-time-passes’ incredulity – an abstract and language-less manifestation of the sentence ‘it get’s faster every year’ – having long ago trained herself not to alert young people to this remarkably accurate cliche since it’s always at best an uninteresting piece of conversational debris and at worst a major bummer that elicits an ‘I’m-so-old’ response from the absolutely-no-way-in-hell ‘old’ conversational partner that in turn makes Apple feel old and boring and jaded and hypocritical.  

“Yes, it’s very nice that it won’t be so cold for my kids to go out on Halloween night.  But it’s supposed to get colder next weekend.”

“Aww, trick-or-treating.  I remember going trick-or-treating.  Are they old enough to go by themselves or are you tagging along?”

“I think either me or my husband will go with them.  Peyton is probably old enough to go with his friends, he thinks we are annoying if we follow him, but Daniel is still too young, and the town is very big and spread out, so they will need someone to drive them to the different neighborhoods.  I’m hoping that I will have an excuse so that my husband will go and I won’t have to do it.”

“Well if you’re really desperate you could always come to my Halloween party.  It’s gonna be hella lit, I’d be so down to party with you AZ.”

Apple laughs, covering her mouth with a tiny hand, stubby-fingered despite her petite figure’s overall litheness.  “No, I’m too old to go to a party, I think I’ll just stay home and get some extra sleep.”

“You aren’t too old.  First of all, you could tell everyone you’re twenty-two and no one would think twice.  And secondly, we’re all adults now.  It’s not like a college party or something.  There will be people in their late twenties, early thirties.  Married couples, I don’t know if there will be anyone else with kids, but maybe there will be, it’s open invite.  You should just stop by early before it gets too crazy.  Then you’ll have an excuse for your husband – oh, you can totally say it’s a ‘work-function’!  Just be like ‘Yeah, I have to go to my boss’s place for this ‘work-function’, he’s expecting me to stop by and stay for at least one non-alcoholic drink, sorry I really can’t get out of it I already told him I’d make it.’  And you’re good.”

Apple smiles and laughs politely and says she’ll think about it as the women enter the lobby of their building, making their way past the front desk to the elevators and on up to the fifteenth floor.  Christine somehow always has time to party, it seems to Apple.  She certainly doesn’t work as hard, or as long, as Apple, but she is reliable and efficient, turning in anything Apple asks for on time and without cutting too many corners.  Apple could always unload more work on to her, as she knows other managers are keen to do, their subordinates hurrying about the office edgy like a shell-shocked combatant and mentally unkempt, with none of Christine’s infectious joi-de-vivre, but then she’d just spend time waiting for Christine to turn ever more important datasets around, stressing herself out imagining Christine failing to recognize said datasets’ importance and taking her leisurely, Facebook-addled time, perhaps departing for a party or concert and leaving the half-finished work for the next day when Apple needed it tonight, needed to see it and query it and filter it and make sure it didn’t break all so that she could garner six hours of relatively peaceful rest before the following afternoon’s Key Decisions Meeting, but didn’t exactly specify that to Christine since Christine knows what time the KDM is and will surely have the dataset to her at least a couple hours in advance but 12-hours too late for Apple to sleep easily knowing that she won’t be brought down a mental notch on the endless totem pole of upper-middle-management by any of the handful of assorted vice-presidents due to a dataset that failed spectacularly under pressure by grossly misrepresenting the reality buried in the numbers that only she and Christine can decode.  And so Christine’s work-life balance will continue to skew toward ‘life’ while her own work-life balance will retain the impressive but not necessarily unhealthy proportion of ‘work’ it has maintained since she entered high school twenty-six years earlier.

The elevator doors open and the women step out into the office-quiet reception area of their floor, where Christine says she’s heading to the bathroom and Apple says she’s going to eat at her desk and that she’ll see her at their 1’o clock.

 

Now here’s Christine in the shower of her apartment, six hours post banh mi, having her ritualistic Shower Beer (today finds her taking good-sized pulls from a light Pacifico lager, brought to her apartment in twelve-pack form by Kosta when she had him and Nate over for a movie night last weekend and one of the final three to survive from that particular litter) and contemplating where she might get dinner before heading over to Woodstock’s for trivia night, it being similarly ritualistic to procure dinner from one of several establishments in proximity to Woodstock’s, lest, in the face of two pints of some hoppy IPA, her stubborn defiance of eating any and all food prepared in Woodstock’s sorry excuse for a kitchen lose the battle to ale-induced hunger and she subsequently relent to staring down the back half of a burger or fried chicken sandwich that makes her throat feel like it’s been brushed with liquified bacon fat.  Determining dinner elicits a quick flashback to lunch, where she probes the sea of lunches she’s eaten since she started this job to find today’s lunch (banh mi, a classic), still fresh and vivid in her mind’s eye but soon to become a transitive, indistinguishable member of a greater, endless ocean of lunches she’s eaten since she became sentient.

Finishing off her beer and deciding to remain only a minute or two longer in the shower, she finds herself thinking of the women who run the banh mi shop, Vietnamese immigrants, in their 60s or 70s, maybe even their 80s, wondering when they came to The States; the most likely period being either during or just after the Vietnam war, in the 70s, which might mean they’ve spent as much or more time in America than their native Vietnam, but spent that whole time in the company of other poor Asian immigrants, recreating and recontextualizing cultural touchstones like food, games, clothing and housing from inside a lopsided, imposing city resembling nothing like Saigon but carrying with it a similar bustling energy and hustle that must encapsulate foreign cities they’ll never see, only heard of, Paris, London, Tokyo.  How long have they run the shop?  Or similar shops?  Through the Reagan years, the Clinton administration?  Stepping out of the shower’s incapacitating comfort and quickly into a fluffy brown Vera Wang towel, she tries to imagine the women watching 9/11 on television, back in the Early 2000s, when TVs were still like boxes, maybe they went over to each other’s homes to watch together and speculate in hushed tones of Vietnamese, or maybe they kept the shop open, listening on some dusty 80s-era cassette deck/radio, serving as a rallying point for their regular customers, wandering into the shop in a state of being emotionally emptied out, resorting to cliches and isms, less relieved to see a familiar face and eat a familiar sandwich than like caught passively in its familiar net, drawing comparisons to the true human capacity for Evil they’d witnessed firsthand as young people in Vietnam, an Evil that they hadn’t seen since.

Christine is standing naked in her bedroom, mentally perusing a colorful and overstuffed closet, imagining herself in the mirror in combinations of dresses with short leather jackets, the greenish turquoise pants, the leopard-print blouse, the Scotland soccer jersey, with the Toms?  The Chelsea boots?  Or the black jeans with the Converse, and the red striped top with the jean jacket, like a New York City punk rocker from decades she never witnessed and has only read about, no moves to make with the hair besides parted slightly to the side and worn straight down, that’s why she grew it out, after all, and plus there would be no one to impress tonight, no new face to dazzle, but then again you Never Know when it comes to parties or bars, which is a large part of their appeal, she’s learn to understand in the sevenish years she’s been drinking.  The night’s never predisposed to but always holding the possibility of taking Unexpected Turns, but tonight, at Woodstock’s, holed up in a corner table with two of her guy friends and Unexpected Turn-averse Sienna, tonight will, with 95% confidence, she estimates, go exactly the way she’d draw it up; she’ll drink two IPAs, they’ll come in like 6th or 7th or 10th place at trivia, in a field of about 20, not good enough for a prize but good enough to feel like they’re still ‘in it’ into round five or six, and then they’ll depart, Sienna probably offering her a ride home, and she accepting, sitting in the front of Sienna’s car as it idles before her apartment building only a few blocks from Woodstock’s on Hillegass finishing off some conversation the ride was far too short to contain.

Deciding on the aforementioned black jeans, red striped top and jean jacket, watching the coming night unfold before her eyes like the pre-screening of some unexciting but charming indie comedy, she wonders if she’s finally OK with such predictability, the addicting taste of college’s spontaneity somewhat more faded from memory by now, if the growing pains of reconfiguring her personality and expectations in anticipation of a sated adult life have perhaps finally kicked, haunting her only late at night, back from some bar or party, alone, crossfaded, with nostalgic visions of nights she had regarded once as only the tip of the iceberg and which she now realizes solemnly were the iceberg.

Does The Duchess of Zhao ever feel pangs of nostalgia, she wonders, stepping out into the brisk but not cold Berkeley air, her Converse meeting the sidewalk with a satisfying slap.  Christine imagines that high school and college were far less Fun Times for Apple than for herself, and that professional life’s relatively even-keeled profile might have been a welcome relief from the roller coaster that is undergrad’s sinusoidal exam cycle.  Perhaps The Duchess is nostalgic for a time even further back, what Christine thinks of as her own ‘Coma Years’, a version of her that bears little resemblance to the one put forth before the general public today, a version with whom she has no dialogue, whose thoughts and ambitions she can’t remember, if there had even been thoughts and ambitions to begin with.

“Can I interest you in a free regional jokebook, ma’am?”  The sound of Christine being forcefully ripped from her Apple Zhao speculation is like the unmistakable detaching of velcro.  Startled, she turns to her left to see an immense man, with a cartoonish horizontally protruding gut, offering her a paper booklet, the cover a depressing lavender, the text (“125 Jokes!”) a tasteless Microsoft Office-default red in a font that looks straight out of Windows 95, with a rectangular photo of the man offering her the joke book holding a copy of said book.  He looks to be in his mid 50s, giant, dusty black slacks, light purple 3-button polo (the same color as his booklet, Christine realizes about 5 minutes later) swallowed by his waistline like it’s stuck in a vacuum.  

“No thank you,” she relies in that saccharine college-white-girl voice that sounds like her nose should be ramped like a ski jump (it’s not).  The man only nods and turns to the other pedestrian at the corner of Channing and Telegraph, an undergrad-looking Asian dude in a backpack who answers his question with the exact same three words.  There is a thick and heavy awkwardness as the party of three waits for the light to change, Christine pretty sure she can feel the Asian kid feeling the guy’s rejection as she simultaneously also feels his rejection.  What is he, like a traveling joke book salesman?  How has he paid rent for this many years?  Christine shudders, imagining herself peddling goods on the sidewalks of Berkeley in the years that lie in the wake of some complete and traumatic, irreversible middle-aged breakdown.  It seems possible, plausible even.  The breakdown (she vows never to let herself, in any way shape or form, peddle).  The light changes and the two youths both stride as furiously as is societally acceptable away from the enormous trudging jokester and an unspoken agreement is made specifying that once they’ve both put 20 feet between themselves and the salesman, she’ll bring her pace down a notch or two while he’ll ramp his up, so that they won’t have to walk within each other’s personal vicinities any longer than is absolutely necessary.

Waiting in the four-person line outside Woodstock’s (Note: there’s never, never a line at Woodstock’s except for in cases like these, when four people simultaneously arrive six minutes before the start of trivia), Christine’s attention is drawn to a like early 2000s Corolla, where the sole passenger is both wearing a Nirvana t-shirt and listening to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” at full blast while the car idles with its hazards on in front of the bar.  Christine is trying to decide if he’s wearing the shirt because he knew he’d be blasting the song in public or vice-versa.  Incredulously, this supposed Nirvana-head is blasting the most commercially accessible (i.e. Basic) Nirvana track, although perhaps he’s prioritized walkers-by recognizing the artist above meaningless hipster-cred.  But then again, as a Nirvana-head, surely he’d know that the late Kurt C would be absolutely revolted by someone going so far as to value familiarity with the act in question while publically and tactlessly expressing his penchant for the band’s music, right?  This apparent paradox consumes Christine until the bouncer asks her, for the third time, for her ID.

Entering the bar and ascending the staircase, the wall of which is cluttered with signs and logos advertising various California microbrews, Christine suddenly has to pee like a motherfucker and practically throws her clutch at the corner table that Kosta is almost always here early enough to snag and says nothing before darting off to one of two unisex single stalls, both of which are available.  It is here, seated at the throne with pants just below knees, that she realizes she never got anything to eat, having been too preoccupied with arriving somewhat timely.  Here, in this temporal and physical space of utter sobriety, she vows to herself not to order a single piece of food from Woodstock’s, and if Nate or someone orders fries, to only eat like two as a polite gesture to their generosity.

 

Precisely the same moment finds Apple Zhao, born Ling Minyang, forty-years-old, 4’10”, 92 lbs, mother of two, wife of one, daughter of two, sister of zero, homeowner, responsible mortgage payer, dual-citizen, director of operations analytics, hard worker, easy laugher, bullshit tolerator (for the most part), omnivore, apathetic agnostic, surprisingly devout Oakland Raiders fan, tri-weekly yoga practitioner, fluent speaker of English, Cantonese and like one-and-a-half regional Mandarin dialects, Game of Thrones watcher, NPR listener and believer in the hard and fast maxim that rules should be followed, otherwise everything’s just generally a hassle, sitting on the throne of her own recently remodeled upstairs full bath, yoga pants at lower thigh, elbows on knees, an emptiness in her eyes, which rest on some point far beyond the bathroom’s opposite wall, thinking in English (Apple has found that she thinks in Cantonese about things in her life that are generally dealt with in Cantonese, like her mother, her childhood, travel plans back to Guangzhou, anything pertaining to people she WeChats with, and in English about work, her kids’ school, the neighborhood, her mortgage, the Oakland Raiders, etc.) about tomorrow morning’s series of meetings – a 9 o’clock, a 10 o’clock, a 10:30, and a working lunch at 12:20 – just giving each a cursory once over to make sure everything that will be discussed has already been prepared and sits comfortably in its home folder on her hard drive (backed up by her master DropBox folder, of course).  

The doorbell rings and brings her throttling back into the present, where, alone but somehow still embarrassed, she finishes up as quickly as she can and bounces down the staircase to the front door, getting there just as her mother has poked her head through the kitchen doorway.  The family’s little schnauzer, Pepper, is yapping its head off.  It’ll stop as soon as the door is opened.

“Hi Apple, I’ve got two little boys to drop off, if you still want ‘em, that is.”  This is Grace Stewart, mother of two boys almost identical in age to her own, homemaker by trade, and simultaneously the most convenient and most obnoxious mother of any of the boys in her sons’ respective grades.  Apple sees it as no small point of pride that she’s never snapped at Grace for any of her ignorance-fueled racist indiscretions, sly undercuts of any and all other moms, rather violent and visceral descriptions of what she’d like to do to their boys if they lived under her roof, and a disposition lacking any subtlety that she’s smarter and more talented than all the other moms, homemakers and professionals alike, but had made the ultimate sacrifice by giving up on her promising career as a screenwriter to settle down and ‘Do the Whole Mom Thing!’TM.  And Apple is a professional bullshit-tolerator; she sees her patience and ability to let indiscretions flow past her like a gentle stream as essential assets to her work stats, given the number of hot-heads sucking up air in the finance realm, and given that the minute a woman starts to get flustered or upset in said realm, she’s immediately greeted by four or five slick smiles and the exchanging of eye rolls from balding, overweight VPs and sales dudes that insist that she’s hungry and should probably get something to eat.

“Oh hello Grace, yes, I guess I still want them.  Thank you for bring them over!” A polite laugh.  Her boys are swinging their Thor lunch boxes at each other in the front yard, while Grace’s boys are still strapped in the car, glued to an iPad.  The only real reason Apple is so careful to stay on Grace’s good side is because Grace’s aforementioned sons and lack of employment make her backyard and basement, only one major road and a few minor ones from Apple’s own, the perfect afternoon hangout spot for her Daniel and Peyton in the hours between school letting out and Apple arriving home from work.  And despite all of Grace Stewart’s obvious faults as an adult and human being, she must be doing something right, because her own boys (Jackson and Johnson) are rather likable, Apple finds, in a sugar-high off-the-walls never-ceasing-energy-but-extruding-a-pure-, unadulterated-and-uplifting-happiness-so-absent-in-modern- adult-life kind of way, which seems to have spread somewhat into her own shyer, possibly introverted boys through some kind of boyhood osmosis.  And this care has succeeded in making her Grace’s confidant and closest ‘friend’ in the class (AKA the only mom she hasn’t had a rather charged confrontation with), a position Apple feels must be valuable, though the value has yet to really come to fruition.  

“Oh, don’t even worry about it.  I was on the way to Jackson and Johnson’s drum lessons, anyway.”  That’s right, Jackson and Johnson have started drum lessons.  Apple remembers being absolutely paralyzed with fear at first thought of those children wailing on snares and cymbals all night long.  Such fear has yet to subside.

“How were they today?”

“Oh the usual.  MInecraft, Minecraft, Minecraft.  That’s all they wanna do.  I made them go outdoors and toss a ball around, just to get them away from the screen for a few minutes.”  Grace pivots on her heel and ‘thinks’.  It’s obvious to Apple (bullshit tolerator and detector) that she’s pretending.  “Oh you know what, Peyton did ask for a second pudding cup though, and I saw him try to snag a third one on his way out of the kitchen.  You should watch out with what you let him eat.  I know Asian food usually has a lot of sodium and MSG and you don’t want him to be on the chubby side going into middle school – you know how cruel children can be at that age.  If you want I could send you some healthy recipes my good friend from film school out in Sausalito curated- the eggplant parmesan will knock your socks off!”

A perfected laugh-and-smile from Apple.  “Oh, well, that would be very nice of you, thank you.”

Grace turns to the boys in the front yard, leaning on the porch railing, one leg crossed over the other in a salmon-colored pencil skirt.  “So, have they picked out their Halloween costumes yet?”

“Yes!  They’re both going to be Thor!”

Both of them?”

“They both want to be him, and it seems like they don’t care, so I said okay, that makes my life much easier.”

“Well, as long as it’s easier for you.  Johnson insists on being some wacky character from a video game, he’s asking me to make the costume for him myself, oh I don’t know where I’ll find the time, but if it’s what he wants, the effort will be worth it.”

“That’s very nice of you to do that, it seems like a lot of work.”  

“Oh I’m sure you’d do it for your kids too.”

“I don’t think so; I don’t even know how to sew!”

“They didn’t teach you that growing up?”  She shrugs.  She looks like she should be smoking a cigarette, one of those long ones, with a little holder for it and everything.  “Oh!  Have you heard that Margaret Kim is having a little party for all the children in the 5th grade class on Halloween night?”

“No, I didn’t know that.”

“Oh she didn’t tell you?  That Margaret Kim, you can never truly rely on her for anything, oh it was the worst when she was a Room Mom back when the boys were in 2nd grade.  Anyway, I think she only told me because she wanted me to make my famous homemade Pumpkin Pie I always send the boys to school with on Halloween.  So of course I had to say ‘Yes’, even though I don’t know where I’m going to find the time, seeing as how Harry’s away that whole week, and I have to make Johnson’s costume.  Anyway your boys must know about it.”

“Yes, I’ll ask them.  It would be nice for them to eat all that candy in someone else’s house, then come back here when they’re ready for bed!”
Grace laughs the sort of middle-aged version of the cute-white-girl-in-preppy-college-with-ski- slope-nose laugh.  “That’s what I’m saying!  But Margaret is insisting we all come over, too; while the kids are playing in her basement – it just got redone and is like a kind of Mecca for boys their age, video games and foosball and everything, I’ll send you the pictures – while they’re playing in the basement, she wants all the moms to have a little sangria happy hour out on her deck – that also just got redone; gorgeous, must have cost them a fortune though, I think I gotta get Harry to see about doing ours.”

“Oh, well, I’ll see if I can make it – I have a workplace-function that night.”

“Oh Apple you should come, it won’t be ‘til 7 o’clock or so, they don’t make you stay that late over there, do they?”

“It’s kind of a happy hour for my boss, but I will try to make it.”

“Oh wait now I’ve just remembered, you don’t even drink, do you?”

“No I don’t drink, I’ll just have some food at the happy hour.”

“Is that like a religious thing?  I know some Asians can’t drink because of their religion.”

“Oh, no, no religious thing, I just can’t drink, it always makes me sick.”

“Well that’s just too bad.  Oh but Apple you absolutely have to be there, because between you and me,” and here she leans in, lowering her voice, as if the two Zhao children, now throwing all contents of their backpacks, along with the backpacks themselves, at the yard’s horse chestnut tree, which they are referring to as “Loki”, will overhear her and spill the long-since-spilled beans that Grace thinks not kindly of the other moms in the class.  “Between you and me, I can’t stand some of the other moms!  The third grade moms aren’t as bad, but Becky Bryant and Alison Meyers and that terrible Corina Villanueva- oh it’s like her boy was raised in a barn!  I swear I’ll never have that kid over my house again!  Margaret, I mean I don’t think she’s got too much going on up here,” tapping her temple, “but at least she puts in an effort, for the children, you know?  But Corina,” shaking her head, her eyes saying ‘I’m so fucking done with this’, “That woman – well let’s just say thank god you’re around Apple, I mean really, we really need to look out for one another.  Let’s just hope that when they get into middle school we get a few more like us in the mix, huh?”  She laughs and adjusts her purse back over herself.  

This entire time Apple has been staring at her, trying to look empathetic but careful not to nod or say ‘yeah’ or ‘mhm’.  She rather likes Corina Villanueva- she’s one of few moms that still carries some sort of that same joi-de-vivre she likes so much in Christine, and, ironically, in the Stewart boys.  It’s still amazing to her how oblivious Grace is to the other moms’ dislike of her, given how seemingly ‘intelligent’ she is, but chalks it up to denial; the whole ‘It’s not me, it’s everyone else’ mentality that pervades the ‘Life is unfair’ type people she’s seen flitter in and out of her various places of employment.

“Well, I think I’ve got to get these guys some dinner, so I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yes yes, sorry didn’t mean to keep you, and as soon as I get home I’ll email you the recipes, oh it’s gonna change your life, I swear.”  She starts to make her way back to her white Jeep Land Rover (Apple drives a dark red 2013 Acura MDX) and waves at the brothers Zhao, saying goodbye, who pay her no mind.  She looks back over her shoulder at Apple with a ‘Boys – what can you do?’ kind of shrug as Apple calls her children in for supper, their responses trained and immediate.

 

Tonight’s trivia team (which Nate, as is typical, insists on calling ‘Dog’ – something about non-sequitur minimalism that no one usually cares enough to override him on) is composed of the four core starters, meaning Christine, Kosta, Nate and Sienna, with no additional +1s or +2s, something of a rarity these days, as all four teammates have over the last two years acquired their own stable of 10-30% reliables that usually bring the total numbers up around 6 or 7, and not uncommonly to the max capacity of 8 (on only one occasion did the team have to split like a single-celled organism into two woefully inadequate teams of 5).  This doesn’t bother Christine much, as she slightly prefers the familiarity of the core group to one in which a +1 must be babysat and actively included by their host, but Kosta is disappointed in the turn out- in his mind, every Wednesday should be an effort to assemble the Ideal 8- the four core, plus one person good with sports, a history-buff and a tv/movie buff and maybe like someone who knows nerdy shit like fantasy and video games- and finally claim the coveted first place that has so successfully eluded them.

Nate comes back with the answer sheet, a couple pencils, and four pints; the team has given him free reign to pick out beers for them, seeing as how they’ve all had everything on the menu a million times by now.  

“What’d ya get?”  Sienna asks as he places the beers down at the table’s center.

“For Mr. Kosta Speliotopolous, we have an Old Rasputin.”  The pitch black beer smells like being tipsy quicker than you thought you’d be.  Kosta nods and brings it to his lips, leaving some beige foam on his soot-colored mustache.  Woodstock’s is filling up with Berkeley undergrads, and Dog could, for the most part, fit right into that broad categorization, the team members easily passing for undergraduates (though probably not freshman), if required when say, using the free library printer or attending free on-campus concerts.  

All except for Kosta, that is.  Kosta, now a second year grad student of the Civil Engineering department, looks very much like a grad student.  The widow’s peak, the thick beard, the complexion that suggests he may be from like Iran or Turkey, or maybe like Brazil, one of those places grad students always seem to come from, the no-nonsense thrift shop flannels, the bottle-opener on keychain, the distaste for the quintessentially frolicing, self-important, oblivious sophomore pre-med, the cloud of cynicism that follows wherever he goes like a loyal beast.  Kosta has actually never looked like an undergrad; he has been mistaken for a grad student since November of his freshman year, when his beer belly settled in and he stopped shaving any more frequently than bi-monthly (the every two months kind, not the every other month kind).  Most of Christine’s friends unacquainted with Kosta personally have long referred to him as ‘that grad student guy you hang out with,’ a title Kosta for the most part embraces.  Christine thinks that his grad-studentness had a sort of Inception like effect on his undergraduate mind such that when senior year came around he could perceive of no suitable alternative than to just complete his destiny and become one.  His research involves computational models of fluid dynamics for use in wind turbines.  No one really knows anything about it besides that – he despises discussing it outside the lab.

“For Sienna, a Ballast Point Grapefruit Sculpin,” and Sienna takes the beer with a big smile and a ‘Thank you Monsieur.’  Sienna looks like the girl who in middle school you would have described as like emo and secretly wished you were bold enough and defiant enough to dress like, but also secretly you’d know such outward displays of shock-aesthetic undercut some deep-seeded insecurities and worldly confusion/dissatisfaction.  Her hair is bright red, bangs at eyebrows, wavy and above the shoulders on the back and sides.  Between both ears, eyebrow, nose, tongue and clitoris she has fourteen piercings (only Christine and a few other hometown friends know about the fourteenth), her eyelashes coated with mascara so they are lifted to cartoonish proportion.  Tonight she wears a plaid black and red romper (Christine calls this her ‘checkerboard outfit’), with a leather jacket, some ironically tacky silver bangles, a black choker, black tights and combat boots.  She’s the kind of girl you maybe avoid because you assume she’s trouble until you find out she goes to UC Berkeley and double majors in Psych and English Lit and asks the best questions her professors have heard in years and then you start to reevaluate, decide ‘Oh, she’s got her shit together, she’s no trouble at all, she’s just a badass,’ this validation of her intelligence and responsibility through enrollment in higher education somehow delineating the boundary between ‘bad’ and ‘badass’.  

Not that Sienna hasn’t played into the stereotype she visually represents; her past is murky, even to Christine, having transferred to UC Berkeley after spending a couple years at UT San Antonio and then taking a couple more off, during which she had some pretty harrowing experiences with hard drugs, which she divulges to her friends at irregular intervals, tipsy, smoking a cigarette on some patio or sidewalk in the dark, the latest such divulging detailing a period of three or four months during which she was snorting coke between just about every perceivably distinct activity of her day, until her dealer got busted cause some dude died freebasing an eight ball he’d sold him and the cops shut that whole operation down and her inability find another reliable dealer anywhere near Tulsa effectively put the k-bosh on her cocaine habit, which didn’t exactly break her heart because she was getting hella into molly at the time and it was still novel and fun and didn’t feel like drugs as much.  At twenty-six, Sienna is the oldest of the bunch, but still technically like a second-semester Junior or something, due to the aforementioned years away from school.  She’s also the kindest, smartest, most ambitious and generally most likable, Christine is pretty sure, which is probably the reason she was able to escape that hellish-cycle of detox and relapse in the first place.

“For Christine, a Dogfish Head 90-Minute Double IPA,” slapping the hoppy glass on a coaster and sliding it in front of her.

“Wow, it’s like you know me,” Christine says sarcastically.

“I take that as a compliment,” Nate says, and Christine is slightly confused because it was a compliment, just delivered sarcastically, because Nate does so obviously know Christine, he’s known her the longest of anyone, all the way back to the second week of freshman year, when he was locked out of his room across the hall from her and she hooked him up with a MacBook charger so he could finish his Intro to Western Civ assignment and submit it from a rather pitiful bearing; anchored to a wall outlet in the east stairwell.  Unlike Kosta and Sienna (and to a lesser extent, Christine), Nate has nearly no uniquely identifiable physical characteristics whatsoever; six feet, thin, white, brown-haired, brown-eyed, attractive only in the sense that he’s definitely not unattractive, all solid-colored v-necks, casual button downs and black jeans, Christine can’t even remember what kind of shoes he wears, they’re so generic.  A history/art history double major, Nate somehow landed the enviable job of Advisor to the Mayor of Berkeley, despite having no political connections or political stances whatsoever.  Nate seemingly looks at the world with a fascinating objectivism, which probably made him a great student of history, Christine can imagine, and concerns himself more with what art museums or botanical gardens he should visit the next time he trips acid than anything tangentially related to the day-to-day minutiae of East Bay policy.  Jumping obsessively from project to project, book to book (almost always non-fiction), medium to ever increasingly obscure and hyper specific medium, Nate is perhaps the most interesting to know well but the least interesting to know only passively, his inhuman ability to be charmingly vanilla, devoid of any even mildly unpleasant traits in the company of strangers and acquaintances unrivaled from Vallejo down to Santa Cruz.

“How’s the Youtube series coming?” Christine asks him, sipping her beer.

“Just about finished with the new one, should be uploaded tomorrow.”

“So like you’re editing it?” – Sienna.

“Yep.”

“I still don’t understand what kind of post-processing you can possibly be doing.  Isn’t it just one take, no-editing, and then upload?”  Nate has recently experienced a wave of popularity for his video series called ‘Paint the Thing’, where he takes an everyday object, like say a chair (his most popular video by about twenty thousand views), sets it up on his apartment’s back patio, and paints it all red, all in one take, camera fixed on a tripod, just paints it solidly red, then proceeds to paint the whole thing blue, then green, then yellow, then walks up and turns off the camera, with absolutely no cuts, no music, no talking, no sound other than the ambient noise of the city and the gentle lap of paint on wood.  After getting downvoted into oblivion on a variety of subreddits, his series found a cult following streaming on Twitch and with the 4Chan crowd, the thousands of comments alternating between expressions of admiration bordering on worship for the artist and mind-bogglingly lewd suggestions as to what the commenters would like to see him do w/r/t the paintbrush and his anus.

“Eh, there’s more than you think.”

“Then what is it, exactly?  What exact edits are you making?  Really, I’m dying to know.”  This is Kosta, becoming easily frustrated with what he sees as Nate’s effortless success, whereas his work life is marred by an extraordinary lack of success, despite piles of effort.

“A magician never reveals his secrets.”

“You’re not a magician, man, you just like paint a fucking mailbox or doghouse or something, that’s not magic.”

“No see he is a magician,” Sienna interjects, “he’s able to turn paint and a doghouse into hundreds of dollars of ad-revenue payouts from Youtube.”

“For now,” Nate offers wistfully.  “But quite honestly, I think the series has begun to lose its spark, its edge.  I might only have two or three videos left in me.  I only want to be making the show so long as it’s compelling, as long as I have new things to say.  As soon as I suspect the next video could represent a noticeable drop in quality, I’ll know my story has been told.”

Kosta slams his hand on the table, leaning aggressively in toward the stoic Nate, but Sienna takes his hand in hers and shushes him like a baby, lifting the glass to his lips.  “Worry yourself not with Nate’s unmistakable artistic genius.  You are, after all, only a simple engineer.”

“More like unmistakable bullshit.”

“Basically synonyms,” Christine adds.

“This is true.”

The emcee of trivia (not the Regular Guy, Christine realizes with the mildest disappointment humanly possible, who sounds like he belongs behind a microphone, either on a weekday morning FM radio show or hosting Bar Mitzvahs, but the Other Guy, the guy who clearly tried very hard to be cool in college but whose obvious effort precluded him from experiencing anything other than an associative coolness by way of his cool friends), hops on the mic to welcome everyone to Woodstock’s Trivia Night and reads the rules:

  1.  No more than 8 players per team
  2.  No cell phones during rounds (“Missing those Snapchats isn’t gonna kill ya, folks, please put

    them awayyyyyy til intermission”)

  1.  Each team must buy two beers per team member and receive the stamps from the bartenders as

                 evidence on their stamp card

  1.  No shouting the answers out loud
  2.  No standing on tables or chairs
  3.  No intra-team conspiracies
  4.  Please ask the emcee if you need anything repeated (this is less a rule and more a regulation)
  5.  All answers must be legible
  6.  Please send a team member up to turn in and collect your answer sheet after each round

    (another regulation)

  1. Have fun! (The regular emcee neither mentions nor enforces this rule)

 

“Alright and our first category of the night is, in honor of Halloween, ‘Holidays of the World!

Kosta: “We’re fucked.”

Sienna: “It could be worse.”

Christine: “Nate’ll probably know some of them.”

Nate: “What’s a holiday?”

Meanwhile, back in Walnut Creek (‘The Jewel of the East Bay – Host Your Next Event Here!’ the advertisements in the BART stations read, ads that Christine and Apple alike think are trying tactlessly too hard), AZ has the boys fed and now they’re on the couch watching Sports Center while she cleans up the table.  (AZ is one of Christine’s many nicknames for Apple, and probably the one she uses most often.  Others include; AZ-DC, Alphanumeric, Alpha Centauri, Appster, The Appster, The App-Star G, AMZ (Apple Motherfuckin’ Zhao), Apple ‘Of-Course-I-Have-A-Mortgage’ Zhao, Boss Lady, Applerino, Applerooski, Queen Zhao, Apple – Duchess of Zhao, The Duchess, The Grand Duchess, and Chairman Zhao.  She also refers to Apple’s cubicle as ‘The Court of Appeels,’ which never fails to crack Christine up any time she’s given the opportunity to say it out loud.  AZ generally enjoys these nicknames, though she often feels as if she’s missing out on some joke or reference.)

Typically Apple’s mother cooks dinner for the family, but tonight is her weekly mahjong game, which she plays down the street At Mrs. Li’s.  Mrs. Li is an old friend from Guangzhou who moved to the Bay about ten years before Apple’s parents did, and she introduced mama Zhao to the sisters Qin (Betsy and Beth, Apple thinks they go by, though that doesn’t seem right), immigrants from Inner Mongolia who Mrs. Li met through her local Asian immigrant-heavy non-denominational Christian church.  If someone can’t make the game, the go-to substitute is Mrs. Li’s husband’s former co-worker, Kirk Cousins, who apparently is very good at mahjong and plays in a couple other weekly games, but always refers to the Li quartet as ‘the big leagues’.  And so Apple cooked, just some pasta and meatballs, because it’s easy and because her boys will gobble it up no questions asked and after a long day of work the last thing she wants is some spat at the dinner table over one son or another’s dislike of radish or cauliflower or green peppers.

Daniel and Peyton are completely absorbed by the same dudes Apple’s seen on the program for over a decade now (though she can never remember any of their names), counting down the Coors Light 6 Cold Hard Facts about the AFC South, that they don’t even notice that Apple has paused her tidying to watch as well.  The AFC South has as of late been the worst division in the entire NFL, but this year finds a three-way tie for first between the Titans, Texans and Jaguars, all three posting 4-3 records, and with the way the AFC North and West have been stinking it up this year (including her beloved Raiders), there’s a decent shot one of them even takes a wild card slot come December.

Two months after arriving in the Bay Area in 2002, Apple had fallen into a homesickness-fueled depression, disliking the largeness and rudeness and complexity and utter lack of cultural sensitivity she found in a life spent trudging bleary-eyed between a shitty apartment in San Leandro across two AC Transit bus lines to a shitty job in Emeryville where her cubicle had no sight of a window and her bosses were all white dudes with receding hairlines and paunchy stomachs that treated her like an idiot.  One particularly chilly Sunday in October, after having missed her bus while out shopping for a new pair of shoes (the heel of her best work shoes having been snarled in a sewer grate and snapped off), she elected to get out of the cold and enter a bar while she waited for the next bus.  Inside she found a thriving mass of silver and black, decked out in spikes, face paint, armor, heavy beards, bellies protruding from too-small jerseys, giant tits in v necks, bottles and cans littering all surfaces, all living and dying and high-fiving and throwing up their hands and asking ‘Why are they running the ball?’ after every down of an Oakland Raiders game that was being played only three miles to the northwest but was broadcast on about 12 televisions in this particular establishment.  

After some friendly women who looked like they should be at a rather grotesque halloween party explained the general rules of the game to Apple (she comprehended almost none of them), she found herself ebbing and flowing with the emotions of the crowd, cheering, sighing, banging the tables, turning to ask ‘What was the hell was that call?’ when everyone else did.  She didn’t even notice that three buses had since arrived and departed from her stop, hanging on til the very end to watch the Raiders eak out a squeaker over the Bills en route to their AFC championship season.  

Apple would return to this bar every Sunday until the Super Bowl, slowly picking up on the many subtleties and completely unnecessary rules of American Football and simultaneously becoming something of a good luck charm; by the season’s end over half the bar had a hand somewhere on Apple’s person during every Raiders’ field goal attempt, and if they missed someone always said ‘Fuck, who didn’t get a hand on Apple!’  It’s even hypothesized in numerous parts of the East Bay that the only reason the Raiders lost to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, and in particularly horrendous fashion, was because Apple wasn’t watching, having months earlier booked a flight back to Guangzhou to visit family and friends that departed precisely one hour before the coin toss.  Missing the Raiders playing in the Super Bowl is one of Apple’s life’s two or three biggest regrets.

She’s been a pretty devout Raiders fan ever since, trying to make at least one home game a season, although she’s never joined in the face-painting festivities of other die hards.  She cares not for the 49ers, her NFC team being she guesses the Seahawks, if she has to pick, because they’re another west coast team and she likes their colors and has had a very pleasant time on her two visits to Seattle, although her all-time favorite player is Peyton Manning, despite him playing for fellow AFC contenders the Indianapolis Colts.  (Apple justifies this by acknowledging that Manning is a once-in-a-generation pocket passer, equally deft at mid-range as on the 3rd and 20 bombs, always healthy, never tossing up pics in the redzone, very funny in those credit card commercials, devoted to his team and city, and a true sportsman off the field to boot, and besides, the Raiders were never really competitive during his reign anyway, and they had no ‘favorite-player’ caliber players, except maybe Michael Crabtree, but he’s a receiver and Apple would always pick a quarterback.  And yes, her first son, born just days after the Colts’ victory in Super Bowl XLI, is named after him.  Perhaps surprisingly, Apple has no love for Peyton’s younger brother, Eli Manning of the New York Giants.  Daniel is named after her husband’s brother, who died in infancy.)  

In a way, the Raiders saved her those first few months in the States; it gave her something to occupy her mind with instead of just thinking about how sad and homesick and depressed she was, something to look forward to at the end of every week.  Her male co-workers suddenly stopped treating her like an idiot after they learned she could recite Rich Gannon’s single game and season-to-date passer rating every Monday morning at the weekly Sales-Ops meeting, and then gave her some serious cred after she correctly predicted that the unlikely Cleveland Browns would rally to the AFC’s final wild card slot (their only playoff appearance to date).  And despite the losing records, the 2000s and 2010s Raiders continued to bear her life fruit, first in the form of a husband (he was doing marketing for the team and had arranged to interview Apple for a series on local East Bay immigrants-turned-Raiders-fans), then in the form of having something ‘cool’ to bond with her sons over, although every replay of a helmet-rattling tackle incites her to request of some unknown, nameless god for a life in which her sons never actually ask to play tackle football.

To Apple, the Raiders are a manifestation of some of the best things about America.  The emotion and camaraderie, not corny, not political or nationalistic, the enthusiasm true and real and tied to nothing but a bunch of giant men slamming into each other and throwing a ball around while wearing a uniform that reads the name of a city your family has been settled in for hundreds of years, or maybe only a few.  She’s seen grown men cry, Apple has, over the Raiders, she’s seen guys run 500 line Python scripts to predict who the best fantasy football players will be in a given year, she’s been picked up while clinging desperately to a chair and carried right out onto the street in a swell of post-victory ecstasy.  Maybe best of all, though, depressing as it may seem, the Raiders are the reason anyone started treating Apple like a member, not just a visitor, of American society.  Not that it’s particularly America’s problem – becoming a real, no-questions-asked accepted member of Chinese society as a western foreigner is next to impossible – but nonetheless, she’s seen scores of Chinese immigrants like herself fall into exclusively Chinese social circles and never really embrace the country they’ll spend the majority of their life in, being always a tourist and an outsider in the only country their children will ever know as home.  

Anyway the AFC South looks tight and competitive this year which is fun to watch and the Raiders have a chance to pull themselves to .500 this Sunday against Buffalo, and while 4-4 isn’t a great start to the season, it’s enough to keep them in the playoff hunt into November, which is generally all you can really ask for from the Raiders.  

Daniel and Peyton have lost interest in TV and now each have their left hands pinned behind their backs and are sort of jockeying for position to slap the other’s butt with their right hand, the sport vaguely resembling the cat-and-mouse of fencing, and it looks like too much fun for Apple not to join in, discreetly sliding up behind Daniel and giving him a good open-palmed smack on the behind and now the boys have turned and are chasing her through the kitchen, the dog all excited and barking at their feet, now through the dining room, the living room, all the way up the stairs to her bedroom where she’s fallen onto the bed and they’re paddling her butt, well-toned from years of tri-weekly yoga, until it actually starts to hurt a little and she has to convince them as such and get them to stop, which is incredibly difficult when they’re riled up like this, with the dog barking at the foot of the bed, as one might imagine.  

Watching the boys turn back on each other like feral dogs, Apple catches her breath and studies their faces.  They’ve really started to look like her, both of them, more every day.  They’re one quarter white, their father being the son of a second-generation Chinese-American from Beijing and a beautiful flaxen-haired fifth-generation Polish/German/Irish/English/Ukranian-American woman, but most people will probably assume they’re fully Asian, unless puberty somehow makes them look more white, which seems unlikely.  Will these sweet little kids, who don’t think about anything but sports and candy and superhero movies and Minecraft and probably the vast assortment of Apps they’ve downloaded onto their shared iPad, truly become angsty teenagers who want to drink and party and smoke marijuana, the way Christine says they might?  Apple has repeatedly denied that her boys will ever engage in illicit behavior, claiming that they will always be ‘boring, studious, nerdy, well-behaved Asian kids’, but Christine did make a good point this morning, when she said something along the lines of “I’ve been an American teenager.  I’ve known hundreds of American teenagers.  I’ve known them for years.  Have you ever even met an American teenager?”  Apple cannot think of a single American teenager she’s spoken more than like two sentences to.  

“Say one of your kids, say like Peyton gets invited to a party, and there’s some cute girl he likes who’s going, and she’s drinking, like there’s alcohol at the party, it’s at some kid’s house and his parents are away, and Peyton drinks cause he like wants to impress the girl or whatever, and then he doesn’t have a ride home except for some other kids who have been drinking, and if he calls you, and says ‘Mom, I’ve been drinking, will you come pick me up?’ would you be mad at him for that?”

“I don’t think Peyton would ever go to a party, he won’t drink.  He’s too Asian.”

“Okay I know he was raised by like the Grand Duchess and all, but you never know, like I knew plenty, plenty of first-gen Asian American kids who drank in high school.  Like scores of them.  So just say, in this hypothetical scenario, that he did drink and he calls you and asks for a ride.  Would you get upset at him?”

“Well, I guess I wouldn’t.”

“Would you punish him?”

“I think the shame of having to call his mom for a ride home would be enough of a punishment.”

Christine, spinning around in her chair and tapping a pen on her thigh:  “Then you gotta let him know that, AZ, like he won’t call you if he thinks you’ll get mad.  You gotta be like ‘Peyton, just so you know, I don’t want you to drink, but if you do, I won’t get mad if you call me for a ride.”

“But then he’ll think it’s okay for him to drink, won’t he?”

“AZ either he’s gonna drink or he’s not gonna drink, and I’m sorry to say, but your opinion on whether or not you want him to drink probably isn’t gonna push that needle in one direction or the other.”

Apple, famously, does not drink.  In the maybe eight or nine times she’s had more than a polite sip of alcohol, always at a happy hour for someone’s birthday, or at like The Company Christmas Party, or during a Raiders playoff game, all in the 2002-2003 first-year-in-the-States-era, Apple has had like maybe one and a half beers or glasses of wine or maybe just like the majority of a martini and she’s felt dizzy, and warm, but in a sick, feverish way, and also heavy, like she’s a big bowl of heavy cream being slowly churned, and although maybe she laughed at some silly stuff, the general discomfort of being woozy and feeling like she wasn’t herself and couldn’t make competent decisions was enough for her to stop giving in and trying it after age twenty-five.  She’s always wondered if people who enjoy drinking, AKA people like Christine and pretty much all of their co-workers, if they feel the same things she’s always felt and actually enjoy that heaviness, that sloshing around and being dizzy and warm and disoriented, like that’s the point, or if they’re just better at ignoring those symptoms of intoxication and focusing on the positive attributes that Apple’s only had a cursory taste of.

Will Peyton really drink?  Of course he’ll try it, some day, but in high school?  Could he even potentially smoke marijuana?  The idea that he could do anything harder than that is so far fetched that Apple doesn’t even consider the possibility.  She was pretty sure only kids in bad inner-city public schools drink and do drugs, but Christine has begun to convince her that even technology-focused magnet schools like the one she plans to send her boys to are perfectly realistic backdrops for experimenting with alcohol, or not, it’s hard to say when they’re still young, but the possibility is far greater than slim, which was a serious wake-up call for Apple.  In some ways she feels like maybe she should start researching more about what American teenagers will be like, to prepare herself, but on the other hand, what good can preparing possibly do her?  She hadn’t done anything in the way of ‘preparing’ to have toddlers, or elementary schoolers.  She had read more than a few baby books during her first pregnancy, which she had found, unsurprisingly (though somewhat surprised that she was unsurprised), largely unhelpful.

Watching the boys tire of their game and lay on the bed at her feet, Peyton tracing the woodwork in the bedpost, Daniel trying unsuccessfully to raise just one eyebrow, she thinks that ultimately, if the kids drink, if they go to parties, even if they (fingers crossed) try smoking marijuana, Christine seems to have done all those things (surely at the most moderate level of moderation), and appears to be succeeding, both in the professional world and, from what Apple can tell, the personal, social world, so maybe that’s all just part of the experience of growing up as an American.  

 

Speaking of Christine, we find that she’s just nailed the final question of round four, closing out a first half that Kosta estimates will see Dog score 17 out of 20 possible points (they actually end up scoring 18) and in position, for the first time in ages, to actually win it all tonight, so long as they don’t get burned in the second half on some category none of them are even remotely familiar with.  

After a mediocre start in which they scored three for five on ‘Holidays of the World’ (turns out no one here knows the difference between any of the Jewish holy days), the team had been given a gift in the form of five questions about the state of Texas, which Sienna swept, though Nate had also known four of them himself.  Next was Current Events, which doesn’t always show up but when it does usually sees Dog score at least four out of five because pretty much all of them except Nate are addicted to Google News, then there was a ‘Name the Movie from the Quote’ round, also not uncommon at Woodstock’s, which is usually a crap shoot because none of them are really movie buffs but they all have dipped, to relative degrees, into the IMDB Top 100 and have probably seen a good 75 of the movies on that list between the four of them.  But things went their way tonight; Kosta knew the quotes from The Big Short and American Psycho, Sienna had got Clueless, they all knew Superbad and Christine had pulled Apocalypse Now out of her ass right at the last minute before the host came around for their sheet. (The quote was “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”)

“Well they haven’t done anything remotely sports related yet, so I feel like there’s for sure gonna be a sports round coming up,” Kosta is saying as he finishes off the last of his Old Rasputin and begins to play with the glass, tipping it back and forth between his hands, a habit that drives Christine crazy and always prompts her to finish her beer so she can get him to go get a second round with her.  

“Yeah but this isn’t the Regular Guy, it’s the Other Guy.  The Other Guy almost never does sports,” – Christine, now trying to gulp down the last of her double IPA.

“A very astute observation,” Sienna says.  “Although maybe tonight’s just our night and we’ll get all the sports questions anyway.”

“If tonight’s truly our night, he won’t ask any sports questions.  We’re at at least 16, maybe 19 tops, and the winners typically end up with like 40.” (There’s always a double point round, making the grand total at Woodstock’s 45.  But sometimes the Other Guy throws in little odds and ends double point questions, such as in a recent ‘TV Teachers’ category, when he asked “What was the name of the actor who played the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off who repeatedly called for Ferris in the famous ‘Bueller?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Anyone?  Anyone?’ line?  And I’ll give one bonus point if you can also name what subject he was teaching.”  That week’s incarnate of Dog scored zero of those points.)  “So we basically gotta ace the double point round, and then shoot about 66% on the rest and I’d say we got it.  So technically we could bomb one round, I mean go like 2 for 5, as long as it’s not the double round, and if we go pretty much perfect everywhere else I’d say we could still win it.”

“Also,” Nate is noting, standing up next to the table, his palms spread generously flat down on the surface, leaning forward, “Bella isn’t here tonight.  That means the MechE grads team isn’t here tonight.”  Bella is an adorable cocker spaniel, owned by one Francesca Plata, Brazilian international and third year PhD in mechanical engineering, that Nate has an unnatural affinity for (the dog, not the girl, although she is pretty darn cute herself), and her fearsome eight member MechE grad students team wins about 40% of all trivia nights held in Berkeley on a weekly basis.  (Woodstock’s allows dogs in their bar.  It adds way way less dog-induced chaos than you’d think.)  Francesca isn’t here tonight because her advisor is a notable hardass about applying for every possible grant the lab has even a sliver of a chance of receiving, and so Francesca is lying in bed in sweats and a t-shirt furiously typing away and copy pasting links and figures on her 2014 MacBook Air for some obscure DOE grant due at midnight her professor only told her about yesterday, and no Francesca means no Bella, and the rest of her team, while available, just doesn’t really see the point of playing if Bella isn’t around, tethered to a chair, lying on the floor under the table or sniffing the anus of a familiar canine, their affinity for the dog far exceeding that of Nate, which is unbeknownst to Dog, who consistently ridicule Nate for his Bella obsession.  Also, Nate would insist naming the team Dog has nothing to do with Bella, but privately he’d concede there could be various subconscious mechanisms at work.  

“Okay, so no MechEs, no sports, these are good signs,” Kosta rubbing his hands together aggressively, which he always does when he runs a big chunk of code he’s been picking at for awhile and is pretty sure is gonna work this time.  “Is there possibly a third piece of good luck that will make me a true believer that we are destined to win it tonight?”

“I got a super good parking spot like right on Durant, like right in front of the bar, which basically never happens,” Sienna offers.

“I’ll take it,” Kosta says and slams his hand on the table.  “Okay, who needs another beer?  Who wants to switch to Rasputins?  I have a feeling Rasputins are lucky tonight.”

“I’ll take one if you get it for me,” Christine says.

“You want me to pay for it too?”
“Chill kid, I’ll Venmo you.”  She finally finishes the last of her beer, not particularly enjoying those last rapid gulps.  “I gotta go to the bathroom.”  Christine has a thing where she can never go to the bathroom without finishing her drink first.  Something about the relative volumes in the glass and in her stomach and the intake and the outtake just makes it seem like it doesn’t make sense to come back from the bathroom and still have beer in your cup, even though the first thing she’ll do upon returning is start on her new drink.

“Don’t fall in!” Sienna calls as Christine bails out of her chair.  No such luck on the bathroom vacancy front this time, as both single stalls are locked.  No matter; she’s first in line and waits patiently, leaning against the wall, her hands behind her lower back, bouncing passively against the cool brick.  Single stalls are so infinitely better than communal public restrooms, especially in a bar setting, that the average extra waiting time is pretty much always worth.  After a minute a guy in a green like 80s sweater exits and gives her that little strangers-passing-in-public smile where you kinda grit your teeth when you smile and like shrug and nod your head and look down and Christine does the response to that where she kinda pulls her lips together and flattens her mouth and like nods back and heads in past him.

Here we are in the bathroom, Christine sitting on the toilet, phone out of course, checking in on the Snaps and FB messages she’s not been able to check because of Rule 2, and after those are cleared (nothing particularly interesting) she checks back in with Google News for maybe the 17th time that day just to see if anything broke in the Russia Investigation or some other huge Code Red scandal has broke that maybe will finally get Trump impeached, but the top story is still about this week’s mass shooting and so she browses Instagram for about ten posts, then Facebook until she’s seen like nine links from people talking about gun control in the wake of the most recent shooting (some maybe are even referencing last week’s shooting) and that’s about exhausted, and so she gets up and flushes and goes to the mirror.  She’s not feeling too rushed in here, as she is in other single stalls at crowded bars, because there’s another bathroom and because there was no one else waiting when she came in so no one knows how long she’s been in there except her teammates (we now see the truth behind Sienna’s ‘Don’t fall in!’ comment).

Standing, leaning on the sink, looking in the mirror, adjusting her hair so it’s exactly how she wants it (of course it won’t look like that when she gets back to her table, but she won’t be looking in a mirror then, either), stepping back to observe her outfit – one of her good ones, reliable, in the prime of its lifetime, at least a year or maybe more from retirement.  She looks very carefully into her eyes and realizes she’s pretty tipsy.  Only two beers in (remember the shower beer), but the double IPA was like 8% or so, so not unreasonable, considering she hasn’t eaten dinner.  The Old Rasputin which is actually being poured at this same exact moment will definitely put her into the shallow end of Drunk with a D.  Which is all she’s really trying to go for tonight (unless they actually win, she guesses).  And so another weekday drinking arc has been successfully plotted, its course maintained.  

Everything on her person looks fine, there’s nothing left to do on her phone, but Christine lingers in front of the mirror another maybe 70, 80 seconds.  She has a strong emotional attachment to standing in front of bathroom mirrors alone, in some state of not sobriety.  Often, though she’s not really drunk enough in this particular case, she’ll take a photo of herself in the mirror, not smiling, never to be posted, holding one hand up, her left hand, waving hello to a future drunk version of herself that will stumble across the photo.  This is her bridging the gap between the present-moment Christine and all the Christines of yore who have stood tipsy or drunk or really hammered in a bathroom, alone, sentimental, in the eye of a hurricane before falling back out into the social vortex of the bar or party.  Right now, in this moment, she could be twenty-first birthday Christine, blasted out of her mind at some bar she’s never known the name of in SF somewhere.  Or 20-year-old Christine, the night she met her ex Amir at a party and came in to collect herself because she was pretty sure they were gonna fuck that night and she was hella hella into him.  Or even wee eighteen-year-old, freshman Christine at her first real frat house banger, looking at the mirror and smiling like an idiot because the college life she had been promised by countless movies and the internet was real, it was actually real!  For once something was as good as advertised, better than anyone could have described to her.  And she still had four more years of it!  Or she could even be the Christine from the Coma Years, pipsqueak basically flat-chested fifteen-year-old Christine, at her first house party with other girls and boys from the soccer teams, confused out of her mind but pretty into that red-headed junior Cole Neary who keeps talking to her and doing shots with her but no way he’d try to actually like do anything, not tonight, would he?  Would he actually ‘get with’ little high school Christine?  She wasn’t even hot!  Wait, was she?  Was she actually like, well maybe not hot, but like, cute?  Is that what this means?

In this closed room, staring in the mirror, Christine is both ageless and the sum of all ages, a probability density function in which every possible state exists, states of anticipation, excitement, surprise, naivety, joyful ignorance of where the night would lead to next, each represented by some probability, however small, and emerging from the bathroom collapses that wave function and she becomes nothing but the boring twenty-three-year-old working stiff Christine that knows exactly what’s next and what’s in store this week and the following week and well basically it seems like her whole life at this point.

She turns sharply to the right and bursts out the door into the din of the bar.  

 

This all goes down about half an hour before Daniel, the younger of the two Zhao children, has just about nodded off on the couch while Apple and Peyton are still tuned into “Mean Girls”, a 2004 high school comedy Peyton stumbled on while idly surfing the channels.  Apple actually saw it in theaters (early date with her now husband) and is pretty sure it’s on Netflix, but she withholds alerting Peyton to this possibility because she thinks if the movie is drawn out enough with commercials maybe he’ll give up and head to bed before it’s over.  Of course this plan could backfire, but Apple doesn’t actually mind the commercials because it gives her a chance to ask Peyton some questions about one line or another that were too quick and slangy and flew over her head, though she’s certain she’s understanding the film far better than she did thirteen years prior, which injects her with a small dose of pride.

They’re at the scene in the movie where the red-headed main character girl (portrayed by some actress whose name Apple can’t remember but she’s pretty sure she’d know it if someone said it) is hosting a house party while her parents are out of town to like try to impress the other kids or get them to think she’s cool or something, and Apple immediately begins imagining the party unfolding in her own home.  Peyton opening the door for wave after wave of American teenagers (she has trouble picturing Peyton at any older age, so he’s ten in this fantasy but all the other guests look exactly like the actors in the movie), leading them to the kitchen, where her granite countertops (redone in 2013) are covered in bottles of all shapes and sizes and colors, the kids begin pouring everything sloppily into plastic red cups, spilling as much all over her Chilean Tile floor (also redone in 2013 – the whole kitchen was redone that spring).  Soon the house is packed tight to the walls with sweaty teenagers, the red cups coating all surfaces, sticky drinks (Apple basically imagines alcoholic drinks as soda, not a terribly inaccurate substitute for someone so unfamiliar with the typical contents of a high school party’s red Solo cup) poured all over the den’s leather sofa, seeping into the cracks, the TV and speakers being smashed by kids with green and orange mohawks, the dog yapping and running all over the place.  The furniture on the back deck (built by her husband and his brother in the summer of 2011) is all turned over, the cushions torn to pieces as if by wild animals, and kids fill the backyard like they’re awaiting the start of a concert.  There are plates, disgusting with food remnants, piling taller than Apple in the sink.  Cans and bottles are everywhere.  Nobody is using a coaster.  The coffee table in the living room has been smashed through its center.  Family pictures lining the stairwell are either skewed at dizzying angles or have otherwise been knocked to the staircase below, leaving trails of shattered glass up and down the steps.  A single shot of the downstairs bathroom’s white hand towel, completely soaked with red wine and utterly ruined, discarded and trampled on the floor, sends a shudder through Apple’s spine.

Now the Peyton in the fantasy, looking far out of his depth due not only to losing all control of this raucous house party but also because he’s still only ten, he’s observing the scene with wild panic in his eyes from the top of the staircase, looking out over the railing, while a girl and boy holding hands push past him on their way up to Apple’s bedroom (she chooses not to follow through on the details of what goes down once they’re inside).  He’s trying to yell out at the crowd to tell everyone to go home, but the music is too loud and the kids only party harder, then his eyes become huge, filled with terror, as the headlights of Apple’s approaching 2013 MDX slow and turn into the driveway, pulling up the little hill, the kids noticing as well and screaming and booking it out of there as fast as they can as the door handle turns and the parents Zhao descend upon the slaughtered husk that was their home.

Looking over across the room, Apple is first relaxed by the immaculate state of her couch and coffee table.  Peyton wears an expression of absolute indifference.  He could be sleeping with his eyes open, glazed over, staring at television as if hypnotized, the redheaded girl in a very tight fitting dress getting frustrated and flustered with some boy or another.  She’s tempted to say something, in a joking tone, of course, about how she hopes he’ll never throw a party like that in her house, but then rethinks it, not wanting to impregnate him with the idea of doing such a thing.  Christine stated she thinks about 50% of Americans get drunk for the first time in high school, and that half of those drink with some regular frequency.  What percent turn their poor parents’ homes into nightmarish scenes of drunken teenage debauchery?  Five percent?  Ten?  More?  Does every kid who drinks take upon themselves an unofficial burden of hosting the night’s proceedings at least once in their high school lifetime?  She makes a mental note to ask Christine in the AM; it would be a valuable stat to have.  

Christine is the source of nearly all of Apple’s knowledge pertaining to being American between the ages of ten and twenty-three in the 2010s.  She knows her husband’s teen years to as fair a degree as he can remember (and is comfortable telling her about, she supposes), but, ten years her senior, he’s from an era so different than that of their own children that gleaning useful information from his tales feel like attempting to fix your internet with a rooftop satellite dish owner’s manual.  Additionally, her husband grew up in Nowheresville, Northern California (a farm outside Yreka, actually), and his childhood hobbies of tying up squealing piglets and disappearing into the mountains for two days with his friends at age 12 without garnering a single shred of alarm from anyone’s parents, he tells an increasingly incredulous Apple, are light years away from the internet-revolving, padded-walls and -floors, safety-trigger-always-on, parents setting child filters on the internet suburban life they’ve built for the boys in Walnut Creek (“The Jewel of the East Bay – Host Your Next Event Here!”).

Maybe she should have Peyton meet Christine.  Not now, but in a couple years, maybe.  To see that you can be ‘cool and hip’ (Apple doesn’t think these exact words – actually, a lot of this is in Cantonese) while still getting good grades and studying and going to a good school.  Maybe if he’s curious about drinking she can even point him in Christine’s direction if he has any questions that Apple is unable to answer.  This is all assuming Christine is even gonna stick around for a few years, the likelihood of which Apple has trouble placing.  And assuming Peyton is even interested in sharing with her; he might be terribly shy or awkward around an attractive girl in her early-twenties.  Or that she could even arrange the meetup – the office doesn’t celebrate Bring Your Child to Work Day, perhaps she could invite Christine over for dinner one night?  Would that be weird?  Would Christine even want to come?  And then what, would Peyton and Christine discuss the finer points of American teenage drinking culture at the supper table over roasted duck and broccoli with oyster sauce, her mother and husband and Daniel and Apple herself leaning in with smiles of polite curiosity plastered on their faces?  (Note: Apple’s concerns about parenting a teenage son exclusively involve Peyton.  Although Daniel is only two years his junior, she almost never considers the fact that she’ll eventually have two teenage sons at once.  She figures that if she can figure out how to manage Peyton, then Daniel will be easy a breeze; he’s always been the easier child, anyway.)

Peyton’s head is bobbing, his eyelids fluttering, and Apple is overcome with a mild high at the realization that bedtime will be a painless affair.  About 40 minutes ago her husband, Sam, sent her a text saying that he was still out celebrating today’s launch of the company’s new website with the other members of the project team, and would it be alright if he wasn’t back until around midnight, to which Apple responded “Of course! I will put kids to bed.  Have a good time – you earned it! :)”.  Sam also does not drink; not because he dislikes intoxication, but because he has gradually just lost his appetite for getting drunk as a result of aging through his thirties and forties while dating and then marrying and fathering children with Apple.  He’ll still have a beer or a glass of wine when it’s polite and appropriate, but otherwise he feels no strong desire to have even a single drink, except that once a year or so when he goes back to Oregon to see his college friends, at which point his drinking habits become nothing more than a murky and surprisingly vague report back to Apple on the way home from the airport four days later.  Her mother had come home an hour back and had gone straight to bed, her mahjong game having evacuated about three day’s worth of the carefully maintained energy of the elderly.

Not that the other two adults of the Zhao household are much help at bedtime, anyway.  Since moving in with the family four years ago, her mother has only ever been responsible for putting the boys down when Apple and Sam have the rare latish night out with another couple or friends, to which they’ve only ever come home to Momma Ling passed out on the recliner and the boys either asleep or barely awake on the couch or the floor, a video game’s protagonist idling passively on the television screen before them.  And Sam seems to do more work riling the boys up than settling them down, his own playful instincts seeming to kick in right around their second wind at circa 10:00 PM.  His main useful attribute is physically carrying the children up the stairs, so as to not risk waking them and sparking said second wind, but this skill is a bit overrated in Apple’s opinion; she’s found she can just as effectively herd them up the steps in their hemi-slumbering states without adding any additional probability of a wrangle-inducing wake-up.  

The one person who had been a true asset at bedtime had been Apple’s late father, who, in his single year living in the States, had developed a knack for winding the boys down slowly with stories from his own boyhood, using the opportunity to work on his limited English, throwing in a fair bit of Cantonese, tales of busy streets, crowded homes, evil teachers and suspicious neighbors, of ghosts in the closets, spectres of dead animals, unexplainable sounds in the yard.  Of train rides through the countryside.  The first time he’d been to Hong Kong, the first time he’d left China.  Her boys had liked these stories; they had four or five favorites they asked for repeatedly.  When her father passed from a stroke in 2014, one of the myriad thoughts that had daggered through her brain tissue during the days preceding the funeral and stuck like an arrow in a target had been whether Daniel and Peyton would ask her to tell her father’s stories to them.  To her relief, they never had.  These days, Apple finds herself thinking of her father less and less, their relationship not passing any litmus test for ‘warm’ or ‘loving’, but her nonetheless wishing he had been with the family through at least Peyton’s marriage, maybe even to see a great-grandchild.  But bedtime always stirs the most sympathetic feelings she possesses for the man.  He had softened with age, and watching him with the boys, wrestling on the floor of their living room, under a giant blanket, was for Apple like looking through a portal to an alternative dimension’s depiction of her own childhood.   

Apple Zhao gradually drags herself from the warm embrace of the massive armchair, not a small task in and of itself, and tugs the boys by their shirts.  Slowly, painfully slowly, they arise, eyes mostly still closed, and she pushes them gently on the small of their backs and guides them along the well-trodden path from the den, through the kitchen, down the hall and up the steps, into their respective bedrooms, where they collapse into the small twin beds.  Technically they should brush their teeth, and Peyton should change into pajamas, but Apple elects not to fuck with a good thing tonight; it’s been a long day, and as a parent, she’s learned to take even the smallest victories whenever she can get them.

 

Fortuna has indeed completed its slow arc upward for Dog, who after two years have finally entered the tallying phase of trivia night with the nervous anticipation and expectation of victory.  There’s an electricity to the table, as the four teammates and friends make no attempt to hide their excitement.  Kosta runs through the score prediction for maybe the third time.  He’s typing it out on his phone.

“Okay so we’re at 18.  The guys with the golden retriever had 16, then those girls had 15 and the freshman team had 15, then the next highest was 13, right?”

“Yep no one had 14, I definitely remember how no one had 17 and no one had 14.”

“Okay right, so then you guys are for sure for sure we went 10/10 on the music, right?”  The music round had been one of a few double point variations Woodstock’s employs, this particular round consisting of a series of five covers of pop songs, just the first verse up to the start of the chorus, and typically blues, jazz, swing, folk, bossanova, ragtime, latin, string quartet or accordion covers, to properly conceal the original tune.  Teams are awarded one point for the song name and a second for the artist.  By far Dog’s biggest strength is music, the effect amplified on nights when music is the double round.  Nate and Sienna have an encyclopedic knowledge of pretty much everything that’s made an appearance on the Billboard top 10 since like 2001, and Christine has yet to see them miss more than maybe five songs ever.  When the track plays over the bar’s PA, they both stand leaning on the table, chins in hands, looking up at nothing in particular, and race to be the first to swiftly grab the answer sheet and jot the song and artist names down while Christine and Kosta watch vacantly.  Christine usually knows the song after one or another teammate has whispered it to the group, she sometimes even gets it right around the same time, or maybe a second or two later.  She just doesn’t understand how they can hear like the first three or four words of the lyrics and know it right then and there.  Kosta, by contrast, never seems to know any of the songs, except maybe if it’s like early 2000s pop punk or alternative stuff, for example tonight he knew The Killers’ ‘Mr. Brightside’, covered by a folk country band playing on banjo and fiddle and singing four part harmonies, the tempo jacked way up, which just served as further proof that the stars had truly aligned for Dog.

“Yeah definitely 10/10 there, no question,” Sienna answers.

“Okay so now we’re at 28.  Then geography-”

“Pretty sure five for five, but at worst, three or four.”  Nate was solid on geography but far from a five point lock.  Tonight hadn’t seemed too hard, though.  Christine had known at least two or three of them, one of which (what is the name of the strait that runs through Istanbul?) Nate had been embarrassed to admit he’d never learned.

“Then let’s say conservatively 31.  Okay then impressionist painters, definitely got Monet was the flowers, definitely got Van Gough was the ear, uh…”

“Degas,” Nate says.

“Right, that was the ballet one, right?  That’s three, you sure on Degas?”

“Positive.  It’s my phone case.”  He again shows off the back of her iPhone 5, which displays Edgar Degas’ Ballet Rehearsal on Stage, 1874.

“Then the other two were the one about La Belle Epoch, France’s golden age, and the poster artist was Toulouse-Lautrec.”

“Okay so that’s five?  Positive five?”

“Positive.”

“So that puts us at 36, maybe 37-38.  And then just now the general trivia, we think we got them all, right?”

“Pretty sure.”

“So then 41 maybe 43, so the only way anyone can catch us is… so then 45 points tops, right?”

“No 46, the last question about the chemical symbol had the bonus, remember?”

Q:  What is the chemical symbol for Tungsten?  And one final bonus point if you can name the original name of the element which gave it this symbol.  A:  W, Wolfram.

“Oh right and we got that, so 42 maybe 43 or 44, out of a possible 46, and the next best team had already missed four… so then no one can catch us, right?  Only if the 16-point team went perfect?  That’s the only way, right?”

“Seems like it.”  Kosta is now rubbing his hands together so fast Christine is scared he might start to chafe his skin.

“Holy shit we did it.”

“Maybe.  You never know, maybe we were super sure about like a song but just spaced and it was something else entirely.”

“Okay, not saying we won, not gonna jinx it.  Just feeling good, not gonna think about it – I’m just not gonna think about it!  We’re just here, having a casual beer, what’s trivia?”  Kosta is shrugging and pacing around.  “No trivia, just a casual beer, so maybe we did good?  Who knows?  Not thinking about it.”

“Yep, definitely not thinking about it,” Christine says.  “Guys look how hard Kosta is not thinking about it.”

“Hey Kosta can I not think about it with you?  How do you do it, just pace back and forth, rub your hands like this?”  Now Christine and Sienna are pacing behind Kosta, rubbing their hands, all having a solid one-to-two-beer laugh.  

“Okay okay, I’m excited, what can I say?  I’m pumped!”

“Regardless, we should for sure do a shot to calm the old nerves before the big announcement.”

“You buying?”

“Why, I suppose I am.  They don’t call me Nate ‘Moneybags’ Hernandez for nothing.”

“Wait, that’s not even your last name.”

“Yes.”

“Man I’m dying to know how much you’ve made off those Youtube videos.”

“Not as much as I’ve made investing in Bitcoins.”

“Yeah what the fuck, you’re loaded, you should buy us a shot every night.”

“Don’t bite the hand that feeds you now.  Is tequila okay with everyone?  Provided I provide the requisite salt and limerino?”

“Ugh, I hate tequila.”

“No whatever, ignore him, tequila’s fine, just hurry they’re about to announce it.”

Christine watches Nate skip, like literally skip in giant skips, to the bar.  She’s always sorta had a thing for him, long past since realistically acting upon.  The wackiness, the randomness, the sort of order within a cloud of chaos that seems to be his mind.  She craves what seems like complete immunity to stress, tension, over thinking, awkwardness and worry.  None of this seems to bog him down; he seems to have no opinion whatsoever of what other people think of him, which always makes everyone like him more.  And then good things just fall into his lap; like the job working with the Mayor.  Christine is like 95% sure if she could stop caring about if things are happening and whether or not she’s making them happen, then good things will just start happening to her, the way they do to Nate.      

In reality, Nate is probably the most fucked up on the whole team.  If everyone had a scale of how depressed they were, like on a 1 to 10, Sienna, with the darkest past, would probably come in at the bottom (or on top, depending on how you look at it) at a high 2, maybe a low 3.  This is mostly due to her having been through so much shit, so much more real, realer ass shit than anyone else here that the ‘stress’ of being an undergrad at a competitive university seems like fucking dip in the pool next to her average day during year 21 or 22 of her life.  Any lingering depression is just due to having survived that stuff while many of those she knew at that age, people who had the intelligence and ambition to also make it out of there and enjoy the dip in the pool life, but for whatever reason couldn’t escape the drugs, were now non-existent, dead, no thoughts, no feelings, no ambitions, their bodies rotting in the ground or sitting in cheap little urns, and she thinks about at least a couple of them every single day, which is a bummer but also the best motivation to stay on track.  

Kosta is about a 4, which signals that he’s an average, healthy grad student.  This is due almost entirely to worry regarding funding and his advisor, an old-school conservative Serbian who doesn’t understand the concept of taking time off from research and uses every trick in the book to keep Kosta from earning anything more than the meager poverty-level paycheck he receives monthly from the university.  Christine is probably a 6, though about a year ago she was in the high 7s, mostly owing to her breakup and how she’s still daily trying to accept, like really accept, the fact that she’s got a day job now and that this is pretty much how it’s gonna be for the next thirty years until she’s old and not cool anymore.  

Unlike Christine, Kosta isn’t so much depressed about being an adult as he is unsure of where exactly he fits into the world of adults.  He’s in grad school essentially because he didn’t know what else to do, staying on in the lab where he’d done his senior thesis being by far the easiest transition one could make out of undergrad, not having to fill out resumes or go to career fairs or wear a tie or get a haircut or god forbid make a LinkedIn account.  He’s pretty sure he’s not passionate about civil engineering, but he’s also pretty sure that there’s not really a job out there for him that he’s truly passionate about, and the idea that he’s destined to put his heart and soul into a career he truly cares for seems more and more to be a fantasy, a fabrication they tell you in middle school and high school to keep you motivated.  He’s secretly holding out to fall in Love, like real Love with a capital L, because that’s the one thing he truly has not tried at all yet and it seems to have worked wonders for some people he knows, grad students that are super stoked on their babies or their spouses or their home improvement projects, but he’s like 50% sure that real Love is also a fabrication and everyone else is just lying to themselves to cope with having realized as much.   

But Nate is probably high 7s to low 8s, and is incredibly adept at hiding that from anyone who seems like they have a stake in his happiness.  He doesn’t want to bum anyone out or let them down, alter their thinking that he’s got his shit together so well, emotionally speaking, but the kid is seeing a therapist once a week to cope with some incredibly gnarly LSD experiences he had this year, which he can sort of forget about if he’s active and has his mind at work, either creatively, working on art or music or videos or some programming thing, or by being social, by talking and being around people.  That’s why he’s always at trivia, why he’s such a lock to go out, to not bail, he’s basically the least flaky guy Christine knows, because any time spent alone is like letting rats nibble at his brain.  And he’s never truly been able to escape, the visions of those trips sort of lurking at the back of his mind at all times, ready to come out if he lets his guard down and engages in any conscious self-reflection.

The bad trips – there were two of them, and he hasn’t touched anything harder than weed since the second one – they aren’t how they get portrayed on the internet or in movies, but then again how the fuck can anyone successfully portray psychedelics for the uninitiated?  There were no like hallucinations, no monsters or frightening visions, no rooms warping and closing in around him or nightmares from childhood flashing before a pitch black empty universe like a DSLR.  

Rather, for the first one, it was more like this; he just started to want to be off the ride.  Things were going fine, but he was with a large group of six, too large, and then two of the guys had gone silent, and a girl was getting very bosy and paranoid, and then all of a sudden, it wasn’t fun anymore.  Like at all.  The complete sense of wonder, of escaping this universe and being plopped down into a new one, where it’s like your whole life has been in 240p and then someone shows you 4k, where you can’t remember anything about your job or the logistics of driving a car or sending an email or operating a computer, you’re just experiencing all this incredible visual stimulation which gets your brain thinking about your classic shit, that stuff that’s been bugging you the last few months or last couple years, the shit you always think back on but in a completely new way, a completely new visual representation, so that you can think out your problems in ways you never could sober, and then that glow stays with you, and you bring it back to your sober life and you’re like ‘Yeah, that was real.  I know what to do now, I know what decisions I have to make.’  Nope, on this one, he just didn’t wanna be on acid anymore, and he couldn’t get off, and that sucked.  And the whole day sucked and he felt shitty for about a week.

Not wanting to be go down like that, to be defeated, humiliated by the drug, and remembering the good times, he tried it again, alone, the plan being to just watch some movies and listen to some music he’d been meaning to experience on LSD and have a mellow day of remembering why he liked the drug in the first place.  But again, much to his horror, all the excitement and positive attributes of tripping failed to materialize.  Instead, he was just very much on a drug.  Alone, in a room, very on a drug.  Thick is the best word for it, like real thick inside a trip, layers and layers and layers deep, wrapped up so thick that every step toward thinking your way out of it results in five somersaults backward, even deeper inside.  And somewhere in there he had the stark, profound realization that if anyone were watching, like if there was a hidden camera, and he could look at the footage later, of him in his room, the walls wouldn’t be shifting in super ultra HD the way he was seeing them, and the room’s objects wouldn’t appear more real than real life, like he could actually see in three dimensions and the world existed in four.  It would just show him, sitting, silently, alone, in a chair.  That’s what the footage would show.  But there was no footage.  There was nobody watching, there never had been, and there never will be.  Not when he was alone, not 99.9% of the time he was alone.  The only way these moments in this bedroom would ever be experienced by anyone would be through his own crazy, tripped out of his mind eyeballs.  And these parallel truths scared him more than any fact about reality ever could.  

Then it just became a death spiral, a Psychedelic Terror Episode, Wikipedia calls it.  It was like his brain was being pressed repeatedly into a frying pan by a spatula, like someone cooking a burger.  He couldn’t focus on one thought longer than half a second.  He had no control over his mind.  Every idea was garbage.  Everything looked like garbage.  Every thought; garbage.  He tried to put on some music to calm himself, put on his nice Audiotechnics M50 headphones and dialed in some Fleet Foxes; they sounded like complete garbage.  Fake and 2D and garbage.  He was completely trapped.  The trip timer he’d set on his iPhone said it’d only been 1.5 hours since he’d dropped.  He still had 10 to go to be fully out, about 4 or 5 hours of that buried very thick in it.  The peak was still two hours away.  This all basically made his brain explode.  

Now Nate can’t really be alone without having the flashbacks of remembering what that whole ordeal was like, and he can’t smoke weed (took about four tries before he sadly realized he had to put even that mild drug on indefinite hiatus, because it always caused him to remember those feelings twice as vividly, though he still picks up for Christine and his roommate), and he’s pretty sure he’s killed something inside himself, not just the whole ego-death thing, which pretty much happened the first time, when he realized that the world behaves exactly how the science books say it does, that he’s not the protagonist of any unique story, that his consciousness isn’t real, etc etc.  But rather, the drug killed some part of him that could once enjoy drugs.  Or just enjoy new experiences, weird experiences.  The part of him that can sit alone in a room and reflect on what he went through and not want to open his wrists up right then and there.  That part seems pretty fucking dead, but maybe after enough time and some good sessions with this therapist he rather likes, then maybe he’ll start to grow it back.    

So anyway here’s Nate coming back with the four shots, held together between his two hands, with a coaster sitting atop the four glass rims holding four lime wedges and a tiny mountain of salt.  Christine thinks he looks just great like that, carrying four shots, mouth wide open, tongue out.  Like a dog; not a care in the world.

 

Apple’s standing in the front yard, wrapped in her parka, Pepper sniffing around the yard on a long leash she holds absently at her side.  All the lights are off in the house except the one on the porch and the one bulb above the stove she keeps on in case one of her boys comes down stairs for like a glass of water or something.  She’d wanted to just stay upstairs when she’d put the kids down and passed out til Sam came home, but she’d remembered that she had to take the dog out, and that she’d left the lights on and that the doors were unlocked and so she made her way down, where she noticed for the first time the mail stacked neatly on the dining room table, brought in by her mother, and had gotten side tracked sorting through it, sitting at the massive armchair, ripping open each envelope neatly with a letter opener with her tiny legs up on the Ottoman, and has only now gotten around to bringing the dog out, curiously to the front yard, even though they almost always let him out in the back, leash free, because she kind of wanted to look at the street and the houses and see some cars or something.  The dog’s been relieved and is now lying prone beside her but still she stands, holding a glass of room temperature water the way someone might stir a glass of red wine at the end of a long night.

It’s not often Apple has alone time at the house like this.  Either her mom or Sam or the boys are always around, and more often than not she herself isn’t around.  It’s 10:53.  Sam will be home in maybe an hour, maybe more.  She’ll be waking up at 6:45 tomorrow so she could get something close to eight hours if she hits the hay right now and sleeps through the night, which would be the first time she’s gotten a full eight in over a month, but her mind, tired as it is, somehow keeps running thoughts on the lowest energy setting, not quite ready to power down for the day.  She finds herself thinking again of Christine, right this moment about Christine’s outfits, how she’s maybe the most casually dressed female at the office, but how she still looks very cool, like she knows exactly what she’s looking like and really owns that aesthetic.  Apple dresses business casual, with a jacket and heels and more makeup on Key Decisions Meeting days or Board of Directors Meeting days.  Apple likes how she dresses and so does everyone else, a solid mix of floral-print floor length skirts, colorful blouses, chic cardigans, slim black suit pants, the occasional fringe or off-shoulder top, a leather jacket when it’s not too cold out, otherwise a fur-lined child’s parka to protect her tiny frame from the chilling East Bay winds.  But Christine dresses her age and it’s refreshing in a way that Apple’s outfits, professional as they may be, never will be.  

Suddenly a thought strikes Apple and she’s immediately embarrassed and then ashamed and then confused about why she’s ashamed.  The thought is that she’d very much like it if Christine were her daughter.  She’d never afforded herself the selfishness of feeling sad that she wouldn’t get to raise a daughter, to watch her become beautiful and dress well, but she’s seen the thought lurking at the back of her brain like a dark silhouette against a moonlit sky, and just now it seems to have reared its head by manifesting as Christine.  

Apple’s never really worked closely with a young woman before; all of her previous subordinates have been either young men or women close to her age, married, cutting the same cloth as her on the regular.  And now, four months since hiring Christine practically on the spot because she had the exact, like exact qualifications listed on the job application – B.S. in statistics, computer science or mathematical economics, 1-2 years working experience, knowledge of Python, SQL and R with advanced knowledge in at least one, advanced knowledge of Microsoft Excel, ability to visualize data effectively, experience working in large datasets, previous experience related to renewable energy preferred – and had spoken so eloquently and politely but with an undeniable energy and enthusiasm, she felt as if she were somehow falling for the girl, not romantically but as someone she felt she had myriad to learn from, who could brighten her life, turn a corner, assist Apple in navigating high school and college America while simultaneously affording Apple the chance to professionally mentor someone she wanted nothing more than to watch blossom and someday replace her on the company hierarchy, on that inevitable day when Apple would move on to a slower-paced job closer to home (probably in five years, she’s calculated many a time).

And she kind of wants to be like Christine, too.  To almost turn back the clock and grow old with a little of Christine in her.  Somewhere inside herself, Apple wishes she didn’t come across so hard as the stereotypical Asian immigrant.  That’s another big reason she clings so tightly to the Oakland Raiders; it separates her from those like her.  She recognizes how she looks; extremely dedicated, polite, somewhat shy, doesn’t drink, married an Asian guy (although his native citizenship is a strike against the stereotype), never went to a party, never afforded herself the luxury of ‘fun’ in middle school, high school, college or grad school.  The stereotype exists because it’s so gosh darned true about so many that manage to navigate the hair-pulling draconian process of successfully immigrating to America from China; the Chinese wildcards, few and far between as they are, never end up over here.  It’s always people like herself; willing to put the nose to the grindstone and grind out an existence based around birthing and raising ABC kids (American Born Chinese – Apple actually likes the term ‘ABC kids’, she thinks it’s cute in a Sesame Street sort of way) that will never know even her relatively mild struggle when compared to her mother’s enormous struggle, which again is relatively mild compared to her grandmother’s titanic struggle, which are all dwarfed, struggling-wise, by whoever her oldest ancestors were that lived through the Qin Dynasty or the Ming Dynasty or the Song Dynasty or the Warring States Period or the numerous floods and blights and purges and slaughters, when even existing as a female was an exercise in torture resiliency due to the practice of foot-binding.  (Apple has thought on more than one occasion that perhaps the total pain suffered by hundreds of millions of Chinese woman enduring foot binding every day for 3000+ years is about equal to the total pain suffered by everyone else over the entire course of human history.  As a math person and data scientist, she’s morbidly fascinated by how one might attempt to quantify human suffering.)

But maybe staying within the lines of her stereotype isn’t so bad, if Daniel and Peyton end up happy and successful and enjoy raising kids as much as she enjoys raising them, and if she can, in maybe thirteen or fourteen years, once Daniel’s through grad school, if she can throw her little legs on the Ottoman once and for all and survey the work her and Sam have done on these boys, and if they aren’t drug addicts or clinically depressed or struggling to make it in some godforsaken industry the future’s technology creep is actively obsoleting, if they seem like their lives are on track to be at least as successful as Apple’s own, but hopefully far more colorful, filled with exotic vacations and responsible parties and thoughtful, tasteful, well-educated girlfriends, then staying in the lines will have been well worth it, a tiny blip of a cost for the reward of feeling like she’s successfully done all she was born unto this Earth to do, future be damned.

And now she’s thinking that maybe it’s not that she wants Christine as a daughter, but that Christine reminds her somewhat of how she’d like her own children to turn out.  Rather than just fantasizing about Peyton at twenty-three, she has a physical, real-life example of what that might look like.  Christine’s talent, her energy, her knowledge of all things American and cultural, her nicknames for everyone and everything, the disposable camera photos of her friends, always at a party, or maybe on the beach or on a mountain, their arms over each other’s shoulders, pinned all around her cubicle with thumbtacks, the way she describes her ‘good not magical’ Tinder dates or Brumble dates or Coffee Meets Donut dates with all these Bay Area guys that Apple always thinks are far more handsome than the boys she remembers courting her when she was Christine’s age, the way she spins around in her chair or plays with her hair or lies on the floor of The Court of Appeels and holds her stomach and says “AZ I ate so much duck, waaayyyy too much duck, I’m in a coma, AZ I’m in a coma, I’m so full, why did you let me do this?!  I need a nap, like for real can I nap right here?  Is that chill?”, her ripped jeans and her sheer backless top and her turquoise necklace and her cool jean jacket and her aviator sunglasses she wear when she’s hungover and her dyed blue tips and her Chelsea boots and her flannel shirts and her Scotland soccer jersey and the pins and buttons that cover her backpack and her beret that somehow doesn’t look tacky, her placing of her social life right there next to her work life on the sorted descending list of priorities, these are all qualities Apple can’t teach her boys herself but hopes they develop their own idiosyncratic versions of, this is what it looks like to be American, not the guns and obesity and skimpy jean skirts and ten-gallon hats (Apple refers to them as ‘Cowboy Hats’ or ‘Texas Hats’) that some of her rather insular fellow countrymen think of when they think American, but rather a complete absence of any discernable stereotype.  Forget staying inside the lines; there appear not to be any lines at all.  In this way, in Christine, Apple can see an approximation of a future, not just a logistical and professional future but an emotional future, she hopes Peyton and Daniel will one day enjoy.  And so of course that manifests itself as watching Christine through a maternal lens; she’s looking at Christine but she’s seeing Peyton and Daniel.  

Apple kind of claps her hands together, satisfied, and the dog stands upright, ready to move at once, its eyes trained on Apple’s own.  It seems like her mind has now settled, reached a conclusion she’s content to go to bed on.  The dog is brought in, the lights are turned off, the doors locked, the pajamas donned and the teeth brushed.  The bed greets Apple’s unending stream of consciousness with a healthy injection of work-related thoughts, but she can tell that sleep is well on its way.  The last time she looks at the digital clock it reads 11:12.  It seems she may get eight hours after all, if you round up.  She doesn’t even wake when Sam quietly enters the bedroom and snuggles into his side of the bed beside her.

 

Team Dog won tonight’s trivia, and it wasn’t even close.  The squad ended up with 43 points, while the astute freshmen with impressively convincing fake IDs trailed in a distant second at 38.  The prize for first, as always, is two large, 22 ounce bottles of whatever the team wants (they elect for a couple of rather expensive Belgians) and a $25.00 gift card, usable for up to two weeks, which means the group will definitely be coming back hard next Wednesday, although Kosta isn’t sure he’ll make it because he has a conference in SF all day that day and might be getting back late, so then they’ll save the gift card and definitely be back two weeks from tonight.  

The Belgians are nearly double digit ABV, and between 11 oz of that, the pint of Old Rasputin and the tequila shot, plus the two beers from before, Christine is right around the median of the distribution of all previous times in her life she’s been Drunk, not tipsy but Drunk with a D.  Sienna only had one beer and the shot, so she’s good to drive and offers Christine a ride home, knowing that Kosta lives right around the corner and that Nate has his longboard.  The group hugs outside the bar, which they don’t normally do, but tonight it seems appropriate, and Christine piles into the front seat of Sienna’s ‘88 Volvo 780 that runs remarkably well for a car that old, courtesy of Sienna being well-acquainted with a rather gifted former-mechanic/meth addict back in Lubbock.

The car starts, the ancient dash lights jump to life, the radio, only ever tuned to UC Berkeley’s own 90.7 KALX, plays some kind of experimental electronic tribal music at a pleasantly low volume.  Sienna whips her head 180 degrees over her right shoulder and backs up before rocketing out of her spot right into the red light thirty yards ahead at Durant and Telegraph.  The girls are silent, but it’s not awkward.  The glow of victory is diminished in intensity in the absence of Nate and Kosta.  

“How’s work going?” Sienna asks after a couple minutes.

“Pretty good.  Can’t complain.”

“How’s Apple Zhao?”

“The App Star G?  Still kicking ass, as usual.”

“Think she’d ever come out to trivia?”

“Lol, I actually invited her to my Halloween party.”

“You’re kidding.  What’d she say?”

“She said she’s gotta take her sons trick or treating.”

“Is Peyton gonna go as Peyton Manning?”

“No, apparently they’re both going as Thor.”

“Ha!  That’s perfect.”

“I know, right?  Good old AZ-DC.”

“The Duchess herself.”

“Alpha Centauri.  I hope I can kick ass as hard as she does someday when I’m a mom.”

“Don’t we all.”

“But you don’t ever wanna be a mom, right?”

Here Sienna takes a second to answer.  “Probably not.  Although I think it’d be foolish to know what mom-age me will want.”

“Technically you’re mom-age already.”

“Sometimes I think about what it’d be like to have to like actually care for a child right now, like still at Cal, doing my classes, come home and actually care for a little baby, you know like buy the food for it, and deal with it crying at night and figure out where it’s gonna stay while I’m at school, and like breastfeed it-”

“Ugh just thinking about breast feeding a little human sounds so gross to me right now.  Just the term even – breast feeding.  Like it’s feeding on you.  Like a fish.”

“Totally.  So yeah like breast feeding or like feeding it, whatever else- it’s fucking insane.  There’s just no possible way.  Like 0% chance I could do that right now.”

“And there are girls our age doing it!”

“I know, right?  I mean I don’t think too many of them are in school, but yeah for sure they really are, I know tons from Texas.”

“I am laughably unequipped to mother a child.  Like besides even the logistics of it, I don’t think I’m even emotionally ready for the good parts, like the ‘watching a human being grow’ parts.  Like I don’t even give a fuck about a kid right now, it wouldn’t even make me happy to see it grow.”

“Well, you don’t really know, it might be different once you have one.”

“I think it’d just depress me.  It’d remind me even more that my youth is over, shut, door slammed shut for good.”

“Your youth is over?  Jeez I’m three years older than you, does that make me like an old cat lady?”

“No you’re like two times more youthful than me.  You have red hair and kick ass style and you’re still in undergrad.”

“Ahh, my classmates feel like children sometimes, though.  Like sometimes I hear a girl say something and I just have to double take, like ‘Am I actually in the same class as this person?  Are we actually at the same stage in our lives?’”

“Yeah, sometimes it’s like that even if you’re the same age as them.”

“Getting old sucks.  I don’t know how the hell I’m ever gonna be forty and not be depressed about it.”

“You’ll be alright.  Everyone else figures it out.”

“Seems like everyone else already figured it out.”

“You know Christine, I think one day you’re gonna look back on being twenty-three and fretting about the end of your youth and think ‘God I was stupid, now I’m old, then I still had everything.”

“You’re totally right, I know that.”  

Sienna slows down in front of Apple’s apartment building, puts the car in park, kills the engine and says: “So why don’t you act like you still have everything?  If you’re so concerned about this day job and like the monotony of everyday working life, why don’t you go do something different?  Move to Europe or something.”

“I know, you’re right.  I should.  I should move to Europe.”

“So why don’t you?”

“I think… I think maybe because it’ll feel like I didn’t learn anything, like I’m still running away from adulthood.  Like I’m avoiding all this.  But eventually, I’ll have to face adulthood, either here or in Europe or in Australia or anywhere.  So I guess I wanna just figure out accepting it and kill it for good and then make a big move like that.”

“Well, maybe being there, and having like a mid-twenties renaissance, maybe that’s what you need to accept it.  Maybe you don’t have to go through this depressed.  Age gracefully, as they say.”

“Possibly.  But I’m gonna try and stick it out at the job for at least a year I think.  Maybe next summer I’ll think about it.”

“You should.  Take responsibility for your own happiness.  Make the move.  I did, and it was a pretty good call for me.”

“Right, yeah it seems like it.”

“So…”

“Yeah… hey, you wanna come in and smoke and like chill for a little?”  Christine smokes weed but not cigarettes.  Sienna, like many former drug addicts, smokes cigarettes but not weed.  Unlike most former drug addicts, she drinks.  This might be because she didn’t drink back when she was a drug addict.  

“I’d love to but I really gotta get back and get to work on a paper.”

“Is it due tomorrow?”

“No, but I’ve been thinking about it and I finally have the motivation to get some serious words down so I don’t wanna waste the momentum I’ve got going in my head.”

“Yeah I know the feeling, you should go work on it.”

“Next time.  Halloween party.”

“Do you have class in the morning?”

“9:00 AM, Korean Lit.”

“Wish I was going.”

“Wanna come?  We have a twenty-page paper due next week.”

“Maybe not.  Is the professor chill?”

“Thirty-ish badass lesbian, crew cut, wears jeans up to her ears.”

“I feel like I would be content if I woke up one day and that was my life.  Maybe aside from the hair.  I really like my hair.”  Christine leans over to look at her strawberry blonde locks in the passenger side mirror.

“Yeah, you do have great hair.”

“Thanks.”  She looks back at Sienna, feeling kinda drunk.  “Well, I suppose I will depart.”

“Okay, I’ll see you soon.”

“Bye bye, thanks for the ride.”

“No problem, give Apple Zhao my regards.”

“Lol, sure thing.”

They kind of half hug before Christine gets out.  The car jolts away as she ascends the exterior staircase, up to floor three, key in the lock, greeted by darkness, foot darting around, looking for the floor switch that activates the standing IKEA lamp beside the TV stand.  Christine has a roommate, Nkechi Soyebo, a girl she knows from helping plan a career fair once and afterward became acquaintances with, not exactly friends but friendly, and they both happened to be looking for housing at the same time in the same price range and Nkechi seemed quite put together so Christine took a gamble on living with her without really knowing her too well, which has worked out fine because Nkechi basically lives at her boyfriend JT’s, who also has a two-bedroom, but JT’s roommate Kyle (or is it Kevin?) is always at his girlfriend’s place, who has a studio and whose name escapes Christine although she’s met her once and the girl is very tall and has resting bitch face and is kind of stuck up, in Christine’s opinion.  

So Christine lives ‘de facto alone’, as she tells people (they always put de facto in italics, Christine thinks to herself when she says it), which is very convenient of course and great when you wanna come home and just not talk to anyone, but that’s what a bedroom’s for and really Christine was hoping she and Nkechi could become friends, and watch Netflix shows together and tell each other about their Tinder dates after they got home from them and maybe even like take a weekend trip to Portland together sometime.  But next year Nkechi will probably get a one bedroom with JT and Christine will stay right where she is ‘cause the rent is as good as you’re gonna do in Berkeley (900 a bedroom) and the apartment has a dope balcony and gets a lot of natural sunlight and is on a pretty street fairly close to downtown, and so she’ll put out the requisite posts on Craigslist and Facebook and the Berkeley Housing Portal and interview a slew of girls (or possibly even guys, maybe gay guys or even a straight guy provided she gets zero vibes from him) in the hopes of finding what she didn’t get out of Nkechi.

All this time Christine has been absent mindedly grinding weed in her four-piece grinder, the last nug of an eighth of a stativa-dominant hybrid called Blue Dream that Nate picked up for her a couple months ago (he has a medical card for a wrist he broke three years back).  Christine has cut back on her smoking over the past year, going from daily to weekends and social gatherings to about once a week, which is where she is now.  This is all a result of her occupation/adulthood/breakup related melancholia, as she finds that weed tends to make her even more pessimistic about her life’s future trajectory, but tonight she’s drunk and not thinking and has decided she’s just gonna go ahead and smoke and see what happens and if she gets sad and it sucks she’ll just know better for next time and maybe she won’t ask Nate to pick up weed for her anymore, at least for awhile.

Lighting the bowl, careful to corner it, as is etiquette, and generally a good practice even when alone, she stands on their little patio, looking down Hillegas south toward Oakland and taking a hit, not holding it very long like she used to, since her tolerance is so much lower now.  She’s brought her MacBook out and placed it on their tiny little aluminum table, the screen cracked and distorted on one side, and plays from it the recorded sounds of rain and thunderstorms, which Christine often prefers to music.  She tries to remember the last time smoking weed was fun, like really fun, not just fine or doing it casually at a party but like silly fun.  Well most of the really silly times were with Amir, so it was probably then, before they broke up.  Maybe even like the week they broke up, it could have been.  They used to get so silly.  Sometimes they’d have sex, blazed out of their minds, both barely even there, but also everything feeling so warm and amazing, sometimes just bursting out laughing right in the middle of it.  But usually they’d watch some cartoons, Adventure Time or Rick and Morty or something, and eat salty snacks and lay in bed and just laugh their asses off.  So then it’s been just under a year now, since weed was really fun.  Man she should quit smoking.

Christine and Amir met at a kegger in early November of their junior year.  It was a party to celebrate finishing a huge coding project for a class about Smart Cities, one of the most work-intensive group projects Christine had ever been a part of (their team designed a model for optimizing energy resource management in urban Phoenix, AZ).  Amir wasn’t in the class, he was just a good friend of one of Christine’s group’s members, and the two had hit it off, thanks in no small part to the sheer ecstasy and desire to get absolutely shit-faced Christine was reeling on as a result of finishing the project.  They had sex that night; within a week they were Facebook official.

Christine had had two previous boyfriends; the classic high school holdover who made it two months long distance in college before Christine dropped him like a hot potato over Thanksgiving break, and a very clever and affable young man who was also terribly shy and non-committal whom she hung on to for about four months from freshman spring into the summer before dropping him in a pretty painless but eerily non-personal breakup over the phone.  

Sophomore year was the Year of Two-Week Hookups, where Christine found herself time and time again drawn in by one guy or another’s charms, hooking up, going on one or two dates, accompanying him to a party or two, then approximately two weekends post meeting, realizing he was either immature or sexist or controlling or uncommunicative or very strange in bed, not the kind of strange you can work with but the kind you definitely cannot even begin to be okay with, and like this she drifted through sophomore year, convinced by its terminus that every guy at Cal sucked, except for the guys she had already thrown unofficially into the friendzone (a couple of the Two-Week Hookups were friends; things did not end well, she stopped making that mistake), like Nate and Kosta (though she’s never been attracted to Kosta – too hairy) and a few others.  

Then she met Amir, and all of a sudden it was like ‘Yes, this is what a real boyfriend feels like.’  Depictions of couples in movies or the internet or the disgustingly happy and sweet couples she encountered in real life suddenly made sense.  The Beatles made sense.  Gilmore Girls made sense.  Staying in on a Friday and getting blazed and watching Adventure Time and making a mad dash for the convenient store down the street in the rain for Doritos and Snapple was as good or better than most of the parties she was going to.  Pregaming together, dancing their faces off in some apartment to like Nicki Minaj or Kanye, stumbling home together drunk.  When he’d meet her outside her lecture hall and bring her a hot coffee in a cardboard cup during the chill of late autumn or winter and take her hand and they’d walk back to his place to have afternoon sex while his roommate was in class.  Going home to meet his family, watching him and his dad get into debates about football, helping his mom in the kitchen.  Late night Skype sessions their first summer apart, her in Seattle, he in Costa Rica with the blank white wall with the crack in it behind him and the terrible internet.  The first time they saw each other again and got to fuck after that summer was over.  When he surprised her and took her to Napa to go hot air ballooning at like 4:00 AM on her birthday.  Watching him and his friends wrestle on the carpeted floor of their apartment.  Meeting him at a coffee shop where they’d both plug in their headphones and whip out their Macbooks and either do homework or browse Reddit beside each other, every now and then pointing out some funny gif on Imgur or some girl they both hated’s obnoxious Facebook post.  Pumpkin picking two weeks before Halloween their senior year.  Him pregaming with all her female roommates ‘cause she was stuck in traffic coming back from SF and she came in the door and they were all drunk and he was like dancing for them and just generally nailing it.  The stupid winter hats he used to wear with the ear flaps.  His framed Pulp Fiction poster in his bedroom.  Cuddling in those tiny twin beds that are so small you have to cuddle, you’re forced to, if you want to sleep at all comfortably, her forehead against the glass of the window beside her bed, looking out into the Berkeley night, thinking about all the homework she had to do but as long as she saw him every day then who fucking cares.  

They graduated in 2016, still going strong.  He had got a job in SF.  She was staying on to work with a professor as a research assistant while she looked for work.  They decided against living together, mostly because he didn’t wanna commute into SF every day and she couldn’t afford SF prices, but she was actually excited that they’d have a place to stay on both sides of the Bay, figuring they’d spend a lot of weeknights and most weekends together.  That summer was a blast.  No school, no homework or exams, drinking and smoking and sex out the wazoo.  Pure carnage.  Most of her friends were still around.  No one was sad.  

This is when she started to think about well could she go the distance with Amir?  Of course she’d thought about this, just pondered, in daydreams, with her previous boyfriends, but now it felt like a real life possibility, like not just some far-off cloudy maybe someday fantasy, but like they could make real life logistic decisions to make it happen.  She experienced the shock of realizing she was thinking about the future in terms of two people, calculating him into all of her potential plans.  Applying to jobs outside of the Bay was not a possibility, if they could actually go the distance.  Could it really happen this early, at only 22?  Was she being tricked by young love, or was this real?  She had no way of knowing, but she knew that they got along quite well, that they never fought, that their goals and ambitions for life generally lined up.  She decided she didn’t really need to think that hard about it.  She’d just keep on keeping on, going with the flow of the relationship, not trying too hard to figure out what was at the end of the tunnel.  She realized one night in September, in a brilliant drunken epiphany, that she couldn’t fuck up; she’d know, in time, if it was the real deal, if they were really gonna go the distance, or if they weren’t.  The longer they were together, the more the truth would reveal itself to her.  She shared this epiphany with Nate and Sienna; they agreed with her logic.  Secretly, deep inside, she was already starting to sense which way it would go, that yes, this was indeed the real deal, that they were gonna go the distance, that she’d never have to spend her twenties dating stupid guys on dating apps or her thirties drinking herself to sleep worried sick over whether she’d ever get to be a mother, if marriage was even in the cards for her or if she’d be single in her forties, watching all her friends raise kids and be constantly tired but incredibly fulfilled in ways she’d never experience, sitting on a pile of money in the bank and absolutely nothing to show for her life’s efforts.  She’d get to skip all that, because she met Amir Saidi at a kegger when she was 20-years-old and sometimes you just get lucky.    

Then on Thursday, November 10th, two days after the election, and two days before their two-year anniversary, he broke up with her.  He was cold, brutally honest, completely sure.  They were in her bedroom.  He told her he’d been feeling it for a while, but hadn’t given her any signs, because he hadn’t ever wanted the relationship to be shitty.  He said the minute he knew it’d get shitty, he was gonna end it.  Not let it get bad, not incur pointless fights, not prolong the thing by launching it into an irretrievable death spiral.  He did not cry.  He explained that as good as they were together, he did not want to spend the rest of his life with her, and it’d be wrong to pretend for even one more day that he might.  He did not know who he wanted to spend his life with, but it was not Christine.  It wasn’t due to any fault of her own.  She had been perfect.  She just wasn’t his future.  And he was 100% certain of it, and no matter how much she cried and pitifully begged him, too stunned to be embarrassed, her heart dropping like a bowling ball released from the top of a building, the dread piling on, more and more, no matter what logic she tried to use, logic like he couldn’t know yet, that more time would help him know for sure, that she was changing and he was changing and maybe in time he’d realize that he’d made a mistake, that this was just a phase for him, it became more and more devastatingly clear that nothing was going to change his mind.  And she was sobbing so many tears it was remarkable that they could even keep coming out, her bed sheets soaked, piles of tissues on the little table beside it.  He called Sienna for her and left the phone ringing on the bed beside her and left, and she hasn’t seen him since.  

He’d offered to grab coffee a few times, and once she’d said yes, but she cancelled an hour before because she couldn’t stomach going, she got physically sick, she couldn’t bear the thought of seeing him again, she never wanted to see him as anything other than who he was when they were dating, she didn’t want to know how he was doing, how his job was going, whether he was adjusting alright (of course he was), if he was seeing anyone.  She didn’t want to tell him about how many nights she’d cried into her pillow, forehead against the window, remembering the good times, and she didn’t want to lie, either.  She never wanted to see him again.  She didn’t want to ask why, she didn’t want to know if he ever regretted it.  She didn’t want to open up even the most remote possibility that they could ever get back together, because she knew if she believed in it she’d have to endure the breakup all over again.  By mid-January he stopped texting her.  She unfriended him soon after.  She’s positive that someday she’ll run into him in some bar in SF or the East Bay, but thus far fortune has looked out for her in this most minimal of ways.                     

By April she was over the worst of it.  That was the last time she had any kind of clearish vision for the future, a vision she was excited for, even.  With the end of her one-year research contract looming, she finally got her shit together, job-hunting wise.  She wasn’t especially psyched about working a desk job, fearing a daily grind that would begin and not end until she was like 60, feasting away at her idealism and her soul, but she saw no alternative.  Her only skills were computer-related.  Moving back home was out of the question, and staying on to research another year was a lower paying version of getting a real job.  After about 50 applications she finally got an interview, nailed the technical piece and landed the data science job, directly under The Duchess of Zhao herself.  

Apple Motherfuckin’ Zhao, now there was someone who figured it out.  Immigrated at twenty-five with no friends, no family and only textbook English and within three years had landed a husband, a sweet job with a hot new company and a mortgage.  Apple Zhao fucking barely spoke English and she met somebody.  And now she’s raising some very sweet looking kids with a husband she loves and living it up in Walnut Creek (“The Jewel of the East Bay: Host Your Next Event Here!”) with her mom and her dog and dressing like a motherfucking Duchess, nails every Board Meeting presentation with her eyes closed in her like third language.  She had it so much harder and she still killed it.  What was the difference?  What did Apple have that Christine didn’t?  

Work-ethic, mostly.  And perspective.  Patience, wisdom.  Realistic expectations for life.  The determination to follow through on them.  Christine thinks she’d like to visit AZ at her homestead, see how the Duchess does it behind the scenes.  Meet the husband.  She’d like to go on a double date with them, some day.  Out in Walnut Creek, to that Chinese restaurant she always tells Christine about.  See this country boy from up near Yreka for herself, the country boy who somehow got into sports marketing and won the heart of head-down zero-alcohol no time for nonsense App-Star G.  But first she needs someone to double date with.  Nate?  No, too weird.  She wants it to be an actual boyfriend.  A guy she’d be proud to have Apple meet.  That should be the baseline, she thinks with a smile; if she can’t proudly bring a guy to meet Apple Motherfuckin’ Zhao, then he’s not good enough.      

Christine’s only taken one hit, but she felt it, and she puts the bowl, three quarters of it still freshly packed and bright green, on the ground below a little wooden chair.  She can see the lights of the Bay Bridge from her balcony, through the gap between a pair of houses across the street.  She’s crossfaded and she’s got a couple of static tears on her cheeks and she remembers again why she hates smoking weed.  Now she is on the more blazed end of crossfaded and she won’t be sober until she wakes up and she’s just thinking about Amir and her life and this is why she can’t smoke weed anymore.  Very abruptly, leaving no time to reconsider, she taps the bowl’s contents out over the railing to the ground below.  This actually makes her feel somewhat better.  

It’s late and she should get to bed, but going to bed means waking up and going to work, and the thought of it just kills her, so she elects to stay out a while longer.  She checks her phone; it’s 11:59.  There’s a group message from Kosta; it’s a picture of the gift card accompanied by the text ‘CHAMPIONS!!’.  There’s also a new Tinder message from a short latino guy named Javier.  She swiped right on him because she liked that he wore bolo ties, and one of his pictures was with his little brother who looked like he was about four-years-old and suffered from Down’s Syndrome, and she thought that was sweet, that it looked like he really loved him and looked out for him and that maybe he’d be like that with her, like maybe he was just one of those ceaselessly caring guys who’s just super nice, almost too nice, like not enough bite, not enough sarcasm, not gonna last long term with Christine, but maybe he was actually pretty funny and unflaggingly sweet and maybe a couple dates with him could be nice because honestly she doesn’t need a whole lot of sarcasm and bite and wit these days, she could use a little enduring kindness on her behalf, and maybe she could meet his little brother and his family and have dinner over there and he’d be the first real rebound from Amir and she’d probably cry, thinking about how he reminded her of Amir, but someone has to be the rebound and he looked like a nice guy, not pretentious, not an asshole, not trying to be The Most Clever Guy on Tinder but just a caring, short, older-brother type Latino dude who wears bolo ties.  

She checks the text; it says ‘Hey.’      

* * * * *

The next morning, Apple makes the train by 7:00 and is in the office a little after 8:00.  Christine rolls in at 9:14.

“Hey, what’s up.”

“Oh, hello, good morning.”

“Yo, check it out AZ we’re matching!”  Christine’s in green jeans and her sheer black top, with a thin white sweater over it.  Apple’s in the green, white and black floral-print floor-length skirt Christine likes so much and a tight black long-sleeve crew-neck.

“Oh yeah, it seems like we’re always matching!”

“We should start calling each other up the night before to make sure we’re always coordinated.”

“We should!”

“How else can we dominate the company if we don’t look like a team?”

“I agree, it could be a useful strategy in meetings.”

“That’s what I’m saying!”  Christine gives her an enthusiastic high five.  “So, how was your night?”  

“Oh, pretty boring, my husband was out so I just made dinner and hung out at home and slept.”

“Sounds solid to me.  What’d you make?”

“Just pasta and meatballs, because it’s so easy and Peyton and Daniel like it.”

“Good call.  I always loved spaghetti night.”

“How was your night?”

“It was fine, went to trivia with some friends.”

“Oh right, you usually do that on Wednesdays, right?  How did your team do?”

“Oh, actually we won.  It was the first time we ever won.”

“Wow, great job!  If the whole team is as smart as you, I would think you would win every week.”

“I’m basically the dumbest person on the whole team, but it’s hard, it’s in Berkeley so it’s a lot of smart kids.”

“Oh, I see.  Well I’m sure you’ll win again soon.”

“Thanks AZ.”  Christine turns to go grab some coffee, then turns back.  “Hey, do you have lunch free again today?  Would you maybe wanna go get tacos?”

“Oh, sorry, I have meetings from 11 to 2, but maybe we could go tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow it is.”  The women smile at each other.  Christine goes to get coffee, the ten fluid ounces of steaming goodness 100% necessary to be any kind of productive before 10:00 AM.  Apple doesn’t drink coffee; it keeps her up at night.  Instead, she keeps a small kettle of warm green tea on her desk all day long, on a colorful woven coaster made by her mother.  She watches Christine walk all the way down the aisle, toward the kitchen, and ultimately out of sight, then her eyes come back to the blinking cursor on the screen before her and she continues writing the reply email she was working on when Christine came over to say good morning.             

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Hong Kong

Apple told me to meet her outside some shopping center, underneath a big clock, at 6:00 PM.  There were hundreds of other people waiting around to meet someone, many of them my age.  I looked from person to person, addressing each new member of our congregation with a quick, binary inspection, taking in those hundreds of faces and wondering if I’d see Apple first or if she’d see me.  I figured she’d see me.  I was right.

“Elliot!”  Approaching from my five o’clock, here was Apple, walking quickly, looking very mature and adult and professional in white and black, hair done up, earrings, makeup, heels.  You never know how someone’s gonna look after six years, struggling to remember how they’d ever looked to begin with, wondering if you’d recognize them at all.  If I’d seen her on the street, passing briskly at Big City pace, would I have looked twice at this once familiar face?  Who cares.  We hugged.

“You look so adult.”  What an opening line.

“Well, I guess I am an adult.”

“I always forget that you had a few years on me.  How old are you now?”

“Twenty-seven.”  

“Twenty-seven!  Damn, you look so good.  I feel like such a chump wearing this next to you,” motioning down toward my dirty black jeans and green button down, weary and worn from passing through security, crumpling into hard plastic gate 44A chairs and the dreaded seat B from some meaningless row deep in the thirties of a giant 747.

“No, you look great!  I wish I was in more comfortable clothes myself.  But you look older.  I love your hair.”  Her English was much better than it’d been all those years ago, years that had seen me move from one dorm room to another, one girlfriend to another and back again, phasing through assorted cohorts of ‘close friends’ and levels of giving a shit about school alike.  “So, one night in Hong Kong, and you fly out in the morning, huh?”

“Yep, just a twenty-four hour layover.  Sort of a free trip.  I don’t know if I would have ever seen the city otherwise.”

“That’s such a great deal!  So, what do you wanna do?”  

“Maybe eat some food, get some drinks, go up in a tall building, something like that?  Show me some good spots?  I haven’t done any research.”  We had begun walking, me pulling my small carry-on behind me like a an awkward and distracted lap dog.

“That sounds good, I haven’t eaten since breakfast so I’m pretty hungry.  I could take you for some authentic Cantonese food?”

“Yes.”  

“Great, there’s a place just up the block here that my boyfriend and I like, it’s not too expensive, and the portions are very big.”

“Perfect.”

“So what did you do all day?” she asked as I poured helplessly over the menu, which was written exclusively in Chinese, save for the occasional “Coca Cola” or “Nestea”, those monsters of Western capitalism having managed to evade unhindered all but the most mild modifications of Eastern culture.  

“Just walked the streets, got some food.  Looked around, felt the vibe of the city.  Sat in a park for awhile.”

“Did you get caught in the rain this afternoon?”

“Yeah, it wasn’t too bad though.  I hid out under some buildings.”

“I should have told you.  It rains every day in the summer.  Even on sunny days it will rain for a few minutes here, a few minutes there.  Everyone carries an umbrella, all the time.”

“It’s alright, made it a more authentic Hong Kong experience.”  She laughed and the waitress came, silently taking our order, Apple’s order, pencil and notepad never considered, a wrinkled face and seen-a-lot-of-shit expression present in their absence, absorbing flying particles of Cantonese spoken louder and more quickly than Apple’s lilting English cadence.   

“Man, I can’t get over how you’re such a real professional adult now.  My main memories of you at Cal are all from when you were drunk and just laughing and falling all over the place.”  

She laughed.  “Yes, I had a lot of fun there.  Too much fun.”

“Too much?”

“Not too much.”

“And your English, I mean it’s not like you were bad back at Cal, but now you sound so legit, you have kind of a British accent.”

“Oh, I’m so embarrassed by my English from when I was in America.  I wish I could have spoken it better then.  I think I might have gotten to know more people.  Now it’s all I speak, at work and with my boyfriend.  I only speak Cantonese with my parents.”

“Wild.”  As a first semester freshman whose primary motives were to meet everyone and get drunk, Apple and I had made a fast friendship.  Her, a one-semester exchange student, well-versed in the art of getting fucked up while still looking put together and someone whose grades mattered less than a hookup forgotten the next morning by all parties involved; and me, genuinely doe-eyed and energetic the way only freshmen are, desperate for the aesthetic cred achieved by platonically making the rounds with a well-dressed, attractive girl from a foreign and, to someone fresh off a stunted lifetime of small-town, mid-Atlantic cultural insulation, exotic, country.  

“So what do you do now, exactly?” I asked.

“I work for a pharmaceuticals company.  Essentially, I meet with doctors to understand what kinds of medications they need for their patients, and suggest specific products from my company.”

“So it’s like, sales, but for drugs.”

“Essentially.  We do some reporting back to the company on what the doctor’s needs are, but-”

“So you’re a drug dealer.”  She laughed and spit up a little of her Coca Cola.

“Yes, the only kind they allow in Hong Kong.”

“Wild.”

After we ate Apple took me down to the water to catch a bus up to The Peaks, a sheer cliff face overlooking the impossibly dense spectral heartbreak that is the Hong Kong skyline.  On the ride up I found myself glued to the window, marveling at the mansions, built atop pylons anchoring their back decks and floor-to-ceiling windows fifty feet above the hilly terrain, satisfying the extreme desires of human domesticity.

“So Hong Kong is the most expensive city in the world, right?  To own an apartment, I mean.”

“Probably.  Either here or New York City, I’m not sure.”

“So how much could these houses cost?”

Apple laughed and shook her head.  “Too many zeros.  These are the richest people in Asia.  These people run gigantic corporations; construction, health insurance, biomedical, investment banks.  They own the politicians.  They own everything.”

“I’d love to see inside one.  Just one.  Just for the view.”

“I’ve been in one once.”

“No shit!”

“A girl I knew in high school was very rich.  Her dad was in politics and banking.  She got engaged and threw a party at the house.”

“How was it?”

“It’s hard to describe.  Like being in a museum.  That was also the only time I saw drugs at a party here.”

“I bet!  Were they doing lines of coke or what?”

“No, just smoking marijuana.  And it wasn’t even close to what I tried while I was in Berkeley.”

Overlooking the city from The Peaks, I dug out coins of alien sizes and weights, unknown quantities of HKD, and splurged for multiple bouts with the viewfinder.

“Check this out,” peeking one last time to finalize the finder’s position and stepping aside for Apple.  “You see?”

“Woah, you can see right into their apartment!”

“Look on the couch, you see them?”

“Oh shit!”  To me, incredulously, and back again.  “They’re making out!”  I looked in the same direction as if I could see it for myself, through the darkness, unable to pick out the correct building, let alone the correct window.  “Elliot look!  The guy is taking his shirt off!”  One knee on the coffee table, working the buttons one at a time from the top down while his missus pulled back her hair.  The shirt made its way off, only for its host to move for the lightswitch on the wall, closing the curtain on our voyeuristic episode.

“Snap, he turned off the light!”  Apple moved in for one last peek, less due to disbelief, I imagined, than a desire for her own private closure.

“Man, I really wanted them to start having sex.”

“Didn’t we all.”  

Initially excited to oogle the mansions once again, I soon began feeling sick on the bus ride back down, pork dumplings, boiled eggs, heaps of fried rice and sweet, tangy chicken feet fighting through my digestive track but threatening a swift retreat, and Apple yanked me off a few stops early, which resulted in my sprinting after the departed bus, barely managing to flag it down upon realizing I’d left my luggage on board.  (The universe in which I don’t recover that bag, passport buried snugly within, is an uncommon but not unfamiliar visitor, haunting me on forlorn nights in unfamiliar beds that find me sweating through blankets of monsoon season humidity.)  

We walked through the twisting streets of the Sai Wan district, Apple’s heels clacking on stone sidewalks, echoing off the sleek glass and steel built by militant imperialist merchants and wealthy bankers seeking a submissive and obedient haven from the quixotic tax laws of their grey, perpetually overcast native lands.  The cooler weather, at least in contrast to the afternoon’s formidable temperatures, had me feeling better by the step, and I decided that talking might help me kick the last valiant attempts by my dinner to escape they way it’d entered.

“So, how often do you see your boyfriend?”

“Huh?”  Thought bubble punctured, dissipating, Chinese characters scattering and floating off in all directions.

“How often do you get to see your boyfriend?”

“Oh, maybe about twice a week.  Once during the week, and maybe once on the weekend.”

“Does he live far?”

“Not too far, just a couple of train stops from me.”

“Huh.”

“We’re just both so busy.  His job is even more intense than my job.”

“What does he do?”

“Almost the exact same thing, but for a different company.  We met in college because we were both chemistry majors.  But he is planning to apply to med school.”

“And you as well?”

“I want to go for an M.B.A.  Preferably in America.  We’d like to go to the same school.”

“Nice.  How long y’all been together?”

“Well, we met the semester after I got back from Cal, so over five years now.”

“Damn.  That’s longer than all my relationships combined.”

“Oh Elliot.  You’ll find somebody.  I saw on Facebook, it seemed like you were always with a different girl.”  Mind races through six years of profile pictures.  Why was I always wearing the same two or three shirts?

“Your parents like him?”

“Yes, they had actually known his parents before we met.  They have some friends in common.  They want us to get married, so we can invest in an apartment and move in together.”

“You’re not engaged though, right?”

“Not officially.  We’re both waiting to see what happens with school.  Hopefully we can go to the same place in America, and then we’ll get married before we go.  Otherwise, we’ll probably wait.”  

“You’d do long distance?”

“Of course.  I’ve been done with dating for so long.  I don’t want to go back to that.”

“Yeah, once you’re out in the real world, it sucks.”

“Sometimes it’s fun.”  Biting her lip, eyes smiling coyly, me falling backward through layers of discarded memories upon encountering the very look that had kept me awake countless nights that first semester, the taste of crappy light beer and cheap vodka on my tongue, working tirelessly through the Great Existential Struggle- to go for Apple or to preserve the friendship-, always arriving at the inevitable conclusion that the optimal move was to save it for the One Final Weekend (which, with what felt like Shakespearean irony, would ultimately find Apple sick with what might have been the flu but was more likely mononucleosis), left hand navigating to Facebook, right reaching deep under the sheets.

Ready and eager to get hammered, I gave Apple the go-ahead to guide us onward to a narrow pedestrian-only street, flanked on either side by open-air bars, each blasting their own unique slice of appropriately turnt up bangers from within the familiar genres of EDM, dancehall, reggaeton, K Pop, J Pop, hip hop (both trap and the more traditional gangsta varieties), Latin pop and squeaky-clean radio metal.  I picked the bar with a recently vacated table perched idyllically at the bar’s precipice, overlooking the street, and ordered us margaritas (the traditional staple of our past pregaming efforts), plucking from my wallet meaningless HKD bills whose sole purpose was to be spent before I departed in the morning.  

“So how about them?  Where are they from?” I asked Apple, nodding toward a group of Asian girls in dresses, two-thirds of the way through my second margarita.

“Mainland China.”

“How can you tell?”

“Their makeup mostly.  And their clothes.  And their hair.  And their phone cases.  Just, everything.  They look like rich mainland Chinese girls who came for the weekend to shop or something.”

“Their phone cases?”

“Yeah, they’re all so big and colorful.”

“Don’t Hong Kong girls have big colorful phone cases?”

“I guess so.  I don’t know I can just tell.  Like see those girls over there?”  She pointed down the street another twenty feet or so.  “Those are real Hong Kong girls.  See how short their dresses are?  And the hair and makeup?  They don’t try to look so rich and cute and pretty, more of a sexy look, more badass.”

“Huh.  Yeah, I can see what you’re talking about.”

“See this girl here?”  One from the group of Hong Kong girls had broken off and walked right past us, only a few feet from our table.  I hedged that she dutifully fulfilled the role of the friend that blew up the group chat on Friday and pushed everyone to take one more shot in the pregame and then got too fucked up and got in a fight with her boyfriend because he went to the wrong bar and cried and had to go home with Annie and left her phone in the Uber or maybe at the bar but she definitely had it when she left the bar so probably the Uber, fuck I think she left her credit card at the bar.  Again?  She forgot she had opened a tab.  What did she even order?  Some martini she didn’t even end up drinking.  Well, we’ll call them in the morning, they’ll hold it for her.  What time do they open?  I don’t know.

“The one that just passed, right?”

“Yeah.  I bet she lost her virginity when she was fourteen.”  Taking a big gulp from her margarita, face souring.

“Fourteen?!  No way!  How can you tell?”

“Just by how she dresses.  She definitely has had sex with a lot of guys, and now she knows everyone.  She might be looking for a foreign guy or something.  Kids in Hong Kong start having sex really young.  Especially girls.”  

“How come?”

“Just to rebel.  They just want to rebel against parents and teachers and the society in general.  They start drinking young, smoking young, having sex.  But the girls usually like to do it with older guys.”

“Even real rich girls?”

“Especially the really rich girls.”

“Where do they do it?”

“Apartments, when their parents are at work or on vacation.  Maybe in an empty classroom or something.”

“Shit, I never would have thought.”  I looked over at Apple, who’d literally let her hair down.  I saw her at fourteen, still awkward, nerdy, glasses, dressed like she was hiding in plain sight, a middle schooler with the potential for a bright future but nowhere near turning heads.  I saw her at seventeen, having come into her own, started understanding how she looked in the eyes of others, refined it, confounding boys with some kind of je ne c’est pas, she keeps company with girls that talk too much, but she never does, did she always look like that?  A step ahead of her peers, ambitious plans to study abroad, good eye for fashion, better eye for people.

“So when’d you lose yours?”

Laughing, covering her mouth politely, blushing.  “Not ‘til I was seventeen.  And he was my boyfriend.”

“So you were a good girl.”

“Mhm!  I didn’t even drink til I was eighteen.”

“Could have fooled me, the way you were that first night at Cal.”

“Well, I had been practicing for a few years at that point.”

“True.”  I tried to finish my margarita, some pink liquid still visible beneath layers of ice, but tilting the cup to near 180 resulted only in the ice dislodging and falling onto my face.

“Okay, what about those guys?  Where are they from?” she asked, pointing to a group of Australian assholes.  

“Australia.”

“How can you tell?”

“Well, the pants and shoes mean they aren’t American.  The shirts are the same, but British and Australian and European guys always have a tighter cut on their pants.  And they call them trousers.  And they call the shoes trainers.”

“Trousers, that’s what we say, too.  Pants are underwear.”

“Right.”

“So how come they aren’t British?”

“They’re too big.  British guys, there’s usually like one short guy who’s real jacked, and some tall skinny dudes in track jackets, and maybe just one real big rugby looking dude.  But Australian guys are always broad shouldered and big and tall.  All of them are rugby players or something.  And they’re all some kind of blonde, you know they get a lot of sun down there and all.  And they aren’t so pale.  And they act like some hybrid of British dudes and American frat guys.”

“See?  It’s the same.  I can tell where the Asian girls are from, you can tell where the white guys are from.”

“Yeah, I guess so.  Those guys over there?  I bet those guys are like Turkish, or maybe Greek.  They’re all dark and hairy and black haired and their names are all Kostas or Konstas or Ioannis or Michael.”

“What are they Australian guys names?”

“I don’t know.  Luke.  Harvey.  Sam.  Jake.”

“And how do you know they aren’t from New Zealand?”

“Cause no one’s from New Zealand.  It’s like being from Xinjiang.”

“I see.”  Her glass was empty.  I finished mine.  

“Another round?”

“Sure!  Who knows when we’ll get to hang out again?”  Through the crowd, to the bar, looking back to see Apple had already whipped out her phone.  She was probably texting her boyfriend- “I’m okay, we’re drinking at (insert name of this street / neighborhood), I’ll see you tomorrow!  Love you too!”  Wallet reveals still too many HKD bills, so let’s get two shots as well.  That makes somewhere in the 5-7 standard drink range.  That’s a good spot, I’m only in Hong Kong once, right?

I brought the drinks back, the shots in miniature clear plastic cups, bearing plain the unflattering amber translucence of the bottom shelf whiskey.

“So I bought shots too, figured we could chase them down with the Margarita.  But I’ll drink yours if you aren’t down.”

“Oh shit, I never do shots anymore.”

“Me neither.”

“What is it?”

“Shitty whiskey.”

“Well, why not.  Cheers, to you visiting me in Hong Kong!”  Several minutes of panic and duress later (the shot, to no one’s surprise, received the coldest of welcomes from the night’s previous consumption), Apple was nodding toward a couple of girls flirting with the Australians I had identified earlier.

“Okay, you see that?”

“Those are Hong Kong girls, right?”

“Well, yeah, but not just that.  They’re prostitutes.  They’re trying to get the foreign guys to sleep with them.”

“Woah, really?  Real live prostitutes?”  I inspected more closely.  Their dresses were even thinner and shorter than the Hong Kong girls Apple had pointed out earlier.  They were touching the guys on the chest, on the shoulders, weight shifting from one leg to another, small purses slung over bare shoulders, lots of eye shadow, long black hair with colored highlights, sandals.  They held little cocktails.  They smiled easily.  They laughed at everything.  The poked one guy, then another.  They grabbed their massive hands in their own and swung them around.  They pulled teasingly on shirts.  They twirled their hair.  They were my age, or maybe a couple years younger.  “Oh yeah, they totally are.”

“They share apartments in the buildings right above the bars, so they can do it real quick and get back out on the street.  It’s a Friday, and it’s the summer, so this is high time for them.”

“How much does it cost, you think?”

“Probably about forty U.S. dollars?  Maybe fifty?  A hundred?  It depends on how long you want them for.”  

“Wow.”  I’d never knowingly seen a prostitute at work.  I didn’t realize how friendly and familiar it looked, like casual flirting.  Except super attractive girls never come up and flirt with you and your friends like that.  It was like augmented reality, a universe running parallel with our own, similar in almost every way, except the weight of a few quarks differed by fractions of fractions of percents, minutely affecting the behavior of atoms, cells, molecules, hormones.  “How do you know so much about them?”

“I grew up here, I used to come to this street all the time.  I’ve been seeing them since I was in high school.  Everyone who’s local knows what it looks like.  That’s why they only go for foreign guys.”

“But the dudes know they’re prostitutes, right?”

“Hmm… probably.  I’m sure they usually do, but I think part of the whole act is pretending like it’s real.”

“Up until you have to pay them.”

“Right.  Then they’re off to do the same thing again.  Maybe three times in one night.”

“Wow.  What a life.”  There wasn’t anything else to say.  We watched them until the whole gang disappeared into the back of a black-lit dance club and Apple excused herself to the bathroom.  

Relaxing into the titular role of Solo White Guy Drinking Alone in Hong Kong (2017), I greeted my costar with what I sincerely felt could be described as ‘cool and casual indifference’, as was specified in the script, despite being one shot and the better part of three margs deep.  

“Hey there, how’s it going?”  

“Not bad, yourself?”

“I’m good.”  Wardrobe had chosen for her a beige pleated skirt and silk forest green top, black bra visible through sheer.  She brought her eyes up to mine, eyelashes impeccable, just the right amount of blush, holding a practiced pause before delivering her next line.  “So, where are you from?”  Accent noticeable, but charming in a way.  More Chinese than British.

“The States.”

“Oh, that’s exciting.  What city are you from?”  Where was I from again?  I thought it might have been Montreal, but I’d said I was American, so I had to roll with it.  We could always shoot another take.

“Los Angeles.”

“Wow, Los Angeles, that’s so cool!  Do you work in the movie business?”

“Yeah, actually I do.  I’m a director.”

“Wow, that’s amazing!”  She slides effortlessly into Apple’s chair.  Camera lingers on her legs below the knee, crossing one way, then the other, a sandled foot bobbing rhythmically, anxiously.  “Have you directed any movies I might have seen?”  Lips wrap suggestively around cocktail straw.

“Probably, you know the movie Inception?”

“Of course!  You directed Inception?  With Leonardo DiCaprio?”   I crack my smile.  It has to be subtle but noticeable, too cool for school.  We worked on it for weeks.  “You’re joking with me.”

“I guess so.”  Look back over my shoulder, shot of the line for the bathroom, muddled conversations in two dozen languages, interwoven like a dadaist tapestry.  Close up of my fingers tapping on the wrought iron table.  Close up of her fingers, twisting a lock of hair.  Condensation on my glass.  Legs cross, hands smooth skirt, all mechanical, all machinery.  

“So, what brings you to Hong Kong?”

“Just here on a layover, actually.”

“Oh, where are you going to?”

“Back to the States.”

“Aww, so this is the end of your trip.”

“Yeah.”
“Where were you visiting?”

“I was living in Sichuan.”

“Oh, you lived in Sichuan?  Do you speak Chinese?”

“Not really.”

“Oh, so then what were you doing, teaching English?”

“Exactly.”

“Wow, that’s so cool!”  She’s nailing it.  Extruding ‘genuine interest’.  What a professional.  “So you’re here by yourself?”

“No, I’m with a friend.”

“Oh, is he getting a drink?  I could invite a friend of mine to join us.”

“She’s in the bathroom.”  Ball bounced back to her court, she receives it awkwardly, sip of the margarita to toast the successful handoff.  Camera pans around from her back to see her face, all color fading, eyes dart reactively.

“Oh, I see.”  The transformation is one of nature’s most remarkable spectacles, fleeting as a bolt of lightning, but unrivaled in its simplistic beauty.  Within seconds it’s complete, her eyes swimming in the passerby, a lion on the savannah.  Purse and drink collected from the table, she stands, smooths her skirt again.  “Well, have a nice night with your friend.”

“You too.”  The last shot is from my perspective.  She takes two steps onto the street and disappears into the crowd, nameless, invisible, citizen of the Friday Night, subcontractor of the bricks in the sidewalk, echoing stilettos from now to eternity.

By the time Apple got back I’d finished my drink.  “Sorry that took so long!  The line was crazy!”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“I should have gone to use a bathroom at a less crowded bar.”

“It’s alright.  I made a friend while you were gone.”

“Really?  Who?”

“A prostitute.  She started talking to me like thirty seconds after you left.”

“Wow!  See, I told you!  But I guess that’s not that surprising, you drinking by yourself.  And clearly a foreigner.  What did you say to her?”

“I told her I directed Inception.

“Did she believe you?”

“Not really.”  

“Well, that’s exciting.  Another piece of your Authentic Hong Kong Experience.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

Apple finished her drink and we set out on foot again, the air warm and humid but not unpleasant, the city teeming with slithering laughter, emerging and disappearing from every orifice like the inhabitants of a dense coral reef.  I was drunk.  Apple bumped into me and I knew she was drunk too and that made me happy.

“So what’s the first thing you’re gonna do when you get back?” she asked me.  

“Talk to some cashier in English about Obama or something.”

She laughed.  “That’s very specific.  How come?”

“I miss talking to strangers.  About meaningful stuff, not just repeating the same story for two years straight.  I don’t know, in America you all kinda feel connected and you can just talk to someone casually about the news or the weather or what you’re up to or what’s going on in your life or their life.  You can ask an Uber driver how his day was and he’ll tell you about how his daughter just graduated high school or something and how she’s starting up college in the fall and he’s so proud of her, and it’s pretty much the best thing you ever heard in your life.  I miss having conversations like that.”

“That’s true.  People in Asia are a lot more formal, we don’t talk about personal stuff as much as you do in the U.S.”

“Yup.”

“So what are you gonna do after that?”

“I guess I gotta find a job.”

“Have you started looking already?”

“Nope.”

“Do you know where you’re gonna live?”

“Well, I’m good to stay at my friend’s place in Oakland for a couple weeks.  But I don’t even know if I’m gonna stay in the Bay.  I might move to like, Seattle or something.”

“I heard it rains a lot in Seattle.”

“Yeah, I heard that too.  Maybe I’ll move to Montreal.  I always wanted to live there.  I’ve never even been there, but I always thought I’d like it.”

“Oh and you know French too, right?  That makes sense.  So you’d have to get a Visa?”

“I guess so.  Ugh, that sounds like a headache.  I don’t know man.  For so long my horizon has just been ‘Go back to America’.  Then after that it’s completely empty.”

“Would you ever go back home?”

“Fuck no.  I’d always rather be a poor waiter somewhere and have like four roommates than live at home again.”  

She was laughing.  “You make it sound so bad!  The only time I’ve ever not lived at home was that semester in Berkeley.”

“And wasn’t it nice?  Don’t you want your own space?  Not have to answer to anyone, check in with anyone?”

“It was nice.  But I missed my parents.  No one cooked for me.  And my room was a mess, no one kept the place clean.  And I had to pay rent.  Well, my parents had to pay rent, but I still felt bad about it.  But I think living with Jason will be exciting.  It’ll be nice to see him every day.”

“Yeah, it’ll be sweet, for sure.”

She gave me a pat on the shoulder.  “I know that you’ll be alright though.  I haven’t talked to you much in these past six years, but you were always good at figuring things out, and I’m sure you still are.  You’ll do something interesting, I’m sure, and I’ll hear all about it when you’re famous.”

“Nah, I’m just trying not to fuck up too bad.”

“How do you mean?”

“Hmm.  You ever feel like you’re walking across a bridge, but its being built out in front of you as you walk, and you feel like at any moment you could walk to fast and go right over the edge and into the water and never really get back out again?”

“I’m not sure.  I don’t think so.”

“Darn.”  We walked on in silence for a few more minutes, before I looked up and around and realized I had no idea where we were.  I had been keeping track of which was was north, where the water was, where the Peaks were, but I’d stopped paying attention a few turns back.  The disorientation was unsettling.  “You know where we are?”

“Pretty much.  We’re circling back to where we were drinking.  Not too far, maybe five minutes away.”  

The streets were notably darker, quieter, emptier.  We were silent for a block.  It was shattered by the harrowing, unmistakeable sound of a female scream.  I instinctively darted into the alley that was the source of the noise.  A narrow alley, a real one, the kind you see in gangster movies where people get stabbed.  My prostitute was on the ground, and some big Australian-looking prick was standing above her.  They both looked over at me.  Her expression twitched ever so slightly at recognizing me, a quick furrow of the eyebrows, perhaps, then she looked back up at the prick.

“Just walk away, mate.”

“What are you doing?”  Everything was running fast, no practice, no time for thought.  All my words just spilled out unfiltered.  My heartbeat was running hard, and the anxiety and adrenaline spread through my arms and chest and it was cold.

“It’s none of your business mate, now get the fuck out of here.”

“Did you just hit her?  You can’t hit her, man.  Leave her alone.”

“She stole my fucking wallet, mate.  It’s got my passport and all my cash, mate.  Now get the fuck out of here or I’ll knock you out!”  He started walking toward me.  I took a step back and  realized that I didn’t know where Apple was.  I had assumed she was behind me, but affording myself a half-second peek over my shoulder, I saw that she was nowhere to be found.

“Nah man, I can’t go, I can’t go and let you hit her.  It doesn’t matter what she took you can’t hit her dude, it’s fucked up.  You gotta talk to the cops you can’t hit her, it’s fucked up.”  The whole time we were talking people passed by the other end of the alley, mostly in groups, a few solo.  None of them so much as stuck their head down the alleyway toward us.  I imagined it sounded like we were having a tense but civil argument.  In English.  Two drunk foreigners having a drunk fight on the street.

“I’m not talking to the fucking cops.  And I won’t have to hit her if she just gives me my shit back.”  He looked down at my prostitute, who wore a remarkably blasé expression, given the circumstances.

“Look, she clearly doesn’t have it on her,” motioning, indicating the absence of her purse.  “You’re just gonna get all mixed up with her pimp and you’re gonna get fucked dude, just let it go, go talk to the cops.”

“I ain’t talking to the cops, mate.  And if you don’t get out of here in five seconds I’m gonna have to fuck you up too.”  It all felt strangely like a negotiation.  I suppose it was a negotiation.  Two white guys debate the fate of a silent woman, aka the World’s Oldest Argument.  He started again toward me, slowly, but stopped again about halfway between me and the prostitute, realizing that he couldn’t put the beat down on me without her getting away.  It was like we were two positive magnets and he a negative, attracted to both of us at once, unable to budge from his position at the midpoint.  I had no idea how the encounter was supposed to end.

“Why do you even give a shit, mate?  Why don’t you just mind your own fucking business?”

“Cause you can’t hit her man!  You know that’s fucked up!”  I sorta just felt like yelling.  It was all very exciting.

“And you know what, I guess it’s because I hate you.  I’m glad she stole your shit.  You big dumb tourist, here with your ‘mates’ from Australia, spend a bunch of dough getting fucked up, god damn J Crew button downs all ironed and shit, stupid ass haircut with the gel in it, thought you’d have a little fun, pick up an exotic prostitute in Hong Kong, why not?  What’s her life about, man?  God I feel bad for her, having to fuck big ugly scumbags like you all night.  Probably can’t get it up, probably can’t come, drank too many shitty vodka Red Bulls all night.  She’s a good actress but I bet she still went all silent on you, bent over, waiting for you to finish and you can’t, getting frustrated and all, going harder and harder, distracted, not gonna happen.  God, some life you got going on, picking up prostitutes, can’t even finish, she coulda stolen fifty of your wallets still wouldn’t be worth having to fuck you, you piece of shit.  You’re gonna die alone you fucking prick.  You’re-”

That’s about as far as I got before he hit me as hard as he could, getting redder the whole time, me smiling like a little kid on an amusement park ride.  Getting hit actually felt all right, it certainly hurt, but I was drunk and didn’t feel it as much as I probably should have, and it was satisfying in a way, it felt like I had defeated him, I had lured him, broken him.  I looked up from the ground, expecting him to really start hurting me, the real shit, but he was looking past me, backing away.  

I rolled over on my stomach and saw Apple standing there with a bouncer, a big-ass dude in all black.  He didn’t even say anything.  The Australian guy first walked, then broke into a trot and headed off out the other end of the alley.  (In future late-night, whiskey-fueled retellings of the story, I’d often claim he shouted something back to me, like ‘Fucking American asshole’ or ‘Stupid fucking whores’, but if he did truly say anything then only he and he alone knew what the exact diction, the true words forever a mystery to all else present.)

Apple said something to the bouncer in Cantonese while he eyed the prostitute, giving her some kind of nod.  Surely he’d seen her around.  They were compatriots in this war, both working opposite ends of the Hong Kong tourist industry, her realizing boneheaded anglocentric fantasies, he quashing them, but both dealing with asshole drunk foreigners all night, every night.  

The bouncer walked away.  Apple came to me.  My prostitute got to her feet, brushing off her clothes, her skirt fucked up and black with city grime.  I was by now sitting on my butt, leaning against the wall.  “Are you okay?” Apple asked me.

“Yeah, I’m fine.  He just hit me one time, right before you got here.”

“Here,” handing me a tissue from her bag.  “You’re bleeding a little.  From your lip.”  I felt the cut and inspected the blood on my fingers.  Not bad.  

Apple looked down toward the prostitute and called out something in Cantonese, the intonation suggesting it was probably something like ‘Are you alright?’.  She walked briskly passed us and spat out some stark, dirty words, hurling darts.  Apple called out to her again as she reached our end of the alley.  The girl laughed and spat more Cantonese at us, at me, it seemed, and turned down the street, gone forever.

I was supposed to stay at a hostel, but Apple insisted I come stay at her place.  Her parents were in Macau for the weekend, she explained.  I could get a shower, a comfy couch to sleep on, some food, and she’d see me off in the morning.

“Also, I’m glad to have someone to go home with, I don’t think I would have wanted to go back by myself,” she said on the train.  “I know that nothing would happen, I’m just still feeling weird and scared and it’s nice to be with someone.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean.  I’m sure I’d be spooked going back by myself.  I’d be thinking that dude was gonna find me or something.”

“Yeah, me too.”  She kept looking at me and wincing, concerned.

“Is it that bad?”

“Well, I guess it looks like you got punched in the face.”  She smiled and I started laughing, and she laughed too, and it was the first time that we both felt okay since it had all gone down.

Back at her place, I grabbed a shower, she fed me rice with a fried egg on top, ocean blue blanket draped neatly over the couch, clean white pillow at the head, glass of water on the coffee table.  It made me nostalgic for America for some reason, for some house where I was a welcome guest, maybe even for my own house, for a summer house, for a grandma’s house.  

“You sure you don’t want some?” She was sitting across from me at the kitchen table, watching me eat.

“No, I’m really not hungry.”

“Okay.”  There wasn’t really much to talk about.  Everyone was tired.  No one wanted to be drunk anymore.  The fluorescent light overhead was terrible.

“What did you guys say to each other, after the dude left?”  

She shifted uncomfortably.  “I just asked her if she was okay.”

“What’d she say?”

“She said she was fine.”

“What about after that?”
“What do you mean?  That’s all we said.”

“No, first you were like ‘Are you okay?’ and she said she was fine, and then you said something else to her and she said something else.  What was that?”
“It doesn’t matter.”

“Come on, I can handle it, I’m an adult.”  She didn’t want to tell me.

“Elliot, it’s really not important, you did a good thing.”

“I really wanna know.  Just tell me, it’s okay, I won’t get upset.”

She let out a big sigh.  “I said something like ‘You should say thank you to him’.  To you, I mean.”

“And what did she say?”

Eyes dancing all around the room, anywhere but toward my own, finally settling on her hands, folded on the tabletop.  “She said, ‘He’s just another foreigner who wants to feel cool fucking a whore.’”

I was tired but couldn’t sleep, replaying the scene in my mind over and over, thinking about what I could have done differently, what I should have done differently, if anything, reimagining it playing out in different ways, rehearsing in my mind how I’d tell the story to friends back home, how I’d be telling it for years to come.  

The couch faced tall glass windows that offered a stunning view of the cityscape, an endless playground for my eyes, and after an hour watching checkerboard lights go out one by one, it began to rain, softly at first, then violently, thunderclaps lighting up the night.  The apartment faced west, toward the Pacific, North America lying some 5,000 miles beyond that.  And the thunder cracked mightily and with frightening regularity over that ocean for as long as I could stay awake to drown in it.

It was still raining when my plane took off the next morning.        

PDA

First they were making out in the pool.  It wasn’t such a big deal because the rest of us were smoking a joint and taking swigs of tequila and they were all the way out in the deep end, but that didn’t stop Jane from catching me with one of her “See?  Didn’t I tell you?” looks, to which I could only shrug and pass her the joint.  

Then later that night they were making out on the subway on our way to some concert that Jane had hooked us all up with free tickets to.  

“God forbid they go five minutes without slobbering all over each other,” she said to me under her breath.

“I don’t know, I’ve seen people making out on the train a lot.”

“That doesn’t make it right.”

“I mean, it’s definitely rude, but all I’m saying is, at least they haven’t strayed too far from typical human norms.”

“Just wait.  They will.”  

They did.  The next weekend we drove up to Boston for Harrison’s sister’s graduation from Tufts.  Harrison was driving, and I was riding shotgun and DJing.  Jane was squeezed in the back with Martina and Alice, the two of whom had earlier drifted off from our conversation debating the best Radiohead album and were now once again embracing in contortions evocative of the caduceus.  They must have slipped into it subtly, for I hadn’t noticed until a brief pause in the conversation (prompted by Harrison’s adamant declaration that no three song run in Radiohead’s discography could rival “Reckoner” into “House of Cards” into “Jigsaw Falling Into Place”) proved the perfect haven for the light slapping and soft cooing of two pairs of female lips gently parting and reconvening like waves lapping at the pillars of a jetty.

Harrison broke the silence by walking back his previous assertion in a rare moment of self-doubt as my phone buzzed with a text from Jane.

Jane:  Dude they’re doing it IN THE CAR.  Wtf?!

Me:  Okay, that’s kind of crossing a line.

Jane:  I’m literally ass to ass with Alice!

Jane:  I know right?  Like I think we have to say something

Me:  Well I don’t think you can say anything.

Jane:  I mean maybe they’re just unaware that they’re being rude

Jane:  Wait why not?

Me:  Cause like Harrison’s the closest to Alice.  So if you say something then, you know, like

it’s more his place to say something, since he’s the closest to Alice.  So then you never have to

show your hand with them or anything, you know you won’t look bad.

Me:  Like Harrison should weather the reaction.

Jane:  Trueeeeee

Jane:  Okay tell Harrison to say something

Me:  I mean I can’t right now.

Jane:  Trust me they are NOT LISTENING

Jane:  Text him

Me:  I could text him maybe?

Me:  Yeah okay.  Hold on.

Jane:  THANK YOU!

I sent a text to Harrison, who had failed to realize that he had been engaging in an extended soliloquy regarding the various ways Radiohead’s live performance of “Idioteque” had transformed throughout the band’s career.  His phone buzzed from its home in the center console cupholder.

“Hey, I think you got a text,” I said.

“Wanna check it for me?”  On no less than two dozen occasions had I seen Harrison perform a number of operations on his iPhone while cruising at speeds upwards of 75 miles per hour, including but not limited to; searching for directions, sending Snapchat videos, ordering takeout, checking what year U2’s War was released and swiping both left and right on Tinder.  Why he chose this particular occasion to practice responsible driving habits remains a mystery to this day.

“Uh, sure, hold on.”  I picked up the phone and held it up to him.  

“What does it say?” he asked.

“Here, you wanna just read it?”

“Uh, I kinda can’t, I’m driving.  Just read it to me I don’t care.”  I looked back over the seat at Jane, who mouthed “What the fuck?”  Alice and Martina had seemingly failed to notice the conversation.  I decided to switch tactics.

“Hey Martina, you grew up in Boston, right?”

There was a brief pause in the white noise that had become the couple’s’ physical intimacy, followed by an almost imperceptible giggle.  “Huh?”

“Where in Boston did you grow up?”

“Oh, I’m from Belmont.  It’s like, a suburb.”

“Oh, cool.”  

“Yeah.  Pretty boring.  Mitt Romney lived there, that’s about it.”

“Wow. Did you ever see him?”

“Oh, uh, nope, never did.”  The silence was thick like a good flan.  Harrison sliced it with a steady and practiced hand.

“Okay dude, I’m thinking that maybe we just like different songs.  Like if you had to rank the songs on In Rainbows, what would be your top three?  No, top five, top five.  Like mine are definitely “Nude” number one, then… fuck.  This is hard.”

We arrived at Harrison’s house and were greeted by his loving and excitable parents.  His mother, who always insisted I call her Sharon (“Mrs. Thompson makes me sound like an old lady!”), was in the midst of mixing margaritas on the granite kitchen countertop.

“Well this first one’s just a traditional margarita, although Tom likes to throw a little brandy in there but you can barely taste it.  Then this other one we’ve been drinking’s called the Diablo Margarita, and for this one we actually had to infuse the tequila with jalapenos, so it’s got quite a kick to it.  It’s very good, it’s an interesting drink, and we both like it so that’s what we’ve been drinking recently but I’m still not sure, I might prefer the traditional one myself, so I figured we’d do a little taste test and see which one y’all like better.  Do you all like margaritas?  We can also make you, well, pretty much anything you want, and then we also have a whole bunch of beer in that fridge downstairs.  Harrison can you go bring up some beers from down there?”

“Jeez I just walked in, can I at least go to the bathroom first?”

“Oh I guess so.”

“I’ll get them,” I offered.

“Oh Robin that’s so nice of you.  You see that Harrison?  That’s called being a good houseguest.  Take him with you Robin and bring a dozen or so up here, I think Tom just drank the last one last night although there might be a Heineken or something way in the back but you guys don’t want that.  Or maybe you do, I don’t know.”

“I drank that Heineken weeks ago,” Tom said, re entering the house after minutely adjusting Harrison’s parking job to optimize space in the narrow driveway.

“Well there you go, show’s how much I know.  Bring up a baker’s dozen then, will ya?  Thank you boys!”

Harrison and I descended the wooden steps into the musky basement, the smell of which is linked inextricably in my mind with old, stone New England cellars.  The air was cool and stale and I was reminded of summers spent at my grandparents’ summer house in Vermont.  At the foot of the steps an old workdesk had been repurposed as a liquor cabinet more expansive than most I had seen high on the shelves beyond the cheap oak and cedar bars we frequented.

“Shit, your folks weren’t kidding, they have literally everything down here.”

“Yeah, they basically took up cocktails as a hobby when they became empty nesters.  They shared their Google Doc of recipes with me – it’s seventy-four pages long.”

“Damn.  Can you share that with me?”

“Yeah sure, just shoot me an email.”

We opened the fridge (of the massive, soiled, off-white kind from some unknown generation outside of spacetime that exist only as the ‘basement fridge’ or ‘garage fridge’ or ‘old thing we really gotta throw away unless Mark wants to take it back to college with him and if he does then God help him’) and were greeted by a scene out of some indie microbrew commercial.  I began to pick out beers one at a time from breweries both familiar and completely alien and filled up my arms.  Harrison did the same.  

“Sorry about Alice, by the way,” he said suddenly.

“What?”

“I saw your text.   Sorry I couldn’t do anything.  I honestly didn’t even know they were making out.  It makes sense now though.  There was a period there that they were super quiet, but I thought they just fell asleep.”

“Well can you maybe say something to her?”

“Now?  Like, the moment’s kind of over, right?”

“But it is pretty disrespectful.  I think it makes Jane uncomfortable.”

“Well it doesn’t really bother me, but I can see how someone could be super uncomfortable, like if they weren’t into that kind of thing.  I honestly don’t care, but yeah I could say something if you think it’s bugging Jane.”

“I mean it’s not like she’s a prude or anything, like we both know that, it’s just like, you know, it’s disrespectful.  I mean I don’t like it either.  It’s not gross as much as it’s just sorta, like ‘Hey, I thought we were all hanging out here together,’ you know?”

“Yeah, totally, I see what you mean.  Okay yeah I’ll mention something to her, no problem.  At least it’s better than her sitting there all quiet and sober with John until he says that they’re tired and are gonna go home.”

“This is true.”

We brought the beers back upstairs and found Martina assisting Sharon with one or the other margarita varieties while Alice and Jane sipped on their drinks at the Thompson’s massive kitchen island.

“Just throw ‘em anywhere you can fit ‘em,” Sharon said to us.  “You might have to move some stuff around, I just went to the grocery store seeing as how y’all were coming in and then I realized that tomorrow we’ll probably being eating out all day and then you guys take off Sunday so I guess me and Tom are just gonna have to work our way through it all by ourselves, unless maybe Katie will come over and help us out.  You hungry Tom?”

“Hungry?  We just ate half hour ago!”

We arranged the beers like Tetris pieces in each nook and cranny of the fridge (including one placed like an Easter egg behind a head of lettuce in the crisper), and I took a seat next to Jane, where Sharon placed a drink before me.

“Now this is the Diablo, the spicy one, but if you don’t like it I can make you a traditional.”

“Thank you very much.”  I tasted the drink, which did indeed kick with the taste of jalapenos.  I tasted Jane’s margarita to compare.

“So whatcha think, you like it better than the traditional?”

“Definitely.  But I like spicy drinks, so I’m probably not a good judge.”

“You hear that Tom?  You got one for the Diablo!  Now get over here Harrison it’s about time I taught you how to properly make a margarita.”

Jane turned beside her to an Alice unshackled from Martina for the first time in as long as I could remember.  “So what’s up babe?  How’s school going?  I feel like I haven’t seen you in a while.”

“School’s good, busy in the lab but not too bad, it’s all pretty routine.  Didn’t we go to the pool and to the Jagwar Ma show last weekend?”

“True, true.  I guess I just haven’t talked to you much recently.  What’s new in your life?”

“Not much, just been hanging with Martina a lot.”

“Yeah, it seems like it.  How’s it going?  You guys seem really into each other.”

“Yeah we are, it’s really really great.  We’re just always on the same page, I don’t really get tired of spending time with her.  You know, since I’ve never had a girlfriend before, I didn’t realize that sometimes it can be like a relationship, like really romantic, and then other times it’s just like hanging out with your best female friend.  She’s my girlfriend and like a best friend all in one.  It’s pretty great.”

“Totally, that sounds awesome.”

“And you know,” Alice continued, obviously anxious to continue raving about her girlfriend, “She doesn’t ever come across as immature to me, like she can hang with us.  But she brings some youthful nervousness or energy or something.  I love how she gets nervous about showing her fake ID at bars, like I miss that excitement.  Especially after dating John.  Ugh, he never wanted to go out.  He was so self-conscious about everything.”

“Yeah, well I’m super happy for you, it seems like you got a good thing going on.”

“Thanks Jane.”

“Hey, you got any good stories from that girl in your lab?” I chimed in.  “That girl Kelly?”  Kelly was another PhD student with whom Alice worked on a daily basis.  The only time I’d met her she told me I needed to work on my smile, then proceeded to drink a solo cup of vodka and fall asleep in Jane’s bed, forcing the host to sleep on a couch.  Alice consequently ceased any further social invitations.

“Oh yes, I totally do, I completely forgot!  So get this; she told me this week that she texted a guy she was pissed at that she was pregnant, and then proceeded to block him and delete his number.”

“What?  That’s so messed up!  Jesus Christ that’s messed up!”

“I know, that’s what I said.  Like I know she has a lot of issues and I wanna be a friend to her and a labmate and stuff, but that definitely crossed a line.  Like even I was surprised and she tells me her crazy dating life shit every day.”

“Wow, that’s unbelievable!” Jane said.  “I don’t understand how you can stay friends with her.”

“I don’t know, it’s like she needs help, obviously.  It’s not so much that we’re friends, it’s more that I’m trying to be a positive influence in her life.  She doesn’t really have a lot of friends or boyfriends, obviously.  But yeah, like I said this definitely crossed a line.”

“So what did you say to her?”

“Basically I was like-”

“Look, I did it!” We turned to Martina, approaching with a margarita perched upon her outstretched palms.

“Aww it’s cute!  Which one is it?” Alice asked, getting up to join her, leaving Jane and myself alone at the island.

“The Diablo one, with the spicy tequila.  Here, taste it.”  Alice obliged.

“Wow, that is spicy.”

“I know, right?  Should we snap it?”

“Definitely.”  Martina grabbed her cell phone and handed it to me.  “Can you take a Snap of us?” she asked.  I took the picture of the girls holding up their margaritas to their cheeks and smiling widely as the steam pouring off of Jane enveloped me from all sides.  I handed the phone back to Martina and the girls looked it over to muted response before Martina held the phone out in front of her and they replicated the pose.  A few seconds later my phone buzzed with a Snapchat from Martina Perez.  The caption read: “Homemade Margaritas!”  

We all got pretty drunk on the Thompson’s cocktail of assorted cocktails and it wasn’t long before Alice and Martina had begun playfully gripping each other’s arms and thighs.

“Now?” Harrison asked after I’d elbowed him and gestured toward the couple, perched high atopi two stools pulled up to the island.

“Just make something up.  Be like ‘Alice, can you help me find the N64?’ or something like that.”

“What, no, that’s stupid.  I don’t even have an N64.”

“You never had an N64?”

“No man we had a Super Nintendo, then I got a PS2, then I got an XBox, then I got an XBox 360, then I kinda stopped playing video games but then my sister got a Wii, and it was actually super fun.  We played that Wii Sports so much, I got so good at bowling.  I could go grab the Wii if you wanted, I’d honestly be so down.”

“Dude just try to find an excuse to say something before they disappear into one of these studies or lounges or libraries you got all over your house.”

“Hey now, no kissing in the kitchen!” Sharon said playfully, slapping Alice on the shoulder with her printout of cocktail recipes.  

“Sorry,” Alice said, blushing and smiling nervously.
“Oh no, you’re fine dear, I didn’t mean to embarrass y’all or anything, I mean I don’t care what y’all do once me and Tom hit the hay, it’s just not really the right time and place.”  Jane held her hand out to me under the table and I quietly completed the high-five.

Once Sharon and Tom had gone to bed, Harrison rolled a king-sized joint and we all stepped outside to smoke, forming a circle in the artificial fluorescence of a motion-activated light affixed to the back of the garage, where Tom had built for childhood Harrison a small basketball court.  Harrison started the joint and passed it to Jane. It was next offered to Martina, who waved it on to Alice.

“Have you not smoked before?” Harrison asked.

“No, I have, just not that often.”

“Oh you’re on vacation, just go for it,” Alice said, handing the joint back to her.  “Remember how we did a few weeks ago, when we were going to Phoebe’s?  It was alright then, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, that’s true.”  Martina burped quietly, almost cutely.  “Oops!  Excuse me.”

“So it’ll be chill,” Alice encouraged.  “Don’t worry, I’ll be here, it’ll be fine.”  

“But only if you want to,” Jane said, touching her shoulder.  “Don’t feel pressured.”

“No pressure, no one’s pressuring, just do it if you want to,” Alice interjected.

“Well, why not.”  Martina took the joint, smoked it gingerly, then began to cough.  

“Here, blow it into my mouth,” Alice said, pressing her face up to Martina’s.  She did as she was told, but was unable to stop coughing, making for an awkward interaction that caused Jane to roll her eyes so hard that for a brief moment I worried that she had done permanent ocular damage.  Alice took the joint from her, inhaled with a rather off putting amount of satisfaction, then blew the smoke up into the night sky.  “Are you high?” she asked Martina.

“Not too bad I don’t think,” she answered.

“Here, take another.”

“No, I’m fine.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

“Okay, well let me know if you feel weird or anything.”  She kissed Martina on the cheek and passed the joint to me, and I passed it along back to Harrison.  By the time I turned back around, Alice and Martina had begun making out again.

“I think I’m good,” Jane said loudly and turned to walk back toward the house.

“Is she okay?” Alice asked once Jane was out of earshot.  The ensuing silence found me wavering back and forth between deciding whether or not to say something like a lifeboat being tossed to and fro in the midst of a typhoon.  I can’t say how exactly I arrived at the decision to do so, though it’s possible the settling in of a whelming and familiar cannabis high had provided some outside influence.

“Well, you know, I think PDA just makes her a little uncomfortable.”

“What do you mean?” Alice asked.  “Like us?  Are you talking about us?”  I looked to Harrison for help, but he seemed content to let me take the reigns, performing delicate surgeries on the joint to prevent it from canoeing.

“Well, yeah, I mean I think PDA like that makes her kind of uncomfortable, like it’s not a big deal, but maybe not all the time, you know?”

“Well I’m sorry,” Alice said defensively.  “I didn’t realize we were offending everyone.”

“Not all the time, you know, and not everyone, like, I don’t think Harrison minds.”

“Harrison, are you offended by our PDA?”

“What?”  Portrait of the proverbial deer in headlights.

“Are you offended by me and Martina making out in front of you?”

“Well, I mean, it’s not, you know, it doesn’t really bother me, not really, but occasionally you know, it can be, like, I mean I’m not a huge fan.  I’m not, not a fan, per se, but yeah, I guess, it could probably be, like if it was gonna be more making out, or less making out, I’d probably vote for less public making out, if I had to vote, that is.”

Alice threw her hands up high into the air and brought them down on her thighs, bare below her shorts, with a satisfying slap.  “So this whole time, all my friends are embarrassed by my displaying affection for my new girlfriend, who makes me super happy, and that’s it, you guys are all just offended.  I’m offensive.”  She turned to an empty section of the court.  “I’m offending my friends.  I’m an offensive person.”  The three of us alternated between looking at our feet and at each other to see if anyone else was peeking.  “Well, I’m sorry, I had no idea I was being offensive.”  

“That’s not true,” Martina injected quickly but quietly.  “I asked you earlier, after Harrison’s mom said something to us, and you told me it was fine.  You said your friends were chill with everything.”  Alice looked at her incredulously.  I bit my lip and returned to inspecting my bare feet.  Harrison refused to cease working on the joint, making minute adjustments like a renaissance sculptor carving from marble his latest masterpiece.  The light of the garage chose the opportunity to turn itself off, leaving only the orange glow of the joint beautifully silhouetted against the darkness.

“Well, I think this is just about done,” Harrison said finally, rubbing out at least half of the perfectly manicured joint into the ground.  The light responded to his movement and brought the scene back into focus.  “Robin, you wanna head inside?”

“Yeah, uh, you guys wanna meet us in a bit?”

“That’s fine,” Alice answered curtly.  We walked to the house in silence.       

Harrison, Jane and I found ourselves sunken into the gigantic leather L-shaped couch in the family den while Harrison cycled through Key and Peele videos on Youtube that I’d seen a million times.  Some twenty minutes later I was the only person left awake, so I roused the sleeping Harrison and Jane and prodded them up the stairs like stubborn cattle toward the beds Sharon had made up for us in the house’s guest rooms.

“Where are Alice and, uh, and Martina?  Are they fucking outside?” Jane asked me from a half-awake place blanketed by layers of state-altering substance.

“Maybe,” I answered.

“That sounds – yawn – nice.”  

I woke up early, around 7:30, and sensed a blinding hangover coming on, so I crept downstairs to get a glass of water.  The sunlight was streaming through the massive windows of the Thompson’s front room, and I was graced by the familiar thought that the morning was a wonderfully tranquil time and that I should make more of an effort to wake up for it.  Sharon was in the kitchen making coffee when I entered.

“Robin!  Nice to see you, I didn’t think any of y’all would be up for hours.  When Harrison’s here we’re lucky if we see him before noon.”

“I just came down to grab a glass of water.  Trying to avoid a hangover.”

“Oh I see, well here let me get that for you.  Go on and head back to bed if you want to, you’re on vacation in this house, after all.”  She handed me the glass.  “You want some Tylenol?”

“No that’s alright.  I think I’m gonna stay up with you, it’s actually really nice here in the morning.  The house gets a lot of natural sunlight.”

“Oh yes, it’s my favorite time of day.  Not too hot yet, real quiet and peaceful, well I just love it.  You want some coffee?  It’s just about done.”

“Yeah, that’d be great, thank you.”  She poured out a cup in a big Boston Bruins mug.  “How do you take it?”

“With cream and sugar, please.”

“That’s how I like it too.  Tom drinks it black.  I think black coffee tastes like dirt, personally, but what are you gonna do.”

“Thank you so much.”

“Well you’re quite welcome.”  I watched her fix herself a cup and sit down across from me at the island.  “It’s so nice to have some company in the morning!  Ever since Katie went off to school it’s usually just been me down here with my coffee, reading the Globe.  Tom sleeps in until the latest he possibly can and then he just flies right through the door.  I always say ‘Sit down and have a cup of coffee!’ and he says ‘I’m running late, I’ll get it at work!’ and that’s that.”

“Yeah, I’m kinda like that.  I should try to wake up earlier.  The morning’s a good time to get yourself ready for the day.  Emotionally, I mean.  Like warming yourself up to interact with people.”

“That’s just it.  Well put.”  We sipped at our coffee, which was piping hot.  The Thompsons only shopped at Whole Foods, and it wasn’t hard to imagine that the coffee beans residing in a large glass jar on the countertop had been selected from plethora similar varieties, chosen carefully and with no small amount of pride by Sharon and Tom after years of trials, taste tests and critical reviews.  

“Hey, Sharon?  Can I ask you something?”

“Well sure!  What’s on your mind?”

“What do you think of Alice and Martina?”

“Oh they’re sweet girls.  Awfully cute together.  A bit touchy though, you know, around people.  But maybe it’s just ‘cause they were drinking.  I used to get a little like that when I’d had some drinks.”

“No, they’re pretty much always like that.”

“Well I guess that doesn’t surprise me.  But who am I to say.  I’m just some old lady.  They’re young and cute and clearly very fond of each other, let them have their fun while they can.”

“Don’t you think it’s rude though?  Kinda immature?”

“Well yes, I mean to me it’s disrespectful, you know my parents would not have approved of that kind of behavior, they’re conservative Texas types, after all.  But things are different than they used to be.”  She took a sip of her coffee and gazed past me, out the front window, toward the sunlight in the east.  

“Not just how your generation is different from my generation, but people are from all sorts of cultures and upbringings and such, and so you gotta be careful.  People have different definitions of what’s respectful and what’s not.  Sometimes they got no idea what they’re doing is bugging anybody.  So you just gotta let ‘em know when it is.  Not in a mean way or anything, just let them know, ‘Hey, cut it out!’  That’s it.  You can’t be afraid to be blunt and honest with your friends.  You kids are all so polite.  But anyone who gets upset when their friend’s just being honest with ‘em isn’t much worth hanging around with, in my opinion.”  Satisfied, she took a big swig of her coffee.  “Oh!  That’s still real hot!”

I nodded.  “Yeah, that is a good point.”

At once we both turned toward the sound of someone descending the creaking wooden staircase, our heads naturally following the steps through the house to the kitchen doorway, where Martina appeared.

“Oh, hi there, I didn’t think anybody would be up.”  She was fully dressed.  The backpack she had brought along as luggage was slung over one shoulder.

“Oh yes, up and at ‘em.  Can I get you a cup of coffee dear?”

“Uh, that’s alright.  I just called an Uber.”

“Oh yeah?  Where you headed out so early?”

“Just to my house in Belmont.  I told my parents I’d hang with them while I was in town.”

“Oh now I coulda given you a ride over there.”

“That’s okay, the car’s almost here.”

“Alright then.  Now that’s very sweet of you, yes I imagine your folks would be awfully upset if you stiffed ‘em when you were staying just one town over.  You sure you don’t want some coffee first?”

“My Uber’s gonna be here in like two minutes, thank you though.”

“So are you not gonna come to the graduation with us then?” I asked.

“No, I think I’m gonna have to skip it, sorry.”

“Well do you wanna meet up with us after?  I think we’re all gonna go out with Katie and some of her friends tonight.”

“That’s okay, I think I’m gonna hang with my mom and dad for the rest of the weekend and then my mom’s gonna drive me back on Monday.”  

“Oh, alright, well I guess I’ll see you back in New York then?”

“Yeah, I’ll see you then.”  She checked her phone.  “Okay, my ride’s about here so I’m gonna go wait outside.  It was really nice to meet you, thank you so much for having me over!”

“Of course, come back anytime!  Tom and I love having company over.”

“Okay!  Bye!”

I tried to remember if the weekend’s admittedly haphazard game plan had always included an early departure from Martina, but soon concluded that it hadn’t – she had specifically mentioned the possibility of seeing certain high school friends of hers who’d attended Tufts at the school’s commencement.

That night, after the familiar pomp and circumstance, we found ourselves at Katie’s apartment, pregaming along with three of her friends.  Alice had barely said a word the whole day, her silence painfully obvious to all relevant parties, but I hadn’t been granted a good opportunity to ponder and discuss the situation with Jane, as we had spent most of the day in the company of the parents Thompson, who, despite supplying energy like twin dynamos, kept us to a rigorous and heavily structured schedule unaccustomed to our rather laissez faire lifestyle.  

The senior Thompsons having since retreated homeward, and the pleasantries between our group and Katie’s since exchanged, I finally managed to to pull Jane aside.

“So, Alice,” I started.

“Yeah, what happened!  Martina just left?”
“I saw her go this morning.  She seemed pretty anxious.”

“I bet.  How awkward for her.  And for Alice to have to go to some dumb graduation all day.”  It was true; the commencement speaker, a famed feminist poet, had extended her speech nearly half an hour by means of a torrential rant on the current state of American politics.  Katie’s class was subsequently processed and stamped by the school’s president and dean like products in an assembly line.

“I haven’t seen her this bummed out since… probably the last time I saw her with John.”

“That was at the Mets game, right?  When they left in the third inning?”

“Yeah, when they got in that fight about taking a picture with Mr. Met,” Jane confirmed.  “That was simultaneously the stupidest and saddest thing I’ve ever witnessed.”  My memory raced back to that fateful night; a crystalline, unblemished image of Mr. Met’s haunting, perpetually plastered smile masking the costumiers true and utter bewilderment as he witnessed a grown adult woman experience a crippling meltdown in response to her grown adult boyfriend’s refusal to take a Snapchat picture with a baseball-shaped mascot.

“Well, at least there won’t be any PDA on the ride back tomorrow,”  I offered.

Jane turned to me with a look of disgust.  “Dude, come on.”

“What?  You’re the one who was the most offended.”

“Alice is our friend.  We shouldn’t be making light of her breakup.  You know how fragile she is.  I thought you were above that.”  Mouth dropping open, I tried, with little success, to hide an expression that screamed ‘hypocrite!’ and resigned to the fact that anything I was libel to say next would be regretted within seconds, so I stated only that I was getting a drink and excused myself to the kitchen.  

Upon returning, I found Jane partaking with newfound gusto and obvious pleasure in the dressing and accessorizing of one of Katie’s roommates in preparation for the night ahead.  As Harrison and his sister engaged in a rather spirited video gaming battle, I took a seat next to Alice on the couch, offering her a beer which, to my surprise, she accepted.

“Thanks.”

“Sure thing.”

“Do you have an opener?”

“They’re twistoffs.  Shock Tops are always twistoffs.”

“Oh.”

“Did, uh, did you and Martina have a fight?”

“Uh… yeah.  Last night.”

“A bad one?”

“Pretty bad.”

“Like the worst one you’ve had?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you break up?”

“Jeez… I don’t think so.  But she’s not answering my texts.”

“Probably should stop texting her then.”

“Yeah.”  We drank our beers.  Harrison and his sister were playing Wii Bowling.  The rest of the girls were in and out of the roommate’s bedroom.

“I’m really sorry for last night.  I was wasted,” she said abruptly.

“It’s cool.”

“And for all the PDA.”

“Still cool.”

“I’m really embarrassed.  It’s all on me, by the way.  Not Martina.  I don’t know, I knew it was rude, but I think I almost kinda liked that.  Cause, you know since it’s two girls, you don’t see that all the time and we were like super proud of it, like ‘Fuck yeah two girls making out on the train, what are you gonna do about it?’, like we wanted to show off how much we didn’t give a fuck.  Or at least that’s how I felt.”

“Damn.”

“And also I think, hmmm.”  She stopped herself and touched the bottle to her lips but didn’t drink.  “And I think at the same time it was like we could just disappear into our own private bubble right in the middle of everything.  That’s sorta how our relationship feels to me.  Like being in the eye of a hurricane.  Everything just swirling around us and we’re completely still and safe, floating in the middle of it all.”

“That sounds really nice.  That sounds amazing, actually.”

“Yeah, it is really nice.  Was really nice.”

“Don’t say that.  I’m sure it’s gonna be fine.”

“I hope so.”  She sighed.  “How come none of you ever said anything to us earlier?”

“I don’t know.  I mean it did bother us, especially Jane-”

“Shit, I gotta apologize to her.”

“Yeah.  Well because, you know, it’s like you’re our friend.  And you’re an adult, and we don’t wanna be telling you what to do.”

“Well, thanks.  That makes sense.”

“But also, you know it’s been awhile since any of us have seen you so happy with someone.  I mean after all the shit that went down with John…”

“Right.”

“Well I guess, at least how I felt, I didn’t wanna shit all over your new thing right away.  And neither did Jane or Harrison.”

She continued to stare at the coffee table before her, her bottom lip resting upon the beer bottle.  “That’s really cool of you.  I just wish I could be somewhere closer to the middle.  Not a basket case, but not so excited over something that I’m being a bitch.  It’s like I’m a pendulum; every time I swing to one end I feel like I get pushed right back over to the other side.  I just wanna stop swinging.”

“After enough time a pendulum always runs out of momentum.  So maybe you’ll stop swinging eventually.”

She let out an audible sigh.  “I guess we’ll see.”  At last she took a large gulp of her Shock Top.

“Yes!  Fuck you!” Harrison cried in triumph from in front of the television.  “Hell yes, did you see that comeback?” he asked me after turning toward the whole room and realizing that I was the only person who was looking at him.

“Rematch,” Katie was saying, hastily clicking through the menus to start a new game.  “Come on, rematch, rematch.”

“Oh, you wanna get beat a second time?  Okay, okay, lemme just go to the bathroom.”  He skipped merrily out of the room.  Katie looked at us and rolled her eyes.

“He’s way too good at that game,” she said.  Her eyes turned to inspect Alice, as if she was noticing her for the first time.  “I love that top,” she said.

“Oh, thank you.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“Just some thrift store in Brooklyn.”

“Super cute.  You’re probably gonna get a bunch of dumb Boston guys hitting on you and trying to buy you drinks all night.  Just warning you, in case you wanna, you know, go in my closet and put on something less cute.”

“Thanks for the heads up.  Hopefully I’ll be able to handle it.”

“Hey, wasn’t your girlfriend gonna come up?  What was her name again?”

“Martina.  Yeah, she was gonna but then she went home to visit her family.”

“Right, Martina.  Oh yeah I forgot she’s from around here.  You guys are so cute together by the way.  I love your vibe.  I came back to Boston after that weekend and was saying to my roommate like ‘I just met the best couple you’ve ever seen, like it puts all of us to shame.’  Definitely wanna go out with you guys again next time I’m down there visiting Harrison.”  As if on cue, Katie’s brother returned from the bathroom and clapped his hands together before rubbing them vigorously.  “Okay, I have an idea.”  He looked at the three of us.  “Rematch, but first – shots?”

Alice and Martina broke up a few days after we got back from Boston.  I didn’t see her until two and a half weeks later, when Katie was in town visiting Harrison for the weekend.  That Saturday saw the five of us crowded around a table in a bar from which I had two distinct memories, spaced almost exactly a year apart, of vomiting in the toilet of the men’s room.  

Having feared the worst, I was relieved to find Alice in a good mood, joking amicably with Jane and Katie, poking fun at Harrison’s new haircut.  And I saw in her an Alice I had seemingly forgotten, one from before her courtship with Martina, from even before her relationship with John, and the pleasant surprise of receiving the first waves of that familiar energy felt like returning to the comfort of a childhood bed after months or years away from home.

But there was something else there, too.  I couldn’t quite place it until karaoke started up and Katie successfully persuaded Alice to join her for a Rihanna song, which the duo summarily crushed to rave applause.      

Projectors Running With No Film

It was a bright, crisp and cold winter morning, the sky so blue and the sun so brilliant that it made the reality of a four-thirty sunset and five o’clock darkness feel like a distant, melancholy daydream.  In the kitchen, the girls were speaking in hushed tones, and in the bedroom, I was slowly putting the pieces of the morning together.  I was cold because the window was open, and because I had no shirt on.  My head hurt; that was from drinking.  I couldn’t remember when and how I’d gone to bed.  I sat up on the edge of the bed, my headache splitting as I moved, shut the window and looked around the bedroom.  I had only been there once before, but it was just as I remembered it.  Neatly arranged, fairly spartan, with furniture consisting of bed, dresser, desk and chair.  The far wall opposite me had a poster of The Killers, and I remembered wondering how old she was when she got it.  The wall to my right had a framed picture of Carla and two of her friends from high school, which I also remembered, because we had talked about who the girls were.  Best friends.  That was it for wall decor.  There were no clothes on the floor; they were all neatly folded and packed away in the dresser.

I found my shirt in the covers, buttoned it up, and left the bedroom, where the hushed tones abruptly stopped.  I stood in the entry to the kitchen and looked at the girls.  They stared at me from their seats at the table, coffee mugs before them, releasing steam trails into bright daylight.

“Hey, how are you feeling?” Carla asked me.  Her eyes were red and it looked like she’d been crying.  They both looked like that.  

“My head’s killing me.  And I’m really thirsty.”

She got up and filled a glass with water from the sink.  “Here.”  I took the glass and drank the entire thing.  “Do you want some more?”

“No, I’m okay.”

“How much do you remember?”

“Well I remember being outside the bar at some point, I guess after I left, and… I guess nothing after that.”

She and the friend exchanged a look.  “Here, let’s go sit on the couch.  Do you want some coffee?”

“Yeah, thanks.  And some advil if you have it.”

“Sure, hold on.  Nina, can you get the coffee?”

That was her name.  Nina.  I remembered meeting her at the bar, across the table.  I had been joking with her almost instantly.  And she liked Will, too.  She laughed easily.  She had been drunk but not too drunk, just the right amount.  She stood silently and moved to the coffee machine, looking down at the ground, and it struck me that this morning she was more sober than I had been in months.  I left the kitchen and sat on the couch in the living room, which contained warm, cozy furniture and a soft, friendly rug that under the intense brightness of the winter morning were only artifacts from a museum of a halcyon past.

“Here,” Carla said as she returned and handed me the advil.  “Do you need water?”

“No, I’m okay.”  I swallowed the two pills.  Nina came and handed me the coffee without speaking and sat in the armchair.  

“So you remember leaving the bar.  You remember everything that happened in the bar?”

I took a sip of the coffee.  Like the furniture, it comforted me with its warmth but it was black and bitter and tasted of reality.  “I think so, let me think.”  I took another sip.  “So I met you there a little after 10 o’clock, I came in – wait, where’s Will?  When did I lose him?”

She exchanged a look with Nina.  I didn’t like these exchanges.  “I’ll tell you, I promise, just go from where you started.  You came in with Will.”

“Right, okay, yeah I came in with Will.  I came in and we found you guys sitting at a table and we joined you.  And we met Nina and I introduced y’all to him.”  I looked over at Nina, but she looked down into her coffee.  “So then we started talking and drinking.”

“Do you remember what we were drinking?”

“I was on beer.  I ordered two pretty quickly.  And you guys were on sangria, right?”

“Yeah.  And Will?”

“Will always drinks rum and coke.  That’s what he got, right?”

“Right.”  I took another sip of coffee and in my brain set the night’s beginning aside.  It was slightly fuzzy, but generally organized and made sense.  I noticed for the first time the ticking of a clock on the wall.  I realized I had no idea what time it was, but it felt earlier than I’d usually be awake.  My instinct was correct; it was 7:54.

“Okay, so we were drinking, then what?” Carla asked me.

“Right, we were drinking.  And then… your friend came in and she saw you, she was a girl with her boyfriend.”

“Right,” she gulped.  “That was Veronica.  And her boyfriend Dante.”

“Veronica.”  Her face came back to me.  She was beautiful.  And I remember thinking that I had never met a Veronica before.  And I remembered feeling that I instantly preferred her to Carla, and it brought shame and guilt, but I didn’t say anything about that.  “She came over and said hi and she introduced her boyfriend and you asked if they wanted to join us.  And they did, they asked the guys at the table next to us for chairs.”

“Yep, that’s all right.”  

“And then we started taking shots, right?  Wait, why did we do that?”

“Veronica asked if anyone wanted to do a shot, and you and Will said yes.”

“Did you guys do shots?”  I looked to Nina.  She met my gaze and shook her head.

“We didn’t, we had already had a lot of sangria,” Carla answered.  I felt my head shoot sharp bolts of pain for every shot I had taken.  How many had it been?  Maybe five.  I remember thinking Boy, it’s been a long time since I’ve taken four shots.

“We did a lot, didn’t we?” I asked the girls.  Carla nodded.  “We got really drunk.”  She nodded again.  “So then what?”

“You don’t remember anything else?”

“Wait, no.  Hold on.”  I thought back.  Veronica.  I put her face back together again, but she was crying and looking at me from behind glass.  I thought perhaps I’d dreamed that image.  Even then, she was the most beautiful girl I’d seen in a long time.  Possibly ever.  And she was drunk and glowing and very bubbly and friendly.  And then…  “Veronica.  She was flirting with me.  A lot.  You guys saw that, right?  She touched my hair at one point, and she was leaning in and laughing at everything I was saying and she was really chatty.  She was, right?”

“You were flirting with her,” Nina snapped, bringing both mine and Carla’s eyes toward her sharply as if pulled by a string.

“She was flirting with me a lot, though.  I remember thinking how strange it was, because her boyfriend was sitting right there.  I wouldn’t have been flirting with her if she wasn’t provoking it.  Because…” I trailed off.  “Because I was on a date with you,” I said to Carla.  She nodded and took a drink from her coffee.  “I’m sorry,” I said, meaning it.  When was the last time I was a huge asshole to a girl?  A while.  Six months maybe.  “I got really drunk I guess, and she was-”

“It’s fine, just keep going,” Carla said.  

“Really, I mean I still think you’re-”

“Seriously, don’t worry about it, just, just keep up with what you remember.”

I swallowed hard.  I wanted my headache to be gone.  I wanted this conversation to take place somewhere else.  No, I wanted it not to be taking place at all.  I wanted to be far away, waking up in a cabin in the mountains in Tennessee and drinking coffee with sweet French vanilla creamer and reading the newspaper and watching the sun arc up over the ridge and pour light into the dark crevices of the foothills.  With Veronica.  Oh come on, get back to it man.

“Okay, so, yeah, we were flirting.  And I guess you guys were talking to Will a bunch.  And that boyfriend, what was his name?”

“Dante.”

“Right, he was quiet, he wasn’t drinking.”

“He was driving,” Nina answered again.  I looked to her and she looked like she was about to cry again, but she just sniffed and sipped her coffee.

“Yeah, and then, well,” and then it came to me.  I looked to the girls for help but they gave me nothing but wearied stares.  “And then she said…”

*****

“So who’s up for another shot?”  She wants another shot?  She’s ridiculous.  When’s the last time I saw a girl that small take five shots?  Four shots.  No, this makes five.  Though she is glowing like a Christmas tree.  Why is that the simile I always end up on?

“I’m in,” Will says.  He’s at the point in his night where each successive drink does nothing but bring him closer to dreamless sleep.  I’ve seen him here so many times… is this fun for him?  Not remembering anything?  I guess he’s still him when he’s blackout.  He’s having fun in the moment.  That’s what I should be doing.  He’s always been good at getting me to enjoy myself.

“JV, how about you?” Veronica asks me.  She’s smiling and leaning all over the table looking at me.  Fuck she totally is flirting, isn’t she.  Well maybe it’s all in my head.  Her boyfriend… he’s a scary motherfucker.  It’s always these big silent brooding guys with small peppy girls like her.  She should be with me.  She thinks he’s fun?  She thinks he’s a good boyfriend?  If anything was right in the world we’d be dating.  Hopefully in the alternative universe.

“I’m in,” I say.  I do not need this shot.  Fuck it, tonight’s been a blast.

“Carla, Nina, you guys wanna join for this last one?” Veronica asks.  

“Still good on sangria,” Nina says.  “I don’t know how you can do so many, if I take two I’m gone.”

“It’s an acquired skill I suppose.  Being in a sorority helped.”  Of course she was in a sorority.  She throws her hand up and flags our waiter.  “Helloooo, Jeff!”

“Helloooo, and what can I get ya?” he asks, smiling.  I think he likes our table.  We’re drunk but not obnoxious.  Our most obnoxious member is Veronica and she’s cute and funny so we’re fine.  And he knows he’s gonna get a good tip.

“Oh, I don’t know, me and the boys were thinking about another tequila shot.  Or do you suggest something else?”

“Hmmm… well you’ve got the tequila and lime routine down by now.  If you wanted to switch it up, well personally I always like Jaeger.”

“Jeff likes Jaeger.  Well then, Jaeger it is.  Three shots of Jaeger, please!”

“You got it, be right back!”  I wonder if there’s any part of him that thinks she should slow down.  I bet he realizes the boyfriend, oh what the fuck is his name, he’s the DD.  And the four of us seem pretty in control.  Yeah, I guess he figures one little hammered girl is safe with five relatively sober friends.

“So wait, Will, continue the story,” Carla says.  And she’s enjoying herself quite a bit.  Tonight ended up being really fun.  We’re gonna hook up, hopefully Will and Nina will hook up, and that makes this date a total home run.  Except for that boyfriend… Dante, that’s his name.  Ugh, I hate when people keep checking their phone.  What’s he gotta keep checking?  Does he have a dealer coming by or something?  I wonder if he smokes.  That’d make him cooler.  I could smoke tonight.  Oh yeah, we totally did smoke already, didn’t we.  Am I still blazed?  Is Will blazed?  I probably am a little.  But man I’m drunk.  

“Okay, so where was I?  Oh right, so me and JV, we’re just I don’t know, feeling goofy, and we’re on the floor, I guess it’d been a long day-”

“Wait-” Veronica interrupts.  “Is this going where I think it is?”

“If you mean like in a homoerotic direction, no,” Will says.  Everyone laughs.

“I was gonna say, maybe you guys are a little too close of friends,” Nina says.

“So we’re on the floor, and I’m just pinning JV, you know he’s a weakling, he can’t fight back.”

“It’s true,” I chime in humbly.  Veronica laughs and slaps my arm.  Physical contact – they always say that’s flirty.

“So he’s just laughing, just laughing his head off as I pin him, and the next thing I know, he’s laughing so hard he can’t breathe and he just starts puking.”

“Eww you puked!” Veronica exclaims.  I shrug.

“I don’t know what to say, it happened.  Sometimes it just comes out.”  The table laughs.  Even Dante chuckles.  Oh look, here come the shots.

“Three shots of Jaeger, for the madame and gentlemen,” the waiter, Jeff, says.  He’s funny, I like him.  

“Ready?” Veronica asks.  I guess so.  Am I ever ready for a shot?  I guess I always am.  “One, two, three!”  Down the hatch, burns, sucks, bitter, tastes like hell, ah shake it off, when does this go away?  Water feels nice, just a sec it’ll be gone, breathe, it’s gone.  Another shot down.

“Gross,” Veronica says and gulps water.  Will looks calm, like he barely tasted it.  I envy him.

“I’ll be right back.  Bathroom,” I say.

“Don’t fall in!” Veronica calls after me.  She’s cute, she’s fun.  I like having people like her around.  They talk to fill in the silences so you don’t have to.  I can be more chill and cool around her.  That’s nice.  Carla is like me, but maybe I don’t want someone like me.  Oh, there’s me in the mirror.  How do I look tonight?  Pretty typical, not a bad day though.  Hair’s cool.  This is a good shirt.  Too good.  I wear it too much.  But those girls have never seen it.  Yeah, it’s the ‘girls have never seen this shirt’ shirt.  Alright, yeah, pretty much as good as I thought I would look.  Man, Veronica is really flirting with me.  But she’s flirting with the waiter too.  But she keeps touching me!  She’s drunk.  She’s hot though, oh man she’s hot.  Stop thinking about her.  Oh come on, it’s fine, you’ll be hooking up with Carla soon enough anyway.  Wow, I got really fucking hammered tonight.  There is 0% chance I finish.  I did not need that shot.  So then that was the last one.  No more man, you’re just on the crest.  Stay here, don’t fall over.  But maybe that was the over the edge one.  Shit, I hope not.  No, tough it out.  Let’s get back out there.

I walk out of the bathroom and Veronica is right there.  She grabs me and pulls me into the women’s room.  Then we’re kissing.  I know this feeling.  This is always the best.  She’s new, what’s she doing there?  She’s great, she’s warm, wait a minute, we’re kissing?       

“Your boyfriend!”

“Don’t worry don’t worry, he hates me.  I hate him.”

“Wait no, why are you dating?  Fuck why couldn’t you be broken up?  He came with you, he’s here!”

“It’s complicated.”  She’s trying to kiss me and it’s so hard to resist it but I feel like there’s more words that have to get said.

“No, wait hold on, this… you and me we can do this, just, like, get my number, and break up with him and then we can be like this and go on a date and talk and hang out.”

“I can’t break up anytime soon, I have to go to his house for Christmas.”

“Ahh,” and she’s kissing me again and trying to get at my belt.  “No, hold on, why me?  Christ, like, you’re like, so fucking hot, just… no come on come on he’s here and I’m supposed to be on a date with Carla and also I’ll just hate myself tomorrow I know I will.”

“When’s the last time you just let yourself feel the feelings you wanted to feel and didn’t worry about how it would look in the future?”  Did she say that, or did my brain say that?  It makes sense.  I never get to do that.  I want all of her clothes off and I want to be as physically close to her as possible and I want to hear her breathing in my ear.  

“Okay, just, not in here though, it’s too suspicious, we’ve been gone too long.  I’ll go back first and you come in a minute.”

“So where then?”

“I don’t know, uh… have him take you home.  And I’ll come over and meet you later.”

“You promise?”  Her eyes want me to promise and her freckles and her black hair and her cute grey sweater and her eyes are just perfect.  And I’m definitely drunk.  And this is the decision I always hate myself for tomorrow.  But… it’s so good right now.  And she’s so beautiful she’s like…

“I promise really I do I want to fuck you extremely badly but yeah later seriously.  Okay I’m gonna go now.  Later I promise.  And be chill back at the table, stop flirting with me.”

“Oh, is it so obvious?”

“I don’t know, maybe.  Probably.  Okay, see you out there.”  I push through the door of the bathroom.  I wonder how long I’ve been gone.  Four minutes maybe?  Five?  How long does going to the bathroom usually- pain.  Holy shit my head my head what was it why why what is this?”

“What the fuck are you doing with my girlfriend?”  I look up.  It’s him and he’s standing over me and my head is killing, what did he do, slam it into the wall?  What do I – pain.  Did he just kick me?  Oh my stomach!  

“You get your ass the fuck out of the bar right now,” he says.  “Get out or I’ll fucking kill you!”

“I’m gone man, I’m gone just stop I’m gone.”  I scurry to my feet.  Fuck my head is killing me.  I touch it, it’s not wet, no blood.  I duck away from him and limp into the bar and try to look normal.  Shit why do I have to be drunk like this.  I always forget what it feels like, then it comes back and it’s always the same thing and it’s not even that great.  I go to the table.

“Will, hey guys.  Will, we gotta get going.”

“What, why?  You okay?”

“No, I’m not, I’ll explain outside, Will, we gotta get going man.  We gotta get the fuck out of here.  I’m so sorry girls, really, I was having a great time, it’s a family emergency though.  I’m really sorry but we have to get out of here.  Will, come on.”

“Are you serious right now?  What happened man?”  He’s drunk and confused but he’s standing up.  The girls look alarmed.

“Is everything okay?  Is there anything we can do?” Carla asks, concerned.  Fuck my head hurts.  At least my stomach feels okay though.

“No, nothing, it’s a weird thing and it’s happening right now and I can’t explain it and I gotta go but I promise I’ll see you again.”  Will’s up and he’s pulling his coat on.  I grab mine in my hand and I don’t want to take the time to put it on.

“Well, I guess I’ll see you later, sorry about that,” Will says as I pull him toward the door.

“Hope everything’s okay, text me if you need help or anything!” Carla calls as we leave.  

I get through the door, looking back over my shoulder for Dante, but he’s not by the bathrooms anymore and I think that he must be in the women’s single stall bathroom with Veronica.  Veronica!  Wait is he gonna hit her?  Is he gonna get violent?  Wait I gotta tell someone.

“Okay what the hell’s going on man?” Will asks me once we’re outside in the cold.

“Okay, so real quick, I was in the bathroom making out with Veronica and then I left and Dante was outside and he smashed my head in the wall and told me to get the fuck out of there.”

“Oh you asshole, seriously?  Why the fuck did you think that was a good idea?”

“It wasn’t, it still isn’t, but it happened man it happened and now he said he’s gonna kill me.”

“Okay so then we should get out of here, right?”

“Wait though wait, he’s a violent guy, he hurt me and now he’s in the bathroom with her and, jeez man what if he’s hurting her?  We gotta tell Carla.”

“Okay so let’s go tell Carla.”

“But then she’ll know what I did and what if they’re just fighting?  I mean like verbally, like just arguing?”

“She’s gonna find out anyway man let’s just go back and tell her to go check on them.”

Boy I’m drunker than I thought.  The snow on the ground is hazy and shaking, my ideas are far and hard to grasp.  And my head, Jesus Christ everytime I try to focus on something it swings back at me like a pendulum.  “Shit man, I’m too drunk to know what to do here!  What’s the right move here?  What do I do?”

“What if we told the bartender,” he says.  “To check on the girl’s bathroom.  That there might be trouble in there.  He’s a big strong guy he’ll be okay.”

“Yeah, wait that’s perfect.  That’s the idea.  Oh but then Dante will know I told the bartender and he’ll kill me man!”

“He’s gonna kill that girl, man!  Dude we gotta act.  This is like those moments where you see something bad happening and you can’t think, you just gotta act.”  

He’s right, he’s right this is the moment you always read about in the news, how nobody helped.  Fuck why do people as drunk as us have to deal with this?  “Okay I’ll go tell him, hold on.”  I go back into the bar.  I look to Carla’s table.  They look at me confused.  I keep my head down and walk straight to the bar.  It’s crowded.  I’m trying to get the bartender’s attention.  I wanna shout that I don’t have to order a drink, that it’s an emergency, but for some reason I don’t.  Carla is next to me.

“JV, you’re back, what’s wrong?  What can I do?  What’s going on?”

I don’t answer her.  Finally the bartender looks at me.  “Hey, can you send someone to check on the girl’s bathroom?  I think there might be some trouble going on in there.”  He nods silently and heads that way.  I breathe a sigh of relief and look back to Carla.  “I think Dante and Veronica are fighting in there.  And I’m worried he might hurt her.”

“Wait, they’re in there together?  How do you know?  Also, I don’t think he’d do that, he’s a really mellow guy, he’s never hit her.”  

“I know they’re in there, I saw him go in after her, he was really mad.”

“Why?  He seemed fine at the table.”  I’m too drunk for this.  “Seriously, what’s going on here?  What am I missing?  Does this have to do with your emergency?  Where’s Will?”

“He’s outside, he, look, I-” The bartender is walking back from the bathroom.  He comes back to the bar to talk to me.  The anticipation is staggering.  

“There’s no one in there, man.”

“What?  There’s…”  Then Will is next to me and he’s grabbing my shoulder and turning me.

“Dude, they’re in his car.  They’re out there in his car in the parking lot.”  

“What?  How?”

“I don’t know, but they’re there.”

“What are they doing?”

“I don’t know, just sitting and talking from what I can tell.”

“Come on.”  I turn and walk straight outside.  I ignore Carla.  I think she’s following me.  The air is so cold but I don’t feel it because I’m so drunk and because I’m on a mission.  Wait man this is all going too fast.  How long has it been since I got out of the bathroom?  I should just stop and think about all this.  Are any of these decisions smart?  Will agreed with me.  But he’s drunker than I am.  I shouldn’t be acting this fast.  Would I do any of this sober?  Yeah but that’s the thing- you gotta act fast in situations like these.  People stop and think and ponder and then boom the girl gets assaulted or hit or killed and no one acted.  And then you read about it and you think ‘oh if I was there I would have acted!’  But hindsight’s 20/20.  No, you gotta ride this thing out.  You’ve got twenty-three years of living experience, you’ll know what to do.  Your instincts are right, even if you’re hammered.  Fuck I wish my head didn’t hurt so much though.

There’s the car, there they are sitting in it.  They look like they’re just talking, right?  Or is he shouting?  Oh yeah, she’s crying.  For sure, he’s shouting.  He’s shouting did he hit her already?  

“JV!”  It’s Carla.  “JV, what are you gonna do?”

“They’re in the car.”  I turn to her.  “You can help me.  Go check on them.  What if he’s hitting her?  Carla you gotta go check.”

“Okay, okay, just calm down, hold on.”  She walks away.  Yes, Carla!  She’s not that drunk!  She’s smart she knows these people she knows what to do why didn’t I consult her earlier?  Oh man I suck I’m such an idiot!  Okay Carla’s got it now Carla’s got it.  I watch her knock on the window.  It rolls down.  They’re talking.  Yes, it’s all fine.  I’m fucked with Carla, for sure, but no one is gonna get hurt.  I’m not gonna get in trouble.  Yes, I fucked up this date, yes I did, but that seems fine now.  I’ll take that outcome.

“Hey, Carla’s talking to them?”  It’s Will.  

“Yeah man, she is she is.  It’s gonna be okay.”  I turn to him.  Boy Will’s drunk.  I can see it in his eyes.  They’re like projectors running with no film in them, projecting nothing but a blank white screen.  None of this is being recorded.  Wait, am I like that?  Am I gonna forget this?  No it’s too much it’s too visceral it’s too real.  Oh man why did we smoke before we came out?  I’m faded, boy am I faded.

Here comes Carla.  She’s walking back.  She’s gonna be pissed at me, that’s fine, me and Will are just gonna go back to his place, eat some chips and queso, smoke a bowl and talk about this and laugh and it’s gonna be fine tomorrow.  It’s gonna be fine.

“Guys, guys, I think we need to call the police or something, you were right he hit her she’s bleeding.”  She looks very serious and sober and alert all of a sudden.

“Oh no, no are you serious?  Carla are you serious?”

“Yes I’m serious, I’m gonna go tell the bartender to call the police.  Stay here come tell me if he tries to leave.”   She’s gone in a flash.  And then he’s coming toward me.  He’s coming from the car.

“You fucking piece of shit, I’m gonna wreck you!”  Run.  I start to run.  Run man, run.  I’m running.  I look back.  He’s chasing me.  I’m faster than him but I’m drunk and he’s not.  Run where?  Into the bar?  What happens there?  He’s a bad guy he’s gonna go to prison wait am I gonna get fucking killed by this raging guy right now?  Does he have a weapon?  He doesn’t need one he’s huge.  I loop around the other side of his car.  Veronica is inside with her face against the glass staring at me.  She’s got tears and her face is red and I can see the blood coming from her nose and- wait did the car door just shut?  I stop.

“What the fuck- get out of my car!” Dante yells.  Who?  Who got in the car?  I look through the windshield.  Will.  Will got in the car.  “Get Carla, get help, I’ll get her out of here!”  Will shouts from the window as it rolls up.  Get Carla?  Wait Carla’s in the bar calling the cops, yes, get Carla.  Yes, Will, get her out of here.  Get her out of here now!  Will saved her, we all saved her!  Will the hero, yes, get her out of here!

The car starts to back up.  Dante is slamming on the side of it.  “Get out of my car!  Veronica, get out of the car!  What the fuck are you doing, get out of the car!”  But the car is backed up and a guy can’t stop a machine, not even a big guy like him, and the car is pulling out onto the street.  Dante is chasing it.  Now, get into the bar, get to Carla, get people who know what to do, oh god why do I have to be this fucking drunk I am way too drunk to deal with this, and wait is this all my fault?  No he’s a bad guy, you did the right thing, wait but I didn’t do anything at all!  Yes you did you helped.  I caused it though.  Okay just sort that out later get back in the bar man you’ve got moves to make.

*****

“Will!  He took Veronica away.  And Dante!  Wait what happened, shouldn’t I tell the police?  Why aren’t they here?”

Nina was crying and had been for awhile.  Carla was fighting back tears but I saw them start to roll slowly, and they reminded me of Veronica’s from the car.  “Somebody tell me what happened!  Where is Will?  Where are those guys?”

“So that’s it then, that’s all you can remember?” Carla asked, sniffling.

“I… I don’t know, for now, yeah.  Wait just tell me, what happened where is everyone?  Shouldn’t I be at the police?”

“You already talked with the police.”  Carla said.  “You’re done with them for now, you talked to them for awhile but you were really drunk, you weren’t making much sense.  They’re gonna be back later but they let you come home with us to sleep.”  

“Oh shit the police, am I in trouble?  What did I do?  And where’s Will?  Is Veronica okay?  Where’s Dante?”

They looked at each other for a long time, and I knew that it would be bad news.  How bad, it was hard to say.  I was in completely uncharted territory, and anything seemed plausible.  But there was a thickness in the air, some calm before the storm, that would forever be severed as soon as they told me what happened.  I didn’t want it to come.  I wanted to live there, in that cozy living room, with that bright winter morning sun streaming through the window, blinding me.  It was so warm, it made me feel like a kid again.  No responsibilities, no loss of memory, no hangovers, no drunken mistakes.  No texts that couldn’t be unsent, no words that couldn’t be unsaid, no girls that couldn’t be unkissed.  That world was so far away, yet in the warmth of the winter sunlight, I could grasp it, feel it, understand it again.  And I wanted time to freeze right there so that the moment would never be smashed into a million pieces.  And then it was.

“Will swerved into another car on the road.  They were going fifty.  Everyone died.”  

And my heart sank.  It sank so low and so far, to a familiar resting place at the pitch black bottom of the ocean.  The same place it went when I realized I forgot that I had an exam or when my parents caught me drinking.  Then I thought about the words Carla had just spoken and it sank to a place I’d never seen it go.  Then I thought about the night and the words and the fact that Will was dead and it sank to a place where I knew I’d never get it back.  And my role.  And what I did.  And the whole chain of events.  I was drunk and I kissed a girl and then Will and her were dead.  A beautiful girl and her parents got a call sometime in the previous five or six hours that she was dead and they would have to put her in the fucking ground.  And my best friend that I’d know since we were five, who the day before had been texting me about his idea for a restaurant built into tree-houses, the guy I was so excited to bring on a double date, he was dead.  His mom making us sandwiches in the kitchen in elementary school.  His sister hugging him at his graduation.  They got a phone call.  Their boy will never get married, have children, live a life.  He died at twenty-three.  And then there’s me.  Me on a couch with a coffee and a headache.

And that day was bright.  The kind of winter morning where the sun is so bright and calcifying and the sky so blue and crisp that you forget that very soon the cold darkness will consume absolutely everything.  

                          

Colors Over Marin County

We stopped on a grassy hilltop because there were some horses there.  They belonged to a stable down at the base of the hill, and were walking about leisurely in the sunshine.  They looked friendly, so I approached a large brown one cautiously and began to pet its side.  It looked at me with its enormous brown eye but otherwise paid me no mind.  I took a few more steps to the summit of the hill and turned around to get a look at the view.  Most of the city was obscured, but I could see much of the north bay and surrounding hills, and had a clear line of sight to the Richmond bridge.  The water sparkled in the afternoon sun and the hills rolled about around it in shades of light yellows and greens.

Jaime was petting the mane of a black horse.  He came up to meet me and we both sat down on the grass, enjoying the view and the warmth of the sun as a light breeze came across from the Pacific, bringing with it the smell of the ocean.

“You remember the first time you ever did cocaine?” he asked, looking up at me.

“Not really.”

“You really don’t?  What were you, real drunk or something?”

“Probably.  I was maybe 17, at a party.  I just really don’t remember.  There are a few times that might’ve been the first time.”

“I remember it,” he said.  It felt like he wanted to talk about it so I didn’t say anything and looked out toward the city.  “I was at a party, at a co-op.  It was after the party was dying down.  There had been this band there, and the cops shut them down and I was upstairs in some guy’s bedroom with maybe five or six other people.  And this real ratchet looking girl that I thought looked like she didn’t belong there just said ‘anyone want some coke?’  Just like that, just like in a movie.  ‘Anyone want some coke?'”

“So how was it?” I asked.

“I just got really anxious.  They had me spread it on my gums with my finger.  It was so much more bitter than I thought it’d be.  And I just got really anxious, that’s all I remember.  They always say you never really feel it the first time, probably because they don’t let you do much.”

I nodded.  Jaime laid back in the grass and shielded his eyes from the sun.  

“It’s funny that you don’t remember,” he started up again.  “First times like that are these big columns in my memory.  Like my whole history and memories are this long hallway stretching out behind me, and its held up by these Greek looking columns, and first times like that are definitely a column.  Part of the framework of my memories.”

I sat back on my hands and looked across at the roofs of the houses popping up here and there within the hills of Marin County.  They were gorgeous homes.  We had seen many of them walking up the hill.  I thought about who lived in them.  Wealthy white people, with tons of money that itself made them even more money by being invested in killer hedge funds by smart twenty-five year-olds in New York.  They had stock options.  They were involved with tech firms in the city.  Their houses were gorgeous.

“You think the people up here do drugs?” Jaime asked me, sitting up.  “I mean they can for sure afford to.”

“Probably depends on how depressed they are,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“If they’re depressed they probably do.  If they’re happy and their kids are out of trouble, then probably not.”

“What kinds do you think they do?”

“Prescription pills.  Opiates.  Maybe cocaine.  I bet they all smoke a lot of weed.”

“Weed doesn’t count.”

“Yeah, I guess not,” I said.  Looking down, Jaime reached into the pocket of his faded, ripped blue jeans and pulled out a knife.  The sun struck its sleek metal blade.  It was a beautiful knife.  It was the most beautiful thing Jaime owned.  He took great care of it, polishing the blade while leaning back in his chair at his cheap little dorm room desk.  I stared at him and he stared at the blade.  Then he took it to his left wrist and drew a nice, thin line vertically from his hand to the center of his forearm.  The blood began to rush out in a stream onto the grass.  The brown horse I had been petting gazed at us from behind its enormous brown eye.  It wasn’t thinking anything.

“Why’d you do that,” I said.

“I don’t know.  I wanted to see what it would look like.  I wanted to color up this county.  It’s all just the same color.  I wanted to color it up a little bit.”

“Does it hurt?” I asked him.

“No.”

I started to stand but he spoke again.  “It would be a great way to go.  It doesn’t hurt at all.”  Then he took the blade in his right hand and brought it to his left wrist.

*****

The ER was depressing.  Everyone sitting around me looked poor and sad.  There were old homeless guys with food and dirt in their beards.  There were overweight mothers with babies and toddlers in their arms, wrapped up in blankets.  Little kids sat around trying to sleep in the uncomfortable metal chairs, looking bored and tired while their parents stared at the ground with emptiness in their eyes.  I wondered what I looked like.  I was in a dirty flannel shirt covered in blood, and my hair was greasy and messy.  I was white though, so I probably stood out.

My cell phone was dead.  I had brought a book when we went hiking, a nonfiction about Yemen in the 1930s, but after reading one page of it I realized that it was the worst thing you could possibly try reading under the cheap florescent lights of an ER and put it down.  So I just stared at nurses hurrying about in their scrubs and watched people in bad shape come in and complain and sit for awhile and thought about how tired I was.  I kept picturing my bed, and how nice it would feel to sleep in it.

“Are you with Mr. Vazquez?” a nurse asked me, her head popping up from a clipboard.  She was black and in her early thirties and had a nice soft, patient voice.  “Mr… Gilberto Vazquez?”

“Jaime Vazquez.  I’m with Jaime Vazquez.”

“Oh, right.  Wrong Vazquez.  Yours is a stab wound?  Self-inflicted?” she asked.

“That’s right.”

“Great,” she said and flipped some papers in her clipboard.  “Will you come with me?”

We walked through the doors of the waiting room to a little table in a hallway and sat down.  She had me sign a couple of papers.  “Now, we’re gonna keep him for a day or two for observation.  We’ll have him speak with a counselor as well.”

“Of course.”  That would mean he’d miss our physics exam.  We had an exam the next day.  I had an exam the next day.  

“Can we put you down as a primary contact?”

“Yes.”

“Great.  He won’t give us any info on his parents.  Do you know them?”

“Not really.  I know they live in LA, and that he’s not that close with them.”

“Well, since he’s over 18, it isn’t mandatory that we contact them.  Although another family member would be good to have.  Do you know if he has any siblings, cousins, someone he’s close to?”

“No.”

“Alright then.  Now just a couple of quick questions.  Has Mr. Vazquez tried hurting himself before?”

“Not that I know of.”

“And has he experienced anything traumatic recently?”

“Yeah.  His ex-roommate died last week.”

“His ex-roommate?”

“Mhm.  From last year.”

“How did he die?”

“Heroin overdose.”  She nodded and scribbled on the clipboard.

“Were they close?”

“I guess so.  Yeah, they were.  He didn’t come back to school this year, though.  The roommate.”

“I see.”  She finished writing.  “Okay, thank you very much for that.  I’m gonna have to ask you a few more questions before you leave, so don’t run off, but before that would you like to see him?”

“Sure.”  She brought me into a big room with lots of curtains drawn to form little makeshift rooms, where people bled and cried and tried to overcome drug withdrawal.  Within one of them was Jaime.  I went inside the curtain and he was sitting upright, staring straight ahead in a clean hospital smock.  Both his wrists and forearms were wrapped in white bandages.

“Hey,” I said.

“Yo.”  I took a seat in the chair next to the bed.  He kept staring while I tried to think of something to say.

“You aren’t gonna tell your folks?”

“Nah.  It would just do more harm than good.”

“Gotcha.”  We sat in silence.  

“Thanks for everything,” he said finally.

“No problem.”

“Can I ask you one more favor?” he turned to look at me.  He looked the same as always.  Short guy with big brown eyes that always looked kinda sad. Red hair, red beard.

“Go for it.”

“Can you grab my knife for me?  I left it back there.  I wouldn’t ask, except that it was my grandpa’s, and I kinda wanna keep it to try and give it to my grandson someday.  If I ever have a grandson.  Also I know what you’re thinking.  And if I was gonna do it again, I’d certainly be able to get my hands on another knife.”

“I’ll grab it,” I said.

“Thanks.”

“I guess you’re gonna miss the physics exam.”

“Yeah.  Will you tell Dr. Saunders something for me?”

“Yup.  I’ll tell her you’re in the hospital for an accident.”

“Perfect.  Thanks.”  He let out a big sigh.  “Are you gonna ask me about why I did it then and there and all?”

“I wasn’t planning on it.”

He smiled.  “You’re a good friend,” he said.  “A lot better of a friend than I am.”

“Well I’m trying really hard,” I said.

“Do you think I have severe depression?”

“Yeah.”

“What should I do?”

I stretched and thought about it.  But his life was too far away from mine.  Once upon a time, during those first few weeks of freshman year, they weren’t so far apart.  “If I knew the answer to that I’d probably be doing something important.”

“And instead we’re failing physics.”

You’re failing physics,” I said and smiled.

“Nah.  I always end up with a C-.”  He smiled too.  That’s all I was really waiting for.  We were silent again.  I wanted to go home, and I felt like he didn’t want me there anymore, so I said I’d see him tomorrow and left.

*****

When I went back to the hill it was practically sunset.  I would’ve gone earlier but I had to take that physics exam.  Dr. Saunders was very nice; she told me to tell Jaime not to worry about anything, and that she’d meet with him when he got back.  

I parked in the same spot as the day before and began up the hill.  As I walked up, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach and realized that I really didn’t want to be there again, so I started to run.  

The knife was easy to find.  I remembered exactly where we were sitting.  The horses were out, too.  The big brown one was right up by the knife.  I grabbed it from the ground and saw that its blade was remarkably clean.  I looked down in the grass at the blood there, and saw what Jaime was talking about.  It was so colorful.  Every color: blue, green, red, yellow, orange, purple.  Colors that didn’t have names, and some I had never seen before.  The colors shone deeply and vividly and glistened in the light of the setting sun.  They traced a path back down the hill where I had carried Jaime.  I smiled hugely and bent down to look better at how wonderful and warm the colors were.  I thought that it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.  The horse looked at me with its gigantic brown eye.  Then it shit in the grass right where it stood and walked away.

We Were No One

“This is the tunnel,” he said.

“Tunnel?”

“The one where on one side it was dark and grey and rainy, and then we came out and it was sunny and beautiful.  Remember?”

“Oh yeah, I think I remember,” I answered.  “Maybe.”

“You’ll recognize it when we come out the other side, you’ll see,” he said and drummed on the steering wheel to whatever song he had playing.  I couldn’t remember the name of the band.

But when we came out of the other side, it was still grey.  Still overcast, still rainy, still looking like some ominous harbinger was creeping in on us from all sides.  “Okay, well I guess it didn’t get sunny,” he said.  “But you’ll start to recognize things.  We’ll be off the highway soon and onto the smaller road that goes into the city proper.”  The landscape outside hadn’t changed.  Strings of mountains lined two horizons, covered in dense evergreen forests.  At their bases, the land opened up into fields of wheat, a grassland filtered through sepia tone.

“This land hasn’t changed for hundreds of years,” he mused while ramping up to 120 km/hr to pass a car on the right.  “The cities, and the towns, they have.  Houses and things.  But not the farmland or the mountains.  I guess there are some things that never change.  I hope there are, anyway.”

“There’s nothing like that in Tokyo,” I said.  “Even the neighborhoods that were built twenty years ago are being torn down and rebuilt now.  There are almost no sections of the city that still look like they did during the Edo era.”

“I mean I’m all for culture changing, and our geography and cities reflecting that,” he said.  “But I guess if you’re a city planner or something, you gotta be able to recognize when things should stay the same.  When they’re perfect as they are, at least for a little while longer.”

I nodded silently and pressed my face against the glass.  A version of me four years ago had done the same exact thing, I was sure, but I only share certain memories with her.  This particular section of passing Hokkaido landscape was not one of them.

We got stuck in traffic coming into Asahikawa, and he was quick to remind me that the same thing had happened last time.  “I don’t understand who all these people are,” he said as we sat through the same red light for a fourth cycle.  “I mean I’m not in any kind of hurry or anything, but who’s driving into this city?  Who lives up here anyway?  Where are they coming from?”

“Maybe they’re just like us,” I said.  “People on vacation.  From Sapporo.”

“Probably.  But, of course, no one is like us.”  He smiled and leaned over to kiss me, and I kissed him back.  “We’re different from everybody.”  I smiled and nodded.  “You know that we are, right?”

“Yeah.  I know we are.”

“You’re sure?  We were then and we still are.”  I nodded again and he finally looked away, satisfied.  We were then and we still are.

We finally got through the light and turned into the hotel.  I was expecting the same valet driver as before to take our car.  I felt like I could pick him out if I saw him.  But of course the driver was new.  A young man, younger than the previous valet by at least thirty years.  He was extremely polite with us, punctuating every sentence with a pearly white smile.  I wondered what had happened in those four years to the previous valet.  It was possible that he had retired.  Or this could be his day off.  Maybe he had switched jobs within the hotel.  Or moved to a new city.  If he had kids, they would be about our age.  He may have moved closer to them.  They were more than likely in Sapporo or Tokyo.  People our age never stuck around the smaller cities.

We checked in and they gave us a room on the 11th floor, just like we’d had before.  “Same floor,” he said to me as we wheeled our bags into the elevator.  He was clutching the two extra pillows he’d requested from the front desk.  “Remember?  I wonder if it’s even the same room.”  It wasn’t the same room.  It was a room on the other end of the hall.  But it was an exact reflection of the previous room.  We put our bags down, he opened the curtain, I went to the bathroom.  When I came back he was on his computer on the bed.  “Come here,” he said.

I lied down with him and we kissed and held each other.  “Does it feel good to be back?” he asked me.  

“It’s like we never left,” I said.

“I love you very much.”

“I love you too.”

A while later we put on our robes in preparation for the hotel’s in-house hot spring.  “I have an idea,” he said, tying the sash of his yukata.  “Let’s smoke before we hot spring.  I bet it’ll feel amazing.”  He kneeled before me on the bed, grinning with excitement.  “Can we?” he asked.

“Sure,” I said.  I finished putting on my yukata and sat cross-legged, watching him pull out the materials from an interior pocket of his suitcase and prepare the pipe on the desk.  “It’s gonna feel amazing,” he said.  “Then we’ll be really hungry and we can go get dinner and drinks.”

“Mhm,” I answered, watching him from behind.  I didn’t really understand what he was doing, but eventually he turned and handed the pipe to me.

“I was thinking a while back about how nice it’d be to smoke and then hot spring.  But of course we didn’t the last time we were here.  We didn’t even have any.”

“Out the window?” I asked him, inspecting the pipe.  “Won’t they smell it?”

“I think out the window should be fine,” he said.  “We’re pretty high up.  Plus, no one knows what it smells like here.”

“I guess that’s true,” I said.  We opened the window, he lit it for me and I inhaled.  I held it as long as I could, like he taught me.  When it became too much, I blew it out in a huff and began coughing violently.

“Damn, big hit?” he asked me.  I was coughing too much to answer, but I nodded emphatically.  “Snap!  You’re gonna be blazed as shit!”  My eyes were watering and I went to the bathroom for some water.  When I came back, he was blowing smoke very slowly out the window.  He didn’t cough anymore.  “You want another?” he asked me.

“I think I’m good,” I said.  He finished it off himself and put the materials back into his suitcase.  He kissed me and it felt like his mouth was melting into mine.  “You baked?” he asked.

“I think so,” I said.  I looked into his eyes and they were the color of raw tuna.

“Well then, should we make a move?”

“Hot springs move.”

We entered the elevator and descended for what felt like ten minutes.  I would have thought we were trapped if it weren’t for the people getting on and off at various floors throughout the long ride down to the basement.  “Okay, meet back in the room at 6:30?” he said before we split into the men’s and women’s bathhouses.  I could only nod.  “Are you gonna be okay?”  He took me by the shoulders and I nodded again, more decisively.  “Can you talk?”

“I can talk,” I said slowly.  “I’ll be fine.  I’ll be back in the room at 6:30.”  He kissed me on the forehead and we parted.  His eyes were frightening.

The bathhouse was a blur.  I remember undressing myself and sitting down in front of a shower.  I turned the water on and let the shower strike me, my head, neck, breasts, while I thought about my teacher from the third grade.  I don’t know how long I sat there before I began to slowly wash myself.  There were four other women in the bathhouse, all older, chatting quietly to one another in the large central pool.  I looked to them nervously before shampooing, before washing my back, before washing my legs.  They took occasional glances at me.  I wondered if they thought I was acting strangely.

After I showered, I walked quickly and carefully to the opposite end of the pool and sat in the corner.  The hot water felt wonderful.  I didn’t want to look at the old women, though, so I faced the wall and let my thoughts drift.  

Just eight hours earlier I had been asleep in my childhood bed in Tokyo.  Just 48 hours earlier I had been in my adult bed in San Francisco.  The bed that we’d bought together from Bed, Bath and Beyond in May of the previous year, just after we’d moved in.  My first bed as a married woman.  In the coming years I’d buy my future children’s first beds, and one day they’d buy their first married beds, shared beds.  What was the difference between a married couple and a couple that shares a bed?  A couple that buys a bed together?  What did the ring mean?  I looked at it on my short, stubby fourth finger and suddenly felt it tighten.  I tried to pull it, but it wouldn’t come off.  I knew that I would lose it if I took it off in the hot spring, so I gave up trying.  But I still felt my finger pulsating underneath its grip.  Pulsating with every heartbeat.

My heartbeat was loud and it was hot.  It was all too hot.  I was sure the old women could hear it.  I looked over at them, and one caught my gaze.  I looked back down quickly.  They knew.  I got out of the pool, dried myself in the locker room, and raced up the stairs to the 11th floor to wait for him to get back.  I didn’t want to take the elevator.  I was afraid I’d never get out if I did.

I waited for years.  He finally came back.  “Did you have a good time?” he asked me.  I nodded and smiled.  “Was it fun being baked?”  I nodded again.  I knew I had to say something.

“The water felt really nice.”

“Yeah, it was amazing.  I was in the zone,” he said.  We dressed ourselves and he played music from his computer.  More bands.  How were there so many bands?  How did he know all their names, their albums, their hometowns?  Wasn’t the music the important thing?  “So we’re gonna go back to the two hour drinks place we went to on that first night, right?” he asked.  I had been staring out the window at the sun setting over the mountains east of the city.

“What?” I asked, coming back.  He was buttoning a blue plaid shirt.  He’d had that shirt for as long as I’d known him.

“We talked about it before, going back to the same place we ate on the first night the last time we were here.  The nine dollar, two hour, all-you-can-drink place with the private booths.”

“Yeah, yeah let’s go there.”  Suddenly I was hungry.  Oh god, I was hungry.  Was I dressed?  I looked down.  I’d put on a navy blue pencil skirt and white blouse.  That meant we could leave soon.  That meant we could leave right now.

“Wanna make one more smoke move before we go?” he asked.  That’s right.  I knew there was something else before we left.

“I’m good,” I said.  “I’m still feeling it.”

“Okay, I’m just gonna have one for the meal.”  He prepared his pipe again and I watched him from the bed.  He changed the music and blew smoke out the window, pausing in between hits to come kiss me.  His mouth tasted like smoke and I felt like brushing my teeth.  Finally, he’d put everything away and laced up his shoes.  They were heeled brown shoes.  He’d had them for as long as I’d known him.  “You ready?” he asked me.  He held out his hand, so of course I had to take it.

It had become twilight, and we walked hand in hand down the shopping street.  It was a Friday night, and other couples were making their way to dinner.  It had rained since we had arrived, and the street was darkly stained with the fading scent of fallen rain.  But the sky was clearing up, and it seemed that the night would be cool but not cold.  A perfect August evening in Hokkaido.  A previous version of myself had walked down the same street on a balmy August night four years earlier.  She was sometimes drunk, sometimes sober, and she shared with me these memories.

He had made a reservation, so although there were groups waiting outside for a table, we were shown to a private, curtained-off booth right away.  The waitress explained what drinks we could have, and showed us the buzzer that would call her in to take our order.  Otherwise the booth was ours.  The table was ours.  For the next two hours, this was our space.  

“Should we start the same way we did last time?” he asked me.

“Sure.  What did we get again?”

“We had a shot of whiskey and then went straight into a glass of Kirin.”

“Sounds good,” I said.  I pressed the buzzer and the waitress came in, and I explained our order.  He had begun poring over the menu.

Just as our shots came, I realized I was sober.  It felt like stepping out of a hot, steamy kitchen onto a Swiss mountaintop.  “Ready?” he asked me.  We raised our shot glasses and clinked them.  “To us.  One year of marriage in, and still twenty-one at heart.  Back in the place where we had the best ten days of our lives.  I’m so happy to be here with you.”  He smiled and it was real, and I smiled back.  I was very happy.  I was twenty-one again.

“To our marriage,” I said.  We took the shots and I grimaced, but didn’t cough.  He grimaced as well.

“Maybe we can’t drink like we’re twenty-one,” he said.  “But let’s find out, huh?”  He took a sip of his Kirin and I did mine.  “I feel really good that we’re here,” he said.  “I’ve been thinking about this for so long, I’ve felt like I couldn’t relax until we were right here, right in this booth again.  Sipping on Kirin.  August in Hokkaido, in Asahikawa.  With you.  And we’re older, but that’s okay.  There’s still so much to look forward to in life.  And in the grand scheme, we’re still plenty young.”

“I know what you mean,” I said.  “I’ve felt so stressed out.  Even the logistics of going to the airports, taking the planes, getting to my house, getting the rental car, checking in.  It’s so nice to finally be able to just enjoy it.”  He took my hand and went back to the menu.

We decided on boiled quail eggs, pork fried rice, salmon and sea urchin over steamed rice, chicken skewers with sweet sauce, curry rice, a spinach-stuffed omelette, enoki mushrooms and edamame.  “Can I order it?” he asked me and finished his Kirin.  I sipped on mine to try and catch up.

“Sure,” I said.  “Do you know how to say everything?”

“I think so.”  He practiced ordering in Japanese.  “How was that?”

“Pretty good,” I answered.  “I understood everything you were saying.”
“But did it sound natural?”

“Well, it kind of sounded like a little kid.”  I laughed and so did he.

“God damnit,” he said.  “Someday we’re gonna have kids, and I’m gonna try and talk to them in Japanese and they’re gonna think I’m stupid cause I sound like a little kid.”  I laughed more.

“Yeah, I have thought about that,” I said.  “But if they’re little kids, they won’t notice.”

“But when they grow up they’re gonna think I’m an idiot,” he said.

“Well won’t they think I’m an idiot in English?”

“Nah, your English is too good.  How about you order the food and I’ll order the drinks.  I think I can handle that much.”  I ordered the food and he ordered the drinks.  We had cocktails.  Then wine.  Then shots.  Then beer.  Then more cocktails.  We gave our twenty-one-year-old selves fair competition.  By the time we left the booth, it had become ours.  I knew the seats, the table, the plates.  That booth had become our cocoon, and once we had shed it we emerged into the night different people.  

We were not married, we were not twenty-five.  We didn’t live together in San Francisco, we didn’t wake up every day at 7 and have sex and shower and drink coffee and go to work and come home and make dinner together and talk about our day and watch a movie and drink beer and fall asleep and repeat.  We were homeless, jobless, ageless autumn leaves, floating on the wind that blew east from the Sea of Okhotsk and carried us out to the end of the world.  We were no one.  That’s who we were.  That’s how we were different.  And then we hadn’t changed.

We stopped into a convenience store and bought cheap alcoholic drinks in cans.  We also bought chips and cookies.  The night sky was clear and humming deep blue and purple and the stars were flecks of other worlds, ones we’d someday visit when we could disconnect from the life we had never intended to build.  We walked hand in hand back to the hotel and dashed across the street.  He deftly leaped over a parking barrier.  I tried to follow but got scared and tripped just before I jumped.  I fell on the pavement and he fell next to me and we laughed as people passed us.  I stood up and straightened my skirt, which had become dirty.  It didn’t matter.  Nothing matters when you’re no one.

We walked as soberly as we could through the hotel lobby, clutching tightly to our purchases, then slipped into the elevator and kissed sloppily.  We got out on the 11th floor and I pressed my hands against the walls to steady myself as I made my way to room 1124.  He fumbled in his wallet for the electronic key card and, after dropping it once, opened the door.  We fell through the doorway and collapsed onto the bed.  He kissed me and held me and stood up and put on music.  More bands.  Our clothes came off.  Our pajamas came on.  

“Should we watch a movie?” he asked me.

“Mhm!” I answered.  I was smiling hugely.  “I just have to go to the bathroom first.”

I peed for two minutes.  The bathroom was blurry, but I was stable.  I was centered.  I felt like I had escaped from prison, and was running naked through the forest.  The trees were blurry, but I wasn’t blurry.  I had nowhere to go but forward, out, away.  And so I ran.

When I came back out, he was opening his suitcase.

“I got an idea,” he told me.  He turned around, shirtless, wearing my shorts.  “Let’s smoke, then watch the movie and drink our drinks.”

“Again?” I asked him.  “I might be too drunk.”

“Oh come on, I think we’re okay,” he said.  “It’s our first night, why not go a little crazy, you know?  We smoked, we drank, we ate, let’s keep drinking and smoking and eating!  Who cares?  We worked so hard for this trip.  Let’s fucking live it.”  

I resigned myself to fucking living it and he lit the pipe for me.  I held it as long as I could, like he taught me, then blew it all out the window and began to cough violently.  He took a hit and held it, then let out the smoke slowly and evenly.  He didn’t cough anymore.  I fell on the bed and the room was spinning.  He fell next to me and kissed me, but I was fading away.  He said something about the movie, but I couldn’t keep my eyes open.  I wasn’t hungry and I wasn’t thirsty and I couldn’t stay awake.  I needed to get out.  I needed to go home.

It was still dark when I woke up.  I crawled over him in the bed and felt my way to the bathroom, where I drank three glasses of water.  Then I searched in the dark for my cell phone to see what time it was.

I found it under my wallet.  It was 4:23 AM.  I sat on the edge of the bed and looked at my husband, sleeping on his side, his face buried into the pillow, which was on top of his computer.  Had we watched a movie?  Maybe we had started something.  Something animated, in English.  But that might have been another time.  A shared memory with a version of me four years younger.  A version of me that wasn’t married, that came home happy and actually watched a movie, that didn’t fall asleep.

I flipped through my wallet and a card fell down to the ground.  I picked it up and read it in the light of my cell phone.  Kyoko Takai-Goodson.  Born July 1st, 1990.  Resides at 44 Museum Way, San Francisco, California.  Five feet, four inches tall.  One hundred and twelve pounds.  Eye color: brown.  

This was who I was.  Takai-Goodson was my last name.  It came last.  I was born one-thousand, nine-hundred ninety years after Jesus Christ was born.  There was a number on my house.  I lived in California, America.  My height was measured in feet and inches.  My weight in pounds.  My eyes were not beautiful, not sad, not stoic, not mysterious and not naive, but brown.  And he was my husband.  

We weren’t no one, we weren’t nowhere.  Not anymore.   

Self-Portrait

Her name will be seared into my mind until I die.  Kavitha Patel.  She had pink highlights in her hair and she smoked American Spirits and she was an art student.  I met her on September the 12th.  It was my 19th birthday.

“You must be the roommate,” was the first thing she said to me.  “I’ve heard a lot about you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said I’ve heard a lot about you.  From my boyfriend.  He says you’re pretty mysterious.”  She was lying on his neatly made bed, black and white plaid shirt unbuttoned over a black cami, with white shorts.  Her brown gladiators were tossed haphazardly in the middle of the floor, one toppled over.  I was standing at the doorway, having just come back from an exam.

She hopped off the bed and stood before me.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.  I should introduce myself.  I’m Kavitha.”  I introduced myself and we shook hands.  “He didn’t ever mention me?”

“Not that I can recall.  We’re both somewhat terse conversationalists.”

“Hmm, I guess that’s why he thinks you’re so mysterious.”  She jumped up and sat back on the edge of his bed.  “So tell me, are you mysterious?”  She tilted her head, her pink hair falling to one side, and I thought then that she looked very beautiful.

“Well, not to myself.”

“That would be pretty impressive.”  She laughed and bit her lip.

“Sorry.  Maybe I am, but not purposefully so.  I just don’t have a lot to say most of the time.”

“‘Don’t speak unless you can improve the conversation.’  Isn’t that the quote?  Who said that?” She asked the room.  I shrugged and took a seat in my desk chair, turning it to face her at an angle.  Her face was sharp and angular, her build slender with decent height.  Her toenails were painted hot pink, matching her hair.  She folded her legs up under her and placed her face in her hands.  All of her motions were casual but blocky, like they were discrete actions rather than flowing motions.  “Well, then, deshroud the mystery.  Tell me something about yourself.”

“Something interesting?”

“Anything you want.”

I thought about it in silence, but it was alright.  She kept looking at me, focusing as if to not miss the words that came from my lips.  “Well, today’s my birthday.”

“For real?”

“For real.”

“How old are you?”

“Nineteen.”

“Well then, congratulations.”  It felt weird hearing someone congratulate me on turning nineteen.  It wasn’t any kind of feat.  But she didn’t say it sarcastically.

“Thanks.”
“Are you gonna celebrate?  Should we throw a party?”

“Probably not.  My parents called me, and I got some texts from a couple of friends.  I might buy myself a movie or a new record or something.”

She stared at me vacantly, then shook her head.  “That might be the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”  I thought back on my words.  They were depressing.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.  But I can’t think of anyone I would celebrate with.”

“Kind of a loner.”

“Exactly.”

“Well what about me?”  I looked back up at her and she met my gaze with bright, enthusiastic reddish-brown eyes.

“You mean you and your boyfriend?”

“He’s gone.  He went home, won’t be back till Sunday.  See, he left you a little note.”  I looked to where she pointed at my desk.  Sure enough there was a post-it note detailing exactly what Kavitha had just told me, written in my roommate’s blocky, all-caps handwriting.  “He ran out to catch a train.  I had dozed off so he let me sleep.  But I was about to leave right before you came in.”  I nodded.  I hadn’t had time to wonder what she was doing in our room alone.  “So how about it, wanna celebrate with me?”

“Like go out for a drink or something like that?”

“Something like that.”

*****

Something like that turned out to be nothing like that at all.  I followed her out of the dorm and across the street, where her dirty, 90’s-era dark red Nissan was parked.  She got in silently and I followed suit without asking questions.  The backseat was cluttered with receipts, bags, empty bottles.  They mixed well with the stained beige upholstery.  There were two huge books of CDs on the floor at my feet and I began to paw through them.

She pulled out a cigarette.  “Is it cool if I smoke?  I’ll keep the windows down.”  I wasn’t about to tell her what she could or couldn’t do in her own car, so I said I didn’t mind.  She lit an American Spirit and tossed her wallet on the center console.  There was a translucent plastic panel on the front that revealed her driver’s license.  Kavitha Patel.  612 2nd Street, Burke Idaho.  Born October 25th, 2005.  2005?  I looked up at her and looked down to check it again, but she promptly swept the contents atop the console into the backseat so she could ash her cigarette in the cup holder.

“You can put on whatever you want,” she said, eyeing me as I scanned.  “This car doesn’t have an audio jack so I have to rely on good old CDs.”

“I like CDs,” I said as I looked through her repertoire.  “They remind me of my childhood.  My parents would get a new CD and then it would just stay in the car on repeat for weeks.  And when you start the car up, the CD starts up again right where you left it.  It becomes a part of the car or something.  A part of traveling.  Gives your life some continuity.”

I looked up and found her staring at me, the car engine purring lightly as we sat in park.  “Yeah, you’re right.  They bring back nice memories.  Ipods never bring back memories.”

“Maybe someday they will.”  She pulled out onto the street and I put in Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion.  Her collection was filled with similar avant garde psychedelic and electronic groups.  Exactly what you would expect from someone with pink hair.

“Tell me more about your childhood,” she said as she drove.  The sun was setting and the sky was pink and orange and the clouds were brilliantly colored.

“What do you wanna know?”

“A story.  Or just like an anecdote.  Like about the CDs.”

I nodded and began the process of mentally parsing through my memories in search of a story that would satisfy her.  But parsing was hardly necessary.  There was only one story from my childhood that I thought about with any degree of frequency, but the idea of speaking it out loud was chilling.  Still, it seemed like this was the first real chance I had to tell anyone about it.  

“I’ve never told this one to anyone,” I said to her as a preface.

“Mysterious indeed.”

“Well, you’ll see.”  I cleared my throat and began.  

*****

I lived across the street from where I went to elementary school.  At my school we didn’t go home for lunch, we all ate in the cafeteria.  I always brought lunch, but one day, in third grade, I had forgotten it.  My mom had left it on the table for me, but I forgot to pack it.  I told my teacher that morning, and she said she would let me run home, just before lunch, and grab it as long as I promised I’d come right back.

This was an unbelievable concept for me to grasp, because no one ever got to leave school without their parent or guardian, and usually only when they were sick.  But I was always fairly well-behaved, so she must have trusted me.

Right as the lunch hour was starting, she showed me to the door and left it unlocked, saying to come right back in that way after I had gotten my lunch.  I had no plans to do otherwise; getting to leave the school by myself was a huge privilege, and even my nine-year-old self knew better than to ruin my teacher’s trust and risk getting into trouble with my parents.  I bolted from the door without looking back, knowing she was likely watching out the window as I looked both ways, crossed the street, and cut diagonally across my front yard and down the driveway to the back door, which I knew would be unlocked.

When I entered the house, something felt off.  The house seemed different, somehow.  Like it wasn’t ready for me.  The atmosphere had this feeling of you’re not supposed to be here.  Everything was the same as I left it that morning, of course.  The lunch sat in a brown bag on the table, the TV set was off, the noon sun was streaming through the bay window that faced the backyard.  But walking down the hall, I had this sense that everything was slightly askew.  But if I turned and focused on it it would quickly rearrange and right itself, so as to not ruin the illusion.  It’s taken me years to find the right words to describe that feeling to myself, and I think I’ll never be able to convey it perfectly, but that’s the general idea.  It was unsettling.

I grabbed my lunch off the table, clutching the top of the bag in one hand, and got ready to make my exit.  But then I smelled something strange.  After a few seconds I realized it was smoke.  I began searching for the source, immediately jumping to the conclusion that my house was on fire.  It seemed to be drifting down the stairs from the second floor, so cautiously I ascended.  The smell of smoke got stronger and I knew I had found the right place.  

I reached the second floor landing and looked around, immediately noticing the smoke drifting lazily from the end of a cigarette sitting on table that stood between mine and my sister’s bedroom doors.  The end of it was ashy and tilting precariously over the edge of the table, but it seemed mostly unsmoked.  I walked over and stared at it, not knowing if I should put it out or not.  I didn’t even know how to put out a cigarette.  No one in my house smoked, so we had no ash trays.  

Just as I was figuring that I would get a cup of water and pour it over the cigarette, in order to extinguish it without touching it, a new thought struck me; who’s cigarette was this?  A chill went through my limbs, fingers, stomach.  I took a step back and began to panic.  The cigarette was still burning.  That meant it was recently lit.  Some stranger was in the house.  My immediate reaction was to run down the steps and out the door at top speed.

But there was a mirror behind that table on the wall.  A small, thin mirror in a decorated frame.  I hardly ever looked in it; it was too narrow to see much of your reflection in.  But as I pulled away from the cigarette on the table, my eyes came to the mirror and looking back was someone else.  Well, not someone else; me.  But not third grade me.  A me from the future, an older me.  I knew it was me even though I couldn’t ever picture what I would look like older.  But still of course I knew it was me.  He looked just like me, only older.  Maybe it could have been someone else, but the eyes.  I know my eyes; they don’t change.  They were the same eyes.

He was staring back at me, looking as scared as I was.  It was dark where he was, so I couldn’t see what he was wearing, but his face was illuminated by some light source on his side.  There was another person too, but they were out of the frame of the mirror.  I only saw their arm and shoulder.  He swallowed and looked like he was about to say something, but then I turned and bolted.  My mind couldn’t handle what it was seeing, and I was frightened beyond belief, so I just turned, hit the first step and took off.  I don’t even remember running back to the school.

I got back through my classroom’s door expecting to disrupt my teacher and receive stares from my classmates, but the room was empty.  Everyone was at lunch.  I took a seat at a desk and started to try and calm my breathing.  Only then did I notice that the lunch bag was still clenched in my hand.  I set it down and began organizing my thoughts.

There were three strange things about the house.  First, the uneasy feeling that I shouldn’t be there.  Second, the cigarette on the table.  And third, the reflection of myself.  I had originally planned on telling my teacher about the cigarette and asking her to call the police, but after thinking through it, I wasn’t so sure anymore.  I decided I would let the rest of the day play out and see what happened before saying anything to anyone.  If something strange was truly going on, I figured I’d cross that bridge when I came to it.  But there was some instinct inside me that said let’s just see what happens first.  It’s like I was too scared to bring what I had seen out of me via speech.  I didn’t want to release it to the world.  That would make it real.

I hardly spoke the rest of the school day, and spent the afternoon at a friend’s house for a prescheduled playdate.  When my mom picked me up on the way home from work, she noted that I was strangely quiet and asked if everything was alright.  I told her that it was, anxious to get home.  But when we arrived, my dad had already been home for half an hour.  He had changed into casual clothing, meaning he had gone upstairs, but gave off no impression that anything was amiss.  I ran upstairs to see if the cigarette was still there, but it was gone.  So was the smell of smoke.  I hesitantly looked up into the mirror, but all I saw was myself looking back.  My normal, third grade self, with hollow, scared eyes, the same eyes I had seen earlier that day.   

*****

“So that’s it.  Nothing ever came of what I had seen.  To this day, ten years later, nothing has changed.  And I started thinking about it less and less until at this point I sometimes wonder if I made it all up.  I had to think about it less.  It’s sort of painful to recall.  The anxiety slips right back into my system.”  I sneezed and Kavitha blessed me.

“But when I really go back into it, like I just did, and think through every part, there’s no doubt that it really happened.  These details didn’t come from nowhere.”  I shook my head and let my hands fall in my lap.  “I don’t know.  There’s something about it that has never really left me.  I still feel uneasy talking out loud.  About anything, really.”

She nodded subconsciously and stared straight ahead.  “Huh.  Very spooky,” she said finally.  “But if it’s so hard to think about, what made you tell me the story now?”

“I can’t really say.  It just feels right.  Maybe because I just met you, there’s no pressure or anything to keep up the face of someone you’ve known to be normal.  I guess I don’t care if you think I’m crazy.  Or maybe it’s something in the air.  It just felt right.”

“Very spooky,” she repeated.  “One of those unexplained mysteries everyone seems to encounter at some point.”

“Do you have any?” I asked.

“Plenty.  But you never know when some kind of explanation will come along.  Maybe it could be years.  Or maybe you find out on your deathbed.  Or maybe you never find out.  Who knows?  At least it’s a reason to wake up every day.”  I thought about what she said and waited for her to continue, but she seemed content that she had made her point.

The sun had set, leaving the sky in a fading twilight.  We sat listening to the CD as the car drifted past restaurants, gas stations, inns and houses.  “So you like Animal Collective?” she asked me, lightening her tone as she changed the subject.

“Yeah, I do.  I found them on the internet in middle school.  They’re one of those bands where I can be perfectly content doing nothing else but listening to them.  There’s a lot going on in their music.  You can focus on all the details and it fills your head, or you can sort of drift away and let the colors and images take hold in your mind, but I never feel bored listening to them.  How about you?”

“That’s a really nice description.  My ex got me into them.  He got me into most of those bands.”  She motioned to the CD booklets, whose contents were largely burned CDs, their titles scrawled on the front in sharpie.  “I always just listen to music while driving or painting or something, but I’m not really paying attention.  I don’t think I appreciate it the way you do.”

“You have to be able to take pleasure in things like music when you spend a lot of time by yourself.  So I guess listening deeply to music helps me be alone.”

She looked over at me and then back at the road.  “Do you like being left alone?”

“It’s all I’ve known.  Ever since that day, I’ve been the quiet, solitary kid who was happy with an interesting toy or a book or a map.  I’ve never tried to deviate.  I’m nervous I won’t be able to find my way back.”

“So why did you come out with me?”

I thought about it.  “Well, normally I wouldn’t have accepted a drive with a total stranger.  But there was something comforting about talking with you.  I’ve really enjoyed it.  Even telling the story wasn’t so bad.  Kind of freeing.”

“Because I believe you?”

“Yeah.”

She smiled at me.  “Glad I could help.  No one should be alone on their birthday.”

We pulled off of a major road and wound through the suburbs until the houses gave way to sparse grasslands and foothills.  Kavitha navigated with practiced motions as if on autopilot, then pulled over suddenly in front of a two-story brick building.  The entire journey had taken just over half an hour.  She killed the engine and headlights and we became bathed in silence and waxing moonlight.  Neither of us spoke as I waited for her lead.

She opened the door and got out without a word.  I did the same.  She walked around to my side of the car and leaned back against it, crossing her arms and staring at the building.  The wind had picked up quite a bit and her hair whipped the sides of her face.  I looked at her while she looked ahead.  Beyond her profile were the mountains and the stars.  She looked ethereal.  I loved her.  

“Here we are,” she said.

“Yep.”

“Do you know why we’re here?”

“Maybe.  What building is this, though?”

“It’s my studio.  I’m an art student.”  I nodded and took in the building.  It looked out of place among the southwestern ranch-style houses spread generously apart.  “I know it looks out of place.  It was built for and by artists in the city back in the 70’s as a quiet space closer to nature where they could create.  There’s a nice garden around back.  It became too inconvenient and was abandoned, but I’ve been using it as my own studio since last year.  No one else seems to come in and out.  It’s mysterious and intriguing but alone, hollow and unknown to anyone but me.”  

We stood leaning against the car, staring at the building.  There was no rush.  The wind felt wonderful.  It was about 60 degrees out.  The sun had long since set and night was coming.  I looked back at Kavitha and she looked at me and smiled.  She grabbed my hand and squeezed it reassuringly.  “Are you scared?”

“Of going inside?”

“Yeah.”

“A little bit.”

She gave my hand a pat and started walking toward the building.  “Come on.”

When we reached the door, she put her slender wrist through a whole between two splintered pieces of wood, reached down and turned the handle.  “The lock still works,” she explained.  “I typically lock up when I leave.  Just in case.”  She brought her hand back and opened the door outward, stepping into the darkness inside.  I took one last look at my surroundings and followed her in.  

 “The electricity doesn’t work, but there are some candles and a lantern,” she said.  She used her cell phone’s flashlight to navigate to a table just beside the entrance, then pulled out her lighter and lit a series of candles within an ornamental candelabra.  She picked the candelabra up and used the light to guide her to the far side of the room, where she lit a lantern atop another wooden table.  I followed her path closely as to not trip in the darkness.  

The lantern provided much more light than the candelabra, and cast the room in a flickering orange glow.  The room in which we found ourselves must have covered the majority of the first floor.  The windows were boarded up, moonlight streaming in through the cracks.  The ceiling was high and an old chandelier hung from the center, ominously floating above the dusty wooden floor.  There were a couple of old velvet armchairs facing eachother in the corner.  A velvet sofa, a coffee table and two wooden chairs completed the furniture.  

Scattered on the floor were magazines and newspapers.  Multiple easels were set up in a sort of semicircle, each with a canvas that depicted pictures at differing levels of completion.  I walked over to inspect them.  The first was a charcoal sketch of a boy and a girl sitting on a bench, perhaps waiting for a bus.  The second, an empty apartment at night, with streetlights illuminating the inside through a four-paned window.  It was painted in oil but the details were still fuzzy.  The third was a color blocked landscape of a beach at sunrise, with umbrellas and chairs thrown about as if a storm had just come through.  The fourth and final painting was a portrait of a young girl’s face, perhaps Kavitha’s younger sister, or a younger version of herself.  It was nearly finished.  

“I work on multiple pieces at a time,” Kavitha explained as she lit a cigarette.  She took a drag and exhaled slowly.  “When I get tired of one, I move over to the next one and pick up where I left off.  I can never focus on just one idea.”  I ran my fingers over the dried oil of the portrait.  Or self-portrait.  I didn’t ask.  The girl in the painting was about ten or eleven, South Asian, with the same deep-set reddish brown eyes Kavitha had.  But there was something different about her.  No pink hair, but something in those eyes.  A melancholy pierced through them that I hadn’t seen before in Kavitha’s eyes.  The irises danced in the light of the lantern.  They were alive and haunting.  Suddenly I couldn’t look at the painting anymore.

“We have to go upstairs, right?” I asked.

“I’ll lead the way,” she said.

She took me to the staircase, which was through a doorway in a back hall.  The stairs were creaky and uneven, and the light from the lantern faded from view and left us with only the candelabra.  As we reached the second floor, it began to feel colder.  Or maybe not colder, but certainly different.  It was a feeling I had felt before.  I knew I didn’t belong there.  It was the same unsettling feeling that had so gripped me ten years earlier in my childhood home.

There didn’t seem to be any additional lighting on the second floor.  The candelabra provided a soft yellow circle immediately around us but nothing more, and I couldn’t make out any furniture or shapes in the darkness.  Kavitha put her cigarette down on the edge of a table.  Smoke trailed from the ashy end and disappeared into the blackness above.  She turned to me and I took her and kissed her.

“I feel like I love you,” I said.

“I know you do.  But it’s not real.”

“It feels real.”

“It’s just a trick.  It’s like that painting downstairs.  There’s no real girl there, but looking at the picture makes you feel like you’re looking at someone.  It’s almost indistinguishable, but it’s always only a painting.”

“So who’s pulling this trick on me?”

“No one is.  It’s just something that happens.  A repercussion.  It’ll be okay.”

“But aren’t I different?”

“I guess we’ll find out.”  The candelabra was burning.  The candelabra is burning.

“Why now?  Why tonight?”

“Because this is the turnaround point.  This is the celebration.  Congratulations.”  She pointed behind me and I looked to see the mirror on the wall.  

And my nine-year-old self.  He was scared to death, but suddenly it was no longer my memory.  It was something that was happening in real time.  He was there at the same time I was.  It was all simultaneous.  Everything had been simultaneous all along.  I had always been here with her, waiting for this.  I held my breath and stared back, tried to take in every detail, tried to make it last as long as I could.  But I couldn’t look away from my eyes.  They were frightened and hollow and constantly anxious and would remain that way for ten years and then they would become perfect.  And I tried to tell him that he didn’t have to be scared, that he didn’t have to run and hide inside my eyes for the next ten years, but I was gone before it would come out and suddenly I was looking at my nineteen-year-old self again but now his eyes were different.  They were my eyes.  And they were hungry and they wouldn’t be tricked and they were no longer scared.  And it was very dark here but Kavitha is beside me.

On Emptying

I hurtled through the front door of the library and into the lobby, garnering startled looks from the students inside, but I didn’t care.  I held my stomach and I felt like I was going to throw up.  It was always like that.  I nearly collapsed but I held myself up and made my way to the staircase in the far corner of the library.  I saw a librarian from the corner of my eye look at me wide-eyed and cover her mouth, whispering to one of the other librarians.  I continued on, eyes nearly closed, butterflies doing circles in my heart and my legs buckling beneath me like they could stop working at any moment.  I grabbed the railing of the staircase and began the gargantuan task of yanking myself up, one stair at a time, to the seventh floor.  The library was nine stories tall, but the top two floors were just study rooms; the stacks ended on the seventh floor.  I could’ve taken the elevator, but I knew I would pass out if I did.  I had to keep moving.  I’d always managed to make it, just in time, so I didn’t know what would happen if I didn’t, nor was I eager to find out.

The last of the steps conquered, blood dripping from my nose onto mouth and chin and sweat drenching my chest and arms and legs, I ran, doubled over, through the empty fluorescence of the stacks, weaving this way and that to find the correct section.  I tried to look at the call numbers, but there were tears in my eyes and everything was a blur, so I counted the rows instead.  Four, five, sixth one from the front right corner.  I ran the length of the stack and collapsed at the end, against the wall of the library.  Turning over so I was sitting with my back against the wall, I grabbed at the books on the third shelf up and knocked plenty to the floor.  Sorting through the pile, vomit rising in my mouth, I briefly panicked, thinking I had picked the wrong row.  I turned over the final book, and it was one I recognized.  Yes, it would do.  I opened it up to the middle, leaned over and began to read the words, saying them out loud to myself with whatever voice I had left.  Slowly I started to feel myself fade away.  Then I woke up.

 

We were on the beach and Joseph and Thayer were wrestling.  I set down my book, Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, sat up on the towel, and watched them, smiling and sipping at a can of Miller Lite.  Thayer was in a headlock, with Joseph trying to force his roommate’s well-sized body to the sand.  Everyone around was laughing, including the combatants.

“Do you give up?”

“Never!”

“I’ve never gotten out of one of his headlocks,” Donald said.  “You might as well just quit.”

“But.  I.  Can’t.  Let.  Joseph.  Win!”  With this last word he wrested his head free and made a dive at Joseph’s legs.  The boys went falling to the ground, grappling blindly and trying to establish a dominant position.  I saw that Julia was taking a video with her iPhone, and I smiled and thought about how nice it was to watch two twenty-one year olds play in the sand like they were five all over again.  I had known them only six months, but we had become very close friends in the interim.

“Why don’t you get in on it?” Reagan asked me.

“Me?  Cause I’d fucking die, that’s why.”

“Maybe you could be scrappy.  You have agility.”

“I don’t know how far that’d carry me against these guys.”  I motioned to the wrestlers, who were both over six feet tall and two-hundred pounds.

“True,” Reagan said, and she laughed and we drank from our identical beer cans.  The sun was hot on my face and on my chest, and I had to squint because I forgot sunglasses, but it felt good.  It felt like it was scouring away all the stress, burning the assignments away one by one.  I wanted to live here, in this sunlight.

I fell back on the towel and picked my book up, open to just about the dead center.  I held it over my head and used it to block the sun, waiting for my eyes to adjust from the intense sunlight and focus on the small, seriffed script.  But the warmth was making me sleepy.  I blinked once, twice.  I tried to remember what was going on in the book, but nothing would come to me.  I tried to remember what day it was, but that wouldn’t come, either.  I tried to remember where I was, and that too returned nothing.  The sunlight was scouring away my memories.  It was so warm, and I began to drift.

“Sleepy?” Reagan whispered into my ear.  I didn’t open my eyes.

“Maybe.”

“Me too.”  She put her head on my chest and snuggled up on my side.  I couldn’t remember if we were together or not but I didn’t care.  I set my book down beside me and wrapped my arm around her.  She was warm and there was sand in her wet, blonde hair and she smelled like the ocean and oh God I hugged her so tightly I wanted her to become a part of me.

I opened my eyes and the wrestling match was still going on.  The boys were now further away than they had been.  Much further.  At least thirty yards, when before they had been right in front of me.  Or hadn’t they.  I couldn’t remember.  I closed my eyes and decided I’d ask Reagan.

“Were we always so far away?”

“We’ve always been here,” she answered softly, and without moving.

“That’s not true.  I’ve been much closer to the action.  I was right beside it.”

“But you didn’t join in.”

“Of course not.”

“Don’t you want to be playful?”

“Well sure I do.  But I didn’t want to wrestle.  I was reading.”
“So when was the last time you really horsed around?”

“Well, I’m having a lot of trouble remembering things right now.”

“You were never close to the action and you were never playful with the boys.  We’ve always been here.  I’ve always been here.”

I decided I wouldn’t argue with her and I held her tighter, and she felt smaller and smaller in my arms.

“What are you reading?” she asked me, softer than ever.

The Beautiful and Damned, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.”

“Read it to me.”

I kissed her forehead.  “Anything.”

I reached for my book and pulled it up to block where I knew the sun was, then opened my eyes again.  Reagan was no longer there.  There was no one wrestling.  Nobody was there.  There were beer cans all around me.  They sat perched in the sand, half-drank.  Some were empty.  Some had spilled over.  They leaked their contents into the Earth, where it disappeared.

 

I came back and there was a buzzing coming from the fluorescent lights overhead.  The books lay scattered around me.  I smelled vomit and found it on my shirt and pants.  I stood up, replaced the books, then made my way to the bathroom to wash away the blood and vomit.  I took off my button-up and threw it away, leaving me in just my t-shirt.  I looked hard into the mirror after I had cleaned myself up.  My eyes were empty and there was no feeling anymore.  It was all alright now.

I trotted briskly down the stairs and through the lobby.  The librarians had changed.  Some of the students had, too.  I saw a boy I knew named Thayer.  We had an English class together.

“Hey, how you been?”

“Busy, yourself?”

“Always busy,” he answered.  He smiled at me.  He was rather tall and stocky.  “But this weekend should be fun.  What are you up to tonight?”

“Term paper,” I answered.

“Ouch.  How long?”

“Twenty-five pages.”

“Sounds awful.  Guess you’ll be up all night.”

We said goodbye and he walked away and I left the library and strode back through the quad in the darkness.  It was cold because I had forgotten my coat and because it was December and because now it had become the nighttime.

I would be up all night.  That was alright.  I had always been up.

Nocturne

I did not know that it was raining until I saw the dark spots left behind by fallen droplets on the floor of the balcony.  It was a very fine rain, and I looked out at the darkness through the lights from inside and it was misting and it felt welcome and cool on my face.  I held the balcony’s railing and rocked myself back and forth, looking down as a party of four passed underneath.

“Hey!” a girl shouted to me.

“Hi!”

“You’ve got the tattoo on your side, right?”

“Yes!”

“I’ve always really liked it!”

“Thank you!”  And I waved and she waved back and then continued on, laughing and catching up with her friends.  My hand found its way under my shirt to my side and touched the black- and red-ink-covered skin that had once been so tender and now felt like nothing.  It was nearly two years old.  Perpetually my junior by nineteen years.  At first I had a nearly-memorized explanation of its importance whenever I was questioned.  In time this explanation had been reduced to asking ‘Do you get it?’ and required only an answer of yes or no.  It was an arduous, trying two hours that I often regarded as the most painful experience of my life.  After six months I had forgotten it existed.

“Thompson!”  I came back.

“What?”

“We’re making a move to Dante’s room.”

I turned around and looked back through the open window that partitioned the room from the balcony.  “Now?”

“Yeah.”

“Hold on.  Come out here a second.”  I gestured and Shahbaz ducked down through the small window and joined me.  “Do you have a blunt?” I asked.

“Yeah, we’re gonna smoke at Dante’s.”

“Let’s smoke one now.”

“Aight.”  We leaned over the railing and sent it back and forth while looking across the quad at the light coming from the windows of Jasper Hall, where the freshmen lived.  In one room on the second floor a boy sat typing at a laptop on his desk.  He paused and leaned back, stretching his arms in the air.  Just above him two girls were sitting on a bed painting their nails and talking.  The window was open and we could hear dance music coming from inside.  A third girl entered the room in a tight blue dress and twirled around while the others commented.  Two floors up and two windows to the right a beer pong table was set up and we could see two teams of two boys each shooting and drinking.  It was very much a Friday night.

“Do you remember when we used to pregame with beer pong?”  I was nearing the end of the blunt.

“Yeah.  Freshman year.  Those were fun times.”

“How many would we play?”

“I don’t know.  Two, maybe three games?”

“And it was very casual.”

“Yeah, we called it CBP.  Casual beer pong.”  Shahbaz looked back inside.  “Hey yo, we should get moving.  I think everybody left already.”

“What beer did we normally have?”

“I don’t know, probably just Bud Light.  Why you thinking about it so much?”  We had left the building and were walking across the damp grass through the fine mist of rain.

“Because- can you picture it?  I mean if you had to recreate it, for a movie say, would you be able to?  All the details?  All the dialogue?  The characters, the clothes, the setup of the room?  Can you picture it?”  I looked at Shahbaz and his eyes were closed and we were walking on in silence.  I looked down at my feet and waited for him to say something.

“Yeah, I think I can.  Maybe not every detail, but I think if I was actually setting it up, it’d come back to me, you feel me?  Like if I set up the table and the room, other details would come back, you know?  Like what we’d be talking about and what we’d be wearing.”

I nodded and we marched onward through the darkness.  A group of five or six girls passed us and Shahbaz knew one of them and took up chatting with her.  He introduced me.

“I’m Joanne,” she said.  We shook hands.  “What are y’all up to tonight?”

“We’re headed to Dante’s right now, but after that it’s open ended.  What about y’all, what are you finna get up to?”

“There’s supposed to be a big birthday party at East.”

“Whose birthday?”

“This guy Martin Girardet.  It’s his twenty-first.  Y’all should stop by.”

Once we were out of earshot I said, “I know Martin Girardet.”

“Oh really?  Is he a senior?”

“Yeah.  We had a lab together freshman year.  We used to race to see who could finish first.  And one time I ended up getting a ride with him from off campus and we went to eat together at like three in the morning.  That was all second semester freshman year.”

“Huh.  So he’s your boy?”

“Not at all.  We would chat whenever we saw each other sophomore year, then it progressed to just waving, and now we don’t acknowledge one another in passing.  I couldn’t even tell you what his major is.”

“Damn.  You think it’d be awkward if we went to his party then?”

“No.  Especially not if it’s as big as they said it’d be.”

We got good and faded at Dante’s.  Our very close friends were there.  The kind of friends that require no exchanging of pleasantries.  We laughed at ourselves and there was something very comfortable about knowing each other so intimately and not having to put on any face or say anything cool.  It was suggested we make a move to the birthday party.  No one objected and so we left.  While we walked I wondered if we wouldn’t have had a better time staying where we were, but I knew that some among us wanted to make new friends and encounter old ones.  There was very little time left to make new friends.

The party was a good one and I found myself sunken into the seat at the end of a very comfortable sofa, happily watching the denizens flirt and spill their drinks and squeeze back and forth between each other.  The seat next to me opened up and was quickly reoccupied by Martin Girardet.

“Thompson?”  We patted each other’s backs.

“Happy birthday.”

“Thanks.  Good to see you, have you had a drink?”

“I had a cup of punch.  It was nice.”

“Good, have fun, drink as much as you want.”

“It’s a good party.”

“Thanks man.  I know I should be out talking to people but I needed to take a breather.  I’m supposed to do twenty-one shots tonight.”

“How many are you at?”

“Twelve.”  He smiled and his eyes smiled too and we both laughed because we were so far gone and we knew it.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”
“Sure.”

“Remember when we went out to that Mexican restaurant at like 3:00 AM that one night freshman year?  When your friend gave me a ride home?”

“Oh yeah, I remember that!  Dang, that was a long time ago.  That was a fucking crazy night.”

“Do you remember what you were wearing?”

“Fuck no.”

“What about what we were talking about?  At the restaurant.  I remember we were laughing really hard about something, we kept on the same subject the whole time, but I can’t remember what it was.  Do you?”

He stared at the ground for a few moments, then shook his head.  “Man that was so long ago.  I remember too that it was really funny.  Fuck, I can’t remember.  Sorry I’m so useless.  The twelve shots probably aren’t helping either.”

“It’s no problem.”

Martin’s friends yelled to him from a doorway.  “Do you wanna do this one with me?” he asked.

“Lucky number thirteen?  Hell, why not.”

“Sweet.”  I joined him and it was not such a bad shot because they had gotten him an expensive handle of tequila for the occasion.  I stuck around for number fourteen as well.  Some of the more intimate members of the party joined us, and we laughed and danced and sang.  Shahbaz found us and we smoked a bowl out the window, and then everything became hazy and the world was really very wonderful in the night time, and Martin and I were laughing at Shahbaz and perhaps then we did number fifteen.  And we needed exchange no pleasantries among us because we had all become so very close.

The next day I slept in until past noon.  I finally dragged myself from bed and recapped my evening in the shower while fighting through a hangover.  I was able to walk through everything until Martin’s fifteenth shot, and then I couldn’t remember anything before walking home and falling into my bed.

I missed lunch and so I went to the student center to get a sandwich and a coffee.  I was eating alone at a table with my headphones in when I saw Martin walk by, wearing pajama pants and a big t-shirt and looking like he’d just woke up.  I smiled and waved to him, but he only nodded in my direction and kept walking.  I watched him go by, then returned to my sandwich.

Some freshmen were eating together and laughing at the table next to me.  I knew them only by sight.  They were three boys and a girl.  The boys were all wearing blue jeans, one in a pullover, one in a red sweater and one in a black t-shirt.  The girl had a simple white shirt tucked into a garnet high-waisted skirt and a black scarf and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail.  They were talking about a professor they all had.  Apparently he was a very awkward lecturer, and they each shared stories of his various blunders from throughout the semester and laughed.  I smiled in their direction as I threw away my trash, but they did not acknowledge me.

Then I left to walk home, and as I stepped out onto the grass it began to rain violently.

An Apparition, Courtesy Elizabeth

It was nearly one in the morning when all of Elizabeth’s friends left.  They had been in the hot tub for nearly two hours, and the pruning of their skin combined with a lethargy only amplified by the warm water and emptied bottles of Blue Moon had taken a toll on the girls.  Girls who were already tired from a long day of lounging and drinking in the sun and who were determined to get an early start in the AM.  Only Elizabeth remained, partly due to a nostalgic feeling of introspection brought about by the moon’s fullness between the trees above that reminded her of trips to the Ozarks as a kid, and partly due to a crippling inability to raise herself from the gentle cooing and calling of bubbling, one-hundred degree water.  Mustering up as much of her faculty as possible, she reassured her appealing friends of her sobriety and promised to join them inside within fifteen minutes, thirty tops.

Listening as the giggles and chatter disappeared into the cabin and gave way to the gentle purr of jets and rustling wind through tree branches, the twenty-one year-old found an inner calmness that had evaded her for the entire trip, and she settled deeply into the seat in such a way that everything below her bottom lip became submerged.  Closing her eyes and resting her hands on her thin, knobby knees, she found herself in the midst of a wonderful daydream in which she was giving an A+ calibur presentation to her Sex, Women and Gender Studies class as part of their final project, deftly answering questions from classmates and basking in the radiance of her professor.  The daydream, however, was not to last, as just as her presentation was ending, the unmistakable sound of a cabin door slamming shut wrested her from the fantasy.

Watching through the darkness, her vision illuminated only by a light from inside the hot tub and one additional motion-activated light positioned above the door of the cabin adjacent to her own, she witnessed one of the strangest sequences of events yet known to her relatively short life.

A young man, approximately the same age as she or perhaps a bit older, stood atop the steps leading to the cabin door and stretched his arms wide in either direction, then raised them toward the sky and bent forward, stretching his triceps and back.  He was clad in nothing but a seafoam green bathrobe and matching slippers, his blonde hair long and disheveled.  He was incredibly tall, and even with the bathrobe it was no secret that he was thin as a twig, his calves and arms hairless in the incandescence of the artificial light.  He proceeded to widen his stance and lean in either direction, stretching his hamstrings while grunting audibly and with great satisfaction.

After his bout of stretching was over, he banged three times on his chest and let out a loud cawing sound, like some bird of prey, before rolling the bathrobe off his shoulders, where it dropped into his hands before being hung upon the door handle.  He then descended the steps, unwound the hose attached to the side of the cabin, twisted the nozzle of the faucet, then raised the end over his head and let the water come splashing down onto his upturned face.  It soaked his hair, his thin frame, and his sky-blue trunks, leaving a muddy puddle around his slippers.

After thirty seconds of watering himself, the boy circled around to the back of the cabin, then re emerged just in time to reactivate the light, a large stereo resting upon his shoulder.  He placed the stereo on the steps, bent over to touch his toes, then fished from his pocket a small rectangle that, when placed inside the stereo, revealed itself to be a cassette tape.  Banging the top of the stereo once to close the jammed door to the tape player, he placed it back on his shoulder and approached the hot tub, stopping just before it and looking up at Elizabeth for the first time with bright, lively blue eyes.  This was the first time, and last time, that she would encounter Simon Christian Adamson the Third.

This is the first thing he said to her:  “Do you like The Beatles?”

“What?” was all Elizabeth could muster.  She had heard him clearly, but was still momentarily stunned after witnessing his bizarre ritual.

“The Beatles.  Paul McCartney.  John Lennon.  ‘Hey Jude.’  You know, the fab four?  You like them?”

“I mean, yeah, everyone likes the Beatles.  Why?”

He banged the stereo with the palm of his hand.  “I got Rubber Soul on cassette in here.  Mind if I play it?  I’ll keep the volume down.”

“Sure, go ahead.”  What else could she say?  Elizabeth watched, more mystified than bemused, as he placed the stereo precariously on the edge of the hot tub and pushed play decisively with a single finger.  The opening guitar riff of “Drive My Car” was inexplicably the perfect accompaniment to the casual flipping off of his slippers into the darkness and the smooth, almost practiced act of lifting his leg up over the wall of the tub and dipping it daintily into the hot water.  He grabbed the edge and brought his second, impossibly long leg in as well, then settled himself down without creating a single ripple.

“Hot in here,” he said after a prolonged exhale.

“Well, it is called a hot tub.”

He laughed in one wild, high-pitched burst before returning to an abrupt silence, as if some god had pressed the ‘mute’ button on the remote that controlled his voice.  “This is true.  Very true.”  He gave a rested sigh and shifted to a seat opposite Elizabeth.  “You’re in the cabin next door, right?  With all the girls?”

“Uhm, yeah.”  Elizabeth pointed in the light from the tub.  “That one.”

“I’m right here,” the boy said, jerking his thumb behind him, as if Elizabeth somehow had missed his grand entrance.  “Are you here for spring break?” he asked.

“Yeah.  Till Friday.  What about you?”

“Well, I was here with my girlfriend.  Until we broke up yesterday and she went home.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why are you sorry?  To hear that?”

“I don’t know, because breakups are rough.  It’s just a thing you say.”

“Well I’m not sorry.  It was really for the best.  She hated me.”

“She hated you?  Then why were you together?”

He raised his brow and looked at her suspiciously.  “Well because we love eachother.  Why is anyone together?”  He took his hands from the water and spread them out, like the wings of a great condor, to rest on the edges of the hot tub.

Elizabeth was sure that any attempt to discern meaning from this apparent contradiction would be futile, but some deep-seeded curiosity provoked her to do so nonetheless.  “How can she be in love with you and hate you at the same time?”

“It’s like predators and prey,” he began to explain matter-of-factly.  “Like deer and wolves.  Wolves eat deer, right?  They hunt them and chase them down and rip them up and eat them and drink their blood.  If deer could talk, and you asked one how it felt about wolves, it would undoubtedly say it hated them, right?”

“I don’t think deer can love or hate anything.  They’re just deer.”

“Okay, but if one special deer could feel, and a wolf had, say, killed its mother, then it would probably hate that wolf, right?”

Elizabeth shrugged.  “Sure.”

“Now, say there’s some disease that wipes out a whole bunch of wolves.  Then the deer are pretty damn happy, ‘cause we’ve already established that they hate wolves.  But you know what happens next?  There’s too many deer.  There isn’t enough food in the ecosystem, especially in the wintertime, to feed them all.  They begin to starve to death, and the ones that survive are frail and weak.  And starving to death is a far more painful death than the relatively quick and painless bite to the neck delivered by the wolves.  Really, the deer should love the wolves, for without them, they would live a starved, short and painful existence.  So while one individual deer might say in its short sightedness that it hates wolves, the omnipotent deer god that speaks for the species as a whole loves wolves.”

“So in your relationship, your girlfriend is a deer and you’re a wolf.”

“Precisely.”

“So why is it good that you broke up?  Won’t she starve to death now?”

“She will.  But she hated me in the moment, so she needs to starve a little bit to realize she loves me.  And quite frankly, I could use going hungry for awhile as well.  We’ve been getting far too fat as of late.  So you see, its all for the best.  That’s why I’m not sorry, and why you shouldn’t be, either.”

“Fine, I’m not sorry.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that.”  Elizabeth watched as the boy rose to his feet in the tub, bent his head as far back as it would go (nearly to the small of his back), then sank once again into the bubbling water.  The cassette went silent as side A ended, and so he reached his wet hands over to the stereo, opened the door, flipped the tape, and banged it shut once more.

“Can I ask you something?” Elizabeth’s voice questioned from the near-darkness.

“Go for it.”

“Why did you hose yourself off just then?”

“Ah.  The shower in our cabin’s on the fritz, and I felt like I should rinse off before joining you.  You know, for cleanliness reasons.”

“I see.”  Her curiosity satisfied now on two fronts, Elizabeth considered leaving the boy behind and returning to her own cabin, but her final mental decision to enact this course of action was interrupted by a question of his own.

“What’s your name?”

“Huh?”

Comment t’appelles tu?  How do you call yourself?

“How do I call myself?  I call myself Elizabeth.”

“Elizabeth qua?”

“Elizabeth Morris.  How do you call yourself?”

“Simon Christian Adamson.  The Third.  Pleasure to meet you Ms. Morris.”  He reached his steaming right hand up through the water and she shook it with her own.  “Tell me something, how come you didn’t go back in with all of your friends?”

“What, were you watching us?”

“Sort of.”

“Don’t you think that’s kind of rude?”

“How could it be rude if you never even knew I was doing it?”

“Well now you just told me.”

“I wasn’t watching you, I just glanced out the window every now and then because you were making so much noise.  So then the noise stopped and I looked out and it was just you.  So why didn’t you go back in with them?”

“I don’t know, I guess I didn’t feel like getting out quite yet.  I was enjoying myself.”  She put more emphasis on the ‘was’ than she had intended, but Simon didn’t seem to acknowledge it.

“Have you got a boyfriend?”

She paused momentarily.  “As a matter of fact I do.”

“You like him?”

Elizabeth was noticeably taken aback.  “Do I like him?  Of course I like him.  Why else would we be dating?”

“Who knows?  My girlfriend hates me.”

“I thought she also loved you.”

“That too.  But she sure as hell doesn’t like me.”

“What’s the difference?  If you love someone, don’t you like them by default?”

“Hell no!  If you like someone, that means you enjoy grabbing a coffee with them, or meeting up with them for a run, or listening to them talk about their problems because you’re actually invested in them.  If you love someone, you don’t enjoy any of that shit.  You do it because you fucking have to, because there’s this little imperfection in your DNA that says if you don’t see this person, if you don’t live a life that is dependent on this person, obsessed with this person, then you’re gonna fucking implode.  You fill your life up with people you like.  Then you throw it all away for someone you love.”

“Well, can’t I love my boyfriend and also enjoy his company?”

“You think deer enjoy the company of the wolves?”

Elizabeth heaved a great sigh and stood up.  “I think I’m gonna go back inside.”

“Really?  Now?  Why?”

“Well first of all I’m tired.  And second of all I don’t really enjoy all this talk of wolves and deer and love.  I’m on vacation, I’m not in the mood to talk about stuff like this.”

“Oh stick around a few more minutes.  What do you wanna talk about?  Any subject at all.  I’ll shut my mouth.”  Elizabeth pivoted on her hip and crossed her thin arms.  The tips of her straight brown hair were wet and stuck to her back, her light freckles, pale skin and upturned nose looking very sharp and precise in the crisp nighttime air.  She was trying to think of something further to say, but she was growing cold and so, dejectedly, she sank back into the water until a more serious attempt to vacate the hot tub could be made.

“Thanks,” Simon said.  Elizabeth had now gained a firm hold on their relationship’s upper hand.  “So, what do you wanna talk about?”

“I don’t even know.  But I’m too cold to get out.  Do you mind if we just sit in silence?”  Side B of the tape had recently finished.

“Not at all.”  As if on cue, the jets turned themselves off and both parties could clearly see the other’s tremendous slenderness through the increasingly translucent water.  Elizabeth rested the back of her head on the side of the hot tub and closed her eyes.  Simon Christian Adamson.  The Third.  What kind of a name was that?  Was he some wealthy foreign prince or duke or something?  He had no trace of an accent, but maybe he had gone to an American school.  The cabin she had rented with her friends had cost them a pretty penny despite being split seven ways, yet he was able to afford it on only his (and maybe also his girlfriend’s) dime for the entire week.  He was certainly well off for some reason.

“Whatcha thinking about?” Simon asked, disturbing her serenity once again.

Elizabeth didn’t open her eyes.  “About whether or not you’re some rich prince or something.”

“What makes you think that?”

“Your name.  And the fact that you can afford this cabin all by yourself.”

“My parents are pretty loaded.  And they are foreign.  But there’s no trace of royalty, as far as I know.”

“Are you a student then?”

“Nope.”

“You’re out of college?”

“You could say that.”

“When did you graduate?”

“Never.  I dropped out six months ago.  One week into my sophomore year.”

Elizabeth at last opened her eyes and looked at the boy.  “Oh.  I’m sorry to hear that.”

“You’re an awfully apologetic person, you know that?”

“Sorry.  Shit.  Not sorry.  I’m sure it was for the right reasons or whatever.”

Simon laughed his short, pitched hyena-cackle once again and grinned at the girl.  “You wanna know why?”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t mind.  It’s ’cause I tried to kill myself.  I slit my wrists up real good, then five seconds later I called 9-1-1 and started bandaging myself up and knew I wasn’t going to die, and it was really a terrible attempt.  Even the emergency dispatchers said I probably didn’t need to go to the hospital if I didn’t want to.  I guess I really didn’t want to kill myself, I just wanted to see if I would actually do it.”

Elizabeth began to say ‘I’m sorry,’ but caught herself and managed to hold her tongue.  “That’s too bad,” she said.

“It’s funny, I kept picturing all the people at my funeral.  My parents, my friends, my grandparents.  Kids at my school who maybe had a class with me.  Friends of my parents, cousins and such.  I figured they’d all be crying, but really they should have been pissed off that I put them through so much trouble, put everyone through so much trouble.  It was really just very lazy and disrespectful of me.  That’s why I called it off I think.  It’s not time for me to die yet.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to be living for, but I know that I’m not supposed to die yet.”

Simon abruptly ducked his head under the water and brought it back up, throwing it about and flicking water in every which way, including onto the grimacing Elizabeth.  Steam rose from his terrific paleness like the evaporation of his very skin itself.  “You want to know something?” he asked her.  “I wasn’t here with my girlfriend.  I’m here with my dad.  He’s just asleep.  We own the place.  They’re trying to give me lots of fresh air and wilderness and the like on account of my manic depression.”

“Why did you lie to me?”

“Because I have manic depression.”

“That makes you lie?”

“I just wanted to be someone else for a while.  Someone who was loved and hated and in the midst of some tumultuous breakup.  I felt like maybe you’d rather meet that person than a manic-depressive nineteen year-old who’s here on doctor’s orders with his dad.”

“You’re wrong,” she said.  “I’d actually rather meet the manic-depressive nineteen year-old.  At least he’s real.  The other one is like some character from a book.”

“Well then, it’s nice to meet you.”  He reached his hand out and shook her’s all over again.  “I’m still Simon Christian Adamson the Third, though.  My name’s too good for me to make up a different one.”

“And I’m still Elizabeth Morris.  But I did lie about something, too.  I don’t have a boyfriend.”

“And why did you lie?”

“Because the way you talked about love… the way you were saying that it’s such a give and take, and how confident you were that you were in love.  I just wanted to pretend it was simpler than that, that I had found someone and it was purer and simpler than that. I guess I’m just hoping that it is.”

“I see.”

“Maybe it made me a little depressed.”

“So why didn’t you get out when you were going to?”

“I guess I don’t get a chance to talk with book characters very often.  That and it seemed rude.”

“Well, I appreciate you sticking around.  I really do.”  With that, Simon stood up and exited the hot tub as gracefully as he’d entered it.

“What, now you’re just gonna leave?”

“I don’t like to stay in for too long.  Hurts my heart.”  He tapped his scrawny chest.  “Besides, now you can have the alone time you were looking for.”

“Ehh, I’ll probably get out, too.  I’ve been in here far too long.”

“Suit yourself.  Either way, if you’re around tomorrow and don’t mind ditching your friends for a while, we’ve got a canoe and a motorboat I’m allowed to take out on the lake.  It’d be nice to have some company that’s not an anxious fifty-five year-old.”

“Okay, I’ll keep it in mind.”

“Just come by and knock.  I’ll be there.”

She nodded to him.  “I will.  Are you gonna bring your boombox?”

He laughed his terrible laugh once more and stood smiling at her.  “Of course.  You like Bob Marley?”

But when Elizabeth rapped on the heavy wooden door of the neighboring cabin after lunch the next day, she was greeted only by the quick-speaking and British-accented Simon Christian Adamson the Second, who explained that Simon’s mother had, for reasons undisclosed, come to take the boy home just one hour prior, and that he himself would be leaving later that afternoon.  Curtly thanking the man, Elizabeth made her way back to her own cabin, where her friends were enjoying homemade strawberry daiquiris and sunbathing on the back deck.  When asked if she would be joining them, she said that she would do so in a while, after swimming a couple lengths of the nearby cove.

She made sure to stretch extensively before doing so.