“I seem to be able to see my thoughts as something quite apart from myself. I can watch them rising, falling, their only form of activity.”
-- Italo Svevo, Confessions of Zeno
“Oh to bring back the days when stars spoke at the mouths of caves.”
-- Joy Williams, The Changeling
She stood barefoot on the beach, the bottoms of her jeans rolled, feet sinking into the wet sand. The ocean rushed up to meet her, the tide spreading out, teasing her ankles. The sky above like a blue bending canvas, punctured with the occasional soft blast of white. Her hand visoring off the sun, now dipping low with late afternoon, she turned back and smiled, her cheeks swelling with a private, untouched joy.
He flew back at the end of summer, a little more than a week before classes were to start. The first day back he bought groceries and cleaned his apartment. It had been left dirty due to a hasty departure, two months prior. The bathroom in particular was its own kind of disaster, with the towels and sink stained with makeup, clops of used tissue scattered on the floor, and long strands of dark hair strewn over everything like tinsel.
It was restless going those first couple nights, re-adjusting to time zones, back in the old bed, sheets unwashed. Thousands of miles now separated him from the events of the summer. He went over things again and again, thinking about how he had left them. It was interesting, he thought, how after leaving a place after an extended stay that period came to form a totality in the mind, an unbreakable cube of thought you could hold up to the light and examine, objectively, from a detachment perch, getting a different impression depending on the refraction of light.
On the second day back he got a call from a friend from the university and the two met for coffee.
They were downtown at a relatively recently opened establishment called Serious Coffee, located in the newly constructed conference building, a modest aesthetic shock that offset the vague Old Town ambience of the surrounding fading brick, wood and cement architecture. They sat at a small table by a large window. It took up the whole wall. Two of them, in fact, were all glass, floor to ceiling.
“You missed a bunch of stuff while you were away. Hiking, shows, trips to the beach, swimming, nights drinkin’ by the fire. It was a fantastic time.”
Neal Sebado was tall and dark-haired, intense and animated in his looks and gestures. There was a general intensity about him, unceasing. Even when relaxing, J. imagined, there was an innate intensity to the process. The same amount of mental power used to write a philosophy paper was also channeled into TV surfing or drifting off to sleep, attuned to the slipping levels of consciousness. An inexhaustible intensity. The slow fire of being. He spoke in spasms of thought, moving from one subject to the next with a child’s glee and and scholar’s rigour. His speech peppered with an above average number of italics and accents.
“You’re right,” J. said. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I hadn’t intended to leave. I would have stayed. But then Rita decided to visit and I got swept up in all that.”
“I know. I understand. How’s she doing anyway? Is she still coming to the show next week?”
“Oz Mutantes, remember? The show you both agreed on seeing when you got back.”
“Oh right. I forgot. Shit. Completely slipped my mind.”
“She seemed pretty stoked when I told her about it.”
“She’s like that with everything. In the moment everything’s a trip to the edge. OK, now I remember. I remember that night. We got drunk and went to the beach and writhed and crawled in the sand and then later got fast food. Good times. But considering the fact that she’s half-a-country away and I haven’t spoken to her in I guess it’s now, what, two months. Given all that, seems highly unlikely.”
“And yet you two were so, I don’t know, chummy or whatever. When she was here.”
“Chummy. I like that. Sure. All right. The two of us, chums. But then it was a whole different thing when I was back there. A different vibe permeated. I was on her turf. Her rules. I don’t know what happened. Things were good for a while. Then, I don’t know. Something to do with leaving a pair of socks out.”
“Or maybe it was shoes. Shoes and socks. It was shoes and socks that were my undoing. Sorry about the tickets.”
“Too bad. I liked Rita. We didn’t get along at first. You told me that would happen. What did you say? We’d either get along really well or be at each others’ throats.”
“I said that?”
“Something like that. Anyway, no worries. I’m sure Otis Driftwood can find someone to cover hers. He was the one who got them. He knows others who’d be interested, I’m sure. They’re a great band. Spacey grooves. Big sound. Lots a melody and rhythm.”
Neal shifted in his seat, sipped coffee. There was an intensity even to the way he consumed liquids, a complete shifting of attention to the physical, for that instant, the feel of fingers around the cup or container, gripping, the simple repetition of the action, hand-to-mouth. He immersed himself in mindless tasks such as these, took pleasure in them, tossed them off, left them behind. It was all performance anyway, his sweeping, ironic body language seemed to suggest.
“So what were you doing all that time? Did you find any work?”
“No,” J. said. “Didn’t even really look. Didn’t do much of anything. Didn’t even write. It was so bad.”
“J., see here. You know, if we’re ever going to do some traveling or whatever when we’re both through school, we need to secure some funds. Gain financial independence. Break out. Taste real freedom. Active living. Stasis is not nor should it ever be a lifestyle. Not of choice.”
“Yeah. You’re right. I’ve been all hung up. Out of step. It’s stupid, really. See this. This my shamed face. A shamed face for a sham life.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. You’re still young. Besides, who isn’t? Hung up, I mean. One way or another.”
“Maybe. I just mean it was a lot of stuff at once. It was a weird time. I didn’t know how to cope. I didn’t absorb it all properly. That was it. Trouble absorbing things. I fell into a state of functional paralysis. I turned inward, toward cozy blankness. And now. Now I can’t stop thinking about it. I wait for it to resolve itself but it doesn’t. On and on. Perpetual. Circular. I’m waiting for the end credits. It’s like a movie without an ending. That’s what it is. Does that sound cliche? I can’t think of a good metaphor to convey it. I hate metaphor.”
“You about done?”
“Just about. Humble thanks for your indulgence.”
J. went on to tell him about his summer. There was Lana’s new relationship. He learned of that right after getting back. He’d left things open at Christmas and she had moved on. Only understandable. Then there was Rita. Kicking him out and breaking off contact. That was sudden, surprising, the screeching finality of it. Something severed. The episode with Chrystal came towards the end. Tired drift leading to final exclamation. It was a long time coming. All the bitter, emphatic emails, cut-off phone calls. The odd surprise encounter. Vying for control of the emotional dagger. Fake civility, blackest intentions. All in the name having adoption papers signed, which eventually leading to the decision for the paternity test.
“I can’t believe it. All this time. All this time we’ve known each other you’ve never told me.”
“It’s not something that generally comes up in casual conversation. ‘Oh, hey Neal, by the way, just a heads up -- I’m a father. That’s right. Deadbeat of the year, right here. Ignoring the child I left behind so I could move out here and go to school.’”
“That’s harsh. So the entire time, you thought it was yours?”
“He actually. Not it. He’s a he. For what it’s worth. And yes, I was led to understand that there were no other possibilities. With regards to paternity. The test was meant only as a formality. An expensive formality.”
“Harsh, man. Harsh. Did you see him much?”
“A few times. When I’d go back. It was weird. Like stepping into another world, another time. Right there. An almost visceral shock.”
“Hell of a trip.”
“Tell me about it.”
“At least now it’s through. Done with. Forget about the past. Past is past, as they say. Future is the game. Start plotting. Forward thinking. Now take my friend Quinn. We’ve been hanging out a bunch since he got back from Montreal. He’s got a bunch of stuff he wants to pursue. For one thing, going back to school. He wants to go back and take a bunch of publishing courses to finish up his degree. That’s the first step. From there he wants to move to Victoria and work on starting a publishing house. He even has the name for it. Blind River. Great name, no. I think it is. I’ll get him to tell you how he came up with it when you see him. Start by publishing friends’ stuff and go from there. Who knows? He also wants at some point to go down to San Francisco and dig the scene there. He’s been there before and said he had an incredible time. I’m surprised you haven’t met him yet. I think you two would get along. He’s really into music and books. The other day he dropped a copy of Celine’s ‘Journey to the End of the Night’ into my lap. He said, ‘Here -- read this.’ He didn’t say why but I think it was because he knew it was the sort of thing that aligned with my taste and sensibility. And he was right. I’m a couple chapters in and really enjoying it. It’s morbid and hilarious and totally fits with my outlook somehow.”
He had another drink, taking the opportunity to purge his thoughts as he indulged the physical. J. looked around. He counted six others, including the girl working behind the counter. There might’ve been a seventh. He thought he caught a peripheral glance of someone going into the bathroom while Neal was talking. Then someone walked in. He was about their age. He had soft, ruddy features and wore a cap concealing a mess of unwashed hair, a few curls jutting out at the sides.
“Shoot, there he is now. Hey man! What’s the haps?”
Quinn grinned mischievously, like he had just deciphered the punchline to a joke he’d been working on before he’d come inside. He came over and sat down.
“Quinn, this is J., the guy from school I was telling you about.”
“Hey. So I was supposed to be meeting Nicole here but she just text’d me saying something about her dog getting a haircut. That was it. The entirety of the message.”
“What? Weird. But then that’s not really surprising. Nicole’s always been a flighty one.”
“Yeah. But still. I like Nicole.”
“I like her tits.”
“Like you know about Nicole’s tits.”
“No. But Scott does. I’ve heard all about them from him.” Neal touched a finger and thumb to his lips, released them and said, “Magnifique!”
A moment of silence to ponder the implications of this.
“Anyway, I was just telling J. here about where you got the name for the press.”
“Blind River, you mean. Yeah,” Quinn said. “So this one time when I was high I, like, imagined a long river flowing into complete blackness. With the wind carrying all these papers to the end of the earth.”
J. noted a hint of light regality to his diction, a soft music whispering between the vowels. Neal looked at J., suitably impressed by Quinn’s retelling.
“But nothing’s going to come of it for a while. At least until I get to Victoria. Victoria’s the place to be right now.”
“Neal tells me you were in Montreal for a spell.”
“Yeah. It was OK. Montreal’s OK. But there’s not much of a scene. Just a bunch of fucking rich kids moping about.”
Quinn went over and ordered a coffee and a bagel. When he came back he said to Neal, “Have you asked out that cute New Zealand girl yet? The one who’s always working the counter when we come in?”
Neal looked over at her and then back to Quinn.
“No, not yet.”
“I’ve been waiting for him to ask her out all summer,” Quinn said to J. “He’s so smooth when he talks to her. He has this thing. He can just turn it on on a whim. Mr. Smooth-O Silver. Impressive really.”
“It’s not hard when she’s so sweet,” Neal said. “This one time I had paid six bucks and change for our Americanos. But there was some confusion about how many shots of expresso were in the large orders. We deliberated on the amount but still weren’t sure. Finally Quinn says ‘Just give us back whatever you think is right.’ The girl ends up giving us a dollar back. I look down at it and looked back at her and said, ‘Here -- take this as a tip.’ She was so excited.”
“For that reason alone I would come back here,” Quinn said. “To be freely joyous and humble is halfway to sainthood in my book.”
“In that case she better stay away from me,” Neal said. “But actually there’s this one girl at work. Lindsay’s her name. Very interesting. Also sort of flighty but in a good way. Something endearing about it, the way she’s both oblivious and intensely self-aware. At any rate, might be something there. We’ll see.”
“Look at you. You’re starting to amass a real stable,” Quinn said.
“I try. Fitfully. I try.”
After the coffee they went over to the organic food restaurant across the street and then back to J.’s apartment for drinks. J. mixed generous Long Island Iced Teas while Quinn sat at the computer calling up old jazz songs from somewhere online -- the exact site wasn’t important since all music seemed to be available, even the most out-of-date or obscure. A limitless preserve of all world’s unmarketable music there waiting to be discovered and consumed. Commercial radio was a quaint indulgence by comparison.
“You guys have to hear this,” Quinn said, turning up the dial on the little computer speaker. “Earl Hines is the greatest jazz pianist of all time!”
They listened to the tinny sounding recording for a minute. Then Neal broke in.
“Ah, say, Quinn, this is cool and all, but how about some music from this century. Or at least late part of last.”
Later they were sitting outside working on a second round of Long Islands and taking in the expansive view of blushing sky over the distant mountains, when J.’s landlord, Dan Faulkner, came down the stairs with a hamper of laundry. He lived in a spacious three-bedroom space above the two ground-level suites that he rented out. A large man, thick but not flabby, muscular if not defined, J. imagined him a retired bodybuilder judging by all the old rusting gym equipment stashed away in the backyard. But he had never thought to pursue the matter. Dan was all brawn and force, at least the appearance of. The completely bald head seemed to add to his girth in some imperceptible way and the goatee he sported completed the hulking imagine. He wore a tank top and flip-flops and smiled jovially at J. as he approached.
“Hey, you’re back! I’ve haven’t heard you down there. When’d you get back?”
“Few days ago.”
He turned the corner and disappeared into the laundry room, returning a few minutes with a more focused manner as he took J. aside.
“Hey, so what happened to that cute girl of yours?”
“Rita, you mean. I don’t know. She’s gone. She’s doing her thing. She’s got her own thing going on.”
“I thought she was your chick?”
J. tried providing a full account but details gave way to generalizations. While trying to pull his thoughts together he realized he had exhausted himself of the subject of Rita for the night with Neal earlier. He was also now fast approaching the point of hopeless, resigned drunkenness. So there was that also to consider.
When he was finished Dan regarded him evenly though not without sympathy.
“Well, damn. That’s too bad. Women, eh? Impossible to read. Always all over the place. Never know what they want. She was a cool chick though. That was a blast we had. The night we went out to the cabin out on Protection. Fried up those steaks and drank that bottle of gut-rot.”
“Yeah. It was.”
Then in a slightly conspiratorial tone, Dan said, “You still have any of that pot I gave you guys?”
“No. No more. It’s all gone. We smoked it all before we left.”
“Oh OK. Just as well. I don’t really smoke it much anymore. Just now and then.”
This seemed to satisfy him and J. sat back down on the bench next to Neal, across from Quinn. But then Dan came over and continued, this time in a different vain, signalled by the slight shift of inflection in his voice.
“So what do you think? Could you use a roommate?”
said, “What? Why?”
“‘Cuz, listen, I met these girls who are looking for a place. They’re going to the university like you. I met them the other day while I was on Protection. They’re here from Germany of all places. All blondes. There’s actually a guy with them, too. Ben. He’s a good guy. Anyway, I got to thinking I would rent out my space upstairs to them. They came by yesterday and were all excited. They’d be happy to have it. But the thing is they would still need an extra room. So I started telling them about you down there by yourself with the two bedrooms.”
It was a two bedroom he’d ben renting the past two years. But he hadn’t used either for that purpose in some time. He had moved his bed into the breakfast nook, next to a side window, the quietest place in the apartment when the laundry wasn’t running. He got used to waking up in a cocoon of dull light. But at the moment he wasn’t sure if he was supposed to believe this. It didn’t seem quite right, quite real. It seemed surreal somehow. Someone was putting him on.
“Where are you going to live? If they’re taking over your space, I mean. How does that work?”
“I’ll figure something out,” Dan said. “I have the cottage on Protection. It still needs some work done but it’s livable. It has four walls. I’d make it work. I could also always go to the mainland. There’s always projects on the go over there a guy can jump in on. There ain’t shit around here these days. Not since the last batch of condos got finished. I did the plumbing on those. So what do you say? You think you might want to do that, rent one of your rooms out to her?”
It was too much to take in at once. It seemed like a big decision that required proper thought and consideration. There were too many details, large and small, he had to go over before he could provide an adequate response. Loose variables yet to be considered. It was a task he could attempt only when he was more clearheaded, in the sober light of day.
“Can I have time to think it over.”
“Sure. Take the night to think about it if you need to. Shit, I thought I was doing you a favour. Have all these hot German babes living with you and above you all semester. The freakin’ Playboy Mansion over here. Anyway, they’re coming by again tomorrow morning to go over some paperwork and whatever so maybe she can look at it then. Give you a chance to meet them. Wait’ll you see her, the one who wants your place. Knockers out to her.”
Dan gestured with his hands in front of his chest to indicate generous portions. Neal and Quinn were still there listening to all this, smiling and chuckling.
“And hey, also. We were going to go camping up at Tofino for a few days. Drive up in my truck. If you want to come along you’re welcome to. Everyone can hang out, get to know each other.”
Again J. could only offer a noncommittal response. Neal wouldn’t let him off that easy.
“Come on, man. You should do it. Go.”
J. smiled him off good-naturedly but something was off. He couldn’t help feeling a plan was being hatched that he had somehow become an active participant in and yet didn’t feel strenuously committed to. Was it possible the alcohol was making him paranoid? Had someone put something in his drink? But wait. But he had made the drinks.
“Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a tent?” said Dan.
“I’ve got one but we could really use a second. As much as I wouldn’t might sharing one with three German babes.”
“I’ve got one,” Neal said. “J. can borrow it if he goes.”
“Great. Thanks. Just wait’ll you get a look at them. Just trust me.”
Dan went back upstairs. Shortly after that Quinn said there was a pick-up hockey game he was playing in. J. suggested he come back afterward and he agreed to. Neal was right. J. liked Quinn. Or maybe it was because he was drunk. People in general were so much easier to stand when one was drunk. After Quinn left, Neal and J. went for a walk.
“So are you going to go tomorrow, on that camping thing?”
“I guess so. I don’t know. I’m not sure if I really have a choice.”
They were crossing a bridge close to downtown. Cars raced along below them, beside them.
“Don’t fall for the mystical and un-rational allure of determinism, J. Choice is a matter of conviction and follow through. As long as you have those things working for you you will always have choice.”
“I want to know what goes on inside that head of yours.”
“Trust me. You don’t.”
“Yes I do. I want to crack it open and gaze upon it a while. Contemplate it the way one would a void. Not that I mean to imply a connection between the two. Quite the contrary.”
“Sure. Forget it. But some other time. Quick. Let’s go this way.”
They stopped somewhere for more coffee and were back in time to meet Quinn. J. had sobered up some and they drove downtown. Eventually they ended up at an out of the way little bistro, located down a thin stretch of road and past a double layer cement parking complex. It was late now. No customers inside. All the chairs set, legs up, on tables. But they were met by the proprietor who welcomed them in. He took them to a table out on the patio and brought out coffee and an order of oysters.
It was a calm, warm night. The air had that thick, almost enveloping texture to it. Weak light flooded out from the shop’s French doors. They drank the coffee and ate the oysters and talked with a sort of aimless exaltation. Neal performed a few impressions. They paid and left. On the way home, J. dropped them off at their separate residences, stopping at Neal’s to get his tent.
He woke early. Too early. Dan had told him they were coming around ten and he wanted to be up and showered and reasonably put together before they arrived. He tried anyway. He went over to the sink and chugged a glass of cold water. Then he ate, showered, and collapsed on the couch with a coffee trying to stave off the evil rumblings of a hangover. He could hear the opening refrain of Fur Elise wafting in from the apartment next to his. The tenant’s daughter would play it over and over, the opening refrain and nothing more. Play it until the note’s seemed drained of all melodic content and emotion and became almost chant-like, a mad ramble of sounds, with the heft and resonance of a ringtone.
He was in the calm daze of half-sleep when Dan knocked on his door and called to him, asking if he was up. He got up, checking himself in the mirror before answering.
There was four of them. The three girls could have been sisters, of slightly different builds and shades of blonde but sharing something deeper -- what was only caught fleetingly in small gestures, subtle looks, immeasurable movements of the eyes. More than the idiosyncrasies of time and place, their shared German heritage. A deeper knowing beyond the locked gate of self. Sandra was the youngest. She had a natural, soft-slender body, like yogurt. She seemed the shyest, with a sort of undefined darkness, J. came to sense, lurking in her reticence, her remoteness. Desiree was the oldest and this gave her “mommy” status in the group. She seemed like that in a way. The perennially out-of-breath soccer mom. Bagging lunches and cleaning stains, whose communications with those closer to her age she came to regard as an brief island of relief for which you were thanked with fresh enthusiasms. Skinny and angular, with sharp, narrowing eyes, her attractiveness, her sensuality seemed a concealed if not a severe, an almost threatening thing. The one who was interested in the room was Lisa. She resembled a long-haired, voluptuous Jean Seberg. There was even a touch of Ingrid Bergman, if one dare evoke the black-and-white cinema goddess’s immortal beauty. With her full featured, expressive face. She had a prominent mole on her cheek, pleasant and familiar, thought J., in an obscure sort of way.
And the guy with them. Ben. He was dark and thick. He presented himself enthusiastically but ambiguously. You weren’t sure, at first, with him if he was going to put his arm around you and take you out for a beer or punch you in the teeth and have sex with your girlfriend. Maybe both. In that order. He seemed nice.
Here they were in his apartment, this German family of students.
He showed them around the apartment, with Dan supplying the history, specs and basic pitch. Lisa beamed, taking it all in.
“Geil! It’s wonderful. I take it.”
They were standing in one of the bedrooms, J. and two of the girls, Sandra and Desiree. It contained weights, assorted large plastic containers, a stray night table and various instrument cases. It wasn’t very clean, J. now realized. He hadn’t had time to do anything. It hadn’t been vacuumed in some time. The dust was visible on the ledges that ran the lengths of two of the walls. The girls didn’t seem to notice. They talked on. In English mostly. He tried thinking of things to say while maintaining his poise with affirmative nods. The topic was education. They told him about their school arrangements and what they were taking while here until sometime after Christmas. Their English for the most part was impeccable, for a second language. They had been taught it in school since their earliest grades. Their speech had both a halting, drawn-out quality and a tendency to slink over words. Like each was a new toy they’d become enamoured with, only to quickly put it aside at the discovery of another. And another. And so on.
“So you all flew over together?”
“All of us except Lisa. We met her at the hostel the first night,” Desiree said.
“What are the odds.”
“Then we met Dan the next day,” Sandra said.
“He is very helpful,” Desiree said. “He helped us when we said we needed a place. He was very forthcoming. Very friendly. Very much fun.”
“Big fun,” he said. “Fun in the sun.”
Back in the main room preparations for the camping trip was already in motion. Dan asked J. again if he was coming. The girls all looked at him eagerly, imploringly. He said yes, and there was a little explosion of hands and mouths. Dan grinned and nodded approvingly.
He packed haphazardly, stuffing shirts and snacks in a backpack until the zipper could barely close. The others had left to bring in their weighty suitcases and separate stuff for the trip. J. could hear them being lugged up the back steps and wheeled across the hardwood into their respective bedrooms. A few minutes later Lisa returned.
“You almost ready!”
“I really like your apartment. It’s very -- big!”
“Really. You think? Not for a two bedroom. But big enough we shouldn’t be bumping into each other.”
“I am just glad to find a place. The other one’s I looked at were not so good. The landlord at one was a little how you say, more than friendly but in a bad way?”
“Yes. As in, someone you want to stay away from. Suspect. A bit of a creeper. Shady.”
“Ah, yes. Shady. Yes! Definitely that! He stood very close. He mentioned going out for lunch and other things. As if included in the rent. Is this normal here?”
There was a small leap, he noted, a bounce to her words as she spoke. Little irruptions of language.
“It’s not. That’s weird alright. How old was he?”
“He was old, yes. More than fifty or even much older.”
“I’m just curious. That word you used earlier, what was it? Geil. What does it mean?”
“It means many things. Depending. If something’s cool, you say ‘Das geil.’ If you go out drinking you say you going out to get geil. It also means something else.”
She smiled, then said, “If you’re feeling, how you say excited in a sexy way.”
“Yes. It means horny.”
“Horny. Aroused. Hot and bothered. Lusting. Desiring. Randy.”
She looked at him curiously.
“Who is this Randy?”
“Never mind,” he said.
Ben then joined them.
“What are you two doing in here?”
“Nichts!” she said, her tone playfully defensive.
“Dan’s truck is all loaded. He says we’re ready to go.”
“Yes! I can’t wait! I am excited! A place to live and now camping. So happy!”
picked up his pack and they started for the door, Lisa going ahead of them as Ben took J. aside.
“So you two are going to be roommates.”
“I guess so. It looks that way. She seems pretty set on it. No backing down now.”
“But you are interested in her, no?”
He paused as if gauging something, some subtle shift in his physiognomy, a break in the fog of groggy morning.
“I don’t know. I hadn’t really considered it.”
“Well, in case you are you should know she has no boyfriend back in Germany. Myself I am drawn more towards Desiree. She looks like she was made to do evil things. But alas I have girlfriend back home. Very beautiful. So I must be good,” he said. Then grinned. “But not that good.”
They came around the side of the house and were met my Dan’s dog Jake (as in Jake the Snake, Dan told him, when as a bronze-coloured pup he appeared scampering about the yard, wily and spry), a two-year-old Norwegian elk hound-husky cross. He came rambling up to them, mouth open, tail wagging. Dan was trying to figure out where to put him. First he thought the hatch but when it was clear there was no room, he resolved on the backseat, on the floor with Sandra, Desiree and J. Lisa sat up front with Dan and Ben. They were all set to leave when Dan turned and said to J., “What about the guitar?”
“Should I bring it? You want me to bring the guitar?” J. said.
“‘Course you should. We need someone to play Kumbaya around the campfire.”
J. went back inside. It was a black Ovation electric-acoustic. Not playing it himself, Dan had lent it to him back in the spring. J. had replaced the strings but hadn’t yet cut them down and the loose wires swayed and tinkled freely when he picked it up. He got a pair of wire cutters from off a shelf and snipped off the excess down to the tuning pegs and took it out.
There was no room in the hatch so J. sat with the guitar on his knee, careful where he positioned the headstock, careful not to hit anybody with it.
“Play us a song for the road!” Dan said as they pulled away.
He tried getting himself in a playing position. It was difficult getting his hands around the neck to form and shift chords and he settled on noodling out a few single notes.
On their way out of town they stopped outside a white two-story townhouse with a flawless turf-green lawn.
“Just a sec, you guys,” Dan said. “I have to steal us a tent.”
While he was gone the others speculated on whose house it was. J. tried to spot someone on the other side of the door, through the window, but couldn’t. Dan returned a moment later with the tent. They were all curious about the circumstances.
“That’s my house,”Dan said decisively.
“You own two houses?” Lisa said.
“Actually three. Plus two cabins. I live in one. The others are rentals. My ex-wife lives here. She got it in the divorce. Among other things. I see she’s been doing a good job spending all the money I give her. But you don’t want to hear about that. You want to go camping!”
He let out a hoot. The girls cheered. Everything was in place. They started off.
The day her flight got in he was there at the airport to meet her. They drove back into town and he showed her his apartment. Later they walked downtown. They stopped in at a few shops. She bought little things that caught her fancy, cards and trinkets for herself and people back home. They got sushi at the restaurant that played cool jazz and had old pews and saloon doors leading to the bathrooms. Their server was an attractive French woman, very pregnant. They ate and drank and went for a stroll around the harbour. Back at his apartment they drank some more and talked and went to bed.
During the day while he was at campus she would lay out on the trampoline in the backyard and doze and bake. She made friends with his landlord’s dog and later his landlord. He came home one day to find them sitting out in the yard by the fountain having drinks. His landlord drove them out to his cabin in his boat. It was in the middle of renovations and the only way they could get in was by accessing the front door in a strategic fashion. They ate cheese and pork chops his landlord fried up, along with homemade wine from a rum jug. Upstairs they stood together looking out the paneless windowframe at the rippling ocean. The next day his landlord left to go up north to another cabin. He said he’d be gone a few days and she asked if he’d leave the dog behind. He obliged. They lived together for a time, the three of them.
During the day he was at campus but when they were together in the evening and on weekends they would drive around checking out the sights, go to arts-and-crafts stores, take evening strolls, eat ice cream and watch movies. She had brought some Demerol with her, something she’d been taking for an undisclosed illness, some kind of nervous condition. One night they took a couple each, she perhaps one too many. Later they burned candles and spaced out to instrumental music, letting the sounds wash over them in dreamy, numbed waves.
One night there was a cover band playing at one of the clubs downtown. They did versions of songs by a heavy progressive band, all hammer and abandon. Trembling catharsis. It was almost deserted when they got there and they drank overpriced drinks and sat at a booth. Eventually more people showed up and before the band started the singer came out painted all in blue and wearing a pair oversized novelty sunglasses. After the show they sat on the curb out back, behind the club. Lots of police cruisers were out and there was an inordinate number of guys dressed in tuxes with dates mulling about. He noticed a lone rose on the ledge next to them. It had a slender clip-on tube of water attached to the stem. He gave it to her. She kissed him. They sat watching the band load gear. She struck up a conversation with one of the members and before long they were riding along with them to get food. They stopped at a drive-thru and then drove back to the motel they were staying at. He sat on one of the beds and took nips from a flask and passed it around to the other band members. The bass player sat on the other bed uploading pictures they’d taken of the show onto his laptop. Later on the bass player and singer drove them back to the apartment and he rolled up a joint and the four of them smoked it outside as the sky began to lighten.
He stayed home the next day and laid out with her. He had drank and smoked too much the night before and tried reading a copy of “A Brief History of Time” that a friend had lent him. He read a bit and put it down. He turned over and looked at her. She was wearing a two-piece and her dark skin had a rich, glistening sheen to it. She was laying on her back and appeared to be asleep. He watched her awhile and then got down off the trampoline and went inside, filling the sink with water and doing dishes to the sounds of heavy industrial music, played at loud volume.
They went to a movie. He bought her candy and they sat in the darkened theatre with other strangers scattered about in seats. Afterwards, when they drove home, he took a detour along the harbour, basking in the meaningful silence. At the apartment, in the backyard, he heated up the hot tub and they stripped and got in. Later on, in bed, he read to her until she fell asleep.
On their next to last night one of his friends came over and they had drinks and went downtown for a while, then drove over to a nearby beach and rolled around, then bought doughnuts and went back to his friend’s. They passed out together on the couch while his friend played bass in the next room. It was late and his mother had to come down to tell him to stop. When they were awake they all drove to a spot by the water and hiked up a rocky cliff to watch the sun rise and smoke a joint. They waited a while and watched a couple ships pass but the sky was overcast and instead they drove to McDonald’s for breakfast. Later that day he went up to campus to write his final.
That night they had dinner with another of his friends and his girlfriend. They had all gone to school together at one point. It was a reunion of sorts. The return of an old dynamic. They had a good time. His friend barbecued and made margaritas. When she told them they should be getting back he wanted to keep it going awhile. She got mad and stormed off to find a store to buy cigarettes. He and his friend hung out in the kitchen, drinking and snacking and conspiring. She returned some time later, without smokes. She couldn’t find a store. His friend lived out of town and it was a long silent drive back. He drove while she sat moodily next to him. Finally he got her to talk and they talked all the way back and stayed up the rest of the night packing.