I was always missing the moment. Jane was a girl in my Christian youth group. While ten or more of us were talking, she reached over and secretly held my fingers under a jacket for a few minutes. I froze, didn’t turn my head or anything. Eventually, she let go. Nothing ever came of it. Another time, fifteen of us went to an amusement park. We were high school journalists from area schools. During one of the rollercoaster rides, one girl was forced to sit between my legs. The rest of the day, I guess she gave off signals, or that’s what my friends said. She was pretty enough. I was stupid. Didn’t go anywhere.
My religion didn’t help. I had a hard time crossing boundaries. I made hardly a distinction between seduction and rape. To make matters worse, my self-control was absolutely stonewall. Something to be proud of, really. I guess that’s how I reached my junior year in college with innocence intact.
College, I knew, wasn’t about girls. I had to keep my eye on the ball. It was about becoming somebody. You never knew who you were going to be. Lawyer, doctor, physicist, politician, psychologist, the die was rolling. Brilliant, tragically average, heroin addict passed out in an oily gutter, the die was bouncing. Sometimes, I looked into the mirror for clues as to who I was. Studied it. My facial expressions would give me a clue. The set of my mouth. Something in my eyes. Once, in the twenty minutes after answering a question in Victorian lit that drew a loud “Exactly!” from the professor, I knew I was a supernova, after all.
The guy next to me clearly wasn’t. Too skinny, not serious, denigrated the impenetrability of As I Lay Dying. When I got to know him, he gave a name to his chin: Hapsburg, after royal recessive inbreeding. We met in 20th-century American, taught by a bearded young prof in tight pants who smirked at the girls and thought that all literature, past and present, was based on the template of one poem published in 1922, as if that were Ground Zero of a nuclear explosion.
“Bullshit,” Nathan said, his footsteps echoing through the hallway. “What, all literature? J.D. Salinger? Zane Grey? Winnie the Pooh?”
“Give the idea a chance,” I said. “He’s the one who grades us.”
“And the day after the quarter ends, we never think about this shit for the rest of our lives.”
I didn’t speak Obscenity. It was another difficult boundary, as were kissing others on the cheek as a greeting, calling adults by their first names, daring to fill the air with words and convictions, and going outside with morning hair.
Nathan ate his sack lunch sitting on the wall outside Rolfe at noon, after morning classes. I joined him. One day, we bluffed our way into the English Reading Room, which was reserved for grad students. It was like King Tut’s tomb—“Wonderful things!”—packed with all the most esoteric and obscure journals. Nathan sat down with a thumbed copy of the PMLA while I immersed myself in a short story in The Sewanee Review. It was about Hitler’s whore. He made her lie face-up on the bed while he repeatedly defecated upon her, crying out, “Die, England, die!” My mind was being broadened.
Jacqueline was researching the Walloon poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire. Nathan started riffing on Walloon, and within seconds, the both of them were laughing uncontrollably. The next day, Jacqueline saw us eating on the wall.
“It’s the Walloon girl,” Nathan said.
“That’s your opening gambit?” she said. “Girl?”
Which got us into an unfunny debate about appellations and the political sequeliae thereof. She preferred, when referring to a gender-neutral nonspecific pronoun, to default to s/he. Watching her essay volubly, short dark hair, light freckles, and slender frame, I mused over the length of a woman’s hair and how that told you something about her priorities, how many hours a day she wanted to mess with it. This literary goddess had opted for four minutes.
There’d been straitjackets and screams during the month Nathan had spent in a mental institution. He was fifteen and had taken too much LSD and couldn’t stop tripping. It went on for days, which the doctors hadn’t seen before. He’d be watching television with the other loonballs when suddenly, in his peripheral vision, another inmate would grow a faucet from his shoulder and brown water would flow out, or the doctor would tap him on the shoulder and he’d turn and see a Cyclops in a white coat. Back in his cell, there were padded walls and a sloping floor that led to a grating to facilitate the hosing down of blood and vomit. The amazing thing was that he seemed not just normal, but extraordinary. The paradox he embodied made us best friends.
Every day, we would all sit on the wall for a bit. Jacqueline had an ungenerous curl to her mouth. Nathan made her laugh, though. She had graduated with a class of only 100 from the Castilleja School in Palo Alto. I had rarely known rich kids—had gone to school with only one or two—and didn’t understand their complexions. I didn’t know the snakes that crawled through their perfect skulls.
“I’ve eaten Top Ramen for three days running,” Jacqueline said, shaking the bag. We were in her tiny kitchen. “This stuff proves there is a God.”
“I’m eating lots of Chef Boy-ar-Dee,” I said.
“You guys gotta be kidding,” Nathan said.
“It’s easy, cheap, and good,” Jacqueline said.
“You’d have to take upper-level chemistry just to figure out what various flavors of cancer you’re getting.”
Jacquie was wearing a blue wool pullover, and when she pulled it over her head to remove it, she had an unwanted encounter with her breasts.
“I hate these things,” she said, arranging her hair again.
“What things?” Nathan asked.
“Tits,” she said. “They get in the way.”
“I have to tell you, dear, that’s not the majority opinion,” Nathan said, smiling.
“And your clothes have to go over them. And men are always looking at them. Judging them. Like they’re trying to calculate.”
“Whether they’ll fit whole inside their mouths, I guess.”
They weren’t that big. They weren’t that pretty.
Jacqueline handed me one of her poems. It cut a difficult path through the wild, the poet dodging meaning as deftly as she could, nonetheless turning some striking phrases. I looked in vain for sentiment. Upon second reading, the poem began to unfold itself to me.
“I don’t speak French,” I said.
She gave me a look that sunk its teeth into my self-worth.
“It means little breakfast.”
She closed her eyes, saying: “I’d like to hear what you think.”
I paused for a long moment, looking at the page.
“I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I have enough understanding of poetry to judge it. You’re obviously very good.”
My thing was fiction, so I became the fiction editor of Westwind. I never imagined how bad some writing could be. I was surprised that these students: a) thought they could submit something for publication so crawling like worms in a corpse with typos, and b) could express themselves well enough to order Tommy’s burgers. It buoyed my spirits. Clearly, I stood on a dramatically lit pedestal that towered far above them.
But other submissions were more puzzling. Maybe I just didn’t get it. Avant garde, plotless fiction, postmodernism. Character before story. Or maybe it’s like this: You’re holding a piece of excrement in your hand and you don’t realize he’s the next Kafka, but fuck, you say, who would want to meet Kafka, anyway, he’d probably just engage you night after night in long, draining conversations in the back of a smoke-filled Prague beerhouse about how many different flavors of shitty a person can feel, and no matter how much you tried to talk him down off the ledge, you couldn’t convince him that life was worth living—“It’s shit! It’s shit!”—and then one day you’d hear he starved to death in a Vienna sanitarium and you’d think, Well, who didn’t see that coming?
One manuscript blew my ducky out of the water. Eunice and her three friends were at the beach rummaging through the clothes of people who were swimming. They scored seventy dollars, five rubbers, and a class ring. Later, they were teaching these guys they’d just met how to play mumbledepeg.
“You’re pretty,” one of the guys said.
“You’re the Prince of Who the Fuck Cares.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, you’re the Prince of I Don’t Have a Fucking Clue.”
Using the blood from a knife wound, Eunice and her three friends pledged to tell ten lies a day. Swear, swear, swear, swear, like a knife stabbed between outstretched fingers, bam, bam, bam, bam. They were telling lies to friends, boyfriends, teachers, even parents and strangers.
I’m still a virgin, Momma
My brother lost his legs in Vietnam
My history teacher is from Africa and teaches us in Pig Latin
I have gonorrhea, you wanna have sex?
My mother isn’t dead, she’s gone back to her hometown in Mexico which is Mind Your Own Fucking Business
No, she didn’t feel any pain
I’m okay, don’t worry about me, I’ll be all right, I’ll be just fine.
Eunice’s wound got infected and she lost the ring finger. She didn’t care. Didn’t want to get married, anyway. She dared boys to touch the stub. If they touched it, they could touch anything else they wanted. Eunice looked in the mirror and decided to slash her face because for a moment, there in her eyes, she’d seen a flash of her mother. She wanted to feel the wound. She wanted to stick her fingers into it. She wanted to pull her mother out of the muscles and blood and slap her on the back and she would start breathing and crying. And Eunice would be free.
I kept the story with me in my bag for days, sometimes reading bits in the back row during boring classes. On the phone, the writer had a high, girly voice that made more concessions than Eunice ever did. I invited her to lunch. Cute didn’t begin to capture it. Angelique looked and moved like Geronimo’s daughter. Hair the same color, I’m sure, and long, too, twelve minutes a day.
“Did the stuff in the story happen?”
Her eyes tracked slowly, but by no means unintelligently.
“Some of it. It was a girl I knew in high school. She always wore short dresses. I never knew what she was thinking. Her boyfriend got a girl pregnant that I’d known since third grade. Eunice messed the girl up and she lost the baby. It was all about babies and dying.”
I had become a born-again at age twelve during a mountain retreat. Sometimes I think I accepted Jesus into my heart to impress this pretty girl in a peasant blouse. After she moved away, the religion took on a momentum of its own. By 17, born-againism had constructed an impressive Plexiglas box around me. Everything was always bouncing off it. Girls on rollercoasters, for example.
This guy Neil was leading Bible studies with me on Sunday mornings in an avocado grove. His eyes tended to get watery and his smile overwide with religious fervor and I wondered what he knew that I didn’t. He was the leader of a cult of one, I guess. I thought it was what my parents wanted, but they were secretly stunned by it. At my age, my mother was wrapping unsuspecting guys around her little finger and crashing motorcycles. My father was losing it in Koto-ri, South Korea.
I was writing a lot of short fiction. I had grown up studying piano, and knew that to play a Bach concerto, a Debussy arabesque, and a Beethoven sonata in recital, as I had in my senior year, thirty-three pages of patterned wheels within wheels within wheels to memorize and play perfectly, you had to start out at age seven with scales, work your way up through John Thompson, and toil for years in the intermediate coal mines before you tackled anything that made people gasp. Short stories made my hands black.
With each story I wrote, I tried something new. Experiment with pov. Tell a true tale of a horrific industrial accident my grandmother once told me. Describe violence. Each story had an objective. I would grow, but only if I had good feedback. Hence, my readership. Nate was a good reader, but always frustratingly unspecific. Mauro was excellent as far as his burro mind would carry him. Jacquie was excellent without reservation. Angelique had a quirky response that I couldn’t penetrate. Tom was eager but egotistical. He later became a personal-injury lawyer and made his first million at age 27 by paying kickbacks to tow-truck drivers.
Every couple months, I would type up the finished manuscript of my next short story, make copies, and hand them out. Later, my readers would give me their reactions in detail. I desperately wanted to know what my readers liked and didn’t like, but in the end, I disregarded half of their critiques. It’s like I didn’t know what I thought about my own story until they said something that I knew was bullshit. That’s how it was with the rest of my life, too.
I was changing and I knew it. One day when I was visiting home, Neil came over. We were sitting in the backyard in chairs where years ago my swingset used to be, among ghosts of my former self. I was wearing brown corduroy pants and no shirt. I said that college was teaching me things. Neil, with his towhead blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, said he was worried about me.
“Worried that I won’t believe the exact same things as you?”
“No, it’s not like that.”
“What is it, then?”
“That you’re following a secular humanist path. It’s not about me, it’s about the Lord’s plan for your life.”
“This is the same Lord that says it’s okay to own slaves, right? Or are you talking about another one that you’ve just invented who believes that all thinking is from Satan?”
“You sound exactly like a person who’s in the world.”
“That’s where I live, Tonto.”
“Jesus wants so much more for you.”
I had fallen for his liturgical shell game in high school and felt stupid for it now. Neil was already starting with the waterworks. His smile was turning into a metal claw. He had acquired those tools growing up with an alcoholic father.
“Why do you need to control everything?” I said.
“God isn’t about control, my brother, He’s about deep, overwhelming, overpowering love.”
“No, you. I’m talking about you.”
Neil never played defense. It’s not that he played offense. He just wanted the opportunity to scratch your face with that metal claw.
“I’m just afraid,” Neil said, getting up from his plastic chair, the gravest of looks splattered over his face like a cream pie, plus a touch of denigration that topped it off like a red rubber nose, “that your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may have lost you, and you’re so very precious to Him.”
Nate was rolling a joint. I remember thinking, I’m going to remember this, and here I am remembering it.
“When he’s onstage,” Nathan was saying, “Fahey plays these long guitar masterpieces that nobody never heard of before he rescued them from obscurity.”
“Every time a hillbilly with a banjo dies, man, an angel cries,” Jacqueline said, picking seeds out of the weed.
“He went door to door in Appalachia collecting songs,” Nathan said. “I saw him at McCabe’s last spring. In between songs, he spits into this bucket, I mean, these long, disgusting spittles easing down to the spittoon right in front of the audience.”
“He doesn’t care,” Jacqueline said.
We all toked up in Jacquie’s kitchen and walked the two miles into the village.
“Is it safe for me to walk all that way?” I asked.
“For Chrissake,” Nathan said, “I didn’t give you PCP.”
“You don’t want to know.”
Walking up the big hill, getting more winded than usual, feeling the dope descend like a cloud on my head, I suddenly saw my bare feet through my shoes. They were 7-year-old feet. The grass glowed and fluttered like radioactive jello. It all meant something terribly important.
Later, we all sat in the dark together. Jacquie loved Truffaut, but I was convinced they were all speaking Egyptian, so we left. In a village café eating French fries, I couldn’t stop talking. Expectations are what we all have in abundance, I said. Ambition is an expectation. Born-againism is a locust cloud of expectations. Virginity is the Everest of Unrealistic Expectations, the proof of which can be seen simply by tossing two bunnies into a cage. And it’s Everest in another way, too, because you can’t breathe up there. And what about parents’ expectations? You carry them around on your back like the bundle of firewood on the cover of that Led Zeppelin album.
“I’m never going to have an expectation for the rest of my life,” I said.
“Okay,” Jacquie said, grinning.
Looking at the two of them sitting across the table from me, the curly haired folkie and the small-breasted poet, an amused look on each of their faces, I suddenly blurted it out.
“You guys are like twins, you know that? Except you don’t look anything like each other.”
The next morning, I drove to the grocery store with my hands clamped tightly on the wheel, terribly worried that pedestrians were going to jump out from behind cars. I didn’t feel right for three days.
We all had dinner at Woody’s in the village. Nate and Jacquie were on one side, Angelique and my cousin Mauro on the other, ketchup and mustard and a couple of wrapped presents in the middle of the table. Nathan and Angelique had beers. I couldn’t have a drink till midnight.
I punched a Carpenters song into the jukebox and then walked back to the table. They all ribbed me. We all had guilty pleasures we had brought from our childhoods. I mourned the loss of sentimentality. As I learned from my professors to live without so much of it slathered on everything like ketchup, I began feeling differently about things. It was a different world, a lighter sleep, filled with surprising things like Thomas Pynchon, D.H. Camus, Leonard Cohen, the Velvet Underdog, Michelangelo Antonioni, subtitled Swedish movies, moral relativism, alienation chic, sushi, eggplant, ennui, pi.
Mauro was talking about how marijuana was so much more natural than liquor, because it entered your bloodstream through your lungs.
“Didn’t you just try it for the first time?” Mauro said. “That must have been, like—how many weeks ago was what?”
“Did you like it?”
“If liking it means being a week behind in my assigned reading of the Henriad, then yes, I loved it.”
“God, I’ve got a ton of pages to read, too,” Angelique said.
“First time I did it,” Mauro said, “I had profound revelations.”
“What, that you like potato chips?” Angelique said.
“No, just to live in the moment.”
“I’m always missing the moment,” I said.
Mauro and I exchanged glances. We had been in Boy Scouts together. We had taken the oath together. If I recall correctly, getting high isn’t found anywhere in the oath, correct me if I’m wrong.
“Did you ever drop acid?” I asked Angelique.
“Once. The stereo was on, and the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s songs were appearing on a ribbon”—Angelique raising her finger toward the spot—“high up on the walls.”
The way she said it, her hair falling down over her shoulders, her eyes filled with remembering, she suddenly seemed unspeakably beautiful.
“I was in a bookstore the other day,” I said, “and I thought, ‘What is it that I’d like to buy?’ And then it occurred to me: A novel written by you.”
Angelique seemed displeased. “You’re still high.”
By 12:01, we were in a dark nightclub in Hollywood with flashing lights and pounding music and I was showing my driver’s license to the bartender for the first time. Angelique watched, transfixed, as Bo Diddley played onstage. I couldn’t care less. His day had come and gone. I asked Angelique to dance.
“It’s Bo Diddley!”
“I’m listening!” Pointing to her ears.
Between sets, with canned rock ‘n’ roll taking over, I tried to get the ball rolling, but Angelique still couldn’t hear me. I leaned in closer and my lips touched her hair. Suddenly, everything that had been muddy became clear. The moment was no longer a problem. The thought of her hair on my lips was tattooed onto my loins. I had three more Rum and Cokes, and by two, Angelique was driving me home.
I tried to tell her about when Mauro and I were seven and he won a Halloween costume contest with a Raja toga and turquoise turban and he fell on his face when he stepped on his robe and chipped his front tooth, but my tongue was thick. I asked her to walk me up, but she politely declined.
“I ha’ some Kahlu’ and milk upstairs,” I said.
“Go to bed.”
I unpacked myself from Angelique’s old red Datsun and climbed the steps. Made it to the top and waved goodbye, watched her taillights drift down the hill. It was the saddest thing I ever saw.
Her high school boyfriend was still in the picture. He was living in Sonoma in an old house with a dog that she missed. Bastard had so much going for him. Hair that stretched all the way to Calexico. Attitude that spilleth over. Dope dealer. Or maybe he was just an excuse. Maybe he didn’t even exist, I don’t know. I was falling, I didn’t know what into, maybe a haystack of needles.
When I got to my front door, I couldn’t go in. Nobody in there but my roommates, two of whom hated me, one of whom hadn’t even talked to me for five months because I had blow-dried my hair on his bed and he hated stray hair and had jammed Spackle into the electrical outlet holes. So I took off my clothes, left them in a pile. Walked towards the pool, stumbled once, said to myself, Don’t worry, I got it, get your fuckin’ hands off me. Stepped onto the diving board, took an unsteady step towards the water, another, sat down, legs dangling, feet underwater. Looked up at the fifteen apartments that faced the courtyard. Two had lights in the window.
I knew what would happen. Some girl would look out the window, see me sitting there, and come down. She would want what I wanted. She would have been scribbling page after page of journal entries in a spiral notebook about how lonely she was. She would have been stuffing the pages into the crawlspace, hiding them but hoping they would be found. I had a name for what I was, and it wasn’t happy. Her name would be Carly or Sophia, but I would settle for Chloe. She would invite me inside. She would have silky dark hair. She would have an unexpected smile that no one had yet discovered. I knew it would happen. It was supposed to be a magical night. Everybody said so. Everything was supposed to happen tonight.
After a half-hour, I knew there wasn’t a God. The night was just one long, empty boxcar. I walked back to the door, let myself in, and collapsed on the bed. Fuck the caffeine. Fuck the moment. I went right to sleep.
The beach was nothing to speak of. Grey sand and lots of litter. We wandered back to the main drag, where a brown guy with only a few teeth in his smile and no English at all, I mean, not an ounce in his whole body, sold shark tacos on the street corner.
“I’m not hungry,” I said.
“They’re fully cooked. You can see him cooking them.”
“Nate, you’re buying food from a guy on the street.”
We pondered where to stay. There was a $3 hotel, a $5 hotel, and a $6 hotel.
“Let’s try that one,” I said, pointing.
It looked like an American motel, with four floors, a new paint job, nice cars in the parking lot, and American families on the balcony in nice leisure clothes.
“I don’t want to pay that kind of money.”
“What kind of money? How much could it cost? I’ll go check.”
I walked over and talked to the clerk. Turned out to be $12 a night.
“Look, we’ve got a chance to pay only $6. You just don’t pass that up.”
So we went with the bargain basement. We checked in. The shower looked scary. The whole room looked like the inside of some fat slob’s dirty mind. I had wanted to read a little Hemingway on the bed—I was rereading his entire works now—but it wasn’t a pleasant place to spend any time. It was exactly what $6 bought us. We left our luggage, but when we were walking along the boulevard, I began to wonder about my stuff. Then again, what would they steal? My short stories? We wandered over to a bar that was famous, I don’t know what for, getting deadass drunk, I guess.
“You want a beer?” Nathan asked.
“Naw,” I said.
“Every time I drink or smoke, I lose three days.”
“What do you want, then?”
“Coke. In the bottle.”
Nate went away and came back with a Dos Equis and a Coke in the bottle, the cap freshly popped. There was moisture around the lip. Imagining Montezuma waiting for me with fangs and talons, I left it untouched. I surveyed the room. It was filled with things. Framed photos of Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata. American celebrities who had visited the bar. Men posing with huge swordfish and big smiles. There were two barefoot teenagers going up to each table with a wooden box and trying to sell something, I couldn’t tell what.
“Where’s Jacquie?” I asked.
“She’s with her parents till January 6.”
“Did you ask her to come down here with us?”
“I haven’t slept with her yet, if that’s what you were asking.”
“I wasn’t asking that.”
“She doesn’t want me.”
“There are guys who seem to know just what to say.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“I’ve seen them. I wish I knew what those things were so I could tell you.”
“I don’t know if anything’s going to work.”
“I mean, they’re no more good looking than other guys. They just know what to say.”
The teenagers were suddenly at our table with the wooden box. The 14-year-old was speaking to us in broken English.
“You…real man?” he said.
“Who wants to know?” Nathan asked.
“If you are real man, you able to hold thees.”
“Do you understand the adverse sequeliae of chauvinistic appellations?” I said.
He made a face.
“You hold thees. We put electricidad.”
“You think I should try it?” Nathan asked me.
“What the hell for?”
“I could use some good shock treatment right now.”
“Don’t do it.”
“It helped Sylvia Plath.”
“Nate, Plath killed herself.”
Nathan reached into his pocket and gave the kids a couple quarters. He took a deep breath.
“How long seconds?” the kid asked.
“Are you sure?” the kid asked.
The kid looked at me. “You should to bet. Five dollars he hold thirty seconds.”
I ignored the kid. Nathan took the metal rods into his hands and rested them on the table. The kid cranked up the box, and then suddenly Nathan got this weird look on his face, frozen, as if he had left the planet. It was a long thirty seconds. I sat forward in my chair. A muscle in his upper arm began to twitch wildly.
“Nathan!” I said and almost touched him, but pulled back.
I worried about doing something, or yelling something or anything. When he finally came back from wherever he was, he took a deep breath.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
Nathan looked at the kids.
“Get the fuck out of here,” he said in a weak voice.
They took the box to the next table.
“Do you feel any better now?”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Nathan kept shaking his hands out. After dinner, we went to a nightclub and met a couple girls from San Diego. I liked the Asian girl named Joanne and danced with her a bit. I looked over at Nathan dancing with the chubby blonde. He claimed to be a great dancer but he was actually pretty awful, and every so often, he would shake out his hands, which made him look like a bad dancer who had just finished washing dishes. They had the countdown to midnight and people blew horns and cracked confetti eggs on people’s heads and kissed. But I didn’t kiss Joanne and Nathan didn’t kiss his blonde. I wanted to be a gentleman, but I misunderstood the ground rules. Those girls had wanted to be kissed. When it’s New Year’s Eve, you kiss the girl. You always kiss the girl. I still hadn’t found my route across the desert.
It seemed crazy. It seemed like there should be some way to ask the question and get a straight answer, but there wasn’t. Would you mind if I kissed you? or May I have your consent to be intruded upon? Or some window you could apply at, fill out a form, like “Form 1492: Application for Consent to Physical Invasion,” or even work for it, like collect boxtops or green stamps or pull some weeds. I would gladly clear all of western Kansas if that were the reward. But to not have any way to ask was just crazy.
Three years later, Mauro recommended R.D. Laing’s work, and I sat down one afternoon in a hot tub and read with surprise his theory that all insanity is simply a sane response to an unlivable situation. Over the next few years, I began fitting my ideas about life into that construct, because that was the word for this way of living: unlivable. Two years after that, I visited Metro State Mental Hospital as a journalist and saw a twentysomething man walking around aimlessly in circles like a zombie, saying over and over again, as he had every day for the past fifteen years, “I didn’t do it, I didn’t do it.” The nurse said that when he was nine, his father had shot and killed his mother in front of him, then turned to him and said, “You made me do this.” Then he killed himself. Unlivable.
By three, Nathan and I were driving lost through unlit suburban neighborhoods. We both had to take a leak. We got out in front of a wooden white house with a dead brown palm tree growing next to the curb.
“That tree needs watering,” Nathan said with a smirk.
Nathan was not a little drunk and got my light-brown Florsheims wet. I kept a lookout for the house’s owners.
“Listen, you’re twins, I told you that,” I said.
“We’re not twins. We’re strangers.”
“You just have to be more aggressive with Jacquie. Try to think like those guys who get the girls.”
“It’s worse than that. She’s a whacker and I’m a mole.”
“Why the negativity, man? Jeez, you sound like my Dad.”
“Because she wants you.”
When Croatians wish you luck, they say, “Bowl of shit.” They’re a cynical people. They’ve been dominated for centuries by outside powers, Austria-Hungary on one side, Romans on another, Turks on still another. But sometimes, Bowl of shit is just what you get. I looked at Nathan uncomprehendingly for a moment, then looked away. On the one hand, it is sad to hear that your best friend is disappointed in love, and doubly so when the fault seems to fall on your own mesomorphic shoulders. On the other hand, it is not enough for one to succeed; one’s friends must fail.
“You should go after her,” Nathan said. “She’s a beautiful girl.”
I didn’t want to be impolite.
“Yes, she is.”
There was a difference, my fiction prof had told us, between sentimentality and sentiment. The former was a blemish, the latter, a mere option among many. What had moved me growing up had not, contrary to what I had assumed, been a formative experience, but instead, a juvenile response. Sentimental books—anything that made my heart ache or soar or that touched it in any way—were childish. But there was one thing I knew: I did not want to live in a world without sentiment. The prospect took away my joie de vivre. That was the world that Jacqueline thrived in. Or, as she would insist on putting it, in which she thrived.
“She said you look like her father,” Nathan added.
Opening up a whole other can of Freud.
“She asked me if I could set something up with you.”
I had begun to stop wishing for specific things when I threw a penny into a fountain. It seemed childish to wish for a job, or a car, or a girl. Those were things you earned. It was like a spoiled rich brat wishing for a pinball game for Christmas. And getting it. There was no guy in a big red suit. I always closed my eyes, cleared my mind, and just before tossing the penny, let one word flow through my head: Fulfillment. It meant there were no boundaries, no limits. It meant I was claiming everything, the whole world, without restriction. I hesitated, though, to claim black cats.
For months and months, I steered clear.
It was bothering me, though, why I didn’t have any luck with women. I thought about it constantly. It made me wonder whether I might fit into this new category people were talking about: gay. I didn’t think about men in an erotic way. The first time I heard the mechanics of it, I mean, really had it explained to me, I said, “What?! No! You’ve gotta be kidding!” But I did get terribly nervous when I was around girls that I wanted. And I never got any of them.
Susana was perfect. Perfect blonde hair and perfect blonde face. She went on one date with me. I called her the next day and left messages for the next twelve days in a row to ask her out again. I must have become the big joke around the sorority house: Another guy’s in love with Susana. So what else is new? Fiona was perfect, too, but in a more refined way. She sat next to me in the back row of Victorian Lit. We wisecracked beautifully together. On the last day of class, I screwed up the courage to ask her out. She beat me to it. Showed me her engagement ring. Never got any of those women.
There was an unconscious, Freud said, that gave you everything you truly wanted. But I didn’t get those women. Did I not want women?
“You’re too intense,” Nathan said. “Women like men who don’t care.”
“How do I not care?”
Nate and I had moved into a place together six miles south of campus. Once, I went down to the carport to my green Datsun and found behind my windshield wipers a couple pages torn out of a pornographic gay magazine. It was photos of naked men having sex with other men. On the bottom was scrawled: “This could be us.” That evening when I took a walk, the middle-aged dolt in the house across the street gawked with a grin on his face.
Nathan was in limbo. He had graduated, took a shit job at a clipping service, and was falling more heavily into THC. I would come home and he would be sitting on the couch with red marijuana eyes and an album cover in his hands, listening to “Give Me Cornbread When I’m Hungry.” He had devised a plan to plant marijuana in his closet under grow lights, but I nixed it. It wouldn’t be good for either of us.
“I’m visiting my mother in Passaic all next week,” Nathan said. “You should call up Jacqueline while I’m gone. You’ll have the whole place to yourself.”
Our apartment was a two-bedroom in a cheap neighborhood. The bedroom doors were as thin as our voices were loud. The carpet was green, thin, and old. If you picture an apartment building that’s nothing special, I mean, nothing special at all, you’ve hit it on the nose.
I invited Jacqueline in without a kiss. She entered in ominous silence. I had spent so much of my life working hard not to think about the actual specifics of sex. What comes first, what comes next. We had no real furniture, only bricks and planks for bookcases and a mattress covered in an orange bedspread in the living room for a couch. I poured us both some German Riesling because that’s what you were supposed to do. As she walked into the bedroom, the dog in the yard below started barking. He was a vicious old black dog on a chain that barked all the time. Months later, someone shot him dead and the cops did nothing about it.
Jacqueline laid her purse down on my desk, a door laid across two used filing cabinets. This was before I had accumulated a lot of junk in my bedroom. That’s not to say it was clean. It was what a guy thought was clean. We took off our clothes in silence and laid down. We began to kiss and fondle, as I’d seen them do in Three Days of the Condor. She may not have been gorgeous, but she was pretty enough. I didn’t really know what came next. She put her hand on me. I reached my hand between her legs and it came back sticky, as if I’d touched jam.
“Uush,” I said.
“Well, yours doesn’t feel too good, either.”
And that was that. In a huff, she was out of there. I didn’t really see that I had said anything wrong. I was lost for awhile. Played some New Chautauqua. Read a few pages of something. Then went into the kitchen and turned on the TV, which was playing the 1958 schlockfest, The Naked and the Dead. Soldiers were fighting and yelling. War was hell. I sat down and propped my feet on the kitchen table. It was so difficult to tell if you had become a man. Nobody issued you a license. The tribe no longer gave you an initiation ceremony in which you ate panther intestines or spent the night in a sweat lodge. Seeing guys in khaki buoyed me. These guys were men. War had made them men. I wondered if what I’d had was sex, and whether that had made me a man. My father had been to war, but he didn’t say anything about it. Did he give me a roadmap to manhood? Was he going to help me? What would he say if I told him I’d touched it and said what I’d said? He’d say he didn’t want to hear about it and take a drive.
Two days later, Jacqueline called me. I wasn’t going to apologize.
“You get only one first time,” she said. “You want it to be special.”
Jacqueline and I had dinner at her place by candlelight. That was more the way it was supposed to be, she said. She was wearing a blue cotton blouse, and I was wondering whether it bothered her tits. I was wondering whether any of her other protuberances got in the way, too, like her nose or her butt.
“Where do you want to live when you get out of school?” Jacqueline was saying.
“I don’t know. Hemingway had four homes. I’d like that.”
Her eyes were lit up above the candles.
“He had a home in Spain.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’ve read a few biographies.”
She gave me a look. I had read the first biography, and at the end, wondered where the secret was. Because he knew something. I read the second and the third biographies, then just kept reading. It was clear in the very seams of his prose that he had an understanding. When Robert Jordan was preparing to blow the bridge and knew he would die in the act, the author knew something. When Santiago brought back the stripped carcass of the massive marlin, the author knew something. But the more I read of his life—which was a very different thing, something that couldn’t be revised and which you couldn’t change the events of to make yourself look heroic—the more I realized just how much of a prick he was.
“Have you ever been to Spain?” Jacqueline asked.
“I love Barcelona, especially Las Ramblas. Where else?”
“He lived in Ketchum, Idaho, which was great for skiing. There’s a picture of him skiing with Gary Cooper.”
“Do you ski?”
“We should go skiing sometime.”
“Did he ever live in New York City?”
“I want to move there.”
“Because it’s the center of the publishing industry?”
“Because there are so many things to do all day and all night. Plus, I can speak French and people will know what I’m saying.”
I had brought a record that I loved. It was Keith Jarrett, who played improvisational solo piano. Ever since I had broken the surly bonds of classical, I had luxuriated in improvisation. It allowed you to follow the music in your hands. Jarrett’s improvisation was the kind of music that, like Fahey, pulled you into an ever-deepening whirlpool. You could drown in it. Jacqueline dropped it on the stereo.
I was on top of her. It came more naturally this time. I said nothing about the jam. I wasn’t just listening to the music, I was the music, and it was a shiny feeling that I had only had in a dream, the white candles flickering onto the walls, lightly crackling, my innocence slowly burning off, my identity transmuting, because I was no longer the guy who was impossibly innocent, who couldn’t get the girl, who used Christianity as a buoy in open waters, who doubted his sexual preference, who couldn’t cross boundaries, couldn’t find a route across the Sahara, who was missing the moment, I was the moment, I was burrowed so far into the moment that I was emerging the other side, pushing my way out the other side like Eunice’s mother, when suddenly, as if someone were spearing me like a fish out of a stream, Jacqueline was almost shouting.
“This isn’t right, this isn’t right,” pushing me off her.
It wasn’t an easy thing to stop in the middle, I discovered. Energy wants to go from one place to another. The body doesn’t want you to stop and lay on your back. I was panting and sweating.
“What do you mean?” I said, nearly out of my mind.
She couldn’t immediately verbalize it. Her lips once again wore that ungenerous curl. It looked like she was trying to figure out who to blame.
“Why did you pick that record?” she finally asked in a sharp tone.
“Because I love it.”
“Why do you love it?”
“I don’t know. Why is this important now? I listen to it all the time.”
“Yes, but why did you think it would be good for lovemaking?”
I stared at her. “Because I really, really love it.”
“I think it’s because it’s a live album.”
“At the end of every song, it has applause,” she said. “It’s for your male ego. Egoiste. You needed applause while you were making love.”
My father didn’t yell. When he was angry, he became quiet, walked out the door, and took a three-hour drive. I could feel my face tighten while I put on my clothes. I could feel myself become impermeable. I remember a panicked look starting to form on her face, as if she could feel me at the start of never talking to her again. She started saying things, but the sound was turned off. I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction. I was gone.
I didn’t see Jacqueline for years after that. It turned into a story, then a memory, then a static representation of an experience like an icon on my computer. It’s like when I looked into the attic of an old house I was renting and discovered a mouse skeleton in a trap. Nathan told me she was pursuing a master’s degree in poetry. She had married a fellow graduate student in the program. They didn’t move to New York City or Paris or Barcelona. They were having offspring. Apparently, he had brought a studio album.
But I knew what she had meant. I didn’t love her. I couldn’t make myself love her. But she and Nathan had been so insistent. Still, she made me think about things for years afterwards. At 29, I got an invitation to go home with an exotic but slow-witted lady named Tricia. We rolled around on her sofa for a bit, and then, out of breath and all lathered up, she seemed ready to kick it into the bedroom.
“I haven’t slept with anyone in ten years,” she said.
The look in Tricia’s eyes took all the wind out of my sails. It was like she looked into my eyes and saw the route to the next twenty years. I could have commandeered that toy boat, but I didn’t have the heart. I could see the wreckage before it even hit the rocks. So I didn’t let it happen. In the ensuing years, I became increasingly honest with myself. I wondered whether Jacqueline had been only the first in a series of casualties. I had often been so casual about sex. But after Tricia, I stopped sleeping with women I didn’t really want to sleep with. My heart couldn’t take it, and neither could theirs. It was like doing violence to someone.
In the ensuing years, small tragedies befell my friends. Nathan never said a word about what happened between Jacqueline and me. He turned out to have the biggest heart of all of us. His tragedy was that he fell in love with a girl who didn’t enjoy anything but her own misery. It helped him quit THC, but he wrestled with her misery for decades.
Another tragedy: Angelique landed a newspaper gig and never found much time for her fiction. A third: She went into therapy and learned how to be happy. She was never quirky again. In bookstores, I still long for the novel she might have written.
I became a magazine writer. Within ten years, I had written over 500 articles and felt like a writing machine. My religion became just another forgotten border crossing, my virginity, the lingua franca that I finally learned to speak.
But for years, Jacqueline remained a mystery. Then one night, I looked her up on Facebook. It took me a couple weeks before I got up the courage. When she friended me, I began devouring her profile. It took me days to fully grasp it. I walked around thinking about it all the time. At times, I was angry with her. Fucking ballbreaker. She had given up the poetry—given it up! Quel désastre!—to become a short-sale realtor. She had embraced her mother’s Judaism, and was now worshipping at a synagogue along Sunset Boulevard. Her three children were now nearly grown, and her longtime companion Susan was a choral director. In the dark of the night, my face lit up by the computer screen, I laughed. No more expectations, no, never again.